movie reviews May 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time  •  Sex and the City 2  •  Exit through the Gift Shop  •  The Secret in Their Eyes
Mother  •  Waking Sleeping Beauty  •  Shrek Forever After
Mid-August Lunch  •  Robin Hood  •  The Secret of Kells  •  Letters to Juliet
Just Wright  •  Iron Man 2  •  Babies  •  The Art of the Steal

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As someone who has all the natural athletic ability of Stephen Hawking, little makes me happier than watching actors and stunt doubles reducing the laws of physics into mere guidelines. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a new adaptation of the popular series of video games, lacks the rush of personally manipulating Prince Dastan’s leaps and parries. Still, there are enough moments when the characters quit talking and start climbing or fencing so that passively watching the proceedings isn’t as dull as waiting for your turn at the controls.

still of Jake Gyllenhaal

When viewers have to settle for Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) making his own decisions, he appears to be a principled but impulsive fellow who gets by more on agility than intellect. But if you could effortlessly scale a city wall using your subordinates’ arrows for steps, you wouldn’t need to waste your time thinking either.

Dastan is the adopted son of the Persian King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and has more courage and conviction than both of the monarch’s biological sons (Steve Toussaint and Toby Kebbell) combined. When his brothers and his uncle Nizam (Sir Ben Kingsley) start planning attacks on a city that may be providing the ancient version of WMDs to Persia’s enemies, Dastan initially advises restraint but later decides to lead a daring invasion of his own.

Oddly, when Dastan arrives, he discovers none of the promised weapons except for an odd dagger that has sand in the hilt. While it’s too decorative to be useful in battle, Dastan discovers that releasing some of the sand enables him to go back in time, often about a minute. That’s just long enough for him to correct a fatal mistake. He makes several of those, so the dagger comes in handy.

Dastan winds up needing it even more when Sharaman dies and he becomes the prime suspect in his father’s murder. The situation becomes so dire that he must team up with the city’s feisty princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and the slippery outlaw Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina, dining on the lush scenery in a delightful way) in order to prevent the schemers who really killed Sharaman from discovering the secret of the sands. Apparently, the city’s gods frown on using the grains to move back more than a few minutes or days.

Having learned most of what I know about ancient Persia from reading Encyclopedia Britannica and watching 300, I’ll leave quibbles about the film’s approach to history to more knowledgeable people. The film has been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave us the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Armageddon so expecting a thoughtful period drama is pretty unreasonable.

As for the featuring of primarily British actors to play ancient Persians, I can certainly see why some of their descendants might be upset that the casting agents chose to ignore political correctness. The Englishman Kingsley, whose ancestry is Gujarat Indian, Jewish, Russian and German, is about the only lead actor who could pass for Iranian. With actors who are Iranian or of Iranian heritage, it would be easier to suspend disbelief and simply watch the movie instead of wondering why all these Persians speak perfect modern English with an upper class London inflection.

That said, I had no problem with Australian Linda Hunt playing a Eurasian man in The Year of Living Dangerously or Tony Shalhoub playing an Italian in Big Night. In Prince of Persia, director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) manages to get better than expected work from performers who are pretty much required to take a back seat to acrobatics and breathtaking scenery (shot by ace cinematographer John Seale, Master and Commander). The American Gyllenhaal has just the right blend innocence and confident determination for Dastan, and Newell manages to keep Kingsley from descending into ham.

While Newell and the legion of screenwriters involved give the serviceable story more dramatic weight than it would normally have, the director is less assured during the action scenes. I’ll give the filmmakers credit for discovering countless ways for Dastan to leap, crawl, climb or fence his way out of trouble. The problem is that Newell cuts through the action so abruptly that viewers can’t take in the stunt performers’ artistry. Watch the old Douglas Fairbanks silent movie The Thief of Baghdad or, hell, any Hong Kong action flick, and you’ll see stunt work that’s better executed.

If Newell and his crew had a little more patience, it might have been more fun to watch the characters outdoing Cirque de Soleil, even if we aren’t pulling their strings. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/28/10)


Sex and the City 2
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In Sex and the City 2,writer/director Michael Patrick King rides roughshod over the gal pals of HBO's original series. Instead of offering a heartfelt look at marriage, motherhood and growing older in uncertain times, he forces them to perform a lonely, tiresome cabaret.

Still of the Sex in the City Girls

In a misguided attempt to recapture the excitement of their lives as single women, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) accept an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxury hotel in the Middle East. The women revel in their newfound opulent surroundings yet are privately agonizing over their own separate troubles. For Carrie, the issues are negotiating a marriage settling into a mundane routine. Charlotte has trouble managing her expectations of motherhood, Samantha is fighting menopause, and Miranda has given in to a hostile work environment.

Inevitably, Samantha's self-satisfied debauchery gets them run out of town, and they are saved from possible violence by the quick thinking of the women they’d previously debased as "the real housewives of Abu Dhabi." For all that, the fab four return to their previous lives largely unchanged. This could be because, with the exception of one touching scene in which Miranda forces Charlotte to expose her secrets and they both feel the better for it, the women are kept peculiarly isolated from each other. On arrival in Abu Dhabi, much fuss is made over the four separate luxury sedans hired to chauffeur them around as well as the separate quarters at the hotel, complete with four young house boys, one assigned to each woman. Instead of on a luxury vacation together, they are each in their own private hell — and the viewer with them. Under these conditions, the overdone karaoke rendition of “I Am Woman” performed during a so-called girls' night out is even more implausible and ridiculous.

