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Column Fri May 28 2010
Sex and the City 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, The City of Your Final Destination & The Father of My Children
Sex and the City 2
I know I jokingly say sometimes about films I don't like some variation on the idea that I don't where to start picking it apart. But with the horrifically shallow Sex and the City 2, truer sentiments have never been spoken. This movie is literally about nothing. I don't mean it's not about anything important or significant or noble; I don't need that in my escapist entertainment. No, this film is has no heart, no brain, and an empty soul. And let me throw one more thought your way; this might be one of the most racist, anti-Arab films you will ever have the displeasure of sitting through. Maybe that's a good place to start...
Sex and the City 2 spends roughly half of its 145-minute running time openly mocking Arab traditions, no matter how dated and out of step with the world at large they may be. Is there a place in the world for films that question and defy the terrible ways that women are treated in some regions of the Middle East? Without question. Is that place writer-director Michael Patrick King's script and movie? For the sake of argument, let's say "Why not?" Here's why not. Because the portrait that Sex and the City 2 (I'm talking about this movie specifically, and not the series or first film) paints of Western women makes them appear to be the most appalling, whiny, vapid, materialistic creatures on the face of the earth. If you're going to criticize something, at least offer up a viable alternative that isn't worse. I'll get off my soapbox, but dammit this movie goes into some truly culturally offensive places.
That aside, the movie presents us with a series of problems our four heroines must overcome. Let's list them. Golden Girl Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is trying to take as many natural supplements and hormones as she can to fool her body into feeling younger. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) quits her law firm job because her boss is a chauvinist pig. Charlotte (Kristen Davis) is afraid her husband might have an interest in the hot nanny (Alice Eve). And Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is afraid she and her jockey, I mean husband (Chris Noth), might be becoming a boring old couple that never leaves their multi-million-dollar apartment that she spent two years decorating. Here are some other random issues that crop up during the film: hot flashes (guess who), a baby who won't stop crying unless the nanny is around, women who enjoy time away from their kids, kissing an old boyfriend, getting kicked out of a $22,000-per-night hotel suite in Abu Dhabi, and the list continues.
You know what I call those problems? The kind only rich people have--or, in the case of Sex and the City 2, rich white people. These are not real problems; these are problems that idiots who don't have real problems make up to seem like they know struggle and hardship. Am I supposed to feel even a tiny bit sorry or get any sense of drama from a story featuring four successful, rich people that are whisked away on a private jet to a Middle Eastern all-expenses-paid paradise for a week? Boo fucking hoo.
I almost lost my shit very early in this movie. The worst offender in the pity party parade is Carrie herself. For example, when Mr. Big buys her a thoughtful anniversary gift, she makes a face and says something about how jewelry would have been a better gift. And then again, when Big takes a cue from Carrie after she spends two days away from him in her old apartment to write and suggests that they spend two days apart every week to do their own thing (him: watch TV and relax; her: hang with girls, write, shop), she loses it a little bit and then takes a weeklong trip with the girls. Way to passive-aggressively over compensate, Bradshaw. Then on the trip, she just happens to run into old flame Aidan (John Corbett), and they make out a little, after which she feels terribly guilty. I was ready to throttle her.
Okay, so let's consider Sex and the City 2 as pure entertainment. I might have laughed twice, and I'm pretty sure that was more at the grandiose awfulness of it all more than anything else. The gay wedding that opens the film is pretty amusing, especially Liza Minnelli's trainwreck of an appearance. Any potential acting in this film comes in the form of a brief cameo by Penelope Cruz, who is abruptly taken out of the film as suddenly as she appeared. By my count, there is one scene that I responded to--a throwaway moment between Charlotte and Miranda at the bar in their hotel room confessing how guilty they don't feel about being away from their kids. It's a rare moment in this film-- the characters slow down, think complete thoughts, and voice it coherently. The laughs in that scene are earned, and not simply treated as a punchline.
