Thoughts on Woody Allen – The Wilderness Years: 2000-2004

Author’s note: This article was written in 2014. I’m quite proud of the effort it took to write it – reseach and editing, etc. It serves as a weird time capsule of a time that you could legitimately do a Woody Allen think piece without feeling slightly queasy.

Anyway, here we go: What was his worst film??

Forward: It may seem odd and even slightly counter-intuitive to have spent such a considerable amount of time and energy on this article (and believe me this entry took a huge amount of effort to write and edit!), which looks at a very specific period in the career of American director Woody Allen, but my aim with this blog has been to discuss aspects of film culture which don’t tend to receive much attention. It’s easy to to find blogs about contemporary mainstream cinema, or to browse the endless best and worst lists of films (Batman & Robin = Worst Film Ever / The Dark Knight = Best Film Ever, etc), but these tend to merge into one loud and incomprehensible storm of opinion, and the results are often fairly headache inducing. By narrowing down my focus to examine obscure and even quite personal subjects, I aim to deliver a more understated and alternative experience for anyone who happens to pass by and find themselves reading this strange little film blog.

So, here’s a vast article (with clickable pictures and screengrabs!) on what I’ve dubbed as Woody Allen’s wilderness years, during which he made probably his most forgettable and least seen bunch of movies. I hope you enjoy it.

banner_woodyAllenIn 1999 Woody Allen released ‘Sweet and Lowdown’. It was a compromise of sorts; a compilation of the ideas surrounding his long gestating, epic dream project, ‘The Jazz Baby’, which Allen began writing in the 1970s, but had considered too ambitious and expensive to ever produce. What that film would have looked like we will never know, but what it had in common with ‘Sweet…’ was the period setting and basic narrative, following a brilliant but troubled musician over several years of his life as the character moves between Chicago and California during the 1930s. Despite the re-write and comparatively low budget, the result is a very fine film. Sean Penn is at his manic and sleazy best in the lead role as Emmet Ray, a fast-talking, egomaniacal jazz guitarist, and Samantha Morton plays his mute love interest, Hattie, in a performance which defines the term ‘brilliantly understated’. They were both nominated for Oscars.

Sean Penn (left) and Samantha Morton (centre left) in ‘Sweet and Lowdown’.

Between 2000-2004 Allen made five films (his record of a film a year is near uninterrupted) which are widely regarded as inferior bits of fluffy comedy, unworthy of the talents of the director who made such great works as ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’. To suggest this is, of course, to sound like a complete tool. But there is some truth to the claim that things slid rather wildly off track for a while, and honestly, if you just removed these entries from Allen’s resume it would look much better as a whole. Who, for instance, remembers 2003’s ‘Anything Else’, the film which critic Mark Kermode described as so bad that its own title accurately reflected the audience reaction to it? Or 2002’s ‘Hollywood Ending’, which is described by angry internet critic Matt Cale from RuthlessReviews as “Woody Allen’s Ishtar“, in a review which is funnier than the film itself? I have never met anybody who has seen any of these films. In fact, if I bring them up in conversation, it’s like a scene in a movie where people’s reactions suggest that the films don’t even exist… Perhaps I really am going mad.

The question I’m looking at with this blog entry is not, “What happened?”, but rather, “How bad is it?” Many people consider ‘Sweet and Lowdown’ to be Allen’s last truly great film. Those who disagree might choose ‘Deconstructing Harry’ (1997), or even go as far back as ‘Husbands and Wives’ (1992), at least until his sudden resurgence in the late 2000s with his thriller ‘Match Point’ (2005), and romantic comedy-dramas ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ (2008) and ‘Midnight in Paris’ (2011), which have since firmly placed the director back on centre-stage, with Oscars and box-office receipts to prove it (he cares nothing for either). Despite the relative financial and critical success of these recent films however, there is something missing from them. ‘Vintage Allen’ is term used by fans who view ‘Sweet and Lowdown’ as the bittersweet last shout from Woody, before his fall from grace, and subsequent return to form.