Much of the dialog is stilted and overly explanatory, such as when Harry explains that Charlotte converted to Judaism eight years ago or when Miranda and Steve argue about her texting her mean boss. Real friends already know these things about each other. Rumors of on-set disagreements aside, the players on-screen speak to each other as if they have not seen each other in years. At other times, the dialog relies heavily on strained puns or oddly coined words, such as “inter-friend-tion.” It’s ironic that in the movie writer Carrie is abused by a book critic for relying on just such devices. Either this is meta-sleight-of-hand, or King should take his own subconscious advice.

From the opening scene in which Carrie flashes back to the moments (and fashions) of meeting each of her friends — on the surface meant as a way to bind them together — King's script manages to completely cut off the dynamics that made the series such a hit. Major plot points aren't allowed to play out. They are hidden in purposely coy references, such as when the audience is led to believe that Samantha is getting married instead of sworn enemies Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone). Or it's couched in a red herring, such as when Aidan (John Corbett) makes an appearance as nothing more than a prop.

Loyal audiences should feel cheated by this version of Sex and the City. Instead of valuable life lessons and funny, intense drama, King provides a wild goose chase that's more hysteria than hysterical and, what's even worse, he dresses it up in those unflattering harem pants from last season. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 5/28/10)


Exit through the Gift Shop
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The world of underground “street” art, which varies from pointless property damage to viciously insightful commentary on mass culture, has long needed a documentary that comes from an inside view. Exit through the Gift Shop is, at first, all that and more: nominally directed by Banksy, a famously reclusive L.A. street artist, it chronicles the rise of Thierry Guetta, a k a “Mister Brain Wash,” a Frenchman who goes from a simple chronicler of street art to rise and become more popular (and expensive) than his original subjects.

Still of some guy looking pretty mysterious

Narrated by Rhys Ifans, we at first follow Thierry, a jovial little Frenchman who buys old clothes in huge bulk, sticks vintage labels on most it and then sells it at outrageous prices. After following and videotaping a cousin who happens to be a street artist around L.A. in the middle of the night, Thierry decides to create the “ultimate film” about underground art. After ten years of filming artists climbing on roofs or spray-painting trains, Thierry finally gets to meet to the most famous of all, Banksy himself. Thierry’s result is an almost unwatchable film laughably called Life Remote Control: The Movie. After being seen by Banksy (to his horror), he decides to “turn the camera around” and follow Thierry himself, who has by now abandoned his camera and has hired a small army of artist to create his own artist persona, Mister Brain Wash.

Along with Banksy, we watch with squirming unease as Thierry’s massed-produced pop-art pieces become a smashing success, even as the little man himself seems clueless about his brazen theft of the work of the very people who had trusted him.

All in all, this is a perfect little metaphor about the questionable meaning of pop art. Some of the footage of artwork being created is fascinating, some scary (Banksy’s “installation” of a blow-up Guantanamo detainee, complete with red jumpsuit and black hood over the head in a Disneyland attraction does not thrill the security guards at the happiest place on earth) and some hilarious.

There’s just one little problem: the whole movie itself is a fake. Oh, it’s a good one, and cleverly relies on the belief that modern art is more about name-dropping all the underground artists in your collection than really having any taste in the art itself. But the irony of a man with absolutely no talent befriending artists, ripping them off and becoming bigger than anyone is just too perfect. Not to mention that Banksy himself is a notorious jokester, who knows well that pop art is at it’s best when it actually makes a statement. While Banksy’s artwork often has a clear meaning that’s readily approachable, some of the other artist here seem only interested in pasting there own versions of that annoying “OBEY” sticker all over the place.

The artwork eventually mass-produced by Mister Brain Wash (hmmm, that name might have a double meaning…) is little more than a bunch of Andy Warhol posters with some added streaks of color, and some stock footage of that Bradgalina pair “shopping” at an underground show. It all goes by so fast you might miss it, but the intent is clear: marketed correctly, garbage can become high art …at least if you’ve got money too waste and no artistic taste whatsoever.

Just as Spinal Tap is both a loving tribute to rock and roll and a viciously funny observation on its darker side, Exit through the Gift Shop is a subtly perfect satire of modern art, artists and their fans — warts and all. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 5/28/10)


The Secret in Their Eyes
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Better known for his work in U.S. television, Argentine director Juan José Campanella (Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Intent, House) struck Oscar gold for best foreign language film in 2010 with his fourth feature-length film, The Secret in Their Eyes. Notwithstanding the distinction, this protracted crime drama seems ripped from the story lines of the American small screen.

Still of a couple gazing deeply

Haunted by a brutal rape and murder case from 1974, recently retired court clerk Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) returns to his old stomping grounds 25 years later to mine the original files for fodder for his fledgling novel. Calling on his former boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), for assistance in the endeavor elicits long-suppressed feelings of regret and longing. Together, they rehash the facts of the brutal crime and their culpability in the piecemeal investigation.

Revealed through flashbacks, the inquiry into the murder unfolds with the same stingy pacing that rules many prime-time serial crime dramas. The viewer is kept on a strictly need-to-know basis. Not that it matters; the case is solved through intuition rather than clues anyway. Esposito and his inebriate partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) narrow in on the suspect through empathy over their obsessions, proving the adage it takes one to know one.

Esposito also forges a relationship with the dead woman's husband, dealing with his own obsession to find the killer. Here, the film doles out of heavy-handed cues for the final twist, which is so implausible it's laughable. Still, nobody expects the Argentine revolution.

With the exceptions of the grisly crime scene and a moment of intense elevator silence, it's difficult to take The Secret in Their Eyes seriously. This is partly the result of the comic relief Campanella inserts into what could have been a seriously dark thriller. In an attempt to poke fun at the bureaucracy of the Argentine courts, the filmmaker makes light of intradepartmental malingering. Even though this results in very serious consequences, it's almost as if Esposito is within seconds of uttering the famous line from Clerks, “I'm not even supposed to be here today.” Added to this are the various false pretenses under which Sandoval, soused from a mid-morning visit to his regular bar, answers his phone, always ending with “Wrong number.” The last thing a serious crime drama needs is a funny tag line.

