At The Movies

By Tony Sheppard

No Strings Attached

Directed by Ivan Reitman

The fundamental gimmick in “No Strings Attached” is that it reverses the typical gender stereotypes of the dating world. Natalie Portman plays Emma, an emotionally-guarded medical student who just wants casual sex without commitment – or at least she thinks she does. Ashton Kutcher plays Adam, a young TV show assistant who is initially willing to go along with her plan but who finds himself wanting more.

Outside of that, it’s a very ordinary romantic comedy. Adam and Emma meet at summer camp and run into each other a couple more times over the years before somewhat spontaneously falling into bed together. They’re surrounded by secondary characters that to some extent are more interesting than they are, including Kevin Kline as Adam’s father and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig (who just charmed David Letterman last week) in a scene-stealing role as one of Emma’s best friends.  

Where it fails is that it seems to be trying too hard to be hip and relevant. One character has two gay fathers for no other reason than to fuel a couple of jokes and a single cutesy scene. Adam doesn’t just work on a TV show, he works on a “Glee” clone. Much of this feels like it won’t age that well.

While the two stars seem comfortable together some of the time, the film suffers at least in part by not making them seem all that perfect for each other. In a romantic comedy, there’s a need to feel as if the leads have to beat all odds to achieve their coupled destiny and, at best, that aspect seems to be teetering on the edge in this one.  

I missed an early press screening for “No Strings Attached” and ended up watching it on opening weekend with a theater full of couples. The film elicited a decent amount of laughter, and people appeared to leave mildly entertained with no loud complaints but also without any noticeable positive commentary. Which seemed about right for the material – not the worst way to spend an evening, and just enough to represent a box office winner on an otherwise slow weekend.

Another Year

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh

A far more interesting romance, but one which will gain a fraction of the audience, is at the center of “Another Year,” the latest film from Mike Leigh (“Topsy-Turvy,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”). Tom and Gerri are college sweethearts who have remained happily married for over 30 years and raised a well-adjusted son along the way. But their pleasant existence is contrasted against the lives of various friends and acquaintances who haven’t been so lucky in life and love.

This is a film with an interesting structure, set during a complete year, with seasonal breaks. It’s reminiscent, although perhaps not quite so well executed in this regard, of the excellent “Spring Forward” (1999). The shifts between seasons allow for significant developments to have occurred between scenes and character’s circumstances change accordingly, not always for the better. As with “Spring Forward,” these breaks are also depicted with the changing climate, here in the context of the couple’s space in a local community vegetable garden (or “allotment” in English English).

There’s a lovely pair of remarks that depict Tom and Gerri’s complementary relationship that reminded me of my own parents (married almost 54 years) as Tom, a geologist describes a vacation where “A geologist stands on the beach with his back to the sea looking at the cliffs.” To which Gerri cheerily replies, “Whereas the geologist’s wife stands on the beach with her back to the cliffs looking at the sea.” In a different context it would seem doubly lonely, but it’s clear that theirs is a match made in a back-to-back beachy heaven.

There are some interesting snapshots of English society, in the approach to health care and car ownership, for example. It’s a film that feels like it’s populated by people who are more real, warts and all, than many more shallowly-depicted casts of characters. It’s not especially upbeat, despite the loving central relationship and a couple of moments that had me spontaneously laughing out loud for their brutal honesty. But it never feels less than genuine, which is a lot more than can be said for most of its more glitzy multi-plex competition.

Special Film Event:

An Italian Straw Hat

For several years, one of the most reliable picks in the local summertime arts calendar has been the Sacramento French Film Festival.  This weekend, the Festival is teaming up with the Sacramento Philharmonic for a very special off-season film event at the Crest.  The film “An Italian Straw Hat,” a classic French silent movie, had a new and original score composed by Raymond Alessandrini, who will be present to direct the orchestra in their live accompaniment.  Events like this are few and far between, not least because of the difficulty in accomplishing them, and this one is worth checking out.

The film plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29th and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 30th – at the Crest Theatre.

