Post-Cold War. Movies reviewed: Salt, I Am Love, Countdown to Zero

About 20 years ago, something impossible happened. The Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the iron curtain was lifted, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Almost half a century of mutually assured destruction, of the never-ending threat of nuclear war, was somehow… finished, and the world let out a collective sigh so enormous, satellite photos show it moved a sand dune in the gobi desert.

The lingering anxiety at the back of everyone’s mind — that some nut in the White House or the Kremlin, in a fit of pique or a moment of panic would press a red button and turn the world to dust, and repeat the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a global scale – that anxiety seemed to disappear. The world was safe again!

So for almost everybody, things seemed to be looking up. Except…except for the movies! How can you make spy movies without the ready-made “us and them” of the cold war, the constant thrust and parry of the two sides in the never ending intrigue of their battle for ideological dominance? Subterfuge, espionage, the arms race, and always, always the threat of nuclear destruction gave cold war movies this background that made them serious and real and scary. Now everyone’s spy movies were for nought. What to do?

This week I’m looking at three movies, each with a very different take on Russia and the post cold war period.

Salt

Dir: Phillip Noyce

“alt is an action/thriller about a CIA agent, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), who is accused of being a double agent. A Russian spy walks into the CIA and, just like in the cold war days, says he wants to defect. He claims there was a secret school in the Soviet era, that kidnapped and trained from birth, special sleeper agents who would blend in with the Americans until the moment they are activated. And Salt was one of these agents, old-guard cold-war communist out to assassinate leaders foment nuclear warfare again, to bring things back to the bad old days. The Soviet Union will rise again!

Evelyn denies it, but she knows she has to take the law into her own hands and escape. She says three things to set up the plot:

I didn’t do it! (or did she?)

I’ve been set up! (or was she?)

I have to find my husband.

Her husband is a milquetoast German arachnologist (spider collector), and that part the plot is for sure — she has to find him. Why? I don’t really know, and I just saw the movie. I guess because she loves him.

Meanwhile she’s being pursued by two CIA agents, one, Peabody (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – the great black British actor from”Kinky Boots” and “Inside Man“) who doesn’t trust her; the other, Ted (played by Liev Schreiber) who does, but still has to bring her in. Toss in a bunch of unsavoury Russians hanging out on the waterfront, a great cathedral scene, some impossible car chases, rooftop jumps and lots of bloody machine-gun shoot outs, and there you have it.

Is she or isn’t she? Not gonna give it away, but suffice it to say, LOTS of holes in the ridiculous plot which doesn’t really hold together. Like her English starts drifting into a Russian accent somewhere in the middle of the movie for no known reason. But never mind. It’s a cold-war redux action movie, lots of fun, but stupid.

(BTW, this movie couldn’t have picked a better time to be released, just a few weeks after that group of undercover Russian spies were discovered to be living and raising families in the States.)

“I am Love”

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

The movie starts with a banquet to honour Edoardo, the patriarch of the immensely wealthy Recchi family, a Milan industrialist who founded his fortune on wartime profits for his textile mills. He’s passing on the business to his heirs. The Trecchi women, all from outside the clan, are also prominent figures, but feel their existence is slightly more precarious. Emma, (wonderfully played Tilda Swinton) the wife of the second generation, flutters around nervously – she’s with the family, but not of the family. She’s actually from the former Soviet Union. Her handsome son, Edoardo, wants to carry on the family’s tradition, while her husband, Tancredo, would rather move it into a post-industrial Italy. And Emma herself feels adrift, with a new name, language, heritage, culture, family. One day, her life changes when, on a trip to San Remo, her eyes catch some Onion domes at a Kremlin-like Russian Orthodox church – and who does she see but her son’s friend, the chef Antonio. Her heart flutters as she takes a step to reclaim her real self, and her real desires.

This is terrific movie to watch. It shows the cold, sterile, but magnificent industrial Milan, the wonderful, fecund countryside nearby. The clothes, the food, the family members and the servants and the shifting relationships, power and identity of all of them. Emma and her sublimated Russian past, the rivalry between father and son for her affections, her daughter cutting herself loose, the longtime friendships with the maid, the Recchi women of three geerations… Wow! So much to take in.

And it’s so amazing looking, with lots of fooling around with camera, recreating the look of early 1970’s Italian movies, with their lush sumptuousness, the slightly smudgy camera-lens, the soft glow of light… along with tons of visual refernces to Japanese films – rain dropping on a pond, insects on a twig… And lots of nice shifts to Emma’s subconscious memories, thoughts and fantasies, but always done visually, not with echo-y voiceovers. Lots of what’s said is off camera, over heard, in the background, or never mentioned – you have to put it together.

