Monday, May 31, 2010

Love: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The trailer for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time promised a lot of things, none of which seemed good. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer with amateur font choices, a very white looking Jake Gyllenhaal, and Gemma Arterton's awful, stilted narration, I was trying really hard not to expect something horrible. But Mike Newell (veteran director of one of the better Harry Potter's and gems like Enchanted April) and company did the incredible, creating something that's gleefully more Indiana Jones than Transformers.

Based on the popular video game franchise, the film makes up a bit of mumbo jumbo at the beginning about how a Persian king was so impressed with a "street rat's" character that he takes him off the streets and into the palace, a scene taken almost directly from Aladdin. This little boy grows to become Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) the "Lion of Persia" and the leader of many successful battles, in addition to his role as a beloved younger brother and son. Accompanied by his older brothers (the British Coupling's Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbell) and Uncle (Ben Kingsley), he invades the city of Alamut, and stumbles upon a dagger of great power and the beautiful yet saucy princess (Gemma Arterton) who happens to be guarding it.

The story itself would sound utterly convoluted and crazy if I tried to continue it here, but on screen it twists and turns with ease, making the film exciting. The plot twists are mostly unpredictable, but when they are predictable it really doesn't matter. While it's certainly not a story that would hold up under a strict microscope, it's not anywhere near the summer blockbuster disasters we've come to expect like the plot of the first Transformers movie or even the mish mash that was The DaVinci Code. It's a a romantic swashbuckler that luxuriates in its own ridiculousness and plays off the cliches instead of falling back on them. It flits between serious drama, comedy, magic, romance, and video game style action and somehow makes them all fit together without trying too hard.

The greatest success of Prince of Persia is the characters and the wonderful actors that actually breathe life into them. Gyllenhaal seems to take his role as seriously as his previous work in Brokeback Mountain or Donnie Darko and brings a naive depth to Dastan that disarms and engages the audience. Arterton refuses to be just a pretty face with a fierceness that's virtually undetectable in the female leads of other movies of the genre. She and Gyllenhaal also have instant chemistry. It's not bodice ripping passion, but a playful pulling of pig tails that reveals how much fun they were having throwing the lines (as cliched as they may be) back and forth at each other. You almost expect them to deteriorate into giggles at any moment and can't help but have fun watching them.

Most notably, the "message" of the film revolves around the bond between brothers, something that Gyllenhaal, Coyle, and Kebbell take to heart, their brotherly chemistry at times hilarious and others heartbreaking. Kingsley generally makes acting look effortless, and as with any of his work, is no different as he plays the power hungry Uncle calling the shots. Even Alfred Molina brings a level of class to the typical comic relief thief that gets tangled up with the heroes, even when he complains about taxes and big government like a modern day libertarian. As silly as the movie is at its heart, the actors take the time to make you believe in them, even if their chasing a bunch of ostriches down a race track in the middle of the desert. Even the drama, when it happens, is a hundred times more believable than the trite sappiness that pours forth from the tears of The Last Song's Miley Cyrus or from the wine glasses of the ladies in Letters to Juliet.

The devil certainly is in the details, and Newell and his production designers seemed to have spared no expense when creating the desert cities of ancient Persia and the surrounding steppes. It's rich and immersive as an epic should be, as are the costumes which are accessorized and detailed expertly. It brings the exotic magic that surrounds our modern view of the ancient Persian empire that was just barely communicated in the far less satisfying Alexander. Even the action sequences pay the video game proper homage without coming off as too unbelievable when Dastan climbs walls and glides across stone roofs in the city. Gyllenhaal reportedly learned Parkour and did his own stunts, an element that adds another layer to the film and is easy to see throughout. For once, the CGI in the film is used as a tool and not a selling point, never fake looking or overpowering.

There is only one real nagging problem with the movie. With the exception of Kingsley, Arterton, and Molina (who are all of British natives born and bred, Kingsley of Indian descent), everyone looks just a little too white, which can become a distraction, even if the Prince in the video games sports the same light hair and skin and striking blue eyes as Gyllenhaal. I kept wondering why they didn't bother to add a little more eyeliner or dark hair dye. It does become less distracting as the actors prove why they were cast, leaving only a vague distaste in the back of your mind if you're one to wax philosophical on the whitewashing in today's Hollywood or a history buff like me who continues to be astonished that Hollywood still portrays the Persians (modern day Iranians, Afghans, and others of the central Asia area) as a bunch of white dudes with an extra coat of mascara.

I feel like I review two types of movies here at Love & Squalor: the artistic and the real movie movies. And while they may receive the same rating, the difference has to be acknowledged. An "art" film like Fish Tank or The White Ribbon exposes human experience and feeling while something like Prince of Persia is meant to make you have fun. The reason this film deserves just as much credit is that for the first time in years, a director has decided to put effort into his fun instead of relying on box office guarantees or expensive CGI. We need this movie, and more like it that prove that fun doesn't mean sacrificing quality. And yes it is quality. Mike Newell doesn't insult his audience, but connects to it. He doesn't assume that we'll watch his movie even if it sucks. Like the makers of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, he revives the joy of the old Hollywood epic while making use of all the benefits of modern technology, reminding the audience of the pleasure of good old fashion movie making.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #10: Out of Africa

I drafted this post forever ago.  Forever = like a month ago.  That's a long time in blog years but really not that much of an expanse in the scheme of things.  I watched Out of Africa, but then I didn't feel the need to write about it.  What's there to write about?  Everything that can be said about Meryl Streep has already been said, and she's really almost unbearable in this movie.  You look at her and you just go, stop with the accents and the ability to act and the being so ridiculously pretty.  People don't look that good when they're running around in safari gear in the middle of a sun-scorched continent.  It's ludicrous. Simply ludicrous.

