Saturday, May 29, 2010

My meeting with Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper on the road in Easy Rider.

I met Dennis Hopper -- who died Saturday at the age of 74 -- once. It was at some bygone Denver International Film Festival, where Hopper turned up, probably to receive an award. The thing I remember most about Hopper was that he was wearing a blue pin-striped suit that made him look more like a banker than an easy rider. By this time in his life, Hopper had put drinking and drugs behind him. He was clean and sober. Very clean.

I was a little intimidated because I was one of a handful of critics who hadn't gone wild over Blue Velvet, a picture in which Hopper played the purely evil Frank Booth. Prior to meeting with Hopper someone had told me that he was upset about the way I'd reviewed Blue Velvet. I figured if Hopper had a bone to pick with me, he wouldn't be shy about saying so. Reticence was not a word normally applied to Hopper.

Besides, if you review movies and do interviews, you have to be prepared to confront those you've criticized. I won't lie, though. Although my objections to Blue Velvet had nothing to with Hopper's acting, I was nervous.

So, there in the crowded lobby of a downtown Denver hotel was the rebel, the renegade, the man himself.

I did a double take. Instead of a ferocious madman, Hopper looked as if he were getting ready to attend a conclave of investment bankers. He'd obviously turned some kind of page in his life.

Right away I told Hopper I'd heard that he was upset that I had given Blue Velvet a negative review, and, if so, I'd be happy to talk about it with him. Was it true?

He shook his head, signaling that he wasn't angry. I felt better even though I didn't think Hopper was about to become my new best friend. But then he surprised me even more.

"You know,'' he said softly, almost to himself. "I'm not sure I even know what I thought of that movie."

That's an honest response or maybe Hopper was just being gracious. Ever since that day, though, I've had a soft spot in my heart for a guy who could go so far over the top with a performance, you felt as if the only possible reaction was to look up and wave goodbye.

So bye, Dennis. You left some exceptional work (Colors behind the camera and Hoosiers in front of it) and some exceptionally weird work (Apocalypse Now and, of course, Blue Velvet). You went from being a rebel who sometimes seemed the indulgent and self-pitying artist to a disciplined guy who survived a business that has killed off lesser men. That's a whole lot of something, even if we didn't always know exactly what.

Friday, May 28, 2010

'Prince of Persia:' No royal treat

A prince and a princess ride out of a video game.

Movies based on video games seem like such a demonstrably bad idea that you wonder why any self-respecting filmmaker would try to make one. Maybe it's because the checks clear or maybe actors and directors are seduced by the challenge of seeing how far they can get when it comes to building stories around the prominent features of a popular game.

The makers of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time -- director Mike Newell, a trio of screenwriters and fabled producer Jerry Bruckheimer -- get further than you'd expect with a sand-swept adventure that uses new-fangled CGI technology to revive old-fashioned moviegoing pleasures, not exactly a novel ambition, but one that's serviceable. I thought I detected evocations of Lawrence of Arabia in Harry Gregson-Williams' score, and at times, I almost felt as if I were watching a real movie. Swords, sand, sandals and a little exoticism go a long way.

The problem with Prince of Persia, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a commoner who becomes a prince, rests squarely on its script. Video games presumably come equipped with a rooting interest; the player hopes he or she beats the odds. Prince of Persia leaps from set piece to set piece without really giving us a good enough reason to invest in the outcome. The plot revolves around a dagger with magical powers. Used correctly, this dagger can turn back the clock, a feat shown by Newell in a series of stuttering images that don't exactly qualify as astonishing. It feels as if the movie has hiccupped.

Maybe none of that matters; Prince of Persia tries to trample criticism by bombarding us with the usual blend of dizzying, over-edited action, a ton of British accents (even Gyllenhaal tries one) and no truly engaging characters.

Let me revise what I just said about the lack of engaging characters. One character, a disreputable gambler who organizes ostrich races, provides a bit of fun. Alfred Molina's Sheik Amar brings more life to the screen than all the other actors combined. Molina makes a strong impression, even though the writers have saddled his character with a contemporary, Tea Party take on government and taxation.

That's not the only attempt to add contemporary gloss. It seems that the Persians were tricked into invading the city of Alamut with a familiar lie. The place supposedly was harboring weapons that could be used against Persia. Guess what? The invasion turned up no WMDs or whatever such weapons should be called in this quasi-mythical, artificial environment.

You can tell a movie is in a bit of trouble script-wise when actors are forced to provide large junks of expository dialogue, which happens here on occasion. If you really want to know more about that dagger, you'll have to see the movie. I've already pushed the eject button on the major elements of the plot. Know, though, that although there's a genre-appropriate lack of subtlety here, you may not find an equivalent amount of fun.

Did I mention that Ben Kingsley is in the movie? If not, it may be because he doesn't make that much of a mark as the brother of the king who adopts Gyllenhaal's character early in the movie.

I'd say the verdict is still out on Gyllenhaal as an action hero. He looks swarthy, and he leaps about with conviction, but he can't quite muster the leading man charm that distinguished Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Gyllenhaal's paired with Gemma Arterton, last seen in Clash of The Titans. She's attractive, and the two of them whip up enough on-screen chemistry to keep things percolating while themes of brotherly love, loyalty, royal betrayal, true love and the fate of all mankind bump up against one another.