Carrie and Samantha are walking cliches at this point. And I'm sorry, but Kim Cattrall's sexy speak has gone from funny/seductive to creepy. When Samantha overtly comes on to a guy in the movie, and he pretends to respond favorably, you can almost see him choke back the vomit. I know this is supposed to be a movie about fashion and decadence and girl power, all of which I can appreciate when it's done with a fiber of dignity or a point. Sex and the City 2 has neither. And I realize I'm not the demographic for this movie, but that doesn't mean I can't measure its value. There's a scene in which a scantily clad Samantha finds herself picking up the spilled contents of her purse (including loads of condoms) in the middle of a Middle Eastern marketplace. Is it wrong that for the brief moment I thought that the men screaming at and surrounding her might start picking up rocks? Of course it is. It's culturally insensitive of me to even have such thoughts against Middle Easterners or women. This movie doesn't get that. This is an awful, awful, awful movie.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
You'd better spend a good long time in the shower after this weekend, because between Sex and the City 2 and Disney's Prince of Persia, you're going to be washing a whole lot of sand out of your crack. And with all that sand comes a whole lot of chaffing, and it's going to chap your ass something fierce. Perhaps it's because I never had the benefit of playing the video game that this empty-headed film is based on, or perhaps it's because I have this crazy obsession with character and plot, but Prince of Persia is dead behind the eyes. No action cliche is left unturned, ending with the old faithful moment when the hero foregoes saving the entire planet so that he can save the life of the woman he kinda-sorta likes. I think filmmakers think moments like that make their love seem strong; they don't. Moments like that make the hero look like a big douche applicator.
The titular hero (yeah, I said "titular") is Dastan (a woefully miscast Jake Gyllenhaal, who does little more than flash his sly smile and glisten during the entire course of this film), an orphan boy who is adopted by a king after showing extraordinary bravery. The king's family also includes two other sons by birth, and the four of them share a strong bond that serves their family and expansive kingdom well. After an ill-advised invasion of a holy city in which Dastan is the true hero, the king is assassinated and Dastan is framed for the deed. He escapes and takes with him the captured city's princess, Tamina (Gemma Arterton of Clash of the Titans, a film that Prince of Persia reminds me far too much of). The fiesty and beautiful Tamina seems obsessed with reacquiring from Dastan a dagger that contains a small amount of sand in its handle. When the gemstone at the end of the dagger is pressed, sand is slowly released and time goes backward for as long as the sand lasts (seems like about a minute total).
The potential of this ability seems awesome, of course, and the pair tentatively join forces to protect the dagger and figure out who really had the king murdered and is searching for the knife. Anyone who has ever seen a movie should be able to figure this out in about 10 minutes. Also on hand in this dreadful movie is Alfred Molina, phoning it in as the crooked Sheik Amar, a businessman who runs ostrich races and keeps company with the best knife men in the region, and Ben Kingsley as the prince's caring Uncle Nizam who seems to like wearing eyeliner and is eventually enlisted to help find the real killer.
The problems with Prince of Persia are legion. I felt like the actors are all winking at the camera in unison, and nobody really cares whether we buy these performances as in any way representational of the period. I'm not expecting every weapon and building and goblet to be historically accurate, but I can't help but imagine that the phrase "You're not my type" wasn't spoken ever in the Persian deserts. I'm a fan of director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Donnie Brasco), but special effects-driven action isn't really his thing. And that's pretty much all this movie is. Speaking of special effects, in this day and age, there is no excuse for shitty-looking CG, especially in a film that clearly cost a lot of cash like Prince of Persia. Some of these renderings looked unfinished, and I'm being kind.
What's far worse, however, is that there isn't a single solid performance in this entire movie, and some of these folks are gifted actors. In smaller, more intimate roles (like last year's Brothers), Gyllenhaal can be really gripping. But nothing about his character in Prince of Persia taps into his strengths as a close-to-the-vest actor. This film requires Bigness, and despite the fact he clearly toned and pumped for this role, that simply isn't enough. His seems translucent on screen in a big-budget whomp like this one. I'm not trying to imply that he's the worst of the bunch; it's a photo finish in that race, simply because I never got the sense that anyone was really trying. I wasn't in active suffering mode the way I was with Sex and the City 2, but Prince of Persia is so flaccid, I think you'll regret paying any amount of money to see it or spend any amount of time watching it. I'll give the filmmakers and studio a slight uptick for not converting this to 3-D, but that's as far as I'm willing to go toward praise.
