Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar Predictions: I Don't Like You. I Really, Really Don't Like You

Yet again, the Oscars are upon us, ignoring most of the innovative and original films of the year (Meek’s Cutoff, Drive, Weekend) and mostly honoring kind-of-OK to terrible films. But enough with my critic’s cynicism, let’s get to the all-important business of predicting what’s going to bring home the gold and who’s going to get robbed (OK, cynicism just might stay).
Demian Bichir (A Better Life)
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)
THE LOWDOWN: Barring the other four nominees burning down the houses of the Academy voters, there’s absolutely no shot in hell Demian Bichir wins. It’s nice to see him here (I haven’t seen A Better Life, but I remember him as Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che), but that’s all he’s got. Gary Oldman is one of the finest actors alive and he gives one of the best performances of his career Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He’s the best of the nominees in a walk, but Tinker Tailor doesn’t have the same mass appeal of Moneyball or The Descendants or critical consensus as The Artist. It’s great to see him finally get nominated, but barring a serious vote split, he’s out. Months ago I figured Brad Pitt would finally win for his terrific work in Moneyball (even if he’s better in The Tree of Life), but he hasn’t won very many precursors. George Clooney was the odds on favorite for a while, even though he’s won before (Supporting Actor for Syriana) and The Descendants isn’t one of his most notable performances. It’s down to Jean Dujardin, then, and good for him. It’s a good performance, and I’ll be glad to see him in more things.
SHOULD WIN: Gary Oldman
WILL WIN: Jean Dujardin
SHOULD BE HERE: Ryan Gosling for Drive, Michael Fassbender for Shame
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

THE LOWDOWN: Rooney Mara is easily the strongest of the bunch, so of course she has absolutely no chance of winning. Glenn Close was singled out early in the year as a favorite before Albert Nobbs was released to poor reviews for the film and her performance. She’s here because she dressed up as a man, an Oscar favorite no matter what. Michelle Williams is a dark horse for My Week with Marilyn; it’s certainly foreseeable if Streep and Davis split the vote, but she’s far behind and much younger than either of the two front-runners. It comes down to who we want to win more: Meryl Streep for the lame The Iron Lady or Viola Davis for the lame The Help. On one hand, Davis’ win will give her more choices (and hopefully better scripts). On the other hand, Streep’s win might get the Academy to stop nominating her every time she farts. Davis won the SAG, usually a good sign, and she hasn’t won before, so she’s more likely.

SHOULD WIN: Rooney Mara
WILL WIN: Viola Davis
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Charlize Theron for Young Adult, Kirsten Dunst for
Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

THE LOWDOWN: Jonah Hill got nominated for being generally engaging in Moneyball, for some reason (read: comedic actor doing something other than comedy), but he’s far too young to win. Kenneth Branagh got nominated for doing a Laurence Olivier impression, which…isn’t that what he’s been doing his whole career? Nick Nolte is terrific in Warrior, and he was a favorite to win in ’91 for The Prince of Tides, but he’s younger than the other two nominees, so he’s unlikely. Max von Sydow could pick it up for a career win, but please god no. Plummer has won damn near every award under the sun (well, split them with Albert Brooks for Drive, but he’s not here for whatever reason), and even someone like me who found Beginners annoying can admit that Plummer is great in it. He’s the one.

SHOULD WIN: Nick Nolte
WILL WIN: Christopher Plummer
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Brooks, Brad Pitt for The Tree of Life, Patton Oswalt for Young Adult (far more impressive a “comedic actor goes serious” than Hill, but I digress)
Berenice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)
THE LOWDOWN: No one saw Albert Nobbs, so no luck for McTeer. Melissa McCarthy should win, and there’s a sliver’s chance she’ll pull off an upset, but Bridesmaids is probably too lowbrow for the “good taste” of the Academy. Chastain had a breakout year where she appeared in everything from The Tree of Life to Take Shelter to my parents’ high school reunion video. This could be a “good job this year” acknowledgement, but she’s young, her performance in The Help is her weakest (I compared it to a “psychotic Glinda the Good”), and her co-star is ahead. Bejo could be an upset if The Artist sweeps, but Spencer has won damn near everything in recent memory, so it’s likely we’ll have the first case of two black actresses winning in the same night. Pity it’s for such a lame movie.
SHOULD WIN: Melissa McCarthy
WILL WIN: Octavia Spencer
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Chastain for The Tree of Life, Carey Mulligan for Shame or
Drive, Elle Fanning for Super 8
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
J.C. Chandor (Margin Call)
Asghar Farhadi (A Separation)
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids)

THE LOWDOWN: Margin Call was a pleasant surprise (although Chandor too often explains things to the audience over and over and…), but there’s no way. The Bridesmaids crew is great, but there’s no way. Without having seen A Separation, it’d be easily the most interesting win…but there’s no way. It’s between Hazanavicius, who could get it in a sweep, and Allen, who has the advantage of being Woody Allen. I’m going with Allen: it’s not his best film, nor his best film in recent memory, but it’s his biggest hit ever, and that counts for something.
SHOULD WIN: Asghar Farhadi
WILL WIN: Woody Allen
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Andrew Haigh for Weekend, Terrence Malick for
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Williamson (The Ides of March)
John Logan (Hugo)
Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (The Descendants)
Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (Moneyball)

THE LOWDOWN: First off, what the hell is The Ides of March doing here? That’s the least memorable movie in history, ever (I nearly forgot to write my review). O’Connor died recently, and Tinker Tailor is the most deserving winner. It’s less well known, though, so it’s unlikely. Logan probably won’t get it for Hugo either, as it’s less writerly than the others (although if Hugo gets an unlikely sweep…). Sorkin won last year for The Social Network while Zaillian won for Schindler’s List, but they’d be deserving winners. It’s pointing towards Payne (previous winner for Sideways), Faxon and Jim “Dean Pelton from Community” Rash to win for The Descendants, the worst written film in Payne’s filmography. Still, Dean Pelton getting an Oscar a few days after Community’s return date was announced (March 15 so I can associate the Ides of March with something other than tragedy/a mediocre movie) would be nice.

SHOULD WIN: O’Connor and Straughan
WILL WIN: Payne, Faxon, Rash, and all Community fans (please watch this show)
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: The script for Spielberg’s War Horse was a wonderfully old-fashioned, intricate work
A Cat in Paris
Chico and Rita
Kung-Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

THE LOWDOWN: How in the hell did Puss in Boots and Kung-Fu Panda 2 get in here while Spielberg’s wonderfully entertaining The Adventures of Tintin got screwed? This is way above Robert Zemeckis’ lousy, creepy-looking mo-cap movies, guys. Anyway, Chico and Rita is the better received of the mostly unknown nominees, but Rango is likely to get it. It looks great, I’ll give it that much.

