Reel Opinions


Friday, May 28, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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If only. If only the script had been more clever, more sure of itself. If only the film boasted better special effects. (A big surprise, considering this movie was originally set to be released last summer, but was pushed back to 2010. It's not like the filmmakers were rushed.) If only Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time were tighter in pacing and plot, we'd be looking at the surefire blockbuster the Disney studio obviously wants it to be. As it stands, this is a watchable but middling film that never quite comes to life like it should.

picThe film's ad campaign is trying hard to drum up memories of the studio's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. It's not surprising. Both Pirates and Prince are old-fashioned swashbuckling adventures infused with modern day effects. They also both share Jerry Bruckheimer as head producer. That's where the similarities end. There is no character who stands out and grabs the audience, like Johnny Depp's off-beat Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirate films. Instead, we get Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Prince Dastan. Don't get me wrong, he's a very talented actor, and he certainly looks the part with a perfectly sculpted new body that must have required a lot of physical preparation before the cameras started rolling. But as a character, Dastan is as dull as they come. He's fit and athletic, but comes up dry in the personality department. And whenever he's around his romantic female lead, the sparks never fly. He seems timid, almost as if he's afraid to even hold her hand, let alone kiss her.

picBut, I'm getting ahead of myself. When the film kicks off, Dastan is only a small boy living on the streets, and isn't even a Prince yet. He has no family, but he does have an unnatural athletic ability for a 10-year-old which allows him to climb up walls like a monkey, and leap across rooftops. (All with the aid of questionable CG and effects, of course.) The good Kind of Persia, Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) sees the boy in action, and decides to adopt him on the spot. Dastan is welcomed into the royal family, where the king already has two sons, the noble Tus (Richard Coyle) and the hot-headed Garsiv (Tony Kebbell). There's another person living at the castle too, the king's brother and most trusted adviser, Nizam (Ben Kingsley). He keeps to himself during the first half of the movie, standing in the background, dressed in dark clothes and wearing black eyeliner. This naturally means he will play a bigger role later on. It couldn't be more obvious what role he will play in the second and third act if he had a big sign hanging over him the entire time saying, "Hi, I'm the real villain! Don't tell anyone, okay??"

picFlash forward to 15 years later. With Dastan's help, the Persian army is able to invade a holy kingdom, and kidnap its Princess, the lovely Tamina (Gemma Arterton from the recent Clash of the Titans). It's believed that the kingdom is selling weapons to Persia's enemies, but Dastan and a few others have their doubts. The invasion is a success nonetheless, and just as the celebration is about to begin, Sharaman is murdered, with Dastan the most likely suspect. He escapes with the help of Tamina, and together, they figure out the real reason behind the invasion campaign. There's a mythical dagger that's a treasure of the holy kingdom, because it holds the ability to turn back time. Whoever possesses it could change history and the very royal family of Persia itself. Dastan and Tamina travel the desert, meet up with some bandits led by a character who will become the comic relief sidekick (Alfred Molina), and try to clear Dastan's name while also protecting the sacred dagger.

picWhile the film's main source of inspiration comes from a classic video game series, you could also argue that Prince of Persia borrows quite heavily from a number of other sources, including the Indiana Jones films and The Mummy series with Brendan Fraser. However, it misses the mark when it comes to copying what made those films work with audiences. The witty love/hate banter between Dastan and Tamina is never sharp enough, or funny enough. The action also never quite thrills like it should. There's a sluggish quality to the film. It's not enough to grind the film to a halt or make it boring, but it still seems to be dragging its feet when it should be lively and exciting. The characters lack the spark to allow them to be memorable, and we never feel the rush we should feel when their lives are in danger. The character that comes the closest to working is Molina's character. He gets off a couple good one liners. But it's not enough.

picAt least the movie doesn't wear out its welcome, running just under two hours. Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) doesn't fully grab our attention, but he at least manages to keep things moving. There's a big sequence about every 15 minutes or so. Of course, this also means the script and the characters never quite get developed enough. It's never explained why the magical dagger can only transport the user back in time, and not forward. You'd think someone would at least ask if they could travel forward in time, but no one does. I do wish Newell had given the film a sharper look, however. As mentioned before, the effects are passable at best, but they seem somewhat dated and never quite convincing. With the talent this film was able to draw, you'd think they would sink a little more money into the effects, especially since they play a crucial part in this film.
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All things aside, Prince of Persia is pleasant enough, but it still falls below the mark we expect in a big summer blockbuster. You can see all the right stuff up there on the screen to make a thrilling piece of summer escapism, but it never comes together like it should. We're left with a lot of potential, some half-baked CG effects, and an overall sense that this should have been more fun than it is. Considering what some theaters are charging for ticket prices, audiences deserve more.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and the City 2

