MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Sex and the City 2 and MacGruber…

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Newell, 2010

Prince of Persia, which is probably one of the best-looking Arabian fantasy movies ever, is also unfortunately, a movie based on a video game. And its ambiance and narrative structure is video-gamey all the way: The original story here is actually by the writer who scripted the game, Jordan Mechner.

The results, amazingly, aren’t as shallow as you might expect, though they are dramatically and psychologically thin. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer reportedly lavished 150 million dollars or so on the project, and after all, he’s the guy who based three smash hit movies (with more to come) on the Disneyland theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a lot of money on this one too. But if you walk into the show demanding anything more than a 150 million dollar video game movie, you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed.

Prince of Persia — in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan the adopted prince, battling traitors and snakes, wooing the beauteous Princess Tamina and trying to keep his hands on the fabled Dagger of Time — is a movie that never lacks for something impressive to look at: a stunning composition by director Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale, or an iridescent vision of old Persia (Iran) by production designer Wolf Kroeger, or some snazzy editing by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh, or some fabulous ersatz stunts choreographed by French parkour inventor David Belle, or some breathtaking shots of the Moroccan deserts, dune after dune stretching away like some sandy, surreal panoramic tapestry.

But the movie had only one memorable performance, with a few funny lines, and that’s from Alfred Molina, Peter-Ustinoving it up as the secondary character, Sheik Amar. The Sheik is an ostrich race entrepreneur who helps Dastan of Nasaf — as he and Princess Tamina of Alamut (Gemma Arterton), try to rescue their respective kingdoms from the nefarious designs of the wily Nizam (Ben Kingsley, slumming again), brother to the late King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and evil uncle to Dastan, gullible throne successor Tus (Richard Coyle) and vain general Garson (Toby Kebbell). Also around: steadfast warrior Seso (Steve Toussaint) and the infernally murderous Hassansin, bossed by their spectral-looking leader (Gisli Orn Garbarsson).

These are the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a video game — except for Sheik Amar who, unlike his ostriches, has precious few martial arts kick-ass skills. And they all, Tamina included, do a lot of bashing and back-flipping and scimitar-waving and throat-cutting and poisoned-cloakwork, so much so that you almost expect to see each fresh corpse vanish in a little video game “pling” when they’re bopped.

The characters don’t really speak to each other. They breathlessly exhort or expound on some new dastardly deed or invention. Meanwhile, the Hassansin are constantly lurking around, adopting menacing postures and conniving with Nizam. The only real surprise comes when Sheik Amar laments that his star ostrich, deprived of combat and the company of other ostriches, has become suicidal. (Unfortunately the moviemakers don’t give the ostrich a big ledge-standing suicide scene, followed by a little parkour. With these CGI experts, I bet it would have been sensational.)

Gyllenhaal has been suitably muscled up for his role, and stripped down and given lots of opportunities to show it off. But he doesn’t look really comfortable in the part. Arterton probably should have been allowed to be even sexier; after all, this isn‘t Omar Khayyam‘s Rubaiyat. Nor does the flood of exhortations in the dialogue, delivered in the high sharp tones of the British Parliament savaging each other in the House, seem to be fully stretching or satisfying Gyllenhaal or Arterton, or anybody else.

As for Kingsley, he’s a good sport about everything, including the sword fights with Gyllenhaal. And they reward them all by giving Kingsley, Gyllenhaal and Arterton a reprise of the last cliff-hanger in North by Northwest, with Sir Ben copying Martin Landau, stomping on Cary Grant as he held Eva Marie Saint. (This time, Nizam stomps Dastan as he holds Tamina suspended above a fiery abyss.) Hitchcock did it better, which is no surprise.

Speaking of directors, the estimable Mike Newell has now, it seems, solidly moved into blockbuster-land, though I like him much better with medium or lower budgets, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, the marvelous Enchanted April, Into the West and Donnie Brasco. I hope he returns to them.

Watching Prince of Persia,“ you’re always tempted to review the budget. But then, the budget (reportedly around 150 million) and the lavish techniques, materials and big stars bought by it are among the main reasons for watching this show. There’s plenty of meaty Arabian or pseudo-Arabian fantasy literature that could have been tackled at less than half the cost here — including Haji Baba, the original Arabian Nights, or even anotherThief of Baghdad. And plenty of good roles for lots of good actors to play in them.

Is it quibbling again to complain that Bruckheimer and his screenwriters — Boaz Yakin (Fresh), and Doug Miroand Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited) — should have been inspired by more for their money than a popular video game? Maybe. But I still kept expecting to feel that “pling” as I played — that is, as I watched — Prince of Persia.


Sex and the City 2 (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Michael Patrick King, 2010

Timing is often everything, and the timing of the new Sex and the City movie, in some ways, is a miscue — not so much for long-term fans of the long-running classic TV show about four smart, sexy, rising gal pals in Manhattan, but certainly for a lot of movie critics. In the reviews I‘ve seen, mostly witty knockdowns and tear-ups, Sex and the City 2 has been accused of almost everything but statutory rape and contributing to global warming and nuclear disaster — and I‘ll bet I could have found indictments on those charges if I‘d looked harder.

Given all that, any nice words I may have for this movie — the latest reunion of Sarah Jessica Parker’s hip writer and fashionista Carrie Bradshaw, and her front-row friends, lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), good wife Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and ever-horny publicist Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) — may seem sheer perversity.

Let me explain: I’ve seen more episodes of this show, and enjoyed many of them, than many hetero males, because it happens to be one of the great favorites of a very special, smart, sexy lady friend. (Such a favorite that I gave her the DVD set of the complete “Sex and the City” one Christmas.) She’s no dope, and she thought this movie Sex and the City 2 was entertaining and fun, though flawed in some ways and not up to the TV show. I suspect that most fans of Sex and the City — and they’re not an alien life form, after all — will agree. In some ways, they’re right.

So why all the brickbats? (Roger Ebert‘s knock of the movie is one of the funnier, and more cutting, he‘s written.) After all, it’s just another look at Carrie’s latest problems with her elusive now-husband Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Miranda’s career troubles, Charlotte’s motherhood issues, and the now-fifty something Samantha‘s propensity for pulling off her panties (or ignoring them altogether) at the drop of a zipper — climaxing in the quartet‘s improbable all-gal-pals vacation in the emirate of Abu Dhabi in $22,000 a day suites.

It’s a typically swank, typically fantasy-laden Sex and the City, a sequel that’s a modern attempt at a glamour-drenched screwball comedy, mixed with some tartly realistic observations on female friendship. It has some bubbly comic scenes and snappy byplay among the longtime cast-mates. I’ve seen worse. Much worse.

Hollywood romantic movie comedy is not exactly a thriving industry, and at least writer-producer-director (and longtime Sex vet) Michael Patrick King has the sense to know what some of the good ones were, and to try to emulate them. He includes a homage to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Top Hat, and classy black-and-white clips from It Happened One Night and Cary Grant’s Talk of the Town.

But some of those critical shafts are well-aimed. The post-crash era is not as kind to the delights of conspicuous consumption as the pre-crash Clinton-Bush years, when Sex and Carrie thrived. To celebrate so swooningly the dreamy world of upper class Manhattan chic and the delights of the shop-aholic world, in the face of economic disaster and hard times, seems increasingly callous, even though the ‘30s Great Depression was the seedbed of the screwball comedy.

The moviemakers have had to make a decision about how much more mature (and wise) to make the girlfriends — whether to keep them pretty much as they always were, or subject them to the new wrinkles of time — and they‘ve probably made a few poor choices. Also, the gay fantasy undercurrents of Sex literally come surging up here almost intrusively, beginning with icon Liza Minnelli’s command performance at the wedding of the quartet’s buddies Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone), and continuing on to an orgy of stripped-down dreamboat scenes, buttock and crotch shots in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike the TV show, the movie is explicit in a forced way. There’s lots of female cleavage, it’s true. But it has so much leering beefcake, so many prancing hunks, and so many shots of bulging erections, that you keep wondering where the Carrie squad‘s fantasies leave off and where some more private ones may begin. (After all, the story would make more sense if it were four gay male friends in their 40s and 50s going to Abu Dhabi rather than four women, three of them married.)