SHOULD WIN: The two unknown ones
RangoSHOULD HAV BEEN NOMINATED: Tintin, Winnie the Pooh
In Darkness
Monsieur Lazhar
A Separation
THE LOWDOWN: Never count out the ones you’ve never heard of (Footnote, Monsieur Lazhar), but I’m not betting on them. I’ve at least heard of Bullhead, but can’t tell you the first thing about it. In Darkness is directed by Agnieszka Holland of Europa Europa fame, but I can’t tell you much else about it. A Separation has a screenplay nod and is one of the very best reviewed films of the year. Add that to its several wins in precursors and the groundswell of critical respect for Iranian films, and it looks like a lock.

A SeparationSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Uncle Boonmee didn’t have a shot in hell, so I can’t say.
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
THE LOWDOWN: Those first two haven’t had much buzz, so they’re probably out. Undefeated is about a football team, if I’m right, so that could certainly be a favorite. Pina is by German filmmaking legend Wim Wenders, so that’s a possibility. Paradise Lost 3 is my guess, however, considering the love for the previous installments. It’d serve as acknowledgement for the whole series.

SHOULD WIN: I’ve not seen any of these
Paradise Lost 3SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Oh boy, everyone knows this was botched. How about Senna? The Interrupters? The Arbor? Project Nim?
The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

THE LOWDOWN: Please don’t bet on Harry Potter. It’s really unlikely, and a vote because you’re a Potter fan would be a waste. Midnight in Paris and War Horse seem unlikely as well. It’s likely between the two Best Picture frontrunners. The Artist could get it in a sweep, and it certainly does look great, but Hugo has a more intricate set (well, digital set), and that’s likely to get a lot of respect.

The Artist
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Tree of Life
War Horse

THE LOWDOWN: Janusz Kaminski has won for previous Spielberg films, so he won’t win for his gorgeous work for War Horse. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems unlikely as well. The Artist could always get it in a sweep, but I’m not betting on it. Hugo has the Avatar edge for having innovative photography of digital backgrounds, while Emanuel Lubeszki’s work on The Tree of Life was the best work of the year. I’m going with my heart (maybe foolish) and hoping The Tree of Life gets one win.
SHOULD/WILL WIN: The Tree of LifeSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Meek’s Cutoff, Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
THE LOWDOWN: I’m a bit surprised that The Descendants even got in here. Moneyball is well put together, but it isn’t a Best Picture front-runner, so it’s unlikely. Ditto for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s likely between the two front-runners. Editing and Picture often go hand-in-hand, so I’ll go with The Artist.
SHOULD WIN: The Girl with the Dragon TattooWILL WIN: The ArtistSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: The Tree of Life, Drive, War Horse
Ludovic Bource (The Artist)
Alberto Iglesias (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Howard Shore (Hugo)
John Williams (The Adventures of Tintin)
John Williams (War Horse)

THE LOWDOWN: All great work. Williams has won five times and will likely split any votes he might get, even though he should win for War Horse. Iglesias’ work is too subtle. It’s between Shore and Bource, with Bource as the favorite. I’d rather see Shore get it, but like I said, great work by everyone here.

SHOULD WIN: Williams for War Horse or Shore
WILL WIN: Bource for
The ArtistSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Cliff Martinez for Drive, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jeff Grace for Meek’s CutoffBEST ORIGINAL SONG:
“Man or Muppet” (The Muppets)
“Real in Rio” (Rio)
THE LOWDOWN: So many options.
SHOULD/WILL WIN: “Man or Muppet”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: “Life’s a Happy Song” (The Muppets)

The Artist
Jane Eyre
THE LOWDOWN: When in doubt, go with frilly shit. The Academy loves frilly shit.

SHOULD WIN: The Artist or
HugoWILL WIN: Jane Eyre….maybe The Artist if it sweeps
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: I find contemporary work that’s believable and isn’t ostentatious (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or less showy period work (War Horse, Meek’s Cutoff) more impressive than frilly shit, but I’m alone in that regard. Really, don’t they have like a warehouse to store that shit by now? Do they even still need to design it?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse
THE LOWDOWN: Drive has its sole nomination here, and there’s virtually no shot. Transformers got nominated for being LOUD AS FUCKING HELL, showing that Most Sound Editing gets in automatically. War Horse…man, it would be deserving, but it’s just not its night. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be great as well, but betting against Hugo at this point seems foolish. It’s deserving, at least.
SHOULD WIN: Drive or The Girl with the Dragon TattooWILL WIN: HugoSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: The Tree of Life, Meek’s CutoffSOUND MIXING:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse
THE LOWDOWN: The same for the last category, only now with Moneyball in Drive’s place as “deserving nominee that will not win”. Again, Hugo does a good job.

The Girl with the Dragon TattooWILL WIN: HugoSHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Drive, The Tree of Life, Meek’s Cutoff

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
THE LOWDOWN: Again, for all the Potter fans out there: do not bet on this. You will lose precious dollars. Real Steel I’m surprised even got in. Transfomers: whirring metal and incomprehensible action does not equal good visuals. Hugo could have the Avatar edge, but the motion-capture work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more likely.
SHOULD/WILL WIN: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with Hugo as a shot
Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Iron Lady

THE LOWDOWN: I was glad to see that the awful make-up in J. Edgar wasn’t nominated only to see the absolutely, gob-smacking, horrendous make-up in Harry Potter 2 was nominated. It might be in for the Voldemort stuff, but anything containing make-up as terrible as the stuff in the film’s epilogue shouldn’t be anywhere near here. As for the other two…eh. Iron Lady makes Meryl Streep old, so…that one.
The Barber of Birmingham
God is the Bigger Elvis
Incident in New Baghdad
Saving Face
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
THE LOWDOWN: These categories are notoriously difficult to predict, so guesswork is in order. I like the sound of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.
The Fantasic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
La Luna
A Morning Stroll
Wild Life
THE LOWDOWN: How can I not go with that second one? I’d vote for it for the title alone.

