The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

I found the Picasso. It wasn’t easy. I was looking for a woman with a guitar and it was all cubes. It took me two hours to find her nose. It’s the 1930s. Veteran New York insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is at daggers drawn with newly recruited efficiency manager Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt): he goes by instinct (and a few well chosen bribes) and she is all about rational thinking. It’s hate at first sight. He trades quips with and about office beauty Jill (Elizabeth Berkeley) while Betty is carrying on with married boss Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) who promises he’ll leave his wife. When they are both hypnotised by crooked nightclub magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) on an office outing the pair of them unwittingly carry out jewellery thefts from their own clients and wind up investigating themselves while not falling in love … Germs can’t live in your blood – it’s too cold.  A hilarious tale scripted like a Thirties newspaper screwball with rat-a-tat machine gun banter sprinkled liberally with sexist abuse being fired off in both directions and several nods to Kafka not least when Hunt repeatedly calls Allen variations on the word roach. With Double Indemnity hovering in the background, Theron a smouldering femme fatale just dying to bed Allen and Hunt giving it her best Rosalind Russell, this is sheerly brilliant escapist fare with so many laugh out loud exchanges it’s impossible to hear all the great lines. Is she kidding, talking to me like that? It’s ’cause she thinks she’s smarter… you know, ’cause she graduated from Vassar and I went to driving school

Terry Jones 1st February 1942 – 21st January 2020

The death has taken place of one of the greatest screen comics and writers we have been blessed to enjoy. Terry Jones started writing with Michael Palin after they graduated from Cambridge and they made their names on British TV as joke writers for people like John Bird and David Frost before collaborating with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to create the landmark series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Jones’ penchant for absurdity, satire and surrealism blended with his historical interests and a slight case of anarchy. Jones came into his own as a director of their frequently controversial films and directed other material as well as continuing a separate writing career as a mediaevalist, poet and children’s author. For most of us, though, he will be remembered as the immortal Mandy Cohen, mother of a very naughty boy. Goodnight Terry, you only went and revolutionised comedy while you were with us. It’s probably time for a rest.

Federico Fellini Was Born 100 Years Ago Today 20th January 2020!

Today marks the centenary of the birth of a king among film directors, Fellini, a cartoonist who was a master of farce and satire and became a vector for his country’s melancholy and possibility, chronicling its post-war rebirth and baptising it in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the city he conjured at Cinecittà, as he constantly mused the problems of the sexes.

Bananas (1971)

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And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

Buck Henry 9th December 1930 – 8th January 2020

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The death has taken place of Buck Henry (Zuckerman), chiefly regarded as one of the best satirical screenwriters of the last 60 years, gifted with an eye for a good gag and a smart line. After an upper class education at Choate, Dartmouth and Harvard’s military academy, he became an actor and soon migrated to TV to write on Steve Allen and Garry Moore’s shows. He co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks and then forged a big screen career with The Graduate. One of only three director-collaborating teams to be nominated for an Academy Award (with Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait) his contribution to the culture is both prolific and immense. Rest in peace.

It Should Happen To You (1954)

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I’d give my right arm to see myself in the movies.  Small-town model and actress Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) encounters documentary-maker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) in Central Park and after he shoots footage of her gives him her address. She dreams of seeing her name in lights after two years of not making it in New York City. She takes a gamble by investing in billboard advertising to get her name out there. Almost immediately her risk pays off, and she finds herself inundated with media requests and fans, including the affections of the wealthy Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) of the Adams Soap company.  Meanwhile Pete has rented a room in her boarding house and observes Adams coming and going with Gladys, whom he is trying to persuade to exchange the valuable spot in Columbus Circle for six elsewhere and eventually she agrees. Gladys initially bathes in the publicity which earns her all kinds of advertising campaigns but Pete sees the downside of overnight success before she recognises that she’s famous for being famous All she’s got is nerve as far as I can see. A wafer-thin premise is spun by screenwriter Garson Kanin into an accomplished romcom that gives Holliday ample space to do physical comedy while Lemmon makes a striking debut. The story has a sting in the tail and Holliday gets to say that the most important thing in life is privacy:  so while the portrayal of the world of TV is a thing of the past, the message is very current. A slick concoction directed by George Cukor with (among other names of the era) Constance Bennett and her amazing cheekbones appearing as themselves in a TV show. I don’t stand for anything

