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Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen’

Imagine my shock: it is, the calendar informs me, September at the moment, and likely to remain so for the rest of the month. So, what better time to absorb and cogitate upon a film so deeply concerned with the month of September that it is, in fact, actually called September?

Reader, I have to inform you that there is a con going on here. September is not about the month of September. It’s not even set in September – at one point towards the end of September, one character says words to the effect of ‘Ooh, and it’s not even September yet’. Is this some dark situationist prank from director Woody Allen? September actually takes place in August. What an outrage, likely to sow confusion and distress amongst film-goers everywhere.

You know, I’m tempted to say ‘…if only September were actually that dramatic’, because while Allen’s 1987 movie is certainly a drama, it’s one of those dramas in which – to the eye of the casual or inattentive viewer, at least – not very much at all happens that you could actually call dramatic. But it is, at least, something of a departure from the norm for a director who occasionally seems to have been intermittently remaking more or less the same film for nearly forty years now.

September takes place in a house in the countryside in a fairly remote part of Vermont – don’t get too excited about this departure from Allen’s normal New York City milieu, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage in, you guessed it, New York – where a woman named Lane (Mia Farrow) is coming to the end of a period of recovery, following an initially-undisclosed personal crisis. Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne West) is there to support her, while also present (if somewhat less supportive) is her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a faded Hollywood star, and stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Hanging about the place are Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older man who is a teacher, and Peter (Sam Waterston), an aspiring writer.

It’s a bit hard to describe the premise of September without spoiling the whole plot, because the whole focus of the movie is on initially presenting this group of characters and then gradually uncovering the relationships between them and the events in their pasts which have shaped them as people. It’s also the kind of movie where very quick and allusive references are made to characters’ back-stories right at the start, which are not expanded upon until much later in the story, which demands a certain degree of trust and patience on the part of the viewer. Just what is the scandalous event in Diane and Lane’s past which Lane is so very keen not to see raked over in Diane’s proposed memoirs? What exactly has Lane come to Vermont to get over? You have to wait until well into the movie for these things to be elaborated upon, and even then the most you sometimes get is a strong implication.

In the end this is, at heart, not very much different from many Allen movies, concerning a group of well-off and articulate people operating on a level somewhat removed from quotidian turmoil (Lane is planning on moving back to New York but can’t decide if she wants to be a photographer or an artist), with an underlying theme not exactly calculated to warm the soul. Warden’s character gets a cheery scene where, as a physicist, he announces that the universe ‘doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s all random, resonating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world, I’m talking about the universe, all space, all time, just temporary convulsion… I understand it for what it truly is. Haphazard. Morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.’ (On the whole I think I prefer Allen’s one liners.)

On a personal level this basically manifests as a high ambient level of misery and personal unfulfillment amongst all the various characters. Howard is in love with Lane, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Lane is in love with Peter, but has been hurt too many times before to be remotely proactive about it (well, unless you count arranging to go and see Kurosawa’s Ran with him – personally it’s not really my idea of a date movie, but I can well imagine Woody Allen disagreeing). Peter himself has fallen for Stephanie, who is unhappily married but can’t imagine leaving her children. All of these plotlines, along with that of the constant tension between Lane and Diane, work themselves out over the space of a concise 82 minute running time (it does perhaps feel a mite longer while you’re watching it), leaving you with an undeniable sense of a group of people realising that, perhaps, their best years are behind them, with only the autumn of their lives yet to come (hence, I’m guessing, the title of the movie).

And the craftsmanship of the writing and performances is really undeniable – Allen has clearly set out to tell a certain type of story in a particular way, and largely achieved his goal. Although not without a certain degree of struggle. Actors who’ve worked with Allen have occasionally grumbled about the director’s perfectionism and insistence on a contractual clause obliging them to be available for any reshoots he deems to be necessary. There is also the story that, having completed Manhattan, Allen was so unimpressed with the finished movie that he asked the studio for permission to scrap it and make an entirely new film for free. Something similar appears to have happened with September – having completed the film, the director decided that he wasn’t happy with it, so rewrote it, recast some of the parts, and made it all over again. (The Sam Waterston role was originally played by Sam Shepard, which I find a little ironic as I’m always getting those two actors mixed up. Apparently, it was even Christopher Walken playing Peter for a bit, which would have been much less confusing for me.)

