Film review of Cafe Society

October 21, 2016

(This film review of “Cafe Society” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 October 2016.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen; starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll and Ken Stott

As a master Jewish film-maker, Woody Allen is without peer in the history of film.  During the course of almost 60 films over more than 50 years, he has established numerous iconic Jewish characters and explored issues ranging from antisemitism to Jewish mothers and sons to Jews in show business to the Holocaust.

Despite numerous Academy Award nominations, Allen has not maintained the impact that he once had with some of his early hits like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, films that implanted themselves in the collective subconscious of film-goers.

Allen’s latest film, “Cafe Society”, is set in 1930s New York and Los Angeles, and doesn’t break new ground, but minute by minute it is one of the funniest Jewish comedies in many years.  Most major characters in this film are Jewish, and being Jewish for them is a big deal, in their interactions with each other and with non-Jews.

The plot of “Cafe Society” revolves around Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who is arrives in California seeking help from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a successful Hollywood agent (big house, non-Jewish blond wife) who consistently pretends to be more important than he is.  Bobby starts to work for Phil, and soon falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who it turns out (not much plot giveaway here) is having an affair with Phil.

The action later switches to New York, where a now-older Bobby manages a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the first Jewish crime figure we have seen on screen in a while.  As the young Bobby, Eisenberg channels Woody Allen in almost embarrassing ways, sounding so much like the young Allen that it’s creepy.  But as Eisenberg’s character gets older, those expressions fade and are replaced by a more solid, albeit naive and desperately earnest demeanour.   The plot loops slowly and gently, generally satisfying, but without great impact.  The delight here is in the telling, with the carefully drawn characters and lots of cute references to classic Hollywood films and actors.

Eisenberg has many of the film’s most delightful lines, including a hilarious conversation with a young woman (Blake Lively) where, within a few quick minutes, the dialogue successfully mentions just about every antisemitic stereotype imaginable.  In one of the film’s first conversations, one agent says how he “found Paul Muni” (a graduate of Yiddish theatre and one of the most prestigious actors of the pre-war period).  Allen includes one of his favourite scenes, a family seder (think “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) where all present get to chip in on a discussion about modern Jewish life.  Characters also frequently curse in Yiddish.

“Cafe Society” looks beautiful on the screen – it’s shot by three-time Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittario Storaro, although it does contain many classic Woody Allen themes, including an obsession with browns and yellows, and a cleanliness of locations that surely could not have been true at the time.  But in Woody Allen’s mind, that’s what life was like then.

The casting depth in “Cafe Society” is also delightful; Allen writes great characters and actors love playing them.  One highlight is the casting of Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother Rose, adding a new twist to the long list of powerful Jewish mothers on screen.  Berlin has a long history of playing Jewish characters, notably co-starring in “The Heartbreak Kid” (the 1972 original directed by her mother Elaine May, not the Ben Stiller re-make) as Charles Grodin’s spurned Jewish wife.  Other neat minor roles include British actor Ken Stott as Bobby’s father, inhabiting his meek Jewish father role with relish; Parker Posey as a sharp-tongued modelling agency owner; and the oh-so-precious interactions between Sari Lennick (Bobby’s sister Evelyn) and her intellectual Jewish husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken).

(image below:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen shooting in New York City’s Central Park)


Mistress American film review

November 5, 2015

(This film review of “Mistress America” appeared in a shorter form in the Australian Jewish News on 5 November 2015.)

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind and Cindy Cheung

When the history of early twenty-first century American film is written, it will become clear that the true inheritor to the Jewish film-making legacy of Woody Allen is Noah Baumbach, who is 33 years Allen’s junior. Like Allen, Baumbach is a Brooklyn-raised (both attended Midwood High School) auteur-style writer/director. With Baumbach’s most recent film, “Mistress America”, it is also clear that – like Allen’s relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow – Baumbach has now found his non-Jewish female muse, in the person of actress/writer Greta Gerwig.

