Monthly Archives: May 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Times (2010)

This video game adaptation has the curious distinction of being both too simplistic and too complicated, sometimes in the very same breath. The harried screenplay could have used a lot more clarity concerning back-story, exposition, character roles, setting, rules of this Middle Eastern time period, supernatural rules, etc. At the same time, Prince of Persia is saddled with a pretty dopey story with weak characters. The plot is far too repetitious; somebody has the magic dagger that can turn back time, they lose it, they regain it, they lose it, repeat for over an hour. It feels like the story is never getting anywhere despite the fact that new, and still weak, characters are being introduced. The tone and look of the movie feels too beholden to its video game roots; the action is momentarily rousing but then seems overly coordinated to squeeze in all the game’s special signature moves. You’ll grow tired of all the wall flipping, wondering if a controller is stuck somewhere. For a movie dealing with a time-traveling dagger, give me more time travel. This fantastic plot device is used too sparingly in a ho-hum plot about an adopted son (Jake Gyllenhall, buff and with a sporting accent) of the king being accused of killing the king. Despite the Disney name, this feels less like a Pirates of the Caribbean knockoff and more cut from the same cloth that gave us the Mummy sequels. It’s loud, stuffed with empty special effects, and feels like junk food for your brain but it’s not even good junk food. Weirdest of all, the movie is one big metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq (acting on false intelligence about some country aiding an enemy by manufacturing weapons). Seems Prince of Persia is Hollywood’s second attempt to rewrite our past political blunders in the Gulf and come up with a dubious happy ending.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Sex and the City 2 (2010)

Sex and the City is a cultural phenomenon that women around the globe celebrate. When the show first premiered on HBO in the late 90s, it chronicled the lives of professional women that wanted to have it all, and they wouldn’t apologize for their sexual appetites or fashion splurges. The successful show then launched a very successful movie in 2008, but the movie tied up everyone’s storylines in fairly nice little bows. So now where to? For the fans, it hardly matters. Sex and the City is a cause of celebration, a girl’s night out with cosmo in hand. The content of the movie seems almost like an afterthought. Fans aren’t going to be too picky but there is a lot to pick at with Sex and the City 2.

It’s two years after the events in the first film. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her husband, John James “Mr. Big” Preston (Chris Noth), are settling into married life. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) feels mistreated and unappreciated by her boss because she’s a woman. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has her hands full with two young children, and motherhood in reality isn’t at glamorized as she thought. She’s also worried that her husband (Evan Handler) might cheat with their busty Irish nanny (Alice Eve, the “10” from She’s Out of My League). They girls dub her “Erin Go-bra-less,” I think as a weird wordplay on Erin Brockovich. Your guess is as good as mine. And then there’s Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who is 52 and desperately fighting to look and feel young again. She has a regiment of hormone pills and creams she uses daily to keep the encroaching effects of menopause at bay. To give the girls an excuse to get away, a rich middle Eastern sheik wants to persuade Samantha to do some PR work for his hotel, so he invites the foursome on a fabulous all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

I know coming from my non-demographic perspective that I’m going to have some difficulty relating to these main characters, but these gals are so self-absorbed in their petty, rich people problems, I question who could really relate to much of this drama. Charlotte is being driven mad by the toll of motherhood, which is relatable, except her toll involves staying at home in a rich apartment, never having to worry about money, and handing off her screaming kids to the nanny. Not relatable. Carrie’s dilemma is the most forced and therefore the worst of the bunch. After having her storyline tied up in the first film, where can she go? She has got the guy, she got her wedding, she has a luxurious apartment, and her man wants to spend time with her. She’s in her mid-to-late 40s at this point and wants to still go out every night on the town. She complains that they stay in TWO NIGHTS a week. When Big gets her a thoughtful anniversary gift, a flat-screen TV in the bedroom so that they can watch old romantic movies TOGETHER, she pouts and says, “Jewelry would have been nice.” Her main problem is that her guy, the one she married, wants to spend time with his wife in their comfy abode and relax TOGETHER. When Carrie asks for two days leave so she can get some work done on an article, Big allows her the time off and then wonders if that apply to their marriage: each takes a day or two off to concentrate on work, relax, catch up with friends, etc. It’s her idea, but when he voices it suddenly it becomes threatening and again all about Carrie. She responds, “Is this because I’m a bitch wife who nags you?” Well, at least she cuts to the chase. These are the problems that people have when they don’t actually have any real problems.

