The reliability of Woody Allen’s per annum output has more or less caused critics and audiences alike to lose sight of the magnitude of each singular work that comes from the septuagenarian auteur. As was the case with last year’s Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man has already been shelved and classified as a decidedly minor Allen film. The critical argot typically delineates Allen’s work as regurgitating from past ideas, and with Irrational Man one can certainly see the jigsaw tiles of earlier Allen films at play (most notably from Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point). But these thematic preoccupations and repetitions do not necessarily indicate that they are pointing to the same larger picture; similar ideas do not necessarily breed the same results. With Irrational Man, Allen’s insistence on plundering the well yields a remarkably breezy yet jarring film, shedding new light on old ideas.Read More
Having produced a new film every year since 1982, it might be easy to take for granted the bounty of riches that is Woody Allen’s filmography. And amid controversy after controversy, a skeptic might question why the director keeps making films about misanthropic middle-age white men seeking young women in their twenties. That skeptic would be half-right: there’s no denying that Allen’s volume of work is not without its share of redundancies and disappointments, though there’s something almost virtuous about Allen’s work ethic. Whether or not an Allen film works for its intended audience could very well depend on their tolerance for his insecurities and neurosis. This makes his annual summertime efforts seem especially appropriate. There aren’t very many certainties in life, but with every passing summer comes a new Woody Allen film, and for that, there’s something oddly comforting about that.Read More
Stripped from her debonair Park Avenue mansion, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) relocates to San Francisco. The flight to her sister’s homey apartment doesn’t raise much of an eyebrow. Is Jasmine a bit self-indulgent? Sure, but so are a lot of characters in Woody Allen’s films. So Jasmine’s hyperactive socializing with the woman sitting next to her on a flight doesn’t strike much concern. Nor does her critique of her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) apartment seem all too out of the ordinary for what the audience assumes to be a narcissist. But as Allen pulls the pieces of Jasmine’s fragmented life for the audience to see, we witness one of the writer/director’s most accomplished character studies – a psychological deconstruction of a woman stripped of agency with only a flickering light of sanity guiding her way.Read More
Following my Best of the Nineties project, I was a bit “listed” out. And coupled with a busy summer movie season (along with the usual real-life schedule), having time for any worthwhile writing (outside my usual posted reviews and screenplay dabbling) has been scant. But with the transition from the summer movie season to the always exciting festival season approaching has got me in a writer’s head spin. With a slew of mainstream efforts worth looking into (from Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium to Edgar Wright’s The World’s End) along with smaller independent films to look out for (Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now – already reviewed here), the year has proven to be a fruitful one.
Blue Jasmine, already released in New York and Los Angeles, will see be screened in Chicago tomorrow. One of the true great American auteurs, Woody Allen is a national treasure whose body of work towers over virtually any other contemporary director. Allen may not knock it out of the park every time, but with an unrivaled work ethic (Blue Jasmine is the director’s 43rd film since 1969), his misses are often complimented with a subsequent masterpiece.Read More
Standing in line for a Friday night screening for To Rome with Love, I was asked what film I was waiting for. Without much thought, I misspoke and said Midnight in Paris – well, at least I got the director right. But that kneejerk response falls in line with my feelings for To Rome with Love and Midnight in Paris – the former lacks the lasting resonance of the latter. Even now, as I’m reflecting on Woody Allen’s latest European escapade, I’m finding it difficult to highlight any particular aspect of the picture. On that same note though, the picture’s formal competency makes the film agreeable without ever really impressing.
Allen strings together a quartet of narrative threads with middling results. The most promising of the bunch features Jesse Eisenberg as an architect who finds himself embroiled in passion with his girlfriend’s actress friend. The odd choice of having Ellen Page star as a sexual vixen while having Greta Gerwig function as the sidelined girlfriend is one of Allen’s more egregious missteps, but the general direction of this vignette is entertaining. It’s largely due to the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin’s role is particularly noteworthy as it’s the most ambiguous idea that Allen plays with in To Rome with Love. Eisenberg and Baldwin’s relationship tiptoes between fantasy and reality without ever truly siding between the two.
Another plot addresses the conceits of misappropriated celebrity (featuring Roberto Benigni). A third involves a case of mistaken identity that utilizes the tourist sights of Rome to great effect. And a final plot involves Allen himself as a retired music producer who discovers that his future son-in-law’s father has a gifted voice… only when in the shower. None of these narratives intersect with each other, and most interestingly, operate under different time frames. This is one of those rare cases where the different segments work best on their own terms as opposed to working as a part of the larger narrative framework. Allen’s arbitrary cutting between each plot line doesn’t do the picture many favors, but the material is so light and inconsequential, that it really doesn’t hinder its effect either.
