“To Rome With Love” pleasant, pretty work from Woody Allen

There’s few directors I appreciate as much as Woody Allen. But, as we Allen devotees know, its his minor films that enable us to appreciate his considerable amount of masterpieces. His newest, “To Rome With Love”, certainly doesn’t have the dramatic heft of a “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, romantic complexity of “Manhattan”, nor creative sleight-of-hand of “Deconstructing Harry”. It’s not terribly sexy, in the vein of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. It’s not nail-bitingly tense, a la “Match Point”. It’s just minor. Charming. And that’s okay.

Evidently set in the titular city, “To Rome With Love” contains four distinct vignettes, all littered with top-tier actors. In one, Allen, in front of the camera for the first time in six years, plays Jerry, a music producer who exploits a family member’s skills at opera. The catch? The guy can only  sing in the shower. In another story, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi play a young married couple who are split up in a foreign city to them, eventually facing pressures to cheat on each other with both a movie star and a prostitute (played by Penelope Cruz).

In perhaps the film’s weakest vignette, Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, an unassuming workaholic who faces massive frustration feeling that no one values his opinion. The next day, he wakes up and is inexplicably made into a massive celebrity. Finally, Jesse Eisenberg plays Jack, a neurotic architect who begins to fall in love with his fiancee’s best friend, the pretentious Monica (Ellen Page). Alec Baldwin tags along in this bit playing the mysterious John, who always seems to have advice for Jack and who no one else seems to acknowledge or see.

Allen intercuts between these four at a rapid rate, allowing us to both savor the moment as it occurs, and anticipate the next. The performances across the board are solid; in particular, Penelope Cruz is red-hot radiant, and Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page are a couple to die for.

Perhaps the most endearing part of “To Rome With Love” is its willingness to get whimsical. Allen seems to enjoy injecting a bit of fantasy into his work as of late, and it’s brought out some really clever bits. But this is a Woody Allen film, and so, naturally, it’s fundamentally the same thematic outline, riffing off existentialism, infidelities, neuroses, et cetera.

His dialogue is as tart and poppy as ever, and Darius Khondji’s cinematography captures Rome — the city, incidentally, in which I’m writing this — as vividly and gorgeously as I see it now. “To Rome With Love” succeeds in what it tries to do, it’s just that its ambitions aren’t terribly high: good dialogue, pretty sights, and another year-long wait for the next one. B-

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“Safety Not Guaranteed” a charming, original work

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“Safety Not Guaranteed” is an almost effortless blend of countless disparate elements: twee ‘indie’ sensibilities, high-concept mystery, story of romantic discovery and re-discovery, occasional comedy, and budding romance. Not to mention, of course, the film’s entire conceit revolves around whether it’s science fiction or not. It’s as high-wire an act as any independent American film has put on in quite some time, and does so without calling major attention to itself.

And who leads this elaborate set-up? The queen of dry, low-key restraint, Aubrey Plaza. She plays Darius, a mid-20s Seattle magazine writer still troubled by her mother’s death a decade prior. Her boss, Jeff, spots a magazine ad where a man requests a partner for time-travel, and decides the duo will travel up north, along with nerdy intern Arnau, to investigate the man behind it. But soon, Darius begins to see something in this guy Kenneth, a paranoid yet oddly endearing fellow. To go further is to spoil.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is remarkable in that it has such mysterious ambitions, yet demonstrates total clarity in storytelling and character. These are remarkably well-defined individuals, played with equal doses restraint and likability. Aubrey Plaza in particular leads in the film in the wisest way possible: without flash, without pizzazz. She riffs on her traditionally dry persona, but with an added degree of regret and pain. She balances the film’s truly unpredictable element: Mark Duplass. Duplass, who I’ve long admired for his work directing independent comedy, shows his skill on the other side of the camera. His character, Kenneth, needs to veer the line between sweetheart and potential psycho, and he does it beautifully.

Derek Connolly’s script, running a taut 82 minutes, is about as perfect a first-time writing job as I’ve seen in a while. From the pitch-perfect dialogue, to consistent tone, to the balance between varying story lines, each as interesting as the next. Connolly’s work is polished from top to bottom, and the poignant conclusion ties it all off nicely.