There is one, count ’em, one great scene in the movie and it doesn’t involve Carrie or the ever increasingly cartoonish Samantha. Charlotte and Miranda are by themselves sipping from cocktails and confessing about the hardships of motherhood. Both take sips and then admit a guilty secret. One says she feels like a failure at being a mother. Another admits that being a stay-at-home mom just isn’t enough for her in life. They both admit that they love their children dearly, but have enjoyed the time away from them. The scene feels genuine, with some heartfelt laughs derived from the situation. Charlotte bashfully admits that her first thoughts following the idea that her husband might cheat with the nanny were, “No, I can’t lose that nanny,” and it feels honest and right for her character, plus it’s funny. And then they admit something that the audience had fortuitously forgotten in that moment — they do all this with help. Charlotte has a nanny and Miranda has her grandmother-in-law living with them to help raise the kids. A really nicely written and acted moment that peels away to showcase the complexities of the modern mother is dashed. Even the universal concerns we can all relate to (infidelity, doubt, settling, getting older) take a backseat to the overly manufactured melodrama.

The rampant consumerism hasn’t slowed down despite the economic meltdown of 2008. Carrie makes a quick comment about how it “wasn’t a good time to sell her apartment,” and so she keeps her spacious apartment along with the multi-million dollar one she lives with Big. The sheer celebration of consumerism has turned into blind worship; it’s all about the stuff. The characters have long since burrowed into their types (the fussy one, the career-minded one, the sexually voracious one, and the self-involved one), and those types have become entrenched, and the men have become just another accessory for a large closet of goods. The real star of this movie is the outlandish, sometimes garish, fashion, and there is heaps of it. One outing into the Arabic desert makes use of three separate costume changes. The name-dropping and product placement are aggressive. For the first film I wrote: “‘I’m not going to charge the film with setting back feminism or anything but why do the main characters have to be so shallow, brand-conscious, and live to splurge? The emphasis on buy, buy, buy to make yourself feel good is a rather sad and empty message.” The Sex and the City movies have morphed into consumerist, female wish-fulfillment fantasies, enabling Carrie’s princess indulgences and superficial demands. The girls are all panicked towards the end about he possibility of, gasp, flying coach, you know, like the rest of us. These women haven’t lived in anything resembling reality for some time. It’s a shame that in these cost-conscious times, the Sex and the City universe seems unaffected. I would have enjoyed seeing how these high-powered women dealt with the repercussions of an economic recession (not to mention Carrie dealing with the death of print publishing). Yes, I know, it’s designed to be escapism, and that’s all well and good, but I wanted to escape from these characters and their lifestyles.

But what will get the most attention is the extensively long escapade in the Middle East, like Sex and the City is planning to solve global politics. Obviously, there is something wrong with how women are treated in several majority Muslim countries, from the demands to cover themselves in heavy garments so as not to tempt men, to the void of rights, to honor killings and stonings, and murdering women just because they went to school. This is a serious matter. These countries are behind the times and women deserve an equal footing and an equal say, and several contemporary movies have dealt with these issues in a thoughtful manner. Sex and the City 2, on the other hand, takes a patronizing approach that is culturally insensitive at best and downright racially insulting at worst. These ambassadors of modern feminist thinking basically show themselves to the Arab world as the quintessential ugly Americans; the ladies of Sex and the City are exactly what radicals think about when they order women to cover up or else. These women are self-indulgent, materialistic, vapid, and riding high on Western self-righteousness. I am in no way apologizing for how large portions of the Muslim world treat women, but Carrie and company are quite possible the worst ambassadors to argue the case for feminine equality. And remember, they complain about their pity-party problems while on an all-expenses-paid vacation to a lifestyle of lavish luxury in the Middle East. They reduce the problem of Muslim women into simplistic, indignant quips. It’s more than a little insulting to have somebody wearing clownish outfits telling women in other countries how to dress. This foursome is brash and in-your-face with their strong sense of cultural superiority, practically baiting the locals into making a scene. At one point, Samantha is jailed and shocked that the authorities might be upset that she was caught having sex on their beach. Don’t these women understand culture clash? In the end the women are chased out of town and you almost (I repeat — almost) feel for the other side.

