Summer Movie Report, Vol. 1
By Fernando F. Croce

Robin Hood. A very long stroll through an overcast Renaissance Fest, where rousing legend is sacrificed at the muddy altar of "realism." It gives you a pre-Sherwood, Crusades-weary Robin with daddy issues (Russell Crowe, torpid and oafish) who stumbles into his role by chance, and a Marian (Cate Blanchett) who’s the grimmest of Rapunzels. Medieval England is a "country at war with itself," plagued by dandified regents, costly foreign conflicts and inflamed serfs, to say nothing of French infiltrators (led by Mark Strong, the current go-to guy for nefarious geodesic domes). But who has time to take from the rich and give to the poor, when the Magna Carta’s anti-big government clauses need to be created? Draw whatever political implications you want from this, Ridley Scott is too busy futzing with his Breugel-goes-strobe lighting to care. The climactic battle is a confused cocktail party stutter-edited into some kind of vast D-Day landing, the heroine’s farmhouse is roughly the size of a mall garage and crammed with more candles than a Sting video. "Can’t you ever sing a happy tune," grumbles Little John. No wonder Max Von Sydow seems happy to be playing a blind character. Groovy rotoscoped end credits, though.

Iron Man 2. Peculiarly Reaganite sequel, complete with benevolent war profiteers and hulking Russkie meanies. The latter is Mickey Rourke as a tattoo-covered, leather-skinned memento from the Cold War arms race, who, whether slicing cars with electric whips or gently stroking his pet parakeet, somehow manages to project the mysterious gravity of a Tartar warrior. Robert Downey Jr. as jaded-playboy-cum-heroic-Tin-Man Tony Stark, meanwhile, is "Robert Downey Jr.," surfing on snark while commenting on it -- it’s shtick by now, but still full of verve and polish. Throw in the ever-squirrelly Sam Rockwell as Stark’s rival CEO, and you have enough actorly eccentricity for a fistful of superhero installments. So whose idea was it to turn the lenses over to the machines? Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson and Sam "Nick Fury" Jackson are also in it, but they’re no match for the gangbang of clanging CGI dishwashers the movie builds up to. While his lumpy 2008 original at least had the virtue of humor and sporadic human interest, here director Jon Favreau has embraced his inner techno-vandal and made everything crasser, noisier, more metallic. "How do you piss with that suit on?" So much for a Michael Bay-free summer.

Toy Story 3. It was either this or Shrek Forever After Your Wallet. The Island of Misfit Toys this time around is a daycare center’s toddler ward, where Woody et al. end up after getting separated from their college-bound owner. The Romper-Room sanctuary is quickly revealed as a penal colony lorded over by a pink plush bear (Ned Beatty, in the movie’s standout vocal performance), a folksy misanthrope who thunders: "You were made to be thrown away!" Buzz Lightyear in paso doble mode and a swishy Ken doll search for giggles, a dead-eyed plastic baby and a cymbal-banging toy monkey provide the nightmare fuel. To be fair, there’s legitimate poignancy in the way the characters from Pixar’s first feature hit have retained their handcrafted, Rankin-Bass look even after 15 years of ruthlessly streamlined computer animation. There are dazzling and alarming moments, of course, and the pathos of discarded playthings scrambling to ward off the fiery void. And yet, there’s more than ever the nagging sense that the company’s shrewd blend of hectic jokiness and tear duct-tugging is less soulful statement than seamless product. The closing image’s promise of more to come is sure to warm the hearts of kids and Disney shareholders everywhere.

Splice. The very weird science of marriage and parenthood, barbed and gratifyingly slimy. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the lab nitwits, genetic engineers named Clive and Elsa who, in keeping with the jokey Frankenstein allusions, are looking for their Boris amid the test tubes. They find it in their latest experiment, a salad of human and animal DNA that grows from mutant rodent to amphibious homewrecker. (Delphine Chanéac pantomimes the creature with insinuating crooked knees, darting peepers, plumed wings, and a stinger-equipped tail). The braided dread and desire in a young couple’s familial-creative struggle is fertile, hermaphroditical ground, and there’s plenty of free-floating ingenuity, even when director Vincenzo Natali’s prosaic imagery threatens to hamper the ideas (lifted from Sisters, It’s Alive, The Fly, and Little Otik, among others). For all the quivering-reproducing-exploding blobs on display, the richest special-effect is Polley’s understanding of the kind of gooey sci-fi comedy that loosens up hard, anxious actresses. Surely she paid attention to Jennifer Jason Leigh on the set of eXistenZ.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. As craptacular as the previous two installments, though at least there are times when the performers seem self-aware enough to be on the verge of sending up the material. (Upon the third or fourth shot of muscled-up Taylor Lautner vealcake, even Robert Pattinson has to ask: "Doesn’t he own a shirt?") For the record, it has an uneasy truce between ashen bloodsuckers and lupine shape-shifters, Bella (Kristen Stewart) huddled in a tent with her two lunkheaded suitors, and assorted ghouls recalling their back-stories. (One of the vampires was in the Civil War, an idea that played much better as a Lance Henriksen one-liner in Near Dark.) This stew reaches some kind of wacky zenith when Pattinson puts a ring on Stewart’s finger and -- holy metaphorical hymen, Batman! -- a dab of blood tastefully materializes. Director David Slade uses his vamp experience from 30 Days of Night to inject a bit of visual energy, but the whole thing is still Stephenie Meyer’s fantasy of herself as a dim virgin being fought over by Gossip Girl updates of the old Universal Studios monsters.

