(In French, On TV, December 2018) I’m starting to be old enough to realize how complex history can be, and how many little-known side stories, tangents and footnotes it contains. Now, thanks to Warren Beatty’s Reds, I know a little bit more about the American involvement in the Bolchevik Revolution of November 1917 and its aftermath. Beatty here produces, writes, directs and plays in a movie about American journalist John Reed, who witnessed those events first-hand, sent news reports and ended up writing a book about it. In addition to Reed’s reporting, the film does spend quite a bit of time chronicling his complex relationship with socialite Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton). If it feels like a history lesson, then this is an impression that the film actively courts—by including documentary footage of “witnesses” talking about Reed, Reds blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and further bolsters the epic scale of the result. The other thing that hits hard is the film’s mind-numbing 194 minutes, far too long even for the kind of massive world-changing epic that Reds has in mind. Still, if you can schedule your life around the movie, it’s quite an interesting history lesson that it has in mind—a corner of American history during which the country may have been tempted to back off from savage capitalism, and a milestone of Russian history seldom depicted sympathetically in American movies. It’s easy to imagine parallel realities emerging from America embracing at least some degree of socialism, as this film dramatizes the elements in play in the late 1910s. Now that Beatty has essentially retired (or at least retreated back in a safe corner), it’s easier to evaluate how daring much of his pre-1990s filmography could be, and with Reds he controlled the project from beginning to end. The result is a fiercely intelligent, provocative, unusual piece of work that may overstay its welcome, but nonetheless illuminates a pocket of history that deserves to be told.
(On DVD, November 2018) I’m not sure I even want to get romantic advice from Woody Allen, but if you can park that thought for 90 minutes and rationalize that the age difference between then-almost-fortysomething Allen and Diane Keaton was a mere ten years, then you may start to like what Play It Again, Sam has for you. Riffing from Casablanca so thoroughly that a viewing of the 1941 film is almost required before tackling this one, this romantic comedy takes us in the neuroses-fuelled inner life of one recently divorced San Francisco writer as he obsesses about his singlehood and Humphrey Bogart. While technically this isn’t a “Woody Allen movie” as he merely wrote and acted in it, but did not direct, Play It Again, Sam does count as one of Allen’s earlier, funnier movies, especially when “Bogart” pops up to provide advice to the protagonist, or when the protagonist’s equally-imaginary ex-wife starts interacting with him. It leads, quite predictably, to an airport tarmac climax, but it’s a good ending. In-between the premise and the conclusion, we have enough of Allen’s usual neurotic pattern to last us for a while, along with his interactions with Keaton. Play It Again, Sam may not be a deep or transcendent film, but it does work, and it will work best for those who do know and love Casablanca. (Who doesn’t?)
(On TV, September 2017) The good thing about rediscovering Woody Allen’s movies by going back in time is that they get funnier along the way. So it is that Love and Death is classic comic Allen, taking his usual nebbish character and placing him in the middle of an epic Russian war story. Much of the pleasures of the film are about seeing Allen’s character try to rebel against the conventions of the form, and cheerfully throwing contemporary anachronisms in a story that could (and has) been executed with such a straight face in other movies. The period detail is often very credible, and the jokes are funny enough to earn real laughs. Literate philosophical dialogue is a treat (especially as it forms the basis or further jokes), even though I suspect that I’m not catching even half the references to Russian literature or classic cinema. For a film that quite predictably ends with the death of its main character, Love and Death is remarkably upbeat even in its tragedies. Allen is near the top of his classic comic persona, while Diane Keaton is very good as his sparring partner and Olga Georges-Picot unlocks the hidden sultriness of the subgenre that the film parodies. I’m not sure what I expected from Love and Death (again; going back in time on Allen’s filmography sets very strange expectations) but I feel as if I got considerably more than I even hoped for.
