Paranoia, the ‘struggling artist’, adultery, death and the thought of committing the perfect crime are all commonplace within the creative ground that writer and director Woody Allen has explored throughout his extensive filmography. Keeping up his remarkable one-film-per-year tally, his latest project ‘Irrational Man’ revisits past themes through philosophy professor protagonist Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who experiences an existential crisis. With rumours of his questionable lifestyle circulating round the college campus and a hip flask of ‘vintage’ malt in his back pocket, he befriends his straight A student Jill (Emma Stone) who is in awe of his knowledge and intelligence, much to the dismay of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). When eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner, Abe sees an opportunity to give his life a sense of meaning, but at what costs?
The mystery plot is Hitchcockian in its absurdity, and Abe Lucas is used as the ideal vehicle to drop philosophical quotes from Kant and Dostoyevsky into the script, as well as delivering Allenisms such as ‘I couldn’t remember the reason for living, and when I did it wasn’t convincing’. It is gluttonous, self-indulgent filmmaking from the director who refuses to change his style, and Khondji’s neat cinematography is accompanied by a typically jazz-infused soundtrack that frequently repeats. No matter how familiar it may feel, it is comical, clever and wickedly dark. Phoenix plays the lead unlike the past few central characters in Woody’s films in that he is not a copycat version of his creator. His performance is enjoyable and works well with Allen’s most recent muse Emma Stone, who is a natural at handling his delectable dialogue. Rising British actor Jamie Blackley also impresses and is one to watch out for, but his role here is a little underused.
‘Irrational Man’ is the most fun I’ve had with a Woody Allen film since the turn of the decade, and though he is guilty of trudging through his usual narrative motions, he is doing so very entertainingly with flair and his trademark wit. Phoenix and Stone are a joy to watch as they revel in the brilliantly farcical material, both well suited to his ad lib approach. A key scene unfolds at an amusement park when characters wander into a house of mirrors, a method often implemented in cinema to convey a sense of trickery or bemusement, and previously by Allen himself. While the tricks up his sleeve, on which he wears his many influences, are tried and tested, sometimes the old ones are the best.
Continuing his staggering run of making at least one film every year since the early eighties, Woody Allen writes and directs ‘Magic in the Moonlight’. In recent times, his work has indulged in the cultures of glamorous European cities such as Barcelona, Paris and Rome, while his new project lands in the French Riviera. Colin Firth stars as respected illusionist Wei Ling Soo who lifts his guise when he takes up the challenge to expose so-called clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone) as nothing more than a fraudster. Will he prove successful in catching her out, or will he succumb to her charms and fall under her spell? Falling short of his finer efforts, the safe plotting and dialogue mean that this one can be filed firmly under pleasant rather than pulsating.
As always with Woody’s pictures, his interests and personality are injected into the bloodstream of his stories. Set during the roaring twenties, the score is peppered with bopping jazz tunes and the trademark pessimistic outlook on life is taken up by Stanley Crawford, which is Wei Ling Soo’s title when he’s not cutting women in two or doing a disappearing act. His dainty adversary has the bright eyes, pale skin and strawberry locks of a porcelain doll and when they meet, the narrative whisks us off in a convertible to an almost idyllic existence where time and reality appear to stand still. Sadly, the script lacks sharpness and intelligence and Stanley lacks likeability, his smugness outweighing any redeeming feature he may have.
Firth is the latest in a line of actors who’ve played a slightly altered version of Woody Allen now that he is a little long in the tooth for the romantic lead, though I suspect he isn’t as well suited to the improvised comedic style as copycats like Owen Wilson or Jesse Eisenberg were. The thirty plus age difference between him and Stone also distorts any connection that may have ignited between them. The sizeable gap has been a recurring theme in his career both on screen and off as middle aged intellectuals seek passion and adventure from attractive, quirky women. Emma Stone fits the bill perfectly for this and is definitely very watchable, appearing to be privy to the methods of the director. Set to be Woody’s next muse, she is already due to star in his next feature where she may be treated to the more involved, engaging material he is known for.
