Shadows and Fog (1991)

shadows2Part of Arrow’s Woody Allen blu-ray box-set that I bought last year, Shadows and Fog is one of his films that I hadn’t seen before, and I came to it not knowing what to expect, but you know, it’s a Woody Allen film, so you expect it to be… well, everything this film largely isn’t, as it turns out. Because this was a very, very, strange film- which is possibly the kindest thing I can say about it (the unkindest thing I can possibly say is that it demonstrated some kind of masturbatory level of self-indulgence).

Watching it, I quickly came to the suspicion that it was a shambolic mess,  experimentally shot like a latter-Terrence Malick film, without any script and just ad-libbed on the fly by actors briefed on a rough outline on what was to happen in each scene. It seemed that loose and unstructured- but of course, this is a Woody Allen so that’s obviously not the case, and it’s clear from the familiar Allen-styled dialogue that this was indeed scripted, unfortunately it’s just a really bad script… unless…

Unless, well, here’s the thing- I’ve been pondering this film most of the day and I’m just beginning to wonder if there is some kind of mad genius at work here.

shadows1Here’s the problem: Shadows and Fog is unfortunately an extreme case of style over substance, which is in itself a really odd thing for a Woody Allen film. Up to now, every Woody Allen I have seen has been pretty basic visually, there’s not usually too many bells and whistles, he’s usually just telling a story in a way that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. The story and the characters are the thing and Allen never wants to distract us from the characters or what they are saying and doing.

Allen’s genius (if that’s the word) is his gift for conflicted characters with neuroses and doubts and a world that is ignorant of them- usually his protagonists have no impact at all on the world around them.

shad3That’s maintained here but the style here is everything- this seems to be Allen’s response to (or declaration of admiration of)  film noir and its origins in German Expressionism and the b&w films of the 1920s and 1930s, and visually it’s drenched in those sorts of visuals and motifs- lots of backlighting and darkness and shadows. This is the thing that has bothered me all day- in this film, the world dominates the characters so much so that they (literally, I suppose) get lost in the fog. The film has a very dreamlike feel, and looking back on it, I have begun to wonder that perhaps this is indeed all a dream of its lead character, Kleinman (Woody Allen). It would explain such a great deal. For instance, the time and place, and the space that the characters move in, seems deliberately vague, and Kleinman seems distracted by anxieties about work, about relationships with freinds and neighbours and particularly women, as if its his subconscious dreaming mind filing away all his daytime issues. The film is quite episodic, and Kleinman bounces around not knowing what he is supposed to be doing and always seems pressured and bullied by others. In this respect, it makes some sense of the nonsensical attributes of the script, in how he moves in dreamlike fashion through dreamlike settings and meets presumably exaggerated dream-versions of people from his waking life. At one point he approaches his ex-fiance for help, and she ridicules him for jilting her at the altar before dismissing him: the encounter adds nothing to the narrative at all. But if this is indeed a dream narrative, it sort of makes sense. How, as well as his ex-fiance, he encounters his boss and later his chief rival from work, all as he aimlessly wanders the foggy streets on this timeless, endless night. It would also explain, in particular, his fascination with magic- a magician that may be a childhood hero, a circus that might be a childhood memory and the concluding moments of impossible magic/sleight of hand that could only happen in a dream.

Hmm. Maybe I need to see it again, because this ‘reading’ may actually help explain and improve the experience of the film. That’s the funny thing about films- watching this one I thought ‘this stinks, pretty much’ but having thought it over during today, I’ve more deeply considered its dreamlike attributes and arrived at this reading of the film- misguided as it may be. Even the bad films can linger and play around for awhile in your head.

So sure, maybe it’s just a lousy Woody Allen film and possibly one of his worst, but you know, maybe there’s something else going on here. But then again, there’s no excuse for Madonna being in this, unless he’s clearly exaggerating the dreamlike otherworldliness of the film with his casting.

