Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and Sand: Summer Movies 2010

Hollywood is still reeling from the nightmare that was 2009, a year that brought a screenwriters’ strike and a global recession, calamities that not even a sweet $2.7 billion in worldwide Avatar receipts could remedy. Production companies and studios were shuttered, jobs, budgets and salaries were slashed

There’s an upside to the belt-tightening: filmmakers have been forced to be more creative with less cash. That means that summer, traditionally the season of effects-laden blockbusters, this year is leaner, more varied and slightly more gender-balanced. There are the usual sequels, superheroes and remakes, but fewer of them. Studios have learned from the success of Sex and the City and Julie and Julia that women buy tickets, too, and so there are more of the romantic comedies often dismissed as “chick flicks”: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, Drew Barrymore in Going the Distance, and Jennifer Aniston in The Switch.

The lineup also includes lots of cost-saving genre hybrids: action-comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs.the World and The Expendables, and action-romances like Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, and Killers, with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. Of course 3-D, that high-tech excuse for raising ticket prices, gets a workout with Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3D and Step Up 3D.

Hollywood’s summer starts in early May, and Iron Man 2, Robin Hood and Shrek have already hit theaters. But the season’s still young, and lots of cinematic thrills await

Advance tickets for Sex and the City 2 (May 27) have already outsold current releases like Kick Ass. There’s been loads of speculation about the plot, but let’s be real: Sarah Jessica Parker and castmates could recite the 1,017-page health care bill, but as long as they’re wearing Patricia Field’s outlandish costumes, women will storm the theater. Carrie, still married to Big (and still calling him that, for some reason), travels with her friends to Abu Dhabi, where the ladies ride camels and have romantic adventures

In the “movies based on video games with world-destroying sandstorms” category, we have Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (May 28), in which a rogue prince (Jake Gyllenhaal) teams up with a gorgeous princess (Gemma Arterton) to save the world from villain Ben Kingsley. If you have ever read the “Marmaduke” comic feature and thought, “The only thing that would make this funnier is if that giant dog could talk,” then the live-action family comedy Marmaduke (June 4) is your movie. The Great Dane not only speaks (in Owen Wilson’s voice), he surfs, dances and frets about his looks.

In the action-romance Killers (June 4), Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher as a hastily married couple on the run from hired assassins. One of the season’s more promising buddy comedies, Get Him to the Greek (June 4), has outrageous British comedian Russell Brand reprising his role as Aldous Snow, the obnoxious rock star from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Jonah Hill plays a record company intern enlisted to accompany Snow to a concert at L.A.’s Greek Theater.

I pity the critic who succumbs to lame “I pity the fool” jokes in previewing The A-Team (June 11), which updates the popular ’80s TV show’s Vietnam vets to Iraq vets and boasts an impressive cast including Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the role originated by Mr. T. If that doesn’t satisfy your ‘80s jones, maybe The Karate Kid (June 11), a remake of the 1984 Ralph Macchio movie, will. Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, plays the kid, whose mom moves him from Detroit to Beijing, where he’s bullied until he learns karate from maintenance man Mr. Han (the great Jackie Chan), a secret kung fu master. What kid couldn’t relate?

Summer’s most bankable sequel, Toy Story 3D (June 18) follows its predecessor by 11 years; it was delayed by the near-divorce of Disney and Pixar, which have since reconciled. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen return to voice Woody and Buzz, who are abused by toddlers in a daycare center, from which the toys plot an escape. The endless geek debate — DC or Marvel? — heats up as DC counters Marvel’s surefire hit Iron Man 2 with Jonah Hex (June 18), a live-action adaptation of the DC comic about a scarred Confederate bounty hunter (Josh Brolin) who must stop a terrorist.

