Well-made movies are what Woody Allen directs. HBO recently ran his last movie, Hollywood Ending, for a month of showings. It became a guilty pleasure. I watched it often. I wrote when it was released, and Ill write it again: structurally the film is perfect. Its also very funny and very insightful about the motion picture business. Allens newest feature is Anything Else, and its been promoted by DreamWorks as a young adult comedy rather than a smart Woody Allen production. In fact, if you didnt know that Allen wrote and directed it, youd never realize that fact based on the television advertisements for it. DreamWorks is guilty of being both silly and cowardly.
When it comes to Allen, theres always some complaining that hes too old to play the romantic lead. Ageism is very much alive and well in America. Maybe Allen wanted to prove a point, so in Anything Else, his character doesnt get the girl; his character advises the fellow who gets the girl. Hes Jason Biggs and shes Christina Ricci. Unfortunately, Biggs chooses to channel Allens acting style and as the director, Allen should have stopped him in his tracks. But Ricci is wonderful, as always. Allen plays Biggs mentor so hes around to offer advice about love and relationships. Biggs and Ricci play an on again/off again couple. The camera worships Allens beloved Manhattan. Anything Else is cozy and cosmopolitan and never shrieks its points the way too many contemporary comedies do. The film has some very solid laughs and you watch it relieved that Allen is still making movies as he approaches his seventh decade of life. More power to him.
There are a number of amazing things about American Splendor, not the least of which is that, considering the subject matter, its thoroughly entertaining. The movie is written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and its based on the graphic novels written by favored David Letterman guest (in the 1980s) Harvey Pekar and drawn by the illustrious R. Crumb. The novels and movie are based on Pekars life. In the film, we see the real Harvey and his real-life wife Joyce, and we also see fictional episodes in their unusual lives. Harveys a Cleveland file clerk who is one of those nerdy types who belongs at a comic book convention, or, better yet, should be dressed like the lowest-billed Star Trek character. The fascinating film explores the lives of this odd couple. In the cinematic scenes, they are brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Pekar is a loveable loser, a Sad Sack who has flourished under the glare of celebrity. That American Splendor is a treat is mind-boggling. Go figure.
The Magdalene Sisters and Thirteen are two indie productions that have been playing in town for a couple of weeks. They both have their assets, but Im not wild about either of them. The Magdalene Sisters suffers because its a true story. There isnt much the filmmakers can do except present the facts. They dont have the vision or the talent to take the facts and do something astonishing with them. This is another one of those juvenile abuse movies. Irish girls are sent to a dreadful home for wayward women, overseen by Catholic nuns, for the most outrageous of things thinking about sex can get them sentenced to a year in the hellhole. Regarding political shenanigans and child abuse, I gather that the Roman Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in Ireland, let alone here in the United States. The girls are treated like dirt and the thrust of the film is that they will either succumb to the inequities or fight back and maybe figure out a way to escape. The movie is very gray and straightforward and utterly unsurprising. It seems to exist to get revenge. The acting is good, but the dreary surroundings weigh you down. This is an interesting movie, and its to the credit of the talented young actresses playing the abused girls that it isnt a total downer. But, it could have been so much better.
Thirteen is drawn from the life of a contemporary teenager, but it isnt quite a true story. There are fictional embellishments. The main selling point of the movie is that its co-written by a teenage girl, Nikki Reed, who helped pen the script (with an adult) at age 13. She acted in the film at age 14. The gist of this movie is that bad girls influence good girls, and Thirteen is a testament to the power of sex, drugs, and more sex and drugs. Toss in a little rap and rock and roll, and youve got an ode to juvenile delinquency that might have made Nicholas Ray proud, but in my gut, I think he would have hated it. I found the entire exercise turgid and tedious. After one, two, or ten scenes of meanness and abuse and a rash of like no way, fer sure, and whatever, you sort of wish for Doris Day. To truly enjoy a movie, you have to care about the characters, and I just didnt care. Independent movies are everywhere, and Hollywood keeps cranking em out as well. Theres Cold Creek Manor, which is basically a haunted house movie without much haunting. Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid buy a new home and have high hopes for happy family dreams. Bad things happen to good-thinking people, but this is an exercise in tedium and familiarity. The Fighting Temptations showcases the now officially annoying talents of Cuba Gooding, Jr. How manic can one man be? I fear we aint seen nuthin yet. Gooding is an executive who falls on hard times and in order to earn an inheritance has to whip together a local gospel choir and have it win a singing championship. If this sounds like Sister Act, it is, only flipped gender-wise. The pedestrian movie is decidedly not about the singing group, The Temptations, who might want to consider suing the filmmakers.
Secondhand Lions showcases the prodigious talents of Michael Caine and Robert Duvall who play a pair of crusty curmudgeons who are visited for the summer by their teenage nephew, Haley Joel Osment. The kid is shocked, shocked by the eccentricities of his uncles. There are life lessons to be learned and a few laughs along the way. The movie is cute without being cloying. It probably wont score high at the box office, but its going to be a great home viewing rental for families. Underworld is a standard vampire versus werewolf movie that delivers a few chills, one or two thrills, but no surprises.
Last, but certainly not least, is The Rundown, a run-of-the-mill action adventure feature that stars The Rock, another wrestler who thinks he can act. Perhaps if he makes a movie that requires more than just silly kung fu fighting, we can judge him on his thespian skills. This is another one of those hunting-for-a-human-in-the-jungle movies thats beautifully photographed, but telegraphs every threat, joke, and incident. The plot is remarkably convoluted. Suffice it to say that The Rock is some sort of troubleshooter who also likes to gamble and who owes money to someone who needs a favor. The Rock is compelled to retrieve a wiseacre young American man who is spending more time in the Amazon than he should be. Hes played by Seann William Scott, who one day might want to explain why his first name has two ens. Scott has comedic talent and hes personable, but he seems unsure of whether to play the whole thing straight or strictly for laughs. His main claim to fame are the America Pie movies. Anyway, The Rock and Scott are like oil and water and tensions flare. As they traverse the jungle, they have to battle big rebels and bigger insects. The Rock, Scott, and a fierce enemy figure all have sculpted bodies, so they take off their shirts and fight a lot. The camera swoons over them as the audience fades from sheer exhaustion at the sight of so much leafy tree canopy and so many flying fists. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor
Now that autumn has arrived and the summer movie season has blessedly faded into memory, you havent a solid excuse for not heading to a theater. Oh sure, there are still some turkeys out there theyre what keeps the studios in clover, but from the nine movies under discussion here, there should be something you might want to see.