Monday, August 31, 2009

Whatever Works review

Whatever Works

* * 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

On paper, the marriage of filmmaker Woody Allen with comedian writer/actor Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") seems like a sure thing. Both have a similar dry, at times misanthropic wit built off rapid vocal cadences, their deliveries almost eerily similar in their respective works.

David, who previously appeared in smaller roles in Allen's "New York Stories" and "Radio Days," stars in his new film "Whatever Works" as Boris Yellnikoff, a self-proclaimed genius with an intense distaste for humanity, living alone in a rundown New York apartment and spouting sophomoric rants to friends at delis and coffee houses.

Yellnikoff is the typical Woody Allen protagonist, a man so awash in his own worthlessness he superimposes his issues onto the human race. That is, until teenage runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) shows up on his doorstep begging for a place to stay, her ignorance testing the limits of his patience while her sweetness slowly cracks his stone exterior.

The script for "Whatever Works" was originally written in the mid-1970s for comedian Zero Mostel, but after the actor's death in 1977, Allen shelved the script. Though he has updated the material to include banter about a black president and terrorism, "Whatever Works" has one foot firmly planted in Allen's first decade of filmmaking, making it a smooth throwback to his earlier inventions.

Lengthy monologues delivered straight to the camera provide the basis for many clever jokes about the existence of an audience looking in at the characters' lives, giving the film plenty of sharp cracks about the film medium. Allen plays with film as a one-way conversation, as the characters of a film are able to "communicate" to an audience, while the audience is powerless to engage the characters.

"Whatever Works" also marks Allen's return to his native New York after four films abroad in Europe. Throughout his career, the director has produced some of the most loving photography of the city in any film.

Here, he works for the first time with cinematographer Harris Savides ("Zodiac"), who provides beautifully shaded and toned compositions that fit in perfectly with Allen's tendency to use long takes of characters trying to struggle through their problems at crucial moments.

Alas, "Whatever Works" remains largely impersonal and unfocused, a glimmer of a great idea without any carrying force. It's a delightful but minor film from a fantastic director.

Woody Allen's films are usually all met with similar criticism. His detractors claim he always makes the same film, while his admirers see him as a very personal filmmaker who uses movies to deal with his own neuroses and fantasies.

"Whatever Works" gives both camps plenty of fodder; it remains consistent with Allen's unified discourse as a filmmaker, while it lacks an energy to distinguish it amidst his cluttered filmography. David always remains a mouthpiece instead of a character, regurgitating Allen's dialogues of despair as if he's unable to bring his own caustic anxieties into the performance.

The supporting cast, featuring the terrific Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., also feel tremendously under-written, played for broad and obvious laughs.

"Whatever Works" misses in many places and lacks Allen's usual level of creativity, but still finds enough laughs to work.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting back into it

I have my Macbook Pro back and am settling into a new semester. Below are copies of articles and reviews that haven't been posted in the past couple weeks. Hopefully things can back on regular frequency for the blog after these technological mishaps!

Julie and Julia Off-balanced

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Director Nora Ephron has a reputable track record for bankable romances, making a name for herself in the 1990s with commercial hits like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail." Her latest, "Julie and Julia," is not necessarily about a relationship between two people - in fact, its titular leads do not share a single frame together.

Rather, it is about an insatiable love of food, and how cooking can soothe troubled souls. Half period bio-pic and half contemporary memoir about coping after 9/11, the film intercuts the rise of chef personality Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in post-WWII France, culminating in the publishing of her landmark cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," with the true story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a low-level government employee who decides to dedicate a blog to the trials and tribulations of cooking her way through Child's 500-plus recipe cookbook in less than a year.

The film is adopted from memoirs by both Child and Powell, taking its title from the latter's book. It's admittedly hard to watch "Julie and Julia" on an empty stomach, for it sheds such savory light on culinary prowess, always basking its range of dishes in the warmest light. However, the film is nearly undone by inherent flaws in its own premise.

"Julie and Julia" is really two films in one, and as such it draws meaning from the connections between the two stories. Undoubtedly, there are some interesting circumstantial and structural similarities, which Julie explicitly describes more than once in the narrative.

Deeper connections between the two diverse women and periods remain tenuous and poorly executed. Child's success reverberates with its tangible cultural significance, while the stakes of Powell's blog hardly seem revolutionary; if anything, it merely expresses the diverse means of expression through 21st century media. As a whole, the film is thus unevenly packaged, with the period half dominating almost every aspect of the production.

While much of the blame for this comes from flaws in the script's structure, the centerpiece of the film is always Meryl Streep, even when she's not on screen. With a high-pitched elongation of her vowels accompanied by an awkward slant to her posture, Streep certainly plays the part of Julia Child. She embeds in her features a palpable exuberance that seems to wrap itself around the edges of the screen.