The Shore
Time Freak
Tuba Atlantic
THE LOWDOWN: Raju? Yeah, sure.
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
THE LOWDOWN: Terrence Malick! Terrence Malick! Best film of the year! Best film of his career! Towering Masterpiece! Yeah, it won’t win. Woody Allen has won before for a film that wasn’t vastly overrated. Alexander Payne’s directing is the best thing about The Descendants, and he should have won for Sideways, but he doesn’t have the inside track and he’ll probably just get another Screenplay win anyway. Martin Scorsese has won before, but there’s a lot of love for Hugo despite the film’s box-office disappointment. The DGA went to Hazanavicius, a director with a great style who seems satisfied with doing really superficial things with it. He’ll probably win. When I’m pulling for Hugo, a Scorsese picture I’m iffy on, because it’s a more interesting win, it’s saying something.
SHOULD WIN: Terrence Malick, who will win when Hazanavicius, Allen, Payne, and Scorsese split the vote. Yeah, no.
WILL WIN: (sigh) Hazanavicius
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive, David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Steven Spielberg, who I’m stunned didn’t get more love for War Horse.
THE LOWDOWN: Well color me surprised on the morning of the nomination announcements that The Help wasn’t the worst nominee of the year. Truly stunning. This would be the first time where the best film of the year (The Tree of Life) and the worst film of the year (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) were both Best Picture nominees, to the best of my knowledge. Barring a vote-split and an abandonment of all reason, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will not win Best Picture tonight. Please.
As for the other ones that won’t happen: War Horse and Moneyball, my second and third favorites of the nominees. It’s honestly mystifying to me that War Horse didn’t get more love, as it’s absolutely Spielberg’s best film in years. Moneyball, meanwhile, is the satisfying sports movie that everyone likes but no one thinks is the best movie of the year. Next up on the “nope” list, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s uneven tribute to Paris, love, and nostalgia. Allen won Best Director years ago and Annie Hall won Best Picture years ago, so it’d be a hell of a surprise to see the film win the top prize. Also unlikely: The Help, at one point seen as a real contender, which has zero non-acting nominations outside of Best Picture, generally a sign that you’re going nowhere. Last on the “absolutely no way” list is the best of the nominees (and the best film of the year), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Without a doubt the most singular vision and ambitious picture of the year, it’s nonetheless too weird and too cerebral/philosophical for something as glitzy as the Oscars to pick it for top prize.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants won several prizes on the way to the Oscars, but like Clooney’s previous front-runner Up in the Air (and Alexander Payne’s previous contender Sideways), it’s lost a lot of its front-runner luster. Payne is unlikely to pick up Director, Clooney faces tough competition for Actor. The Descendants is most likely out, and that’s just fine: it’s Payne’s weakest film anyway.
I had more problems with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo than most, but months later I can’t stop considering how much I respected and admired the film. I dismissed The Descendants as unsatisfying and poorly-written for a Payne film, and it stayed dismissed. I dismissed The Artist and Midnight in Paris as slight and insubstantial (although I liked Midnight in Paris a bit more the second time around), and they stayed dismissed. Months later, however, Hugo has stayed with me as a singular work of art and as an ambitious film worth revisiting. Why mention this? Because for all the film’s flaws (and it has far more than most would admit), there’s more to it than the other classic movie tribute, The Artist. Perhaps, if the Academy sees that (and decides Scorsese deserves more than one Oscar), Hugo might pull off a surprise win. At this point, though, it’s unlikely. The charming little movie with little on its mind other than pastiche is the front-runner, and it’s likely to stay as such. To which I say, “eh, fine.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.25: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (revisited)

