Allen, Assonitis, Korda, Stromberg, Tetzlaff

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). This piece of fairy tale revisionism might be more affecting if it didn’t arrive on the heels of the same studio’s Frozen, which pulled off basically the same switcheroo (including the subversion of the “true love’s kiss” trope) with more spirit. Judging from what’s onscreen, not much thought went into this project after the dream casting of Angelina Jolie was secured. The certainty that her presence as one of the most iconic villains in the annals of Disney Animated Classics would be enough to make the film compelling comes tantalizing close to becoming a proven truth. It’s fun to watch her play around devilishly with the role, even if there’s also a prevailing sense that a turn like this is desperately easy for her, and she has only the slightest inclination to dig deeper. Problems abound elsewhere, especially with the cheaply precious comedy of three fairies charged with protecting the cursed princess (Elle Fanning, gamely beaming but with nothing much to do) and the drastically overheated performance by Sharlto Copley as the evil royalty who set Maleficent on her unpleasant course. Copley may be striving for the same sort of knowing parody that Jolie coolly suggests, but he comes across as shrill, manic, and amateurish. A first-time director, Stromberg merely holds on for dear life.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012). This delivers four different stories set in Rome, loosely bundled, which gives the film the feeling of paging back and forth between offerings in one of Allen’s old collections, like Without Feathers or Side Effects. Alternating between the different stories may be meant to give the film more cohesion, but it severely undercuts the effectiveness of the film, especially as it accentuates the wildly varying quality of the different segments. The most interesting by far is one that casts Alec Baldwin as a sort of one-man Greek chorus to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) as he ponders an affair. That’s the only piece that develops enough creative and structural wit to make it worthwhile. There’s also a surprisingly nice performance by Roberto Benigni in an otherwise drab one-joke segment about a man who gets sudden, unexplained fame. Allen’s late career has been desperately hit-or-miss. To Rome with Love at least has the efficiency to handle both extremes in a single film.

Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1977). The runaway success of Jaws led to a bevy of watery ripoffs. It would take a remarkable amount of effort to find one both cheaper and loopier than this tale of a powerful octopus, driven to murderous rage by the noises created by an underwater drilling company. Directed by Egyptian-born Assonitis (who later returned to the depths by co-writing James Cameron’s feature film debut, Piranha II: The Spawning), the movie is notably pedestrian, enlivened only by the combination of awkward European unknown actors and old movie stars picking up one of those sad late-career paychecks. The latter group includes two-time Academy Award-winner Shelley Winters, who caps off her first scene by making a Bloody Mary comprise of nothing more than vodka and room-temperature tomato juice. It’s far sadder to see Henry Fonda creaking his way through the film, looking miserable throughout.

The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel casts Gregory Peck as a hunter-for-hire in Kenya who is enlisted by a traveling couple (Joan Bennett and Robert Preston) on an excursion meant to mend their ailing marriage. Things go desperately wrong, sending the husband home in a body bag, and most of the film is the slow unfolding of how the ill turn came to pass. The performances are all solid enough, but Korda’s direction is a little too vanilla to pull out the florid melodrama of the work. Instead, the delusional machismo that represents the worst of Hemingway is presented as unquestioned fact, even as the story itself can be read as an exposure of the deadly folly of the mindset. The film ultimately has too much surface emotion and not enough nuance to be effective.

Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947). I can pay no higher compliment to this noirish detective drama than to say it plays like the seedling from which the vast garden of the Coen brothers oeuvre sprung. Pat O’Brien plays a private dick in Panama who is enlisted by multiple shady characters trying to retrieve a lost map, a tangle of allegiances that he largely surveys with lackadaisical amusement. The plot is incidental to pleasure of barbed dialogue and characters connecting like sparklers setting each other ablaze. Tetzlaff was making his directorial debut following a distinguished career as a cinematographer, including the previous year’s Alfred Hitchcock wonder Notorious. He brings that skill at shooting a movie to creating a stylish work that never lets technique swamp the necessity of clearly, smartly telling a story. It’s a terrific film that a smart filmmaker could use as the foundation for a stellar remake.