A master of mimicry and nuance, Streep submerges into her makeup with devastating perfection, making her enactment of Child a stunning combination of the woman's desires and seemingly innocent joys.

Poor Amy Adams has a hard time competing with Streep, even without sharing screen time with her. Not that she's to blame - she certainly gives Julie plenty of spunk, determination and accessibility - but it's the screenplay that mishandles her, continually falling back on the typical motions of light romantic comedies too often for comfort.

The film's most satisfying costumes, lighting and set design are all found in the Child half of the film, as if director Ephron were herself brought alive by Julia. When she's not on screen, the film loses its spark and feels markedly unengaging.

"Julie and Julia" still goes down smooth, but it never quite feels like a satisfying three-course meal. The ingredients - as rich as some may be - never cohere.

Inglourious Basterds Re-writes WWII

Property of The Daily Gamecock

It's not surprising to learn that World War II has been the subject of more films than any other historical event. From "Sands of Iwo Jima" to "Saving Private Ryan," trying to understand the horrific reality of the war has been a seemingly unending preoccupation of filmmakers the world over.

Perhaps that's why writer/director Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," a dramatic reshaping of World War II that converts one of the 20th century's defining moments into a playground of fantasy, where cultural references, grotesque cartoons and brutal violence run rampant, has already generated so much discussion.

In many respects, the film converts the war into a childish enactment of cowboys versus Indians, replete with visual nods to director John Ford, musical cues from Ennio Morricone and more than one scalped Nazi. The film is obviously out to turn World War II on its head, making Jewish soldiers the brutal slaughterers, and the Nazis their weak and quivering prey.

The Basterds are a group of take-no-prisoners Jewish soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in a scenery-devouring performance), himself an ugly perversion of a stereotypical squad commander, touched off with a twangy Southern drawl and a large scar across his neck.

The mythos of the Basterds is only one part of Tarantino's two and a half hour opus. There's also Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, whose ruthless tactics have earned him the nickname "Jew Hunter." German actor Christoph Waltz makes Landa a cunning, polite and pervasively threatening menace, whose multilingual eloquence stands in sharp contrast to Pitt's constant bludgeoning of any language.

Melanie Laurent rounds out the triangular narrative as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jew hiding in plain sight as a French cinema owner, and who also watched Landa massacre her family at the start of the French occupation.

These storylines radically converge at a Nazi movie premiere, where Tarantino explicitly challenges and pays tribute to the ways the visual image has shaped our understanding of history.

"Inglourious Basterds" is a cinephile's delight, a powerful ode to the transcendent fantasies films afford us that's bursting with dozens of creative references to individual films, directors and stars. Tarantino's characters all act like they're part of a film, for they are such overblown caricatures.

Pitt even remarks that watching Nazis get their heads bashed in is "as close as we get to the movies," just one of many times Tarantino sticks in a knowing wink, reminding his audience that this is a film existing almost solely in a world of cinematic extrapolation.

"Inglourious Basterds" is more than a mere pastiche of Tarantino's influences. He has perverted and distorted cinematic conventions so much that his film becomes both darkly comic and horrifically grotesque.

Though it sizzles with this creative energy through, it still feels imperfect; Tarantino's penchant for taut-if-meandering dialogue gets the better of him in a few of the film's many conversation pieces. But even if it drags on occasion, it's hard not to feel dazzled at the writer's solid command of language, which feels both gently playful and full of suspense.

Freely audacious and unrepentantly self-indulgent, "Inglourious Basterds" is both a bloody nightmare of a war film blown up to the scale of a Looney Tunes cartoon and a brazen treatise on the power of the cinema.

Remembering John Hughes

Property of The Daily Gamecock

It may be fair to say, whatever label you wish to ascribe to Summer 2009, it could arguably stand as the "Summer of Lost Celebrities." Between David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays and the much-publicized passing of Michael Jackson, we have been reminded over and over again in these few short months that those immortalized through their craft are as mortally fragile as those who follow their careers and personal lives.

In the first week of August, as the Michael Jackson media frenzy began to finally subside, we abruptly learned that another idol had left us. At just 59, legendary film director John Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack, after having been all but removed from the public eye for nearly two decades.

Hughes's brief wave of films in the mid-1980s - "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" - helped put a concrete definition on 1980s comedy while helping launch such careers as those of Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, Emelio Estevez and Matthew Broderick.

His death brings into clear focus the magnitude of his influence. Since 2004, we have been experiencing what many media writers have referred to as the "Apatow Moment," where director/writer/producer Judd Apatow has seemingly monopolized the comedy market while propelling the careers of Seth Rogen, Steve Carell and Jason Segel among others.

Apatow is not a unique figure, and much of his commercial success in the past five years stems from his emulation of the same model Hughes tapped into in the mid-1980s.