George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead
I was not a hater of George Romero's last effort, Diary of the Dead, although I will be the first to admit it was by far the weakest of movies focusing on the walking dead. And if you would have told me that from the womb of that film would issue forth something as so utterly whacked out and unique as Survival of the Dead, I would have been the first to apply the electrodes to your brain and certify you as insane. But if nothing else, Survival proves that Romero is wise enough to explore genres outside the zombie world while still forwarding that same genre in new and interesting ways.
The protagonist in Survival of the Dead is Sarge Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), a military man (I believe he was a National Guardsman in Diary), who was seen in the last film stealing supplies from film students shooting the early days of the zombie apocalypse. This film shows us that encounter and branches the story to follow a few of the soldiers as they find an armored car, take it to a ferry, and float away to a place called Plum Island, which we're told is off the coast of Delaware. What we've learned from a prologue is that Plum Island is made up of the O'Flynn clan and the Muldoon clan (led by Seamus, played by Richard Fitzpatrick), both of whom speak with Irish accents and dress like ranch hands. The Muldoons have an interesting take on "right to life": they believe that a family should not shoot zombies but keep them isolated and continue to treat them like a member of the family. Meanwhile, the O'Flynns shoot on sight. And what is clearly an age-old feud continues.
The military types arrive on the island with the patriarch of the O'Flynns, Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), who has been exiled to the mainland. He has come back for revenge, while the rest have come to clear out the remaining zombies and live in relative peace. And for a time, we're not sure who is the bigger threat: zombies or humans. As he is prone to do, Romero has a few angry messages he wants to get across, mostly about religion. I'll admit it was amusing to see soldiers portrayed as the good guys, when Romero clearly set them up as the boorish villains in Day of the Dead. I've always loved that unveiled, naked aggression that Romero brings to every film. He's not attempting to hide his metaphors. He's pissed off, and here's why.
The old-West quality of life on the island adds such a great dynamic to the film. In this age of injecting zombies into Jane Austen novels, it's fun to see what is essentially a a cowboy movie with zombies. Having the soldiers in the mix almost makes it feel like a time-travel adventure story on top of everything else. And for the most part, Romero gets it right. And he still has a flair for some of the greatest zombie kills I have every seen. I'm still a touch bugged by the use of CGI for blood and head explosions, but I get that Romero is working on a tight budget. That said, the CG gore is pretty great, and after a while, I barely noticed it.
Romero also slyly injects the potential for a love story between Crocket and O'Flynn's daughter (Kathleen Munroe), and then deals with that in a clever way that makes it clear that this is a hardcore zombie movie and not a chick flick. It's my understanding that Romero plans to make a couple other zombie films that branch from the characters met by the film students in Diary. And if they're as much fun as Survival of the Dead, I'm all for it. The possibility for creativity appears endless. I don't need to explain Romero's importance to the world of film and horror storytelling; you either know it or you don't. I've written about it countless times, and there's no need to repeat myself. The bottom line is, when George A. Romero makes a new zombie movie, you pay attention. You don't have to like it, but you watch it to see what ideas he's come up with and what plot choices he has come up with that others will soon mimic. Survival of the Dead is wall-to-blood-soaked-wall entertainment, and as much as I would like to see Romero try other films on other subjects, if zombie movies are the only way he can get a film financed, it's good to know that he hasn't lost his playful, creative spirit of critical thinking. I completely dug this movie, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The City of Your Final Destination
It's been a while since 82-year-old director James Ivory has made a film that has stood up to the standard he himself creative with his producing partner Ismail Merchant over the course of such works as The Remains of the Day, Howards End, A Room with a View, and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. And while his long-delayed latest work The City of Your Final Destination does not quite hit that high benchmark, it is the closest he's come in quite some time. Based on the novel by Peter Cameron and adapted by Ivory's usual collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this film covers some familiar territory for Merchant-Ivory works as it provides a glimpse of the idle rich in an exotic location, seen through the eyes of an outsider who begins in awe of what he beholds and slowly begins to see the flaws in the veneer.
When American professor Omar (Munich's Omar Metwally) receives a letter from the trustees of the estate of an author whom he would like to write an authorized biography telling him his request is denied, he decides with more than a little prodding from his bossy girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara of The Baader Meinhof Complex) to head to the late author's estate in Uruguay to persuade them in person. The dead author wrote only one novel, based closely on his younger life and love, and Omar wants to know more about both the circumstances that went into writing that book as well as why the author killed himself at a relatively young age.
