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.

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