I liked watching Out of Africa at night because of Karen Blixen's Danish accent.  It sort of lulled me to sleep.  While I watched Out of Africa I thought of the band Toto, Barbra Streisand, and Manhattan.  Young Meryl Streep always makes me want to watch Manhattan, if only because that's the movie I most associate her early 1980's face with.  Now, reflecting on this, I want to watch Hannah and her Sisters, because I never much liked Hannah and her Sisters and I feel like maybe now that I'm older I could learn to see what all the fuss was about.  It would be like the difference between watching Annie Hall at 11 and watching it again in high school at a point when I understood, subconsciously, the manic pixie dream girl.  I'm not so sure anything will change though, largely because I've always been of the opinion that Mia Farrow just isn't that much fun in an Allen movie.  Just like their relationship wasn't that much fun.  I hear they have a son who's a prodigy, but otherwise, that was sort of a trainwreck.

The only full episode I've ever seen of The Marriage Ref was the one with Larry David, Madonna, and Ricky Gervais.  Larry David is sort of like Woody Allen, only perhaps even more vocally misanthropic and definitely taller.  On that episode, Larry David screamed and yelled about lizards being in the house.  Lizards shouldn't be in the house.  They definitely shouldn't wear hats. He wasn't just anti-reptile, he was also a terrible misogynist, but somehow on him it reads less offensive than it would on most anyone else.  Perhaps because he's just ridiculous.  Not ridiculous like the host of The Marriage Ref, that guy is just obnoxious.  The show doesn't need him or the ladies playing reference librarian.  This has nothing to do with Out of Africa, but the only thing to write about Out of Africa is nothing. 
Karen Blixen shouldn't have gone to Africa. It wasn't a good idea. It was like Michael Patrick King sending Samantha Jones to Abu Dhabi. Bad idea. Sure, Robert Redford was there but you already know that's not going to go well. I mean, (spoiler alert) I just sat there counting the minutes until he died. They always die, the men. Always. It's a conceit, I think. Hollywood loves to make estrogen biopics about women who did (or tried to do, or were tangentially involved in) great things and center them around the great romances that were thwarted by untimely man death. The men, they're always dying. This drives people crazy. It drives your mom crazy. I don't know what it is with moms, but as a rule most of them are bad at this kind of movie. Your mom has already seen Out of Africa and chances are she'll tell you it was boring, but if she doesn't tell you that, she'll tell you she totally cried. Fact. Call your mother. I'm not making this up. Tell her I said "word". But, there are lions in Out of Africa. And Toto songs that you can play from your computer while you watch the movie. New soundtrack. You just have to hit repeat and let it play about 32 times. Then the movie will be over and you'll officially have gone insane. I'm pretty sure Sydney Pollack listened to "Africa" 32 times while doing aerobics and decided that he needed to make a movie fit to accompany it. You should ask him.

There's nothing new you can say about Meryl Streep that hasn't already been said unless what you're saying about Meryl Streep is actually just a long string of lies about Meryl Streep but even that's chancing it because there are probably a lot of smugly jealous people in the acting world who have secretly talked smack about Meryl Streep and made up rumors about Meryl Streep bathing in the blood of Romanian virgin peasants and selling her soul to the devil (his real name is Warren Beatty) for neverending talent, neverending job opportunities, smarts, looks, and the adoration of everyone or, maybe they didn't, but maybe there's someone who has already plugged her name in as a proper noun in mad libs or written some strange, sci-fi cyberpunk-bent fan fiction about her shaving off her hair, plugging into an alternate universe, and sprouting mechanized iron wings.  Maybe.  Or not, but something in it must be true, and must have already been stated or done.  Hearsay.  I was just going to write a little story about Meryl Streep and precapitalist dialectic theory with African Grey Parrots, identity theft, and a brigade of albino 17th century centurion eunuchs who serve time travel J. Edgar Hoover hand and foot, but that's already been said about Meryl Streep.  She saved those eunuchs.  Everyone knows.  It's in the history books.  There's nothing new.  Not a thing. 

RIP: Dennis Hopper

Legendary actor, director, artist, and Hollywood renegade Dennis Hopper died today in his Venice, California home after a battle with prostate cancer.  He was 74, and in the company of family and friends.

Born in 1936, the first film credit of Hopper's six decades in cinema was an appearance in the James Dean vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause.  From there, the roles slowly built and came to a head with the iconic Easy Rider, the sixties drug years zeitgeist Hopper co-wrote, directed, and starred in as the unhinged Billy.  Hopper was a hard man to control, and his reputation as an unpredictable loose cannon made for success that came in fits and starts. 

Married five times, known for being such a pain in his early years that John Wayne chased him with a loaded gun on the set of True Grit, it's no matter.  I'll always remember Hopper for his tour de force in David Lynch's Blue Velvet as ether huffing criminal Frank Booth.  His presence was jarring; unsettling in a way that made it clear character and actor both were forces to be reckoned with.  [Source]

Friday, May 28, 2010

Squalor: Sex and the City 2 (but it's more complicated than that...)

Dear Reader,
Yesterday I rolled out of bed, showered, and did what 2 years ago would have been emotionally impossible: I got in my car with cranky sibling in tow and drove to the theater to pay, reluctantly, to view the early showing of Sex and the City 2.  I had to talk myself into this.  It was a process.  Every trailer, every online article and magazine cover was followed by a conversation that would go something like this:

Myself: You can't go to it, you know.  It's going to be terrible.  It will enrage you.  Don't you remember the first one?  Don't you remember what it was like?

Myself: Oh, I remember.  I've derided it like a fanboy trashes Episode I.  This will certainly be the most heinous example of faux-feminism and self-destruction of a series since the last round.  And yet...

Myself: No.  No 'and yet'.  Pull yourself together.  This pain you inflict upon yourself is the opposite of healthy...

Myself: ...but, I get to Squalor it.

Myself: Is that worth your sanity?

Myself: ...but... I get to Squalor it.

