WONDER WHEEL (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s worth saying again – Woody Allen (age 82), regardless of what you think of him personally, is remarkable in his ability to create, write and direct a new movie each and every year. That being said, after watching his latest, it should be noted that he is the one filmmaker who really shouldn’t ever write a story with a step-daughter as a character … especially if romance is involved. Sometimes we just can’t separate the art from the artist, no matter how hard we try.

The setting is Coney Island in the 1950’s, and our narrator is a charming lifeguard recounting the ‘one summer’ story of a carousel operator, his beaten-down (and beaten-up) wife, and a surprise visit from the husband’s adult daughter. The lifeguard is Mickey, a dreamer and would-be writer played by Justin Timberlake. The carousel operator is known as Humpty and is an alcoholic lout played by Jim Belushi, while his wife Ginny, disillusioned that life has crushed her dreams, is played by Kate Winslet. Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) is on the run from her mobster husband, and seems to cause trouble without really trying. Ginny’s young son Richie (Jack Gore) also lives with them. He is a pyromaniac and movie fanatic – two pastimes effective at avoiding school.

Director Allen utilizes a beautiful color palette combined with nostalgic sounds and music to create a look that he then blends with a story and performances that seem to intentionally knock-off Tennessee Williams. Belushi, Timblerake and Winslet in particular come across as overly-theatrical in their approach to heavy dialogue – these characters are defined more by what they say than what they do.

Ginny plots to keep Humpty off the booze so he doesn’t hit her; all the while, she is sneaking off to enjoy the talents of the young lifeguard who lacks the fortitude to prevent her from falling too hard. Humpty is thrilled for a do-over with Carolina and reverts to treating her as his little girl … despite the mob contract lingering over her head. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the redheaded Richie and young Alvy from Mr. Allen’s classic ANNIE HALL (who described living under the Cyclone).

As Ginny half-efforts parenting her troubled young son, she also juggles the guilt she carries from cheating on her first husband. Simultaneously, Mickey the lifeguard starts falling for Carolina, as the mobsters close in. Periodically Woody flashes his writing brilliance, as in this exchange between Carolina and Mickey: She says, “You’ve been around the world”, and he responds, “Yeah, but you’ve been around the block.” So despite the look and feel of nostalgia, the themes are timeless … cheating and abusive spouse, disillusioned adults, and youngsters rebelling in hopes of attracting attention.

The too-often blustery dialogue syncs with the too-often over-acting, yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of 3 Oscars – APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS, THE LAST EMPEROR) keeps things visually appealing throughout. The only “quiet” moments occur as Richie is lighting yet another fire. Recurring issues of migraines, booze, stress, moodiness, and rain are prevalent, and perhaps the saving grace is that we are left singing Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me”.

watch the trailer:

 


CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

watch the trailer:

 


IRRATIONAL MAN (2015)

July 30, 2015

irrational man Greetings again from the darkness. Woody Allen turns 80 years old later this year, and he continues to crank out a new movie every 12 -15 months. While his production level is impressive, many of his films cause us to question if possibly fewer films, each receiving a bit more attention to detail, might prove more effective. Revisiting one of his favorite themes – life is meaningless – this latest provides a funked-up burned-out philosophy professor as our tour guide.

We feel for the three lead actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey. Somehow all three roles are underwritten, causing some awkward moments on screen as these talented folks grasp for inspiration or direction in many scenes. The character of Abe (Mr. Phoenix) is introduced as a brilliant mind and popular teacher who has a reputation of being intimate with his students. When we first see him, he’s but a paunchy, alcoholic shell of a man … nearly oblivious to social graces. Jill (Ms. Stone) is the talented and gregarious student, and daughter of two professors, who should be entirely too smart to fall for anyone as self-loathing and careless as Abe. Drawing the shortest of all short straws is Ms. Posey as the stereotypical middle-aged woman seeking excitement somewhere other than her stable husband.

Evidently quoting Kant is designed to provide depth to character and story, and trick us into thinking existentialism is the only topic worthy of discussion … as long as it occurs while sucking down beer and nursing a flask. We are to believe that Abe’s decision to carry out a horrific crime can be justified since the victim was not a “good person” and it leads to a shift in attitude and renewed interest in life and yes, even sex. The film’s title does little to extinguish the writer/director’s apparent belief that questionable personal actions do not make a bad person. It seems real life and cinema have intersected yet again.

