Sunday, July 22, 2012


Crimes and Misdemeanors, USA, 1989
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Anjelica Huston

Scoop, USA, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen

The other two films that I happened to (re)watch were Crimes and Misdemeanors, from 1989, and Scoop from 2006. Interestingly enough, both films also shared many similarities. By 1989, Mr. Allen was already one of the most famous movie directors in the world. He was a three-time Oscar winner, and Crimes and Misdemeanors was a very curious way to cap another successful decade of work for him. Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Allen wrote and directed a lot of silly films, from the Shakespeare spoof A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, to the mock-documentary Zelig. Allen would occasionally make a serious film like 1988’s Another Woman, but never did he approach the subject of morality and murder until 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The film was really a portmanteau of two short stories. One, about a wealthy eye doctor, played by Martin Landau who orders the killing of his mistress, a neurotic, unstable woman who threatens to ruin his marriage and career by revealing the truth about their affair. The second story centers on a failed documentary filmmaker, played by Mr. Allen, who falls in love with a producer, portrayed by Mr. Allen’s longtime girlfriend, Mia Farrow. The two stories are loosely connected, and the two characters only share one scene together, at the very end.

The film is an extreme change of pace for Mr. Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a morose, depressing film. It features moments of comic relief, I’m sure Mr. Allen simply couldn’t resist, because after all, he made a successful living as a comedian for years before turning to movies. But the heart of the film stays on the subject of murder, greed, God, and punishment. Inspired by Dostoyevsky and the Italian Neo-realists, Mr. Allen concocts a brilliant satire, not only of contemporary high society, but of the choices we make in order to hide our secrets and bury our past.

In 2006, after the success of the British-set thriller Match Point, Woody paired up with Scarlett Johansson in a very quirky but satisfying comedy-thriller, Scoop. Johansson played Sondra Pransky, a journalism student who meets a bumbling magician, known as Splendini. The film also stars Ian McShane as a recently deceased reporter, and Hugh Jackman as a wealthy socialite who may or not be a serial killer called the Tarot Card Killer. It was Mr. Allen's last role on-screen before this year’s To Rome With Love.

The two films share a striking resemblance, like a person you meet on the street who gives you déjà vu. They both deal with the theme of moral choices, and murder as an opportunity to erase illicit relationships. Crimes and Misdemeanors managed to receive three Academy Award Nominations. Scoop, on other hand, was not as successful. The film was met with antagonizing reviews, perhaps because Mr. Allen was coming fresh off the hugely positive reaction to Match Point, a much darker thriller that lacked any of Allen's trademark humor. Both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Scoop, made 17 years apart, share a dynamic that has been prevalent throughout Mr. Allen's illustrious career that has spanned nearly 50 years now. They are smart films, well-written, funny and clever.

Woody Allen will turn 77 on December 1st, and shows no signs of putting a pause on his film career. He is already filming his next project with a host of actors including Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, and comedian Louis C.K. Mr. Allen often talks about his fear of death, and it is not surprising that death is a common theme in most of his films from the 70s classics like Love and Death, and Annie Hall to more darker fare like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Scoop. Perhaps Mr. Allen, who has directed a film every year since 1982, is a catch-22 unto himself. He will not stop directing until he passes away, and he will not pass away until he stops directing. As a long-time admirer of his films, here's hoping he never stops working.


Stardust Memories, USA, 1980
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper

Celebrity, USA, 1998
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna
"You can learn a lot about society by who we choose to celebrate."

During a recent self-imposed Woody Allen bender, it struck me that the four films I watched were all connected with each other.

The first two, Stardust Memories from 1980, and Celebrity from 1998, represent the most underappreciated period in Mr. Allen’s career. Both films were shot in black and white, which, for contemporary films is highly irregular. Both films are also about the film industry, and pay homage to the classic European filmmakers who inspired Mr. Allen, like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman.

