Annie Hall (1977)

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Boy I wish real life was like this. Neurotic NYC comic and TV gag writer Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back on his relationship with insecure aspiring club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and wonders where it all went wrong. He recalls how they first met playing tennis with his actor friend Rob (Tony Roberts) who moves to LA;  his first marriage to Allison (Carol Kane); and his second to Robin (Janet Margolin);  and how when Annie moved in with him he became totally paranoid and thought everything she did spoke to infidelity. When they visit Rob in LA she meets music producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) at a party and on the couple’s return flight to NYC they agree they should split up and she returns to LA to be with Tony … That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, this collage-like film is episodic, digressive, farcical, filled with running jokes, surreal flashbacks and pieces to camera on subjects as diverse as masturbation and being Jewish and Marshall McLuhan (who shows up in a line at the movies). Alvy’s whole problem is a premise derived from the great philosopher Groucho Marx – he can’t be with any woman who would want to be with him. In this battle of the sexes territory there are only departures and very few arrivals. It’s a breezy affair that exists on a tightrope of suspended disbelief and charming performances and Keaton’s is a delight. The supporting cast is outstanding and Jonathan Munk as the flame-haired kid Alvy constantly kissing girls in class is hilarious with adult Alvy moving through these flashbacks as though he’s in Wild Strawberries. Roberts is great as Alvy’s grasping sidekick. And Allen? Well it’s quintessential Woody and at least partly autobiographical. Hall is Keaton’s birth name while he calls himself ‘Singer’:  Freud is never too far away in a film which coasts on psychoanalytic concepts. Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love. Elsewhere there’s Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother and for real nerds that’s Sigourney Weaver meeting Alvy at the movies in the last shot. The film’s surprisingly delicate piecemeal structure is held together by Alvy’s narration and according to editor Ralph Rosenblum was put together in post-production:  when Alvy is speaking to camera he’s making up the story that isn’t shot.  Allen is one of the best writers around though and these addresses don’t just fill gaps, they create allusions and deepen the theme. It’s a landmark Seventies film.  A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

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Redoubtable (2017)

