Melinda and Melinda (2004, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has written around thirty films, probably thirty-four. Ten of these films are some of the finest in the last thirty years, give or take. But he tries something new in Melinda and Melinda and it doesn’t work.

Of his recent work, his post-Miramax period, Melinda is the second strongest–Curse of the Jade Scorpion holding the title. His work hasn’t been astounding, but it’s still good work. Melinda and Melinda had the potential, the writing, and the cast to be his best film in twelve years or so. Wait, I forgot about Sweet and Lowdown. Anyway, when I said Woody tried something new, he screwed up his narrative and ruined the film’s effectiveness.

Melinda and Melinda has three concurrent stories. The reality one: two playwrights, one comedic, one dramatic, at dinner and then each playwright’s story of the titular Melinda. Since neither of these stories is real, but are told with lovely care for their characters, the effect is something annoying (unlike the similarly afflicted, but unmoving The Usual Suspects).

And it’s too bad, because Woody’s got his best cast in years in this film. A bunch of people who, shockingly in some cases, turn in great performances. Chloë Sevigny is great, but we all know that–but Jonny Lee Miller? I had no idea. Amanda Peet continues to impress (her turn in What Women Want starting this run) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I’ve never seen in anything much less heard the name, is quite good too. Will Ferrell does a couple too many Woody impressions but is fine otherwise. Touching, even, in some parts.

As the eponymous Melinda, Rhada Mitchell occasionally loses her American accent, but is rather good. Melinda isn’t the protagonist, however. Ferrell is in one story, Sevigny in the other. Melinda isn’t the subject either, instead, Woody uses her as the catalyst, which would work great if the stories had weight. Worse, one story ends before the other, jarring the viewer into realizing the uselessness of his or her investment in the film.

Still, the film is beautifully directed, with amazing Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography, and is still quite good overall. I haven’t seen a Woody Allen film in about a year and watching one always produces a nice feeling. A feeling that the world isn’t empty of art. (Except maybe Bullets Over Broadway or Another Woman).

Narrative device warts and all, he’s just so damn good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Radha Mitchell (Melinda), Chloë Sevigny (Laurel), Jonny Lee Miller (Lee), Will Ferrell (Hobie), Amanda Peet (Susan), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ellis), Wallace Shawn (Sy) and Josh Brolin (Greg).


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White Nights (1985, Taylor Hackford)

It’s the perfect time for the White Nights post I’ve been slacking on.

Why have I been slacking? A combination of things. First and foremost, White Nights is a Columbia Picture. Sony releases Columbia Pictures on DVD and has not released White Nights in the US yet. If and when they do, those twits will probably release it pan and scan. We watched the lovely, anamorphic widescreen Japanese release. Even has Taylor Hackford commentary. Two, I’ve seen White Nights before and I don’t know how much I have to say about it. Three, maybe I’d have more to say or something different to say, if I didn’t watch the movie thinking how great an actor Gregory Hines really was, how unappreciated he was in the 1980s (how many good roles did he have in theatrical releases–I’ve actually seen Dead Air–seven or eight, depends on if you count History of the World or Eve of Destruction). Gregory Hines came and went and he shouldn’t have. The fact he’s dead without any acting recognition upset me throughout the film. Just now, I read he dropped out of 48 HRS. for The Cotton Club. So now I’m even more upset.

No one makes movies like White Nights anymore. Hollywood does not produce adult dramas not intended to be Oscar-nominees. It just doesn’t happen. Miramax has ruined adult cinema (and Adam Sandler and Mike Myers have ruined adult comedy).

White Nights is–I suppose–not entirely ludicrous. I have no idea what would have happened if Baryshnikov ended up in the Soviet Union somehow. So, I can accept it. The rest of the story is simple and paced over a couple weeks. The KGB sets Baryshnikov up with Hines, a tap-dancing American defector (over Vietnam), hoping to get world recognition for getting their defector back home. Getting him to give up the world of Western indulgences. Eventually, Baryshnikov escapes again. The end. I’m sure almost everyone’s seen this movie on late night TV (though not in beautiful anamorphic widescreen).

There’s Phil Collins music at some point but it’s that somehow okay Phil Collins 1980s music. Makes for good sequences. That Phil Collins. Not Phil Collins-Monkey Love Song Phil Collins. And it fits because Hackford produces an excellent package. His films are always well-produced. Against All Odds is not, you know, a good film, but it’s well-produced. In the context of the 1980s, I would have called Hackford mediocre. Now, I would have to call him good… comparably.