Of course, you could argue there’s a fine line between perfectionism and self-indulgence, and if so then September is surely a rather self-indulgent piece of film-making, with its very stagey style and formalism. Why set out to make a movie which is, to all intents and purposes, just a very thinly disguised stage play? If you’re going to make a movie, then make a movie. On the other hand, if you’re going to make a movie pretty much every year (as Allen has been doing for nearly half a century now), then coming up with new material and new approaches must inevitably become a bit of an issue for you, so you may well end up either repeating yourself endlessly or doing very odd things just because you’ve never done them before. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if Woody Allen’s enviable work ethic and productivity aren’t partly to blame for the inconsistent quality of his films. September is admirable on its own terms, but I’d struggle to say anything much more positive about it than that.

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Not many people can claim to have a movie genre with their name on it, especially if they work across a whole range of styles and tones. If you make a serious gangster film, then people say you’ve made a crime drama, not something that’s essentially a Martin Scorsese film; if you make a giant monster movie, then they call it a monster movie (if they’re feeling charitable), not an Ishiro Honda-type picture. But if you make a comedy-drama about the lives of New Yorkers, fairly understated in tone, probably focused on their relationships, and very likely in black and white, it’s probably going to be suggested that you’ve made a Woody Allen movie, no matter whether you’re Noah Baumbach (a director who seems to visit Allenesque territory more than most) or whoever.

One of the things which has come to characterise Allen’s movies in recent years is that the director himself has made fewer and fewer appearances in front of the camera – he’s only been in one of his own films in the last ten years, narration duties aside – and this has led to the slightly odd phenomenon of the Proxy Allen, whereby another performer comes in and plays the character whom Allen would clearly have taken on were he still in his thirties or forties. Sometimes the actor involved is such an obvious substitute for Allen that the results are more or less seamless – for example, Jesse Eisenberg often seems to be doing his take on Allen’s schtick even when he’s appearing in other movies, so for him to do it in, say, Cafe Society, is hardly unexpected. John Cusack’s attempt at the same thing in Bullets over Broadway is likewise not a particular stretch.

However, we are here to talk about Allen’s 1998 film, Celebrity, made during one of the periods where his touch and instinct generally seem to have deserted him a little. The film concerns a couple of characters and their various encounters with celebrity culture of the period. As as not unusual for an Allen movie, there is a not-especially-subtle structure to the story: Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a writer and journalist, who – perhaps almost despite himself – really aspires to fame and everything associated with it, but finds it always just out of reach as he blunders through a series of farcical encounters with models, actresses, and celebrity authors. Judy Davis plays Lee’s ex-wife Robin, whom he leaves at the start of the film – Judy has no desire to be famous whatsoever, which means she inevitably ends up rising without trace to a genuine degree of prominence (though her own experiences along the way are also fairly absurd).

The Proxy Allen character in this movie, in case you haven’t figured it out, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the late 90s seemed to be making a genuine attempt to become a proper Hollywood star (he turned up in Wild Wild West the following year). Now, I like Kenneth Branagh, and enjoy his work as both an actor and a director very much, but I have to say he is not someone who naturally comes to mind as a substitute for Woody Allen. Nevertheless, Branagh shows his quality by turning in a performance which is frequently very funny indeed, hitting just enough of the Allen beats to work, despite the obvious differences in appearance and performing style. The biggest difference, for me, was that Lee is slightly shabby and sleazy in a way that Allen characters generally aren’t – lots of Allen characters behave pretty badly towards women whom they’re involved with, but it’s almost as if the director gives himself a pass. Branagh seems more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the character he’s playing, possibly because it isn’t on some level a version of himself.

It’s fairly clear that Allen believes he is making a sophisticated and insightful statement about the nature of fame and our society’s relationship with it, rather than just making a knockabout comedy. This probably explains why the film is in black and white, because nothing projects significant artiness like making a movie in black and white (to Allen’s credit, there is a neat gag about the pretentiousness of directors who still insist on making black-and-white films). On the whole, though, I’m not sure the director succeeds in achieving his ambition.

