Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Wodner Wheel

9 Dec

 

You know how it goes with Woody Allen films (at least since the mid-1990s, around the time of his tabloid break from Mia Farrow): one a year, with every third effort being a worthy nugget, preceded by and antecedent by two duds. Just take the electric “Blue Jasmine” (2013), which rightly garnered the royal Cate Blanchett an Oscar, followed up by the sluggish “Magic in the Moonlight,” which squandered the talents of two Oscar winners, and “Irrational Man,” the unholy marriage of Phillip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock. “Cafe Society” (2016) marked an up, which leads us to Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” Does it follow the model? Yes, but not entirely.

A key narrative device in “Wonder Wheel” are asides to the audience by a hunky Coney Island lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who patrols the shores sometime after the end of the Second World War, as America sits perched on the cusp of prosperity. Hope and prospect seem to be everywhere for everybody, except a merry-go-round operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi, interestingly cast and auspiciously named) and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned grousing waitress. They’re both on second marriages; he has problems with the sauce, and her preteen son from a previous marriage has an affinity for lighting impromptu fires. There’s also the matter of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (an ebullient Juno Temple), whom Humpty disowned after she ran off and married a Miami gangster. Shortly into the film Carolina returns, seeking refuge with the desire to go to night school to become a teacher. It makes for a happy reunion until mob heavies from Miami show up looking for their boss’ dame.

Despite the myriad moving parts and personalities, “Wonder Wheel” is unquestionably Winslet’s “Blue Jasmine” opportunity; the entirety of the drama flows through Ginny, the cumulative angst, anxiety and ephemeral moments of joy, erupting through her in deeply emotive bursts. Like “Jasmine” too, “Wheel” bears the indelible imprint of a Tennessee Williams drama, replete with claustrophobic quarters, grand dreams, dank, rife sexual desire and assured tragedy. Allen’s orchestration may feel a bit stagey, but it works effectively to emboss the moments of intimacy and confrontation that come mostly in tightly tied tandems, one melting into the other or the other laying the tinder for the other to ignite.

It takes a while, but we find out Ginny and Mickey are having a thing under the boardwalk. He’s an attentive lover and earnestly entertains the notion of dropping out of grad school (he served in the South Pacific and now wants to be a playwright) and running off with Ginny, saving her from a loveless marriage. Then enters Carolina. The attraction between the ingénue and lifeguard is fast and instantaneous and happens right before Ginny’s eyes when she introduces the two during a chance encounter on the boardwalk. If ever there was an emotional house of cards, this is it, and not all the players in the incestuous love triangle are fully aware of others’ involvement – Greek playwrights would approve. Continue reading

Lady Bird

13 Nov

 

Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore queen who scored a breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Woody Allen-esque “Frances Ha” (2102) gets behind the lens for this semi-autobiographical reflection about a girl coming of age in Sacramento in the early 2000s. If there’s any question about how true to the bird it is, Gerwig is in her early thirties – would have been a senior in high school then, grew up in in Sacramento and attended a Catholic school, just like protagonist Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), aka the “Lady Bird” of the title, struggling to find the right boy to surrender her virginity to and the funds to go to college.

The intimate nature of the film (Gerwig also writes, but does not appear) builds in subtle yet palpable strokes with a devilishly barbed edge as it tackles the mandatory rites of senior year: prom, sex and college acceptance. One of the many angles that makes Christine such an intriguing character study isn’t so much her sass with a dash of surly, or red-shocked (dyed) locks that give her a tint of goth-punk, but the fact she’s a perpetual outsider, not religious and not well off, going to a parochial school and running in circles of affluence while dad (an endearing Tracy Letts), an outdated computer programmer, can’t land a job and mom (Laurie Metcalf, giving the best mom performance of the year behind Allison Janney in “I,Tonya”) hold the house together with stoic tough love.

In short, Christine is in a continually uphill battle – part of it her own obstinance – and along the way makes some provocative (and questionable) choices, be it the dumping of her weight-challenged best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular rich girl (Odeya Rush) or her choices in men, the nice guy who’s too nice (Lucas Hedges, so good in “Manchester by the Sea”) and the cool hipster (Timothée Chalamet) about as deep as his veneer.

