The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Woody Allen reviews: 2008 – 13

Posted by therebelprince on December 13, 2013

Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

The sixth and final set of my Woody Allen capsule reviews are below. As in the previous posts, all ratings are subjective, and I thoroughly recommend Every Woody Allen Movie for a more detailed analysis of them all.

42. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Two American women (Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall) both fall for an artist (Javier Bardem) while on vacation in Barcelona, but he is still in thrall to his unstable ex-girlfriend (Penelope Cruz).

Really, really wonderful. The script began life as another of Allen’s character analyses, and retains some elements – such as the narrator – of this era of his works. Like some of his other best recent films (Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point, Bullets Over Broadway) Vicky Cristina Barcelona features no trademark Allen characters, instead embracing the fresh air that the central quartet bring to their roles. Hall and Johansson both give heartfelt performances as two women forced to question everything they feel, and they’re ably backed by Chris Messina, Kevin Dunn, and the divine Patricia Clarkson. But it’s the powerhouse pairing of Bardem and Cruz that really adds the fuel to this fire. Bardem is effortlessly seductive but always brings a slightly unnerving edge to his performance, that really helps create an unpredictability in the central romance plot. Cruz, meanwhile, is non-stop fireworks. The tinge of melancholy that permeates the film is also a welcome tonal shift, and the cherry on top is how real the young characters seem compared to, say, Anything Else or Melinda and Melinda5 stars.

with Salvador Nasralla

Academy Award win: Best Supporting Actress (Penelope Cruz)

43. Whatever Works (2009)

A misanthrope (Larry David) unexpectedly marries a 21-year-old from Mississippi (Evan Rachel Wood) but faces trouble when her fundamentalist parents (Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr) show up on his doorstep.

Larry David in "Whatever Works"

Larry David in “Whatever Works”

Larry David is a unique man, with an insight and performance style all of his own. It’s no surprise then that he brings a new colour to one of Allen’s most typical scripts, a colour that perhaps appeals more to me as a longtime David fan than to someone coming at him from the outside. Whatever Works is escapist – for whatever use that word is in critical dialogue – and the direction is uninspired. The director who made Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is barely recognisable here. Indeed, an uncharitable view of this film is that it’s merely a way of killing time. Yet, I like it! Clarkson and Begley Jr have a lot of fun in their roles, however bizarre they may be (is this really what Allen thinks of non-New Yorkers or is it a deliberate parody?) and Wood is self-assured, navigating the film’s theatre-like dialogue with ease. The film goes to great lengths to get its ultimate point across, but it’s a point I appreciate. Whatever Works returns Allen to his comfort zone in New York, but only just – there aren’t any opera-loving Sartre-reading dilettantes to be found here, nor their interior designer sisters and mothers. It’s a character piece, through and through. This is not a movie for non-Allen fans (and one wonders how it would’ve transpired back when Allen wrote the script, in the ’70s, for Zero Mostel) but even as the obvious product of an Allen assembly line, it makes me smile. 3 stars.

44. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

A recently divorced older couple (Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins) each experience their own delusions, while their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) pursue unsatisfying affairs.

A lightly amusing film that coasts on the intelligence of its cast and the fact that nothing is offensive or unbelievable. If that sounds like faint praise, that’s the best I can offer. Hopkins and Jones are the highlights, as she falls under the spell of a fortune teller (the pitch-perfect Pauline Collins) and he marries a prostitute (the hilarious Lucy Punch) who has an obvious ulterior motive. The younger storylines are less satisfying (somewhat ironically for a film about dissatisfaction), both coming across more as O.Henry stories than events worthy of a full film. I’m not saying every movie has to have the loaded weight of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Allen as scriptwriter is able to make mundane life magical (The Purple Rose of Cairo), hysterical (Annie Hall) or, at the very least, fascinating in its banality (Mighty Aphrodite). Here, a director who refuses to sit still has hired a bunch of actors for their once-a-year Woody Allen paycheck, and is going through the motions. This is a unified work, exploring notions of faith and delusion without ever becoming ridiculous, and everything is as tight and competent as you’d expect. Yet, it’s uneventful,  ultimately leaving a dull taste on the palate. No wonder that for his next two movies, Allen would retreat back to the continental world that so invigorated Vicky Cristina Barcelona2.5 stars.

with Antonio Banderas, Anna Friel, Freida Pinto, Ewen Bremner, Neil Jackson, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Alex MacQueen and Celia Imrie

45. Midnight in Paris (2011)

A Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) discovers the ability to travel in time while on holiday in Paris, gradually disconnecting him from his materialistic fiancee (Rachel McAdams).