“I Am Love” is a simple story, but told so well with great emotional heft. This is a really good movie.

“Countdown to Zero”

Dir: Lucy Walker

is a new documentary on a topic – nuclear warfare — that used to be at the front of everyone’s mnd, but is now nearly forgotten. This movie says: “uh, uh, it’s still very much there, and if you don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die!” And it does its best to scare the bejeezus out of you showing how.

The movie shows some startling old footage of atomic testing, and traces the history of nuclear proliferation. With the Cold War, mutually assured destruction meant that neither side could go ahead with it – any bomb flies, the other side sends there’s off too. But now, the movie says, things are even more precarious. More countries have the bomb, more want it, and with the former Soviet Union in disarray, there all those rich yellowcake ready to be nabbed. There’s a great prison interview with a Russian dude who wanted a Lamboghini or a DeLuxe Buick, and that’s why he was selling uranium to a potential baddy. Luclily he was caught, but all the ones who were caught were caught by chance.

Countdown to zero shows how a bomb is made, who’s after it, how it could be launched – due to stupidity, miscaculation, or madness — and what would happen if it were.

This is a very informative and interesting to watch, especially if you don’t know much about this – lot’s of surprising near misses and near disasters most people ever hear about. But the film is extremely manipulative using repeated images of terrorist attacks followed by similar shots of everyday life in a city – will the terrorists get YOU?? Basically, this is a sheep in wolf’s clothing: a sombre, PBS-style documentary dressed in a Fox News fright wig: Iran! Al Qaeda! P-P-P-Pakistan!!!. The title, Countdown to Zero, sounds like an episode of 24, but what they’re really saying is let’s countdown the number of nuclear warheads to zero instead.

This well made and well-researched documentary is made mainly of archival footage, and the biggest political talking heads there are – Gorbachev, Valery Plame, Oppenheimer, MacNamara, Tony Blair – along with some good animated scenes and a couple amazing new interviews. The thing is – I didn’t walk out of the movie scared of a nuclear holocaust. Disarmament is still a very important issue, I just wished they hadn’t used American fear and paranoia of terrorism as the main reason to support an important cause.

Kids Movies! Movies Reviewed: Toy Story 3, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the kids’ movies and animation playing right now. So if you’re a kid, or have kids, or just like that kind of movie… stay tuned.

Kids movies, much more than a lot of crappy adult genre movies, take their stories very seriously, and I respect them for that, well, I respect the ones that have good stories. I love a good story, especially one with a bit of magic, or supernatural, or super heroes, or mythological heroic back stories. Because it doesn’t matter if they re-tell a well-known story, as long as they do it well. So let me tell you a bit about each movie’s story (I won’t give away the endings, don’t worry) and whether I think it’s worth watching.

“Toy Story 3”

Dir: Lee Unkrich

“Toy Story 3” in 3-D is a continuation of the earlier computer animated Pixar and Disney “Toy Story” movies, about a kid’s toys who, when their owner isn’t around, reveal themselves to be living beings with real emotional lives and personalities. In this version, Andy has grown up and is heading off to college, and the toys find themselves abandoned and donated to a daycare center. So they have to escape from this virtual prison run by a gang of mean toys, like Lotso, a deeply cynical “Burl Ives”-type scary, strawberry-scented care-bear, a baby doll zombie, and Ken, Barbie’s groovily-dressed, clothes-horsey kinda gay boyfriend.

It’s up to Woody, the 60’s cowboy doll, to rescue spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, in a sort of a Dante-esque journey. Woody descends into this inferno to free Beatrice – or more accurately a whole bunch of Beatrices – (Beatrici?) from a virtual hell. This time the bad stuff seems a lot worse than it had in the earlier ‘Toy Story”. It’s not just a childhood fear of abandonment at work here, it’s actual, palpable danger. Sort of scary, to tell the truth.

I remember disliking the first Toy Story – it felt like a well-plotted infomercial there to sell toys, and had a distasteful whiff of nostalgia for the white suburban 1950’s where women all stayed at home and boys and girls knew their roles.

It’s kept a lot of that, but somehow seems a bit more subversive than it’s predecessors. And while keeping its nostalgic sentimentality, it is actually an emotionally wrenching movie — I laughed, I cried (OK I didn’t actually stand on my seat and cheer) and I thought it was a good movie – despite the toy-selling factor.

