Tuesday, June 28, 2011

RSVP to "The Perfect Host" if only to see Pierce

The Perfect Host (2010)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

David Hyde Pierce is absolutely barking mad, crossing queer gee-whizziness with loony psychosis, as the perfect host . . . in "The Perfect Host," a sly, twisted thriller laced with an inky-black sense of humor. John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) is a bank robber on the run and ends up ringing the doorbell to a posh Los Angeles house, where Warwick Wilson (Pierce) is awaiting some guests for a dinner party. John talks his way into the genteel dinner host's house, saying he is a friend of Warwick's friend. Giving away plot details would be criminal, but let's just say, the tables are turned. 

Putting a twist on the home-invasion subgenre (and expanding onto the filmmaker's well-received 2002 short "The Host"), writer-director-editor Nick Tomnay takes us one way and then another, but the irony doesn't stop there. Playing Dr. Niles Crane of TV's "Frasier" without the broad laughs, Pierce puts on a show of crazy with a capital C. In one scene—that's as creepy as it is amusing—he boogies on down to Rose Royce's soul disco hit "Car Wash" atop his dining room table with his imaginary dinner guests. 

Crawford is dangerous and yet intended to be the more sane character of the two. Flashbacks of John and his physically ill girlfriend, Simone (Meghan Perry), flesh out his character. Tomnay shows a fluid slickness in his initial chamber-piece staging with a tensely throbbing musical score. One twist too many, however unpredictable, "The Perfect Host" is still a compact little thriller that should keep you guessing but not coming away fully satisfied. 

Cast and writing make "Win Win" just that

Win Win (2011)
106 min., rated R. 
Grade: A -

Only two movies down—"The Station Agent" and "The Visitor"—and actor turned writer-director Tom McCarthy already has his form of creating low-key, perceptive character-driven slices of life that are small in scale but satisfy in a big way. "Win Win" now fits into that category. 

Proving he can do anything, whether inhabiting the role of a crazy goon, a lonely soul, or a sadsack everyman, Paul Giamatti is great here. He's a true character actor and never seems to be acting but just feels lived-in as Mike. You'll never find him playing a type, not even here. 

In "Win Win," the film's protagonist is Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a stressed attorney running a tiny New Jersey law practice, where he mostly handles wills and trusts for older folks. Business isn't great, the plumbing needs repair. He jogs but it doesn't help because he just has panic attacks. Mike has two young girls with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. His solution is an unethical one but it works: he ends up signing on as the guardian of a client, Leo Poplar (still-alive Burt Young), who's slipping into dementia, so he'll pocket the $1,500 a month of the estate as a new source of income. The price? The grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a troubled bleach-blonde 16-year-old delinquet, shows up looking to live with Leo. But since Leo is living in a nursing home and his mother (Melanie Lynskey) is a recovering drug addict in a clinic, Kyle stays with Mike and his family and ends up training with the wrestling team and shows that with past experience he's the best on the team. Then when Kyle's mother shows up to pick up her son, things get really knotty. 

"Win Win" is like real life, complex, untidy, and unsentimental, dodging feel-good sports clichés, as the Big Match never becomes the real focal point. McCarthy employs organic humor and pathos out of the situations with balance, although his character arc for Mike could've been sharper. 

Giamatti makes Mike sympathetic, as he makes unethical choices that lead to inevitable consequences. Led by Giamatti, the rest of the cast is excellent. Shaffer, looking like a younger Eminem, impresses in his first film role; he himself was actually a successful wrestler in high school and won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship. Ryan is wonderfully warm and feisty as Jackie, a Jersey Girl whose maternal instincts kick in upon housing Kyle. She actually gets a well-written part. Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor lend good, amusing support, respectively, as his neurotic best friend and his assistant coach/accountant. 

"Win Win" is a genuine, funny, deeply felt win-win for McCarthy, Giamatti, and everyone involved.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Stake Land" looks great but too much of a dullard

Stake Land (2011)
98 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

Writer-director-editor Jim Mickle displays more talent as a director to "Stake Land," a post-apocalyptic vampire/zombie road movie, than most big Hollywood filmmakers today. Imagine that. 

Melding "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," and "The Road," this is one stark, gritty, often nastily bloody indie and a solid calling card for Mickle, whose talent should not be overlooked. It's just too bad sections of "Stake Land" are kind of dull. 

The epidemic of vampirism has ruined America. Martin (Connor Paolo), a normal teen, witnesses the death of his parents and baby sibling as Mister (Nick Damici), a no-bull vamp hunter, comes to his rescue and takes him under his wing. The two go on the run. Along their way to New Eden, a supposed safe haven in Canada, they pick up stragglers, Sister Anna (Kelly McGillis, the one "name" cast member of "Top Gun" fame), a pregnant young woman, Belle (Danielle Harris, the other sort-of "name"), and a former marine named Willie (Sean Wilson) while running afoul of a crazy-Christian cult known as the Brethren…and those damn vamps, of course. 

The bleak, dead-serious approach is a respite from Stephenie Meyer's vampire soaps at least. The film has moments of creepiness and gory gallows humor, respectively, as when the makeshift family wakes up a sleeping young girl with bloodsucking teeth, as well as the hard-to-kill rundown of an undead banshee. One set piece, nicely captured by one tracking shot, stands out from the rest: a merry hoedown is interrupted by helicoptors dropping vamps one by one. 

"Stake Land" is more watchably compelling for its textured, good-looking cinematography than its story or handful of characters. Paolo's performance as Martin is pretty one-note, so as the narrator we see everything being told through his eyes, but there isn't much emotional involvement in him or the others. Martin's consistent narration is sometimes too obvious that some of his descriptions could've been spared as well. Even though these are vicious bloodsuckers not easily slayed, the most interesting elements are The Brethren and the tough-as-nails Mister. 

The film gets so bogged down in its mournful, dreary tone, coasting along from one "journey scene" to the next in chronicling the group's travels through the badlands. New Eden never comes soon enough. 

While neither a game-changer nor damned enough to drive a stake through the vampire subgenre, if you're voracious for a damn fun vampire movie, you're better off sticking with "Daybreakers" or a more thoughtful take, being "Let the Right One In" or its equally effective 2010 remake "Let Me In." Mickle is still one to watch out for. 

Available On Demand.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Bad Teacher" slight but naughty fun

Bad Teacher (2011)
89 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Move over "Bad Santa," there's a new bad apple (Bad Mrs. Santa?) in "Bad Teacher," a gleefully rude, enjoyably mean-spirited if pretty slight comedy. Cameron Diaz may not be getting any younger, but there's still something about Mary, er, Cam that screams "Let's misbehave!" behind that wide Joker smile and smeary makeup of hers. 

And misbehave she sure does, running with the role of antiheroine Elizabeth Halsey, an unapologetic, foul-mouthed, boozy, bong-hitting viper who doesn't give an "F" unless it involves gold-digging. Once her sugar-daddy fiancee (Nat Faxon) realizes her true colors and dumps her, Elizabeth returns back to the Illinois school that she left before summer vacation to teach a 7th grade class at a bare-minimum work level. The thing is, she doesn't know much about teaching. She blatantly disregards the syllabus. She pops in movies like "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds," and "Scream" to "educate" the kids while she sleeps off her hangovers at her desk. And she doesn't even bother learning her students' names. For all the wrong reasons, Elizabeth's big plan is to get a boob job so it can help her woo Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), the preppy but dense and sappy new substitute who comes from old money. So she spends the rest of the school year finding ways to earn cash by any means necessary, even if that means stealing the show (and money) at a student car-washing fundraiser, bribing her pupils' parents, and stealing the standardized exam forms so her class will score the highest and win her a big, fat bonus. But the uber-chippy, goody-two-shoes teacher across the hall, Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), is onto Elizabeth's scheme, and the school's gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segal), is hot for teacher. 

For a one-joke movie, "Bad Teacher" is quick-paced and never overstays its welcome at just under 90 minutes. Not to sound contradictory, but at the same time, the movie moves at such a breakneck pace that it ultimately never congeals into a fully formed whole. Rather, it's just a series of scenes and bits. Director Jake Kasdan ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story") even flattens gag punchlines with obvious cutaways of erections and semen stains (just see the movie and you'll understand why). Still, there's a consistent breeziness to "Bad Teacher," earning plenty of smiles and just enough laughs. 

