Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review | Woody Allen: A Documentary

Play it Again, Woody

By Thomas Delapa

Did you hear the one about the documentary that thought it was an artistic infomercial?

It’s no joke. You might think that in a three-hour-plus portrait of comic icon Woody Allen, more than a few discouraging chuckles might be heard. But in Woody Allen: A Documentary from PBS’ American Masters series (now on DVD), director Robert Weide doesn’t stray far from Allen’s corner—as dark as it might be. The result is a profile that’s long on fawning adulation and short on serious criticism. While rousing in stretches, Allen’s long take on life, love and death is a bit of a sleeper.

A TV director (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and film biographer of such comedy titans as the Marx Brothers and W.C Fields, Weide has said that his profiles are “personal thank you letters” to his cultural heroes. Allen should send a thank you note back (plus roses) to Weide, who surrounds his uber-private subject with collaborators and ex-partners (like Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser), critics (like Richard Shickel) and a fellow New York director (Martin Scorsese), who only have praise for the famed, partially infamous, writer/director.

Few, if any, American film auteurs have had the staying power of one Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who precociously began writing jokes for national TV shows and newspaper columnists in the early 1950s, while still in his teens. Though obsessively publicity shy, Allen evolved into one of the most popular stand-up acts of the 1960s. In this heady time of such game-changers as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Allen was something completely different, a bespectacled Jewish joke machine who looked like a cartoon character, yet fearlessly helped drag neuroses, sex and absurdist humor into popular culture.

Weide’s most entertaining bits come early, especially during rarely seen footage of Allen’s TV appearances, whether a 1980s BBC interview, guest shots on friend Dick Cavett’s talk show or, memorably, boxing a kangaroo. Granted a series of unprecedented interviews with the graying, gnomish, still horn-rimmed Allen (now 75), Weide talks to Allen in his office, his bedroom and, most nostalgically, while accompanying him back to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, where he reminisces about his boyhood home and local movie theater.

These trips down memory lane are bright and lively, as are the clips of Allen’s early film forays as writer/director, like Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971). For some critics (myself included), Allen hit his artistic peak in 1977 with the bittersweet, stylistically ingenious Annie Hall, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Practically nonpareil in U.S. filmmaking (not unlike Charlie Chaplin), Allen has managed to exert almost total control over his 40-odd films, from writing and casting all the way to the editing stage.

While Part I of the documentary arguably ends near Allen’s professional apex, there are ominous signs of hubris, if not artistic petty crimes and misdemeanors. Interiors, his hollow follow-up to Annie Hall, echoed with gloomy, derivative Ingmar Bergman—his cinematic idol—while Stardust Memories (1980) dimly reflected Fellini’s trend-setting, autobiographical 8 ½. Yet even though Allen’s career has decidedly alternated between luminous and lackluster over the decades, Weide doctors the spin, inserting comments from gingerly uncritical critics like Shickel and Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf. One can only wonder whether Allen put any conditions on Weide’s supporting cast, all fans, including Allen’s sister.

Mia Farrow, his one-time leading lady off and on the screen, is naturally not in the building. Weide does treat the scandalous 1992 Allen/Farrow split that led to his marriage to Farrow’s college-age adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, but it’s mostly glossed over in fast-forward, as if it were all just a bad movie.

An apparent workaholic, Allen is barely done with one film before he’s on to his next one, especially now since he’s been able to obtain European backing for his latest films/travelogues. He believes in the “quantity theory,” betting that the sheer number of releases will increase his chances for critical and box-office success. This anti-Kubrick strategy has translated into a torrential output of features in recent decades, many flimsy and forgettable, redeemed only by Allen’s reliable one-liners and his near-mesmerizing ability to attract A-list actors, especially dishy leading ladies.

While Allen has assuredly taken a place in the American cinema pantheon, too little has been written about his penchant for arty, arch dramatic pretensions, which he regularly drapes over his scrawny plots like a pair of baggy khakis. Near the end of Weide’s non-definitive chronicle, Allen wistfully rues that he wasn’t born a “great tragedian.”

Seriously, Woody, you’re right.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Film Review | Like Crazy

He Loves Me,
He Loves Me Not

By Thomas Delapa

As wispy as cigarette smoke in a cyclone, Like Crazy might be likened to a precious, humorless When Harry Met Sally. This surprise Sundance award winner is a little romance, and a lot of heartbreak.

Audiences might be mad about Felicity Jones after her radiant breakthrough as Anna, a young Brit attending college in Los Angeles. While Drake Doremus’ film falls short on classy luster, Jones may have graduated to stardom.

In light of Jones’ vivacious, scene-stealing charms, Like Crazy is a one-sided relationship in more ways than one. While Anna falls passionately in love with Jacob (Anton Yelchin), an American design student, it would be a stretch to say that the stolid Yelchin is Jones’ acting match.

Largely improvised by the leads, Doremus’ “script” hinges on a weak, squeaky post-9/11 plot. In violation of her student visa, Anna overstays her U.S. welcome after college, a transgression that comes back to haunt the couple. Once back in the U.K., Anna is told that she can’t legally return to the U.S. Though Jacob can visit her and her parents, he’s not crazy about moving to England.

So the romance ping-pongs back and forth across the miles and years, and often via a series of rather mundane telephone messages. Long-distance relationships may be common in our globalized world, but they don’t exactly reach out and touch you as intimate drama. Unless Elizabeth Barrett Browning is writing them, LOL, text messages aren’t as poignant as love poems or swooning embraces.

Pert and poignantly vulnerable, Jones almost dials up a winning connection. That’s in spite of Doremus’ maddening hand-held camerawork and jumpy editing, which seem to be his heavy-handed way of conveying the nervous fragility of the romance. The small, tender moments between Anna and Jacob are finely captured, but they amount to pecks on the cheek, not rapturous kisses.

Before their first forced separation, Jacob gives Anna a bracelet engraved with the word “patience.” It’s a watchword that he will begin to forget, much to Anna’s chagrin etched on her face. Doremus tracks the doubts and insecurities that can arise between lovers that grow apart physically and emotionally. Alone in his L.A. studio designing furniture, Jacob faithlessly falls for his fetching blond co-worker (Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence). Climbing the ladder as a journalist in London, Anna turns to a former neighbor (Charlie Bewley) for consolation. In our crazy and fickle modern world, vows, like hearts, seem made to be broken.


Friday, November 11, 2011

This Saturday night: Post-screening discussion of "Take Shelter" at Cincinnati's Esquire Theatre

Join us Saturday night at the Esquire for Our Next "Open for Discussion" Series Q & A

Directly After the 7:30 pm Screening of


"Take Shelter," the award-winning new psychological thriller starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, is arousing keen audience debate over whether the apocalyptic visions experienced by Shannon's character are based on reality. This stylized, artful and profoundly thought-provoking film doesn't tell us outright, so after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday screening at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton, CityBeat contributing editor and film critic Steven Rosen will lead a discussion into how writer-director Jeff Nichols offers us clues to figure it out -- or not. He’ll also lead an open discussion about other aspects of the film. This movie seems headed for many end-of-year "Best Of" lists and maybe even Oscar nominations, so discussion about its intent and meaning will only increase in coming months. Be among the first in Cincinnati to get your voice heard -- and hear from others.