March 2012 posts
SALMON FISHING N THE YEMEN (2011/ IN THEATERS) The previews for this romantic comedy from Swedish Director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) have already given away many of the funny parts of the film. But there’s still plenty more to enjoy in this light entertainment set against the politics of the UK and the Middle East. The basic story involves a far-fetched idea from a wealth Sheik to build a dam in Yemen, import 10,000 UK salmon, and create a miracle—salmon fishing in the desert. His idea is scoffed at by all those involved, particularly by Ewan McGregor (Dr. Alfred Jones), a UK fisheries specialist with a thick Scottish accent who is asked to spearhead the project. His contact is Emily Bunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbet, the go-to girl for the wealthy Sheik Mohammed (Amr Waked). After an initial meeting to explore the concept, the two appear to be “cold as fish,” but enter Kristen Scott Thomas as Patricia Maxwell, the PR powerhouse for the British Prime Minister, who sees this crazy project as the “good news” she needs for the Middle East and soon, we’re off and running. As I understand it, the film is based on a very popular UK novel by author Paul Torday who combined his interest in fly fishing and the Middle East to create a novel that was a comedic send-up of modern day UK politics and particularly of its “spin management.” His novel was adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy who also created the screenplays for Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The film version is much more romance and much less satire, but it is still enjoyable—particularly thanks to the strong performances of its main characters. Who doesn’t love Ewan McGregor with his accent full on? And how about Emily Blunt as her usual “prim and proper” British self? I have to say, however, that my favorite of the entire movie was Kristen Scott Thomas who really held nothing back. Not a blockbuster, but definitely worth seeing in the theater if you’re in the mood for something light-hearted and the polar opposite of “The Hunger Games.”
Grade: B +
THIN ICE (2011/IN THEATERS) If you like quirky movies (like Fargo, the classic from the Coen brothers), Thin Ice may be just the ticket for you. Set in and around Kenosha, Wisconsin during a cold winter, the movie centers on a small time sleazy insurance salesman well portrayed by Greg Kinnear. That’s Mickey Prohaska, a perfect picture of the classic salesman—shiny shoes and a fancy car, lots of smooth banter, an inveterate liar who’s living on the edge—thrown out of his house by his wife, credit cards fully maxed, money owed everywhere. When we first meet Mickey, he’s at a convention of insurance sales people. Sitting at the bar, he encounters earnest Bob Egan (David Harbour), a young man eager to please and anxious to get into the insurance game. Mickey hires Bob (on commission) and soon Bob leads him to Gorvy Haur (Alan Arkin, perfect as always), an old man who lives an isolated life on his farm, with just his dog for company. Gorvy is a natural for an insurance policy and soon Mickey has him signed up. The plot thickens when a violin specialist from Chicago (Bob Balaban) shows up and tells Mickey about Gorvy’s $30,000 violin; it thickens even further when Billy Crudup appears as Randy, a locksmith hired by Gorvy to install a security system at the house. Crudup is wonderful, as usual, as the tightly wound Randy who keeps declaring that he doesn’t want to go back to prison. Naturally, Mickey is determined to steal Gorvy’s violin and sell it for a badly needed $25,000, but as in all Fargo-like movies, much will go awry. I enjoyed this movie and the people in the theater with me were definitely laughing in a number of places. It’s black comedy for sure and although it’s not nearly in the same league as the Coen brothers, it’s still worth catching if for no other reason than to watch Alan Arkin and Billy Crudup, two of my favorite actors.
NOTE: Writer/director Jill Sprecher (whose sister Karen is co-writer) has disavowed this cut of the film. Here’s the statement Ms. Sprecher sent to Roger Ebert: “The producers and distributor of our film completely re-edited it without me. Nearly 20 minutes were cut; the structure rearranged; out-takes used; voiceover and characters dropped; key plot points omitted; a new score added. Although our names contractually remain on the film, my sister and I do not consider ‘Thin Ice’ to be our work.” Makes me want to watch for the Director’s cut on DVD!
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004/DVD) People who actually saw John Carter last weekend were seriously impressed by Lynn Collins as the Martian princess Deja Thoris—and why not? She was simply gorgeous and really held the screen anytime she appeared on it. Even critics who hated John Carter gave her performance their highest praise. So who is this beautiful young woman?
