Friday, July 31, 2009

Whatever Works

Woody Allen has been in the business so long, it seems he tried just about every genre. His latest venture, Whatever Works, is ultimately more of a throwback. Most likely since the script was penned back in the 70's. Aside from adjusting the socio-political references to be more modern and relevant the film works remarkably well.

Casting Larry David in the lead role as aging cynical genius, Boris Yelnikof is a veritable stroke of genius on Allen's part, and any fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm will agree. Utilizing an Annie Hall style 4th Wall Breaking Narration, David sets the tone for this sarcastic, delightfully misanthropic love story. Despite all his harsh criticisms on the state of human affairs in this day and age, that's what this movie ultimately is. A love story.

Following Boris' divorce and his failed (yet comedic) suicide attempt, he spends his days with a bum ankle, teaching chess to grade-school children (just as harshly as he'd teach adults, plus physical abuse to boot) and waxing intellectual with his diner buddies (including a criminally underused Michael McKean.) On the way home to his dingy NYC apartment he stumbles upon (or over, as it were) the homeless deep south runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played remarkably well by Evan Rachel Wood.) Surprisingly The two form a twisted sort of bond, but a bond nonetheless, before her bible-thumping parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) swoop in to rescue her, or so they think.

Despite the abrasively negative disposition of the protagonist, Whatever Works has a very light heart at its core. Allen's return to the states after a bout of films across the pond gives the material a lived in feel. He truly is at home here. Though, it's very apparent that he has much more to say than what is expressed by the end of the film. An unfortunate side effect is the limiting scope of Begley, Jr's performance. His character arc is almost a footnote to the development and growth his fledgling big city newcomers make. All things considered, Whatever Works is a no nonsense, nonsensical, ugly yet cute look at fictional love in the real world, as only Woody Allen can spell it out.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Primer caught my eye when it was released quietly on DVD in 2004. I didn't read the premise on the back of the box and I didn't recognize either of the actors on the front cover. What pulled me in aside from the Sundance Grand Jury award was mostly the tagline. "What Happens if it Actually Works?" Intriguing to say the least. If WHAT actually works, I wondered? I took the 77 minute super-independent film home and my mind proceeded to implode in on itself.

As it turned out, Primer is about time-travel, though not in the easy to follow terms of, say, Back to the Future or The Terminator series. The two lead characters, Aaron (played by producer, writer and director Shane Carruth) and Abe (played by David Sullivan in a noteworthy performance) run a small time software business out of Aaron's garage. While attempting to produce a superconductor the two friends accidentally create a low grade, small scale time machine. The physics are a bit complex, but go something like so. This isn't a simple temporal jaunt, not as simple as flipping a switch or getting the Delorean up to 88 mph. One can only go backwards in time, and you are only able to go back as much time as you're willing to spend the real time in the machine, which is displayed as an aluminum lined makeshift coffin.

Once inside the machine, time moves in a loop from the point in time when it is turned on. If you turn the machine on at noon and set it for 6 hours, inside the machine once it reaches 6pm, time will move backwards to noon again. This is described as A-in, B-out. Therein, if one enters at the B point in time, after staying in the machine 6 hours they will emerge at the A point, having traveled 6 hours back in time. Confused yet? Good.

Needless to say, Aaron and Abe's first attempts to play the stock market need meticulous planning and preparation, ensuring that no outside interference will take place and the possibility of running into their future selves is out of the question.

The first 40 minutes or so is relatively easy to follow, aside from the technical physics laden dialog (Carruth refused to simplify the script for the sake of the audience, to better execute his vision) though shortly after the halfway point, the film turns on its ear and takes a sharp right into massively confusing territory. As the friends become more unwound by stress, lack of sleep (referenced by a line regarding "working 36 hour days") and the adverse affects of continued use of backward time travel, the trust between Abe and Aaron deteriorates. Their reality becomes unhinged as paradoxes begin to pile on top of each other. So many details are scattered about, conveyed through a hauntingly cryptic voice over from an answering machine message that at this point, the film demands your complete attention. Even then, it is likely some detail will be missed.

Through simple cinematography and a hauntingly simplistic score, the latter half of the film plays almost like a psychological film noir. Who's playing against who. What is really to be gained from all of this. What actually went wrong in the first place. The film almost demands multiple viewings to put it's abstract puzzle pieces together. Still, the final product may indeed be incomprehensible, which is to say, the human mind cannot yet comprehend the cataclysmic effects of time travel.

For a production budget of only $7000 the effectiveness of this film is astounding. No A-list stars or name recognition, extremely limited effects and a limited amount of locations. The story is what drives this film to success, whether it's understood by the viewer or not. It may take several days to untangle the knot it will make of your brain functions, but at a 77 minute run time the end result is well worth it.

