Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mindless "Prince of Persia" offers time-filler for fan boys

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) 
116 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

You know what they say about men with big swords. Well, nevermind, but if it's hokey, high-flying, high-adventure summer entertainment (not in 3-D) that you're seeking, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" may just quench your thirst for sand, sandals, swords, and cheese galore. Just don't expect it to stick with you 'til the sands of time. And if Disney and the Jerry Bruckheimer juggernaut can turn a theme park ride into the hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, then why not a hit video game movie? 

Jake Gyllenhaal, ripped like a Persian Fabio with flowing locks and boyish good looks, has appealing presence as our noble hero Dastan, a former street urchin taken in by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and his two sons in sixth-century Persia. In midst of attacking the city of Alamut, Dastan gets his hands on a dagger that contains powerful sand and allows its possessor to reverse time (cue the “ooh ah” choir voices). But before discovering its mystical powers, he's framed for the murder of his father (by way of poisoned robe) and goes on the run with Princess Tamina (spunky Gemma Arterton, just seen in "Clash of the Titans"), whose destiny is to protect Persia's manufactured weapons. 

The story is pretty convoluted and episodic, becoming exhausting as it turns into a nonstop climax of Dastan losing the dagger, then retrieving the dagger, etc, before it unleashes a horrific armageddon. But while the gung-ho actors try keeping us up to speed with all the exposition through clichéd, straight-spoken dialgoue, it's more about the swashbuckling set pieces and CGI effects, like its video game counterpart, as Gyllenhaal leaps off buildings from each elaborate level to the next. 

Director Mike Newell keeps things moving at a lively clip and the sweeping Moroccan sand dunes gorgeous. Though recalling the "Indiana Jones" movies, the "Mummy" movies, the "Pirates" movies, "Aladdin," and "300," this one has a good sense of humor too. And the evil sorcery of the Hassansins, led by creepy Gísli Örn Garđrsson and his slithering serpents, is darkly cool stuff like Harry Potter's Voldemort. Sir Ben Kingsley goes through the villainous motions in eye makeup as Dastan's dastardly uncle Nizam. But Alfred Molina has a hammy, jolly time in mascara, like Johnny Depp did as Captain Jack Sparrow, as a chatty, roguish sheik who doesn't pay taxes and promotes ostrich stampedes (!). Without trying to be Lawrence of Arabaia, the gloriously mindless "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" will do as a fun time-filler for the giddy 15-year-old boy in all of us.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Sex and the City 2" is 2 much but knows its audience

Sex and the City 2 (2010) 
146 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Once upon a time, there were four city girls, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha, who liked to shop and sip down cocktails. In the inquisitive nature of Carrie Bradshaw pecking away on her laptop, no one can help but wonder, is the exuberant and extravagant "Sex and the City 2" a match for the show or its first film adaptation, like a scrunchie should match a pair of leg warmers? And why yes, Cinderella, the shoe fits ... for the most part, coming as close to the original HBO show's tartly funny, raunchy spirit and down-to-earth honesty as you'll find. 

This indefensible but fabulously entertaining sequel is going to please its large female fanbase, no matter what, as a reunion event for girlfriends to rush out to theaters in their stilettos and sneak in their Cosmopolitans. Anyone looking for a piece of grand summer escapism will get their bucks' worth for another behemoth 2 ½ hours (!) spent in the company of these four soul mates, even if stretches of it could've been liposuctioned. 

It's been two years later in the city and Carrie and Big (Chris Noth) are Mr. and Mrs. Married, about to lose their “sparkle” because the hubby wants to get take-out, take “2-day breaks” from each other, and watch old black-and-white movies on their new flat screen in bed. As for her BFFs, they're dealing with a hellish boss (Cynthia Nixon's Miranda); stressed raising two children (Kristin Davis's Charlotte); and fighting cougar menopause with the help of vitamins and facial creams (Kim Cattrall's Samantha). And what do these gal pals do to solve their middle-aged problems? Well, hello lover, they go on an all-expense-paid trip, of course, to Abu Dhabi (filmed in Morocco) and shake things up! Cue the "camel toe" and "Lawrence of My Labia" jokes. 

