Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Top Ten of 2013

Frances-Ha-film-still-31. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013, US) – A sensitive look at the ever-increasing pangs of quarter-life crises. An immaculate twinning of star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, who each line the precipices of contemporary cinematic visions of stilted adulthood and angst. A beautiful monochrome love letter to New York City by way of the French New Wave, Woody Allen style. A perfect film that spoke to me in innumerable ways.

Breaking-Bad_32. Breaking Bad – Season Five, part 2 (x8) (Cr. Vince Gilligan, 2013, AMC, US) – Completing both a perfect season of television and arguably one of the finest TV dramas ever created, these 8 episodes were a sensational concoction of the show’s finest ingredients, blended together to produce a thudding, devastating curtain close for television’s finest anti-hero: Walter White, whose journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface reaches its poetic conclusion.

Standout episode: Ozymandias (s05xe14, dir. Rian Johnson): Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking, shocking and unrestrainedly shattering episodes of television ever made. Johnson extends the show’s cinematic roots and delivers something that is at once a turning point for every character involved and a treatise on the slow-ebbing consequences of deceit.

28-before-midnight3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, US) – One of the many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to the reality it so believably upholds. Yet, where the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism (especially Sunset), the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay, gestating, in between. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

12-years14. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013, US) – Subjecting the art gloss of previous films Hunger and Shame to a more formal model, McQueen’s latest is a towering achievement; an unremitting and equally gut-wrenching combined vision of survival and the hideousness of an evil that continues to stagnate in America’s past.

3NO9_StarredUp5. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie, 2013, UK) – A murky concoction of Alan Clarke-esque grit and Shane Meadows’ stark realism, Mackenzie’s latest is a pinned-backed and rough-edged prison drama that takes an unflinching look at institutionalisation, paternity, the unwritten hierarchies of prison and how destructive lifestyles could be seen as strikingly hereditary. With a vérité, fly on the wall approach and superb naturalistic performances (especially from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, playing father and son), this may be the stand-out British film of 2014 when it’s released in March.

leaves-upstream-color-reelgood6. Upstream Colour (dir. Shane Carruth, 2013, US) – Just as his first project, Primer, saw Carruth shunning established filmic principles in his approach to implementing the science fiction genre, his latest is more of an innate symphony of ostracism sung from a deeply idiosyncratic voice; an ambitious, inventive and hypnotically contemplative entity wholly beyond compare. It is within a lack of empathy for, and simultaneous defiance of, narrative codes and genre conventions that make this one of the most challenging and markedly unclassifiable films to emanate from American independent cinema in quite some time. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett17. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013, US) – However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

don_apartment38. Mad Men – Season Six (x13) (Cr. Matthew Weiner, 2013, AMC, US) – Essentially answering the question posed to central character Don Draper at the close of season 5 (“Are you alone?”), this sixth season makes atonal lurches from one unexpected plot curve to the next as it burrows further into Don’s shadowy cerebral cortex. A murkier tone – mirroring the tumultuousness of 1968 America – may make this one of the show’s weaker seasons, but a tepid season of Mad Men is still one of the best shows on television, and this makes for a memorably hectic prelude to season seven’s two-tiered series finisher.

Standout episode: The Better Half (s06xe09, dir. Phil Abraham): An unlikely tryst between Don and ex-wife Betty, sharing screen time for the first time since season 4, further sheds light on Don’s doomed approach to companionship, devotion and fidelity.

Spring-Breakers-promo06-780x5209. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2012, US) – Embracing the mainstream whilst simultaneously challenging its codes, Korine’s latest is his most fully realised and accessible film to date; a provocative study of chaos that refuses to sugarcoat the ugliness of what it both admires and reproaches. This could so easily have become what it has been advertised as: a cheap and tawdry perusal through its subject matter, using bikini-clad protagonists as exemplars of the accoutrements of present-day youth. Yet it isn’t merely a straightforward depiction of Girls Gone Wild-inspired carnage; quite the contrary in fact. It digs deep into the psyche and inner-workings of the central friendship, the allure of bad behaviour and self-destructiveness, and how the choices these girls make – and the impact of Britney Spears – reverberates and has repercussions.(Reviewed for Take One)

gimme-the-loot-gimme-the-loot-02-01-2013-4-g10. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon, 2012, US) – The feature debut of resident New Yorker Leon, this is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices. (Reviewed for CineVue)