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen, and the month ends with a revisit to the director’s most recent film, 2011’s Midnight in Paris.
Original Grade: C+ (click here for original review)
Revised Grade: 57 (B-)
And so Director’s Spotlight comes full-circle with Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s most successful film (nearly a $150 million gross) and a nominee for four Oscars: Best Art Direction, Best Original Screenplay (Allen’s fifteenth nomination), Best Director (Allen’s seventh nomination), and Best Picture (third Allen film to be nominated for this after Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters). The film is Allen’s best reviewed work in many years, but there’s dissent among certain Allen fans that the film has too many of the same problems of his other latter-day films. I was among those dissenters, and I wrote in my mostly dismissive review that the film suffered from “hateful characters, over-familiarity, and the feeling that the director isn’t fully engaged.” Here’s the thing: every single one of my criticisms of the film still stands. Midnight in Paris is not the major triumph many have held it up to be, and the film’s problems are still painfully obvious two months after the first viewing. But months later, the film’s assets narrowly outweigh its considerable flaws. Narrowly.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), who doesn’t believe in his dreams to become an author in Paris. Her uber-conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and blowhard friend (Michael Sheen) don’t help matters. One night, while wandering the streets of Paris, Gil stumbles into another place. Or rather, another time: 1920s Paris, where he hobnobs with his idols: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who he even gets to give feedback on his novel. He also complicates matters by falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a flapper girl who serves as a muse to many of the great artists of the day.
Midnight in Paris will likely give Allen his third Best Original Screenplay win after previous wins for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters- not that it matters to him (he never shows at the Oscars, with one notable exception as he paid tribute to New York shortly after 9/11). It’s more than a little annoying, considering that Allen’s screenplay is the film’s greatest weakness. The actors playing the jazz age characters do credible, sometimes even inspired impressions of famous literary figures (Stoll and Brody have a few reasonably amusing scenes), but there’s no depth to their interactions with Gil. There’s really no joke other than that Hemingway and Dali are acting like Hemingway and Dali. It’s amusing, to a point, but after a while, it’s a big case of the “so whats”. Alison Pill’s interpretation of Zelda Fitzgerald is the only one of the famous Lost Generation figures who approaches anything more than simplistic highbrow references.
It’s best to get the film’s worst bits out of the way right now: the modern scenes are terrible. Rachel McAdams is a terrific actress with a natural warmth and charm, none of which she gets to show as Allen casts her as a horrible, castrating shrew who belittles everything Wilson does (why is he even with her?). Sheen is nearly as bad as a the insufferable kind of blowhard Allen trotted out for one joke in Annie Hall. Here, it’s both extended and unfunny. Whenever Wilson shows insight towards any of the exhibits they’re visiting, McAdams insists that he shuts up and listens to Sheen. Just as bad are McAdams’ cartoons of conservative parents who hate France, stand up for Tea Party Republicans, and think Wilson is a communist. None of these actors are to blame for how intolerable the characters are- Allen shows his contempt for certain types of people in these scenes (conservatives, certain types of intellectuals, certain types of women who may or may not be modeled after one Mia Farrow) and doesn’t paint them as anything more than stereotypical Ugly Americans. The Woody Allen of the past might have given McAdams or Sheen more facets to make them more sympathetic, a la Diane Keaton in Manhattan, but Allen has no interest in developing these characters. It doesn’t even matter that Sheen’s character is ultimately right about Wilson’s fascination with a past time (the “Golden Age Fallacy”)- he’s an idiot, and Wilson’s Allen-surrogate spends time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, so nyah.
When Wilson’s character does reach his “minor insight”- that everyone at every time wishes for a past “Golden Age” without realizing that they’re in the middle of something great- it’s a pretty minor insight indeed. How did Midnight in Paris take off the way it did? It doesn’t tell us anything new. It certainly doesn’t explore new territory: the worst moments are either taken from better Allen films of the past (Sheen from Annie Hall) or bad films of the past (McAdams from any terrible, misogynistic Woody Allen film from the past fifteen years). The best moments, meanwhile, feel like they’re part of better Woody Allen films as well.
The film’s opening, a series of Parisian locations set to great jazz music, feels like a context-free (if pretty) aping of Manhattan’s opening (why didn’t Allen have Wilson and McAdams talk about Paris over the opening? Blown opportunity there). Allen explored the jazz age in more satisfying ways in Zelig and Sweet and Lowdown, and it’s never as funny a look at the time period as the equally minor Bullets Over Broadway. The film’s fantastical premise is similar to that of The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Midnight in Paris isn’t anywhere close to being as moving or as funny.
Why, then, did I enjoy Midnight in Paris marginally more the second time than I did the first? Glaring as the film’s flaws are, and superficial as the whole thing is, there’s one section that’s just as lovely as it aspires to be: Wilson’s romance with Cotillard. Wilson is a far more affable Woody Allen surrogate than past incarnations (perhaps the best since Allen himself) where Cotillard is effortlessly charming. Allen has said in interviews for the film that Wilson is a natural actor, and it’s the truth- Wilson never tries to be too much like Woody Allen, but rather lets their seemingly disparate personas gel. The films only truly funny moments come not from Allen’s dialogue but from Wilson’s reactions to seeing his jazz-era heroes before his eyes. Allen has also said that he was more interested in the romantic subplot than the rest of the film, and it shows. Wilson and Cotillard’s scenes together have the warmth, elegance, and grace of the best late-period Woody Allen films (see also: Sweet and Lowdown, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). When Allen and the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (best known for Seven) shoot the two together, Paris feels nearly as intoxicating and wonderful as Barcelona did in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Let’s hope that Allen gets all the good stuff (romance, the beauty of the city) and none of the bad stuff (do I need to elaborate) when he takes a trip to Rome later this year with Nero Fiddled.
Midnight in Paris isn’t wholly successful, it’s exploration of the jazz age is far too insubstantial, and the film never reaches the promise of being a new great Woody Allen film. Allen has gravitated back and forth between films where he clearly didn’t care (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and films where he cared, but he wanted to share a horrific worldview (Anything Else), with a few happy mediums in between (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Midnight in Paris is an oddity in that it’s a cross between “I don’t care” (the period setting), the hateful “these types of people are stupid” stuff (almost everything in the contemporary world), and the sublime, graceful romantic plots (Wilson’s late-film relationship with a pretty French girl is nice). Despite all the considerable drawbacks, there are minor pleasures to be had in Midnight in Paris. Just don’t call it a masterpiece, don’t call it one of the best films of the year, and please don’t give Woody Allen another Oscar for it. The man can do better.

