Friday, April 22, 2011

Jack Nicholson: Four Decades of Genius

Today is a few things.  A day for people of faith and people of the hippie persuasion to rejoice simultaneously (although, probably not for the same reason).  What it also happens to be, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, is Jack Nicholson’s 74th birthday.

Honestly, who the hell can pick a favorite Nicholson performance?  Sure, the go-to answer is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  But is R.P. McMurphy a better incarnation than J.J. Gittes?  What about The Shining?  It is, after all, impossible to think of Jack Nicholson without picturing Jack Torrance’s head forcing its way through an ax hole in a door.  

The Joker, Col. Jessep, Melvin Udall, Warren Schmidt, Frank Costello; these are indelible characters to the film medium, all portrayed by one of the most charismatic dudes to ever shield a pair of Ray-Bans.

But looking on Nicholson’s IMDB page, I was hit with a harsh realization: he was only in six movies last decade, two of which sucked (Anger Management, The Bucket List), one was phoned in (Something’s Gotta Give) one nobody saw (The Pledge) one was masterful (About Schmidt) and the final was hyperbolic bliss (The Departed).

Instead of picking a favorite role, let’s track Nicholson’s career by decade. Hopefully my choices will dissuade you from the filth littering our theatres, and force you to stay in with Old Jacky Boy this weekend.

(Note: For the purpose of conciseness, I’m detailing Nicholson’s career from 1970 onward, thereby skipping over Easy RiderEasy Rider is a great film, but we don’t have all day here.)
Role count: 15
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Robert Dupea
The Last Detail (1973) – Buddusky
Chinatown (1974) – J.J. Gittes
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – R.P. McMurphy [Won Oscar]
The Missouri Breaks (1976) – Tom Logan
Assuming you’ve seen Chinatown and Cuckoo’s Nest (if you haven’t, then, you know, do…) let me suggest the little seen Last Detail.  In The Last Detail, which is, for my money, Hal Ashby’s best film, Nicholson plays a naval officer ordered to take a fellow soldier to prison, but decides to show him one last good time before dropping him at the clink.  The film is brilliant in the way it seamlessly shifts from drama to comedy, and is anchored by a profanely iconic Nicholson performance.

Role count: 12
The Shining (1980) – Jack Torrance
Reds (1981) – Eugene O’Neill
Terms of Endearment (1983) – Garrett Breedlove [Won Oscar]
Prizzi’s Honor (1985) – Charley Partanna
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) – Daryl Van Horne
Broadcast News (1987) – Bill Rorich
Batman (1989) – The Joker
Terms of Endearment is interesting because it highlights a kind, venerable side of Nicholson that is rarely seen, while The Shining and Batman crazily emphasize the other end of his spectrum.  But for some reason, I feel the need to point out Nicholson’s brief but memorable turn in Broadcast News

Broadcast News is mostly remembered for what Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks brought to their respective roles.  But you can’t deny the power of Nicholson coming into frame in his few brief scenes.  For his role, Nicholson requested that he not be paid, nor advertised in the marketing campaign, as to not take away from the principal cast members. His presence in the film knocks the wind out of the characters, and in turn, the audience as well.    

Role count: 10
The Two Jakes (1990) – J.J. Gittes
A Few Good Men (1992) – Col. Nathan R. Jessep
Hoffa (1992) – Jimmy Hoffa
The Crossing Guard (1995) – Freddy Gale
As Good as It Gets (1997) – Melvin Udall [Won Oscar]
Gotta love Melvin Udall and his hilariously un-PC one liners, but let’s be honest, it’s all about Jessep.  Based on Nicholson’s game changing performance in A Few Good Men, I’ve since dubbed similar characters as having a “Jessep Complex.” As soon as you see them, you fear them.  We know nothing about his character or his motivations, but as soon as Nicholson blurts out: “Who the fuck is Pfc. William Santiago?” we know we’re in for a hell of a ride.

Role count: six
The Pledge (2001) – Jerry Black
About Schmidt (2002) – Warren Schmidt
The Departed (2006) – Frank Costello
If Chinatown and Cuckoo’s Nest encapsulate the best of young Nicholson, then About Schmidt is the perfect embodiment of old Nicholson. Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is unlike any other character he’s given us: reserved, heartfelt, and… ordinary.  He's a kind, bumbling man that you wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to if walking past him in the grocery store.  He’s an everyday Joe.  A regular fella.  And Nicholson couldn’t have handled it better.  I could make a strong argument that About Schmidt is the best performance of Jack Nicholson’s career.

As of April, 2011: Of the titles mentioned, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Shining, Batman, Hoffa, The Pledge, and Anger Management are available on Netflix Instant Play.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Endlessly Rewatchable: Ocean’s 11

A funny thing happened last night.  Lately, I’ve been slogging my way through the Sidney Lumet films I haven’t yet seen.  Up last night was Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, starring a nearly unrecognizable Rod Steiger as a quiet, Jewish pawnbroker internally suffering from the Nazi persecution he endured decades ago.

About 45 minutes into the movie, I completely passed out, which, for me, is extremely rare.  I was out for a good hour, and by the time I came to, my TV was stuck on The Pawnbroker’s looping DVD menu.  Accepting that it was best to cut my losses and not attempt round two with the heavy handed, black and white drama, I turned on the TV, and aimlessly began flipping through in a half-dream state.

(For the record, what I saw of The Pawnbroker was good, damn good in fact.  I have every intention of finishing it later tonight.)

After a few moments, I stopped on HBO, which was playing Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11.  And that’s when something amusing occurred to me.  Ocean’s 11 is a clever, breezy film that I’ve always enjoyed.  But before last night, I had no idea how endlessly rewatchable it is.

