Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Whatever Works?

Ok, let’s start with the obvious elements that have been dealt with countless times in countless reviews for the latest Woody Allen flick, Whatever Works

This Film is not Annie Hall, Manhattan or Stardust Memories

Woody Allen has made another film that features an older man who finds himself admired, loved even, by an attractive younger female.

The above points will avoided from here on in, unless crucial for discussing plot.

I make no secret of my love for Allen’s work. It’s been a great source of inspiration in the past but I did prepare myself not to like this film. The main reason, strangely, is that he’s back in Manhattan. Having not made a flick in America since 2004’s largely underwhelming Melinda And Melinda, it was on a knife edge as to whether or not he could breathe life into characters stomping around his home town after 3 staid British efforts and a lush Spanish adventure.

I have to say though, Whatever….. Well, kind of Works…

Larry David plays our caustic protagonist Boris Yellnikoff. I like David’s portrayal of this character way more that I would have had Allen been sprightly enough to take the role. He’s positively loathsome, horrible, intollerant and cruel. Allen could also pull off such traits but often had an element of frailty infusing the performance that led you to let him of the hook. Yellnikoff’s frailty is so saturated in self pity it’s difficult to have any sympathy.

David’s Yellnikoff is the quintesential misanthrope.

An interesting nugget I upturned whilst researching the flick was that the screenplay has been knocking about in a drawer for quite a few decades. The film was to be made with Zero Mostel playing Boris but Allen shelved the project following the great man’s demise. This of course throws any theory of the picture being influenced by his relationship with Soon-Yi-Previn out the window. One has to assume that the central thread of the story always contained this imballance of age.

We are first given concise information regarding Yellnikoff’s makeup. The opening scene is similar in feeling to the opening of Broadway Danny Rose. Yellnikoff and his freinds sit round a Manhattan streetside table trading views of life and mortality. Yellnikoff launches into a tirade about the futility of religion which culminates in him addressing the audience directly. The 4th wall is torn down on more than one occasion in the film and although being a device not completely necesarry for the wellbeing of this picture, it is not used to excess and comes accross as kind of sweet. Yellnikoff isn’t only trying to get through to those around him, he’s involving us directly. Consulting the audience in the desperate hope that we’ll understand him. Think of the cinema queue scene in Annie Hall for an effect reference.

The plot is fairly simple and progresses with pace. (Allen is back in 90 min territory)

A bitter former Nobel Prize nominee who teaches chess (agressively) to kids goes home one night to find a vagrant girl (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping in the alleyway by his house. He takes her in for a cup of coffee and finds her to be moronic but tollerable. He begrudgingly alows her to stay for a while to get herself sorted out and the girl quickly finds herself attracted to him.

Marriage ensues.

Conflict comes in the form of her mother who, on finding out her daughter is married to someone old enough to be her grandfather, tries to introduce destructive temptation in the form of a younger, handsome, more sensitive suitor. It’s round about this time that the notion of “Whatever Works” (for it’s meant to be taken literally) kicks in.

The central performances of Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson are very pleasing. Wood in particular plays her character with honesty and seems happy to go with her gut rather than playing a character in a Woody Allen movie. So I guess it all comes down to this….

Woody is reaching the twilight of his career and it could be argued that a film a year is starting to be too much, he’s stretching himself too thin. I would argue against this point. In a world where the most insipid films are given multi million pound budgets only to disappear without trace, I’m happy to pay my money to watch a Woody Allen picture. For although we may feels we’ve seen it all before, or what we’re seeing is a shadow if it’s former glories, there’s still enough good stuff in an Allen picture to justify him making it.

With Woody, you have a body of work rather than an opening weekend.

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The absent return.