If there’s anything “Safety Not Guaranteed” stumbles when handling, it’s not apparent to this eye. It does fire on damn-near every cylinder. The only major area where it underwhelms? There’s simply not enough to chew on. As mentioned before, the film does have a really brief length, and while the film does quite a lot with the time it has, the brevity disservices some story arcs.

A prime example is Jake Johnson’s character, as Darius’s sleazy boss, Jeff. Jeff’s primary motivation to tag along on the trip is to reconnect with an old high-school girlfriend. However, this subplot is introduced, demonstrated and finished in about four scenes flat. They’re four strong scenes, but it’s just not enough.

There’s all sorts of rare qualities buzzing around in “Safety Not Guaranteed”: a completely original premise, a satisfying conclusion that re-contextualizes every scene that came before it, and the good sense not to overstay its welcome. If anything, the film bows out a bit early. B+

“Savages” a pseudo-‘edgy’ tropefest

I often envision Oliver Stone, behind the camera helming one of his films, as a shirtless, tattooed, bandana-wearing maniac whirling his camera frantically in between swigs of liquid peyote. His loud politics and brash aesthetics certainly indicate a man of this image, as do his occasional ventures from political fare (“JFK”, “Nixon”) into more hallucinatory territory. Enter “Savages”, the film long touted as being the ‘one’ to get Stone’s creative juices pumping after a pretty poor showing last decade, what with his “Wall Street” sequel, the George Dubya biopic, and that damned “Alexander”.

“Savages” is a film about kidnapping, weed, robbery, crossing ethical boundaries, the Mexican cartel, murder, and three-way romance. In other words, the exact sort of subversive shtick that should have fired up the 65-year-old Stone’s bad-boy streak of success.

“Savages” is not that film.

“Savages” is so frustrating because it looks the part of all it should have been. Stone certainly utilizes all the tricks in his bag, from his over-saturated color palette to blurred transitions and unorthodox sound choices. Stone knows how it should look, relying on this to disguise the purely conventional, rote storytelling at the core of “Savages”.

Two Laguna Beach buddies, Ben and Chon, produce the best cannabis in the world in an almost completely stress-free, violence-free fashion. All the while, they’re both in an open relationship with their best friend, the gorgeous O. The Mexican cartel takes notice and wants in on their product. Ben and Chon refuse. O is kidnapped. Things get savage.

A top-tier cast has been assembled for this film, of both young and old backgrounds. The young talent infuse the film with the soul, the balance, and the energy it needs. Aaron Johnson is Ben, the laid-back Buddhist counterpart to Taylor Kitsch’s gung-ho Navy SEAL Chon; their unlikely camaraderie is handled particularly nicely in the film. Neither of the two have quite enough presence or force to command the screen by themselves, but when together there’s a definite spark. Ditto the gorgeous Blake Lively as O, continuing her streak of playing slightly edgier characters than her Maxim 100 counterparts.

But the film doesn’t lack screen-chewing, that’s for sure. The bearded Benicio del Toro plays his cartel henchman character, Lado, with a sort of menace and mean streak I’ve never seen from the guy before. Particularly villainous is Salma Hayek as the leader of the  cartel giving our protagonists their troubles. Hayek marries Old Hollywood glamour and downtrodden grittiness in her role, something I’ve never quite seen before but would love to see again. John Travolta puts in a nice 15 minutes as a hilariously corrupt DEA agent aiding both sides of the feud.

As stressed earlier, the trippy techniques Stone tries to apply to “Savages” sort of backfire in two ways. One, they underpin how conventional Stone’s actual storytelling is, all the while distracting him from doing much actual storytelling. It’s difficult to characterize why not, but Oliver Stone just can’t get us to care terribly for these characters. When they’re on-screen spouting lines and bullets there’s a sense of immediacy, but as these sequences are viewed as a whole it never resonates emotionally.