Top Ten Movies of 2013 — Number Nine

The kismet of cinematic artistry is elusive, which unfortunately alleviate the unfair sense of disappointment when the most creative individuals struggle through dry spells. By now it’s understood that Woody Allen is too prolific (and too unconcerned with anything other than simply getting down to work on the next project, whatever it may be) to deliver anything other than an unpredictable sine wave of quality. But when he lands in the right place, assembles the right cast, draws on the right well of inspiration, the results offer a reminder than he’s one of the truly great American filmmakers. Blue Jasmine probably owes part of its genesis to A Streetcar Named Desire, borrowing heavily from the characterizations and basic storyline of the Tennessee Williams classic, but Allen manages to make it feel completely of the moment, capturing the ugly entitlement of the wealthiest class, even when all the riches are stripped away. Allen can sometimes tilt towards the overly pat in his fictional constructions, a byproduct of his own detachment through privilege, which makes the hard truths of Blue Jasmine all the more striking. This is what can happen, the film posits, to a person who runs the magnet of greed over their moral compass. The film prospers through another artistic revival, that of Cate Blanchett, largely wasted onscreen since her stellar turn as one version of Bob Dylan in 2007’s bit of Todd Haynes whacked out wonderment, I’m Not There. She plays Jasmine, staying with her sister (the superb Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco after her rarefied New York life is shattered, with an almost disturbing intensity. She’s a bundle of nerves, but still with a clearly realized, yet damaged person at the core. Despite the initiating premise to this paragraph, I don’t think Allen and Blanchett needed some quasi-mystical good fortune to come up with a film this good. But having each other undoubtedly helped.

What a great world we all live in, even better, what a time to be here

Woody Allen has sometimes be accused, not without some justification, of focusing on a certain rarefied version of the New York experience in his art. While he exists in a city teeming with working class people, his urban ecosystem is dominated by art museums and revival movies house, leisurely strolls and meals in nice restaurants with barely a nod towards the toil that goes into affording such niceties. That hasn’t exactly changed as he’s wandered further afield from his beloved Manhattan. Even in the best efforts of his European excursions, there’s no much of a sense of monetary struggle among his characters. I’m not speculating that his latest, Blue Jasmine, in a overt answer to that criticism. For one thing, the director, famously dismissive of the loftiness of his own art, would surely never concede to any level of self-examination leading to artistic inspiration. Still, it’s striking to see him working on a story about the harsh humbling of a woman who once moved in the most pristine New York circles.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, formerly Jeanette, a former high society doyenne, who threw wonderful dinner parties and devoted her energies to charitable endeavors as her investor husband (Alec Baldwin) shuffled conduits of finance around to keep the dollars flowing in. At the beginning of the film, Jasmine is forced to go live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Ginger is a divorcee who works at a dinky local grocery store to support herself and her two sons as they eke out a life in a cramped upstairs apartment. Allen emphasizes the magnitude of the change by cutting back and forth between the golden promise of Jasmine’s past and the clumsy compromises of her present, showing how some of the corrosion of the soul Jasmine accepted for her exalted place has seeped into her decided lack of empathy as she interacts with her sister and her friends.

Blanchett, who’s been in an artistically unproductive wilderness the past few years, offers a pointed reminder of her ferocious talent as an actress. Jasmine is a wreck who’s still just skilled enough at putting up her clenched jaw facade of firm manners, even though all the tattered bits of her psyche are starting to show. She’s matched beautifully by Hawkins, who plays Ginger’s comparative lack of refinement in a way that is neither demeaning nor investing it with cheaply self-aggrandizing nobility. She’s just a person finding her way, sometimes imperfectly, and her resilience is something Jasmine could learn from, especially because she’s more inclined to dismiss it as pitiful compromise. All told, it’s one of Allen’s most balanced recent films in terms of the uniform excellence of the cast, including nice small turns by Peter Sarsgaard, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg and, unbelievably, Andrew Dice Clay.

