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There are a lot of big name movies to choose from this week – as in movies with high profiles – including the second week of the cinematic behemoth “The Hunger Games” which has already ably proved that hunger trumps taste.
There’s also Julia Roberts as the evil stepmother in “Mirror, Mirror,” the first of two 2012 retreads of the Snow White story. This one is directed by the master of gratuitous form over necessary function, Tarsem (“The Cell,” “The Fall, “Immortals”), so it’s a little like Cirque du Soleil threw up on Julie Taymor at a revival screening of “The Princess Bride.” The dwarves are a marauding gang of thieves who wear pogo-stilts in some overcompensating need to appear giant, and who also have normal stature acrobatic stunt doubles. This results in some of the most awkward transitions between long shots and close-ups since we spent time with hobbitses. And you get scenes in which Julia Roberts transports from one small room with a mirror to another small room with a mirror for no other purpose than to have her transport from one small room with a mirror to another small room with a mirror. Nothing happens in the second room that couldn’t have happened in the first room – but, ooo, the transition is an extra extravagant visual for the director to exploit. Overall, it’s an overstylized but occasionally moderately amusing mess.
Also competing on spectacle is “Wrath of the Titans” – the creatively named sequel to “Clash of the Titans” – for those who prefer their dots already joined. On the upside, the sequel is actually far more coherent than the first film and while it displays an overt fondness for fire-dripping special effects, those visuals are at least in service to the story. Also on the positive side, it wasn’t directed by Tarsem – so you get a legitimate minotaur rather than some dude in a fancy mask as in the pretty but pretty awful “Immortals.” You also get more moving stairwells than Hogwarts and enough family dysfunction to warrant a mock reality show with a name like “Olympia Shore.” And, naturally, there’s an opening for a threequel – perhaps “Spawn of the Titans: The Next Generation.” It’s not great but it’s certainly not the worst sword and sandal wannabe epic of recent years.
But one of the biggest named movies opening in Sacramento this week is literally just that – a relatively modest movie with a mouthful of a title: “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” It’s also a movie that many people will overlook, again because of the title, which sounds like a reject documentary from an outdoorsy cable network. However, it’s a delightful story and one of the best films of the year, so far (not that the bar is especially high).
Ewan McGregor plays an uber-geek civil servant in a fisheries department who is asked to give his opinion on the viability of an uber-wealthy Yemeni sheik’s dream of introducing salmon fishing to his home country. What seem on the surface to be a ridiculous idea takes on greater significance as the British government finds itself in desperate need of a good will story in the Middle East and, therefore, reason to facilitate the plan.
And this a key element of the film as it follows separate paths – the main angle of the dubious angling, and also a mild satire of the politics of cynically angled opportunism.
The third element of the story is essentially a romantic comedy, albeit more subtly handled than in movies that exist entirely within that genre, between McGregor’s scientist and Emily Blunt as the Sheik’s agent. There’s genuine warmth and chemistry between the two of them – as well as a wonderful awkwardness coming from McGregor. It’s a role he plays very well – much like last years “Beginners” – where you get a character study of a fairly ordinary, flawed person rather than some larger than life hero. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of George Clooney’s neat performance in “The Descendants” with both actors shining in roles that seem no larger than regular life.
The film also has some interesting exchanges on the topics of belief and faith, and the kinds of conflicts that arise within an Arab country when a western activity and related development is introduced.
That a film with such an odd premise works so well is not just a testament to its cast, but also to its accomplished director, Lasse Halstrom (“My Life as a Dog,” “What’s eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Cider House Rules”) and the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours,” “Slumdog Millionaire”). That said, there are aspects of the direction that seemed heavy handed and even outdated – such as screenshots of text-messaging conversations that might have been innovative five years ago, although they do manage to convey the constant connectedness of politicians and their staff and the need to keep ahead of the news cycle.
I have to admit that when I saw this a few weeks ago I had high expectations because of that combination of personnel on the project – and that’s often a risk as it makes disappointment come more easily. But it works very well and manages to maintain a personal and intimate tone in the relationships, while also conveying both meaningful and comedic elements in the handling and spinning of the project.
I’d recommend skipping the big movies and seeing the little movie with the big name.