There are many topics touched on here, though unfortunately the story merely scratches the multiple surfaces. The professor’s reputation precedes his arrival, but we are never given any indication what makes him brilliant … what makes him popular with students … or what makes him attractive to so many. The idea of a crime being justified if the victim is not a credit to society has been explored much better in numerous other stories. Murder acting as Abe’s muse may be the most intriguing aspect of the script, but it’s treated mostly as a gimmick and never allowed to fully develop. Lastly, there are a couple of lines that seem to contradict each other. One is related to whether a passionate thinker can change the world, while the other says “wishing doesn’t work”. Again, these competing thoughts could have been explored and provided more thought-inducing moments. Instead, we are left with an excellent jazz score (especially the Ramsey Lewis Trio) on a paved road with few answers to the basic philosophical questions offered up by default.

watch the trailer:

 


MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)

August 3, 2014

magic Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most prolific writer/directors since the end of the studio era, Woody Allen cranks out a script and film every year. A few are great, while the others fall somewhere between highly entertaining and watchable. None would be considered a true dud. His latest is a bit fluffy and falls comfortably into the watchable category … with nary a glint of anything more ambitious.

The line of actors maneuvering for a role in Mr. Allen’s films stretches around the proverbial casting couch.  The list of those involved with this one is again quite impressive: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Catherine McCormack, and Hamish Linklater. They each perform admirably, yet aren’t enough to elevate a somewhat lackluster script. Ms. Stone and Ms. Atkins are especially enjoyable.

Woody mixes his love of magic with his cynical religious views, and blends those with his too frequent older man/younger woman sub-plot.  The scenes with Firth and Stone are fine, but their onscreen banter would have been better served as Uncle and Niece than awkward rom-com aspirants. Despite this flaw, there remain some excellent lines and moments, plus some staggering shots of the south of France locale. The wardrobe and cars are beautiful … the film is set in 1928.

Screwball comedies are clearly a favorite for Mr. Allen to write, but his directing leans more towards the leisurely pace found in more traditional rom-coms. The mixed genres don’t always fit together, even when stacked with a superior cast. Still, it must be noted, that even at his least brilliant, Mr. Allen delivers films that are pleasant and watchable. As movie lovers, we can live with that as we await his next masterpiece … or at least his next movie in one year.

watch the trailer:

 


BLUE JASMINE (2013)

August 15, 2013

blue j1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Woody Allen returns to the United States for his latest and examines a topic he knows much about … how to handle a public life that gets blown apart. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Hal (Alec Baldwin) are living the extreme life of NYC power and luxury. It all crashes down around them when Hal is exposed and arrested as a Bernie Madoff type Ponzi-scheme white collar criminal, and Jasmine is tossed to the curb with no money or prospects.

Disoriented from this whirlwind personal tragedy, Jasmine heads west to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a blue collar single mom. The sisters haven’t been close for a couple of reasons. First, Hal scammed Ginger and her husband at the time (Andrew Dice Clay) out of their lottery winnings. Second, they are both adopted and Ginger constantly claims Jasmine got the “good genes” so it’s expected that she gets the breaks blue j2in life.

We quickly realize that Jasmine is bouncing between her fantasy of re-capturing her life of luxury and the harsh reality of her situation. She is not handling it well and falls back on things like going “back to school” to become an interior decorator. Additionally, she vocally disapproves of Ginger’s choices in men and poisons her thoughts that she (Ginger) can do much better than Dice or her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). That leads to an expected turn of events featuring Louis C.K.

While Jasmine is absolutely unpleasant as a person or character, Ms. Blanchett does a fine job of keeping us tuned in to this slow-burning breakdown. Her scenes with Michael Stuhlbarg are awkward and excellent. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and even Gena Rowlands’ remarkable performance in A Woman Under blue j3the Influence (1974). Is Jasmine a monster who refuses to face reality or a severely damaged soul incapable of thinking clearly? Our opinion varies from scene to scene.