It's the cast that really earns its apple. To begin with, Elizabeth is more of a sketch than a character (as Miss Squirrel quarrels, "We know nothing about her!"). She isn't particularly lovable or hateful—she's just a selfish, unethical, criminal schemer who needs to reconsider her priorities—but Diaz gives it all the game she's got that she gets away with murder. And this movie makes good use of her sex (at nearly 40) appeal, too, as she turns the school car wash into a wet T-shirt jiggle show in her roll-up and Daisy Dukes. 

Timberlake is in self-conscious dunce-dork mode, but he gives it his best amusing shot, poking fun at his popstar status as he sings for the faculty-band Period Five. Lucky for him, he gets to share with his real-life ex-girlfriend Diaz one of the unsexiest dry-humping scenes in a comedy the world over. Segal, once again, proves his comic likability and flair for sarcasm as Elizabeth's simpatico match. Punch shows the most gusto, playing Elizabeth's adversary Miss Squirrel with a perfectly demented blend of perkiness and nuttiness. What could've been a truly annoying part, the blossoming British comic has such a zany, out-there energy about her and does a lot with her teeth and body language. Phyllis Smith (who plays Phyllis on TV's "The Office") has small great, endearingly awkward moments as meek co-worker Lynn who's thrilled being in the company of a reprobate. Every time she appears, her nervous-geeky smile and sly line delivery, like "I went to the zoo every weekend," is priceless. Rounding out much smaller roles but still hitting the mark are John Michael Higgins, as the square, dolphin-loving Principal Snur; Thomas Lennon, as the creepy-weird state test administrator; and Eric Stonestreet (the flamboyant Cameron on TV's "Modern Family") in a "straight" role as Elizabeth's intimidating Craigslist roommate. 

Director Kasdan and "Office" writing partners Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg stick to their guns and don't bash us over the heads with an abrupt turnaround or redemption arc for Elizabeth. Yes, she does end up turning over a new leaf, but it's plausibly handled without losing her true nature. 

It's not as smartly scripted as the school-set "Election" or "School of Rock" and doesn't work up the deliciously nasty nerve of the instant classic "Bad Santa," but better than expected. "Bad Teacher" makes the grade as naughty, R-rated summer fun while we wait for Hollywood to turn out edgier, "badder" assignments.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trite "Art" gets by on account of strong cast

The Art of Getting By (2011) 
84 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Originally titled "Homework" when debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Gavin Wiesen's "The Art of Getting By" has Hipster Indie Syndrome hung high above its head, but still manages to get by from strong character work by its fine cast and a work-with-whatcha-got sensibility. It's hard being a trite, familiar coming-of-age indie film after all. 

Mostly perfecting an American accent, Freddie Highmore (no longer an earnest, wide-eyed Charlie Bucket) plays George, a bright, fatalistic young man who attends a private prep school in Manhattan but chooses not to apply himself. He sees no point in doing anything, especially homework, because he's going to die at some point anyway, cynically abiding by the quote: "We live alone. We die alone. Everything else is an illusion." He sketches during class rather than paying attention or handing in assignments on time; he skips class; and he's constantly called to the office of the principal (Blair Underwood), who has a hard time giving up on him. When George helps a cute, popular girl named Sally (Emma Roberts) by taking the blame for smoking on the school rooftop, they become companions and she tries coaxing him out of his existential crisis. Matters don't help on the homefront for either teen—George's mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards) have money problems and Sally's single mom (Elizabeth Reaser) is an alcoholic tease. 

"The Art of Getting By" is uneven, Wiesen showing freshman-effort naivete in terms of writing and directing, but the actors fill their characters with more nuances than what the material allows. Highmore has quite the challenge. His George is a self-proclaimed misanthrope who just seems like a pretentious, disrespectful slacker. But once over, he's really just a sensitive, troubled, wise young man. Though dressed in a quirky homeless-man overcoat and a smoker, George isn't just another Holden Caulfield, standing for teenage rebellion and angst. As popular-girl-who's-tired-of-being-popular Sally, Roberts has an easy screen presence and she works out what she can from such a shallow, inconsistent character. For instance, she smart-mouths her cocky ex-boyfriend, but then once at the club on New Year's Eve, she grinds with him without hesitation, thus leaving George in the dust (or in a puddle of his own binge-drinking puke on the sidewalk). Or, when she makes George feel small and refocuses her attention on Dustin (Michael Angarano), a recent graduate from their school who's making his way as an artist. 

Angarano, by the way, is quite amusing and decidedly unstereotypical in the "other guy" role who respects George as a friend. Daughter of Steven, Sasha Spielberg, stands out as one of Sally's compassionate cool-kid friends, even if she has about four scenes. Looking haggard but feeling more rawly authentic for it, Wilson is wonderfully warm and firm as Vivian. No fault of Reaser's, but her character falls into the margins. Alicia Silverstone of "Clueless" also shows up on the other side of the classroom as George's English teacher who sees potential in him. Her presence has the comfort of seeing an old face.

With a resource-limited film as this, there are sloppy mistakes, like shots of the New York streets decorated with Christmas twinkle lights for the holiday season oddly lacking snow. And 18-year-old high school seniors being served alcohol at the bars without any flash of an I.D.? As if! But the alt-rock soundtrack is easy listening (including selections by The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Leonard Cohen) and the cold, crisp air of N.Y. is palpable through the lens of cinematographer Ben Kutchins' camera. There's nothing fresh or surprising about the plot points that push "The Art of Getting By" to its final moments of homework cramming, familial embrace, and boy-gets-girl (whoops, were those spoilers?), but there's something endearing here about this scrappy indie. When you at least care at the end of a story you've heard before, writer-director Wiesen has done half of his homework.

Monday, June 20, 2011

New on DVD/Blu-Ray: "The Adjustment Bureau," "Cedar Rapids," and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules"

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
106 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

Big Brother is watching Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau," enjoyably odd and far-fetched hokum. Based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick (called "Adjustment Team"), it is a celestial thriller about fate and free will, but above all, it's a love story. As cinematically treated, the result is more "Vanilla Sky" and "The Matrix" than being alligned with Dick's other source material (the dark and superior "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report"). 

Damon, brawny and charismatic, stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming New York politician whose still-untamed frat-boy antics hit the press and hurt his chances of running for the U.S. Senate. During his darkest hour in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel men's room, David has a flirty encounter with a party crasher/ballet dancer named Elise (a feisty, mischievous, completely lovely Emily Blunt). Inspired by her, he becomes a candidate for the next race. Three years later by chance, David runs back into Elise and from fedora-wearing accountants that call themselves The Adjustment Bureau, he learns meeting Elise was not in line with the plan, or the blueprint of David's life. From that point on, he's told he cannot see Elise but David repeatedly tries to buck the system. 

Screenwriter George Nolfi ("The Bourne Ultimatum") makes his directorial debut, adapting Dick's paranoid story. It's intriguing and challenging and just loopy enough to not come off heavy or self-serious. The silly sci-fi details—rainy weather can throw off the bureau's radar of David and top hats enabling David and the adjustment accountants to use doors as portals—are secondary to the bigger picture. 

The romantic aspect of the film need no adjustment, as the two stars instantly connect. Damon and Blunt make a great pair with their sexy, playful chemistry that makes you want them to stay together. Even individually, Damon convinces as a politician and Blunt gets to dance. In the three "bureau" roles, Anthony Mackie provides wisdom and empathy as the angelic Harry, John Slattery has a "Mad Men" cool style, and Terence Stamp is enigmatic and sinister as "The Hammer." The screenplay has a few small quibbles of sloppy writing. For instance, if Elise thinks she's meant to be with David too, how come when time passes she never reaches him? Or when Elise's destiny to be a great dancer could be ruined by being with David and resorting to teaching 6-year-olds? Is that really a fate worse than death? But that's nothing emotional investment can't take care of on screen. 

The last twenty minutes is a pure chase scene, as tight and exciting as any. By the end, the threat is gone, The Big Guy Upstairs gets a nod toward religious allegory, and "The Adjustment Bureau" becomes a letdown. But until then, it's an engaging "Twilight Zone" episode. 

Cedar Rapids (2011)
87 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

"Cedar Rapids" is such a disarming, unassuming movie, and since it's a comedy, being disarming and unassuming are its greatest strengths. Those adjectives could describe Tim Lippe (sounds like "lippy"), the endearingly dippy and dweeby protagonist, played by Ed Helms, the movie's other strength. 