She hails from Texas and is a Juilliard School for Drama trained Shakespearean actress. In fact, she stepped in for Cate Blanchet in the pivotal role of “Portia” in the screen version of The Merchant of Venice, holding her own against the likes of Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino. Impressive work for sure. The film, directed by Michael Radford (Oscar nominated for Il Postino), is set in 1596 Venice. Young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) asks his friend, the merchant Antonio (Irons), to loan him 3000 ducats so that he may pursue Portia (Collins), a beautiful and wealthy young woman who lives on a nearby island and awaits her suitors, each of whom must pass a challenge created by her deceased father—choosing between three chests made of gold, silver and lead. The lucky suitor who chooses the right box will win the hand of Portia and also her wealth. As it happens, Antonio is in love with Bassanio but is selfless enough to find the ducats requested, even though all his money is tied up in merchant ships at sea. He is forced to turn to Shylock (Pacino), a Jewish moneylender he despises (and in fact has often spit upon), for the funds. Shylock cleverly offers a three-month loan at no interest, but insists that, if not repaid, Antonio will owe him a pound of flesh. Shylock’s daughter elopes with a Christian, flaming Shylock’s hatred and so when Antonio’s ships are wrecked at sea, Shylock demands that his debt be honored. A court hearing ensues and things look dire for both Antonio and for Bassanio until a clever Portia springs into action to save the day. This is classic Shakespeare and is considered a comedy though it certainly has its tragic elements. If, like me, you have never seen this play performed, the film is a big treat. I recommend it highly—not the least for Ms. Collins’ terrific performance—but only for real Shakespeare fans.
JOHN CARTER (2012/IN THEATERS) I confess that I have never read anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs so I can’t tell you if this film is true to his “Barsoom” series featuring the character of John Carter and specifically his 1917 book “A Princess of Mars,” which serves as the basis for the movie. But what I can tell you is that I found the movie to be pretty darn good fun, a definite surprise given its generally terrible reviews. I particularly enjoyed the opening and closing of the film which wraps a “story inside a story,” with the young Burroughs himself cast as the nephew of the rich and eccentric John Carter.
Burroughs is called to Carter’s home following his unexpected death and is entrusted with his diary. As he reads it, we are taken back in time to meet Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate Cavalry Captain (and quite the fighter) now searching for gold in the Arizona hills. While running from both the U.S.Army and angry natives, Carter discovers a cave of gold and next thing you know, he wakes up in another desert, this one on Mars. Here he is taken captive by four-armed green creatures (and befriended by two of them), saves the brainy and beautiful Princess Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) and eventually becomes entangled in a Martian civil war. He also learns the secret of inter-planetary travel and meets shape-shifting ultimate bad guys named Thunes. Let’s stop now and just say that the plot of this movie is rather thick and so is our hero—as in, more brawn than brains. But he is a good soldier and gentleman, and ultimately shows his strength of character. Enough of plot! Don’t go to this movie looking for great acting or clever dialog. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. Just go and have fun. Think of it as a “mash-up” of old fashioned westerns (it reminded me of Disney’s Hidalgo from a few years back) combined with a pseudo early “Star Wars” set of creatures, flying machines, battles and heroics. Viewers at Rotten Tomatoes have given the film a 75%. That’s about right. Sorry, critics, it’s better than you think!
BTW: There has been tons of chatter on the net about Disney’s failure to market or position this film correctly, and having now seen it, I have to agree. They might have done better with the original title “A Princess of Mars” and even the original poster—see above. After all, we’re in a nostalgic mood as The Artist proved decisively. Then again, The Artist had Harvey Weinstein as its marketeer….a talent Disney threw away when they destroyed their partnership with Miramax.