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Aka Le redoutable/Godard mon amour. You have to choose – either it’s politics or cinema. In 1967 during the making of his film, La chinoise, French film director Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel) falls in love with 17-year-old ingenue actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and later marries her. The 1968 protests lead Godard to adopt a revolutionary stance setting up the Dziga Vertov Group with critic Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl) and retreating from his celebrity while Anne continues to make films for other directors and his didactic attitude creates an irretrievable schism with other directors following his call for the cancelling of the Cannes Film Festival …  The future belonged to him and I loved him. Michel Hazanavicius’ biopic of Godard falls between two stools:  on the one hand it’s a knowing wink to a fiercely committed and politicised prankster who eventually became too serious for his own good or his audience’s enjoyment;  on the other it’s a partly serious examination of the evolution of the most significant filmmaker in Europe in the Sixties which invariably vibrates with politics and the issue of celebrity and how it drove him to make incendiary statements which reverberated badly. This is adapted from Un an après the memoir of Wiazemsky (who died in 2017) so the story of the director’s post-’68  retreat into the radical takes its lacerating prism from his resentment at her attempts to escape his stifling grip and gain a mainstream career as he becomes immersed in communal filmmaking. He abuses her co-workers, evinces contempt for his own films and their admirers and renounces his friendships in order to produce films without an audience. He pronounces on the necessity to consign the work of Renoir, Ford and Lang to the dustbin of history and insists only the subversive comedy of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers be kept. He tells us that this is the beauty of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – any old rubbish can make sense.  I’m not Godard. I’m an actor playing Godard. And not even a very good actor. It’s part pastiche too, indulging in many visual references to Godard’s work, leading to a lot of amusing moments as well as beautifully crafted design that can be appreciated in this multi-referential marital saga/romcom.  Every time JLG goes to a protest he gets trampled by riot police and his glasses are broken (see:  Take the Money and Run). He decides he needs different shoes and becomes obsessed with them, literally another running joke.  He attends a student rally at a university and makes anti-semitic declarations which embarrass everybody not just because he calls Jews Nazis but because he is stunningly inarticulate. He is invited by Bertolucci to a conference in Rome and ends up telling him his films are shit so Bertolucci tells him exactly what he thinks of him. The Situationists despised Jean-Luc. And he agreed with them. Garrel is brilliant as the lisping narcissistic self-absorbed pedant who is humorously unaware of the plethora of contradictions, ironies and paradoxes besetting his every statement. He flounces out of the Cannes festival and complains about having to stay in the luxurious beachside home of Pierre Lazareff, the Gaullist proprietor of France-Soir but lies back and enjoys the man’s library, bitching about the lack of petrol to get him back to Paris – despite avowing support for a general strike. He belittles the generous farmer who volunteers to drive him and the gang, plus former friend Cournot (Grégory Gadebois) whose film didn’t get screened at Cannes due to JLG’s antics, all 500 miles back to Paris:  this scene is laugh out loud funny, embodying the ridiculous idea of a filmmaker becoming a revolutionary by wanting to make films that nobody will ever want to see, above the common man whose cause he claims to espouse. The bore is now a boor. The irreverent approach sends up Godard but it also somewhat downplays his achievements and the deterioration of the marriage, the first casualty in his argumentative retreat from commercial cinema as friends and values are abandoned without care.  Martin makes the most of a part that puts her on the receiving end of both withering condescension and nasty put-downs from a man twice her age basically holding her hostage while trying to be a teenage activist and flailing for filmmaking inspiration. You make films. You’re not the Foreign Secretary. There is a sense in which Hazanavicius’ Woody Allen references (the early, funny ones,  see:  Stardust Memories) function in two ways, leaving us to wonder if this isn’t just about Godard but also about Hazanavicius himself, following a drubbing for his last serious drama set in war-torn Chechnya (also starring his own wife/muse Bérénice Bejo who features here as fashion designer and journalist Michèle Lazareff Rosier – who wound up becoming a filmmaker! And who also died in 2017) having made his own name with comedies and overt Hollywood homages (The Artist). Not altogether unlike Godard. So we see Godard enjoying pulp fiction and musicals but suffering through La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while disavowing sentiment of all kinds.  Following his suicide attempt, the last sequence occurs during the making of Vent d’est, Godard’s Maoist western and his last collaboration with Anne before she left him. The voiceover is now his, just as he is outvoted by his automanaged bunch of commie cast and crew. He is no longer the auteur of note in this ménage à con.  Finally, he manages a smile. Perhaps even this arch ironist now understands the grave he’s dug for himself. We like him, but it’s too late. His gift is gone. With Jean-Pierre Mocky as an outraged diner at a restaurant, we realise we are in the realm of satire and this is a wonderfully clever lampooning of an anarchic cynic much in the mould of Godard himself, keen to distance himself from a decade of success, now in utter contempt of his audience. He clearly never saw Sullivan’s Travels. Or if he did, misunderstood it complètement. This is hilarious – a postmodern film about the cinematic revolutionary who invented the form that manages to be both serious and incredibly witty, all at once. Kudos to cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman for replicating Raoul Coutard’s beautiful work in Godard’s Sixties masterpieces. Definitely one for the bourgeois cinéaste. We’ll love each other later. Now it’s the revolution!

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Happy 74th Birthday Mia Farrow 9th February 2019!

 

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True Hollywood royalty, the eternally youthful Mia Farrow celebrates her birthday. The daughter of Australian director John Farrow and Tarzan’s Jane, Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan, her godparents were Hollywood great George Cukor and feared gossip columnist Louella Parsons. She came to fame as Allison Mackenzie in the TV series Peyton Place opposite Ryan O’Neal and then following her famous marriage (aged just 19) to Frank Sinatra became a star in her own right in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, setting the world alight with a pixie haircut by Vidal Sassoon. A move to London and marriage to composer/conductor Andre Previn occasioned her joining the Royal Shakespeare Company (the first American actress to be so honoured) and she continued to work onscreen in a variety of psychological dramas and thrillers.  A later union with Woody Allen made her the most visible actress of the Eighties in an extraordinary run of thirteen films beginning with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Never far from the headlines for her political activism and family, she is a fascinating performer and an underrated star. Many happy returns!

