Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shrek 4-Ever After: It's A Sort-Of Wonderful Life

With Shrek 4-Ever After, we've reached the final Shrek movie in the series, and clearly this franchise has run its course. Yes, once Shrek has married and has kids, there's not much more to this fairy-tale left to tell.

That's why this time, the movie has to resort to the device of flashing back to a parallel history of "what happens if Shrek had never been born." Shrek now has three kids, and adoring wife, and an obsequious public, and he's kind of a celebrity trapped in a fashion cocoon of his own making. Even Shrek is so bored of his monotonous married life that in fact, that's the major plot point of the first act. Shrek Groundhog-Day's his way through the married routine enough times until he...and we...literally scream.

Enter plot device and villain number four: Rumpelstiltskin. Shrek unwittingly makes a bargain with Rumple: he'll trade one of the days of his youth for a fantastic day where he gets to be his old, free ogre self again. Unfortunately, the day Rumple takes is the day Shrek was born (creating the incongruous paradox of Shreck's ultimate non-existence).

The result is a re-hash of the plot from It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek wanders through a changed Far Far Away where Rumelstilskin is king, his children were never born, the world is in shambles, and his wife Fiona leads a band of ogre outlaws. There's one critical difference. While Jimmy Stewart wished he were never born - a kind of depression and self abnegation due to the heavy burden of life's circumstances - Shrek has had this fate thrust upon him not because of too little but too much ego. He's basically a typical over-heckled father who simply wishes to live the high life and be single again. So while It's a Wonderful Life built up a powerful story about personal redemption and seeing the value in oneself, Shrek 4 sets out instead to teach its hero some basic humility and thankfulness. It's a much simpler...and I dare say, less sympathetic... moral.

One is tempted to call this a story of our time - instead of needing to be bucked up, what today's generation needs is to be brought down a peg. But I suspect that's just not right, and one reason why this movie feels tuckered out. It's lost it's edge - the edge that the first two Shreks had particularly delivered, undercutting the Disney-fied morals of "ordinary life." Instead of feeling secretly relevant, it feels needlessly moralistic, as if its finally become the type of movie that the earlier Shreks used to parody. No wonder Shrek feels trapped.

There are other things about this film that make it less interesting than it could be. All the action takes place in Shrek's head. And in this alternative reality world...that must ultimately end...all the characters are much more interesting than in the world we're ultimately going to head back to. Wouldn't it have been fascinating to have had a real Fiona who was all Robin Hood and king of the forest, and a real Shrek who had to re-negotiate a modern marriage to a strong woman? All that fantasy is bottled up and dispensed with when it could have led to some of the more intriguing cultural subversions of the series.

Similarly, this Rumplestilskin is nice villain - he's got a particularly nice flare for wigs, a way with the witches, and a lovely way with words - but lacks the self actualization of, say, Fairy Godmother. However, I'd rank him second in the panoply of Shrek villains, and in a lot of ways, his semi-fey shenanigans keeps this story from totally sinking.

All this being said, Dreamwork's Shrek, even at this late date, is still one of the best-produced summer franchises, and the sly cultural parodies are all still there, even if they're all being severely undercut by the plot. "Happily Ever After" and "married with kids" just doesn't aren't supposed to be a reconcilable contradiction in the Shrek universe, which is why we get instead an inside-out movie where the real Shrek has been reduced to mere fantasy. It was great coming this far, but one can't help actually feeling a bit sad seeing Shrek ending up this series so conventionally... well... "whipped."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Please Give: Nicole Holofcener Vies for Woody Allen's Legacy

Yes indeed, in this sweat, gentle film about two families of New Yorkers brought together by a splenetic 91-year-old woman, writer/director Nicole Holofcener has created that type of New-York slife-of-life picture of middle-class ennui, casual affairs, and anxieties once the exclusive province of Woody Allen. This Sundance favorite director has done it with her own style and a decidedly feminine eye. She may not yet be able to capture Allen's biting wit or the depths of his pathos, but this is a picture - and a director - worth keeping an eye on.

Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Pete) are two sisters caring for their cranky, aging grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Rebecca is the dowdy, sincere one (but clearly an ugly duckling waiting to become a swan), a radiology technician who makes a living scanning women's breasts for cancer. Mary is the pretty, sarcastic one who works in a salon giving facials and popping pimples.

Meanwhile, Andra's neighbors are precisely that type of Woody Allen put-upon, half-yuppie couple ripe for something to happen to their lives. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a mid-century modern furniture store, and have a fifteen-year-old daughter with body issues. Kate spends her days visiting the homes of the recently deceased, buying up the furniture, so that she and her husband can price it up to resell to their customers in the store. They also have their eye on scavenging Andra's apartment, and have already made plans to break through the wall for their new master bedroom once the old crow finally kicks the bucket.