This is a fairly picaresque movie, and as usual with this sort of project, it stands or falls by the quality of the individual episodes along the way – and, I have to say, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There’s a very funny sequence where Lee is dragged along on a debauched weekend away by a self-absorbed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he’s trying to sell a script to – at one point Lee tries to hold a script conference in the middle of an orgy – but too often the satire is just too broad to be really effective, or Allen just seems to be indulging himself in the usual themes of how socially awkward guys who can write are sexually irresistible to attractive young women. Some of the comedy is rather broader and coarser than you normally find in an Allen movie, too – there’s a scene in which Bebe Neuwith nearly chokes to death on a banana while giving tips on how to perform oral sex, for instance. Then again, it was the late 90s, and this may just be a sign of the director attempting to adapt his style to a cinematic landscape he was now sharing with people like the Farrelly brothers.

It is terribly late 90s, too – quite apart from Leonardo Dicaprio, whose career was just post-boat at this point, there are also people like Winona Ryder in the cast. There’s probably something slightly ironic about the fact that so many people in minor and supporting roles in this film have since gone on to be genuine celebrities themselves – Debra Messing, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Wright, JK Simmons, and so on.

However the film’s biggest, blackest joke for modern audiences comes towards the end, when Robin finds herself interviewing a succession of prominent New Yorkers in a chic restaurant. The film is about the general worthlessness and corrosive toxicity of celebrity, and its negative effects on society. So it seems somehow utterly appropriate that the only famous person who appears in this movie as himself is the Insane Clown President, Donald Trump, who turns up for an entirely unfunny cameo. On some level, I suppose, we have to concede Allen’s overall point, even if in this case the joke is on the entire world. On the whole, though, a fairly insubstantial and inconsistent movie.

 

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I see from the (conspiracy of failing liberal – it says here) media that many people are concerned about the possibility of prominent American figures being unduly swayed by shadowy forces emanating from somewhere east of Europe. I don’t quite see what all the fuss is about, for this sort of thing has surely been going on for decades now. I offer as Exhibit A the 1975 movie Love and Death, in which Woody Allen’s brainspace has clearly been hacked by a number of well-known Russians.

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This even extends to abandoning his usual font and jazz-influenced score in favour of a different style of lettering and a soundtrack almost entirely drawn from the works of Sergei Prokoviev. Once the shock of this subsides we find ourselves in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The noted soldier, poet, and abject coward Boris Grushenko (Allen) is awaiting execution, and passes the time by narrating the story of his life. It is a stirring tale of war, self-discovery, and all the other stuff you usually find in this sort of film. Boris’s unrequited love for his cousin Sonia endures despite her marriage to an elderly herring merchant, and the two of them are eventually married. However, with the French on the march, Sonia proposes the two of them engage in a daring exploit to save Russia…

Hmm. The thing about trying to write a synopsis of Love and Death is that simply describing the events of the story really doesn’t communicate the tone of the movie. The unwitting modern viewer, aware of Allen’s latter-day reputation as a cerebral misanthropist, might even be lulled into suspecting the director was genuinely attempting a pastiche of or homage to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Eisenstein, and various other serious artists.

Of course not. This is one of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies, dating from the period when he was more likely to be parodying Ingmar Bergman than trying to imitate him. This isn’t quite the same kind of movie as his previous film, Sleeper, which is essentially a slapstick comedy – instead, it’s rather more like one of the Monty Python movies in that many of the jokes derive from inserting Allen’s modern sensibility into a period setting. Inevitably, this takes the form of an unstoppable stream of snappy one-liners – ‘Shall we say pistols at dawn?’ asks someone, challenging Boris to a duel. ‘Well, we can say it. I don’t what it means,’ comes the response. ‘You’re a coward!’/’Yes, but I’m a militant coward’, ‘Are you suggesting passive resistance?’/’No, I’m suggesting active fleeing’ – and many, many more.

As well as all this, though, there’s a running gag where virtually any conversation has a tendency to turn into a disquisition on moral philosophy, which arguably is an attempt at a genuine parody of Russian literature. However, the thing about dialogue like ‘judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself’ (‘Yes, I’ve said that many times,’ is Allen’s response) is that for it to sound convincing, the writer has to know what he’s talking about – it’s a bit like Les Dawson’s bad piano playing, you have to know your stuff before you can start taking liberties with it. In the same way, there’s a scene in which Boris and his father converse at some length and the dialogue consists almost entirely of references to the works of Dostoyevsky. Sequences incorporate references to classic films like Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and The Seventh Seal. Much of what’s on screen is very silly and broad (and there are still a few of those slightly off-colour jokes which occasionally pop up in early Allen movies and are especially uncomfortable these days), but there’s also an assumption that this movie is being watched by an intelligent, educated audience – so, in some ways, very much like a Monty Python movie.