Newell, who directed Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, may seem an unlikely choice for a large-scale fantasy, but he also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.. He does well enough with this trumped-up material.

No need saying more. Prince of Persia provides medium-grade entertainment with lots of fiery special effects and no apparent purpose other than to sell tickets to those who need a fix before the next action-oriented wannabe blockbuster comes along.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

'Sex' lands in the wrong city

The women of Sex and the City hit the road.

I'll try to do this without introducing a spoiler. There's a point in Sex and the City 2 at which one of the characters indulges in a forbidden kiss. I knew the moment that kiss arrived, the audience at a preview screening would gasp as audibly as if it had just learned that the government had decided to confiscate every pair of Manolo Blahniks in North America.

You get the idea. Sex and the City 2 is a chick flick on steroids - or is it estrogen? Whatever the hormonal enhancement, this exaggerated and cartoonish feature has wandered a long way from the HBO series that initiated the craze. What once seemed hip and knowing now seems spectacularly contrived. What was funny now feels forced, and the series' open-minded attitude toward sex has turned into parodic pandering, most of it focused on the insatiable carnal appetites of Samantha (Kim Cattrall).

Even on the small screen, Sex and the City walked a fine line between timely observation and superficial fluff, but the line seems to have been irrevocably crossed with a sequel that takes the familiar quartet of New York City women to Abu Dhabi, where they indulge their taste for excess along with disturbing amounts of cultural insensitivity.

The United Arab Emirates isn't the first stop made by a movie that never should have left Manhattan. That honor goes to Connecticut, where the women assemble for a gay wedding of two familiar characters (Mario Cantone and Willie Garson). The wedding is staged with hammy flare that includes a stereotypical double whammy: an all-male chorus and Liza Minnelli. This lengthy set piece has a tolerably silly gloss, but the movie quickly abandons itself to a recitation of Shrek-like woes.

Last week, Shrek Forever After introduced us to an ogre in mid-life crisis. In Sex and the City 2, the women also are wondering what's become of their old selves, with the exception of Samantha who's too busy fretting about becoming an old self. She's 52, and flooded with enough creams and hormones to require a dispensation from the FDA.
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) -- a.k.a. Our Lady of the Garish Outfits -- has just written a marriage book called I Do, Do I? She's also wondering whether her marriage to Big (Chris Noth) can sustain the romantic sparkle that for so long characterized their relationship. As it turns out, Big is pretty much like every other guy; he likes to come home from work, sprawl on the couch and watch TV.

Charlotte (Kristen Davis) worries that her husband (Evan Handler) might have his eye on the voluptuous, braless Irish nanny who takes care of their two kids. Charlotte's also exasperated. She always wanted kids, but her two youngsters are more demanding than she could have imagined.

For her part, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a high-powered attorney, is working for a chauvinist who doesn't value her opinions. Work isn't fulfilling; she's not cut out for full-time motherhood. What's a woman to do?

What all the women do is join Samantha on a trip to Abu Dhabi, which is being paid for by a wealthy hotel owner who thinks that Samantha might be able to help give his hotel a higher profile.

Sex and the City 2 contains a few chuckles, and the lavishness of the women's Abu Dhabi hotel digs - each has her own butler - offer pleasures akin to a trip to a luxury spa. To the extent that the Abu Dhabi scenes are rich with poolside luxury and sumptuous meals, the movie works as a fantasy travelogue.

But luxury only goes so far, and Sex and the City 2 -written and directed by Michael Patrick King -often makes the women seem dumber than trendy. The way Samantha operates in Abu Dhabi is out of sync with how a savvy PR woman would behave if she were in pursuit of a client. Samantha now seems charmless, a woman with a purse full of condoms and an eye for bulges in the bathing suits of young men.

I had an odd thought while watching what I once regarded as an amusing - if generally inconsequential -- look at a certain kind of New York City lifestyle. I kept thinking about Abbott and Costello movies with titles such as Abbott and Costello Go To Mars or Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion. Or more generously, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies. These stock entertainments put familiar characters into unfamiliar situations, banking on past affections and letting the chips fall where they might.

That kind of approach might have worked here if so much of the script hadn't presented these women in such sorry, superficial lights. When Carrie learns that The New Yorker has panned her latest book, I found myself cheering the unseen critic.

The movie, which lasts nearly two- and a-half-hours, probably will rake in enough money to keep its creators from having to shop at thrift stores. Sex and the City is more than an entertainment; it's a phenomenon, and it inspires women to dress up before they buy tickets. Who would have guessed that high heels and showy dresses could be accessorized with giant tubs of popcorn?

I suppose it's harmless fun, but Sex and City used to make room for glimmers of dramatic truth. Now, it's about massaging the fantasies of an audience that probably won't object to the fact that only Cynthia Nixon's performance seemed to be grounded in any sort of reality, that doesn't care whether the moments of female empowerment are so blatantly engineered they play like political lip-syncing and that's happy to watch a quintet of costume designers try to out-silly one another.

