PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Princess of Montpensier (A)
France: Bertrand Tavernier, 2010, MPI Home Video
The Princess of Montpensier is a splendid French historical drama, a movie in the tradition of sumptuous, intelligent epic-makers like Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, or Jean-Paul Rappeneau -- and of course, in the best tradition of the filmmaker who made it, the usually good, sometimes magnificent Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Tourchon, A Sunday in the Country, Life and Nothing But).
Adapted by Tavernier and his writers, Jean Cosmos and Francois-Olivier Rousseau, from a lesser-known novel by the celebrated aristocrat/authoress Madame de La Fayette, this film is a rich, emotional, supremely intelligent work -- a passionate romance, a penetrating political critique and a rousing adventure story.
The story is a romance set during the Wars of Religion in 1562, and involving real historical figures -- most prominently Marie, the Princess of Montpensier (played by the stunning Melanie Thierry), and the four prominent men, all real historical figures, who love and vie for her: her idealistic soldier-husband, the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Lefrance-Ringuet); the womanizing seducer whom Marie loves, the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), De Guise's friend and another fatal charmer, the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), and, perhaps the most interesting character in the film, the older pacifist soldier/scholar, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the shining, trustworthy idealist to whom the Prince entrusts his Princess -- but who falls in love with her as well.
Madame de La Fayette, who was somewhat inspired by a different set of events in her own century, knows this milieu, knows these high desparate romantic and political stakes. And so do Tavernier and writer Cosmos, through artistic empathy. All the acting is superb, all the writing admirable, all the visuals rich and beckoning.
French artists, both literary (Stendhal, Flaubert) and cinematic (Carne-Prevert), are adept at anatomizing l'amour, at giving us a almost scientific analysis of the ways of love. Tavernier's film shows us distinct varieties of passion, from pure to lusty, from analytical to overwhelming. But he also shows us the world of that time, immerses us in its sights and sounds. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Green Lantern (C)
U.S.: Martin Campbell, 2011, Warner Bros.
Maybe I'm just getting really, really tired of Superhero movies -- and maybe the people making them are getting a little tired of them too -- but I had trouble sitting through Green Lantern.
A half an hour or so into the show, I started checking my watch, and soon I was checking it every few minutes or so -- even though a lot was happening. Cities were exploding, mad scientists were running amok, the entire world was in jeopardy, and we kept getting whisked off to the Planet Oa, where our hero, Green Lantern, a.k.a. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a crimefighter in skin-tight costume and a silly little green mask, kept getting briefed on his new superhero intergalactic-peacekeeping duties, as well as the progress of the ongoing war with the monstrous Parallax (an intergalactic fiend voiced by Clancy Brown).
What was Hal, an earthling test pilot turned intergalactic cop, doing there? Well, Pay attention: Hal became the first human member of the universe's prime law enforcement group, because he happened to be around when another Corpsman, Abin Sur (played by Temuera Morrison of Once Were Warriors) was dying, and, because the all-powerful green ring on Abin's hand chose Hal. How's that for a super-charged wish-fulfillment fantasy?
That should have been enough to keep my mind from wandering and my watch under my sleeve! And so should the cast: Reynolds as the engagingly cocky daredevil test pilot Hal Jordan, turned Green Lantern, Tim Robbins (always a welcome sight) as the powerful and politically hefty Senator Hammond, Blake Lively as Hal's fellow test pilot, magnate's daughter and love interest Carol Ferris -- and especially Peter Sarsgaard as the nerdy scientist/teacher turned sadistic, misshapen intergalactic maniac Hector Hammond.
In fact, Planet Oa itself should have held my interest -- particularly since there was so much money so obviously spent on it. So why did I feel so gloomy whenever G.L. went back there? Maybe because it was such a gloomy-looking place, a weird-looking habitat of lofty spires towering into the murk and the perpetually overcast skies, where the weird-looking populace kept talking and yelling at each other on the rooftops, and where our hero kept confabbing with Tomar Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush), a wise old Yoda of the Guardians of the Universe, and a chap who looked something like an erect talking fish, as well as Sinestro (Mark Strong), a cranky superhero with what looks like a pretty bad sunburn.
