Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Marc Webb, 2009)

In (500) DAYS OF SUMMER Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just can't get over Summer, the greeting card company co-worker who captures and inevitably breaks his heart. Tom should have anticipated this outcome and not simply because their initial flirtation took place over shared love for the doomed romanticism of The Smiths. Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) told him upfront in no uncertain terms that she wasn't looking for a serious relationship and, in fact, doesn't believe in love.

For awhile their casual and affectionate coupledom is more than enough to satisfy Tom, but the increasing differences in what Tom and Summer get and expect from the relationship eventually put an unbearable strain on it. She calls it quits. He falls to pieces.

Tom's friends and little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) try to help him cope, but he can't see beyond his hard-fixed belief that Summer is the one he is meant to love forever and ever. Tom holds out hope that a reconciliation may happen. Since the film doesn't introduce to the characters on the 500th day, perhaps he has reason to think things will work out.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER'S non-linear timeline skips among the highs and lows during the not quite seventeen months in which Tom meets, dates, and remains hung up on the woman he is determined is everything he could ever want and more. Never mind that she doesn't reciprocate his ardor with the same intensity or desire for long-term commitment. The movies, pop music, and even the sentimental cards he writes for a living all reinforce the idea of a single soulmate and eternal happiness. Tom knows he's found this person in Summer, so why doesn't she feel similarly?

The answer, of course, is that life and love are rarely as tidy as art's simplified representations and the romantic's self-deluded perceptions. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER takes a hammer to romantic comedy tropes that distort the interpersonal dynamics between men and women into childish knight-in-shining-armor and princess fantasies. Of particular note is when the film shatters illusions with an amusing and heartbreaking scene that plays out in split-screen. One side is labeled "expectations", and the other is dubbed "reality". For Tom the gulf between the two sides of the frame is wide. He's fated to be miserable until he can accept that what he hoped for and what happened don't align.

While (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't deal in the common yet unrealistic movie portrayals of falling in love, that hardly means it's a bitter or unpleasant film. It's romantic, funny and, yes, sad because director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber strive for emotional realism that audience members can relate to better than the exaggerated nonsense that passes for many film love affairs.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER can bring out that jubilant feeling, such as when Tom celebrates a relationship breakthrough by strutting down the street in a musical number scored by a bouncy Hall & Oates hit. The scene is over the top yet retains the ring of truth. Likewise, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER expresses the humor and pain of romantic contradictions. Tom's adoration of Summer's quirks turns into annoyance after they've broken up. His impression of her has changed, not Summer's specific qualities. These kinds of small details regarding how people think and behave is what makes the film more keenly felt than offerings in which both halves of a pair detest one another for ninety minutes and then awaken to their mutual but previously inevident passion in the final reel.

The advantage (500) DAYS OF SUMMER has over other romantic comedies isn't any radical innovation, yet it eludes a fair number of these films. Simply put, here the characters communicate. The enjoyment and heartache come from seeing Tom and Summer experience ups and downs together. Keeping them apart in any manner of contrived scenarios would be the typical gambit. When the characters do separate, it's not due to any villainous conduct on either part but a genuine disagreement on what the relationship should be.

As the commitment-seeking emotional mess and the nonchalant pragmatist, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are a delight to watch as they reverse gender stereotypes. Gordon-Levitt displays a great deal of charm by investing Tom with the enthusiasm and wounded nature of a puppy dog. Deschanel plays the familiar part of mildly eccentric dream girl, but she inhabits the role with an introvert's grounding and secrecy. Tom may view Summer as an angel of salvation, but Deschanel plays her like the flesh-and-blood mortal she is.

Stylistically Webb indulges a taste for French New Wave playfulness, some of which almost nudges the film into overly cute territory. Another unmistakable influence is ANNIE HALL. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't reach the rarefied level of Woody Allen's masterpiece, but the film's bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Ugly Truth

THE UGLY TRUTH (Robert Luketic, 2009)

Is there nothing grander than young love born from loathing and hatred? So says THE UGLY TRUTH.