It’s an interesting movie – not, if you ask me, the funniest of the Early, Funnies but still an entertaining watch anyway. Allen’s next film was Annie Hall, which marked a real milestone in his development as a film-maker – a much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent movie. There’s not much sign of that here, although Diane Keaton does get more scenes without Allen and more chance to develop a genuine character, and Allen’s willingness to display his erudition so openly does perhaps suggest someone becoming interested in moving beyond simply being a straightforward gag-merchant. Perhaps this is more of a transitional film than it first appears. If nothing else, it suggests that Russian influence on a famous American can also produce rather farcical results – but on the other hand I think most of us have already figured that out for ourselves…

 

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Oh well, let us move on and roll the dice for this year’s Woody Allen movie: because, let’s face it, you’re never completely sure what you’re going to get from Allen these days. The odds of something on a par with Sleeper or Annie Hall are, let’s be honest, vanishingly small, but with a bit of luck you might end up with a Blue Jasmine or (I am reliably informed) Midnight in Paris. You would probably receive something along the lines of Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome with Love and not feel too disgruntled about it. But there is always the grim possibility of another Irrational Man or Whatever Works lurching onto the screen.

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It probably goes without saying that Allen’s Cafe Society finds him in familiar territory, primarily being a Jazz Age romance for which he has managed to secure another of his stellar casts. The film is set in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a well-brought-up New York Jewish boy from a fairly humble background who decides to move to California and seek his fortune there with the aid of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a successful agent. Possibly this strikes you as a surprisingly felicitous family connection, given the whole humble background thing; I know it did me.

There’s something slightly odd about the plot of Cafe Society: usually it’s pretty straightforward to give a quick indication of the set-up and a suggestion of what the central axis of the plot is, of what the main driver of the action is – the central conflict, if you will. But every time I’ve tried to give an indication of what the film’s about I’ve just found myself describing the whole plot, quite possibly because there’s nothing to suggest what’s going to happen next from one scene to the next. I’m not suggesting that the film is a chaotic, plotless shambles, because there is a logical sort of development of scenes and characters (well, up to a point), it’s just not clear until the very end what the story is actually supposed to be about.

Or, to put it another way, this is another film which feels like a first draft, and sorely in need of a good edit and polish. One of the more memorable scenes is an encounter between Bobby and a first-time call girl, which does not go entirely to plan – it’s more funny as an idea than in reality, and sticks out primarily because it is so incongruous, adding nothing to the main story. So what’s it doing in the movie?

You could say the same for a lot of the film. The story eventually settles down to being about Dorfman’s complicated romantic entanglements with two women, both called Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively), as he makes the rather unconvincing transition from being a go-fer at a Hollywood talent agency to suave man-about-about-town and night club manager in New York City’s underworld.

Now, there is potential here for a rather affecting story, as Dorfman and his first love meet each other again and reflect on how their lives could have gone differently: the stuff of a mature, thoughtful, bittersweet drama. Some of this indeed gets realised, primarily because of a rather good performance from Kristen Stewart. I’d only previously seen her in the Twilight movies, which may not have left me with the best impression of her abilities, but here she is genuinely affecting and natural; you can quite understand why men keep falling in love with her the first time they meet her. In fact I might go so far as to say that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie: Carell and Lively really don’t get the material they deserve, and Eisenberg is… well, everyone goes on about how Eisenberg is the natural latterday performer to serve as Woody Allen’s avatar in these movies, but I don’t really see it myself. Eisenberg never quite has that hapless quality that makes Allen such an appealing screen presence – instead he just comes across as a bit smug, somehow.