Hannah’s turned Blu

hannahSo dipping into my Woody Allen box-set again, I watched Hannah and Her Sisters. I’d seen it once before, back in the VHS days not long after it came out, on a rental I think. Back at the time (the film came out in 1986) it was hugely well-regarded I believe and quite popular, but as tends to happen over time, it seems rather forgotten now. Or maybe Woody Allen films have always been niche and the period of their popularity inevitably transitory, I mean, Gods are transitory, just ask the Egyptians or those guys who wrote ‘Jedi’ on their census forms or maybe I’m way off the mark and Hannah is as well-regarded and loved as it ever was, maybe it’s just me and I’m wrong again, I don’t know, I don’t know what to think, I think maybe I should go see my analyst or pop some paracetamol and go lie down, do I look a funny colour to you?  Do I sound like Allen himself here in one of his voice-over monologues? It must be infectious.

I think Allen must have learned a lot from making Hannah because I can see a lot of it in the (superior) Crimes and Misdemeanors: the multiple plot threads, the quirky and imperfect characters and their relationships, and the concious theorising over God and mortality and the meaning of our existence while someone cheats on someone else.

The cast are pretty great, mind. Barbara Hershey is so beautiful and fragile and glowing in this, and seeing Carrie Fisher again out of the blue (I’d forgotten she was in it) was a sudden and pleasant surprise – she looks so young and vivacious. And a shockingly young-looking (albeit middle-aged, admittedly) Michael Caine, what a perfectly weak-minded foolish bastard he was in this. Or maybe he was a smart opportunist calculating bastard. I’m not sure which. But he most certainly was a bastard.

The blu-ray looks pretty good (as you would expect from Arrow), maybe not as impressive as Crimes did the other night but it’s got a nice filmic look with plenty of grain.

Yeah I really quite enjoyed this. There’s something nice and relaxing (almost comforting) about settling into a Woody Allen film, particularly from this period, and just soaking up its small insular charms. Maybe Allen’s films have always been from some other world, but compared to today’s cinema, it’s a world farther and farther away.

Blu-ray Misdemeanors

crimes.jpgWhile it is probably in truth not his best film, and as I’ve not seen all his films I’m certainly not best-qualified to judge anyway, but of all those that I have seen, Woody Allen’s 1989 crime drama Crimes and Misdemeanors remains my favourite. Having bought Arrow’s Blu-ray edition of the film back in September I have finally gotten around to watching it, the first time I have rewatched the film for many years (I think the last time was back on VHS).

The film holds up fantastically well, a sometimes sober and sometimes funny drama about relationships and guilt and crimes minor and terrible. Its the kind of thing that, back in the 1970s/1980s, certainly, Allen was very good at doing- small, intimate dramas that are as much ruminations of thought as much as they are entertainment. Crimes and Misdemeanors is fascinating and enlightening and has twists and turns and plenty to think about afterwards (always a sign of a good movie). I can well understand how it struck such a chord in me back when I first saw it on a VHS rental- I was always a sucker (still am, really) for any film that had Big Thoughts about the nature of existence, morality and God. Ironically I think I have to admit that what drew me towards it was the casting of Martin Landau, an actor who, back then, I really only knew from my childhood favourite Space:1999.  The opportunity to watch him in something else after that span of time was obviously a big draw.

The funny thing is, ever since, I have had a rather low opinion of Landau’s range as an actor. Its likely unfair of me as I still have never seen him in much of anything – Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood and Space:1999 is really just about it, so again, like in judging Allen’s filmography, I’m hardly really qualified.  Its just that, when I later returned to Space:1999 and its Blu-ray box set, it was clear that Landau was horribly miscast as Commander John Koenig (unless having a bumbling, zero-charm unfortunate beaurocrat in charge of a moonbase was deliberate). Reading that Landau and his then-wife and co-star Barbara Bain played the Hollywood prima donna game whilst making the series (Landau maintaining that he was only ever shot in profile from one side and that he often counted his lines and demanded script changes to ensure he was the ‘star’ each episode), while hardly making him anything unique, rather made him an actor I was less inclined to admire.

