A Review of Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”

Larry David tries to convince Evan Rachel Wood that Woody Allen likes her just as much as Scarlett Johannson.

Larry David tries to convince Evan Rachel Wood that Woody Allen likes her just as much as Scarlett Johannson.

“I’m not a likable guy…”
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Woody Allen’s alter ego, Boris (a bitterly good and sardonic Larry David) makes this statement to the audience rather early on in Whatever Works.  The truth is, no matter how misanthropic, sarcastic and neurotic Woody Allen is, he ultimately is a pretty likable personality…if you like that type.  Allen’s return to Manhattan after three stays in London and a wonderful stop-over in Barcelona is yet another niche film. Fans of Allen, as well as fans of Larry David’s “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (which not so ironically should be the same folks) will find plenty to laugh at here, while others will inevitability whine, “I don’t care for Woody Allen…and oh, that Larry David! Can’t stand him!”

The plot of Whatever Works  is irrelevant.  Boris is some sort of genius-level physicist trying to speed his way to death, though those metaphors are never explored as poignantly as they should be.  It all just serves as a soap-box for Allen (through David) to funnel his usual dialogues about relationships, love, luck and the meaning of life.  It’s all very broad and obvious this time around, but it’s sometimes nice to still be laughing at the same old feel-good shtick.  It should come as no surprise that Boris also tells the audience this isn’t a movie designed to make you feel good, unless you’re Allen fans, and then you’ll feel pretty swell afterward.  Leave it to Allen to infer moviegoers are inherently morons, but we’re sophisticates for watching his films.

Apparently this is a reworked screenplay from the 1970’s and the Annie Hall style monologues to the audience are evidence of that.  In the jokes department you’ll find old standards mocking the French and suggesting kids should attend “concentration camps” for the summer mixed with modern humor about the Taliban and Viagra.  There’s also one hilarious throw-away/blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to James Cameron’s The Abyss that makes you wonder if perhaps the screenplay was first reworked in the 1980’s before its final incarnation here. 

In the casting department we find Patricia Clarkson, yet again, is a delight in her curiously under-written over-written role (which is far too simply complex to explain in a traditional review) and continues to build a case for herself to be declared this generation’s “Best Supporting Actress” twenty years from now.  Evan Rachel Wood is cute-as a-button (oh, as her character might declare, what a cliché) as a Southern cutie-pie who runs away to New York City and meets up with the suicidal Boris.  Allen, as always, is luminous with his photography of the “young lady.”  And unlike the similarly dumb motor-mouthed funny-voiced Mira Sorvino character from Mighty Aphrodite, Wood’s character is actually given an arc here and proves not to be as shallow and moronic as Boris originally assessed, which indicates maybe Allen is growing just a teeny bit in his view on women…or maybe not.

Ultimately this is yet another testament to Allen’s worldview, which is summed up here as do whatever works for you to trick yourself into believing you’re happy in this miserable world.  Sure, there are times when Boris’ diatribes run a few lines too long, or when the film stops dead when he is not on screen, but for the most part, this is Allen doing what works best for him.  No other director can call himself out on all his personal pratfalls and annoying quirks yet still find a way to endear himself to the faithful who are ever patient with him and his films.  No other director can be so charmingly mean-spirited and self-deprecating yet still find a way to declare his alter ego a genius at picture’s end.  And that’s why we’ve always liked you, Woody, for better and for worse.  For what it’s worth, when it comes to Allen’s better and worse, Whatever Works falls happily in between and works just fine, thank you very much.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out some of my reviews of past Woody Allen films:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Match Point (2005)

Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Annie Hall (1977)

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Well If You Must Scream

We can scream if we want to!

We can scream if we want to!

