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Category Archives: Woody Allen

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZ8t31LhNl0%5D

Ten Word or Less ReviewHumpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Think of Blue Jasmine as a story of two eggs, a Faberge egg and one of those plastic Easter eggs you buy a bag of at Wal-Mart for $2.  The Faberge egg, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, is beautiful and refined.  It sparkles in the sunlight like a diamond and draws the admiration of many.  People talk about it at great length with eloquence and grace and its value is considered priceless.  Then there’s the plastic egg, Sally Hawkin’s Ginger, Jasmine’s sister.  There’s nothing special about the plastic egg.  It sits in the bag with all the other plastic eggs doing what plastic eggs do.  The real test comes when you take both eggs and drop them on the floor.  The plastic egg splits into two pieces, you pick them up and put them back together and everything is fine.  This is Ginger.  The Faberge egg shatters into millions of pieces.  It cannot be put back together.  No amount of care or attention will ever fix it.  It’s ruined.  This is Jasmine.

We’re introduced to Jasmine in an airplane.  She’s talking to a fellow first class passenger and as we continue on, off the plane and to baggage claim, she simply never stops talking.  Jasmine is clearly a wrong moment away from imploding.  Just getting to her sister’s apartment seems like an ordeal which may rock Jasmine right out of her tailored clothing.  Blue gradually reveals to the audience that Jasmine’s husband (Alec Baldwin) was a Bernie Madoff styled crook whose fake empire has fallen, leaving Jasmine destitute and ruined, mentally as well as financially.  The movie commences to go back and forth between the life of blind indulgence before the fall, and her crumbled life of the now, living with a sister she barely knows, contempt for which she can barely mask.

People of refinement, intellect and/or stature are who Allen is comfortable making movies about.  His films have more often than not been populated by those who are well off or plan to turn out that way.  This isn’t the first time Allen has turned his sights on the destructive nature of privilege and the facade that comes with excess but Jasmine marks his attempt to update the discussion for our current economic age.  The questions which hang over the story become partially about Jasmine ability to save herself, but eventually, is Jasmine worth saving?  Was she ever someone of value?  How completely does the pampered life leave one unable to function away from it?  And maybe most importantly, if Jasmine ever was someone of note, can she be again?

The movie doesn’t give us much hope in the last question.  Blanchett’s high strung creation keeps popping Zanex like Tick Tacks while downing vodka like a burly Russian lumberjack.  Jasmine’s attempts at rebuilding seem halfhearted and doomed from the get go.  She can’t stop reliving moments from her past, talking to no one, totally unaware that others are giving her the crazy lady look.  So it’s the other question that starts to take shape instead.  Was Jasmine ever somebody worth something?  The answer there is a little less clear and perhaps somewhat of a letdown.

Sympathy for Blanchett’s creation may be hard to grasp but we can’t help but watch and be drawn into her orbit.  Blanchett is too keen a performer to make Jasmine truly detestable or loathsome.  She’s a broken woman with little in the way of positive attributes but really hating her stays just out of reach.  We’re magnetized by her delusions and the wreck as a whole.  Blanchett, a charmed and graceful performer who is hard not to take as a paragon of elegance all the time, achieves panic and blind self-destruction with deft skill.  Hers is a great performance of an unflattering character that we should detest, but in the end don’t.  Though we see her complicit in her own destruction one can only speculate that they would do anything different.  Really, how much would you lie to yourself to stay on top of the mountain?

The rest of Blue world is made up of working class types who Jasmine can relate to about as much as a flamingo can relate to a plastic turtle.  Her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkis) is a divorced mother of two bagging groceries for a living.  Ginger’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) is essentially a day laborer/handyman.  Baldwin’s husband character destroyed their life as well when his cookie crumbled.  Ginger now dates a grease monkey (Bobby Cannavale) and then gets sidetracked into a dalliance with a sound system installer played by Louis C.K.  This side of the movie feels less involving, using Ginger’s romantic ups and downs as a dramatic opposite to the overblown drama of Jasmine’s.  Of course, seeing the Diceman in a real movie, a Woody Allen movie of all things, and actually holding his own is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.  But Allen has less of a grasp or interest in characters like this.  His screenplay, which feels hurried in that way most of his do, eventually gives way to circumstantial plotting around too many corners as it hurries to wrap itself up in a time frame Allen seems adamant about adhering to no matter the cost.