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What a vapid and empty-headed movie this is. Sex and the City 2 can also be described as cynical, narcissistic, and painfully dull for anyone who does not consider themselves a rabid fan of the TV show. Writer-director Michael Patrick King has made a plotless and pointless two and a half hour salute to materialism, giving its cast very little to do. The fact that the movie tries to touch on issues of relationships is not of any concern. It's not really about relationships. It's not really about anything at all.

picI have only vague memories of the previous Sex and the City film from 2008, but digging up my review, I recall being generally indifferent to it, but still mustering a small amount of enthusiasm to proclaim, "I probably got about as much enjoyment out of it as can be expected" (due to the fact I had no real knowledge of the show itself, having never watched it), and even complemented the four lead actresses on their chemistry. I also remember it having something resembling a plot, of which the sequel offers none. The lead actresses return, but I did not enjoy their chemistry here. They're shrill, spoiled, and kind of rubbed me the wrong way in every scene. This is a movie where a "crisis" is identified as its four heroines may have to fly coach instead of first class, and actually devotes a good 15 minutes or so to this "emergency". I won't reveal whether or not the girls make it to the airport in time to nab those precious first class seats. I wouldn't want to give away the ending.

picThe movie opens two years after the events of the first film. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is happily married to her husband, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), but there's trouble in paradise. She wants to go out, spend money, and have fun at parties and celebrity scenes. He wants to stay in, lie on the couch, order take out, and watch old black and white movies. If they can't reach a compromise, they may actually have to consider spending two days a week apart from each other, so they can do their own thing, without having to worry about upsetting the other. As for Carrie's friends, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is having a hard time balancing raising two young daughters, and dealing with the kids' sexy Irish nanny, who never wears a bra under her shirt. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is not happy at her job, and quits so she can spend more time with her husband and kid. And by spend more time, I mean she quits her job, races to the school so she can see her son give his science project presentation, cheer for him when he wins, and then the husband and kid are never seen or mentioned again. Finally, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is a 52-year-old woman with the sex drive of a 22-year-old, and kicks off the plot (such as it is) after about an hour or so of having the four girls wander aimlessly around New York, shop, and talk about sex and men.

picSamantha, it seems, has managed to use her connections to a Hollywood movie star she used to date to score an all expense paid week-long trip to Abu Dhabi. They're treated like royalty, are put up in a $20,000 per night suite with a staff of sexy young butlers waiting on their beck and call, and then they spend the next hour wandering aimlessly around the Middle East, shop, and talk about sex and men. The scenery change adds nothing. The movie is still as brainless, materialistic, annoying, and vapid as it was in New York, only now we're looking at sand dunes. Series fans might find this thrilling somehow. Anyone who knows nothing about these characters, or the show that spawned them, will be bored out of their skulls. They'll also be mystified by the film's opening 20 minutes or so, which is dedicated to a lavish gay wedding between two characters who obviously played some role on the show, but the movie fails to clue us in as to how or just who they really are. They show up off and on throughout the movie, but play no real role, and serve no purpose. Oh, and they get Liza Minnelli to give the sermon at their wedding. Afterward, we get to see Minnelli give her rendition of the song "Single Ladies". It's a rendition I'll be spending the rest of the summer trying to forcefully remove from my mind.

picI'm not leaving much out here. There's not much in Sex and the City 2 to leave out in the first place. Things like character development, plot, dialogue, and genuine conflict and emotion give way to scene after scene of the women wearing garish and gaudy fashion that actually made me cringe on more than one occasion. We're not allowed to get close to or to even like the characters. The four lead actresses mainly exist to stand in front of the camera, while their individual plots are generally ignored, or pushed aside for more mindless materialism. I mentioned the plot about Miranda wanting to quit her job, so she can be there for her kid's big science fair. She quits her job about a half hour into the movie, and then it's never brought up again, until the very final scene. The fact that she flies off to the Middle East with her girlfriends after vowing to spend more time with her kid kind of defeats the whole point of the plot in the first place. Charlotte's plot concerning the nanny and her kids is equally underdeveloped, and never goes anywhere. The way it's resolved, with a hasty narration provided by Carrie in the last three minutes of the film, is so half-hearted as to be laughable.