Baumbach has paid homage to Allen throughout his career, through his black and white film-making (“Frances Ha” vs “Manhattan”), his self-conscious vistas of New York City and his close attention to modern New York relationships, many of them featuring Jewish men, with Ben Stiller being a noted favourite (“Greenberg” and “While We’re Young”). Both writer/directors have also specialised, accidentally or not, in creating memorable female characters.

In “Mistress America” (now screening nationally), Baumbach collaborates with Gerwig for the second time (she starred and co-wrote “Frances Ha”) and extends his development of complex, conflicted and comically struggling female characters.

Set in New York City, the action revolves around college freshman (first year unie student) Tracy Fishko, who is played by Lola Kirke, who is Jewish (both of her mother’s parents) and the sister of “Girls” star Jemima Kirke (“Jessa”). The “Girls” connection is relevant, for “Mistress America” feels like a first cousin to Lena Dunham’s television series, with comically confused characters seeking fulfilment and life’s meaning on the streets of the Big Apple (although without the sex).

Tracy has come to study at Columbia University to study literature, and is having a hard go of it, making few friends and spending many lonely hours. Fortunately, her mother (played by the delightful Kathryn Erbe) is about to get re-married, and puts Tracy in touch with her new step-sister to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething charismatic, energetic and entrepreneurial whirlwind filled with ideas and surprises – just what the depressive Tracy needs. Brooke becomes Tracy’s mentor, carting her around the city and allowing Tracy to feel like she is living the romantic life she so craves.

“Mistress America” is a comedy of manners, much more subtle and low-key than Baumbach’s recent work. Everything in the film presents as slightly askew. Not a great deal actually happens, with a looser structure than “Frances Ha”, which may frustrate some viewers who prefer a strong story line. Relationships never quite get off the ground, people talk at – rather than with – one another, as if they are living in separate planes of existence that don’t quite intersect. There may be some clever commentary here about living life in the hyper-connected digital age: some of the details are totally delicious, down to the severely cracked screen of Tracy’s iPhone (how much that simple image tells us).

The film contains serio-comic sequences, such as when Brooke meets an old female high school classmate who declares how much Brooke hurt her by her bullying, with lines such as “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath.”

The highlight of “Mistress America” (the name comes from Tracy’s short story about Brooke) is an elaborate comedy of errors set piece, set in a cold modern suburban Connecticut house with a fabulous river view. Brooke – with Tracy and two reluctant friends in tow – is chasing up an old boyfriend and his wife, also a former friend of hers. They’ve made lots of money from digital businesses, and Brooke’s intention is to obtain a loan of some of it for a new restaurant concept. But the whole experience turns into something much greater – and less – than that. In an almost European or perhaps Marx brothers-style scene, characters pop in and out of rooms, learning new things about each other as relationships unravel and new understandings dawn. The scene lasts possibly 15 minutes, and reminds us of the best of Wes Anderson – possibly not surprising, given that Baumbach and Anderson have collaborated on three films.

(photo below: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke on the streets of New York City in “Mistress America”.)


Film review of Irrational Man

August 21, 2015

(This film review of “Irrational Man” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 August 2015.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey

Even on a bad day, a Woody Allen movie is worth watching. While his latest film, “Irrational Man”, is a distinctly minor addition to his impressive oeuvre, it contains at least two performances of extraordinary quality and attempts to deal with philosophical questions that most directors avoid.

Allen’s film career as a writer, director and actor now spans more than 50 years. “Irrational Man” returns to one of Allen’s favoured themes, of evil deeds going unpunished. He explored this in great length in the comedy-drama, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, which was set partly against the background of his character’s obsession with the Holocaust.

“Irrational Man” instead takes an academic approach through its main character Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives at a small New England college suffering from writer’s block and general ennui. Unable to progress his book on Heidegger and fascism, he commences a desultory affair with a depressed married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). And against his better judgment, he is drawn into second affair with one of his brightest undergraduate students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), the daughter of two local professors – both of them obviously Jewish. Both women want to be rescued by Lucas, who in turn is seeking some escape from his lonely and alcohol-fuelled musings (“just what the world needs, another book on Heidegger and fascism”).