By now, it’s nearly impossible to find something revelatory to express about Allen as a filmmaker. The director, seventy-eight in December, has been essentially the same for so long that he’s no more remarkable than clouds in the sky. The film opens with the same sort of old jazz song and the white letters in Windor font, vowels charmingly askew, set sharply against an all black background, the main actors listed alphabetically, all sharing one title card. What ensues may be lacking or it may be brilliant, but it will surely be distinctively his. Blue Jasmine is closer to the brilliant side of the spectrum, invested with a gratifying depth and thoughtfulness, an even a willingness to follow its title character down some darker avenues. If he’s long past the point of artistic reinvention, there’s no reason to lament that, as long as he continues to find reserves of sharply considered novelistic cinematic storytelling within him. Blue Jasmine demonstrates that the reservoir he draws from for that may in fact be unlimited.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Three

3manhattan

#3 — Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I can say with some certainty that Manhattan is home to my favorite film opening. Over cinematographer Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black-and-white shots of the borough that gives the film its title and accompanied by George Gershwin’s resplendent “Rhapsody in Blue,” Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, takes a crack at the opening passage of a novel. He announces, “Chapter One,” and proceeds to try and describe the apparent lead character’s abounding affection for New York City. Several false starts later–rejected for reasons like “too corny” and “too angry”–Isaac finally finds his way to prose he likes, perhaps in part because of some “jungle cat” sexual potency attributed to this figure very much like himself, but more likely because of the succinct perfection of the final sentence he crafts before fireworks illuminate the sky: “New York was his town, and it always would be.”

The opening sequences may be the purest, most inspiring tribute to his defining city that Allen ever created, but the film is far more complex than a mere love letter. It is about the challenges of modern life, the merciless tangling of human relationships and the tense tug-of-war between sharply differing instincts. It is also Allen’s first, sharpest presentation of his career-long thesis–which would eventually come to haunt him when evidence of its power crept into his real life years later–arguing, “The heart wants what it wants.” Manhattan is satiric and deft, but also serious-minded and as emotionally honest as any film Allen ever made (and there is stiff competition in that final category). It’s as funny as any Allen film, while also leaving room for moving elements. Allen was in his early forties when he made the film, and the maturity shows. The whole thing feels like its developing wisdom frame by frame.

In the case of the similarly-aged character Allen plays in Manhattan, what the heart seems to want is a teenager named Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway. The two are dating as the film begins, although Isaac continually expresses misgivings about it, noting that she should be with someone closer to her own age instead of someone actually older than her father. His opportunity to develop a more age-appropriate relationship comes when he meets a woman who typifies big city snobbery, taking great pleasure in sharing her cultural knowledge, even when it’s a little shaky. Initially put off by her, Isaac finds himself warming to the idea of a romance with her, perhaps because she represents a vision of who he’s supposed to be, someone in touch with the more refined corners of the urban mindscape. This is Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in a turn that’s the polar opposite of Annie Hall two years earlier: mentally probing where Annie was daffy, prickly where the earlier character was warm. This is a version of the city that Isaac feels he should have grown into, finding pleasure in pointed political magazine articles rather than the bygone accomplishments of Groucho Marx and Willie Mays. If this sort of emotional aspiration proves to be as false as Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows, well, realizing that sort of thing is part of growing up too.

