YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER
**/**** Image A Sound B
starring Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones
written and directed by Woody Allen
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Scott Glenn
screenplay by Mike Rich, suggested by the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack
directed by Randall Wallace
starring Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis
screenplay by Pamela Gray
directed by Tony Goldwyn
by Ian Pugh You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger represents the apotheosis of what shall now be called the New Woody Allen Average--those perfectly competent nothing movies that never rate more than two, two-and-a-half stars. I say that without a hint of sarcasm, and I say that as someone who considers Allen's work a primary influence--and as the guy who regularly defends Scoop. But I have to be honest: the New Woody Allen Average has become so predictably mediocre that I just can't take it anymore. The director's latest surrogate is another novelist, Roy (Josh Brolin), who's struggling to complete his latest book. It's putting a strain on his marriage to Sally (Naomi Watts), so he looks into the window of his pretty next-door neighbour (Freida Pinto) for romantic respite. Sally, an art curator, feels the same pressure, and casually drifts closer to her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally's father Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left his wife for a prostitute (Lucy Punch), while his ex, Helena (Gemma Jones), retreats to spirituality, consulting a medium to find out where she stands in the great cosmic plan. It's a matter of "what you want" versus "what you take" in a race to see which floundering/philandering idiot can make the most tragic mistakes in the span of 90 minutes. Is it any different from Vicky Cristina Barcelona? When you break it down to its most basic components...no, not really.
All the familiar strengths and weaknesses of Allen's 21st-century output are present here. Nobody writes bullshit dialogue better than Woody, but his plot drags along at a snail's pace. No one has a better eye for beautiful women, but he still comes across as a creepy old man in seeking them out. And there are very, very few filmmakers who can pull a half-decent performance out of Anthony Hopkins anymore, though it seems that Allen has lost faith in his ability to shepherd in throwing another omniscient narrator into the mix. The worst thing about You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is that it feels so resigned--so interchangeable with any one of his recent films that even Allen believes this all he has left in him. Whether I'm doomed to repeat this same paragraph every year for the next decade remains to be seen, but I'd call it a fair bet.
I'm also tired of formula slaves like Secretariat--which, too, is crafted with extraordinary technical proficiency but doesn't have the heart it so treasures in its protagonists. Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) inherits a famous stable of racing horses from her ailing father and leads the unlikely foal to Triple Crown glory; along the way, the film trots out a number of guest stars (James Cromwell! Dylan Baker! Fred Thompson?) to inform Penny of what she can and cannot do before she flouts convention and triumphs with the power of horse-whispering. Working on a series of hunches, Penny hires a couple of sadsacks to take Secretariat's reins: retired trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, who dresses like the '70s equivalent of his foppish lothario from Dangerous Liaisons) and infamous jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Horwarth)--both of whom are aching to prove themselves. What this means is that no matter how "impossible" the true stories are, no matter how dynamically the horse races are shot, Secretariat reduces it all to feel-good sports treacle sent through an orange filter. (Watch as the film tries and fails to forge a human connection to the cliché: hippie tolerance and female empowerment are briefly addressed, then dropped.) "That's impossible," mutters rival trainer Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) as Secretariat performs his record-shattering run at the Belmont Stakes. Impossible? Not in the world of underdog cinema, it ain't. That's probably the greatest sin of Secretariat and every movie like it: the effortlessness with which they take real-life moments of unlikely victory and transform them into routine pabulum.