Woody persona

I’m certainly not going to argue with this view. Whatever your opinion of Allen’s work – and some people don’t like any of his films – there was a startling dip in quality during his weird foray back into the screwball comedy format from which he made his name (‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969), ‘Bananas’ (1971), ‘Sleeper’ (1973), etc). The jokes often fall flat, the performances seem lackluster, and despite the consistency of craft (Allen has never made a bad looking film) it seems obvious that something went wrong. Again, I’m not here to speculate that perhaps the man was tired, or that finishing his jazz opus had somehow left him bereft of ideas, or that he was woefully behind the times or maybe just couldn’t be bothered [err… I thought you weren’t going to speculate? -Ed.], but rather assess the situation. Exactly how bad are the following films?

‘Small Time Crooks’ (2000)

Crooks original Crooks Japanese

‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion’ (2001)

Curse originalCurse Japanese

‘Hollywood Ending’ (2002)

Hollywood Japanese

‘Anything Else’ (2003)

Anything originalAnything Japanese

‘Melinda and Melinda’ (2004)

Melinda originalMelinda France

Note how much cooler the foreign poster designs are.

Is Allen’s worst film among these titles? Are there any laughs whatsoever to be had? Who fares best out of casts which seem to be made out of uniformly great actors? All these questions and more will be answered below. Join me now for a tour through Woody Allen’s wilderness years, in which an aging director seems to write scripts which guarantee him the opportunity to kiss beautiful young women while wildly waving his arms around and shouting.

‘Small Time Crooks.’ (2000)

Small

First up is Allen’s kitschy homage to crime capers past (including specifically ‘Take the Money and Run’), which actually shifts after thirty minutes and suddenly turns into a kind of fish-out-of-water comedy-of-manners, as the newly rich protagonists must contend with life among the New York social elite. Neither section works particularly well, although the second part is definitely stronger based on the joke factor alone. Set in modern-day New York, Allen plays a down-at-heel dishwasher named Ray, who’s married to Tracey Ullman’s feisty nail-technician and former topless dancer, Frenchy. (Oddly, we never see either of them at work.) Ray hits on a scheme to rob a bank by tunnelling under the street from a disused pizza parlour which he rents out with his brainless gang of goonish friends. Frenchy provides cover by turning the restaurant into a cookie store, and while the bank robbery goes disastrously wrong, Frenchy’s little business grows into a multi-million dollar empire (she uses her mother’s recipe).

Dreams

Cinematographer Fei Zhao captures an image of startling beauty as Ray and Frenchy discuss the future on the roof of their apartment at sunset.

Suddenly flushed with cash, Ray and Frenchy host a lavish dinner party in their garishly decorated new penthouse and invite NY’s best and brightest, including Hugh Grant’s charming art-dealer, David. Frenchy overhears a bitchy conversation about how completely ghastly the guests find her and Ray’s taste, so hires David to give the couple a crash-course in art, music and literature. While she takes to the lessons with enthusiasm and begins to transform into a socialite, Ray remains slovenly and disinterested. A schism forms in their marriage, and Ray begins to miss his old life of petty crime…

Party

Ray (Allen) and Frenchy (Ullman) greet dinner guests at their penthouse.

As the first in this series of weaker Allen efforts, critics were actually very kind to ‘Small Time Crooks’. Many hailed it as his triumphant return to his roots, and others were charmed by its irreverence and lightness of tone. The problem with the film – and it’s not nearly as bad as some people think it is – is that it’s almost too light. Allen made some of his most satisfying comedies in the ’90s, like ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ (1994), which still stands as one of the best films of that decade, and the reason they were so good was the overlapping of philosophical themes with character driven comedy (both staple elements in his body of work). If we look at ‘Small Time Crooks’ in this context we’re confronted by somewhat bland characters with little to say about life. The lesson of the film seems to echo the sentiment, “I am what I am”, which is no bad thing, but think how much better that same point was made in ‘Bullets…’ all those years before. Consider how much more alive the film was, how rich and amusing the characters inhabiting it were, and how you wanted to listen to them talking all night long (well, maybe not Jennifer Tilly…).