“The Last Airbender”

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

“The Last Airbender” is a live action, 3-D version of the TV cartoon called Avatar – not that Avatar, another one.

In ancient times, in a sort of a made-up Sino-Tibetan-Japanese-Sumatran pan-Asian world, there were people in four kingdoms each based on one of the 4 elements – air, water, fire, and earth. There were certain people in each kingdom who could bend an element – bending means you can toss that fire or water around, and make it go “Pshew! Pshew! Pshew!

just by gesturing with your magic fingers.

And then, there is one guy who can bend all four elements – he’s known as The Avatar. But the Fire people have taken over and are oppressing the rest of them. So they want to catch the last airbender – a little bald kid with strange facial tattoos and an arrow on his forehead pointing down, named Aung – who might be the Avatar. He was asleep in an ice bubble for a century, but now he’s back.

Most of the movie is just the royal family of fire guys chasing Aung, and the rest of the elementals trying to get Aung fit enough to fight them.

This movie got trashed by critics, more so than it deserved – it wasn’t all that bad. M Night Shyamalan is not my favourite director (he’s been coasting on his 6th Sense “I see dead people!” success for quite a while now, with a whole bunch of duds), but it’s not bad, with some cool special effects, and visually captivating with ancient ruins, and mountain-top Buddhist monasteries—great to look at, with the feel of the TV cartoon.

But the characters never really develop, you never feel for them except for the conflicted, exiled prince of fire Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and maybe pudgy, pre-pubescent Aung (Noah Ringer). Too many lines like: “Faster Aung, they‘re right behind us!”, too much fighting and chasing, not enough actual story. And the 3-D effects in this movie are a waste of time.

Despicable Me

Dir: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Gru, is a flat headed, low browed bad guy villain with a nose like Mr Burns. He’s a truly evil, grinch-like villain. He lives in an old house where he secretly makes nefarious weapons with the help of tiny yellow capsule-shaped minions and a diabolical scientist — like James Bond’s “Q”, except hard of hearing.

But Gru is thrown when he’s told he’s over the hill in super-villaindom. The insecurities of his childhood – his mother never supported him – hence the name “despicable me” – come back to haunt him. A new villain, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid. What can be bigger than that for a villain to steal? Gru Decides to steal the moon, once he gets a hold of a gun that can shrink things. But the only way to get it is by using three cute orphan girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – who sell cookies door to door, as bait. So he pretends to adopt them.

The movie follows his relationship with the spunky orphan girls as a ne’er-do-well Dad, as well as his quest to capture the moon. This is a really good movie, capable computer animation, cool-looking characters, minimal product placement, and with stories not out of place with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Charles Addams – but not too scary either. (Suitable for kids).

The one thing I thought was remarkable is that three of the main characters, the orphan girls, were completely absent from all the trailers, posters, and pictures before the movie came out – I guess they think boys won’t go to see movies with girls in them. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot.

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dir: Jon Turtletaub

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(starring Nicolas Cage as the wizard Balthazar and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice, Dave.) While ostensibly based on the Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia, this sorcerer’s apprentice is much more compicated. Merlin, in King Arthur’s day, was the greatest sorcerer in the world. But his three protégés — Veronica, Balthazar and Horvath – fail to kill the evil Morgana. Instead, a bunch of them are turned into “grimholts” – statues that look like Russian Matryoshka dolls — that hold them captive. It’s up to Balthazar, still alive centuries later, to find a new apprentice to be the Prime Merlinian. He locates the self-conscious NYU science nerd, Dave, in New York City. Dave must help him stop the villain Morgana, and her accomplice the traitor Horvath –played by Alfred Molina — while he learns wizardry in a modern-day one-man Hogwarts, even while he pursues his childhood crush, Becky.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun, pseudo- Harry Potter movie. The acting’s good: Nicolas Cage shows amazing restraint (unlike most of the terrible movies he’s in); Molina is great as the villain, Horvath, and Jay Baruchel — while almost exactly like in most of his other roles — carries the part well. (He’s always great.) Still, his voice changed 15 years ago – the guy’s 28! — so he should stop playing mock-twelve year olds. I also liked the way they combined physics with magic. And I thought new-comer Teresa Palmer — as Dave’s crush, Becky — was also great. (And her character works for a community radio station… excellent!) The New York City scenes – Empire State and Chrysler building, always seen from high up among the gargoyles — is attractive too. And there are lots of fun references to older movies, including Ghost Busters, King Kong, and Toy Story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”  is a good – not great, but not bad – movie for people who like magic adventures, Walt Disney movies, or Jay Baruchel.

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