picSpeaking of Carrie's narration, that's another thing I had a hard time believing. She's supposed to be a respected writer, with many successful books to her credit, but the narration she's been given is so simplistic. I especially love how her narration sometimes points out the obvious. We see Carrie and her husband pulling up to their apartment building in a car after returning home from the wedding, so her voice over chimes in with "We came home to our apartment". It's not so much a voice over providing the character's inner thoughts, as it is a play-by-play of what's going on. As if the filmmakers thought we might not be able to keep up with the elaborate plot of a luxury getaway. I say, if your movie runs two and a half hours, and the entirety of its plot can be scribbled on one side of a napkin, the audience should be smart enough to figure things out on its own.
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Now it's time for me to admit what I already know - Sex and the City 2 was not made for me. It was made for the fans, and they're certain to get enjoyment out of seeing their favorite characters again. That doesn't excuse the fact that this is not a very good movie overall. It's sluggish, it's dull, it doesn't go anywhere, and it all amounts to a lot of money spent on very little. So far, it's been a very disappointing summer for blockbusters. And this may be the most disappointing one of all.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

MacGruber

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"I don't know what I'm doing, and everybody hates me!" - Dialogue from MacGruber

I don't remember the last time a piece of dialogue described its own movie so perfectly. This is an excruciatingly painful comedy (in theory, not in execution) where comic actor Will Forte gets a chance to bring his MacGruber character from Saturday Night Live to the big screen, and then botches it up so perfectly, you'd almost think he and the two people he shares screenplay credit with designed the thing as an endurance test. I may not remember much about this movie months from now (if I'm lucky), but I will remember it as one of the, if not the absolute, worst film of 2010.

picThe idea behind the character of MacGruber is that he's supposed to be a parody of 80s TV series, MacGyver. The idea behind the movie is that it's supposed to be a parody of all those overblown action movies from the same decade that used to star Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger. It fails on both counts. The gimmick of MacGyver was that he never used guns, and preferred to create clever gadgets out of everyday objects to help get him out of trouble. MacGruber does this I think once or twice, but hardly enough to consider it a parody of the character or the show. As for the elements that are supposed to be spoofing action films, it doesn't do anything that we haven't seen parodied before. And since it can't think of anything new or original to do, it keeps on having its actors do disgusting acts naked. I honestly don't know what I expected to see in a MacGruber movie, but it was not Will Forte dancing around naked, with a piece of celery stuck in his rear end. And yes, he eats the celery in the scene afterward. ("Don't worry, I washed it", he tells his teammates.)

picThe plot, of course, doesn't matter. It concerns MacGruber, a faded action hero, being called back into action by his old military friend, Col. James Faith (Powers Booth). 10 years ago, MacGruber was about to marry his true love, Casey (Maya Rudolph), only to have her get blown to bits by a bomb planted by his arch nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). And yes, the "h" at the end of the villain's name is silent. (ho, ho) Cunth is back, and he's stolen a nuclear warhead, which he plans to use to blow up Washington D.C. MacGruber is ready to fight his old nemesis, and gathers up the old team who used to fight along side him. The only person from his old team he doesn't bring back is the one who recently came out of the closet, and is now in a gay relationship. (har har, hee hee) With the old team assembled, he's ready to fight, only to wind up accidentally blowing them all up in a bomb blast.

picWith his team dead, MacGruber is forced to turn to rookie Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and former flame Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) to help him fight Cunth. What follows are a series of endless and tedious scenes where the same jokes are repeated over and over again. MacGruber will usually do something really brash or stupid (his preferred method of killing people is to rip people's throats out with his bare hands, making sure to leave a trail of bodies in his wake), or he cowardly hides when the bad guys start shooting at him, using his two teammates as human shields. I understand that this is supposed to be the joke, but I did not find MacGruber himself funny in the slightest. His arrogance is not funny, his cowardliness is not funny, and neither is his running gag where he's always carrying his car stereo everywhere he goes, blasting inappropriate 80s power ballads. Maybe the fact that he always has his teammates disguise themselves as him (so they can draw all the fire) could be funny in another movie, but it falls with a deafening thud here.

picSo does every single gag the movie attempts. That's because it keeps on mistaking shock value for wit. In one scene, the evil Cunth is painting a portrait, using a naked elderly woman with giant breasts sitting in the middle of the room as his model. That's literally where the gag begins and ends. They don't give the woman anything funny to say or do, we're just supposed to laugh at the fact there's a naked old woman in the room. Likewise, there's a scene where MacGruber goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of his dead wife, and he proceeds to strip naked and begin dry humping her tombstone in front of another person. Once again, there's no real reason for this, we're just supposed to be delighted at the brashness of the scene. Forte and his fellow writers (all Saturday Night Live veterans) obviously thought they were taking advantage of working with less censorship, but the movie misses the point time and time again.
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I could say more about MacGruber, but I don't really want to. Well, okay, I'll say two more things. One is, the movie is only 90 minutes long, even if that is 85 minutes longer than it needs to be. The second is another piece of dialogue from the film, where one of the teammates shouts "You suck, MacGruber"! I love it when a movie reviews itself in its own dialogue.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Shrek Forever After