So anyway, rewatching Crimes and Misdemeanors, whatever my opinion of his limits as a character actor, it’s clear that this was a role that was perfect for Landau. He just nails it. Here is a man, successful Ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal, who is clearly loved and respected in his profession and community, who has led something of a double-life, having spent two years in an affair with a mistress and having managed some dubious financial practices with other people’s money to keep himself afloat. He projects this image of a nice, decent man and yet is a liar and cheat, both to his mistress who maintains that he made promises to her, and his wife and daughter and his colleagues in business. And he deceives himself as much as he does others, excusing his financial cheating as for the greater good and his affair as a foolish whim,  justifying his arranging his mistresses murder (to ensure her silence when she threatens to reveal everything to his wife) as a necessary evil to ensure the safety and comfort of his immediate family and all he has built up. When he feels guilt and the weight of his religious upbringing he has debates with a confidant, his brother and the ghosts of his father and old family, but it’s all about making his actions allowable and justifiable, not bringing himself to account. He lies to everyone, and himself and ultimately to God. But in a morally uncertain universe, is that such a crime? Especially when it eventually transpires that he gets away with it.

The Blu-ray looks terrific, especially upscaled to 4K on my OLED- the film has a lot of grain that adds great texture and detail to everything such as clothing and faces. There’s such a tangible sense of filmstock about it. I’m sure that it’s never looked better and that it really captures the ‘look’ of back when it was projected in cinemas. Revisiting old favourites after some time can always be a somewhat sobering experience but I’m glad to write that Crimes and Misdemeanors, my favourite Woody Allen film, remains one of my very favourite films of all. I certainly look forward to revisiting it again with this fine Blu-ray release.

Woody Allen and the Autumn List

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of my all-time favourite films, and I have been intending to buy it on Blu-ray ever since Arrow’s edition came out individually as well as part of a box-set. Maybe this is one of those instances where it pays to wait things out. Recently Amazon had a discount on Arrow’s third  Allen box-set; at just over £20 with Crimes and Misdemeanors accompanied by another six Woody Allen films, it seemed a bargain, especially when the single edition of Crimes and Misdemeanors was priced at just six pounds less.The box has since sneaked up to about £30, which is still pretty good value. Includes a pretty substantial hardback book too (I just hope I can resist adding the first two boxes).

So now I have seven Woody Allen films placed on my list of films to watch this Autumn. Other than Crimes, the set contains just one other Allen film I have seen prior, the excellent Hannah and Her Sisters, which I now realise (to my horror) I last saw nearly thirty years ago. The other films are Radio Days, September, Another Woman, Alice and Shadows and Fog. Maybe there are some great films in there, maybe a few clunkers, but I won’t complain. Expect reviews to be posted over the coming weeks/months (before Christmas, at any rate).

Regards that Autumn list, its already piling up. Deadpool 2 and Solo arrived recently, and there’s also outstanding discs including Witness For the Prosecution (a Billy Wilder film I haven’t seen), Missing, The China Syndrome, one last film in that third Hammer box from Indicator, and a few 4K double-dips I still have to go through such as Sicario (before its sequel arrives the end of this month hopefully) and the mighty CE3K. 

If anyone has sufficient interest to nudge me in any particular films direction let me know and I’ll bump it up the list. At any rate, we’ll see how I get on this Autumn. Typically its just that time of year, with some 4K John Carpenter films, 2001 and the Matrix trilogy all coming up the end of the month, I’ll need to get busy sooner than later. I’m not complaining, mind, it should all be pretty great and I’m looking forward to it all.

Meanwhile I’ll be posting a backlog of reviews over the coming week for films I’ve seen over the past few weeks while I was up in the wilds of the wet and windy land of kilts and lochs. Likely a few more pics of a certain Westie, too, no doubt.

