In a World for May, 2010

We’re edging ever closer to the summer blockbuster season now, and as April trudges into May the studios are firing their first major salvos: Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia, and Robin Hood all look poised to take in big bucks, carefully spaced out as they are so as not to infringe on each others’ business. And unlike last year’s never-ending festival of crap, this year’s crop of summer flicks looks to be pretty promising.

And not just among the blockbusters, either. As in previous In a World entries, Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery examine what the studios have in store for movie-goers in the upcoming month, sampling not only the aforementioned major releases but a good sampling of the smaller, more exotic fare. It’s looking to be a good month.

Iron Man 2
May 7

KL: It’s, you know, Iron Man 2. What can be said?

OK, I’ll try this: the first Iron Man accompanied The Dark Knight in making 2008 the high watermark of superhero movies, both for very different reasons. The Dark Knight was appropriately dark and uncertain of the moral territory of masked vigilantes. Iron Man, on the other hand, was like the American id unleashed in joyous bright colors and witty dialogue. I mean come on: it’s a story about a handsome billionaire playboy who invents a suit that makes him invincible and can fly. That is fun.

This one looks to be treading into some of the murkier territory of The Dark Knight; for all his awesomeness, Tony Stark inherited and maintained a business that thrives on war and destruction, and the chickens are coming home to roost. There do seem to be an awful lot of villains and big-name players here, perhaps too many to seem as effortless as the original. But, at the very least, this promises to be a good time.

DW: I’m just happy that there’s at least one super-hero film franchise out there that seems to understand that super-heroes are supposed to be fun. A lot of that has to do with Robert Downey Jr. and this little mini-Renaissance his career is going through, granted, and that leaves up the possibility of a Johnny Depp-esque over-exposure souring his appeal. I’m fairly confident that we’re not at that point yet, though. I’m giving slight pause over the sheer amount of new characters introduced here. We’ve got Whiplash, War Machine, Black Widow…too many characters at a time is one of the factors that hurt previous super-hero film franchises. Unless you’re aiming for the nerd audience, and trying to fulfill their obsessive need to check off characters from a list, throwing too many people with silly names at an audience appears to alienate viewers.

I mean, really, Whiplash? That’s who they think is a good arch-villain for Iron Man?

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
May 7

KL: The problem with documentaries like this is they tend to come out two years after most people stopped giving a damn about the subject. Which is too bad, because the story of Jack Abramoff is instructive; he is a living personification of the corruption of the lobbying process, and his double-dealings—with casinos in Texas, most notably—are jaw-droppingly audacious.

Also, director Alex Gibney is damn good at his job. I have not seen Taxi to the Dark Side, but I have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and that latter doc did an excellent job laying out exactly what happened with Enron in 110 minutes… something that was seemingly beyond the grasp of most television journalists. Should be enlightening, but I’m guessing anyone who has a chance of stepping foot in this theater will already know about half of what’s going to be talked about. What a loss.

DW: Like you say, the core audience for a project like this are people who are already informed about what happened. What I find frustrating is that material like this should be of appeal to the current wave of anti-government protestors, but they’re unlikely to go see it because, let’s face it, Abramoff was in bed with the political party that they’re supporting. And that’s on top of the fact that documentaries seem to have a natural audience with the more lefty-leaning population centers, which only compounds the problem. Populist documentarians would be welcome, I think, but I shudder to imagine what kinds of material they would cover, much less their approach to it.

Just Wright
May 14

DW: Combining a romantic comedy with a sports movie seems at first glance to be a good idea. You could create the perfect date movie; something for both women and men to see and enjoy. But while Queen Latifah has shown that she’s a remarkably likeable and appealing lead in roles such as this, this looks to be hittting every terrible cliché from both genres. They meet cute! But he’s interested in her hotter friend! But they’re thrown together by fate! Oh no, crippling injury! Will he choose his career or love! To make matters worse, we get all that in the trailer. If there are any significant plot beats lefts unrevealed, I’d be surprised.

KL: Man, you are not kidding; every single thing is right there in the trailer, right down to what I am sure is the last (successful) date. It’s no great mystery that people dig romantic comedies because they satisfy a rhythm everyone knows… no one’s there for the surprises. But holy cow.