With that in mind, Conviction makes for an unfortunately appropriate double-bill with Secretariat as another wannabe-tearjerker based on real events that doesn't have much grasp on--or use for--truth. Hilary Swank puts her wounded-deer expression to work as Betty Anne Waters, who earned a law degree and sacrificed a normal family life in order to free her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell, sadly underutilized) from a wrongful murder conviction. The story primarily spans the eighteen years it took Waters to exonerate her brother, and the film, despite brief flashbacks to the siblings' childhood, plays out so linearly as to negate any sense of struggle. One minute, Betty Anne's fighting to keep up with law school. The next, she's passed the bar. Phone calls yield results too quickly to convey the frustration that inspired them. To the film's credit, it does touch on the enormous dedication and love that drove Betty Anne's single-minded quest for justice (and, to that end, it aims a haunting rhetorical question at her own children), but by treating its major events as mere signposts en route to an inevitable conclusion, Conviction loses sight of what should be its most important aspect: a sense of time and opportunities lost in the attempt to set things right. Originally published: October 15, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER
by Bill Chambers You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was my first brush with Woody Allen on the Blu-ray format, and after years of dim, soft DVD transfers of his films, I have to say it was a real treat. (It probably helps that the great Vilmos Zsigmond shot this one.) The 1.78:1, 1080p image has a honey-brown glaze like so much latter-day Allen, but it doesn't obfuscate colour--both Frieda Pinto's symbolic red dresses and the modernist whites of Anthony Hopkins's upscale digs operate by their own logic--or texture. Detail is such that tight close-ups of Naomi Watts bring into delicate relief her every dimple and worry line, which I appreciate isn't something she'd necessarily appreciate, but her face tells a story, unlike that of her buddy Nicole Kidman, and she's aging like fine wine. God, she's beautiful. Where was I? Oh yeah--disc look good too. This is a nice, filmic presentation that lives up to Sony's usual high standards. As for the audio, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger's mono mix has been splayed across the forward soundstage in an unusual 3-channel/"LCR" (read: left, right, center) configuration. (The packaging parenthetically describes this DTS-HD MA track as "Discrete Surround"--a misnomer, as no signal is going to the rear soundstage.) Despite this, dialogue seems firmly anchored in the centre channel and separate from the music and effects; if never competitive with even the average romcom in terms of dynamic range, the film still sounds surprisingly crisp and full for a Woody Allen joint. HD trailers for Barney's Version and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger round out the platter. Originally published: February 14, 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - SECRETARIAT
by Bill Chambers Disney brings Secretariat to Blu-ray in a veritably flawless 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. I'm not crazy about the cinnamon cast to the colours, but overall the image is really sumptuous; the picture was predominantly shot with Panavision's Genesis camera, and though it boasts no grain, it looks more filmic than digital. Crisp but video-y you-are-there inserts done with the Olympus E-P1 are the exception that proves the rule, while a deliciously zoetropian tableau of Secretariat galloping in slow-motion, shot using the Phantom HD, is somewhat incongruously hyper-clear. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track reproduces a mix that is, like Dean Semler's cinematography, better than this movie deserves: attentive to and rich in ambience subtly distributed across the soundstage; always dynamic; and absolutely thunderous when need be. There's also the audio option of a commentary with sunny director Randall Wallace, who repeatedly draws ludicrous musical metaphors (e.g., "[John and Diane] are singing a duet. But Margo's harmonizing so beautifully") that would undoubtedly qualify as "inevitable dashes of pretension" over at THE A.V. CLUB.
Wallace is a fixture of the supplementary content, including the featurettes "Heart of a Champion" (15 mins., HD), "Choreographing the Races" (6 mins., HD), and "A Director's Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery" (21 mins., HD). Nothing much to say about the first two, other than that Diane Lane (hubba squared in my opinion) looks 35 again out of her Penny Chenery makeup, but the conversation between Chenery (a spry 88) and Wallace (at his country pastor-est) is worth checking out. Chenery says the film made her realize how lonely she was during the time in which it's set, although she bristles at Wallace's attempt to slot her into a Hollywood box ("No, I wasn't afraid"). Her very presence goads Wallace into admitting the filmmakers played fast and loose with the facts, though her most vocal objection to art's imitation of life is that John Malkovich is too tall. Seven deleted scenes (10 mins., HD) launch with a pointless intro from Wallace, who provides commentary for each elision as well; I liked the erstwhile opening shot of the track at dawn (which Wallace aptly describes as a "moonscape"), as well as a golf match that was spontaneously conceived after Wallace ran ahead of schedule. A start-up block of promos for Disney Blu-ray 3D, African Cats, and Tangled adds spots for Disney Movie Rewards, Cars 2, Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure, The Incredibles, Spooky Buddies, The Lion King, and Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension to its repertoire under the menu heading "sneak peeks." Secretariat's retail DVD release is bundled with the Blu-ray. Originally published: January 24, 2011.