To Rome with Love falls in line with Allen’s 2010 effort, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Both pictures rely on various narrative threads to address its larger thematic elements. But To Rome with Love is cleaner, lighter, shot more effectively, and just better than Tall Dark Stranger. The film is frivolous entertainment that packs the emotional weight of a postcard. What typically happens when receiving a postcard? It’s appreciated at the moment, stored away, and slips away in your memory.
A theme of transitioning and great loss seems to arise from most of my favorite films of 2011. Whether it be a mother transitioning to normalcy after the loss of a family or a loner sex addict transitioning to a brother role, the year’s best films have seen characters contend with moments of great duress. Sometimes that character overcomes, sometimes they don’t. Other times, it’s left to the audience to decipher an ambiguous ending.
The world has ended on a multitude of occasions, as this time, it was our great directors that questioned our position in the world. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia visualized the coming apocalypse with the greatest intensity, but filmmakers like Jeff Nichols and Terrence Malick astutely tied images of the beginning and end of the world with a personal story of kinship on a literal and spiritual level.
The end of the world came from a widespread pandemic in Contagion. It also operated through the government, as seen in Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss. In both cases, the deceased left a permanent mark on the living.
It was a banner year for documentaries, as Herzog’s aforementioned film and Cave of Forgotten Dreams dealt with our own morality in a literal and figurative sense. Steve James’ The Interrupters questioned the conditions of which we live, wherein Chicago’s south side functions as less a home and more of a warzone. Asif Kapadia’s Senna brought to the forefront how a man’s legacy can be defined by the way he confronts death on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Errol Morris’ Tabloid proves just how silly our preoccupations of celebrity can really be. All five films rejected the sort of narrative gimmickry that became a staple of 2010’s documentaries, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish.
This embrace of formal narrative storytelling seeped into the world of fiction, as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Michel Hazanavicius told fairly traditional stories that embraced films of old. In Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris there’s a rich appreciation for pioneer filmmakers, the silent age of film, and a bygone era.
There were plenty of fascinating films that touched upon a contemporary note. George Clooney’s The Ides of March was dismissed as having nothing new to say. It’s unfortunate, as the film evoked more a spirit of a time rather than attempted to tread new ground – for that, it was remarkably successful. One can accuse Bennett Miller’s Moneyball for being dated in its observations, but like The Ides of March, the narrative is mined out of a personal story within the larger arch.
Smaller films dwelled in a vast emotional terrain, as seen in Sean Durkin’s haunting debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, where a wounded young woman confronts her demons while attempting to reconcile lingering issues with her sister. Mike Mills’ Beginners delicately spoke to the echoing affect that our parents relationships can have on our own. Similarly, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri illustrated how the absence of parental guidance can prohibit a boy’s social growth.
Like any year, there are films that I unfortunately was not able to see. Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and Oren Moverman’s Rampart were among some of the many films that I had eagerly wanted to see but were not available to me. Regardless, all those films, along with several other late releases, will be coming my way in the coming months.
And despite missing out on several films, narrowing it all down to ten proved to be a difficult feat. Indeed, it was so difficult that I had to improvise with a rather convenient tie to start off my list. I typically avoid doing such a thing, but it was such a great year for film that I really couldn’t avoid it. So let’s begin.
There’s a fine line that divides The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Shame. Fincher’s film, like most of his other work, dwells in the world of obsession, where violence upon women is commonplace. On the other spectrum, McQueen’s picture studies the fabric of sex addiction, where a man uses women (and other men) to feed into his obsession. Fincher and McQueen both utilize a chilly perspective in looking at their characters, wherein a cold detachment from both directors heightens the lingering trauma that resides in their central characters. Both films scantly bring you in for warmth, but when they do, there’s a grand emotional consequence for letting you in.
3D filmmaking remains a work in progress, but what Martin Scorsese achieved in Hugo offers a certain level of validation for the technology. Scorsese’s swift hand and keen eye uses the technology to broaden your perspective, as the world that he creates is rich in detail. The train station that the title character inhabits breathes in its storybook enchantment. The whole feature feels like a spectacle, though is wisely grounded with an enamoring narrative about the importance of film preservation. Despite being an excellent craftsman, I’ve always been a bit resistant to Scorsese’s more recent pictures. But with Hugo, the filmmaker surprises me by showing me how humane he can be in a world of magical cinematic reverence.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films tend to dwell on the nature of gender and the roles one adopts from birth. Despite usually exhibiting flamboyant melodrama, all his previous pictures tended to be grounded in a sort of reality. With The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar dabbles in genre filmmaking, wherein the reality of the narrative is foggy. The minor tonal tweak is enough to make for his best film to date, as The Skin I Live In demonstrates a surreal quality whilst maintaining Almodóvar’s thematic and visual tendencies. There’s a palpable sense of loss that lingers throughout the picture, even if you haven’t figured out why. Wisely constructed as a jigsaw puzzle, The Skin I Live In is the sort of exhilarating piece of cinema that widens your eyes in stunned awe.