When history places a figure into its hall of fame for any given achievement, it is most likely because that person has somehow capitalized on their cultural moment, advancing or refining their art in a meaningful way.

Yes, Hughes made funny movies, but lest we forget that comedy is a serious business. Hughes operated almost exclusively in high school comedies in the early years of his career, and explored alternative means of depicting high school in films, not necessarily any great truth about growing up or coming of age.

"The Breakfast Club" retains its staying power precisely because the characters are embodiments of stereotypical images. Hughes uses a confined space and abbreviated time frame in the film to break down the divide of social barriers and explore the emptiness of a stereotyped image.

Similarly, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" retains its appeal because it is so largely an outlandish fantasy. Hughes affords us the pleasure of watching a single person enact the hidden desires of every high school senior, turning Ferris into an almost mythical creation with the gift for getting away with everything.

For many, Hughes remains a personal icon, whose legacy grows stronger with each late-night cable re-run of his perennial classics. In the early 1990s, Hughes realized his time had passed, and he quietly retreated from the spotlight. His passing brings with it the remorse that he was never able to have a triumphant return, while savoring even more his brief contributions to his genre.

As Broderick said addressing the audience directly at the end of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." That's entertainment.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Apologies + 500 Days of Summer

So my Mac's hard drive crashed last Thursday, sending me into utter hysterics.  Here's the full review of 500 Days of Summer, about a week overdue.  Also look for a Funny People review and Julie and Julia review, as well as a tribute to John Hughes in the next week.  I'll be moving back to Columbia tomorrow, sans computer, so it'll be a few more days before I can back to posting much of anything. 

500 Days of Summer - Full Review

* * * * / * * * *

            Like the first real burst of sunshine after a long and dreary winter, director Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” is the most charming and original romantic comedy of the year, a film bursting with great acting, witty writing, and visual inventiveness that stands shoulders above any recent entry to the genre.

            In this tale of boy meets girl, that’s very up front about not being a love story, the boy is Tom Watson, whose love of movies and pop music has convinced him that true love exists, and that fate will guide him to it.  Played with genuine warmth by the wholly underrated Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he makes Tom’s romantic highs contagious, and his pitfalls almost painfully funny.

            The girl is Summer Finn, who never quite got over her parents’ divorce and who wants to be an independent spirit first, and a lover second.  Zooey Deschanel uses every inch of her face to magnificent effect, letting the degrees of her smile and the flutter of her eyes craft an ambiguous character whose exact level of affection for Tom is rarely certain.

            As the title suggests, “(500) Days of Summer” charts a year and a half of this relationship, but it begins at Day 290, when Summer breaks up with Tom.  With a zig-zagging structure that flows back and forth from this date, the film juxtaposes how they fell in love with how Tom tries to win her back.

            Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, the dialogue is consistently fresh and witty, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel play off each other well.  But more than its sprinkles of hip, off-beat, or calculatedly ironic dialogue, the writing generates a surprising amount of honesty.  This has as much to do with the stars as it does the writers, for the two leads are willing to tone down their humor in favor of mining their characters’ pain and longing.

            The other real star of the film is first time director Marc Webb.  Webb got his start in music videos, and brings to the film the same kind of mind for grand conceptual ideas, giving “(500) Days of Summer” a unique look.

            His ideas are as simple as using the blue of Deschanel’s eyes as a springboard for the entire character’s palette; her clothes always have a trace of blue, and her apartment is covered in blue wallpaper and blue flowers. 

But his ideas are also as creative as a dance number to Hall and Oates’s “You Make My Dreams,” a split screen sequence that places Tom’s “expectations” next to his “reality” at a dinner party, and a sublime fantasy moment where Tom inserts himself into scenes from artsy European films about suffering.

These are only a few of the highlights from Webb’s seemingly endless arsenal.  “(500) Days of Summer” uses the romantic comedy genre not just as a way to talk about relationships in this day and age, but it takes their visuals to an entirely different level.  Instead of just talking about the pain and joy of love, the filmmakers have found suitable and engaging ways to express these emotions in thoroughly cinematic means.

“(500) Days of Summer” is one of the real treats of the season, a bittersweet ode to love that’s always surprisingly intoxicating.  It’s a film worth falling in love with.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Serious Man Trailer

Gotta love the Coens... here's the trailer for their latest, which retains their bizarre sense of humor but seems markedly different from anything they've done.  I'm interested to see what this turns out to be...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Spielberg to Remake "Harvey"

Really, Steven?

Two-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg announced his next project will be a remake of the 1950 Jimmy Stewart fantasy, "Harvey."  If you don't recall, Harvey was about a man whose best friend may or may not be a 7-ft rabbit no one else can see.

Why he's doing this instead of moving forward on his Lincoln bio-pic is beyond me.