Shrek Forever After | A Single Man | The Rebound | Mr. Nobody
Cinema reviews for July 15
Shrek Forever After is being touted as the final installment in the Shrek franchise, which feels about right. Forever After is a decided improvement over the uninspired Shrek the Third, and while it doesn´t reach the heights of the first two films, it at least returns the series to a modestly entertaining level for a fitting farewell.
From the outset, though, things don´t look so good. The big green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) finds himself in the throes of a mid-life crisis, bored by the routine of day-to-day life in Far Far Away; even his loving wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), three ogre infants, and Donkey sidekick (Eddie Murphy) grind on his nerves with each repetitious day. He longs for the time when he was a free ogre, roaming the land and scaring the villagers with his great roar.
This is what sank the last movie, which focused on the internal conflict and Big Decisions the titular ogre had to make rather than, y´know, a more proactive plot. Yeah, it relates contemporary problems to the madcap fairy tale setting. Clever. But I might be more inclined to care if this were a Tennessee Williams drama rather than an animated feature aimed mostly at a pre-teen audience.
Enter Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), whom you may remember as the magical dwarf who made a deal for a queen´s first-born child unless she guessed his name. Well, now everybody knows his name, but that hasn´t stopped him from making similarly devious deals; he was set to inherit the Kingdom from Fiona´s royal parents until Shrek rescued her during events that occurred in the first movie.
And now, with Shrek longing for the time before he rescued Fiona and became a family man, well, you can see where this is going. The ogre makes a deal with the deceptive Rumpelstiltskin, and Shrek Forever After becomes a What If ? movie as he´s transported to a time where he never met his true love. A sign of a tired franchise, yes, but the film finds a balance about halfway through, and delivers at a steady pace while Shrek attempts to find the out clause in his contract. One blemish: the climactic battle scene, which is entirely perfunctory and just feels out of place here.
As with the previous films, a lot of the fun comes in the small details: the obnoxious W.C. Fields “do the roar” kid, the unfortunate gingerbread man, warrior-Fiona´s ogre sidekick voiced by Mad Men´s Jon Hamm. Of course, Murphy and Antonio Banderas steal the film (yet again) as Donkey and Puss-in-Boots; Puss is an overweight blob in the alternate reality, but that doesn´t hamper his adorable “sad eyes” routine.
Shrek Forever After has been competently put together by director Mike Mitchell (Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo), and while it never reaches the heights of the first two films, it´s an entirely satisfactory finale that should please fans of the series.
Note: Shrek Forever After is screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, but you can catch it in English in 2D or 3D at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům, and in 2D at CineStar Anděl. The above review refers to the 2D version of the film.
Let me get this out of the way: Tom Ford´s A Single Man is an extremely homosexual movie, which, I think, will greatly limit its appeal among mainstream audiences. As opposed to something like Ang Lee´s Brokeback Mountain, which told its story through a rather traditional narrative and nondescript style, every frame of A Single Man is just dripping with homosexual sentiment.
It´s to be expected, I guess, from director Tom Ford, famed fashion designer turned filmmaker who is making his debut with the film (his only previous film credit: Daniel Craig´s wardrobe in Quantum of Solace). A Single Man immediately identifies Ford as an auteur with impeccable control over his craft. It also serves as some kind of landmark in queer cinema: so sophisticated, so refined, I cannot recall a film so evocative while simultaneously so non-explicit. The closest you´ll get to an outright homosexual encounter is a brief kiss, but the vibes resonate throughout the movie.
Based on a short story by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man follows college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), a Californian transplanted from the UK, through the course of, mostly, a single day. He styles himself in front of the mirror, watches his neighbors - a suburban family of four, visits the bank, teaches Aldous Huxley to a group of uninterested students, has a drink with friend Charley (Julianne Moore).
It´s November 1962. Some months ago, George´s partner Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashbacks) was killed in a car accident. In an unforgettable scene, George is informed of the accident by Jim´s cousin (an excellent, uncredited voice cameo by Mad Men´s Jon Hamm), who politely informs him that the funeral is for family only.
George was, and is, despondent. Suicidal, maybe. Jim was his true love. He meets a good-looking hustler (Jon Kortajarena) outside a liquor store, and a persistent student (Nicholas Hoult) seems to want a deeper relationship with the professor. But the thought of developing something with either of them doesn´t even seem to register with George. He´s still loyal.
A Single Man is all character study, and Firth is exceptional in the central role in a wonderfully controlled performance. Hoult is also quite good. Moore seems to have less to do here than the casting would indicate; her British accent is slightly distracting.
Art direction is impeccable; a desaturated color palette occasionally bursts with vibrancy when something catches George´s eye. The scene with Kortajarena is memorably framed beneath a giant billboard for Hitchcock´s Psycho.
I don´t know if Ford has any plans to make future films, or if this was just a one-off from a story that touched him personally. I do know this: A Single Man features the care and precision of a director in complete control of his craft, recalling the skill of an Antonioni (Blow-Up) or Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love). It´s easily one of 2009´s best films, limited only by its range of appeal.