Even worse are the unintended laughs. Beyond early attempts at writing, Esposito neglects his novel and uses it as a mere prop to keep the doorway to time travel open. And why would he? In scenes from the past, 53-year-old Darín, made up to play young Esposito, looks ridiculous with dark beard and hair and heavy makeup filling in the lines on his face. Yet, when playing the gray-haired retiree, he seems too young and the makeup on his face is unsettling in its resemblance to lizard skin. The actor playing the young husband is similarly positioned: too old to play his young self and too young to play his old self.

The good cop/bad cop routine, prompted by a popped button and performed by Esposito and Menéndez Hastings, is embarrassingly cliché and results in an overly dramatic and obscene confession. Same goes for the corny scene in the train station with hand placed over hand on the window and the missing As — especially the final one — from the ancient Olivetti typewriter.

For a film to base one of its main premises on worth is a dangerous business. The young husband fighting to be worthy of his beautiful wife or the mere court clerk hoping to be worthy of his worldly boss and the emasculation derived from feelings of inadequacy could be an interesting theme. But not if the audience is too good for the movie. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/28/10)


Mother
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the course of unraveling a murder mystery, director Bong Joon-Ho's latest movie reveals the dark secrets between a mother and son. In Mother, Hitchcockian set pieces, unyielding performances, and unexpected plot twists conspire to become a moody yet thrilling suspense film.

mother

When 27-year-old simple-minded Do-joon (Bin Won) is all but convicted of murdering a young girl, his unnamed mother (Kim Hye-ja), fed up with indifferent police work and an incompetent lawyer, sets out to prove her son's innocence by finding the true culprit. At first, the mother's pursuit of an alternate theory, driven only by what seems like blind and overprotective devotion, is broad and inept. She harasses the dead girl's family at the funeral, tries to bribe the lead detective with herbs from her store, and unsuccessfully frames Jin-tae (Ku Jin), her son's questionable best friend, with false evidence. The desperate prodding of Do-joon's faulty memory only leads to uncovering the mother's own shameful secret.

But then, roused by an alarming visit from Jin-tae and a grim determination to make up for past mistakes, the mother transforms into a cagey sleuth, a virtual South Korean Miss Marple. Do-joon, the village idiot, is far from the only suspect. As the saying goes, it takes an entire village. On a hot tip, Do-joon's mother chases down the dead girl's past in the form of a silent picture-taking cell phone (a genuine McGuffin worthy of its comparisons to Hitchcock), and in doing so exposes sordid exploits committed against a girl who has no mother to protect her.

As a theme, motive is extremely important to the film. Jin-tae offers his own theory of three, but Do-joon's mother knows better. As she delves deeper into the mystery and comes closer to learning the truth, she discovers first-hand there are many more reasons that can lead to murder. Moviegoers expecting an easy resolution will be happily disappointed. The film's ending is a horrifying amalgam of all that was previously revealed and lends itself to multiple viewings.

By using a washed-out color scheme and scenes showcasing menacing weather or props, Bong strikes just the right anxiety-inducing chord throughout Mother. For example, the mother cuts the herbs in her shop with a large, sharp blade or when Jin-tae steals a golf club from the posh course. But in this movie, the most dangerous actions ultimately come from within.

Unlike in Bong's monster movie The Host, in which a family unites against bureaucracy and a giant beast, the destructive forces in this film come from the characters' inner lives and their dysfunctional relationships. In the former movie, the slow-witted character, the father, becomes the protector who ultimately saves his daughter, redeeming the past mistake of letting go of her hand.

In Mother, Do-joon, in trying to win his independence from his mother, unwittingly places himself in constant danger of exploitation, while the best his mother can do is mop up the mess afterward. Ironically, they both might be better off far away from each other instead of sleeping in the same bed. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 05/21/10)


Waking Sleeping Beauty
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It would be tempting to dismiss the new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty as being nothing more than current and former Walt Disney Company insiders patting themselves on the back for the remarkable streak of hits the studio turned out in the 1ate 1980s and ‘90s. But there are two things that prevent this from being a 90-minute promotional reel for the studio’s past glories:

They have something to be justifiably proud of.

By recalling their halcyon with remarkable candor, the makers of Waking Sleeping Beauty reveal a story that’s as mesmerizing as anything they put on screen.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Much of this occasionally brutal honesty can be attributed to the fact that first-time director Don Hahn, who’s a veteran Disney producer, has unearthed hours of previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage of the artists at work and play. Cameras were forbidden on the lot, so some of the footage may be actually illegal!

Nonetheless, if you love animation, there are indispensable moments and some surprising revelations that explain how painfully grueling it was to make those beautiful films.

For example, the opening sequence is a tour of the studio. As the video camera passes by, you can spot an intense-looking animator named Tim Burton practically begging to be alone. Also in the clip are a who’s who in animation like John Musker and Ron Clements (the team behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog) and the late Pixar story guru Joe Ranft. Running the camera was future Toy Story director and Pixar and Disney executive John Lasseter.

If the name dropping doesn’t impress you, the film includes hilariously unflattering caricatures of Disney bosses drawn by frustrated employees during their off time. We also find out how the filmmakers kept their heads despite crushing hours. Not many offices feature margaritas and a live Mariachi band on Friday night.

Another astonishing piece of footage is the funeral for Wells, who managed to keep some of the larger-than-life personalities from clashing. As Eisner and Roy Disney speak, it’s obvious that the two hate each other’s guts.

Another treasure is Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman demonstrating how he imagines the characters will act. He did more than simply write words for Alan Menken’s melodies. The Broadway-inspired template he established paved the way for movies like The Lion King, and even if you know the story of his death, which was brought on by AIDS, Waking Sleeping Beauty presents his passing in heartbreaking detail.

