Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Woody Allen

Film Note | To Rome With Love | Written and Directed by Woody Allen

… keep laughing, Clown …

With breathtakingly beautiful photography — and the people are as fascinating to see as the city — Woody Allen weaves together stories of lovers, Romans and visitors against the background of Rome.  As Allen, who acts in the film, tells us — along with a few other things he wants us to know — it’s colored with a sweet nostalgia.

A young architect at the start of is career and his life of love, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is torn between his beautiful normal girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), a baby-faced over wise package of seduction who looks cute and talks dirty-suggestive.  Alec Baldwin is on hand as an architect in mid life, John, who retraces his own youthful time in Rome looking over Jack’s shoulder — warning him of pitfalls and amused by the human comedy, with the delicious back-to-the past mystery and flavor of Midnight in Paris.

Talk about fantasy — Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary man swept up for no particular reason into a world of fame and glamour — a hilarious study of media celebrity make-or-break.  Out of the blue, he walks the red carpet at movie premiers, effortlessly gets impossible to get reservations at fancy restaurants, has gorgeous women throwing themselves at him, and is interviewed on tv, his every choice, every detail of his existence — does he shave before or after breakfast? does he wear boxers or briefs — a national mania, that is, until someone else gets “picked”.  It’s a wonderful if outlandish satire played straight — everyman down-to-earth and vulnerable — by Benigni.  Life dishes out heartaches to everybody — celebrities and unknowns — Leopoldo’s erstwhile chauffeur tells him when the glory is over, but being a celebrity is better.  Thank you, Woody, for that info.

A newly married couple, Antonio and Milly, arrive in Rome but chance separates them and sets powerful temptation in their way — and what seductions these are.  Antonio wins a pre-paid prize — Penelope Cruz as Anna, a call girl — simply gorgeous in a red dress, and with wonderful comic timing in the part.  Cruz is great.  Milly — well it’s a little complicated — is romanced by a famous movie star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) from whom we learn that you don’t have to be handsome to be incredibly seductive (and it’s in himself, not just his fame and power).  It’s not how things turn out for her, though — what happens is even funnier.

A pretty young American girl, Hayley (Alison Pill), looking for street directions, is aided by a handsome young Italian, named, of course, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) who offers to take her to her destination — and that’s not much fantasy except here they get engaged!  For me, the sheer side-splitting laughs of the film spin out of their story.  Jerry (Woody Allen), Hayley’s father, an opera director fighting retirement, age and death — Allen all the way — arriving with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to “meet the family,” shakes hands with Michelangelo’s father, a hard-working undertaker Giancarlo (the great tenor Fabio Armiliato) and from there we go to sheer wild hilarity.  Because Jerry discovers that Giancarlo has a great voice but only under very specific circumstances — he has to be singing in the shower* — which the entrepreneurial Jerry manages to reproduce at La Scala.  There Giancarlo sings Pagliacci, who clowns through his grief — a glancing Woody Allen self-portrait.  And the great singing that fills the screen and the theater — that’s part of the thrill of the movie too.  Wow!

Leaving the theater, I heard people say, “Well, it’s entertaining,” in a sort of downplaying way.  Maybe so.  I thought the sheer intensity of the fantasy and abundance of its fulfillment, rooted in truly observed characters and satire, sends the film soaring.  This film casts humor into sheer joy.

* Quiz:  In what other theatrical story does a character sing onstage in the shower?  (And is that where Woody got the idea?)  For answer — to the first question — click here.

Film Note | Midnight in Paris | Written and Directed by Woody Allen | Starring Owen Wilson

… It was the best of times …

Midnight in Paris is as much a pleasure to watch as Woody Allen’s best films even though it’s not as good — the fantasy is so powerful.  This time travel film takes us, and its main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screen writer, back to the Paris of the 1920’s where we meet the artists and literati who made the city the brilliant center that we all go to Paris looking for — even those too young or unworldly to realize it.

Gil is ensconced in a fancy hotel with his beautiful fiancee, Inez — of course that’s part of the fantasy, too, that and the French food.  She and her rich, conventional right wing parents are dutifully intent on seeing the sights — Versailles and all that — guided by a know-it-all smart guy and his adoring girlfriend, but Gil — vaguely discontent, and yearning to be a serious novelist, has another agenda.  He withdraws from family fun to search out his own Paris — the Paris of his imagination — and wonder of wonders at the stroke of midnight, finds it.

Swept off mysteriously in a chauffeured car, he’s delivered to the intellectual and artistic soirees of 1920’s Paris, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rub shoulders with Hemingway and Picasso while Cole Porter plays the piano [partial list of famous people], and eventually everybody who is anybody ends up at Gertrude Stein’s for intellectual discussions, artistic critiques, gossip and lovemaking.

