MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2011)

At first glance, Owen Wilson looks like an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate.

Yet in Allen’s best film since VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, it’s an inspired piece of casting that works. Wilson puts real effort into the character of Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who wants to give real writing a try, and finish that difficult novel he’s been tinkering with for months.

On vacation in France, Wilson’s fiancée (Rachel McAdams) accuses him of romanticizing the past – particularly Paris in the ’20s, an era he would most like to live in. Wilson clashes with McAdam’s conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and her friends including a wonderfully snobby Michael Sheen, so he takes off on a walk around the city taking in the sights.

At the chimes of midnight, an old timey car pulls up him, and the drunk passengers plead with him to get in. After some hesitation, he joins them.

Somehow this takes him back to, you guessed it (or saw the trailer), Paris in the ’20s. It’s a rollicking party of an era where everybody he meets is famous figure of the arts. At a party, with piano accompaniment by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) no less, he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).

There’s also Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Marcial di Fonzo Bo as Pablo Picasso, and the best one of all: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.

Wilson meets a fetching model (Marion Cotillard) who he falls for on the spot. So every night back in the present, he makes the excuse to McAdams that he wants to go out on a walk, and goes back to hobnob with history. The predicament of choosing the past over the present becomes a sticky one, as there’s the possibility of another love in the form of Lea Seydoux as an antiques dealer “in the now.”

There’s a wonderful wit and whimsy to how Allen plays this all out. It’s his warmest film since, uh, I can’t remember when.

In other words, it’s the most satisfying Woody Allen film in ages.

Wilson’s delivery of Allen’s choice one-liners is infectious, and he quotes from the greats, such as Faulkner’s “The past is never dead, It’s not even past.” convincingly enough to make one forget the man-child of “Hall Pass” from earlier this year.

The film is at its most radiant when it’s in those sequences set in the past. In a neat little twist, Cotillard dreams of living in the 1890’s; turns out everybody has their dream era.

One personal thought is that I wish the Woodman would’ve filmed this in black and white. It’s not just because the opening montage of shots of Paris was strongly reminiscent of the opening of MANHATTAN, I feel like B & W would’ve brought out something more in the photography, the depictions of both present and 20’s Paris, and the performances of the people playing historical personalities.

As I said that’s just a personal quibble. I’m just an aficionado of the man’s B & W work so don’t mind me.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn’t gonna to make me rearrange my top 10 Woody Allen movies, but it’s a lovely lark that I predict even non-fans would enjoy. I think most people can relate wishing for a simpler more inspiring time to live in, and I think they’ll be greatly amused with this simple and inspiring story.

More later… 

Advertisements

The Wrong Alice Indeed

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Dir. Tim Burton, 2010)


I had forgotten that in my review of SWEENEY TODD (January 13th, 2008) I had joked that I was only going to see Burton/Depp productions at Movies At Timberlyne in Chapel Hill. Since I now live in Raleigh, I’m so glad that wasn’t a strict vow because this really wouldn’t have been worth the 40 minute drive.

This is exactly what I thought it was going to be – another CGI fueled fantasy fest with Depp dancing around like a maniac as dark yet ostensibly beautiful imagery bombards the viewer.

We all know the basic story here so I’ll try and keep it brief. A 19 year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in Victorian times escapes from her oppressive family and the unwanted marriage proposal from a chinless Bourgeois doofus of a suiter (Leo Bill) into a magical land. She encounters, you know, a White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), a Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), a Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both voice
d by Matt Lucas).

For villainy’s sake there is the Red Queen – Helena Bonhma Carter (you knew she’d have to be here somewhere) with a disturbingly huge head, who has stolen the reign of the land from her sister, the blindingly White Queen (Anne Hathaway) – who strangely has little presence. Also there’s Crispin Glover, who doesn’t look like he likes working in ginormous budget world, plays Stayne Knave of Hearts, the ominous head of the Red Queen’s army.

But of course most folks won’t care about any of that stuff – they care about Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.


For some reason his make-up with his green eyes and fiery orange hair made him look like Madonna at times. His patently wacky performance will surely please hardcore Depp fans, but his take on the character, much like his turns in previous Burton work as Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, has that not so fresh feeling.

I personally feel that Depp and Burton should be separated for a decade. If they want to come back then and make another Disney re-imagining of something that’s been done to death in the past, so be it. But give us, or at least me, a break for a bit!

The film builds to a big battle climax which too greatly resembles the terrain and aesthetics of the STAR WARS prequels. The humorless execution and the distinct lack of charm made the third act particularly hard going.

Still, I can’t completely slag it off. On the whole it’s a well made and reasonably entertaining movie that I think a lot of people will enjoy. There are inspired flights of animated fancy and some close to great Gilliam-esque visual splendor.

I just felt overall that as played by Wasikowska, Alice was too much of a blank slate, Depp was too weird, Glover not weird enough, Bonham Carter not as amusing as she’s supposed to be, and the whole remake enterprise ambiance was a bit off.

All through the first half of the film, seemingly every character says that Alice is the “wrong Alice.” I’m not going to spoil why it is they say that, but of the dozens of adaptations out there in which to experience Lewis Carroll’s immortal story, it’s an apt statement because this sure isn’t the right one.

More later…

THE DAMNED UNITED: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE DAMNED UNITED (Dir. Tom Hooper, 2009)


Playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in full on damage control mode in THE QUEEN, taking on television journalist David Frost’s striving for a career making spotlight on an impeached President in FROST/NIXON, and now here as the infamous arrogant football manager Brian Clough, Michael Sheen appears to be on a mission to redefine the role of refined British masculinity movie-wise for the new millennium.