Tim never really went anywhere in his life: he works for a small Wisconsin insurance company called Brown Star and he's sleeping with and "pre-engaged" to his MILFy grade-school teacher, Miss Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver, packing all of her comedic chops into a very small role), but you can call her "Macy." Once his poster-child boss (Thomas Lennon) dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, that leaves Tim with the last-chance responsibility to attend Cedar Rapids, Iowa's annual American Society of Mutual Insurers convention to give a presentation to the very Christian president of the insurance federation (Kurtwood Smith). He's so sheltered and innocent that Tim has never been on an airplane or checked into a hotel room, let alone anywhere else. But once he checks into his suite, he meets his roommates, the straight-arrow Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the crass, boisterous Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), along with a fesity, flirtatious agent named Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). 

"Cedar Rapids" is the kind of smart, entertaining comedy that's hard to find these days and doesn't have to get smarmy and obnoxious to get its laughs. It's low-key but satisfying, and that's all we ask for. 

Helms could've walked a tightrope between character and caricature, but deep down inside, his Tim is just a naive nice guy who falls hard rather quickly but has integrity. It feels like the role was written just for Helms. Reilly, in his zone, has the broadest character of all and runs with it as a blowhard schmuck with a soul. Heche, in a too-rare role, is offbeat, peppy, and foxy as Joan, who uses Cedar Rapids as a vacation from her married/maternal life. Whitlock Jr. is hilariously deadpan as the upstanding Ronald, Tim's African American roommate. Lastly, Alia Shawkat has fun as a young prostitute who's out for a good time, hanging around the convention hotel. Initially, it feels like we're supposed to laugh at the hapless boob that Tim is and these wild Midwesteners, in Phil Johnston's tight first-feature script, but director Miguel Arteta ("Chuck & Buck," "The Good Girl") has affection for his characters and brings them down to Earth and up to speed. These characters are types but given more personality and depth by its game cast. 

Tim's arc leads to a rather formulaic wrap-up, but there's a geniality to "Cedar Rapids"' horny, pot-smoking rowdiness that insures sweetness, a wise nature, and the funny. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)
99 min., rated PG.
Grade: B

Wimpy? Not this sequel. Jeff Kinney's book series was successfully adapted in last year's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and a year later, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules" makes the grade. Rather than being just another retread of its predecessor, this one has the same silly charm and more heart. 

Our underdog hero, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), is now in 7th grade, but that's the least of his problems. Bullying big brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) is constantly in his hair, pranking and tormenting him. Mom (Rachael Harris) and Dad (Steve Zahn) offer them "mom bucks" for every hour the boys spend quality time together. When the folks go out of town with baby brother Manny, Rodrick locks Greg in the basement and throws a wild house party (PG-rated with Coca Cola in red Solo cups), but the siblings clean up and swear to keep the party a secret from their parents. Meanwhile, Greg pines after the new girl, Holly Hills (Peyton List), and Rodrick tries to get a big break with his obnoxious heavy-metal band, Loded Diaper, in the school talent show. 

The same screenwriters and cast (save for Chloe Grace Moretz's Angie) are back, but "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules" gets a new director in David Bowers, who's done previous work in animation, and retains the same silly, snappy, rib-tickling spirit as its predecessor. Narratively, there are a lot of threads here, but Rodrick and Greg's love-hate brotherly relationship is at its core, and the script speaks to universal morals of honesty and sibling relationships. The black-and-white doodle in-betweens are wittily executed the second time around. 

But the face-first-into-cake slapstick and gross-out humor, like when Greg has to go into church with a chocolate bar stain on the bottom of his pants, feel more like demographic pandering rather than key story points. They have the sort of panicky exaggeration that only happen in nightmares, but even taken as situational comedy sketches, they're uninspired. 

Gordon has grown into the character of Greg, gaining more confidence and handling of the humor. Robert Capron, reprising his role as sidekick Rowley, steals a lot of his scenes, especially when he makes a lip-sync YouTube video of Ke$ha's "Tik Tok," which is a hoot. As Rodrick, Bostick comes off cartoonish but settles down by the end once he learns his lesson. Harris and Zahn get more to do as the parents like, respectively, uncoolly dancing around and bugging his eyes out. 

"Rodrick Rules" probably won't be the last time we hear from Greg Heffley, unless this director wimps out on a third like the original director did on this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Top form or not, Woody's "Midnight in Paris" charms

Midnight in Paris (2011)
94 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

Woody Allen has always interpreted his beloved Manhattan as not only a romanticized city but a state of mind. Continuing his change of scenery (since 2005's "Match Point") but not losing that sense of place, Paris follows suit in his latest, "Midnight in Paris." It's a truly charming valentine to the City of Lights and for being the Woodman's 41st film, a literate, witty, playfully clever lark. Judging by how European cities bring out the best in this film auteur, Allen has announced that next he's shooting in Rome. We're there. 

Owen Wilson, as the Woody Allen stand-in, stars as Gil Pender, a distracted Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative, disapproving parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy). Instantly enraptured by Paris, Gil is the type of person who feels like he should've lived in the 1920s and wants to reinvent himself as a novelist. While Inez is more interested in fine dining, accessory shopping, and late-night dancing, Gil loves the city and wants to take in more of it. 


One night after a wine tasting, Gil gets lost on his way back to the hotel. But at the stroke of midnight, he slips into a twilight zone, being transported to the golden-aged 1920s. Suddenly, he's on a first-name basis with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), gets to witness Cole Porter on his piano, and even finds his muse in Pablo Picasso's alluring mistress, Adriana (the very lovely and fetching Marion Cotillard). Meanwhile, Enid's dad has a detective follow Gil during his late-night strolls. 

Like the story itself, "Midnight in Paris" is a piece of magic. Allen doesn't fuss with scrutiny for Gil's time-travel because like a Dali painting, it's quite surreal and fantastic. Looking for logic would just defeat its intent. Though he wouldn't sound like the first choice as a surrogate for Allen's neuroses, Wilson need not mimic his director and in fact makes his understated portrayal of Gil more sympathetic. The once-shoehorned surfer dude's easy-going persona is perfect here and makes the role all his own. 

McAdams' Inez is portrayed as a very status-concious, princessy harpy that you could never see her giving Gil the time of day. Needless to say, they might not be a right fit for one another, even if they share the same taste in Indian restaurants' Naan. If Gil doesn't throttle her, you'll want him to, and soon. The role is more or less a means to an end; as Inez is all over the map as Zelda is, Gil still loves her as F. Scott loves his wife. But given the thankless part, McAdams handles it with more aplomb than what any other actress, like maybe Katherine Heigl, could bring. Fuller and Kennedy, as Inez's parents, as well as Michael Sheen, as pedantic know-it-all acquaintance Paul, are game as the butt of every Ugly American joke. Of the actors playing the colorful greats of the arts, they're all scene-stealers, even Brody who's funny, despite his Dali whittled down to a cameo. Even nicely fitting in her surroundings is France's First Lady, Carla Bruni, as a tour guide. 

Allen brings a very relaxed, romantic, and dream-like mood and tone to "Midnight in Paris" that just delights you. Opening with a tourist montage of mundane snapshots of the anything-but-mundane Paris, "Midnight in Paris" counts as one of Woody's most visually resplendent films. Paris, much like New York in his earlier films, becomes a character unto itself. No wonder, since his cinematographer Darius Khondji (last hired by Allen on "Anything Else") shoots Paris with such a warm, beautiful glow. And it's nice to see the Seine banks again as it was last seen in Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996). 

As light and inconsequential as the film is, what it says about nostalgia, the love of art and literature, death being one's greatest fear, and being unhappy in one's present is actually quite universal and profound. Many criticize Allen for not yet returning to form, but in this day and age, finding a film that's transportive and smile-inducing is not such a small feat. It might mean more to have knowledge of and recognize all the artists on display, but "Midnight in Paris" will make you desire a stroll through Paris in the rain. 

"Hell Ride" should've been a freewheeling good time but it's not

Hell Ride (2008) 
83 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

Produced but not written or directed by Quentin Tarantino, "Hell Ride" is a self-aware throwback to the drive-in grindhouse biker flicks of yesteryear that walks like Tarantino but doesn't quite talk like Tarantino. It's a nice thought, but Quentin probably won't be sending flowers. Writer-director Larry Bishop, son of Rat Pack comic Joey and the biker-movie darling of the '60s and '70s, also leads the pack as a goateed Mickey Rourke-Harvey Keitel who gets all the chicks. Way to go, Larry. Thirty-two years ago, Pistolero (Bishop), grizzled leader of the Victors biker gang, lost his honey, Cherokee, to a rival gang, the 666ers, who slit her throat and set her on fire. Now, after the same grisly fate of one of his compadres, Pistolero, his old pal The Gent (Michael Madsen), and newcomer Comanche (Eric Balfour) are out to open up a can of whoop-ass and settle the score on mad-dog Billy Wings (Vinnie Jones) and the crew of 666ers. 

