Crimes and Misdemanors (1989)

CrimesDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston

Given the relatively poor month for movies March has turned out to be, I have once again delved into the vault to review a film that is not a new release.  For this “vintage review,” I have decided to take another look at one of my favorite films form my favorite director.  If you follow my blog, you’ve probably noticed the eagerness that accompanies my reviews for Woody Allen’s films.  Since I started this site, I’ve been able to review To Rome With Love, Blue Jasmine, and most recently Magic in the Moonlight.  The merits of these films alone can be debated, but when one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen over time, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius. It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting. Thus, of all of the films Allen has made over the years, I am always surprised how engaged I am with his film Crimes and Misdemeanors. I see this as one of Allen’s most mature films, utilizing his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.

As in many of Allen’s films, the themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors are derived from a classic work of literature, in this case Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, this film is certainly not a remake of the classic novel. Instead Allen shapes it and molds it into a much different story told through the mind of Woody Allen. His knowledge of literature allows him to create an intellectually stimulating discussion on morality, basing it on the famous novel. The most obvious changes between Dostoyevsky’s tale and Allen’s film are seen in Allen’s altering of the title. First of all, Allen completely omits the word “punishment.” Crime and Punishment is about a man who suffers terrible guilt after committing a double murder. He is finally driven by his guilt to confess and goes to prison where he eventually does find redemption. Allen twists this “punishment follows crime” ideology and gives a contrasting view of a financially successful man who gets away with the murder of his mistress and finds solace without formal punishment. Guilt is the device that Allen recognizes as the force that is responsible for a crime’s outcome. In Crime and Punishment the protagonist is haunted by guilt at no end until he has no choice but to confess. However, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah (Martin Landau) is at first plagued with guilt, however as time passes so does his guilt. Here Allen says that guilt is a passing phenomenon and that people are overall morally detached and indifferent. The second change Allen makes to Dostoyevsky’s title is his addition of the word “Misdemeanors.” In law, a misdemeanor is usually a lesser charge for which one accused of a crime can plea. This addition of the word “Misdemeanors” suggests that although a crime is committed, it can be rationalized and categorized until it is no longer a crime and is now only a “lesser charge.”

Furthermore, it is with the addition of the word “Misdemeanors” that the character of Lester (Alan Alda) is introduced. Crimes and Misdemeanors constantly suggests similarities between Judah and Lester just as the title ties the word “Crimes” with “Misdemeanors.” Lester, like Judah, is a successful and smart member of upper class society. Both Judah and Lester have trouble keeping promises. Judah promises Delores (Angelica Huston) his mistress that he will leave his wife for her and Lester seems to entice women to bed with promises of success. However, guilt, again, marks the one main difference between Judah and Lester. While Judah is tormented with guilt after committing his “crime,” Lester hurts people, or commits his “lesser crimes,” without feeling any guilt; an example being the scene when he yells at one of his writers, who happens to have Cancer, on the basis that his jokes are not funny. Allen, thus, with the addition of Lester, has created a second separate plot. The first plot is a serious dramatic story of crime and guilt. The second is a series of comedic elements which allow the audience to relax their views of the harsh realities brought up in the first plot, thus further demonstrating Allen’s point on how people can eventually live with these harsh realities.

Mixing comedy with drama is how Allen successfully gets his point across, and it seems rather likely that Allen is speaking directly through Lester’s character. There is a scene where Lester makes the insightful statement that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” He follows this statement up by saying that “the night Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t joke about it. Now time has gone by and it’s fair game.” These statements seem to sum up Allen’s argument that time erases guilt and emphasizes a kind of moral neutrality and indifference in humankind.  One could further pontificate that Allen supports this view in his personal life as well, but this is a movie review, so we’ll leave it at that.

This second subplot also revolves around another character Cliff (Woody Allen). However, if Lester is Allen’s voice in Crimes and Misdemeanors, then what is the purpose of Allen’s presence in the film as the lovable loser Cliff? I think Cliff is Allen’s way of poking fun at his own (Lester’s) “crimes and misdemeanors.” It is through Cliff’s documentary that the audience learns about Lester’s bad qualities. Before the audience is shown Cliff’s finished product, they are exposed to very little of the pretentious behavior Lester exhibits. I think that Woody Allen is making fun of the pretentiousness that he has been accused of by critics in real life. However, his character of Cliff offers a look at the “real Woody Allen” just like Cliff’s documentary offers a look at the “real Lester.” Cliff, like Allen himself, remains an outsider for the entire film. He is constantly unhappy with the world around him, but he is also completely aware of how that world is pretentious and reliant on glitz and glamor.

Allen uses his knowledge of film to organize and eventually fuse these two plots together. Firstly, Allen literally uses other films to move along his narrative. Allen creates a parallel of the comedic subplot and the dramatic subplot with the other films he showcases within his film. Cliff watches somber Hollywood movies with his niece that include such subject matter as adultery and disloyalty, an obvious parallel between the themes of his own film. However, in order to make him feel better about life, Cliff says that he “…watches Singin’ in the Rain every few months.” This once again echoes the theme that comedy and laughter helps obscure the harsh realities of life in order to make them livable. Thus, Allen creates a subtle connection between the two subplots by using movies.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is a powerful and mature look at modern-day morality. Allen utilizes his knowledge of the genres of comedy as well as drama to create this well organized and structured story.  Allen’s ability to parody himself and to voice his opinions through other characters is impressive, and his knowledge of literature, film, and life emphasizes his ideas, helping to create a charged and engaging film.  A