Television morning show producer Abby (Katherine Heigl) would like to meet and marry Mr. Right, but she's not in any hurry to encounter who she envisions as the ideal man. It's a good thing Abby can wait. No one is likely to match the extensive and impractical checklist of criteria she's decided her companion must match.

Cable access show host Mike (Gerard Butler) dispenses relationship advice that, at best, could be considered sexist and more likely is misogynist. Mike's crude musings about men and women infuriates Abby when she stumbles upon his program one evening. The following morning she's even less pleased to learn that this oaf has been hired to goose the ratings for her show.

Mike and Abby get along grudgingly for the sake of work. To persuade her that his philosophies about interactions between the genders have merit, Mike offers some CYRANO DE BERGERAC-like help so Abby ensnare the hot podiatrist next door. She consents to carrying out his seduction techniques despite being unconvinced about his methods.

Romantic comedies have a tradition of exaggerating how people act and respond when it comes to matters of the heart, but even by those loose standards THE UGLY TRUTH far exceeds the limits of believable behavior. The film's comedic centerpiece is a scene in which Abby is humiliated during an important business dinner. It's the perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with THE UGLY TRUTH. The individual developments test the screenwriting credibility enough as it is. The chain of events is wholly implausible.

First, Abby and Mike have a graphic discussion at work about her sexual frustration. Next, Mike sends her vibrating panties to relieve the tension. Abby's date informs her that he's running late, so she slips on the stimulating underwear to bide the time. Practically as she's putting them on, Mike and her boss are at her door insisting that she must accompany them to a critical meeting. Perhaps mistakenly she slides the panties' remote into her purse and departs with her co-workers. At the restaurant the control falls out of her purse and is picked up by a boy. Since the remote looks like a gadget developed by a scientist in a 1950s movie, the boy begins playing with the device. The vibrating panties start working their magic. Rather than excusing herself, Abby moans and twitches in ecstasy in front of the entire restaurant. Mike even notices that the boy has the remote, but instead of putting an end to the situation, he is amused by it all and lets it continue.

While a similar scene takes place in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, there are crucial differences between the films. It's debatable whether either scenario might occur in public in real life, but unlike Meg Ryan's Sally, Abby in THE UGLY TRUTH has no control of the situation and is the one being embarrassed. In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY the humor derives from the male character's belief being challenged and him being made uncomfortable. Abby's degradation in THE UGLY TRUTH has a measure of vindictiveness and elicits cruel laughter. THE UGLY TRUTH has a pretty hateful attitude toward women, something forcefully emphasized in this scene

THE UGLY TRUTH'S gender politics draw inspiration from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, but that doesn't absolve the coarse and nasty tone throughout a film that's supposedly a love story. Two-thirds of THE UGLY TRUTH concentrates on knocking Abby down peg after peg and provides no basis for attraction between her and Mike before delivering the predictable and dubious third act change of heart. THE UGLY TRUTH has all the honesty and romance of an Axe body spray commercial.

Grade: D+

Sunday, July 12, 2009

88 Minutes

88 MINUTES (Jon Avnet, 2007)

Nine years after forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) provided crucial testimony in the conviction of serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), the verdict begins to be called into question. In 88 MINUTES a murder replicating the methods of the old crimes suggests that perhaps Forster was wrongly imprisoned.

The timing is of extreme importance since the killing comes on the eve of Forster's scheduled execution. Clues at the new murder scene open the possibility that Gramm himself is the culprit. Meanwhile, a mysterious caller informs Gramm that he has two minutes shy of an hour and a half left to live and sends him running around Seattle to stay alive and solve the crime.

88 MINUTES is the sort of overblown thriller in which every action, no matter how insignificant, is pregnant with portent, yet it's a film of nothing but red herrings. Director Jon Avnet and screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson have concocted a silly mystery that gets more outrageous and laughable as the clock ticks down to the zero minute.

Again and again 88 MINUTES torpedoes suspicion regarding Gramm and loses internal consistency. Since multiple attempts to kill Gramm occur long before time is up, it's abundantly clear that he is not guilty of what has been set up and that the film's countdown device doesn't matter at all.

The decisions made in 88 MINUTES never make any sense. When the abusive former boyfriend of Gramm's teaching assistant Kim (Alicia Witt) appears with a gun at his front door, she tells her boss to open it because the guy wouldn't hurt her. Never mind that he used to beat her and is thought to be out to kill Gramm. Sure, come on in and make yourself at home!

Equally as implausible as the conspiracy to frame Gramm is how every woman in the the film throws herself at him as though the old professor is America's heartthrob. Leave it to the movies to make it so all females are rendered powerless by the unexplained pull of his erotic magnetism.

The portrayal of Gramm's irresistibility verges on parody. That farcical quality can also be read in 88 MINUTES' preposterous mystery. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, they didn't set out to make a comedy.

Grade: D

Friday, July 10, 2009

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


Sacha Baron Cohen is fearless. In BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, the British comedian makes fools of unsuspecting ordinary Americans (and some unordinary ones) while frequently putting his own wellbeing in danger. As Kazakh television reporter Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen shatters the customs of polite society. He makes horribly racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, but his broken English and guilelessness give him a pass (for awhile) with most he encounters. The character allows him to hold up a mirror to such ridiculous attitudes when his new acquaintances use the openings Borat gives them to express similar beliefs.

Ostensibly a road movie and a fake documentary that the other participants don’t know is fake, BORAT follows the enthusiastic reporter and his obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) as they journey across the country. Their visit to America is supposed to be limited to New York City, but when Borat stumbles upon an old episode of BAYWATCH on his hotel room television, he switches their plans and sets out for Los Angeles so he can take Pamela Anderson as his wife. Along the way he talks with politicians, an antiques dealer, television anchors, fraternity brothers, and more as he takes the pulse of the United States, particularly the South.

At the risk of using hyperbole, BORAT is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Cohen’s total commitment to the character and control is astonishing. I can’t imagine a more gut-busting and shocking scene than Borat and Azamat’s naked wrestling. Cohen and Davitian go for broke and at least twice manage to top what you expect can’t be topped. While Cohen’s acting may not typify what gets classified as outstanding acting, this is a great performance. In our daily lives we’d find Borat detestable, but on screen, even when being actively mean to undeserving folks, he’s completely likable.

Borat has no boundaries, and much of the humor comes from how he upsets the normal social balance. Whether trying to be friendly with New Yorkers on the subway or southern gentlemen and women at a dinner party, Borat tests the limits of what people will accept before they are offended.

Cohen’s playing the ultimate rube in the big city, but the joke’s on those he meets. On the positive side, BORAT reveals an America where people are happy to accept someone interested in learning about this nation. Although the butts of his jokes, many people are unfailingly polite until Borat exceeds their tolerance for being offended or having personal space invaded. A hotel worker gently corrects Borat when he begins unpacking his belongings in the elevator because he’s under the wrong impression that it is his room.

There’s no doubt that Cohen is pushing his subject’s buttons, and sometimes the results, while a riot, aren’t pretty. Borat highlights American ignorance, particularly when people excuse his most inflammatory words and actions as cultural difference. The more outrageous his statements or deeds, the more someone is willing to chalk it up to the Kazakh way. It doesn’t speak well of our education and beliefs about other cultures when Borat can get away with what he says and does.

Many of the funniest bits are Borat’s interactions with others, but this is a film packed with many less complex laughs. The chicken Borat packs in his luggage is one of the best recurring gags in the film. About the time we’ve forgotten about the animal, it squawks and delivers one of the funniest moments in a movie with wall-to-wall laughs.

Most film comedies, even the good ones, are safe and predictable. Even the “edgy” ones seem too self-conscious in their provocations. BORAT is the rare comedy that operates without a safety net. Cohen and director Larry Charles’ film provides constant laughter and surprises while daring the viewer to be rightfully offended. This is a bold film likely to elicit strong opinions. Put me down on the side of those cracking up even when it feels wrong to be laughing.

Grade: A

(Photos TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gran Torino

GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

For supposedly his last time performing on screen, Clint Eastwood chooses to go out as the kind of tough, no-nonsense son of a gun that has defined his acting career. In GRAN TORINO Eastwood is newly widowed Walt Kowalski, a crusty Korean War veteran who doesn't suffer anyone or mince words, no matter how inappropriate they might be. Walt's an equal opportunity offender who's just as quick to tell off his own children and grandkids as he is to apply racist terms to the many immigrants who now live in his old Detroit neighborhood.

The retired auto worker's most cherished possession is a 1972 Gran Torino, so he doesn't take kindly to Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) a boy from the Hmong family next door, trying to steal it as part of a gang initiation ritual. Walt feels no affection for the Lors, but when gang members try to take Thao, he chases them away.

Thao's grateful sister Sue (Ahney Her) and mother insist that the teen work for Walt as a means of atoning for the attempted car theft. Although Walt is reluctant to accept the offer, he acknowledges that this is a chance to get the neighborhood cleaned up how he wants. Through his work ethic, Thao slowly wins over Walt and increases the senior citizen's protective instinct for foreigners who end up having more in common with him than his own flesh and blood.

Like a new driver learning to operate a manual transmission, director Eastwood's awkward shifting of tones makes the lurching GRAN TORINO a frustrating ride. Parts of GRAN TORINO are clearly supposed to be funny. Eastwood's cranky old man act lets him verbally knock around a baby-faced priest, utter a stream of slurs, and even snarl the oldster rallying cry "get off my lawn" to no-good thugs.

The beloved movie star relishes the chance to put everyone in their place, but Eastwood may be having too much fun as he sets up ridiculously easy targets to hit, such as Walt's etiquette-lacking kin. Even if GRAN TORINO doesn't abide Walt's outdated racist words, it sympathizes with him and makes his offensiveness a charming quirk even in moments when his antiquated attitude shouldn't be humorous.

Nevertheless, actions may matter more than words, particularly when considering those long set in their ways, even if the comedy of Walt's insults can be jarring next to the cross-cultural and generational drama examining Eastwood's prototypical stoic hero. At a time when people rush to unload their innermost thoughts to anyone and everyone, Walt is a relic who clings to and attempts to squash his deepest feelings. How Walt lives is the only statement he needs to make, although it means presenting an incomplete picture to others.

GRAN TORINO is most invigorating when Walt's ways and beliefs are challenged. The crosscutting of culture-spanning similarities provides a strong argument for building understanding, but Walt's softening attitude toward those he once detested is less impactful due to uniformly bad supporting performances. Water may be able to wear down rock, but it's a stretch that the charisma-challenged neighbors would sway Walt.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Lovely by Surprise

LOVELY BY SURPRISE (Kirt Gunn, 2007)

Being able to point people toward an unfamiliar but good movie--an overlooked gem, perhaps one that never escaped the festival circuit--is one of the most enjoyable things I can do as a film critic. Yes, negative reviews can be fun to write from time to time, but I didn't start critiquing films so I could piss all over the creative efforts of others. I'd much rather be championing movies than thrashing them, especially because I'd rather see good movies than bad ones.

I'm in my tenth year of doing film criticism online, so by now I'm on enough publicists' lists to be offered a decent number of screeners for review. Because there's only so much time in the day to watch and write about films, I tend to be particular in what I'll request. Granted, there is no guarantee that I'll like what I'll see, but I pick films that I think will interest and appeal to me. Maybe I'll uncover one of those underseen treasures.

Which is all a roundabout way of leading me to the troublesome case of LOVELY BY SURPRISE. I responded affirmatively when asked if I'd like to get a copy for review. After all, the independent comedy/drama from writer-director Kirt Gunn won the New American Cinema Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival. Online reviews aren't plentiful, but most that I've found are glowing. It seemed like the sort of film that fell between the cracks and could use my drop in the bucket of critical support. Sounds good. And then I watched the DVD.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE layers scenes featuring three distinct sets of characters whose paths gradually converge, although not always in expected ways. The film's hub is Marian (Carrie Preston), who is writing an ambitious novel in which actions in the real world affect the characters in the book. Stuck on how to advance the story, she goes to her former writing professor Jackson (Austin Pendleton) for advice. He assesses that Marian's novel contains no conflict. Jackson proposes that this non-dilemma dilemma can be neatly resolved by killing off one of the characters. The idea troubles her, but she agrees to give it a shot.

Marian's underwear-clad characters reside in a houseboat in the middle of a field but cannot leave the landlocked vessel. For subsistence the author provides them with boxed cereal within a spear's throw and a milkman's deliveries. The stout Humkin (Michael Chernus), the one in the baby blue briefs, wants to abandon ship, but his brother Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), he of the yellow underpants, is determined to keep him onboard. When Marian attempts to kill Humkin, she presents the opportunity he needs to jump ship and the written page.

Connecting the separate scenes of the writer and her creations is easy to do, but it's less certain how the moments with grieving car salesman Bob (Reg Rogers) and his daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer) fit into the puzzle. After his wife's death Bob has taken to waxing philosophical with customers and talking them out of new vehicle purchases. He can't stop talking, but Mimi has clammed up.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE'S aggressive quirkiness is off-putting from the get-go and the biggest barrier to engaging with the film. The silly names and affected behavior of Marian's characters are the most glaring examples of a movie trying too hard to be unconventional, but it's the comedic and dramatic tones, off by a smidgen throughout, that can make the film insufferable at times.

While the final scene makes the gist of the film undeniably clear, specific questions arising from the opaque narrative aren't resolved in a satisfying manner. Every little uncertainty doesn't need to be answered, but LOVELY BY SURPRISE doesn't give the impression that it is operating with a consistent internal logic. Whether the blame stems from the screenwriting or editing is hard to say, although it probably can be attributed to both.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE employs flourishes of David Lynch-like dreaminess minus the menace. The disconnected feel, coupled with the annoying eccentricities, establishes another blockade to entering the film. Existing at arm's-length may achieve the goal of exploring the mental investment in creative work and the toll that authorial honesty and writer's block can take, but it makes for a displeasing viewing experience.

Although LOVELY BY SURPRISE drowns in its own preciousness, clearly it boasts some talent in front of and behind the camera. Preston, last seen stealing a scene as the corporate travel agent Clive Owen dupes in DUPLICITY, does a fine job balancing the fragility and intensity Marian draws upon to devote herself fully to her writing. Rogers is strangely compelling as a character obviously failing to hold himself together yet still retaining a measure of persuasiveness.

Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who also lensed Rian Johnson's BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM, favors a soft, gloomy look with bursts of color that matches the film's emotional palette. Gunn displays an eye for interesting shot composition and maintains a good pace that keeps LOVELY BY SURPRISE watchable in spite of the irritations.

These positive qualities and the DIY effort to get the film seen are why I almost feel like I need to apologize for disliking LOVELY BY SURPRISE so strongly. Almost.

Grade: D+

(LOVELY BY SURPRISE is now available on DVD.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

MY SISTER'S KEEPER (Nick Cassavetes, 2009)

In MY SISTER'S KEEPER eleven-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) will do and has done just about anything for her leukemia-afflicted teenage sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Their parents Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) conceived Anna with the plan that she would donate what Kate needed, be it umbilical cord blood or bone marrow, in the fight against cancer.

For all of her young life Anna has provided what Kate requires, although how much of a willing participant she's been is up for debate. As Kate takes a turn for the worse, the time comes for Anna to donate a kidney to keep her sibling alive. Within the family it's accepted--and expected--that Anna will again give part of herself to assist her older sister. Needless to say, Sara and Brian are shocked when their little girl sues them for medical emancipation.

Anna hires lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to help her win the right to make decisions about her own body. Prior medical procedures to benefit Kate have had complications and required hospital stays for Anna. A kidney donation would mean lifelong limitations on what activities she can participate in. It also doesn't guarantee Kate will be cured. Anna loves Kate and doesn't want her to die, but the coercive pressure her parents, especially her mother, have put on her has reached a breaking point.