Cast and director attend the premiere of 'Small Time Crooks'.

Cast and director attend the premiere of ‘Small Time Crooks’.

In ‘Crooks…’ we are faced with a series of loud domestic squabbles between Allen and Ullman which repeat throughout the film, rapidly becoming tiresome. Sure, some of the jokes are mildly amusing and the whole film is full of quickfire one-liners, but the quantity doesn’t really make up for lack of quality, and when we factor in Allen’s lunatic mugging and Ullman’s ‘noo-yawk’ screeching, we can only take so much before, quite frankly, it becomes extremely annoying.

Caught The first act contains a stable of reliable character actors, including Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow, all of whom disappear from the story immediately following a  ‘One Year Later’ title card which appears after the unexpected success of the cookie store. The only supporting actor retained from the first act is Elaine May, who plays Frenchy’s endearingly dim-witted cousin, May. Thank goodness Allen keeps this character in the story, as Elaine May manages to elevate the material several levels with consistently brilliant comic timing and subtle physical comedy (mostly in her reactions). Simply watching May as she listens to other characters is funny, and she easily provides the best moments in the film.

Elaine May as 'May' asks a sensible question.

Elaine May as ‘May’ asks a sensible question.

Ray: [Talking about May] “We’ll give her a small salary! She’ll never figure out or catch wise to anything… because, if you think Denny and Tommy are slow, your cousin May is dumb like a horse… or a dog or something.”

Denny: [Explaining the tunnel] “I’d explain it to you, but you gotta understand engineering.”

May: “What’s engineering?”

Hugh Grant is another in a long line of interesting casting choices in Allen films, which must have seemed like really good ideas at the time, but end up providing very little towards the film (William Hurt in ‘Alice’ (1990) springs to mind) as all he really has to do is look shocked when Frenchy and Ray say something embarrassing.

Gallery

David: “So, you can see the difference between this Tintoretto… and the earlier Byzantine painting we looked at. What would you say is the most significant difference?”

Ray: “Me? I would say that the frame’s bigger here.”

David: “Mm-hmm. Well, it is bigger.”

As the story progresses Frenchy and David grow close and begin an unlikely affair, before Frenchy is swindled by her accountants and loses everything, at which point David promptly vanishes. During their time apart, Ray has been concocting a new scheme to rob one of their society friends (Elaine Stritch, best known to Allen fans as Mia Farrow’s mother in ‘September’ (1987), and probably the best thing about that film), but true to form he manages to confuse his counterfeit ‘ringer’ necklace with the one he planned to steal and ends up with the costume jewellery by mistake. When he hears that Frenchy has gone bankrupt and lost her business, Ray returns home and declares his love for her. Frenchy reveals that she has stolen David’s priceless cigarette case which she plans to auction for a bundle so that they can finally realise their dream of moving to Florida and spending some time on the beach…

Frenchy at Party

The worst was yet to come in Allen’s curious slump period, but ‘Small Time Crooks’ remains a strangely uneven and at times pretty irritating film, both for its flat characters and hammy dialogue, and the overall impression of a good idea which sadly comes to nothing. It’s not just that the jokes are bad or that everybody keeps shouting their lines, but more that it feels like a film which had very little thought or care put into it. Allen is considered one of the great American auteurs (not an oxymoron, I promise) and it’s jarring to think of the director, who has total creative freedom on all of his projects, as writing a film with such vapid characters, tired jokes, and a message which is at best, obvious.

‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.’ (2001)

Curse

Perhaps Allen’s first mistake here was casting himself in the role of a tough, womanizing insurance investigator in 1940s New York. By his own admission Allen was wrong for this role, first approaching Tom Hanks and then Jack Nicholson, and finally Robert De Niro (!) before deciding to play the lead himself. By placing himself at the center of the film though, we wonder, might he be able to wring some comedy out of his unassuming and cowardly screen alter-ego? Not so, unfortunately. Far from playing to his strengths, Allen plays the role broadly straight and finds himself burdened with the task of bringing the character of C.W. Briggs to life. Investing little energy in convincing us of his skills as an investigator (a single mention of the recovery of a stolen Picasso) and as a babe-magnet (the terribly ill-advised casting of ‘Showgirls’/‘Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley as his flirtatious secretary), Allen seems oddly lost-at-sea in a film which ironically sees his character spending a lot of time under hypnosis. Helen Hunt plays Betty Ann Fitzgerald, the ruthless office efficiency expert ruining Briggs’ life, and of course, falling in love with him in the process. There is some relief in the casting of Hunt though, since at the time of filming she was thirty-eight years old, and she remains modestly dressed throughout the film. The standard comedy love/hate relationship builds over the course of the story, as the pair trade imaginative insults before eventually falling into one another’s arms, a la ‘It Happened One Night’/‘Adam’s Rib’. The dialogue during these exchanges is the highlight of the film:

bar4smile

Briggs: “Despite all your high-falootin’ talk about streamlining the office, what you really need is a good old-fashioned roll in the hay.”

Betty Ann: “You wouldn’t know which end was up.”

Briggs: “Yeah, well, in your case I admit it would be difficult to tell.”

Betty Ann: “Don’t walk me to the door, people might think we’re leaving together.”

Briggs: “Why, do I look like an organ grinder?”

Betty Ann: “No… just an organ.”

Bar3smile

It works fairly well on the screen, which is probably a testament to the script rather than Allen and Hunt’s chemistry, which is basically non-existent. Allen is famous for not fussing over many takes in his films, nor bothering with rehearsals. His method usually involves setting up a scene with the DP, bringing in the actors, telling them what to do as the scene progresses and where to stand, before rolling film. In theory this provides a fresh first take which is usually good enough to use (with two or three more for safety). In the case of ‘Curse…’ however, it’s obvious that Helen Hunt – a good actress with the right material – is stumbling over the busy and complex dialogue, and despite doing her best to hit comic targets she seems stressed and rattled by the demands of the script. Allen on the other hand seems to have a bad cold, but otherwise wanders through his role without much enthusiasm. Dan Akroyd is in the film for some reason, as C.W.’s pompous boss, and while he’s never really been considered a comedy talent in the same league as his peers Bill Murray and Steve Martin, he seems slightly wasted here in a role which only calls for him to bluster around and act dismissively.

Helen Hunt listens intently as Dan Aykroyd explains his famous 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Helen Hunt listens intently as Dan Aykroyd explains his famous 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The film’s plot is an old-fashioned yarn about missing jewels, mysterious stage hypnotists and a battle of the sexes, and if treated as such there are a few things to enjoy about it. The stunning photography by Fei Zhao (‘Raise the Red Lantern’) and the stylish design of the period setting, including sets, costumes and music (particularly the inspired use of Wilber De Paris performing ‘In a Persian Market’) are all first rate, but this really only serves to highlight how familiar and predictable the story feels, and how lame some of the jokes are.

Al: “She’s got a behind that won’t quit.”

Briggs: “Won’t quit? It won’t take five minutes off for a coffee break!”

Elizabeth Berkeley is thrilled to hear how much Woody enjoyed her performance in the film 'Showgirls'.

Elizabeth Berkeley is thrilled to hear how much Woody enjoyed her performance in David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’.

The one cast member who emerges unscathed from all of this is Charlize Theron, whose cameo as a seductive high-society debutante is a welcome turn in deadpan humour, even if, yes, she ends up kissing Allen. Taking a more laid-back approach and delivering her lines in a knowingly sarcastic drawl, Theron would seem to be the only actor actually having fun with the material. The rest of the cast, including Wallace Shawn and David Ogden Stiers (both Allen veterans) just don’t seem to have anything to do except stand around and say their lines.

lauranew

Overall it’s a well intentioned movie, mildly amusing but consistently less that the sum of its parts and in serious need of a re-write (the idea was based on one Allen had in the ’70s, for a short sketch). The film was a complete flop and stands as Allen’s biggest financial disappointment with a budget of around $26 million (his highest to date at time of writing) and box-office gross of $2.5 million. Interestingly, Allen was eager to reshoot a lot of the film after editing, and although he usually plans for reshoots, the sets had already been destroyed and the budget wouldn’t allow for them to be rebuilt.

