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Quality cinema notches two victories in the U.S.

Are people in like with Woody Allen again, after all these years?

The limited-release box-office performance of Allen’s latest, “Midnight in Paris,” suggests as much. In 58 theaters nationwide last week, the romantic fantasy starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard made $2.6 million, averaging more than $45,000 per screen. In Chicago, even better: on four screens, an average of $49,982 over the four-day Memorial Day weekend. That’s considerable money. This weekend the film expands to nearly 1,000 venues; we’ll see how it holds.

It’s heartening to see this. From a critic’s perspective (at least from one who enjoyed the film) the movie’s grosses indicate an honest-to-goodness corollary between quality and results. Think of it! Everything in mainstream 21st century moviemaking, from the fourth script revision to the global marketing campaign, conspires to erase that corollary.

Up against the elephantine commodities “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” and “The Hangover Part II,” which are making off with the really big money, Allen’s film has the benefit not of originality, exactly ― Allen fans have been here before ― but of the right kind of familiarity, and comic charm. There’s a reason “Midnight in Paris” will end up a popular success, and so many other recent Allen films, from “Scoop” to “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” did not. Allen, 75, seems engaged with his subject this time. The movie satisfies; it spins clever variations on its central theme of nostalgia and its discontents.

It doesn’t strain to please. It simply does.

Whatever one thinks of the experimentally and experientially free-form picture “The Tree of Life,” it is pure Terrence Malick in its mixture of natural beauty and casual, almost accidental dramaturgy. The words matter ― to a degree. Like many directors, Malick feels his way to an end result in the editing stage of his projects. To an unusual degree, however, the writer-director uses his screenplays as blueprints written in invisible ink.

A look at a draft of the “Tree of Life” screenplay, dated 2007 and registered with the Writers Guild of America, reveals reams of dialogue, speeches, interior monologues and acres of description involving the purely visual sections (the birth and end of the universe, et al.) But even in the realistic family scenes, very little verbiage remains in the final cut.

And it’s better that way. Embittered life lessons delivered by Brad Pitt, in passing or on the fly, were once whole chunks of speechifying, hammering home the father character’s experiences in business, his disappointments at work, the life he didn’t lead, the sons he hopes to mold. It’s overwriting.

Malick, some argue, overwrites his films visually to begin with. I’d argue that his excesses and obsessive preoccupations are well worth the trouble. His storytelling doesn’t move forward so much as sideways, catching the sunbeams and happy accidents as they occur. The flaws are the price we pay for the magic.

By Michael Phillips

(Chicago Tribune)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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