Irrational Man

Irrational ManDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey

Well the word on the street about Irrational Man had me worried that I would have to write my first unfavorable review for a Woody Allen film. Well, fear not! Irrational Man is a moody, dark, twisted little film that proves engaging to even the most discerning Woody Allen-hater, and I can say this because I brought one to the theater with me!

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who has lost his passion for life. Not in the pondering death and its inevitableness kind of way, but in the hey, it’s a college party, I’ll try a little one-man Russian roulette, kind of way. Abe’s past reputation as a great mind in his field quickly captures the attention of one of his young students, Jill, played by Emma Stone. Their relationship “walks the line” of acceptability between teacher and student as Jill becomes more and more infatuated with the brooding Abe. During one of their supposedly innocuous dates, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation from a woman at a nearby table that sends the film spinning in a very different direction leading Abe to ponder taking an action that just may rekindle his spirit and reinvigorate his purpose in life. While I will not reveal exactly what that “action” is, I will say that it is involved in what could be considered a plot twist, something rarely found in a Woody Allen film.

Irrational Man is Allen’s darkest film since the sensational Match Point in 2005, and while it’s not quite at the caliber of that film, Irrational Man does borrow an idea or two from it. In fact, Irrational Man could be considered the fourth volume of an informal morality tetralogy after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. Allen has explored morality as a function of many of his films, but these four further his discussion beyond a humble motif. For this film Allen paints Abe as an existential philosopher who spouts Kierkegaard, Kant, and of course Dostoevsky, but seems virtually void of any desire to utilize free will in the search for meaning. It is not until Abe meets Jill that he suffers a truly Kierkegaardian experience forcing him to realize his anxiety truly is the dizziness of freedom. The dynamic between Abe and Jill is highly responsible for the film’s success. Phoenix’s grumpy genius is a perfect foil to Stone’s bubbly inquisitiveness. These two actors share a brilliant and intense scene late in the film that is as powerful a scene between two characters as any Allen has ever written.

Contrary to the way this film is portrayed in the trailer, Irrational Man is not a romantic romp. I’d liken the tone to something the Coen brothers might dream up; somewhere between Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a recent NPR interview, Allen was asked, “What’s your problem with people?” Allen answered, “I think some of them are wonderful, but [there] are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.” You may say that these are the words of an irrational man, but if you’re willing to concede that he may have a point, go see Irrational Man. B+

Irrational Man is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.

Advertisements

Celebrity

Celebrity1Director: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen

After a favorable reception from my recent vintage review of Crimes and Misdemeanors, I thought I’d strike while the iron’s hot and review another Woody Allen film I’ve come to appreciate.  Celebrity is a comedy about a very topical phenomenon that has reached an even more unbelievable status than it had 17 years ago when the film was released.  That phenomenon?   That anybody, with a little luck, can achieve a celebrity status and find love. Every character in this film is either famous or in search of fame. Director Woody Allen’s main thought that he is trying to convey is that celebrityism is not achieved by people who earn it or deserve it, but rather by people who are lucky or more fortunate.

The story surrounds two paralleling main characters Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis). After Lee attends his high school reunion and sees that all of his classmates are boring, old, and balding he begins to go through a mid-life crisis and he realizes that he has never actually felt true love. Accordingly after 16 years of being married to Robin, Lee decides to divorce her. Lee then goes on a quest to find love and fame. Allen places Lee in several situations where he conveys his opinion that we, as a society, do not celebrate the people that we should. First Lee meets the seductive, yet married actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), whom he is supposed to write an article about. Nicole takes Lee to the house she lived in as a child, and although she states that she is happily married, she still feels it is ethical to service him orally, as long as she does not sleep with him. She denotes this by saying, “What I do from the nick up, that’s a totally different story.” Here, Allen demonstrates how people who achieve a high celebrity status, come up with a moral system that suites themselves, but not necessarily the rest of society. Her statement, besides having the sexual interpretation, also means that whatever she feels is moral in her mind is therefore justified.  Coincidentally, this echos a similar theme explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors as well.

Next, Lee meets a supermodel (Charlize Theron in one of her first major roles) that is popular solely because of her jaw-dropping good looks. Theron’s character remains nameless throughout the film. Allen purposely did not give her a name in order to stress how people who see these beautiful people are not concerned with who they are, just what they look like. This goes the same for Leonardo DiCapro’s character Brandon Darrow. Although he is a drug abusing, woman beating, hotel-trashing brat with no creative vision, he is still considered a huge star because he has got a pretty face.

After the supermodel leaves Lee, he becomes serious with a more practical and logical woman named Bonnie (Famke Janssen). Bonnie is made to seem virtually perfect; she is beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and nice. However, Lee loses interest in her and feels that he has to move on. The importance of Bonnie’s character, besides the fact that she shows what a shallow and low man Lee is, is that she is responsible for destroying Lee’s ticket to stardom, which is also directly related to the destruction of Lee’s chance for love.