I have never been a fan of screen alcoholics, as perpetual drunks are rarely fun to watch, and following their journeys is rarely interesting. Abe’s situation creates a structural problem for the plot of “Irrational Man”, so Abe’s tortured character decides to do something drastic to rouse himself (no plot spoilers here). As Abe, a mis-cast Phoenix falls into his classic speech-slurring mumble, spouting philosophical truisms (“anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”), but without the conviction that other actors have been able to give to Allen’s intellectual lines.

By contrast, Parker Posey and Emma Stone both shine in their roles, creating two believable and totally watchable characters. If this film were stronger, I would tip both for possible Academy Award nominations. But the weak and underwritten plot with a too-easy ending and Phoenix’s loose performance all weigh it down. Despite the scenic Rhode Island setting and a few cute pop culture references (“I am at a ‘Zabriskie Point’ moment”), “Irrational Man” leaves little emotional resonance.

Last year, the New York Post posed the question, “Does Woody Allen write good roles for women, or is he a great director of women?” Seven performances in Woody Allen films have won Academy Awards, six of them for women, an almost unparalleled achievement. “Irrational Man” contains two more good female roles, unfortunately lost in a flawed film.

(Photo below: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in “Irrational Man”)

Irrational Man

While We’re Young film review

April 16, 2015

(This review of the film “While We’re Young” appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 16 April 2015.)

Written and directed by Noam Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia

The debate about which American-Jewish film-maker has inherited the mantle of Woody Allen is now closed: it’s Noah Baumbach. With his latest film “While We’re Young”, Baumbach has captured a cultural moment of contemporary upper-middle class American-Jewish angst, at least for the twenty- to fortysomethings who he portrays with incisive wit and intelligence.

For those in the “know”, Brooklyn is now the centre of American urban intellectual and artistic achievement. It’s where Baumbach (and Allen) grew up, and where most of “While We’re Young” is set.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Srebnick, a socially aware documentary director with the film-maker’s version of writer’s block: he has struggled for seven years to finish editing his latest film, a convoluted investigation into political and social issues. Josh’s life is in simmering mini-crisis: at age 44 (the same age as Baumbach when he made the film), he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have no children and are uncertain of what next to do in life. Cornelia is the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), an eminent documentary maker (likened to Frederick Wiseman) who mentored Josh in his early career but from whom he now estranged.

Josh and Cornelia’s dilemma is highlighted by their strained friendship with their close friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Beastie Boys singer Adam Horovitz), who are in the throes of new parenthood with all of the lifestyle changes that brings. Josh teaches a continuing education course on film, which is where he first meets Jamie (Adam Driver, enthusiastically playing a version of his familiar screen persona) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple who define the new “hip” with their retro vinyl record and VHS collections. The young couple’s take on life engages and delights Josh and Cornelia, with Josh soon mentoring Jamie’s own film development.

In less than 100 minutes, “While We’re Young” deftly touches on many of life’s big issues: mentorship, fame, achievement, professional and personal disappointments, middle age angst, the passing of the flame, and what is truth and justice. It’s funny and clever, with lines such as, “before we met, the only feelings I had were wistful and disdainful”.

“When We’re Young” plays homage to Woody Allen’s 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, an existential comedy-drama and meditation on the existence of evil. Like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes”, Ben Stiller’s character’s unfinished film focuses on an ageing Jewish intellectual, a “Dr Ira Mandelstam”, a Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.

“While We’re Young” is also a considered and nuanced portrayal of modern intellectual Jewish life. Although the word “Jew” is never mentioned, the choice of the obviously Jewish names “Srebnick”, “Breitbart” and “Mandelstam” makes it clear that this world is a thoroughly Jewish one – at least the men. The matching of Stiller and Grodin is also a fascinating and clever in-joke. Both are strongly Jewish-identified actors who acted in same lead role as Lenny/Eddie Cantrow in the two film versions (1972 and 2007) of “The Heartbreak Kid”, a classic story of Jewish assimilation.