What’s actually most interesting to me? The movie is PG, which is pretty rare for a rom-com. I wonder if the movie’s actually meant for younger audiences, even if it’s not spun that way in the trailer.

Robin Hood
May 14

DW: I don’t care what anyone says; I still like Gladiator and I still like Russell Crowe. There’s too much here that just hits the right buttons for me not to get excited. I like Robin Hood stories, quite a lot, and have since I was a kid. I like the Middle Ages as a setting, especially for films. Heck, I even like Cate Blanchett and Ridley Scott, “Directors Cut” of Blade Runner notwithstanding. So I’m dumfounded by the pre-backlash the film seems to be generating. I can’t imagine that I’m the only person who gets beautiful shots of men in armor fighting and Russell Crowe monologuing and gets thrilled at the prospect of seeing how it all comes together.

KL: You are not alone. I too still like Gladiator and still (mostly) love the hell out of Ridley Scott, though I admit their combined efforts are a diminishing brand; American Gangster just straight-up bored me, which is kind of tragic, given that its recipe was exactly the kind of movie I go for. I did not bother with A Good Year.

But Crowe being all intense, doing the Robin Hood thing? Cate Blanchett, whom I love? Yeah, I’ll say it as one of like five guys who liked Kingdom of Heaven: I love it when Scott goes period piece.

Letters to Juliet
May 14

KL: Hollywood is generally unkind to actresses. Usually the major studios find one or two young women who are “hot” and then casts their brains out for a good year or two before moving on to the next one. Right now it’s Amanda Seyfried’s turn. I think she’s talented and cute as hell, so bully for me.

Not that I spend a lot of time in her movies; it’s pretty plain they’re not made for people like me. But for a certain audience (in this case, I’m guessing teenage girls), it’s all there: the cute European boy, the beautiful Italian countryside, the wise and fun grandmother figure. Enjoy yourselves, girls.

DW: I feel like I’ve seen and read this story lots and lots and lots of times before. Heck, it’s even a minor plot point in a Terry Pratchett novel. What I’m most struck by is how bright and yellow everything is in this trailer. He’s blond, she’s blond, sunflowers everywhere, wheat fields, pasta…it’s an overload of color correction in post-production to give everything a warm and fuzzy and safe feel. Possibly to distract you from the fact that, yep, this is another trailer that shows you every single major plot beat, right down to the resolution of the film’s story. I’d be more surprised if Seyfried’s character doesn’t end up with the emotionally distant and decorum-obsessed English kid.

Holy Rollers
May 21

KL: Jesse Eisenberg gets a lot of comparisons to Michael Cera, but I don’t think that comparison is a fair one. Though they both do the quiet, passive-aggressive put-upon thing, Eisenberg’s presence is altogether more adult and thus altogether more engaging. I suppose that’s only fitting; Eisenberg is five years older than Cera.

Anyway. This is a pretty dynamite premise, even if the ultimate arc of “good times with drugs” movies is as predictable and as moral as any romantic comedy. I’m not expecting greatness—director Kevin Asch and writer Antonio Macia really don’t have much else to recommend them—but a passably good time? Likely.

DW: There are so many ways you could go with a premise like “Hasidic Jews smuggle drugs” I’m vaguely disappointed that they appear to have gone with the earnest drama about how everybody’s lives are ruined by crime route. Which, to be honest, is probably preferable to the comedic route. I can just imagine someone pitching this to a studio as a “wacky” comedy vehicle for Adam Sandler or Jonah Hill.

I’ve got more tolerance for Eisenberg than Cera, but I’ve got more tolerance for just about any actor than I have for Cera. But Eisenberg is on the (very) short list of actors of his generation that I think have real talent and staying power, and even though I haven’t really enjoyed any of the films he’s been in, he’s aquitted himself well in them.

May 28

DW: Hypatia was a fascinating woman for her time, but “incredibly intelligent and well educated Roman woman” probably isn’t quite thrilling enough to attract an audience. So that would explain why the focus here seems to be on the events that lead up to her murder at the hands of religious zealots. What’s really interesting is that the film isn’t shying away from the fact that Hypatia is about as close as we can get to a “martyr” for atheism, as it’s being made clear here that the religious fanatics that murdered an innocent woman for offending their sensibilities are Christians. That’s still a pretty damn bold position for a film to take.