With all of that in mind, I'll be giving my Oscar Predictions tomorrow morning. As for next month's Director's Spotlight: prepare for March coverage of Jonathan Demme, director of Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rachel Getting Married.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.24: Woody Allen's Whatever Works/You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2009’s Whatever Works and 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Whatever Works Grade: 49 (C+)
How to follow up one of your biggest critical and commercial hits in years? After hopping around the globe for the better part of four years, Woody Allen returned to New York for the first time since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda for Whatever Works. Like Hollywood Ending, Whatever Works was an idea Allen had developed years ago, put away for some time, and took out years later. Originally written in the late-70s with Zero Mostel in mind for the lead role, Allen took his dusty old script and recast it with Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame as a replacement. The good news: Whatever Works is a lot better than Allen’s other New York-set films from the 2000s. The bad news: that isn’t saying much.
Boris Yelnikoff (David) is a misanthropic ex-Columbia professor who takes pride in that he almost won a Nobel Prize. He now spends his time teaching chess to “intellectual inferiors” and generally being mean to everyone. One day, 21-year-old southern runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) comes to Yelnikoff’s doorstep, begging for a place to stay. Initially reluctant, Boris takes in Melodie and starts teaching her his negative worldview. Melodie develops a crush on Boris (we’ll get to this later) and the two marry. One year later, Melodie’s conservative southern parents John and Marietta (Ed Begley, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) show up and try to take Melodie away (or at least get her to fall for someone younger). But as they’ll soon find out, New York is a hell of a town where everyone finds love in unexpected places, and one can ultimately only find “whatever works”.
The film isn’t particularly ambitious- it feels like a lesser Woody Allen work in the Annie Hall/Manhattan vein with its exploration of relationships. Boris Yelnikoff could have been a bitter old man in the ugly Deconstructing Harry/Anything Else vein, but he’s far more harmless than most old curmudgeons in Woody Allen films, and the film’s tone is much warmer and less nasty than its immediate comparisons. To Allen’s credit, he doesn’t cast himself in the lead role (his performances have been far too schtick-laden as of late), and while the original Whatever Works script is lesser “70s Woody Allen”, it’s a lot better than “2000s Woody Allen”.
The trouble is that the film ultimately doesn’t have much to recommend it. Larry David is a funny guy (watch Curb Your Enthusiasm), but he’s not really giving a performance here so much as he’s doing a stand-up routine. For the first third of the film it’s a funny stand-up routine, mind you, but it still feels a bit off. The other actors fare a bit better even as too many of them are called upon to play southern cartoons (Begley, Clarkson), but it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Allen doesn’t know very much about the south if he thinks it’s all backwater burgs with super-Christian communities who don’t know much ‘bout big city livin’. Granted, there’s probably plenty of places like that, but it doesn’t make for very effective characters. As Clarkson realizes she wants to by a polyamorous photographer and Begley realizes that he’s a closeted homosexual, it becomes clear that Allen thinks very little of small towns and figures that it’s only in the city where freedom, sexual or otherwise, can thrive. It’s a bit of a narrow view. Furthermore, the very idea that David and Wood could fall head-over-heels in love (even if they find more age-appropriate partners by the film’s end) is more than a little absurd. Combine all of this with the script’s creaky updates (topical references have been changed likely from “communist” to “Taliban”) and general feeling that Allen didn’t try to update the material and you’ve got a mess.
These aren’t the biggest reasons Whatever Works doesn’t work as a film, however. The biggest reason: Whatever Works is not a film. It’s a filmed play. Allen might try (well, “try”) to open it up by having David and company walk and talk outside, but the film’s structure and situations never feel cinematic. Larry David talks directly to the camera, a la Annie Hall, but it isn’t shot in a particularly innovative or memorable way, and David’s references to “the audience” feels like they’re directed more to a theatre than a cinema. Allen doesn’t give cinematographer Harris Savides (who did memorable work on Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy) anything to do, and the combination of thin material and disengaged filmmaking makes for a pretty sloppy film.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Grade: 28 (C-)
For all of Whatever Works’ problems, it at least never feels groan-inducing. The same can’t be said for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen’s fourth outing in London and an even lazier trifle than Whatever Works. There’s virtually nothing good to be said about Tall Dark Stranger- the actors have nothing to work with, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (the legend who photographed Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter) has nothing to work with, and the film is so unmemorable that it’s difficult to remember anything about it that wasn’t actively terrible twenty-four hours after viewing.
Helena (Gemma Jones) turns to a psychic for comfort after her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) divorces her and later ends up with the much younger Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a  prostitute. Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) works in an art gallery with her handsome boss Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally’s marriage to struggling writer Roy (Josh Brolin) is failing, and Roy is entranced by the gorgeous next-door neighbor, Dia (Frieda Pinto). Sally wonders whether or not she should have an affair with Greg while also wishing she had her own art gallery. Roy struggles with the knowledge that his book isn’t very good and that his friend wrote a much better one; when a car-accident leaves said friend in a coma, Roy passes the man’s book off as his own, all while engaging in afternoon lunches and walks with Dia. Helena finds love with another man swindled by the fortune teller while Alfie quickly learns that marrying a much younger prostitute probably wasn’t a path to true love.
Oh, gee, what does this sound like? Husbands and Wives, Allen’s last masterpiece? You think? Well you better have loved that film so much that a near-complete recreation of every character, with a few minor variations, is enough for you, because that’s all there is to it save for the fortune-teller aspect. Hopkins and Jones are playing Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis’ roles. Watts and Brolin are filling in Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s shoes (Brolin, by the way, isn’t exactly a good fit for a Woody Allen-surrogate). Antonio Banderas is exactly like Liam Neeson’s character, only he’s Spanish instead of Irish. Frieda Pinto is Juliette Lewis. Zzzzz. Allen doesn’t care about any of these characters. Why should we?
Honestly, what else is there to say about the film? It proceeds pretty much exactly as one might expect, with Allen highlighting the themes of “death” and “love” over and over again, as if we didn’t get it the first time. Allen still doesn’t have much of a feel for British-English dialogue, but it isn’t as if he’s trying anymore. He’s just as bored with London as he is with New York. Lucy Punch’s character is another in a long line of awful, materialistic shrews in Allen’s late-period work (just when Vicky Cristina seemed to set things right…), but it’s hard to even take offense at this point. Like Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Melinda and Melinda before it, it’s very clear that this is a first draft up on the screen, too lazy and arbitrary to stick longer than a few days, if that. Allen’s year-a-film pace does not work anymore. He needs to take his time. The world doesn’t need another film from the writer-director where it’s obvious he typed up a rushed first draft, looked it over, and said “Eh, good enough.”