"Hell Ride" has bikes, beer, and booty, but little of the go-for-broke energy to give it the kick it needs. There is plenty of cheerfully gratutious female nudity and orgies. And Bishop's dirty talk with hellcat-in-heat Nada (Leonor Varela) is a playfully sexy hoot. But these hogs do a lot of yacking, and it's witlessly written, awkwardly delivered, and never as cool as it thinks it is. Bishop projects a gruff machismo as Pistolero to make him sleeping with women half his age somewhat credible. Madsen seems to be having a good time, confidently strutting around in a tux jacket. "Easy Rider" vet Dennis Hopper chews the scenery accordingly as Eddie Zero ("The brotherhood of bikers is bullshit!"), and David Carradine has so little to do as businessman Deuce that his only screen time consists of him being tied-up in a chair. 

Suffering from dull stretches and incoherent, anticlimactic storytelling, Bishop's baby never feels like anything is at stake and it's hard to care about anyone or anything on screen. Unfortunately, "Hell Ride" is more of a forgettable bummer than campy fun, without much to get your motor running. At least it's no "Wild Hogs 2." 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Cursed" not terrible but don't expect classic Wes Craven

Cursed (2005) 
86 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

The horror-howler effort, "Cursed," is passingly entertaining cheese at best but ultimately a rare dud from the "Scream" team, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, literally “cursed” by heavy studio tinkering. With rewrites, reshoots, and reedits, all thanks to the money-grubbing Weinsteins, the declawed and defanged "Cursed" doesn't work on the same scary-funny level as "An American Werewolf in London" but it's not as lame as "Teen Wolf." Whereas "Scream" worked as a horror film and a self-aware spoof, "Cursed" is too predictably scripted and anonymously directed to be a fresh contemporary spin on the lycanthropic plot. 

Jesse Eisenberg and Christina Ricci are good to see as Jake and Ellie, an orphaned pair of siblings, who after an auto accident on a full-moon night in the Hollywood hills are bitten and show signs of “the mark of the beast,” like heightened senses and giving off sensual attraction. Great Scott Baio, could it possibly be a w-w-werewolf? We have Joshua Jackson as Ricci's mysterious boyfriend, Judy Greer as a bitchy publicist, and Shannon Elizabeth and Mya as two screaming victims. 

This brief tongue-in-cheek horror pic offers up the once-and-only sight of Ricci sniffing around like a bloodhound and some amusing in-jokes (a grand-opening nightclub full of horror-movie wax figures and props). Also, Ricci's character is an assistant for the now-defunct “The Late Late Night Show with Craig Kilborn,” which just shows how dated the satire is, and with interviewee Scott Baio's publicist named Joannie, all we really get out of that one is the feeling that Williamson was a TV's “Happy Days” guy, since Henry "The Fonze" Winkler had a bit part as the principal in "Scream." But it's a weakling in the scare department, and it's never clear if the not-so-seamless combo of CGI and stuntman-in-a-suit for the wolfman is supposed to be intentionally schlocky or the contrary. For a teen-angst werewolf movie, seek out 2000's sharply written "Ginger Snaps."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Woody Allen's Canon

Upon the release of Woody Allen's 41st film, "Midnight in Paris," here are my critiques of the Woodman's work. 

Interiors (1978)
93 min., rated PG.
Grade: B + 

Woody Allen breaks the mold with "Interiors," a decidedly somber, Ingmar Bergman-esque piece and his first film that doesn't include comic relief or himself. Three sisters, poet Renata (Diane Keaton), unhappy artist Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), and actress Flyn (Kristin Griffith), must deal with the separation and divorce of their emotional mother (Geraldine Page) and impatient father (E.G. Marshall). 

Page acts from her heart in a delicate, heartbreaking performance as Eve, and Maureen Stapleton is very good too as Pearl, their father's twice-married girlfriend from Florida. All of the performances are open and vulnerable, and the conversations are interesting. Gordon Willis elegantly shoots with a painterly eye for detail in the space of empty rooms and characters staring out windows. Sure, the final scene is cinematically contrived but understated and it stays with you long after. 

Deliberate, downbeat, and often painfully devastating, "Interiors" is experimental Allen, staged very much like a play, but it's powerfully acted and maturely done. 

Manhattan (1979)
96 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

"Manhattan," writer-director Woody Allen's love poem to New York and relationships, is a worthy follow-up to "Annie Hall" and among his best. His adoration for the city he calls home shows especially in the romantic, celebratory opening with Gordon Willis' magnificent black-and-white cinematography of the Brooklyn Bridge and fireworks over Central Park and George Gershwin's grand “Rhapsody in Blue” music on the soundtrack. 

Allen stars as Isaac Davis, a neurotic 40-something comedy writer who's dating a high schooler, Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). His married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with a kooky Philadelphia journalist, Mary (Diane Keaton), who criticizes Ingmar Bergman. Isaac's second ex-wife (Meryl Streep), now in a lesbian relationship, is writing a whole book about their marriage. 

"Manhattan" is scathingly bittersweet and witty if not as endearing as two years ago with Allen and Keaton in "Annie Hall." Allen really shows his brilliant sense of humor and timing, and Keaton is nothing less than wonderful. There's the memorable, visually magical scene of Isaac and Mary sitting in silhouette facing the Hudson River. In one of her first bigger roles, 17-year-old Hemmingway is smart and innocent. 

After Annie Hall, "Manhattan" is just the right companion piece to that earlier film, both wistful odes to love and loss rather than fantasy happy endings. 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 
104 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: A

Woody Allen's heartfelt, literate, evenly balanced Robert Altman-esque ensemble piece is structured like a chapter novel, revolving around three New York sisters with themes of love, relationships, and faithfulness. 

Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the nurturing lamb to her two sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), a flighty former alcoholic living in a loft with an artist (Max von Sydow), and Holly (Dianne Wiest) is the free-thinking aspiring actress who owns a catering company with her always-overshadowing friend (Carrie Fisher). Hannah is married to Elliot (Michael Caine), an accountant, who's in love with Lee, and Hannah's ex-husband, Mickey (Allen), a hypochondriac TV executive, thinks he's dying. 

Allen intersperses his typically acute sense of humor with sensitivity, and as the film takes place over the span of two years, beginning and ending at Thanksgiving, much has changed from when we first Hannah, Lee, and Holly. Each character has a voice (literally, a voice-over) but it works, they have arcs, and every performance is finely tuned. 

Full of warmth, truth, and humor, "Hannah and Her Sisters" is a treasure and quintessential Woody Allen next to "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." 

Alice (1990)
106 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

In filmmaker Woody Allen's "Alice"—a musing, light-as-helium comic variation on "Alice in Wonderland" and Federico Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits"—his lamblike muse and girlfriend Mia Farrow snags the title spot. 

She's Alice Tate, a rich, pampered Manhattan housewife who spends her days shopping, pedicuring, and gossiping with her socialite lady friends. At an appointment with Chinese healer Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), an ersatz for psychoanalysis, he treats her with hypnosis and mystical herbs, making her realize that she's holding onto her youth. When she meets a handsome, gentle divorced dad (an appealing Joe Mantegna), she begins fantasizing about having an affair with him. But while she's a mousy, goody-goody Mother Teresa and believes in fidelity with her husband (William Hurt), her fantasy becomes reality. 

Although Allen takes time off from the lead spotlight, his one-liners slip through and Farrow is virtually in the “Woody role” with her fast-thinking jitteriness. She's charming. Blythe Danner shines as Alice's distant but down-to-earth sister, and Bernadette Peters and Alec Baldwin enliven their small roles, respectively, as Alice's muse and ghostly first love. Unfortunately, Julie Kavner and Judy Davis don't even register here in bit parts. 

"Alice" is certainly Woody-lite, not always comfortably blurring the line between hokey fancy and affirmativeness about a woman's selfless self-discovery, but it sure is sweet.

Shadows and Fog (1991)
85 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

Woody Allen's tepid experiment in German expressionist style comes and goes like a puff of smoke. In "Shadows and Fog" (based on the filmmaker's comedy play “Death”), a Jack the Ripper-esque serial strangler lurks in the shadows of a European city during the 1920s and strikes in the fog! 