But the stuff about the romance too often gets shoved out of the way in favour of by-the-numbers routines about Jewishness and a dead-end subplot about Dorfman’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Sometimes these come together to produce one of the film’s funnier moments – ‘First a murderer! Now a Christian! What have I done to deserve such a son!’ cries the mother of a Jewish gangster on learning her boy has converted on the way to the electric chair – but on the other hand this is just getting in the way of what the film is supposed to be about. I suppose you could argue that Cafe Society is making some kind of point about how the movie business and the criminal underworld are actually quite similar, but if so it goes largely unarticulated.

To be clear, Cafe Society is not one of the very bottom-of-the-barrel Woody Allen movies, but neither is it likely to be seen as a return to form or a late-period classic. It’s fairly well-mounted (though clearly done on a low budget), but it either needed to be a much bigger, sprawling family saga taking place over a much longer running time, or to focus much more closely on the central relationships. As it is there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s trying to do both: at times it feels like a film which has been savagely cut down in the editing suite, with a voice-over filling in rather too many details of the story.

If you follow the career of Woody Allen, you know what to expect these days: the films are probably not going to be great, it’s just a question of how good the script is at the point when Allen has to take it in front of the camera. In this case the script is just about okay, and the film passes the time relatively pleasantly, but you are likely to have forgotten most of the detail by the time next year’s offering makes an appearance.

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Everyone has a comfort zone, and I suppose they’re entitled to it: it’s part of human nature to simply want to relax and take it easy sometimes. This is as true of film-makers as anyone else, if not moreso. Indeed, if we consider a field considering so many specialists of different flavours, in a way it’s more than usually commendable to be one of those individuals who’s willing to push their creative boundaries once in a while.

Most people, inasmuch they’re aware of the massive bulk of the Woody Allen back catalogue, would probably tend to peg his films as primarily contemporary and metropolitan, before going on (if they were especially well versed) to make a few well-chosen comments about the common motifs and themes of his various films: nice guys often finish last, it’s often completely acceptable and normal for fantastically attractive young women to get into relationships with physically unremarkable but very cultured (much) older men, there’s always time for a discussion about existentialism, and so on. And this is generally true. However, it does overlook the sheer range of settings and genres he has covered in his movies – he’s done rather accomplished sci-fi, historical pastiche, mockumentary, thriller, broad comedy, a (fairly dire) musical, and many other things, and it’s fair to say that some of his most successful films come from amongst these excursions into parts unfamiliar. Historical fantasy seems to be a particularly rewarding seam for Allen: his last really big hit, Midnight in Paris, was arguably in this genre, as is one of the best films from the middle period of his career, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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Purple Rose is set during the Great Depression (pedants would insist no earlier than the second half of 1935, though this is really the wrong kind of film to break out that sort of attitude for) and focuses on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappily-married and rather incompetent waitress working in New Jersey. (Allen himself stays behind the camera for this film, though it does hail from the period when he was more often found acting in his movies than not.) Her job is chaotic and her home life (married to Danny Aiello’s unemployed, unfaithful jerk) is miserable. All her pleasure comes from visiting the local movie house, which she does over and over again.

Well, basically things go from bad to worse, and when she’s actually sacked she virtually takes up residence in the cinema, watching one particular escapist romance, The Purple Rose of Cairo, numerous times back-to-back (you could still do that in British cinemas when I was a lad). Eventually, partway through the film, Tom (Jeff Daniels), a supporting character, starts addressing her directly about her obvious love of it. Moments later he walks out of the film and into the ‘real world’ in order to talk to her more directly…

Pictures, statues, and so on coming to life have been a bit of a staple of romantic fantasy since the genre began, but normally the existence of the fantasy lover – or at least their true nature – remains a special secret of the film’s protagonist. What makes The Purple Rose of Cairo so distinctive and indeed powers the film along to some extent is the way in which it absurdly and systematically undermines this convention: everybody notices it when Tom walks out of the film.

People in the theatre audience scream and faint. The other characters in the film are outraged and yell at him to come back, because they can’t finish the scene without him. The theatre owners place angry telegrams to the film studio in California, insisting they keep better control of their characters – and the spectre looms of other iterations of Tom leaving different showings of the film. As things threaten to spiral out of control, the studio sends Gil, the actor who played Tom in the film (Daniels again, naturally) to go and reason with him and get him back into the picture somehow so things can begin to get back to normal. But will Gil prove susceptible to Cecilia’s charms as well?