Director's Spotlight #4.23: Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Grade: 82 (A-)
With his move from New York to London in Match Point, Woody Allen seemed revitalized as a director, but his next two London projects were less successful (I’ve decided not to cover them, as nobody likes them and they weren’t freely available to me). 2006’s Scoop was a weak farce in the same style as Allen’s early-2000s efforts, complete with a schtick-laden performance from Allen (his last acting role until the release of Nero Fiddled later this year). 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream, meanwhile, was widely seen as a Match Point-retread (itself a bit of a Crimes and Misdemeanors-retread) which unconvincingly explored working-class London. 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona saw Allen traveling again, this time to Spain. But where Match Point showed Allen reenergized as a director but in poor form as a writer, Vicky Cristina Barcelona showed Allen at the top of his game for his best film since 1992’s Husbands and Wives.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are American college graduates vacationing in Barcelona for the summer before Vicky’s wedding to Doug (Chris Messina). Vicky is a practical, neurotic woman with a strong belief in the importance of commitment. Cristina is more impulsive, has no idea what she wants in love and life, but knows “what she doesn’t want”. One night Vicky and Cristina are approached by Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a painter who doesn’t hide his attraction to the two and invites them to spend a weekend in his hometown, where they will drink good wine, eat good food, and “hopefully make love”. Vicky is reluctant, but Cristina agrees. Juan Antonio romances both of the women; Cristina moves in with him, and while Vicky and Doug have a surprise wedding in Barcelona, she still harbors feelings for the more lively artist. Cristina and Juan Antonio’s paradise, meanwhile, is interrupted by the arrival of Juan Antonio’s unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning role).
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an exploration of love and relationships in a similar vein to Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters before it, but it never feels, like so many other late-period Woody Allen films, like Woody aping Woody. Allen’s films had been successful in Spain in the past, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a thank you to the country, as well as an acknowledgement of the greatness of Spanish cinema; Allen works with Javier Aguiresarobe, Pedro Almodovar’s cinematographer for Talk to Her, and together they photograph Spain with the combined curiosity of a tourist and knowledge of a resident. Allen reportedly wrote Vicky Cristina Barcelona years before with the intention of shooting in San Francisco, but it’s clear that he did a serious re-write on the material rather than just update a few references (see: Whatever Works). No longer stuck in a city he didn’t truly understand (London), Allen bathes Spain in warmth and romance and makes great use of the country’s great art and music. He’s trying without trying too hard: the film has all the elegance and grace of the best late-period Woody Allen films (Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point) and almost none of their flaws. Bonus: while the film doesn’t contain many of the famous one-liners of earlier Allen films, it still manages to have a rather warm sense of humor, often conveyed from the witty dialogue and performances (Cruz confesses she thought about killing Johansson, who can only reply “…what?”; Juan Antonio flies his plane in a terrible thunderstorm, saying that it’s “nothing serious”) and clever editing.
The warmth and romance carries over to Allen’s handling of the four central characters, all of whom the script (*gasp*) actually cares about, a rarity in late-period Allen films. All four parts are ideally cast: Bardem as the charismatic, romantic Juan Antonio; Rebecca Hall as the neurotic, grounded Vicky; Cristina as the more bohemian, directionless Cristina; and Penelope Cruz as live-wire Maria Elena, an unstable character who never comes off as an awful shrew the way too many late-period Allen characters do. The film uses an omniscient third-person narrator to get inside the heads of the characters, but it never feels overly-expository or inessential. Rather, it gives the film an elegant, poetic warmth towards the four characters as they juggle the difficulties of modern relationships and love.
Cristina is immediately taken with Juan Antonio; Vicky, less so. The three discuss art, music, photography, poetry, and religion (Juan Antonio is an atheist, Vicky believes there has to be something). Juan Antonio believes that sex is never empty so long as there is genuine passion. Vicky is skeptical. Ironically, she makes love to Juan Antonio before Cristina, whose ulcer acts up just before the two were about to get together. Juan Antonio charms Vicky first by introducing her to his father, a poet who is “angry at the world” in ways Juan Antonio could never be; it’s an interesting look at an angry old man in the Woody Allen-vein without poisoning the film with misanthropy or judging the tortured poet. Juan Antonio then takes her to see a great Spanish guitar player (Spanish guitar never fails to move Vicky), and the two, slightly drunk, make love. It’s an exhilarating sequence that pulsates with romance and life.
A terrific montage moves through the summer as Vicky and Cristina temporarily go their separate ways, Cristina in a bohemian, art and love focused lifestyle, Vicky with a more traditional life. Cristina and Juan Antonio’s relationship is complicated with the arrival of Maria Elena; Cruz, an Almodovar regular, brings a dangerous and unpredictable energy that shows a dangerous side to bohemian living Cristina was previously unfamiliar with. Maria Elena gives off a feeling that she could say or do anything at any given moment: she speaks in Spanish around Cristina to avoid being understood. She distrusts Cristina for having two different colored eyes. She describes the Chinese language, which Cristina had studied and found beautiful, as a “drill to the head”. Cristina also learns that she might not be as free-spirited as she thought she was- the idea of Juan Antonio making love to both her and Maria Elena makes her uneasy. She’s a good sport though, and for a time the three live a relatively happy existence together, encourage each other’s art, and make love together (the film received a lot of press for a brief kiss between Johansson and Cruz). Eventually, however, Cristina finds that this isn’t for her after all, and the balance the three had struck goes overboard as Maria Elena accuses Cristina of using her and Juan Antonio. Love is an unpredictable, dangerous beast, and break-ups can be ugly.
Meanwhile, Vicky loves Doug, but nice as he is, he’s rather dull; his condescending view of Cristina’s “pretentious contempt for normal values” isn’t without its points, but it highlights his unimaginative nature (also: he really has no taste when it comes to art). Compare this to Juan Antonio, a man full of life and passion, and it’s easy to see how she may have caught Cristina’s “chronic dissatisfaction”. Her final meeting with Juan Antonio doesn’t go so well- she’s uneasy about her desires, and any chance the two had together is ruined when Maria Elena shows up and tries to shoot everyone. As Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona, the narrator describes their exit: Vicky, moving towards the life she envisioned, and Cristina, searching, “knowing only what she didn’t want”.
With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen finally returned to the giddy highs of his past and combined it with the elegance and grace of the best works of his present. He wrote three complicated female roles and treated them with warmth and affection rather than disdain. The film was ultimately not a harbinger of good things to come: Allen’s past three films haven’t been anywhere near as good. But if it does end up being the last great film Allen ever makes (and let’s hope not), at least it’s worthy of being put alongside his best.

Overlooked Gems #23: The Big Easy

Grade: 83 (A-)
After twenty-five years worth of brilliant work, Gary Oldman was finally nominated for an Oscar for his great performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For the longest time, Oldman was routinely held up by many (myself included) as the greatest living actor without a single Oscar nomination. Now the unofficial, arbitrary, completely subjective title is open, and we need a new title holder. My nomination: Dennis Quaid. Quaid is one of those few actors who has never told a lie on screen in his entire life; he’s believable in every role. Too often he’s called upon to play the “Dad” role, but to give him credit, he excels at that role (see: In Good Company, The Parent Trap). I’ve often said that these days, Dennis Quaid looks like everyone’s dad. He may not look like your dad, specifically, but everyone wants to throw the ball around with Quaid. He even subverted that “Dad” image brilliantly in his role as a closeted gay patriarch/husband in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (a role that by all accounts was predicted for an Oscar nomination, only to be inexplicably shut out).
What’s easy to miss is that Quaid has always been brilliant, even before he was the proper age for “Dad” roles. The actor impressed in early supporting roles in Breaking Away and The Long Riders and nearly stole Philip Kaufman’s 1983 masterpiece The Right Stuff away from the rest of the impressive cast (Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Kim Stanley…). His comedic performance in Joe Dante’s 1987’s Innerspace is a delight, but the same year gave an even greater, overlooked performance in a well-regarded but overlooked film: Jim McBride’s The Big Easy. Quaid won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor for his performance, but how often does anyone pay attention to those? It’s time to shine some light on this forgotten classic.
Remy McSwain (Quaid) is a police lieutenant in New Orleans investigating a mob drug war. He doesn’t take the investigation very seriously- these are bad guys killing each other, and that’s that. Remy meets district attorney Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) and instantly takes a liking to her, despite the fact that Osborne is investigating police corruption that might implicate his friends, particularly his mentor Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty). Anne follows the law very rigidly, but Remy believes she needs to relax. “This is the ‘Big Easy’. Folks have a certain way o’ doin’ things down here”. The two begin a passionate relationship, but when Remy is set-up in an internal affairs sting operation, Anne is forced to prosecute. Remy and his police friends use dishonest methods to clear his name, but when Remy realizes the extent of the police corruption, he finds that he can no longer look the other way.
The Big Easy is directed by Jim McBride, most famous for the influential mockumentary David Holzman’s Diary. His career since then has been non-prolific and uneven- he’s also known for the polarizing (but fervently loved by some) 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless starring Richard Gere, the uneven but interesting Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! (also starring Quaid), and a series of poorly received TV movies (including a Meat Loaf biopic, To Hell and Back). McBride’s most well-liked films have a great sense of time and place (late ‘60s New York in Diary, for example), and as great as the film’s neo-noir plot and seriously sexy love scenes are, the film gets the most mileage for its focus on the details of late-80s New Orleans. Great food and Cajun music abound, and the film makes great use of real New Orleans locations and set-pieces (parades, Mardi Gras floats, restaurants, bayou country). The plot ultimately heads to a too-rushed conclusion in the final minutes, but the film’s style and liveliness wins out.
The film captures the laid-back New Orleans feel, helped by a cast of great character actors that feel right at home (Beatty, Grace Zabriskie, John Goodman) and a great contrast from Barkin as the no-nonsense attorney who’s definitely not from around there. Ultimately, though, it’s Quaid’s movie. The actor’s laid-back charm and million-dollar grin fit right in with the New Orleans location, and his Cajun accent is a wonderfully musical drawl that’s always a delight. Quaid’s character is intelligent, charming, confident, and (it must be said) oozes sex-appeal; it’s easy to see how Barkin’s character might ignore her scruples and qualms about dating such a questionable character. Much of the film’s humor is dependent on Quaid’s delivery (on his multiple alleged crimes: “don’t forget I ran a red light too”), and he nails it at every turn.  Quaid is too often ignored on lists of best actors of his generation. The Big Easy is evidence that at his best, he’s right up there with the best of them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.22: Woody Allen's Match Point