Honourable mentions:

04-blackfish

Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013, US) – Searing and emotionally exhausting, what Cowperthwaite’s documentary lacks in analytical edges it more than makes up for in the sheer weight and comprehension of its central thesis: the destructive ignorance of SeaWorld and animal captivity.

d
Girls – Season Two (x10) (cr. Lena Dunham, 2013, HBO, US) – Small screen auteur Lena Dunham’s excellent, ultra-hip series gets darker and more mature as it goes on, growing into an already well established groove whilst – unlike its protagonists – developing its sense of self.

Standout episode: It’s Back (s02xe08, dir. Jesse Peretz): A superb rug-puller that exemplifies Dunham’s prowess as an actress, storyteller and sculptor of authentic characters with authentic problems.

image-CCF2_5211378E

Southcliffe (x4) (dir. Sean Durkin, 2013, UK) – Another harrowing offering from Durkin, who transcends and repackages his cinematic presence into this startlingly effective British miniseries, which focuses on a town’s devastation brought on by a spate of shootings. A staggering portrait of manifested frustration and grief, stuffed with excellent performances.

Standout episode: Sorrow’s Child (e03, dir. Sean Durkin). Actor Anatol Yusef effectively plumbs the depth of his character, Paul’s, anguish, building to rousing, hair-raising final moments soundtracked by Otis Redding.

museum_hours_ohara

Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen, 2012, Austria) – A lucid, dreamy dissertation on the simultaneous intimacy and implacability of life, death and the art of simply looking.

cake045178

After Lucia (dir. Michel Franco, 2012, Mexico) – Released straight to DVD here in the UK, this is a gruelling portrait of bullying and the evils of youth that deserves a wider audience, if not for the relentless torment of its protagonist then for the spectacular performance from the actress who plays her, Tessa Ia. (featured on Best of 2012 list)

(A list dedicated solely to 2013 UK releases can be found on HeyUGuys’ Movie Bloggers poll)

Review: Blue Jasmine

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett1(dir. Woody Allen, 2013)
(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Nestled amongst a seemingly unending European sojourn (his previous took place in Rome, his next 1930s France), Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s return to the states since 2009’s shabby Whatever Works and provides the foundation for his most biting, raw and germane film in quite some time. However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. What starts as a typically breezy jaunt through feminine angst – accompanied by the usual stereotypically mapped place-setting and neuroses inflected humour, descends into tragedy as quickly as the film’s protagonist waxes boastingly lyrical about her once dexterous life to anyone unfortunate enough to gain her attention.

Blue Jasmine opens with Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, on toxically rousing form), a financially destitute ex-socialite, aboard a flight from New York to San Francisco to seek refuge from the ruinations of her past life. She’s the forty-something widow of a Bernie Madoff-esque businessman-cum-exploiter (Alec Baldwin) who, unbeknownst to his blissfully unaware spouse, fuelled their luxuriously moneyed lifestyle through shady deals and stolen equity. In the wake of her climactic fall from grace – and her husband’s jail-set suicide, Jasmine (refashioned from Jeanette, which “had no panache”) turns to adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) for both a reprieve from the past and an incentive for a new, frantically cobbled together future.

In a steadfast bid for substantiality, Jasmine attempts to rise above what she sees as the menial ineptitude of Ginger’s blue collar existence by deciding to embark on either a career in interior design or resume her education in anthropology, a scholarly background she quickly dropped for a man who promised her bountiful wealth and status amongst New York’s upper crust. Looking to maintain that her stay in San Francisco – already a step-down from her dwellings in Brooklyn – will be as temporary as possible, Jasmine assumes a position of weary advice-giver to Ginger by schooling her in the dos and dont’s of her relationship with greaseball Chili (Bobby Cannavale) whilst simultaneously becoming the object of affection for a lecherous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a budding congressman, played by Peter Sarsgaard. She also learns that a life of haughty entitlement overshadowed by a murky history ensures that her desire for a second bout of upward mobility is as bottomless as the glass of vodka constantly by her side.

