Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010)

Back when I was in film school, my chums and I made a mockumentary called Winds of Time. It wasn't really about much of anything. A blizzard in April prompted the whole thing, as I recall, but the title was chosen because it was vacuous and pompous sounding, and thus in keeping with our intention to poke fun at a particular variety of pompous documentary film. This has nothing to do with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, except that the title of that movie is also vacuous and pompous sounding. It is about time sand, however, which is some kind of mystical, magical sand that can reverse time, but only for the person who pushes the jewel button on the magical dagger that contains said time sand. And if the plot of Prince of Persia sounds like less fun than getting sand in your bathing suit, you're not too far wrong. The movie, which is based on a popular video game, is a bit of a snore. Bits of plot exposition, with a wee bit of halfhearted romantic verbal sparring, are inserted between action scenes. Mostly it's about jumping and sword fighting and knife throwing and swirly time sand, which might be fun in a video game, but, as is often the case with game-to-movie adaptations, not that much fun to watch.

The story concerns a young prince who started life as a pauper. Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the son of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) of Persia. Dastan was a plucky orphan boy who was adopted after he impressed the king with an act of courage and daring. Grown-up Dastan remains brave and reckless as a young warrior, fighting alongside his brothers Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle), and their scheming uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley). The brothers conquer the holy city of Alumat, after Nizam claims that his spies tell him the city is manufacturing weapons for the enemies of Persia. In Alumat, Dastan takes possession of the magical dagger, which, should it be misused, is a kind of weapon of mass destruction, and he meets the dagger's sworn guardian, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton). She instantly loathes Dastan, so you know that love can't be far behind. You know this, watching the movie, but there is absolutely no spark -- not the teeniest bit -- between Dastan and Tamina, nor Gyllenhaal and Arterton, so the romance remains strictly hypothetical, although the movie pretends it's real anyway.

Palace intrigue, machinations, assassinations, and a false accusation later and Dastan and Tamina are on the lam, he to clear his name, and she to protect the dagger. On the evidence, I doubt Tamina could keep a rock safe from a feather duster, and she's not much help on the dagger front, although she tells Dastan that the dagger must be taken to the Secret Guardian Temple or something sensible like that. Dastan apparently invented parkour there in ancient Persia, and likes to leap across rooftops and scurry up walls while fending off assorted assassins sent to eliminate him and steal the dagger. Sandstorms, camels and bandits happen as well.

Alfred Molina turns up for some much-needed comic relief, playing Sheik Amar, an entrepreneur who poses as a brigand so as to avoid paying taxes. He hates taxes and big government, but he loves ostriches. Twas when Molina showed up that it became clear that  Prince of Persia has *Pirates of the Caribbean* pretensions (it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who launched the pirate franchise for Disney, too). Molina is the Captain Jack Sparrow stand-in here, a desert pirate with a heart of dented gold, and he is a hoot (as he so often is), which is all the more welcome because the rather unfortunate attempts at romantic comedy between Tamina and Dastan have all the fizz of flat seltzer. 

Director Mike Newell, who used to make chipper romantic movies, then launched into supernatural action movies (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), directs  Prince of Persia with the trademark Bruckheimer look -- lots of sepia filters, and big, complex, CGI-heavy action sequences. The plot is a throwaway, a generic action-fantasy movie plot that could have been set in any time and any place. Which is to say, anyone looking for a timely message about, say, the current political and/or historical situation in Iran or some such is most definitely barking up the wrong palm tree. Even the accents are generic movie British (or authentic British in some cases). Gyllanhaal's accent is passable, and he's definitely buffed up for the part, although his hairstyle is positively dreadful. Arterton looks, sounds, and acts like she walked in from some other generic sand-based movie, and, as the sole feminine presence in the film (save for a few harem girls), she's sorely out of place. I'm not convinced she could survive a walk across a sandbox, let alone a trek across the movie's vast deserts. Kingsley, although a very fine actor, hasn't yet played a bad guy without it being instantaneously obvious that he's playing the bad guy, especially when he has a little Van Dyke beard and kohl-rimmed eyes. So it will surprise no one to learn that he's a duplicitous uncle and the villain of the movie. 

The handiness of the time-reversing dagger is that it's only a matter of time before Dastan gets a do-over, so there's very little peril for him or anyone else in the movie. If I had a magic time dagger, I think I'd push the button and go see a different movie.


MacGruber (2010)

Vegetables are abused in MacGruber. This is better than abusing animals because vegetables are not sentient and don't actually care what happens to them or in which bodily orifice they are inserted.

That's the last good thing I'm going to say about MacGruber, a relentlessly unfunny movie, based on a Saturday Night Live skit. MacGruber is a parody of the 1980s TV action show MacGuyver*, in which a resourceful crime fighting guy foiled bad guys by defusing bombs and making weapons out of chewing gum and tomato soup cans, or something like that. I never actually watched MacGuyver, so I can't speak authoritatively. All I know about MacGuyver is what I gleaned from previous parodies of it, of which there are many. Which makes MacGruber not only unfunny, but unoriginal and pointless as well.