Every frame of Waking Sleeping Beauty was shot before 1994, when The Lion King became Disney’s biggest hit to date and when studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney acrimoniously to co-found DreamWorks. The synergy that had resulted in such breathtaking animated films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin slowly fell apart, and the 2D animation process, from which Walt Disney founded, was almost cancelled for good.

As the film reveals, the collapse of the animation department almost happened before. By the early ‘80s, the labor-intensive process of making animated features was considered too costly and antiquated. Executives at Disney were seriously thinking of turning the company into what Walt’s late nephew Roy E. Disney feared would become a “museum” instead of a going concern. The box office receipts from The Black Cauldron were so paltry that shutting down the cartoon unit seems weirdly logical at the time.

When Michael Eisner became CEO and Frank Wells became president, however, the animators were kicked out of their own building and forced to make their next film in only a year (The Black Cauldron had taken nearly a decade) and with a smaller budget. The resulting film, The Great Mouse Detective, was an exponential improvement and a steppingstone to greater things.

Instead of featuring current taking head comments from the people who saved the toons, Waking Sleeping Beauty is narrated by former execs like Roy E. Disney, Eisner, Katzenberg and Peter Schneider (who shared producing duty on Waking Sleeping Beauty with Hahn).

Recorded during interviews with journalist Patrick Pacheco (http://open.salon.com/blog/lybarger/2010/04/14/the_mouse_roared), all remember both the thrill of making something great and how personality clashes could have derailed the company even sooner. Hahn does most of the talking and his droll, self-deprecating tone is a scream. He sadly admits that at the nadir, Disney was beaten at the box office by The Care Bears movie.

While Disney has made their name by dwelling on fantasy, the charm of Waking Sleeping Beauty is that demonstrates that reality can be magical, too. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/21/10)


Shrek Forever After
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The title for this third sequel to Shrek, Shrek Forever After, is apt because it accurately describes how long it feels to sit through it. The wit, energy and irreverence of the first two films are only fitfully evident this time. Thanks to repetition, Shrek and his pals are now as dull and rehashed as the fairy tales they used to make fun of.

shrek forever after

The writers and directors who worked on the previous efforts, particularly Andrew Adamson from The Chronicles of Narnia, are long gone. It takes more than fart gags and occasional gross out images to replicate the former delights.

This time the title ogre (Mike Myers) has gone from being a cranky loner to a bored husband and father. While he still adores Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and tolerates Donkey (Eddie Murphy), the routine makes him feel drained. Shrek also feels wrong about the fact that peasants now want him to autograph their pitchforks, when they used to point them at him in terror. For just once, he’d like to be scary again.

The opportunistic and amoral magician Rumpelstiltskin (story supervisor Walt Dohrn) may just have the solution to Shrek’s midlife crisis, but it’s guaranteed to be worse than the problem. Having missed out on his chance to rule Far Far Away when the ogre saved Fiona from a dragon, Rumpelstiltskin tricks Shrek into signing a contract that places the green goon in a gloomy world where he was never born.

Before you can say, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Shrek discovers that Donkey is now a lowly beast of burden, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is more pampered than frisky and Fiona is all that stands between ogres and their annihilation by king Rumpelstiltskin and his legion of witches.

There are some pop culture quips as there were in the first two films, but they aren’t as funny or as inspired. Hearing Donkey bellowing a Carole King song gets tiring after a few minutes despite valiant silliness from Murphy. In addition, Rumpelstiltskin is a rather dull villain. He’s as pompous as Prince Charming and Prince Farquaad were in the first film, but it’s simply not as much fun to see his massive ego deflated. The little weasel, unlike his predecessors, has some genuine misfortunes, so it’s not as amusing to see him humbled.

One of the things that made the previous movies as enjoyable for adults as they were to the children they accompanied was that there was once a sense of vivid detail. If you blinked, tiny hilarious gags would pass you by. This time around a lot of dead time ensues, and there’s a sense of predictability that will make you feel as clairvoyant as some of the characters in the film. The 3D effects, while occasionally impressive, do little to elevate a 1D story.

If the early films reveled in crude humor, there was a sense that the filmmakers cared so much about what they were doing that they could make flatulence gags that were as well crafted as Noël Coward dialogue. The first set of writers and directors seemed to hope that viewers would spot their subtle handiwork, but the new crew approaches their duties as if audiences will ignore their indifference. Having a final credit sequence where characters from the previous films make cameos only serves as a reminder of how far the franchise has fallen.

Director Mike Mitchell (Sky High) adds some new celebrity voices to the mix. Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch and Kathy Griffin all contribute, but their roles are so paltry that you’ll miss their contributions if you take a bathroom break. Even if they had more time their dull characters could have just as easily been played by unknowns.

Having adored Shrek’s initial outings, it pains me to admit the new installment belongs in the lowest pit in Shrek’s swamp. The filmmakers promise us Shrek Forever After will be the final installment. If this is the best they can do with the character, they had better keep their word. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 05/21/10)


Mid-August Lunch
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While Sir David Lean had to travel through the Middle East and Werner Herzog trudged through the jungles of the Amazon to make great movies, novice feature director Gianni Di Gregorio has made a terrific and warm little comedy by only occasionally leaving his apartment in Rome.

Mid-August Lunch

Mid-August Lunch (a k a Pranzo di Ferrgosto) projects such a sense of warmth and wit that it’s hard to believe that Di Gregorio also served as a screenwriter on director Matteo Garrone’s disturbing gangster drama Gomorrah. Garrone produced Mid-August Lunch, but if he wanted to put a stamp of his own on the film, it’s invisible.