Ondine. A dedicated magical-realist, Neil Jordan paints with wonder and menace. Returning to Ireland after the ugliness of The Brave One, he sets the evocative timbre in the matter-of-fact way a fisherman (Colin Farrell) lifts his traps out of the ocean and finds a mysterious lass trembling in the net. Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) is the doleful stranger, a comely water sprite who, seeking asylum in Farrell’s shack, showcases a talent for using song to fill boats with lobster and donning soaked negligees. Could she be the human-seal selkie of Celtic lore? While his daughter (Alison Barry) pours over books on the legend, Farrell is content to remain befuddled and in love, as he confides in Stephen Rea’s comically weary padre: "Not joking. Dreaming, maybe." At its most affecting, this uneven quasi-fantasy is about people hungering for myth -- a scruffy recovering alcoholic struggling to see himself as a tragic clown and a wheelchair-bound girl who pines to be Alice peeking down the rabbit hole, contrasted with a siren whose own flight is revealed as all too human. Not top Jordan, but Farrell’s pensive smolder and Christopher Doyle’s iridescent views of cirrusy skies and everlasting seas linger.

Please Give. In the bourgeoisie-talking-to-itself sector of cinema, it pays to have a voice as wryly humane as Nicole Holofcener’s. Her alter-ego, Catherine Keener, here embodies the writer-director’s guilty-privileged-liberal side as a Manhattanite who runs a boutique shop with her husband (Oliver Platt) and gets her merchandise cheaply from the children of the freshly deceased. To quell the weighty remorse she feels for making money off other people’s deaths, she pushes $20 bills on street people, tracks down volunteer work she’s too weak for, and invites to dinner the crone next door (Ann Guilbert), whose flat Keener is planning to snatch as soon as the old woman kicks the bucket. "Old furniture has ghosts, you know." The romantic travails of Guilbert’s granddaughters, a dutiful wallflower (marvelous Rebecca Hall) and a tangerine-skinned bitch (Amanda Peet), and the body issues of Keener’s teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) add to the seriocomic mosaic of female anxiety. Cinematically barren, pockmarked with tidy writer’s concepts, and always too "nice" to sting, Holofcener’s picture is nevertheless valuable for its performances, keen observation, and distaste for easy epiphanies.

MacGruber. After watching Iron Man 2 unquestioningly give ‘80s testosterone-leakage clichés a new coat of paint, nothing beats having Will Forte send them up with a steamroller. Expanded from his bite-sized Saturday Night Live appearances, the comic’s mullet-headed, passive-aggressive eponymous klutz is parachuted here into a surreal netherworld of hyperbolic Simpson-Bruckheimer tropes. Things get transcendently gross. To take down bad guys, MacGruber alternates between compulsive throat-ripping and ass-play with celery; if there’s a lovemaking montage, the Mr. Mister ballad on the soundtrack will drop so you can hear the hero’s hideous grunting and thrusting. Val Kilmer supplies the link to the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker school of spoofery, but Forte, director Jorma Taccone, and the sublime Kristen Wiig triumph with their own brand of unique, risky lunacy.

Get Him to the Greek. The Apatow Boys on the road. One sequence: Jonah Hill and P. Diddy taking turns stroking a furry wall and Russell Brand and Colm Meaney tussling while the Las Vegas suite around them burns down. Very pure stuff. Other than that, sorry guys, not even a good try.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence). "Now what sort of man or woman or monster would stroke a centipede I have ever seen?" One wonders what Burroughs would have made of Dutch director Tom Six’s purposely grueling provocation, which oscillates from a particularly scatological South Park episode to a lost Georges Franju horror poem. Long before it unveils the ass-to-mouth-to-ass-to-mouth crawler of the title, the film’s labyrinthine corridors, chloroformed lighting and sallow-skin hues, actors with names out of a German porno movie, and sense of bottomless inhumanity have already put together an indelible waking nightmare. I live in fear of (and eagerly await) Second Sequence.

Part 2: Resnais, Winterbottom, Nolan and, gulp, Shyamalan

Reviewed July 6, 2010.

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