This is considered fashionable?

Even worse than the ethically dubious moralizing is the fact that this extended portion of the movie (about 100 minutes) grinds the plot to a halt. Most of the storylines are set up before the trip, and then they are all tied up somehow when the women return, though the time in Abu Dhabi seems to have had no effect. Miranda’s conflict with her boss is resolved before the gals ever get on a plane, so she becomes essentially tour guide and confidant for the trip. Samantha is denied her plethora of pills at the airport, so she becomes the slapstick comic relief trying to stave off menopause. Her pun-heavy dialogue is full of groaners like, “Lawrence of my labia.” Her sex kitten act is getting as tiresome as her futile attempts to keep Mother Nature at bay. Samantha is the same from the beginning of the movie to the end, and fans will probably rejoice at this lack of character development. The entire misadventure in Abu Dhabi feels like a Hope & Crosby road picture, or, worse, one of those lame TV-movie gimmicks from sitcoms (luckily Carrie is spared the curse of the tiki idol).

But whatever I say will be regarded with shrugs by the legions of Sex and the City fans. They’ve grown with these characters over 12 years, so I understand the attachment fans feel. Like I said before, the movie medium is not the ideal place for these ladies. In half hour doses their quirks and problems seem cute, but when stretched to a bloated running time they come across as vapid and whiny. The conflicts don’t seem too relatable and the humor is once again tied to slapstick and leaden puns. The problem is that after six seasons and one 145-minute movie, the characters feel tapped out. They’ve been through plenty and now the crew is just coming up with whatever excuse they can have to reunite the cast on the big screen (stay tuned for Sex and the City 3 … in Space!).

Nate’s Grade: C

49 Up (2006)

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) interviewed 14 seven-year-old kids from different British backgrounds asking them about their futures. The half-hour TV special by Granada was called 7 Up and it aimed to show the world where the future politicians and doctors and trash collectors would begin. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to those same kids and peaked in on their lives, chronicling their lives. It’s one of the most famous documentary series in history. Thanks to the virtues of Netflix’s streaming service, I was able to watch six of the seven movies in the Up anthology (sorry 35 Up, the lone film not available for streaming). I spent the next twelve hours watching the lives of 14 complete strangers from childhood to middle age, and by the end they didn’t feel like strangers any more. They felt, weirdly, like family. And that’s the true appeal of the ongoing series: you are watching the evolution of human beings. It’s not everybody that gets a visual scrapbook of their life that’s viewed by millions worldwide.

01_49up-1Finally, after many hours, 49 Up is the first in the anthology to address the ideas of selective editing and building storylines to suit the “characters.” Long before reality television smoothed away life’s edges to make everybody fit into archetypes, Apted positioned the Up series as his thesis on class struggle. He purposely selected a cross-section of English schoolchildren from private schools and public schools and even two from a boy’s school for orphans. You can see it at 14, 21, and 28 how Apted sticks to his same line of questioning about class advantages and disadvantages, peppering his subjects with questions about what they didn’t have and then showing their current situations in a specific manner to make the audience feel a specific emotion. It’s not deliberately diabolical or partisan but the class warfare ideology certainly can chafe. Do the kids at the top still get all the perks? Are the kids at the bottom suffering with limited opportunities? Has anybody transcended class? Apted starts attributing achievements by the upper class boys as part of their upper class advantages and not due to their hard work, dedication, or talent, which they have every right to complain about. John complains at 21 that when, at seven, they declare their education ambitions, and Apted follows it up with narration, “John did attend such and such,” that it creates the illusion that everything has been handed to them. The hard work and long hours are not shown, and fair point. A few of his subjects actually begin to challenge Apted over his perceptions. Suzy takes aim at his line of questioning, hinting at her life’s disappointments, and fights back, accusing Apted of trapping her into a small narrative box. She even brings up another heated conversation in the history of the series, when Apted questioned whether Suzy, at 21, had experienced enough of life to settle down (she eventually divorced years later). You witness her youthful indignation and she remarks, with some resignation, that Apted is free to edit this outburst as he will and she is helpless (obviously Apted kept this in). It’s the first time I’ve seen the stars of Up contest their onscreen portrayals.