The simple but potent story concerns a middle-aged bachelor named Gianni (Di Gregorio) who doesn’t seem to do anything but ride his moped to and from a liquor store so he can sample their wines with his equally listless buddy who has the ironic nickname of Viking (Luigi Marchetti). Neither seems to have the energy to loot or pillage.

In the case of Gianni, his lack of ambition may be due to the fact that he spends most of his day caring for his elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis). Looking after her takes so much time and effort that Gianni doesn’t have the time to hold a regular job.

Sadly, not working has been getting in the way of his rent payments for three years. By all rights, the building’s supervisor Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) would be justified in evicting Gianni and his mother. Instead, he gives the struggling Gianni an offer he can ill-afford to refuse. Alfonso will forgive the gargantuan debt if Gianni will watch over Alfonso’s mother (Marina Cacciotti) during the Pranzo di Ferrgosto holiday.

Of course, the seemingly simple agreement is too good to be true.

Ferragosto, which was established by Emperor Augustus, is a national holiday that’s held every August 15 in Italy, and it’s a terrible time to be stuck home alone, when everybody else is partying with their friends or family. Worse, Alfonso also brings in his even older aunt (Maria Calì) before Gianni can renege on the arrangement.

The three ladies argue over the arrangements while Gianni frantically tries to keep them fed and content. The normally sleepy-looking Gianni goes through an ordeal comparable to Hercules in a ‘50s Italian sword and sandals movie. Fortunately, Di Gregorio presents the feisty seniors with a consistently affectionate tone. No matter how demanding they get, it’s hard not to find them charmingly amusing.

While Di Gregorio has acted and directed on stage, Mid-August Lunch is the only movie he has starred in or directed. He’s not the only screen newcomer. All of his older costars are new to movies and make astonishingly assured debuts. Their work is so unassuming and natural that you’d never know they were amateurs.

In fact, much of the appeal to Mid-August Lunch is that it never feels contrived or sitcom-ish. The film unfolds so effortlessly that is brief running time (75 minutes) moves by like a trained sprinter.

Mid-August Lunch wasn’t made with grand ambitions, but its overwhelming heart is as awe-inspiring as any exotic vista. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/15/10)


Robin Hood
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

You know you’re in trouble when it takes two and a half hours for the legend to, well, begin. It’s as if director Sir Ridley Scott were determined to make a film about the beloved outlaw by avoiding all the interesting parts of the myth.

The new Robin Hood attempts to explain how Robin Longstride/Robin of Loxley/Robin Hood came to be the forest dwelling outlaw who used larceny to right social wrongs.

Robin Hood

Unfortunately, there are already countless other films (some of them better) that have done the same thing. There’s even a fascinating, if deeply flawed, movie called Robin and Marian where Sherwood Forest’s most famous resident comes out of retirement, so getting started isn’t such a big deal. Essentially, the current offering is more of a retread than a reboot.

If you’re going to shoot the same arrows that Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery or the hilariously miscast Kevin Costner have used, you’d better have a new a new target or at least a perfect aim. The screenplay by the occasionally talented Brian Helgeland attempts to explore the Robin Hood legend through a seemingly endless series of angles, none of which are developed enough to edify or entertain.

The story reduces 12th and 13th century England to Cliff’s Notes version of history. It incorporates both the feud between the warmongering, but not terribly interested in ruling, King Richard The Lionheart (Danny Huston) and Prince John (Oscar Isaac), his ambitious but obnoxiously vain brother.

It also includes references to the crusades and the creation of the Magna Carta, which created the novel idea of limiting the power of a monarch. Scott has a reputation for being exacting, and Helgeland is a voracious reader, but neither manages to come up with anything dramatically engaging.

Somewhere in the middle of this historical muddle, Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) returns from both the Crusades and from Richard’s disastrous campaigns in France. As portrayed in the film, Robin’s only distinguishing characteristics are his sure aim with a bow and an ironclad sense of right and wrong. As a result, even when played by a supremely talented actor like Crowe, the legendary outlaw is less compelling than his Wikipedia page. He’s so earnest that it’s hard to believe he’d ever violate the law, good cause or not.

This time around, Robin returns from accompanying the bloodthirsty King Richard to the Crusades where he makes the mistake of courageously questioning the King’s killing innocent Muslims for Jesus. After being punished by the King for stating the facts, Robin escapes with his fellow prisoners (later in the film they become the “Morose,” I mean, the Merry Men) to return a sword a dying nobleman stole from his father, Sir Walter Loxley (a wonderfully droll Max von Sydow).

The ailing Sir Walter is so grateful to hear the sad news about his offspring that he asks Robin to be his heir and even assume the identity of his late son. This even entails Robin living with man’s widow, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett) as his wife. If sparks fly, it appears they only occurred on the page. They certainly don’t on screen despite an appropriately spirited performance by Blanchett.

With a budget of around $200 million, it’s hard to believe how little actually happens in Robin Hood. The court intrigue, which includes a double-dealing protégé of King John named Godfrey (the perennially malevolent Mark Strong), that dominates most of the film is limp and rote. Because most of the court figures, like Chancellor William Marshall (William Hurt), have only a single trait, which they sometimes have to share with other characters, the political machinations never heat up.

Shortly before I watched Robin Hood, I had the pleasure of catching the 1968 drama The Lion in Winter, where many of the same characters depicted here are drawn in far more vivid detail. I was struck by how the movie that had no action to speak of and a more modest treasury was the more entertaining.

Scott stages a massive final battle that almost atones for the tedium that precedes it. The showdown involves enough soldiers, ships and CGIs for at least a couple of films. Unfortunately, because the leaders of the conflict aren’t that well conceived, it takes some effort to get worked up over the outcome.