Blue Jasmine is not the best Allen has had to offer as a filmmaker but it is at least an interesting attempt at meaningful story, character.  It’s a cynical piece and those looking for uplift and humor will only find barbed observations.  Blanchett’s full force performance is enough to hang the movie on with ease and watching this person disintegrate before our eyes makes the film worth the effort.

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[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZE9nptJykQ%5D

Interiors (1978) – Lumping this one in with the rest of the forgotten, second tier Woody Allen movies goes against the critical grain.  It is an emotionally draining, purposefully sterile looking drama that was given a lot of kudos at the time of it’s release, with critics invoking names like Eugene O’Neill and Ingmar Bergman as sources of influence.  Allen’s first dramatic feature, and first of his films not to star himself, was nominated for six Academy Awards including one for direction.  Though the craft of Allen’s work behind the camera is still noteworthy, age hasn’t been kind to the characterizations or attitudes his characters exhibit.  And as cinematic time as marched on and carried the likes of Annie Hall and Manhattan with it, Interiors feels like a sullen cousin left out of the family photograph.  Everyone knows he’s there out of the frame, but most don’t seem to pay him much attention.  He’s a pain.

The variety of characters in Interiors are people either inflated with intellectual pretensions, emotionally selfish in the extreme, thoroughly unhappy for any number of different reasons or simply all of the above.  Some performances still work.  Diane Keaton, E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton still stand out and it’s an honest attempt on Allen’s part to create an unflinching, uncompromising character piece.  Regardless of these strengths, don’t be surprised if you find yourself hating on it before it’s run its course.  When the uptight, judgmental daughter insults her new mother-in-law by calling her a vulgarian, the age of the effort, the detestable arrogance of its characters and the prickish attitudes they inhabit smack you right in the face.  It does help right itself by being affixed to a strong, thematically powerful ending.  Something Allen doesn’t always have the wear with all or know how to accomplish.

On a curious note, Allen would re-purpose a lot of this plot 25 years later for his terrible comedy You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

interiors

Next up – Stardust Memories

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDkbdH8zwDE%5D

Shadows and Fog – Back before he fixated on making contemporary set relationship dramas and comedies, Woody Allen would occasionally have ambitions for getting something more than the light weight material he now specializes in off the ground.  Peppered around his more well known successes are his experiments in Russian (Love & Death) and Swedish (Interiors) cinema traditions.  Among the efforts in this realm Allen took a stab at the grand traditions of classic German movie making.  With $14 million and his clout on the line, he launched into one of his largest productions ever, Shadows and Fog.

Fog was meant as an echoing of the German expressionism movement from the grand silent era of the 1920’s.  It was also to be a Kafka influenced story of paranoia and persecution.  As delightful as that all sounds, it largely played to empty theaters and disappointed critics.  I can hear your shock from here.  Siskel & Ebert, men who made a living worshiping Allen, labeled it one of the worst pictures of the year.  And this was the same year that saw Toys and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot come out.  It’s without question an odd creature of a movie, solitary in its nature and unlike much else, but also greatly misconceived and missing elements it sorely needs to be more than an indulgent lark.  Such as something more than the vague story it occasionally tells, streams of supporting characters which serve little purpose other than to espouse Allen’s thoughts on love and sex and an ending.  It would have benefited to no end if it had had a genuine ending.

Allen plays a character whose name is unimportant because he’s Woody Allen.  I don’t care to take the time to look up what it actually is.  He’s a lowly citizen in a dank, unnamed city shrouded in the inky black of a never ending night with an impenetrable mist hanging over everything.  He’s woken from sleep by a group of vigilantes to help scour the city for a serial killer who strangles his victims.  This group keeps telling Woody he has a part in the plan to catch the killer, but what that plan is and what his part in it are never known.  No one will tell him.  Many in the various vigilante factions seem to hate Allen’s character for no reason we can discern.  Besides of course his patented cowardice.  He eventually meets up with a character whose name is also unimportant because she’s played by Mia Farrow.  As much as Woody Allen is always Woody Allen Mia Farrow can only ever be Mia Farrow.  She is a circus performer who has abandoned her big top home after catching her lover (John Malkovich) with a gypsy girl (Madonna).  The two have a few scrapes and adventures, bump into teach other, then wonder the city trying to avoid the increasingly malicious vigilantes, the cops, the serial killer and his rope, Allen’s belittling boss and anything else that may lurk in the dark.