Stylish internalization is the best way that I can describe Nicholas Winding Refn’s filmmaking approach. On paper, Drive is a simple picture that has been done before. But under Refn’s precise eye, the film become can be both bombastic and subdued. The Los Angeles backdrop pulsates, even as its main character remains stoic. And as the simmer turns into a boil, Drive escalates its stylistic violence to an incredible degree. Despite not being the sort of film I gravitate toward, Drive excels at merely simply having presence – it’s the sort of picture that gets stuck in your head like a pop song.
Submarine presents an interesting alternative to the sort of British filmmaking that Edgar Wright introduced in his television show Spaced and Shaun of the Dead - that’s to say, Richard Ayoade has modified Wright’s dry wit and jarring (though effective) stylism to emphasize loneliness. Wright’s films have flourished when parodying genre filmmaking (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) or adapting a graphic novel (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but there’s a distinct absence of emotional gravity to the proceedings. Richard Ayoade’s effort addresses that absence by utilizing Wright’s sensibilities within the context of a coming-of-age story. Despite the familiar material, the whole picture comes together with such style, ushering a fresh and exciting writer-director in the process.
Midnight in Paris was the summer film that evoked the greatest sense of wonder and glee. Following a career low-point in 2010 with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Allen leaves the London-scape for Paris, where he mines for his richest material in years. While Midnight in Paris remains true to Allen’s tendencies for repetition, it nevertheless remains a magical experience. Recalling a narrative like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris views 1920’s Paris with nostalgic reverence, with subtle jabs through in here and there. With Owen Wilson operating as the best Woody Allen-proxy in years, Midnight in Paris marks Woody Allen’s finest achievement since 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose.
“How’re you gonna live your dash?” It’s a line that’s uttered near the end of Into the Abyss and serves to underscore the sense of hopelessness that prevails throughout the picture. Werner Herzog, who is known for his rather surreal and poetic manner of speech, remains startlingly muted throughout most of the documentary, wherein he interviews death row inmates, executioners, and family of the murdered. Their “dash”, the line between their birth and death date, is filled with sorrow. And throughout Into the Abyss, that sense of sorrow is felt with such profundity and shock. It’s not just shock about why people murder – its shock about the society that exercises it as a ritual, without ever analyzing the social conditions that contribute to such wrongdoing. Not even Werner Herzog seems to know what to say when staring at the eyes of a man facing death. I don’t think I would either.
At one point, The Tree of Life didn’t seem like it would ever be realized. Year after year, the picture would be promised, only for its release date to be pushed back. And then it came. The film obviously rubs people the wrong way – it’s incredibly dense and subscribes to a Christian ideology that alienates viewers. But coming from a secular position, The Tree of Life’s density is a strength, its Christian perspective a personal one. The outlook that Malick adopts may be tied to a divinity, but the overall compassionate tone of the picture transcends religion – it really does serve as an analysis of humanism. From its visualization of the origin of the universe to its delicate handling of a family in crisis, The Tree of Life has ambition to spare. But what Malick achieves with the picture remains nothing short of a spectacle.
What Terrence Malick achieves in The Tree of Life on the macro level, Jeff Nichols achieves in Take Shelter on the micro level. Working with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, Jeff Nichols carefully constructs a portrait of a family in great duress, wherein a man’s visions of the coming apocalypse is costing him his family. The sort of imagery that Shannon envisions – of storm clouds pouring motor oil, of his child being kidnapped following a car crash – is constructed with such relentless tension and fear. But with visions of a great storm growing in intensity, it’s Shannon’s family that remains strong by his side, affirming a sense of unity between husband and wife.
In a year where films have transported us through time and detailed the creation of the Earth, no film has left me so emotionally drained and viscerally engaged as Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
There is indeed a lot to talk about. We could talk about how Lionel Shriver’s novel, which is comprised of verbose correspondence from a wife to her husband, is fragmented into a kaleidoscopic picture of greater intensity. As an adapted screenplay, Lynne Ramsay bravely analyzes the context of the novel, wherein its protagonist recalls her life through memory. Ramsay astutely visualizes the concept of memory by fragmenting her narrative, leaving the audience to piece together the pieces.
