whatever works

The knee jerk reaction to any of the marketing for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is to assume that Allen cast Larry David in the lead role as a mildly updated proxy for Allen himself. But putting aside the obvious bald, neurotic Jewy-ness of both men, the connection proves tenuous. Allen’s lead characters tend to be neurotic, self deprecating wiseacres. In Whatever Works, David is a neurotic, self-aggrandizing wiseacre. Huge difference.

There’s an inherent contradiction in David’s character. Boris (yep, that’s really his name) is an award winning academic who fancies himself above all of the so-called “microbes” who inhabit his daily life. Yet he’s obsessive compulsive, suicidal, and uncomfortable in his own skin. His mantra, culled from life experience, is “whatever works.” As in, any way you can be happy in this life, make it happen. It’s a completely trite sentiment from the mouth of a character who’s otherwise incredibly pessimistic and self removed from society. Shockingly, in the hands of David, a non-actor, Boris almost works. It makes sense that Allen himself wouldn’t be right for the part, but Boris is still very much a product of Allen’s brain. He knows how to make a character like this tick, and it’s enough to make Whatever Works totally bearable.

But Allen is perfectly adept at writing overeducated New Yorkers of a certain age. That’s not a problem. Allen just doesn’t understand anyone else.

The rest of the principal characters in Whatever Works are southerners, each introduced to big scary New York at different points in the film. First, Evan Rachel Wood, a 21-year-old runaway, who clings to David as some kind of intellectual god, put on earth to correct her weirdly wholesome red state upbringing. David and Wood eventually marry, though Allen mercifully presents their relationship as only mildly affectionate and practically sexless. Later, we meet Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., Wood’s separated parents, who each find some kind of ridiculous redemption through the magic of Manhattan and David’s perversely strong sphere of influence.

Wood, Begley, and Clarkson all come off as disingenuous Southern gothic pastiche. Wood’s character is further burdened with the curse of being young, an object for Allen’s fetishization and mockery, but without any depth, her motivations whimsical but wholly unnatural.

If not for the fact that the old man still has a knack for glib one liners, Whatever Works wouldn’t work at all. There’s still a little bit of humor let in the tank, and it’s enough to make you long for the Allen of old. But that guy won’t be back. You see, Boris’s motto is double sided. Allen used to be a great comedic mind, and now he just settles for whatever works. (Told you fuckers I went to headline writing school; I also took a seminar on hack closing lines.)

Film: Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr.

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; standard projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 45%

Next up: Bruno

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

Advertisements

transformers 2

As you’ll note below, I’ve given Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the latest prestige picture from visionary auteur Michael Bay, a generous grade. Yes, this movie is fucking stupid. If movies had IQs, Revenge of the Fallen would rate somewhere in what experts have called the “I Am Sam range.”

You see, Revenge of the Fallen is not as much an entertainment product as it is a bludgeoning, with big blunt instruments that go by the name of Autobots and Decepticons. Bay’s movie is stupid, but (being that he’s a genius at being stupid) he knows that. It works in his movie’s favor.

I won’t even really get into any particulars because there are no particulars to speak of. Basically, earth is the victim of another uprising by the Decepticon army, seeking to reanimate (or something) an old fallen leader of theirs, whose name, appropriately, is Fallen. Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox, along with the Autobots, the American military (because really, what other military is there?), and a completely out of place John Turturro, band together to fight the fuckers. At some point Optimus Prime “dies” (this despite being a robot, and thus completely capable of repair), and is brought back to life by some kind of fucking pixie dust that LeBeouf found in an old robot gravesite. Great pyramids are destroyed, big metal things clang together, and Fox wanders for days in the desert without a shower, yet remains remarkably well made-up.

I’ve been joking that when I left my screening of Revenge of the Fallen, I lost 20 percent of my long-term memory and had been rendered illiterate. This is beyond hyperbolic, of course, but if any director could make that happen, it’s Bay. I think this is part of his mission statement.

Which is, perversely, why I feel the need to defend his movie to a certain degree. There’s a certain art in this kind of stupidity. I think of a movie like The Proposal (which, along with Wolverine and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, is part of a trifecta of unparalleled awfulness I’ve been privy to this summer). While I concede that this is kind of like comparing arsenic and cyanide, The Proposal is as awful as it is due to lack of ambition, and a willingness to slip right in to an existing paradigm without making any effort to advance the form. Bay’s film has no sense of comfort; it’s ambitious to a fault. Not intellectually, certainly, or aesthetically. But when Bay challenged fellow shitty auteur McG to a dick measuring contest, he’d given us the most appropriate metaphor for his filmmaking I can think of. Bay wants you to see everything that he’s packing, and he lets it all hang out; sometimes, though, its in the form of a pair of wrecking balls that hang off of a giant robot like Truck Nuts. The sheer BIG-ness of Revenge of the Fallen is its lone saving grace. It’s quite appropriate that it’s the most popular movie of the year.

Of course, it is important to remember that Bay’s film is fucking putrid. There is absolutely no depth of plot or character. There is no motivation for any action. It features two robots who are borderline racist characters (and “borderline” is being generous). Sometimes the perspective spins 360 degrees for an uncomfortable period of time. Shia LeBeouf is in it.

But is it the worst movie of the year, or even, the worst movie ever? Not even close. It’s the sequel to a movie based on a cartoon based on a line of action figures. What else would you expect?

Film: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd (the showing was delayed due to a break in at the theater the night before; though, to make it up to us, only one trailer screened before it: the preview for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen); digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 2
Rotten Tomatoes average: 19%

Next up: Whatever Works

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

public enemies

Say this for Michael Mann: boy’s got style. And a period crime drama based on the final crime spree of John Dillinger’s gang should seem awfully natural in Mann’s hands. Especially with Johnny Depp starring as Dillinger to do all the heavy lifting.

In the end though, Public Enemies just kind of leaves me cold.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like in Public Enemies; there’s plenty. Mann is fantastic both at capturing subtle moments between his characters, and at choreographing elaborate shoot-em-ups. Public Enemies has both in spades. Mann’s visual palate is glossy and fussy about detail, and both of these traits suit the film well. There’s really no good reason why the film should feel so vacant.

Yet it does. The Dillinger story itself is incredibly sensational, to the point that the film should have written itself, just based on the oral tradition that has sprung up around Dillinger over the years. And had Mann focused his story more stridently, he would just have to capture it. Instead, he plots out a 150 minute epic from a story that should have run about 105. There comes a point where each bank robbery runs together, each getaway loses its significance.

Mann also splits his time almost equally between the casual excitement of Dillinger hiding in plain sight, and the bland procedural matters involved with FBI agent Melvin Purvis’s (Christian Bale) attempts to catch him. True, Mann is often concerned with documenting every plot move in his films, but this was overkill even for him. On one end of his film, he has danger and intrigue; on the other, he has politics.

Both Depp and love interest Marion Cotillard are dynamic on screen and have a real chemistry, in spite of Mann’s feeble attempts to explain her rationale for falling for a fugitive. Bale is serviceable, Billy Crudup provides a nice take on FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, and tons of fine name actors (Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski) turn up for small roles.

Public Enemies has a lot going for it. It’s exciting in parts, beautiful to look at, even wryly funny. Yet the best things about it are almost always the most fleeting.

I get the feeling that there’s something more complex in Mann’s film that I’m missing. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that out. Or maybe Mann has duped us all.

Film: Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, moderate crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 6
Rotten Tomatoes average: 65%

Next up: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

my sister's keeper

After seeing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, I thought nothing would ever cheer me up. So I figured I’d conclude a fine afternoon’s Theater Hopping Double Feature© by sneaking in to see My Sister’s Keeper, which could be alternately titled “that cancer girl movie where Cameron Diaz yells a lot.”

And My Sister’s Keeper is, indeed, that. Though that betrays the fact that it does a half decent job of accomplishing one of its goals (telling a coherent story), and an excellent job accomplishing the other (making ladies cry for an hour and 45 minutes).

The film centers on a girl dying of leukemia, and the trials her illness causes for her family, particularly her sister (Abigail Breslin), who was conceived in vitro as part of some mad scientist experiment to make spare parts for her ill sister (though the film only scratches the surface of examining just how fucked up that is). When Breslin grows tired of having no say in determining what happens to her own body, she sues her parents (Jason Patric and a “this is my serious face” Cameron Diaz) for medical emancipation. The film’s big twist reveals a master plan hidden under all the litigation.

My Sister’s Keeper is dark, lightened only by a few minutes of comic relief from smarmy lawyer Alec Baldwin, but it’s dark in the kind of way where you know everything will have some kind of positive resolution. Director Nick Cassavetes (chip off the old block, that guy) mines the uplifting moment out of every scene and bloated musical montage (the film actually has a scene scored with a down tempo version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”).

Cassavetes, however, moves in line with the sensibilities of his core audience; I’m just not part of it. Despite a jumbled timeline, he manages to keep the story together, though perhaps with less emotional depth than he hoped for.

But, in some sense, that’s for the best. My Sister’s Keeper may make you cry, but it won’t make you feel. And that, I think, is just how its audience wants it.

Film: My Sister’s Keeper
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Stars: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Jason Patric, Alec Baldwin, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 4
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: Public Enemies

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

ice age 3

See that picture up there? That’s one of the reasons Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is terrible. That little fucker is some kind of enjoyment-killing tree sloth fucking thing that leads the Ice Age gang through some mystery cave where dinosaurs are still alive, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. You see, science had led us to believe that dinosaurs were eradicated by an ice age. Presumably the same ice age that Ray Romano’s wooly mammoth and Denis Leary’s sabre-toothed tiger have been living in for three fucking movies now.

Anyway, that little prick’s name is Buck, and he’s voiced by Simon Pegg, who most of the time is hilarious. Except when he plays Buck. Buck is some kind of unholy cross between Ralph Brown and Crocodile Dundee. With an eye patch, so you know he’s hardcore. Buck is the worst.