Like an indulgent vacation, "Sex and the City 2" is pure glitz and glamour, a big, broadly played wish-fulfillment fantasy about four obscenely rich, superficial but likable women that still has its pleasures, even if it's too much and too long. Though Parker is and will always be Carrie Bradshaw, the character begins as a more spoiled, whiny, self-involved shadow of her former self with “woe is me” syndrome. Played by Davis, Charlotte is constantly checking for cell-phone service in the desert (an annoyingly weathered cliché by now), but she has a sad, authentic individual moment in tears that makes up for making her look like a screechy caricature. She also shares a funny, tender chichat with Nixon about parenting over drinks. Luckily, Cattrall is hilariously uninhibited as ever, getting a lot more laugh-out-loud Samantha-isms and libidinous sex. 

Writer-director Michael Patrick King gives us more dramatic crises and comic episodes, like Carrie seeing her former love Aidan (John Corbett) in (where else?) Abu Dhabi and Charlotte dealing with a sexy Scottish nanny (Alice Eve) who doesn't wear a bra. We get a quick montage of the foursome back in the '80s Reagan era that's as campy as it is amusing. Liza Minnelli giving a good-sport cameo, as she officiates the ceremony and then sings Beyonce's “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and dances in black sequins at Stanford and Anthony's Big Fat Gay Wedding, is good fun. The Abu Dhabi half is long with uneven spots and much too muchness, but it's more sustained than the Mexico sequence of the first movie. 

An over-the-top escape sequence is more "Charlie's Angels," and the film is getting a lot of flak for offending the Middle East and for all the conspicuous consumption in a bad economic time, but that's only if you'll be taking a "Sex and the City" movie as seriously as real life. Believe it or not, those burka-clad women also enjoy fashion and read Suzanne Sommers even if they're not from the city! In its final analysis: while not as good as some of the funnier episodes in the series or its 2008 big-screen predecessor, there's plenty here for "Sex and the City"-philes. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Solitary Man" gets another great performance from Douglas

Solitary Man (2010) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Brian Koppelman and David Levien's (2001's "Knockaround Guys") second co-writing and directing effort, "Solitary Man," is a true actor's showcase for Michael Douglas. Before reprising his Gordon Gekko in the "Wall Street" sequel, Douglas plays fast-talking, moneymaking New York car dealer Ben Kalmen. To ward off aging, a job scandal, and a heart problem, he's a compulsive womanizer, the younger the better, including the legal but only-18-year-old daughter (Imogen Poots) of his current lover (Mary-Louise Parker). His philandering has ruined his marriage to his college sweetheart (Susan Sarandon) and his unreliability has strained his relationship with his married daughter (Jenna Fischer) and grandson. But Ben makes no apologies for his misbehavior. On his side are an insecure college student (Jesse Eisenberg), whom he trains on the art of seduction, and a deli-owner pal (Danny DeVito). 

Douglas's Ben character is quite the self-destructive louse that commits some cringe-inducing sins, but Douglas plays addiction like no other (what with "Wall Street" and "Wonder Boys") and even gives the character some charisma. Then again, Ben deserves an arc, that which the story never achieves. However, it's a provocative character study about human nature and human weakness that never strikes a false note. "Solitary Man" has a smart, acid wit and a juicy, nuanced lead performance, surrounded by shining supporting roles. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"MacGruber" silly and crude but surprisingly funny

MacGruber (2010) 
88 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Movies inflated from Saturday Night Live skits usually don't get much mileage from one joke. In fact, you can count the number of successes on three fingers ("Wayne's World," "The Blues Brothers," "Coneheads"). "MacGruber" had no right to be funny as a feature-length movie, let alone semi-good, but it actually brings on the funny. The joke of Will Forte's MacGuyver-esque American-hero, MacGruber, a Green Beret, Navy SEAL and U.S. Army Ranger who is none-too-bright with explosives, is that he gets less than 2 minutes to diffuse a bomb, gets distracted, and blows everyone up. 