Myself: It's the glitter, isn't it?  You're a junkie and your addiction is totally masochistic.  Injecting that shit into your veins and imprinting it on your sockets will cut off the flow of blood to your brain. They'll only disappoint you.

Myself:, I need to do this for the blog.  I can't just go to movies I think I'll like...I must go forth.  I refused to see Shrek, I have to make this sacrifice. 

Myself: I'm breaking up with you.

I'm very conflicted.  But I went, dear Reader.  If the dialogue above didn't clue you in, let me spell it out: I hate. the. first. movie.  My hatred knows no bounds.  Seriously.  Ain't no mountain high enough. It was a no-hearts, slogging, painful exercise in misdirection and vapidity that was neither funny nor particularly poignant.  The film made its characters insufferable caricatures of what non-viewers had always assumed the show was about.  It was the leering antichrist of summer cinema and a gigantic anticlimax.  After six seasons of building somewhat problematic, but genuinely complicated female roles, the film squandered everything.  It destroyed its characters and left shadowy pod people wandering Manhattan like aging clothes hangers with stitched on zombie hands.  Thinking about it still makes me frustrated.  When yesterday arrived, I prepared to enter into battle with the screen.  I was 100% eye rolls and troubled sighs. I made snarky remarks as I  bought my ticket from the kid at the box office and slouched in with such low expectations and such a massive feeling of dread that, when the film actually started, I was surprised that I somehow managed to feel some brand of strange relief.

Needless to say, since watching all 2+ hours of Sex and the City 2 yesterday, I've become even more conflicted.  
I'm going to try and talk through this, but I fear my thoughts on the subject will be a convoluted work in progress.  At this point, there's a fair amount of assumed bias from all sides of the media.  Nobody is stepping into this film without some preconceived notions.  Crazy people are getting dolled up to sit in a popcorn crumbly theater seat, it feels like film critics have been panning the film for weeks prior to its release, and everyone with half a sociopolitical consciousness is crying foul on the grounds of rampant materialism, cultural insensitivity, and detrimental feminism.  On the one hand, I'd like to be quick to agree with the latter two.  I mean, we all know I get all blue in the face talking about the out and out offense that is Twilight.  Yet, on the other, I'm not so sure they're totally right, or if their opinion on what's ultimately a simple entertainment just happens to be another in vogue. 

For many in the still surprisingly male-dominated world of film criticism, the HBO original, uncut Sex and the City was a foreign language from the get-go.  There was an expressed lack of interest and an implied understanding (from those who had never watched) of Carrie & company as a group of promiscuous nags who gathered to discuss their shopping habits.  I'm going to put it outright: if you're a woman and you buy into that description, you should question your own levels of misogyny and reassess the value you place on blunt conversation with your own social group.  Even if they're not you, they're not that.  The problem, however, is that the first film blew up the script, upped the dramatic quotient, and failed.  That script wound up cementing those negative assessments of the women as fact for the show's ready and quick-witted detractors.  The result is that the memory of the original content has been tainted by expectations established from a dreadful first theatrical run.  Now, with all of these character references stored up in my memory banks and lightly blended with wardrobe lookbooks that emphasise the cost instead of the quirk, I'm confused. 

The sequel is in a grey area somewhere between those HBO half-hours and the silver screen.  In terms of levity, it's a marked improvement from the first film.  It's overly fluffy, but tolerable, and succeeds in being at least semi-entertaining.  It remembers, this time (however shallowly), that there are four primary protagonists (not just one), and that the story is ultimately about the bonds of friendship between women and not about the sex, the city, or the melodrama.  It also recalls that its roots were in scandalous, not fit for network primetime comedy...and that as such it is the female bromance, every bit as frank and politically incorrect.  What it does not remember is that it's still supposed to try and be clever, not get lazy and rely on the tried and cliche.  

Alright, let me actually try to break down the movie for you.  Two years after the action of the first film, time has passed, things have progressed.  There's an insipid opening credit sequence fully bedazzled, set to "Empire State of Mind", and marked by one of the worst first lines I've ever heard: "Once upon a time there was an island. Some Dutch, some Indians, and some beads."  See? Worst ever.  You're like, "did she say beads or beats?" for one.  And then you're like, oh no she didn't.  Then you're like, how is that even relevant?  I don't know, though in retrospect it does speak to some weird imperialist sentiment the film (or Michael Patrick King?) seems guilty of.

Anyhow: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, do I even need to tell you that?) is no longer an in-debt freelancer and is living the sweet life as bestselling author a million times over, married to the purring, boring old Mr. Big (Chris Noth) in an apartment that looks like an unlived-in photograph from a design magazine.  Now, she's getting bored.  She doesn't want to be the married couple that hangs out in front of the TV and Mr. Big is all over sitting around, ordering-in, and watching It Happened One Night in bed.  Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has two little girls who do nothing but scream and a nanny who doesn't believe in wearing a bra.  Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has a son who's now in second grade, is totally over the married relationship drama, and quits her job because her boss is the uber-misogynist (don't worry, she calls the headhunter stay at home mom time for her).  Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is up to her old tricks.  In case you were seriously wondering how her libido would survive menopause, spoiler alert: she takes like 44 vitamins, rubs yams all over herself, and makes secretaries uncomfortable.  Somehow Samantha's fancy PR gig gets her hooked up with a free trip for 4 to Abu-Dhabi.  So, you know, they totally go.  It's opulent and there are personal Maybachs and $22,000 a night suites.  They're very lovely.

See, let's pretend you know nothing about this show.  Nothing.  You might look at the synopsis for the movie and construct some outside opinions: 1. This is a buddy road movie, 40+ women taking the act on a shenanigan-filled vacation   2. This is an escapist fantasy, Hollywood always ups the extravagance ante in recessive times  3. This is your typical "trapped in adulthood" bromance, only with women.  It's all of these things.  It's also totally ridiculous.  Liza Minnelli appears to perform "Single Ladies" at a gay wedding (hilarious).  There are man servants.  The women wear heels when they go for a ride on some camels.  There are several close-ups on bulging pants.  There are offensive cultural misunderstandings.  Samantha yells out the phrase "Lawrence of my labia."  Charlotte wears vintage Valentino to make cupcakes.  All of this happens.  Yes, it's absurd.  A lot of it falls flat and relies on poorly constructed dialogue and not-so-hot jokes.  It's self-indulgent, self-referential, and built on the ashes of the same old same old.  But, again, though the plot is weak and there's quite a bit that's stale and flat, it's definitely better than the first film.  It keeps moving.  It never stops and feels sorry for itself.   

Sex and the City 2 is not a good movie.  It is, however, a solid enough guilty pleasure.  It has everything you need from a good bad film: inappropriateness, musical numbers, over the top costumes, high camp levels, bad dialogue, sex talk, and enough of those little moments that offer up a glance at how it could have been better.  For all it's razzle dazzle distractions, when it comes to nabbing the female box office quotient, it arguably makes a better go of it than something like, for example, The Ugly Truth.  See, The Ugly Truth, and films like it, offer up the career woman archetype as cold hard bitch, and their stories revolve around the softening of these independent women and remolding by men.  That's one thing Sex and the City does not do.  3 out of 4 of its independent, self-made, working women did not retreat into domesticated bliss.  They did not soften, and though this film may have them a bit bubble-headed and pun-nabbing, I wouldn't say they're weak characters.  Oh god.  I never thought I would find myself doing this, but I think I'm actually about to defend Sex and the City 2 against claims that it's toxic if swallowed.

Sex and the City 2 has been panned.  I have to ask the ridiculous question: are our expectations different because this is a film about women?  Yeah.  That was a Carrie Bradshaw question and I feel some sort of strange Giger-drawn parasite making its way up my trachea, but I think I mean it.  Really. Are our expectations for this film actually different because, unlike the abundance of dumb concept-driven male bromance comedies, this one is about women.  Let's consider this briefly (and I'll try not to expand this into a much larger essay). Sex and the City 2 is not a romantic comedy.  The trials of Carrie & Big's relationship are not at the forefront here.  The absurdity of the Middle Eastern trip is.  The relationship is what drives the action of the plot.  X is happening, so Y happens, so blah blah blerg.  Look at this as an inverse of everything spun off from the Apatow collective. 

Think of The Hangover.  The wedding is happening, so the trip happens, so everything goes downhill.  Granted, The Hangover was much funnier than Sex and the City 2, but male-centric films of its kind are not always so.  In fact, in many of those films, there's an emphasis on being patently offensive and declaring one's manhood.  So, we have countless films where the men are allowed to tell off domineering wives and admit they don't want to do housework while at the same time throwing out homophobic gags or things that call an abundance of attention to any sort of racial/cultural/gender/sexual stereotype, but much of the fault is chalked up to "men behaving badly" and "boys will be boys." 

Ok, so what about SATC2?  Look at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes.  What you'll find is an excess of talk about how crass and licentious it is.  Yes, there are some iffy scenes in an Abu-Dhabi bazaar in which Samantha throws around condoms and her bosom yelling about her womanly rights while offending a Muslim nation.  Yes, this is totally fodder for anti-American terrorist regimes.  Let me state for the record, too, that the Abu-Dhabi trip was a filmmaking tactical error. They should not have gone there. It was a bad move bound to take a harmless movie and throw it into the reaching hands of outrage. It's totally culturally insensitive.  Yet, it's likely a fairly accurate approximation of the ignorant American tourist.  Samantha's opinion reflects many a commentary heard from folks in a post-9/11 world. And, while not delicately handled, her action is in keeping with her character.  The woman is absurd, she offends everybody.  Besides, how many times have you seen the ignorant male comic relief throw around the fact that he has a penis and the right to use it in an inappropriate situation?  Exactly how much are we expecting from our trashy, comic fare that this (literally a dumb sex comedy with adult women instead of college boys) is labeled an insulting embarrassment?  If this movie starred men, it would be par for the course.  No one would blink an eye when Miranda and Charlotte gripe about needing a break from parenting and proceed to drink too much.  No one would question Carrie's "is it because I'm a bitch wife who nags you?" response to Big's "let's spend a couple days apart every week" idea.  I'm not even so sure it would be a huge deal to posit questions on the burka.  There's an absolutely cringe-worthy scene of sisterdom in the Middle East in SATC2, and a strange, uncomfortable display of hotel subservience, but we all know that the male version would involve women stripping off the abaya and lounging about in next to nothing.  As it stands, the film's unapologetic, meandering, political incorrectness is still a far cry from the offense wrought by the Heigl brand of "do this and men will like you." 

Sex and the City has always walked a thin line when it comes to feminism, and the films falter more than they should.  Yet, they're not all bad. Feminism is always tricky.  There's a lot of theory and modes of thought on what it means to own oneself.  SATC2 takes the ownership and confuses it with capitalism. These women are consumers. They have the credit, the all-mighty dollar, and the power to use and abuse for good and bad.  They're not female chauvanists, nymphomaniacs, or bitches.  They're just overly privileged women taught to do primarily for themselves and who flaunt the fruits of their fictional labors as they deem fit.  I can't really begrudge them that.  I can feel like it's not me, I can decide not to be that woman, but I can't accuse them of doing a disservice to anyone who's ever walked the Earth with a vagina.  This is nothing but a fun, escapist, romp.  It's flawed, sure.  It might cross some taste boundaries, yes.  But it opens up a lot more conversational avenues than something like a sappy Nicholas Sparks-penned drama ever could.   Charlotte is cloying and obnoxious and makes idiotic faces, but she has a right to want to get away from that kid.  That kid of hers is awful.  I mean it, really just awful.  But, I digress...