As for me? Well, I'm with Big on this one. Forget the sparkle, baby. Pass the remote

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Shrek" loses a bit off the old ogre fastball

For Shrek, domestic bliss isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Shrek Forever After is being billed as the final installment of this financially lucrative but artistically faltering series. The addition of 3-D doesn't do much to elevate this helping of Shrek, and the movie fails to reach the levels of enjoyment that marked the first (and still best) of the bunch.

By now, the irreverent approach to fairy tales has lost much of its freshness, and the mix-and-match post-modernism of the series - Pinocchio is liable to pop up alongside the Three Little Pigs -- has gone a bit flat, as has Shrek's life.

It's that life - mired in the monotony of domestic routine - that provides the story with its springboard. It seems that Shrek (Mike Meyers) has become a middle-class, middle-aged guy. He and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have three kids, triplets. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is still around, as is Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

Shrek also has become a show business fixture. Crowds of adoring fans long to hear him roar; they love his signature yowl. Shrek's a cuddly staple of the pop-cultural scene. His home, once a forest sanctuary, has turned into a tour stop. It's enough to drive an ogre crazy.

In an effort to escape the middle-age doldrums, Shrek deserts his family during the kids' birthday bash. He races off to the woods, where he encounters Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a conniving fairy-tale figure who's clearly up to no good.

In the Grimm fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin bargained with a miller's daughter who was trying to spin gold from straw. In this version, the dwarf bargains with both Fiona's parents and with Shrek, offering each of them a much-cherished prize - at a price, of course.

All of this leads to Shrek veering off into an alternate version of his life in which his "ogreness" is restored. Of course, there's that price. Fiona no longer recognizes our big green hero. To further complicate matters, she has assembled a group of ogres to fight Rumpel. Poor Shrek. He must figure out how to return home and reclaim the life that, as it turns out, wasn't so bad after all. Or as a friend used to say, Shrek -- like all wayward movie heroes -- is left to overcome his bitterness and re-discover the true meaning of Christmas, so to speak.

The movie's 3-D underscores the fact that the franchise has reached the point where it needs add-ons to prosper, and prosper it probably will. By now, Shrek has become both an entertainment and a pop-cultural obligation. Turnstiles will spin.

But even the addition of flying witches can't quite get Shrek airborne. He's not only middle-aged, but also middle-of-the-road. The movie seems less a tribute to the anarchic spirit in which fairy tale wisdom once mingled with cartoon chaos than a monument to itself.

Say this, though, the filmmakers provide an affectionate farewell to characters who've earned a place in the animated landscape, and, viewed as a whole, the Shrek franchise must be credited with inspiring a fair amount of creativity and humor. It's probably accurate to say that this final chapter, though suffering from a case of the blahs, will do little to change the generally favorable impression that will keep the Shrek movies circulating on DVD for some time to come - if not forever after.

Rodrigo Garcia's 'Mother and Child'

You can read about Mother and Child, the new movie from director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives), in the interview with Garcia that follows this brief appraisal. Mother and Child deals with mother/daughter issues from a variety of vantage points, focusing on three women played by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington.

Bening portrays an embittered woman who, as a teen-ager, was forced by her mother to give up a baby for adoption. Watts plays the adult that baby has become, a hard-boiled attorney. Washington portrays a successful young woman who's determined to adopt a baby.

So should you see Mother and Child? I'd lean positive with mild reservations, but add at least one note of unqualified praise: It's rare for a movie to be about the way its main characters cope with deep emotional wounds. Garcia hasn't shrunk from that challenge.

Here, then, a few observations on Mother and Child:

-- I sometimes find myself wondering whether Bening, an indisputably talented actress, isn't working a little too hard.

-- Garcia's minimalist visual approach seems to be intentional. He likes to strip his images of distraction so that story and character can emerge more forcefully. It's an admirable enough way to make a movie, but it tends to make Mother and Child feel slightly "airless," minimizing the illusion that the drama is unfolding amid the bustle and abundance of real life. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find a director who displays more respect for the work of his actors.

-- The Kerry Washington element of the story doesn't quite mesh with the rest, and seems to exist mostly to fulfill a function. I wondered whether Garcia didn't need a character to serve as a bridge between the worlds inhabited by the characters played by Bening and Watts.

-- I admire Garcia's refusal to vilify any of his characters. Almost everyone in the movie is trying to do the best he or she can. This is true even at the movie's margins. Cherry Jones, for example, portrays a nun at an adoption agency, a compassionate character who resists stereotyping.

-- Garcia is the son of acclaimed novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If the father's work is generally labeled as "magic realism,'' the son's work probably should be called "natural (or even ordinary) realism." Garcia works hard to keep the emotions in his movie at recognizable levels.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The director who loves women

Mother and Child, the latest movie from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, is slated to open in Denver May 21 and is just beginning its journey around the country.