Curtain

Last thoughts? Let’s hear from the director on this…

Woody Allen: “I feel that maybe – and there are many candidates for this – but it may be the worst film I’ve made. I have great regrets and embarrassment. It just killed me to have such a talented cast and not be able to come through for them.”

Arrest

Take him away, boys.

‘Hollywood Ending’ (2002)

Hollywood Ending

Well, now we’re really talking. ‘Hollywood Ending’ is the film which many point to as the ultimate low-point in Allen’s career, and his first not to receive a release in the UK – although it opened the 2002 Cannes film festival (out of competition). Starting off at a running pace with a group of Hollywood studio executives deciding to take one more chance on a washed up film director (Allen, playing it rather close to the bone), the film soon becomes one long take on a single joke, as said director, Val Waxman, suddenly develops psychosomatic blindness the day before shooting begins. With the help of his willing but bumbling agent Al (Mark Rydell), Val manages to scrape through the process of making the film within the film, while avoiding the ever watchful eyes of the producers – including his ex-wife Ellie, played by Téa Leoni. It would seem that everything ‘Crooks…’ and ‘Curse…’ suggested about Allen’s bizarre slide into manic, over-the-top comedy finally came true here, and at almost two hours in length (pretty much unheard of in Allen films, which are usually ninety minutes or less) it’s a long, rough journey over some very bad road.

Val and Ellie

Woody explains the nuances of the script to an enraptured Téa Leoni.

Most of the observations made about the previous two films can be applied here too. Woody overacts terribly and fills his script with tedious, unfunny jokes; Téa Leoni gives a bland, charmless performance; the supporting cast have little to do except stand around looking confused; and the awkward casting of yet another female ‘Saved by the Bell’ cast member arrives in the form of Tiffani Thiessen as an actress in Val’s film, whose sudden and totally inexplicable sexual attraction to Val is at best another ill-advised comedy moment (Val’s blindness has him mistake her breasts for pillows…). There is an over-reliance on slapstick comedy too, as Val constantly falls heavily into furniture, gets hit over the head by passing construction equipment and in one memorable scene (arguably the funniest in the film) walks off the edge of an elevated sound stage and plummets onto the craft service table while giving elaborate stage directions.

[The Chinese cameraman and his translator are arguing in Mandarin.]

Val: “Who ordered?”

Quite possibly the strangest element of ‘Hollywood…’ is the obscene level of product placement. The film was Allen’s third with Dreamworks, and it’s difficult to know if they pushed for him to include this, or if it’s a deliberate, albeit unsuccessful joke. Characters are seen using Apple laptops while drinking from cans of 7Up and Pepsi, which isn’t so bad, except the camera actually follows the products around, and the actors make sure that the labels are clearly in shot. Allen also orders a Becks, which has to be first. Placement is fine when it blends into the film, but to be such a distraction as to stick in the mind only serves to exemplify how uninteresting the rest of the film ultimately is.

Pillow

The ending of the film is a familiar case of Deus Ex Machina. This narrative device is very popular in Allen films and is usually introduced with a sense of self-awareness that borders on parody and the result is often charming, as in ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ (1995) where an out of control helicopter sends its pilot literally falling out of the sky and into the characters’ lives. In ‘Hollywood…’ there’s a scene after Val’s film is released to the American public (and after he has miraculously regained his sight) and is unsurprisingly savaged by critics and audiences (“Would you recommend this film to a friend? Only if I were friendly with Hitler.”). Val is devastated until he learns the film has been a huge success in France, where they appreciate his bold artistic statement in having it make no sense whatsoever. He promptly hops into a taxi and heads to the airport for Paris, with Ellie, who has fallen in love with him all over again! This seems far more like a quick and convenient high note on which to finish the film than a proper ending, and given that it all takes place in the last three minutes, I suspect this is exactly what it is.