This gleefully ridiculous, silly, crude—and very funny—comedy isn't a bomb but has the smarts to parody overblown '80s-style actioners, from "First Blood" to "Lethal Weapon" to "Die Hard," and dump MacGruber into the mix. Jorma Taccone, one of the SNL actor/writer/director guys that does the hilarious Andy Samberg videos, is at the controls of this movie and shapens real comic timing that's needed, with his editor knowing just where to cut, and jacks up the 60-second sketch caricature with entertainingly bloody violence, throat-slashings, and one great subtitle joke translating “You're loco, man!” The movie gets bailed out by the cast and many cheap “shock” laughs. 

Will Forte's quick, deadpan delivery and too-cool-for-school attitude for stupid-as-hell dialogue as the mullet-haired MacGruber. Thank god for Kristen Wiig as love interest Vicki St. Elmo; they share a priceless wam-bam-thank-you-mam sex scene that's even unsexier than the one in "Team America: World Police." A rather portly Val Kilmer has a ball as the nuclear-bomb-stealing madman, Dieter von Cunth (the “H” is silent), the arch-nemsis who killed MacGruber's wife 10 years earlier. That name is one of the reasons why the movie got an R-rating (take that NBC censors!), but the Cunth joke wears out after about the third time. Ryan Phillippe gets the “straight man” role as soldier Dixon Piper, but this is the only movie you'll see where he distracts bad guys with a celery stick protruding from his derriere (which we won't get into here). SNL vet Maya Rudolph is a hoot, unsurprisingly, as MacGruber's late wife, showing up in flashbacks and spiritual visitations. "MacGruber's" thinness becomes all too apparent, as all SNL movies do, but it's a pretty funny waste of time. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dreary "Pathology" needed a nip and tuck

Pathology (2008) 
94 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

Privileged, straight-arrow Harvard med grad Dr. Grey (Milo Ventimiglia) finds himself thrown in with a tight-knit group of fellow pathology residents in the Los Angeles county morgue. Soon after being introduced to their scene of heavy drinking, meth smoking, and kinky sex, the hotshot is initiated into the group's outre hobby, a game by which one of them commits the perfect murder and the rest have to determine the method. 

"Pathology," this darkly atmospheric but grisly and perverse medical thriller, has the backbone of a diabolically intriguing premise, crossing hedonism with morality, made up of bits from "Rope," "Flatliners," David Cronenberg's "Crash," and "Fight Club." But somewhere in the execution, director Marc Schoelermann and the screenwriters make no sense of the story and just throw their hands up, surrendering to gratuitous cadaver gore and fetishistic sex. 

With this being a thriller, you don't have a single person to root for: they're all stamped with a God complex and they never shut up, not even protag Ventimiglia who goes from cocky know-it-all one minute to a murderous, drug-using nympho the next, all because of peer pressure! Alyssa Milano is handed the only pure role as Ventimiglia's fiancée, about twenty minutes of screen time, that it seems like a waste. If the opening segment of the "orgasm/diner scene" from "When Harry Met Sally" performed with corpses isn't depraved enough, we get pathologists having sadomasochistic sex with needles in their skin, adjacent to a dead body on a medical table. 

This is a seedy world not many will want to enter, as if erotic fetishes for automobile accidents in "Crash" wasn't enough. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Just Wright" and "Letters to Juliet" solid rom-coms

Just Wright (2010)
100 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Given the generally low standards of romantic-comedies today, it's a surprise when something like "Just Wright" comes to the market. More romantic than comic, it still doesn't insult the female audience it caters to and boasts the big, engaging personality of Queen Latifah. 