It is also with 49 Up that the film series starts to finally reflect. Part of that comes with living half a century, and many of the 12 on camera subjects are now at an age where they have grandchildren and are setting up retirement (I wonder what the economic meltdown of 2008 did for those plans). They can reflect about the accomplishments of their lives, the past dreams captured on camera that never came true, the marriages that dissolved, the joys and struggles of rearing children, the pains of burying parents, etc. They seem to be at that stopping point where they can take stock of a life lived. On top of that, the participants now begin to reflect on what being apart of the Up series has meant to them. It certainly shapes public opinion about who they are as people, and Apted gropes for any new info to connect with the prior material in the earlier movies.

28 UpPerhaps Apted feels like he has to keep flogging his class thesis because most of his subjects are pretty regular, i.e. boring, people. They’ve lived lives of modesty and hardship and persevered, but they’re at heart no more interesting than your neighbors. The problem with selecting a bunch of seven-year-olds you plan to follow for the rest of their lives is that you have no clue what will happen. The narrative is completely up in the air. This is why Apted, early on in the series, sticks doggedly to his class thesis to provide some sort of framework he can revisit every seven years. That’s why the series starts to become something of an echo chamber. The exact same sound bytes get used over and over again, trying to find new relevancy. The adults get forever defined, and continuously redefined, by something they said at seven years old, like Neil’s worry that a wife would force him to eat greens and he “don’t like greens” (I’m in the same boat, kid). The echo chamber effect is even more obvious if you watch the Up series in a row. You will start to memorize the childhood catch phrase of everybody and then watch the same clips recycled from 7 to 42. Each is like a little stepping-stone to the present. When viewed as a whole, the series can almost come across as facile. Apted doesn’t probe very deep into his subjects and their lives, mainly sticking to the Life’s Checklist of Accomplishments of Being an Adult: school, job, spouse, family. Personally, I hate how we become defined by a profession. That seems to be the second question that rolls off our tongues when we meet a stranger: “Who are you and what do you do?” What do we do? That’s a loaded question and I object to the idea that our job is the only relevant thing that we “do.” But that’s just my hang-up, I suppose. Apted also lets his subjects reveal the biggest changes in their lives, meaning that if somebody doesn’t want to broach a topic then it gets left unanswered. It can get frustrating and makes for some opaque follow-up visits.

Not every participant is thankful for the Up series. In fact, many of them are wary and somewhat disdainful of participating. Every seven years these people have to rehash their life’s highs and lows, boil them down into a package, and then have it picked over by Apted and his leaning questions, stirring drama anew. It’s easy to see why this becomes a difficult and challenging experience for most, something akin to a cross-examination about your life. So why do most of the 14 return every seven years? Is it the secret hunger for fame? John Brisby ducked out of the Up series after the third installment, upset that he had been made into the series villain through editing. He came across pompous and like a prototypical “old money” sort who lived in a small privileged world (fox hunting!) and reinforced Apted’s thesis on class advantages. Of course his interviews didn’t help him, but I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I’d hate for everything I said when I was 14 and 21 to follow me for the rest of my life. Well, in 35 Up, John returned, though begrudgingly. He had a reason. His wife and he had begun a charity to raise funds to help the beleaguered educational state of Belarus, a country where John’s family once resided. In 49 Up, he travels once again to that ancestral country and he remarks, somewhat graciously, that it was directly because of exposure on the Up series that donations increased and the kids in Belarus today have books and school buildings and dedicated educators. John made the most of his fame and directed it to a worthy cause. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that John’s passionate desire to help Belarus (his wife is the daughter of an ambassador to the country) feels like the “character” of John has matured.