The pre-existing characters aren’t much better. Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a phone-in job of the highest order. Romano, who sounds bored in his natural timbre, is near comatose here. Queen Latifah can’t emote properly. John Leguizamo should have hung it up once he made all that Super Mario bank. And Leary’s seems to always sleepwalk through his more family-friendly projects.

And despite the obvious historical fuck off involved in the introduction of dinosaurs, the real problem with their inclusion is that it squanders everything the Ice Age franchise had going for it. The original Ice Age, which is actually a fine family picture, was captivating not because it had particularly appealing characters or a plot, but because it inhabited a desolate, solid-white universe, in a transitional period in global history. Very little of what appears in Ice Age had been imagined in quite the same way before. It was novel, occasionally funny, and the sequel The Meltdown piggybacked nicely off its success.

For a third installment, shaking up the formula may have been a pretty good idea in principle, but in execution it removes any goodwill one might have had toward the franchise. Especially since all the jokes are stale rehashings of what we’ve heard before. And the use of digital 3D accomplishes only a cosmetic improvement on a visual landscape that’s less inspired (and less fully imagined) than what the producers of Ice Age captured the first time around.

And the stupid squirrel that fights over the acorn with the lady squirrel to the tune of “You’ll Never Find”? I’ve seen that sequence so many times on TV, in trailers, and in the actual film, I never want to listen to Lou Rawls again.

And that’s the real damn shame.

Film: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Director: Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier (yep, it took two directors to fuck this up just right)
Stars: Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital 3D
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: My Sister’s Keeper (part two of a Theater Hopping Double Feature ©!)

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

the proposal.jpg

In which I hurl a series of ad hominem attacks at Sandra Bullock, and attempt halfheartedly to describe the sack of baby vomit that is her new feature film, The Proposal:

  1. Sandra Bullock has a face that looks like a muppet’s, if only muppet faces were made of leather. This face acts as the first point of removal, keeping the audience at a distance in Bullock’s ridiculously formulaic new romantic comedy, The Proposal.
  2. Sandra Bullock has undergone so much bad plastic surgery that, in her later years, it will virtually be assured that she will play Joan Rivers in a schlocky Oxygen channel biopic. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, it is completely unbelievable that male lead Ryan Reynolds would ever have any sexual desire toward her. When he refers to Bullock as “beautiful,” it is the film’s single comedic moment.
  3. Sandra Bullock, in previous projects, has been out-acted by such cinematic titans as Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, and Dennis Miller; the public is immune to her professional failures because of the hypnotic effect of her muppet face. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, she is far outshined by Betty White, who is far past the point of not giving half a fuck about whatever movie role she happens to get.
  4. Sandra Bullock is a total bitch to work with. In Bullock’s latest cinematic toss-off, The Proposal, the best actor they could get to play Bullock’s father-in-law to be was Craig T. Nelson, who has clearly gone crazy, and needs any work he can get. (See this video.)
  5. Sandra Bullock is a bestiality fetishist. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, she has intercourse with various Alaskan wildlife species, including a harrowing scene in which she fucks an elk.

Ok, so I made one of those up, but it may not be the one you think. (Unless you’re a member of Sandra Bullock’s legal team, in which case I retract each of the above statements, agree that The Proposal was the finest movie of the year, and direct each of my five readers to go see it post haste, and at my own expense.)

Film: The Proposal
Director: Anne Fletcher
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Oscar Nunez

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, moderate crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 46%

Next up: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (part of a Theater Hopping Double Feature ©!)

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

the taking of pelham 1 2 3

I don’t think it gets any more baseline than this. I was all ready to give Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 a middling five-point review on my completely infallible ten-point scale. So when I checked to see the critical consensus, I was pleased to see it reviewed positively by exactly 50% of critics. Metacritic rates the film right near the middle as well, with a 55. Clearly I’m in agreement with the world that Pelham is the most average movie of ever.

You see it’s not all bad, and considering what Tony Scott is capable of (Man on Fire, Days of Thunder, blech), it’s a minor triumph in line with Crimson Tide, his most straightforward and best film to date. Pelham keeps it simple, with a pretty standard hostage situation, that develops into a nice battle of wits between Denzel Washington’s good guy MTA dispatcher and John Travolta’s business savvy domestic terrorist ringleader.

Of course Scott can’t stay completely out of his own way, and this is kind of Pelham’s Achilles heel. Not content with a story that essentially tells itself, Scott raises the volume. At times he can’t resist beating the audience into submission with bizarre visual trickery, and one of those action movie scores with the pounding beat and bassy strings that make sure you know something exciting is supposed to be happening. Scott also makes halfhearted attempts at commentaries on media sensationalism and the dangers of post 9/11 government bureaucracy, but both ideas predictably fall shallow, sacrificed before the god of blowing more shit up.

All of that’s a shame too, because Scott gets nice performances out of both Travolta and Washington, far from career bests, but exactly what you would expect out of two seasoned pros counting on a decent paycheck. Luis Guzman and James Gandolfini also provide welcome turns, Guzman as Travolta’s inside man, and Gandolfini as New York’s ineffectual mayor.

Pelham is the kind of movie that destined to be a staple on, like, USA Network in a few years. And that’s not all bad.

Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 50%

Next up: The Proposal

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.