Manhattan (1979)

 

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Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be. 42-year old TV comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is involved with high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and freaking out about his Lesbian ex-wife Jill’s (Meryl Streep) forthcoming memoir of their marriage breakup; while his best friend, University professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wonderful wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with cerebral egotist book editor Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Isaac quits his job in a fit of pique which he instantly regrets and has to downsize in order to finance a year when he will try to write a book. Yale breaks up with Mary so when Tracy says she wants to go to London to study acting Isaac and Mary get together … I’m dating a girl who does homework. Elaine’s, the Empire Diner, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Bloomingdale’s, Dean and Deluca, the Lincoln Center, Rizzoli’s bookstore, Zabar’s, the now-demolished Cinema Studio, this is the one where Allen fully expresses his love of his native city and it’s more than a Valentine as the story inspired by George Gershwin’s music, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, transports us into the inner workings of the characters and their preposterous lifestyle problems. The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman gives Keaton absurdly self-aggrandising dialogue protesting the burden of her beauty, Allen jokes about his castrating Zionist mother and jibes about Lesbian fathers, and everyone bar 17-year old Tracy is fairly ridiculous but even she is a serious sexpot who wants to go to London to train as an actor (supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with Stacy Nelkin). A gorgeous, funny, satirical film about silly people whose therapists call them, weeping, and they carry on doing stupid things, risking their relationships and their careers on a romantic whim in a disposable culture. (That’s Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa talking about the wrong kind of orgasm, BTW.)  It’s all told with love and humour and shot in ridiculously beautiful widescreen monochrome by Gordon Willis because of course the real unadulterated love spoken of here is for New York City and it gives the writer his voice.  Of the two of us I wasn’t the amoral psychotic promiscuous one  MM #2,600

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Stardust Memories (1980)

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He just isn’t funny any more. Filmmaker Alvy Bates (Woody Allen) wants to make the transition from making comedies to serious drama and is persuaded to take a break from his heavy schedule of psychoanalsis, podiatry and hair treatments to attend a weekend film festival at the Stardust Hotel where he is the subject of a retrospective. His ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) is recovering from another breakdown; his mistress Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) has left her husband and arrives unexpectedly; and he finds himself falling for the violinist girlfriend Daisy (Jessica Harper) of a Columbia screenwriting lecturer Jack Abel (John Rothman) attending the festival … It’s crazy. The town is jammed. I don’t know, is the Pope in town, or some other show business figure? In which Allen blends Wild Strawberries with 8 1/2 throwing a nod to Citizen Kane and pleads the case of the funnyman who wants to go straight all the while deploring the efforts of his fans and critics to understand him. And in case we don’t get this case of infectious auteurism (with jokes) it’s shot in an oily monochrome that befits this pretender to Fellini that has some wantonly cruel closeups of faces. It’s not just about narcissism and memories and how they encircle a rich man who travels about in his Rolls Royce it’s about the culture of fandom and the circus that seems to accompany success, hence the parodic elephant on the beach, not just in the room. While the women represent different and opposing aspects of Alvy’s brain, his real-life ex-wife and sometime co-star Louise Lasser (upon whom Dorrie is based) appears uncredited as a secretary while his manager/producer Jack Rollins plays a film executive but none of the characters has the complexity of the great female roles from his previous work. Perhaps because the film he made before this was the Bergmanesque Interiors and that left the critics cold. This response to critics is a loose rebuke to Judith Crist’s seminars at Tarrytown NY. There is some discomfort when what appears to be an underage girl (but actually a married woman) appears unbidden in his bed. Despite the undoubted aesthetic beauty (it’s shot by Gordon Willis) and the very funny lines it’s a difficult film to love principally because the degree of self-referentiality seems to hint at pure self-absorbed autobiography flattening the satiric effect. Are we supposed to empathise with a man who feels entrapped by his own fame? But its triumph is in its love of cinema, even if it happens to be made from the perspective of a man we might not actually love despite the frequent reminders of the standup comic Allen once was with some extraordinarily good lines flowing from a freewheeling script that limns politics, psychology and philosophy, perhaps ultimately focusing on the death of the ego.  It’s this film that prefigures the transition to serio-comic drama that Allen would ultimately make. In case you missed it, that’s Sharon Stone playing the dreamgirl on the train travelling in the opposite direction that we might wish Joseph Cotten had actually met way back when. You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only-only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.