Through sustained flashbacks we see the lofty highs and eventual lows of Jasmine’s marriage to Hal, where cracks were blanketed by her blissfully unaware, somewhat conscious ignorance and a complicity she surmises as herself being a witless bystander in a world she was ill-equipped to navigate, only enjoy. Although the segueing between present and past becomes slightly jarring on an assemblage front, its use as a method to show how the reverberations from one have a lasting, damning effect on the other allows the layers of Jasmine’s cracked and sadly conflicted personality to gestate. It also establishes the dichotomous relationship between Jasmine and Ginger, which is expertly investigated (and written) in the current tense as the characters continue to share vastly dissimilar outlooks on, and expectations from, life and the men who weave in and out.

In a powerhouse, awards-worthy performance, Blanchett excels as the delusional and mentally unstable pill popper, who arrives in San Francisco a washed-up relic of a pre-recession America with a vicelike grip on the material remnants of a bourgeois regime and a tendency to speak to herself (a narrative device Blanchett is fully capable of making appear organic). Once again charting the boundaries between comedy and tragedy, this is the most consistently together Allen has been for a while; his script is dense and ponderous as it tackles relatable and modern issues, something quite alien to his cinema of late. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved.

Review: Gimme the Loot

gimme-the-loot-gimme-the-loot-02-01-2013-4-g

(Adam Leon, 2012)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

If distinguished American filmmakers Woody Allen and Spike Lee amalgamated their cinematic perceptions and thematic concerns into a single project, chances are it would end up closely resembling Gimme the Loot (2012), the feature debut of resident New Yorker Adam Leon championed by fellow director Jonathan Demme. After competing in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently going on to win the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in the same year, Leon’s film arrives boasting a fair amount of positive buzz that is completely warranted; it is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices.

Set over two balmy summer days in and around the hustling Bronx borough of New York City, Gimme the Loot sees two frustrated teenage friends Malcolm and Sofia (competently played by Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington, respectively) embarking on a mission that will bring their passion for graffiti to a publically broadcasted crescendo. After a rival gang defaces their latest piece, the pair plot to get revenge by ‘tagging’ the Mets Home Run Apple: an iconic NYC landmark whose ruination they believe will fully put their name on the graffiti-artist map.

However, after learning they need to raise $500 to pull off such a spectacularly hare-brained scheme – a steep fee they cannot immediately fund – Malcolm and Sofia set off on an adventure through the sun-soaked and diversified streets of the The Big Apple’s murkier underbelly, fuelled by the opportunity of illicitly gaining money from black market spray cans, stolen narcotics and pilfered sneakers. Throughout their quest for cash, the two come across a diverse range of characters who either enhance or hinder their plans, especially a divisive stoner (Zoë Lescaze) who may or may not hold the key to their ultimate success.

Light-hearted, short and evenly judged, Gimme the Loot excels through Leon’s – who cut his teeth directing short films and music videos – refusal to let it become more than it needs to be: an upbeat and simple tale of the joys and possibilities of youth rather than it’s numerous drawbacks. Of course, whilst the forms of variously contentious juvenile delinquency seen dabbled in by the characters is not to be venerated, Leon (who also wrote the screenplay) captures it all as acts of anxiety performed by kids with financial and personal hardships, as well as their only source of immediate income. This is all acted out on real locations through often guerrilla style conditions, and cinematographer Jonathan Miller does an excellent job of pinpointing the sometimes gritty, always vibrant and unpredictable streets of a city in continuous motion.

Joining the pantheon of filmmaker’s who know exactly how to project the look and feel of a contemporary urbane climate and its many facets, Leon has created a universally identifiable story of friendship and, as teased at the end, love that is as soulful as it is pleasantly optimistic.