Two greats lost

Sad news today concerning the passing of Martin Landau and George Romero (good grief, as if losing one wasn’t enough, we lose two greats over one weekend).

spasemartinSpeaking as a Brit who grew up in the 1970s, Martin Landau will always be Commander Koenig in Gerry Anderson’s tv series Space:1999. I loved that show when it was first on; it was dark and serious and huge. And like all Anderson shows, it had a killer main title sequence, one of the best to this day.  Over the years it has perhaps not aged very well, but the adult me appreciates its 2001-inspired design and cutting-edge miniature effects, and also the irony of a logistics expert being put in charge of Moonbase Alpha just as all the shit cuts loose. Koenig is the anti-Kirk; intentional or not, it makes for fascinating viewing and it’s fun seeing Koenig so clearly out of his depth and clutching for solutions like some modern-day politician. The less said about the second season the better but the first certainly has some brilliant moments and it remains uniquely positioned as a tv-response to 2001- there’s nothing else quite like it.

But my very favorite memory of Landau remains his remarkable turn in Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s absolutely fantastic in that film- he really deserved some recognition awards-time for that. It’s a deep and thoughtful film (Woody Allen’s best, for me) and Landau is just incredible.

And of course we also have the news that the Godfather of the Zombie Genre, the great George A Romero has passed away too. It’s a little unfair, but it’s probably only natural that when I think of Romero, I think of Dawn of the Dead. My God, what a film that is. Back in the video-nasty period of the 1980s, an uncut VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead was like some kind of holy grail for horror fans. I remember first watching it, thinking it was the greatest horror film I’d ever seen- so dark, brutal, graphic, twisted and funny. So clever too with its social commentary (as timely now as ever- it just needs shots of zombies with mobile phones to bring it bang up to date).

Of course there was more to Romero than Dawn, and even zombies (although, bless him for embracing it rather than looking down on it or its genre fans). I loved Creepshow. That was so much fun, and he did many great films. Just none quite as great as Dawn for me. That film was just the right film at the right time; it became something more than just a film. It represented something.

Yeah, a very sad news day. We keep on losing these great names that we grew up with. It is only natural I guess as the years march on and we ourselves grow older but it never gets easy- there is a weird feeling of my own past slipping away.


Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

magic1.jpg2016.92: Magic In The Moonlight (Amazon VOD)

There was a time that I loved and devoured Woody Allen movies. I loved the zany comedies of the 1970s and the more mature, dramatic comedies of the 1980s, but somewhere over the years the thrill faded. For me, Allen hit his peak with the wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanors, a crushingly bleak  fable about living in a Godless universe without punishment or redemption. Allen’s films could be dramatic and they could be funny, but they always seemed to have a telling observation of the world and how we live in it, our place in it. Crimes and Misdemeanors was something of a masterpiece to me, and is one of my favourite films, a summary of everything Allen had been saying and mulling over in his films before. With that film, to me he’d reached the apex of everything he wanted to say, stunningly scripted, brilliantly acted, with some gorgeous cinematic moments. Allen could have retired there and then, his cinematic immortality assured.

He didn’t of course- he just carried on making movies, something like one a year. With an output s excessive as that, there’s sure to be a few misfires, and this Magic In The Moonlight is just that. Crushingly so. Maybe Allen should curtail his output, just do one film every few years- after all, Blue Jasmine was a damn fine film  and evidence that with the right material he’s capable of so much. Its a tragedy that a guy who can make films as damn fine as that can churn out such forgettable lightweight stuff as this.

The irony of Magic In The Moonlight is that, well,  there’s no actual magic- its quite lifeless and devoid of charm. The title seems to be from a different film entirely. The story is as lightweight as you might suspect, and you can always guess where its headed, one of those cosy stories you can telegraph well ahead. But its alarming how little you care, how little real warmth and involvement there is. The film is a romance without any real chemistry between its lead characters, a handicap the film cannot possibly recover from. It doesn’t help that it seems to all take place in some kind of idyllic Hollywood fairy-tale universe as far removed from our present realty as one could imagine.

