Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 257 – Antz

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The second feature-length computer-animated film ever made, after Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy StoryAntz is an oddball. A public feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, led to Katzenberg founding Dreamworks SKG and subsequently feuding with Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was making the suspiciously similar – and ultimately more successful – A Bug’s Life. Pixar is the historically more successful and well-regarded studio, and the direct comparison between these two films usually sees Antz considered inferior, but Mike’s long been fond of it, and in revisiting it we discuss both how far it shows us animation has come in the last twenty years, and its many qualities, including its rather grown-up tone and references, imaginative and expressive visual design and cinematography, and witty dialogue.

Oh, and we try to work out how children think.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Rainy Day at the Carlyle

An enchanting moment in an enchanting film. Timothée Chalamet´s Gatsby Welles (note the names) has been dumped by his girlfriend Ashley Enright ( a delicious Elle Fanning). He walks around New York: ‘I need a drink. I need a cigarette. I need a Berlin ballad’. He goes to the Carlyle to get the drink and listen to a lounge piano tinkling out part of the  ‘Great American Songbook’: ´They Say Falling in Love is Wonderful´segueways into ‘Gigi’. Gatsby thinks of Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer. He picks up a hooker to impersonate Ashley at his mother´s do. Luckily he comes to his senses eventually and ends up with Chan Tyrrel, played by Selena Gomez exuding sex, charisma, know-how and can-do. She´ll have him kissing like a pro by the time Fall´s finished. People will probably object to what I like most in this one: impossibly beautiful people in impossibly glamorous settings moaning about loving the wrong person, or being attracted to the wrong people because they are so glamorous and rich, all the while playing or listening to beautiful beautiful music whilst drinking martinis and feeling sad. It´s´s all utterly delicious and I´m sad I´ve not been able to see it in a better copy

 

Café Society (Woody Allen, USA, 2016)

cafe_society

 

 

 

A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.

Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).

The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie.  The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.

The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.

Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-15-30-00The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.

 

Woody Allen’s first film on digital.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, USA, 2014)

magic

Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.

The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.

Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.

There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.

This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.

José Arroyo

What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, USA, 1965)

Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel Hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich's powers.
Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich’s powers.

Coarse, stupid, vulgar: What’s New Pussycat is a film that speaks its time — a culture on the cusp of a sexual revolution made possible by easily available contraception — and vomits up the most misogynist aspects of it. The film gets its title from Warren Beatty’s customary greeting to the women who phoned him. Beatty was initially set to play the protagonist,  Michael James, a playboy in love with his girlfriend but unable to resist the lure of other women and seeking help for this from a psychiatrist (a role initially set for Groucho Marx but here played by Peter Sellers) who’s got problems of his own.

O'Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body
O’Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body

In his brilliant biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Peter Biskind writes of how Beatty had three reservations about the project as it was being developed: Woody Allen, who was writing the film, kept enlarging his part, initially just a few lines, at the expense of the protagonist’s; the casting of Capucine, who was then producer Charles K. Feldman’s girlfriend; and lastly, in his own words, that ‘My character had turned into some neo-Nazi Ubermensch who was unkind to women’.

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This is the body Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress and Romy Schneider can’t resist?

Beatty threatened to walk out of the project unless these problems were resolved. Feldman, who was Beatty’s great friend and mentor, shocked him by using Beatty’s threat as an opportunity to re-cast in favour of Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket and then much bigger box-office. But Beatty was right: Woody Allen’s part adds nothing to the story; Capucine is beautiful to look at but painful to watch; and the character of Michael James, even as played by Peter O’Toole, is indeed unkind to women, though not as hatefully as the film itself.

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The kind of film where Ursula Andress parachutes directly into O’Toole’s passenger seat.