This is a film that moves along on character and theme, rather than plot - so there's not much action to speak of, other than the endless introspection, inevitable liberal guilt, brief affair, and...I doubt I give away too much...inevitable passing of the despised old crow. But the movie builds its themes nicely. One of the thematic touches here are the differences in the two families - the one that's material (furniture) and the other body-oriented (medicine/facials), and the daughter who seemingly belongs more with the sisters than her own parents. For Kate, the dead still haunt the furniture she sells, and there's no getting around a world that's both more than material, and less than flesh.

What Holofcener is ultimately getting after are issues around getting older: not only for Andre but for all the characters. Age - and life, which is but age standing still - is a type of weariness, pregnant with the heavy weight of inevitable death, and the characters are judged on their attitudes torwards this injustice about being alive: do they find the beauty, or do they focus on the annoyances? The opening song, that classic ditty about "I had no shoes and I complained until I met a man who had no feet..." sets the mood, here, and its merry juxtaposition against a series of breast mammograms tells you the tone Holofcener is after.

Ultimately, however, the movie is about Kate and her struggle to reconcile her free-floating sense of guilt and remorse (which is just fine more me, since I think Keener is an actress who has yet to be given the role she deserves, and this one may get her one step closer). Kate's evaluating her own outlook - her liberalism is a form of crankiness and willful ignorance of her own role in the world (just as Andra tells people she was considered "smart" even though she had no more than an elementary school education, and she wears this earlier generation's form of liberalism as her own defense against people). Over the course of dealing with the little annoyances that life in New York puts in her way, she comes to realize her own prejudices and blindnesses, and in the end, decides not to turn away.

Perhaps this it's this optimism that ultimately distinguishes Holofcener from that other great chronicler of New York life, Woody Allen. Whereas Allen celebrates the cranks, Holofcener, I think, sympathizes with the rest of us. We may not be quite as interesting as the cranks. But our problems are no less significant.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Robin’s in the ‘Hood: Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott Make a Somewhat Pleasing Mess

There are definitely different location directors or some other such issues of inconsistency in this re-telling of the Robin Hood legend, for this unduly long Russell-Crowe vehicle is uneven and at times incoherent...even though it's ultimately interesting throughout the broad middle. However, with its Showtime-level focus on historical “authenticity” mixed with its 300-style fight scenes and “release the Kraken!” level dialogue, I can see how it might be falling in between the cracks of different audiences, racking up poor reviews, and failing to gather the viewings that its studio might hope.

Basically, Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott have set out to remake the classic Robin Hood story as a star vehicle for Crowe, so though we get appearances from Big John and Friar Tuck, this reimagining is less “one for all” than it is “all for one.” They've also chosen to make this an origin story - essentially the setup for how the band of merry men assemble, all foreplay for the main action to come in a (perchance) next sequel, much like the recent Star Trek. However, the first act of what we get here is practically indecipherable: it seems like we’re watching the outtakes reel from Lord of the Rings. King Richard the Lionheart is sacking French castles on his way back from fighting the crusades (at times, the movie – unintentionally? – slides into Montey-Pythonesque dialogue, including French taunting and phrases like “though shall not pass until thou answereth my riddle”; I was surprised not to be treated to a refrain of “Bring out Your Dead.”) When Richard is slain, Robin sees his opportunity to desert the army (out of moral rectitude, mind you – the army has killed innocent women and children), and he and his band of merry men head for the hills, and eventually to England.

Upon their arrival they find themselves in the midst of castle intrigue, as Richard’s younger brother, John, seeks to defy his mother (and get out from his older brother’s shadow) by appointing a new commissioner: movie heavy Godfrey, whose job is to collect taxes from the noblemen (though his secret plot is to sow dissent so he can lead a French invasion of England). Godfrey suspects that Robin knows his secret, and so the blood feud emerges: this section of the film could well have been right at home in any episode of "The Tudors."

But it’s once we get into this second act – and a clear cat-and-mouse game takes over the plot – that the movie starts to get its legs, and where it began to win me over. Robin is a warm-hearted, stolid sort who ends up hiding out posing as the son of a deceased lord at Nottingham; Sir Walter Loxley (played by Max von Sydow), knows Robin from childhood and asks him to stand in for the deceased son – and play the husband of his daughter-in-law, Maid Marion (Kate Blanchett). The courtship of Robin and Marion is nothing new, but Blanchett and Sydow both bring a commanding force to the movie that centers it emotionally, something the first act lacked totally. Blanchett as always is immensely watchable as a woman fending for her honor and dignity in a world ruined by men.

Given the subject matter of this film – essentially about a King who ruins the wealth of his country through needless foreign wars, and his successor who needs to make up for it by excessively taxing his countrymen at home…and the bandit that will eventually decide to redistribute the wealth on his own – one might expect the film to capture some of the spirit of the Tea Party, or give some other political allegory for our time. But this film largely stays away from political overtones. When Robin finds out that his long-dead father was a “visionary” who foresaw a brotherhood of free Lords who had rights under the King (the film essentially posits Robin Hood as the origin of the Magna Carta), and takes up his cause, it’s less about politics than it is about sons discovering the legacy of their fathers. Ultimately, although the plot puts Robin in the center of the Lords' power struggle against King John, this is a movie about sons becoming leaders – via fighting, courage, honor, and finally, even a sense of love.