How unfunny is it? Pretty dang unfunny. Things blow up, people blow up, grunty sex happens, and F-bombs are dropped with enough frequency to suggest that the screenwriters decided to make hay while the network censors couldn't bleep them. I doubt the network censors bleepin' care. 92 percent of the jokes in the movie are precisely this: characters say the name of the movie's villain, which is Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer). The joke is that the H is almost silent. Isn't that bleepin' hilarious? Now imagine hearing that joke repeatedly for 90 minutes and you'll know exactly how much you do or do not need to see MacGruber. The other 8 percent of the humor involves MacGruber (Will Forte) doing incredibly stupid things, usually more than once. Doing incredibly stupid things is not inherently funny, and I'm willing to declare that Forte is also not inherently funny, which is 8 percent of the reason why MacGruber isn't funny. The other 92 percent is that saying Cunth over and over again isn't funny either.

The movie was written, more or less, by Forte, John Solomon, and Jorma Taccone, who also directed. The plot is an effort to string together various cliches from 80s TV shows and action movies. Cunth steals a nuclear missile. MacGruber, an extremely decorated veteran of, apparently, all of the various branches of the armed forces, who has won every possible award and medal, is in retirement in Ecuador when Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe) convinces him to hunt down Cunth. Why? Because the villain killed MacGruber's wife on their wedding day. MacGruber assembles a team composed of straitlaced Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig). Wiig is a very, very funny woman. She can be funny just blinking her eyes. She is, in fact, funny in MacGruber despite everything going on around her. She specializes in characters who know they deserve better, quiet seethers who are surrounded by idiots. Vicki, one suspects, knows that MacGruber is an idiot, but she just can't help herself. She loves him anyway. Maybe it's because she has feathered hair a la Farrah Fawcett circa 1970s, while MacGruber has an 1980s vintage mullet, and sports a khaki vest and plaid shirt. That would make MacGruber very fashion forward in Vicki's eyes.

Not that MacGruber warrants all that much consideration of why the characters do the things they do. The reason is simple: it's in the script. Why it's in the script, however, I can't explain. Maybe someone thought it was funny, but I rather doubt it. 

Movies are expensive and time-consuming to make. Even bad movies like MacGruber. Given limited money in the world, I can't fathom why anyone would bother throwing millions of dollars into a trashcan like this. I also don't know why anyone who didn't have a professional obligation to do so (someone such as myself, your faithful, long-suffering servant) would stay to the end. In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that I heard a few half-hearted laughs from the audience I saw the movie with. During a particularly belabored and noisy sex scene, the girl behind me said "He sounds like he's dying!" Actually, that was the sound of a movie dying.


Letters to Juliet (2010)

Letters to Juliet is a charming little movie. Really, it is two movies, one a little better than the other. In one, a lovely young woman finds love in Italy. In the other, a lovely older woman finds love in Italy. The young woman's story is a trifle dopey, one of those movie romances where fate slams together an obnoxious man and a confused woman and conspires to make them fall in love whether they like it or not. The older woman's story is just grand, a sweet story of enduring and mature love, of it's-never-too-late love. The young woman is Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact-checker for *The New Yorker* who aspires to be a writer. She has a cute fiance named Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is a chef, and is about to open an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Sophie and Victor go to Verona for a pre-wedding honeymoon, where he plans to eat, drink, and meet food suppliers. Sophie mopes a bit because her fiance would rather look at a dark, dank wine cellar than explore scenic Verona. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Oh, it's golden, sun-dappled Tuscany! How bad could it be? It's warm, and there's gorgeous Italian food everywhere, and it's beautiful and if you don't want to live there ten minutes into the movie you're just not paying attention. 

Sophie's dolce vita is about to get even sweeter. While wandering Verona alone -- Victor is off in search of truffles or some such -- she comes upon the House of Juliet. Yes, that Juliet, whose famous balcony inspires lovelorn women to pin notes to the walls of her house. Notes of sadness and misery and broken heartedness. Ever the fact-finding detective, Sophie soon discovers the secretaries of Juliet, a group of plucky, spunky women who answer those letters. She also discovers a 50 year old letter tucked behind a stone in Juliet's wall. She decides to answer that letter, written long ago by a young British exchange student named Claire.

Once a sad Juliet who ditched a young Italian lover named Lorenzo Bartolini (her family did not approve), Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) is now a widowed grandmother who travels to Verona, inspired by Sophie's epistolery efforts. Claire wants to find her long lost Lorenzo. She brings along her stick-in-the-mud grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan, a cross between Heath Ledger and Ryan Phillippe), who very much disapproves of his grandmother's silly quest. He also very much disapproves of Sophie and her meddling ways, and takes an instant disliking to her. Sophie, naturally, instantly dislikes him too. It must be love. Fate, of course, will see to it that Claire, Charlie, and Sophie all wander together through oh so scenic, golden Tuscany in search of Lorenzo.

They find many elderly Lorenzos, all of them more than willing to be The One. Lovely, radiant Claire brings out the romantic (and sometimes the horndog) in the gentlemen of Verona. Movies do not ordinarily appreciate old love -- it tends to be a source of discomfort, comedy, and ridicule. Indeed, the kind of romance that movies specialize in is young love --  desperate, aching, passionate Romeo and Juliet style love -- not patient, enduring, mature romance. While Letters to Juliet finds comedy in the acculmulation of Lorenzos who would be more than happy to romance Claire, it doesn't laugh at the notion, the very possibility, that people past retirement age might have emotional lives, and experience love.

It doesn't especially make a mockery of young love either, although Sophie and Charlie are stuck in one of those love-hate relationships that can only happen in the movies (or Shakespeare's comedies) because the individuals involved are so irresistibly attractive. Ordinary mortals would shrug and walk away unless forced by destiny, or the whims of a screenwriter, to soldier on exchanging barbs and half-hearted insults while inexorably falling in love. Sophie's no shrew in need of taming -- just adorable and ever so romantic -- and it turns out Charlie isn't so bad and stuck up after all, and even the neglectful fiance Victor is pretty charming and passionate. How bad can a movie be when both the cads are really decent fellows? Sophie's romantic complications smack of cinematic artifice, of the kind of momentary roadblocks that occur along well-worn, AAA-approved path from Can't-Be-Lovetown to Splitsville to True-Loveburg. Meanwhile, Claire's unlikely romance turns out to be not altogether implausible, given a certain understanding of the way unlikely events and coincidences actually do tend to occur in life, just to keep us on our toes. Letters to Juliet is warm and pretty and quite pleasant, a modest, charming exercise in wish fulfillment that gets the job done and leaves you hungry for a big plate of pasta.


Iron Man 2 (2010)

Superhero movies, like the comic books that birth them, are ready-made for sequels, and barring absolute incompetence, sequels generally follow. They generally follow in the summer, and Iron Man 2 kicks off the summer movie season with a bang and a boom and more than a few laughs.  What's that? A superhero movie that's funny? Fear not -- Iron Man 2 (I really like the unpretentious title. You want more Iron Man? Here's more. Precisely one more.) is also serious, but it does not see fit to go all dark and dreary. Like the first Iron Man, this one is cool and goofy, and recognizes that a guy flying around in an armored suit is not by itself endlessly amusing, even for the easily amused. Far more interesting is Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the billionaire industrialist playboy, bad boy, and world class narcissist who, in the first Iron Man (2008), invented that nifty flying suit.

Since then, we learn, the U.S. government has been trying to get its hands on that marvelous Iron Man suit, and Stark has impolitely declined their offer to steal his invention. World peace has broken out, thanks to Iron Man's efficiency as a military deterrent. Stark has been having some trouble with his battery-powered artificial heart, however, which seems to be killing him. Meanwhile, a rival weapons mogul named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is more than willing to give the military what they want, except that what they want is what Stark's got. Stark's frenemy Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role), an Air Force colonel, finds his loyalties divided between his unpredictable buddy Stark and good ol' Uncle Sam. And if that's not enough agita, a Russian ex-con named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has long been nursing a grudge against Stark (whose father allegedly betrayed Vanko's father), comes looking for revenge. Vanko's a genius physicist -- his own armored suit is equipped with electrical whips, which may not be the most efficient weapons, but they look pretty darn cool as they slice through metal like buttah. (For those keeping score at home, Vanko's a variation on the Whiplash/Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo characters from the comic books.)

Iron Man 2 is loaded with more than enough smashy smashy boom boom action sequences, but in between, there's plenty of snappy dialogue penned by Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder). This is particularly true of the exchanges between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, now elevated to CEO of Stark Industries. Stark and Pepper have a relationship of miscommunication, devotion, and frustration (of assorted professional, sexual, and romantic kinds), and they're evenly matched in the witty back-and-forth that injects a little romantic comedy into the mostly masculine proceedings. Director Jon Favreau (who plays Stark's chauffeur-gopher Happy), as he did in Iron Man, emphasizes character over action, and is happy enough to let the stars outshine the hardware. None are as incandescent as Downey, who is a fascinating and eminently watchable creature. Downey makes Stark a fast-talking egomaniac, a techno-genius, a free-market capitalist ("I've successfully privatized world peace" he tells the Senate) and a likable rogue. He's smart, impetuous, mercurial, a textbook case of adult ADHD, and just a whole lot more interesting than the plot that requires him to periodically don a mechanized red suit and fly around shooting things. In Iron Man 2, Stark's daddy issues emerge, and he faces his own mortality, but there's no self-pity -- he's too busy tinkering with his toys. 