Lee leaves Bonnie for Nola, (Winona Ryder) a woman who has been in and out of his life for some time. Nola is an actress with her own career on her mind. She is not willing to commit to a relationship and can not reach an emotional bond with Lee because she is on her own quest for fame, much like Lee.

Lee’s acts are strongly contradicted by the transformation of his ex-wife Robin. Robin, at first, is shown as a shy, sexually frustrated, Catholic woman. After Lee leaves her, Robin’s friend books her a session with a famous plastic surgeon that ends up examining her while he talks to a TV camera and interviewer. Robin’s transformation begins here when she meets Tony (Joe Mantegna) a television producer. Tony shapes her and makes her into a celebrity reporter on an Entertainment Tonight like show. No sequence shows Robin’s changed lifestyle better that the one near the film’s end where Robin is shown rushing around the tables of a restaurant, interviewing various stars. She eventually stops and talks to Donald Trump. Trump tells her that he is going to tear down a cathedral and put up a “really tall building.” At the beginning of the film, Robin’s Catholic upbringing would have come through and caused her to become highly upset by this statement, however, here Robin simply says, “Oh, that’s nice.” Here we see that although Robin has accepted love and been rewarded by fame, she has lost her identity.

Robin attains fame without even looking for it while Lee never reaches a celebrity status after all of his attempts. This again restates the film’s statement that love and fame are attained purely by luck.  Allen drives his theme home in an ending scene that is crucial in establishing the film’s meaning.  First of all it re-introduces the characters to the audience, so we can see where many of them finally end up.  Allen’s techniques used throughout the entire film prove to be some of his most ambitious. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s eloquent shooting in black and white requires a creative use of lighting. The music is always soft and relaxing. Beethoven’s 5th and the “…So You Want to be in Pictures,” song are heard throughout the film in different situations. One more solid technique is Allen’s relaxed cutting rhythm throughout the film. Most of the film’s shots are long and relaxed. There are very few short or fast paced scenes.  Allen seems to have a lot to say on this subject and with a running time of 113 minutes, this is one of his longest films.

At the end, this is another vibrant and beautifully rich film from Woody Allen both contextually and artistically.  His career is one of reinvention and sometimes that can result in films that are a little ahead of their time.  This is likely the case with Celebrity.  Agree or disagree with Allen’s theory on love and fame, but to me, this film plays much better today than it did in the late 90s.  A-

Celebrity is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes.  

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

Blue Jasmine

ImageFor The People’s Critic, perhaps the most anticipated moment of any cinematic calendar year is not the summer blockbusters or the fall awards-hungry films.  It is the release of the latest Woody Allen film.  With Blue Jasmine being his 41st film as writer/director in as many years, the always reliable, always prolific auteur has earned the respect of The People’s Critic as a living legend.  The Brooklyn-born neurotic genius shows no signs of running out of steam at the age of 77 with Blue Jasmine being one of his most insightful and finely-tuned films of his career.

Have you ever wondered who that blabbering stranger is who sits next to you on an air plane or who that mumbling nut-case is who sits next to you on a park bench?  These are quite possibly the questions that inspired Allen’s latest film.  The film’s title refers to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a modern American socialite who suffers a life crisis when her financial investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a white-collar crook in the vein of Bernie Madoff.  Jasmine’s story is told as a fractured storyline flashing back and forth to Jasmine’s life before and after her impending ruin.  Allen handles these juxtapositions flawlessly, carefully crafting the triggers that send the story hurdling back and forth.

Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate.  The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths.  The film opens with a freshly ruined Jasmine leaving New York to live with Ginger in San Francisco.  The transition is not an easy one for her, and Ginger’s low-middle class lifestyle disgusts Jasmine.  What complicates things even more is that Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were victims of Jasmine’s husband and lost everything.  Jasmine is mindful of this tension and it is a testament to Blanchett’s ability in how strongly she plays a victim who is also a victimizer!  Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth; we even learn that even her name is false as she changed it from Jeanette to Jasmine because she thought Jeanette “lacked panache.”

Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film.  While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters.  Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

When one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen, 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.  And it is fitting that Blue Jasmine is probably most comparable with one of Allen’s most mature films, Crimes and Misdemeanors as both films utilize 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.  Cate Blanchett is poised to enter the Oscar race swinging as is Allen’s screenplay.  Blanchett is clearly the film’s major talking point and she delivers a tragic performance worthy of much discussion.  I can only imagine how Ruth Madoff feels about this one.  A

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.  This is another solid film in Allen’s storied career that is sure to illicit emotion while also emitting a slightly disturbing tone.