The Company Men

Directed by John Wells

In 2009, one of the most acclaimed films of the year, “Up in the Air,” dealt with corporate layoffs. It featured George Clooney as a hired gun who is brought in to fire employees on behalf of downsizing companies, and Anna Kendrick as the up-and-coming young firer in the wings. In addition to the basic separation talk, the ex-employees are given packages of re-training and job hunting techniques. “The Company Men” is like a companion piece to that movie, telling the story of one company from the other side of the table, through the eyes of those handling and living with the outcome of such decisions and such programs.

Ben Affleck stars as Bobby Walker, a 12-year veteran of GTX Global Transportation Industries who loses his job in the first few minutes of the movie. He’s also convinced that he’ll only be out of work a matter of days – which of course would make for a very short and uninteresting movie.

Others at various levels of the company’s executive food chain are played by Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Craig T. Nelson. Bobby’s blue collar, general contractor brother-in-law is played by Kevin Costner. As written by John Wells, best known for producing (and sometimes writing) such shows as “E.R.” and “The West Wing,” this is a film with obvious pedigree. Indeed, the previews and advertising campaign is eager to remind you that Affleck, Cooper, Jones, and Costner all have Academy Awards, while failing to mention that only two of them were for acting (best supporting for Jones, Cooper).

That said, this is a well-made and well-acted movie, but it also has the feel of an extended political editorial adapted into a screenplay. This hasn’t worked for other star-studded projects such as “Lions for Lambs” in which Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford joined forces to consider the topic of war.

This time around, what we’re given is an artfully-written but pointedly targeted examination and indictment of modern day corporatism. It’s essentially a fictional version of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” – a film that was also more about corporatism than capitalism. Characters ponder the salary gap between workers and CEO’s, the excesses exemplified by corporate jets and palatial office suites, and how American companies produce more
paperwork than actual products – although you also get the impression that for most of them, they haven’t been sweating the details until coming up on the downsizing shortlist.  

We also see the short-termism evident in modern business. While short-termism itself may be a controversial or unpopular term with some, we may need to replace it with ultra-short-termism. In the November 2010 issue of Wired Magazine, in an article about online gambling, a reference is made to a large Wall Street trading firm announcing that its average hold time on a stock is 11 seconds. Where companies once looked towards long-term stability and sustainability of their business models, with a need to ride out rough times, they now look to shed both assets and costs, including people, if that can make the stock price look better overnight, rather than 20 years from now. Our corporate model is such that they would be legally negligent in the eyes of short-term investors, and machines that trade faster than their minders can even oversee, if they did anything else.  

At one point, standing in the CEO’s office and told that the company needs to make the bottom line look better for stockholders, Jones’ character points towards a line of paintings on the wall and says, “Then why not sell the Degas?” In another scene, when told that another round of mass firings won’t break any laws, he replies, “I guess I always assumed we were shooting for a higher standard than that.”

The writing is effective but blatantly heavy-handed. We’re given a company that seems to be symbolic of almost every commonly criticized corporate flaw. We’re also handed uncomplicated characters who exist only to advance the lecture. But the film still manages to depict the major issues, including the outcomes of unemployment that include not just financial instability, but also fear, listlessness, and shame. Although, in those regards, the film probably isn’t bleak enough, and pigeonholes the characters into categories that are perhaps even more dimensionally-limited than they were prior to being fired.

I’ve said this before, but “The Company Men” may struggle in the partisan divide as one side doesn’t feel the need to be depressed by being reminded of what they already assume to be true, while the other side will consider it to be more liberal Hollywood corporation bashing.  

“The Company Men” is a flawed movie, but an interesting and meaningful lesson in business and ethics for the uninitiated. It would be a good starting point for conversation in a family with older children who still sit around the dining room table and actually discuss meaningful topics. And it will likely appeal to fans of the central male actors, all of whom are cast pretty well according to type.  (Opens January 21)

Kevin Costner discussed politics and elections in the July 31st, 2008 issue of Capitol Weekly.

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