Garcia, whose previous efforts include the movie Nine Lives and lots of prestigious television work on HBO series such as Six Feet Under, Big Love, The Sopranos and In Treatment, might be dubbed the director who loves women, and in Mother and Child, he does something that has become increasingly rare in the current movie climate: He provides an uncluttered platform on which three gifted actresses can explore agonizing emotional issues.

The movie’s stars -- Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington -- play women who are dealing with mother/daughter issues, usually from both sides of the equation. Whatever audiences think about Mother and Child, it’s difficult to imagine that this dynamic trio of actresses isn’t delighted with the outcome.

If so, they have good reason. Garcia – the 50-year-old son of acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez – provides them a showcase that allows for ample expression of complexity and contradiction.

Bening plays Karen, a woman who became pregnant as a teen-ager and whose mother forced her to give the baby up for adoption. Watts plays Elizabeth, the grown daughter Karen has never met, and Washington portrays a successful young woman who decides to adopt a baby because she’s unable to become pregnant.

With Garcia navigating choppy emotional waters, the talk in a recent interview gravitated toward acting. Movie acting can be difficult to write about and sometimes difficult to understand, even for a director whose work reflects a deep respect for character, an approach Garcia learned from early stints as a cameraman, with directors such as Mike Nichols and Robert Benton.

“I don’ t know how actors prepare,’’ said Garcia. “I enjoy not knowing. I like to have a couple of conversations just to make sure that we want to make the same movie. I don’t want surprises about what the story is, but I leave the details of how a role is performed to the actors.”

Allowing for a process that relies on equal amounts of preparation and spontaneous expression requires the creation of a calm on-set environment – or at least the illusion of one.

“With all the movies that I’ve done -- especially the three that I’ve written -- the budgets have been low and the schedules, frightening. (Mother and Child was shot in a fleet 29 days.) I have this memory of running 100 miles per hour before the actors arrived. Then when the actors come on set, you feel like you’re pulling the horses back so that everything can move at 20 miles an hour. The actors feel it’s all very relaxed, as if we’re just ambling. The moment they leave, the shit hits the fan, and it’s chaos again.”

Here, then, Garcia’s thoughts on his three principal actresses and the characters each of them plays.

Q. So what drew you to Bening?

Garcia: Part of it is instinct. You always have your list of who the great actresses for a role would be. Annette is able to convey a lot of intelligence, emotion, and strength. She’s a very natural actress. Maybe ‘naturalistic’ is a better word. I like an actor who can project different things at the same time – vulnerability, emotion and intelligence. Annette’s also very good with words. There are some great actors who aren’t necessarily good with dialogue.

Q. Does it take extra commitment for an actress to play a character who refuses to ingratiate herself with an audience? Karen avoids men, and isn’t shy about expressing hostility, even toward people who reach out to her.

Garcia: Karen is a prickly pear, a complicated person. I’m sure a lot of actresses would have been uneasy about playing her. They might have wanted to soften her, to pander to the audience. But Annette always understood that it (Karen’s insistence on walling herself off from others) was coming from a place of pain. She had been forced to give up a baby. She was protecting herself, like a porcupine.

Q. Karen’s also an older woman who’s not trying to disguise her age. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance. Maybe that’s part of the way she keeps the world at bay, but I didn’t see any vanity in Bening’s performance.

Garcia: Karen’s not out to be liked. Annette embraced that even more than I thought she would. There was no make-up. The hair was always a little disheveled. Annette was able, very fastidiously, to track Karen’s journey.

Q. Naomi Watts also plays a character who’s not terribly sympathetic. Elizabeth is a hard-boiled attorney who keeps a tight rein on her personal life. She’s ambitious, ultra-competent and sexually aggressive.

Garcia: I made a point of proving that Elizabeth was a very accomplished lawyer. She’s smart. She uses sex to control the environment and people around her, but she doesn’t use it to get a promotion. I thought that distinction was important.

Elizabeth is very hostile in the way she controls things. She doesn’t care what you think. Naomi was the first person we went to. Like Annette with Karen, she understood that Elizabeth’s behavior stems from a wound she has inside.

In the case of Karen and Elizabeth, a big choice was made for them, to separate them against their will. In different ways, they decided to control their lives so that such choices would not be made for them again, so that they would not be exposed to pain.

Q. The role of Elizabeth requires a bit of nudity – both physical and emotional. How tough was that?

Garcia. Naomi probably thinks it’s worth it to her to do physical and emotional nudity if it takes her somewhere in her journey as an actor. Whether she’s comfortable or not, who knows? We had scenes that involved emotional and physical nakedness, and she did them five weeks after having a baby.

Q. It seems to me that Watts is willing to push boundaries, to really explore emotional extremes.

Garcia: She’s good at playing characters with strong contradictions, characters that are emotionally strung out. To play a woman like Elizabeth or the women she played in Mulholland Drive or 21 Grams, Naomi really had to go for it. Of course, when you spend time with her on the set, she ‘s also very funny. She has a naughty sense of humor. She could have a career doing romantic comedies or action stuff.