Because so much has been squandered on gritty spectacle (at least the Medieval Englishmen aren’t blessed with 21st century dental work), it’s tempting to wish that Robin Hood himself couldn’t be summoned to return what the film’s investors have lost and eventual viewers might spend on this debacle. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/14/10)


The Secret of Kells
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

First released in 2009 in Europe, The Secret of Kells is a rare treat in the field of animation now so often now dominated by CGI effects and blue furry aliens. (Okay, I'll lay off on Avatar but it's almost an insult to place such a well-told and entrancing story in the same category.)

the secrets of kells

The story centers on Brendan, a young boy living in a medieval Irish town dominated by the Abbey, a man obsessed with building a wall around his helpless city to protect them from marauding Vikings. When Aiden, a famed cartographer appears, fleeing from the oncoming Vikings, his also brings with him a mystical illuminated text called the Book of Kells (which happens to be a real manuscript over a thousand years old featuring the four Gospels of the New Testament).

Brendan, ever fearful of the forest outside the town walls, eventually ventures out to find a certain plant needed to make a special ink for Aiden only to discover a friend in Aisling, a young wolf-girl who helps him on his quest. Once done, Brendan is confronted with an even scarier task than entering the forest: Aiden wants the boy to illustrate not just a page, but the most important page of all in the book. Meanwhile, the Vikings grow ever closer, looking for gold (the Book has a gold-colored cover: apparently nobody else in the town catches on to that, but it's a mild complaint).

The animation style for the characters is simple, and sometimes borders on cartoonish, but it is effective. It's the mixture of grand (and often moving) illuminated designs, and a lush and wonderful soundtrack that mixes traditional music with a modern score. The result is entrancing. Just like in a classic illuminated text, articulate and fascinating designs are woven throughout this film, and the skill of this style of 2D animation is perfection.

At just 75 minutes, and completely lacking in giant robots and big explosions, The Secret of Kells will probably stay just that way — a secret little gem hidden for a lucky few who will get to see it. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 5/14/10)


Letters to Juliet
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In fair Verona, a strange but charming practice has arisen. People from all over the world converge on the city to write letters to Juliet because English playwright William Shakespeare set his romance Romeo and Juliet in the Italian city. The notes come from the lovelorn seeking advice from Shakespeare’s fictional and suicidal heroine.

Hey, when your heart is broken, it’s hard to think about the situation rationally.

Letters to Juliet

Verona’s chief claim on the tourist trade is the inspiration for a stillborn new comedy that has a vibrant setting populated by several people with coma-inducing personalities. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting rural Italy, Letters to Juliet is loaded with lush, sun-drenched hillsides that can make a viewer’s jaw drop even if the filmmakers didn’t bother to shoot it in 3D. It’s the sort of sight you’d love to share with a significant other.

Unfortunately, the main couple in the film competes in vain against the scenery. Amanda Seyfried (Mama Mia!) plays Sophie, a fact checker for the New Yorker, who discovers her pre-nuptial honeymoon in Italy is less than romantic. Her finance Victor (Gael García Bernal), who runs a new Italian eatery in the Big Apple, is more interested in scoring wines and recipes for his new restaurant than he is in wooing his soon-to-be betrothed.

Instead of cooling her heels at the hotel, Sophie discovers Verona’s Juliet Wall, where the lovelorn leave their letters to Shakespeare’s character, hoping she’ll be able to advise them. Because Juliet is dead and non-existent, several Veronese women serve as “Secretaries to Juliet” in order to pass on her wisdom. Tired of simply wandering around the city and the countryside, Sophie decides to answer a letter that has been stuck in a wall for approximately 50 years.

Despite all that time, the English woman who wrote the letter, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), is still living and still haunted by the fact that as a teenager she had to leave a young Italian farm worker named Lorenzo. Now that she’s a widow, Claire decides that she’s got nothing to lose by attempting to find out if Lorenzo is among the living and possibly available. Her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) is annoyed with her quest because she may be headed for another heartbreak.

Eager to move from checking other writers’ data and to submitting stories of her own, Sophie follows Claire in her quest while the uptight Charlie cynically laments the uselessness of the enterprise. The conclusion is forgone, but the central characters are so dull that getting there seems like an eternity. About the only demand Letters to Juliet makes of its viewers is that they stay awake, which admittedly, is challenging.

Fortunately, the film receives a double cappuccino-sized jolt every time Redgrave walks in front of the camera. Even in her 70s, Redgrave projects a subtle vigor that puts her younger costars to shame. She also has the ability to recite the most banal observations about love as if they were scripture.

It doesn’t hurt that she gets to share the screen with her real-life husband, Italian thespian Franco Nero. This isn’t a spoiler because the two can be spotted together making goo-goo eyes at each other in the trailer. Their chemistry is genuine, and two look as if they’ve eaten their vegetables and known their way around a gym. It’s ironic that it takes the two seniors to keep Letters to Juliet from becoming moldy. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 05/14/10)


Just Wright
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Built around a likable cast that hangs on the multi-talented charisma of Queen Latifah, Just Wright is none-the-less just okay. The plot, a love triangle between the girl with the heart of gold, her thin and pretty gold-digger cousin and the rich man-boy they both want, is as predictable as it is uneventful.

Just Wright

Leslie Wright (Latifah), a physical therapist who can’t get out of “home-girl” land with the men, is living in a quaint middle-class house with her dead-beat hottie cousin Morgan (Paula Patton). After a chance encounter with Scott McKnight (Common), the all-star player of the Jersey Nets, Leslie and Morgan go to a party at his house, where McKnight immediately falls for Morgan (because athletic, rich young superstars who live in mansions have a hard time catching hot dumb bimbos).