Fog is an odd and disjointed work and much of that feeling comes from Allen choosing to miscast himself in the lead.  He brings his well known brand of neurotic shtick into this black, humorless world in which it has no place.  This melding of Kafka flavored paranoia, grim atmosphere and Allen’s trademarked neurotic nature makes for a strange marriage that doesn’t work.  Does Allen mean to mock the genre with his glib ribbing?  Is this meant as parody?  If so, why is no one else in on the joke?  With the exception of a group of jovial prostitutes, much of the cast is grim and serious through and through, but in the center is Allen, cracking his vaudevillian jokes among the oppressive visions of nightmares and death.

The film still has it’s moments and it’s not completely without merit.  The huge supporting cast, everyone from John Cusack to Jodie Foster to Kenneth Mars, turn in interesting performances that feel accomplished but in service of what we know not.  Sharp eyes will spot then unknowns William H. Macy and John C. Reilly lurking in all those shadows.  That lack of a solid conclusion or a strong story lead to film which feels like vignettes of varying quality all hanging around one another but not always in service of the same thing.  Also, a film drenched in this much black and white photography should at least be something to superficially admire for its looks.  In that regard Allen has poured on the soup of atmosphere too thick.  At the time this was Allen’s most expensive movie ever and it may still be.  The set he built was purported to be vast and enormous but one wonders why he went to such lengths.  You can rarely see any of it through the smog and haze which smother each and every frame.

Shadows and Fog is another vehicle for Allen enthusiast and not many others.  It is weird and expressive in a fashion that doesn’t lead to dramatic involvement in ways most people appreciate.  Once again Allen’s hurried work pace lead to him subverting a more potentially interesting project.  There are ideas and scenes peppered through the whole that hint at a better movie, but as a cumulative effort it feels unfulfilled and unnecessary.

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Next up – Interiors

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLLbzJC_mp4%5D

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger –  If anymore of Allen’s movies come across as piss poor and unbearable as this one I will have to call this project off.  This lowly, grating embarrassment has Allen exploring relationships in various states of decay.  You’d think the subject matter would lead to a dark comedy or something introspective and insightful but instead we wind up with a tale of nothing but a pack of bickering idiots.  This is a story where you are not only not surprised that these people are breaking up, you’re surprised they didn’t kill each other with chainsaws ages ago.

Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin are a married couple on the verge of destruction.  He’s a struggling writer, she has a thankless job in a museum.  She wants to ditch her husband for her boss (Antonia Banderas), have a baby and open an art gallery of her own.  So you know, she’s a totally reasonable person.  He wants a successful book and the hot Indian woman in the apartment across the way.  He’s clearly just as reasonable.  Watts parents have also just divorced.  Both are morons and someone should have euthanized them before they reproduced.  Anthony Hopkins is the dad.  Realizing his life has more days behind than ahead, he has a late life freak out, ditches the annoying wife and quickly marries a call girl who’s out to mooch off his supposed fortune.  Speaking of the annoying wife, she is an insufferable construct of emotional ineptitude.  Unable to deal with life in any way daughter Watts sends her to a bogus spiritual medium for support.  In her total lack of confidence or sense of purpose she becomes enraptured in the medium’s wishy washy predictions.  Then after each sessions she barges into Brolin and Watts apartment and proceeds to prattle on like someone just aching to be shot dead.  Everyone spends the remainder of the story running around each other in a state of grating emotional upheaval.  By the end of the story the flake Mother is the only one happy because she lives in a blissful state of spiritual nonsense.  Everyone else is apparently fucked but it’s impossible to know.  Allen doesn’t bother to write endings to any of their stories.  It doesn’t matter.  Just assume they all went for a drive together and drove off a cliff.

The movie’s detached narrator tells the audience this well remembered line of dialogue about life from Macbeth: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Well, in this case Allen is the idiot, his movie is full of sound and fury and it signifies nothing.  Bravo Woody.