Jay and Mark Duplass’s improv-style comedy Cyrus (June 18) offers John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) as a divorced loser who hooks up with beautiful Molly (Marisa Tomei), who has a large, possessive grown son (Jonah Hill). Tom Cruise’s zany turn in Tropic Thunder established the idea that Cruise can do comedy, and he’s paired with Cameron Diaz in the action comedy Knight and Day (June 25). Cruise plays a secret agent who is saddled with a blind date (Diaz) after she sees him wipe out a planeload of people. The midlife-crisis comedy Grown Ups (June 25) breaks out the pee-in-the-pool jokes, with Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James as high-school buddies who reunite 30 years later.

The third installment in the wildly successful Twilight series, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (June 30) finds Bella (Kristen Stewart) beset by the usual problems facing high school seniors: whether to choose love with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) or friendship with his werewolf rival, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Will the live-action fantasy-adventure The Last Airbender (July 2) mark the hoped-for redemption of M. Night Shyamalan after several recent flops? The visually arresting movie, with postproduction 3D, is adapted from a Nickelodeon cartoon series about a boy trying to stop a war among the four elements.

Universal’s summer animation entry is the 3D Despicable Me (July 9), which sounds like a Cold War rejoinder to Disney/Pixar’s Up. Steve Carell provides the voice of Gru, a curmudgeonly Russian supervillain whose plan to steal the moon is complicated when a trio of orphaned girls choose him as a potential Dad. Predators (July 9), sequel to the 1987 Predator, is the quintessence of the summer movie, with killer aliens, death squads and other seasonal pleasures.

Adrien Brody plays a mercenary who leads a group of elite warriors in a fight against killer extraterrestrials. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan brings his noir action style to Inception (July 16), with Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who can enter businessmen’s minds and sell their secrets. Jerry Bruckheimer unveils Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (July 16), which is not another re-release of that dancing-broomsticks cartoon, but a live-action adventure comedy starring Nicolas Cage stars as a shaggy-haired wizard who enlists an NYU physics student (Jay Baruchel) in his battle against rival Alfred Molina.

Pete Townsend is nowhere in sight in The Kids Are All Right (July 23), a winsome comedy starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose artificially conceived teenagers seek out their donor dad (Mark Ruffalo.) The prize for Best French-to-Yiddish Translation goes to Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the 1998 French farce The Dinner Game, in which a group of men hold a weekly dinner party to which each must bring a pathetic loser. The movie stars irresistible Paul Rudd as a rising exec and funny Steve Carell as his “idiot.” The girls of summer triumph again: Angelina Jolie replaced Tom Cruise as the lead in the action thriller Salt (July 23). She plays a CIA superagent who goes on the lam to prove she isn’t a Russian agent.

Step Up 3D (August 6), third installment in the street-dancing franchise, focuses on a group of dancers who compete in a breakdancing showdown. Middle Men August 6), based on a true story, revisits the ’90s dot-com bubble, with Luke Wilson as a businessman who gets rich via Internet porn. Mark Wahlberg teams up with Will Ferrell in the buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys, in which the inept pair try unsuccessfully to emulate tough cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson.

The female-friendly season continues as Julia Roberts brings her toothy grin to Eat Pray Love (August 13), based on the Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir about her global travels in search of fulfillment, a book people either adore or deplore for its rampant narcissism (one Amazon customer titled her review “Eat Pray Shove (It).”). Javier Bardem plays the Brazilian with whom Gilbert finds “Love,” after all the eating and praying.

And, after all that estrogen, a little steroid action: The Expendables (August 13), an action thriller about a group of mercenaries hired to overthrow a South American dictator, with an old-school cast: Sylvester Stallone (who also directed and co-wrote), Arnold “Governator” Schwarzenegger, Dolph Ludgren, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke.