As you can probably tell, something by one of the Russians this is not, but as a (fairly) extended piece of whimsical drollery it is really very charming, as Allen grabs a ridiculous idea and pursues it towards a number of logical conclusions. I have to say that the central love triangle between Farrow and the two Jeff Danielses didn’t much grab me, not because Daniels is ever less than solidly watchable, but because I usually find Mia Farrow to be a less than captivating screen presence and this film is no exception. (Plus, there’s a scene where she has to fake playing the ukulele, and I have to say it’s the worst fake-uke-playing I’ve ever come across.) Indeed, I’m almost tempted to suggest that the real joy of this film is in all the incidental jokes and dialogue happening around the periphery of the main story – Tom wanders into a brothel and is utterly bemused (brothels don’t exist in film world in the 30s, naturally), while the maitre d’ of a restaurant in the film, upon learning he’s no longer obligated to keep acting out the role prescribed for him, instantly reinvents himself as a flamboyant tap dancing star.

Not quite, though, because the nature of that central relationship (one woman and two versions of the same man – one real, one fictional) is a perfect metaphor for Allen to consider the complex relationship between reality and fantasy and what we really want in our lives. Is it better to try and live in the real world, or escape from it into some fictional paradise? The standard Hollywood answer would probably be the former, naturally, but Allen is daring enough not to stick quite so closely to the approved answer. He even goes further and gives his frothy, silly fantasy one of the most painfully downbeat endings of any of his films – though again it’s not quite as simple as that, and the film has one final moment of transcendent joy to offer, courtesy of Astaire and Rogers (Fred is thanked for his assistance in the closing credits). In the end, the film doesn’t offer a simple or easy message – life will hurt, it seems to assure us, but look on the bright side: going to the movies can take the edge off this.

Woody Allen is such a noted misery these days that even such a qualified note of positivity feels like a great revelation, and this is probably one of his most likable films, as well as playing to his strengths as an absurdist playwright and a lover of nostalgia. The Purple Rose of Cairo  may be a very slight movie (rather less than 90 minutes long), but it’s overflowing with ideas and jokes and never less than a pleasure to watch. It’s as good an argument for a director staying well out of his perceived comfort zone as any that I can remember, and definitely one of his best films.

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Connoisseurs of digital projection technology not being what it cracked up to be would have enjoyed some marvellous scenes at the Phoenix in Jericho, the other day, when a system crash resulted in a large number of screenings having to be switched between the planned theatres at short notice. Now, as you might expect, moving from the small screen-with-the-slightly-inadequate-rake to the nice big screen was not a problem, but switching the other way was. Large crowds of tense filmgoers built up, all intent on bagging the prime seats in rows A, E, and F. It was of course nice to see such commitment to filmgoing, especially from an audience which was, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit.

What was the occasion for such a keen and sizable turnout? Well, believe it or not, it was a preview showing of Irrational Man, this year’s Woody Allen movie. I had no idea he still had such a dedicated following (and I’m saying that as someone who’s only missed one of his films in the last five years or so – inevitably it turned out to be the really acclaimed and successful one).

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I don’t know, the fashionable thing is to say that Woody Allen has long since been off the boil, but was he ever really that consistent? Even some of the Early, Funny films are not honestly that funny. I was writing about his work ethic recently and it really seems to me that his reputation does rest in part on the fact that he simply never stops working – if one film is bad (as they not infrequently are), well, never mind, he’s already in the middle of making the next one, with a further project at the scripting stage. His movies are cheap enough to make, attract big enough stars, and he has a big enough cult following to keep going no matter what. On the other hand, this way of working basically means he has to make a film every year, regardless of whether or not he has had a decent idea or if the script is as polished as it needs to be.

Which brings us to Irrational Man, another one of Allen’s forays into morality-based comedy-drama. It opens with a voice-over where Joaquin Phoenix muses about Kant while his character cruises along in his car drinking whiskey, so you know this is going to be a film with aspirations to profundity right from the word go. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a maverick philosophy professor (yup, another film about a maverick philosophy professor) who is starting a new job, but has basically lost his mojo. Needless to say, however, his intensity and erudition make him irresistible to many of the women on the college campus (fellow academic Parker Posey and student Emma Stone amongst them). I know, I know – an older, intellectually-inclined man has effortless romantic success with extremely attractive young women? In a Woody Allen movie? What are the chances?!?

