Friday, June 20, 2008

Sex and the City

*This review contains major spoilers. If you wish to have a "virgin" movie-watching experience, please return following your screening to read and comment*

Tellingly, I feel compelled to preface this review by stating that I am an unapologetic, die-hard fan of Sex and the City, at least in its television incarnation. I own most of the seasons on DVD and will probably wear out my discs due to compulsive watching. No doubt that this disclaimer is meant to preemptively dodge (or confront?) the allegations of sexism and hypocrisy that have been leveled at male film critics - particularly straight men - who seemingly turned a collective cold shoulder to this much-hyped film adaptation of the hit HBO series. While I agree that a degree of misogyny was certainly present in the media's response to the film, I take some offense at the implication that all male critics and writers who disliked it should automatically placed in the woman-hating camp. That's a much-too simplistic reading, because the film genuinely stinks, no matter which way you slice it. In my opinion, Sex and the City is much ado about nothing, offering no sound justification for its existence (other than the obvious fiscal reasons). By the end credits, I felt like I was back at square one. Director Michael Patrick King's screenplay is a perplexing rehash of the same old, same old - Mr. Big's commitment issues, Miranda's pessimistic view of romance, and Samantha's inability to remain monogamous. We passed the "Best Before" date, and it was years ago, folks.

Picking up four years after the season finale (in which all four gals "found" stability and romance in the form of monogamy), the happenings of Sex take place over the course of a calender year. Writer Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is back for more adventures in the Big Apple, along with her best friends Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon). You know the drill... men enter the picture, and chaos ensues. What is perhaps most depressing (and disturbing) about Sex and the City: The Movie is how conservative and regressive it is at the core. From its repulsive insensitivity towards racial politics to its paper-thin characterizations of pretty much everyone (except the exasperating Carrie character), the film spins its wheels in the mud for two-plus hours. The writing is gutless in churning out happy endings for all involved. Charlotte is able to birth a biological child like she always wanted, and Miranda forgives Steve (David Eigenberg) for his indiscretions. Meanwhile, not only does Carrie reconcile with the man (Chris Noth's Mr. Big) who has inflicted non-stop emotional abuse for ten years, but the two of them actually decide to get hitched in spite of the disastrous results of the first attempt (some people just can't take a hint). Once again, marriage is presented as the solution to all problems, flying in the face of the counter arguments articulated from the show's very first few episodes. Samantha's final-act decision to leave her boyfriend Smith (Jason Lewis) in order to love herself is interesting and makes up for her nonsensical behaviour in the final season, but it barely registers with the other gals taking centre stage.

The less said about token African-American Louise (played by Jennifer Hudson), who serves as Carrie's personal assistant, the better. Existing pretty much only to facilitate Carrie's character arc, Louise enters well past the one-hour mark and exits after fulfilling her subservient duties. While it is refreshing to see more a little diversity reflected in this world of outrageous white privilege and displayed wealth, the status quo definitely remains the same. Sex and the City remains hopelessly ignorant of anything outside of its self-contained bubble, and this feeble attempt at inclusiveness rings totally false. The gay characters (also reduced to helpful sidekick status) are treated with even more homo-hatred than usual. Competing queens Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone) show up only to scurry around in the background, offering a bitchy one-liner when necessary. The worst moment involving these two occurs in a scene in which the two men - who absolutely despised one another during the course of the show - act completely out of character and make out at a New Year's Party. While my audience predictably collapsed into hysterics and hoots, I felt cheated that the filmmakers had taken the easy way out.

Ludicrous plot holes also damage the screenplay's credibility, particularly the scenes leading up to Mr. Big's bout of cold feet. Are we to believe that relationship expert Carrie - even now, after all these years - is unable to detect the reluctance in this non-committal man? Forehead-slappers like "Carrie, I need to know that it's just you and me" would be laugh-aloud funny if they weren't so ghastly when delivered in context. Even more illogical is Miranda's angry aside to Big ("You two are crazy to get married!") playing a factor in his no-show at the alter, set up to generate a future rift between her and Carrie once the the truth is revealed. The entire script is built upon lame contrivances like these, drawing out the conflicts for hours until they can be tidily dealt with and filed away in the concluding moments. The humour, on the other hand, is surprisingly juvenile; when poo jokes and colouring-as-sex euphemisms are set up to garner the big laughs, there's detectable desperation in the air. There is little-to-no sex. The puns are stale. It is a giant commercial for numerous designer labels, Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, and the Apple Store. (Side note: was there even a budget for the costumes, since drippy name dropping shamelessly occurs throughout?) The straight male characters barely register, coming across as either selfish jerks (Big, Steve), or devoted super-husbands (Harry, portrayed by Evan Handler). It makes no sense. The list of grievances goes on and on...

The four main ladies are all exceptional actors, but Davis, Cattrall and Nixon can only do so much. Davis's interpretation of Charlotte is more of a walking caricature than ever, and her storyline is not as juicy as the other ladies'. Kim Cattrall once again delves into Samantha's aggressive sexuality, allowing herself to be covered with sushi pieces in one scene and - in a bizarre moment - called to task for gaining some weight by her insensitive gal pals. The actress continues to do brilliant work with her face, and her willingness to play clown is commendable as ever. As for the lovely Cynthia Nixon, King and editor Michael Berenbaum box Miranda into such a restrictive corner that the talented artist is unable to give a more nuanced reading. This is not the Miranda who so vibrantly stood out in the past; here, she is like a completely different personality - cold, one-dimensional and just plain petty. Unsurprisingly, Sarah Jessica Parker enjoys the bulk of screen time, and while the capable actor has grown comfortable walking in the character's Blahniks, Carrie is more unappealingly self-absorbed than ever. Jennifer Hudson is robotic, while Chris Noth can barely muster up enough energy to recite his lines with conviction.