After he blows his knee out right before the play-offs, McKnight turns to Wright to help rehab his injury and get him back on the courts. Meanwhile, Morgan shows her true colors and dumps him because there are lots and lots of other rich b-ballers out there who can’t get a girl, right? Soon Leslie and McKnight fall for each other in a predictable montage of romantic scenes only to have Morgan show up later. Will McKnight see past the shallow Morgan, and realize that Leslie is the true woman for him? In a word: yes.

While this movie hits all the bases of your standard romance aimed at women, it still has a less-than-feminist plot. Can a woman only be happy if she has a man in her life? Would you want to be with someone who picked a sleaze-bag like Morgan over Leslie in the first place? Are all decent black men only found in the NBA?

It’s not that all romances have to be dumb: later in the film Leslie and McKnight are watching television. The movie they’re watching: Romancing the Stone one of the best examples of a romance done right.

In many ways, I have to fault the performance of Common as McKnight. He has exactly two expressions: surprise, and a “hey, I like you, babe” leer. He tries his best, but like most men in romances, he’s really a clueless dolt who needs a mother more than a wife. In fact, McKnight’s mom lives in his house (played by…Phylicia Rashad). Not to mention that Leslie’s mom is Pam Grier? The biggest disappointment here is that you have cast two great actors in a movie and then hardly used them at all.

It’s not that this is a bad movie: it’s just so straightforward and predictable that the pun in the title is the cleverest thing here. Given the talent present, that’s just not “wright.” (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 5/14/10)


Iron Man 2
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Probably the most refreshing trait in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies is that the most entertaining moments come when there’s no action to speak of. Favreau can stage impressive action scenes, but because he cut his teeth writing Swingers and directing Made, he knows how to keep exposition scenes as interesting as the explosion scenes. That’s pretty good for a superhero movie.

iron man 2

It also doesn’t hurt that the superhero in question would be potentially interesting even if he weren’t using a high-tech metal suit to blow up bad guys. InIron Man 2, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has managed to keep rogue states and terrorists in check, but his own neuroses might destroy him before any super villains could.

If the North Koreans and the Iranians can’t imitate Stark’s high-tech armor, having all of the destructive power in a single person’s hands is potentially problematic. At least that’s what a showboating U.S. Senator named Stern (Gary Shandling) believes. The senator holds a theatrical hearing where he attempts to pit Stark against a rival defense contractor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

It turns out the senator does have some genuine concerns, even if they didn’t come out during the hearing. Stark’s technology is slowly poisoning him, so his ability to continue with his missions is in doubt. Furthermore, he’s tormented by his perceived inability to live up to his late father Howard’s (John Slattery) image. This leads him into several questionable decisions.

The younger Stark has launched a massive World’s Fair-like expo that seems to do little more than promote himself and the company in his father’s name. He’s also neglected his business and left it in the hands of his already overworked assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He’s also strained his relationship with Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Kansas City native Don Cheadle, ably replacing Terrence Howard) at a time when he needs his friend the most.

Jealous of Stark’s attention and annoyed by his ego, Hammer teams up with a rogue Russian scientist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who has his own reasons for hating Stark. Unlike Hammer, Ivan can easily replicate Stark’s high-tech tools and has no qualms about using them against innocent civilians.

It takes a rare actor to make viewers concerned if their self-indulgent or self-destructive characters triumph. Fortunately, Downey does more than simply play up to his image as a lush. To be fair, the actor has been on the wagon in real life for several years.

What makes Downey so watchable is that he projects enough compassion, courage and intelligence to make viewers care if Tony Stark can overcome his vices. In addition to his ease with throwing out quips, Downey ’s face is so versatile that his expressions can make the most mundane of conversations interesting.

Downey ’s ideal casting helps because the ethical issues that Stark juggles in Iron Man 2 aren’t as well thought out as they were in the first installment. Part of the reason the first film was such a treat was that Stark dealt with real-world ethical issues when he wasn’t blowing things up. This time around, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to realize that giving a single person, even a capable, well-intentioned one, absolute power over high-tech weapons is dangerous.

The last film had a whole committee of writers credited, but it felt more focused and coherent. Tropic Thunder scribe Justin Theroux is the only one credited for this script but the film wanders in several directions, which could be problematic. There are two new characters, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) and super spy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who are a lot of fun, even if they contribute marginally to the story at hand.

Rourke’s haggard, sneering appearance is just right for the intimidating Ivan, and he thankfully demonstrates that his Oscar-winning turn in The Wrestler was no fluke. His accent is reasonably convincing, and he’s developed a skill that evades a lot of actors. When he taps at a keyboard, it actually looks like he’s typing something. In several recent flicks, I’ve noticed the performers look at the keys as if they were instruments of a spacecraft instead of something their characters would use every day.

The action scenes are still suitably spectacular, but if Downey or Rourke weren’t up to the task, Iron Man 2 would be just another story about pugnacious guys in suits of armor. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/07/10)


Babies
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Someone should congratulate Alain Chabat and Thomas Balmès. With their new documentary, the producer/director duo have managed to tap into the collective evolutional hardwiring that predisposes us to emotional connection with anything possessing bright, forward-facing eyes, small mouth and nose and large, symmetrical head (known in scientific circles as the "cute factor"). Inevitably, Babies will be called this year's March of the Penguins breakout blockbuster. Yet, under the surface this seemingly lighthearted look at the universal condition of being a baby is deceptively problematic.

babies

Part nature film and part pseudo anthropological study, Babies chronicles four infants from birth to first steps in four different parts of the world. Alternating among locations in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco, short vignettes showcasing the surroundings and caretaking of the infants — Ponijao, Bayarjargal, Mari and Hattie, respectively — are compared and contrasted without narration or dialog. A world pop score by Bruno Coulais highlights the action, of which there is a surprising amount.