Bafflingly, this still doesn’t cheer Abe up, and he resorts to doing odd things like playing Russian roulette at parties to give his life some fleeting excitement. All this changes when he overhears a woman complaining about the misery her life has become as the result of the actions of a corrupt public official. He resolves to put his radical ethical theories into action by – you guessed it – planning and committing the murder of the man in question, believing it to be morally justifiable, and – perhaps more importantly – completely untraceable to him. The notion perks him up considerably, and soon he finds he is enjoying life much more…

Going to a Woody Allen movie is itself not entirely unlike playing Russian roulette – not that there’s a strong chance of you getting shot in the head (not at the kind of cinemas I generally frequent, anyway), but you really have no way of knowing whether the hammer’s going to descend on something really quite distinguished and notable, or just another so-so rehash of Allen’s usual themes, or – heaven forfend – one of those absolute stinkers the director still produces on a dismayingly regular basis. Unfortunately, while Irrational Man is not quite as bad as the worst of Allen’s recent output, it’s still not the kind of movie you’d dream of showing someone to demonstrate just why Woody Allen is a film-maker worthy of their attention.

As I say, I think the self-imposed rigours of Allen’s schedule may be partly to blame, because Irrational Man has the definite feel of being two or three drafts away from an actual, polished script. It often feels more like the work of someone applying to film-school than the work of a veteran artist making his 45th movie – theme, plot, and characters are all there, but in the most crude and obvious form, and perhaps the most startling thing about it is that it doesn’t really contain a single memorable or quotable line of dialogue. Instead, it relies heavily on voice-over from a number of characters to communicate plot and feeling (this itself is arguably a cheat, as not everyone providing a voice-over survives to the end of the story, so one has to wonder what point in time they’re narrating from). Much of the narration itself is clunky: ‘more devastating revelations were to come,’ Stone’s character informs us at one point, deadpan, while ‘finally my job running an elevator as a young man was going to pay off!’, Phoenix narrates gleefully, improbable as it might sound.

I mean, it’s never actually painful to watch, as such, and the cinematography and soundtrack are both very nice (I got a bit sick of ‘I’m In with the In-Crowd’ being endlessly recycled, though). There appear to be a couple of subtle raids on Hitchcock going on, as well, and there’s a kind of fun to be had in spotting these. It’s just that the contrived and laborious script (we’re shown that Lucas is a man in crisis by the way he constantly drinks whiskey from a hip flask – and we’re shown it in practically every single scene, to the extent that it becomes ridiculous) and the melodramatic plotting get very tiresome very quickly.

It’s also a bit unclear whether this is intended to be a straight drama (in which case it’s ridiculous), or a playful black comedy (in which case it’s just not funny enough). At one point there’s a murderous struggle between two major characters resulting in a death, and the audience I was with seemed distinctly unsure as to whether they were supposed to be laughing or not.

I honestly do like Woody Allen and will generally cut him some slack (I’m still watching his films after sitting through Whatever Works, after all), but Irrational Man is substandard fare. Not for the first time, you can make out that Allen has a sour and cynical message to deliver about morality and human nature, but he fumbles the delivery of it to the extent that you’re not entirely sure what it is, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. Better luck next year.

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Another week, another Colin Firth film – or should that be, another year, another Woody Allen film? As you may have surmised, Magic in the Moonlight is both. Early Autumn seems to have become established as the point in the year when Allen releases his annual project, though while the release date is steady, Allen’s choice of subject matter is as varied as ever.

That said, you’re never really in danger of mistaking any of Allen’s recent films for the work of someone else. In fact, settling down to write about one of them one finds oneself with a comforting sense of being able to fall back on the same set of observations one always makes about recent Woody Allen movies, said observations pertaining to:

  • The comforting familiarity of the Allen graphic design (i.e., it seems like every film he’s made in the last forty years has had its titles in the same style and font)
  • The director’s fondness for a jazz soundtrack, if not a full-blown Jazz Age setting
  • His continuing ability to attract a first-rate cast to what are often fairly inconsequential films
  • A generally miserabilist, and occasionally wholly misanthropic worldview
  • The repeated trope of the May to December romance between an older, cultured man and an extremely attractive, much younger, much less erudite woman (with the corollary that one is inevitably moved to speculate about Allen’s own personal history)
  • And so on.

