The Lobster (C-). This movie has too much critical buzz–and sounded just too weird–for me to miss. It’s an allegory or satire or something about the pressure society puts on people to pair off romantically. In the alternative universe of The Lobster, everyone has to pair off. If your partner leaves you for another person, you get shipped off to a hotel where you can mingle with loads of other single people. And if you don’t find a partner within 45 days, you get turned into the animal of your choice and set free. Remember, I said it was weird. Anyhoo, Colin Ferrell (Total Recall) is our guide to this insane asylum. He lands in the hotel at the very beginning of the movie, where he sort-of befriends a guy with a limp (Ben Whishaw, Spectre) and a guy with a lisp (John C. Reilly, Chicago). Some hotel residents desperately want to find someone, while others seem more or less resigned to their fate. Oh, and there’s a band of “Loners” (including Léa Seydoux, Spectre, and Rachel Weisz, Agora) running around out in the woods around the hotel–defiantly (and illegally) single people who have their own weird code of conduct about relationships. What will Ferrell do? Seek love, join the Loners, or settle for becoming a lobster? It’s all very weird and artificial and sort of interesting, but I really can’t say I really enjoyed it all that much.
Youth (C). I enjoyed the last (and Oscar®-winning) film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty. That was a movie about a bon vivant, no longer young, looking back and trying to make some sense of his life, the universe, and everything. In Youth, Sorrentino doubles down by giving us not one but two old-timers, played by Michael Caine (Children of Men) and Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction). They are old friends, hanging out at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps. Keitel is a movie director, still active and hard at work with a team of screenwriters on the movie that he calls his “testament.” Caine, sad-eyed and apathetic, is a retired composer and conductor of classical music, and he refuses to come out of retirement even when he sought out for a performance before the Queen of England. Rachel Weisz (About a Boy) is also on hand as Caine’s unhappy daughter and personal assistant. Paul Dano (Looper) pops up from time to time as an actor also staying at the resort. Although a few significant events do transpire, it’s a very static and artsy movie. There are lots of short, silent scenes, and lots of scenes of people just ambling around talking about this and that. It’s okay, but at 124 minutes it definitely started to feel long after a while.
Oz the Great and Powerful (B-). I think it helped to go into this movie with low expectations. Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead fame directed this tale of how the Wizard of Oz actually arrived in that merry old land many years before Dorothy and Toto did. Oz (James Franco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is a small-time magician toiling away in a two-bit traveling carnival in nowhere Kansas. Serendipity and a massive cyclone whisk him off to Oz. It seems that Oz is plagued by a wicked witch (some things never change), and the people look to Oz to fulfill a prophecy that a great wizard will defeat the witch and return peace and prosperity to the land. Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Rachel Weisz (About a Boy), and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) add some interest as Oz’s three resident witches, but I thought the show was stolen by a sweet little china girl (that is, a live figurine made of china) that Oz repairs and becomes a kind of foster father to. Is it as magical as the original? Of course not. But it’s not a bad movie. The PG rating is for some potentially scary action sequences and a couple of uses of profanity, and that seems about right to me.
Agora (C). This swords-and-sandals epic from the director of The Others barely made it onto my radar screen, but once I learned about it I made sure to see it. Rachel Weisz (The Shape of Things) stars as Hypatia, a brilliant scientist and mathematician living and teaching in Alexandria, Egypt in the late 4th century. The city, it seems, is continually in political turmoil as the Roman Empire approaches its expiration date. At first the city is divided among pagans, Jews, and Christians. Soon the pagans (who include Hypatia and most of the educated folks) and the Christians provoke each other into genuine civil war; the overconfident pagans are whipped by the more numerous Christians, and the famed Library of Alexandria is destroyed by the Christian mob. Things settle down for a while, but as the Christians continue to consolidate their power it is only a matter of time before the Jews and the few remaining pagan holdouts (like Hypatia) feel their wrath. Although it is perhaps just possible that the director is actually slyly sounding a warning about Muslim fundamentalism and what folks have to look forward to if Islamists gain control in more countries than just Iran, I think the movie was intended to be just what it appears–a hatchet-job on Christianity.