Oh how marvelous to encounter Hemingway (Corey Stoll), young, darkly handsome, intense, having just published his first novel speaking in the dead-pan of his writing style about courage under fire  (“I’ve read all you work,” Gil tells him though at this point Hemingway’s only published one book).  How delicious to see Zelda dive too deep into the absinthe with the Princeton-elegant Scott guiding her to the next party.  And joy of joys, how wonderful that our very American Gil with Wilson’s farm-boy drawl, patent simplicity and naïve aura (though he is a successful screenwriter, Woody Allen has his cake and eats it to on that one) not only meets but draws to himself Picasso’s mistress, played by Marion Cotillard looking like the dancer Olga Khokhlova whom Picasso loved at the time.  (So much for prissy, materialistic Inez, in any time zone.)

And. here’s something really valuable, Gil gets a focused critique on the pages of his novel by none other than Gertrude Stein – it’s going to serve him in good stead back in his own time.  To see Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein sitting under Picasso’s famous, groundbreaking portrait of Gertrude and looking exactly like her is a high point of the movie and feels, for the moment, a high point of life (they really don’t have the same facial structure but Bates and Woody’s camera pull it off).

Gil’s travel back to the 20’s in the chauffeured car is smooth but some of the other time travels lurch and are less believable, and are accompanied by preaching about the value of being of one’s own time that sounds like forced virtue.

And Allen seems so in love with the idea of this movie that he hurries through characters, settling on caricatures for his artists and writers from the past rather than on real people, let alone the creators they were, engaged in hot struggles to develop their modes of expression.  For all the fun it is to engage with Hemingway, his clipped, cliché-ridden courage talk is so obvious it’s camp, and while Adrien Brody does a great look-alike caricature bit of Salvador Dali, it’s a bit, not a person.  So if you have another way of being in Paris at its beautiful best (appealing photography) and chatting with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matisse and Picasso, by all means do it.

If not, see this movie.  It’s a treat:  once again we have to thank Woody Allen for giving us great pleasure, the most fun, and a fantasy fulfilled.

Film Note | You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger | Written and Directed by Woody Allen

… another wonderful Woody Allen movie …

What is it about the camera angles, the light and the naturalness of the actors that immediately let you know you’re at a Woody Allen film and you’re in good hands?

We’re in London, and in the midst of troubled relationships in two parallel couples, one old, one young.  Pairs and parallels count a lot in this movie.

In the wake of despair because her husband of a lifetime, Alfie, has left her, Helena, and older woman in pink and a touch of ruffles, has found her way to a fortune teller who she thinks is both more useful and cheaper than the psychiatrists she saw after a near-successful suicide attempt.  It turns out she’s right.  Alfie, meanwhile, a wealthy businessman, bitter because his marriage never produced a boy, only a girl, has made the break for that one last fling, whitening his teeth, getting a suntan, going to the gym and purchasing a convertible, plus viagra.

Sally, Helena and Alfie’s daughter, is filled with resentment toward her husband, Roy, the one American in the bunch:  they’re living off her earnings because Roy, though he published his first novel, hasn’t been able to sell one since.  Also, she wants to get pregnant and he doesn’t want a child.  Roy, at the moment, is on tenterhooks waiting to hear if the publisher will accept his latest novel submission, his irritable anxiety heightened by Helena’s tactless intrusions into their apartment — since she’s paying their rent, she feels she’s entitled to unannounced visits and, further angering Roy, Sally doesn’t seem to disagree.

In a hyper-fulfillment of the fortune teller’s optimistic prophecy that Helena will meet a new love, everyone meets a new love.  Feeling listless from waiting for news of his book, and attracted by the girl across the way he sees through a window, Roy hooks up with her, Dia, a dark beauty from a well-to-do Indian family who’s about to be married to a very regular seeming young Englishman;  the engagement is broken and one just knows this is a bad decision on Dia’s part.  Sally becomes infatuated with Greg, the handsome, wealthy owner of the high end art gallery where she’s working.  Alfie buys himself a call girl, Germaine, whom he goes so far as to marry and set up in a glamorous apartment with glamorous furs and … oh oh, a charge card.  And Helena encounters Jonathan who’s not tall, dark, nor handsome, not wealthy either, but who’s warm and charming:  they share a belief in the occult, of having lived before and in the possibility of reincarnation.

How the plot works out is truly a surprise.  It’s not  telegraphed.  It’s awful.  It’s wonderful!  And leaves one smiling and talking and talking and smiling.