Perhaps most ironic about this? Stone soaks his source material, the great 2010 Don Winslow novel, in saccharine cliches. From the addition of obtrusive voiceover from Blake Lively’s character, to the attempts to humanize some of the more despicable characters in the film, to the absolute shitstorm of an ending. These attempts to make “Savages” more palatable eventually undo everything great about its characters in the first place: amorality. It’s what made the book great, and its absence makes these “Savages” seem positively tame. C

“The Amazing Spider-Man”: a swing and a miss

Disdain and cynicism has awaited “The Amazing Spider-Man” anticipating its release. The general consensus is that the original “Spider-Man” franchise is much too recent to warrant the complete cast and crew overhaul. I disagree. Any story can be made compelling with the right combination of creative forces, the only problem there being that the combination has to be right. All evidence seems to indicate “The Amazing Spider-Man” had a solid, passionate team behind it, what with the talented Marc Webb directing it and the screenwriters of the film being hot off the “Harry Potter” franchise, “Zodiac”, and even the original “Spider-Man” movies. It is, however, impossible to separate my opinion of the film from my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes-workings of it, knowledge indicating a last-minute intervention from the studio to cut out the brand-new back-story intended to make this film its own beast. The result of this? A film that feels not only incomplete, but almost robbed of the opportunity to make itself stand out. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is an incredibly awkward viewing experience. Not a bad one, not an unpleasant one. Just one that’s clearly not itself, often times drawing remarkably clear parallels to the origin story from barely ten years ago.

As with Sam Raimi’s 2002 original, this is the story of the genius, if socially clueless Peter Parker. Parker’s a high-school student who lost his scientist parents years ago under dubious circumstances, although he’s found parental figures in his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, living in Queens. By a genetically enhanced spider-bite (yeah), Peter finds himself with incredible strength, dexterity and speed, although it is worth noting that in this version his famous “web-slinging” abilities here come from chemical containers, not his wrists. After his Uncle Ben is gunned down by a robber, Parker decides to use his enhanced abilities for crime-fighting. This comes in handy when a giant scientist-turned-lizard (yeah) threatens to unleash a massive toxin that would transform New York into, well, lizards (yeah).

Even typing up that plot summary sort of displays all of “Spider-Man”s narrative weaknesses in one compact little summary: the uninspired, under-developed villain with the ridiculous “evil” plot, this of course ignoring that all the other stuff in the movie has been, well, done before. The film moves at a rapid pace, but not the sort of pace that inspires tension or propels suspense. It’s the sort of rhythm that often makes you pause and ponder, often feeling like you missed the pay-off of almost any given scene. Love stories are developed and unfolded in a matter of minutes, entire characters disappear for up to an hour without much notice being given, and the villain’s major “plot” comes in the last 20 minutes, barely even feeling like a footnote. This is a messily edited film if ever there were one.

But when the film finds its groove, it clicks like crazy. The film’s two leads, Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man and Emma Stone as his love interest/best friend Gwen Stacy, hit a natural chemistry from the first time they lock eyes. It’s really only in these moments where “The Amazing Spider-Man” stops feeling like a product and more like a story, something with a point, a pay-off, and even a heart. Director Marc Webb, hot off last decade’s best rom-com “500 Days Of Summer”, really knows the dialogue and dynamics to make a believable cinematic romance.

Webb assembled a skilled supporting cast as well, although not much is done with them. Martin Sheen and Sally Field nail the roles of Peter’s surrogate parents, making it all the harder when Sheen’s character is gunned down, setting Peter’s transformation into motion. Denis Leary demonstrates his dramatic chops as Gwen’s police-chief father, as well. But Rhys Ifans, for me, is very problematic as the antagonist of the piece, Curt Connors. He’s quite good when Connors plays the ‘reserved-scientist’ archetype, but when he transforms into the villainous “Lizard”, it just becomes laughable, almost completely undoing any dramatic tension built by the film.

All the pieces seemed to be in the right place to make “The Amazing Spider-Man” a runaway success, but it just never coheres the way it should. Sad, but this film seems almost destined to dwell in the shadow of other, better products, serving as more of a footnote in the wake of Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” trilogy, and better yet, in between “The Avengers” and the final Batman installment. A swing and a miss. C-

“Ted” is juvenile, offensive, irreverent, and…touching?