Allen casts himself as another nebbish schlemiel, a bookkeeping clerk named Max Kleinman who's roused from his sleep to help a band of vigilantes find the killer. Naturally, Allen peppers the gloom and doom every now and then with his one-liners, but they're more than mild here. 

The real suspense lies in which actor will pop up next, but so little is done with the cast. Allen's dear Mia Farrow gives the same whiny, lamblike performance here as a sword-swalling circus act, whom we're supposed to believe is mistaken for a prostitute and wholly desired by John Cusack. John Malkovich is surprisingly dull as a circus clown, Farrow's husband. Julie Kavner is momentarily amusing as Max's bitter ex. Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, and Jodie Foster show up as the hookers at a brothel, as do Madonna, Katie Nelligan, Donald Pleasence, and Wallace Shawn in bit parts. Allen's entrapment of the strangler with a magician's (Kenneth Mars) help is an absurdist highlight. 

"Shadows and Fog" would make Fritz Lang and Franz Kafka proud, but will leave Woodyphiles wanting. Nice try but a non-starter in Woody's canon. 

Husbands and Wives (1992)
108 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” obviously at the top of Woody Allen's commandments, comes out full throttle in "Husbands and Wives," the Woodman's most perceptive, witty, and generous look at broken relationships. 

Allen casts himself as Gabe, a faithful (New York) writer and English professor who, along with his wife of 10 years, Judy (Mia Farrow, with a haircut that makes her look like Dianne Wiest), get a very formal announcement by their two married best friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), that they're splitting up. Of course, Gabe and Judy's marriage becomes endangered once a student (Juliette Lewis), who's attracted to older men, looks his way. Then once Sally gets jealous that Jack has already moved on to a chatty airhead (Lysette Anthony), Judy sets Sally up with a sweet colleague, Michael (Liam Neeson). He falls hard for Sally, but Judy is in love with him. 

This truthfully messy exploration of marriage has the characters making confessions in a talking-head couch setting to an off-screen voice that's either a shrink or an interviewer; it's a device but effectively gets us into these people's heads. It's no concidence that life imitates art in "Husbands and Wives," with much conjunction to Allen and Farrow's real-life breakup, as Allen allows us to understand the emotionally fragile and confusing period after a breakup, the dull security of marriage, and the excitement of spontaneous sex. 

In a well-written scene in a cab with Allen and Lewis (the camera on her the entire time), her dialogue in criticizing Gabe's book is so pointed about the film's own themes. Husbands and Wives is so well-acted that we believe these characters exist. Davis is incredibly good as hyperactive, hypocritical Sally. Her character could've been a shrew cliché, but the great Davis goes deeper, finding the rage, confused feelings, and vulnerability of Sally. And veteran director Pollack gives a stellar performance as a man sinking in self-delusion. We see him finally crack at a friends' party where he literally drags his girlfriend out. 

Shot documentary-style as if we're eavesdropping on these couples, the antsy, handhand camera and jump cuts, made to make things feel raw and real, are often distracting and feel overly rigged but don't break the film. 

One of Allen's most emotionally intimate works to date, "Husbands and Wives" is done with the truth, wit, angst, and irony that we've come to expect from the filmmaker's voice.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
104 min., rated PG.
Grade: A -

Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" marks a few great returns. It's a return to classic, funny Woody (especially after his past work dealt with heavy themes), his first-co-writing collaboration with Marshall Brickman since "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," and it's his first pairing with Diane Keaton since "Manhattan." 

Allen and Keaton play Larry and Carol Lipton, a long-married couple afraid they're turning dull like their friendly old neighbors, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen). Then Lillian drops dead of a heart attack, case closed. But Carol becomes suspicious of Mr. House acting a little too cheerful as a widower. The Liptons' old close friend, Ted (Alan Alda), plays along with Carol's theories and helps her out in her Nancy Drew sleuthing. 

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" is a flat-out entertaining caper. The mystery plot is actually pretty clever and suspenseful, kind of a Hitchcockian goof on "Vertigo" and "Double Indemnity." And the Woodman's funny quips, phobias, and one-liners are on full display here and so consistent it's hard to keep up or stop laughing. It's a pleasure to see the reunited teaming of Allen and Keaton (whose role was originally intended for Mia Farrow), whose frantic verbal rhythms and neuroses go hand in hand. They feel so at ease with one another that their natural chemistry recalls Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Alda and Anjelica Huston (both appearing last in Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors") are also very sharp as their friends, respectively, a divorced playwright who still yearns for Carol and a sexy fiction writer that gives Larry the eye. 

The one complaint for this very enjoyable film is the same conceit that somewhat plagued last year's "Husbands and Wives": Carlo DiPalma's voyeuristic, roving, handheld cinematography. It's mostly smooth but is sometimes annoying. But this Allen lark is so fun and involving that it hardly matters.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Woody Allen's first stint since "Alice" behind the camera without being in front of it is "Bullets Over Broadway," an entertaining Roaring Twenties-period comedy. 

Subbing for Allen is John Cusack as an earnest, nervous playwright, David Shayne, who thinks he's a real artist and gets his latest play financially backed from a Mob boss (played by who other than Joe Viterelli). There's a catch: David has to find a part for the gangster's moll, a helium-voiced, untalented flapper named Olive (Jennifer Tilly). He assembles a flaky crew of thespians, who all put in their two-cents whether David takes them or not, but Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), a glowering gangster that acts as Olive's bodyguard, ends up influencing David because, hot damn, he knows how people speak in real life. Naturally, as David begins taking Cheech's suggestions, the play improves. 

The period flavor is tasty from the golden oldies on the soundtrack (Cole Porter's “Let Misbehave”) to the sumptuous costume design to the art direction, and the dialogue is smart and funny, if not the Woodman's most memorable (co-written by a new collaborator, Douglas McGrath). It's the cast that really gooses things up: Dianne Wiest, hilariously over-the-top, as an over-the-hill, pompous Broadway prima donna Helen Sinclair (who sells her catchphrase “Don't speak!” with theatrical verve); the blowsy Tilly nailing the shrill sex-bomb; Tracey Ullman as a hyper-perky actress with her yippy dog in tote; Jim Broadbent as a gluttonous Englishman who's always feeding his face; and Palminteri, though playing another gangster, charges his Cheech with charisma and surprising intellect and brings on the darkest laughs. 

"Bullets Over Broadway" isn't guns-blazing Woody Allen (some praise it as one of his best), but it's juicily acted and good fun.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Writer-director Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" starts out as a Greek tragedy, with a Greek chorus in a stone amphitheater, but we soon realize it's Allen's new device in lieu of his narration. 

Allen is back in frame with his one neurotic personality in New York playing a sportswriter named Lenny. Helena Bonham Carter, obviously in the Mia Farrow role with her lamblike voice, is his art-dealer wife Amanda who wants a baby, so against Lenny's wishes, they adopt a son. After a bit of detective work, he finds his adopted son's biological mother, Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a flighty hooker and porno actress with a lot of different names including her stage name “Judy Cum.” Sorvino shines as the towering, Mickey Mouse-voiced Linda, who's more than just an airhead or the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype. 

Winning an Oscar for her work, Sorvino showcases her daffy timing and on-screen warmth. The joke is that upon meeting Linda, Lenny squirms at every kitschy knickknack in her apartment to every innocously delivered raunchy lick of dialogue that comes out of her mouth. And Lenny's conversation with Linda about setting her up with a dumb boxer (Michael Rapaport), also an onion farmer, is hilarious. The editing is sometimes disjointed and the Greek-parody segments, while amusing, get in the way. 

More vulgar and lighter than most of Allen's work, "Mighty Aphrodite" is still funny and entertaining. Although it's refreshing Allen doesn't write himself ending with Linda, the Greek-like deus ex machina is ironic without ever getting too messy.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B + 

Where else are you going to find hospital orderlies and patients dancing around and singing “Makin' Whoopee”? A Woody Allen movie, that's where! His charming and contagiously happy fantasia "Everyone Says I Love You," his first musical on celluloid, is hard to resist. 

Allen's character Joe is a divorced writer living in Paris who contemplates suicide after being dumped by his French girlfriend. Instead, he returns to New York, where he's still on good terms with his charitable ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), now married to Bob (a very funny Alan Alda), but still loves her. Of course, this is Allen's movie, so that doesn't stop him from tailing other *cough* (younger) women like Julia Roberts. Bob's daughter, Skylar (Drew Barrymore), is about to be engaged to Holden (Edward Norton), a nice schnook in love. She accidentally swallows her Harry Winston ring. 