Q. Kerry Washington’s bio reads like a study in achievement. She’s on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. She graduated Magne Cum Laude from George Washington University. She’s currently working in David Mamet’s play Race on Broadway, and has a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Garcia. I had seen Kerry only in The Dead Girl and The Last King of Scotland. She registered with me. We worked for one day on a short subject we did for a charity, and I thought she would be a perfect Lucy. She’s nothing like Lucy in many ways and like her in others. She has this spunk and this desire to do really well.

Q: Lucy is nothing if not strong willed. Is Washington like that?

Garca: Kerry is tireless. She’s this dynamo. She taught me a lot about Lucy. I wasn’t in tune with the fact that Lucy is such a perfectionist. That’s what I started understanding from Kerry’s performance. Lucy saw her inability to get pregnant as a personal failure, a blemish in her record. That’s what made her so desperate.

Q. But it’s certainly not a one-dimensional performance. Lucy’s dealing with a marriage that may be in trouble, as well as with her own feelings about not being able to conceive. Garcia: Kerry also brought a lot of humor to Lucy. People find something funny in Lucy’s hysterical desperation.

Q. You seem to like writing about women.

Garcia: I find it hard to write men. Men’s lives often are about exterior pursuits. Success in work. Money. Conquering the girl. Conquering the mountain. Killing the lion. I’m more interested in stories about the complicated nature of two people relating to each other. The person you can’t live with and can’t live without. The person next to you. A parent, a child, a sibling or a spouse.

Q. We probably should say something about the men in this movie. Jimmy Smits plays one of Karen’s co-workers at the assisted living facility where she works. She does her best to hold him at arm’s length, but he pursues her anyway. And Elizabeth has an affair with her boss (Samuel L. Jackson), the lawyer who owns the firm where she lands a job. He’s older than she, but he’s clearly a man of conscience, accomplishment and compassion.

Garcia: So many times in movies about women, the men are the enemy. I already had a couple of women who had such confrontational relationships with the world that I thought, ‘Let me put two really good men in front of them.’ These women are so at odds with the world, what would they do if I sent them a couple of really good guys? I wanted to see how they’d deal with that."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A down and very dirty 'Robin Hood'

Robin prepares to take aim -- but at what?

When it came to Robin Hood, director Ridley Scott most likely found himself in a damned-if-he did and damned-if -he-didn't position.

Had Scott tried to reproduce the swashbuckling bonhomie of Robin Hoods past (most notably Errol Flynn's 1938 version), he surely would have been chastised for indulging audience cravings for nostalgia. Had he gone entirely in the opposite direction, critics would have upbraided Scott for needlessly resisting the current Hollywood temptation to choose "fun" over substance.

I have no idea what went on in the minds of Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland as they prepared to do medieval battle, but they seem to have split the difference between two possible extremes. The 2010 edition of Robin Hood is drearily authentic in many of its details and less reverential about its main character than it is about the virtues of governments that recognize the liberty and sanctity of every individual. OK, so it's not exactly a profile in courage, but the movie takes a strong stand against tyranny. What? You're going to argue?

An uneasy mixture of intentions makes Robin Hood easy to criticize, but shouldn't take away from the fact that Scott -- again working with Russell Crowe -- uses his considerable skills to serve up sequences that confirm his status as a master of action. And although Robin Hood emerges as a full-blown warrior hero in the Gladiator mode, he's not turned into a medieval version of Indiana Jones.

That's why Scott's edition of Robin Hood probably will fare best with those who are sick of the winking ironies of comic book movies. The major characters -- Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck and Marion - aren't given trumped up showcases. Aside from Marion and Tuck, they tend to become part of the scenery.

Some of the movie's conceits are interesting. Robin Longstride is a commoner who, through a variety of plot machinations, assumes the identity of Robin Loxley, a knight who was murdered on the way home from the Third Crusade. Marion is Robin Loxley's widow. Prince John indulges his carnality and cruelty, although actor Oscar Isaac doesn't seem entirely up to expressing every ounce of John's villainous excess.

I doubt whether Crowe's performance as Robin will be recognized come Oscar time, but it's in sync with Scott's approach, which involves blending serious drama with simply expressed virtue. Unfortunately, Robin has less personality than Godfrey (Mark Strong), the most menacing of the movie's bad guys. A stone-faced villain, Godfrey colludes with the French. The French pose the biggest threat to a fractured England, a country that can beat back invasion only if the aristocracy unites behind John.

Romance is not the movie's strong suit, but Crowe and Cate Blanchett (as Marion) have some nice moments together, although maybe it's better to say that Blanchett has some nice moments with Crowe. Blanchett's Marion agrees to allow Robin to pose as her husband so that she can hold onto the Loxley estate after her father-in-law (a genial Max von Sydow) dies. Truth be told, the movie perks up considerably when Blanchett and von Sydow arrive.

With its references to the Third Crusade and to real historical figures, Robin Hood sometimes plays like a classy historical drama. Danny Huston has a nice early turn as King Richard. William Hurt portrays stately court adviser William Marshall, and Eileen Atkins appears as Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard and John.

Scott begins with a battle staged in chaotic fashion with a heavy emphasis on grime, mud and boiling oil. Robin is fighting alongside King Richard, who's trying to guide his ragtag army back toward England after its less-than-rousing achievements in the Crusades. Once Richard dies, Robin and his cohorts head for England on their own.