Nights isn’t a musical, but there’s a lot of dancing and it’s impossible not be awe of the two dancers. No offense to Hines (or tap dancing), but Baryshnikov is the more stunning. What the guy can do is amazing. I can’t do any of it. And neither can you, because you’d be doing it right now instead of wasting your time reading about some movie. My interest in the dancing, besides general appreciation, wanes. It’s not a musical, there’s a story coming before these sequences and they seem long when they’re interrupting that story. Some are great and Hackford does a good job with them. But the dancing makes White Nights good. It’s the peculiar nature of the story and of the actors.

For the majority of the film, Hines doesn’t like Baryshnikov and neither does the audience (though my fiancée seems to like his tush a lot). Baryshnikov is a selfish prig and it takes a while to warm to him. The differences between the Soviet Union and the United States and freedoms do come up, but those difference’s aren’t the character’s motivation. He’s just a selfish prig. There’s no ideology. And that lack makes him likable in the end. In other words, for four-fifths of the movie, it’s all about Hines. And he’s great. He turns an amazing performance, even when he’s got to be drunk and upset. The bad guy, of course, is the KGB guy. But, it’s not so simple because the KGB guy is a selfish prig too and turns out not to be inhuman. He’s just doing his job and he wants as good of a job as possible. And Helen Mirren’s in it and she’s great. So’s Geraldine Page. In fact, only Isabella Rossellini turns in a blah performance. But it’s Isabella Rossellini and she’s always blah, isn’t she?

So, White Nights is good. It’s an unexpected good. It does have a completely out of place Oscar-winning song, though. Lionel Richie sings what seems to be a song about friendship and I really wish there was a scene where Baryshnikov told Hines, “Believe in who you are, you are a shining star.” It’s not even in the movie, it plays over the end credits. How can a song get “Best Song” if it’s not in the movie? At least the songs in Irwin Allen’s disaster movies were in the movie a little….

White Nights reminds me–not too long ago even–most movies were okay. Most I’d see anyway. They were okay. Sticking with the Hackford oeuvre, Against All Odds isn’t any good, it really isn’t. But it’s not a crime against the human intellect. It’s not a Chris Klein movie or something. The 1980s constantly gets shit from people who think Britney Spears can sing or Hayden Christiansen can act. Sure, a lot of the films were incredibly derivative. Oh, you know, like bullet-time. White Nights is a reasonable example of that decade’s film output and it’s a good sign. It’s a sign the decade shouldn’t be ignored just because of John Hughes and Tony Scott.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Taylor Hackford; screenplay by James Goldman and Eric Hughes, from a story by Goldman; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Michel Colombier; produced by Hackford and William S. Gilmore; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov (Nikolai Rodchenko), Gregory Hines (Raymond Greenwood), Jerzy Skolimowski (Colonel Chaiko), Helen Mirren (Galina Ivanova), Geraldine Page (Anne Wyatt), Isabella Rossellini (Darya Greenwood), John Glover (Wynn Scott), Stefan Gryff (Captain Kirigin), William Hootkins (Chuck Malarek) and Shane Rimmer (Ambassador Smith).


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Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)

Period pieces and biopics tend to fail, at least ones made since 1950. I was just reading something about the growing audience want for realism in movies–this movement growing in the 1960s and 1970s (though the location shooting of the late 1940s is certainly a precursor)–that want made period pictures and biopics difficult… there needed to be reality. You couldn’t have Henry Frankenstein wearing a 1930s robe in late 18th century wherever (they never really specified in Bride of Frankenstein, did they?). Some films, obviously, managed to get around these difficulties. Kubrick embraced it fully–Barry Lyndon had a special lens adapted to shoot scenes by candlelight–while others ignored it and were ridiculed. I’m not sure how historically accurate Danton is, but it’s allegiances are to film, not to history. I’m pretty sure when the French Revolution was going bad, there wasn’t foreboding music in the background.

The film juxtaposes Danton and Robespierre, positing them as alter egos. It’s been a while since I read any French Revolution history, but I remember it both from undergrad and earlier and the Terror was not a particularly happy time and Robespierre never got a positive review. More recently I’ve watched Gance’s Napoleon and his Robespierre is insidious. I think Robespierre’s speech in that film was the scene where Gance swung the camera at him on a trapeze. Danton opines a different Robespierre, a sad one who’s just as upset as Danton about the Revolution going bad.

Danton is not a history lesson. Besides the one subtitle about the year, there’s none of the common exposition to inform the audience. I’ve found that exposition is only common in American films. Danton drops the viewer into a situation about a bunch of leading politicians and tells a story. The film’s present action is maybe two weeks, not longer. It gradually builds, introducing its large cast of characters (since it’s not a biopic, it takes the time to tell its story in scenes, not summary). While Gérard Depardieu appears in the first scene, he doesn’t do anything for the first twenty minutes or so. Depardieu is excellent as Danton, charming and resigned at the same time. Wojciech Pszoniak is better (which is hard, Depardieu’s real good) as Robespierre. The rest of the cast is fine, but since the film’s about those two men, they leave the impression.