The relationships are fun to watch for the sense of recognition and sheer laughter — this is, after all, Woody Allen.  But what does Allen convey through them?  The affairs feel meaningful and imperative to those involved but what really is this thing we call “love”?  Lust goes by the name of love and while it grabs hold of love’s high and individualized status, it’s mechanically a sure thing and — let’s face it — lovers are interchangeable.  Roy lusts for Dia in her bikini underwear as he watches her through the window of the apartment he shares with Sally, and later he lusts for Sally in her bikini underwear as he watches from Dia’s window.  In the film, two separate sexual relationships are initiated in exactly the same way — by a guy massaging a girl’s injured leg.  That’s all it takes.  Sally’s choice:  Roy and Greg coarsely resemble each other. Roy’s choice:  Sally has studied art and Art History, Dia studies music and music history.  What’s the difference, really?

A view of mechanistic drives, and a downgraded significance of higher human faculties goes beyond the question of love in this film to the very heart of existence, and interestingly, again through parallels.  At two critical points, the plot turns on rudimentary signals, the knock on a medium’s table, the eye blink of a brain-injured man.  Language, definitions, subtlety, nuance become irrelevant — but only momentarily.  That’s one direction.  There is another.

Allen doesn’t leave us with the mechanical working out of love and life.  For one couple, there’s a genuine meeting of the minds;  they have much to share spiritually (intended pun, Woody’s not mine), as well as physically.  Surrounded by everyone else’s disappointments and failures, they emerge to remind us that while tragedies end in death, by the end of a comedy there has to be at least one — life affirming — marriage.  Woody Allen, for all his burdened awareness of the true identity of “the tall dark stranger we all meet,” is a great comedic creator.

I particularly loved Gemma Jones as the anguished, then frazzled, but fundamentally strong Helena, Lucy Punch as the realistic business person Germaine, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as the sophisticated and tender-hearted Jonathan but the cast is all excellent.  Anthony Hopkins is convincing as the vulnerable but crude Alfie (I don’t agree at all with critics who found him uncomfortable with the part).  It’s fascinating to watch Naomi Watts’ range of emotion and purpose as Sally.  Josh Brolin is an earthy Roy (I would have liked to see the writer writing something or at least have had a look at his computer), and as as for Anthony Banderas as Greg, the suave, successful gallery owner, what could possibly go wrong there?  Remembering the witty, wonderful cast in their parts brings back the delightful hour and 45 minutes in Woody Allen’s created world.  I can hardly wait for the next one.

Film Note | Whatever Works | Written and Directed by Woody Allen

(… but he doesn’t act in it …)

Whatever Works is about a brilliant man with a totally morbid view of people and existence — a real Woody Allen stand-in.  Most of us manage to block out this fundamentally realistic view of existence most of the time, but Boris Yelnikov sees it and feels it every moment — no wonder he’s given to panic attacks.

Once a Physicist at Columbia University “almost nominated for the Nobel Prize” — echoes of Brando, “I could have been a contender” — Boris is now a professorial dropout who pays rent on his dingy, wonderfully textured Greenwich Village apartment by teaching chess to children, and berating them for their stupidity.  For Boris, everyone is stupid except himself, and he believes this with good reason:  he had hold of a unique understanding of the full tragedy of existence.

The scruffy, balding Boris, gimpy from a failed suicide attempt, meets up with Melody, an under-21 beauty pageant winner from the deep South who is, he thinks, stupider even than the other “worms” and “cretins” around him — this is as hilarious looking a September-May romance as has ever been filmed.  Melody, played by Evan Rachel Wood, has the youthful comfortable in her underwear charm that’s characterized Allen’s leading ladies since Annie Hall.  Allen has a wonderful time — so does the lucky audience — with their collision of sophistication and naivete, of his burdened, wary pessimism and her dreamy optimism and joie de vivre.

Melody’s small town Alabama conservative church-going Mother appears — herself a runaway from the disasters that, yes, even the most mainstream middle class Americans risk, and in no time she’s fully into the New York swing, showing her photographic collages of rearranged body parts of naked men and women at a tony art gallery.  Uptight Dad — sort of a Governor Mark Sanford type — comes soon and it doesn’t take long for him to get liberated either, as it all spins off into an impressive series of mix-and-match loves (like Mom’s polymorphic body collages).  And these loves are … well, “Whatever Works.”

New York City is lovingly filmed — the movie starts reassuringly, though somewhat slowly, in a Greenwich Village cafe, and gathers steam with the arrival of the finest actor in the cast, Patricia Clarkson as the Southern Mom.  It’s a very funny movie but … if only Woody Allen were delivering the irony and pessimism himself.  Larry David as Boris comes recognizably close, and at times even manages to look like Woody — or Woody’s camera manages to make that happen — which makes you realize whom you really want to see playing Boris.

Woody Allen cuts deeper and deeper to the bone of existence, which has always been his subject.  As the movie moves along, he hands over his ultimate pessimism to love.  That’s part of his genius:  he never forgets who he is as an artist — a comedian — and by the end he lets you off the hook so you can leave with a happy smile — thank you, Woody.

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