The women in the film aren’t people, they’re dolls, some of them barely sentient, designed to fulfill different male fears or desires: there’s the fat Brünhilde (Edra Gale) who sings Wagner as she charges after her husband, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers); the frigid ‘poetess’ who’s a virgin but only on one side of the Atlantic (Paula Prentiss, redeemed by her expressive low voice, a hoarseness that expresses more humanity than any of the shit she’s made to utter); the nympho with sadistic impulses (Capucine); the dangerous dream with leopard-skin mittens and a shark-skin body-suit who parachutes right onto the hero’s 1936-7 Singer 9 Le Mans racing car (Ursula Andress); and the lusciously pretty hausfrau girlfriend, who suffers, waits, and thinks only of getting a fixed date for her wedding (Romy Schneider, who against all odds, succeeds in making her character into a human being).

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The film loves O’Toole’s blue eyes more than its female stars.

Peter Sellers gets top billing but is an unfunny blank. A young, even boyish, Woody Allen, whose film debut this is, does his usual lascivious schtick. These two comic ‘geniuses’ can barely get a laugh between them, and certainly not one that doesn’t make at least this viewer feel diminished as a human being. The film is more in love with Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes than it is with any of its female stars. We’re meant to find him adorable even when he takes his shirt off to reveal a chest that is both droopy and scrawny or when he dances like a shaky stick howling at the moon begging for rhythm. O’Toole, however, also brings a lovely stillness juxtaposed with bursts of theatricality that both centres and sparks the film and makes it bearable.

Paula Prentiss in paisley
Paula Prentiss in paisley

 

What’s Up Pussycat? was a top-ten box-office success in 1965, the year that The Sound of Music topped the list. Although it is set in France, it very much evokes the look and attitudes of ‘Swinging London’ not only in its inventive visuals (the animated sequence at the beginning) but also formally (the self-reflexive pop elements of the speech purporting to be a vehicle for the author’s thought indicated through a flashing title; the dream sequence). Today it is probably best remembered for Tom Jones’s singing of the title tune. Fans of the Bacharach-David songbook will also enjoy an early version of ‘Little Red Book’ and the great Dionne Warwick singing ‘Here I Am’. Pop fans of the period may also delight in seeing Françoise Hardy crop up as the Mayor’s assistant. Those interested in film history might also see in this producer’s package an early antecedent to the Simpson-Bruckheimer High Concept cinema of the 1980.

In spite of the above, it is very difficult to see What’s Up Pussycat? today except as an exercise in a male privilege so entrenched it is oblivious to its own ugliness.

José Arroyo

A Note on Woody Allen arising from the reception of Blue Jasmine

I enjoyed Blue Jasmine very much; in fact I don’t remember Cate Blanchett ever being better. That last close-up of her welling at the fate she still doesn’t fully realise she brought on herself is extraordinary; as is the film as a whole; few filmmakers would dare take on such a downbeat subject about such a fundamentally unlikeable, self-deluded and superficial person much less end it on that note. The film is also extraordinarily fluid and confident formally with past and present melding into one another with ease and with subjective states of mind flowing equally fluidly into and out of external ones. It was a delight to see performers like Blanchett and Baldwin at their best, to discover new ones such as the charismatic Bobby Canavale as Chili and to re-discover or discover for the first time what once-famous names like Andrew Dice Clay could do (I’d never liked him until here). It is an extraordinary achievement from all concerned.

But I was also a little annoyed at the reception the film received. Anthony Quinn writing for The Independent notes, ‘To call Woody Allen’s new film a ‘return to form’ would be misleading, since his film-making in the last twenty years has been so erratic that it’s hard to know what his “form” might be anymore.’ Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote ‘Here it is: the real deal, an actual Woody Allen film, the kind we once looked forward to, took for granted, then despaired of ever seeing again. After all those false dawns, non-comebacks and semi-successful Euro jeux d’esprit, Allen has produced an outstanding movie, immensely satisfying and absorbing, and set squarely on American turf: that is, partly in San Francisco and partly in New York’. Paul Martinovic in Den of Geek wrote, ‘ It doesn’t help that he’s wildly, famously inconsistent: since the excellent early to mid 90s run that included Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, even the most fervent fan would be hard pushed to argue that his recent filmography has been defined by a long periods of mediocrity’. One could go on.