So I set myself the challenge of going to see Magic in the Moonlight and then writing about it without recourse to any of the easy options listed above.

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The film is set in 1928. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, an egotistical and rather insufferable stage magician who as a sort of hobby specialises in exposing fake spirit mediums (a phrase he would regard as tautologous: a committed materialist, he scorns any kind of mysticism or spirituality). His plans to visit the Galapagos Islands with his fiancee (Firth’s use of the word ‘turtle’ rather than ‘tortoise’ to describe the Islands’ most famous residents reveals that he is an Englishman being written by an American, but never mind) are disrupted when he is asked to visit the Catledges, an extremely wealthy American family sojourning in the south of France. The heir to the family fortune appears to have fallen under the sway of a young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims to be psychically sensitive herself. Other concerned family members would like him to debunk her and rid themselves of her influence over the family’s affairs.

Crawford agrees but finds himself rattled when Sophie appears to know things about him which she has had no way of finding out. Could she possibly be for real? As his rationality wavers and his fascination with her grows, Crawford finds himself beginning to enjoy life far more than he has in years – but can he really bring himself to put aside the habits of a lifetime and embrace the existence of the supernatural?

The thing about Woody Allen and his workrate is that he does keep on knocking them out, year after year, come what may. His films are always modestly scaled and reasonably budgeted – no big set pieces or massive special effects, just collections of actors in rooms delivering dialogue at each other. While this means he’s never going to destroy his own career with a John Carter-esque fiasco, it does mean that even the best of his films are rather lightweight, and tend to get lost in the crowd of all the others. Last year’s Blue Jasmine was given some serious heft by a heavy-duty performance from Cate Blanchett – but Magic in the Moonlight has no such distinguishing features.

The 1920s setting is nicely mounted and the film is very pleasant to look upon throughout… and… and… and… and at this point I really run out of things to say about Magic in the Moonlight that don’t contravene my self-imposed ban on falling back on the usual Allen points of reference, because they are all here. There is a deeply unlikely romance between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (he openly scorns her lack of education and promises he will help to train her brain during their future together), a soundtrack crammed with Jazz Age standards (at one point I was on the point of screaming ‘Oh God, not ‘You Do Something To Me’ again!!!’ in the cinema), and a storyline which is fundamentally about whether it’s better to be a deluded romantic fool or a realistic curmudgeon. Allen, needless to say, comes down firmly in the latter camp. The film also features quality performers like Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Simon McBurney.

But it really is just the usual Woody Allen components jigged about into a new arrangement, with everyone wearing ducks and funny hats and occasionally playing the ukulele. Perhaps the only addition, and this is a very slight one, is some almost philosophical discussion about whether it’s actually possible to completely disprove something’s existence, and indeed whether perfectly reproducing something through fakery automatically proves that the original must have been fake too. The rest of it has no real novelty value to it.

Does it automatically follow that Magic in the Moonlight is a bad film, then? Well, no, not necessarily – and especially not if you’re less well-versed in the Allen back catalogue than I am. It is well-mounted, and the story is pleasant and easy to follow, if perhaps a little predictable in places. The problem with it, really, is that the characterisations and dialogue are all just a bit too perfunctory – Crawford is written as such an arrogant and self-assured egotist that you just know he’s going to have his beliefs seriously challenged, and so on. The characters have no real depth or sense of a genuine internal life about them, and you always have a very good sense of which way the story is going to go.

As a result, Magic in the Moonlight has a sort of cosy familiarity to it in more ways than one. Firth and Stone give of their best, and if their coming together is less than entirely convincing then they can hardly be blamed for it. At least, for a film made by a great misanthrope, it does conclude with a testament to the redemptive power of love: another reasonably frequent theme in Allen movies, or at least those made when he is in a good mood. Perhaps this is one of the things that keeps Woody Allen’s films palatable, no matter how gloomy and formulaic they sometimes seem to be threatening to become. This isn’t an especially gloomy film, but it contains very few surprises. In the end, there’s nothing very much wrong with it, but for all of the skill with which it’s made, it’s ultimately very insubstantial.

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