Everything Allen does here is absolutely pitch perfect. He began and is in the long process of ending his career with films that are somewhat tossed off from a directing standpoint, Allen’s conviction that he is a writer first and foremost occasionally causing even him to undervalue his skills as a visual artist. Manhattan, however, is made by someone with a marvelous eye and a brilliant sense of visual storytelling, knowing when to plant the camera at a distance to watch an emotional tableau reveal itself and when to press it, finding the heartbreak and shaky hope that can only be found in the mystery of a person’s eyes. Allen has other films that are funnier, bleaker, bolder, more inspiring and more devastating. I might even admit to designating a completely different effort as my favorite. Not a one of the others, though, is as perfectly calibrated as this. Manhattan is my pick for Woody Allen’s best movie, and it always will be.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Seven

#7 — Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
I’ve loved Annie Hall for a long time, but I don’t think I understood the extent of its specialness until I saw the Woody Allen directorial effort that directly preceded it, 1975’s Love and Death. Despite its artier pretensions, manifested most clearly in the spoofing of heady fare such as Russian novels and Ingmar Bergman films, the movie is a modest, proudly simple comedy, reveling in an absurdity that dated back at least to the Marx Brothers and persists today is every brash punchline extravaganza featuring a Saturday Night Live alumnus. It’s not a stepping stone, as I had long assumed, from the straightforward gag-fests from earlier in Allen’s career. Instead, it is right in line with them. He didn’t evolve into Annie Hall gradually. He just suddenly landed there, intertwining a uniquely sophisticated and modern look at romantic relationships with extraordinarily free and casual experimentation (Annie Hall is so brisk, approachable and polished that the multitude of structural risks Allen engages in are easy to overlook or at least undervalue). Aside from perhaps Charlie Chaplin, I don’t know if there’s another example in cinematic history of a clown turning into full-fledged artist with the snap of a clapboard.

Annie Hall is, of course, about a romance, that of Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and the title character, played by Diane Keaton. Given the years of supporting evidence provided by Keaton is every interview and public appearance she’s ever done, it’s clear that the character she plays is a modified version of herself (Hall was the last name the actress was born with, and Annie was a common nickname for her at the time). That doesn’t diminish the value of her performance, which brims with invention, energy and daffy charm like few other comic turns given a home on screen. She won the Oscar for it, and it stands as one of the finest choices the Academy made across a decade when they had an abundance of great Hollywood films to celebrate. Effortless as the film plays, Allen had an exceedingly tough time finding his way to the final version that endures. There was an original cut that was almost two-and-a-half hours long and an early pass at the script (written by Allen with Marshall Brickman) focused more on a murder mystery with any relationship material crammed into a subplot (the whodunit plotline reemerged years later in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which fittingly reunited Allen with Keaton). Watching Keaton “Lah-de-dah” her way through this endlessly winning performance, it’s no wonder that Allen figured out that Alvy may be the central figure of the film, but he was orbiting around Annie Hall.

Great as that relationship is–and there are remarkably few romantic comedies in the decade since that don’t sport at least a little DNA inherited from Annie Hall–the film is elevated by the vestiges of everything else that it almost was. It is about Alvy’s childhood, his overstuffed quiver of insecurities and his prior attempts to forge meaningful relationships with women that amounted to little more than fender benders of the heart. Much of this was reportedly relegated to the trash bins in the editing room, but enough remains to give the film greater depth and insight. Before a shark dies, there are presumably symptoms of illness present for anyone brave enough to look. Annie Hall, for all its structural playfulness, is about people, and Allen sagely, subtly conveys the ways that those individuals carry their histories with them, letting the shadows they cast obscure what can be seen in the present. It’s remarkable that Allen retained his ingenious sense of humor (among other attributes, the argument could be made that Annie Hall is his funniest overall film) while still developing full-fledged characters rather than the easier comic figures he’d relied on before. He wasn’t a comedian making movies any longer; he was now clearly a filmmaker, with many masterworks to come.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Five