‘Magic in the Moonlight’ has its moments, and presents its location gloriously, but the results beyond the veil are less than enchanting. The working relationship of Allen and Stone shows promising signs which can hopefully come to fruition in time for their upcoming collaboration. The beauty of his relentless workhorse attitude of churning out screenplays so regularly on his trusty typewriter is that although his trip to trickery hasn’t left audiences in awe, we know that there is always something else up his sleeve.
Since his first ever screenplay was butchered at the hands of a production company when it hit cinemas in 1965, Woody Allen vowed to always direct films that he’d written so that he felt in control of the final result. He also rarely appears in films unless he’s had a hand in the filmmaking process. Because of this, it was a surprise to see him star alongside John Turturro in comedy flick ‘Fading Gigolo’, a film which Turturro this time writes and directs. The flimsy plot follows florist Fioravante (Turturro) as he embarks on a new career path, led into the seedy male prostitution game by the not-so-retiring bookshop owner Murray Schwartz (Allen). Building to take part in a ménage à trois, will Fioravante pursue his controversial lifestyle or will he leave it behind for the widowed love interest Avigal?
Turturro is best known for his association with the works of the Coen brothers, but his latest is undeniably influenced by the back catalogue of his co-star. His New York is viewed through Allen-tinted frames, the city captured cosily and welcoming, home to witty Jewish ramblings over a jazz laden score. The bond between the two leads is amusing, and the script at times is done very well as Murray and Fioravante take on new aliases Dan Bongo and Virgil Howard respectively and converse over their joint venture. This provides the perfect scenario for Allen’s comic delivery and he is on fine form, but the sub-plots surrounding feel forcefully out of sync, and don’t flow with nearly as much effortlessness. Other characters lack any depth, and the romantic angle is skewed to the point that it is difficult to care whether he gets the girl or not by the end.
In John Turturro’s apparent vision to create a Woody Allen-esque picture, he’s succeeded, but has unfortunately made an average one. He has got a great performance out of Allen, and puts in a good leading turn himself but has sadly discarded everything else, leaving the film a little soulless. Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber play unimaginative stereotypes and are rather wasted in their roles. Niggles aside, it’s refreshing to see Allen stepping out from behind the typewriter for a change and making us laugh so if you’re a fan of his humour, ‘Fading Gigolo’ is definitely worth a look.
: an imaginary wall (as at the opening of a modern stage proscenium) that keeps performers from recognizing or directly addressing their audience
An old term related to audience participation in theatre but in film terms, the fourth wall is essentially the screen. Usually used for comic effect, here are my five favourite uses of the technique where a character disturbs the passive audience to speak directly to camera.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall and in his latest masterpiece, Leonardo DiCaprio regularly lets the audience in on his illegal operations. Playing the part of Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort, he takes time out from his scamming to explain financial jargon and how much money he is making. How nice of him!
Matthew Broderick tells it like it is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, talking the audience through his foolproof plan to pull a sickie from school and have a day of fun. The cheeky-chappy style and delivery is copied by Saved by the Bell’s lovable rogue Zack Morris.
The list takes a darker turn onto the gritty cobbled streets of Edinburgh with Jon C. Baird’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth. Alcoholic junkie cop Bruce Robertson is not a well man, physically or mentally, and we, as an audience, are complicit to his wicked mind games as he turns colleagues against each other and betrays his friends.
In Michael Haneke’s psychotic thriller Funny Games, the fourth wall is well and truly smashed when a character not only speaks into the camera but rewinds the film back a few minutes so that he can play it out his own way! The Austrian original version is excellent but if you don’t want subtitles, Haneke remade his own work for a wider English speaking audience with Boardwalk Empire star Michael Pitt holding the remote.
We’ve all been frustrated in a queue, being subjected to the thoughts of the outspoken, wanting to challenge them or simply tell them to keep their idiotic opinions to themselves! In the Oscar winning romantic comedy Annie Hall, stand up comedian Alvy Singer speaks up to defend the work of highly regarded philosopher Marshall McLuhan. When discussing the scene, director Woody Allen said ‘I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly.”