We could talk about the rich sound design of the picture, which assaults the viewer with a great sense of fear through the mundanity of suburban life – a curtain blowing in the wind and a sprinkler echo with greater meaning than anyone could imagine. With Ramsay’s eclectic taste in music, she infuses We Need to Talk About Kevin with a edgier tone. Her choice in music serves to give the audience some time to breathe, as the main character’s emotional plight assaults you from all angles.
We could talk about Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. The two actors give incredibly naked performances, delicately exposing each other’s emotional weaknesses throughout the picture. The fragmented nature of the narrative works against the two, especially since the film is very much a directorial essay. But the two manage to register on such a kinetic that hypnotizes audiences.
There’s much to mull over in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the end, one can look at parenthood under a different lens. Or perhaps, it all remains intact. Blood serves as a great bond. We’re all united to something or someone that we are expected to love – even if we might not want to be.
Continuing with my on-again off-again look into Woody Allen’s filmography, I admit that I was reluctant to pick up his Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories. Federico Fellini is a director that I am only vaguely familiar with – beyond traditional Film 101 studies of a few of his films I know most of his pictures by name alone. With that, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been driven to look into his work with the same sort of conviction that I have for Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Allen himself.
Stardust Memories opens with a scene that recalls Fellini’s 8½ - Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is on a train. He observes the people on board – it’s a dull bunch. He peers outside to another train going in the opposite direction – it’s a train full of life and extravagance. The larger implications begin to seep into his (and the audience’s) consciousness as Sandy attempts to bust out of the moving car. But the door is jammed and the interior begins to fill with sand, as the ambivalent passengers remain in their seats. We cut away from Allen’s worrisome gaze as we discover that the whole scene was part of a film. What follows are critics and film executives dismissing Bates’ efforts – why be serious now when all of his previous “funny” pictures have been so good?
It’s probably the most interesting set-up to an Allen film I’ve seen yet, or at least the one that deviates the most from formal Allen expectations. Given the tepid response to his first serious mainstream attempt (Interiors), Stardust Memories seeks to address the circumstances of Allen’s fame while deconstructing (and reaffirming) preconceived notions of his celebrity. It’s most effective when Allen contends with the crowds of raving fans who always want something from him – he can’t outright reject them, nor does he have any intent of following up on his many promises. You get a sense that he wants to please, but overwhelming demand makes such a course difficult to embark.
While all of Allen’s films have an “Allen-type”, it was incredibly difficult to separate Woody Allen from Sandy Bates. Given Allen’s rich personal history made available to the public, there are certain prophetic instances throughout Stardust Memories that suggest personal tendencies in Woody Allen himself, rather than distinctive attributes to the written character of Sandy Bates. In a lot of ways, it makes for some retroactively imposed moments of awkwardness as Bates discusses marrying a younger woman.
There’s a moment in Stardust Memories where Bates is visited by aliens. He asks what he should do when choosing between two women. According to the aliens (voiced by a high-toned Allen), such a decision is of limited difficulty given their high IQs – they let Bates know exactly who to go for. Bates goes against their word and picks the other woman. It’s perhaps the clearest statement that Allen makes throughout the whole film – he’s going to do what he wants to do. Intellect doesn’t play a decisive role in his choices – it’s a gut thing.
Nostalgia is the subjective term that Midnight in Paris operates under and the singular obsession that Gil (Owen Wilson), the Woody Allen-type character, mulls over. He’s writing a novel, his first, and struggles with where to go with it. Gil’s career as a Hollywood-screenwriter has given him financial security, but he questions the quality of his work. Perhaps the eternal Woody Allen question that seems to plague him routinely is – will my work survive? Allen has noted in interviews that he does not expect as such, but conceivably, Midnight in Paris presents his first attempt at addressing the circumstances in which he believes as such.
Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) travel to Paris with Inez’s parents. The excursion provokes Gil’s admiration for the city, wherein he confesses that he wished to live in Paris during the jazz age – a golden age of cultural significance. Inez, the frustrating realist that she is, finds it difficult to grasp how someone could be so wrapped up in a period of time outside of the present. Her character is one that looks at the present, often treating Gil as if he were nothing more than a means - she wants him to keep working and to accumulate wealth, unaware of the emotional work that is required of Gil in the process.
