Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Weekend Pleasures

Over the Fourth of July 2005 weekend just past, your faithful blogger watched two movies on HBO-HD that you may want to add to your list of good movies that you shouldn't have missed.

In addition, I began watching the episodes I recorded during the (non-hi-def) USA Network's The 4400 marathon. This series, now wrapping up its second year, was recommended to me by a good friend. It's about a group of 4,400 people mysteriously re-deposited in the present after having been abducted at various times in the past. The identity of the abductor: apparently, someone or something having to do with the future. The returnees haven't aged, and they have very little idea what has happened to them. But each gradually wakes up to the fact that he or she has acquired some sort of strange, abnormal power ... . A good show.

As for the movies, they were Woody Allen's virtully unnoticed 2003 film Anything Else, starring Allen, a hapless Jason Biggs, and a devastatingly delightful Christina Ricci; and The Cooler, starring William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, and Maria Bello, a film which marked the directorial debut of Wayne Kramer in (also) 2003.

In garnering fully 6,721 votes at the Internet Movie Database, The Cooler has stimulated more than half again as much expression of opinion as Anything Else, with a piddling 3,922 tallies. IMDB'ers rate the former at a quite decent 7.0 out of 10, the latter at a mediocre 6.4. (Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith rates 7.9 with nearly 60,000 voters, a level of enthusiasm and support with which I fully agree.)

Personally, I would reverse the two rankings of the "lesser" flims. I think The Cooler is a good film, Anything Else a very good one.

Anything Else
In Anything Else, Allen is in my opinion quite close to the form he exhibited earlier in his career with Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). That is, he's doing well what he does best: skewering the lengths to which we will go, all of us, to both conceal and justify our cravings — to ourselves, to our freinds, to our shrinks, and especially to those we say we love.

When we crave to be with some significant other, we will say and do absolutely anything to bring that result about. Then, later, when we inevitably crave to be apart from him or her, we will again stop at nothing to insure that outcome. We'll even say the diametric opposite of what we once claimed was, with us, undying truth ... if it'll help us undo what we so foolishly did at a moment in time when we couldn't live without the person we can no longer live with.

Woody had me rolling on the floor in a scene thus described in this review: "Amanda's [Ricci's] blowsy divorcee mom Paula (Stockard Channing) unexpectedly crashes at the couple's apartment, with mom fancying herself as a piano-playing chanteuse who eventually takes up with a coke-snorting horse whisperer." When Channing straight-facedly tells Ricci, frantically hunting as usual for her Valium, that the younger man she seriously intends to take up with gives his occupation as "horse whisperer," I was no more good.

I think Woody Allen's once-major acclaim has gone into near-total eclipse for reasons having little to do with how good his films continue to be. For whatever reason, the times have turned against him. Quel dommage!

The Cooler
The Cooler seems to have parceled out some of Woody's lost acclaim to Wayne — Kramer, that is. Kramer, born in South Africa and a resident of L.A. since 1986, was 39 years old when he directed his first movie. (Allen was 34 when he directed his first from-scratch flick, 1969's Take the Money and Run.) Kramer also co-wrote The Cooler, a film about the effect love has on Lady Luck.

Picture William H. Macy (it's not hard to do) as a man whose luck is so bad, he's in the employ of casino owner Alec Baldwin to stop by gaming tables where patrons on a roll are raking in the moolah. As soon as Macy appears, their luck turns sour. His personal black cloud has, it seems, rained on their parade.

Can such a man ever be lucky in love? Turns out maybe he can, with casino waitress Maria Bello ... though at first her interest in him has been bought and paid for by Baldwin. Baldwin, for his part, is one of those characters who is so selfish, he sometimes does generous things ... for people he thinks can help him hold onto the power he was accustomed to wielding in the "Old Vegas," now rapidly vanishing in favor of the Disneyfied entertaiment megaplexes which he loathes.

The plot's outcome in The Cooler makes all the difference in the world, and it's hard to guess what it will be until the last roll of the dice comes up ... whatever it does come up (I'm not telling!). Oddly, the plot outcome in Anything Else, as in most other Woody Allen films, makes no real difference whatsover. Whatever it happens to be, no one winds up any wiser, truth to be told. All the main characters' resolutions to do better or be smarter will, as everyone in the audience knows, go totally poof! the very next time they begin to crave whatever it is those selfsame resolutions and wise sayings stand in the way of.

Happy HD'ing!

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