#25 — Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978)
Interiors was Woody Allen’s eighth film as a director. That’s both an impressive amount of features to have churned out in his first twelve years as a filmmaker (Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth in sixteen years is set to be released this fall), a testimony to his get-up-and-go-to-work approach to his profession, and also a bizarrely meager number of titles to think about in relation to Allen. Since his prolific nature hasn’t waned a bit in the nearly thirty-five years since Interiors was released, it’s almost confounding to think of contextualizing Allen’s oeuvre within a batch of films that numbers in the single digits. Still, it’s enlightening to think about what a stark surprise Interiors was when it arrived. Allen had a creative breakthrough just one year earlier with the Best Picture winning Annie Hall, which softened the inspired lunacy of his preceding features and elevated the material with crafty, ingenious filmmaking that caressed and bent the possibilities of the form. As a follow-up to that blissful, fiercely intelligent romantic comedy, Allen made a film entirely unlike anything he’d done before. Two films earlier, in 1975’s Love and Death, he was spoofing Ingmar Bergman; now he was emulating the Swedish master, and doing it with astonishing skill.

The film follows the painful dissolution of a family. Arthur (E.G. Marshall) decides to leave his wife of many years, Eve (Geraldine Page), in large part because he’s been worn out by her demanding nature. This leaves their three grown daughters, Renata (Diane Keaton), Flyn (Kristin Griffith) and Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), struggling with their own feelings towards each of the parents and the seismically shifting dynamics of the family unit. Whatever sense of personal stability they took from the erudite certainly of their domestic origins is shattered, and all the petty differences that have been concealed beneath a carefully constructed front of civility begin to come to the fore. There are artistic inclinations among all the daughters, but notably different levels of skill and success, which contributes to the discord. In Allen’s reckoning, family–hell, humanity–is an engine running at its breaking point, with a whole range of stresses always threatening to tear the entirety apart.

There’s a mesmerizing iciness built into Allen’s screenplay and he meets that with precisely constructed images of elegant beauty, not of the sort reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s imploding fireworks of nature or Martin Scorsese’s dynamic majesty, but more akin to the polished, museum-like stillness of Mike Nichols. Allen is aided immeasurably in this cause by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who possessed an unmatched talent for bringing an emotive crispness to the simplest shots. At times, the film seems to be gently veiled in the agony it generates, its moody lighting swelling and softening like a laboring heart. Willingly discarding the wit that had been his most vaunted weapon, Allen instead narrows in on the ways that language is used to pierce others, particular, it seems, those whom the speaker holds dearest.

The strife that has been at an idle fully roars to life when Arthur introduces the new woman he plans to marry, the fairly plainspoken Pearl, played with great care and sympathy by Maureen Stapleton. Her very being represents more than moving on. She is a full-scale refutation of everything Arthur experienced with Eve and their daughters. Both in his quietly pummeling script and in the intimacy of his direction, Allen pushes the film to almost unbearable levels of feeling, the sort that can shear away a soul. As with Bergman’s efforts, much depends on the ability of the actors to register the deepest concerns and conflicts of their characters, and Allen’s cast give him superlative efforts all around. Page is especially vital in her work here, showing with unbearable honesty what happens when a strong woman is reduced to rubble.

Allen periodically returned to films that could be characterized as straight dramas many times after Interiors, but none of them, even those that are arguably better, have quite the same forthrightness and bravery. Surely Allen was uncertain as to whether or not he could pull off a film that was such a drastic departure from everything he’d done before. If so, there’s no reticence to it, and the main thing that registers is a certainty of purpose. Interiors is excellent, even without giving it extra credit for the artistic growth it measured. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it was Allen’s eighth feature or his thirty-eighth (that would be Vicky Christina Barcelona, by the way, and it’s also exceptional). What matters is what exists between the opening and closing credits, and every bit of it speaks to Allen’s sharp artistry.