Political correctness takes a hit in the portrayal of the repressive Arab culture — though in fact, the treatment of women in countries like the emirate is bad, and is worthy of even comical criticism. Even so, having the quartet blast out an karaoke version of Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman at an Abu Dhabi club, to the wild applause of the belly dancers isn’t as empowering as it may have seemed on paper.

Something bothered me more than the Middle Eastern scenes or the raw sex may have offended others: the way “good mother” Charlotte freaks out when her little girl accidentally gets red cupcake frosting stains on Charlotte’s vintage Valentino skirt, with Char later confessing that child care is getting all too heavy for her — and the way the movie then tries to tip its hat to motherhood with Charlotte and Miranda raising a toast to the innumerable moms who have to take care of their children and families “without help.“ Well and good. But shouldn’t Charlotte be emulating them rather than toasting them?

There’s a vein of selfishness in Sex and the City 2 that does tick you off, even though it’s only a movie — and it mostly comes from the fact that King’s script has women in their 40s and 50s largely acting like women in their 20s and 30s. Quick hot flash: Couldn’t they have made the Abu Dhabi scenes as a flashback, with the actresses playing younger? And couldn’t they have had them all grow up a bit more?

But the financial success of the last movie (400 million or so), may have encouraged King and producer TV series creator Darren Star, and the others, to shoot the works. That’s what they do. The fans will have fun, and, after all, that’s what movies are for. But I won’t be buying this one as a Christmas present. And I don’t think my lady friend will care.


MacGruber (One Star)
U.S.; Jorma Taccone

I don’t like to kick a movie when it’s down. And, by now, to say that the Saturday Night Live spinoff ‘80s action movie parody MacGruber isn’t very funny, isn’t breaking any scoops.

Nor is suggesting that star-writer Will Forte should stay away from celery for a few months. (The movie‘s big scene, as you probably know, has Forte, as the much-awarded but seriously inept Green Beret/Navy Seals/Army Ranger super-commando MacGruber distracting enemy gunfire by popping up on screen bare-naked with a celery stalk up his ass, and doing a little dance). Or that SNL Live skits aren’t as fool-proof movie material as, say, video games. (The one they really should have done, and didn’t, was Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the Festrunk Borthers, the Wild and Crazy Guys from Czechoslovakia.)

It‘s like beating a dead horse. Or swinging a soggy celery stalk. Or watching “A Night at the Roxbury” again.

But, after all, I had to sit through the damned thing — something which relatively few others did. So — No no ha ha! Comedy isn’t easy. If you’re going to use the old celery-stalk-up-your-ass gag, and you aren’t Harpo Marx, you’ve got to set it up somehow. (Examples: MacGruber has celery because he’s a Vegan chef on the side, or MacGruber has to improvise because they took his toy Uzi, with the little umbrella in the barrel.) Or turn it into a running gag. (Follow up with a carrot gag, then zucchini, then rigatoni and meatballs.)

But there’s no real reason for anything MaGgruber does, except that Forte and director-writer Jorma Tacconeand the others think it’s funny. And they’re mostly wrong. Besides, they waste Val Kilmer as super villain Dieter von Cunth. MacGruber the movie, too often, is as brutal and nihilistic as the stuff it’s satirizing.

By the way, didn’t Jorma Taccone once play guitar for the Jefferson Airplane? So why don’t they use a little ’60’s rock, instead of all this ’80s crud? (Just kidding.)

A worse crime though than making an unfunny movie, or cracking an unfunny joke (we’ve all done that) (see above), is not having the courage of your satirical instincts. As someone who’s missed the MacGruber/McGyver SNL bomb-defusion shorts, by Forte and Taccone, but who sat through more awful ‘80s action movies than any sane moviegoer should tolerate, it riles me a little that the MacGruber squad should keep covering their asses by talking offscreen about how much they love ’80s action movies (like Rambo III!). They‘ve even included a little note in the MacGruber credits, which seemed serious, about how much they love and admire those great old ‘80s action heroes.

Are they serious? Or do they think an enraged Steven Seagal is going to see this movie, blow up and vow revenge? No way. Most of those guys probably enjoy the publicity, if not the humor. And I’ll bet Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone both could have pulled off the celery gag.

– Michael Wilmington
May 27, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon