Review: Whatever Works

  • What Works:Woody Allen. Larry David. There ya go. This is the best thematic version of relativism in Allen’s career.
  • Whatever Dosen’t Work: A lot of old and recycled ideas, lines, characters.
  • Faux Peter Travers Quote: I’m from New York so I’m not allowed to call Allen’s latest “a dazzling force du Woody.”

Older, wiser and bitter-um-er, Woody Allen returns to New York once again and, once again, nobody seems to care. The dying breed that is print critics, especially the self deified ones from New York, are too cool for Allen and too afraid of seeming out of touch. Instead, they’re too busy sucking Pixar doodle and telling everyone to run out and see “The Proposal” (48 on Metacritic) instead of “Whatever Works” (low 40s). And people will listen, not because they listen to critics (no way) but because the public also dismisses Allen. America’s punishment: his impressive European film spree (“Match Point,” “Scoop,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona”) that will no doubt resume any day (or year) now.  His next film is being made in London by the way.

Whatever, Allen has returned after his (justified) cultural exile to make a film about, what else, his neuroses, his creepy old-man lust, his black hole world view and, well, his self! After so many years of all kinds of brilliance (dramatic Woody, comedic/dramatic Woody, light comedy Woody, urbane comedy Woody, dumb comedy Woody, Fellini Woody, Bergman Woody, etc.) there’s not much else to say at this point about his unparalleled body of work except that his latest entry, “Whatever Works,” is vintage Woody Allen “comedy” in terms of plot, dialogue and laid back filmmaking. That is no surprise considering the screenplay is thirty+ years old and was intended for the never-funny Zero Mostel. The always-funny Larry David has stepped in and thank god… for which there is none.  

Vintage Allen, yes, with the difference that headliner Larry David does Woody Allen much in the same way Kenneth Branagh did him in “Celebrity.” The pairing of star and director works brilliantly this time because the star, David, is a disciple of the director where as Branagh is an offshoot of Lawrence Oliver. The film is not related to “Celebrity” however. Instead, it’s a healthy mix of the urban pontifications and crabby mentor/young protegee style of “Anything Else” and the sexual configuration /reconfigurations of “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” As David’s imbettered character recoils at “the horror, the horror” of life, calling everyone below his level of “genus” morons and tapeworms and imbeciles and curses all institutions while living in fear of the hell that is other people, he also learns to love thanks to a young visitor Melodie, the good-for-the-first-time Evan Rachael Wood. Against all cosmic odds the relationship ends up working because she likes put downs and he puts everything down, and because she likes listening and he likes talking. And, boy, does he talk. When David wakes up in a cold sweat fearing that the universe is ending the dialogue is familiar but worth re-hearing when coming from Larry David’s mouth.  

David’s character Boris Yellnikoff often chastises the young Melodie, a dim (but not really as it turn out) southern belle, for her naive use of cliché among other things. When Boris makes a cliché himself during one of his many rants, she calls him on it. Boris quickly recovers by positing the notion that sometimes the only way to get to the truth of a matter is through cliché. That’s what Allen the writer is doing here. Allen has been at it for so long that when Boris turns to the screen –breaking the fourth wall– to talk to us about how the audience doesn’t seem to be with him towards the end of the film, it feels appropriate even if it’s not the most clever moment of self reflexivity in the always meta Allen’s oeuvre. 

 The plot follows exactly as one would expect and there are very few surprises in terms of the plot or Allen’s approach. That’s fine by me because, remember, “Whatever Works” is light Allen and only fools should expect Allen to break new ground every year, especially with his comedies. Some years we get “Match Point” and every calls the film genus and Allen a comeback figure while other years we get “Scoop” and everyone freaks out, saying he’s lost his touch. I always find this auteur alarmism amusing as it fails to take into account the fact that sometimes Allen just needs to make a film for the sake of making a film! In that respect “Whatever Works” is the stretch before his workout resumes again.  

With characters like Patricia Clarkson as Melodie’s mother (who goes from Bible belt babbling to New York hippie in a New York minute) and Ed Bagley Jr. as her father (who goes from homophobic redneck to, um, something else in a New York second) to Boris’ eye rolling friends (oh, how I love Michael McKean, even when he’s not doing much in a movie) to the Brit hunk played by Henry Cavill that tries to steal Melodie away from Boris (he’s the film’s weakest link), the supporting cast is larger than I expected and, for the most part, amusing. I especially, and for reasons I cannot explain, enjoyed watching Ed Begley Jr. join Allen’s universe (I’m hoping he becomes the new Tony Roberts). So the cast is nice even though I found myself a bit disappointed that David’s character gets a bit lost in the plot towards the third act. Still, Boris’ presence is strong throughout the picture and, besides, Allen may have made the right choice in cutting back a bit from him because a little bit of Boris (and David) goes a long way. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is great, but great in 30 minute bursts. Two hours of David is a different story. And while I’m on the subject: is Larry David any good here? Yes, of course he is, he’s great at negotiating his own style with Allen’s voice and I hope he works with Allen again and again. But is he any good as an actor? No, but of course he isn’t, he’s Larry David and Larry David gets a pass because… he’s Larry David.

Belittling kids and befouling bathrooms (while obsessive compulsively singing “Happy Birthday” to himself), Boris is a mean bastard but what surprised me most about this film is how optimistic it ends up becoming. The title itself is a reference to Boris’ insistence that the “chamber of horrors” we call life is so bleak and oppressive against the human condition that whatever happiness we can squeeze out of the toothpaste tube of life should be taken and embraced. The film ends up being a highly profound relativistic ode to finding happiness on whatever terms we can because life is as short as Woody Allen. The film even manages to end with the shot of a group hug where all characters embrace each other in a harmonious circle. In the drama/comedy “Away We Go,” sentimentality is cheap and used as a device. In this film it’s touching and earned because characters are able to grow and learn while still remaining the same flawed characters.   

“Whatever Works” is a comfort in a way only Allen films can be comforting. They’re fun, they are cynicle and they are reliable. It’s like snuggling up next to a fluffy pillow every night… that’s cold, prickly and always reminds your head that mortality is imminent and the darkness of death is nothing compared to the darkness of your room at night.

Grade: A-

Review: The Hangover

  • What’s Good:Galifianakis
  • What’s Not: Masturbating a baby is not funny. Just kidding, it’s hilarious!

As funny as it sounds/As funny as it looks/As funny as it isI still didn’t really go crazy with this one. I admire the hell out of it however and that’s something I rarely do with popular comedies. The tone is just right (edgy, not to soft yet not too mean) and the premise (“After Hours,” meet “Dude Where’s My Car”) is clearly on to something with audiences looking for something beat off, er, off beat. Because, really, all “The Hangover” is  is a no bull shit adult comedy, which, considering all the other shit we’ve been fed (JUDD APPATOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), this shit smells pretty good. Director Todd Phillips says that most comedies are 40% bad behavior and 60% apologizing for bad behavior. Examples of this are from the above director Apatow, whose great-ish films (“40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) are ruined by second half back peddling and of course “Wedding Crashers,” a film where the crashing stops and pussification starts about twenty minutes into the film. What allows for bad behavior here is that the characters don’t remember doing it (hence the title) in the past and don’t realize they’re doing it in the present and this “Memento” like daze gives the film a truly unique comedic angle that other comedies just don’t have.

There is no apologizing here. Babies (and babes) will get abused and racial slurs will go flying without so much as a second guess as to if it’s funny. It is! But the film is not out to shock like so many post “Pie” comedies. There is also an endless supply of strangely quoteable dialogue with random lines like “Tigers lover pepper, they hate cinnamon” and “It would be so cool if I could breast feed” spoken by man child Zach Galifianakis. So, yeah, I admire it and yet my Hangover was a mostly passive experience with a constant thought of “hum, that there’s really funny” occurring without so much as cracking a teehee. I am proud to say that I, along with a lot of moviegoers, knew this was going to be something special for months but somehow that didn’t translate into rushing out to see it. From months before to a full month after “THE EVENT” –and after everybody told me this film is exactly as good as I figured it would be– I saw it and of course felt like I had already seen it and already liked it. The effect, contrived as it seems, is that of having seen something really cool while under the influence and forgetting you saw it only to see it again and go “Oh, yeah–that.”

Grade: B

Review: Away We Go

  • What’s Good: …crickets.
  • What’s Not: The film is condescending and full of toxic smugness. The lack of character consistency makes the comedy not funny and drama not convincing. This is an all-around horrible experience full of bad melodrama, annoying musical interludes and hit or miss, or really miss comedic moments. What stings the most is that the script is by David Eggers who wrote a brilliant “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”
  • Faux Peter Traverse Quote: Up, up and away we go to the best movie of the year! If this golden gem will make your heart sing and loins crackle you’re a soulless McCain supporter.

From the endless navel gazings of “American Beauty” to the constant “I’m better than this!” whining of “Revolutionary Road’s” young lovers, British director Sam Mendes makes films about annoying people with monstrous senses of entitlement that also feel they’re way more profound than they are. Mendes slops it on until you too want to commit suicide or at least help his characters along the way with their self induced/publicly inflicted misery. His new film is all that with the added stylistic device that it is indie film grandiose instead of overly cinematogrophized (my word) grandiose–I would give this artfully dreadful dramedy a big fat F worthy of the equally self absorbed “Rachael Getting Married” if it were not a competent piece if filmmaking. And by competent I mean it’s shot in focus. What is not competent is everything else I saw.

“Away We Go” gets a lot of use out of its not-so-clever title. A LOT. The film is about a funny/sad couple who scour North America looking for a place to live. The reason: Because the girl Maya Rudolph is pregnant and her boyfriend, played by the overrated phenomenon that is John Kransinski, has no job. So….. FOLKY MUSIC/ROAD TRIP TIME!!! because poor 33-year-olds can totally afford to jet across the continent and back. This is the kind of empty and meandering planes/trains/automobiles odyssey that has no reason to exist other than to show you how unique its characters are and how strange everyone else in the world is. It’s about alienation in that respect but about about self-promotion in all others in the sense that wherever they go and whatever they see it’s ALWAYS about them. In a post “Garden State” (curse you Zach Braff!) cinematic world, the film’s only addition to this newly popular (and yet to be bearable) thirty-something approved genre is that it’s a co-existential drama/comedy. That equates to double the smug and double the misery.

That’s a big problem. As one road trip rendezvous bleeds into another the film’s humor works at times but I kept having to ask myself what purpose it served. When the two leach, I mean leads meet an Arizona couple who shout out random threats and vulgarities like “my tits are down to my knees… and they have hair on them!” (contrary to that line, Allison Janney’s F-word blasting mom is best thing about this film), it’s meant to be funny. When they meet a Canadian couple who have adopted four kids and force them to watch only the happy parts of “The Sound of Music” because can’t have any on their own, it’s sad. The  new-age hippie couple is funny (or, at least, the film thinks they are) whereas the brother whose wife just left him is sad. On and on. The film seems to be struggling to making a point about the fracturing of America (or something) but the narrative does not uphold that already thin theme in any consistent or believable way. It just twists it inward. The dialogue is also maddening in is bi-polarity. The non-leads that pop in and crash out are way too sitcom-y and the leads say random-ass things like “If I die, tell the baby that I went out fighting Russian soldiers to keep Chechnyan orphans safe” (“I’m paraphrasing but probably saying it better than the film would). As if afraid to really talk seriously the characters usually espouse such “funny” lines in the middle of the billions of dead serious what-does-it-all-mean discussion that go nowhere and go nowhere often.

The film’s phony hipster musings are nauseating and it’s plot is noxious. There is nothing I like about this film. Think of a structurally similar film like “Broken Flowers” in which a man goes on a journey to meet past lovers and take away all the quirky charm and brilliance then add a cast of forced personalities and a non stop stream of eclectically hip tunes. The film’s plot is as mechanical as its emotional pallet. Intertitles say “Away to Arizona” followed by the couple going to Arizona, followed by the couple meeting that couple and getting creeped out by their CRAZZZZZZZIIIINEESSSSS followed by a nighttime conversation about the baby to be or childhood issues (waaaaaaah, my parents died when I was 22) or some other insufferable bore (the story about Maya Rudolph and her sister attaching fake plastic fruit to a failed lemon tree is so no metaphorical or poignant) followed by a line, the next day, like “Hey, lets go to ___ to visit my ___.” Repeat, rinse, and after the tenth nostalgic musical cue that more or less tells you exactly what to think or how to feel: puke.

Just about the only thing that is not mechanical are the main characters. They’re just haphazard. Their personalities conform to whatever kind of moment the film currently harping on. If it’s comedy than Krasinski  is doing wacky things like screaming “cunt!” in public to get the baby’s low heart rate up (uh, ha?) but when he’s hearing about his friend’s inability to have a kid while his wife is doing a fully clothed strip tease in a Canadian bar (what?!)  he’s all tender and weepy and acting like the Emo King of the World. Then there’s the in-between moments that are not funny or sad like when the uptight hippie couple forbids strollers from entering their sanctuary then say something racist that ticks off Krasinski’s character, causing him to run throughout the house with the crazy couple’s sheltered kid in a stroller as Rudolph is perched on the door and laughing like a madwoman. Wow, this film is awful!

Grade: D-

Review: Drag Me to Hell

  • What’s Good: A horror comedy hasn’t been attempted since Slither (one of my favorites from 2007) and, well, it didn’t turn out too well because everybody hated that film. The film has a great (and simple) set-up and greater pay-off.
  • What’s Not: Here is a horror film that is too good for horror fans. The film was marketed as a deep dark girl in trouble horror film. Marketed towards people who (a) have never seen “Evil Dead” and (b) didn’t know this film’s isn’t as deep or dark or scary as they hope.
  • Faux Peter Travers Quote: This film will drag YOU to the scares! 

Sam Raimi, you are hereby forgiven for making the “Spider-Man” films. The fringe-now-Hollywood filmmaker’s latest (non-franchise) work, “Drag Me To Hell,” is a refreshing reminder that a free director is an interesting director. Raimi approaches “Hell” with the attitude that a horror film need not get bogged down with high concepts or teenage stars or even torture, that, instead, it can be fun and still be scary. Yes, he did “Spider-Man” but forget that for now, the first piece of information every viewer should be made aware of is that the creator of this strange horror film made the “Evil Dead” series –gonzo horror if ever the two could be applied to each other– but he also made “The Gift,” a stylish thriller about psychics in the South and “A Simple Plan,” a film where money is truly the root of all evil. Well, he takes that adage literally on his trip to “Hell,” a winningly morbid film that blends elements from all three; the beauty of one, the darkness of the other and the macabre-edy of the “Evil Dead.”

At the heart of “Hell” is the perpetually prepubescent looking Allison Lohman (“Matchstick Men”) as Christine Brown, the what-else-but innocent loan manager tormented by a gypsy after she chooses (a key word here) to reject the old bag’s final mortgage extension. The house is taken, the gypsy is mad, the girl is fucked. Forget the bank stuff for a sec and this film actually sounds scary –and it is at times– but it’s also played for laughs; ex. the gypsy whips out her false teeth, drools on, nibbles on and curses on the poor girl all within a five minute span. The aftermath of the curse is endless (fun) torture done up with great style and a brilliant sense of comic timing that I haven’t seen since “Shaun of the Dead” and, before that, “Evil Dead 2” two of the best cut and paced horror films of all time. This is the third! Each stinger is calculated with a great, malicious glee. Post curse, not only does Christine hear voices and take desperate measures to rid the hallucinations but her body is put through the horror ringer as much as any action hero. The “Thinner” meets “Tales from the Crypt” plot is so bare and stupid that even the  “gypsy curses a girl description” is too much. Just say “gypsy curse.” Whatever it’s called “Hell” is a nice distraction from the mid-decade onslaught of blond heroines tormented by ghosts genre that, it should be noted, a fair share Raimi cursed us with himself (he produced the rancid “Grudge” remakes, “Bogeymen” and “The Messenger”). So it’s a nice bit of karma service that Raimi himself joins the blond-girl-in-peril fray without the “look at my horror mastery” pretensions I thought he had after looking at his production slate. Eschewing the usual haunted hooey, Raimi goes for a light approach that almost seems to be mocking the serious J-horror/J-horror remake crap. “Hell” isn’t a parody but after a decade of bad female driven horror films it might as well be.

I haven’t even mentioned the cast, which is perfectly cast with lesser know performers. The gypsy Mrs. Ganush is played by TV actor Lorna Raver and she not only looks the part and acts the part but, post death (not really a spoiler since she dies in the first act), her obviously fake body provides “Weekend at Bernies” level of shock laughter. There’s also an Indian psychic (Dileep Rao) that helps Lohman’s character and, while never cracking a joke, always seems to be on the bubble of making one. He’s really good. And, okay, so is Justin Long as her boyfriend. While he plays the obligatory dude that’s totally “there” for the scared heroine, I appreciated his lighthearted but always concerned approach (his and the film’s final scene is one of the best in all of horror-dom). While Raimi may be forgiven for the “Spider-Man” films, Long isn’t off the hook for all those Apple ads; it doesn’t help matters that he uses a giant Apple desktop computer while taking calls from an iPhone that, in one scene where Lohman tries to call him, is framed in the foreground so prominently that I thought I was watching a Brian De Palma split screen shot.

Whatever. I had a great time which is not something I usually can write about a horror film for even the ones I looooooooovvvvvveeeeee such as “Let the Right One In” are not exactly what I would call a “great time.” The thing of it is, Raimi had a great time too. It shows in almost every shot. There’s a moment where Lohman is attacked and cornered by an unseen demon trickster in a shed and what happens next is almost exactly what would happen in an “Evil Dead” film: the film pans up to reveal a rope, follows that rope over to an anvil (of course!) and cuts to a knife cutting the rope which plummets down with a great whoosh and squishes the demon whose fluids nail Catherine right in the kisser. Ash would be proud. Raimi doesn’t give a fuck if he’s being derivative, besides, being derivative of “Evil Dead” is not that common anymore and most welcome.

“Drag” features some of the most lively and humorous animal moments I’ve ever seen in a horror film. When told she must sacrifice a living creature by the psychic, the desperate vegetarian gives one of the best lines of the film when she gets home and says “here kitty, kitty, kitty.” Another botched sacrifice occurs when a goat is brought to a séance. A servant brings the occult animal to the table, chains it up and…….. after a few awkward moments of silence the animal looks at Lohman and almost seems to be smiling (necessary, no. great, yes). Then there’s that wonderful moment that occurs the night that Lohman is cursed by the gypsy. In a tight close-up of Lohman’s face a fly buzzes on her eyelid, jumps to the other then finds its way to her nose. It’s buzzing turns into mad whispering, it then flies into her nose going in one nostril and out the other. Finally, it comes to her closed lips and shimmies its way into her mouth. She wakes up choking and the fly pops out.

My point isn’t to drone on about Raimi’s quirky touches (I could go on and on about a fight scene that takes place with a handkerchief!!!) but to simply state that the writer/director has crafted a B-horror film that suits him more or at least as much as any personal project he’s attached his name to; this project must be especially liberating after being tethered to the “Spider-Man” universe.

As I was leaving the theater an usher and fellow nerd looked at me and said “how many times do you thing she got stuff shoved in her mouth.” Now, this is one of the few female driven horror films where that does not mean what you think it does. My answer, “a lot… she got it worse than Ash” defines the character pretty well instead. The usher then asked the next couple, “so did you laugh?” They shrugged, grunted and scurried along their way, presumably to watch the “Friday the 13th” remake. I think they didn’t GET this film. That is probably because horror fans…….. are dumb. Which, in turn, is usually because the genre is. A film like “Hell” challenges that notion with the simple twist of making the scares silly without taking away what makes them scary. When Lohman finds the evil gypsy waiting for her in her car it’s scary!/When she staples the old monster’s head and crams a ruler in her throat which is shot back out like a projectile weapon, it’s funny/when she tracks down and approaches the gypsy’s now-condemned house, it’s scary!/when she enters to find an old world funeral with drinking and gambling followed by a series of events that leads to Ganush’s comically dead body tumbling down on Cathrine with torrents of green embalming fluid flooding into her mouth… it’s, yeah, funny as hell.  Okay, so the film isn’t “smart” in what it says (the notion that the true horror banks and their ability to ruin lives worse than any monster is entirely tangentle) or even what it shows on the surface (Lohman is not some feminist icon but a simple girl from a farm) but it is smart in it’s approach which, as I mentioned, is half way between a parody and the darkest of horror films. That “Saw” underperformed financially while another dozen “Saw” films are right down the road shows me how deprived/depraved this genre is.

Grade: A-