Opening this Week: ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘SATC 2’

Opening this Week: ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘SATC 2’

Posted on May 23, 2010 at 8:44 am

We are in the midst of summer blockbuster season, and with a three-day weekend coming up, we get two enormous releases this week, both involving the desert of the mid-East.
prince-of-persia-movie-poster-jake-gyllenhaal-01.jpg“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is a sword and sandal epic based on a video game about a prince and princess who team up to prevent a sandstorm that could destroy the world. While game-based movies have in general been disappointing, this one has some intriguing possibilities. First is its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, a first-rate actor and movie star. Second is its director, Mike Newell, who has shown himself to be adept with grand, special-effects adventure, drama, and comedy (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”). And third is the producer who improbably turned an adventure park ride into one of the most successful film franchises of all time, Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “National Treasure”). All are proven audience-pleasers, so I am hoping for something special.
Sex-And-The-City-2-Camels.jpgAlso this week: “Sex and the City 2,” which begins with a wedding. Carrie’s friend Stanford (Willie Garson) marries his boyfriend in a wedding so over-the-top it includes both swans and Liza Minnelli. The story then takes the characters on a trip to Abu Dhabi. While there are certain to be romantic complications, it looks like this film focuses on the heart of the series, the friendship between the four women. And I can promise the wardrobe will be amazing!

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Opening This Week

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Posted on March 16, 2010 at 8:22 pm

I have seldom seen the stars of a movie look as thoroughly uncomfortable as Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in this drearily low-concept would-be comedy, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” Parker plays Meryl Morgan, a Manhattan real estate broker so high-powered she is featured on the cover of New York Magazine, who has recently left her husband, Paul (Grant) because he cheated on her. Paul, a high-powered lawyer, has been trying to win her back with gifts and entreaties, but she is resisting.

And then they end up stuck together, unplugged from all of their various electronic devices and their supremely efficient assistants (wasting the talented Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men”), and about as far away from Manhattan as you can get. They are sent to the small town of Ray, Wyoming by law enforcement authorities after they witness a murder to protect them from being the professional killer’s next victims. And so we’re in the land of city slickers vs the hicks as a form of extreme marital therapy. It’s all sit-, no com.

The jokes were old when “Green Acres” was new. New Yorkers can’t sleep out west because there are no sirens and car horns and they can’t breathe because the air is too clean! Isn’t it cute that people play bingo and shoot guns! (“Oh, my God, it’s Sarah Palin!” Meryl says when she sees Mary Steenburgen as a rifle-toting U.S. Marshall.) One lame stereotype after another (Meryl learns to shoot a gun and milk a cow! Paul squirts his own eyes with bear repellent! Hicks are all Republican and carnivores! Let’s bring everyone together for a dance and a rodeo!) only underscores how self-absorbed, annoying, and entirely unattractive the characters are and how much contempt the film has for its audience. Our primary motivation for wanting them to stay together is that it’s the best way to punish them for creating this awful film. Let them torture each other the way they tortured us.

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Comedy Romance

Spinning Into Butter

Posted on March 26, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 27, 2009

The best of intentions and a welcome willingness to engage on the touchiest issues is not enough to keep this movie from feeling more like a seminar than a story. It betrays its origins as a play, still talky and static. But its ideas are so provocative and its approach so sincere and constructive that it is worth a look.

Sarah Jessica Parker, far away from designer duds and trying to look serious and a little mousy, plays Sarah Daniels, the dean of a small liberal arts college with a genteel, Vermont campus. Some anonymous racist attacks are leveled at a new black student and there is disagreement within the faculty and administration about how to handle it. They schedules a campus-wide meeting, but the students are not invited to speak. A local news reporter (Mykelti Williamson) wants to cover the story but the administration is furious. In the middle of all of this is Sarah, who wants to explore the issue in a substantive and constructive way and acknowledges that she has some internal conflicts she is not proud of.

The title comes from the classic children’s story Little Black Sambo, now considered unacceptably racist. In that story, the tigers chase each other so fast that they spin into butter. Here, the way that the issue is addressed — or sidestepped — leads to a similar result, with everyone racing to avoid responsibility. Out of the best of intentions, at the beginning of the film, Sarah asks a student (the always-superb Victor Rasuk) to change his racial classification from NYrican to Puerto Rican to qualify for a scholarship. It is a good lead-in to a series of discussions, confrontations, and missed communications about America’s most sensitive and least-often honestly discussed issue. The best thing about this movie will be the conversations it inspires on the way home.

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Based on a play Drama Movies -- format

Sex and the City

Posted on September 23, 2008 at 8:00 am

No spoiler alert is required before disclosing that the very appropriate and deeply satisfying fade-out at the end of this film has its four heroines happily going off into the metaphorical sunset….with each other. That is the great love story of the movie.

The four women in this movie version of the wildly popular and influential HBO series (off the air for four years but now running in expurgated form on broadcast channels in reruns) may think they yearn for romance. But in reality the men in their lives are there primarily as topics of conversation for the relationships that matter most. It is their friends who make them laugh, their friends that they want to call first with good news or bad, their friends whose lives — and clothes — are their primary concern, their friends who are always intensely interested in every detail of each other’s lives, their friends who reflect themselves and all they might be back to them like a dressing room with a magic mirror. In this woman-centered, fashion-drenched world, men are an accessory. sex20and20the20city1.jpg

Indeed, as with stories like, well “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Steel Magnolias,” and even “Bratz,” the intense connection of those relationships is the essence of the appeal of the series and the movie. While we watch them, we connect to our own reality about the vital role that friends play in our lives and we tap into the deep wish in all of us for people in our lives who are infinitely interested and spaciously accepting of the tiniest details of our lives. It is telling that the biggest falling-out among the four friends in this movie is not about doing something wrong. The real transgression is in not being willing to confess all immediately.