Normal service is just about ready to be resumed….. After a solid ten months of writing and making my new short film TRYST, I’m almost ready to kick back and become a serious audience member for a month or two…. or is that weeks? The flick had it’s cinema premiere at the Edinburgh Filmhouse the day before the EIFF started. This was doubly pleasing as the Filmhouse were in the middle of a Woody Allen retrospective and earlier that day, Manhattan Murder Mystery had played on the very same screen, so it could be said that Woody Allen opened for me, no? …

Of course my flick wasn’t the only short on show that night. Everyone was out in force to celebrate the films of my classmates and I, all of whom graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art film school this year. Well done to all my pals there, the output this year (without judging my own flick) was wonderful

Before I charge in with a massive saggy ramble, here’s some visual nuggets from the newest work of yours truly. It’s nice to be back.

P.S. If you double click on the image it opens out a bit ….. I’m sure you knew that…..

A Rediscovered Exercise in Homage

Now that the main body of work for Chodzenie – Siberia is over, I’m turning my attention to little loose ends that require tying up before I start writing the next script.

While flicking through the stuff on my hard drive, I came across this exercise we did at film school about 2 years ago. The brief was to go out and make a 2 minute music video and, being in the midst of an intensive Woody Allen binge, I thought that tribute should be paid the only way I know how.

Those of you who know the film MANHATTAN will get it immediately, those who don’t should see it immediately. The feedback I was given at the time was the idea was smart but I could have done with shooting for another day. Fact of the matter was, my partner in this exercise, who was supposed to be shooting second unit, got drunk the night before and never shot a minute so the film became a solo project and I went with what I had. The only reason I’m putting it up now is I only just desaturated it tonight and some shots are worth looking at now it’s in black and white.

My girlfriend Cindy thinks I have a rather grim opinion of Edinburgh judging by the footage I chose for the sequence……. I’d tend to agree. It’s positively grim though.

Problem Solved

vicky-christina-barcelona

So Woody Allen seems to have found a way out of the woods. Firstly, he’s not in Britain. I always thought his dialogue spoken in a British accent sounded weird and clunky. He’s now a European filmmaker, but not UK European, real European.

Secondly, he’s not concerned with a “return to form” if the form you’re talking about is ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my feelings for these films but I have to say I’m delighted with this direction he’s taken. No longer is he looking for the comedic but is happy to let the characters and the situations breathe.

Woody Allen now seems to have let go of what he was as a director, to concentrate on what he is. When the Allen of BANANAS, SLEEPER and LOVE AND DEATH became the Allen of ANNIE HALL, INTERIORS and MANHATTAN he was initially chastised for abandoning his pure comic roots. Of course the negativity subsided when the realisation set in that Allen was evolving and that huge gains as an audience could be had by evolving with him.

The same could be said here.

After MATCH POINT, SCOOP and CASSANDRA’S DREAM (which for my money were on the bland side) Woody’s new evolution would appear to have taken shape. Will this be his final major artistic shift? That remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though, History will look kindly on his body of work.

I saw the film knowing nothing about it, I suggest you do the same.

The film opens on February 6th and probably won’t be in cinemas for long, after all…… there’s no explosions in this picture.

Desert Island Discs

Picture the scene….. The FED EX plane you’re travelling in has been struck by lightning, causing it to plunge into the ocean. You get washed up on the beach of a nearby island which is apparently without habitants. Instead of a football for company you find a 50 inch plasma TV with attached DVD player which was miraculously wrapped in waterproof packaging. Somehow you discover a power supply and are delighted that 10 movies have escaped unscathed in the over the shoulder folder holder you had on your person at the time of the tragedy.

These are the 10 films that will prevent you going insane whilst you wait for McDonalds to discover this is the one place they don’t have a restaurant….