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2005’s Match Point.
Grade: 69 (B)
After a string of poorly received films in the first half of the 2000s (truly his worst run of films), Woody Allen released Match Point, a major critical and commercial hit. The film was hailed by many as a return to form and by some as one of the director’s very best films (Allen himself holds it alongside Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo as his favorites). It’s another dramatic film from Allen, but it’s also (*gasp*) a thriller, and furthermore, it is set entirely in Great Britain, with only one major American character. For his efforts, Allen received his fourteenth screenwriting nomination at the Oscars (and his first since- blech- Deconstructing Harry). But critics in Britain were less kind, pointing out issues with the “British” dialogue and characters. Who was right?
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a former tennis-pro from Ireland now working as an instructor in London. He and one of his wealthy students, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), become friends- they share passion for opera and literature. Tom introduces Chris to his parents Alec and Eleanor (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton) and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who instantly takes a liking to Chris. Chloe and Chris start dating and eventually marry, and Alec gives Chris a comfy job in his firm. Chris, however, is attracted to Tom’s American actress fiancée Nola (Scarlett Johansson), whose job Eleanor disapproves of. The two have a brief fling before Nola and Tom split up, but when they reconnect some time later they strike up a passionate affair. When Nola becomes pregnant with Chris’ child, the relationship threatens to bring down Chris’ comfortable existence, for which he finds he’s willing to go to drastic measures.
Allen’s clearest influence here is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (he tips it off by having Chris read the book), but the film’s thriller framework and portrayals of class recall the works of Roman Polanski (most notable Knife in the Water and Repulsion). It’s the clearest portrayal of Allen’s fascination of class and luck. Allen’s handling of these issues, however, is a bit shaky- Match Point shares the tendencies of his lousiest dramatic features to explain away every metaphor and struggle within the film. The tennis metaphor of when a ball hits a net and could go on either side is handled with too heavy a hand, the film’s up-front discussions of class are a bit superficial, and Allen constantly has characters repeat the importance of luck over and over again. The script is incredibly repetitive, with sequences of Chris and Nola arguing over what to do about their situation ad nauseam (really, Woody, one or two would do), and the film’s strong resemblance to Crimes and Misdemeanors serves of a reminder of an earlier, better Woody Allen film that explored the subject of guilt and morality much more thoroughly.
Many British critics complained about Allen’s portrayal of upper-class Londoners- their complains were appropriate. Goode, Cox, Wilton and Mortimer are all good actors, but their characters are akin to the dull, stuffy, passionless WASPs of Woody Allen’s weakest dramas (see: Ian Holm in Another Woman). There’s no life to any of them, best showcased in their reserved reactions to every dramatic scene in the film. Worse still, Allen’s British-English dialogue is stiff and often tin-eared (Goode gets some real honkers- “chop chop!”, “yum yum!”). It doesn’t serve the two main characters well to have everyone around them without any real drive, and it often makes for tedious watching.
Rhys-Meyers fares a bit better as Chris, given that his character has real wants and needs. Trouble is that Rhys-Meyers isn’t an actor with a particularly wide range (he’s best as an androgynous rock star in Velvet Goldmine), and when it comes to the character’s heated decision in the final act of the film, the actor isn’t up to task to play a man being pulled from all sides; his performance goes from “adequate” to “inadequate” to “adequate” again throughout the film. Rhys-Meyers is ultimately a bit of a blank in the role, and given the number of great British actors working in the early-2000s (Christian Bale, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Cilian Murphy, Paul Bettany…), it’s hard not to imagine what one of them might have done with the role.
Given Allen’s problems with writing British characters, it’s a bit of a godsend that Kate Winslet had to drop out of the role of Nola (it would have been terrible watching one of the finest actresses alive saddled with bad “British” dialogue), forcing Allen to cast the American Johansson. The actress received raves for her performance, and it’s easy to see why- she’s the most passionate and dynamic character in the film, the only one who has any life or vitality to her. She’s actually active and has wants and desires and pursues them. Allen gives her too many scenes near the end where she has to yell at Rhys-Meyers about their situation, which makes the character a bit nagging rather than someone with a legitimate point-of-view, and the sex scenes between Johansson and Rhys-Meyers sometimes borders on silly soft-core without the nudity. In the end, however, Johansson’s performance is good enough to disguise that she’s essentially reprising Anjelica Huston’s role in Crimes and Misdemeanors (albeit in an expanded form).
Yes, Allen’s script is more than a little shaky, his understanding of British idioms poor, and his film ultimately way longer than it needs to be (at over two hours, it’s his longest film). What saves Match Point from its weak writing is Allen’s directing, which is often magnificent. Allen the writer might not have a feel for London, but Allen the director is reenergized after spending way too much time in New York. The filmmaking has a certain elegance and grace to it that carries over from Sweet and Lowdown, and that lightness of touch overcomes Allen’s script in the final sequences.
SPOILERS AHEAD: In a repeat of Martin Landau’s story in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Rhys-Meyers decides to kill Johansson in order to preserve his comfy living. The film transforms into an elegant, gripping thriller as Rhys-Meyers takes a shotgun from his father-in-law’s home, kills the kindly old lady who lives next door to Johansson, and steals the old woman’s jewelry and prescription pills to make it look like a drugs related robbery-homicide. He then shoots Johansson as she comes home from work and meets his wife at a theatre; in a wonderful bit of editing, the film cuts from the safety of the theatre audience to the police investigation of the murder just as the musical The Woman in White is about to start. Rhys-Meyers throws the old woman’s jewelry over a bridge, but in a throwback to the “tennis ball hits the net” scene, the woman’s wedding ring hits a rail and falls back onto the pavement. The film might have been better had Allen chosen to end it there and then, leaving the audience to guess whether Rhys-Meyers’ was lucky or not.
The film continues, however, resolving the story with a similar “drug addict/drifter gets the blame” ending. Allen stumbles a bit with another poorly conceived portrayal of British life (the police officers are pretty goofy) and a rather stupid dream sequence in which Rhys-Meyers justifies his choices to the ghosts of Johansson and the old woman. Mostly, though, Match Point shows a revitalized Allen exploring new territory for the first time in ages. It isn’t the masterpiece it was held up to be, but it’s a good Woody Allen movie after a string of uninspired or hateful works, and that’s plenty good enough.

