Sunday, June 28, 2009

David & Allen: Tepid Bedfellows

Whatever Works doesn't work for all of it's momentary brilliance and good intentions. Woody Allen's latest film tells the diverting tale of Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) an agnostic, and self-proclaimed hater of people, who almost won a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, but now spends his time either teaching chess to youngsters or hermiting in his rat-trap apartment. One night he's climbing his back fire escape, when he stumbles across Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a dewy-eyed Southern Belle (Evan Rachel Wood), camped outside his flat, begging for food and lodging. Against his judgment Boris invites her in and it doesn't take long before the two of them decide to get married. Matters only get stranger when Melodie's mother and father (Patricia Clarkson and John Gallagher Jr.) show up to bring her back home, but wind up discovering their own repressed layers of self-expression.

Boris is the kind of curmudgeonly New York Jewish character that Allen has made a career of writing. Getting Larry David to play the part could have been a marriage made in comedy heaven, but unfortunately the script keeps us at arm's length. David's comedic soliloquies in which he expounds on the meaning of existence have the stuff of vintage Woody, but they run on too long. Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood play their southern parts admirably, but they feel like they belong in a different movie, as does Randy James (Henry Cavill), the Englishman who Wood has an affair with. Many of the gags fall flat and all of the competing cultural archetypes throw off the timing of the film, preventing it from gaining a consistent rhythm or momentum. Rabid Allen fans will find the movie amusing, but this is a bitter disappointment after Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mendes goes organic

Away We Go surprised me. It made me think twice about every snide comment I've ever made at the expense of director Sam Mendes. It's like the anti-Mendes film. Archetypes are replaced with real characters. Grand moral statements are traded for honest uncertainty. There is something unpredictable if not inevitable about the way the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida unfolds. The movie has a breezy, melancholy, spirit of discovery -- we feel as though we are discovering the world all over again through the eyes of John Krasinsky and Maya Rudolph, as they prepare for the birth of their first child and contemplate what kind of parents they'll be. Touring North America from Albequerque to Montreal, they encounter various couples who have devised their own unique child-rearing strategies and are now facing the consequences of their decisions.

The story is episodic, but the episodes add up to a refreshingly inconclusive perspective on parenthood. It's like Mendes has gone organic and traded in the stagy artifice of his previous work (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) for something disarmingly raw and authentic. This little movie succeeds where many fail by showing us who we really are: erratic, complicated, confused creatures. At times the script meanders and there doesn't always seem to be a point, but the denouement ties everything together. Away We Go speaks to a generation of 30-somethings who are disillusioned with the state of the world, skittish about bringing children into it, and yet forced to go blindly forth without knowing whether or not they are up to the task. The performances are funny and at times achingly poignant. This is a fresh and relevant new indie film and history may be far kinder to it than some critics have been.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Clint Eastwood started as an actor on TV's Gunsmoke. Boyishly handsome, he stood out. He grew to manhood and stardom in Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy" with A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He was the man with no name and an international player, but he wasn't especially well-respected. There was little to suggest the things to come. Then, in the 70's, Clint Eastwood the icon arrived in the form of Dirty Harry Callahan. Dirty Harry was an uncommonly primal cop film. It inspired a legion of inferior spinoffs and provoked us with a brand of justice that wasn't simply black and white. Eastwood made four other Dirty Harry pictures, each based on hot-button, morally provocative, situations. They were slickly made and unabashedly exploitative. They worked...well, all but The Dead Pool.

Clint climbed into the director's chair for Sudden Impact, the most complex film in the series. Throughout the 70's and 80's he continued to top himself, delivering high-octane entertainment in various action and suspense thrillers. He toyed with audience perceptions by befriending a monkey in Every Which Way But Loose and putting the cowboy hat back on in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Just as he started to catch fire, he would reinvent himself -- restless for new creative challenges.

Now at age 79, Clint has become one of the most talked about American directors. His last two films, Changeling and Gran Torino, both released last year, are among his very best and he shows no signs of slowing down. Since Unforgiven, his greatest film, Clint has assembled a remarkably diverse and consistent filmography. Several films have entered the cinematic pantheon (A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima). As a director, his work is sobering, honest and authentic. Some of his films suffer from sluggish pacing and an obvious didacticism, but even his misfires offer compelling themes and uncommonly intimate acting. Clint is a keen student of the human condition. He probes deeply into the fabric of society, without ever drifting into pretension or stylistic excess. Could he be one of our greatest living directors?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Holiday

George Cukor's Holiday is an enchanting, old fashioned, romantic comedy with a premise as irresistible today as it was when it premiered in 1938.  Cary Grant is a free-spirited dreamer, engaged to Doris Nolan, an upper crust socialite from one of Manhattan's wealthiest families.  When he makes a killing on the stock exchange and announces his intention to retire from law so he can sail around the world, he draws rancor from Nolan and her family.  The question then becomes whether he will compromise by taking the desk that his would-be father in law has offered him, or pursue the life he truly wants.  Enter Katherine Hepburn, Nolan's sister, a very modern woman hemmed in by her stuffy, elitist family.  Hepburn responds to Grant's youthful ideals and quickly makes it her mission to hold onto him -- on her sister's behalf.  

It's plain to see that she and Grant belong together, but Donald Ogden Stewart & Sydney Buchman's script is truly a crash course on how to write your characters out of a potentially unsavory triangle.  Somehow Hepburn manages to steal her sister's beau without betraying her trust and Grant wins our sympathies after quitting his fiancee in favor of her sister.  Cynics may dismiss this as romantic pablum, but fans of the genre will be hard-pressed to find a film that is as funny and genuinely romantic as this one.  Cukor keeps things moving, Grant somehow makes even the clumsiest acrobatic flips look dashing and gallant and Hepburn tugs at our heartstrings without resorting to maudlin theatrics.  Watch for peerless character actor Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Grant's closest friends, who realize before anyone else that he and Hepburn are made for each other.  Sparkling and timeless.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Remembering Dead Again

Dead Again is a unique and indefinable little movie. based on a screenplay by Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report) and skillfully directed by Kenneth Branagh. The story involves a detective (Branagh) entrusted with the care of an amnesiac woman (Emma Thompson) who discovers through hypnosis that she may have been the victim of a famous murder in a past life. Thompson and Branagh are brilliant playing dual roles as the present day couple and their glamorous Hollywood predecessors. The vintage sequences are lit and photographed exactly like the high gloss black and white melodramas of the 40's. The present day sequences have a haunting, unreal quality. Never has a film succeeded in cohesively interweaving two different storylines from two different periods like this one. Past lives and reincarnation are usually the fodder of b-films or cheap exploitation films. Here the subject is given a class-A treatment.

Branagh's customarily baroque storytelling style is ideally matched to the material. The camera moves at just the right pace. The cuts have impact. The chills are doled out methodically, leading to a revelation that has to qualify as one of the most brilliant red-herrings in the history of cinema. Franks' snappy dialogue and macabre sense of humor punctuates the suspense and keep us on edge of our seats. Derek Jacobi and an unbilled Robin Williams only add to the fun.