7up1-1Is there any sense of privacy when you know that cameras will be regularly scheduled to appear? There’s this enormous pressure to continue with the Up series, I imagine. But whom do these lives belong to? They were chosen by school officials and Granada at age seven, so they never really had much of a say in what has turned into a lifelong commitment. It seems that the world has a sense of ownership over these 14 individuals’ lives, an ownership that they never granted permission. They must feel an enormous obligation to keep informing the public about their lives, much like a nagging relative. We are a nosy, intrusive lot, human beings are. And I must say that I personally feel weirdly paternal about them. I feel happiness when they too reach happiness through whatever means. I was smiling from ear to ear when Nick, who at 14 was so shy and awkward, became a wonderfully charismatic, articulate, thoughtful, and rather handsome 21-year-old man (he looked strikingly similar to Andy Samberg). I feel despair as well when marriages don’t work out or once secure jobs vanish. Watching the Up series is like watching the evolution of a human being through time-lapse photography; it’s voyeuristic but at the same time it’s like having an extended surrogate family that requires no commitment. We can watch people grow up, mature, gain wisdom, and without anything more than the click of a button. We can watch hairlines get thinner, faces get larger, bodies get saggy, wrinkles multiply, all while playing the visual game of connecting the current iteration of participants with their past selves. We have these 14 people’s lives at our disposal for entertainment.

The Up series aren’t individually great documentaries. In fact, they’re pretty plain and not fairly insightful. As a whole, they present a fascinating document of the human experience and make for a great way to spend a rainy day. You can’t help but reflect on your own life after watching several of the Up movies, and curiously wonder what you have done with your own life at various intervals. As of this writing, all 14 original participants are still alive, which is somewhat amazing in itself. It will be morbidly interesting to see how the film series carries on after one or more of the participants pass away. Millions around the world will mourn what otherwise would have been a normal stranger passing. It’s probably selfish to keep hoping for future installments, and for the participants to keep updating me about their personal lives, but after a 45-plus year investment for some, it’s hard not to feel a sense of attachment to these people.

Nate’s Grade: B

Series Grade: A-

Stoic (2009)

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to associate Uwe Boll with the idea of social activist. This is the same man who has caused people so much pain and with his movies, ranging from bad to ridiculously bad to “You cannot unsee what you have seen” bad. The German director who has caused so many film and video game fans suffering seemed an unlikely candidate to seriously explore the suffering of others. And yet Boll’s heart grew three sizes and he directed a slate of movies with a social conscience. His movie about the genocide in Darfur is still circling around, awaiting a release date, but let me stop to remind you that Uwe Freaking Boll directed a movie about a topical humanitarian crisis. This is akin to… Eli Roth directing an Edith Wharton adaptation (“From the director of Cabin Fever comes … Ethan Frome!”). It just doesn’t seem like an organic pairing. Boll is used to blood and boobs (both of the mammary kind and of the idiot variety), not social relevancy. You don’t expect an exploitation filmmaker to shine a light on exploitation. While we await his Darfur movie, in the meantime is Stoic, a quick and cheap movie about three prison inmates (Edward Furlong, Sam Levinson, Steffen Mennekes) brutalizing their cellmate, Mitch (Shaun Sipos) when a bet goes wrong. It’s based on a true story from a German juvenile detention center, or so we’re told.

So what kind of movie is Stoic, actually? Well, for starters it’s an uncomfortable one. The movie aims to show the capability of human cruelty and how easy it is to become compliant within a group, to go along with the flow despite some murky moral hazards. The three cellmates end up kick starting a cycle of violence, each trying to top the last so as not to appear weak or to damage ego. Can this cycle of cruelty be stopped? The dehumanization leads to some rather brutal and disgusting acts of violence and degradation including forcing Mitch to eat his own vomit, dumping urine on the guy’s face, raping him, and sodomizing him with a broom handle (“Just curiosity, I guess,” explains one of his attackers). Despite all this, there are actual moments of restraint on Boll’s part, particularly during the rape sequence. The audio drops out, the edits become jump cuts stuttering ahead through time, and I thought perhaps Boll was maturing. Needless to say this thought was torpedoed a tad when Boll later showcased the inmates rubbing the bloody broom handle over Mitch’s unconscious mouth. Stoic is essentially a torture movie; it’s 80 minutes of literal torture with some extra psychological justification tagged along for safe measure.