(On TV, April 2017) I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing an artist and an artist’s work—something that has occasionally caused me a few retroactive pangs of guilt, especially in considering Roman Polanski’s work. Most of the time, those little bits of disapproval aren’t enough to affect me: I’ve got my list of good Woody Allen movies despite being aghast at his personal life. But for all of Manhattan’s reputation as one of Allen’s best, I understandably had a really hard time separating the movie (in which he gets romantically involved with a high-school girl) from Allen’s personal life (in which he got romantically involved with not one, but at least two high-school-age girls). As much as I tried getting into the rhythm and sensibilities of Manhattan, the film itself couldn’t stop getting me from thinking, “No, Woody Allen, no!” every time Allen and Mariel Hemingway (who, for all of the problematic aspects of her character, is terrific in the role) snuggled on-screen. So if I sound less than enthusiastic about Manhattan, keep thinking, “42-year-old guy writing a role in which he’s dating a 17-year-old girl”). Fortunately, there are other things to talk about in talking about Manhattan. The black-and-while cinematography is exceptional, some of the one-liners are very funny, the portrait of complicated romances is stronger than the usual pap that passes for romantic comedies, Diane Keaton is fantastic and the portrait of intellectual New Yorkers has a strong credibility to it. Oh, and Meryl Streep shows up for a handful of devastating scenes. Still, I was never completely convinced by Manhattan’s humour or its romance(s). Much as I appreciate the achievements of the film, I can’t quite bring myself to like it. You can credit Woody Allen for both reactions.
(On TV, December 2016) I’m hardly the first reviewer to comment on how much more difficult it is to approach great movies than lousy ones. I often find myself immediately watching terrible movies as soon as they show up on Netflix or my DVR, while waiting months to get to the acclaimed ones. Part of it is apprehension, another other is responsibility and a third is probably a fear of running out of greatness. Great movies demand more and give more; they ask for engagement and attention and give us something that we couldn’t get otherwise. Great movies, for reviewers, demand to be approached with a great deal of respect—we want to be able to say something deserving of their greatness, and to bring something valuable to the conversation surrounding them, as impossible at it may seem today at a time when everyone’s a reviewer. Finally, I can’t help but feel that by watching an acclaimed film, I am removing it from my shelf of “potentially great” films that I still have to see. I open the box and unwrap the present. I resolve the quantum state of uncertainty about its potential greatness. The shelf of things that could blow my mind has one less item on it, and that makes me a bit sadder in some way. (Never mind that the shelf will always be too small to contain all the things that could blow my mind—even in this metaphor, it’s the principle that counts.) All of this to say that Annie Hall is a great film. It is, even forty years later, hilarious, wry, true and witty. It plays with the conventions of movies in ways that have been occasionally imitated but seldom equalled. It’s so good that a good dozen of its jokes feel familiar because they have crossed over in pop culture. (Although I suspect that I was exposed to most of them thanks to a work mentor who obviously loved the film.) One can say a lot of things about Woody Allen as a person (starting and ending with “Eeew!”), but his Annie Hall persona in is a pure distillation of his comic essence. The scattershot nature of the film diminishes it a bit (it often feels as a dramatized stand-up routine) and I won’t argue that it’s perfect—but it’s really, really good. Well worth watching even now, if only for Allen at the top of his game both as a filmmaker and a comedian, and for Diane Keaton’s charm.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) The modern drive to transform movies into non-stop spectacles means that middle-of-the-road character-based comedies such as And so it Goes are often forgotten among so many other viewing choices. And that’s too bad, because they often offer satisfying acting performances by well-known names, gentle humor, quiet pacing and heartwarming conclusions. There isn’t, to be clear, anything new or challenging in And so it Goes: Michael Douglas stars as an embittered real-estate agent drawing back into his shell after a series of setbacks. Fortunately, there’s Diane Keaton as a lounge singer widow to draw him out of his shell, alongside a number of other supporting characters including an estranged granddaughter. We all know where that kind of story is going, and that’s part of the charm. Veteran director Rob Reiner isn’t interested in flash, and the unspectacular result might have been better, but it goes down nicely given appropriate exceptions. The focus of And so it Goes on older leads, addressing similarly-older audiences, is not a bad change of pace, even though there’s a pervasive feeling that the film should have been quite a bit more than what it is.