Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mother and Child

Mother and Child
Grade: B
Cast: AnnetteBening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Shareeka Epps
Director: Rodrigo Garcia

They are talented and respected. They are famous. They draw much praise.

So is it possible for them to be overlooked, too? I would say yes.

In this way, Annette Bening and Naomi Watts are similar actresses from slightly different generations. Each could make an argument for being best among their age. Yet each one is overshadowed – Bening by the long legacy of Meryl Streep; Watts by Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet.

Mother and Child is an inviting showcase for these two talents.The new film from Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) embroils them in a distant teenage adoption that severely wounds all sides.
Bening plays the once 14-year-old mother now creeping into a lonely middle age. She is an unusually prickly personality, alone, with only an aging mother on whom to lavish her care. At moments such as breaking up a coffee break with a co-worker, her blunt, unaware manner becomes darkly funny. As a man arrives in her life, she slowly comes to terms with the loss that has haunted her for so long.

Watts really shines here as the 37-year-old daughter, a gifted but itinerant lawyer who avoids other human beings. Her main contact with other people comes in the form of seduction and manipulation. When she uses the figurative expression “There are many ways to skin a cat,” you wonder how many she has literally tried. Yet through her iciness, Watts magnetically brings forth both distress and sympathy. This is her best performance since her best performances (Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams).

The story, shaped in the well-established three-story form of producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, offers Kerry Washington as a third mother, seeking to be matched with a child for adoption. She’s matched with a teen mother-to-be (Shareeka Epps) who is picky and brutally honest toward potential adopted mothers. While Washington holds her own, the storyline comes across as unnecessary and distracting to the main dynamic.

In Nine Lives, Garcia used long takes to study stresses on women. Here he continues that trend. The pull of motherhood, as well as its absence becomes a wounding experience for these women. Then as the story goes on and as love and motherhood re-enter their lives, it becomes the only tonic. While the film gets there through contrivance and coincidence, it is necessary and earned, by te care of the director and the talent of the women.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sex and the City 2

Sex and the City 2
Grade: D
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth
Director: Michael Patrick King
Free Admission Granted

Sex and the City 2 isn’t funny.

That’s not a surprise. The television show was never funny, either. As comedy, it was always for those women with a sense of humor commensurate with Samantha’s sexual appetites, i.e. the easy lay.

The show’s value, as it was, arrived by giving young women across the nation a vicarious fantasy life in New York City. Podunk princesses could tune into HBO and live out fantasies of glamorous faraway lives. Also, each character provided its audience a definable shorthand for their own sexual energies. Women could describe a friend as being a Charlotte or a Samantha and know exactly what each meant.

Mainly, Sex and the City was about being at a certain place in a certain age – the New York of millennial opulence and optimism. As we watch the aging four women now, the characters are insufficiently aware, as we are, that that time and place is no longer there. The fantasy has melted into nostalgia – a silent plea for the way we were, not the way we should be.

The second movie, after the 2008 summer hit, heads directly into menopause. It is no longer the fantasy of young vibrance. It is more the nagging dream of middle-age concerns – marriage, and hormone pills, and children.

Essentially, Sex and the City has lost its sex drive. Except for a pair of Samantha’s brief backside adventures, it’s entirely sexless. And once the girls leave New York for the United Arab Emirates – no, really – you can say so long to the city. The harder it becomes to tastefully make a feel-good movie about overindulgence in America, the more likely you are to see these chicks on the road.

As they sashay into the riches of the desert, the women coo. And coo. And coo some more. Yet their concerns never vanish – gold-plated palaces cannot guarantee happiness, or light entertainment. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) worries about becoming a boring married couple when Big (Chris Noth) buys a bedroom television. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) frets about leaving her husband with their springy-breasted nanny. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) predictably gets arrested, briefly, for violations of strict Muslim sexual prohibitions. If only they could put someone away for soft-headed sexual puns, instead. Oh, and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) ... appears.

The film begins with a very camp gay wedding, fully decked out with a choir. And swans. And Liza Minnelli. It ends with a vaguely offensive moment, with Muslim women disrobing their traditional clothing to reveal the latest high fashion hidden underneath. Two cultures stare into each others’ mutual shallowness. Everyone wants to live in New York. Soulless fantasies, the film suggests, are a worldwide notion.

Robin Hood

Robin Hood
Grade: B
Cast: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Matthew McFadyen.
Director: Ridley Scott
Free Admission Granted

There is history. There is myth. And somewhere in between these approved fictions and those neglected realities is legend.

