Movie Review: Another Woman by Woody Allen–claiming a masterpiece

Poster for Woody Allen's 1988 film Another Woman

Poster for Woody Allen’s 1988 film Another Woman

In Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, a Martian invader gives Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, the following advice: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”  At the time, one didn’t have to talk to aliens  to hear some people saying the same thing about Allen’s movies. They wanted funny, funnier, funniest.  Raised on Take the Money and a Run, Bananas, and Sleeper,  his fans wanted more of the sameantic, bumbling, wise-cracking Woody Allen.

And instead he created some dramatic masterpieces, which will long be remembered after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.. has faded into irrelevance.

Another Woman appeared in 1988. In the eleven years between Annie Hall (1977) and Another Woman, Allen had written and directed eleven films (and starred in eight of them) Two years earlier in 1986, he had had great success–both critically and with the public–with Hannah and Sisters. 

However, there seemed to be a pattern with the public’s acceptance of these films at the time. Generally, fewer people went to his movies in which he did not act. (They needed their clown.) And the films in which he did not appear were usually his more serious work. Or at least, his “heavier” work. And thus, Another Woman failed to attract the audiences that most of his previous work had been garnering.

All of which is a shame, because Another Woman is a masterpiece.

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Geena Rowlands plays Marion, chairman of the philosophy department, successful author, and a woman who believes she is better off not examining her own life and choices. (An odd choice in itself for a philosopher.) She is married to an eminent cardiologist and has a close relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He relationship with her brother, her father, and even with herself is not as close nor honest.

In order to write undisturbed, Marion rents an apartment. (New York cardiologists must do very well because Marion and his apartment is gorgeous, as is her “get-away” apartment where she writes. Apartment prices in NYC must have been quite cheaper in 1988 than they are today!)

The building has a quirk in the ventilation and unless she puts sofa cushions up against the ventilators, she can hear everything in the psychiatrist’s office next door.  Which she soon begins to do purposefully. Removing the cushions, sends Marion down a rabbit-hole, a path which she is not sure she wants to pursue.

She becomes obsessed with one of the psychiatrist’s patients, a frail, pregnant, unhappy woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). From what she says, Hope is certainly unhappy, quite insecure and perhaps, even, suicidal. After a while, Hope’s overheard questioning of the choices she has made in life, leads Marion on a journey of her own self-discovery. And it is revelatory.

That Woody Allen reveres and has been influenced by the great European film-makers, especially of Ingmar Bergman is well known. (Ten years earlier in 1978 Allen made Interiors, a particular homage to the films of Bergman.) Another Woman is again inspired by Bergman, particularly his film Wild Strawberries. There are similarities in plot–the main characters must examine the coldness with which they have lived their lives–and technique–there are similar surreal dream sequences and scenes where the main characters are able to enter the scenes of their childhood.

And yet what makes Another Woman a masterpiece is not the bows to Bergman that Allen deftly offered, but the extraordinary performance he had engendered in Gena Rowlands. In several very long takes, the camera focuses on Rowlands’ face at different times as she listens to the patients next door. There is more emotional revelation in those moments than most actors can depict in an entire movie.

In fact, this quiet intensity seems startling compared to the Oscar-nominated performances she gave for her director husband, John Cassavetes. In films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, Rowlands exploded her emotions onto the screen. For Woody Allen, there is a intense quietness to her acting, an interiority that she allows us to see. And which draws us in to her pain and her self-examination.

The title Another Woman can be though of as referencing various things: Marion is the “other woman” for whom her husband left his wife; there is “another woman” with whom her husband is now involved; Hope is “another woman” whose analysis seems to be applicable to Marion; she has spurned passion in the past for comfort and security, and now “another woman” is enjoying the spark of that zest for life; and Marion herself is, at the end of the film, “another woman” than what she had earlier believed.

The Martians in Stardust Memories might have wanted funnier jokes, but with Another Woman they couldn’t have wanted a better film.

Movie Review: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

 

Blue Jasmine Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Blue Jasmine
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

More than a year and a half ago, I first saw the trailer for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. I was excited about it, as I usually am with new Woody Allen films, but now my interest was especially piqued: it was a return to the U.S. for Allen whose recent work had been in London, Rome, Barcelona and Paris.

The director whose greatest actor had always been the city of New York was returning home…although his depictions of the European sites were equally memorable and noteworthy.

The cast was eclectic (as is often the case in Allen’s work), and even before its general release, there was murmuring about Cate Blanchett’s performance. Already, the wags were talking Oscar (and they were right in their early prediction.) The setting was New York–Manhattan and the Hamptons–and San Francisco. And the writing seemed crisp and clever.