The movie builds toward a climactic battle sequence in which the French attempt to land on British soil, but are repelled on the beach. Hand-to-hand combat follows a hail of arrows. Think sweat and swordplay.

Robin Hood may not have been precisely the right showcase for either Scott or Crowe, but they salvage a small victory from a large-scale production that achieves its most notable success in the trenches. Robin Hood suggests that the shining inspirations of legend often took root in the filthy muck of history. Seldom have so many extras gotten quite so dirty.

The rom-com merry-go-round spins again

Predictable as it is glossy, the rom-com Just Wright has at least two things going for it: Queen Latifah's undeniable spark and the presence of a variety of real-life NBA stars including Dwight Howard and Dwayne Wade. The movie centers on Leslie (Latifah), a physical therapist who -- thanks to a conniving friend (Paula Patton) -- lands a job helping to rehabilitate an injured NBA star, played by the rapper Common. Basketball fans immediately will recognize the movie as pure fantasy because, among other things, it imagines that the woeful New Jersey Nets are playing for an Eastern Conference title. Patton, last seen as a caring teacher in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, is stuck playing an annoyingly obvious character who wants to marry an NBA star so that she can live the good life. Someone might as well have stamped the words "Gold Digger" on her forehead. Latifah's Leslie is a hard-core Nets fan, but unlike Patton's character, she's "real;" i.e., she's the kind of woman guys tend to choose as friends rather than love interests. Assembled with the requisite glow by director Sanaa Hamri, Just Wright follows a predictable arc, but offsets its groan-inducing tendencies with a likable, down-to-earth performance from Latifah. Common, who evidently did his own basketball scenes, seems a trifle uncomfortable at times, and although he's seen only briefly, Orlando Magic Star Howard proves that he has big-screen charisma. Sports fans may be lured by the gaggle of NBA stars and ESPN broadcasters who appear as themselves, but I'm not sure guys will embrace this updated take on Cinderella once they're drawn into theaters.

Amanda Seyfried helps the lovelorn in Italy.

Letters to Juliet, another rom-com, requires a tolerance for cuteness that goes way beyond anything I could muster. The movie travels to Verona, the town in Italy where lovelorn women leave notes for Juliet (yes, that Juliet) embedded in a wall. Amanda Seyfried's Sophie learns about this romantic Wailing Wall when she visits Italy with her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal). Sophie's fiance, a fanatically ambitious New York chef and restaurateur, is too busy sampling food and wine to spend any time with his future bride. Left to her own devices, Sophie meets a team of local women who answer some of the letters that have been left for Juliet. The plot revolves around a 50-year-old letter to which Sophie finally responds. Sophie's belated reply brings Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) to Italy with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan). Claire searches for the lover she abandoned when she was too young and frightened to follow her passion. Sophie, who aspires to be a New Yorker writer, follows Claire and Charlie around. Of course, Sophie and Charlie bicker. They also fail to realize what we know from the outset: They're made for each other. Letters to Juliet, on the other hand, seems made for those with a high tolerance for contrivance, phony romance and movies that expect the scenery to do at least half of their heavy lifting. Expect a hit.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Two movies: one small; the other smaller

Ciaran Hinds and Lena Morelle in shadows cast by grief.
Inconclusiveness seldom qualifies as a dramatic virtue, but in the slender and delicately mounted Irish movie, The Eclipse, unanswered questions become an enhancement. Director Conor McPherson, who usually writes plays and directs theater, sets up a drama involving three characters who meet during the course of a literary festival that's being held in the tiny Irish seaport town of Cobh. Ciaran Hinds plays a local widower and shop teacher who each year volunteers to chauffeur visiting authors around town. Hinds' Michael is haunted (perhaps literally) by ferocious visions that seem connected to the death of his late wife. Lena Morelle plays a visiting writer who's unsure of her talent, and Aidan Quinn portrays a successful novelist who had a fling with Morelle's character at a previous festival. He's married. Although it includes several vividly depicted, horror-movie style apparitions, The Eclipse probably is best understood as a narrow-gauged drama about the lingering power of undigested grief. As such, the story belongs mostly to Hinds' Michael -- the father of two kids -- who must find a way to renew his shattered life. Don't look for anything earth shaking, but know that McPherson -- working from a script by Billy Roche -- convincingly explores the needs, crippling and otherwise, of characters who are carefully sketched in both writing and performance.


Zoe Kazan explores a life that's neither here nor there.

Sometimes a drama can be so small that it feels infinitesimal. That's definitely the case with the cataclysmically titled The Exploding Girl, a look at the life of an epileptic college student who's visiting her mother during a break from school. Zoe Kazan plays Ivy, a young woman who invites a friend from school (Mark Rendall) to stay at her mother's apartment during summer vacation. Rendall's Al moves in with Ivy and her busy mom (Maryann Urbano) because his parents didn't expect him home for the summer and rented his room. Director Bradley Rust Gray fills his movie with halting cell phone conversations between Ivy and her boyfriend, a fellow student who's clearly en route to breaking up with her. Both Ivy and Al spend an awful lot of time deflecting anything that resembles the direct expression of emotion. Credit Kazan, who played a secretary with whom Leonardo DiCaprio had an affair in Revolutionary Road, with holding the screen despite the uneventfulness of the material. Gray gives us a feeling for characters who are adrift at a time before their lives have taken real shape, but these same characters, having yet to find their footing, don't always make for the most compelling companions.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Iron Man 2' mostly survives its missteps

Even Tony Stark needs an occasional quiet moment.