Let me explain.  When I settled on Ocean’s 11 last night, the movie was well into its second act.  (I think I came in when Matt Damon’s character is describing to Brad Pitt how Terry Benedict is “a machine.” Again… I was half asleep.)

I had every intention of watching the movie only until I was awake enough to crawl my ass up to bed. But lo and behold, I sat and watched the flick for its duration.  Laughing at all the lines I always laugh at, raising my eyebrows at all the editing and camera techniques I’m always impressed by, and so on.  In fact, the only time I got up from the couch was to get a Stella from the fridge.

I don’t know what it is about Ocean’s 11 that’s so appealing.  The plentiful marquee stars fitting seamlessly into their roles, Ted Griffin’s sneaky (and flawless) dialogue, Peter Andrews’ (a Soderbergh pseudonym) hip, European cinematography, David Holmes’ revelatory score, the sleek costumes; it all just works.  (Full disclosure: I recently watched the HBO documentary His Way, about legendary Hollywood producer, and Ocean’s 11 financer, Jerry Weintraub, which, I’m sure, contributed to my Ocean’s 11 interest.)

Ocean’s 11 isn’t Soderbergh’s best film, in fact, on the Directors section of this blog, I cited Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, Out of Sight, Traffic and Solaris as being as good, or better, than Ocean’s 11.  What it is, however, is a rare Hollywood hybrid that doesn’t treat its audience like morons.  It’s smart, fun, and wholly entertaining.  Which is why every single time I come across it, I stop and watch for a few minutes (or, in the case of last night, until the end.)

What about you?  What are some of your favorite middle-of-the-night, half-asleep, watch-until-the-end flicks?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Scream 4

Back in 1996, a modest little movie completely changed the horror genre.  And it did it during its first 10 minutes.  When the poor parents of Drew Barrymore opened their front door to see their teenage daughter gutted and hanging from a tree swing, the slasher flick was never the same.

The original Scream was a revelation.  It boasted all the best qualities of a horror film in all the best ways.  The scares were scary, the thrills were thrilling, and the gore was gory.  But it also had something that most horror films do not: a genuine sense of humor.  A lot of contemporary scary films are unintentionally funny, usually due to bad acting and/or an unconvincing story.  But Scream, with its hip script and fresh faced cast, was great in the way it poked fun at the horror genre and its faults, all while poking fun at itself.

Scream’s sequel, in which the surviving players were terrorized by a new Ghostface at college, was a worthy followup, but with a lame ending.  Scream 3 was a forgettable, Hollywood-set, addition to the franchise.  And now we get the completely unnecessary Scream 4, which aims to do what the first film did, but (mostly) fails miserably.

Like the first 10 minutes of the original, the opening of Scream 4 proves to carry its best, most spirited sequence.  A slew of scenes that allow franchise director Wes Craven to not only poke fun at the horror nonsense that is now typically associated with the genre (i.e. torture porn) but also at his franchise in general.  But once the title card flashes onscreen, you can kiss the fun byebye and welcome a tired plot that is as dull as what Craven apparently seems to love ridiculing.

On the anniversary of the original Woodsboro murders, Sidney Prescott (a why-the-hell-did-I-agree-to-do-this Neve Campbell) returns home to promote her new self help book.  Needless to say, a new Ghostface starts offing people, leaving Sherriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his has-been tabloid journalist wife, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) to hunt yet another black caped killer.

In addition to the principal cast, a number of horror-film obsessed youngins show up to clue the audience in via neverending scenes of expository dialogue.  The best of the bunch being Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her best friend Kirby (a fiery Hayden Panettiere).  The movie cuts back and forth between the old generation and the new, and ultimately teams them together to catch the killer.  Yawn. 

Look, I wasn’t expecting much from Scream 4, and aside from its opening moments and scene stealing performances from Panettiere and Cox, there’s nothing really to write home about.  I do find it funny, however, that a film so concerned with making fun of itself doesn’t take the time to really examine its story and try to be, you know, a scream.  D+

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sidney Lumet: An Auteur in Passing

This past Sunday saw the passing of a legend.  A director whose streetwise influences are blatantly apparent in much of the inferior crime drivel that litters our contemporary theatres every year.  Sidney Lumet’s career, while not without its faults, was one of eclipsing landmarks.

Throughout his career, he directed one of the best scripted films of all time (12 Angry Men), one of the best cop dramas of all time (Serpico), one (actually, probably the) best bank robbery films of all time (Dog Day Afternoon), one (actually, probably the) best show business films of all time (Network), one of the best courtroom dramas of all time (The Verdict), and the best modern crime film in years (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When a cinematic innovator dies, my first instinct is to rush and try to watch as much of their work as I can.  But time is a wastin’, so instead of offering thoughts on films I’ve only seen once, here’s what I think of a slew of classics, all, rather incredibly, directed by one man.

12 Angry Men (1957)
Twelve guys in a room deliberate on an open-and-shut murder case.  One guy isn’t convinced.  What follows is motion picture bliss.  12 Angry Men is a masterpiece; it’s brilliantly executed on every level of the cinematic medium. The sneaky camera work, the tricky screenplay, and, oh yeah, there’s some good acting in it too.  The first time I saw this film, I marveled at how well it deceived and guided me, feats it continues to do today. It’s a flawless work of art, one of the best film directing debuts in history.