But for some reason, I put off seeing it. The times or the opportunities were never right, and I found myself hesitating because of the many people who told me how depressing they had found it. The analogies that I had noticed between it and A Streetcar Named Desire were now being mentioned in every piece I read.

And Streetcar can be rough.

And so now, twenty-two months after it was released, three months after Cate Blanchett won every major award for Best Actress, and several months after it was put on “On-Demand” I saw Blue Jasmine.

Poster for Blue Jasmine

Poster for Blue Jasmine

 

And I loved it.

Cate Blanchett-as “Jasmine,” the pampered rich-girl whose world comes crashing down when her Bernie Madoff like husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested by the F.B.I. and who loses everything– alternates between haughty insensitivity and splintered lunacy. The moments when she is lost and most fragmented are frighteningly real. The moments when she is full of herself are maddening and distancing.

The film, in many ways, is a portrait of a woman who is shattered. We see her life as it once was–rich, pampered, and idle–and we see her now. Fueled with Xanax and vodka, talking out loud to herself, losing track of the present moment, and trying to manipulate those around her,  she is a wreck of a woman.

And as in Streetcar, Jasmine –the Blanche duBois character–finds romance and possibly love, and as in Streetcar, it is sabotaged. And like Blanche, it is the final straw for Jasmine, and we last see her chattering to herself like a madwoman on a park bench.

Cate Blanchett as "Jasmine"

Cate Blanchett as “Jasmine”

While Blue Jasmine is undoubtedly Cate Blanchett’s film, she is supported by some wonderful actors. Sally Hawkins plays Jasmine’s “sister,” Ginger.; Alec Baldwin, the smarmy husband whose financial fraud and infidelities send Jasmine down the road to mental breakdown; and Andrew Dice Clay and  Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s ex-husband and her present fiance–an amalgam of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar.

My original fear that Blue Jasmine was going to be just too depressing was wrong. Instead, I found it fascinating–a fascinating film and a fascinating story, anchored by a truly fascinating and extraordinary performance.

Movie Review: Frances Ha (dir. by Noah Baumbach) —-running in place and getting nowhere

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances runs a lot during the course of Frances Ha.  She leaves a restaurant and runs to the ATM, she runs to work, she runs to her parents in Sacramento, she runs back to New York, she runs to Paris, she runs from New York, she runs back to her old college, and she returns again to New York.  And until the end, she doesn’t get anywhere. She’s just running in place. She is hapless and feckless and lonely and dangerously stuck in the past.  And she is endearingly quirky.

Frances is played by Greta Gerwig who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. (There is a follow-up collaboration already in post-production, tentatively titled Untitled Public School Project). She–like countless others–have come to New York, because it’s the world’s biggest stage and she is a dancer. However, we are to infer, not a very good one.

So we follow her trajectory as she breaks up with her boyfriend, as her roommate leaves to move in with her mate, as she “crashes” in various friends’ apartments, and as she is “fired” from her job.  What is a poor girl to do?  Certainly, she makes some bad decisions–an impulsive trip to Paris on her credit card and a friendship shattering tantrum at a restaurant–but ultimately we know she is decent and hard-working, and we hope that things will pan out for her.

I had seen the trailer for Frances Ha a few months back, but hadn’t put it on my “must see” list. Then I saw an article in one of the free newspapers that ran with this headline:

“Woody Allen Call Your Lawyers…Someone has Stolen your Style.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

So of course that sent me to the theaters.  (I didn’t even read the article, just the headline.) The “stolen style” is the cinematography. It is filmed in black-and-white, and there are scenes that very much have a “Woody Allen” feel: New York street scenes, a shot going down into the subway, a scene around a table in an up-scale apartment, a family Christmas dinner.  These all very much LOOK like a Woody Allen film.

However, the similarity stops with the dialog.  What, I assume, is meant to be witty and quirky and insightful is not.  It simply does not come off.

Instead, we follow Frances (and her friend Sophie, played by Mickie Sumner) as she stumbles forward, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes ineptly.  And we want to root for her except that we often lose interest in her.  No doubt that her travails are all true to life, but more often than not it is simply that–true to life.  And life is often not all that interesting to watch.

I realize that Gerwig and Baumbach both have solid credentials in films about life’s wry moments. Baumbach has successfully co-written with Wes Anderson and has written and directed such films as Margot and the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale; while Gerwig has been working–non-stop it seems–with directors as varied as Daryl Wein and, yes, Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), while increasingly taking part in the screenwriting, as well.  But Frances Ha left me wanting something more.

I want to like Gerwig and Baumbach’s work. I want to very much. I am excited about what they are trying. But so far, I am lukewarm with the results. I feel as if I know what they are trying to say, to do, but it is not coming across.