From the opening moments – white Times New Roman print on a black screen (recognise the Woody Allen format?) of lines from an Ibsen play – to its emotionally satisfying ending, “While We’re Young” is an intellectual comedy of manners that does not ignore the heart. Filled with strong performances playing warm and appealing characters, this film is much like the world it portrays: smart, hip, incisive, intelligent and with just enough flaws to make it real.

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in While We're Young(photo above:  Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”)

Magic in the Moonlight film review

August 27, 2014

(This film review of “Magic in the Moonlight” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 August 2014.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Simon McBurney

It is a testament to Woody Allen’s enduring influence as a Jewish film-maker that we Jews closely follow each of his releases, even when there are no Jewish concepts, themes or characters. There have been flashier and more popular Jewish film-makers (Steven Spielberg, also known for his Jewish philanthropy), grittier (Sidney Lumet), possibly funnier (Mel Brooks), possibly more accomplished (Billy Wilder), definitely stranger (Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick), “cooler” (Joel Coen), more political (Milos Forman, Otto Preminger) and “artier” (Darren Aronofsky).

And yet, Woody Allen stands at the top of almost everyone’s list of the great Jewish film directors of all time. This is partly due to his three roles – he writes, directs and acts – so that we have a strong image of Woody Allen the screen character. He undoubtedly is also one of the best screenwriters ever, with 73 screen writing credits, 16 Oscar nominations and 3 Oscar wins. It’s also due to hard work and living a long and productive life: at an age when most men are long retired or dead – he will be 79 in December – he continues to produce a film each year.

Broadly, Woody Allen’s films fall into five broad categories, with numerous overlaps and side themes: early slapstick (“Sleepers”), romantic nostalgia (“Annie Hall”), drama (“Blue Jasmine”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), light mystery (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”) and – most recently – European adventures (“Midnight in Paris”, “Vicki Christina Barcelona”).

Opening this week, “Magic in the Moonlight” is Allen’s latest, falling into the latter category of a light, romantic European adventure, including magic themes (long an Allen favourite). This is “middling” Woody Allen: his fans will insist on seeing it, and many will be swept up by the characters, British-style drawing room comedy (George Bernard Shaw, where are you?), great production design and sumptuous European settings. Others may be frustrated by the film’s unwillingness to present enough substance for us to really care what happens and why.

“Magic in the Moonlight” opens in “Berlin 1928”, at a theatrical magic show run by Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who uses an on-stage Chinese persona (“Wei Ling Soo”). He makes elephants disappear and transports himself across the stage from locked boxes to chairs. Although the action quickly shifts elsewhere, here Allen is hinting at tragedies to come, in the style of the film “Cabaret”. But Allen has other things on his mind: Stanley is enlisted by an old school friend, Howard Burkan (delightful British actor Simon McBurney, most recognised for his role in “Friends with Money”), to help de-bunk the “spiritualist” claims by a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). As a purveyor of magic himself, Stanley is a dour rationalist who specialises in un-masking fake “mediums”, although secretly – we discover – he desires to find hidden and unexplained meanings.

They travel to the Côte d’Azur, where a variety of characters have collected: Stanley’s ageing aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and the Catledges, a rich American family which has become enamoured of Sophie. There’s mother Grace (Jacki Weaver, again sporting a flawless American accent), daughter Olivia and her husband, and son Brice (Hamish Linklater) who has been smitten with Sophie, and insists on playing a ukulele as a means of wooing her. They wear tennis whites, go out on yachts and generally live a life of naive and semi-cultured ease.

The core of “Magic in the Moonlight”, however, is the growing relationship between Sophie and Stanley, and the results are mixed. While Stanley is moderately successful, sophisticated and experienced, he has little emotional intelligence and is a self-confessed misanthrope. By contrast, the younger Sophie is practical and exudes a natural charm, “opening up” the buttoned down Stanley in ways that shock and surprise him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love, in fits and starts. Colin Firth is one of the great British actors of our time, but at age 53, he is twice Emma Stone’s age. Thus the film also reflects a favourite but less-than-savoury Woody Allen scenario: the younger woman with the older man.