For those still confused by my feeble attempt to explain the physics of Primer's time travel, here's a handy diagram:

Still can't read it? Click to ReBigulate!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

A lot of people try to put "critical reception" out of their minds when considering movies on which to spend their hard-earned dollars. Normally, I'd agree with this practice, but as a warning I will say that all the negative buzz you've heard about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is true. The problems with this film are as overwhelming and frequent as the ocean is deep, or in this case, as the robots are large and the blame can rest solely on the shoulders of actioneer/Hollywood pariah, Michael Bay.

Admittedly, the first Transformers despite its problems, was a relatively watchable film. Granted the action was a bit muddled due to Bourne-esque cinematography and the ending seemed to... well, not END, but it was far from the worst movie to come out in the summer of 2007. As of now, Transformers 2 stands as the worst theatrical movie I've seen in the summer of 2009.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but based on the cartoon series and toy line from the 80's, Transformers is a story about otherworldly robots that have the ability to turn into various vehicles and mechanical devices on Earth. Both the predecessor and it's sequel are rated PG-13, understandable if the action violence contains more explosions than the cartoon series (or any other movie this summer, considering the helmer is Michael freakin' Bay.) However, overtly harsh language, super-sexual overtones, abstract drug references, abject racism, and hateful stereotypes have no place in the childrens target market, summer blockbuster giant robot movie.
It's surprising the MPAA didn't mark this an R, considering the hoops certain movies have to jump through just to reach any audience. The sexism is blatant as Megan Fox dolls herself up for the boyfriend she has no real interest in (action everyman-boy Shia LaBoeff returns as overactive protag Sam Witwicky) and does little else but act as errant screen-candy. Every female at the university is supermodel hot, yet drool at the feet of their astronomy professor (wasted talent epitomized in The Office's Rainn Wilson) who just degrades them further without their knowing. Sam's mother stupidly ingests some pot-brownies and acts like she's on crystal-meth ("but HEY she's a woman, what does she know? Right?" I assume was Bay's justification.)

By now you've most likely heard of the two Autobots, Skids and Mudflap (charming names, but that's just the tip of the iceberg) who are most commonly referred to as the Sambots or the Minstrel Twins. That's right, they've got googley eyes, giant robot lips, simian-like ears and what the hell, a GOLD TOOTH for good measure. They speak in broken street jive, the kind of which you've only heard in the movie Airplane, and basically beat on each other (you know, since they're "brothers.") But when fate calls on them to help Witwicky decode an ancient prophecy it turns out they CAN'T READ! Yes, it's THAT bad. There's also a miniature remote control truck Decepticon that is essentially a robotic Joe Pesci, slinging all our favorite Soprano-isms before he humps Megan Fox's leg, and I didn't just make that up. It happens. Spoiler alert.

The film creates its own logic rules, then immediately breaks them, such as Megan Fox's midday 30 second flight from LA to NYC and miraculously shows up while it's still light outside. There's a Decepticon that can disguise itself as a human, which begs the question, if they can do THIS then why bother with cars, trucks and other clunky machinery? Michael Bay has presented a level of cinematic self indulgence that transcends even the likes of George Lucas and M. Night Shayamalan. He aims to make things look cool in slow motion with no concern as to HOW or WHY. There's a story worth telling in there somewhere, it rears its head occasionally only to be submerged in a sea of nonsensical college humor and exploding mechanical debris. Whatever story-arc presented in the shooting draft of Star Trek scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci has been warped, misinterpreted and overshadowed in the final product.

The sound effects are grating and trauma-inducing. The score sounds to have been lifted directly from either Armageddon or Bad Boys 2. Admittedly, the forest fight scene between Optimus Prime and something like 4 other Decepticons was pretty cool, which I was able to discern what was going on. Though this still makes the film 2 hours and 15 minutes too long for its own good. Perhaps what was missing this time around was the guiding hand of first installment producer Steven Spielberg to rein in the superfluous elements. With its opening weekend draw, a sequel is imminent, but as a final warning, this is what you get when you give a child with no supervision $2oo million to play with his toys on camera.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hangover

The Hangover is possibly the best comedy to hit theaters in about two years. There I said it. To draw a comparison to this statement, the last movie to keep me as thoroughly engrossed and laughing consistently was Knocked Up. Skepticism was my first thought. When a movie is so widely acclaimed as this, especially a comedy about being blackout drunk, someone is wrong(examples of this phenomenon are Austin Powers and There's Something About Mary, both funny, but highly overrated.) Fortunately, the rule doesn't come close to applying to The Hangover.

Previously acclaimed for both Road Trip and Old School (we can ignore the missteps that were Starsky and Hutch and School for Scoundrels,) director Todd Philips has a knack for "it list" casting. Previously utilizing Seann William "Steve Stiffler" Scott, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, Philips now ushers in the next generation of comedic talent in Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper.

The lead in this ensemble is actually Helms (The Office's rage-oholic Andy Bernard) as Stu, the resident pushover with the uber-controlling girlfriend. Cooper (departing from the role of "evil boyfriend" from Wedding Crashers) plays Phil, the fun loving friend that puts the "buddy" in "buddy-comedy." Then there's Zach Galifianakis as the bride-to-be's black sheep older brother, Alan. He's essentially the creepy guy that has very few friends because he's just so strange, but never really got a handle on how strange he really is because he didn't have any friends to tell him so. Justin Bartha (Riley Poole from both National Treasures) brings up the rear as the MIA groom. Throw in some guest appearances by Heather Graham (who is surprisingly not horrible in this, in the same way she wasn't horrible on Scrubs,) Mike Tyson (proving that he's still the champ, albiet a champ with a really weird facial tattoo,) Rob Riggle (regular Daily Show correspondent/loudmouth,) an small appearance by director Todd Philips himself and The Dan Band (previously seen at the wedding from Old School) and the absurdity abounds for at least 2 hours.

Putting a new twist on the classic "Bachelor Party in Vegas" gig, The Hangover blacks out all the drunken debaucherie from our "heroes" and we are left with the aftermath of a night that went wrong on so many levels. Missing tooth? Check. Tiger in bathroom? Check. Baby in the closet? Check. Zach Galifianakis without pants? Check. From this point out it's almost as if the movie doesn't stop to catch its breath until well after the credits have started rolling (you'll see what I mean) presenting a comedic momentum that's been unmatched in cinema for a long time. Most comedies either start strong and lose steam halfway through or keep the strength up but get caught up in the heavy handed moral tale at the core of the narrative. The Hangover manages to mix in the morality and message while keeping the funny at a constant peak level.

After some thought, this film sort of rounds out Todd Phillips' trilogy of successful comedies. A trilogy I will call, the Man/Boy Trilogy. They all include a similar set of characters enduring comedic circumstances.

Breckin Meyer/Luke Wilson/Ed Helms - Straight man, emotional lead.
Seann William Scott/Vince Vaughn/Bradley Cooper - Irrational shoulder angel to the straight man. Id.
D.J. Qualls/Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis - Oddball, uncomfortable comic relief.

All three films encompass some sort of brotherly bond among close friends. The films progress and mature in an almost Apatowian fashion (from 40 Year Old Virgin to Knocked Up to this year's Funny People.) Road Trip features immature college kids acting like immature college kids. Old School has adult men reliving their glory days as immature college kids and The Hangover follows up with adult men acting like immature adult men. Rumors of a sequel are already milling around the studio with Phillips possibly at the helm. If that's the case, I can only hope that it's as hilarious as its predecessor.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Year One

When you first hear about the bible era comedy from former Ghostbuster turned director Harold Ramis, you'd think it has the makings of a comedy goldmine. Conceived as a sort of Superbad meets History of the World Part I, I was hoping for laughs in the vein of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Unfortunately, Year One slides by as a merely passable parody of Roland Emmerich's prehistoric disasterpiece 10,000 B.C. which was funny enough on its own.

Jack Black and Michael Cera play opposing cavemen versions of their type-cast character models and the two bumbling cro-mags proceed to Mr. Magoo their way through the Genesis portions of the Old Testament. While the "greatest story ever told" is indeed overflowing with opportune parody, Year One takes the low road and equates everything down to genital and poop humor. Unfortunately, the laughs that aren't cheap aren't frequent enough to maintain interest for the duration of this film's 90 minutes. Also, it's painfully obvious that much of the adhesive humor was left on the cutting room floor to garner a PG-13 rating by the MPAA. Perhaps an unrated DVD will work better, but I wouldn't put money on it.

The guest stars shine a dim light on much of the latter half. Paul Rudd is criminally underused as Abel and David Cross's Cain quickly loses his charm after the inevitable fratricide occurs (spoiler alert?) Harold Ramis appears himself as Adam, but doesn't offer much beyond a cursory "Hey, look who it is!" Hank Azaria and Superbad's own McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Yeah, I'm tired of the while McLovin shtik too...) show up as Abraham and Isaac and Oliver Platt arrives toward the beginning of the 3rd act to encompass the world's first gay joke.

It's not that Year One isn't kind of funny. Though, that's the problem. It's only KIND OF funny. Like so many Saturday Night Live skits, it begins strong and peters out somewhere in the middle of the second act. The cinematography is relatively stale, mostly consisting of close up shots making up the dialog, presumed to splice out R-rated quips or off color improvs. This is particularly upsetting considering Ramis has put out quality material, and fairly recently to boot. Not only was he responsible for the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, but 2005's overshadowed and under appreciated dark comedy The Ice Harvest with John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Randy Quaid. With those projects in mind, Year One just comes across as a lazy attempt at comedy.

At the end of the day, Year One is worth a rental. There are laughs to be had, but the pause button will come in very handy on this one. Though, in this economy ten bucks a ticket is just too much to see Jack Black eat poop and Michael Cera pee on himself.