Woody Allen has an unwavering work schedule of one movie per year, no ifs, ands or buts.  He hasn’t gone a year without releasing a movie since 1981.  That’s the cinematic equivalent of not calling in sick for 32 years.  You kind of feel like a heel for calling in sick last week when you had that hangover now don’t you?  This year’s release, Blue Jasmine, will be his 41st movie.  Diligent though he may be this clockwork like schedule has lead to the iconic director creating an entire library of forgotten efforts no one expends effort worrying over.  So I will.  There’s nothing playing in theaters right now so why not?  For every Match Point or Midnight in Paris there are 4 other films which come and go like a neurotic waft of air floating on the wind.  Over the next few weeks I will partake of several of Allen’s lesser efforts, mostly recent, and attempt to find some merit in the minor works of the icon that Europeans love and American’s long became indifferent to.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJ6nOkkuJtI%5D

Cassandra’s Dream (2007) – Long story short, Allen took a stab at a Greek tragedy with contemporary trappings and wound up with his most avoided movie in 20 years.  How avoided?  It made less than $1 million bucks.  Long known being humorously morbid at times, Woody does not often wonder over to the truly dark side of life.  When he does find himself in the territory it has produced some of his finest work.  Crimes and Misdemeanors and it’s pseudo remake Match Point are fantastic morality plays.  Each demonstrating the flexible and elastic nature of what we consider good and evil.  In each story we watch an everyday man dispatch his extra marital lover for the sake of saving his respectable, straight-laced life.  In each story the man gets away with it, and is left to deal with the consequences, of which in the long run there are few.  Not something our black and white morality codes really appreciate, both stories thrive on this contradiction of punishment, or lack there of.  Cassandra attempts to observe these themes again from the other side, focusing again on the lack of punishment for murder but this time including a raging case of guilt that takes its place.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play a couple of brothers each trying to break through their prospective glass ceiling in life.  McGregor works for his father helping to keep a restaurant on its feet while Farrell is a grease monkey who gambles too much.  Both keep reaching a cusp of success only to see it slip away time and again.  When Farrell loses a fortune in a poker game and McGregor needs backing for a major investment opportunity, they turn to their rich uncle, played by Tom Wilkenson.  A family savior of sorts who always comes up with dough when times are tough, this time the uncle wants more than simple gratitude for the trouble.  He wants a man who intends to send him to jail dead.  He’ll fix up both brothers, but only if they dispatch his problem.  You can probably see where this is going and that’s the snag.  Cassandra quickly establishes a feeling of being dramatically transparent, overly melodramatic and way too much of a forgone conclusion.

Every scene of Cassandra is made up of pointed, on the nose dialogue which foreshadows everything about to happen from miles away.  The heavy handed script smacks of being a first, or at best second, draft effort that needed more than a little polishing to smooth out it’s jagged edges.  An effort the elder statesman writer/director probably doesn’t indulge in at this late stage of the movie making game.  If I were 77 I doubt I’d re-write a grocery list much less a screenplay, but I’m not asking people to pay $10 to read my grocery list. Circumstances are stretched beyond the breaking point and the ripe potential for tragedy goes unfulfilled because we know immediately that these two fools are screwed.  Every little gesture, snippet of dialogue and character beat in the movie is boldly pointing the way towards Hell and all of us can see it, except them.  If it ever felt for one second like Farrell and McGregor’s brothers weren’t totally f’ed from the get go, something richer may have developed.  But like I said, the is Allen doing Greek Tragedy.  Maybe the clear, unavoidable oblivion lying at stories end was what he wanted.  

Despite the crippling screenplay issues with Cassandra’s Dream it does benefit from a sense of swiftness. It’s hurried pace and rapid dialogue keep some of its more brazen deficiencies from stinging all that harshly.  It has determined performances from McGregor and Farrell and one wishes that the material had matched their zeal.  Though I’m sure he’s cut all the slack in the world at this point Allen doesn’t dwell on what isn’t necessary or waste time with subplots or lollygagging.  As a director he’s still fleet of foot and clearly hates wasted cinematic space.  It’s his overly hasty, thick fingered screenplay that fumble the effort.

Overall Cassandra is still a somewhat passable movie and not hard to watch despite being a bit of a clunker, but it’s not hard to see why Allen’s audience didn’t bother to show.  The fact that no one materialized is a little extreme.  How could the faces of McGregor, Farrell and Wilkinson not get a single butt in a seat anywhere?  There are worse fates than being stuck with it on the tube for two hours but really, just watch Crimes and Misdemeanors instead.  It’s a vastly superior variation on the same thing.

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Next up: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.