Monday, December 14, 2009

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

The plot begins like a run-of-the-mill melodrama or romcom: a middle-aged widower (named Aoyama) is encouraged by his teenage son to find a new wife and start enjoying life. So Aoyama uses his TV producer connections to hold a sham audition for a nonexistent show to audition candidates for a new wife.

Ayoyama takes home the stack of resumes and head shots, and is instantly taken aback by a haunting essay about death and shattered dreams, written by one young aspiring actress. Even during the quiet moments between Aoyama and his friends/family, director Takashi Miike's masterful use of dutch angles, long shots, and the occasional use of a security-camera-esque angle stirs a sense of doom and unease.
Anyone familiar with Miike's work would be more shocked by how normal the film seems up to this point, and anyone who doesn't know anything about Audition should stop reading here if they like surprises.
As the AVClub calls it, Audition is a "gear-shift" movie, one that takes a radical new direction in tone and meaning halfway through the film. This shift is triggered about the time Aoyama calls the young actress at home, and the two begin a relationship. By this point, Miike has dipped in enough foreboding imagery and outright creepiness to let the audience know this isn't going to be a simple romance comedy/drama, but he hasn't even begun twisting his audience through dream sequences and real-life horror that overtakes the final act.

Miike's infamous filmography is not for the squeamish or easily offended. By the end of its run, Audition terrifies, shocks and repulses without losing the heart that anchored its first half. A-

Bruno (2009)
Sacha Baron Cohen hasn't lost his ability to shock, there's still plenty of way-past-the-line moments in Bruno that make his work feel edgy in a world dominated by uncensored internet videos and MA-rated prime-time. But where Borat held a mirror to the barely disguised racism (and every other -ism) that lurks just below the American surface, Bruno just, uh, makes a bunch of gay jokes. Luckily for Cohen, the jokes are still funny as hell, even if his main devises for landing those jokes are beginning to feel tired or even predictable. Being as famous as he is, tricking even the most isolated yokels into unforgiving interviews and set-ups must be becoming rather difficult for Cohen, and it seems that more and more of his segments are fully acted and fictional skits, and doesn't include as many moments where Cohen brilliantly punks an unsuspecting mark. The plot involves Bruno, Cohen's Austrian gay fashion designer, going to America with hopes to become famous. It all ends without much of a conflict or resolution, and as a coherent film it's not much to talk about. As a series of outlandish set-ups and individual gags, you will still laugh at the unbelievable length's Cohen is willing to go to, and the unbelievably soulless people he dupes along the way.B-

Whatever Works
During the pre-release run-up to "Whatever Works," promotional articles and reviews usually centered on the fact that the film was written by Allen 30 years ago and then shelved, only brought back to life when he found the perfect lead in Larry David.

The cynic in me wants to say this "old script" angle was pushed by Allen's studio to avoid reminding viewers that, if written today, the entire film could be viewed as Allen's justification for marrying his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Stick with me here. The title, "Whatever Works," refers to the love and relationship philosophy of Allen's surrogate in the film, Larry David — love and relationships are fleeting and one should ignore any and all social conventions in order to experience the ephemeral joy of "love." David's character is Boris Yellnikoff, a supposed physics genius who was "considered" for a Nobel Prize but never even nominated. He is exhaustively misanthropic and condescending, calling even the people he likes "earthworms" and "cretins." At first this proves entertaining as Yellnikoff shows no patience for even the poor tykes he teaches chess to for a living. Eventually the act becomes tedious, but is saved by several 4th-wall breaking monologues that rail against anything and everything that happen to pass through the irascible curmudgeon's skull.

Yellnikoff's life of hiding from the "earthworms" in his dingy loft come to a screeching halt when a young Dixie runaway named Melodie, played by Evan Rachel Wood, suddenly appears in his home begging for a place to stay. His pessimistic worldview and rapid fire insults masquerading as wisdom eventually rub off on the impressionable Melodie, though when she repeats them they are transformed from ugly to charming and innocent, and before long the two form an unlikely romantic relationship. Allen spares us from having to see wrinkly old Larry David and hotter-than-hell Evan Rachel Wood get "intimate," but this doesn't stop Allen from parading Wood around in her underwear or other skimpy outfits (thank god, haha). The main problem with "Whatever Works," becomes, eventually, Wood's lack of acting talent. Her fake southern accent is bad, her rhythms and body language are strained and, other than her good looks, she doesn't really contribute anything to the film.

The plot takes some unexpected turns as more God-fearing southerners appear in Manhattan and slowly evolve into the "Whatever Works" bohemians Allen so clearly embraces. In other words, if you support Sarah Palin, you will absolutely despise this film. The question becomes, "does Allen feel as superior to the southern yokels as his Yellnikoff character does? Is it all fiction, or does he believe that environment really does change people more than upbringing and roots? How easily do religious values disappear once people are exposed to new things?" Though flawed, even a minor Woody Allen film such as "Whatever Works" leaves the viewer with more to chew on than most anything else released in a given year. B-

Happiness (1998)
No one should ever watch Happiness, for any reason, ever. Don't get me wrong, it's brilliantly acted and directed, and the script can hold its own, but the unrepentant doom, gloom and sadness is enough to scare anyone away from film for months. Director Todd Solondz trades away much of the black humor that levitated his most well known films, Palindromes and Welcome to the Dollhouse, for bleak catastrophe and depression. The characters here include a failed artist, a successful but soulless artist, a pederast, a murderous rape victim, a sex addict, a clueless yet arrogant housewife, a divorced couple in the their 70s, among others, all of whose lives are covered in shit in the beginning of the film and only sink deeper through the 2 hours 14 minutes run time. There are moments that could almost be considered comedy, but only in the darkest, most twisted and painfuly ironic variety. When the Solondz sick version of humanity fires on all cylinders, Happiness goes places no other film would dare, but when it pushes too hard, the ugliness can become nearly ridiculous. There are some conversations in the film, specifically an especially creepy "birds-and-the-bees" talk between a pubescent boy and his dangerous father, that are borderline preposterous. Then again, that saddest truth is that one is bound to find more "you-couldn't-make-this-stuff-up" ugliness in the cops/courts section of any local newspaper than in even the most preposterous moments in Happiness. B

1 comment:

The Juice Box said...

I saw the cover of "Whatever Works" and it creeped me out. Then I read the storyline and it creeped me out even further. Funny, because I love Larry David and he does stuff like that anyway on Curb, kind of. Eh.

Also, I hated Bruno. Just saw it the other night. I don't know about you, but I don't need that much bouncing you-know-what in my life.