Summer got started without me. Let’s see what I’ve missed.
Iron Man 2, to take the first thing first, serves a sequel’s purpose; it gives the sheep somewhere to go and get clipped. No one can reasonably complain about Don Cheadle taking over the supporting part of Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes from Terrence Howard (otherwise same principal cast and director, Jon Favreau), and Scarlett Johansson ingratiatingly prostitutes herself to prove that with the aid of computer manipulation she could be a martial-arts star, and a toothpick-chewing, Russian-accented Mickey Rourke cuts a menacing figure as the anti-Iron Man, wielding lightning-bolt laser bullwhips from both hands, and Sam Rockwell’s self-caricaturing corporate villain matches or exceeds the facetiousness of Robert Downey, Jr.’s fey superhero, here behaving almost as badly as Will Smith’s in Hancock, letting his swollen ego run away with him: “I have successfully privatized world peace.” The rapid-fire, often overlapping, and half-clever dialogue (by Tropic Thunder scriptwriter Justin Theroux) provides better entertainment than the hardware and the pyrotechnics, and any effort at all in that department is gratifying for its gratuitousness.
Robin Hood, the fifth collaboration between director Ridley Scott and leading man Russell Crowe (Body of Lies, American Gangster, A Good Year, Gladiator, count ’em), traditionally set near “the turn of the 12th Century,” more exactly A.D. 1199, or in other words nearer the turn of the 13th Century, won’t satisfy your craving for the legend, but perhaps your craving, if any, for Dark Age dreariness, savage combat (shot in that skittery long-lens style that looks as if the film has slipped its sprockets), and egalitarian bombast. It takes two and a quarter hours for the hero to be branded an outlaw — as well as for the sun to break through the clouds — and by then the movie is over (“And so the legend begins”), giving it the onerous and ominous feel of only Part One. More simply, the narrative feels padded, dillydallying, ill-framed; in a word, a “prequel,” although all the familiar names are already present and accounted for, Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan A’Dayle, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and of course Marian, none of whom has much to do apart from the last one, who is now no maid but instead a war widow (a misguided Middle Eastern campaign, for timely relevance) and at the climax a comrade in arms, a proto-Joan of Arc, like Guinevere in the King Arthur of 2004. (The Age of Chivalry evidently ended before it commenced.) For all the scrupulously researched fidelity to period in the heaviness of costumes, crudeness of artifacts, grubbiness of hygiene, and so forth, the movie is sanctimoniously progressive in all political, social, sexual matters, a slight case of schizophrenia. At around the two-hour mark, the music swells and Robin leads a cavalry charge to the rescue, slashing French invaders right and left, to give you a fleeting whiff of a swashbuckler, and there are stalwart performances from Cate Blanchett as the precocious Marian, Max von Sydow as her blind father-in-law, and Eileen Atkins as Eleanor of Aquitaine, suffering mother of the dastardly King John.
Only for promotional purposes, on posters and billboards and elsewhere, is the fourth installment in the Shrek franchise called Shrek: The Final Chapter. The promise in that title would have been the best thing about the movie, if such a promise could be trusted from one manifestly committed to continuation rather than cessation. At all events, the title on screen, Shrek Forever After, carries a very different promise, which is quite the worst thing about the movie: Shrek neverending, Shrek everlasting, Shrek eternal. On my so-called sabbatical in the summer of 2007, I spared myself Shrek the Third. I could and should have spared myself the fourth, and I hereby resolve to spare myself forever after. The plot premise demonstrates that no contrivance, no convolution, no contortion, will be deemed too extreme. Bored with the routine of family life, nostalgic for the good old days of fearful ogredom, Shrek enters a Faustian contract with Rumpelstiltskin that transports him into an alternative universe where none of the old characters knows him anymore: back, dishearteningly, to square one. (The plumped-up Puss ’n Boots, short of a promise to desist, is by default the best thing about the movie.) But the parallel universe proves to be no less infected by the illusion-shattering, fantasy-deflating smartypantsism — anachronistic idioms, allusions, pop songs, and so on — that ruled and ruined the earlier installments. The appurtenances of 3-D scarcely seem worth the extra three dollars for the glasses, maybe worth another thirty or forty cents.
Mother and Child, outside the mainstream, is a passable soap opera passed off as high and heavy drama. Writer-director Rodrigo García, who charted nine different and differing women in Nine Lives, has here cut down to a mere three. The connection between two of them is immediately clear, mother and child, more exactly the biological mother who at birth gave up the child for adoption thirty-seven years back. Both of these are individualized and unidealized women, two well-defended independents, the older one (Annette Bening) a prickly, persnickety, hypercritical physical therapist who does not make friends easily, or even conversation, and the younger one (Naomi Watts), her mother’s daughter even though they have never known one another, a self-possessed, icy, blunt, upwardly mobile attorney — “I’m not in the sisterhood. I’m my own person” — with a penchant for reckless provocation. (Really, though, shouldn’t there be some follow-up if she’s going to slip off her panties in her neighbor’s apartment and stow them in the dresser drawer of his pregnant wife?) The third one, a childless married African-American, has no apparent connection to the others, and although we may be confident that this storyline will sooner or later tie in, it feels in the meantime to be a bit of a drag, a third wheel, not least because the character is the most conventional and least intriguing: a tight-wound woman (Kerry Washington) whose sole fault is her overeagerness to adopt, given that the biological option isn’t open to her. To spend our time trying to guess how and when the tie-in will come is to trivialize the movie. Which is to say, it trivializes itself.