Serpico (1973)
Running off the coattails of his Godfather success, Al Pacino plays real life cop Frank Serpico – who was harassed, preyed upon and nearly executed for exposing corruption within the NYPD – with the standard, innocent appeal of his young self.  The star (and his performance) ultimately outshined the overall film, but that matters little.  Serpico is a well-paced, multifaceted cop drama that never dare lets the tension break.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
A cast of superstars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins, to name a few) worked for pennies to bring Agatha Christie’s crime mystery to the screen.  The result is a teasing, twisting, turning film that keeps you guessing up until Finney’s epic closing monologue.  I’ve seen this flick several times, and can never accurately predict the outcome.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Honestly, what’s to say?  The best bank robbery film of all time tells the true story of two well-intentioned chums who execute a robbery so poorly, that we can’t help but sympathize with him.  Al Pacino, in the finest performance of his career, is utterly magnetic as Sonny.  His desperation practically bleeds through the screen, it’s that genuine.  His aimless partner in crime, played by the remarkable John Cazale, is equally as convincing.  The fact that there may be people reading this post who haven’t seen this film is, well, rather disheartening.  Dog Day Afternoon is one of my top ten films of all time.  Get crackin’, folks.

Network (1976)
From its defining “As mad as hell” rage onward, Network is a surefire masterpiece.  It details the horror, obsession, idolization, and lunacy of show business better than any other film to date.  Its performances are unblemished (it won three acting Oscars, a record matched only by A Streetcar Named Desire), its directing is frenetic, its Paddy Chayefsky-penned screenplay is ingenious, and its legacy is untainted.  There just isn’t a whole hell of a lot I can say that does a film like this fair justice.

The Verdict (1982)
In The Verdict, Paul Newman gives what may or may not be the best performance of his career (for my money, it runs a close second to his work in Cool Hand Luke). Just watch his first scene.  Newman – portraying a down and out, alcoholic lawyer – stands at the foot of his favorite pinball machine, located in his preferred dive bar.  He plays slowly, methodically, without saying a word.  The man is acting… with his shoulders.  The simplicity of the scene grabs you right away, and the conviction of the rest of the film keeps you.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Skip ahead a few decades and you’ll find one hell of a pulverizing family crime drama.  The film – which chronicles the setup of a jewelry store heist and its disastrous fallout – was revered by critics and commercially ignored.  Why?  Its narrative is original as all hell, its acting is gritty and raw (namely by a never-better Philip Seymour Hoffman), and it’s script is so cleverly jarring, that it’ll leave your jaw dropped.  Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is endlessly appealing in its subtle brutality; a great swan song for one of America’s finest auteurs.  

Your Highness

Your Highness, despite starring a more than capable cast with a genius director calling the shots, is an utter disaster, arguably the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year. Which means I’m admitting that a movie starring Justin Bieber is better than one starring Natalie Portman.

In Your Highness, a straight laced would-be king Fabious (James Franco) recruits his stoned out younger brother Thadeous (Danny McBride) to rescue Fabious’ bride to be (Zooey Deschanel), who is being held captive by a horny sorcerer (Justin Theroux). Along their journey, the brothers run into the bow and arrow yielding Isabel (Natalie Portman) who helps them achieve their quest.

You get it. There’s nothing new going on here. Maybe McBride, who co-wrote the idiotic script, and director David Gordon Green were attempting a new riff at the Monty Python formula. Yeah, maybe. Problem is, the Monty Python flicks are, you know, funny.

I could sit here and rattle on for paragraph after paragraph about how successfully this film fails on all levels, but, to be perfectly honest, that would be a waste of our time. Instead, let me focus on the film’s most heartbreaking aspect.

In 2000, a quiet, sensational film called George Washington (which has nothing to do with the President, but everything to do with human emotion) hit the indie scene like a firestorm. Its director, an awkwardly shaped, introverted 25 year old, was hailed as his generation’s Terrence Mallick. Then something odd happened: in 2003, he did it again, this time with All the Real Girls. The something even stranger happened: in 2004, he did it again, this time with Undertow. Then, just when us loyal followers were sure he had peaked, David Gordon Green released Snow Angels, one of the very best films of 2007 (which, by the way, was a sensational year for American cinema).

But I’d venture a guess that most of you haven’t heard of any of those films. Which is why, I assume, Green made Pineapple Express a few years ago. He saw a way to give the stoner comedy a fresh spin, and (finally) make some serious cash. The effort paid off. Pineapple Express, while nowhere near as good as his previous films, grossed nearly triple its budget.

I get that, there’s nothing wrong with deviating from your indie street cred to sell out temporarily. But what the hell was Green thinking with Your Highness? I hope pray plead that Your Highness is Green’s career slum, and loyal fans should afford him that. I mean, hell, even Scorsese made New York New York.

IMDB says Green’s next film is a comedy about a suspended college student who is “fully unprepared” for a “wild night” of babysitting. The film stars Sam Rockwell (good start), Jonah Hill (sigh) and… Method Man? David Gordon Green... come back…please. D-

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


What a badass little flick this is.  In Hanna, Saoirse Ronan (a real spitfire of an actress, who’s got “star” written all over her) kicks some serious ass as a ferocious girl trained by her father (Eric Bana, reliable as ever) to kill the cold hearted, career-driven woman who ruined their family (a steely cool Cate Blanchett).  The plot is nothing new, the execution, however, is exhilarating.

The film starts in the barren, chilled wilderness of nowhere; just Hanna and Papa, going through the motions, creating a killing machine one pushup at a time.  We notice a few things right away: the caffeinated (yet controlled) editing, the stylized cinematography, the lurking music, which all appeal in the best possible way.  Hanna soon makes her way to civilization, and we’re off and running.

In one hyperkinetic sequence, as Hanna escapes from would be captures in some sort of deserted CIA-ish lair, the film seriously takes off.  The Chemical Brothers’ original score pulsates through the speakers as Alwin Kuchler’s camera spins and twirls through a complex tunnel system, all cut seamlessly with Paul Tothill’s feel for manic montage.  Watching that scene, only one word came to mind: badass.

