Woody Allen’s latest filled with promise

Posted Nov. 04, 2010, at 8:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, written and directed by Woody Allen, 98 minutes, rated PG-13.

Now that’s he’s a confirmed cinematic expatriate — all but one of his last six films have taken place in Europe, and his next film, “Midnight in Paris,” takes place in that city — Woody Allen follows his last film, the New York stinker “Whatever Works,” with a better movie set in London.

Since 2005, two great films have come from Allen while shooting abroad — the terrific “Match Point” and the Academy Award-winning “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is a slighter work, but it’s a modestly good time, if only because so many of its characters are such a mess.

Let’s just lay it on the line — they are in such a state of disrepair, if you’ve ever considered therapy, which is the one thread that runs throughout so many of Allen’s movies, watching this movie might quell the desire. Almost everyone here is a wreck.

It all begins with boozy Helena (Gemma Jones), who is dumped by her longtime husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins, reminding us after a long period of commercial films that he can act), who is having something of a midlife crisis. He works out incessantly, he jogs, he bikes, but since poor Helena can’t keep up with him, he leaves her. What’s the poor thing to do, especially now that Alfie has shacked up with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a prostitute he’s fallen madly in love with?

The answer rests with Helena’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), who hooks her up with a faux psychic hauled in to lift Helena up with a handful of lies and deep reservoirs of scotch. Her job is to convince Helena that her life isn’t over. And it works, so much so that Helena starts to see promise in the world, even though her contentious relationship with Sally’s husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), hardly makes for a happy family.

About Roy. This is the first film in which Brolin actually looks like the real-life Brolin. Recently, I found myself standing next to him at a Vegas restroom at the Wynn Hotel. His body is oddly thick and truncated, almost dwarfish, which doesn’t come through in his other movies, but which Allen emphasizes here in ways that make Roy, who has an unattractive demeanor, also physically unattractive.

Although he went through medical school, Roy eschewed that to write a first novel, which became popular. Almost too popular, because for years, he has struggled to finish his second novel. And when he finally does finish it, let’s just say that this artist needs a new focus while publishers read his work.

Distractions are, in fact, everywhere in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” The trouble is, they usually involve the other sex. Roy flirts with Dia (Freida Pinto), a pretty young woman who lives across the way. Meanwhile, Sally slides away from Roy and starts her own flirtation with Greg (Antonio Banderas). And trouble brews.

What’s curious about “Stranger” is how it overlooks its greatest star — London itself. There’s no real sense of place in this movie — parts of it feel as if it could have been filmed in any big city, which is a waste considering the city at hand. And while the performances are good, the movie fails to live up to the promise of its initial scenes involving loopy Helena. Given her initial quirky presence in the film, which sends it nicely off balance, Allen appears to be setting up audiences for a mad comedy.

But that’s not what this is. Instead, we get a movie filled with promise, a few good laughs, your typical Allen neuroses — but no lasting bite. Grade: C+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

TOY STORY 3, directed by Lee Unkrich, written by Michael Arndt, 98 minutes, rated G.

The horror movie “Toy Story 3” takes the beloved toys from the previous two films and puts them in a movie in which they no longer are needed by Andy, who is off to college. And so, since he’s moving on, the toys in question are given to a day care center, in which hives of scrambling, snot-nosed, unformed tots tear into them with such unbridled glee that their rampage hinges on something close to blood violence.

Thus the horror.

Director Lee Unkrich based the movie on Michael Arndt’s script, and what they created with Pixar is one of the year’s great movies.

Everyone is back — and then some. There’s Woody (Tom Hanks), who remains Andy’s favorite, as well as Woody’s pals Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), and Barbie (Jodi Benson), who no longer is wanted by Andy’s sister.

New to the show are those toys at the Sunnyside Day Care, and at first glance, they’re a welcoming bunch with broad smiles and big hearts. There’s a big furry bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty), who leads the pack and is a self-proclaimed “hugger,” as well as Ken Doll (Michael Keaton), Big Baby (who wanders the facility like Frankenstein’s monster and who has an unfortunate, droopy left eye), and scores of others, including a rubber octopus and a grinning monkey replete with cymbals and eyes that see everything.

Which is sort of a problem for Woody and company. After a honeymoon period in which all believe they’ve struck gold — instead of being tossed out with the trash, they now will be played with and loved by children — it’s quickly revealed that everything isn’t right at Sunnyside Day Care. The place is a nightmare, with its walls so locked down, you might as well consider the other toys’ leader, Lotso, a strict warden with an ax to grind. He plans to keep the new toys captive. And what do you want to bet that Woody, Buzz and everyone else is having none of that? Of course, with that comes its share of problems — such as how to get out, which is what a good deal of what this movie is about.

“Toy Story 3” also is about leaving behind one’s childhood, the knowledge gained from doing so, and the heartache and exhilaration that can come from it when a way of life is lost and a new one is found. It’s a movie that highlights abandonment issues for the toys in question, and it’s a movie that emotes all of those complex emotions with such sensitivity that you’re once again left with a groundswell of admiration for the skilled people at Pixar, who have an uncanny way of balancing all of this emotional weight with outrageous moments of comedy and action.

With a superb set of new characters — you’ll never look at Barbie and Ken the same way again — and its clear understanding of human nature, “Toy Story 3” once again proves that toys not only are for kids, but toys, in fact, are us.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Fridays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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