My picks are:


REAR WINDOW, Alfred Hitchcock (1954)


THE BIG LEBOWSKI, Joel & Ethan Coen (1998)


2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Stanley Kubrick (1968)


HEAVEN CAN WAIT, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)


MEAN STREETS, Martin Scorsese (1973)


MANHATTAN, Woody Allen (1979)


RASHOMON, Akira Kurosawa (1950)


RIFIFI, Jules Dassin (1955)


IF…., Lindsay Anderson (1968)


PAN’S LABYRINTH, Guillermo Del Toro (2006)

This was a really hard thing to do, and the selections could well change as I think about it more. There’s no Welles, Antonioni, Bergman, Ozu, Lynch, Powell & Pressburger…. God, the list is huge. These are the 10 films that tick as many boxes as possible whilst being infinitely watchable. I also think that each of these 10 films gives you something very different, from the half an hour of silence during the robery scene in Rififi to the technicolor joy of HEAVEN CAN WAIT. Although there are many other top ten lists that could be made, these movies would keep me going for a LONG time.

Although this post could be considered cliche, arbitrary or even downright lazy, there are rules…..

Trilogies are allowed, maximum of 4 (no more than a trilogy though, so you can’t select the POLICE ACADEMY series, not that you would…. I hope)
TV shows aren’t.
Box sets aren’t (unless it’s specifically a trilogy)
I say DVD, this of course includes blu ray. (That’s for Matt, the high def philistine )

So over to you good people. The ten movies that would keep you happy in times of hardship, let’s have it.

The Film That Switched A Light On

I’m going to start by directly addressing the reason people have a problem with this movie, and with the director, the scene below demonstrates both perfectly.

I was going to quote a whole section of Richard Schickel’s book WOODY ALLEN: A LIFE IN FILM that deals with the whole Soon-Yi scandal. I’ve decided not to as I’d rather talk about the work but I think this paragraph goes some way to providing closure.

…….. “Moreover he emerged [from the paparazzi / court case craziness] with something he had not enjoyed before – a happy marriage. Soon-Yi is a very intelligent, attentive and forthright woman; in the exchanges with Woody that I have witnessed, one senses a serious and well balanced relationship in which, clearly, she is not in the least bit dominated by his fame, accomplishments, or brains. They listen to each other sympathetically, and when they disagree it is rather obviously within the parameters of a sympathetic affection”……..

It’s this chapter of Woody Allen’s life that influences many opinions on his work. I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve heard the phrase “I can’t watch his films – he’s a creep – he had an affair with his daughter”. I’ll no doubt need to provide further evidence that this is far from the truth but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy myself talking about the film that inspired me to make films, the film that led me to fall in love with New York, the film I still count as my favourite picture of all time:

MANHATTAN

Woody Allen had decided to do a picture in black and white with an anamorphic aspect ratio prior to writing MANHATTAN. He and cinematographer Gordon Willis had concluded over dinner that to do a picture in such a style would present some interesting creative problems which could hopefully lead to some beautiful solutions. One can only thank god that MANHATTAN was the movie he wrote following that discussion.

The opening scene is a wonderful, spine tingling piece of cinema. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swells and rolls, introducing the audience to a New York that is not portrayed in a glitzy Hollywood way. We see trash on the sidewalks, throngs of people paying no attention to each other, workers fixing the street, the Hudson River ferry pulling into berth. It’s INCREDIBLY alluring. The city was always intended to be a character in this film, no surprise given the title.

The climax of this sequence is a fireworks display photographed in Central Park. I’d never have believed, prior to seeing this movie, that fireworks could look so beautiful in black and white. The larger explosions reveal hidden detail in the buildings for a split second….. It’s just great.

Even watching the small youtube section fills me with glee, have a look.

The picture follows the main protagonist (Played by Allen) Isaac Davis as his life slowly unravels around him. His ex wife (EXECELENTLY played by Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their break up which causes him great pain and anxiety, this after leaving him for another woman. His relationship with his younger girlfriend (Mariel Hemmingway) leaves him unsatisfied despite the girl being besotted by him. His career as a television writer comes crashing to an end when he quits. He then falls for the woman (Diane Keaton) with whom his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife….. That’s what I love about this movie, Isaac is never on top.