That feeling was repeated later, in a bravado sequence in which Bana is followed through a city, only to be surrounded by a group of men on a subway platform.  Needless to say, Bana takes them all out with his impressive set of ass kicking skills.  Better still is the fact that the sequence is completed in one long continuous shot. That’s enough to get my eyebrows raised.

The rest of Hanna is filled with reserved, ultra cool CIA lingo, and other spirited moments that keep the adrenaline pumping.  Director Joe Wright, leaps and bounds from his reserved, well done Pride and Prejudice in 2005, is clearly having a blast with Hanna, concerned more with entertaining his audience in a smart way, rather than creating a cinematic masterpiece.

Hanna is fun, a lot of fun, actually.  It may not resonate after you exit the theatre, but it’s enough to top off your tank for all things badass. B

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Win Win

Mike Flaherty is down and out.  His law practice is barely surviving on a month to month, client to client basis.  He’s got a wife that loves him, two kids that adore him, a newborn that needs feeding, and a gig as head coach for the local high school’s God awful wrestling team.  He’s getting by, but just barely.

Then he finds a loophole: a not entirely moral, but entirely legal, method to secure an extra $1,500 a month.  Think about that: $1,500 ain’t a whole hell of a lot of money, especially for a family of five with a dwindling law practice, but Mike believes it’s enough, and he carries on appropriately.

That is until Kyle, the teenage grandson of one of Mike’s clients, winds up (through a set of amusing circumstances) practically on his front porch.  After much debate, Kyle, with his bleach blonde hair and indifferent demeanor, is taken in by Mike’s family.  What slowly unfolds is, essentially, a surrogate father and son story.  Mike and Kyle seemingly have nothing in common, but their distinct personalities allow them to understand each other.  Well, that and the fact that Kyle turns out to be a wrestling prodigy, pinning the shit out of anything that moves.

As Mike, Paul Giamatti delivers yet another damn near perfect performance.  Giamatti is the rarest of actors, he’s got the look of a supporting player, but the emotional intensity of De Niro in his prime.  There’s a brief scene between Mike and Kyle right before Kyle takes the mat for the biggest match of his life.  The moment could play out like a typical “Go get ‘em, son,” motivational bore.  But watch what Giamatti does with it.  He keeps his voice inflected just below a yell, and every word sounds like it might crack through tears.  It’s a glorious moment, arguably the best in the film, and Giamatti nails it.   

But there are two people in that scene, and damn if Alex Shaffer doesn’t carry his own weight.  Shaffer plays Kyle with such an impeccable sense of teenage detachment that it’s utterly mystifying to watch.  Win Win is Shaffer’s first role... in anything.  More please.

Rounding out the cast is the ever evolving Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife, underrated comic gem Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend, Jeffrey Tambor as the assistant coach, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s fleeting, drug addicted mother.  Ah, Melanie Lynskey, the remarkable character actress whose come on like a scene stealing hurricane, clipping moments from the likes of Matt Damon (in The Informant), George Clooney (in Up in the Air), Edward Norton (in Leaves of Grass), or an entire film completely (as in Away We Go).  Look out for her, she’ll soon become a seriously leading player.
Melanie Lynskey
Win Win is directed by Tom McCarthy, who made the delightful Station Agent, and the remarkable The Visitor.  Although you probably know McCarthy better for his work as an actor (the other son in law in Meet the Parents, the sleazy journalist in The Wire), McCarthy has a real knack for capturing genuine human nature on film. He can nail the funny and the sad, the quirky and the sincere.  And, in the case of Win Win, therein lies the problem.

Win Win is funny, filled with a slew of laugh out loud moments.  It’s also endearing, filled with a slew of moments that are quite heartbreaking.  In its funniest and most heartfelt moments, Win Win shines.  Where it gets (slightly) lost, however, is in its tonal shifts from one to the other.  At times, the pacing is off, the camera work is decidedly detached, and the screenplay is stale.  Fleeting though those moments of curious disorientation may be, it’s still enough to lower the scope of the film.

Lower, not ruin.  See Win Win, you’ll enjoy it.  Just don’t be surprised if there’s nothing to really talk about after.  B

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer starts off fast a furious with a polished pace that we pray won’t let up. It does, of course, but not before we’re all amicably entertained.

The breezy flick starts off as an amusing character study, chronicling the day-to-day dealings of Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey, having a blast), a streetwise lawyer who has no qualms about working the cracks in the system to get his clients freed.

During the first 20 minutes of the film, we follow Haller around for a day – getting a drug pusher released here, jetting across town to get a motorcycle thug exonerated there, and so on. We meet a slew of characters, and aren’t yet bogged down but that sinking element that tends to ruin most Hollywood films: the plot.

And here’s where The Lincoln Lawyer (sort of) goes amiss. You see, those first 20 minutes are cool and fun because they don’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie. They’re just great introductory moments for what could be a really groovy character. And then, slowly but surely, we realize that everything we’ve seen was in no way character based, but rather given to us simply to serve the eventual muddled plot.

Simply put: everyone you see and everything you hear will come up later, simply to bow tie the conclusion of the film. This does several things. It makes the movie too neat, it takes the mystery out of the story, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a glorified cop procedural on TNT.

Look, The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t that bad of a film, in fact, it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen so far this year. And, for what it’s worth, McConaughey is actually quite good in it. But when his character takes on a rich boy client (Ryan Phillippe) who may or may not have beaten a hooker halfway to hell, it doesn’t take long for predictability to play out.