Maybe it’s because an appreciation for juvenile humor runs far back with the Michaels family, or maybe it’s just because I’m a teenage guy. But Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humor has always seems to do it for this critic, what with his foul-mouthed non-sequiturs and raunchy pop-culture references. I couldn’t recite a single one-liner from any of MacFarlane’s past work, on shows such as “Family Guy” or “American Dad”, a testament to both the lack of memorability and the, well, massive amounts of one-liners in his oeuvre. He embodies “quantity over quality” moreso than any other American comedian I can think of.

This said, he seems to scale back some of his less commendable traits for “Ted”, making for a leaner, more consistent array of jokes. The fact that MacFarlane is operating within a 100-minute timeframe as opposed to an entire television season seems to have given him the pacing jolt that he’s long needed. And “Ted” is all the better for it, certainly among the funniest films of the year. And yes, although the jokes are every ounce as racially offensive, culturally irreverent and just damn funny as expected, they’re counterbalanced plenty by the ample heart that the film has.

“Ted” is the story of John, played by a hilarious Mark Wahlberg, who from a young age is something of a loner. Thus, when the guy wishes for his beloved teddy bear, “Ted”, to come to life, the two begin an inseparable friendship for the next 27 years. But as time goes by, things begin to change for the duo. For starters, the fact that Ted is a speaking plush animal garners him years of press attention, and with time, a dependency on the bong. John lands both a not-so-cushy job as a car-rental agent and a gorgeous girlfriend Lori, played by Mila Kunis. But Lori is beginning to grow impatient with John and Ted’s continuing antics, eventually giving John the ultimatum to choose between the two.

Perhaps “Ted”s most surprising accomplishment is that it never takes its eye off of what we, the audience, are emotionally invested in. The fact that we completely buy a close friendship between a two-time-Academy-Award-nominated actor and a CGI toy is no minor miracle; this is owed completely to how MacFarlane develops their dynamic in an organic, if crude way. Equal attention is paid to making the romance between Wahlberg and Kunis believable, with a sort of respect being paid to both genders that’s rarely seen in R-rated comedies. These are the relationships that power the film’s jokes and the film’s heart, and their convincing execution is what makes the film both funnier and more moving than most of its sort.

MacFarlane being one of entertainment’s top players, “Ted” is littered with high-profile cameos and name-drops, but these are admittedly some of the weaker jokes in his arsenal. Where “Ted” really finds its flow is in exchanges between characters, where MacFarlane finds a sweet-spot between his best qualities as a humorist: tonal absurdity, gradual build-up and plain goofy one-liners. Oddly enough, there’s a really precise rhythm at play in “Ted”, attributed to a good match of editing and ensemble.

“Ted” is certainly no masterpiece, it just kinda…oddly…nails everything it sets out to do. Weird, right? It sort of functions as a mirror of contemporary pop-culture banality, by calling out everything that’s wrong about it while being just as loud and obnoxious. B+

“Magic Mike” alternately goofy and serious look at male stripping

“Magic Mike” should really come with a subtitle: “A Litmus Test Of How Comfortable Audiences Are Of Their Own Sexuality”. The sheer amount of stories I’ve gotten of males writing this film off, or even walking out midway through, is unbelievable. This stems of course, from “Magic Mike”s subject matter: male stripping. For once, a major Hollywood studio has seen fit to explore the eroticization of males, not females, and this alone represents an unbelievably bold step. It makes sense then, that the ever-eager vanguard of cinema Steven Soderbergh is behind it.

“Magic Mike” is based in part on the experiences of lead star Channing Tatum, producing the film in conjunction with Soderbergh. Tatum had a famous stint as a stripper prior to his Abercrombie modeling, followed by his transition into poor performances as eye-candy-for-hire, and finally his recent burst of talent and creativity as an actor. “Magic Mike” represents perhaps his boldest and most confident step yet as an actor, both playing with his hyper-heterosexual male image and displaying an emotional range not yet (successfully) displayed. His character, the aforementioned “Magic” Mike, needs to strike a balance between charisma, maturity, and damn good dancing. It’s his best performance yet, by a leap and a bound.