Cast before they were born, the babies are all passably cute, but they aren't really the focus of the film. By choosing contrasting locations and then grouping scenes together under themes (sleeping, feeding, grooming, playing), the filmmakers underscore the differences and similarities of environment and childrearing among the four cultures. Yet, parents are often represented by mere parts (a steadying hand, a lactating breast) or even entirely off-screen. In some scenes, this works well. The image of beatific Bayar happily chomping on a roll of toilet paper is the perfect counterpoint to frustrated Mari, surrounded by plastic toys, experiencing a meltdown worthy of a diva.

Often, the viewers' own cultural biases run wild to create a sense of danger where there really is none. When Bayar's parents carry him home on a motorcycle, it makes great drama. However, when taken too far, this is the film's failing. In interviews, Balmès has described Babies as a "nonfiction film of pure observation." However, some sequences seem deliberately tweaked to leave out context vital to understanding the regular goings-on in the home, whether it's an apartment or a yurt. Here, the lack of narration or sense of time passing is irritating and, in some cases, irresponsible, such as when Bayar lies on the bed under only the supervision of his toddler brother with a penchant for torturing him or when Mari sits in a stroller going from store to store. At those times, the documentary could easily be debated in an Anthropology 101 class alongside infamous ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon's work on the Yanomamo.

But not all of Babies should be thrown out with the bathwater (or the goat that drinks it). In 400 days of shooting over two years, Balmès, also acting as cinematographer, captured a palpable sense of location, especially in the beautiful wide-ranging landscape shots of Mongolia. His lone HD camera also cleverly framed the low, close images that convey the highly detailed yet limited worlds of these babies. In particular, the scenes in Namibia and Mongolia appear in saturated color with intense shadow and light, reminiscent of the really great nature film Microcosmos. So perhaps Balmès is onto something here. Maybe the images from Tokyo and San Francisco are too ubiquitous and familiar to merit attention. Perhaps everything is merely a game of geographical roulette. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/7/10)


The Art of the Steal
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Don Argott’s new documentary makes some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories seem strangely believable.

The Art of the Steal contains enough intrigue, venality, scandal and betrayal to keep a soap opera running for decades. Even though the film concerns a seemingly staid institution called the Barnes Foundation, the battle for its treasures is as heated as the Normandy invasion, and the losers may be anyone who values art.

The Art of the Steal

The Barnes Foundation contains what may be the world’s most prestigious collection of early 20th century art. Its founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes invented an improved treatment to prevent the children of mothers with syphilis from going blind. Having cornered the market on a drug that was desperately needed, Barnes, who had a modest Philadelphia upbringing, became unfathomably rich.

While his roots may have been blue collar, Barnes had an eye for art that put many of his fellow wealthy Philadelphians’ tastes to shame. He obtained masterworks by Picasso, Matisse, Van Gough and Cezanne during the 1920s when the city and its art establishment saw no value in their work at all.

When a critic for the Philadelphia Enquirer, the paper by and for the city’s elite at the time, lambasted a public exhibition of Barnes’ paintings, he created an educational foundation that was designed to teach new generations of artists and simultaneously poke a finger in the eyes of the city’s swells. Barnes located the building outside of the city in suburban Montgomery County and forbade the establishment museums from accessing his art.

To drive home his objections, he limited public visitation because he didn’t consider the collection to be part of a museum, and he placed control in the hands the primarily African-American Lincoln University. Because Barnes’ views on race were as forward-looking as they were on science and art (he employed blacks equally with whites), it was his way of insulting the city’s white leaders from the grave.

After Barnes died in a car accident in the 1950s, his collection might have stayed in his foundation’s hands, but two things happened that led to chicanery that makes the average bookie seem above board. As the years progressed, Lincoln, as a neglected state school desperately in need of cash, saw that the paintings the town snobs once dismissed were now worth not just millions — but billions, actually tens of billions.

Argott uncovers a series of elaborate financial deals that make Enron and the 2008 Wall Street collapse seem simple and above-board in comparison. He follows a decades-long campaign to move the treasures from Barnes building in Montgomery County to downtown Philly and actually makes the serpentine machinations understandable. He displays passages from Pennsylvania state legislation and balance sheets from the charitable trusts that acted in a manner that was more rapacious than generous.

Some name politicians like Philadelphia Mayor John Street and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who to his credit agreed to appear on camera, pulled strings to turn the restrictive passages from Barnes’ will upside down.

From listening to some of the talking heads who appear in the film, it sounds almost as if the Philadelphia establishment wants to turn Dr. Barnes’ institution and everything it stood for into an aesthetic Disneyland.

As someone who would like to one day look at the art Barnes collected, the internecine feud seems petty. While it is fitting that the Annenberg Foundation worked to undermine Barnes’ wishes (the Annenbergs and Barnes hated each other), I see nothing wrong with making the artwork easier to view. If I were staying at a hotel in downtown Philly, I’d love to only have to walk a few blocks to actually see paintings I’ve only read about.

Still, Argott makes a convincing case that the move has less to do with preserving and presenting art and more with ringing cash registers. When the Barnes Foundation had a rare public exhibition after Barnes’ death, one well-to-do patron lamented that he had seen one too many overweight nudes. Downtown Philly stands to make millions each year once the new location opens in 2012. Because of all the questionable deals involved with moving the paintings, it’s easy to question if Barnes’ unique collection is in the best hands or the best location.

During the film the double dealing becomes downright comical as a series of bizarre lawsuits arise over a parking lot that was needed so that residents could get out of their driveways when visitors came to the foundation’s current venue. Charges of racism arise, and a well-meaning foundation president is thrown out. At first, he comes off as a villain, but as the film later reveals, he may have been the last leader that had the foundation’s best interest at heart.

The Art of the Steal has an ax to grind, but at least Argott has found an appropriate tree to chop. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 05/07/10)



haiku review


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.

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