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There will be many who will say that Shrek Forever After is an unnecessary sequel. It will be very hard to argue with them. Those same people will probably say that the characters, likable as they may still be, just don't hold the same charm that they did in the original film almost 10 years ago. Once again, can't disagree. And yet, with this knowledge in mind, I have to say that this is a pleasant and quite watchable film. Not exactly the most enthusiastic of endorsements, I know, but hey, most franchises on their fourth movie can only wish to be pleasant or watchable.

picThe spark and the originality may be long gone, but the characters are still as appealing as ever, and the movie itself boasts some impressive animation. Shrek Forever After has a little bit of fun with itself, by giving us an alternate reality with a different look at some of the characters that have become so familiar to audiences by now. Yes, the filmmakers could have done more with the idea, but at least it doesn't feel like it's a total recycling project like the last movie, Shrek the Third. As the film opens, Shrek the ogre (once again voiced by Mike Myers) has found himself in a rut. Yes, he has a loving wife in the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), three ogre children, and his ever-present friends, including the fast-talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the suave Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas). Despite all this, Shrek feels like he's lost his edge. He's not the ogre he used to be. People aren't afraid of him anymore, and he feels he's become domesticated. As he's forced to change diapers and listen to his wife make the same jokes every day, he begins to wish he could have his old life back, before he rescued the Princess from the dragon's castle tower.

picA disgraced magical con man named Rumpelstiltskin (Dreamworks animator Walt Dohn) hears Shrek's wish, and sees it as his opportunity to return to power. We learn in a short prologue that the impish sprite once tried to trick the King and Queen of Far Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) into turning their kingdom over to him, but his plot failed, due to Shrek rescuing their daughter in the original film. He's blamed the ogre for his misfortune ever since, and sees this as his chance for revenge. He tricks Shrek into signing a contract that will give him one full day as the ogre he used to be - Feared by villagers, chased by mobs with torches and pitchforks, and causing chaos wherever he goes. Unfortunately, the fine print of the contract also allows Rumpelstiltskin to reshape reality into his own design. No one remembers who Shrek is, and all of his past actions never happened. Therefore, Princess Fiona was never rescued (she ended up saving herself), and Rumpelstiltskin now rules the kingdom of Far Far Away with an iron fist. All of Shrek's former friends are affected by the wish as well. Not only do they not remember him, but their lives have all taken turns for the worse under the new rule of the kingdom.

picI liked this aspect of the movie showing us different sides of the characters. While Donkey is more or less the same (only now he's forced to work for the evil Rumpelstiltskin as a pack mule), the once lively Puss-in-Boots has become an obese and pampered feline who can barely fit into his trademark boots, let alone battle evil forces. Princess Fiona has gone through the biggest change. Because she ended up saving herself from the dragon, she feels she can't rely on anyone but herself, and has become a hardened warrior princess who does not believe in love or friendship. This poses a problem for Shrek, as the only way he can return everything to its rightful form is by sharing "true love's kiss" with the Princess. We also get to see what's happened to some of the minor characters. I smiled during the brief scene depicting the Gingerbread Man finding work as a gladiator, battling vicious animal crackers.

picIf Shrek Forever After seems a little mechanical and formulaic, it's only because we've seen its mixture of fractured fairy tale storytelling crossed with pop culture references and modern songs too many times before. And although there are a couple references here and there (early in the film, we see some witches hanging out in a trailer park and playing "Dueling Banjos" with their brooms), it also is a little more plot and character-driven than past entries were. The movie is more focused on Shrek trying to get Fiona to fall in love with him, than letting the jokes fly fast and furious. Some may complain, but I felt it added a certain level of charm. It certainly helps that Myers and Diaz (as well as the rest of the returning cast) have pretty much perfected these characters over the years, and obviously find great joy in playing them. At least nobody seems to be phoning in their performances here.

picAs far as visuals go, Shrek is eye-catching, yet familiar. The animators obviously have seen no reason to change what worked in the past, and for good reason. It still looks good, and there are a lot of really nice details up on the screen. Some of this is muted somewhat by the fact that this is the first film in the franchise to be presented in 3D. Wearing the glasses robs some of the color, and although there are some nice effects, they're not nearly as strong as Dreamworks' last animated effort, How to Train Your Dragon. The way I see it, the movie works well enough in 3D, but there's not enough here to warrant the extra price of the ticket. You won't feel robbed if your screening happens to be in traditional 2D.
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If it seems I've not exactly been enthusiastic about this film, forgive me. Kids will no doubt love it, and adults will get a couple laughs out of the one-liners. The characters may not hold the same excitement they once had, but they're charming enough to carry one last movie. If this truly is the last film in the franchise as advertised (although Puss-in-Boots is supposed to get his own spin off movie eventually), at least it gives the characters a likable send off that doesn't completely tarnish the franchise.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Letters to Juliet

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Much like this weekend's other romantic comedy release, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet manages to take a time-honored and very worn light romance plot, and freshen it up with some bright performances and smarter writing than the norm. I actually enjoyed this one more than the Queen Latifah film. A lot of it has to do with the talented and beautiful Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave in lead roles, who both are given the chance to create likable and memorable characters here. The gorgeous scenery shot on location in Verona, Italy helps a lot as well. This is one of those movies that will inspire dream vacations for years to come.

picThe plot is certainly nothing new, but that comes with the territory by now. In my opinion, a romantic comedy lives or dies by its lead characters, and whether we wish to see them get together by the end. It also helps if they've been written with a certain degree of intelligence, and are allowed to at least act like adults. The characters in Letters to Juliet do act kind of silly and nonchalant for adults, but they are grounded with enough maturity that they don't come across as total morons. Seyfried plays Sophie, a fact checker for The New Yorker magazine who dreams of writing her own articles and marrying her fiance, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who clearly loves her, but seems much more interested and focused on his dream of opening an Italian restaurant. She realizes this when they go to Verona together for a "pre-Honeymoon" vacation, and all he can think about is visiting wine vineyards and top chefs to get recipes for his new restaurant, instead of spending time with her. Touring the city alone, Sophie comes across the house representing the character of Juliet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's there that she learns that women from all over the world visit the house and leave letters asking Juliet for advice in matters of love and heartbreak.

picThere are a team of women dedicated to answering the letters that are left behind every day, and Sophie becomes wrapped up in the idea, and joins them in writing responses. This leads to a fateful discovery when Sophie discovers a letter from 50 years ago hidden behind a loose brick in the house. The letter is from a then fifteen-year-old girl named Claire who talks of a man she fell in love with in Verona named Lorenzo, but she had to leave home for London, England. Sophie decides to respond to the letter, not certain if it will even reach the person, or even if this Claire is still at the address listed. Fortunately, enough, she is, and the now elderly Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her handsome yet ill-tempered grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) arrive in Verona to both find the woman who responded to her letter from long ago, and to hopefully track down the man Claire was forced to leave. Sophie agrees to help them on their search, and they begin a wide search across Verona for the elusive Lorenzo.

picI don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that Sophie and Charlie start out hating each other and trading sarcastic barbs, but slowly begin to see more in each other during the course of the road trip. I'm also sure that some of the more logical members of the audience will wonder why the three heroes waste so much time driving around, going door-to-door asking for information, when they could just call or do all their research on line. The answer is simple, really. First, logic has no place in a piece of fluff entertainment, even a fine crafted one such as this. And second, we wouldn't be treated to the beautiful and perfectly photographed landscapes. There's something to be said for cinematography in a movie such as this. Director Gary Winick (recovering nicely from last year's unwatchable Bride Wars) knows how to make the Italian landscape part of the film, without focusing so much that it takes center stage and we feel like we're watching a travelogue. He also knows how to get the perfect tone out of his cast, so that no matter how slight or predictable the plot may get, we never lose interest in the characters.

picAnd that's really the key here. We like the characters, we like the performances, and we want to see the characters end up happy in the end. As always, it's all about chemistry. As the central lovers, Seyfried and Egan have great on-screen chemistry, both antagonistic and eventually romantic. Yes, their relationship is forced and somewhat fanciful, but their performances help flesh out what could have been two dimensional characters that were slaves to the plot, and turn them into characters that are easy to like. Seyfried makes a great romantic dreamer with her expressive eyes, and Egan's dry wit makes a good counter-balance. As for Redgrave, her character may exist mainly to drive the plot, but she still manages to make the character stand out with plenty of warmth, charm, and the lines that get the biggest laughs in the film. Her younger co-stars may be the center of the film, but she steals scenes away from them every chance she gets.
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I always say I know a romantic comedy is working when I can let go of my cynical or logical side, and just get lost in the romantic fantasy up on the screen. Letters to Juliet accomplishes this with a lot of grace, wit, and charm. This is not only a well-made film, but one that I found myself enjoying a lot more than I expected. Hopefully it finds an audience with women and couples amongst the summer blockbusters. Even if it doesn't, it's certain to have a long life on TV in the coming years.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Just Wright

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I noticed something strange but wonderful about the characters in Just Wright early on. It happens during the film's opening scene when the lead character, Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah) is on a blind date with another man. What I noticed is that both of them were having an actual conversation, and behaving like most adults would in the situation. Why was this surprising to me? If you've seen some of the romantic comedies that have been released the past few months (The Back Up Plan, Our Family Wedding), you would know why. In a genre that usually favors Idiot Plots and characters that are as dumb as a box of instant potatoes, hearing adult conversation is a rare thing.

picYes, the movie does not stray far from the romantic comedy formula. The plot is so predictable you could set your watch by it. And the characters do make decisions for the convenience of the plot, especially in the third act. But the characters and the performances here are a step above what we usually get. Queen Latifah is a wonderful actress who has proven herself many times, but seldom gets lead roles, as she doesn't quite fit the mold of a Hollywood starlet. She's wonderful here as Leslie, a physical therapist who is looking for love, but unlike a lot of heroines in romantic comedies, is not obsessed with finding it. She's an intelligent and likable woman who lives with her colorful and caring parents, and her best friend Morgan (Paula Patton), who is determined to live the good life by marrying a professional basketball star. Leslie is content with her life, but wouldn't mind finding a man who sees her as more than just a "good friend". She gets that chance when she has a "meet cute" with Scott McKnight (rap artist Common) at a gas station.

picScott is a star player on Leslie's favorite basketball team, the New Jersey Nets. They instantly hit it off, and he invites her to his lavish birthday party the coming weekend. Leslie arrives, but makes the mistake of bringing Morgan along, who instantly steals Scott's attention. He becomes instantly smitten with her, and before long, Morgan is living Leslie's dream. I had some trouble believing this plot point, as Leslie is infinitely more charming and likable than the obviously shallow Morgan. Scott is portrayed as a fairly smart and likable guy, and I had a hard time buying that he would take the shallow girl over the obviously better Leslie. But, he does, and even proposes to her. Leslie's used to this happening, and pretends to be happy for the sake of both of her friends. But then Scott suffers a serious knee injury during a game that could derail his career. Leslie is assigned to be his personal live-in physical therapist to help him recover. There's an obvious connection during their time together, and Scott slowly begins to realize what we figured out the moment they first met back at the gas station.

picYes, we know everything that's going to happen before the characters do. We're not surprised when Morgan walks out on Scott, when it looks like his career might be over because of the injury, and he won't be able to continue the lavish lifestyle she wants. We're also not surprised that she tries to win him back when things start looking up for him again. Just Wright mires itself in moldy plot cliches, but it at least has the sense to give us some characters we can care about. Even Morgan is not entirely the stereotyped gold digger she might have come across in a lesser film, but is rather a flawed person who does know to do the right thing when the time eventually comes. As for Leslie and Scott, they're written as people who talk about real things, and don't embarrass themselves for the sake of an easy gag. They're charming, smart, and we sort of wish they were placed in a plot that was better suited to them. But, they both carry the film well enough.

picIn a nice change of pace while watching a romantic comedy, I actually did want to see the lead characters get together by the end of the movie. Queen Latifah and Common are able to create characters that we probably wouldn't mind meeting in real life, and have great chemistry together. This is no surprise for Latifah, and she shown just how charismatic she can be time and time again. But I was really impressed by Common, who brings real warmth and sensitivity without a hint of falseness in his performance. The character he plays here is a big change from the one he played just last month, where he played a crooked cop chasing after Steve Carell and Tina Fey in Date Night. He's shown some range in these two films, and I hope he gets to show even more in any future projects he takes.
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While we probably didn't need another movie like Just Wright, I'm recommending it on the strength of the main characters and the performances behind them. I cared about them a lot more than I expected to, and ended up caring about what happened to them in the process. It's something like that which allows an ancient formula like this to work. This is far from a great movie, but it has a sweet laid-back tone that won me over.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood

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Quick, what are some words that come to mind when you think of a Robin Hood movie? Most likely, those words did not include muddy and dark, moody, talky, and zero chemistry. And yet, we find all of those things in director Ridley Scott's take. The movie is supposed to be the true story that set about the famous legend, so we're getting a realistic and dark take on the events that led up to the story. I have no problem with that, but does that have to mean the filmmakers had to remove almost everything from the legend, to the point that we're left with little to grasp onto?

picTo be fair, this is not a bad movie, just an indifferent one. The movie looks like it cost a lot to make ($200 million, according to some reports), there are a lot of fine actors up on the screen, and the movie itself is never actually boring. It's just so drab and ordinary. We expect at least thrilling adventure, but there's a surprising lack of swordplay and battles, and way too many scenes of people standing around, discussing 12th Century British politics about taxes and invading French armies. You know the movie is in trouble when Robin himself, the master thief who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, disappears into the background in almost every scene he's in. Russell Crowe plays him here. This is the fifth movie he's done with Ridley Scott in 10 years, and easily the most forgettable role he's been given in their partnership. He has a steely gaze, he pouts, he shoots an occasional arrow or leads a charge of soldiers, and he sometimes hangs out with Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett), whom he is supposed to be romantically involved with eventually, but we sense no sparks between the two actors. When he tells her he loves her late in the film, it is wooden and unconvincing.

picAt the beginning of the film, Robin is a soldier fighting for King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), and his crusade against the French army. Richard is slain in battle, and Robin assumes the identity of a fallen knight (Douglas Hodge) to return the King's crown to his homeland. With Richard dead, his wormy and jealous brother John (Oscar Isaac) takes the throne, and immediately starts taxing the poor. There's another villain, in the form of John's most trusted follower, Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is plotting to betray his kingdom for the French army. Meanwhile, Robin sets about tracking down the family of the fallen knight whose identity he is using, and befriends the aging Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) and his daughter-in-law Marion (who was the wife of the knight). We get a series of events that are supposed to lead up to Robin turning against the cruel King John and becoming an outlaw, but the film never gives us enough reason to care. The characters rarely rise above two dimensions, and although famous faces like Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), Little John (Kevin Durand), and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfayden) show up, they leave absolutely no impression whatsoever.

picMuch of this has to do with the fact that the script seems far more interested in the backstory, than the characters inhabiting the plot. It goes to great lengths to explain everything, but never gives us enough reason to care. When Robin and Marion share the same room for the night, there is no sexual energy. When Robin and his friends rob a carriage in order to help a poor farm village, the movie seems to be paying lip service to the legend, rather than explaining it. And when Robin leads a massive army in a charge against the invading French forces, there is no excitement. It's just a lot of swords flying around, and faceless extras getting stabbed. Sure, it's shot well enough, but we have no emotional investment with anyone on the battlefield. In fact, the main thing that stands out about the climactic battle is that when the French boats arrive on the British shore, it looks uncannily like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Other reviews have already dubbed the scene "Saving Private Robin Hood", so I know I'm not alone in my observation.

picDespite my many complaints, I must state once again that I was never bored by Robin Hood. Just indifferent to the characters. I didn't object to any of the main performances, although William Hurt in a supporting role was a bit too dry, and seemed to slip in and out of his British accent. Cate Blanchett actually brings a lot of spirit to her portrayal of Marion, and would probably stand out even more if her character was written stronger. And although Russell Crowe often seems to be filling space rather than creating an actual character, he at least is not phoning his performance in. And at least you can see where the film's budget went into nearly every scene. The set pieces look authentic, and it's impressive to see the hundreds of extras engaging in a massive battle sequence. It's less impressive when you realize you don't care about any of them, or even know who most of them are.
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You might remember a movie from 2004 called King Arthur, which tried to take the legend of Camelot, and make it into a realistic and gritty medieval drama. Robin Hood tries to do the same thing, and suffers from a lot of the same problems as that film. It also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. We see bits inspired by Scott's earlier films, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, bits inspired by Braveheart, and so on. Even though the movie has obviously been made with care, we sort of have to wonder why, since there's not a lot here to be excited about in the first place.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Iron Man 2

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In creating Iron Man 2, it would seem that returning director Jon Favreau had one goal in mind - to capture everything that worked so well the first time around. In a lot of ways, he's succeeded. Robert Downey Jr. once again brings his cocky self-aware sense of humor that won people over back in 2008. He's great again here. His Tony Stark sees no need for a secret identity (he revealed that he was Iron Man at the end of the first film, and as this one begins, openly revels in the fame his superhero alter ego has brought him), and no need to hide his vices for women and alcohol - something which causes aggravation to his long-time assistant/love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

picThe witty banter and repartee between Stark and Potts was one of the pleasures of the original film, and while it's still present here, it kind of gets drowned out by everything else going on. Like a lot of recent superhero sequels (Spider-Man 3, and some of the later X-Men films come to mind), there's just too much plot, too many characters, and too much of everything vying for our attention. There are new faces added to the cast (none of whom are quite as developed or as memorable as Stark and Potts), new revelations about Tony's past with his deceased father, a health crisis for Tony to deal with, a rival weapons manufacturer trying to steal his Iron Man technology, smarmy senators who want Tony to hand the technology over to the U.S. government, and even a character named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who pretty much exists solely to plug future upcoming Marvel films! It's never overbearing, nor does it lessen the charms of the returning characters. But it definitely makes this installment weaker than the last time around. It would seem that in his desire to repeat his previous success, Favreau forgot a very basic rule when it comes to sequels - sometimes less is more.

picThat's not to take away the things that Iron Man 2 does right. As summer popcorn entertainment, it goes down easy. It's just not very memorable. When the first movie ended, I remember walking out thinking to myself that I couldn't wait to see more. Walking out of this one, I thought it was fun, but not much to shout about. In fact, the movie began to fade from my mind about an hour later. The script by Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) seems to be a constant juggling act of its many characters, major plotlines, subplots, and action sequences. It tries to stay focused on everything going on within it, but at the same time, it ends up lessening the impact some characters or themes might have had if it had just did not try to cram so much in. A fine example is one of the main villains introduced here, a mad Russian scientist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has a grudge with Tony Stark's company. He sees the Iron Man get national media attention, and in rage, he decides to build his own technology, turning himself into a supervillain called Whiplash. You would expect Ivan/Whiplash to be a major character (especially since the trailers have played him up as a serious threat to Tony). But in the movie itself, he almost comes across as an ill-defined minor character.

picThis is not the fault of the performance Rourke. He's fine enough in the way he gives his steely stare, and gives creepy smiles with his metallic teeth. But the character itself is completely forgettable. After an impressive debut scene, where he confronts Stark on a race track, the character is forced into the background for a majority of the movie, obsessed with getting his hands on better technology and with his pet bird. We learn little about his back story, other than why he has a grudge against Stark, so he never comes across as a genuine threat. Working out slightly better is the other main villain in the sequel, Justin Hammer, a rival arms manufacturer who wants Stark's technology. He's played by Sam Rockwell, with a comic but slimy and smarmy attitude that makes you want to see him fall almost from the moment you see him. He's not as intimidating as Rourke's character, but he gets more screen time, and seems to have more than one dimension to his character.

picAll this, and I haven't mentioned Stark's new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), who is secretly a butt-kicking, spandex-clad agent for a top secret organization. She exists for eye candy (both for Stark, and the audience), and possible sexual tension, which is never quite explored to the extent that it should be, making her character kind of pointless in the end. Stark's old friend from the first film, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, stepping in for Terrence Howard), gets in on the action as well by donning his own Iron Man-style fighting suit. It's all a lot of build up to a climactic fight, where the two must team up together, that's well-staged, but doesn't last long enough to be memorable. There's a subplot between the two hinting at a possible rivalry which is murky at best, and underdeveloped at worst. Though Cheadle is a fine actor, he never really gets the right chemistry in his scenes with Downey.

picSpeaking of Downey, he is what makes the film worth watching, warts and all. He's fun, he's acidic with his wit, and his heart always seems to be in the material, whether in or out of the costume. The movie tries to give his character a bit of added drama by revealing that the technology that is keeping him alive is also slowly killing him. But it's dealt with and resolved in such a haphazard manner, you almost wonder why the movie tried to make us care. We love Downey, and we love his portrayal of Stark, so we go with it. He sells the movie, because he is the very heart of it. All the characters competing for screen time, all the overstuffed plots, all the underdeveloped ideas, they all take a back seat when Downey is on his game, which fortunately is most of the time he's on camera. He's just as much fun to watch as he was the first time, if not more so.
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Looking back over this review, I keep on thinking of the last superhero movie I saw, Kick-Ass. Much like that film, Iron Man 2 is great in moments, but never comes together as a whole. But, this does not make it a bad movie in the slightest. There is just enough to recommend, but not enough to make it stand out like the original did. If I focused on the negatives in this review, it's only because they stand out more this time around. What does work here really does work, and most people will get their money's worth. Me? Even if I walked away slightly disappointed, I still had fun watching it. I just wish I had more fun thinking back on it.

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