Where Stoic comes into issue is whether or not it possesses any merits to justify watching 80-some minutes or torture. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insights or rich characters. Watching people become increasingly hurtful is not the same as exploring the habits that make such escalating acts of barbarity occur. Boll and the actors pound us with the message that we’re in prison and prison has its own operating system and everybody jockeys for position; Peter (Levinson) repeatedly tells us that he feels sorry but felt he had to participate or else they’d turn on him. It’s all about having somebody weaker to take the fall. I’ll give Boll credit that the amplification of events seems plausible given the circumstances, to the point that the three guys have come to the conclusion that there will be serious consequences for their actions unless they convince Mitch to go along with a fake suicide. The movie maintains believability even as things get more and more out of hand, which is commendable. But what isn’t commendable is that there seems little reason for Stoic to exist. Narratively the movie is simple: three guys pick on another guy. The characters are all slight variations of one another based upon the level to process guilt and deception. During the interviews, we’re given fleeting glimpses at denial and coping mechanisms, mainly lying (“I would’ve remembered something like that.”) to self-rationalization (“I kept saying to myself, ‘As long as it’s not me.’”). There aren’t many insights to be gleaned from the brief interviews, which serve as commentary.

Boll decided to make Stoic his Mike Leigh film, meaning that he had the basic outline of a story and told his actors to run with it while he filmed them. There was no script and all the dialogue was completely improvised. This does allow Stoic to maintain a naturalistic feel, however, it also means that the actors are beholden to tough guy clichés. The dialogue, particularly during the interrogation scenes, keeps falling back to a “you don’t know what’s it’s like, man!” mantra. Here are some examples of bland dialogue that the actors came up with:

“What choice did I have?”

“You’re either with them or against them.”

“What don’t you understand? If I didn’t seem like I was apart of it, they’d kill me.”

“I had no choice. They forced me.”

“I want to lie because I don’t want to be that person.”

“I felt like there was no way out.”

And because you knew it had to happen:

“I’m just as bad as the two of them because I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

You’ll note that most of these dialogue examples belong to the Peter, the chattiest and most remorseful interviewee. Improvisation has its virtues but it can also lead to actors falling back on stuff they’ve seen in countless other genre examples, which means that the banal, cliché dialogue all gets stirred together one more time.

In defense of Stoic, it may prove to be Boll’s finest directorial effort yet. The handheld camera, sharp edits, and close angles copy the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) style of visuals, and yet the docu-drama copy works. The visual aesthetic improves the quality of the film and allows Boll many opportunities for interesting compositions and smart stylistic decisions with the economical space of the set. The interviews are shot as one static camera shot to contrast with the shaky, reactionary movement from within the cell. It may not be an original style, but then again Boll seems to adopt (some might say rip-off) a new style with every film. For Stoic, Boll’s direction makes you feel in the middle of these awful incidents, and the pain feels even more real.

But is there any reason to really watch Stoic? The acting is mostly good, and maybe fans of Edward Furlong would like to see what he’s been up to since 1998’s Pecker and American History X. Perhaps the declaration of “Boll’s best directorial effort” will appeal to maybe six or seven curious, and questionably masochistic, film fans. Due to Boll’s German background, I can’t help but wonder if his country’s history influenced him to try a narrative experiment hat explores how easy it is to go along with something awful, how difficult it is to make a moral stand against the grain, and how easily circumstances can find momentum and get out of control. I wonder if Stoic is Boll’s personal act of penance, of trying to understand a nation’s actions (and inaction) and working through a lingering shroud of shame. Then again, I may be reading way more into this movie than was ever intended. It could have just been a lark for a quick buck/deutschmark. Stoic is a mildly interesting little filmic experiment from Boll. Due to its narrative simplicity and limited characterization, it can’t offer much more than another voyeuristic slideshow of human degradation.

