Saturday, June 20, 2009

In Theaters: "Whatever Works"

You’re not supposed to let outside information influence your impressions of a new film, but let’s be honest: no movie exists in a vacuum, and our experiences are informed by not only our preconceived notions but the little tidbits we might have picked up on our way into theater. For example, my feelings on the latest Woody Allen film, Whatever Works (the title sounds oddly like a response to the title of his 2003 picture Anything Else), are not only swayed by my general regard for the filmmaker himself, but by a crucial bit of behind-the-scenes information.

It seems that Allen first wrote the screenplay in the mid-1970s, intending it as a vehicle for Zero Mostel. When Mostel died, Allen tossed it in a drawer. But when his one-movie-a-year output was jeopardized by a threatened actor’s strike and he needed to get a script ready to go sooner than usual, he dusted off the old script, gave it a quick rewrite, and cast Larry David in the Mostel role. Now again, I realize that this little bit of cinematic archaeology (similar to his 1993 re-working of material originally intended for Annie Hall as Manhattan Murder Mystery) shouldn’t weigh one’s judgment of the resulting movie, one way or the other. But that bit of framing data puts the film into perspective; this is old-school Woody, pre-Annie Hall even. This is the period that is commonly referred to (even mockingly by Allen himself, in Stardust Memories) as his “earlier, funnier movies.” Does it hold up, comparatively, to his other films of that era (Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas)? Not especially; it’s too hit-and-miss for that. But is it funny? Certainly.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a former professor specializing in quantum mechanics, once a Columbia professor and also-ran for the Nobel Prize, whose dark world view and hopelessness has driven him to all but drop out of civilized society; he’s divorced his upscale wife and quit his job, taking a loft and teaching chess to snotty rich kids. One night, Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty young Southern runaway, shows up on his doorstep, begging for food and a place to crash. Though he dismisses her (sharply) as an “imbecile” and “simpleton,” a mutual affection eventually develops between the dopey, sunny girl and the grouchy misanthrope and, improbably, they’re married.

The first half of the film, which deals with the basic goals of introducing David’s character, reveling in his ill temper, and bouncing him off of Wood’s charming dimwit, is the better one. Allen’s script includes some acting beats that are a little out of David’s admittedly limited range, and a couple of his line readings are rather on the stiff side. But for the most part, he’s uproariously funny, and his timing is terrific (I’m not sure who else I could imagine getting away with the line, “That’s an awfully aggressive ensemble. You looking to wind up in an abortion clinic?”).

Many have surmised that David is just playing the Allen surrogate here (as John Cusack did in Bullets over Broadway or Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity), but I disagree; though a typically Allen hypochondriac (“I didn’t say I don’t have an ulcer, I said they can’t find an ulcer”), Boris is free of the charming insecurities, romantic inclinations, and general likability of the “Woody character”, and Allen seldom played characters this disagreeable (with the possible exception of Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry, a role he reportedly did not write for himself). Opposite him, Evan Rachel Wood is playing a broad type, sure, but she’s as likable as all get out; her folksy charm and dizzy line readings give a George-and-Gracie vibe to some of their two-scenes, which frequently play like blackout sketches (of an old boyfriend, she proclaims, “He caught the biggest catfish in Plaqamon County,” to which David replies, “I wondered who caught that catfish”).

The second half of the picture, with reunions and subplots concerning Melodie’s parents (played none-too-subtly by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) doesn’t move quite as well; it feels a bit too constructed, and the laughs don’t come as quick and punchy (and the film becomes less nimble—a couple of long scenes are clunkily staged, with characters lined up in a row as if the camera frame were a stage proscenium). Though it’s fun to watch the two Southern women ricochet off each other while David lobs one-liners, the turns of the plot feel a bit too pat. That said, Allen finds just the right feel for the closing scene, even if it trots out a joke about his proto-Annie Hall breaking of the fourth wall one time too many.

Perhaps the strangest note being sounded in Whatever Works’ mostly-negative reviews thus far has been the near-universal grousing that David’s character is “too unlikable” or “unsympathetic.” They’re missing the point entirely. It’s no accident that Allen chose, as the familiar old record for the opening credits, Groucho Marx singing “Hello, I Must Be Going”; Boris Yellnikoff is the kind of sharp-witted, bitter, muttering grouser that Groucho or W.C. Fields used to play. Both of those character comics were, Allen has noted often, huge early influences on him; I think, when he wrote this script those many years ago, he saw Mostel as the same kind of bigger-than-life comic personality, and wrote the role accordingly. W.C. Fields’ character was that of a drunken gambler who hated dogs, loathed his wife, and kicked children. Groucho’s was a quick-witted con man who talked fast and insulted everyone in sight. Did anyone ever complain about how unsympathetic they were? No, because they were funny. So is Boris. So is Whatever Works, spotty though it may be.

"Whatever Works" is currently playing in limited release.

Friday, June 19, 2009

On DVD: "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV"

These are tough times for us Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. It’s not a problem of content—in fact, quite the contrary. There’s an embarrassment of riches as far as available product; the trouble is, trying to keep up will put you in the poorhouse. Original host Joel Hodgson and four other cast members are releasing a new, direct-to-video “Cinematic Titanic” DVD every couple of months, taking apart obscure bad movies in the best MST3K tradition, while prolific second host Mike Nelson and his castmates Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are pumping out a steady stream on downloadable MST-style audio commentaries on their Rifftrax website. On top of that, Rifftrax put out a series of ten DVDs—eight feature films and two collections of educational shorts--this month (reasonably priced, but still, ten of ‘em). And now here’s the good folks at Shout Factory with another collection from the show that started it all. This kind of fandom can set you back a few dollars.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV marks Shout’s third series set after taking over releasing duties from Rhino Home Video. As with their previous collection, they make the wise decision to please all factions by including two shows from the early, Joel-hosted years, and two of the later episodes, fronted by Mike. However, they also repeat the minor (but notable) error of including a very early episode, before the show had found its groove (and its best personnel). Before Alien Vs. Predator or Freddy Vs. Jason, there was The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy¸ which was only their second episode seen nationwide; the series originated on a Minneapolis UHF station before being picked up as one of the flagship shows of the fledgling Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central). The homemade feel of the show was often part of its considerable charm, but this early episode feels more amateurish than usual; the camerawork and editing is particularly clunky, the performers were still finding their comfort zone, and the sets appear incomplete (the light-up buttons that Joel notes and often slaps are nowhere to be found; he just slaps his counter as if they’re there).

More distressingly, the show’s chemistry isn’t right yet. It’s easy to pinpoint Josh Weinstein as part of the problem (unfair though that might be); he provides the voice of Tom Servo and plays mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester’s original assistant Dr. Laurence Erhardt, and left at the end of season one. He was replaced by Murphy as Servo and Frank Coniff as TV’s Frank—both men made the roles so much their own that it’s odd to even watch Weinstein play them. He’s clearly a funny guy (as his stellar work on “Cinematic Titanic” has proved), but he wasn’t the right fit for the show the way his successors were. Trace Beulieu was also still struggling with the character of Crow; on the 20th Anniversary Edition bonus materials he mentions that he initially tried to imbue Crow with more of a “robot voice,” which can be heard plainly in this episode. However, that kind of flat monotone is antithetical to the kind of whiz-bang, smartass snark that MST3K trafficked in; he puts a drag on the movie segments that is further compounded by the slow timing of his fellow riffers.

So, on this second episode, the show isn’t the tight, laugh-a-minute riot that it would become. Is it still funny? Sure. It begins with the first episode of the “Rocket Men From The Moon” serial (aka “Commando Cody”), which the crew used installments of throughout the entire first season. There’s some funny interaction as Joel tries to explain the serial concept to Servo (“Why would someone go see part of a movie?” Servo wonders); the crew proceeds to have fun with the cheap sets (“fresh ground pepper?”), dopey science (“sure is sunny in space”), clunky fights, and casual sexism. Then it’s on to the feature, a 1958 Mexican “horror” movie hampered by a ridiculously convoluted narrative that unwinds over an unending flashback story (“It’s like they’re covering a plot hole with asphalt here,” Servo notes). They get off some awfully good one-liners (“Every good laboratory has a pit full of rattlers!”) and indulge in some enjoyable running gags (particularly the jokes about one character’s resemblance to Floyd the Barber).

But the ghastly pacing of the film itself does the show some harm; they note and puncture it, to great effect, at first (“No need to hurry,” Crow notes, “the plot will support… all this… slowness…”) but ultimately, the lumbering chases and endless cemetery scenes leave them doing vague Martin and Lewis imitations and the like. Oh, and the title fight doesn’t come until the final scene (“I’m in for 20 on the robot,” Servo pipes in) and lasts maybe a minute—surely a crushing disappointment for the poor suckers who paid for this dog. The host segments, meanwhile, have a poorly executed running subplot about an army of “devil dogs” attacking the Satellite of Love; it offers no laughs and showcases the worst puppet the show ever built (you can barely make out its dialogue over the clomping of his mouth pieces). As with Mad Monster on the last set, I understand this episode’s inclusion as a historical piece, showing the series’ evolution. But with so many great episodes still unreleased, it would have been nice to get a later, more confident kick-off for this set.

The comparison between that episode and the next one, The Girl in Lovers Lane, is like night and day; we’ve jumped from season one to season five, and by this point, they’re really cooking. The host segments, though still (in this fan’s eyes, anyway) the weakest part of the show, are pretty good this time around—they include a funny prologue in which the robots are “retrofitting each other with belly buttons,” the performance of a catchy, Woody Guthrie-style song (inspired by the boxcar travel of our “heroes”), and an amusing bit in which Crow does an impression of the film’s co-star, Jack Elam (who, as is noted a couple of times during the film, bears an odd resemblance to a young Garrison Keillor).

The film is a turgid small-town melodrama, in which young “Danny” (Lowell Brown) is pursued by a gang of toughs (“He does look like an easy target for thugs,” Crow notes. “Hell, I’d like to beat him up”) onto a boxcar, where he meets up with a drifter named Bix Dugan—which the guys mishear as “Big Stupid,” so they call him that through the rest of the movie. Bix and Danny ride the rails into a small town, where Bix falls for Carrie, a diner waitress (Joyce Meadows) who is being stalked by the town creep (Elam). The odd relationship between the two men is the focus of the film, with Bix showing Danny the ol’ drifting ropes, and Danny’s dumb questions, both in the film and as imagined by Joel and the ‘bots, are a comic gift that keeps on giving (“Hey, are we ‘bound for glory’ now, Mr. Stupid?” “Are we gonna hustle these men now, Big?”).

Bix and Carrie’s odd dates also provide some fodder for jokes (“Oh this is a great date… I always wanted to be nuzzled by a hobo!”), as does the film’s awkward staging and inert storytelling (Joel notes, “You know, their drifting career has really stalled”). By the time they get to a scene in the town brothel, every rapid-fire line is getting a laugh (“Once again, Big has saved Danny from a heterosexual experience”), and their little song over the opening credits is one of the set’s highlights. The episode stalls a little towards the end (the guys don’t seem to know what the hell to do with the out-of-left-field murder scene), but this is a smart, sturdy, funny episode overall.

For my money, the best episode of the bunch comes next. The season six show Zombie Nightmare is killer—the movie is horrible and the riffing is first-rate. This 1986 Canadian film from director Jack Bravman (who had previously helmed a pair of softcore films) is a tale of revenge; it begins, oddly enough, at a softball game (Mike: “Pride of the Zombies”), and shows us a young man witnessing his father’s murder at the hand of laughable street toughs. Fast-forward many years later, where that young boy has grown into a beefy man (played by the improbably-named Jon Mikl Thor) who is mowed down and left for dead by a group of obnoxious, joy-riding teens. His mother can’t take losing him, so she has a local voodoo priestess raise him from the dead, and he proceeds to pick off those who ran him down (the plot’s startling similarity to I Know What You Did Last Summer just occurred to me).

The films of the 1980s have often proved fertile for the MST3K crew (City Limits, Alien from L.A. , Soultaker, etc.) and Zombie Nightmare proves no exception. An early scene at a limp period disco (“Office temps cut loose!”) also prompts the first of many uproarious cracks at the picture’s country of origin (“Oh, you’re right Mike,” says Servo, “this is either America ten years ago or Canada today”). The filmmaking is abominable (after a lengthy scene of car POV shots, Crow laughs, “So apparently, the director of photography went for a drive!”), the staging of every scene is awkward, and the characterizations are loathsome—and I’m not just talking about the Italian grocer who actually says “Mama mia!” during a hold-up. A young Tia Carrere appears, as does a mustachioed Adam West (Servo notes, “You know, Adam worked for scale on this film, because he wanted to work with this director”). Poor Frank Dietz, who looks about seventeen (“Doogie Howser, Detective!”), gets saddled with the lion’s share of the warmed-over cop-movie dialogue, while the period score is rightfully maligned—Servo asks, “Is she playing tennis with Kraftwerk?”, while Crow points out that another character is “being stalked by Depeche Mode.”

The pop culture references come fast and furious during Zombie Nightmare—I caught mentions of James Earl Ray, Harry Nillson, the McKenzie brothers, Anne Meara, and Ace Frehley, among many, many others (Mike calls out the lumbering zombie during a chase, cracking that “John Goodman on Hume Cronyn’s back could run faster than this guy”). But the boys weren’t aware of one force of evil lurking in the film—the most punchable of the punk kids, the short-tempered would-be rapist Jim, is played by one Shawn Levy. He’s better known these days the director of such cinematic gems as Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and both Night at the Museum movies. Just when you thought you couldn’t hate him any more.

Mike and the ‘bots keep the momentum going all the way through to the laughable conclusion, and the rapid pace is perhaps assisted by the strangely short host segments (I think we may get more movie than usual this time). Some of the edits necessary to fit the movie into the show’s timeframe are a little odd (one of the kills is completely left out), but that complaint aside, Zombie Nightmare is a fine example of the MST3K crew doing what they do best.

The set’s fourth and final film also comes from the fruitful sixth season. As far as I’m concerned, season six was one of the show’s best; I’d put it up against season four as the finest of the run. Both were heavy with the films that, it seems to me, made for the best episodes: micro-budgeted domestic garbage. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Gamera movie or a Hercules picture. But when they get their hands on a cheapo American exploitation movie, it’s full speed ahead, and season six is loaded with them: The Creeping Terror, The Sinister Urge, Invasion USA, The Violent Years, and, God help us, the entire Coleman Francis trifecta (Francis makes Ed Wood look like Howard Hawks). And in the entire season, only the Francis pictures manage to top Racket Girls for sheer, soul-crushing badness.

First, however, we have an educational short: a longish slab of hooey called “Are You Ready For Marriage?” These “social engineering” shorts, with their stern instructions of proper 1950s dating and values, are a comedy gold mine; the guys fill every pregnant pause with rapid-fire riffs and huge laughs. Then comes the “film,” but I’m using the word loosely; it’s basically an endless serious of dull, poorly shot female wrestling bouts (“Ah, Elvis throws another party”), punctuated by uncomfortable, obvious ogling (as protagonist “Peaches” starts removing her clothes, Servo proclaims, “I believe this is not gratuitous!”) and a stiff, recycled gangster subplot (Mike: “I wasn’t prepared for so much wrestling. I thought there’d be more racketeering”).

It’s a tough call to make, but Racket Girls is one of the worst films they ever took on; the acting is jaw-droppingly wooden, the script incompetent, the filmmaking nonexistent. One sequence randomly cuts away to a man we’ve never seen before making dice, and then does a long fade-out; Servo announces, “Well, that scene cleared up a lot of questions.” Another scene showcases the talents of one Rita Martinez, and if you can find me a worst performance in a film, I’ve got a shiny nickel for you. And a big showdown occurs when the main gangster testifies before, we’re told, an important government committee; it’s a howler of a scene, staged with a chair and a desk situated in front of a wall-sized American flag (“The director’s out-Wooded Ed Wood!”).

And then there’s the wrestling. Oh, the wrestling. The wrestling scenes go on, and on, and on, and on (Crow explains, “Apparently, they have forty-minute rounds”), and since the scenes are wordless (save for infinitely looped, disproportionate crowd reactions) all rules are off; they usually refrain from talking over dialogue, but since there isn’t any, they’re off to the races. The, shall we say, poor aesthetic qualities of the lady wrestlers are duly noted (“Those of you who never associated sexuality with your great-aunt… here it is”), but the never-ending length of the bouts is their primary target. Mike reflects, “You have to wonder what the rejected footage looked like,” to which Crow immediately replies, “What rejected footage?” By the time it arrives at its clumsy “action” ending (“They shouldn’t have hired Eric Rohmer to direct their high-speed chase”), any semblance of narrative cohesion has long been destroyed by Mike and the ‘bots.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, and its various spinoffs and offshoots, continues to entertain; some of the jokes from these episodes (ranging from 1989 to 1994) have dated, but for the most part, they are as fresh, fast-paced, and hilariously funny as they were in their original airings. Shout’s continued insistence on dipping into the weaker season one shows prevents Volume XV from being as consistently, can’t-miss funny as some of the other sets, but the strength of the other three shows helps balance out that one, weaker installment.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 7th.

On DVD: "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father"

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father grabbed me from its heartbreaking opening frames, but I managed to hold the tears back till around the 24-minute mark. I was pretty much a wreck from then on. Dear Zachary is the saddest fucking movie you will ever see. I realize those might not be the words to get you to see it; not all people want to be saddened and horrified and destroyed by their motion pictures. Some just want a laugh or an escape, or to watching things blow up. But in all candor, I’m having difficulty remembering the last time a film affected me so thoroughly. This is one of the finest documentaries of our time.

It begins with the brutal murder of Dr. Andrew Bagby, an affable young Philadelphia family practitioner, and the unbelievable story that follows is told, in an almost-but-not-quite first-person fashion, by his friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. The director, a friend of Bagby since childhood, grabbed his camera and went across the country to interview everyone who he could think of that new Bagby—so that his slain friend’s unborn son could somehow, hopefully, know his father.

This is a bare bones description of what transpires in the years that follow that senseless crime, but I’ll reveal no more. Much of the power of the film comes from the unpredictable, and sometimes shocking, unfolding of events. What I can tell you is that it is beautifully assembled—sharp, pointed, and surprisingly fast-paced for a doc (but not in a showy, bullshit, MTV reality show kind of way). Kuenne (who edited) uses overlapping dialogue, repeated phrases, photos, clips, phone calls, and every media imaginable to create a dizzying mosaic of words and of emotion.

Hoop Dreams. The Fog of War. Street Fight. Capturing the Friedmans. Bowling for Columbine. 4 Little Girls. Pressure Cooker. For my money, these are the finest documentaries of the last decade or so. Add Dear Zachary to that list. Seldom will you observe a film so raw, so involving, and so (rightfully) angry. It will break your heart, it will make you cry, and it will make you mad. It is stunning, powerful stuff.

"Dear Zachary" is currently available on DVD. It is also available for instant viewing on Netflix. Don't fuck around. See it.

Today's New In Theaters: 6/19/09

The Proposal: If you're considering seeing this painfully predictable romantic comedy this weekend, I'd like to remind you that the following films are currently playing in theaters: Up, The Hangover, Drag Me To Hell, Moon, The Girlfriend Experience, and The Taking of Pelham 123. I'm just saying.

Year One: I was actually planning to check this one out; there's a whole lot of talent involved (co-writer/director Harold Ramis, producer Judd Apatow, stars Jack Black and Michael Cera) and the trailer was at least mildly funny. Then I started getting a look at the reviews; so far, they're absolutely brutal. Maybe I'll wait for disc on this one.

Whatever Works: So far, reviewers haven't been terribly kind to Woody Allen's latest; I have a tendency to enjoy even his weakest pictures, so I'll reserve judgment until I see it this weekend.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In Theaters: "The Proposal"

I so badly wanted to be wrong about The Proposal. When you see the trailer, it's clearly a dopey formulaic romantic comedy in which every plot point and minor story progression can be accurately predicted, sight unseen. But then they posted this really amusing thing on Funny or Die, and I reconsidered. Maybe they were up to something slyer than that.

The opening scenes are hopeful; the story begins in New York City, where Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) works tirelessly and diligently as the executive assistant to book publisher Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock). Margaret is a feared psychotic dragon lady in the Meryl Streep/Devil Wears Prada mode; Andrew, the faithful assistant, tolerates her impossible moods and ridiculous demands in hopes of a career boost.

The office shenanigans of the supporting players (save for the invaluable Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show) are too broad and sitcomy, but this opening sequence works--director Anne Fletcher and her actors have a good sense of pace, and even though most of their dialogue is pretty limp, they speed through it with such zip and crackerjack timing, my hopes were genuinely lifted. Don't get me wrong, it ain't His Girl Friday. But it plays.

Margaret, a Canadian, discovers that her visa has expired and, because of a minor violation, she's about to be deported. In desperation, she claims that her and Andrew have fallen in love and are to be married, so that should solve her little crisis; she gets him to go along by explaining that if she's out of a job, so is he. When they visit the immigration offices, an agent (Denis O'Hare) smells a green card marriage, so the pair decides that she'll accompany Andrew on a weekend visit to his family in Alaska, and use the time to learn everything they need to know for their grueling interview. Hijinks ensue, etc.

The film's major structural problem is that it crash and burns when it slows down. Once they get to Alaska, where his family lives on a glorious waterfront home, it slows to a crawl, and the set-ups become so blatantly obvious (no one in a movie just mentions, for no reason, not to let the dog out; the circumstances that put them naked in a room together are beyond credible) that they're painful to watch. And speaking of obvious: you might find this hard to believe, but these two attractive people, even though they hate each other and are just pretending to be in love... well, I'd hate to spoil it!

Fletcher (who also helmed 27 Dresses) clearly doesn't trust her material (and I don't blame her), but the solution of underscoring each moment with Aaron Zigman's pushy, vanilla score does more harm than good; every serious scene has sad-bastard strings and piano, while the comic sequences have music constantly plink-plink-plunking away underneath to assure us that what we're watching is funny. Overscoring is a complaint I seem to be registering more and more frequently these days; colorless comedies tend to be the worst offenders.

On top of its many other offenses, The Proposal, with its contrived, only-in-the-movies storyline, commits the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously. Craig T. Nelson plays Andrew's father as if he's auditioning for the road company of The Great Santini; their wet napkin of a subplot is the movie's biggest drag. Malin Akerman gets stuck playing the dullest "other woman" in recent movie memory; her character provides so little friction or contrast that, in retrospect, I'm not even sure why she's there. Mary Steenburgen and Betty White both have some nice moments, but these are roles either talented actress could play in her sleep.

However, Bullock and Reynolds, whose filmographies are hit-and-miss at best, both acquit themselves nicely in these roles; if sheer chemistry and commitment were enough to sustain a picture, they might have had something. Reynold's well-sprung comic timing has rarely been put to better use--his charisma is the real deal. Bullock, to her credit, bothers to create a character and see it through, and when she's trapped in a bit that isn't working (like the odd scene where she goes chanting and dancing in the woods with White), she still goes all the way with it. Even when the editor undercuts them (as in the long, unfortunate fade at the end of the nighttime scene when they finally start to connect), they still come out of this one smelling pretty good.

But oh, this screenplay. You can all but hear the mechanisms of the tired plot creaking into place in the third act; it's not just predictable, it's lazy. Early in the film, Bullock says they got engaged after dating for a year, while a big climactic moment, Reynolds says it was six months. You keep waiting for this discrepancy in their stories to be a plot point, for the other shoe to drop, and then you realize it's not going to happen--it's just a continuity error. Nelson's actions leading up to the wedding are (to put it mildly) inexplicable, the extras at the wedding overact to a point of distraction (or self-parody, I couldn't decide which), and then they trot out the most trite and obvious third-act crisis imaginable--which they then have the nerve to try and act clever about. Fail.

The Proposal isn't altogether bad--its stars are engaging, and there are occasional sequences (like Bullock firing Mandvi, or the Reynolds' welcome home party) that are well-constructed and actually pay off. But when you see Bullock or Reynolds or White in interviews, or in that clever Funny or Die video, you know that they're smarter than this kind of formula drivel. They're playing down to us; they're better than this movie, but so are we.

"The Proposal" hits theaters on Friday, June 19th.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On DVD: "The Code"

I love a good heist picture, and I’ll see Morgan Freeman in just about anything. You might feel the same way. So here’s a warning: those predispositions will get you through about the first five minutes of his straight-to-video caper The Code. After that, you’re on your own.

An ascot-wearing Freeman plays Keith Ripley, one of those only-in-the-movies “master thief” types, who lives comfortably and classily and has always managed to outwit the oafish police. While casing some Russians for a job, he observes Gabriel Martin (Antonio Banderas) pull a ballsy robbery in plain sight on a moving subway car; he’s impressed, so he brings the young (ish?) buck on for a monster score, stealing a pair of Faberge eggs for the Russian mob. On their tail is Lt. Weber (Robert Forster), the NYPD detective who Ripley has outfoxed; Ripley’s goddaughter Alexandra (Radha Mitchell), who Martin has the hots for, adds further complications.

The film, originally called Thick as Thieves (it was apparently ret-titled to sound like an Asylum Studios rip-off of The DaVinci Code), was directed by Mimi Leder—once the great directorial hope of DreamWorks Pictures, she (deservedly) hasn’t made a feature film since the horrifying Pay It Forward. Her lead-footed direction is a major problem here; it drags and shuffles from scene to scene. Heist movies need a spark, some sense of fun or at least the thrill of the job. The Code has none of that. Leder and her cast just move from one obvious sequence to the next.

But Leder is the secondary villain here; the true perp of the cinematic crime that is The Code is screenwriter Ted Humphrey, penning his first (and hopefully last) feature film script. Humphrey’s previous credits including writing and producing for David Mamet’s TV series The Unit, and he’s clearly trying to ape the multiple-twist, “nothing is as it seems” template of his boss’ best scripts. He fails miserably; The Code is like Heist or House of Games with a frontal lobe injury. He has an absolute tin ear for dialogue; there’s not a line in it you haven’t heard before. When the leads first meet, Banderas asks, “To what do I owe this act of generosity?” and Freeman replies, “I have I proposition I wish to discuss with you,” and your heart sinks. Everyone in the picture talks like characters in bad books, not people in real life (or even characters in good movies).

As bad as the thieves’ lines are, they’re positively Shakespearan compared to the hoary clichés that poor Robert Forster gets saddled with. Throughout the film, he’s stuck mouthing the worst kind of tough-guy cop-show dialogue, and when he finally thinks he’s got Freeman at the climax, he announces triumphantly, “Now it’s my turn!” to no one in particular. And of course, since there’s a marginally attractive man and woman, we have a tired, perfunctory romantic subplot, full of cringe-inducing callbacks and forced laughter and dull sex scenes, all underscored with laughable “Latin lover” music cues (Atli Örvarsson’s score couldn’t be more generic if he was doing a spoof movie). Some of Humphrey’s finest bon mots are saved for their scenes; at one point, Banderas actually says (hang on, I wrote this down) “Promises blow away in the wind… but feelings are real.” Deep.

With all this muckety-mucking around, by the time it finally gets the big job (which appears to be planned and executed entirely on Freeman’s product placement iPhone), we’re so apathetic we can barely muster up any attention to pay; in what may be the most spot-on line in the film, one of the guards notes, “This is becoming quite boring”. What’s more, in spite of all that we’ve heard about what brilliant crooks these guys are, the plan they execute is pretty dumb—it involves porn and birthday cakes—and certainly can’t hold a candle to the climaxes of Heist or The Score or the Ocean’s pictures. It’s also dopily, obviously shot; when they make it in, Leder’s camera does a slow push in as they grin at each other widely (you half-expect them to give each other a high-five).

All of that is merely a warm-up, however, for the script’s series of lame, third-act twists. Simply put, they don’t hold water; the film quickly degenerates into total nonsense, and the narrative falls apart if you give the turns more than a moment of consideration. I’ll dodge the key details, but here’s a couple of questions to ask, if you have the misfortune of sitting through the film: A key event involving Freeman was staged; who, exactly, was it staged for? Considering what we discover about Banderas, what the hell is going on atop that subway in the opening? And wouldn’t any capable cop know better than to fall for the business with the mob boss?

It’s hard to believe that none of the capable people involved in the movie had any concerns about the gaping holes in the script; maybe they were paid really well. Freeman is an actor I continue to respect, but he’s sleepwalking through this one (his only good moments are the quiet ones, like the bit alone in the vault). Mitchell is a decent actress, but you’d never know it from watching her work here. And Banderas can play a soulful, revenge-seeking mariachi till the cows come home, but he’s all wrong for the role of brilliant thief; his attempts at gritty intensity (“all I can tell you… is the truth! ”) are laughable, and that accent of his mangles some already clumsy lines. The Code is a handsome-looking movie (Julio Macat’s cinematography is lovely), and it makes fine use of its NYC location. But whoever thought this script was ready for production needs to have their head examined.

There’s a good general rule to follow as a savvy filmgoer: If a movie you’ve never heard of is full of marquee actors, there’s probably a reason you’ve never heard of it. As a film writer, there’s a tendency to hope you’ll discover an occasional mismanaged diamond in the rough, like the excellent and unseen Tommy Lee Jones vehicle In The Electric Mist, but that picture was clearly the exception to a pretty reliable rule. Freeman is building up quite a little library of these direct-to-video stinkers; I’m not sure if Edison Force or The Contract is any better than The Code, but I can’t imagine they could be much worse. Avoid it. Rent Seven or Nurse Betty again instead.

"The Code" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 23rd.

Kael of the Week: The Numbers

"The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people linking up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren't drawing an audience—they’re inheriting an audience. People just want to go to a movie. They’re stung repeatedly, yet their desire for a good movie—for any movie—is so strong that all over the country they keep lining up… An atmosphere of hope develops before a big picture’s release, and even after your friends tell you how bad it is, you can’t quite believe it until you see for yourself. The lines (and the grosses) tell us only that people are going to the movies—not that they’re having a good time. Financially, the industry is healthy, so among the people at the top there seems to be little recognition of what miserable shape movies are in. They think the grosses are proof that people are happy with what they’re getting, just as TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.”

-From "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers", The New Yorker

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On DVD: "The Rebirth of Cool: U2 in the Third Millennium"

When U2’s 1997 album Pop met with weak sales and indifferent critical response, many rock fans and journalists figured that the band was down for the count. They’d had a good run of it, dominating mainstream pop music for a full decade, but their attempt to marry their traditional rock sound and the edgier, alt-rock sound of their last two records with an outright club/electronica groove for Pop resulted in an album that pleased few—it was too experimental for the rock purists, too traditional for the club kids. But somehow, by returning to the sound that put them on top, the band become one of the most commercially and critically successful artists of the following decade. The documentary disc The Rebirth of Cool: U2 in the Third Millennium tracks, with surprising insight and detail, exactly how that happened.

I use the word “surprising” because The Rebirth of Cool is another in the not-quite-distinguished subgenre of unauthorized music biography DVDs, which are usually notable for their shallow observations, interviews with passing associates and hangers-on, and lack of music by the artist in question. The Beatles and Bob Dylan are the most frequent targets, but U2 gets its fair share as well; in fact, this is my second unauthorized U2 doc in as many months. The refreshing news about this particular title is that it not only includes healthy doses of the band’s music (via both music videos and live performance clips), but genuinely thoughtful analysis by a distinguished group of (mostly British) music journalists and cultural critics.

For example, though I’m a diehard U2 fan, I’d never really considered how the release of the Best of 1980-1990 album, and its reworking of the Joshua Tree B-side “The Sweetest Thing,” possibly played into their decision to move back towards their earlier sound for their next major project. Nor had it occurred to me that their two songs for Bono’s ill-fated side project The Million Dollar Hotel are, in retrospect, a clear indicator of the sound they were moving towards. But when these notions are put forth by the music journalists here, they totally click; the line to All That You Can’t Leave Behind becomes crystal clear.

The film’s contributors also tackle the singles from that album and its follow-up, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, on a thorough, almost case-by-case basis, and their impressions are enlightening and often right on the money; one notes that “Beautiful Day” is “almost giddy with the excitement of being a new U2 record,” while another takes notice of its interesting interpolation of a-ha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” And not all of the commentary is rosy—there is a fascinating discussion of the real-world effectiveness of Bono and the band’s charity work (this under-five minute section is more thought-provoking than the entirety of U2: A Rock Crusade, which was focused solely on their philanthropic efforts).

The narration is a little over-cooked, but it does have some good background info; particularly interesting are the notes on the real people and events that inspired certain songs, the contrasting sounds brought to the albums by producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, and the specific manner in which the band became part of the American soundtrack in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Rebirth of Cool: U2 in the Third Millennium has its problems; as is expected, its lack of input from the band (they’re only heard from in a few brief archival interviews) leaves it wanting for inside information (the closest they get is an engineer), and, at 68 minutes, it’s just a touch too long for the material being covered. There’s also a crucial timing issue—the disc, with its many mentions of the band’s two albums of the decade, has been beat to American retailers by U2’s third album of the millennium, No Line on the Horizon, which is only alluded to as being “in production and soon to be released.” Oops. Still, for the period it covers and the limited access its makers had, The Rebirth of Cool does its job quite well.

Unauthorized music bio discs are a notorious waste of time and money, but The Rebirth of Cool: U2 in the Third Millennium is surprisingly informative and well-made; to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes, it’s the leper with the most fingers. Non-fans won’t give it a second glance, of course, but music historians and U2 buffs should definitely consider picking it up.

"The Rebirth of Cool: U2 in the Third Millennium" is currently available on DVD.

On DVD: "The Siege"

In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Blockbuster Video singled out a few recent titles and branded them with a sticker, which read: “In light of the acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001, please be advised this product contains scenes that may be considered disturbing to some viewers.” One of the stickered films was The Siege, Edward Zwick’s 1998 action thriller. The sticker was symbolic, in a way, for Zwick’s film; after that Tuesday in September of 2001, it would never be viewed in the same way again. It wasn’t a mere case of pre- or post-9/11 mindsets. It’s that The Siege, from its broad strokes down to individual lines of dialogue, now looks like a strange predictor of not only the kind of attacks that would define the “war on terror,” but the legal and moral debates that would follow.

So a 2009 viewing of The Siege is a tricky matter. From the looks of the final product, poor Ed Zwick was just looking to make a slick, professional piece of tense craftsmanship that was, perhaps, a little more thoughtful than the cartoony shenanigans of pictures like True Lies or Executive Decision. He ran into trouble even upon the film’s release—it was protested by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, among other groups, who objected to the film’s notion that fundamentalist Muslims might use their religion as justification for terror attacks inside the United States. Yeah, imagine that. (In fact, one of the film’s major accomplishments is how succinctly it argues against presuming guilt and complicity based on nationality and religion; those who protested it—most of whom, of course, hadn’t seen it—missed the entire point.) It’s just as difficult now to watch the film in a vacuum—you end up playing the analogy game throughout, figuring out if this character is supposed to be bin Laden, if this incident is most like WTC, which act of late-90s terrorism those Clinton clips in the opening credits came from.

But if you can put on your blinders, how does the movie hold up? So-so. A brief prologue shows us that the bombing of an American army barracks overseas has led to the detainment of Sheik Ahmed Bin Talal, a bin Laden-like figure. We then go to New York, where Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), a special agent with the FBI’s terror task force, and his partner Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) are called out to a bomb threat on an NYC bus; a simple paint bomb explodes inside, but the office gets a fax that reads “Release him.” The circuitry of that paint bomb seems to be of interest to Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), a CIA agent who’s just chock full of secrets. The paint bomb turns out to be a warm-up (or warning)—soon after, a real bomb blows up a bus in front of Hubbard, and multiple bombings in the city follow (even after Hubbard and Haddad seemingly take out a Brooklyn cell).

In an ingenious follow-through to a nightmare conclusion, the President declares martial law, and an army division led by General William Deveraux (Bruce Willis) seals off Brooklyn and tosses all of its young Arab men into a de facto internment camp. Just as modern viewers breathe a sigh of relief that we didn’t go that far, Hubbard and Kraft hone in on a suspect who may know when and where the next attack will take place, and General Deveraux stands in a room with them, trying to decide the most effective way to torture him. Hey look, it’s that ticking time bomb scenario we keep hearing about, and Washington’s impassioned plea for restraint does not sound like a speech from a screenplay that’s over a decade old.

And look at that, I’m off the topic of the film again—you can see how difficult it is to stay on task with The Siege. Throughout the picture, Zwick proves himself a skilled, professional filmmaker; he builds an atmosphere of dread and tension in an early scene where Hubbard and Haddad are trailing a suspect (a young Aasif Mandvi, currently on The Daily Show), and the bus standoff scene is superb on all fronts. But his direction is occasionally too slick for the heady subject matter, and the high-gloss action sequences don’t always coexist easily with the high-minded intellectual stuff—we have to shift gears a lot (this would become a much more serious problem in his later films, like Blood Diamond). And his screenplay, written with Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes, is awfully thin. Some of it seems to want only to hum along on a crime-procedural level, and much of that material is too pat and predictable; it plays, in places, like a particularly well-case episode of Law & Order. The dialogue is mostly terse and serviceable, though some of it (particularly Bening’s) clangs with false notes. And while the ending is as satisfying as we can hope for in this kind of a story, the final face-off between Washington and Willis (whose early complexities give way to Cheney-like villainy in the third act) is perhaps a bit too easy and simple-minded.

Washington turns in a finely tuned, memorable performance—Zwick is a director who often gets good work out of him (their previous collaborations were Glory and Courage Under Fire), and he has some terrific moments (particularly a scene in which he declares, chillingly, “This is New York. We can take it,” as beepers are going off around him with news of another attack). Bening’s steely characterization is interesting, but she’s saddled with some unfortunate lines and impenetrable motives; the screenplay keeps changing its mind about her character (and having other characters take cheap shots at her), and her turns get tiresome. Willis (who can be a good actor) would seem a nicely subversive choice for the surrogate villain role, but Zwick doesn’t have him do much but speak softly and look smug. Tony Shalhoub is terrific, however, and sharp-eyed fans of The Wire will spot Lance Reddick in a key role and Wood Harris in a one-liner. Editing is sharp and the film is impeccably shot, full of vivid imagery both intentional and unintentional (as in a scene where the aftermath of a building bombing bears an eerie resemblance to Ground Zero).

In the years since its release, The Siege has become a more relevant and political film than its makers ever could have imagined. Its uncanny predictions of terrorism in the third millennium and the sticky moral questions therein have lent it an immediacy (and curiosity) surely unintended. But taken on its own terms, it’s a decent if unexceptional thriller, balancing strong performances and well-executed set pieces with some second-tier screenwriting.

"The Siege" was recently released on Blu-ray.

Today's New DVDs- 6/16/09

Here's some of the notable titles hitting DVD and Blu today:

Friday the 13th (2009): This remake/ reboot/ remix/ whatever of the classic slasher film offers a few thrills and some engaging performances, but it is also burdened by goofy plot holes (even for a horror movie) and piss-poor attempts at humor.

Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail: It's from Tyler Perry Production, and it's a film by Tyler Perry, starring Tyler Perry. It's Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail! So, seriously, whose movie is this again? Enjoy the latest turned-in-six-months masterwork from one of America's most loathsome hacks. DVD Talk didn't get a screening copy, and I wouldn't have watched it if we did, but Orndorf gave this one a pretty good working-over when it hit theaters a few months back.

Rifftrax: Today's the release date for the 10-disc first wave of DVDs from Rifftrax, the post-MST3K venture of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Of the ones I've seen, I would highly recommend Shorts Volume 1 and Shorts Volume 2, as well as Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space. I also reviewed Swing Parade, though it's not as strong as some of the others.

What's Up Tiger Lily?: In the same spirit that spawned MST and Riffrax is this verrrrry early Woody Allen effort, in which the Woodman and some of his friends took a bad Japanese James Bond rip-off and dubbed an entirely new (and very funny) English track. The one-joke premise runs out of gas before the picture runs of out film, but it's still got some boffo gags and is a lot of fun.

Generation Kill: The riveting HBO mini-series, from the brilliant creators of The Wire, hits Blu-ray today; it's a phenomenal piece of work.

My Breakfast with Blassie: A new "commemorative edition" of Andy Kaufman's oddball performance piece, an improvised My Dinner with Andre parody with old-time wrestler "Classy" Fred Blassie. It's interesting, but not terribly entertaining.

Fracture: Gregory Hoblit's slick thriller is a bit of a throwaway, but worth a glance for the contrasting (but equally effective) performances of Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling.

Ghostbusters: Arguably the greatest comedy of the 80s arrives on Blu-ray with plenty of bells and whistles.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On DVD: "Do The Right Thing: 20th Anniversary Edition"

(Note: this review contains some minor spoilers; a thorough discussion of “Do the Right Thing” is all but impossible without talking about its controversial third act, which was described in full detail by most newspaper and television reports about the film when it was released twenty years ago. So I think I’m clear to talk about it, but if you haven’t seen it and don’t know how it ends, read on at your own risk, etc.)

Spike Lee was thirty-one years old when he made Do the Right Thing, but it was only his third feature film; his first, She’s Gotta Have It, was an indie sensation, while its follow-up, School Daze, proved a profitable urban hit in spite of mishandling by Columbia Pictures. That film, and Do the Right Thing, were financed via the “negative pick-up” method—once the studio (this time, Universal) approved of the script, they agreed to finance and distribute the film, with the understanding that the director would stay within budget and basically shoot the script they had all agreed upon. The upside for the director was that this meant little to no studio interference during shooting, and the right to retain final cut. So the suits at Universal left Spike Lee alone, and he went off to paint his masterpiece.

Oh dear.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coming Attractions

As the work week begins (well, your work week... I work Friday through Tuesday, but that's neither here nor there), here's a look ahead at some stuff you can expect to see in the upcoming days:
  • Theatrical review of The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. My review of what looks to be a formulaic, predictable rom-com may surprise you! But probably not.

  • Review of the 20th anniversary Blu-ray release of Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee's 1989 masterpiece and arguably still his finest film.

  • More Blu-rays: the 1998 pre-9/11 terrorist picture The Siege, starring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis; a new Morgan Freeman/Antonio Banderas movie called The Code (what's that, you say? You've never heard of it? Well, it went straight to video. WE'LL FIND OUT WHY).

  • Another probably-unauthorized U2 biography DVD.

  • My treat of the week: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XV. You'll get to hear me explain why season six was one of the two best!

  • I'll also probably see at least one or to of the following theatricals: Away We Go, Year One, Whatever Works.

Keep reading, WON'T YOU?

On DVD: "Man on Wire"

Early on the morning of August 7, 1974 (the day before Nixon’s resignation), a French street performer and wire walker named Philippe Petit stunned New York City, and the world, by walking a high-wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center without a net. Director James Marsh’s extraordinary documentary Man on Wire tells the remarkable story of Petit’s journey to that wire, a dream that began when he first read about the towers before they were even constructed. As his girlfriend Annie notes, in retrospect, “It was as if they had been built especially for him.”

Marsh’s film, which utilizes new interviews, archival footage, and stylish black-and-white reenactments, is ingeniously constructed; it begins with Petit’s haunting words, “In the middle of the night, I wake up with this nightmare…” and plunges us right in to the morning of “the coup,” as it is called. From that point on, the film runs on a pair of parallel timelines: one, the story (in personal history and logistical planning) of how he got to that wire, and the other, a point-by-point explanation of exactly how they pulled it off. The biography and background is as skillfully assembled as any smart documentary. The reconstruction is as suspenseful and enthralling as a good heist picture.

That it manages to extract some tension from a story we know the end of (I don’t think I’m spoiling—the posters show a famous photo of Petit on the wire, and besides, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they hadn’t brought it off) speaks to the skill of Marsh’s filmmaking; I can seldom get behind reenactments in any documentary that isn’t directed by Errol Morris (too often, they reek of bad television), but these sequences are briskly cut and beautifully shot, from the vivid imagery of the security guards’ languidly moving shadows to the dreamlike image of the wire plummeting out of their grip. Like any quality documentary, it tells a good story intelligently (and uncovers valuable history—I had never heard of Petit’s feat until the film came out), but the thriller elements of the parallel timeline help give Man on Wire a quality often elusive to non-fiction films: It’s fun to watch.

Petit himself also has a lot to with that. One of the most important elements of an involving doc is that it includes good natural “characters,” and the animated Frenchman certainly qualifies. He is a robust, excitable type, full of vigor and enthusiasm, and he attracts an entertaining group of followers and accomplices—many of them given caper-picture titles like “The Inside Man” and “The Australian.” One of them, American Jim Moore, says of his participation, “It just sounded like a really fun adventure,” and that just about sums it up. Thanks to a remarkable library of old documentary footage, shot by film students and friends, we see him training for and executing his two big run-ups to the WTC walk: a 1971 walk between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and his 1973 walk above the Sidney Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia.

But that was all leading up to that August morning in New York, and for both Petit and the film, it’s a magnificent payoff. The footage and pictures (particularly as they are edited with the lovely score) are remarkable, but just as thrilling (and more poignant) are his friends’ descriptions of their feeling watching him go—it all floods back to them, all of the fear and anticipation of that event, and the beauty and emotion of that moment. (It provides a much more powerful ending than the one which is notably absent—there is no mention or imagery from 9/11, which is a tasteful, admirable choice.) What’s remarkable about Man on Wire is the degree to which we feel the same way as his friends. I’ve seldom seen a documentary as purely involving as this one, and it’s not a mere case of empathy—quite the opposite, in fact, as I’m deathly afraid of heights and can’t imagine something more insane than what Petit does. But by the end of the film, he has come to represent something more than himself; he’s the dreamer, perhaps foolish beyond all reason, but dedicated and determined and in love with the idea of conquering something bigger than himself. There’s a part of all of us that would like to be like that, and that’s what ultimately makes this rich, moving film so very powerful.

When Petit came off the wire that August morning, the question he was asked most was “Why?” In his interviews, he mocks the simplicity of the question as typical American literalism—he did it as an act, a work of art, a thing of beauty. But in the final voice over of this exceptional film, he answers that question, in his own way. Unlike a more conventional documentary, Man on Wire goes on long enough to get that out of him, and that’s the kind of moment that makes the picture transcend its roots. It is a riveting, dramatic, exhilarating story.

"Man on Wire" was released on standard-def DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment in December of 2008, but the company inexplicably refused to release a Blu-ray version (even after the film won Best Documentary at February’s Academy Awards). However, Icon Home Entertainment has released a Blu-ray version in the UK which is coded region-free; order it from here.