Here we also connect to the fantasy of their ziplessness. The four women eat and drink constantly and never seem to exercise or diet but always look model-thin and glowingly gorgeous, their sexual encounters are almost always steamy and satisfying and when they aren’t they are even more fun to talk about, they almost always recover from unhappy romantic encounters by the next episode, and they manage to buy and look sensational in endless and endlessly fabulous ensembles of high-fashion mixed with impeccably chosen vintage and street goodies. It’s like playing Barbies for grown-ups. The sex scenes are not nearly as titillating as the fantasy of fashion and New York glamour, wrapped in a cozy feather comforter of the perpetually supportive cheering section.

Friendship is at the core, but there is plenty of material about the other great pre-occupations of the movie, like the television series: romance, sex, fabulous clothes and shoes, parties, and plumbing the depths of one’s own desires), plus what may be an all-time record number of on-screen apologies. My husband says that an apology, preferably humiliating and public, is the essence of a chick flick. If he is right, this one goes to the top of the list.

The credit sequence briskly brings us up to date, letting us know that the ladies and the world have moved on since writer Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), married mom Charlotte (Kristen Davis), and publicist/manager Samantha (Kim Cattrall) appeared to be headed for happily-ever-after-ville at the conclusion of the series. The tinkling theme music quickly shifts into hip-hop and we find that everything that seemed neatly tied up four years ago is about to become if not completely untied a little bit tangled. People in their 40’s know themselves better than those in their 30’s, but they are also more aware of their narrowing options and the impact of the choices they are making and the ones they do not make.

Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth as John James Preston) are still happily in love and looking for a place to move in together. An jewelry auction for the collection of a billionaire’s discarded mistress, she begins to worry about what would happen to her if Preston decided to leave her. When she tells him that, they decide to get married. Caught up in the fantasy of the ultimate wedding as fashion statement, helped along by posing for a magazine spread modeling bridal gowns by all the top designers, Carrie loses sight of the meaning of the event and the pressure she is putting on the man we will continue to refer to as Mr. Big. Miranda and her husband Steve (David Eigenberg) struggle with burnout and trust issues. Samantha, in Los Angeles with her boyfriend of five years, the hunky Smith (Jason Lewis), having helped him become a big star , misses New York, her friends, and her polyamorous lifestyle, wonders if she can continue to compromise.

The screenplay is uneven and it tilts too far on the side of retail therapy. That is a function of the realities of modern-day feature film financing — who could have imagined a day that movies would end up more commercial than television? All the more credit for HBO’s commitment to artistic integrity for avoiding the endless recitation of labels and designers, which gets a little intrusive.

But it all goes down as easy as that third Cosmo thanks to the eye candy, our affection for the characters, and the skill of all involved. The slight deepening of the issues and characters works well. As has been remarked before, as in many multi-character sagas, it is intriguing to think of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha as different aspects of one single personality — id, supergo, ego, and libido.

All of the returning stars look sensational and they each know their characters and their fellow performers so well that the chemistry sizzles and the timing purrs. Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) is a welcome addition as Carrie’s new assistant, her warmth and sparkle providing Carrie with a fresh opportunity to show something we almost never saw from her in the series, generosity of spirit and consideration. There are at least three dazzling fashion shows (something of a throwback to old movie classics like The Women, which, in the pre-Internet, pre-television days, served a dual purpose by alerting the women in the audience to the current styles. There are little detail goodies for serious fans (the iconic tutu that gets splashed in the series’ opening sequence and enough going on to entertain casual viewers. It is far from a great movie, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one and does justice to the aspirations of the series and to its devoted fans.

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Comedy Romance

Smart People

Posted on April 10, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use by adults and teen
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, accident with injury, reference to sad off-screen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 11, 2008

A burned-out literature professor named Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) has written an “unpublishable” book called The Price of Postmodernism: Epistemology, Hermeneutics and the Literary Canon. Of course it is unpublishable. Everyone knows that the part of the title that comes before the colon in literary works is supposed to be self-consciously cutesy. A book like that should be called something like A Bad Slammin’ Groove: Epistemology, etc. I suppose it is a symptom of Lawrence’s ennui and disconnection that he has lost the essential ability for preserving that academic necessity: a snarky combination of smug superiority over popular culture and even smugger superiority over the ability to speak in its patois.

Lawrence, his college-student son James (Ashton Holmes from “A History of Violence”) and his college-applying high school senior daughter Vanessa (“Juno’s” Ellen Page) are each floating around in separate bell jars, suspended in space, all the air sucked out by anger and loss, all three unable to communicate and unaware of how much pain they are in. Lawrence’s brother Chuck (“my adopted brother,” he reminds everyone — played by Thomas Hayden Church) moves in. Yes, he will prove to be the life force confronting the dessicated souls so out of touch with their true feelings. But Church and the screenwriter, novelist Mark Poirier, give him more perspective and more spine than these characters usually display. “These children haven’t been properly parented in many years,” he tells one visitor. “They’re practically feral. That’s why I was brought in.” And he believes it.

Poirier appreciated literature and he knows how to create characters who talk (and don’t talk) about what is going on like educated people. He has not quite worked out the difference between a novel and a movie, however; he still tells too much and shows too little. An exceptional cast takes the material as far as it can go, but it still feels synthetic and its sense of tone is uncertain, biting here (faculty committee, unpublishable tome), sentimental there (how many times do we have to see a grieving spouse who can’t clean out the closet?). Quaid is especially strong and Parker lets us see her sweetness and longing, but Page’s and Church’s characters are underwritten and it feels like it all gets tied up too hastily. The characters might be too smart for their own good, but the movie could use a few more IQ points.

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Drama Independent Movies -- format Romance
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