Allen fills the film with sharp one-liners and quotes from Nietschke about the nature of man, which often appear to be stage-like (did people really speak that way?), and he knows how never to over-extend a scene. There are two major plot point surprises, although for me one of them fell flat. Allen’s films rarely are the cause of “life or death” concerns – even the popular “Midnight in Paris” had very little emotional “weight”. “Magic in the Moonlight” fits into the fairy floss category: sweet and nice to look at, but little to remember once it is gone.

Magic in the Moonlight poster

Review of Fading Gigolo

May 8, 2014

(This film review of “Fading Gigolo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 8, 2014 in a shortened form.)

Written and directed by John Turturro
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Liev Schrieber, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis
John Turturro has established himself as one of the strongest character movie actors of his generation, usually playing Italian or Jewish roles with such directors as the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. (Jewish blogger Nate Bloom claims that Turturro holds the record for the most Jewish screen roles by a non-Jewish actor.) In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro attempts the “triple act” – directing, writing and starring. Unfortunately, the results are mixed at best, and this film will be a “must see” only for anyone who feel that they “must” see all Woody Allen films.

Turturro sets “Fading Gigolo” in current day New York City, and his character Fioravante is an Italian-American part-time florist whose close friend Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) has recently closed his antiquarian bookshop (“M. Schwartz & Son”). Through odd circumstances, Murray’s dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone – okay, let’s accept that bit of miscasting) asks Murray if he knows any gigolo for her, and Murray convinces his friend Fioravante to play the role.

The premise is totally preposterous. At age 57, Turturro still looks good with his strong ethnic features, but with his role as a gigolo, the title says it all: yes, he’s fading. And even more so that Sharon Stone – one of the most notable screen sirens of the past two decades – would need to seek someone like him out. At age 56, she’s still beautiful, still stunning and has a screen presence that puts everyone else in her scenes in the background. Director Turturro can’t resist showing her in her undergarments and stretching her long lithe legs, a direct visual reference to her famous erotic crossing legs scene in “Basic Instinct” (1992).

There are other strong cast members: Sofia Vergara (the South American actress best known for “Modern Family”) plays a friend of Stone’s. But the real “find” of the film is French singer Vanessa Paradis, who gives a well-controlled performance as Avigal, a Chasidic widow with six children. Incongruously, Murray attempts to set her up with Fioravante, passing him off as a “healer” (really?), to the great dismay of Dovi (a heavily underwritten role for Liev Schrieber), a Chasidic community guard (“Shomrim Williamsburg Division”) who is secretly in love with her.

The introduction of the Chasidic subtheme is odd and very much “outside in”. At one point, Woody Allen’s character is unwillingly brought before a rabbinic court and is represented by his Jewish lawyer (the ubiquitous Bob Balaban), but Turturro can’t decide which tone to take: is it a Mel Brooks-style satire or – briefly veering towards a reality check – widow Avigal’s crisis of conscience? But this is no “Fill the Void” (last year’s Israeli film), just an incoherent ramble.

Opening with Woody Allen’s voice, “Fading Gigolo” looks, feels and sounds like a minor Woody Allen movie, complete with Woody Allen music (jazz heavily flavoured with Italian), and using Allen’s favoured colour palette of beiges, yellows and browns. At least Allen acts his age (he’s a spry 78), and gives some of the film’s best comic lines. Allen has starred in a small number of films that he has not written or directed, notably “The Front” with Zero Mostel (1976) and “Scenes From a Mall” with Bette Midler (1991).

While those two films had faults, at least both of them had strong and consistent themes. In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro can’t decide if he wants a broad comedy, a drama or a “bromance” (the Murray- Fioravante friendship is the heart of the film, well sort of). The film never recovers from its badly conceived premise, and when the actors are given some real emotions to express in the final third act, it’s too late to save our interest.

(Fun fact: Sharon Stone’s first movie role was as an extra on a train in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, released in 1980.)

Fading Gigolo poster

Blue Jasmine – More admired than enjoyed

September 12, 2013

(This review of “Blue Jasmine” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 12 September 2013 in a slightly different format.  The film opens in Australia today.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg

There are no funny-looking wisecracking Jewish guys in Woody Allen’s latest film “Blue Jasmine”.  In fact, there are almost no Jewish characters at all, unless you count a bizarre dentist.

