Over the last couple of months I've been neck-deep in "Bet the House"----first gambling for 30 straight days, and then writing a 300-page book about the experience. I tried to keep up with as many movies as I could during that time, but as much as I tried, I wasn't able to manipulate time so that I could have a couple of extra hours per day to write about these films.
Apparently it's a pretty strict limit: one day, 24 hours. No more, no less.
So I thought I'd do a quick roundup of my take on some of the late spring/early summer releases.
Let's start with Woody Allen's most recent film, "Whatever Works." As the familiar white-on-black opening credits popped up to the tune of Woody's beloved Groucho singing, "Hello, I Must Be Going," I couldn't help but smile. Yes, Allen sometimes repeats himself. Fine, he may have peaked with "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters." But consider that in the last decade, he's given us "Match Point," "Scoop," "Vicky Christina Barcelona" and the underrated "Melinda and Melinda." If those had been the first four films of some young director, he'd be hailed as a budding genius.
In "Whatever Works," Allen dusts off a script he wrote in the 1970s. It might have worked better if he had set it in the 1970s as well, as some of the themes seem dated--but the larger truths are universal, and the dialogue is biting and often laugh-out-loud funny. Larry David does a variation on his "Curb" character as Boris Yellnikov, a burned-out genius who's been in a bad mood for the last quarter-century. Yellnikov spends his days lecturing his fellow intellectuals about the meaninglessness of life, teaching chess to children (he berates them for being "imbeciles"), and generally waiting to die.
Enter Evan Rachel Wood as Melody, a teenage runaway who shows up on Boris' doorstep like an overnight package from Lolitas 'R Us. If you think the relationship between Melody and Boris will be strictly platonic, you haven't been paying attention to Woody Allen's movies or for that matter his life all these years.
"Whatever Works" is all about finding the true nature of one's self. Every major character undergoes a life-shattering transformation. Some of these changes are more plausible than others. Not that Allen is striving for pure realism; after all, Boris often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. David's line readings are flawless; he has a way of barking his dialogue that somehow takes just a little bit of the sting off his putdowns. He's a mean son of a bitch, but he'd be a hell of a lot of fun to hang around with.
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"The Taking of Pelham 123" is a serviceable thriller, but I had two major problems with it:
1. I never believed John Travolta as a psychopath who can drop people as casually as most folks brush their teeth. He's got the tattoos and the intense gaze, he's swearing up a storm and he's strutting about with his guns----but it all feels mannered and actorish. Travolta can do malevolent, in classics such as "Pulp Fiction" and in action-movie silliness such as "Swordfish" and "The Punisher." He tries to sell it here, but it never feels authentic.
2. Director Tony Scott feels compelled to pepper the film with one ridiculous car chase/car wreck scene after another, with police cars flying through the air like gymnasts at the Olympics. It takes you out of the movie as you wonder how many stunt drivers were employed in the making of this film.
Fine work from Denzel Washington as a transit authority executive trying to redeem himself as he negotiates with Travolta, who has hijacked a train car in a plan that doesn't really seem like a plan so much as a suicide mission. And James Gandolfini steals every scene he's in as a scandal-scarred mayor who doesn't much care what the public thinks of him, cuz he's on his way out.
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Going back a few weeks: "Terminator: Salvation" seems like a waste of time and effort. It's like one of those "Clone Wars" deals, where you just get the feeling everyone is trying to milk a great franchise where all the best stories have already been told. Your head spins as you try to figure out why this character needs to stay alive and that robot seems to be targeting the wrong human.
About halfway through, my mind began to wander and I thought: At one point during filming was there a scene so intense that Christian Bale would launch into that infamous rant?? It's not like he was filming "The Machinist," for God's sake.
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Apparently Matthew McConaughey did some sort of romantic comedy recently? Oh gooood for him! What is that, 127 lightweight Matthew McConaughey vehicles since he appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair about a decade ago, hailed as the next Paul Newman?
I missed "The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," and yet, I didn't really miss it.
* * *
"The Hangover" has become the surprise breakout hit of 2009, thanks in no small part to a smart and relentless publicity campaign that included literally hundreds of sneak preview screenings to ratchet up the Buzz Factor. It's a twist on the bachelor party/Vegas raunchy comedy, with three buddies trying to figure out, A., what happened to the groom, B., how one of them lost a tooth, C., why there's a tiger in their room, D., how one of them got married, and E., F., G., H., etc., a whole bunch of other shit. Director Todd Phillips ("Old School") specializes in Guy Movies in which the guys are having a REALLY hard time growing up, and he's shameless in his pursuit of cheap laughs, whether it's a shot of a 80-year-old man's naked posterior or a mincing Asian thug.
The female characters are superfluous. There's a fretting bride, a bitch on wheels and of course a hooker with a heart of gold. It's all about the guy humor here, and as crude as the gags get, I laughed consistently. "The Hangover" isn't as funny as "The Wedding Crashers" or "Knocked Up," but it's easy to see why this movie has connected with the target demographic. Expect a sequel, then another sequel, and then probably a watered-down TV series, starring none of the original cast members.
* * *
The "Dangerous Liasions" team of director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton reunite for "Cheri," a cheeky piffle that will keep you amused throughout----and then you'll forget about this film two days later. It's so light and airy it'll just float from your consciousness. Michelle Pfeiffer, still magnificently beautiful at 50, shines as an aging courtesan in the early part of the 20th century. Just when she's considering retirement, she falls for Cheri, a poor little rich boy less than half her age. He's a handsome cad, but it's hard to believe this jaded, worldly, vibrant woman would fall desperately in love with him and dedicate her very being to winning him back after he finds a younger bride. Even at 92 minutes, "Cheri" exhausts the source material, which was pretty thin in the first place.
* * *
More reviews soon, including "Tetro," "Shrink" and "Public Enemies."