I feel as if they are running in place.

Movie Review: To Rome with Love, written and directed by Woody Allen

With an over-sized brace on my knee, a bottle of Vicodin in my pocket and a set of “just-a-bit-too-tall” crutches, I limped down to the corner, grabbed the 57 Bus on 4th street, and rode it to Walnut where I hobbled over to the theater to see Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome with Love.

I used the word “hobble” intentionally because that was what Woody Allen seemed to have done with this collection of slight stories set in Rome, the eternal city. He took several disparate tales and hobbled them into some sort of unity– a whimsical investigation of fame and celebrity, set under the bright Roman sun. (It is noteworthy, that very few scenes take place after sunset–there is the finale on the Spanish steps and a cheesy storm-scene in the Roman Baths. The rest is filmed beautifully in the bright Italian sun.)

There are four basic stories:

♦ a young architect with dreams of greatness and confused romanticism is being advised by the pedestrian man he will become.

♦ a funeral director with a magnificent operatic voice can only sing in the shower.

♦ a newly wedded bride is seduced by a celebrated actor, an incompetent hotel thief, and her newly educated husband.

♦ a middle-class man becomes famous for no reason at all.

Each story is successful to varying degrees.  And each has its own charm…to varying degrees.

Alec Baldwin plays the elder architect watching his younger self stumble through a risky affair. Woody Allen himself plays a retired opera impresario trying to get the shy mortician to sing on stage. The Italian actress, Alessandra Mastronardi,  plays the timid newlywed who is bedazzled by her favorite actor. And Roberto Benigni plays the hapless man who becomes–for no reason at all–the most famous man in Rome.  The stories are not connected but move from one to another easily.

Allen has proven before that no one makes a location look as attractive as he can, and here again, he does for Rome what he has previously done for Paris, Barcelona, London, and–most readily–New York.  He also proves that he has the ability to get wonderful performances from his actors.  Alec Baldwin is all self-effacing and snarky wisdom; Penelope Cruz seems to be channeling those  mid-century Italian film stars–Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabrigida; Benigni is permitted to clown with little restraint; and even the young actors–Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page–are given room to breathe into their roles.  On screen, Allen, reprises the role he has played forever–the neurotic, death-fearing, nebbish.  But perhaps the most extraordinary performance is that by the great, internationally-acclaimed tenor, Fabio Armilato, who plays a man who can only sing in the shower and who gamely lets Allen place him in several showers throughout the film.

Allen has long proclaimed his love of European movies–he famously dabbled in Bergman-esque type films in the late 1970s–and earlier this summer he listed four Italian movies that he felt influenced him profoundly. Two were by the director Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine), one by Michelangelo Antonini (Blow-up) and one by Federico Fellini (Armacord). He stated that these films changed the way stories could be told, a narrative arc very similar to that which he would use in many of his own films.

He quipped about his love of European film: “I wanted nothing more than to be a foreign film director, but, of course, I was from Brooklyn which is not a foreign country.”

And yet, while To Rome with Love is an entertaining two hours, it is much less substantial than the four films he had referenced. Even as a comedy, it lacks a certain gravitas.

No, by no means is To Rome with Love a hearty, four-course Italian meal–and maybe it is not meant to be.

Simply, it is a lovely four-scoop of gelato. And sometimes that’s all you need to get you through a Saturday afternoon.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is:

Midnight on Revolutionary Road in Paris, County Cork

I am reading a book, The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, where early in the novel, a young, successful couple have these yearnings to chuck it all and to move to Ireland.  They are intelligent and aware of the commonness of this trope–they intentionally nickname their street “Revolutionary Road” after the Richard Yates’ novel.  Earlier, before the dream of starting afresh in Ireland, the couple had wished to live in the time period when the novel Revolutionary Road takes place–a Cheever-esque world where pitchers of martinis and pyramids of cigarettes punctuated each evening. That glamorous “Mad-Men” world had not work out for them, but the dream of emigrating does: the husband wins a pub in County Cork, Ireland.  Needless to say, the paradise/excitement/vigor of the new life they imagined in this other world does not pan out they way it had in their dreams.  And like in Richard Yates’ novel, the marriage suffers more than greatly.

What is it about us that makes us often wish we were in some other place, some other time?  In Midnight in Paris,  Woody Allen wrestles with this question. The protagonist wishes he lived in 1920s Paris, but the 1920s woman he meets wishes she lived in the Paris of the 1890s?  And in fact, the life he is already experiencing in 2011 turns out to be full of promise. Why is this nostalgia for a world other than our own,  for an imagined place and an imagined time, so strong?  Is it  general among everyone?  Or only with a certain type of person?