There's a lack of story, though told from the point-of-view and narration of Joe and Steffi's daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) telling us about her politically diverse Upper East Side family, but it's mostly an excuse for Allen to put on a show! 

Everyone seems to be having a good time being in love, gamely breaking into a ditty of ballads from the '30s and '40s (the one exception is Barrymore, whose voice was dubbed and it shows) and fancy footwork. Even if the cast wasn't aware they'd be in a musical until after they signed up, they try their best modestly. Only Alda, Hawn, Norton, and Tim Roth (as an animalistic ex-convict smitten with Skylar) have the most confident pipes, but that doesn't stop the rest, most of all Allen who's no Fred Astaire. With very few cuts during the music numbers, the actors (usually surrounded by back-up dancers) show their stuff like in a Broadway show. One quibble: the camera has a tendency to drift away from those singing for no reason other than to get reaction shots from those watching. 

One fun, cleverly upbeat song-and-dance sequence at a funeral home, “Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think),” has a bunch of ghosts shaking their groove thing. In the closing number “I'm Thru With Love,” preceded by a Groucho Marx party in Paris for New Year's Eve, Allen and Hawn's flight of fancy at the Seine banks is lovely, romantic magic. Allen's cinematographer Carlo DiPalma (since "Hannah and Her Sister"s) captures the enchanting beauty of Italy and New York in the winter. 

Though not his most thematically daring, "Everyone Says I Love You" is Woody's most delightful.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) 

96 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Writer-director Woody Allen's 28th film, "Deconstructing Harry," is certainly his most ambitious and personal autobiographical opus about self-analysis, but also his most sour, profane, and narcissistic work. Or, his confession of being self-obsessed and unable to love. Even in the end, his creations applaud their maker. It's like his first really R-rated movie, as Woody makes his alter ego vulgar, charmless, and unlikable. 

Allen plays Harry Block, a writer suffering writer's block (get the joke?) and depression. He pops pills and chases them with booze. He cheats. He sleeps with whores. He's not winning any Man of the Year Award anytime soon. Harry wrote a thinly disguised fictionalization about his own life, including an affair with his ex-wife's neurotic sister (Judy Davis), who's in an outrage (not too unlike Dianne Wiest's Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters). 

Being cast in a Woody Allen film must feel like a privilege. It's certainly audacious for its cornucopia of actors (Caroline Aaron, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams) that parade around the film. The cast is good but the mishmash of fictional characters as a template for the “real” people distracts at times. Davis and Alley, as his second wife, act up a storm in rage, while Louis-Dreyfus and Moore amusingly play these women in the novel (Benjamin and Tucci stand in for Harry). Goodman has a surprisingly winning perormance as patient black hooker Cookie. Hemingway, far removed from her tender role in "Manhattan," is wasted. 

Frequent Allen editor Susan E. Morse makes a lot of jump cuts, obviously a choice like in "Husbands and Wives," but it feels more sloppy and overly indulgent. 

"Deconstructing Harry" has some great moments and performances, and the old Jew's darkest, most caustic humor about Judaism, sex, women, and the F-word, but it's a rambling psychiatric-session stunt. The most hysterical vignette involves Robin Williams as an actor who's always “soft” (out of focus) on film. (“Get some rest and just see if you can sharpen up,” the confused director tells him.) 

The last vignette includes an elevator ride to Allen's erotic fleshpot version of Hell that Billy Crystal makes fun as the wisecracking Devil. Harry won't win Woody any new fans, but Woodyphiles might call it his most brutally honest film since 1992's "Husbands and Wives."

Celebrity (1998)

113 min., rated R.

Grade: C 

Woody Allen stays behind the camera this time around in his ensemble piece "Celebrity." Kenneth Branagh, in the “Woody role,” apes the flustered tics, and even his fickle ways of never settling with one woman, to the best of his ability. But he's miscast and nobody plays Woody better than Woody. 

Branagh plays Lee, a journalist who has run-ins with some of Hollywood's celebrities and there's never a dull moment. He's recently divorced from his schoolteacher ex-wife, Robin (Judy Davis, very neurotic and brittle), who was devastated to find Lee was having an affair. 

By turns entertaining and boring, with vignettes that work and others that do not, the shallow, scattershot "Celebrity" doesn't have much to say besides, most transparently, how we and Allen view celebrities. At least it's crisply shot in black and white by Sven Nykvist (his fourth collaboration with Allen), though Allen's beloved New York is used to little effect. 

The large cast recruited here is handled better here than the one in last year's "Deconstructing Harry." Davis brings her fidgeting in full swing here and she's easily the most interesting thing in the film as Robin, who actually has the biggest arc after meeting a man in the TV industry (Joe Mantegna) that gives her the confidence she needs. Everyone else mostly gets a laugh or a moment, then walks off. Charlize Theron is stunning as a libidinous supermodel. Melanie Griffith rings true as a movie star who thinks she's still being faithful to her husband if she only cheats from the waist up. Leonardo DiCaprio is wildly off-the-wall but probably playing close to the truth as a rebellious young movie star who trashes a hotel room, beats his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), drinks and does drugs, and has a threesome. Bebe Neuwirth, as a hooker, has a hilarious scene with Davis where she teaches her how to perform oral sex on a banana; it's a delirious bit of physical comedy. Winona Ryder also sparkles as a struggling actress that Lee goes after. 

With that cast, it's watchable, but even the greatest filmmakers have disappointments and "Celebrity" counts as Woody Allen's most disappointing.

Small Time Crooks (2000)
95 min., rated PG.
Grade: B 

Writer-director Woody Allen shows his face on screen for the first time since 1997's "Deconstructing Harry" in the lead with "Small Time Crooks," classic Allen that's no more and no less a sweetly enjoyable caper. 

Allen plays Ray, an ex-con New York dishwasher who lives paycheck to paycheck in a cramped apartment with Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), his loud, straight-shooting stripper-turned-Fmanicurist wife. So he thinks up a half-baked get-rich-quick scheme: buy out a closed-down pizza shop so they can tunnel through the basement wall and rob the bank next door. With his gang of three dummies (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz), Ray is the “brains” behind the operation and Frenchy distracts the public upstairs baking cookies. Then their cookie-store “front” becomes such an overnight sensation that wealth goes to their head. And as Frenchy strives to become a more cultured and sophisticated socialite, Ray and her grow apart. 

The plot is ever so thin and shapeless as an episode of "The Honeymooners," but it's more about the funny one-liners and endearing performances. Allen's screen character is still a nervous jokester but he plays Ray as a less intelligent schmo. Ullman is a delight and hilariously on par with Allen, delivering sharp-tongued wisecracks. Screenwriter Elaine May does wonderfully daft supporting work, stealing every scene as Frenchy's cousin, May, a dumb broad who hasn't a clue what's going on but always speaks the truth. Hugh Grant, the major star here, is only okay as a con artist whom Frenchy hires to educate her on art and opera. 

"Small Time Crooks" is certainly a small time effort from Allen's canon but still fun. 

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

Mr. Woody Allen has fallen into a slump of just making slight movies rather than great movies, but it's still Allen, and "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a wispy little screwball comedy. Natch, the Brooklyn-based Big Apple lover sets his film in Manhattan but in the 1940s, and it's just a pleasure to watch. 

He stars as CW Briggs, a crack insurance investor and ladies' man who's considered a dinosaur by his firm's new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). At a nightclub, they both get hypnotized by a con artist (with the swing of a jade scorpion) into loving each other and whenever “Constantinople” or “Madagascar” is uttered on the phone they're put under and go into a trance robbing jewels from an estate safe. And even though CW is old, short, and nearsighted, can Fitzgerald tame him? 

All of "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" feels gentle and old-fashioned with the Woodman's classic sharpness still showing up in his mostly zingy dialogue. Attractively shot, the film has a sparkling period flavor of a '40s film noir, and all the women are groomed like Veronica Lake. 

At 65 years old, Allen is still at it with his fidgety, stammering persona and a lot of his one-liners work. In the dame role, Hunter keeps up with Allen's "His Girl Friday"-style spitballing and gives it right back to him with insulting barbs in a battle-of-the-sexes. Theron gets some playful wordplay as a promiscuous actress when trying to seduce Briggs. For instance, when the hot little number first meets C.W., she purrs “You don't seem tough enough to go after criminals,” and he jumps back with “Really? Maybe if I slapped you around a little bit you'd change your mind.” (Side note: it's starting to become less charming that Allen takes home women 30 years his junior.) Other supporting cast members shine as well, like Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn, and Elizabeth Berkley. 