In this formula Cinderella romantic-comedy, the wise and winning Latifah plays Leslie Wright (as in the movie's moniker), a saucy but good-hearted physical therapist who's always the friend but never lucky when it comes to dating. At a gas station she meets cute with New Jersey Jets basketball star Scott McNight (hip-hop artist Common) who turns out be a real gentleman, but his attention wanders when he meets Leslie's smokin' hot but selfish, gold-digging stepsister (Paula Patton). Then when Leslie tries nursing him back to health after a crippling injury on the court, threatening his NBA future, Scott may change his mind—Leslie Wright might be just right. 

"Just Wright" actually gets the genre right: Latifah and Common share a nice, easygoing chemistry, and for a commercial rom-com it avoids dumbing down its characters to move the story along or desperately having them do pratfalls. In fact, everyone behaves more like a human being here: James Pickens Jr. is warm as Leslie's positive father, Patton is more than just a one-dimensional bitch, and Phylicia Rashad has a nice turn as Scott's mom. Written by Michael Elliot and directed by Sanaa Hamri, it's patently contrived but attractive, timely (Obama name-dropping), and never pushy. 

There are some cheesy moments that only exist in the movies, and no laugh-out-loud comedy, but you'll smile a lot and the film's good vibes are carried by Latifah. It's a better back-up plan than…"The Back-up Plan." 

Letters to Juliet (2010) 
105 min., rated PG.
Grade: B 

Grazie, there are no silly pratfalls or terminal illnesses in "Letters to Juliet," a pleasant and shamelessly romantic pleasure. In Verona, Italy, tearful girls still leave notes on the wall next to Juliet's balcony asking for love advice that are then answered by female “secretaries” pretending to be Shakespeare's fictional Capulet. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact-checker and aspiring writer for The New Yorker, while in the city for her pre-honeymoon with her cooking-obsessed fiancee (Gael Garcia Bernal), answers one herself. The letter was written 50 years ago by Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), now an older woman, who becomes to Italy with her grandson (handsome but bland Christopher Egan) in order to find her long-lost Lorenzo. Naturally, Sophie tags along. 

"Letters to Juliet" might be slight, predictable corn, but it's sweet, charming, and appealingly old-fashioned without being strained or overly contrived like most contemporary romances. Gary Winick's direction is supple (unlike his stupid "Bride Wars") and the location shooting in the Italian countryside is beautiful, while the wonderfully photogenic Seyfried is kissed by the camera and Redgrave is lovely. Her Romeo is played by real-life, off-screen love Franco Nero and that chemistry is hard to fake.

Gritty "Robin Hood" entertaining but humorless

Robin Hood (2010) 
140 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

The last time we saw Robin Hood and his league of merrie men was in Mel Brook's spoof when they were in tight green tunics, so it left room for the old tale to be retold. Ridley Scott's decidedly more-realistic take on Erroll Flynn's oft-told Sherwood Forest knight is more of a “Robin Pre-Hood: The Younger Years,” like an origin primer for the hero's just-beginning adventures. Now, you won't see this Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but let's say what this one is rather than what it isn't. 

The Hood is now named Robin Longstride, played with glower by Scott's Gladiator muse Russell Crowe, who has a lot on his plate, including memories of witnessing his father's murder. The time is at the turn of the 12th century in England. After King Richard and Sir Robin Loxley are both slain after returning to England from the Crusades, Longstride must deliver the Lion Heart's crown to his mother and younger royal brother. Richard's brother, John (Oscar Isaac), becomes the king by default, with an English enemy in their midst: Philip of France (Mark Strong) and his soldiers. Our bow-and-arrow hero must also be the messenger of bad news in Nottingham to Loxley's blind father, Walter (a touching Max von Sydow), and his now-widowed wife, Marion (Cate Blanchett). By turn, Robin Longstride gets Loxley's sword and becomes the return son and Marion's husband. 

Though not the most memorable version (can't forget the 1991-Kevin Costner "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), Scott does a solidly entertaining job with this “re-imagined” Robin Hood, moving well and having a grand scope. It is too humorless and dour, despite some low-key comic relief from Robin's men (Little John, etc.) and Friar Tuck and banter between he and Marion. Crowe is ever stolid but well-cast as this heroic nobleman and Blanchett is a feistier Marion; no damsel-in-distress here. But her and Crowe share little heat in their romance. Strong has become typecast as the Snidley Whiplash of Bad Guys in the last months ("Sherlock Holmes," "Kick-Ass," and now this), and he's just as creepy here. 