Nate’s Grade: C

Precious (2009)

I can’t tell whether or not I liked this movie or if it simply beat me into submission. The heavy-handed tale of extreme suffering comes across like watching somebody get beaten for two hours. WAM! Your father rapes you. WAM! Your mother doesn’t intervene, in fact, she molests you too. WAM! You’re pregnant with your second kid from dear old dad. WAM! You have AIDS. The material is so unrelentingly dark that the constrained happy ending leaves you with feeling wholly naïve. Precious (Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sidibe) goes from having a hellish existence to having a 10% less hellish existence. It’s hard to find any light of hope within. Thank God that the movie is so well-acted all around, from Mo’Nique’s ferocious Oscar-winning turn as Precious’ monstrous mother, to Sidibe’s heart-wrenching portrayal of an abused and ignored soul, to even a makeup-free Mariah Carrey as a no-nonsense social worker (lack of makeup being the universal sign an actress wants to be taken seriously). Director Lee Daniels lays out the melodrama with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. You feel beaten down by the conclusion. I can’t decide if the fantasy sequences Precious flashes to as a coping mechanism are insightful or just embarrassing. I found Precious’ stoicism worth rooting for, but the movie seems to stop short of finding a way to make me care about her as a character rather than a victim. Her role is mostly impassive but she manages to find her character’s dignity, which is what the film asks us to ultimately fight for. By the end, I felt like I was watching an urban equivalent of A Serious Man, only it wasn’t intended for me to laugh at the misery.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Nine (2009)

Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.

Nate’s Grade: C

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man was a fresh surprise in the summer of 2008, offering a superhero movie dominated by a middle-aged man’s personality and not the special effects. The story was not overwhelmed by all the demands of what we expect in a glorious summer popcorn experience. Marvel was smart to sign on the same team behind the first film, including director Jon Favreau, but setting a deadline exactly two years after the first film made me worry. There wasn’t much time to get everything together, and it should be no shock that Iron Man 2 feels rushes and absent the finesse of the first film. As much as it pains me to say it, Iron Man 2, while fun in spots, doesn’t come close to the original. You can trace much of it back to the sequel ethos that you take what worked in Part 1, make it much, much bigger and louder, and now you have Part Two. But what worked so exceptionally well in the first Iron Man movie was not the action sequences but the characters, so guess what happens when you pollute the narrative with more characters and disposable action sequences?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-made superhero and now the world knows that he is indeed the metallic warrior, Iron Man. Stark refuses to hand over his technology to the government, saying he has “successfully privatized world peace.” He appoints his girlfriend/loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO so he can devote his time to ridding the world of evil and lapping up the fame that goes with being Iron Man. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) is concerned for his buddy but also eager to help play around with that super suit. But not everybody loves Tony Stark, notably Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer aiming for a Pentagon contract, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist who blames his father’s exile from America and Siberian internment on the Stark family. When Hammer sees Vanko’s attack at a Monaco speedway, he knows he has found an ally against Stark. Hammer whisks his newest Russian friend to New York and enlists his expertise in creating an army of super mechanical fighting suits.

The screenplay by actor-turned-writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is overstuffed with people and events all fighting for screen time and narrative dominance that it starts to become unintentionally comical after a while. There are too many storylines jostling for control when any one of them could have comprised a whole movie: military demands to have the suit, Tony deals with blowback from being the most famous man in the universe, and escalation (others trying to top Stark). Don’t even get me started on how Iron Man 2 bends over backwards to advertise that future Marvel Avengers movie lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I mistakenly believed that the trailers ended before my movie started. There’s a storyline where Tony’s blood is becoming infected with a dangerous chemical every time he uses the Iron Man suit, so being a superhero is literally killing him. You can work with that for some pathos, debating the needs of one man vs. the needs of society and the greater good, personal sacrifice, mortality, legacy, but it all gets way too easily resolved in an absurd way (all I’ll say is, thanks Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling!). It tries to up the ante when less would have been considerably more.