Many are hailing this as Gerwig’s directorial debut, though she has a co-directorial credit with mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends” (2008). She’s also worked on several projects with Baumbach and has clearly been a keen observer of technique and orchestration. The result is quite mature and astute for such a nascent filmmaker, but is it groundbreaking? No – let us not forget Orson Welles pumping out “Citizen Kane” at 24 – but it is fresh and has a bite that feels different even while treading in the same pool as other fine female coming-of-age efforts in the recent past – ”Palo Alto” (2013) and the more accomplished “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Gerwig seems focused and intent behind the camera, which plays against her usual screen presence as pleasantly generic quirky waif.

The real score for Gerwig and the film, however, is the casting of Ronan, a highly accomplished and capable actress who, in her early twenties, has been up for an Academy Award twice already (“Atonement” and “Brooklyn”). There’s never a moment on the screen that you don’t feel and believe every tic and motivation running through Christine’s veins. It’s seems so natural and fluent, you don’t think of it as acting. But don’t be fooled; it’s one of the year’s best performances.

“Lady Bird” is the kind of indie film like such recent hits “Moonlight” or “Boyhood” that possess mainstream crossover and critical appeal. It should also position Gerwig and Ronan as A-listers, able to call their own shots.

Cafe Society

22 Jul

True to the “post-‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ law” that every third film’s a winner, Woody Allen rings the bell (after the stinkers “Irrational Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight”) with “Café Society,” a nostalgic nod to growing up a Jew in New York City and the dawn of the Hollywood studio era. It’s a return to the director’s roots and a clear bit of personal therapy. At the core, however, burns idealism, longing and the modulation of one’s own personal views over time.

072116i Cafe SocietyOur protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), an impassioned nebbish from the Bronx with dreams of grandeur, possesses the right seeding of an Allen alter-ego. Given he’s a young man living in a cramped post-Depression apartment with a yenta-lite mom (an excellent Jeannie Berlin), Bobby heads to Tinseltown, where Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent to the stars and hobnobs with the likes of Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Errol Flynn. We never meet any of these icons like we did in “Midnight in Paris,” but Phil talks to them often on the telephone as Bobby sits longingly across from him in Phil’s big office, hoping his mother’s brother will toss him a bone and give him a job.

Being extremely in demand but obliged to family, Phil asks his assistant Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) to show Bobby around. The first thing the two do is tool around town and gaze at the stars’ mansions – namely Joan Crawford’s – and it’s quickly obvious that Bobby, who’s just recently notched an awkward experience with a Jewish call girl and is clearly not skilled with women, is smitten. Problem is, Vonnie’s already spoken for by a man of stature who, for all his admirable reputation, isn’t around much. As this is heartless Hollywood, it doesn’t take long for revelations and complications to upend the applecart and send Bobby back in New York. Eventually he regains his footing by running a nightclub with his brother Benny (Corey Stoll), a feared gangster with a warm demeanor. In short, Benny’s a lethal blend, smart, loyal and a master at strong-arm tactics. The irony here is that Stoll recently played a straight-laced prosecutor who helps take down Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” It’s also a stroke of casting genius, as whenever Stoll (as with Berlin) is on the screen, the radiance of the film shines that much brighter. Continue reading

Maggie’s Plan

5 Jun

Rebecca Miller, who’s always been able to woo a talented cast (being the daughter of “Death of a Salesman” playwright Arthur and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis can have that effect), wades into Woody Allen territory with this acerbic, yet not quite fully formed, rom-com that could easily be a sequel to “Frances Ha” or the next chapter in Richard Linklater’s “Before” series. Part of that has to do with the fact it stars Ms. Ha herself, Greta Gerwig, and longtime Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, but more to the point, there’s ceaseless banter from quirky personas kvetching about their fragile self-esteem and station in life (which happens to be far better than the vast majority of their fellow Americans).

060316i Maggie's PlanThe basis of the film is an unpublished novel by Karen Rinaldi, who must be a friend of Miller’s. Or perhaps the project began as a fragile conversation at a cocktail party and took root once the financial backing got the green light. After sitting through the visual adaptation, I can only imagine that the final pieces of Rinaldi’s complicated love triangle among intellects never quite got cemented – thus its in-limbo status. Miller, who adapted the story as well as directs, is clearly all in and seems more comfortable behind the camera than with earlier efforts “Personal Velocity” (2002) and “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (2005).  Continue reading

Irrational Man

31 Jul

“Irrational Man,” the new movie from Woody Allen, is a hodgepodge of parts held together by an enigmatic protagonist – a swaggering nihilist who teaches philosophy and, despite a flabby, alcoholic paunch, invites much favor from attached women, even though he can’t get it up – and a finely nuanced performance by Joaquin Phoenix taking on that role. Phoenix’s Abe arrives to a small New England liberal arts institution (filmed in Rhode Island), where there is as much dread over Abe’s debauchery as there is awe over his revered mind and that one big book he published that made him a philosophical rock star.