KL: Bold indeed in an era where studios are more aggressively targeting churches and Christian groups for that sweet, sweet Passion of the Christ revenue. In fact, that subject matter may explain the trailer’s opaqueness. I’d be at a loss to describe what the movie’s about, just going by it alone. People are angry, I guess? And running around? And it’s Rome?

But what YOU say sounds pretty intriguing, and it’s been way too long since Rachel Weisz has been allowed to carry a movie.

May 28

DW: I like visually inventive films. It’s one of the great strengths of the medium. Jeunet’s films are always arresting in that sense, even if narratively they tend to be a little flat sometimes. This looks charming, more akin to the light whimsy of something like Amelie, but without the horribly played out “manic pixie dream-girl” tropes that make it hard for me to watch. I also have to say that the prospect of a film in which someone who has been wronged by the system gets revenge by being clever, instead of going in guns blazing and leaving a pile of bodies, feels a lot more refreshing and overdue than it probably should be.

KL: I was just thinking “hey this sure looks a lot like City of Lost Children” and then there was Jeunet’s name, so there you go.

More often than not you have to go overseas to be reminded that films are a visual medium, and special effects long ago unshackled us from the need to be ploddingly, thuddingly literal and realistic. In other words: it sure is nice to be reminded that films can show us things that can’t be seen anywhere else, which goes a long way toward explaining why I loved Speed Racer so much.

Note to major American studios and theater chains: Surreal visual treats like this put my ass in your overpriced seats, not 3D… even if Micmacs seems to be suffering from Teal and Orange Syndrome.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
May 28

DW: It’s become a bit of a truism that films based on video games are incredibly bad to the point of being unwatchable. That’s not entirely true, but it’s true enough that knowing that a film’s premise is recycled from a game should be enough to give any rational person pause before they hand over their money to see it. But then, people never expected that a movie based on a theme park ride could be any good either, and this combination of studio and producer did manage to prove that you can make one, and precisely one, good movie based on a ride. Bruckheimer is good at bombast, but he also is very good at giving audiences the big spectacle that they want out of their blockbuster-style films. That he isn’t actually directing this, only producing, is actually a good sign as well. And while a little part of me does cringe slightly at the fact that a film set in fantasy Arabia features an almost all English and American cast, I also realize that I’m getting a big, sweeping sword-and-sandal epic fantasy set in Arabia, and I’m actually pretty okay with that.

Plus, we’ll be getting shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal in this, so it’s pretty much mathematically proven that it’s going to be fantastic.

KL: This looks big, dumb, loud, and possibly too long, but you know what? So was Pirates of the Caribbean, and Pirates was a hoot. It was also unlike anything else coming out at the time, a descriptor that also seems to fit Prince of Persia. I’m just wondering if the key players—Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, who is the sword-and-sandals genre’s answer to Amanda Seyfried, apparently—will have enough strength to stop this from being another landslide of numbing CGI. Give me fun, give me wit, give me real fights—less wires and close-up incoherence, more staged, practiced, and choreographed—and I’ll be happy.

Survival of the Dead
May 28

KL: I am a George Romero fan. I’ve watched four of his five Dead movies backwards and forwards. (The fifth, Diary, was so painful a misfire that I have tried to forget about it.) What I like most about his zombie movies is that they’re not really about they zombies; the zombies are just the catalyst for bringing out some of humanity’s ugliest urges. And no matter the quality of the film (seriously, Diary was so bad), the man never treads water. He’s always trying to do something new, even while everyone else is busy copying his last work.

Two things here: I can’t tell what this one is really about, beyond the obvious. And also, I don’t care. Romero almost always goes with nobodies in his leads, which leads to predictably mixed results, but this Army guy looks like the real deal.

DW: I’d be perfectly happy if no zombie movies, books, comics, televison shows, radio plays, what have you, ever came out ever again. Pretty much for the same reason that you cite as Romero’s strength: they’re really about people. They’ve become too much of a blank canvas for creators to project whatever point they want to make about the nature of humanity onto. And yeah, Romero is the only filmmaker who really seems to manage to do that well, but I still find them just about the least interesting horror antagonists out there.

Now, you take the zombies out of this plot, somehow, and I’d probably go see it. Inter-family conflicts on a remote island that are disrupted by newcomers, played out as a horror film? Yes, please. But with zombies? No, thanks.

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