Notes on: To Rome With Love

(Woody Allen, 2012)

A typically all-star cast assemble to imbalanced effect in Woody Allen’s 2012 offering To Rome With Love, a jovially lightweight attempt at revisiting the anthology approach to filmmaking which brought his Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) a reasonable amount of acclaim. TRWL is not as consistent or consistently funny as that film (an early paradigm of his retrospective ‘early funny’ period), but it does see Allen bringing himself back into a version of the present day (no matter how disparate the four timelines appear to be) after Midnight in Paris’ (2011) obsessions with the past. It’s all very twee and inoffensively enjoyable, combining passé ruminations on life, sex, love, marriage and celebrity with yet another picture postcard aesthetic idealisation of a great city: this time the titular Rome.

Making a career out of condensing and replaying his auteurist idols’ thematics (and occasionally their cinematographic attitudes) for his own body of work – though fitting them with his own metaphysical concerns and sense of humour, this is Allen sculpting another paean to his cinematic poster boy Federico Fellini, his own Roma (1972) so to speak.

Giving himself his first role since 2006’s docile Scoop, Allen stars in the film’s strongest story as Jerry, husband to Phyllis (Judy Davis, in her fourth Allen film) and father to Alison Pill’s Hayley, an American tourist whose visit to Rome is complemented by a relationship-cum-proposal to Italian pro bono lawyer Michelangelo. Initially reticent towards his prospective son-in-law’s family and their communist sensibilities, Jerry – an unhappily retired director of flamboyant opera, blissfully ignorant to his critics back in New York- becomes enamoured with Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo, a mortician who has the vocal range of an operatic wunderkind but only whilst in the shower. Jerry’s infatuation with bringing Giancarlo’s gift to the stage results in some curiously unorthodox (for Allen, at least) visual jokes that see a range of well-received productions centred on a showering Giancarlo, who scrubs and sings his heart out.

Elsewhere Alec Baldwin stars as John, a celebrated American architect who may or may not be linked to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student studying architecture in the Eternal City, who he bumps into seemingly at random. Inexplicably, John quickly becomes something of a mercurial figure, a wise Jiminy Cricket-like voice of reason quick to give relationship advice to Jack, his girlfriend Sally (a wasted Greta Gerwig) and her sultry friend Monica (Ellen Page), a pseudointellectual bisexual who channels the more caustic women in Allen’s back stock (Christina Ricci in Anything Else, etc). A similarly unanswerable plot is the one that sees Roberto Benigni’s lowly office drone suddenly becoming a star, hounded day and night by paparazzi who strive on uncovering his personal idiosyncrasies (“What did you have for breakfast?” “Do you wear boxers or briefs?”). Much like all the narrative ‘tricks’ that numerously appear in Allen’s high concept works, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to the aforementioned Midnight in Paris, the mysterious and playful concepts depicted in these two segments go unexplained, with the emphasis and much of the comedy (when it arrives) being on their effects on the characters rather than on originations.

Finally, in a variation on Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play Antonio and Milly respectively, a newlywed couple whose honeymoon in Rome immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Losing her way whilst searching for a hair salon (a sequence that sees Allen’s camera taking roving sweeps around the emblematic sites, bolstered by DP Darius Khondji’s translucent cinematography), Milly finds herself stumbling from a film set to the bed of its leading star to the arms of an armed robber, whilst Antonio falls prey to mistaken identity and has to pass off trashy hooker Anna (Penélope Cruz) as his newlywed to a gaggle of stern aunts and uncles. Easily the most disposable footnote in an altogether piecemeal film, this section highlights a lack of footing – in conjunction with the other three’s tighter plotting – whilst showing a square drawing of prostitution; Cruz’s Anna (a sobering flipside to her Oscar winning María Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) is far removed from Allen’s previous and altogether more rounded prostitute characters, namely Mira Sorvino’s Academy Award winning Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and even Hazelle Goodman’s Cookie in Deconstructing Harry (1997), his only prominent role for a black actor.

Fragmented, distractible and in need of a more imaginative edit, To Rome With Love is lesser Woody Allen that exists in a lesser Allen epoch, a stage where every instalment in his healthy catalogue is given an unfair amount of critical conjecture. This does meander around a loose spine, the graphic equivalent of his process of sorting through and marrying together his draw full of notes and ideas (a work process shown in Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011)), but save for dated and laboured quips (and an ill-placed effects shot), there is a pay-off to the scattered mishmash.