W./E. (2011/IN THEATERS) Madonna’s rendition of the 1930s headline-making romance between Wallis Simpson (played by suitably rail-thin actress Andrea Riseborough) and Britain’s King Edward VIII (a dashing James D’Arcy) has received virtually no love from the critics, who have given it a 13% Rotten Tomatoes rating (7% among “Top Critics”). Audiences have been more generous at 57% but still not a great showing. Nonetheless, the film is definitely worth seeing, particularly if you can answer yes to the following. Are you fascinated by the Royals and love a good scandal? If yes, nothing can really top the W./E. story which as we all remember focuses on a twice-divorced social climber from the U.S. who won the heart of the King and thus inspired his abdication of the throne “for the woman I love.” Next question: do you love period fashion and decorative rooms and villas? If yes, then again this movie really delivers—the 1930s sets are perfect in every detail and Ms. Simpson’s dresses alone are worth the price of admission. That’s the good news about the movie. Now for the bad. While the 1930-ish romance is more than captivating, we spend only half our time there in the film. Like Julie and Julia, this movie cuts between two parallel stories—one in the past and one in the present—which seemingly touch on each other. The present day story centers on Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) who was named for Wallis Simpson by her mother. It’s 1998 and Wally is a young woman in a bad marriage. She’s also a former Sotheby’s employee who now haunts their Manhattan offices just as an auction of the W./E. collection is getting underway (this auction occurred in real life BTW). The movie cuts between the two women and their stories, and even allows them to meet on-screen a few times (thanks to Wally’s active imagination). Wally is fascinated by the burden of living up to a legendary romance and eventually travels to Paris where she is granted the opportunity to read the personal letters of Wallis Simpson. And in this scene, Madonna delivers her message: it’s not easy to live the daily life of the “legendary” particularly in a foreign land. Why don’t people like this movie? For one thing, the constant cutting between the two women interrupts the development of both characters. And as was the case also with “Julie and Julia,” both viewers and critics would like to see more of the historical character and much less of the contemporary one. Wally does eventually find her romance in the form of a Russian security guard at Sotheby’s but poor Wallis, shown dancing for the dying Edward in the 1970s, is trapped in a cage of her own making.
NOTE: How fascinating to see this portrayal of Wallis and Edward on the heels of last year’s King’s Speech. Edward’s brother Bertie succeeded to the throne when he abdicated in order to marry Wallis, as we saw in that film also. But Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) is portrayed here much less sympathetically —as in, being shown actively blocking the efforts of “W./E.” to return to England. Evidentally, this version is more true to life.
P.S. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film’s soundtrack is first rate!
A SEPARATION (2011/IN THEATERS) This year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film was awarded to an Iranian film, a first for the Oscar. Universally admired, “A Separation” is a well acted, well scripted and well shot small film that shows us a side of Iran we seldom, if ever, hear about—that is, the real life of the middle class there and how a legal system works in concert with the Muslim religion. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the film introduces us to Nader and Simin (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), a married middle-class couple in Tehran, who have a sweet 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Nader’s senile father also lives with them. They have agreed in principle to move abroad, where they hope Termeh’s prospects might be better. Simin is ready to leave now—in fact, she’s in a hurry, since the Visa they have been granted will expire in 40 days. Nader feels the responsibility to stay for his father’s sake and firmly decides to remain in Iran, leading Simin to file for divorce. In the opening sequence of the film, the two sit in front of a family court judge who decides that their problems do not warrant divorce and rejects Simin’s application. Disappointed, Simin (who comes across as a very modern woman, IMHO) leaves her husband and moves back in with her parents—thus, the title of the movie. Made to choose between her parents, Termeh elects to stay with her father, hoping all the time for her mother’s return. Nader hires Razieh, a young, pregnant and deeply religious woman from a poor suburb, to take care of his father while he works at a bank. But the task is literally overwhelming for Razieh who, according to her religion, should not be working for a single man at all, particularly without asking her husband’s permission. The plot thickens and eventually we meet Razieh’s hot-headed husband and find ourselves back in front of another judge, this time for criminal charges which are being filed from both sides. I won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that the film is a brilliant illustration of good intentions gone bad. while the characters are so well-rounded that we alternately sympathize with each one and yet are terribly frustrated with all of them. The movie is a little over two hours long but I think you will be completely absorbed by the story right up to the end. Highly recommended for foreign film lovers of all stripes.
BTW: “A Separation” has many other awards, including the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, where it was the first Iranian film to win these awards as well. It was also nominated for a 2nd Oscar for Best Original Screenplay—that award, of course, went to Woody Allen for “Midnight in Paris.”