By Lisa Schwarzbaum
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- He can deliver a knockout punch, command a ship of the line, or confound a corrupt Roman emperor while armed with little more than a handful of dust, but great Caesar's ghost, Russell Crowe can't do everything.
In the tepid romantic comedy/travel brochure "A Good Year," Crowe plays Hugh Grant -- well, he plays one of those taken-for-Granted foppish Brits who start off insufferably cocky but end up redeemably charming through a series of delightfully self-deprecating comeuppances. And the result is not "A Good Look" for our Maximus.
His idea of marketing what passes for his delightfully self-deprecating side involves, at one point, tumbling into an empty, sunken swimming pool with no escape ladder while a pretty lady smirks (in the days before she inevitably falls for him) above. Thud.
We are not entertained. His eyeglasses yuppie-horn-rimmed and his hair curlicued as if his hairdresser had used a "Four Weddings and a Funeral" head shot for reference, Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless, wheeler-dealing London bond trader who inherits a French chateau and vineyard from his late uncle. (In flashback, Albert Finney rumbles and cavorts as the puckish bon vivant, instructing a receptive Freddie Highmore in gracious living and wine swirling as his young nephew, the mini Max.) And at first, Max is too type A to enjoy the bounty; in a bit of a cash-flow crunch, he wants to sell the joint ASAP.
What, is Max the only guy in the English-speaking world who didn't read Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" when the best-selling memoir came out back in 1990 and who didn't afterward covet the former adman's chateau-and-vineyard-owning, smug good fortune? Didn't he read "Toujours Provence," or "Hotel Pastis: A Novel of Provence," or "Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France," or "A Good Year" itself -- all of them progressively less fresh Mayle fantasies, set in sun-kissed groves tended by wise, eccentric Gallic locals who do the hard work?
Apparently Max didn't -- although director Ridley Scott certainly did. (Not that he needed to; Crowe's old "Gladiator" general owns his own chateau and vineyard in the region, not far from Mayle's spread.)
Of course, the slicked-up Londoner's hustle begins to melt under the Provencal sun. Business dealings keep him stuck in French paradise longer than he bargained for, during which time he is treated with fermented chagrin by the estate's winemaker (Didier Bourdon), meets a luscious local restaurant owner (French lovely Marion Cotillard, as the femme who witnesses his pool pratfall), and is visited by a golden California girl ("Somersault's" succulent young Abbie Cornish, also on ample display soon in "Candy") who claims kinship, too: The late, lusty uncle may have been the father she never met.
"A Good Year" (with a screenplay by "Serendipity's" Marc Klein, based on Mayle's 2004 book) argues for inarguably good things. It's all for leisure and against stress, it's pro-food, -wine, -women, and -vacation homes, and it's opposed to thinking of Crowe only as a heavy with a flash temper, best suited to playing brawlers and brooders. (In a wink to past battles, Crowe's Max does indeed scoop up a handful of southern French loam and roll it through his fingers.)
But the movie is out of sync with the times -- a desultory entertainment rote even in its ideas of beauty, set in a place that by now has been overharvested as a holiday destination, about a greed-is-good character type that has become a cliche (and worse, a joke), played in a light, heterosexual-male comedy style that by now looks like something out of the 19th century and was already wearing thin in the early 1990s when getting off the career treadmill and stopping to smell the grapevines was considered something new and marvelous in a man. Even Hugh Grant isn't doing the Hugh Grant shtick anymore, which makes Crowe's dutiful stomping around on the way to sensual enlightenment all the more miscued.
I like the matchup of Scott and Crowe, two masters of masculine mise-en-scene who understand that nothing beats a big, dramatic (and commercially sound) swing of the bat, and whose aim is usually much better than this. So I'll assume that this project was more of a recuperative project in the sunshine for tightly scheduled director and tightly wound star than a serious cinematic collaboration. I'll write "A Good Year" off as nothing more than a bad harvest.
EW Grade: C-
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
It's been a while since we saw a truly boggling sophomore slump, one of those infamous second-act follies, like Steven Soderbergh's "Kafka," made by a director blinded with ego and overreach. Steven Shainberg, who made the winsomely rascally "Secretary," has now followed it with "Fur," subtitled "An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus."
Working in a style that's like David Lynch meets "A&E Biography," Shainberg "imagines" the three months of Arbus' life in 1959 just before she became an artist.
Since Arbus was dark, compact, intense, and Jewish, she is portrayed -- of course -- by Nicole Kidman, acting in a mode of blurred-out sodden distress. A pampered, stifled Manhattan housewife, Arbus, attuned to the sights and sounds that no one else registers, meets the reclusive Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), who has a disorder that causes his face and body to be covered with hair. He looks like a member of the Addams Family, and the film envisions their "grand romance" as a lachrymose, inert Phantom/Elephant Man/Beast cliche.
Embodied by Downey with a sweetness that never makes him interesting, Lionel introduces Arbus to his freak friends -- many, many freaks.
But this is the film's real violation. Diane Arbus took her walks on the wild side, but her true subject was the freakishness of the ordinary -- people made grotesque from the inside out, frozen and isolated in the godless modern world. Shainberg reduces this most disturbing of all photographers to a portraitist of Halloween.
EW Grade: D-
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
A loose directorial screw or two rattles throughout "Harsh Times" and the narrative wheels fall off before the bullet-riddled finish of what might as well be called "It's Training Day Again, Homey," but none of that really matters.
All eyes are riveted on Christian Bale, tearing up the screen as ex-Army Ranger, war vet, and walking psych case Jim Davis. Sweating with post-traumatic nightmares, angling for the means to bring his Mexican sweetheart (Tammy Trull) over the border to be his bride in his South Central L.A. hood, and frequently hopped up on beer and weed, Jim is a human time bomb, buttoned into a jacket and tie and dreaming of a job in law enforcement.
His unemployed childhood pal Mike ("Six Feet Under's" Freddy Rodriguez) is less twitchy, but no less pressured, feeling the heat from his upwardly mobile girlfriend (Eva Longoria) to find work.
Jim and Mike in a car with open beers make a lethal combo. Speechy slang is slung. Damage is done -- guns pulled, innocents threatened -- whenever Jim veers into madness.
David Ayer, who wrote both "Training Day" and "Harsh Times," specializes in fast and furious scripts, including "The Fast and the Furious," about the rough L.A. of his own youth. He makes his feature directorial debut here, and you can see the skid marks as he fishtails. But Bale is mesmerizing and Rodriguez keeps up with him as the whole unsafe contraption zooms.
EW Grade: B+
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In "A Good Year," Russell Crowe plays a ruthless bond trader who finds relaxation and joie de vivre in France.