The character development is poor, and the battle sequences and depictions of ancient Alexandria are not particularly spectacular, so the movie’s main interest is historical. Which necessarily raises the question of historical accuracy. How much do we really know about these battles and the life and death of Hypatia, and how accurate is this movie overall? Was Alexandria’s bishop, later canonized as St. Cyril and revered as a Doctor of the Church, the intolerant zealot and schemer he is made out to be? Late 4th century Alexandrian history is not exactly common knowledge these days, and I hope I may be forgiven a little skepticism that the Spanish film-makers went into this project bias-free. The recent book Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart actually devotes a whole chapter to this very episode in history, and he concludes that the earliest historical sources tend to contradict much of the Agora account. Of course, he may be a partisan too, and most of us lack the time, inclination, and knowledge of ancient languages we would need to figure out how accurate Agora is for ourselves. So let’s just close this review by paraphrasing something I think Roger Ebert said in a review of Chocolat or some similar movie–wouldn’t it be remarkable to see a movie in which the Christians are the happy, life-affirming people, and the pagans are the dour, killjoy types? I’m not holding my breath.
The Constant Gardener (C+). I remember that this movie got good buzz when it came out, but I was surprised to relearn that Rachel Weisz (About a Boy) won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for this film. I found it rather unmemorable. Ralph Fiennes (The White Countess) plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat posted in Kenya. At the beginning of the film, he learns that his wife Tessa (Weisz) has been found, dead, under mysterious circumstances. Then we flash back for a while to see when they met and what events led up to Tessa’s untimely demise. Then we see what Justin does next. It is a pretty formulaic tale of corporate greed, treachery, and amorality, and some things happen that just strike me as very unbelievable. I was unimpressed. Also, doesn’t “widescreen” mean that you’re supposed to get the whole movie picture on your TV screen, with the black bands at the top and bottom? My DVD box says “widescreen,” but the movie is actually in full screen format. Annoying.
Definitely, Maybe (B-). It’s tough to come up with an original plot for a romantic comedy, but this one makes a game run at it. Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, Just Friends) is a thirtysomething guy in NYC. He’s going through a divorce, and one day its his turn to pick up his 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine) from school. The school is in pandemonium because parents have just found out that their kids have just been taught some pretty graphic stuff in sex-ed. (A big minus is how much sexual dialogue they foist on cute little Abigail.) Anyway, when Will puts Maya to bed that night, she wants to know how Will and her mom met, so maybe they can see what went wrong and fix it. So the bulk of the movie is a flashback as Will tells Maya about the three serious girlfriends he had in his single days, and she has to guess which one eventually became her mom. There’s his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the quirky April (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers) whom Will meets while working for the Bill Clinton campaign, and the free-spirited journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz, Agora). It’s not a bad flick, and it’s a hoot to see true-believer Will have to deal with Bill Clinton’s foibles as they come to light in his flashbacks over the years.
The Shape of Things. (B-) Although this film is about dating and relationships, it is not a “date movie.” The director is well-known for making misanthropic movies, and this one is no sunshiny portrayal of human nature. Nerdy, slobby English student Adam (Paul Rudd) meets quirky, free-spirited art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and for some reason she agrees to go out with him. Next thing you know, she is starting to make him over–new haircut, new wardrobe, contacts, etc. She also starts to come between him and his best friends, Phil and Jenny. Further complicating matters, although Jenny (the fetching Gretchen Mol) is (unhappily) engaged to the boorish Phil, she has been not-very-secretly nursing a crush on clueless Adam for a long time, and the newly-remade Adam may be too much for her to resist. Honesty is in for a rough road in this film, and manipulation is the order of the day. You were warned!