Whatever Works (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Boris (Larry David) was a cynical man. He was smart but he was lightyears from charming. He was a man without a filter; he took great pride in pointing out the phenomenal idiocy of mankind like their belief in the man in the sky, pretentious art, and the travesty we call modern culture. Nothing surprised him. Beating kids at chess and teasing them about him gave him pleasure. But his eccentric nature hit a detour when he met a Southern girl named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). It was her first week in New York City so she had nowhere to go. To our surprise, he allowed her to stay in his apartment until she found a job. Despite what he considered to be her utter lack of intelligence, often calling her an “inchworm,” he began to like her the more they spent time with each other. Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” consisted of some good performances but it failed to resonate with me emotionally due to its lack of focus on the lead character. I enjoyed the film when it was only Boris and Melody in one room. It was like watching a man with anger issues fire in a shooting range: Boris was the shooter and Melody was the target. As Boris complained about humanity and the like, Melody just absorbed each verbal bullet. I loved her because she was sunny and words didn’t get her down like most people. She knew that Boris’ verbal diarrhea was therapeutic for him and, for her, it was an opportunity to learn something different, something so far from the beliefs she was raised in. They were good for each other even if it was just for a while. But when Melody’s mother (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), Marietta, knocked on their door, it was a downhill race to the finish line because the story was no longer about Boris and his wild temperament. It became about Marietta’s evolution as an artist, her ménage à trois with our protagonist’s friends, and her desperate attempt to pluck her daughter out of Boris’ life and set her up with an actor named Randy (Henry Cavill). Another unnecessary piece of the puzzle was John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody’s father, and his mission to win back Marietta’s heart. Boris hated clichés and this film ended up exactly that. I kept waiting for the director to pull something different out of the bag but he didn’t. Excitement came as far as Boris talking directly to the camera to acknowledge his audience, to discuss the concepts of entropy and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Only about a quarter of the material was funny. The rest of the time I spent wondering why Boris was constantly yelling. We didn’t know much about his background, other than he was once considered to be awarded a Nobel Prize, so why was he such an angry, hypochondriac misfit who saw himself as better than everyone else? “Whatever Works” was an appropriate title because it was mishmash of third-rate material from Allen’s other projects.
Please Give (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A married couple (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt) living in New York City bought the apartment next door in hopes of expanding their home. All they had to do was to await the death of their elderly neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) so they could move in and make the necessary changes. But the old woman, helped by her two granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet), did not seem to show any sign of passing away any time soon. “Please Give,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, was an effective comedy, which at times made me feel uneasy, because it showcased unlikable people doing and saying things that were, in the least, inappropriate. In others words, it captured real life. Even though it made me feel uncomfortable, I constantly laughed because I could imagine myself making the same decisions as the characters did here. Many scenes were familiar. For instance, while at a restaurant or a diner, we could hear banal conversations of others from a few tables away. There were also scenes where the characters expressed, without holding back, their anger toward their grandparents without regard for people, mostly strangers, who just happened to be there. I liked its honesty despite how painful certain truths were. I also enjoyed how I wasn’t quite sure whether the director was being emotionally sincere or poking fun at the characters as it moved from one scene to another. When Keener decided to volunteer for mentally challenged kids, on one hand, I was touched because I was reminded of the time when I used to volunteer at an Alzheimer’s facility. On some level, I felt like she was serious about wanting to commit and make a difference on those children’s lives. On the other hand, I thought it was very amusing because Keener’s character was such an insecure person but was not even aware of it. She felt like helping the world (she found giving money to homeless people rewarding) but she had important unresolved issues such as her guilt regarding her job and her increasingly difficult relationship with her pimply-faced teenage daughter (Sarah Steele). When the material became emotionally complex, I thought it was at its best. “Please Give” focused on people’s insecurities and their inability to deal with the way they saw themselves compared to how they thought the world perceived them. Best of all, in order to remain honest with the material, the ending gave a sufficient sense of closure to its characters without being melodramatic or heavy-handed. It felt just right because, while not every problem was solved, I felt like the characters would continue to be a work in progress.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.