So, you see, dear Reader...I'm befuddled.  My brain has been walked over by Manolos and Louboutins and now I'm sitting here trying to justify the film's ability to throw down an insult with its qualities as a blatantly superficial frothy entertainment.  I guess really, at the end of the day, all I can say is that after the depths of the first film, the sequel is a pleasant surprise.  It doesn't reach the smart and snappy heights of the show, but this time, it's at least entertaining in its effort to be a brainless diversion.  Instead of a sequel, however, I think I would have preferred a reboot.  Do-over the last one.  Get a new screenwriter. Michael Patrick King needs to knock it off, dude is not good at writing a full-length feature and has certainly not learned how to edit.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reel-Round Up: The Only Movies to Expect in the Next Few Years Will Be Comic Book Inspired

(not that there's anything wrong with that)

<----This is your new Charles Xavier in Kick-Ass Director Matthew Vaughn's upcoming X-Men prequel X-Men: First Class (By this I mean James McAvoy)

Didn't make it to Cannes? Neither did we, which is why I read up on the Guardian's coverage. 

The epilogue for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been filmed, and somebody snapped some photos. Major spoiler alert.

The newest Spider-man, which will be directed by Marc Webb, has been narrowed down to these five guys. Ummm....what happened to him? He's in a new The Three Musketeers with Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu. That's ok too.

Emperor: Young Caesar, the novel that follows the friendship of a young Caesar and Brutus, will be directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down).'s happening. 

Scream 4 continues to cast a bunch of other people including Emma Roberts. 

Sherlock Holmes 2 gets a release date, as Warner Bros. gets serious about Superman and The Flash.

Somehow, the mess that was Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is one of only 6 films to pass the 1 billion dollar mark.

Paul Thomas Anderson, directing a movie about Scientology, starring....Reese Witherspoon?

io9 isn't so sure about the new cut of Jonah Hex

Logan's Run, like the islanders of Lost, gets to move on.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Love: The Secret of the Kells

Innovative, gorgeous, and moving, The Secret of the Kells evokes all sorts of vocabulary words that represent the awesome and stunning while leaving all the cliches behind.

Director Tomm Moore's (with Co-Director Nora Twomey) story begins in a typical Irish Abbey where monks are hard at work creating books and scripts as the early isolated monks were wont to do. Aware of an impending barbarian invasion, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) whose shadow cleverly reflects his exhaustion, enlists the help of each monk and peasant to build a giant wall to protect the Abbey (and the books inside it). The Abbot's young nephew Brendan, however, finds himself distracted from the mission when a refugee, Brother Aiden from another Abbey, arrives with the beginnings of The Book of the Kells, an elaborate book that "turns darkness into light." As Aiden teaches Brendan the art of book making and unlocks his young mind, Brendan finds himself in the forest searching for materials to complete the masterpiece. There he meets the fairy Aisling who shows him the pagan magic of the forest and helps him along as he expands his imagination and his adventures become more and more perilous.

The film is just damn cool. The art work is a detailed mix somewhere between the actual The Book of the Kells and Samurai Jack, each individual frame creatively filled and worthy of a giant spot on your wall. Characters move dreamily through paneled pages, mist that starts as a pale curly cue engulfs the hero on his trip through the trees, and the forest is manicured in the turns and twists of classic Celtic symbols yet menacing and dark where it dips into shadow. The barbarian horde is a grumbling black mass, all horns and darkness as they stampede across the Irish wilderness. It's an oddly visceral image that makes it easy to imagine standing in front of an invader with a giant sword yelling at you in a language you've never heard. The fires from barbarian arrows burn and then transition into blood seeping across the page. Aisling, the fairy flows through her forest in haunting little whisps, her voice as haunting as her fragile image.

The tale is magical not only for its beauty, but for its ephemeral, ghost like quality. It's not too historical, or too religious, or too magical, but is an exquisitely spun thread of all three that exists within its own new mythological space.  Much of the magic occurs between Brendan and Aisling. While their relationship isn't romantic or that extensive in terms of screen time, it has the same sort of enchanting and haunting quality that exists between Oskar and Eli in Let the Right One In. The film also allows the gloom and terror to exist between the lines, slipping out occasionally at just the right moments (when Aisling encounters the spirit of Crom Cruaich, or when the Vikings finally attack), lending it a sharp edge that pricks along the back of your subconscious as much as the beautiful imagery does. While the pacing initially seems as manic as a Saturday morning cartoon, the story soon finds its center and dips into the flesh of its tale, almost mimicking Brendan's own transformation from basic artistic imagination to creative genius.

The Secret of the Kells has been notoriously hard to track down for many (it was in my city for a mere week, months after its release date), and was absolutely robbed of the Academy Award it was nominated for. It's worth rescheduling to catch a glimpse of this simple, captivating, and otherworldly work that represents one of the most unique views currently on film.

Archival Footage: Two Nights With Cleopatra (1953)

In Two Nights With Cleopatra (Due notti con Cleopatra), the ever timeless and stunning Sophia Loren goes up against herself, playing both Cleopatra and a blonde servant girl that the infamous Queen hires as a doppelganger. Comedy ensues, or is supposed to ensue, especially aided by the horrible dubbing and dialog characteristic of Italian dubs at this time. Alberto Sordi, as Cleopatra's self imposed guard, should be the real comedic element here, but is nearly unbearable to watch as he runs around the set acting so ridiculous only a mother could love him.

All and all, it's a terrible movie...if you take it seriously (which includes assuming it's a comedy). But if you sort of go with it, you start to appreciate not only Loren's beauty, but the beauty and majesty of the sets and art production which rival, and possibly surpass the best of Cecil B. DeMille. I found myself imagining watching this movie in a smokey, packed theater in the year of its release and it felt even better. With a little imagination and perhaps a good use of the mute button, there might be something for you in this comedic epic, one that would benefit more from the label "bargain bin spaghetti western" than comedy. Dare I say it, it even becomes a bit charming if you can stick it out.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Love: Robin Hood

Other than the Disney and Mel Brooks versions, there have been no honest to God, serious Robin Hood tales that are actually good. Luckily for me, a professed Robin Hood lover (I know, it's the history major thing again) Ridley Scott has given us the best version yet, and a damn good movie to boot.