The collective and over-riding impression from the reviews (though you’d find exceptions and variations if you follow up on the links to the  full reviews above) is that since the early nineties, perhaps to the period of Husbands and Wives in 92 or perhaps to Bullets over Broadway (which I find a comic masterpiece) in 94, Allen’s output had been erratic and mediocre until Midnight in Paris in 2011. In fact, I too used to think something like that and, with a few exceptions, basically stopped going to his films. Then, a few years ago, I decided to brush up on my Allen since Husbands and Wives, systematically, in chronological order and I was truly surprised. Of course many of them ARE uneven but very few  comedies aren’t. His are more serious, more substantial, funnier about more important things than almost anybody else’s. And cumulatively they are as formally daring as the work of any Hollywood director perhaps ever: the use of a Greek Chorus  to open Mighty Aphrodite, the revue-style of Deconstructing Harry with the fantasy sequence in Hell, the filming of the same story in two modes that he undertakes in Melinda and Melinda, the play on the musical form in Everybody Says I Love You, the brilliance of the dialogue in Anything Else. One might well argue that these aren’t the equal of his experiments in Annie Hall, or Purple Rose of Cairo or Zelig. But that’s quite a standard against which to measure anyone’s work.

What I found seeing all of those films, again, and in order, is that almost all of them (Cassandra’s Dream, the only one I couldn’t be  bothered to  finish, being the major exception) made me laugh, a lot, and in unexpected ways. They were performed by the creme-de-la-creme of internationally renown stars and actors at or near their best (Penelope Cruz, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis, Goldie Hawn, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio…the list is endless) some of the greatest comic actors of the last fifty years showing they’re still masters of the situation, the timing, the inflection, and the punchline (Paul Giamatti, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Tracey Ullmann, Michael Rappaport, Elaine May, Jon Lovitz, Wallace Shawn, Dan Ackroyd, Danny DeVito, Larry David…again many others).
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So perhaps it might be better to begin to think about how even at his worst, his non-best, and his near-best, Woody Allen, as all truly great directors, has things worth looking at, worth treasuring, and for critics to think to meditate on what their function is. From what I remember, describing accurately and evaluating convincingly are only part of the job. Introducing works to audiences, building audiences for difficult works, or works not guaranteed to please or that won’t please easily or that are only partly successful, these are also part of the function of a critic; and one could argue that it wasn’t Allen that failed by continuing to experiment, to develop, to at least try but the audiences and critics who failed him and failed that work.

There’s more that I need to think about but I thought I’d just remind you and myself of a few of my favourite moments from Woody Allen films in this so-called period of un-evenness and failure.

Goldie Hawn in Everybody Says I Love You (1996)

I’m not sure how this will appear in this form but I remember the collective intake of breath when Goldie Hawn begins to float. It’s sheer joy and one of those magic movie moments for the ages.

Woody’s vision of ‘Hell’ in Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen descends to hell in Deconstructing Harry.

Judy Davis in Celebrity 1998

Judy Davis seems to get a line from each line reading; I particularly love her ‘bovine’ and ‘vache hollandaise’.

Sweet and Lowdown 1999

Sean Penn gives one of his most endearing performances in Sweet and Lowdown; and a killer punchline.

Smalltime Crooks (2000)

Situation AND slapstick

Larry David speaking directly to the audience in Whatever Works (2009)

This is the earliest of these films, with the longest scene, which is why I’ve kept it until the end. But I didn’t know when to end it. Jus as one thinks of cutting, another great laugh comes along.

Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

The humour seems to come from the shock at  the way Mira Sorvino applies the Marilyn Monroe/ Betty Boop  voice to a new pornographic language.

We should all be so mediocre and uneven.

José Arroyo