(US - 2015)
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, Woody Allen turns in another inconsequential trifle with IRRATIONAL MAN, where he essentially recycles the Martin Landau half of 1989's infinitely superior CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and parts of 2005's MATCH POINT. The 80-year-old Allen cranks out so many movies that it's getting harder to keep track of the less significant ones, and while no one's expecting him to blaze new trails at this point in his career, it's not unreasonable to expect something a little more than the lukewarm leftovers served up with IRRATIONAL MAN. You know when a legendary rock band starts getting a little long in the tooth and instead of new albums, they just start releasing collections of unreleased tracks and outtakes that weren't good enough to make it on previous records? That's where Allen's at now. It looks and sounds like a Woody Allen movie, but he doesn't even seem engaged with the material. It's a serious Allen film, one that involves murder and deception, but he makes no effort to generate any suspense or tension, and for perhaps the first time in his career, the only humor is unintentional in the absurd way he keeps repeatedly playing The Ramsey Lewis Trio's "The 'In' Crowd." It's almost like he used it as a temp track and forgot to put the intended music in the finished film. Regardless of the situation, the only music you'll hear is "The 'In' Crowd," and its inappropriateness becomes amusing until it grows so utterly grating that you'll never want to hear it again.
Woody's protagonist is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed, alcoholic philosophy prof doing a guest lecturer stint over the summer semester at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island. Burned out and creatively blocked, Abe ambles through his job in a drunken blur and shows little interest in the advances of married colleague Rita (Parker Posey). He strikes up a friendship with Jill (Emma Stone in her second straight Allen film), an intelligent student whose paper he legitimately admired, and her constant talk of Abe eventually drives a wedge between her and boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), especially when it's obvious she has feelings for the troubled Abe. While at a diner, Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a conversation in the next booth, where a woman is in tears over an unsympathetic judge who she says is deliberately hassling her in court, siding with her husband and likely awarding him custody of their children after their divorce. It's at that moment that Abe feels the spark he needs to get his life back on track: with no motive and no connection to the woman or the judge or any of his cases, he's going to kill the judge, committing the perfect crime and completely getting away with it. There's lots of talk of moral quandaries and references to Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment, but IRRATIONAL MAN never gets going and never seems like it's heading anywhere. Allen's dialogue is trite and repetitive. He used to really have a knack for human interaction and astute observation but he's reached that Stanley Kubrick/Terrence Malick/George Romero point where it's obvious he doesn't get out much anymore, demonstrating no feel or understanding for how universities in 2015 operate or how college students even talk (not even a charming actress like Stone can sell a line like "I enjoyed making love with you"--what young person says "making love"?), and one scene where Abe attends a college party is just embarrassing in its utter disconnect from reality. Phoenix is uncharacteristically dull here and Allen is just going through the motions in a way that recalls 2012's TO ROME WITH LOVE, one of his worst films. Though it's definitely bottom-five Allen, IRRATIONAL MAN isn't quite as bad as that or 2003's ANYTHING ELSE?, but even in those duds, his personality periodically made its presence known. IRRATIONAL MAN has none of that: it's a Woody Allen film that feels like someone else trying to make a Woody Allen film and not getting the job done. It's bland and listless and Allen doesn't imbue it with any of his signature wit or insight. He doesn't let his funny side show and he keeps his misanthropic side under wraps. There's just nothing here and no reason for him to make this film other than he thinks he has to make a new one annually. The last year without a new Woody Allen offering was 1981. Maybe taking a year or two off to regroup and recharge would do him some good. (R, 95 mins)
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION
(US - 2015)
Unless you have the capability of viewing this in 3-D at home, the standard DVD version is a complete fiasco, a blurry, globby mess as the spirit that's haunted everyone for the last five movies now manifests itself and hovers around the frame as "Tobi," an ectoplasm that looks like a shapeless version of the jungle camouflaging by the title creature in PREDATOR. Video-game designer Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and young daugher Leila (Ivy George) move into the house once owned by Katie and sister Kristi's spirit-conjuring grandma (respected stage actress Hallie Foote). Ryan's comedy-relief hipster brother Mike (Dan Gill) and Emily's friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley, in her second terrible horror movie of 2015 after THE VATICAN TAPES) come to visit, and they find a box in the basement with an oversized 1980s camcorder and some VHS tapes. The camcorder still works, and when looking through its viewfinder, Ryan sees the gloopy, formless ghost surrounded by cosmic dust and debris, and after watching Katie and Kristi's childhood paranormal encounters on the VHS tapes, he concludes that this camcorder is rigged to record spectral matter (and even more incredibly, was somehow able to record in 16x9 HD in 1988). Of course, "Tobi" makes contact with Leila, and eventually she becomes possessed, which brings in a priest (Michael Krawic), who proclaims "This isn't an exorcism...it's an extermination!" Resorting to 3-D is bad enough, but trying to scrounge a few nibbles at the empty EXORCIST ripoff trough is just pathetic. And all the while, Ryan and Mike never stop filming. Even the easy jump scares come up weak this time around, and since Plotkin and the visual effects team "show" a lot of Tobi so they can maximize the 3-D, what's really here is a dull, found-footage version of POLTERGEIST, which we need about as much as that POLTERGEIST remake that came out earlier in 2015. Abysmal in every way save for one inspired moment when it becomes clear to Ryan that Katie and Kristi on the 1988 VHS tape are watching Mike and him watch them, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION should be the wheezing death rattle of this moribund franchise. The fact that it took four screenwriters (including two writers of the found-footage EXORCIST knockoff THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN) to come up with this should be an embarrassment to the entire Writer's Guild. (R, 88 mins)
SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
(US - 2015)