Downey spars with a couple of terrific villains in Rockwell's Hammer and Rourke's Vanko. Rockwell combines put-upon huffiness, comedic cluelessness, and self-absorption as Hammer, a weapons mogul whose armaments are as ineffectual as he is. The telltale sign of his vanity is the self-tanning stains on the palms of his hands -- that stuff's as hard to wash off as the blood of innocents. (Or so I've heard.) Rourke, on the other hand, oozes menace and malevolence as Vanko, an embittered, fleshy, tattooed madman whose appetite for vengeance has left him scarred inside and out. Both Rourke and Downey are enjoying -- really enjoying -- their resurrected careers, and treating Iron Man 2 with the kind of seriousness that, say, one might expect from the *Dark Knight* movies. At the same time, though, they're clearly having fun with their characters, because keeping the comic in comic book characters is the distinguishing feature of the Iron Man movies.

Iron Man, as the first screen outing for the man in the Iron Man mask, was a fairly straightforward superhero origins story that offered few surprises in the plot department, but had plenty of substance. Iron Man 2 is apparently setting up future complications for Stark and Co., with a plot that sends more telegraphs than it delivers. Scarlett Johanssen's curvacious S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natalie Romanoff, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury are on hand, but not to do very much... yet. Or so it seems. The trick for Iron Man going forward will be to keep the characters as lively and interesting as they've been so far, to pay enough attention to the mental machinery, and not just the gear and gadgets. So far, so good.


A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Freddy Krueger is a scary horror monster in part because he's horribly disfigured, in part because of his slicey-dicey killer glove, in part because he's relentless in his pursuit of his victims, and in part because, since he's already dead, he can't be killed. Like a ghost, he can turn up almost anywhere. The catch is that Freddy haunts the dreams of his teenage victims -- and if he kills them in their dreams, they stay dead. That's a neat trick -- once his prey figure it out, they are afraid to sleep, perchance to dream. They try desperately to stay awake, until they're dead tired. And then just dead.

But since Freddy first turned up in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the world has changed. Ritalin, Red Bull, and a Starbucks on every street corner (maybe even Elm Street) all help hapless teens stay awake a little longer. But Freddy can wait.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has been rebooted, though not very much reimagined, with a new Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) now menacing the teens of Elm Street. Freddy likes to ask of his victims "Remember me?" That's a little inside joke, of course, although the primary audience for A Nightmare on Elm Street is teens who were in elementary school last time Freddy showed his scarred face, so they probably don't remember him. Neither do the kids he's currently stalking, and he's not especially happy that they don't -- his new mission is not just to have his revenge. He'd like his victims to remember what happened the last time he "played" with them. His backstory is much the same as in the previous Elm Streets (of which there have been eight) -- Freddy was a child murderer in his former incarnations. Now he's a pedophile, and still seeking vengeance after the vigilante parents of Elm Street killed him. It's not really their fault he came back gruesomely disfigured -- he wasn't supposed to come back at all.

As before, the heroine of A Nightmare on Elm Street is Nancy (Rooney Mara), Freddy's favorite victim in life and in death. Nancy's a scrappy and resourceful heroine, and not one to go down without a fight. She gets some help from Quentin (Kyle Gallner), a pasty-faced classmate with a ready supply of prescription uppers to help him stay awake.

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was genuinely scary, witty, and grisly, but Freddy, played by Robert Englund, became increasingly familiar, campy, and less menacing as he stalked his way through seven sequels and becamse a pop culture fixture. Haley, a former child star whose rebooted career has been built on his ability to play unsettling characters (he was Rorschach, the only good thing about Watchmen, he played another pedophile in Little Children, and he's terrific in a recurring role in the TV series Human Target), is suitably menacing as Freddy. The character's disfigured visage has been shaped around the sharp architecture of Haley's own face, notably his prominent cheekbones and horizontal slash of a mouth. Topped off, of course, by Freddy Krueger's signature fedora. Haley returns Freddy to his nightmarish, maniacal roots as a serial killer and sexual predator.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is directed by Samuel Bayer, who previously directed music videos, and written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer. The filmmakers attempt to recapture the primal terror and creativity of the first (and best) Nightmare  -- it's no easy feat to imitate originality, however. Much of what made A Nightmare on Elm Street stand out from the rest of the slash pack -- the powerful heroine, the sinister mix of repressed childhood memories and unconscious fears, the inventive use of dream imagery -- is emulated in this movie. The results are adequate and passable -- A Nightmare on Elm Street is competent and sufficiently diverting, but not nearly memorable enough to have any lasting effects on the psyche.