The best and most insightful line of the movie comes courtesy of Ginger when she says “Jasmine has always had a way of looking in the other direction.” Her way of handling reality is to look away and pretend it doesn’t exist. The disgust at her sister’s working class environment and lack of empathy has us as viewers wishing someone would just slap her. Ms. Hawkins somehow manages to shine here despite the massive presence of Blanchett’s Jasmine. Woody Allen leaves us wishing we were all as strong as Hawkins’ character and thankful that we have no connection to a Jasmine.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the richest people deserve any and all possible comeuppance OR you never thought Andrew Dice Clay could recover from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in seeing a spoiled princess make no effort to live like the rest of us

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FER3C394aI8

 


TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

July 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I certainly consider myself a fan of Woody Allen‘s films and am in awe of his prolific ability to write and direct a new movie most every year since 1969. With so many films to his credit, it’s expected that a few will be clunkers. After a pretty nice run of non-New York based films, his love letter to Rome falls short … not from lack of ambition, but rather from a feeling that these stories have been on his “to do” list for too many years. They feel mostly stale and dated.

With one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities as a backdrop, Mr. Allen delivers four stories – none of which intersect with the others. There are some similar shared themes, but mostly what the four stories have in common is mass overacting by all involved. Surprisingly, the one exception might be Alec Baldwin, whose wise-cracking lines are played pretty close to the vest. Unfortunately, all of the other key actors seem to think they are onstage at a dinner theatre and that hyper-activity and bellowing one’s lines are required.

In one story, Woody Allen (his first acting gig since Scoop) and Judy Davis head to Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) fiancé (Flavio Parenti). Allen overhears the mortician father singing in the shower and works out a scheme to get him an audition that could lead to a career. The father is played by famed Opera tenor Fabio Armiliato and this story is so goofy, it could easily fit into Allen’s “early funny ones”.

Another story has newlyweds played by Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandro Mastronardi in a series of innocent happenstance that leads to some not so innocent events that include her favorite actor (Antonio Albanes) and high-priced call girl (Penelope Cruz). Most of this has the feel of a Benny Hill skit.

Jesse Eisenberg and his girlfriend Greta Gerwig share time with her visiting friend played by Ellen Page. This is the Alec Baldwin sequence, and he is a near-ghost-like entity who pops in to provide obvious advice or warning to the players so they don’t make the same mistakes he made as a younger man. This sequence had potential, but never amounted to much.

The fourth story is just an absurd commentary on reality TV and instant fame. Roberto Begnini plays a normal Italian citizen and family man who one day gets thrust into the world of celebrity for no apparent reason. See, that’s the joke. Probably ten years past the time when this was relevant.

Bashing Woody Allen is not my intent here. Simply pointing out that there are four stories and numerous actors and none of it struck a chord with me. Not to say there weren’t a few well written lines and a couple of terrific shots of Rome … just not enough to keep me going for two hours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need your annual Woody Allen fix, even if it’s not up to the level of last year’s Midnight in Paris OR you just want to see Penelope Cruz in a red dress that’s probably two sizes too small for her.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: catching a few glimpses of the amazing sites in Rome is not enough reason for you to sit through some of Woody Allen’s worst written dialogue in years.

watch the trailer:


TMI (3-6-12)

March 6, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

Oscar trivia

There are five writers who have each won 3 Oscars for their screenplays:

WOODY ALLEN: Annie Hall*; Hannah and Her Sisters; Midnight in Paris
CHARLES BRACKETT: The Lost Weekend*; Sunset Boulevard; Titanic (1953)
PADDY CHAYEFSKY: Marty*; The Hospital; Network
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Patton*; The Godfather*; The Godfather: Part II*
BILLY WILDER: The Lost Weekend*; Sunset Boulevard; The Apartment*

*Best Picture Winner

 


MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

June 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not so many years ago, Woody Allen was thought of (along with Martin Scorcese) as the quintessential New York City filmmaker. He understood that and even poked fun at himself in his most popular film Annie Hall. At age 75, Mr. Allen remains an incredibly prolific filmmaker cranking out an original script and film every year. With his recent work, he has ventured outside of NYC and into England, Spain and now France. Clearly these new locales have re-ignited his creativity.