What “Blue Jasmine” has, instead, is a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role, one of the most captivating this year, equal to her best screen work.  It’s a certain Oscar nomination.

There are few moments of open hilarity in “Blue Jasmine”, and some of those are provided by “Dr Flicker”, the Jewish dentist who Jasmine goes to work for.  Flicker is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the Jewish actor (and star of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”).   Those with sharp ears may remember that this is not the first “Dr Flicker” in a Woody Allen film:  in the opening scenes of “Annie Hall”, the young Alvy Singer visits a cigarette-smoking “Dr Flicker” with his mother, complaining to the GP that he is depressed because “the world is expanding”.

Well, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) has the opposite problem.  Her world is collapsing.  In fact, “Blue Jasmine” is one long series of humiliations for this former Upper East Side socialite’s descent into poverty and mental illness.  Jasmine – also known as Jeanette – had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fast-talking, Bernard Madoff-like financier.  They lived an uber-wealthy New York lifestyle of sophistication, fancy parties and weekends at their house in the Hamptons.

But Hal’s empire collapsed (how it did is part of the story, not to be revealed here), sending him to prison, and breaking up the family forever.  Left with nothing, Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and living in a marginal Mission District neighbourhood.  Using a complicated but effective series of flashbacks and dual story-telling, Allen counter-poses Jasmine’s struggles in San Francisco with her former privileged life in New York City.

Chili is an uneducated working class mechanic, just the sort of person Jasmine despises.  This sets up a “Streetcar Named Desire” sub-theme, neatly woven into the story – and of course Blanchett is well-known internationally for her role as Blanche du Bois in Williams’ classic play.  There’s a lot more family baggage:  at one time Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested the whole of a major lottery win with Hal, and lost it all.

For years, Allen has created memorable roles that attract a “who’s who” of acting talent.  “Blue Jasmine” continues Allen’s record of great film characters, especially for women, who have received twelve of the fifteen Oscar acting nominations for Allen’s films.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Cate Blanchett, although each performance is a delight.  In addition to Hawkins, Clay, Baldwin and Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard also appears as a diplomat and aspiring politician who falls in love with Jasmine, Louis C.K. as a boyfriend of Ginger’s, and Alden Ehrenreich as Jasmine’s estranged son.

Allen contrasts Ginger’s claustrophobic flat with beautiful bay-side homes in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  He has long been criticised for ignoring social and economic class:  surely the world is not all rich white people living near Central Park.  In “Blue Jasmine”, he introduces a number of working class characters and delves into class differences, although uncomfortably so.  I had a sneaking suspicion that the writer/director, like Jasmine, is “slumming” in this world, looking down on these characters and their modest homes.

Ultimately I admired “Blue Jasmine” much more than I liked it.  This film falls squarely into Woody Allen’s “serious” genre.  It’s not as bleak as his totally humour-less “Interiors”, but Allen gives us very little leavening of Jasmine’s descent and self-destructive failure in the way his “Crimes and Misdemeanours” alternated a very dark story with broad humour.  As a film about self-deception, human frailty and vulnerability, however, it succeeds.

Blue Jasmine Cate B GG Bridge

Woody Allen going strong at age 77

September 7, 2013

(This article appeared in the print edition of The Australian Jewish News in a somewhat different version on 5 September 2013, with the title “Oscar Winning Form for Woody Allen”, and online with the title “Woody’s Oscar-winning form”.)

Pop quiz.  Who are the most Oscar-nominated American film directors actively making movies today?  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg each have seven directing nominations, with Spielberg winning twice and Scorsese once.

He is not nearly as flashy a director, but Woody Allen ties Spielberg and Scorsese.  His seven “Best Director” Oscar nominations include one win, for “Annie Hall”, in 1977.  Only William Wyler (12 nominations) and Billy Wilder (with eight) beat these three.  And of living/working film directors, only Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Milos Forman and Oliver Stone have two directing wins.  This is pretty elite company.