Initially MY SISTER'S KEEPER looks to be a hot button drama about the ethics of donor children, but that sensitive subject is merely the hook for getting into a story about how a family can be torn apart when one member has a terminal illness. The nonlinear storytelling divides the narration among the Fitzgeralds, which allows the film to get a broader understanding of the choices that have led to this crisis and how each person has been affected. Not all of the characters are done justice--Brian and son Jesse (Evan Ellingson) mostly serve to push the action along--but the technique fills in gaps that would exist if it were told from a single perspective.

Based on Jodi Picoult's novel, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is an unrepentant tearjerker, and writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-writer Jeremy Leven build a solid, albeit exposed infrastructure for facilitating the waterworks. (The screening I attended featured the most audience sniffling and sobbing I think I've ever heard at the movies.)

Sara's apparent inability to consider Anna's well-being and individuality might be interpreted as monstrous behavior--sometimes she loses sight that her youngest child is more than spare parts--although her backstory and Diaz's credible performance make such reactions seem like the natural fallout from years of ferocious caregiving. Sara has so much energy and love invested in Kate that she is blinded to what's happening around her and doesn't know when to let go. Sara may be difficult to like, but Diaz imparts her with conviction and thus makes the character's reasoning seem rational to her.

MY SISTER'S KEEPER might have earned its weepy moments if it had played fair with its central dilemma rather than putting forward a false choice. The film conveniently dodges the question of whether it is moral to have a child for the express purpose of catering to a sibling's medical needs. While MY SISTER'S KEEPER may be primarily concerned with family dynamics during stressful times, the ethical question it raises looms too large for a loophole to render it unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

If the controversial issue wasn't going to be addressed, it didn't need to be introduced. The basis for an emotionally powerful and messy film about love and loss is plainly evident, but the unresolved gimmick distracts from where attention should be directed.

Grade: C+

Monday, July 06, 2009

Whatever Works

WHATEVER WORKS (Woody Allen, 2009)

WHATEVER WORKS is Woody Allen's fortieth feature film as director. Once again he uses the cinematic forum to voice his ideas and fears about love and death while cracking some jokes along the way.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a classic version of the Allen protagonist, is a New York intellectual obsessed with his own mortality. Boris may be a string theorist whose genius almost snared him a Nobel Prize, but his true calling is as a professional neurotic. Boris often seems happier when he's miserable. Lord knows he tries to make lemons when life gives him lemonade. Boris dumps his rich, highly compatible wife and jumps out of a window intent to end it all. Since the universe has a twisted sense of humor, he survives and thus has something else to grumble about.

Moving on, Boris finds contentment living alone and following his routines--or as much contentment as an agitated misanthrope can have--but his life gets upended when he meets Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a beauty pageant queen from Mississippi who has run away from home to make it in the Big Apple. With little more than a high school letterman's jacket to her name, Melodie needs a place to stay--temporarily, of course. He's resistant to having his space invaded but eventually agrees to let her crash for a night or two.

Then a funny thing happens. Boris discovers that he doesn't mind having Melodie around. She listens with rapt attention to his rants about people and accepts his theories and cultured tastes as her own.

On CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM David has refined an acerbic personality that turns out to be a perfect match for Boris and his acid-tinged worldview, an increasingly common character trait in Allen's movies. Bitterness has been creeping into the writer-director's work, so it helps that David, eminently comfortable in the Woody Allen role, brings an amused fatalism to the part that keeps this rather toxic-sounding man from becoming unlikable.

Boris kvetches about stupid people a lot, but David's body language tends to reflect an attitude of humored indifference. Allen also eases up on coming off like a crank when it becomes clear that Boris' intolerance and ritual bound behavior, such as his hand washing, are just secular versions of the religious dogma he rejects. Boris may not be a big stretch for David to play, but he makes a consistently funny curmudgeon.

Wood ends up being a better foil for David than expected and makes Melodie sufficiently convincing in the story, which is a pretty tall order. At first her airheaded, molasses-accented character seems like the worst of Allen's conception of non-New Yorkers, but Wood's bright-eyed, irony-free performance has charm and innocence to nicely offset the film's aged astringency. Allen continues to paint a target on his back by having another pretty young thing go gaga for an old man. The May/December romance in WHATEVER WORKS is pretty implausible. Thankfully it's the amusing collision of the brainy and the ditsy that matters more.