For more analysis of Woody Allen’s work, click here!
Hailed as his long-awaited return to form, or his ‘best film in decades’, Woody Allen brings us ‘Blue Jasmine’, starring Cate Blanchett as a mentally troubled socialite who suffers a fall from grace. Blanchett is the eponymous Jasmine who is forced to move in with her adoptive sister after her glamorous lifestyle reaches an abrupt end due to her businessman husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) criminal activities. In a story lacking Allen’s trademark sharp humour but pebble dashed with his visual style and natural dialogue, he excels in offering a social commentary on the fragility of wealth and America’s class system, returning to shoot in his beloved New York after a string of films in European capitals such as To Rome With Love or his most successful box office hit, Midnight in Paris. So if his latest picture goes on to achieve a similar triumph, this can be heralded not as a return to form but as his most acclaimed period to date.
The plot of the piece has drawn many comparisons to that of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blanchett has played the lead role on stage, so it seems a fair assessment however Woody Allen has applied his signature self aware shtick to the part, adding his own awkward and paranoid personality as he does with so many of his leading turns, this time though asserting itself in the female psyche. It quickly becomes known that Jasmine jazzed her name up from Jeanette as she climbed the social ladder and we see the film switch to and fro between her highs and lows. This provides a nice balance and a clear contrast between her snooty exterior and inner distraught as she continuously analyses her own life, justifying herself to anyone willing to listen, or even those that are not. It is a deep character study held in place by a rather obvious narrative with flimsy relationships being tested as they so often are in Woody’s line of work. The partnership of Jasmine’s sister Ginger and her grease monkey boyfriend Chili is a joy to watch alongside the gradual decline of Jasmine’s state of mind as she slowly loses grip of her own sanity.
Allen has been good in the past at getting solid performances out his actors and he frequently uses the same faces again, this time Baldwin is the only returning name as the self-assured big shot, but Cate Blanchett is a marvel in the central role, displaying a clear understanding of her character’s unfortunate disposition without overdoing it. She shows versatility in portraying Jasmine at her most arrogant peaks, with equal effectiveness in her despairing troughs into manic depression. Her starring status is supported by an excellent ensemble cast including Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay. The verbal exchanges between the romantic pairings is well timed throughout, and Allen demonstrates his unfaltering ability to write believable lovers tiffs, reminiscent of Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan. Boardwalk Empire’s Michael S. Stuhlbarg surprisingly supplies some comic relief as the bumbling dentist Dr Flicker, whom Jasmine works for as a P.A. when her finances hit rock bottom.
With a run of awards and nominations in recent years, receiving a host of accolades for his Midnight in Paris screenplay last year, momentum is building in time for the 2014 ceremonies, Blanchett is deservedly being tipped early for nods in the best actress categories and though Allen himself is publicly far from fond of the awards season, branding the whole concept as ‘silly’, he seems to be back in favour with the Academy so it would be surprising if Blue Jasmine isn’t recognised come February. Either way, he has again proven his worth as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and largely due to a Blanchett masterclass, has created a fine addition to his ongoing and ever improving catalogue of cinema.
Can a filmmaker be considered an author, or an artist, in the same respect as a novelist or a painter? In the 1950s, the auteur theory was created and explored by a collective of influential French critics, and directors including Andre Bazin, Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. This would put all the weight of a piece down to a vision from an individual, namely the director. It was said that the “critical perspective dictates that the director is in a unique and irreplaceable position of personal artistic perspective, and that the film is, most importantly, a product of that perspective”(Montano, 2010). Truffaut even controversially stated that “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”. I see that even although the making of a film is a collaborative process, there is undoubtedly directorial trademarks and recurring themes such as Scorsese’s use of violence, Spielberg’s sense of sentimentality, Lynch’s madness and Tarantino’s Tarantino-ness.
For a number of reasons, the filmography of veteran New York director Woody Allen can be recognised as a body of work with similar questions of love and relationships raised throughout his career, as well as signature techniques present in key pictures including extradiegesis, psychoanalysis, witty dialogue and a strong establishment of setting, the location almost a character in itself particularly in Allen’s more recent pictures. Initially a stand up comedian, he seems to put a lot of his own humour and personality into his films, and some say his work is almost autobiographical. Florence Colombani wrote that “the autobiographical is obvious and the audience falls under the irresistible charm of the emotional torment of characters”. This aspect featured heavily in his most critically acclaimed ‘Annie Hall’ which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978, and on top of this Allen also picked up the awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. This looked at comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his complex relationship with the eponymous Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong.
A great Woody flourish, used most effectively and memorably in Annie Hall is the breaking of the fourth wall. This is where his character Alvy talks directly to the camera, expressing his opinions straight to the audience. This was done to connect with the viewer on a more personal level, and as Singer is probably the most Allen-esque character that Woody Allen has ever written and played (they’re both comedians raised in the Bronx) then perhaps it can be seen as Allen himself addressing the audience. On this topic, Allen hilariously once said that “comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue”. Jokes aside this gives interesting insight into why it was handled in this way, and has become a technique used more and more, maybe slightly overused in recent years, but Allen is one of the pioneers of this idea. Allen regurgitated this concept in the critically panned Anything Else (2003) where Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) arguably played a young Woody Allen or Alvy Singer and also talks to the camera.
Furthering this extradiegetic feel to Annie Hall was a scene in which subtitles were used to show what the Alvy and Annie were thinking, despite saying something completely different, delving into the much studied relationship language that hasn’t been mastered to this day. This inventive stroke of genius has also been copied, most notably in 500 Days of Summer which was a modern take on the complexities of relationship, with Annie Hall clearly a massive influence across the board, showing the legacy of Allen and that his work defines this genre to this day. This cleverly allows the viewer to reflect on the message behind the story, and reminds them that they are in fact watching a movie. Surely by revolutionising these techniques, Allen’s personality as a filmmaker can be attributed to his authorship, a style that has carried on through the years.
The theme of the ‘struggling artist’ is also featured in Annie Hall, whereby a character feels unfulfilled and strives to be recognised for his achievements. Trevor Gilks, in a piece titled ‘We’re Not Like Other People’ commented on this recurrence, and similiarity in Allen’s male leads. He said that “in addition to their creative hurdles, the artists that occupy Allen’s movies also like to talk about their special role in society. Woody Allen’s artists also have the near-universal tendency to inject their own lives into their art. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer stages a play that blatantly re-enacts his own life (albeit with a happier ending)”. This continues throughout his career, and could be said to reflect his own dissatisfaction with his films as he has been known to be his own harshest critic in the past. In more recent efforts, now he himself is a little too long in the tooth to be taking on the romantic lead parts, he writes for actors who are brought in to play what always seems like an extension of himself, and of his earlier characters. Examples include Josh Brolin in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), Jesse Eisenberg in To Rome With Love (2012) but the perfect example of is Midnight in Paris (2011) where Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter who is seen to be hugely successful but has a sense of disdain for his profession, wishing to be a novelist and to do something more meaningful. The script assists in generating another stereotypical but likeable Allen lead, bumbling through passages with paranoia, strong self-awareness and magnificent smartness. Gil clashes with the typical Allen pseudo-intellectual antagonist Paul (Michael Sheen) and their battle of wits plays out like the famous Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall where Alvy encounters a know-it-all in the cinema queue and appeals to the audience before lecturing the man by pulling in the real McLuhan to prove his point. In Midnight in Paris, Gilks states that this “scene is now taken and elevated to subplot, with Gil filling in for Alvy Singer, Paul filling in for the guy in line, and Pablo Picasso filling in for Marshall McLuhan.”