This "prequel" to the basic Robin Hood story begins with Robin Longstride (the extra burly Russell Crowe) and his beloved entourage including Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) on their way home from the Crusades, plundering and burning their way through France at the side of King Richard the Lion Heart (Danny Huston). Disgusted by the things he's seen and been forced to do, the ever honest Robin decides to blow the proverbial French Popsicle stand and head home, stealing the identity of Sir Robert of Loxley along the way who comes with a wife (Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion), a father (Max Von Sydow), and a nice spread of land. Not one to "ignore fate," Robin takes all the benefits and the responsibilities of his new position, as the French invade and Prince John (Oscar Isaac) starts acting like a spoiled brat.

Ridley does everything right, beginning with interesting story changes that update the tale, making it satisfying without removing it's authenticity and reflecting the historical background that sprung the story in the first place. This Robin Hood is an average nice guy, making it a bit more believable and exciting when he really does rise up as a man of the people, a true yeoman and not a long lost privileged aristocrat that found his heart and way when push comes to shove. The women in Scott's film also get a nice empowering update. Maid Marion drops the damsel in distress act, becoming a fully realized character that truly is Robin's equal without losing the historical context of her role as a woman, while John's Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine and lover are equally intriguing and complex.

Complex and nuanced are the two words that describe everything nook and cranny of this film in which every detail fully creates a live world. It's not only beautiful to watch but is fascinating and generally accurate in its portrayal of medieval life and warfare. While that warfare is a major component of the film's plot, it never feels too long or overblown, but perfectly pitched to move the action along. Scott also captures the humor of Robin Hood in a realistic way that ices the cake without turning the film away from its gritty texture.

But all the beauty and historical details aside, the story takes the time it needs to fully articulate its message and engage the audience without becoming slow or bogged down. The relationship between Marion and Robin is the best example, perfectly paced, never feeling rushed or sluggish, but builds the passion expertly. Crowe and Blanchett lose themselves in their roles with a chemistry that's exciting to watch. Every character in this film is perfectly cast, especially the genius choice of Lost's Kevin Durand as the menacing and sweet Little John. Isaac's King John is an excellent mix of smarmy, sexy, and annoying, while snaggle toothed Mark Strong's evil Godfrey is the perfect evil bad guy. It's a movie where centuries old iconic characters have been given faces that can never be replaced. Durand is Little John, Crowe is Robin Hood, and Blanchett is Marion. There is no one else.

The film is long (reaching about 2 hours and 30 minutes), but the length is fitting considering its epic proportions and Scott's devotion to bringing out his characters. Luckily, he knows how to make a damn good movie, so the flow keeps everything moving along just right.

The critics seem to hate this movie (it gets a measly 45% on, but I'm not sure what they wanted. All I see is a top notch, fulfilling retelling of one of the world's greatest fairy tales that possesses a hundred times more heart than Scott and Crowe's more recognized collaboration, Gladiator. Go see it so I get my sequel!

P.S. I did have some trouble keeping this image out of my mind whenever Isaac's Prince John came on screen:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Love: Please Give

I'm late to the party when it comes to reviewing writer/director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give.  The critical round table has already assembled, munched on a white-chocolate drizzled popcorn appetizer and eaten half of the entree.  All the comparisons to Woody Allen's 80's dramas have been made, and for me to restate them now would be like asking for someone to look up, notice I don't belong, and inform me that my points were already made.  More succinctly.  By someone else.  Not only that, though, that Allen comparisons don't really cut it. Holofcener's Please Give is like, say, Hannah and Her Sisters, only in that it's a human, New Yorker-centric, ensemble melodrama that revolves around neurotic tendencies and good old fashioned qualities like solid scripts and strong acting.  Please Give isn't Allen or Baumbach or Stillman urban haute bourgeoisie, it's Holofcener dropping into the lives of her characters and giving viewers an appealing, frequently sharply funny, almost literary film.
Please Give, which gives away little in its rather misleading title, centers on the cris-crossing relationships between two offbeat families.  Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a married couple whose business centers upon the buying of antique furniture from the kids of recently diseased senior citizens.  Kate's got untapped guilt issues and longs for the day when they can tear down the walls between their apartment and the apartment they've purchased next door.  What are they waiting for?  Why, it's current tenant to die, of course.  Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) is the nasty grandma next door who's watched faithfully by her confused granddaughters Rebecca and Mary (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet).  So Kate deals with the self-esteem issues of her bitter 15-year old daughter and tries to fulfill a need to somehow be a better person.  Rebecca focuses too much of her time on her ungrateful grandmother.  Mary stalks the new girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend.  All of the women look at each other and think the others are better off.  The cast is remarkable, pitch perfect to the point that watching them converse tends to feel voyeuristic.  Keener, who has starred in all of Holofcener's films up to this point, cuts into the film's ethical inquiries and tender core with her usual skill. She's one of those actors who are so good it seems they're really just making a career playing facets of their own personality. She, with the expressive Rebecca Hall, make the one-liners sting and the underlying sadness palpable.