Midnight in Paris

Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Rachel McAdams, Owen Wilson: “Midnight in Paris”

A critical darling, I’m accepting of the qualities of Midnight in Paris but far from rapturous. Perhaps that comes  from the fact that, this year alone, I’ve watched the director’s greatest flights of fancy: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Love and Death, Zelig, “Oedipus Wrecks”, and so on. Don’t get me wrong: this is a positive review. The film is gorgeous – unsurprisingly, given that Allen has so enjoyed Europe – but here he gets the added dimension of a Europe from a bygone era, filled with delightful historical personages: Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein! Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali! Corey Stoll as Hemmingway! Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as the Fitzgeralds! In the real world, meanwhile, McAdams has great fun alongside a cast of utterly unpleasant characters brought to life by Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller. Bridging the two storylines, Owen Wilson brings a refreshing change of tone to Allen’s dialogue (far more successful than Jason Biggs in Anything Else if only because one feels this role was written for this type of character), and Marion Cotillard is… well, she’s Marion Cotillard, I think you can guess. It’s sentimental and whimsical and pretty, so I guess I’m impressed. For me, though, Midnight in Paris just doesn’t reach those same heights comedically, and the film’s message is conveyed through the magic of the first and second trips through time, leaving the remainder of the film to strike the same beats in a slightly different key. Still, few other directors would ever have devised this kind of work, so I’m glad to have it on the shelf. 4 stars.

Academy Award win: Best Original Screenplay

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction

–. Paris Manhattan (2012)

written and directed by Sophie Lellouche

A French pharmacist (Alice Taglioni), forever unlucky in love and obsessed with Woody Allen, is torn between two suitors (Yannick Soulier, Patrick Bruel).

What a cute film. It’s really not much more than your standard romantic comedy, complete with sibling rivalry, bustling parents, unexpected asides from passers-by, and a neurotic character caught in a love triangle which is resolved largely by fantastical circumstances. Still, Lellouche’s debut film has a sense of flair, primarily through its deliberate homage to Allen’s work. Aside from his voice, literally emanating from a poster on her wall to converse in quotes from his films, the jazz score and perambulating philosophical conversations all take their cue from Allen’s oeuvre. It may seem like a riff on Play It Again Sam (by way of Annie Hall, Manhattan Murder Mystery and what have you) but it’s a loving one. Cute. 3.5 stars.

with Marine Delterme, Michel Aumont, Marie-Christine Adam and Louis-Do de Lencquaesaing

Alessandro Tiberi and Penelope Cruz in "To Rome with Love"

Alessandro Tiberi and Penelope Cruz in “To Rome with Love”

46. To Rome with Love (2012)

Four stories unfold across Rome as love, lust, celebrity and betrayal intertwine.

Cute and charming: they’re the best two adjectives I can come up with for To Rome with Love. There’s nothing particularly surprising or life-changing here, particularly not from a director with almost 50 years’ worth of notches in his belt. But that’s a pretty churlish point of view for a film as light and fluffy, as consistently engaging, and as well-produced as this one. Allen tosses out a number of ideas that have probably been sitting in his desk drawer for some time, and gives them each about 25 minutes to tell their tale. (This is perhaps what I just chided You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger for doing, but the difference is that these short stories are self-consciously vignettes.) Jesse Eisenberg proves a perfect fit for Allen’s dialogue, although his story is perhaps the most inane (and most prototypical of Woody) as he chooses between a kind but generic girlfriend (an under-utilised Greta Gerwig) and a temptress (Ellen Page, perhaps a little miscast). Eisenberg, however, has great chemistry with the delightful Alec Baldwin, playing some kind of phantasm future version of himself, and the pair keep a smile on your face the whole way through. Elsewhere, in a storyline all in Italian, Roberto Benigni keeps a lightweight story afloat about a man who wakes up one morning to find he is a celebrity… just for being himself. It’s a cute dose of surrealism – reminiscent of so many of Allen’s earliest works – that also happens to be the thematic key to the rest of the tales. Allen himself returns to the screen in the vignette about an opera director who finds a startling talent in his future in-law (Fabio Armiliato), and leads to the unusual visual of a fully-staged performance of Pagliacci where the lead remains in a shower the entire time. Again, it’s lightweight and the central subject keeps changing, but it’s pleasantly reminiscent of the director’s talent with non-realistic material, and features sharp performances from Judy Davis, Alison Pill, and Flavio Parenti. The true delight, however, lies in the tale of young Italian newlyweds separated on their first day in Rome. Conceptually, it’s like something out of a Neil Simon play, which is not a compliment. Structurally, it’s little more than a farce which – by virtue of being set in Italy – is culturally fifty years behind Western viewers. However the vibrant performances of the three leads captures something in the script and direction that invigorates proceedings. As the meek and virginal groom, Alessandro Tiberi is both gorgeous and quick-witted, accompanied by a very sexy, very hilarious Penelope Cruz as a prostitute who gets caught up in his day. And as the bride, Alessandra Mastronardi just about steals the film with a natural innocence and vivaciousness. In closing, To Rome with Love is far from Allen’s greatest work, but it’s first-class entertainment. 4 stars.

with Lino Guanciale, Moniac Nappo, Cecilia Capriotti, Marta Zoffoli, Ornella Muti, Simona Caparrini, Riccardo Scamarcio and Antonio Albanese


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