The chuckles and smiles are pretty consistent through the lightweight fun of "Jade Scorpion," even if the romance is so contrived that only a hypnotist could make Hunt fall in love with Allen. They can love to hate each other, but the attraction between the two is inconceivable. 

Hollywood Ending (2002)

112 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C + 

Since the early '80s, Woody Allen has written and directed a film every year. So as the trend of his latest work goes, "Hollywood Ending" is pleasant but uneven and rather weak Woody. 

Here, he stars as Val Waxman, a movie director in desperate need of a hit. His producer ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) gives him a shot, thinking he'll be perfect for the Manhattan-set script, “The City That Never Sleeps,” but Val is bitter about compromising with the studio head (Treat Williams) who stole his wife. Then when Val all of a sudden becomes blind, he lies about it and makes the picture anyway. 

The psychosomantic blindness situation makes "Hollywood Ending" a one-joke movie, although it is a funny joke, with plenty of sight gags and slapstick bits that hit. Like when an actor asks which prop gun he should use, Val answers with “that one.” Or when he pretends to admire the poster art for his movie, but he's “looking” on the wrong side. A business student being hired as the translator for the Chinese direct of photography and as Val's pair of eyes is also a nice touch. One glaring hole is that Val can't even detect which direction people's voices are coming from; don't actors master this? 

Woody just doesn't do enough with this slight premise, as the blindness ends up never becoming of much consequence and Val gets the girl, even after the film dailies are rendered incoherent. What more, the script runs out of steam with a half hour still to go. And since the filmmaker is back to playing the eccentric, fidgety persona he started with, his neurosis, kvetching, and stuttering delivery are becoming annoying at this point, as is his casting of much younger women (i.e. Tiffani Thiessen) who want to get into the frog prince's pants. 

All that said, the film still has its fleeting pleasures: funny, well-timed Woody lines, hypocondria, those jazzy Bing Cosby tunes, and sharp insider jokes about agents and art directors (i.e. rebuilding a set rather than using the real Times Square). 

In Leoni, she's a compatible foil for Allen to play off him comedically, but their romance is sterile. Also, Debra Messing has proven she has energy and comic timing, but here she's wasted as Val's dumb, questionably talented girlfriend. Mark Rydell, however, is funny as Val's agent who never stops smiling, and George Hamilton is just right as a tanned studio flunky. 

This may be less than it should be but "Hollywood Ending" hopefully doesn't mark the end of the Woodman. Maybe he just needs to take a year off to get re-energized, realize it's quality over quantity, and write some sharper jokes. 

Anything Else (2003)
108 min., rated R.
Grade: C + 

When the standard white-on-black opening credits come on, cued to Billie Holiday, you get the reassurance that writer-director Woody Allen might be back in top form. In a way he is, but throughout most of "Anything Else," he's just coasting and recycling the wonderful "Annie Hall" from 26 years ago. That film had more wit, memorable lines, and more interesting characters, whereas this one's a minor effort. 

Acerbic and hyper-neurotic Allen stars but fortunately steps out of the lead role, playing nebbish, articulate writer David Dobel, who takes Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), a disciplined (and just as neurotic) aspiring nightclub-comic writer, under his wing. Allen passes the torch to Gentile Biggs, a younger version of his Jewish self who talks to the camera about his relationship with the most difficult woman on earth, Amanda (cat-eyed Christina Ricci). She tortures her boyfriend with her mood swings and insecurities, whining about how “fat” she is and complaining about their sex life. 

Like anything else Silent Generation's Woody has written and directed, "Anything Else" is all about the dialogue, and the Generation X actors here are up to the task of the stuttering rhythm of the man's smart, snappy dialogue without just sounding like marionettes. Allen doesn't forget to give himself some gem one-liners (“You chose psychoanalysis over real life? Are you learning disabled?”). The men are more anxious and pathetic here than the women, but Jerry and Amanda are both such shrill and abrasive people that you want to slap them silly until they shut up. Notwithstanding a great speech in a restaurant, Danny DeVito is greatly underused as Jerry's loser agent, but Stockard Channing does funny supporting work as Amanda's alcoholic, pill-popping mother who comes to live with her and Jerry. (There's a cocaine scene with Channing that calls back to "Annie Hall" as well.) 

Saying Allen repeats himself would be unfair, even if he gives us more observations on relationships and Allenisms about philosophy, sex, masturbation, religion, jazz music, and every and now then a good joke. Not to forget, New York (photographed by Allen's new collaborator Darius Khondji) still has that beautifully warm glow. 

So despite the fine work by the actors and some verbal wit, "Anything Else" is more small time Woody. 

Melinda and Melinda (2004)
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Woody Allen's return to form is more of a return to the same material and although executed with middling results, "Melinda and Melinda" is still a diverting piece of work from the Woodman. 

Is it comedy or tragedy? Is a funeral funny? You be the judge. As four friends chat over dinner get to talking about how stories can be funny or tragic, the two playwrights (Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn) take turns spinning the same yarn. Woody creates two versions of the same story about Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a draggled woman with baggage. In the tragic story, she drops in unannounced on a childhood friends' dinner party of a Park Avenue couple (Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller). Bored and high-strung, she expects to start her life anew. The lighter comic one finds the offbeat Melinda, having overdosed on pills, busting in on another dinner party of an out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his indie-film director wife (Amanda Peet), who are in a passionless marriage. Josh Brolin co-stars as a charming, well-off dentist that gets set up with Melinda, while Hobie gets jealous. 

"Melinda and Melinda" has an interesting setup with parallels and opposites connecting both stories, somewhat treading water, but the tragic story is the least interesting of the two with too many self-involved characters. 

Mitchell is the reason to even see "M and M," as she capably handles the rival tones and plays Melinda with more than one note. Ferrell wouldn't be your first choice for Allen's younger surrogate, but he's a likably dim sadsack and nails more than less of the lines (“The Chilean sea bass lightly dusted with lime!”). Peet is also funny and natural for Allen's style as Hobie's all-work-no-foreplay wife, and Brooke Smith just right as a pregnant friend in the tragedy portion. 

"Melinda and Melinda" still has that old-fashioned Allen-y feel, and his written banter isn't without wit and its tartly amusing moments. Some of the other actors don't grow into Allen's comic/intellectual verbal rhythm as well, coming off stilted that you can just feel the puppeteer pulling the strings. 

Match Point (2005)
124 min., rated R.
Grade: B + 

Although there's no universal truth for the last time Woody Allen made a great picture (his last five or so were enjoyable if not great), "Match Point" marks Allen's true comeback and full-hearted accomplishment. It's uncharted territory, meaning it's not a comedy and he leaves his beloved New York for a literal change of scenery in London. And it's his longest work to date. 

Sure, this dramatic film still opens classically with the same white fonted credits over black, but it's all scratchy opera records rather than the old jazz standards. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, not asked to mimic Allen's fumbly neurosis, plays Chris, a slick Dublin-born fellow who comes to London to work as a club tennis pro. He meets rich good chap Tom (Matthew Goode) and is quickly taken into the high-society family fold that he's soon in a relationship with Chris's sweet sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris's attention is instantly absorbed by Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a flirtatious starving actress from Colorado, also Tom's fiancee. Eventually, he's welcomed into the father's business firm, flourishes, and marries Chloe. But when Tom unexpectedly dumps Nola, Chris decides to have his cake and eat it too, as he embarks on a secret affair with Nola and things just get complicated from there. 

Bubbling through "Match Point," as voiced by Meyers' Chris, is a metaphor of luck over morality that's first represented visually by a tennis ball hitting the net. The coolly deliberate story starts with its class distinctions, then has some beats as an adultery drama, and changes gears into a high-stakes thriller but in plausible fashion. Allen covers some of the same themes and philosophies—infidelity, lust, obsession, morality—from his previous work, especially his "Crimes and Misdemeanors," as he evokes Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” and Hitchcock albeit with subtlety and without clichés. The ending is not mechanical either but more of a meditation on crime, chance, and fate. 

Meyers brings the right kind of surface charm and outward composure to the increasingly immoral Chris whose consequences of his actions turn out lucky, not great. Johansson is absolutely enticing and seductive with her throaty, come-hither sex appeal as Nola, although her character becomes more of a nag even after a crucial plot development. Meyers and Johansson smolder on screen together. Mortimer is lovely but her Chloe is so damn naïve and passive-aggressive even when she's pushy about having a baby (her character and a key scene recall Mia Farrow's Hannah in "Hannah and Her Sisters"). 