On Oa, despite the murk, there's so much of incredible interest to engage us all! We can see Hal/Lantern quickly learn how to be one of the stalwarts of the Green Lantern Corps, policemen of the universe, whose motto reportedly is "In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight." (There's no Green Lantern Military or Police Academy, or at least none I saw. Apparently, you just pick this stuff up from a few tutors.)
Sound exciting? But no, with all that going for it, the movie struck me as stupefying. Part of the problem may have been the secret identity bit. I like sort of wimpy, bullied secret identities like Clark Kent (Superman) or Peter Parker (Spider-Man). Green Lantern's superhero had a secret identity -- or his regular alternative identity -- who was himself a kind of superhero, or at least a hero: the arrogant star test pilot Hal, who thinks nothing of breaking rules, mouthing off and wrecking billion-dollar planes.
Even worse, this secret identity was almost impossible to keep secret, since all Hal has as a disguise is a skintight costume and that silly little green mask. (The scriptwriters, to their credit, have heroine Carol point this out.)
As soon as Hal hooks up with Abin, he takes the ring, and suddenly is transformed into a super-duper-hero possessed of all kinds of amazing superpowers, including superhuman strength, being able to super-fly everywhere, including Oa, being able to alter reality and shift shapes around him at will, and, most importantly, being able to wear the Green Lantern outfit without falling on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter.
Horrible Bosses (C)
U.S.: Seth Gordon, 2011, Warner Bros.
There's an ugly rumor going around that Horrible Bosses is a funny, clever movie. But if that's true, I must have watched some other horrible movie by mistake.
A number of reputable critics pronounced themselves convulsed at this alleged laugh riot -- which is about three buddies, beleaguered and persecuted by their intolerable bosses, who decide to strike back and murder them all in a three-cornered Strangers on a Train-style murder swap (at which they prove howlingly inept). But it really didn't make me laugh. (Well, to be truthful, it sort of made me laugh, but only briefly, in the last half of the movie.) And that was despite strenuous efforts by director Seth Gordon (of Four Christmases) and his writers to supply taboo-shattering, darker-than-dark, politically incorrect, shock-the-pants-off-the-bourgeoisie humor, executed by three fairly funny guys (sly Jason Bateman, hysterical Charlie Day and gabby babe-hound Jason Sudeikis) and three talented actors as their mean bosses (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell) -- plus comedy ace Jamie Foxx, as a supposed whack advisor named Dean M-----F----r Jones. (I repeat, with bleeps, Mr. Jones's uncommon nickname, something his fictitious would-be employers also do incessantly, to give you a hint of the kind of politically incorrect comedy gems that await any s-----r who watches this movie.
Bateman, Day and Sudeikis play, respectively, wary Nick Hendricks, scratchy-voiced Dale Arbus and smoothie Kurt Buckman, three old buddies who tend to meet and commiserate about their awful bosses at a local bar. By a fantastic coincidence -- and fantastic coincidences are something this movie could not function without -- all three of the chums have seen their hideous relationships with those unbearable bosses reach what the film's writers seem to regard as the last f--k--g straw.
Bad Boss Number One is Spacey as the Machiavellian sadist-bully Dave Harken (played by Spacey in his best, acid Swimming with Sharks mold), who has denied Nick a long-awaited promotion after tricking him into drinking whiskey in the morning at work. Bad Boss Number Two is Aniston, wearing a Demi Moore hairdo, as randy dentist Dr. Julia Harris, who insists on trying to have frequent sex with her reticent dental assistant Dale, who wants to stay faithful to wife Lindsay Sloane (or maybe it was Jason Bateman). And Bad Boss Number Three is Farrell as balding, combed-over, cocaine freak Bobby Pellit, who takes over the family business after the death of his good-guy dad (Donald Sutherland), of whose eye Kurt was the apple, and announces his intentions of firing as many employees as he can while actively working to squander his inheritance, disgrace his father's name and damage the environment.