I had my reservations about Sex and the City as a feature-length film, but I was not expecting it to be this inept. Even read as a fantasy or as a fluff piece, it still registers as deeply problematic and limiting in its view of these women's professional, professional, and sexual lives. The television show, exaggerated as it may be, still manages to deliver insightful, entertaining commentary about women dealing with ever-shifting gender roles, institutionalized inequality, and sexual politics. This film offers nothing as complex during its running time, instead focusing on inane plot twists and flashy designer pornography, ultimately settling on a farce of a finale that left more than a bitter taste in my mouth. Proceed with caution, particularly the fans - this is not the same show you once loved. D+

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That (2007) first came to my attention after Mike D'Angelo assigned it a rare A- during last year's Sundance Film Festival. Even before reading about the film's subject matter, it was the provocative title that first caught my eye. Taunting and contemptuous, I was expecting a quirky indie comedy with eccentric parents, their exasperated children, and an all-around kooky premise. Doing a little more research, I was excited to learn that this title had been assigned to a documentary feature about then four-year-old Marla Olmstead, the controversial artist whose abstract expressionist paintings have become the objects of major scrutiny. The young girl, initially received as a genius by the art community and beyond, became a notorious personality following a 60 Minutes II segment which suggested that her parents must have played a major role in the production of these pieces. Their conclusion was made as a result of a controlled experiment in which Marla was unable to produce anything at the same level of her prior work. Let the debate begin...

The first two acts of the film are dedicated to exploring both sides of the debate, making the case for and against Marla. The first thirty minutes document the euphoric highs experienced by the family prior to that polarizing news program, and reactions from Marla's parents, supportive gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, and opinionated journalist Elizabeth Cohen (the writer who first reported on Marla's pieces). Post-60 Minutes, Bar-Lev tracks the turning tide and the effect it has upon patrons and the once-adoring media. As further videotaped painting sessions with Marla occur and more troubling evidence emerges, her genius reputation becomes less assured.

The film, ostensibly a "did-she-or-didn't-she" exposé and set up as a fall-from-grace, movingly develops into a much more complex meditation on even bigger questions about modern art. Fittingly, Marla remains a distanced, sidelined figure in this film ultimately about adults grappling with issues about representation, the "truth", and the innocence of childhood. Ultimately, Bar-Lev isn't interested in whether or not Marla actually created these pieces, but how her involvement with the contemporary art community has sparked a discussion about the very nature of how art is consumed and received. Most compelling is the question of whether or not the artist can be removed from the equation when their art is finally displayed to the public. More to the point, would these paintings have been as successful if the public was unaware that a four-year-old had painted them? Would it make a difference? (Read: How could it not?) Bar-Lev also considers the ethical matters of journalistic voyeurism into this child's life (including us viewers as a culpable audience to it), and to what extent Mark and Laura Olmstead are responsible for the onslaught of praise, criticism, and fascination that Marla will surely have to negotiate for the rest of her life.

My Kid Could Paint That particularly shines in its self-reflective segments regarding the relationship between the director and his subjects, and what each party owes the other. Bar-Lev became quite close to the Olmsteads and their children over the course of filming, and was forced to "write" himself into the piece once issues of trust and exploitation began to surface. The director handles this portion of the film with sensitivity and restraint, and the tension between his understandable guilt and his role as director is palpable. One such moment towards the conclusion involves Bar-Lev point blank asking the couple about the credibility of Marla's work. The response by the couple, especially in Mark's expressionless dodging and Laura's wrenching realization that yet another attempt to exonerate the family has failed once again, is deeply unsettling. I highly recommend watching the extra material included on the DVD, the majority of which would have benefited the film (which runs a much-too-brief eighty-two minutes).

As with any successful documentary, the fascination and questions extend far beyond the limitations of a feature-length film. Indeed, the fallout between Bar-Lev and the Olmsteads during the film's release (the parents have expressed dismay at the director's shift in perspective) adds another layer to the drama, as well as the fact that Marla's paintings continue to successfully sell and are shown at galleries despite all the mud-slinging. The speculation will surely continue as Marla grows older and, eventually, will be asked to comment on these happenings as an adult. B+

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Me Actually Being a Writer Again

*We interrupt this blogging dry-spell to bring you the following breaking news item*

Apparently, there is more to having a movie blog than regularly posting grades on the side column and uploading DVD screen captures. Who would have thought? Once upon a time, I was aware of this and was churning out reviews and opinion pieces weekly, but I somehow let a few months of post-graduation burnout stretch into almost years of inactivity.

Embarrassing statistic: in one calender year, I have published only thirty-one "articles" of varying length and quality. It's like I've forgotten how to do what was once second nature - watch a movie, and write about it. Soon, the whole process started to feel more like a chore than a passion (a nagging feeling I'm sure many bloggers experience at one time or another).

What has changed now? Maybe it's the fact that university courses no longer control my creative output and reading lists. For the first time in a while, I'm reading solely for pleasure (I've devoured about ten novels since classes ended, and about half of that in terms of non-fiction). And - for the first time since high school - I've become seriously fascinated with and serious about the writing process. As in, this is what I want to do with my life, in any realm (journalism, fiction, academia, curriculum planning, etc).


Rather than let the blog continue to gather dust or just abandon ship, I'm staging a self-intervention to truly assess where this project is headed. I've decided to take myself a little bit less seriously - no more writing towards a lofty end goal (OFCS accreditation, a writing career, high traffic, and related delusions of grandeur) and instead start writing for myself (shocker of shocks!). I'm not promising multiple posts per day, but there will certainly be more activity on the blog, and not just film-related. That's a promise.