Perhaps weary of tights, director Ridley Scott chooses to literalize the legend of Robin Hood, grounding it in the reality of the Crusades. Robin Longstride, a common archer in the Crusader army of King Richard the Lionheart, assumes the identity of a dying knight on the way home from war.

Returning the man’s family sword to his father, he is asked to stay on as the dead man. He takes his wife, Lady Marion, and settles in the forest village of Nottingham. Grain is short. Orphans play Lord of the Flies in the woods. Unaffordable taxes are long overdue.

In faraway London, the new King John has an army to pay, a treasury to fill, and a mistress to please. What better way than to wring more taxes from the already impoverished countryside? He sends an army to collect. Little does he know the troops are actually French horsemen at the command of a traitor, the prelude of a French plot to take over England.

What happened to “steal from the rich to give to the poor?” Robin Hood features barely any noble thievery, as Scott pursues grander historical and thematic scale. I’m just glad he was able to work in both a French invasion and the Magna Charta. I was worried for a minute that we’d miss out on one or the other.

As history, all these elements are nonsensical in combination. But Scott’s concern isn’t that era but rather this one. As with Gladiator, he stuffs the modern world into the trunk of history. Sometimes he leaves an arm dangling awkwardly out the rear.

Some of the critical chatter about the film, such as that by Village Voice media critic Karina Longworth, has fallen on its allegiance toward Tea Party politics – the faraway king carelessly taxing the peasants into the dirt in order to pay for licentiousness and foreign adventures. There’s a favorite conservative joke – “Robin Hood didn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor. He stole from the government to give to the taxpayers.” The script seems aware of the saying.

As Robin Hood, Russell Crowe returns close to form. Opposite a wily Cate Blanchett, he shows that quiet muscularity that American stars no longer seem able to produce. At the head of a cavalry charge, mysteriously missing his helmet, grumbling attractively to his men about the virtues of liberty, Crowe successfully cools Scott’s radioactive Braveheart envy.

If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for at the movies, it’s medieval warfare. The way teen-agers today feel about watching a giant robot transform into a Plymouth? I feel that way about ancient technology – battering rams, fiery flocks of arrows, dumping flaming tar over the castle walls. When soldiers raise their shields skyward in a turtle formation, I nearly cry.

So that makes me a complete sucker for Robin Hood – a dark pastel of muddy battlefields, grungy blue forests, and a wildly vivid display of big budget filmmaking. The battle scenes are brawny and frantic, alive with perfect sound. If you love movies, there’s simply no way to watch the creation of such a brilliant fictional space and walk out of the theater unsatisfied.

A film of enormous visionary scope, in which even fireside singalongs take 74 cameras to shoot, with perfect props, convincing sets, and super-imaginative detail, Robin Hood is all the positive things associated with Ridley Scott with only a fair scattering of the negatives. Robin Hood might be the Ridliest Scottiest of all Ridley Scott movies.

Letters to Juliet

Letters to Juliet
Grade: D
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Gary Winick
Free Admission Granted

So, yes, obviously, as a man, I can sit here and warn you that Letters to Juliet is an estrogen crucifixion of the bloodiest magnitude.

But that would be ignoring the most interesting (and appalling) thing about it – what in the world is Gael Garcia Bernal doing in this?

Four or five years ago, he was the hottest thing in international cinema, the biggest star of the Mexican New Wave, a borderless phenomenon appearing in films all across the world. How does he end up playing the stereotypical insensitive boyfriend in a banal girl-fest? And how does he end up losing the girl to some stiff English dork?

This is like watching Jean Seberg dump Jean-Paul Belmondo for Ricky Nelson.

Of course, Amanda Seyfried has a way to go to be Jean Seberg. Whatever her shortcomings as an actress, Seberg had that uber-cool presence, an ingénue with an edge. Seyfried (who admittedly showed guts in Chloe) is a super-cutie pie who seems to be having her star turn this year. That sound you hear is the many Carey Mulligan worshippers in the criti-rati throwing themselves under buses in frustration.

Seyfried’s Sophie is a fact checker with the New Yorker who wants to be a writer. While on holiday in Italy with her self-absorbed chef fiancĂ©, she stumbles upon a strange ritual where heartbroken women attach letters to a stone wall, asking for romantic advice. A small committee of Italian women mail comforting letters in reply.