The film is all about Mike’s attempts to get out of his Tampa, FL stripping niche, which while not portrayed as black-and-white evil, certainly seems to be hampering his dream of opening a custom-furniture business.

Mike’s exit from his profession of six years runs parallel to the story of Alex Pettyfer’s “The Kid”, a troubled 19-year-old upstart in the business. “The Kid”, despite his lack of dancing skill, skates by on a growing drug stash and pure charm. Pettyfer’s performance, while wooden at points, musters necessary charm at points yet seediness at others.

Equally mixed is newcomer Cody Horn, playing Pettyfer’s sister Brooke, also Mike’s budding love interest. Although Horn is pretty enough, the only discernible reason I can imagine for her being cast is her father’s status as the president of Warner Bros., the financiers of “Magic Mike”. (See what you learn because of me?!) Horn’s spotty chemistry with Tatum doesn’t exactly persuade the audience, given that Tatum’s character is uprooting his entire lifestyle for a shot at love with Horn. These two performances are certainly “Magic Mike”s biggest failings, although they may be, at present, the only ones that come to mind.

Matthew McConaughey continues to ride his recent career rejuvenation, playing Dallas, the dancing venue’s sleazy owner. McConaughey steals every scene he inhabits, using his trademark off-beat sensuality to suggest more villainy than most major blockbuster villains ever could. First-time writer Reid Carolin depicts all of these characters very vividly, but not through rambling, epic monologues; rather, the moments in which they choose to be silent. To observe. To plot.

Seedy though it can be tonally, “Magic Mike” should be noted for what it is: a hell of a lot of fun. The dance sequences in this film seem to function as both genuinely titillating for the female audience, yet goofy enough that others can laugh it off. The costumes, moves, and (yes) props employed here make for some of the summer’s funniest gags.

Director Steven Soderbergh dials his presence back quite a bit aesthetically, not calling attention to himself with flashy camera moves or transitions as he tends to with past projects. But where his influence is felt lies in “Magic Mike”s subtext. “Magic Mike” is an analysis of an institution’s potential to engulf people whole. Just as virus-propelled panic swallowed Soderbergh’s “Contagion” cast, drugs his “Traffic” characters and corporate interests his “Erin Brokovich”, so too can dancing take individuals and strip them to their worst. Funny how this exact act, stripping, seems to highlight this team, both behind and in front of the camera, at their best. B+

“Seeking A Friend For The End of the World” cutesy approach to doomsday

“Seeking A Friend For The End of the World” is no great step forward for American filmmaking, be it for the forces behind the camera, in front, or the dudes writing it all as they go along. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do things differently than we’ve come to expect, and for the better. “Seeking A Friend”’s major gimmick lies in its casual approach to an otherwise hyper-depressing subject matter, namely, the end of the world. It’s a bold move, perhaps the film’s only bold move. But it’s a great one.

The leads here are Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, playing into type as actors yet against type as a romantic pairing. The announcement has been made across the world that last-ditch efforts to destroy a 90-mile wide asteroid have failed, and that it will obliterate Earth in two weeks’ time. Carell and Knightley’s characters, Dodge and Penny, narrowly escape rioting L.A. crowds and head out onto the road to dwindle away their last few days. Along the way they encounter many quirky passerby, grapple with their upcoming death, and confront possible feelings for each other.

“Seeking A Friend” stands out for its application of a standard formula, the romantic comedy, to an outlandish setting. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has great fun simply thinking up the logistics of a world facing its end; highlights of the film are concepts such as self-hired assassins, well-stocked “apocalypse” bunkers, et cetera.

But for the film’s high-concept energy, its the simple interactions between Carell and Knightley that stick. About 70% of the film consists of simple exchanges between the two, so needless to say, their chemistry is pretty vital to the film’s success. It clicks. Their dynamic is basically a bounce between weary skepticism and jumpy energy, with both actors hitting their mark effortlessly. Particularly in the final third of the film, as the characters come ever-closer to their doom, does the poignancy and despair land. The final five minutes truly are heartbreaking, if not particularly original. It is perhaps the only part of the film where the true weight of the situation comes to light, something that makes for a good piece of entertainment, if not necessarily a daring one. B-