I walked out to get a coffee today and on my walk home I cut down an alley.  Looking around me, I realized that I could have been walking in any foreign city with any foreign adventure around the corner.  I could have been in Paris, in Cork, but I was merely a short stroll from my own house. I took a picture with my phone.  The concept of a more exotic, romantic other place is just a whiff of smoke–it is always around us if we keep our eyes open.

Now it is often said that one doesn’t appreciated one’s home until one is separated from it. Joyce gave us a loving, photographic picture of Dublin, but only when he was writing in Switzerland and Paris.  Beckett too gives us an unnamed but undoubtedly Irish landscape in his novels and several of his plays and he too was across the sea.  But that is different than romanticizing a place one wishes for, a place that does not exist.  What Joyce and Beckett do is understand what they had left, see it without the distortion of being so close within. This is not the same as dream-manufacturing, as imagining a better world through the kaleidoscope of nostalgia and generalities.

Nevertheless, there are still many days when I wish I was somewhere else, when I don’t appreciate the vitality of the world around me. But in these daydreams, it seems that I am never working, that there is no concern about putting food on the table or where the next dollar is coming from–who wouldn’t find that attractive. And that’s what makes it all somewhat of a sham.

Friday Film Review–Manhattan

My sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I happened to be searching for a particular clip from the movie Manhattan.

You know the opening of Manhattan where Woody Allen is doing a voice over, purportedly writing a book about his love for the city? The gorgeous photography–Woody had the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis as his cameraman–the pulsating Gershwin music, the edgy decision to film in black and white, all work to make this perhaps Allen’s most beautiful film and certainly his greatest paean to the energy, diversity, pulse of New York City.

If you don’t know what I am referring to, check out the opening clip here:

The simplicity is its beauty.  There are no screen credits, no rolling text, just this gorgeous black-and-white montage of Manhattan.  The title of the movie itself appears as a vertical, flashing neon sign, one that you might not notice because it is so incorporated within the segment.

Quickly, the plot of the story is this: Isaac (Woody Allen), a writer whose ex-wife is publishing a tell-all memoir of their marriage, is dating a high-school girl (Mariel Hemingway).  Granted that in hind-sight this relationship feels a bit uncomfortable, but Isaac is in fact the moral center of the film (and his high-school girl-friend perhaps the most mature and un-jaded of all the characters). His dating the young girl pales as an issue when juxtaposed against the shallownesss, the deceit and the disloyalty of the other main characters.  Isaac’s friend, Yale, is having an affair with Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in what seems to be a reprise of her Annie Hall role–all intellectual charm and goofiness. (Manhattan came out two years after Annie Hall.)  She is endearing here as well, but it is basically the same character. Anyway, Isaac is attracted to Mary and Mary to him, but he will not act on it because she is having an affair/relationship with his best friend. The fact that his best friend is cheating on his wife who is also Isaac’s friend is also troubling to him.  Not until the affair between Yale and Mary ends, does Isaac allow himself to act on his feelings towards her.

I won’t spoil it, but there is more  treachery and disloyalty to come, and towards the end of the film, Isaac bursts into the classroom where Yale is teaching and makes an impassioned speech for morality. It is one of those movie moments when the action, the story, the jokes stop and someone makes an intelligent plea for humanity and for decency.

But the story, in many ways, is secondary for me with the film.  It is simply beautiful. The black-and-white photography mixed with George Gershwin’s exhilarating music is majestic, perfect.  It might not be far off to say that no one can make a city look better than Woody Allen.  Consider his recent efforts outside New York:  Paris in Midnight in Paris, Barcelona in Vicki Christina Barcelona, and London in Match Point.  In each film, the particular city seems a character in itself–a beautiful, energetic, lively character. A city’s tourist bureau would love to have Woody Allen film their promotional releases. He has a certain means of capturing the magic, the gestalt of a place. (Rome is next in his upcoming film, To Rome with Love.)

I used to pop Manhattan in the VCR/DVD whenever I was feeling particularly blue, for watching it somehow made me feel better.  I don’t know why–it really is rather depressing on the whole–but Isaac’s last speech to Yale is something special. Or perhaps the energy of Manhattan itself is what affects me, and my personal malaise at the time proves to be no match for that vigor and life pulse.

Anyway, as I said, my sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I stumbled upon this wonderful video by accident. Someone has taken the opening scene of Manhattan, and substituted black and white photos of Edinburgh.  Woody Allen’s voice over–where he praises Manhattan–is taken up verbatim except instead of Woody’s unmistakeable New York accent it is a strong Scottish voice and the word “New York” is replaced with the word “Edinburgh.”  Here it is below. Enjoy it.