Here's the lowdown on the new Iron Man movie: The first installment was better, but 2 will do.

Despite some prominent liabilities, Iron Man 2 makes an acceptable and mostly welcome addition to a series that seems destined to continue at least until Robert Downey Jr. demonstrates that he’s more in need of a walker than an Iron Man suit.

The best that can be said about Iron Man 2 is that some of the attitude of the first movie survives, most notably in Downey’s mixture of arrogance, irreverence and flawed humanity. As we all know by now, Iron Man (a.k.a. Tony Stark) makes no attempt to hide his superhero identity. Stark’s prowess as a defender of freedom depends on a suit that provides most of his power. His is a propped up, slightly artificial brand of heroism that’s admirable as much for its flesh-and-blood weaknesses as for its strengths.

This time out, the suit’s the thing: In Iron Man 2, the Defense Department – using a senator (Garry Shandling) as its front man – wants Stark to hand over his Iron Man suit to the military. A disillusioned Russian tough guy with gold teeth, a ton of body tattoos and an ever-present toothpick (Mickey Rourke) wants to invent a suit that will allow him to exact revenge on Iron Man for a variety of past grievances. Even Iron Man’s ally in the military (Don Cheadle taking over where Terrence Howard left off) squares off against poor Stark, whose power is depleting because of high blood toxicity levels.

Credit director Jon Favreau, who also appears in the movie, with a decent job of mixing old and new characters: Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant. In this edition, Stark hands over the reins of his company to her. New recruits to the franchise include Scarlett Johansson, as another employee of Stark’s company, and Sam Rockwell, as the obviously named Justin Hammer, head of a rival armaments maker.

Perhaps realizing that sequels inevitably climb escalators of excess, Favreau makes no attempt to conceal the movie’s garish ambitions. He begins at an Expo that’s being staged by Stark in Flushing Meadows, New York, the site of the 1964/65 World’s Fair. The opening, replete with chorus lines and Las Vegas glitz, re-introduces Iron Man, who has allowed his role as guarantor of world peace to inflate his ego. Stark congratulates himself for having “privatized world peace.” In these opening bits, peace looks suspiciously like an extension of show business.

Of course, the good times can’t keep rolling. Fearing that his end is approaching, Stark turns into a dissolute party animal, even trying to boogie down in his Iron Man suit.

Downey has no difficulty providing the necessary spark, whether he’s in confident or debilitated mode; Rourke’s appropriately menacing without being entirely unsympathetic as a Russian with an impish smile and hair that looks to be in need of an Environmental Impact Statement; Johansson brings verve to a late-picture fight scene, and Rockwell goes for giggles with a performance that sometimes finds him working a little too hard to mine laughs.

Fun aside, the sequel doesn’t rocket into the same entertainment sphere as the original.

The exposition, some of which is presented in dull fashion in a script by Justin Theroux, can be regarded as filler between the typically abundant action set pieces and CGI mayhem. Favreau does a nice job with an early scene set at a Grand Prix race in Monte Carlo, but some of the battles between Tony and other ironclad creations are more noisy than exciting.

Of course, there are many explosions, some propulsive flying sequences and (did I already mention this?) lots of noise.

I guess you can say that the screenplay's the biggest culprit here. When a villain is vanquished – which of course he must be – the battle pretty much fizzles. At least one A-list performance – Samuel L. Jackson’s – is too abbreviated to mean much of anything, aside from serving as a preview of the upcoming Avengers movie. Having entered franchise territory, it’s difficult for even as freewheeling a venture as Iron Man to retain all of its freshness.

Fortunately, the movie's mixture of scattered plotting and incidental garnish doesn't prove fatal, and Iron Man 2 manages to get summer off to the kind of start that makes Hollywood happy; i.e., one that’s bound to keep the turnstiles spinning over the course of a couple of weekends.

And because we live in the age where box office performance trumps almost everything else, it’s arguable that Iron Man will face a bigger test next week than he does throughout the two hours of this reasonably entertaining sequel. What happens next Friday? Iron Man faces off against Robin Hood. Due on May 14th: the latest Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe collaboration.

'Babies:' The observations are small

Babies looks at ... well ... babies.

