Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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An enemy of the people?

Should the citizens of London forgive Woody Allen for his cinematic crimes against this great metropolis?

Sometime around 2004, Woody Allen washed up in London. He was effectively an exile from the New York – not because of his by-then-distant personal scandal, but because the films he compulsively churned out year and year were harder to make and made less impact each time. Titling a film called Anything Else should’ve been a sign that it was time to call it a day. Instead, he decided a change of scene was the answer, hopped on the plane and the BBC gave him some cash. What happened next was akin to a houseguest who manages to clog up the toilet, smash the table passed down from your great-grandparents and poison the goldfish. The sane and reasonable response would have been to chase him into the Channel with pitchforks. But not only did the British Film Institute give him an extensive retrospective in January, but film after film sold out. Londoners, or at least the BFI audience, still love Woody. Either they are an exceptionally forgiving bunch, or they never had the misfortune of seeing Cassandra’s Dream.

Allen made four films in London. The first one, Match Point, somehow got decent reviews. I think this owes something to the way that his apologists – like Morrissey fans – are always proclaiming a return to form. His moral dilemma movies – from Crimes And Misdemeanours onwards – tend to have had an easy critical ride even though – or because – they are pompous, ponderous and full of the clumsiest plot devices this side of Thomas Hardy.  Match Point makes the mistake of pairing Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson – two cold fish makes for one intensely unengaging movie. But more to the point, Match Point existed in a tourist’s London – some characters live in Parliament View Apartments, that horrible block of flats on the south side of Lambeth Bridge – that still managed to make the city look drab and unappealing and yet at the same time was about as convincing as the Ross’s wedding episodes of Friends. It’s a sullen drama, but has bit parts for comedy turns Paul ‘Dennis Pennis’ Kaye and Alexander Armstrong.

Not many people saw Woody’s second London film, Scoop. It was (oh the irony) the second film of Allen’s long career not to get a UK cinema release. Johansson plays a journalism student in London, it co-stars Hugh Jackman (frequently a bad sign) and, unusually for one of his late films, Allen himself. It’s not very good. But at least it’s a comedy, unlike…

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'No, I want to be Ross Kemp. You'll have to be the other one'

…Cassandra’s Dream, which if possibly not the worst film ever made by a major film director, is one of the most misguided. It’s about these two bruvvers played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell… Let’s stop there. You might have thought that Allen, as an American, might just have grasped that McGregor can’t do accents. His attempt at the word ‘bew-it-ful’ is something to marvel at. Anyway, these two geezers win on the dogs(!) and buy the clangingly symbolically named boat of the title, get into money problems and so (as you do) agree to murder someone. It all ends unhappily. It feels, as various wise people have pointed out, like Allen had watched a couple of episodes of EastEnders in his hotel room (Tamzin Outhwaite has a small part) and a Mike Leigh film or two (Sally Hawkins – blonde and very uncomfortable – and the great Phil Davis turn up. What a waste). The only enjoyable thing about the whole fiasco is trying to picture Allen acting out the script as he wrote it, saying lines like: ‘We’ll do ’im when he gets back from dinner.’

Dear readers, it’s mind-boggling.

Not done, Allen returned to London to make 2010’s You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. I haven’t seen it. I’m not a complete masochist. Pete Baran very possibly is – here’s what he thought.

Perhaps Allen was a victim of the common language. His other two films so far from his European exile are quite different from his unhappy (in all senses) London offerings. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, from its title down, suggests that a director being honest with us, essentially saying ‘I’m not going to lie to you – I’m dirty old man and an American abroad, so I’m going to make a film with some pretty girls and holiday-makers’ view of a great city and its crazy, hot-blooded inhabitants, plus some other picturesque bits of Spain.’ Actual Catalans, being prickly and nationalistic by nature, would have been annoyed to have two Castilian-speakers representing the home side. The big novelty is that instead of having a Woody-substitute as the lead, this time the women fall for a great bull of a man, played by Javier Bardem. As for Midnight In Paris, that’s quite openly a fantasy. Both of these film patronise the places in which they are set, but then, neither of these films is about the real Spain or France anymore than Love Or Death was about the real Russia.

So he tries to flatter everyone but Londoners, and yet still those of us willing to pay to go to see old movies seem to be willing to support him. This might be because even though most of the audience has grasped the difference between the stand-offish millionaire filmmaker and his screen persona, the Woody of the 1970s still captures how his fans like to see themselves – smarter than the average person, equally attached to Dostoyevsky and the Marx brothers, neurotic and with lots of annoying habits, but somehow more lovable (and even sexually successful) because of his flaws. It’s a blueprint that has been followed time and time again in movies – the early careers of Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera – and, most of all, TV over the past two decades, from How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby to Chuck in Chuck (Woody as secret agent), The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard to Seth in The OC (rich teen Woody!) and not least, Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. (Friends shared the Woody traits between Chandler and Ross).

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Of course, apart from being cinematic comfort food for the overeducated bourgeosie, there is another reason why people were going to see Woody Allen’s old films. Because once upon a (distant) time he was actually a terrific filmmaker, and one capable of surprises – his 1970s and ‘80s movies are far from being endless versions of Annie Hall. It’s a long way from Sleeper to Radio Days. In those days, he was anything but lazy – not in the number of films he made, but the way he made them. Rewatching the terrific Zelig, it becomes clear how much most mockumentaries cheat, showing you stuff that would never have been on film. In the mid-1980s he made two films with the word ‘Rose’ in the title, one wholly in black and white, the other partly, both nostalgic in a way, and yet otherwise nothing like each other. Even later on, long after the rot set in, he was capable of surprises – making a movie (Sweet And Lowdown) in which Sean Penn, the absurd, chronically self-important, constipated-faced Sean Penn, was actually funny. 

Which, I guess, is why I was among the crowds at the National Film Theatre watching the films of a man who had travestied my beloved hometown. But if he dares try to make another film in London (or Barcelona), I’ll be leading the angry mob making sure he hotfoots it to the airport.

 

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