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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 11, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Despicable Me and Charlie St. Cloud

Despicable Me is not the best animated feature this year, or even this summer, but it'll do. Think of it as a French How the Grinch Stole Christmas, without the Christmas, and you'll have the basic story.

A deeply wicked man, Gru (Steve Carell), is vying for dominance as the worst villain in the world. But along the way, he happens upon three orphan girls and takes them in so that he can use them to further his dastardly plots. Naturally, he becomes devoted to them, completely spoiling his villainy.

Perhaps the best thing about the movie -- and there are many good things -- are the minions, flexible yellow Artoo Detoos with varying numbers of eyes. Or perhaps they're what Oompah Loompahs should have been. They seem truly devoted to Gru, endlessly patient, hardworking, somewhere between stupid and clever: In short, I want some minions of my own.

Gru is raised above the level of cliche by giving us his backstory. He grew up dreaming of taking a rocket to the moon, but was constantly put down by his scornful unloving mother (played, incredibly enough, by Julie Andrews!)

All the ingredients were there for a tedious, hackneyed movie, but something went wrong: Everybody involved did an excellent job and made it wonderful.

The movie is offered (like everything else these days) in 3D, and you do have to have the 3D glasses to appreciate the full effect of the gags that take place during the credits. But it was funny enough without them, and the rest of the movie needs 3D not at all.

Steve Carell does the entire movie in a strange foreign accent of indeterminate origin, and it's easy to forget that whose voice it is -- Gru truly seems to be a unique individual. Likewise, Jason Segel (the big guy in How I Met Your Mother) disappears into the rival villain, Vector; and the old coot who does all the real work with Gru's inventions, Dr. Nefario, is voiced (incredibly enough) by Russell Brand, who seems way too young to have brought off the part.

The filmmakers all seem to be French, or at least European, but it doesn't feel like a foreign film. Rather it seems to be universal (appropriate for a film distributed by Universal), though the sense of humor is rather dry -- to my delight, I must add, because a lot of the gags are offered en passant instead of being elaborately framed, the way too many American filmmakers do it when they wish to kill a joke by making it feel far too "set up."

It's worth a trip to the theater, folks. I laughed out loud, a lot, and never felt too manipulated by the occasional moments of sweetness.

*

As we left the theater in high spirits after seeing Despicable Me, we happened to notice a poster for a movie called Charlie St. Cloud. Well, no, let's be honest, we noticed the face of Zac Efron, a teen star who is emerging as a genuine talent; only after walking up to the poster were we able to make out any of the words.

We'd never heard of the project, but I noticed that it was based on a book; so when we got to Barnes & Noble after supper (at the Green Valley Grill, I might add; heirloom tomatoes are back!), I picked up the book Charlie St. Cloud, by Ben Sherwood, just to see what the story was.

To my surprise, the book hooked me so completely that I read the whole thing that night -- which is why my column was late getting turned in this week. The story deals with death, but in a very unusual way. In fact, the mythos of how the afterlife works is almost as intriguing as in Neal Shusterman's brilliant Everlost.

Charlie St. Cloud, at age 15, takes his little brother Sam with him to watch the Red Sox play. They "borrow" an out-of-town neighbor's car to get there, and of course Charlie has no license. But they were completely getting away with it when Sam called Charlie's attention to something, distracting him for the crucial moment that a drunk trucker strayed into the wrong lane and destroyed their car.

An EMT named Florio Ferrente (to be played by Ray Liotta in the movie) manages to bring off the miracle of bringing Charlie back from the brink of death -- but Sam dies.

The thing is, this is a movie about the afterlife, so we have already seen that Sam and Charlie died in the accident. In their disorientation as newly deceased spirits, they make a pact that they will stay together always. So when Charlie is brought back from the dead, the separation would seem to be a violation of their oath.

Charlie reshapes his life to stay with Sam. He certifies as an EMT himself, but never strays far from the cemetery where Sam's body is buried, and eventually takes a job managing the place, living in a cottage on the cemetery grounds.

There he goes every night, just at sundown, to play a game of catch with Sam. Literally. Sam's spirit remains solid enough that he can throw a ball around. And so the brothers remain together. Charlie still wrestles with his guilt for leading his brother into the illegal actions that led to his death, while Sam forgoes his progress into the next plane of existence in order to stay with and comfort Charlie.

In short, they're both not quite dead and not quite alive. And Charlie sees all the spirits of the newly dead, some of whom can't yet let go of the world they lived in and remain in the cemetery, keeping him company. Including Florio Ferrente, the EMT who saved Charlie but failed to bring back Sam.

Enters into this mix a woman, Tess Carroll, who is a competitive sailor, preparing to take her yacht into a round-the-world race. She has thought of everything to make her boat as safe as possible, and she truly is an excellent sailor, but she ignores the advice of her crew and takes it out alone into the teeth of a savage storm. Her boat capsizes, trapping her inside, but she forces her way out of the cabin.

We next see her, bruised and battered, coming ashore at the cemetery where Charlie works. Naturally, they meet. They fall in love. But how can Charlie explain to her -- or to any woman -- why he is never going to leave the cemetery, or give up his nightly games of catch with his little brother?

The twists and turns are wonderful; so is the resolution of the story (and believe me, despite how very much I've told you, I haven't scratched the surface of this tale). Which is why I couldn't put it down until I finished it.

I expect the movie to be wonderful. The director is Burr Steers, who did such a wonderful job with 17 Again, and the writers have credits that include October Sky, Ladder 49, Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet.

But the writing is also wonderful, and I highly recommend reading it first. It truly won't spoil the movie; it's quite possible that it will help you understand the full implications of things that I don't expect the movie to be able to explain fully.

This is going to be the sentimental love story of the summer. But remember that before the movie, a writer had to think of it all, and Ben Sherwood did a splendid job.

*

I was on Amazon.com, buying my dad a copy of The Museum of Bad Art, since my dad (a) is an artist and (b) has a great sense of humor. After I bought it, there popped up a couple of titles that looked promising, both by James Lileks: The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s.

So on impulse, without having read them, I not only ordered copies for myself, but also sent one of them to my Mom, thinking she'd get a laugh, at least from the pictures.

Sorry, Mom.

Not that the books aren't funny; they are exactly what they purport to be, truly awful food and truly ugly interiors. Lilek found old recipe books from the 1950s and photos of hideous interior decoration from magazines, and assembled them in books that will either blind you or nauseate you, or both.

The food seems to be from a period when America was transitioning away from the pudding/casserole aesthetic. There seems to be a need to take perfectly good ingredients and form them into a quivering mass inside a gelatin mold, then turn them upside down on the plate.

The interior decorations were from a time when interior decorators aspired to be as cruel to people as fashion designers were. Picture after picture makes you want to show it to a friend and say, Could you live here? Could you eat in this kitchen or sleep in this bedroom? What were they thinking?

The reason I have to apologize to my mother is Lilek's smart-mouth, often obscene, and always vulgar commentary. Don't get me wrong -- it's funny. Extravagantly, ornately savage. But he draws from a vocabulary my mother would not love.

And yet half the value of the book comes from Lilek's nasty wit. So ... Mom, it was a mistake to send you that book! No, I don't think you'll like it, but I didn't know at the time -- I bought it sight unseen, online! (I'm not sure that's actually an excuse, but it's all I've got.)

Meanwhile, all my old friends from the college drama department, you'll like these books! (That is, unless you've grown up and become staid.)


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