Isaac and Tracy

Of course, being Manhattan, (everyone has an analyst) it’s not only Isaac that is going through emotional turmoil. No one, except the wonderfully naive and pure Tracy (and maybe his ex wife) is happy with their existence. Diane Keaton plays Mary, the 3rd point of the love triangle formed By Isaac and Yale, her character is a typical New York intellectual type, forever in a crisis but with little in the way of solution. Her fragility is hidden behind a veneer of pseudo strength derived from pretension. Yale, living a lie with his wife who wants him to move to the country and have kids, is no surer of his path than Mary. The whole film plays out at a perfect pace and allows the audience to get into every character, not just Allen’s.

The scene below shows the triangle being formed. It opens with the most famous scene of the picture, photographed by the Queensboro Bridge (I went on a solo pilgrimage to find the site when in New York last year) with Isaac and Mary. The phone call between Yale and Isaac is charming as is the exchange between Yale and Mary in Bloomingdales. Allen crams a lot of information into this 3 and a half minutes but it never feels rushed……

Although Isaac seems to go from one trauma to the next we never really sympathise for him. I never really find myself on his side. Tracy is spoken to in a condescending manner due to her age yet it is she who is the stable, rational, decent one. I always feel that Isaac deserves everything thing he gets yet can’t help but like him…… he’s only human after all.

Despite the generous helping of neuroticism we’re given in this film it ends with a subtle trace of hope. For those of you that have seen the film, you’ll know what I’m on about. Those of you that haven’t, you have to see this film. I’m willing to come over to anyone’s house and personally show the picture.

Allen himself loathed the film. When Stig Bjorkman, whilst interviewing Woody, pointed out ” I’ve heard, or read that you were very uncertain or very unhappy with Manhattan”, Woody answered “…. When I finished it? Yes, I’m never happy with my films when I finish them. Just about always. And in the case of Manhattan I was so disappointed that I didn’t want to open it. I wanted to ask united Artists not to release it. I wanted to offer them to make one free movie, if they would just throw it away” …….

What does he know?

I’ll leave you with a great scene that again gives lots of information in a short space of time. When out on a drive with Yale, his wife and Mary, Isaac spots his ex wife’s newly published book in a shop. They buy it and start reading it aloud. Note how the camera lingers on Isaac as his every weakness is revealed via print….. A lovely moment from a simply tremendous film.

Last night’s double bill

I have my daughter Lauren for our summer week together and, being the junior cinephile that she is, we’ve already watched a lot of movies. We’re both fans of the double bill concept, a concept being kept alive (in our city) by the Cameo Cinema alone where every Sunday they commit screen 1 to a double feature. There’s a great article on this very subject in SIGHT AND SOUND magazine this month where they reminisce about the heady days of the now extinct Scala Cinema in London, long famed for it’s eclectic and hand picked programmes that included some cracking doubles and all night horror-thons.
The Cameo has put on some good stuff too, a double Antonioni of BLOW UP and THE PASSENGER springs to mind and of course the time they showed GROUNDHOG DAY….. Then showed it again, god they’re clever. If you’re Edinburgh based, you could do a lot worse on a Sunday than breeze along at 1:30, not to see the light of day again until about 5 o’clock. This is particularly good in the dead of winter as it renders your daylight intake for that day to around 20 minutes.

Last night we turned my room into screen 1, Lauren picked the first picture and I selected a second that would hopefully (it’s all about keeping the kids happy after all) compliment her choice.

Lauren: SMALL TIME CROOKS (Woody Allen 2000)
Me: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Sam Wood 1935)

Much is said of Woody Allen’s later work being a sorry comparison to the halcyon ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN period. Whilst I agree that some of his recent work hasn’t been quite to the standard, as a whole, of his earlier pictures, I would argue the point that there’s enough good in his later work to justify the continuation of his filmmaking career. Two examples I can think of off the top of my head would be the wonderful dance scene between Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn at the end of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996) or the Robin Williams “out of focus” scene in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) . These films are both over 10 years old of course but I still think they qualify as recent considering the length of his career. More on his post Millennium output in an upcoming post.