Inspired by the current polling going on at Wonders in the Dark  (which for my money is the best movie blog site on the web right now) concerning the Best Films of the 1970’s, I decided to catch up on some of the great films from that decade I had yet to see.  One thing led to another, and there I was with the obscure Edvard Munch sitting atop my Netflix queue.  Directed by renowned forefather of the docudrama, Britian’s Peter Watkins, this complex and nearly four hour long biopic of Norwegian post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch was originally made as a miniseries for Norwegian/Swedish TV in 1974.  It was released theatrically around the world in 1976 and was recently done up as a two-disc special edition on DVD.  I watched it in those two parts over the course of two nights and was completely transfixed.

Brazenly presented in the style of a documentary, Watkins’ film begs you to feel as if his cameras were literally there from “moment one” in Munch’s childhood during the late 1800’s all they way up through the abrupt close of the film half way through his life around 1910.  Continue reading

Summer Reading for 2009

Wondering what to read this summer?  Well here’s a motley lot of books that have found their way from the shelves to my coffee table with the potential to satisfy your desire for trashy (and gory) beach reads as well as your need for some substance and perspective.

JUST FINISHED:

Hater by David Moody28 Days Later meets Fight Club meets The Road in this bloody mess of a debut from Brit David Moody.  The novel is of special interest for self-published writers as Moody originally published the novel on the internet before selling the movie rights to horror film producer Guillermo Del Toro and subsequently landing a major publishing contract.  I have to hand it to Moody.  He’s ambitious, and his success is the type all writers dream of.  That being said, Hater isn’t terribly well written.  The first person narration is clunky and repetitive, the characters shallow and poorly drawn and even I know better than to write entire chapters in italics.  However, the premise is interesting enough and taps into some timely discussions on the culture of fear and paranoia that permeates much of our culture.  It’s easy to see why Del Toro thought this could be good fodder for a film, and with Juan Antonio Bayona (of El Orfanato fame) on board to direct, the movie actually seems promising if they take a more psychological approach to the mayhem than the book did.  We’ll have to wait and see, meanwhile, the second part of this alleged trilogy should be hitting bookshelves soon.

CURRENTLY READING:

The Best American Short Stories – 2008 edition, edited by Salman Rushdie.  If you’re like me and don’t have the time to scour through literary magazines for your short-story fix, you can sample the best of the best with this yearly compilation.  I’m maybe half a dozen stories in, and so far my favorite is Danielle Evans’ humorous and quietly heartbreaking tale of why young girls do the foolish things they do, “Virgins”, which originally appeared in The Paris Review.  Evans’ story is the type of sharply observed “slice-of-life” piece that makes fellow scribes wonder what the hell they have been wasting their time writing about for the past year.  Seriously, what the hell have I been writing?

Loser Takes All  by Graham Greene.  No list of mine can exist without an entry from Greene.  One wonders why I didn’t take to this gambling-themed novel sooner.  Just looking at the roulette wheel on the cover makes me want to hop in the car and hit the expressway to Atlantic City.  Alas, this is one of Greene’s breeziest and slightest works, but, it’s still Greene, my friends.  With him I never lose.

IN THE QUEUE:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Yes, I know, I’m a few years behind the times on this one, and heck, I should’ve dived into this one a long time ago with my love of circuses and Depression Era stories.  Didn’t everyone read this in the summer of 2007?   Better late than never, I say.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Yes, I know, I’m waaaaaaay behind the times on this one, but no summer is complete without the tackling of at least one “big thick novel”.  I’m a huge fan of the John Ford 1940 film version, so I’m really looking forward to this Depression Era classic.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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So what’s on your reading list this summer?  Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comment form! 

Happy reading!

A Review of Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go”

8/10

Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with Away We Go.

TV’s John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures’ salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers’ books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor, warmth and a subdued pathos that allows us to relate to the both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.

Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director’s hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the “she’s having a baby!” sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of “discovering yourself on a road trip” indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film’s acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt’s brother through a crisis). You won’t find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it’s reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film’s heart.

As with any Mendes’ production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun’s hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement — beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue — you will ever find in a Mendes’ film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we’re lucky, we’ll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell”

Alison Lohman suddenly found herself regretting asking for that 6am wake-up call.

Alison Lohman suddenly found herself regretting asking for that 6am wake-up call.

Summer was coming to a close in 1985 and in the fall I would be starting kindergarten.   I was five years-old when my parents took my brother and me to the drive-in one Saturday night to see Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  On the screen behind us, they were showing the vampire flick Fright Night in an otherworldly silent glory against the backdrop of a moody moonlit sky.  I can vividly remember sitting in the folded down backseat of my mom’s hatchback car and stealing every single shot of Fright Night I could between nervous chomps of pretzel sticks and sips from juice boxes before the folks caught on.  There was something magical and exciting about getting a peak at those gloriously fiendish and gory scenes from Fright Night completely disembodied from any plot or dialogue while Pee Wee Herman did his bit in the background much to our annoyance.  By far, those scenes in that context were the scariest things I had ever laid eyes on.  It’s a memory the movie-lover in me will never forget.

Flash forward almost twenty-five years later, and here comes Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, which just might be the most fun I’ve had at the movies since that night at the drive-in lying under the covers in the hatchback dreaming of the days when I would be old enough to watch movies like Fright Night whenever I wanted.  Continue reading

A Review of Atom Egoyan’s “Adoration”

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Interesting Dramatic Experiment
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

A teenager (Devon Bostick) who was orphaned after the tragic deaths of his parents is prompted by his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) to deliver a fictional monologue about his father’s failed terrorist act as fact in an elaborate “dramatic exercise” in Armenian-Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s latest thought-provoking piece of abstraction Adoration.  As the fiction spins out of control over the internet, the true motives of those involved in the lie are revealed and back-stories come collapsing in on each other in Egoyan’s signature elliptical style.

Egoyan, as always, gives patient viewers plenty to chew on. Like the young man’s monologue that marries a true story to a false one about his parents, Adoration itself is an interesting dramatic experiment designed to provoke. It tackles many issues including the motives of terrorists, fractured familial relationships, the hollowness of alleged connections made through modern technology and the dangers of thinking those connections can replace real face-to-face human interaction. Though I always question Egoyan’s motive in casting his wife Arsinee Khanjian in his films, in many ways, she gives her most understated and powerful performance here. Bostick does a decent job with a tough role, though Rachel Blanchard is curiously flat in the flashbacks as his mother. The true revelation is Scott Speedman as the troubled tow-truck driver who reluctantly steps in to raise his sister’s son after she dies. His story arc proves to be the most involving, though one wishes his background had been more developed.

The bizarre detour into sleazy mediocrity with Where the Truth Lies seems to have made Egoyan a little rusty as he returns to a more familiar form here for those who have been watching the arc of his career. The elliptical folding in of the converging plot lines seems clumsier in Adoration than it did in his earlier works, and the “big reveal” comes a few scenes too early and sucks out the emotional impact. Unlike Exotica which had the swagger of a young auteur at the top of his game, or The Sweet Hereafter which came from the sublime source material of novelist Russell Banks, Adoration represents Egoyan bruised from years of wear left to his own devices. Though compelling, he gets the best of himself and let’s the ideas take over the characters. He also relies far too much on visuals of non-characters in chat rooms or of people being recorded with cameras. However, Egoyan scores when Mychael Danna lends his musical compositions. The frequent collaborator does a magnificent job creating a haunting score with a recurring violin motif that plays integral to one of the back-stories.

Back in the late 1990’s Atom Egoyan was in a league of his own and master of his own style. In the past ten years, however, international cinema has seen the emergence of filmmakers like Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) and Germany’s Fatih Akin (whose superb The Edge of Heaven deserved a bigger audience stateside last year). They often tackle similar themes in an elliptical Egoyanesque manner.  But because their films are presented on a larger scale and infused with a certain energy and immediacy, Egoyan’s films, in all their isolated scholarly austerity, have been unfairly left out in the cold.   Adoration  may not be Egoyan’s best, but it proves he still has some good ideas in him and he isn’t ready to be dismissed just yet.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out my reviews of other Egoyan films:

Exotica (1994)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Ararat (2002)

Where the Truth Lies (2005)