Holofcener has, as per usual, delivered female characters who are fully formed, real people. They're not idealized visions in wardrobes too extravagant for their fictitious incomes or made-up beyond all recognition. They are your friends and relatives. They're imperfect, grounded women with dialogue and motives you can actually believe. You know what? They're also, like real people, sort of hard to really like. They're not satisfied, and they'll tell you so. The fact that the film never seems to really get to the heart of where their mutual issues lie is perhaps its primary drawback. The pressure is clearly on these ladies. The need to be conventionally, photoshopped beautiful and fulfilled torments them. But the structural background isn't 100% there to support these characters as they piss and moan and deadpan their way closer and closer towards reality. Though it offers no real conclusions, the openings created by Please Give are interesting ones. The real tragedy, I suppose, will be that the film will be an ignored blip on the average American woman's radar as media saturation for next week's chick-flick extravaganza: Sex and the City 2 reaches critical mass. Hollywood will continue to assume that female-centric cinema requires a conventional love story and a surplus of sparkle. We'll be cursed with a dozen new pit-of-despair supposed "comedies" starring the dreadful Katherine Heigl.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Like: Iron Man 2

In my mind, I equate Iron Man as Marvel's variation on DC's Batman. He's the regular guy. The insanely wealthy, quick witted, possibly a super genius, regular guy whose wealth allows him to become a superpower through technology. The difference is, of course, that where Bruce Wayne is a vigilante fueled by dark secrets and a desire for revenge, Tony Stark is Iron Man largely just because he can be. He's all superego, driven by a daddy-issue need to be loved, a short attention span, and the constant search for an easy thrill or a round of applause. Iron Man is a selfish showman. The first of Jon Favreau's Iron Man films showed us Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) at a turning point. He went from Randian, nihilistic weapons monger to a self-aware playboy in need of penance. Consequently, and in large part because of Downey Jr.'s undeniable charisma, the audience fell in love Stark and all his flaws. With Iron Man 2, Favreau allows Stark to both progress and regress, balancing the character's dangerous traits and keeping him human. Though he wears the suit and keeps the peace, Iron Man is a risk. Stark is caught up in a war between his indulgent, egomaniac, selfish nature and that which the public, and the people in his life, needs (and demands) him to be. The groundwork layed with Stark's character keeps Iron Man 2 above the pitfalls of so many action flicks with bigger and better sequels, without skimping on the explosions.
Iron Man 2's best scenes are not the action sequences.  Favreau seems to know he doesn't have a great knack for staging those and they're relatively few and far between.  The entertainment value here comes from the interactions of the cast and the characters they play.  Robert Downey Jr. knows Tony Stark, inside and out, he is a reformed Tony Stark.  At one point in the film, Stark stands and announces that "never has a greater phoenix metaphor been personified in human history", and you can't do much other than agree.  He twitches and struts and his banter with everyone from Paltrow to Cheadle has an ounce of believability.  It doesn't matter if someone else turns in a wet blanket, no personality performance here because you'd never notice, it would just serve to even out Tony Stark's inflated persona.  For the most part, though, Iron Man 2's added and exchanged line-up of talent is nothing if not underused.  Scarlett Johansson, here as an assistant (*ahem*) "from legal" manages not to ruin the movie or lazily perform.  Mickey Rourke gets downplayed in favor of Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, but is allowed some amusing lines and a grimy presence.  Proof of Gwyneth Paltrow's ability to still be likable in the era of GOOP and her non-sensical travels with Mario Batali comes in the reprisal of her come-back role as Pepper Potts, Stark's loyal assistant newly appointed CEO of Stark Industries.  Nobody becomes what Katie Holmes was for everyone who loved everything else about Batman Begins, but several of them definitely don't get enough screen time.
Part of the reason for this is that, while the characters are doing their job, the actual plot of the film is a little....absent.  There's something scattershot about Iron Man 2.  It's building, like films tend to once they've become franchises, to something else and tossing around villains and future heroes at rapid speed.  This is what killed Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand.  They got ahead of themselves, sacrificing the present story in exchange for integration of the origins that would lead to future sequels and unfinished business.  Yes, it's obvious that Iron Man 2 has some of these problems.  The opening sequence, a dingy Russian science experiment that parallels Tony Stark's construction of the arc reactor in a terrorist cave, ends with Ivan Vanko (Rourke) howling to the heavens after his father's death, is not at all promising.  In most films, once would be too many times for that to occur.  Five minutes in would be far too early.  It's too much in this film, too, but somehow, seconds later you forget it ever happened.  It's a shaky beginning, and moves swiftly into organized chaos.  We get snippets of Pepper Potts in power.  Little bits of Stark's personal life.  Military court cases and black ops.  A sudden rush to start pushing the Avengers.  Stark Expo and elder Stark's home movies. Tony Stark creates a new element (!) that no one seems concerned with. Weird flirtations and tensions between Tony Stark and...everybody.  The core of the film is supposedly Stark vs. Vanko's supervillain Whiplash, but that's almost a non-issue.  It's as though at some point they realized that everyone knew the inevitable outcome and decided to partially dodge the comic book cage match of good vs. evil.   
The whole film seems to adopt Stark's perspective.  Something major happens, but it's cool, no big deal.  This is the life, right?  Wake up early, discover a new element, figure out a way to produce it, fly around a bit, business as usual, no need to stop the presses.  Usually I'd say that's sloppy, overeager  film making. Somehow, though, even with its non-plot, the film is relentlessly entertaining and more than a little fun.  It's sharp and funny and keeps you so diverted that you won't even care (maybe not even notice) that it's opening up subplots and creating remarkable deus ex machinas it occasionally has no intention of explaining away or following through with.  Somehow, it works.  Maybe it works simply because it reflects the identity issues and brash confidence of its character in not knowing quite what it should be, but forging boldly ahead anyway, maybe that's just a fluke.  Either way, while there may be very few surprises, there's a lot of joy to be found in the unveiling of each expected turn and comic frothy detail and somehow Iron Man 2 becomes a worthy sequel to the original. 

RIP: Lena Horne

Singer, actress, and African American history-maker Lena Horne passed away Sunday in New York City at age 92.  A legendary performer, Horne began her career as a teenage chorus girl in Harlem's Cotton Club during the 1930's and from there skyrocketed to fame as a multi-threat balancing roles in film and television with the Broadway and musical stardom for which she is most frequently recognized.