073015i Irrational ManAbe gets himself into a love triangle faster than he can down a shot of bourbon or spout a lazy line about “mental masturbation.” On the faculty side he’s got Rita (Parker Posey, digging into the role nicely), semi-unhappily married and dreaming of wine and roses and dirty sex with a kindred miserable spirit. Rita’s counterbalanced by the fawnish Jill (Allen’s muse du jour, Emma Stone, so good in “Birdman” and proving that inclination correct here), a student with a jockish beau. Things go from mentor-student banter to inappropriate friendship even with clothes on. Abe, in all his louche self-loathing, has become the black hole of the campus. But then, near the nadir of his pontificating wretchedness, he finds an up.

Allen has been making movies for almost 50 years. The sardonic joys of “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and her Sisters” radiates across the decades, the self-deprecating nebbish new and relevant again in every generation. There’s no doubt to his genius, but recent years have seen change-ups in his works, some too hauntingly self-reflective or suggestive of refutations of public opinion of his media circus life behind closed doors (“Husbands and Wives”) and forays into Hitchcock (“Match Point”). His last truly great film was “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (before the whole fallout with longtime partner Mia Farrow), and while there have been flourishes of the unique and the old Woody (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Blue Jasmine”) there’s almost always a two off that seem unformed, and that the old Woody wouldn’t have done or developed more to a point. No matter – his output of a film a year is nothing less than impressive.

“Irrational Man” fuses the old quirky Allen – with sharp characters ensnared in the mundane and struggling to get out – with his more current predilection for Hitchcockian dabbling. It almost works, but in the denouement, stumbles (irrationally) and falls down the shaft of the absurd. If you don’t see it coming, it’s not because you weren’t paying attention, but because you were.

Magic in the Moonlight

1 Aug

‘Magic in the Moonlight’: Promised twists and turns are illusion, leaving a love story

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Woody Allen at nearly 80 is still cranking out a film a year, but not with the success he had in the  ’70s (“Annie Hall,” “Sleeper” and “Manhattan”) or ’80s (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Nuggets such as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” show up about every third or fourth off, but with the recent near hits of “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” by math alone “Magic in the Moonlight” is not in that sweet spot. It’s a great-looking film, scrumptiously shot by Darius Khondji, who’s framed most of Allen’s recent works, and well acted, but something in the plot just never works.

072814i Magic in the MoonlightColin Firth gets a big scene-chewing role as Stanley Crawford, a 1920s illusionist who takes the stage as a Fu Manchu-like incarnation known as the Great Wei Ling Soo. He wows audiences, making elephants disappear and sawing women in half and, like Houdini did in his time, debunks hoaxes, which Stanley agrees to do when fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks him to come to a country villa in France to expose a young American woman shaking down a susceptible and well-off widow (Jackie Weaver). The young American woman in question, Sophie Baker, is played by none other than Emma Stone, a big-eyed cutie with auburn locks and by logistical association alone muse du jour to Allen. But she’s no Diane Keaton, not even a Mia Farrow or Mia Sorvino, for that matter. She’s game, but asked to do a lot with a little and beyond her range. Thankfully she has Firth to play off of, and he’s masterful. Initially when the game is afoot in the gorgeous greenery of Southern France, there’s promise and a playfulness in the air. The film suggests twist and turns to come, false reveals and oneupmanship, but then romance floats into the picture, and the notion of god too. What a buzzkill.

The chemistry between Firth and Stone has a foisted feel, but it’s not truly their fault. They’re likable enough – and Firth’s hubris and braggadocio makes for a great period character – but just don’t have a story worthy of their potential. It’s almost as if Allen set out to make one movie and in the process of penning it, had a nostalgic, romantic yen that he let consume the second half of the script. It becomes indulgent and uninteresting. We all want love, and this is the very milieu that Allen at his best employs hyperbole and pops with sharp, deprecating humor, but nothing comes. And that’s what’s missing: There is no zing. Firth, as the elegant lion, holds it together for a good time, but left to chew on a shoe for too long, even a well-mannered lion will roar with contempt.