SMALL TIME CROOKS is the story of Ray (Woody Allen) and Frenchy Winkler (Tracy Ullman) who are a couple living in Manhattan. No real surprise there. Ray is a guy who has spent his life running scams, doing jobs and is basically, as the title of the picture suggests, a small time crook. We quickly learn that he’s spent time in the joint (Jail, done bird / porridge) as, on arriving home with a box of ulterior motive chocolates for the long suffering Frenchy in the first scene of the picture, reveals he wants to rob the local bank. Frenchy is vociferous in her complete ridiculing of this idea as he’s 1: Already spent time in jail and 2: involved and working with a less than skilled bunch of collaborators.

In one of the most beautifully photographed scenes in the film, shot on the rooftop just before sundown, he talks Frenchy into staking their life savings on the rental of a shop situated two doors along from the bank to use as a front for the upcoming heist.

How are they going to get into the bank? Think THE GREAT ESCAPE, ESCAPE TO VICTORY or THE NAVIGATOR.

As is usual in Ray’s life, the plan goes awry but the cookie business set up in the shop by Frenchy to conceal the highly shady goings on in the basement turns into an overnight success and becomes a massive money-maker for the couple. This is where Allen flips the picture on its head.

The second half is still comedic but serves as a veneer for a quite tragic parting of ways for Frenchy and Ray. Ray, being true to his roots does not let their new found wealth alter his outlook on life but Frenchy sees the affluence as a gateway to society, the key to being accepted by the upper classes. This is where Hugh Grant comes into the picture. He’s nothing more than Hugh Grant playing the typical Hugh Grant character in any other movie but it definately works here. His foppish mannerisms are in direct contrast to Ray’s, which drives a further wedge between the two as that’s the kind of man Frenchy wants to compliment her reinvented personality. What I love about this relationship dynamic is it’s the opposite of the one seen in MANHATTAN, still my favourite Woody Allen picture.

The scene below is an example of the changing styles, changing personas of Ray and Frenchy. Notice how Frenchy, as much as she tries, is obvious in her superficial attempts to become “one of them”. From wanting the truffles shaved thick, (check the look on the chefs face) to bragging to her guests about her fibre optic rug. Tracy Ullman is fantastic in this movie, as is the whole cast.

The second picture we watched was The Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Produced by then Hollywood wonderkid Irving Thalberg at MGM, who were famed for their musicals, this is a very different but at the same time very familiar Marx Brothers picture. For a start, the musical numbers are longer and more lavish, Lau gasped at the choreography in the number below where circle upon circle of dancers spin in different directions to stunning effect.



There is also a heightened sense of story in this film. As well as the Marx Brothers antics we have the story of Ricardo Baroni, an opera singer played by Alan Jones, struggling to be recognised as a talent and constantly in the shadow of the much revered Rodolfo Lassparri, played by Walter Woolf King. Baroni spends a good part of the picture fending of Lassparri who also has designs on his girl. The love interest is played by Kitty Carlisle who never had a huge movie career, only making 9 pictures. She does turn up in RADIO DAYS (1987) however, as well as being fairly active in both the theatre and opera. It should be noted that the Alan Jones part would usually have been played by Zeppo Marx, the straight man / romantic lead of the act. This was the first picture without him as he quit on account of his talents being under recognised.

In spite of long song and dance numbers, the film moves at a good pace with The Marx Brothers given more than enough room to flex their comedy muscles. There are some magical exchanges between Groucho (Playing Otis B. Driftwood) and Chico (Fiorello) including the scene below where the two discuss Baroni’s contract. Chico is Baroni’s friend and manager trying to cut a deal with wannabe opera mogul Otis B. Driftwood.

I can’t help but post another scene from this film, one of the greatest comedy moments in cinema history. Otis B. Driftwood has been given a less than palatial cabin for a trip to New York and has found Baroni, Fiorello and Tomasso (played by Harpo) stowed in his trunk…. it gets pretty tight in there.