The storyelling is choppy at first with a lot of meanwhile but takes shape as it goes, and the battle sequences are rousing in slick, sliced-and-diced Ridley Scott fashion and rendered pretty coherently, even by Scott standards. Even if it's less romantic or merry than the Robin Hoods of yesteryear, this rough, tough, and gritty "Robin Hood" is more suited for our times of brooding heroes with daddy issues.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mediocre "Wedding Date" embraces rom-com conventions

The Wedding Date (2005) 
85 min., rated PG-13.

Equal to a Plain Jane, "The Wedding Date" is a perfectly tolerable but mediocre piffle of a romantic sitcom. It embraces genre conventions without shame and even includes a lot of recognizable songs that were a hit a decade ago. The whole movie also feels about a decade too old. Finally, Debra Messing, so likable and funny on TV's “Will & Grace,” gets her first lead film role. Not a far stretch from her small-screen Grace, Messing plays desperate, anxious New Yorker Kat, who's in her 30s and single. She pays a studly male escort named Nick (Dermot Mulroney) $6,000 to pose as her boyfriend at her half-sister's (Amy Adams) nuptials in London, where she plans to make her ex-fiancée (also the best man) jealous. 

A kind of “Pretty Man” to that timeless Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy (what's the name of it again?), "The Wedding Date" won't take a rocket scientist to know where it's headed. And yet, it's virtually painless. Messing is a pro at playing wildly neurotic, but charming, ninnies and Mulroney is suavely appealing as the gigolo without being unctuous, and together they make an attractive couple. But while easy on the eyes, their characters aren't very fleshed out (Nick “majored in Comparative Literature at Brown?") and neither are their motivations. 

Clare Kilner generically directing it all with a light, champagne touch, "The Wedding Date" is lukewarm as a comedy, cold as a romance, and comes to a melodramatic halt with its tacked-on soap opera confrontations (the bride has a secret, the groom is an unlucky schmuck, the best man a jerk). But British newcomer Sarah Parish as a lusty, loudmouthed bridesmaid (who resembles a younger Margot Kidder) overshadows everybody and gives the film a lift; she's a hoot and delivers some hilariously acidic one-liners, if only her character was handed more scenes. 

Otherwise, this is so forgettable and indistinguishable that you should just go back and watch "Pretty Woman," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," or catch Messing on “Will & Grace” before the series signs off for its last season.   

Monday, May 10, 2010

Light "Julie & Julia" offers another delicious Streep performance

Julie & Julia (2009)
110 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Acting goddess Meryl Streep does the incredible: she is the lovable Julia Child, whipping up a treat of a charismatic and non-buttery performance like she did in "The Devil Wears Prada" without segueing into SNL impersonation or larger-than-life caricature. The biopic story of Julia, a former government secretary and joyous cook who lived in France, is episodically juxtaposed with blogger Julie Powell's parallel story, played by the sunshiny Amy Adams. Frustrated with her job at Ground Zero and self-absorbed friends, Julie decides to make all 524 of Julia Child's recipes and then blogging about them. 

Writer-director Nora Ephron's overlong but delightful and fairly entertaining concoction, "Julie & Julia," is like a not-very-filling soufflé. Even though based on the autobiographical novel, Julie's storyline is no match for Julia that one wouldn't have minded had Ephron just made “The Julia Child Biopic.” Adams can redeem any movie she's in and is such an engaging actress that she gives Julie some warmth, but her character is irritating (a self-confessed bitch) always having meltdowns and often makes the film stagnant. But it's Streep who energizes the film as a giggly Lucille Ball, uncannily portraying Child's mannerisms, distinctive voice, and 6'2” height, that it's always irresistible fun whenever she's on screen. The supporting cast is fine too, with Jane Lynch funny as Julia's taller, louder sister Dorothy and Stanley Tucci charming as Julia's husband. The movie offers more smiles than laughs, but the elegantly presented meals will look yummy to foodies. 