WHATEVER WORKS takes a serious downturn in the second half when the focus drifts from Boris. Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) turns up at his door looking for her daughter, and later on her father John (Ed Begley Jr.) appears too. Not only do the awakenings of these southern conservatives to New York liberalism feel like Allen at his laziest, but also their arcs are just not that funny, interesting, or developed.

Due in part to the sheer volume of Allen's filmography, WHATEVER WORKS is bound to seem familiar, but he's found a winning formula, even if this film's title suggests a less than fastidious approach to getting it right.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 03, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS (Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier, 2009)

When sitcom characters start getting married and having children, the developments often indicate that the creative wells in the writers' rooms are running dry. These warning signs are all over the ICE AGE series, which has now yielded two sequels, with more likely to come as long as the box office receipts, not worthwhile untold stories, warrant them.

The original 2002 animated film was pleasant enough as it followed the comedic exploits of prehistoric creatures during the glacial period, but it didn't suggest untapped tales about these characters. 2006's subpar follow-up ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN introduced a spouse for woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano). As ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS opens, Manny and his beloved Ellie (Queen Latifah) are waiting for the arrival of their first fuzzy bundle of joy, something which has the expectant pop in a tizzy to childproof the frozen landscape they call home.

The impending mammoth domesticity has other members of the multiple species herd feeling left out. Saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) notices that he's losing his predatory edge and elects to strike out on his own. Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) is mindful that he is experiencing some parental stirrings, but with no nearby female sloths to speak of, he must build a family by adopting three abandoned eggs he discovers underneath the ice.

When the eggs hatch, Sid becomes the dutiful caregiver to Tyrannosaurus rex triplets, but his happiness is shortlived when the displeased momma T. rex comes looking for her babies. She hauls off Sid and the kids to an underground land where some dinosaurs survived the global freeze. Loyal to a fault, Sid's friends venture on a rescue mission by journeying below the ice. There they fall under the leadership of the wily and possibly crazy weasel Buck (Simon Pegg).

Breaking up the main story is saber-toothed squirrel Scrat's never-ending pursuit of an acorn. The addition of the female Scratte for this third go-round presents competition and a love interest for the tireless forager. Scrat's wordless vignettes have been highlights of the previous ICE AGE films, and the nutty scenarios he gets into again are among the funniest parts of this one. Whether straining to be freed from the tar adhering him to a tree or bopping along in a bubble after that darn acorn, Scrat's scenes possess an unforced silliness missing in the primary story.

ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS needs injections of cartoon merriment and orneriness to cure the blandness afflicting the plot and characters. Buck has his humorously unhinged moments, and Sid's sweet goofiness earns a smile here and there. Otherwise a great affinity with those in the herd isn't developed.

The animation is solid and features a couple nice action setpieces that probably look neat in 3-D--I saw the 2-D version--but what lingers is the predictability and indistinctiveness of it all. ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS had to concoct an explanation for shoehorning the extinct reptiles into the timeline, so why limit the dinos' expressiveness to mere grunts and roars? It's just one of several signs that the film's modest creative hits and misses qualify it as an unremarkable, fitfully diverting effort than a mammoth letdown.

Grade: C

(Photo credit: Blue Sky Studios, TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Friday the 13th

FRIDAY THE 13TH (Marcus Nispel, 2009)

The latest FRIDAY THE 13TH is not a remake of the original 1980 film but a reboot of a franchise that refuses to die just like its hockey-masked, machete-wielding killer. Since it begins with a reminder of the killer's fate at the end of the first movie, this FRIDAY THE 13TH might be thought of as a direct sequel.

The return to a present day Camp Crystal Lake introduces a new bumper crop of horny young people partying in the wilderness. The intervening years have not mellowed Jason Vorhees (Derek Mears), so he turns to a combination of brute strength and sadistic inventiveness to begin weeding the landscape of these buff campers.

Six weeks later Clay Miller (Jared Padalecki) comes to the area looking for his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), who disappeared along with her friends. The local citizens are no help, and the police have given up their search. The libidinous college students he encounters aren't terribly concerned about his story until Jason starts picking them off one by one.