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Cinderella (2015)

CinderellaDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Screenwriter: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, and Helena Bonham Carter

It’s been a long time since someone left a Disney Studio film and said, “Wow! The originality was what impressed me.” Remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Still, as the Walt Disney Pictures logo transitions into a real castle to open their latest film, Cinderella, we are reminded what a trademark this story truly is to the Disney brand. The castle featured in the animated 1950 film became the icon for the Disney Pictures logo as well as the premier structure of the Walt Disney World theme park. Thus, in the case of this particular remake, Disney deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Cinderella opens in true Disney fashion, with the death of a mother character. And of course, once the audience is adequately depressed, the film begins the long climb to that inevitable happy ending. Ella (Lily James) – the “Cinder” comes later, now motherless, grows up in a quaint farm house with her father. A series of events result in Ella’s father inviting a recently widowed woman and her two daughters to come live with them. The widow, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters soon reveal themselves to be of the selfish and unfriendly variety and when Ella’s father takes ill and dies on a business trip, she finds herself completely at the mercy of her wicked step mother and step sisters. What follows is a fairly traditional retelling of the 1950 animated version complete with talking mice, glass slippers, and a fairy godmother, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter.

The exposition offers a good bit of characterization regarding Ella’s parents and upbringing. Furthermore, the trials of Lady Tremaine are explored a bit more making her “wickedness” more realistic. Still, this film does not really complicate a story of which most are already familiar. Many versions of this story exist dating back hundreds of years and range tonally from the children’s tale we have here all the way to the grotesque where the stepsisters actually resort to cutting off their own toes in order to fit into the glass slipper. Thus, when one decides to tell this story, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Branagh’s version is successful. From the very start we are shown a young protagonist who values kindness and courage, and the film does a very good job at accentuating this point and delivering a film that does not get lost in feminism or societal chaos, but rather explores the power of human decency and personal decorousness. While some of the characters may be a bit on the shallow or static side, the message is clear and well received.

Overall, Branagh’s film is well-suited to the subject matter but also does have a personal stamp and does not feel cookie cutter. Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999 or even Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from earlier this year, these films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors. Branagh’s background in Shakespeare is on display here as the film is somewhat structured like a five act play. Additionally, as the director of 2011’s Thor, Branagh has his ear to the pop culture pipeline. Watch for a slight nod to Downton Abbey, since Cinderella has two actresses from that show in its cast with Lily James and Sophie McShera. Cinderella is not groundbreaking, but it is entertaining, gloriously costumed, very well cast, and has a message that is hard not to admire. B

Cinderella is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.

Akira (1988)

AkiraDirector: Katsuhiro Otomo

Writer: Katsuhiro Otomo

In my nearly three years as The People’s Critic, I have only reviewed two films that were not new releases. The first was for the film Nashville because I simply could not believe how much I liked it, and the second was Marie-Antoinette by request from my cousin after we had visited the Palace of Versailles in France. My lack of “vintage” reviews is by no means intentional, but there is only so much time, and reviews of current films seem to be the best way to gain and keep an audience of readers. However, I have recently started up a Movie Club for students at the high school where I teach as a way to use a shared interest to encourage social interaction. While the kids do pick the films, I do steer the club towards films I think will have an impact on them (a link to our club website page can be found here). However, when one of our members asked me if I would write up a review of the 1988 Japanese animated film Akira, I saw an opportunity for them to impact me. Now, I had never seen Akira and I must admit that the anime genre altogether has never been my kind of thing, but I decided to check Akira out, so Justin, this one’s for you!

The film opens in 1988 when a nuclear explosion levels Tokyo and sets off World War III. 31 years later in the year 2019, World War III has ended and Tokyo, now known as Neo Tokyo, is a bleak, crime-ridden city home to numerous gangs including a bike gang led by a tough kid named Kaneda. After a night of debaucherous bike racing through the streets of Neo Tokyo, Kaneda’s close friend Tetsuo is put in the hospital where it is discovered that he has possible psychic abilities. Think a male version of Carrie.

Tetsuo becomes consumed with his new powers and quickly turns hostile, forcing Kaneda along with Colonel Shikishima to try to contain him before he lays waste to Neo Tokyo or even the world.

This is far from the most coherent narrative I’ve ever seen. There are peculiar details that somehow must be taken for granted like the origin of these paranormal powers as well as the history of this trio of weird ghost children who are apparently previous test subjects experimented on by the government in the hopes of harnessing their psychic power. Cinematically, the film is a quintessential anime film. The action is unrelenting, the dubbing is bizarre, the violence is extreme, and the tone is unbalanced with humor and tragedy coexisting within sequences in abrupt ways. Many films of this genre possess these characteristics. For a 1988 film, the animation is remarkably fluid and the film has some real beauty, but what Akira has in style it lacks in substance. Gratuity aside, Akira is complicated and it attempts to tell a contained story with global, perhaps universal, implications that are never explored. Furthermore, the subtextual conflict between greedy political ambition, class warfare, and military hubris is too thinly executed to be successful satire. Still, Akira is tremendously imaginative. This film contains perhaps the “trippiest” hallucination scene I’ve ever seen along with perhaps the most disgusting climactic event I’ve ever seen, so the danger and scariness is occasionally pulse pounding. Additionally, the dystopian mood is nicely achieved through quality direction. I’m not sure Akira did much in terms of encouraging me to pursue future anime films, but it did not turn me away from the genre entirely either.  C

Akira is rated R and has a running time of two hours and five minutes.