Mr. Allen has long had an obsession with paying tribute to his movie heroes. In 1972’s Play it Again, Sam, the film not only attributes its title to Casablanca, but it even incorporates the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as a character. His 1978 drama Interiors was inspired by several of Mr. Bergman’s films. After winning Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards for Annie Hall, Mr. Allen turned to more serious fare, including Interiors and the bleak romantic dramedy, Manhattan. Criticized for abandoning his earlier, slapstick comedies for more adult-oriented films, Woody made Stardust Memories not only as a response to the critics, but also to pay homage to Fellini’s classic 8 ½, about a film director in turmoil.
Stardust Memories was also the mark of a new chapter in Mr. Allen’s career. His relationship and collaboration with Diane Keaton had concluded, and a year later, he would being to date Mia Farrow, who would star in many of Mr. Allen’s most notable works from this period including Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo. 1980 was also the year United Artists tanked due to the immense failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven's Gate, thus leaving Woody without the studio he routinely worked with. 

Nearly two decades later, Allen revisited the black and white world of the movie business with Celebrity. In one of the rare instances in which he did not act, Mr. Allen instead chose to cast British import Kenneth Branagh in the “Woody Allen” role, this time as a neurotic journalist who hangs out with the rich and famous. The film also stars Judy Davis as his ex-wife who embarks on a career in television. Both Stardust Memories and Celebrity examine the lives of movie stars and the privileged few who get to make a living off of it. 

In Stardust Memories, it was Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper that headlined the cast. Celebrity featured a more spread out array of young stars including Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Charlize Theron. Both films end up being tone poems to the dark side of filmmaking that Mr. Allen allegedly despises and finds his own criticisms by voicing them in his work.

Mr. Allen thrives on intellectual comedy, that which provides  him the opportunity to prove how much smarter he is than everyone else, and how he rationalizes every situation so that it becomes logical and sensical. Mr. Allen has the most uncanny talent at showing his disdain for human civilization, simultaneously commenting on moral values, society, love, sex, money and beauty. His view of the celebrity world is bleak, lacking any warmth or color; perhaps that is why he chose to film both stories in black & white.

While Stardust Memories was made in response to the critics of Mr. Allen's more serious films, Celebrity was a response to the intense media coverage surrounding his affair with the 20 year old adopted daughter of his girlfriend, Mia Farrow in 1992. Since then, Mr. Allen has stayed away both from the limelight of the media, as well as from making films that satirize the world they inhabit. In 2012, Mr. Allen won his fourth Academy Award for Midnight in Paris. He is currently shooting his 43rd film, an as-of-yet untitled romantic comedy set in San Fransisco and New York.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Dial M for Murder, USA, 1954
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings 

What more could be said about Alfred Hitchcock? He is the godfather of classic cinema. Honestly, was there anyone more talented and popular than Hitchcock from the 1940s through the 1960s? He directed over a dozen masterful thrillers including Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a TrainNorth by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. In 1954, while anticipating the release of Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s trademark films, Hitch directed Dial M for Murder, an adaptation of the stage play by Frederick Knott, starring one of Hitchcock’s favorite blonde bombshells, Grace Kelly.

Hitchcock and Grace made three films together from 1954-1955. In addition to Dial M, she also starred across Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, and Cary Grant in the crime caper, To Catch a Thief. Ms. Kelly retired from acting a year later, after marrying Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. She died, tragically, in a car accident in 1982, at the age of 52.

Dial M for Murder is a very shrewdly written film. It deals with a former tennis champion who blackmails an old college friend into murdering his adulterous wife. The friend reluctantly agrees and goes ahead with the clever scheme planned by the husband, but it goes terribly wrong and the husband is forced to concoct a plan B. Hitchcock does an expertly job in creating the most tension and thrills out of a very claustrophobic setting. The studio decided to release the film in 3-D hoping to grab audiences by their throats, literally. The bet paid off and the movie was a large success for Hitch and co. Although the 3-D fad of the 50s wore off, the film remained one of Hitchcock’s best thrillers, overshadowed possibly, by the overwhelming reaction to Rear Window, released in theaters just a few months after Dial M for Murder.