Things only get more difficult between the two when they encounter the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez. Paul and his mate take Inez and Gil out to dinner – the outing tests Gil’s limits of tolerating pseudo-intellectualism, as Paul tends to offer his opinion on culture at every turn, typically beginning his sentences with a “correct me if I’m wrong…”. Gil eventually disconnects from the group, and wanders the streets of Paris by night. Like a fairy tale, the clock strikes 12 and a mysterious car invites him for a ride. Shrugging at the consequences, Gil is transported to a party unlike one he has ever attended – Cole Porter sits at the piano as Zelda and Scott ask about his writing. Ok, something’s not right here. The Fitzgerald’s take Gil barhopping throughout Paris, where he encounters Ernest Hemingway with the promise of showing his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. Things are definitely as they were before, and while Gil is aware of the stark change in his surroundings, he accepts them. While most films that deal with time travel tend to reflect on the greater meanings behind the transportation from time A to time B, Midnight in Paris bypasses all the sci-fi riff-raff, instead just presenting the situation as is, with only light jabs at the consequences of the altering the time-space continuum.
What Allen achieves in Midnight in Paris is no simple feat – he catapults the audience into a world of utter delight. Midnight in Paris frames The City of Light as intoxicatingly beautiful. It’s impossible not to yearn to be there, to follow the path that the lovely Adrianna (Mario Cotillard) and Gil take as they stroll the brick road, discussing their misplacement in the world. At some point, Gil encounters a situation where he needs to accept his place, or reject it entirely – it’s the sort of moment that recalls Allen’s endings to his best films, from Manhattan to Broadway Danny Rose. Midnight in Paris not only achieves an ending that stands up to Allen’s greatest films, its overall quality places it among his very best.
A film like Deconstructing Harry is interesting to look at in hindsight. Now, Woody Allen’s prominence has diminished, as his scandalous affairs are no longer under the lens of media scrutiny. That’s the way it works sometimes – Charlie Sheen will undoubtedly release us from his flagrant media whoring when the time comes. But unlike Sheen, I always gathered that Allen never really wanted to make his private affairs so widely known to the public. If anything, Deconstructing Harry, an extremely personal film, is Allen’s plea to be left alone.
Woody Allen is Harry Block – a writer who takes his morally questionable life as inspiration to churn out fiction. After writing a novel that only thinly veils his infidelities, he finds himself struggling to connect with anyone. This is particularly inconvenient, as he is being recognized by the university from which he was expelled. Here’s an opportunity to validate his writing while simultaneously garnering respect from his son. But getting his son to come is difficult as Harry contends with his ex-wife’s disdain. Meanwhile, Block suffers from writers block – for the first time in his life, his social life has led him to lead a relatively secluded lifestyle, with not so much as a muse to inspire him.
Deconstructing Harry relies on Harry Block’s stories to create a general sense of the sort of life Block leads. This leads to some interesting visual and narrative nuances, as the product of Block’s fiction is visualized by actors like Richard Benjamin, whereas the real-life actualization of the event features Allen (as Block). Allen tinkers around with the format throughout the film, and ultimately, despite some initial reservations I had with its style, I liked it. Something I liked a little less was the film’s spliced editing style. It acts as a hindrance, and simply calls too much attention to itself.
Despite my minor quibble with the film, I found it to be surprisingly poignant and the antithesis of a lot of Allen’s work – Deconstructing Harry is surprisingly vulgar and literal. It’s like all of Allen’s pent up frustrations were recorded and clarified to ensure that no one misunderstands where he is coming from. And it seems to have worked – Allen makes the rounds from time to time, but ultimately, any discussion about the man tends to be geared toward his films. I bet he prefers it that way. I do too.
Manhattan Murder Mystery takes the standard Allen formula and adds a murder plot that, interestingly enough, doesn’t become the central narrative until halfway into the film. In fact, that aspect of the movie is overshadowed by Allen’s relationship drama, which is more or else the same thing he’s done in previous (and following) films. It’s because of that familiarity where it becomes a bit hard to embrace Manhattan Murder Mystery, largely because Allen has (a) already done this and (b) has done this better.
Still, there are aspects that I found uniquely enjoyable about the film. In the beginning of the closing act, there’s a lingering sense of jealousy between the central protagonists that was disappointingly absent throughout most of the picture. Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) distances herself from her husband Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) and grows fond of their friend Ted (Alan Alda). Ted entertains Carol’s ideas that a murderer could live next door moreso than Larry, therefore the couple’s ability to get along. Ted and Carol’s relationship develops while Larry sits on the sidelines. Only later are we introduced to a character that both Ted and Larry gush over, adding a dynamic that was sorely needed in the film’s relationship drama.
Allen does a noble job of blending a variety of genres together, and though it ultimately falls flat, there are glimmers of excellence in his failure.