L.A. Story (1991)

LA Story

Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends? Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) has the easiest job in the world: he’s a TV weatherman in Los Angeles, where the weather is so predictable he tapes his ‘wacky’ forecasts days in advance. Bored with his job, his life and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), foundering while she carries on an affair with a colleague Frank Swan (Kevin Pollak), Harris begins to receive secret messages from an electronic freeway sign near his home, which lead him to pursue romance with a married British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) doing a story on LA lifestyles and a vapid young model SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). Sara doesn’t want to let down her ex-husband Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant) but Harris believes she could be his source of happiness … Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time. Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, this pleasantly zany romcom perfectly encapsulates what many believe to be true of a certain kind of social scene in Los Angeles, an updated take on Cyra McFadden’s earlier self-help satire Serial, perhaps, with fads and fashions plucked from the air like oranges from trees or aphorisms from freeway signs. If it never hits the comic heights you would expect from Martin, this is a Valentine to the city, an observational fantasy that sees contentment as a home run while a certain kind of busy wit unspools through these characters’ lives...it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right. Not quite the Odyssey Harris’ name suggests but an intriguing and insightful journey nonetheless, with an outstanding soundtrack which will practically bring tears to the eyes of Nineties kids. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows and Fog

I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Another Woman (1988)

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She can’t allow herself to feel. The second wife of professor Ken (Ian Holm) with whom she had an adulterous affair while his wife Kathy (Betty Buckley) was suffering from ovarian cancer, when fiftysomething philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) rents an apartment to work on a new book, she soon realises that she can hear what’s going on in a neighbouring apartment, which houses a psychiatrist’s office. She becomes captivated by the sessions of a pregnant patient named Hope (Mia Farrow) whom she follows and eventually encounters in an antiques store. As Hope talks about her emotional issues over a long lunch, not only does Marion begin to reevaluate her life and recall the bullying her estranged brother Paul (Harris Yulin) was subjected to by their late father (David Ogden Stiers), she sees her husband lunching with their mutual friend Lydia (Blythe Danner) with whom he is clearly having an intimate relationship. She comes to realise that her coldness has shut her off from friends and family, and she has missed a chance for true love with writer Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman) who apparently made her the subject of his novel after she turned him down for Ken If someone had asked me when I reached my fifties to assess my life, I would have said that I had achieved a decent measure of fulfillment, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, I would say I don’t choose to delve. A remarkably perceptive work from Woody Allen on mid-life femininity and the things women have to do to protect themselves and their sense of self while also making men feel good about themselves. Fully belonging to that part of his oeuvre labelled Bergmanesque and not just because it’s shot by Sven Nykvist, this is sharp, funny, acidly realistic and gimlet-eyed when it comes to the inequality between the sexes:  while a husband plays at adultery (repeatedly), a woman tries to justify her very existence; a man celebrates his fifty years while a woman wonders what she has done with her life; an ex-wife shows up at the house with the detritus of their marriage to find herself socially condemned because she expresses her distress at betrayal. How Rowlands learns about her foibles through other people’s observations is psychologically devastating. The narrative is fearless and pointed in its target – structural misogyny. The peerless Rowlands is great in one of the best women’s roles of the Eighties and Farrow is no less good in a minor key, providing an oppositional image of possibility, with an ensemble of men having it all. I just don’t want to look up when I’m her age and find my life is empty

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

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I didn’t invent the cosmos I just explain it. In the early 1900s in upstate New York wacky inventor Andrew Hobbs (Woody Allen) and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) invite the priapic internist Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his latest lover free-thinking nurse Dulcy Ford(Julie Hagerty) together with Adrian’s cousin, the dry philosophy professor Leopold Sturges (José Ferrer) and his fiancée Ariel Weymouth (Mia Farrow) for a weekend house party. However Andrew was in love with Ariel a long time ago and Maxwell falls for her while it transpires Maxwell and Adrian may know each other a little better than Andrew realises … If marriage is the death of hope then the night before marriage there’s still hope. A bucolic excursion involving three mismatched couples who find sexual joy in each other’s partners, all to the music of Mendelssohn and loosely adapted from Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night while Gordon Willis delights in the landscape and the endless possibilities of the play of sunlight. A frisky, frothy confection that without any big revelations or confrontations (beyond the use of a skilfully aimed arrow) risks being seen purely as a parody yet in its humorous dealing with matters sexual and intellectual manages to arrive at a few truisms about human behaviour and frailty as well as the idea that there might be some form of existence beyond rational explanation. Or it’s just a nutty sex comedy with a few references to Shakespeare and hints of enchantment via a whirring magic lantern. Steenburgen and Hagerty are both ideally cast while Farrow replaced Diane Keaton and would remain Allen’s muse for another dozen films. Nothing is real but experience

 

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this

benjamin (2018)

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I love the way that you don’t choose success. Rising filmmaker Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is struggling with the final cut of his second feature film produced by Tessa (Anna Chancellor) who insists the picture is locked but he fears disaster. Just before its debut screening he encounters French rock singer and music student Noah (Phénix Brossard) at a gig and they become an item but Benjamin sabotages everything with self-doubt and then his film gets a muted response followed by a terrible review. He meets Noah’s parents but his bitter ex Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) turns up at the same restaurant and humiliates him and the relationship with Noah is over.  He has a one-night stand with his leading man Harry (Jack Rowan) and is filled with regret and depression and when best friend and writing partner Stephen (Joel Fry) has a disastrous standup gig he’s convinced he’s committed suicide but really it’s all about him … I think maybe we should say it’s about the loss of self-esteem. Comic Simon Amstell is responsible for the late, lamented Grandma’s House, an extremely funny London Jewish family comedy that aired on BBC over a decade ago.  Here he mines his own life again rather like his protagonist – this, too, is his second film – and Morgan gives a luminous, sometimes mesmerising, performance as the filmmaker who can’t help but ruin everything. Jessica Raine is terrifically busy as his randy publicist Billie in this portrait of filmmaking in present day London with an hilarious review of The Monk Movie by Mark Kermode. Some dialogue is lost in delivery unfortunately but this is played in a minor key. Everyone’s a critic. It’s a small valentine to love. Sydney and Dave are excellent as Benjamin’s cat.  Is this going to be a film soon?