The script for Midnight in Paris is some of his best writing in years, and he explores our (and his) love of nostalgia without sacrificing the customary relationship struggles. While I hold steadfast to my rule of providing no spoilers, a quick glance at the character names gives you all the clues you need to put the basic idea in place.

 Owen Wilson plays Gil, a financially successful Hollywood hack screenwriter who longs to be a serious novelist in the vein of his literary heroes from 1920’s Paris. Gil goes on vacation to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Of course the parents don’t like Gil and it doesn’t take long (maybe one scene) for us to figure out that Gil and Inez are misfits as a couple.

In an attempt to escape the disrespect from Inez and the yammering of her know-it-all friend played by Michael Sheen, Gil goes wandering the nighttime streets of Paris. What happens next is either science-fiction or the culmination of Gil’s dreams. The bell tolls midnight and Gil is whisked away via a classic Peugeot to the world of literary giants he so worships.

As a viewer, half the fun in this one is staying alert to pick up the clues to the references: Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Alice B Toklas, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Matisse, Leo Stein, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Degas, Cole Porter and Picasso. Kathy Bates spikes the film with her lively turn as Gertrude Stein. Corey Stoll makes a ferociously direct Ernest Hemingway. Adrien Brody offers up a slightly off-center Salvador Dali – good for a laugh.  Marion Cotillard brings elegance and beauty to her role of the ultimate art groupie.  Of course, suspension of reality must occur if we are to buy off on her character choosing Gil (Wilson) over the bombastic Hemingway and fiery Picasso!

 This movie plays kind of like an all-star game. A chance to see all the names and players that you have heard about … all under one roof. For film lovers, there is a great little exchange between Owen Wilson’s character and Luis Bunuel. Woody has created a 90 minute tribute to all of us (like Gil) who have yearned to work with and live among the artistic giants. I would love to see Mr. Allen’s notes as he put this idea together. We can only imagine what didn’t make the film! Despite all the fun of inside jokes, the romantic idea of nostalgia and wishing for a better time is discussed and analyzed. Mr. Allen tells us that EVERYONE, no matter their era, has a romantic vision of some previous time which they believe would better suit their style and creative force. The story is balanced by having Gil’s novel based in a nostalgia store, and he ends up meeting an intriguing young lady (Lea Seydoux) at a Paris store that sells old records and books.

 Owen Wilson in the lead role is probably the only mistake Mr. Allen made.  Though his puppy dog excitement and innocence is played full tilt in the classic world he discovers, he just can’t hold up his end in scenes with Cotillard or Bates.  Despite this, I found the ideas and excitement of the setting to outweigh the distraction of Wilson.

As always, Mr. Allen has beautiful music accompanying his words and scenes. This time we are also treated to some breathtaking images of Paris, the Seine, and wonderful works of art (Rodin, Picasso, etc). Of course casting Carla Bruni, wife to the President of France (Nicolas Sarkozy) might have entitled him to film in Paris settings we don’t often see in movies. One gets the impression that this one was quite a bit of fun for Woody to assemble. If you enjoy art or literary history, you too will find this to be one jolly easter egg hunt!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would enjoy a dreamlike trip to the artistic wonderland of Paris in the 20’s OR you thrive on discovering the hidden gems in Woody Allen films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you still call them “freedom fries” OR you and your therapist are still working to overcome your anger at Owen Wilson for letting Marley die


WOODY ALLEN – HAPPY 75th!

December 1, 2010

Woody Allen turned 75 today.  Some have already stopped reading.  Others can’t wait to read the rest.  Such is the life of one of the most prolific filmmakers in cinematic history.  Some of us love his films.  Others express such sentiments as “not another Woody Allen movie”!  Many from both camps have little regard for how his personal life has played out.  Here, I only want to talk about movies.

He began writing jokes for the newspaper and talk shows when he was 15, but it wasn’t until the early 1960’s that his career really began to take hold … as a stand-up comedian.  His first foray into movie directing was in 1966 with What’s Up Tiger Lily?  In reality, that was the first “Mystery Science Theatre” because he took a Japanese spy film and re-wrote the dialog for comedic effect.  Since 1966, Woody Allen the director, has consistently cranked out an average of almost one movie every year.  43 films total, not counting the one he is currently working on.