Based on the promotional material for The Rebound, you might think you know what you´re getting into. Here in the Czech Republic, the film is titled Sexy 40. In the trailer, the eccentric best friend loudly exclaims to Catharine Zeta-Jones: “you´re screwing the nanny!?” Yeah, traditional romantic comedy territory.
Well, forget all that. The Rebound is romantic comedy, yes. There´s some misplaced grossout comedy (mostly in the form of NYC vagrants and eccentrics) and irrepressible kids who say the darndest things (and dissect rats found in their apartment). But otherwise this is - surprise - an entirely effective and affectionate movie, and one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory, limited only by its genre trappings.
Zeta-Jones plays 40ish suburban housewife and mother of two Sandy, who gets a rude surprise when reviewing her kid´s birthday video footage: her husband (Sam Robards) with another woman. So she flees to the Big Apple with her children, finds an apartment above a coffee shop and a job with a sports network, and releases her rage on a man in a sumo suit during a self-defense course.
Inside that sumo suit is Aram Finkelstein (Justin Bartha), a recent college graduate who happens to work at the coffee shop underneath Sandy´s apartment. He´s lost in life and in love; his young French wife recently left him after obtaining her green card, but he can´t quite bring himself to divorce her, because he doesn´t want to get her kicked out of the country.
Aram begins to babysit for Sandy while she goes out to be fondled by disgusting men, and with her full-time job, he soon takes on a more permanent role in the family´s life. And yes, soon enough Sandy is screwing the nanny. And building a deeper, meaningful relationship with him.
Aram is wonderful with the kids - they feature in some of the film´s best scenes - and with Sandy, too. Here are two characters we really like and want to see together - how great is that, and how sorry is the current state of this genre that this is one of the very few films I can say that about. Only society, and, perhaps, logic, is working against the couple - she´s nearly twice his age (of course, in reality, the age gap between Bartha and Zeta-Jones is only 9 years.)
The Rebound, refreshingly, does not follow the traditional rom-com plot, and deserves all the praise I can muster just for that. Director Bart Freundlich takes a surprisingly level-headed examination of the situation his characters are placed in. It´s not a perfect movie by any means - and it almost loses itself during a protracted finale - but it´s just about the best this genre can offer. An enthusiastic three-stars.
Jaco Van Dormael´s Mr. Nobody is, through and through, stunningly beautiful to look at. The cinematography is postcard-perfect, the visuals fresh and original whether reflecting a unique future world or dream landscapes or variations on possible lives. It achieves something in its look comparable to Kubrick or Malick, to Blade Runner or The Matrix.
It´s also a nightmare to sit through. Hellish. It´s completely unengaging, and there´s zero momentum to the story, if there´s a story here at all. “Arty” and “pretentious” are beyond this film´s grasp - those descriptors could go towards something like Jarmusch´s The Limits of Control, which is similarly slow and confounding but ultimately worthwhile. We decipher all we need to from Mr. Nobody in the first 30 minutes, and the rest is a beautiful, but deadly, endurance test recommended only for the brave.
“This is not art,” you might say to the artist who has scattered garbage around the gallery floor. “It´s just a mess.”
It´s 2092. 118-year-old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the oldest living man, and in a time where death has been cured he will be the last man to die of natural causes. Cameras literally buzz around him like flies to record his plight. A psychiatrist covered in tattoos and a young journalist interview him to learn more about his life.
And so we delve into his past life. Or lives, rather. Nemo is either a forgetful old man or a poor storyteller, because he strings us along through his various potential lives, which splinter off when he makes an important decision, so we have lives in which he lives with his mom (Natasha Little) or dad (Rhys Ifans), is married to three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, Linh Dan Pham), sometimes he dies and sometimes he lives.
It´s an interesting idea. But a nightmare to sit through over two hours of, with no connection between all the different lives, and no driving force to take us through the movie. “But what is the real life?” the journalist asks Nemo towards the end, annoyed. By this time we simply don´t care anymore.
Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael is a former circus clown, best known for his previous two films Toto the Hero (1991) and The Eighth Day (1996). Mr. Nobody was a long time coming, and a lot was obviously put into it; a reported budget of $47 million is an incredible amount for this kind of independently-financed film, and what shows up on the screen looks even more expensive.
I think Mr. Nobody was going for surrealism. But Van Dormael is not a surrealist, at least not on the level of a Luis Buñuel or a David Lynch. Those directors knew that to keep an audience, the illusion of plot must occur; we must think the scenes we´re watching are connected, or the film makes sense, even if they aren´t and it doesn´t. Van Dormael doesn´t seem to care about this: we watch Scene A, Scene B, and Scene C one after the other, and there is a total disconnect between them - we´re watching a series of possible realities with no pretense of a story to connect them. And thus, no reason to invest in the film as a whole, even though we might like the individual parts.
And yet, as an exercise in intellectual nonsense, I could have gone along with it all. But at the end, things are wrapped up neat and tidy in a way that would make Adaptation´s Donald Kaufman proud. For a film that´s quite clearly going for artistic appeal, it´s an incredibly bad choice to take the easy Hollywood out.
As much as I like the look of Mr. Nobody, and the idea behind it, and the message it delivers - the importance of the choices we make - I could barely make it through. You may have better luck, and discover a real treasure here. But proceed with caution.
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