Most unlike any other film the auteur has made, "Match Point" is sexy, smart, serious-minded, and Allen's most confident, elegantly shot filmmaking in a while. The man's 70 and this is his 36th feature film, if you're keeping track, and that's not just from years of hard luck. 

Scoop (2006)
96 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

“Minor Allen” was nothing new before last year's "Match Point," Woody Allen's most original and Hitchcockian piece of work in a good while, but now the auteur is back to his trifling tricks. No matter, Allen's follow-up "Scoop," also set in London, is light, beguiling good fun. 

Sondra (a likable Scarlett Johansson), a Brooklyn journalism student visiting the Big Ben city, gets handpicked to go on stage by magician Sid Waterman (Allen). Inside a box, she comes across the spirit of famous reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) who hands his scoop over to Sondra—he knows the identity of the Tarot Card Killer. She decides to go undercover, and together Sondra and Sid contrive to meet the suspect, Peter Lyman (a suave, charming Hugh Jackman), at a private club pool (she's posing as an aspiring actress and Sid is her father). But of course, Sondra begins to fall hard for Peter even if he's a murderer. 

The droopy-eyed Allen is really beginning to look his age (70) on screen, last appearing three years ago in "Anything Else," but his one-liners still pop (“I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism” or “I never gain an ounce, because my anxiety acts like aerobics so I get the exercise.”). His bug-eyed expression behind the wheel of a European smart car is hilarious. Johansson, still a cutie behind those mousy Mia Farrow glasses and night-time retainer, is a good foil for Allen, like the next Diane Keaton. Thankfully, Allen's more of a father figure than a love interest for her, but trying her hand at fostering the Jewish kvetch's mannered-neurotic shtick, the leading lady is not much of a bumbler. McShane, first shown on a ship guided by the Grim Reaper (a nod to Allen's Love and Death?), is mostly a plot device for the film. 

Music by Peter Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss Jr., as well as “In the Hall Of The Mountain King,” add to the lark-ish charm. 

A slight effort, borrowing a bit from "Manhattan Murder Mystery," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and "Small Time Crooks," and the whodunit mystery isn't really worth solving, but "Scoop" is a silly charmer that simply wins you over. 

Cassandra's Dream (2007)
108 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

Oh, how far the great Woody Allen has fallen. On the British heels of "Match Point" and "Scoop" now comes "Cassandra's Dream," an ineffectively weighty thriller about money, class, family, and murder, and it seems the filmmaker's stuck this time in London without a passport. 

Allen's fresh new players Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play two Cockney blue-collar brothers who dream of striking it rich and having a boat to call their own. Terry (Farrell) is a gambling mechanic in a steadily happy relationship and Ian (McGregor) is a would-be entrepreneur who pawns himself off as a rich tycoon to earn the fancy of a self-obsessed actress (newcomer Hayley Atwell). When both run into financial ruins, they ask for help from their well-off Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). He agrees to assist them but on one condition: whack a colleague who could put Howard away for life. 

McGregor's Ian is too much of a whiner when it comes to the romance but he becomes more confident than Terry and oddly keeps his cool after the deed is done. Farrell gives the more interesting performance of the two, feeling his head spinning and the sweaty apprehension and then the post-murder guilt. Together, their brotherly chemistry feels relaxed, and their British accents maybe too relaxed. Wilkinson, as usual, is amusingly persuasive in his limited screen time. 

Allen's reworking a lot of the same morality themes he did in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point," but the writer-director doesn't get away with murder here. You wish there was more giddyup in the story and pacing, and less bombast in Philip Glass's musical score, and this time, Allen's dialogue has more exposition than it does wit. The leading up to the murder is staged like darkly humorous, mischievous Hitchcock and decidedly bloodless, the right touch by Allen's pan-left, but the film's abrupt ending is Greek tragedy or just an ironic shaggy-dog joke. 

Said "Match Point" still wasn't just a fluke, but the “earlier, funnier ones" are looking real good right about now, as "Cassandra's Dream" is anything but a dream, especially for Woodyphiles.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

96 min., rated R.

Grade: B 

Shaking off his love for Manhattan, the witty and sexy concoction that is "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is writer-director Woody Allen's fourth consecutive European project. The title refers to the names of two American women traveling in Barcelona, Spain for a summer vacation. 

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Allen's newest muse) are completely diverse best friends, who meet and are offered to be seduced by a suave painter/Casanova, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), for a weekend full of wine and lovemaking. The strait-laced Vicky is married to a boring white man, while Cristina is the more adventurous one. Soon, Cristina settles into a lusty three-way relationship with Juan and his unpredictable, loose-cannon ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who won an Oscar for her fiery performance). 

Allen's breezy and perhaps “Frenchiest” piece of work is cast to perfection and the attractive stars are engaging in their performances, heightened by a palpably laid-back atmosphere, but it's not without its flaws. Christopher Evan Welch's narration is way too obvious, an unnecessary and condescending device used rather than allowing the images and performances to speak for themselves. Even the exotic Spanish country is a character in itself, and Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography gorgeous. 

And even if this trifle ultimately doesn't add up to a lot, the writing is smart, the music charmingly quirky, and the characters richly written. 

Whatever Works (2009)
92 min., rated PG-13.

Grade: B

Woody Allen dusted off an old script once intended for Zero Mostel and re-wrote it to suit the talents of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Larry David. Behind the camera, Woody is in fine fettle with "Whatever Works," the auteur's first comfort-zone return to New York City in five years after going European. In fact, it works as a time warp to earlier Woody. 

David is the right replacement for Allen's archetypal nebbish, eccentric persona, playing Boris Yellnikoff, a limping, crotchety, cynical old Jewish misanthrope who talks down to everyone, including us directly. Right off the bat, Boris breaks the fourth wall and bitter Boris makes it loud and clear that he's not a likable guy. And this is not “the feel-good movie of the year,” so if we want to feel good “go get a foot massage.” A self-absorbed, self-professed genius who thinks all children are imbeciles and a germaphobe who sings the “Happy Birthday” song twice when washing his hands, Boris attempts suicide by jumping out his apartment window but hits the canopy. He shows a hint of humanity (after a while, of course) when taking in Melodie St. Ann Celestine (a beguiling Evan Rachel Wood), a Mississippian runaway waif begging for food. Melodie develops a crush on him, Boris thinks it's inappropriate, but whatever works. 

The Boris character is off-putting, but he warms up, and his courtship with Melodie is happily treated with charm, not smarm. David (seeing his chicken legs in shorts) and Wood are excellent, as are Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr., as Melodie's divorced parents, who evolve their characters into interesting directions. 

"Whatever Works" may not be quintessential Woody, as it's scraps of his other work, but still a sharply written, enjoyable diversion with New York flavor, so whatever works. 

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
98 min., rated R. 
Grade: C

Woody Allen rejuvenated himself five years ago with "Match Point" in London, and now returns to the European city, filling his yearly quota. Like the film points out from the start and at the end, Woody's trifling "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is just like the old Shakespeare quote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Although Allen is no idiot, this entry is more of a meaningless exercise filled with a talented cast reading his Allen-y dialogue in a poorly used London. 

As this joyless tale of marriage foibles and extramarital lust would have it, everyone desires something in their unfulfilled lives, but hasn't Allen said enough on the subject? The daffy Gemma Jones and Anthony Hopkins play a newly separated older couple when the old guy, working out, tanning, and teeth-whitening to seek his lost youth, marries a flashy ex-prostitute (Lucy Punch), while she listens to a fortune-telling friend who tells her she'll meet someone great. The couple's daughter (Naomi Watts) has her own marriage unravelling with her self-absorbed novelist husband (Josh Brolin), who's attracted to their soon-to-be-married neighbor/muse (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto) while said wife's tempted by her handsome boss (a wasted Antonio Banderas). 

Most of these characters are unlikable whiners that we don't care about, don't deserve what they want, and stay the same throughout. 

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" has its moments and has the tone of a feather, but it's a shruggable effort from Woody Allen of all people. The narration is grating by Zak Orth, sounding a lot like Allen himself, and feels more like a demonstration. And Brolin has to be the most misguided candidate to impersonate Allen's neuroses or call his love object “a hot little number.” Pinto, loved by the camera, and Punch, an absolute floozy hoot, land the most impression. 

Allen tries to say that illusions work better than the medicine, but his new movie is only an illusion of his earlier, better work.