 The first phase of his filmmaking is now known as “the early, funny ones”.  I am a little fuzzy on exactly how long this phase lasted, but I assume it concluded about the same time as his relationship with Diane Keaton.  History leads us to believe things changed for him in 1977 with the instant classic Annie Hall.  Adored by critics and filmgoers, the film won him his first and only (so far) Academy Award.  In 1979, he released my personal favorite, and he claims, his least favorite, Manhattan.

During the “Mia Farrow” phase, his pace of one per year continued with some more successful than others.  Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway all performed well enough at the box office, while also achieving the critical success he claimed to care so little about.

Many of his harshest critics claimed his movies always centered around the same three themes:

  1. God.  Specifically the questioning of his existence.
  2. Life After Death.
  3. Love and/or The Meaning of Life

The rebuttal from his supporters stated these topics were fascinating when Mr. Allen explored them through his writing and filmmaking.  What is extremely clear is that he was one of the few filmmakers who had control and the power to make the films he wanted to make, despite the fact that none were blockbusters and a few never turned a profit.

His current phase began with the startlingly good Match Point, which was also the first Woody Allen film not based in his beloved New York.  He states the financial restrictions of Hollywood forced him to film overseas.  He has worked overseas since and his 2008 gem Vicky Cristina Barcelona even included some Spanish dialogue.

So while I have no intention of changing anyone’s mind about the films of Woody Allen, his 75th birthday seemed the perfect time to stop and take notice of a remarkable career.  So many films from a man who cared so little for a headline or compliment, yet the line of high-profile actors wanting to work with him was never-ending.  He could actually be considered a blue-collar artist – a guy who spends his work hours writing and filming, and consistently meets his deadlines and produces solid work … sometimes even brilliant work.  Do that for 44 years in the movie world, and they tend to remember you.

 Which leads me to my favorite Woody Allen quote:  “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying”.


YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

October 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sound and fury signify nothing. The narrator begins the film by reminding us of Shakespeare’s words. I can’t decide whether or not this was a confession by Woody Allen that he realized the movie fits that phrase. I have followed Mr. Allen’s film career since the early 70’s and have learned that sometimes disappointment follows. Of course, there are also times when pure screen magic occurs, making the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, there is no magic here, just sound and faux-fury.

Here is a convoluted recap of the story: Elderly woman Helena (Gemma Jones) is dumped by her doesn’t want to admit he’s aging husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He tries to be a swinging bachelor and ends up marrying a gold-digging call girl named Charlamaine (Lucy Punch). Helena looks for guidance from Cristal (Pauline Collins),a fortune teller referred by Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a morally bankrupt one-hit wonder in the novel-writing business. She works at a very successful art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally and Roy yell at each other a lot and Sally has eyes for Greg, who instead has eyes for Iris (Anna Friel), a painter Sally discovered. Roy has peeping eyes for Dia (Freida Pinto), whom he can see from his bedroom window.

So, you get the idea. It is actually a set-up that fits perfectly with a Woody Allen film. A madcat story where no one is happy with their life and they each seek proof of their worth. Interesting that they seem to have some security with their current partner, but it’s just not enough. The cast is stellar, and London makes the perfect setting. However, nothing really clicks. Manly Josh Brolin just doesn’t wear neurosis well. I didn’t enjoy watching Naomi Watts yell at people. Anthony Hopkins’ character is such a pathetic re-tread that it really annoyed me. Mr. Allen obviously finds Freida Pinto appealing because her character gets perfect lighting and comes across as a victim, despite dumping her fiancé.

Despite all the turns in these sub-plots, only one of the stories really has any finality to it. Now I don’t mind endings that leave much to the imagination, but I do get irritated when it appears the filmmaker just lost interest. Even when that filmmaker is Woody Allen. 

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe Woody Allen only makes timeless classics OR listening to Leon Redbone sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” is worth $10 to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are susceptible to the directives of fortune tellers OR you just can’t take one more film about a struggling writer, a lustful senior citizen or a career woman whose biological clock is ticking.