When Sophie finds and answers a fifty-year-old letter from an Englishwoman, the now sixty-ish-year-old woman shows up to find and reunite with her long lost love. So does her testy grandson. Sophie tags along for the romantic adventure. He’s a jerk. She’s a sweetie. They clash. Sparks fly. At least for them.

Letters to Juliet is a film where the acting doesn’t do a good job of playing out the emotions found in the script. Part of that is the casting, which runs into a traditional problem. The male lead, in this case Australian actor Christopher Egan, must be strong enough to win the woman in a short period of time, but not strong enough to overshadow the female lead. It’s a contradictory task and it shows. Egan is far too anonymous, Seyfried lacks immediate warmth, the chemistry never materializes, and even struggling through the script’s obligatory asshole part, Garcia Bernal still seems the preferable choice. I mean, maybe he’s just having a bad weekend.

There’s nothing truly offensive about the film, it’s always nice to see Vanessa Redgrave get out of the house, and I suppose it will let less demanding women open the purse for the hanky. However even as romantic afternoon time-wasters go, Letters to Juliet is up a balcony without a suitor.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2
Grade: C
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Garry Shandling
Director: Jon Favreau

Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is dying. And as he dies, he multiplies.

In the original Iron Man, the technological Tin Man replaces his heart, both physically and emotionally, to make it through his military-industrial Wonderland. In the sequel, the electronic heart that provides life is now poisoning his blood.

From its opening speech, Iron Man is a movie about legacy. Slowly owning up to the specter of his own death, Stark gets a glimpse of the world he’ll leave behind. He watches movies of his industrialist father laying out a perfect Disney-like planned city of the future, stressing the virtues of better living through technology. We learn that Stark, to a degree, has fulfilled this vision and achieved the Weapon-Makers Dream – a peaceful world through perfect deterrence.

As he dies, Stark watches his personality splinter. His enemies are uncomfortable shades of himself – a wannabe business rival (Sam Rockwell); an estranged techie best friend (Don Cheadle) who steals an Iron Man suit; the evil son of his father’s Russian ex-partner (Mickey Rourke), who has fashioned his own supersuit while in a state of exile. The Russian channels his feelings of rejection into two electrified whips for hands. As the technology spreads to the wrong hands, Stark foresees his legacy of peace melting into a legacy of more destructive warfare. The struggle in Iron Man 2 is that of a man fighting the future he has created.

Now, with money-making expectations, Iron Man 2 will get too distracted and diffuse to fully satisfy this careful subtext. After all, Iron Man is a blockbuster franchise. It has important landmarks to reach as it stretches into the future – on-set feuds, contract disputes, disinterested performances and eventual self-parody. That some of these things already are creeping into the second film is a little disappointing. And so these meticulous emotional and thematic battlefields are only sporadically matched by what’s on screen.

The original Iron Man was an awaiting dud lifted to watchability by Robert Downey. After a decade in small indie films working his way back into the picture, Iron Man was a perfect crossroads performance. Returning to major stardom, Downey now has earned the right to slack off when the material isn’t there. That’s about half the time here.

Director Jon Favreau has established a slo-jam sort of pace, unusual for a modern action film. Yet notice how perfectly this pace builds up the film’s best action sequence – with the whip-handed Rourke slowly, dangerously, slicing up race cars at the Gran Prix of Monaco. The scene doesn’t hurry, and it’s a model of blending comic book action and a realistic setting. The film might have made more of this sort of thing. Yet a lot of the film, too much of it really, is dedicated to Stark looking for a remedy for his heart situation, not the most lively plot point.

If Tony Stark is multiplying, so are the stars who want in on the deal. There are too many faces asking for screen time. Take one head-scratching transition of Paltrow and Johansson exiting a car and walking up stairs; it seems so unnecessary as to exist solely to satisfy a contract. In fact, Johansson has little to do until she and her stunt double get a sexy little action sequence near the end. First thought: Wow! Second thought: Where has this been for the past two hours?

With so many known faces signed up, Iron Man 2 still fails to pick a satisfying bad guy from among too many bad guys. Cheadle is ultimately a pal who’ll be around for the next film. Rockwell’s character is too comic to be a threat. Rourke disappears for too long and has not much to offer besides a Russian accent. As a result, the obligatory big final battle focuses mainly on a legion of military robots, designed from captured Iron Man technology.

Intellectually, that creates a perfect existential vision of a man confronted by his own disposability, reproducibility and ultimate insignificance. As action, we know in movies that robots can never resist doing something stupid enough to get their asses shot up. If Tony Stark only had a heart. If his enemies only had a brain.