Even if Ephron never settles for both women meeting, the conclusion at Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian set to Margaret Whiting's charming “Time After Time” tune doesn't quite have that satisfying payoff where you want to say “bon appetit!” Sometimes a pleasant, easy-breezy trifle is enough, and as such, "Julie & Julia" has most of the right ingredients.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Human Centipede" outshocks all the "Saws" and "Hostels"

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010)
92 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

The Dutch sure know how to whip up a repulsively inspired high concept for gross-out horror. Case in point: auspicious writer-director Tom Six's surgical-horror effort "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)," which is about exactly what it sounds, is a squirmy kick. The setup is like a standard slasher picture, and the rest is anything but. Clueless, whiny American party girls Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), wearing too much mascara and touring through Europe, get a flat tire on a lonely stretch of road in the German woods. On foot in the soaking rain, they get lost but soon refuge at the only house for miles. It's a sterile, tastefully chic home, not the redneck cannibal kind, and the resident is Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), a renowned surgeon and secret psychopath who drugs the women and straps them to beds in his basement laboratory. He's known for his work of separating conjoined twins, but now he has the perverse fantasy of creating his very own “human centipede.” Yeah, that's right, a chain of humans surgically conjoined, ass to mouth, to create one digestive tract. Only in the movies, people. 

Delivering on what it promises, "The Human Centipede" is an unbearably tense, diabolically bizarre and utterly grotesque shocker that's being marketed as “100% medically accurate” (so waste excreted from one person can sustain enough nutrition for another?). Realizing such a crazily sick nightmare, a fate worse than death, the film goes there without feeling gratuitous, which is kind of an incredible feat. Disturbing and shocking is primarily Tom Six's point, but he's obviously a smart and skilled filmmaker to avoid making a merely nasty exploitation pic (or, the in-vogue term, "torture porn"). Six knows his horror tropes, knows how to pick at his audience like a scab throughout, and even sneaks in a xenophobic subtext about fish-out-of-water Ugly Americans who may never leave the foreign land they came to visit. Tension is set at a white-knuckle level, particularly when one of the young women escapes from her hospital bed and nearly makes us think she will make it. The focus is also on the twisted mind of the torturer and not seeing the twisted acts played out in graphic detail, however, that's not to say the film isn't brutal because it is. Although the sight of the “insect” assemblage is indelibly revolting, the horror that plays out is more restrained, suggestive and less glorified than any of the "Saw" or "Hostel" movies. Not all of the plotting holds up, but it's rare to find such a skillfully staged, beautifully shot horror film as this one with a full-bore sense of dread and a gallows—no, make that deranged—sense of wit. Oh, and no cheap “gotcha” scares, either. The despairing conclusion will bring new meaning to the Steve Miller Band's “Stuck in the Middle With You" and leave your mouth agape. 

The film is by no means unblemished. A couple of Horror 101 conventions must be checked off so there can be a film, and it takes a while to officially get on the side of the two female characters. On the other hand, never have actors been more pitied or fearless, going through the uncomfortable wringer on their hands and knees in the foulest of positions. Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie sure can convey an intensely emotional state with all the crying and screaming they're asked to do, too, but it's Dieter Laser's sinister, sadistically loony performance as the God-playing mad scientist that is the drawing card. His Dr. Heiter will undoubtedly go down as one of the most chillingly intimidating movie villains since Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. Carving a spot for itself at the top of "can-you-top-this" films for only the strongest of stomachs, "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. By the title alone, it will inspire curiosity and be talked about for a while, but this is not for wimps. And, since the film's subtitle is "(First Sequence)," it's not hard to guess that Tom Six already has a second sequence in the works, our ballsy filmmaker already claiming it will make this first part look like "My Little Pony." You've been warned, so chalk it up to a test of your bravery.