In the wake of Kick Ass, other comics about ordinary kids are getting screen treatment:: Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (August 13) becomes a movie starring Michael Cera as a bassist who must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her heart. Jennifer Aniston is a single mom in the romantic comedy The Switch (August 20), in which her friend (Jason Bateman) discovers he’s the real father of her artificially inseminated baby. The low-key Get Low (August 20) features veteran actors Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray in a Depression-era drama about a Tennessee hermit who holds his own funeral while still alive. Documentarian Nanette Burstein (American Teen) makes her fiction debut with Going the Distance (August 27) an R-rated romp about a couple (Drew Barrymore and Justin Long) coping with a long-distance relationship.

In homage to Jaws, the summer movie that has a lot to answer for, every summer must have something like Piranha 3-D (August 27), with postproduction 3D. The title says it all.

Labor Day weekend seems appropriate for Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (September 3), the feature made from his fake Grindhouse trailer. Danny Trejo plays revenge-seeking Mexican ex-Federale and Robert De Niro as a nativist senator who calls Mexican immigrants “cucarachas.”

A different version of this appears in Cleveland Scene.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Enfant Terrible

“A SOILED BABY, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty,” said Mark Twain. Beloved as they are, babies are not always adorable or even interesting — they are notoriously poor conversationalists, they don’t smoke, and they seldom give useful stock tips.

Nonetheless, French producer Alain Chabat thought it would be a wonderful idea to make a documentary capturing the first year of life of four babies in different parts of the world, with music, no commentary and minimal dialogue — a sort of wildlife movie about human infancy. “I felt it could be an emotional experience,” Chabat says. “I dreamt of a movie theater audience that would applaud because a baby would stand on their own two feet.” Chabat enlisted Thomas Balm├Ęs to direct the movie, which, like its subjects, is alternately endearing, surprising, lovely and maddening. Its most interesting element, the ethnographic comparisons of child-raising practices and culture in Africa, Japan, Mongolia and the U.S., is left largely unexplored, leaving the audience, like an underfed baby, hungry for more.

Digitally shot over a period of two years, followed by another two years of editing, the movie follows four families from the woman’s late pregnancy through their babies’ first year (three of the babies are girls because the “casting” was unpredictable.) The audience is introduced to Ponijaio of Namibia, Africa, Bayar of Mongolia, Hattie of San Francisco, and Mari of Tokyo. Although the babies are doing the things universal to child development — being groomed, crawling, fussing, laughing, harassing surprisingly tolerant pets and being harassed by older siblings, they are doing these things in vastly different settings, and therein lies the movie’s sole interest.

Babies’ beautiful cinematography caresses the plains of Namibia, where little Ponijaio’s mother and eldest daughter, in loincloths and elaborately braided hair, are members of the Himba tribe. The men are off camera somewhere, raising cattle, while the women look after the children in a loving and refreshingly laissez-faire way. The film shows rituals like the shaving of the baby’s head with a sharp knife and washing him with a mixture of red earth pigment and oil that are not explained. Indeed, at times during this mostly word-free movie, you long for the BBC-style announcer to intone, “To clean the dust out of the babies’ eyes, without traveling by donkey or walking for hours to fetch water, the Himba mother uses her own saliva.” It would also be interesting to read subtitles for their lively-sounding native language.

Although Chabot claims the film makes no judgments about any of the families, there are certain implications in the editing. Following the very natural childbirths of Asian and African babies, we meet the American baby in a hospital setting, where newborn Hattie was being monitored for a breathing problem. The parents are almost comically “New Age,” with their parenting books, hot tub and Native American chanting circle. The film emphasizes the noisy chaos of Tokyo, underscoring the point by showing Mari crying amid a group of other daycare babies, a book titled “Where Is My Mommy?” under on the floor nearby. But all the babies are equally cute, sweet, mischievous and loved.

The idea is a lovely one, but unenhanced footage of babies cannot be considered a theatrical event. Even over its short 79-minute running time, the movie becomes as tiresome as your neighbor’s home movies. Midway through, audiences not besotted with the babyness of it all will relate to little Mari, who grows bored with her toys and pitches a solitary fit, lying on her back and kicking her tiny legs in utter frustration.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene,