Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Whatever Works"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

From July 2009:  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.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Theaters: "Cedar Rapids"

Viewers may very well spend much of Cedar Rapids trying to figure out exactly what the filmmakers were going for. It’s marketed as a comedy, and often played as one, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny; it’s more odd and quirky, off-balance with flashes of tragedy and darkness. Its aim becomes clearer when the end credits reveal the names of the producers: Jim Burke, Jim Taylor, and Alexander Payne. Payne and Taylor, of course, are the filmmaking team (they co-write, Payne directs) responsible for Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. Director Miguel Arteta was trying to make an Alexander Payne movie. Trouble is, only Alexander Payne can make an Alexander Payne movie; that’s the definition of a unique filmmaker. Arteta is an interesting director himself—his credits include Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt, and the wonderful The Good Girl—so it’s unfortunate that he’s ended up making someone else’s film.

In Theaters: "Vidal Sassoon: The Movie"

In the opening montage of Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, the famed hairdresser is compared to Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, and Jesus. That’s a bit much to put on him, much less to live up to. Thankfully, the rest of the film takes a much less solemn approach (though with about that degree of reverence)—it’s a bright, cheery pop confection, the entertaining tale of “how one man changed the world with a pair of scissors.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On DVD: "Paranormal Activity 2"

Paranormal Activity was one of the best chillers in many a moon, a taut thriller that used its limited resources to create a memorable, scary, genuinely tense moviegoing experience. Paranormal Activity 2 is like a cover version, played by a band that barely knows the chords, much less how to play them with any flair. When the original film came out, most reviewers (including this one) compared it favorably to Blair Witch; the makers of this sequel didn’t make the same mistake as that one’s, which punted the predecessor’s clever construct and made what amounted to a standard, immediately forgettable slice of C-level horror. Paranormal Activity 2 director Tod Williams errs too far in the opposite direction, creating a virtual Xerox of the original, but to no greater effect: both sequels do little more than denigrate our memories of the originals.

On DVD: "Tamara Drewe"

Stephen Frears is a tough guy to pin down. His filmography is somewhat all over the place—he’s done costume drama (Dangerous Liasons), film noir (The Grifters), comedy (The Snapper), political drama (The Queen), rom-com (High Fidelity), and films that absolutely defy categorization (Dirty Pretty Things). He doesn’t have an aggressive style or identifiable brand, with the exception of the fact that most of the films he makes are very, very good. Alas, he’s a bit off his game with his new picture Tamara Drewe, a good-natured and breezy movie that shambles around likeably for a while, but ultimately doesn’t manage to go much of anywhere.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On DVD: "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

There’s a strangeness to Zach Galifiankis’s comic persona, which in his best moments (particularly when he was more active as a stand-up) teeters right on the brink of darkness. His oddness is so authentic that he can, at times, seem genuinely unhinged; he’s got something akin to the unapproachable genius of Andy Kaufman, and if there is a drawback to his newfound film success, it’s that it’s taken him off the stage and away from the opportunity to go into possibly uncharted waters. But here we have It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a film that seizes that darkness, molds it, and pushes it as far as it can go. By now, the wacky comedian turned serious actor has become such a standard movie-industry trope that we tend to sneer when another comic takes the leap. But with Galifianakis, the transition to the dramatic doesn’t seem like a stretch, or even a surprise.

On DVD: "The Celluloid Salesman"

It would be interesting to know what percentage of those watching old educational shorts on DVD and on the Internet have ever actually had the experience of sitting in a classroom and watching them unspool from a noisy old projector. I have dim memories of seeing one at a school assembly in the second grade, a cautionary tale of possible railroad-crossing casualties, but that’s about it; our school went VHS within the next year or so, and by the late ‘80s, the films themselves had gone the way of the dinosaur. Most of today’s movie geeks were introduced to them via Mystery Science Theater 3000, which used educational films and sales shorts as time-fillers; MST3K off-shot Rifftrax continues to send them up on a regualar basis online.

On DVD: "The Romantics"

The good news (and it is good news) about Galt Niderhoffer’s The Romantics is that come to find out, Katie Holmes didn’t forget how to act. One would certainly have been allowed that conclusion after observing her work in Mad Money and The Extra Man, both of which found her once-refreshing natural charisma replaced by a clanging phoniness; she overacted every scene, telegraphing every gesture, pulling faces like a refugee from a silent melodrama. That studied and mannered falseness occasionally rears its ugly head in The Romantics, but for the most part, it’s a strong, stripped-down, compelling performance. For a long stretch, it appears as though the movie will match it, and then they absolutely blow it at the end.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Oh, Look, S'more Flavorwire Stuff

The 10 Worst Oscar Nominees (and Winners) of All Time
"For all of its cachet as the last word on quality motion pictures, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is far from infallible. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first year that perfectly terrible movies have been nominated for Academy Awards. In fact, some of them have even won. Let’s take a look at some of the most egregious entries in Oscar’s Hall of Shame."

"Well, it’s official: zombies are the new vampires. Entertainment Weekly reports that both the CW and NBC are developing zombie-based primetime shows, a trend that surely has nothing to do with AMC’s successful first season of The Walking Dead last fall. So you know what this means: soon there will be sparkly zombie romance books and movies for the tweens, and a T&A-heavy HBO zombie series, and a terrible zombie spoof film by those Epic Movie dudes. We’ve already given you advice on how to brush up on your zombie history, but now you need to prep for the inevitable mainstreaming of zombie culture. And what’s the best way to do that? By familiarizing yourself with the more obscure entries in the undeadcanon. That’s right, you too can impress your hipster friends by scoffing that Day of the Dead is so mainstream."
Beavis and Butt-head: A Rough Guide for Today's Teens
"The teens and tweens who watch MTV nowadays may very well have no idea who the hell Beavis and Butt-head are. Yes, the Skins kids made the announcement at MTV’s upfront, and Justin Bieber was all excited about it on Twitter. But they don’t know Beavis and Butt-head. Not like we do. And so, as a public service for today’s youth (boy do we feel old), we humbly offer this brief guide to Beavis and Butt-head."
"So take heart, Christopher Nolan: you certainly won’t be the first great filmmaker to get the cold shoulder from the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And keep in mind that, while these folks never won, Best Director Oscars sit in the homes of Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford (pattern?), Robert Zemeckis, James L. Brooks, and James Cameron. Perspective given? Good. Join us, won’t you, for a look back at some of the fine filmmakers who never won the Best Director honor."

"Congratulations are in order for Patton Oswalt: in addition to being one of our favorite working stand-up comedians, he is now officially a New York Times bestselling author. His book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a surprisingly sophisticated piece of work. This comes as a surprise not due to its particular author — Oswalt’s magazine pieces and routines are peppered with enough obscure literary references to indicate a guy who’s read a book or two — but because of the rather lowly reputation of the stand-up book in general. But every once in a while, a comedian takes the opportunity to write a real book, to use the form as its own specific kind of writing, and produces something unique and memorable. Here’s a quick jaunt through some of our favorites."

Keith Olbermann and Five More Unexpected TV Exits
"Television departures tend to be lengthy, protracted affairs, announced months in advance so as to take advantage of the considerable hype and fanfare (and, thus, big ratings) of an extended farewell. Oprah Winfrey’s exit from her eponymous talk show made news nearly a year in advance; Larry King announced his retirement from CNN more than six months before he signed off. Jay Leno tops them all, though; he announced his departure from The Tonight Show a full five years before his 2009 exit. (How’d that go, by the way?) To commemorate Olbermann’s sudden resignation, we’ve rounded up the fascinating stories behind five more of TV’s most unexpected exits."

“'What’d you expect?' asks Anthony Hopkins of a young would-be priest who watches him perform an exorcism in the new film The Rite. 'Spinning heads? Pea soup?' Well, as a matter of fact, we sort of didexpect those things. Opening today, The Rite is the latest in a long, long line of film attempting (and usually failing) to replicate the success of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist."

Video of the Day: Spencer Tracy in Up!
"Ivan Guerrero, aka whoiseyevan, is the gifted video editor who made that clever trailer for ”Ghost Busters” that you all emailed to each other a couple summers ago — you remember, the one that repurposed all the footage from the old movies so that Ghost Busters was a 1954 comedy starring Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, and Martin and Lewis. He has turned out several more of these “premake” trailers in the interim; his latest “pre-magines” Up! as a 1960s Walt Disney live-action movie, in the style of The Love Bugor The Absent-Minded Professor."

Rate-A-Trailer: The Conspirator
"After years of chatter, Steven Spielberg is finally getting to work on his long-awaited Abraham Lincoln biopic, and not a moment too soon, since fellow Oscar-winner Robert Redford already has his own Lincoln-inspired historical drama ready for release."