Hollywood offers Rom-Com for the Brain Dead But IMAX offers an atmospheric look at Arabia

With movie-making being such a generally crass enterprise these days, the audience for romantic comedies probably feels much like a hopeful but increasingly desperate single person who keeps going on first dates that end badly. Such will be the case with No Strings Attached, which stars Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in a flabby and predictable tale about two “sex friends” who find their strictly physical relationship getting rocky when some genuine emotions rear their problematic heads.

Get a Saudi history lesson in Arabia

With movie-making being such a generally crass enterprise these days, the audience for romantic comedies probably feels much like a hopeful but increasingly desperate single person who keeps going on first dates that end badly. Such will be the case with No Strings Attached, which stars Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in a flabby and predictable tale about two “sex friends” who find their strictly physical relationship getting rocky when some genuine emotions rear their problematic heads.

Portman plays Emma, an aloof brainiac who is interning at a hospital and not only doesn’t have time for a romantic relationship but is profoundly averse to them — as she puts it, the idea of after-sex cuddling or having breakfast with a guy the next morning hits her like the emotional equivalent of a nasty peanut allergy. Enter Adam (cute-as-a-puppy-dog Kutcher) as the guy Emma recruits as a fuck buddy. Things go very well at first — what lad wouldn’t think he was in heaven as he not only shags the gorgeous Emma at home, but also finds himself “playing doctor” throughout the hospital. Adam eventually gets expelled from this erotic Eden when he falls in love and makes the mistake of letting his feelings known. Exit Emma, stage left. Then, after the obligatory wallow in emotional crisis, it’s time to cue ludicrous events to provoke one of the least convincing romantic reconciliations in Hollywood history.

This is woefully cliched plotting even for the rom-com genre, and the storyline doesn’t do much to freshen things up. One creepy subplot involves Adam’s dad (a slumming Kevin Kline), who is now shagging Adam’s ex-girlfriend. Other unimaginative details include Adam’s job as an assistant on the shoot for a TV show reminiscent of Glee. Emma’s doctors-in-training gal pals are a remarkably dull lot. Despite some zingy one-liners, many of the laughs rely on raunchiness moreso than humour. And even though the two leads have charisma, they lack chemistry. In short, rom-com fans should stay home with a box of chocolates and a DVD of When Harry Met Sally.

Anyone intrigued by the prospect of a primer on 2,000 years of Arabian history should hop on their camel and get to the IMAX for Arabia, which is an atmospheric and well-written account of Arabia’s two golden ages — as well as a compelling portrait of a suddenly modern country that is once again in transition. With a mixture of reenactments and animation we learn about the Nabateans, a small tribe at the south of Arabia who controlled the world’s entire supply of priceless frankincense and thereby rose to incredible wealth and influence two millennia ago. Many centuries later, even more remarkable achievements spread from Arabia as the teachings of the prophet Mohammed inspired not only the expansionist empire of Islam, but also the greatest surge of learning and scholarship the world has ever known.

This is all seen through the eyes of a charming and forward-looking young Saudi filmmaker who for the last six years has lived and studied in Chicago. He has returned to Saudi Arabia to make a film about his homeland, and a talented IMAX crew is recording his journey into a dazzling past and complex present day. Oscar winner Helen Mirren provides a lot of the narration, while the soundtrack blooms with the syncopations of exotic Arabic music and the screen unscrolls a tapestry of sculpted desert landscapes that contrast with the remarkable modern architecture of cities like Riyadh. Arabia is candid about acknowledging the inequality of women in Saudi society, and suggests that a recent (and staggeringly lavish) commitment to higher education may help this once-great culture out of its feudal stagnation. This is a notable addition to the IMAX canon. M

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