For a flick that starts off so well, it’s a bit of a bummer to watch it continuously bite off more than it can chew. And given the film’s modest box office take, maybe audiences agree with the notion that they’re ready to be thrown something a little more challenging. You don’t have to spell everything out for us; we ain’t as dumb as you think. B-

(Side note: There is an absolutely hilarious scene in this film where McConaughey interrogates a jailhouse snitch on the stand. The snitch is played by remarkable character actor Shea Whingham, who was brilliantly zany in his brief role in Bad Lieutenant last year, and can currently be seen as Steve Buscemi’s brother on Boardwalk Empire. Whingham is in three scenes in The Lincoln Laywer, and he steals every second of them. He’s worth the price of admission.)

Friday, April 8, 2011


So, the lonely housewife spends her days unpacking her family’s belongings in their new home. Her husband goes to work, her young sons go to school, and she stays home and watches the baby. After a few weeks in the new place, she starts hearing creepy noises, then seeing creepy things.

That’s the plot to about a dozen movies I can name off the top of my head, but for our purposes, we’ll tag it as the premise of Insidious, the new horror flick from James Wan, the director of the original Saw.

But Saw (a somewhat brilliant, very original addition to its genre) is about as far as you can get from Insidious. The scares are cheap (quick bursts of stringed music), the plot is incoherent (not at first, but eventually), and the ending is cheap. In short, you know what you’re getting right from the start of Insidious: a familiar plot, a few minor shrills, a lots of eye rolls.

At least Wan put two credible actors in the lead roles (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, along with a lovingly campy Barbara Hershey in a minor role) so the experience isn’t completely excruciating. Regardless, Insidious is nothing new; and when it tries to be, it’s far too little too late. D

Monday, April 4, 2011

the Directors: Woody Allen

My New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to read at least one classic work of fiction a month.  Fifteen pages into "Lord of the Flies" and my resolution turned into a big fat fail.  Instead, I decided to pick a director each month and watch his or her entire body of work.  And who better to start with than one of America’s most prolific directors?

Woody Allen has made nearly one movie a year since 1971.  They aren’t all great (some aren’t even good) but they’re the work of one of the most original auteurs to ever focus a lens.

In examining Woody’s entire filmography, I discovered a few hidden gems, rediscovered a slew of classics, and rolled my eyes at some real duds.  For better or worse, here is an examination of the career of everyone’s favorite pontificating filmmaker.

(Note: a majority of the facts in these brief reviews were pulled from Eric Lax’s book, “Conversations with Woody Allen”)

1966 – What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
As Woody informs us during the opening scene, he purchased a James Bondian Japanese flick, deleted the soundtrack and added his own dialogue, turning the film into a comedy.  The resulting film is a sloppy, incoherent, and just plain dumb B-movie mess.  Which, I suspect, is exactly what Woody was going for.  (To be fair, Woody doesn’t consider this his first film, but still, it is in no way worth your time.) D+

1969 – Take the Money and Run
Woody plays a bumbling thief who spends his life in and out of prison for failing to pull off half-assed heists.  Although it’s a step up from What’s Up, Tiger Lily (but what wouldn’t be?), Take the Money and Run, and its deadpan humor, doesn’t live up to Woody’s later work.  It is, however, a spirited hint at what is to soon come. C

1971 – Bananas
Woody is off and running as a fumbling dope who somehow gets engulfed with a fascist Latin American militant group.  The opening and closing scenes, commentated on screen by Howard Cossell, are easily the film’s highlights.  B-

1972 – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask
Amusing vignettes comically explore taboo sex topics.  It’s hard to choose a favorite: Gene Wilder falling in love with a sheep? A black and white pseudo melodrama about a woman who can only achieve an orgasm in public? Burt Reynolds as the commander inside of a man’s reproductive organ? Oh, and I forgot the giant nipple.  Check it out, you’ll at least like some of the chapters.  B+

1973 – Sleeper
Woody’s first big hit places him as a nerdy store owner who is accidently cryogenically frozen, and woken up several hundred years later to ward off an oppressive government. Sleeper is fun, with some inspired Charlie Chaplinesque gags, but, perhaps most importantly, it marks Woody’s first film with his first muse, Diane Keaton.  B

1975 – Love and Death
This standard Woody Allen deadpan riff casts the director as a bumbling soldier who is convinced by his cousin/love interest (Diane Keaton) to assassinate Napoleon.  Like most of Woody’s films during this period, the humor is either Marxist slapstick or Monty Python satire.  But, despite its closing references to the great Ingmar Bergman (Woody’s favorite director) Love and Death doesn’t really pan out. C-

1977 – Annie Hall
Woody’s most famous film may not be his best, but its damn close.  The multi narrative flick, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, nabbed a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, over a little film called Star Wars.  Time proves that the latter film may have been slightly more influential to the medium, but that doesn’t make Annie Hall any less delightful.  If, for some odd reason, you haven’t seen Annie Hall, then check it out.  It’s a comedy classic, and one of Woody Allen’s more accessible films.  A

1978 – Interiors
I’ll get this out of the way now: unlike most people, I far enjoy Woody’s dramas to his comedies.  After the success of Annie Hall, Woody went straight melodramatic with this Bergmanesque family drama that details how three grown sisters come to terms with their parent’s divorce.  The look of the film, anchored by Gordon Willis’ astonishing cinematography, is a definite highlight.  Interiors is, arguably, the most bold film of Woody’s career.  Gut wrenching and daring, it is not to be missed. A

1979 – Manhattan
Woody’s first masterpiece is a black and white comedy that begins with a classic opening monologue and never dares to slow its pace. The greatly complicated love story is one of Woody’s most ambitious, thought out ventures. Manhattan is one of the best films of the ‘70s, which, you know, is saying a lot.  A+