Most of the new characters feel poorly integrated, further causing distraction to any attempts at narrative cohesion. Iron Man 2 also pushes Johansson into the mix so that she can shake up the Tony/Pepper relationship and, plus, she looks good in a skintight cat suit. But her third wheel/love triangle status is barely touched upon and Johansson gets one solid action sequence where she takes out a litany of goons in a hallway with the amazing power of her spinning thighs. Johansson is mostly just another assistant to take notes in the background, although she does it beautifully. The Rourke scenes are few and far between. They establish him as an intimidating force and then he pretty much sits in a room tinkering with stuff, garbling Russian, and feeding his cockatiel for the rest of the movie. He never feels like a real threat or a true match for Tony. Rockwell is the more appealing, slimy villain of the duo, aided by Rockwell’s exasperated bellowing and desperation for the spotlight. Hammer is more interesting to me than a Russian ex-con that rarely speaks, let alone speaks in English. He’s given so little opportunity to develop Vanko as a character. And yet Gary Shandling, as a smug senator trying to make Stark accountable to the U.S. military, might be the film’s best villain of the bunch (curious side note: Shandling and Rourke look oddly similar).

The personal relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was the heart of Iron Man. They had that snappy, droll, screwball comedy-esque give-and-take, with hints of something more underneath. This time, the movie doesn’t even speak about their relationship at all, like it never happened in the first film. That scene where she kisses his Iron Man helmet, tosses it out the belly of a plane, and he dives off uttering, “You complete me”? Not in the film. You start to wonder why the movie is being purposely vague and it gets maddening. Their relationship lacks the frustration tinged with flirtation and replaces it with agitation. Both Tony and Pepper are harried and on each other’s last nerve, which doesn’t make for much romantic traction. Their chemistry seems to have dampened. I’m kind of with Pepper on this one because Tony Stark might be even too obnoxious in this movie. Following the sequel-it is code, Tony’s egotistical behavior is expanded and he becomes prone to self-destructive behavior, getting riskier and riskier, pushing others away including, perhaps, decent portions of the audience. He’s stopped being the cocky, likeable arrogant playboy and transformed into a bit of a rich douchebag. Part of this is related to the storyline about the suit literally killing Tony, and his character’s alcoholism featured heavily in the comic books, but it’s just another plot element that feels like it was put in for momentary conflict and then easily resolved or dropped. I understand Tony will be his biggest antagonist but that didn’t stop the first Iron Man film from flying high in entertainment.

The first Iron Man had an unexpected low level of action for a summer movie, but because of the characters you didn’t care. It was that rare comic book movie where you wanted more dialogue and fewer sound effects. To be fair, Favreau and crew saved a pretty nice Iron Mano y Iron Mano fight sequence at the end. Following that narrative lead, Iron Man 2 is structured pretty much like the first when it comes to action. There’s the attack at the Monaco raceway, which features an unrealistic, cartoonish tone that conflicts with the rest of the flick. But the film’s biggest moment of sustained action is the climax involves Tony Stark versus a bunch of silly killer robots. Soulless robot drones don’t get very compelling, plus haven’t we seen a thousand movies where people combat killer robots? What’s more disappointing is that Favreau incoherently stages the action. It’s not due to any sort of hyperactive editing, no, the culprit is that the onscreen action is just moving way too quickly. As a result, much of the action feels like whooshes of color. It’s hard to adjust your eyes to the rapid movement and process what exactly is going on. Because we can’t follow the action the whole thing lacks tension, danger, and drama. I wanted to be blown away by the action, which has several trailer-ready moments of awesome, but mostly I just wanted to be able to understand what I was watching.

Despite all my complaints, Iron Man 2 still manages to be a fun time out at the movies. Downey is always immensely talented and brings great amounts of energy to the role, centering the movie on his witty charms. While his character is less engaging this go-round, Downey is still on top of his game. Rourke, Rockwell, Paltrow, and Johansson all contribute fine performances when they’re on screen. The low output of Iron Man in suit is compensated by having TWO Iron Men, thanks to Rhodes donning the metal gear and fighting alongside his pal. The opening of this movie captures your interest fairly well, though it loses it again thanks to slack pacing and an influx of new faces. The tone of the movie takes a cue from Downey and the movie as an agreeable, comedic feel without seeming overly glib. And hey, the special effects are pretty nice, too. Iron Man 2 is an adequate popcorn movie but the tragedy of the movie is that the first film was much more than adequate. I think the Iron Man film franchise is in need of a slight upgrade.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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