Horne was the first black star in the Hollywood studio system, signed to a 7-year contract with MGM and refusing to play stereotypical roles.  While her refusal meant that many of her roles became limited to nonspeaking singing parts, Horne found exceptions in the 40's musicals "Stormy Weather" (the title song of which she's closely associated with) and "Cabin in the Sky".

Later blacklisted from Hollywood for a progressive political stance, Horne became fed up with the film world and became a musical headliner as she toured nightclubs the world over.  A jazz diva and a legend, Horne was a talent who will truly be missed.   

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #9: Witness

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
If you'll recall, I started this feature with Footloose, a film that I incorrectly thought was about people who were sort of closed off from the world and maybe a little Amish.  They weren't.  I don't know if it's possible for a person to be "a little Amish".  Those people are usually just called puritanical.  Or, hypocritical. Depending on the individual in question.  Either way, I've rectified the vaguely Amish situation by watching the movie actually about Amish people: Witness.  Watching Witness I was reminded how surly and irritable Harrison Ford was in the 80's and made aware that Lukas Haas is one of those people how has always looked gawky and never quite grew into the strange proportions of his face.  He still looks pretty similar and will always be Brick's The Pin for me; sitting at his mom's kitchen table talking drugs and murder with a rooster pitcher stage left.  I don't think that mental-picture Lukas Haas will be replaced with young Samuel in plain dress, accidentally spying Danny Glover getting lethal in the men's room at the train station.  Speaking of trains and bonnets: the only place I ever really see Amish people round these parts is indeed in Chicago's Union Station.  They're always there.  Seriously.  So, I feel Witness has an ounce of credibility and am totally comfortable believing that if anything crazy was going to happen to an Amish family, it just might happen on a stop-over.  I mean, I've seen a lot of crazy things in the train station..but who cares about that? 
You already know the plot. Because you've seen it.  As the poster reads: Harrison Ford is John Book, a rough and tumble Philly detective who gets assigned to investigate the incident young Samuel observed taking place.  Samuel identifies the killer and it turns out that man is a crooked cop.  One thing leads to another, lives are at stake, and Ford's driving Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) back home to the grassy hills of Amish-land where he can hide with them.  The plot sounds stable, solid.  There's nothing quite like a good thriller where the authority figures are inverted and the righteous vs. criminal are all screwed up.  Yet, for some reason, Witness felt incomplete to me.  On the surface it was an entertaining thriller, and everyone likes a good fish out of water story (especially one that lets Harrison Ford start punching people's faces in), but as dramas go, I didn't feel the intrigue.  Though the bad guys chased and the gunfire hailed, there were really only a couple points at which I felt Book, or any of the characters, might actually be at risk (grain silo of doom!).  Mostly, Witness seemed to be a diluted thriller blended with a rough sketch of a meditation on the violence of our culture contrasted with the peace of the Amish, and the conflicting emotions that occur when a quiet people are forced to get mad as hell. 

Director Peter Weir, who's responsible for a slew of other films that leave me equally ambivalent (Truman Show, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poet's Society), seems to suffer from a case of disparate intentions.  His thriller must be deeper than an action film, it must be a drama.  His drama must be rooted in romance.  His romance must be peppered with forbidden love.  All of this must be lightly coated with that aforementioned displaced person humor so prevalent in 80's mainstream cinema.  There's something funny about Harrison Ford in a hat on a farm.  We don't know why, but there is...even though Han Solo's day to day garb wasn't necessarily that different from Amish sartorial sensibilities, just a little more rocked out.  Weir has to mine that in part because Ford is such a natural at deadpanning and half-smirks that the smart ass in him tends to permeate most any dramatic role you place him in.  It's unavoidable.  That was fine, but once he started singing and dancing "(What a) Wonderful World" to Rachel while fixing up the car I started having visions of Harlequin paperback covers and started feeling a hint of the awkwards.  It's not that I didn't believe even the most pious Amish lady wouldn't start having doubts if a Harrison Ford in his prime wanted to serenade her...let's be honest, that makes perfect sense.  It was just the nature of the scenes and the way they continued to build like the set up to a Victorian amatory bodice-ripper.  My mind said "no, it's ok, it's totally logical" and "they're not going to take it there" while some other instinct screamed "ruunnnnnn awaaayyy! The cheeeese! The purpled virtue!"  In other words, I got worried, and my worry started to flail about and destroy everything.  It was very distracting.  I didn't like it.  I didn't need any sort of focus on the potential for a relationship past making eyes.  I don't know, I'm just so picky about the elements I want in my thrillers, or the way romanticism can be intermixed with them.  Witness was, for all practical purposes, a good Hollywood film. The only way you could improve on it would be to stretch it out another 30 minutes, upgrade the photography and meditativeness of the story, and allow long sequences of silence with Terrence Malick in the director's chair.  Now that movie would be something...I could probably love that movie. 
Sometimes I wonder if I'd been born into a Pennsylvania Dutch community, into the orders of the Mennonite, or any other belief system apart from the belief of not knowing and frequent disbelief or slack-jawed ignorance (make sense of that, I'll pause)  if I would be able to effectively survive that experience.  How much is nature, how much nurture?  One would presume that being born into Amish-ness, prior to rumspringa (best word for adolescence ever), I would have little working knowledge of the world outside of my community, and my questions would be limited by experience.  I suspect, though, that I would make for a terrible Amish person.  Terrible.  Worse than John Book, but probably without a gun.  I'd just be hanging around provoking people.  I'd be that Amish person who goes all Claudia Kishi and decides to tie-dye their headcovering or something. I'd rollover in bed and be like, "yeah, you want me to get up and milk the cows? What if instead we paint the cows neon orange and hike up the road...they sell milk in gallons there.  We don't have to be up at 4 AM." I'd probably punch in a couple walls and re-invent the eye roll.  I'd be a terrible Amish person.

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