I brought up Kubrick earlier because the director seems to have seen a few of his films, particularly Paths of Glory. Danton is good throughout, but it becomes excellent at the end, when it becomes fully filmic. Previously, the viewer could see right and wrong being done (by both the bad guys and the good), but at the end, director Wajda goes all out. There are hints something is going on earlier, a scene at the Convention when Robespierre speaks (no trapeze though) gets quiet when it should get loud. Reality takes a backseat for cinematic storytelling. The end of the film, however, embraces the medium to an extent I didn’t think possible in the film. In the last fifteen minutes, Wajda goes beyond–in terms of quality storytelling–what he’d set up in the previous 115 minutes. The end is devastating.

My fiancée said a history professor of ours said it was the finest film about the French Revolution. He’s probably right (I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen any other films about the French Revolution). In the American critical expectation, there seems to be the need for a film about the French Revolution to teach the audience something about said Revolution. Danton didn’t teach me much (except to check out more of Wajda’s films and Pszoniak’s too). It was concerned with being a fine film, not being a teaching experience… and it worked out really well for it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Boleslaw Michalek, Agnieszka Holland and Jacek Gasiorowski, based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska; director of photography, Igor Luther; edited by Halina Prugar-Ketling; music by Jean Prodromides; produced by Margaret Menegoz; released by Gaumont.

Starring Gérard Depardieu (Danton), Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre), Anne Alvaro (Eleonore Duplay), Roland Blanche (Lacroix), Patrice Chereau (Camille Desmoulins), Emmanuelle Debever (Louison Danton), Krzysztof Globisz (Amar), Ronald Guttman (Herman), Gerard Hardy (Tallien), Tadeusz Huk (Couthon), Stephane Jobert (Panis), Marian Kociniak (Lindet), Marek Kondrat (Barere de Vieuzac) and Boguslaw Linda (Saint Just).


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Alien³ (1992, David Fincher), the assembly cut

So, I guess David Fincher wasn’t that upset about the “Assembly Cut” Fox did of Alien³ for their moronically-titled “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set a few years ago, because he left his name on it. Fincher’s always badmouthing Alien³ but hasn’t got the balls needed to Alan Smithee a film (like Michael Mann has). Now, was Fincher smart not to reedit the film for DVD? Well, he couldn’t do anything to improve on the existing Alien³ theatrical cut (he’s simply not a capable enough artist), so I guess it doesn’t matter.

I’ve been hearing about this damn cut for years, probably since 1997. Everyone who loved Fincher (from Seven) and thought he was a genius (for Seven!) talked about this magic cut. Most of what’s in this “assembly cut” is in the novelization (I used to read novelizations, then I started listening to film school snobs. I’m not sure which was worse) and none of it helps the film. This cut runs about a half hour longer and includes some different scenes and shit, but mostly it just uses up the viewer’s patience. I need to watch Alien³ the regular version in a few weeks to properly grade it, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t so poorly paced. There’s a full hour of red herring here, which the studio wisely cut the hell out of. Fox was not always a terrible, inhuman studio. That happened, I’m pretty sure, after NewsCorp bought it. According to IMDb, Fincher walked before editing began, which seems to be a good thing, because this “assembly” cut does little but show how much good editing can improve a film.

Now, this cut is and has been lauded around the internet and film snobs (how much of a film snob can you be if you like Panic Room, however) have spewed praise… The fans of this cut think that calling something a “quadrilogy” is an acceptable human practice. I’m not that upset watching this cut–the DVD set was a Christmas gift and it’s not that bad, in the two and a half range, but it was a complete waste of time and did nothing but make me doubt the folks who recommended it.

Alien³, the longer cut, was supposed to be the holy grail of DVD (much like folks hope Warner will do an official, expanded Superman II). Oddly, off the top of my head, I can only think of three or four films that benefit from an expanded cut. The Big Red One, Blade Runner, Touch of Evil (to some degree, it was always great), and then it gets murky. No, wait, Star Trek: The Motion Picture became watchable. Anyway, if anyone out there has the Aussie/UK version of The Last of the Mohicans without Mann’s 2000 tweaks, let me know….

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson, based on a story by Vincent Ward and characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Gordon Carroll, Giler and Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Charles S. Dutton (Dillon), Charles Dance (Clemens), Paul McGann (Golic), Brian Glover (Andrews), Ralph Brown (Aaron), Danny Webb (Morse), Christopher John Fields (Rains), Holt McCallany (Junior), Pete Postlethwaite (David) and Lance Henriksen (Bishop).


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