1980 – Stardust Memories
This hidden gem has Woody flexing his inner Fellini à la his own version of 8 ½.  A successful comedy director attends a film festival showcasing his work and is overtaken by fans, press, beggars, choosers and so on.  Some found the film too autobiographical and narcissistic upon its release, but I think it’s a fascinating examination into the psyche of an artist’s tortured mind.  As soon as I finished my first viewing, I immediately watched it again. One of Woody’s very best. A+

1982 – A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Three couples meet for long weekend at a secluded cabin circa 1900.  Everyone falls for everyone else.  Mildly humorous shenanigans ensue.  Chaos reigns supreme.  Eh.  Light at the end of the tunnel: Mia Farrow.  Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy marked the first film of their often brilliant collaboration.  C

1983 – Zelig
Woody plays Zelig, an impersonator who pops up throughout American history. The film amusingly (and wholly convincingly) mixes actual newsreel footage with fake events.  It’s interesting, but not too memorable.  It should be noted that this is one of Woody’s personal favorite films that he has made.  B

1984 – Broadway Danny Rose
Amusingly layered tale about an ex standup comedian (Woody) who now manages a once-popular comedian vying for a comeback.  Woody suffers from a case of wrong identity when he is mistaken as the lover of the comedian’s mistress (a never better Mia Farrow).  If it sounds complicated, don’t worry, it’s not.  It’s fun and fast, with a subtle resolution.  To reiterate, this film contains, for my money, the best performance is Mia Farrow’s career.  Where’s her Oscar?  A

1985 – The Purple Rose of Cairo
In this clever flick, Mia Farrow sees a fictional film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, so many times that a character from it actually comes out of the screen to be with her.  Despite its satirical content matter, the film is done seriously and with thought.  The result is a well intentioned and well executed gem. The end will surely melt your heart.  A

1986 – Hannah and Her Sisters
Another Woody classic chronicles three sisters as they fall for each other’s lovers and exes.  At times deadly funny, then suddenly deadly serious, Hannah and Her Sisters is compulsively rewatchable and always well regarded.  The entire cast, namely Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Diane Wiest, are remarkable. A

1987 – Radio Days
Another one of Woody’s personal favorites is this autobiographical film which recounts a lower class family during the Golden Age of radio.  The movie is filled with several inspired scenes, and never fails to hit its mark. It’d be the perfect flick to watch with your grandparents.  B

1987 – September
Six people spend a weekend together in a secluded Vermont home right as summer is ending.  Love falls in, love falls out, all conveyed through emotionally grueling performances.  If you’re going to make a movie as an exercise in acting, then the performances need to soar.  Mia Farrow, as a repressed, aimless woman and Elaine Stritch as her overbearing, offensive mother, are utterly flawless.  And while the rest of the cast isn’t bad, the material they’re given isn’t very compelling. B+

1988 – Another Woman
What a hell of a find Another Woman is, a movie I, quite frankly, had never ever heard of.  Gena Rowlands stars as emotionally repressed writer, who decides to chronicle her suffering marriage and other past relationships in her new book.  Without giving too much away, the film masterfully cross cuts between multiple narratives (we are given moments from her past, from her present, and from her book, which may or may not be fictionalized).  In addition to the impeccable Rowlands, Mia Farrow, Gene Hackman, Ian Holm and virtually every other actor rival the best performances they’ve ever given.  Another Woman is a Woody Allen drama done right, very very right.  I’ve seen the man’s entire body of work, and I can confidently assert that Another Woman is the best film Woody Allen has ever made.  A+

1989 – Crimes and Misdemeanors
Here’s the thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors contains a brilliantly realized drama, in which Martin Landau plots to have his mistress killed after she threatens to expose their affair.  Problem is, the film also contains another subplot, in which Woody plays a documentarian flirting with the idea of an affair.  Woody’s section barely hangs on, seriously detracting us from the superior Landau segment.  Regardless, this is still a great film.  A-

1989 – New York Stories, Oedipus Wrecks segment
You’d think teaming up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen for an anthology film about New York-set love stories would be a big hit.  Well, not so much.  Scorsese’s segment, about a suffering painter, is a rapidly paced expose into the underground art world. Coppola’s, about a spoiled rich girl, is a total bore.  Which leaves us Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, about a straight-laced lawyer’s suffering relationship with his domineering mother.  The short film is fine in the beginning, but once Allen’s mother disappears (and ultimately reappears in an absurd manner) the film becomes an eye-rolling waste.  Oedipus Wrecks: C-

1990 – Alice
Alice has the makings of a perfectly good, domestic dramedy, until unhappily married Mia Farrow takes an herb prescribed by her acupuncturist that turns in temporarily invisible. After that, this deliberately paced tail of marriage gone awry turns into an exhausted farce.  If your film takes place in reality, but is rooted in fantasy (i.e. The Purple Rose of Cairo), then you have to have full confidence in what you’re doing to pull it off.  Save its spirited cast, Alice lacks almost any shred of confidence. C+

1991 – Shadows and Fog
Woody’s comedic answer to Fritz Lang’s M, this moody, black and white film, shot entirely on a giant soundstage, follows a slew of villagers around for a night as they hunt down an ominous strangler.  Of course, Woody manages to fit in bouts of adultery, life-after-death puzzlement, and loads of stammering dialogue.  The constant cameos are fun, but the film as a whole is a misfire.  C

1992 – Husbands and Wives
Essentially, Husbands and Wives is about two couples struggling through their failing marriages. But there’s way more going on here.  Woody has said that he wanted this film, in terms of technique, to be raw and dirty, which ultimately suits it perfectly.  Carlo Di Palma’s shaky, constantly moving camera produces the best work for his impressive career.  The editing is jumpy, the continuity is off, the pacing is up and down; but for some reason, it all works flawlessly.  The opening scene of this film, in which the two couples argue during one long, unbroken shot, may very well be the best scene of Woody’s career.  A truly great film.  A+