Allen, Coppola, Cukor, Gunn, Mills, Scorsese, Winterbottom

New York Stories (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, 1989). I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review of this anthology film and thinking he cheated by giving individual star ratings to each of its three segments. After all, no one going to movie theater had the option of just paying for a third of a ticket to see the one part of the film he recommended. Now that I’ve seen it, however, I completely get why he chose to take that approach: one part of the film is significantly better than the others. Woody Allen’s segment is amusing but clearly a slip on an idea that he’s casually tossed off, and Francis Ford Coppola’s piece (written with his daughter Sofia, a teenager at the time) is absolutely atrocious. On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s opener, “Life Lessons,” is a pure stunner. It’s the story of a brilliant painter struggling as the romantic relationship with his gorgeous, hand-picked protégée is crashing towards an ignoble ending. Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette are the principal actors and both are very strong (it’s far and away the best acting I’ve ever seen from her), but it’s the incredible dynamic directing of Scorsese that makes it mesmerizing.

Super (James Gunn, 2011). I certainly wasn’t expecting the director of Slither to suddenly embrace subtlety with his superhero-themed follow-up, but Super is so relentlessly brash that it eventually devolves into pure obnoxiousness. Rainn Wilson plays a set-upon sad sack who deals with the defection of his girlfriend by becoming a costumed vigilante, taking to the crime-ridden streets with a heavy monkey wrench and a foolish fearlessness about confronting thugs. Gunn is interested in crunching bones and spattering blood, ostensibly to show the real world consequences of confusing fantasy and reality, but the whole film is pitched somewhere between satiric and cartoonish, making the director come across as little more than a more sadistic Zack Snyder. There are some funny bits here and there, and Ellen Page is admirably gung ho as the unbalanced comic shop employee who volunteers to become his sidekick, but the film is ultimately steeped in too much mindless clamor.

The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2011). Weighing this as a film experience begins with acknowledging that it’s actually a six episode British series that was edited and condensed into feature length. The cause of the occasionally fragmented, skipping stone quality of the storytelling, then, isn’t hard to discern. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, touring the countryside, reviewing restaurant and alternating between bantering and bickering. The absolute highlights of the film involve the engaging in the equivalent of Wild West showdowns with celebrity impressions in place of pistols. Many of the best of them made the viral video rounds before the film was even released stateside. In a sense, director Michael Winterbottom decided to inflate the brilliantly funny couple of minutes that played with the closing credits to his loony, meta film adaptation of the unfilmable novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The result is an amusing if episodic film that is also a surprisingly dark character study of Coogan’s character, played as an arrogant, egotistical actor who’s festering a hard self-hatred over the stagnant state of his career.

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011). There is the matter of the subtitled dog. It’s one small element of writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical film about a man finding love while considering the recent death of his father who finally came out as a gay man late in life. But it’s also a very telling element, equal parts clever and cloying. Significantly, it’s endemic of the film’s problematic tendency to undercut the emotions of the storytelling with distancing devices. I think the intent is to draft playful cinematic technique into the service of heightening the poignancy, but the opposite is often the result, at times because there’s a lack of consistency to the implementation of the narrative sleight of hand. Sometimes the subtitles on the pooch seem to represent the thoughts and inclinations his new owner is projecting onto him, but sometimes they’re just silly little jokes. Despite the best of intentions all around, the film never gets its bearings. If I had the sole vote, I wouldn’t have given Christopher Plummer an Oscar for his work her, but it is lovely, gracious work.

Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944). The first of Ingrid Bergman’s three Oscars came for her inspired, quietly ferocious turn in this twisty, twisted pyschodrama. Bergman plays Paula, a young woman traumatized by terrible family events early in her life whose training to be an opera singer is sacrificed so she can become the wife of a suave gentleman played by Charles Boyer. He has a dark secret, of course, and he works his way towards his insidious goal in part by convincing Paula that she’s quite mad. George Cukor embraces the the floridness of the story, pushing his actors towards peaks of gleaming ingenuity. Bergman benefits enormously from this, subsuming some of the stalwart classiness that typifies her most famous work to an enormously appealing fire and power, especially when the character finally gets the chance to take command.