So, the guys, after a few minutes' discussion, decide to become murderers and risk a life in prison to express their anger. And then they compound their idiocy by trying to find a hit man on the Internet or in the want ads, and then hiring a complete stranger, Mr. M-----F----r himself, after noticing him nursing drinks in a seedy bar. Now, what self-respecting idiot would do all that? Fortunately for our anti-heroes, their bosses prove about as stupid, or crazy, as they are, and, after complications galore, the movie sputters to its seemingly inevitable conclusion: a paean to dumb luck and cell-phone recorders.
What's to dislike? The jokes, obviously (though they're sometimes smartly delivered). But most of all the attitude. Horrible has the seed of a good idea: a comic attack on white-collar workplace tyranny. (Director Gordon worked on The Office.) And these are bad bosses, except for Aniston's Dr. Julia, who looked to me like the answer to Dale's prayers.
But I felt little sympathy for these guys, and on some level, you're obviously supposed to. It still seems a better bet for these guys to just look for another job, or maybe better, to try to dig up a scandal that would get the bosses fired (in fact, scandals like that are all over the movie) rather than indulge in elaborate bone-headed murder schemes. I realize this is a movie about attempted murder going awry, but the screenwriters need to overcome our resistance to what seems rampaging illogic. After, all it's a scenarist's job to make crazy decisions plausible. Here, they haven't.
U.S.: Frank Coraci, 2011, Sony
Zookeeper is a Kevin James comedy of almost stupefying dopiness. It's a movie that really shouldn't have been as lousy as it is. The cast is good -- including the very likable James as zookeeper Griffin Keyes, and especially Rosario Dawson as his coworker Kate and Nick Nolte doing the gruff voice of a gorilla named Bernie. The production values are nice; it was shot at Boston's beautiful Franklin Park Zoo, with very photogenic animals and animatronics. And there's a killer under-the credits rendition of Boston's "More than a Feeling," sung or lip-synched by the star animals, a routine that actually beats everything in the rest of the movie.
No, scratch that. Nothing else in this movie beats Rosario Dawson, an almost insanely good-looking woman -- but who has been weirdly cast here as the zookeeper's great good friend who's trying to help him out romantically by pretending to be his date to get another woman (Leslie Bibb as blonde snob Stephanie) jealous. Pretending? Wouldn't it make more sense if it was Griffin who pretended to be in love with Stephanie, so he could pretend he wanted to make her jealous, so he could get an actual date with Kate?
Works for me. But not in this movie. The people who made it, and especially the people who wrote it, can't seem to decide whether they're making a lovable kid's movie with a lovable zookeeper and colorful talking animals, or a hip romantic comedy about a schmo who chases after a hottie, and ends up with an even hotter hottie. Not that you can't do both, but the five writers blamed for Zookeeper don't make it work and don't make us laugh.
Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer (D+)
U.S.: John Schultz, 2011, Relativity Media
Hard to believe, but there really is a move called Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer.
And yes, it really is based on a popular kiddie book of the same title, about energetic third-grader Judy and what a bummer her summer is. And yes, yes, YES, they've made a really terrible movie out of this book, complete with that overemphasized NOT in the title. (The writer insists on it.) The movie stars Jordana Beatty, an energetic young red-headed Australian actress, and she plays a zippy suburban third-grader, who lives in a neighborhood where everybody yells and acts stupid, and the dogs keep pooping on the lawns. (Or it feels like they do.) In the course of the film, Judy keeps running around trying to have fun -- and complaining that she doesn't, that nothing happening in her neighborhood is entertaining. You can say that again.
By the way, the hit kiddie book, part of a series, was written by successful author Megan McDonald, who also co-wrote the script for this awful movie. So she can't blame anyone else for ruining her work -- or at least for ruining it without her help.