1993 – Manhattan Murder Mystery
Moving along in the same herky-jerky vein as Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery teams Woody and Diane Keaton for the first time in years, to great results.  The two play a married couple spying on their older neighbor, who may or may not have killed his wife.  The final product is an often exciting, always hilarious whodunit.  Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston give superb supporting performances.  A-

1994 – Bullets Over Broadway
A great, fumbling John Cusack fills the Woody Allen roll as a playwright who sells out to direct his first production in 1920s New York.  The story follows the comedic vicissitudes of pre-production with whimsical fury.  As with most of Woody’s films, the acting is perfect.  In addition to Cusack, there’s Diane Wiest (who won her second Oscar for a Woody-directed performance) as a famous actress with a Betty Davis-sized ego, Chazz Palmentri as a gangster with a hidden, natural talent, Jennifer Tilly as a no-talent shrill, and Jim Broadbent, Mary Louise-Parker and Tracy Ullman rounding out the supporting roles.  Thoroughly enjoyable. B+

1995 – Mighty Aphrodite
What starts out as a typical marriage-in-crisis dramedy quickly becomes something much more worthwhile.  Which is to say, the film is rather stale, until Mira Sorvino comes on screen.  In an Oscar winning performance, Sorvino nails it as a high pitched, aimless hooker with a heart of gold and a head full of hot air. She makes what could be standard Woody fare completely unmissable.  Her foul, profane character is completely unlike any other Woody incarnation.  The result is a shocking, can’t-catch-your-breath performance, rooted in an overall decent film.  B

1996 – Everyone Says I Love You
With a great, varied cast, Woody’s first and only musical to date is a delightfully fresh take on his recycled family-in-turmoil formula.  Every member of the cast (including newbie Edward Norton) is spot on.  The musical numbers are whimsical and poignant, and the denouement is as delightful as anything Woody has put on film.  Genuinely pleasing. B+

1997 – Deconstructing Harry
Here’s a trippy idea: characters from a writer’s old books come back to teach him life lessons, while at the same time being mixed in with actual events from the writer’s life.  The point, I think, is Woody’s demonstration about how life often imitates art, and vice versa.  Also, Woody has said he made this movie as a way to rebuke critical assertions that the characters he often plays in his films are exactly like him in real life.  Regardless, this is an evolving, witty film that you get more out of which each viewing.  A-

1998 – Celebrity
I’ve read a few reviews since watching this film, and to my surprise, Celebrity was universally panned.  The movie, about an incompetent celebrity writer, has a great cast, is shot in gorgeous black and white by genius Sven Nykvist, and is capped with a real thinker of an ending.  All of the criticism seems to stem from one thing: Kenneth Branagh as the lead.  This shouldn’t be an issue, expect that Branagh’s performance is basically a two hour Woody Allen impression.  The fumbling words, the flimsy mannerisms, it’s Woody personified.  Probably would’ve worked out better if Branagh had just created his own unique character.  Or Woody played the damn thing himself.  Oh well, I still enjoyed it. B+

1999 – Sweet and Lowdown
Sean Penn is perfect as ever playing a cocky musician who can’t get anything right – love, women, finances – except his guitar playing.  Woody manages to, of course, sneak in some great one liners, but I considered this a morality tale, rooted in flaking desperation.  Samantha Morton, as Penn’s mute girlfriend, is perfectly cast against Penn’s loud and animated character.  It’s nearly impossible to picture any other actors in their roles. B+

2000 – Small Time Crooks
Woody, in a clear homage to this Take the Money and Run character, plays a bumbling thief who, with the help of some clumsy accomplices, attempts to break into a bank vault by digging a tunnel underground.  An amusing first act is completely ruined when all the main principals involved become fabulously wealthy from the success of a cookie store front, soon finding themselves unable to adapt to the rich and famous lifestyle.  Tracey Ullman, however, is the only redeeming part of the film. C-

2001 – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Woody often cites The Curse of the Jade Scorpion as his worst film.  While it is in no way up to par with some of his other work, it’s not that bad.  The story, which involves Woody as an insurance claims investigator in New York City circa 1940, gets muddled down by a hypnosis subplot, but isn’t a complete waste.  I particularly enjoyed the reoccurring gag in which Helen Hunt and Dan Aykroyd (who are secretly having an affair) mention Paris in public as their way of covertly hinting that they are thinking of one another.  It’s a cute gesture, hidden in a seemingly forgotten film.  D+

2002 – Hollywood Ending
Hollywood Ending was the personal biggest surprise of Woody’s career.  He thought everything worked.  The story - about an aging film director who is hired by his ex wife (now a studio head) to make a new film, only to go blind a few days before shooting - the cast, the look; Woody thought it all fit seamlessly.  Audiences and critics, however, did not.  In an ironic turn of events, Hollywood Ending did horribly in the States, but was revered overseas, which is exactly what happens to the movie within the movie.  It isn’t Woody’s best, but I have nothing intrusively negative to say about it, either.  B

2003 – Anything Else
Now, in terms of Woody’s worst film, Anything Else is right up there.  Jason Biggs stars as a comedy writer suffering through a tiresome relationship with an attractive, malcontent woman (Christina Ricci).  The film, and Biggs’ constant breaking of the fourth wall, is utterly unnecessary and gets old quickly. The fact that Woody casts himself as a paranoid mentor, who virtually serves no purpose to the overall story, makes the experience that much more grueling to sit through.  Save Darid Khondji’s warm cinematography, Anything Else is skippable in every way. D