Upon his arrival at the palatial Ocho Rios estate, Omar meets the three executors: Adam (Ivory regular Anthony Hopkins), the elderly gay brother of the author; Caroline (the dead man's prickly but still quite lovely wife, played by Laura Linney); and Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the writer's mistress, who appears to have a fairly amicable relationship with Caroline. Arden has a young daughter, Adam has a Japanese partner ("Lost's" Hiroyuki Sanada), and Caroline has nothing beyond her water colors to keep her company in this self-imposed exile. Following the rules that only eccentric rich people follow in movies, the three are baffled by Omar's unannounced arrival, but take him in and allow him to stay and attempt to convince them to change their mind about the biography.
What follows in City of Your Final Destination is a series of vignettes as we get to know each of the players and how they revolve around each other or get sucked into each other's gravity--depending on the circumstance. Omar is a bit of an naive idealist, but he's also aware that his charm and good looks could have some sway over all three family members, especially Arden who is still young and desperate for new experiences and faces. As I've said before, sometimes with a film, even if the story is lacking, sometimes you can derive a great deal of joy from simply watching first-rate actors in relation to one another. I was especially delighted to see Hopkins just existing and clearly enjoying playing such a free-living character, rather than some artificially melodramatic goof ball as he did in The Wolfman. One of Hopkins' many hidden talents (in addition to his more overt gifts) is the ability to make everyday conversation so engaging. The stakes are not particularly high here, but with a well placed smile or laugh or hesitation, Hopkins gives you no choice but to hang on his every word.
Linney and Gainsbourg play two sides of the same woman. What Caroline lacks in flexibility and soft edges, Arden makes up for almost to a fault. She's too timid, too easily influenced by stronger wills than hers (which is pretty much everyone she meets), but her ability to see the best in people makes it impossible for you or anyone to dislike what she brings to this story. Both actresses are two of my favorite working today, but if you compare this role to what Gainsbourg pulls off in Antichrist, you get the truest sense of her unbelievable range. Linney has played this hard-edged type of person before, but Caroline is the character in this story with the most secrets, so Linney gives her a little something extra behind the eyes.
Much like the characters in it, The City of Your Final Destination exists in a vacuum, a place where most citizens of the world simply don't exist. The story is set in South America, yet there's almost nothing of that culture represented in the film, nor should there be. That's kind of the point. Adam at one point in the story articulates that such a lifestyle is quite easy for rich Europeans in South America, and I think that, more than anything about a biography, is what this story is about. Sure, this is a movie about rich white people with no relatable problems, but these extraordinary actors made me care nonetheless, and I truly enjoyed James Ivory's latest--hopefully not late--effort. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
The Father of My Children
With the 2010 Cannes Film Festival having just wrapped up last weekend, it seems only right that last year's Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize winner The Father of My Children is making its way across the country. It's even more fitting since the film is about a small film production house that is struggling to make ends meet. The first half of the movie centers on the head of the company, Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who is attempting to balance the artistic needs of his various filmmakers and productions shooting around the world with the financial realities of a company that is millions of Euros in debt with no means in sight be even begin to pay creditors or vendors. Since Gregoire's company mainly deals in art-house releases, the potential for even a modest hit are slim and probably wouldn't do the company much good anyway.
While I would have been happy to spend the duration of the film watching the inner workings of such an establishment and character, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has something else in store. Without giving too much away, circumstances in Gregoire's life change, leaving his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and three children with the unenviable task of taking stock in the company and figuring out if there is something worth saving.
The Father of My Children does something that might qualify as remarkable: it manages to keep a cool, strictly business approach to much of its telling, especially as Sylvia is forced to take a crash course in film production and accounting to get a true assessment of the company's value, while still having a solid emotional core with regards to Gregoire and his family. De Lencquesaing does a terrific job playing a character who maintains his cool under unimaginable pressure, while still allowing us to see his concern and anxiety. The end result is an engaging work that feels authentic and all-too believable given the world's economic climate and the state of independent film and boutique production companies. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.