Wonder Wheel (2017)

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Let me get to the story in which I am a character, so, be warned, as a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters. Enter Carolina…In 1950s Coney Island Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house and married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a rough-hewn carousel operator who is stepfather to Ginny’s firebug son by her first husband. She’s having an affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake) a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright.  Ginny’s life is turned upside down when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) from his previous marriage turns up in order to hide out from her gangster husband after giving evidence to the FBI. When Carolina meets Mickey the attraction is immediate and Ginny’s plans to leave Humpty are thrown into disarray … Everybody dies. You can’t walk around thinking about it/You’re talking to a lifeguard.  A tonally awkward and restive work from Woody Allen in which Winslet’s heavy approach shifts the emphasis to Ibsen while everyone else is playing light. (To be fair, the material starts out as a very theatrical setup with poorly staged monologues.) Vittorio Storaro’s odd cinematography with its use of orange and green filters doesn’t help the strangely altering atmosphere. However the film improves overall as it goes along, save for Winslet’s inappropriate pitch, especially when some of the Sopranos goons show up. Timberlake is okay as the Allen avatar, narrating to camera and breaking the fourth wall to put a quasi-dramatic spin on events as he pursues his ‘Masters in European Drama’ but a guy in an auteurist film from Allen falling for a mother and her daughter? I know it’s set at the beach, but it’s still rings too close to home and I don’t mean mine. You’ve been round the world/But you’ve been round the block

To Rome With Love (2012)

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The kid’s a communist, the father’s a mortician. Does the mother run a leper colony?  Four tales unfold in the Eternal City. Architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters American architecture student Jack (Jess Eisenberg) living in Rome with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and whose romantic woes remind him of a painful incident from his own youth; retired opera director and classical music recording executive Jerry (Woody Allen) discovers that his daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) future father-in-law is a mortician with an amazing voice, and he seizes the opportunity to rejuvenate his own flagging career; a young couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) have separate romantic interludes; a spotlight shines on an ordinary office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who becomes a celebrity overnight, hounded by TV journalists and paparazzi… Another Woody Allen film shot in Yerp that seemed like much less than the sum of its parts at the time but has worn well and is a mature entertainment, modelled on the portmanteau films made by a lot of Italian auteurs in the early Sixties. When I first saw this I thought it took a great deal of imagination to cast puddingy little Ellen Page as the voracious bisexual femme fatale wooing Eisenberg but obviously someone had the inside track. Baldwin is good as the man musing on his own foibles and the integration of his character as Jack’s invisible friend is nicely achieved. Allen is very funny as the man who has to get a shower on stage at the Opera so that the mortician will reach his peak performance and while we might wince at Penelope Cruz being cast as a prostitute entering the wrong hotel room and embarrassing a young man about to meet the in-laws, it’s actually a lot of fun – as is his fiancée’s own pre-marital adventure. Benigni’s overnight fame is a nod to Allen’s earlier Celebrity albeit with more humanity.  It’s nicely played by a really interesting ensemble – the incredible Ornella Muti shows up as famous Italian actress Pia Fusari in Milly’s story! – and like all of Allen’s lighter work it just gets better with each viewing, Darius Khondji’s mellow cinematography bathing us all in Roman light. Allen originally called this Bop Decameron but nobody got it …

Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy (Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway (based on his relationship with 17-year old actress Stacey Nelkin on the set of Annie Hall when he was 43) and his behaviour regarding their son, whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Fact and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

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Woody Allen’s musical comedy is a delightful collage of Thirties movie genres – romance, screwball, ghost, crime, all told by the daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) of perpetually unlucky in love writer Joe (Allen) and his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who now lives in Upper East Side splendour with liberal lawyer Alan Alda, his engaged daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and their right-wing son Scott (Lukas Haas) and 14 year old twins (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman),  plus his ancient dad whose Alzheimer’s means he has to be supervised by their wicked Bavarian housekeeper. They have posh people problems ie none at all and when DJ pushes her father into a relationship with an unhappily married art historian patient Von (Julia Roberts) of her friend’s mother, a psychoanalyst, we get to see the sights in Venice where Joe affects a knowledge of Tintoretto to get into her good books. Everyone gets to sing (whether they can or not), there’s a dance routine in a maternity ward, a robbery involving one of Steffi’s pet criminals who breaks up Skylar’s relationship with Edward Norton, and it all culminates in a Duck Soup ball in Paris on Christmas Eve with Steffi and Joe recreating their romance from many years ago with a high-wire romantic dance by the Seine. Simply wonderful, nutty fun with a to-die-for soundtrack put together by Dick Hyman.

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for the perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.