2004 – Melinda and Melinda
Here’s a flick that has never been given the credit it deserves.  It’s a movie that crosscuts to different versions of the same story: one as told from the dramatic perspective and the other from the comedic perspective.  The great Radha Mitchell deserved an Oscar nomination for her layered work as the floozy, ever-so-complicated Melinda.  An ever-impressive supporting cast makes this film most definitely worthy of your time.  A-

2005 – Match Point
Match Point is Woody Allen’s favorite film that he has made.  If that doesn’t make you want to see it, then I don’t know what will.  The dramatic film concerns an ex tennis pro who marries into wealth but is secretly having a steamy affair.  Everything about the movie is utterly masterful: the breezy, smooth editing, the layered acting, the dark cinematography, the twisty plot turns; it’s all the work of a master at the top of his game.  A great film. A+

2006 – Scoop
A decent murder mystery, in which a journalism student suspects a wealthy British man of being a serial killer, is completely botched by incorporating ghosts, Woody Allen’s useless character, and too many flat jokes to ignore.  Maybe Woody was startled by the critical success afforded to him after Match Point?  I’m not sure, but Scoop has would-be greatness, which makes it that much more of a letdown.  After this film’s release, Woody realized that it may be time to retire his onscreen persona.  Probably not a bad idea.  C-

2007 – Cassandra’s Dream
Another great, twisty dramatic mystery in the vein of Match Point pits Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as brothers desperately in need of cash.  When they ask their wealthy uncle (Tom Wilkinson) for some dough, he counters with another offer: that they murder his business competitor in exchange for much more money than they initially asked for.  No need to divulge further plot details.  Cassandra’s Dream is good, really good.  I wish Woody would go back to making these kinds of films. A-

2008 – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody’s latest venture outside of NYC chronicles one summer as Vicky and Cristina fall for the same guy (at different times) and discover themselves along the way.  The film, which earned Penelope Cruz an Oscar for her fiery performance, is perfectly pleasant.  Take the pointless narration out of it, and you have near greatness.  Otherwise, pleasant will have to do.  B

2009 – Whatever Works
Larry David fits pretty well into the Woody Allen role as a genius scientist who has virtually no faith in the human condition.  He falls for a much younger woman and isn’t at all surprised when she leaves him for a man her age.  Corky, off beat and never shy of breaking the fourth wall, Whatever Works puts Woody back into familiar territory after spending his past few pictures seriously testing himself.  The result is nothing more than standard Woody Allen fare, with a far too bow tied resolution.  C-

2010 – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
This intertwined story about the pitfalls and pratfalls of a family in London is filled with a series of subplots, none of which every really hit their mark.  Anthony Hopkins marries a much younger woman to disastrous results, Naomi Watts falls for her boss, Josh Brolin falls for an attractive neighbor, and on and on.  Woody has said it himself: that a great cast, a great look and a great design can’t save a film that has a weak story.  Case in point. C

2011 – Midnight in Paris
I’m a little weary about casting Owen Wilson in the lead role, but with a supporting cast by the likes of Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, and Adrien Brody, it’s enough to get me there.  Midnight in Paris will be released May 20, check out the trailer here.

In Summation:
Stardust Memories
Another Woman
Husbands and Wives
Match Point

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask
Annie Hall
Broadway Danny Rose
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Deconstructing Harry
Melinda and Melinda
Cassandra’s Dream

Radio Days
Bullets Over Broadway
Mighty Aphrodite
Everyone Says I Love You
Sweet and Lowdown
Hollywood Ending
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Take the Money and Run
Love and Death
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Oedipus Wrecks
Shadows and Fog
Small Time Crooks
Whatever Works
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Just Plain Bad
What’s Up, Tiger Lily
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Anything Else

(As of April 4, 2011, What’s Up, Tiger Lily; A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; Another Woman; Alice; Shadows and Fog; and Manhattan Murder Mystery are available on Netflix Instant)

Source Code

Well here's a perfectly decent movie; not at all great, not at all too bad, just right for the cinematic mediocrity that is otherwise known as Spring.

In Source Code, Captain Colter Stevens (an amusingly perplexed Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes in a dazy haze on a metro train en route to downtown Chicago. He has no idea where he is or how he got there. The attractive young woman sitting across from him (played effortlessly by Michelle Monaghan) speaks in casual conversation, often referring to him by a name other than his own.

Stevens goes stir crazy for several minutes, taking in the actions of the other passengers and the situation in general before the train goes caboom. He then wakes up in some sort of vessel and is told on the other end of a video feed that he is stuck in the Source Code, a sort of time "readjustment" device that allows a person to travel back, via the final moments of a person's memory, and try to determine the cause of whatever is at stake.

For the film's purposes, Stevens is assigned with trying to figure out who blew up the train. He can be put back into the Source Code world as many times as needed, but only for eight minutes at a time. If he catches the bomber, he could prevent an impending attack on downtown Chi-Town.

Sound confusing? Too much? Well don't worry, because Source Code is filled with those endless exposition scenes in which characters explain every single detail about what is going on, virtually taking the piss out of whatever mystery the film could carry.

Oh well, at least the movie is directed by a true visionary, Duncan Jones, whose one other feature is the criminally underrated Moon from two years ago. Jones (son of David Bowie) has an eye for delivering things we've never seen, or at least, delivering them in a fresh light. In short, it's nice to see a little artistic effort put into a generic sci-fi/action flick.

The cast is good, albeit with weak material. Gyllenhaal has fun hamming up his moments of fleeting charm with Monaghan, and Vera Farmiga and the great Jeffery Wright (as the military personnel on the other side of the Source Code) all dish out performances that they are more than capable of executing.

But good acting and interesting artistic flourishes aside, Source Code is a little too smart for its own good, with an ending that takes on far too many cinematic liberties. It doesn’t leave the audience wanting more (as I assume Jones wanted) it just makes them want out. C-