The first FRIDAY THE 13TH is not a masterwork by any stretch of the imagination, but it has one crucial thing the 2009 edition lacks completely: the element of surprise. This version tries to drum up scares through cranked up, unanticipated noises on the soundtrack but rarely utilizes Jason's presence in such unexpected ways. Instead Jason is often seen before he goes about the business of killing his prey as though it's another routine day at the workplace.

Not only does director Marcus Nispel's strategy drain the moments of any tension, but it also reverses the scenarios from ones of dread to scenes that read as though there's pleasure to be derived from the impending butcherings. Audience identification is with the killer, not the victims. Certainly this bloodlust is nothing new in modern horror film. It's probably the biggest shift from the victim-sympathetic 80s slasher movies to the current wave. Moral implications aside, the tactic eliminates the potential for terror from the equation.

No one goes to a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie expecting great acting or screenwriting, but the pitiful performances, paltry story, and formulaic execution reinforce the lack of effort put into this scare-less twelfth installment. Thirteen years ago SCREAM delivered what seemed like a comedic death blow to slasher film clichés produced in the wake of the first FRIDAY THE 13TH and its slew of sequels and competitors. Unfortunately this latest entry demonstrates that, like Jason, lazy and ineffective cinematic clichés are hard to kill.

Grade: D

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Are athletes who use anabolic steroids cheating? Are the drugs detrimental to one's health? The documentary BIGGER STRONGER FASTER*: THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN doesn't always provide the expected answers to these questions.

Director and narrator Chris Bell is a weightlifter struggling with the ethics of steroid use. His two weightlifting brothers take them. He's tried steroids but feels there's something wrong about using such performance enhancements. With BIGGER STRONGER FASTER Bell looks for answers regarding the effects of steroids and the culture's obsession with perfection.

The micro purpose of BIGGER STRONGER FASTER is to explore whether anabolic steroid use is as dangerous as it is claimed to be. Bell speaks to those in the bodybuilding community who don't buy into what they consider unsupported statements of steroid use's irreversible consequences.

Presenting his information as a less strident and glib Michael Moore, Bell makes an apologist's case that is neutral toward steroids, if not an implicit endorsement of them. Considering that he expeditiously discredits the only anti-steroids doctor and layman interviewed in the film, some doubt is cast over the strength and evenhandedness of his arguments. Nevertheless, Bell succeeds at muddying the waters when it comes to what we know versus what we're told in the film about the drugs.

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER'S macro purposes are to determine where the line is between cheating and fairness and to examine what Bell believes to be a uniquely American mindset to be the best no matter the cost.

Why are using steroids to build muscle and quicken recovery times deemed unacceptable while Lasik eye surgery to improve vision is permissible? After all, both give competitive advantages. The naysayers would quickly point out that individuals aren't risking deleterious long-term effects on their well-being (or death) with vision correction. Thus, pro sports administrators don't need to legislate against it, but keep in mind the film proposes that the use of steroids is not as damaging as popularly portrayed. The documentary doesn't, nor should it be expected to, resolve the matter, but it raises big, intriguing questions that rarely, if ever, come up in the hubbub about steroid use in professional athletics, particularly Major League Baseball.

Bell is on shakier ground when he theorizes that performance enhancement is an indelibly American obsession. He is correct that our national striving for greatness emphasizes a winner above all else mentality, but Bell overreaches in applying this exclusively to Americans. After all, one of his inspirations, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was an Austrian citizen when he began winning bodybuilding titles, and blood doping isn't limited to American cyclists.

Bell wonders why many of the people in the film and the culture at large refuse to be satisfied with the natural limitations of their bodies. Why isn't fulfilling one's potential good enough? It's on this individual level, when it plays like a personal essay, that BIGGER STRONGER FASTER is most compelling.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sports is a hot button issue that can't afford room for nuances lest some try to exploit loopholes for gain. Bell's uncertainty about the ethical dilemmas feels like a genuine and appropriate response. Agree or disagree with him, his documentary gives sports fans a lot to chew on.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)