Also in the film is Ray Milland, the Oscar winner from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, and Robert Cummings as Grace’s lover. Dial M for Murder was a welcome return to England for Alfred Hitchcock. Ever since coming to Hollywood in 1940, Mr. Hitchcock had become accustomed to making films in America, primarily working with American actors like James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Joan Fontaine, and Joseph Cotton.

Mr. Hitchcock employs some of his best camera techniques to set up unforeseen twists and turns, and for a film that is nearly six decades old, it still holds up pretty well. That is the sign of a true master filmmaker, and Hitchcock deserves no less than such recognition. His ability to scare the audience is derivative of his ability to manipulate audiences, to convince them that the story will go in one certain direction only to turn the tables and go down a completely altered yet still satisfying path. 

After the dual success of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window in 1954, Hitchcock continued to scare audiences until the mid-1970s when health problems took Hitch away from movie sets. When presented with the AFI lifetime achievement award in 1979, he singled out four people he wanted to thank—a film editor, a scriptwriter, his daughter’s mother, and his favorite cook—all four were his wife, Alma Reville. Hitchcock passed away in 1980 at the age of 80.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Days of Heaven, USA, 1978
Dir: Terrence Malick
Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Ganz

There is something to be said about Days of Heaven. Even though the film has become one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1970s, directed by one of cinema's most reclusive filmmakers, there is something poetic about it. Days of Heaven is a film with a very long history. Shot in 1976, editing took two years for Terrence Malick to complete. The production was so tumultuous that as soon as he completed it, Malick left the States and moved to Paris in a self imposed creative exile. It would be a full 20 years before Malick directed The Thin Red Line, a war film starring a host of well-known actors including Sean Penn and Nick Nolte.  

Malick first broke out in 1973 with Badlands about a young couple on the run. Think Bonnie and Clyde but with narration and classical music. It put Malick on the map, and made his next project highly touted by emerging actors like Richard Gere and John Travolta. Gere was eventually cast as the lead in Days of Heaven, Bill, his first movie role. Also cast was Brooke Adams as his lover Abby, and Linda Ganz as his younger sister. The plot follows the trio as they try to successfully cheat a dying landowner out of his wealth. The characters are not bad. They've just never been given a fair chance. 

The film, set in Texas in 1916, is slow, like a painting, and takes time to warm up to. It was originally panned by critics but has since been recognized for its brilliant cinematography. It was actually shot by two very distinct cameramen. Nestor Almendros, frequent collaborator of Francois Truffaut, was hired but had to leave once the production ran late. Acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler took over the duties. Days of Heaven ended up winning the Oscar for Cinematography, but only Almendros was awarded a trophy. 

It was a very meticulous production. Mr. Malick insisted on shooting primarily during a time in the day which became known as “magic hour,” that short period when the sun is rising in the morning, and setting in the evening. According to Almendros, this limited the cast and crew to less than an hour of shooting a day. Malick then spent two years editing the picture, struggling to find the voice he wanted the film to have. The spark for the finished film came when he experimented with narration by the films young star, Linda Ganz, like he did with his previous films star, Sissy Spacek. All of Malick’s subsequent films also features some form of narration.  

If Badlands was Terrence Malick’s introduction to movies, then Days of Heaven was his mature second effort that simultaneously propelled him to cinema’s top and drove him away from it. The film also starred Sam Shepard as the farmer who is fooled into marrying Abby. Most viewers will single out the visual greatness of Malick’s work, but there is a very strong story involved in this film as well. In fact Malick borrowed parts of the plot from a back-story in The Three Musketeers.

Today, Malick is 68 years old and has found new life in his movie career after the success of 2011’s The Tree of Life. The film won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and helped Malick secure the director’s role on three new projects in the works. He remains one of cinema's most talked-about, but least seen and least interviewed filmmakers. But that just adds to the mystique of his life and movie career which can be characterized as a quiet and unnerving body of work. Days of Heaven, depending on your perspective, might be his finest work.