But Allen also holds more Academy Award nominations for “Best Original Screenplay” (15) and wins (three) than any other writer in history.  His writing Oscars (for “Midnight in Paris”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Annie Hall”) place him ahead of Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky (both Jewish), as well as Quentin Tarantino and Charles Brackett, all of whom have received two screenplay Oscars.  Frederico Fellini sits a distant second in nominations with six, but no wins.

Mark it partly to longevity.  At age 77, Woody has directed an average of one film per year since his film career commenced in 1965 with “What’s New Pussycat?”

With next week’s Australian release of “Blue Jasmine”, Allen’s drama set in San Francisco and starring Cate Blanchett in the starring role, this tireless Jewish film-maker is back in the news.

And Blanchett’s role as “Jasmine”, a down on her luck former socialite forced to seek refuge with her working class sister (played by British actress Sally Hawkins), is one of the biggest acting triumphs this year.

Allen is already well-known for writing memorable film characters.  His actors have gained 15 Oscar nominations, with five wins:  Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”), Dianne Wiest (twice, for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”) and Michael Caine (“Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Others Allen nominations include Mariel Hemingway (“Manhattan”), Sean Penn and Samantha Morton (both for “Sweet and Lowdown”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Martin Landau (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”), Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri (both for “Bullets Over Broadway”), Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), and Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton – both for “Interiors”.

Of these 15 acting Oscar nominations, 12 have been for female characters. The pattern is clear:  despite Allen’s notorious personal history with former partner Mia Farrow – having an affair with and then marrying her adopted child, Soon-Yi Previn – he writes and directs great female screen roles.  Blanchett’s character continues this pattern, and gives her an early tipping for another Oscar nomination:  she already has five, including a win for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s “The Aviator”.

“Blue Jasmine” also marks another milestone:  it is only Woody Allen’s second film set in the USA since “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004 (“Whatever Works” in 2009 was the other).  He effectively “moved” to Europe for a quartet of films shot in London:  “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”.  He hopped to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and to Paris for “Midnight in Paris” and finally to Rome for last year’s “To Rome with Love”.  The French, Italians and Spaniards love him.  In fact “To Rome with Love” was financed by Italians, with the only condition being that he shoot the film in Rome.  Two thirds of the total ticket sales from “Midnight in Paris” came from outside North America, particularly Europe.  Its popularity there boosted that film to become Allen’s top theatrical grosser, although with price inflation, the ticket sales were roughly equal to his classic New York films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”.

The San Francisco setting of “Blue Jasmine” is unusual for life-long New York resident Allen. His first film as director – “Take the Money and Run”, in which he played a small-time and incompetent crook, was also shot there, with prison scenes actually filmed inside the nearby high security San Quentin.  Allen already knew that city well from his early days as a touring comic. Locals still remember the early 1960s when Allen was the opening act for Barbra Streisand at “the hungry i” nightclub.

Although Allen’s original stage play for “Play It Again, Sam” was located in New York City, the 1971 film version moved to San Francisco.   Although he did not direct the film (Herbert Ross did), Allen wrote and starred as a nerdy film critic haunted by a determined and tough Humphrey Bogart fantasy mentor.  Many notable San Francisco area landmarks appear in the film:  Allen’s character lives in North Beach, rides the cable car ride with actress Diane Keaton, and travels across the Bay to eat at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito and holiday at Stinson Beach.

Woody Allen Diane Keaton SF cablecar(Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Play It Again, Sam”, riding a San Francisco cablecar)

In “Blue Jasmine”, Allen again uses San Francisco locations:  Jasmine’s sister lives on South Van Ness Avenue in a seedy section of the Mission District.  A number of scenes are shot near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the scenic water-side Marin County suburbs of Tiburon, Larkspur and Belvedere all feature prominently.

Will there be a Woody Allen film in 2014?  Yes.  His “untitled project” started production in the south of France in early July of this year, and stars Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver.  Will he still keep going into his ninth decade?  Wait and see.