So even though this film was dreadful at the beginning, by the time we find Robin giving a speech to the nobleman about uniting to defend England in exchange for rights and liberties, I’ve come to find I rather like this charming lout and his band of good-hearted mercenaries. I think that’s the effect that Robin Hood is going for: something about how justice and vision are something grown organically, out of the rough-and-tumble of fighting, mead, and mud.

That rough-and-tumble philosophy does pervade all aspects of the film – from the directing, which is all over the place in style, and borrows heavily from modern films ranging from Saving Private Ryan to 300 (we get a beach-invasion scene which seems like the love-child between the two) – to the dialogue, which barely bothers to get the Middle-English colloquialism sounding half-right.

Still, a movie doesn’t have to be perfect – just enjoyable – and by the end, this one is. This is by far no masterpiece, but whether intentionally or not, Crowe and Scott have created a muddy mess with a simplistic but affable moral center: kind of like that Robin Hood character himself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron-Man 2: Trade-Show Disappointment

Having enjoyed the first Iron Man (especially its commentary on modern warfare) – and intrigued by Marvel’s interest in creating an entire Saturday matinee serial of Avengers movies – I, like most, was eagerly awaiting the new Iron Man. Finally, I thought, we would get to see a comic movie move past the creation saga and into the realm of modern relevance mixed with serious fun.

Alas, such is not the case with this Iron Man reprisal. Tony Stark – having effectively “privatized world peace” with his Iron Man suit, has retired into the role of bemused oligarch and trade-show host, handing the reigns of his company over to his under-confident factotum, Pepper Pots, while he struts his stuff on stage with scantily clad gun-toting bimbos, or gives a sardonic lecture to the perpetually annoyed congressman Gary Shandling (who is apparently representing the only useful inclination left for Congress – Borscht-belt comedy), practically inviting some foreign baddy to invent technology worthy of messing up his shit.

Somebody eventually does – a bulky, brooding Russian named Ivan Vanko, played effectively by Mickey Rourke. After dissing Mr. Stark with some ingenious high-voltage lion-tamer outfit powered by the same technology invented by Stark, but failing to cause any serious harm, Ivan explains his strategy. He doesn’t need to take out Iron Man. All he needs is to show the world that Iron Man can bleed. And so, after forty-five minutes of interminable setup, we finally get the most promising line of the movie: “Then there will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.”

The idea is delicious: that we might see a super-hero movie effectively about the dangers of social media PR, and the ability of a single disgruntled customer to take down a corporate giant (one is reminded of Dave Carroll’s "United Brakes Guitars." If Ivan were to have created a theme-song – instead of a plasma-powered cat o-nine-tails – it might have been titled, “Stark Kills Millions”).

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t take this idea seriously enough to pursue it. Instead, Ivan gets commandeered by rival weapon’s manufacturer Justin Hammer (played with that ever-entertaining “huh, what?” insouciance by Sam Rockwell). Hammer is supposed to be the movie’s bad guy – though he’s hardly much different than Stark in his morals and ambitions, which, in this movie’s topsy-turvy militaristic ethos, makes him something of a good guy as well. Hammer convinces Ivan to make something impressive for him – but kind of like a private chef, gives him free range to invent whatever his distorted mind can come up with. Unfortunately, the guy seems to think he’s in a Terminator movie, since what he comes up with looks like a cheap version of a Cyberdyne ripoff. This gives the whole remaining plot of mechanical Cylons shooting down trade-show goers, and Iron Man’s kung-fu methods of dispatch, the moral airs of a 1980’s video game. Meanwhile, Pepper Pots – as the representative woman on the spot – gets to stand around like a lost marketing assistant trying to find a way to reboot the sabotaged droids. Even a cameo by Larry Ellison, of Oracle fame, can’t give this trade expo any tech savvy.

Iron Man 2 also does some yeoman work struggling to establish the Nick Fury character and set up the upcoming Avengers movie franchise. However, neither Fury nor his minions ever seem to make much sense, for most of what they are up to is taking place off-stage and off-script, as if we've yet to sign the NDA to see what the rest of the movies are supposed to be about. It’s about half-way through this, however, as the Fury entourage dawdles about the Stark digs, talking to him about finding the answers within while text-messaging some other (presumably more interesting) action happening elsewhere, that I began to worry whether the entire franchise would end up seeming so absent from itself.

Combine that with a prattling script that trades on trade-show tits and flying robots, and what started out as a gleaming film franchise is now beginning to seem a bit rusty, and showing the seams of a cynical, somewhat misogynistic, basically soulless money machine. Don't ask me how they got here so quickly, but it's as if Tony Stark himself has, at least for this outing, taken over Marvel Films.