On the much discussed topic of Allen basing characters on himself, he has actually admitted that the aforementioned Jerry Falk was based on himself. Gilks explores the uncanny resemblances, saying that “Jerry Falk could easily be a younger Alvy Singer. He could also be a younger Woody Allen which, in fact, he is. He’s a rare character that Allen will admit is based on himself. Falk is a 21-year-old divorcé (Allen first divorced when he was 22) and an established joke-writer (Allen was writing for The Tonight Show by the time he was 19). Falk is neurotic, self-deprecating, death-obsessed, and ridiculously well-read — which Allen also was in his 20s, as anyone who’s listened to his early comedy record can attest.” This signature persona is so obviously Woody Allen and even when he is not in the role, his attitude and charisma comes across so heavily, again asserting him forward in the argument for authorship theory.
Allen is a proud New Yorker, born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. This identification with his roots comes across vividly in his early works, the Big Apple taking a prominent role itself in illustrating the world that his characters inhabit. His features were frequently set in New York, most famously Annie Hall and of course, Manhattan, and have been described as love letters to the city with glorious landmarks on show, glamorising the location and fitting perfectly into his developing style. In recent years, as Allen is growing old, it is as if he is ticking the boxes of all the European capitals, using the settings and establishing them in a deliberately heavy handed way, some even have the name of the city in the films title. In each he again doesn’t shy away from immediately shoving the setting in the forefront with clear familiar sights and tourist attractions, often also incorporating a fitting complimentary soundtrack for further emphasis. In Match Point (2005), the first of his two London films followed by Scoop a year later, the lovers stand by the River Thames with the well known scenery in the background, a piece constructed in the same way aesthetically as the iconic conversation scene under the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan. Then in Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008), Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall cross paths at Antonio Gaudi’s Park Guell directly in front of the dragon fountain and in Midnight in Paris, again there is a riverside shot with Eiffel Tower lurking in the shot. The long establishing shot in Midnight in Paris (2011), setting the scene, was commented on by analyst Mathew Brownstein where he said that it “illustrates beautifully what his characters will be seeing and visiting while staying in Paris. It helps set up the audience to understand where they are viewing this from and illustrates the importance of the location in the film. Paris is a main part of the film. Instead of having characters or dialogue, Allen allows the audience to just view the scenery and familiarize themselves with what Owen Wilson’s character will be experiencing in the film.” This has been a late theme in Woody Allen’s career but still one worth mentioning, stressing a recurring motif and a new visual signature.
In Paul Sartre’s introduction to Le Temps Modernes, he says that “once we break out of the confines of exclusively aesthetic concerns, we quickly see that the main determinant of who was an auteur was the director’s world view which he expressed through the material he was working with.” This illustrates that camera work, and imagery aside, what really defines an auteur is a sense of their own identity as a person, and how this is shown through his or her work. Allen to me is an auteur as his films are so synonymous with him as an artist, as a writer, a director or as a person. The brilliant sense of humour is ever present where the jokes come from him or one of his many amalgamations of himself and a conflicted character he has written, going through the same turmoil in love and work as he has. “All the films praised by the auteur critics begin with the physical, psychological, and spiritual isolation of the main character or characters. As the tale develops, we find that the hero is forced to discover his most base and humiliating aspects; he has reached the point at which his relationship to other people and ultimately to God becomes clear to him and to the audience as well”.(Hess, 2006) Whilst Hess talks of a discovery suggesting an air of reflective conclusion, Allen’s characters do often discover their true vocation in life, or make the decision on the right woman they should be with, but don’t always act on it, leaving some of his character arcs beautifully unfinished and unresolved. As a Jewish comic, this bleeds through into his films from his early stand up shows, mainly in the form of paranoia of anti-Semitism, attacking the misconception of the tightwad New York Jew. This idea has influenced fellow Jewish acts such as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David who share this mentality, and use it for comparable comic effect. This, along with his dry wit, simplistic but striking cinematography (though this is mainly down to Gordon Willis who worked with Allen on his most aesthetically pleasing films, but influenced his future project art direction) and eccentric bumbling characters all contribute to the being of what is a ‘Woody Allen’ film – a style admired and often emulated but never duplicated – and instantly recognisable, placing him amongst the greatest filmmakers of his generation and an auteur in his own right.