From Brooklyn to Manhattan

December 2, 2012

One of the most quoted lines about New York City is the one from Norman Podhoretz:  the first sentence of his 1967 memoir, Making It, goes: “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan”.

This is, of course, not simply a geographical journey, but a journey between worlds.  It’s one travelled by many in the film and entertainment worlds, both the real (Woody Allen) and the fictional (John Travolta’s character Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever).

In the case of Woody Allen, Nathan Heller (“Little Strangers” in The New Yorker, November 19, 2012, pp. 85-90) describes Allen’s film Annie Hall as a prime example of “disparate worlds” and “a narrative of horizontal identity, a story about being born ‘out of step’ with your family and joining a community alien to your parents’ milieu”.  In this case the Alvy Singer move from “the deep-seated Brooklyn coral of roller coasters, diabetees, and tallis salsemen” to a Manhattan “post-Freudian paradise of entertainment-biz parties” is the massive shift.

A great quote, and a good idea. But we are forgetting the second half of that first sentence from Podhoretz, one which follows the hypen: “— or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.”

A qualification to be sure.  So Manhattan is an idea – sophistication, fame, fortune – and Brooklyn, in this instance, is the opposite – working class, mundane, pedestrian.  Hmm, tell that to the residents living in Brooklyn Heights living in their multi-million dollar homes with outstanding views overlooking the East River and the skyline of Manhattan.

Annie Hall slide

Film review of Sweet and Lowdown

October 21, 2012

(More Woody Allen.  This film review of “Sweet and Lowdown” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 July 2000.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol and John Waters

Almost every year since 1969, Woody Allen has written and directed a film, creating one of the most extensive bodies of work of any living American film director.  With a couple of exceptions (the 1977 Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” being one), his films have not made much money.  But Allen’s impact on American film-making, modern American film romance and American film comedies in particular continues unabated.

Allen’s 1999 film was “Sweet and Lowdown”, which inexplicably took almost a year to reach Australia (arriving just as his next film was being released in the USA).  This film about a transient fictional jazz guitarist (Emmet Ray, played by Sean Penn) has not set the box office on fire and only lasted a few short weeks in Australian cinemas, so fans of the Woody genre had to hurry to see it.  The tone of “Sweet and Lowdown” is a familiar one from Allen’s recent films:  full of sly humour and a few belly-laughs, a bit romantic, a bit of action, lots of nice jazz music and a number of fractured love stories.  It’s set in the 1930s, with lots of nicely evocative American scenes from the time (think “Radio Days” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”).

The problem with “Sweet and Lowdown” is mostly in the main character of Ray:  He may be talented (“second-best guitartist only to that gypsy Frenchman, Django Reinhardt”), but he is also egotistical, mean, unlikeable, a kleptomaniac, a pimp and unfaithful to some very loving women.  His favourite activities (aside from jazz guitar) are playing pool, shooting rats at the “dump” and watching trains.  Sean Penn (who was nominated for Best Actor Oscar for the role) does a good job, but cannot rise above the character’s basic mean-ness and breathtaking self-centredness (think “Deconstructing Harry”).  Penn does, however, successfully avoid looking and sounding like Woody Allen, unlike Kenneth Branagh in the previous year’s Woody Allen film “Celebrity”.

Ray’s character is particularly set off by one of the three women who he hooks up with during the course of the film:  a Harpo Marx-like Hattie (played by Samantha Morton, who also received an Academy Award nomination), a mute laundry woman with a round face.  Every minute that Morton is on-screen is unforgettable; the world is reflected in her silent but deeply expressive face.  This is a performance of exquisite beauty and unforgettable nuances.

Also appearing in “Sweet and Lowdown” are cult screen director John Waters, Gretchen Mol and Anthony LaPaglia as a hoodlum who steals Ray’s wife Blanche (Uma Thurman).  Allen uses his pseudo-documentary style technique to good effect, and a large number of African-American characters casually appear, unusual for Allen’s generally whites-only casts.  Most scenes are carefully constructed, but somehow they do not all add up, with the whole of “Sweet and Lowdown” becoming definitely less than the sum of its parts.