Curiosity drives me to see any documentary that seems to have commercial potential, which is why I spent time with Babies, a movie from director Thomas Balmes that's likely to succeed in baby-obsessed cultures that view every infant as a mini-revelation. Balmes' approach -- no narration, minimal dialogue and lots of anthropological pretension -- focuses on four babies from four countries and four different cultures: Ponijao (Namibia); Mari (Japan); Hattie (U.S.) and Bayar (Mongolia). I'm not sure that I drew the conclusion that Balmes intended, but here's what I took away from Babies: an unwavering conviction that I'd rather live in a society with Pampers than one in which diapers are non-existent. The movie seems to suggest that developed societies indulge babies, doting over them in ways that mothers in less developed countries might find ridiculous, but Babies confines itself to tot-sized observations. Does Babies have anything else to say? Maybe this: If one could combine the ease of Namibian and Mongolian mothers with the resources of mothers in Japan and the U.S., the result might be an astonishing rise in SAT scores somewhere down the line. Maybe mothers in developed countries can learn something else from moms in the less-developed world: Babies can crawl through dirt, play with animals and live to gurgle about it.

This 'Centipede' aims to repulse

You may not want to keep an appointment with this doctor.

Pity those who see The Human Centipede (First Sequence) and have no idea what they're in for. Allow me to commit a critical no-no here and string a series of adjectives together to cover The Human Centipede. The movie is disgusting, disturbing, sick, ludicrous, outrageous, bizarre, and deeply perverse. Director Tom Six, who was born in the Netherlands, devises a scenario in which two American tourists (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) are taken hostage by a crazed German doctor (Dieter Laser). The not-so-good doctor connects them -- via surgery -- to a Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura) who's also being held at the doctor's isolated home in the German countryside. There's no delicate way to put this, so I'll just tell you that doctor's preferred method for conjoining folks involves a mouth-to-anus connection. Six seems intent on breaking new ground in horror. I suppose he does, but I'd say only hard-core (and I use the term advisedly) horror fans should attempt to sit through a movie that includes depictions of maiming, extreme degradation and surgical procedures that evoke comparisons with Nazi barbarities. Six begins with standard horror tropes (two American girls make really stupid decisions), but quickly lets us know that his forte is the kind of grim embellishment that borders on absurdity but also is truly revolting. Proceed at your own risk.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An exceptional thriller from Argentina

Two people who can't put the past behind them.

The Secret In Their Eyes won the Oscar for best foreign-language film of 2009, beating such frontrunners as A Prophet and The White Ribbon. After seeing The Secret In Their Eyes, I'm not sure I would have placed it ahead of A Prophet, but it's a more impressive choice than I would have expected from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which often misses badly when it comes to foreign films.

Secret revolves around the rape and murder of a young woman, a crime that reverberates throughout a movie and raises haunting questions about the power of the past, the porous quality of memory and the sadness of roads not taken.

Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) is a retired court detective who -- at the movie's outset in 2000 – reflects on a 25-year-old murder that marked a pivotal moment in his life. Perhaps to jog his memory, Benjamin visits Irene (Soledad Villamil), the judge for whom he worked on the case. Benjamin wants to write a novel about the murder, but has hit a wall on page five. He's hoping that Irene will help him get off the dime. Maybe he doesn't know quite what he's hoping Irene will do. She's a couple of social notches above him, but Benjamin clearly has feelings for Irene that -- at least in his mind -- make her more than a former boss.

Director Juan Jose Campanella alternates between action in 2000 and scenes in the years following the murder, which took place in 1974, roughly the time when Juan Peron's third wife was taking over the country. As these '70s sequences unfold, Campanella introduces the rest of the characters. Among them: Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), Benjamin's amusing but alcoholic co-worker, and Ricardo Morales (Pablo Raga), the husband of the murder victim.

Eventually, a suspect (Javier Godino) is identified, but Campanella has more in mind than a simple detective story in which representatives of the law try to bring a vicious criminal to justice. He upholsters the basic story with humor, rueful banter between Benjamin and Pablo and hints of thwarted love.

Darin – whose looks occupy a border area between handsomeness and defeat – carries the weight of Benjamin's past in the bags that sag beneath his eyes. He hasn't put memories of that 1974 case to rest, perhaps because it resulted in at least one additional murder. The crime connects with Benjamin's feelings of inadequacy; the outcome of the case taunts him. Has his life meant nothing?

Like Benjamin, Irene has begun to show the impact of a life spent in an environment where she has been forced to make more than a few compromises. She retains a fair amount of her beauty, but has learned to live with regret, maybe even make a friend of it.

The movie's crime story serves as a springboard for some amazing camera work – not the least of it an overhead shot of a soccer stadium in which the camera winds its way through a massive crowd. Benjamin and Pablo are searching for their prime suspect.

But Campanella and his able cast make sure that character trumps visual pyrotechnics: Both Benjamin and Irene have a lived-in quality that's exceptionally appealing. They're adults, which means their motivations aren't simple. And if the movie's subtitles are any indiction, the script contains some fine writing. At one point, the husband of the murder victim suggests that Benjamin abandon his obsession with what might have been. If he doesn't, the widower warns, Benjamin will have “a thousand pasts and no future.”

It's a nice line and something to ponder, a rare gift from any thriller. Secret fulfills its primary responsibilities: It's involving and richly drawn, but it's also elevated by an unusual poignancy, the feeling we get for characters who desperately seek the kind of resolution they hope will make their lives whole.