It’s not a one man mission as Sheen is the front man for screen writer Peter Morgan’s retellings of pivotal points in UK public relations. Sheen has the fierce focus necessary for these pointed recreations, while the sense that deep down he’s a decent bloke helps their cinematic cause along nicely. So the suave but spineless English archetypes (think Hugh Grant’s inept Prime Minister in LOVE ACTUALLY) now fade into anachronism as history sorts the winners from the losers, with the brashly flawed figures Sheen embodies definitively deemed as winners.


There are many times, however, in THE DAMNED UNITED that Sheen’s Brian Clough doesn’t resemble a winner at all. After taking over Leeds United in 1974, Clough doesn’t quite endear himself to his players when announcing: “the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating!”


The film skips back to 1967 to acquaint us with the long brimming but basically one-sided rivalry between Clough and the previous Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) who had driven the team to win all those medals over the years. Clough’s then team Derby County rose from underdog status to win the Second Division, but still lost the First Division title to the brutal tactics of the Leeds players.


Assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall as one of the most likable and grounded of the films characters) and Derby chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) shake their heads at Clough’s over confidence and unrestrained bravado, which threatens his friendship with Taylor (“That’s the trouble with you Brian, too much ambition!”) and the financial stability of the team. There’s nothing that can put out the fire burning in Clough – not harsh complaining heard through closed doors, not the icy glares from elder superiors, and most of all, not the 0 scoring loses that Leeds racks up after he assumes their management.


While there is action on the field, sometimes depicted by way of archival footage, this film is primarily concerned with Clough’s back room verbosity. In every acidic line reading and exasperated expression, Sheen captures the intensity of a man who doesn’t have it in his nature to back down even as he’s so plainly pissing in the wind. It’s a tour de force performance that drives the film and is invigorating to behold even if you have no interest in soccer strategies or sports at all. I say this because I sure as Hell don’t.


Though it’s largely Sheen’s show he’s joined by a highly capable and credible cast. Standing out with the previous mentioned Spall, Broadbent, and Meany is the grimacing Stephen Graham as team Captain Billy Bremner, providing a needed dividing edge to Sheen’s abrasive stubbornness.

Marred only by one too many sad fades to black, and some fake looking hair (blame it on period style wigs), this poignantly plotted drama scores another winning shot for Sheen and writer Morgan, whether it indulges in revisionism or not. In the concluding moments there are glimpses of the real Clough surrounded by a crowd of supporters years after the events in the movie – a typical biodoc manuever – and while it’s impossible to see if he was as obnoxiously determined as Sheen’s portrayal made him out to be, the vigorous spirit that this sturdy movie tenaciously touches on is without a doubt on display.


More later…

FROST/NIXON: The Film Babble Blog Review

FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard, 2008)

Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play moves briskly as it opens with a montage of early ’70s archival footage and period news reports of the Watergate break-in leading to the first impeachment of a sitting President in history.


Seemingly derived from the sweeping intro to Oliver Stone’s JFK, this capsule of video and sound bites gives newcomers to this material ample back story while plunging those who lived through it back into the feeling and tone of the era.

Once that is established, it is summer 1977 – Ex President Richard M. Nixon, disgraced and in self imposed exile in his beach house in San Clemente, CA is approached by ambitious British broadcaster David Frost to make an expensive deal for a series of extended television interviews.

Nixon, portrayed grandly by Frank Langella, sees this as an opportunity to redeem himself in the public’s eye while Frost, given a quirky but still suave demeanor by Michael Sheen, sees opportunity of a different sort – a career breaking, star making spectacle sort, to be exact.

Though it contains nothing but men (and a few women) talking in hotel rooms, cars, and the living room set where the interviews were conducted, this is compelling stuff from start to finish.


Paced like many boxing movies with back and forth training sessions up to the final round in the ring, the momentum never lags. Frost struggles to finance the endeavor, insulted by those who blow him off as a “talk show host” while still allowing time for a new love interest – Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Woody Allens VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) who doesn’t have much to do except sit on the sidelines looking pretty.

Frost’s team includes Sam Rockwell as passionate anti-Nixon author James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as journalist Bob Zelnick who together provide considerable comic relief. Nixon’s corner is dominated by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s fiercely over-protective post Presidential chief of staff, who both turns in one of his best performances while narrowing down the number degrees of separation between him and everybody else in show business.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul”, Neil Young once sang and the final third of this movie seems to suggest just that. First presented as a shady money grubbing player disguised as an elder statesman, Langella’s Nixon betrays hidden levels of dark conscience in his home stretch showdown with Frost which would make even Hunter S. Thompson tear up for the man.


If Langella isn’t nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award I’ll be royally shocked. Howard thankfully retained both Langella and Sheen, from the 2006 stage play written by Peter Morgan. Sheen, who had played British Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (also written by Morgan), has the definitive “deer caught in the headlights” look when first sitting down with Tricky Dick but over time assumes the prize fighter Rocky’s “eye of the tiger” – to bring the boxing analogy back into it.
FROST/NIXON is a tightly focused and deeply pleasing film, certainly one of Ron Howard’s best as director. Whether or not Nixon was redeemable or remorseful doesnt matter; layered reflective takes on history like this make for the best art regardless (see Shakespeare).

More later…