Director's Spotlight #4.21: Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2004’s Melinda and Melinda.
Grade: 21 (D+)
Well, let’s look at the bright side. After the staggering awfulness of Anything Else, there was nowhere to go but up, right? Right. But how far up does Melinda and Melinda go? Not far enough. The film’s central thesis, a question of whether life is inherently tragic or comedic, is interesting enough, but it’s the execution that counts, and the film is ultimately a failure. The film centers around a dinner at a restaurant where one member of the party tells the group what happened to his friend and asks whether the story is tragic or comedic. Larry Pine argues that the story is tragic. Wallace Shawn argues that the story is tragic. The framework recalls both My Dinner with Andre (which starred Shawn) and Allen’s own Broadway Danny Rose (in which comedians tell their stories about Allen’s Danny Rose). The difference is that where the previous films’ characters had interesting anecdotes, Melinda and Melinda’s central stories are so trite it’s a wonder they merited discussion in the first place.
In the tragic half, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) walks into a dinner party hosted by her friend Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her struggling actor husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). Melinda has had a bad run of luck- she’s been addicted to pills, her marriage ended, she attempted suicide, and now her ex-husband refuses to allow her to see her kids. Laurel tries to set Melinda up with men; nothing works until Melinda falls for Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a classical musician and composer. Things are looking up…until Laurel falls for Ellis herself.
In the comedic half, Melinda (Mitchell again) is an upstairs neighbor to struggling filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her struggling actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). Melinda has had the same luck she had in the tragic story, but now there’s a new problem- Hobie, whose marriage to Susan is faltering, has fallen for Melinda.
Woody Allen often juggled comedy and tragedy effortlessly in the past (Crimes and Misdemeanors), but he’s on shaky ground here. The film cuts back and forth between the dramatic and comedic with none of the verve of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah and Her Sisters. Neither story has much weight or any characters worth caring about. Yet again Allen has assembled a great cast (Miller of Trainspotting fame, Sevigny of Boys Don’t Cry) and has given them nothing interesting to do. Mitchell proved herself a talented actress in High Art, but she’s  lost at sea in both parts- the dramatic half gives her overwritten monologues to hinge a character on rather than action. The comedic half is a bit better, but it just isn’t funny.  Allen originally wanted Winona Ryder in the role before her shoplifting incident made her uninsurable; it’s hard to imagine Ryder would have fared any better in these terrible roles.
The tragic half is easily the worse of the two tales- it’s the worst drama Allen ever directed (well, I haven’t seen September, but I’ll stand by it otherwise). The characters yell overwritten dialogue (“I’m running out of obsequies banter”) and generally act like they know they’re in Woody Allen film. Of all the film’s crimes, perhaps the greatest is Ejiofor’s character. Allen isn’t exactly known for writing great roles for African-Americans…or any roles, for that matter. Melinda and Melinda finally gives a major role to a black actor, but the character is the same kind of bland love interest Allen wrote for other bad dramatic movies (see: Gene Hackman in Another Woman). There’s no life to him whatsoever- when he tells Mitchell that he grew up in Harlem, the first thought through anyone’s head is “No, no you did not. Take that back, you liar.” The character’s name is “Ellis Moonsong”, for god’s sake. It shows that perhaps Allen doesn’t hang around many black people. The dramatic half also showcases Allen’s penchant for explaining everything to the audience at all turns of the movie- when the story finally wraps up, Sevigny explains Mitchell’s plight one last time just in case you missed it.
The comedic half is a bit better in that it’s another mediocre comedy in the Hollywood Ending vein. Woody still overwrites (the “obsequies banter” line comes up again), none of the one-liners are very good, and Peet’s character sometimes leans towards the awful female roles Allen wrote in the early-2000s (her upcoming film is called The Castration Sonata). The comedic half has one surprising asset: Will Ferrell, an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate. It’s an odd choice casting him as the Woody Allen character (Ferrell is Jewish like Natalie Wood is Puerto Rican), but he’s the one energetic performer in a film that seems bent on not giving anyone anything to do. The role might have been even better with Robert Downey, Jr. playing the character (he was Allen’s choice until his drug problems made insuring him impossible), but Ferrell supplies the film’s sole bright spot.
It’s hardly enough to save the movie, though. Melinda and Melinda is a cross between a godawful, pretentious drama (Grade: D-) and a mediocre comedy (Grade: C) where it’s actually a relief to go back to the mostly boring comedy rather than the gobsmacking awfulness that calls itself “tragedy”. The film comes to its logical (read: obvious) conclusion when a friend tells the two debaters that life is neither inherently tragic nor comedic. By this point, it looked like Woody Allen was lost. He had given the world five duds in a row, and his last good film came after two more awful misogyny-fests. Melinda and Melinda was completed in 2004 only to be released in early 2005. What kept fans hopes up, however, was news of a new film from the old master debuting to raves at the Cannes film festival. That film, released stateside in late 2005, was Match Point.