A period piece set in 1920s Europe, it depicts a celebrated stage magician, Stanley (Colin Firth, hopelessly adrift here), who is a proud materialist and debunker of spiritualism and purveyors of the occult. He is summoned by an old friend from childhood to the South of France where a wealthy American family is being ‘charmed’ by a young spiritualist claiming to be in touch with the recently deceased elder of the family. This spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), is beautiful and the first-born heir of the family is utterly bewitched by her, intending marriage.

Stanley is supremely confident that he can uncover how Sophie is hoodwinking the family, and save the heir from being conned out of much of his fortune, but is utterly confounded by Sophie’s uncanny ability to ‘know’ things she should have no access to. Eventually he himself begins to fall for her and he announces that he has been wrong all along with his cynical materialism and that she is indeed the ‘real deal’. He sees the world in a different light, all his previous beliefs quite shattered, until a tragedy reaffirms his earlier bleak outlook on the universe and he realises that Sophie is not at all as innocent as she seems. But he still loves her. Whats a pompous irritating git to do?

That’s about it. The central problem is the casting and lack of chemistry between Firth and Stone (God only knows what the age difference is between them, but it shows). Without a romance to empathise with (indeed, all the characters seem fairly one-dimensional, from the dumb idle-rich American family to the irritating Stanley) its hard to get involved, and Allen doesn’t seem to have anything to really say either, which is the greatest sin of all in my book. Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘love conquers all’ kind of thing? Or some commentary on the fantasies we create around us to make life worth living?  I don’t know. I was left with the impression of a film shot with a script that was still in its first draft, quite empty and lacking of any genuine momentum or character. The actors have little to work with, and Allen seems to be just phoning it all in anyway.

A very sorry excuse of a movie really.  Crimes and Misdemeanors seems such a long time ago now, its almost tragic.


Blue Jasmine (2013)

jas12016.53: Blue Jasmine (Amazon VOD)

Blue Jasmine is a very good Woody Allen film (okay, maybe not up there with his ‘greats’ but damn good nonetheless and proving his continuing his validity as a film-maker even after so many years/films), that is graced by a powerhouse performance by Cate Blanchett as the title character.

Penniless and post-mental breakdown from her failed marriage to high-flying financial New York businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin), Jasmine has flown to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her two young boys, giving up a wealthy socialite existence in New York for a crowded apartment above a shop. Jasmine, who is clearly already fragile emotionally and mentally, has to start a new life in a world she considered far beneath her, seeking menial employment and fending off men with little or no prospects.

It’s a fish out of water/culture-shock film, quite funny in places but also rather affecting, chiefly due to Blanchett’s remarkable performance. Jasmine isn’t necessarily a likeable character- certainly there’s more opportunity to laugh at her predicament than share her pain at the film’s outset, but Blanchett’s genius is that she opens up and displays a vulnerability and warmth as the film progresses. A series of flashbacks, that are quite jarring and awkward at first, start to unravel the true story she would rather keep to herself. By films end (and mild spoiler warning here) we are left caring very much for Jasmine and it’s a sobering, not particularly positive conclusion, the end of her road (or at least where the film leaves her) not a welcome one. It feels a perfect ending, a real ending, just not the kind Hollywood usually delivers.

The cast as a whole are excellent, as usual for a Woody Allen film. Sally Hawkins is fantastic as Ginger, a divorced woman struggling to make ends meet and find some happiness for herself. Its a great performance unfortunately overshadowed by Blanchett’s brilliant, mesmerizing turn-  I hadn’t realised that she had won both a BAFTA and OScar for the role, but I don’t find the awards surprising at all (whatever awards mean, anyway) and they are well deserved.

Blue Jasmine is a fine enough film, but it certainly deserves watching if only for that central performance.  Actresses don’t get many meaty roles such as this in films these days, and you can tell that Blanchett is playing the part for all she is worth, conscious the role is a rarity. Great stuff and a real pleasure to watch.