Val: “For me, the nicest thing about masturbation is afterward, the cuddling time.”

Despite all of these obvious flaws, there is a certain fascination in watching it all unfold, if you can enter the spirit of the movie. I must confess that I don’t dislike ‘Hollywood Ending’ even although everything tells me that I should. One or two points in its favour…

Scumbag

Woody plays Val as genuinely and completely desperate. He has no money, he’s been reduced to directing deodorant commercials in Canada (“Up here you don’t need Oscars, you need antlers!”) and his ditsy girlfriend (Debra Messing) is only with him on the off chance of a movie role. When he suddenly goes blind there is a moment where he realises his entire career is now over, that nobody will ever hire him again and he will probably lose his apartment and have to go on welfare. For Allen to play the part of someone not just down on their luck, but totally without hope, gives the film a strangely dark comic edge. For all his over-acting it actually comes through that Val, while by no means incompetent as a film director, is a total failure at life. Val’s fractured relationships with his ex-wife and estranged son give rise to a kind of melancholy which has shades of his character from Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and it’s a shame that this isn’t the main focus of the film, but is only glimpsed at inbetween set-pieces involving Val tumbling around and groping women’s breasts and shouting.

Ed: [Talking about Val.] “He’s an incompetent, raving psychotic!”

Ellie: “He’s not incompetent!”

Although the film is not a satire by any means (if only!) there is some fun to be had with Allen’s jibes at the movie industry, as the producers are portrayed as a bunch of preening Californian philistines who would rather make a crude teenage sex-comedy than something approaching a genuine work of art. George Hamilton is the best of this bunch, constantly wandering around the set with a single incongruous golf club, discussing new plastic surgery techniques and the various addiction groups he attends. Had Allen savaged Hollywood here as accurately and mercilessly as Robert Altman did in ‘The Player’, we would be looking at a very different film, but in the end he just pokes fun a little at Peter Bogdanovich (Val’s rival for directing cheap Canadian commercials) and Haley Joel Osmont (who beats out Val to win a lifetime achievement award). I suppose the best term to use is ‘gentle humour’, but then again, Allen has actually admitted a certain affection towards LA and the people who live there, even if he views most Hollywood movies in a very dim light.

Val: “I can’t direct a film blind!”

Al: “Have you seen some of the movies out there?”

A are occurrence in which both the best line and funniest sight-gag coincide. Click for a closer look, and you'll see 'Val' tumbling off the stage.

A rare occurrence in which both the best line and funniest sight-gag coincide. Click for a closer look, and you’ll see ‘Val’ tumbling off the stage.

‘Hollywood…’ might seem like the ultimate in bloated magnum opera, but it does have its charms. It’s the sort of film you catch yourself watching on a rainy day and thinking, “Hmm, this isn’t very good,” but keep watching anyway just to see where it goes.

Our next entry on the other hand…

‘Anything Else’ (2003)

Anything Else

Oh my God… Where to start with this movie? While the above entries on this list are not exactly winners, nor even good films when all is said, ‘Anything Else’ actually marks the first time I’ve become worried while watching one of Woody’s films and begun to feel… well, kind of sorry for him. As a measure of how unpleasant I find this film, I must confess to having watched the others on this list many, many times. I count myself as one of the few to have watched every single film Allen has made several times, and have them all on a shelf (I am a completest at heart). Of course, some are watched less than others (‘Shadows and Fog’ (1991) for instance) but I find myself returning to this shelf in times of stress to select one of his films as a mood stabilizer of sorts. Only twice in my life have I watched ‘Anything Else’, and both times I felt sad. I thought about watching it again for his article (as I have the others), but life really does seem too short. Enough of this back-story though. Let’s get on with it…

"Take my mother, folks!"

“Take my mother, folks!”

Jason Biggs (he of ‘American Pie’ fame) plays Jerry, a neurotic comedian who sells his material to other stand-up comics for a living. Somehow, by doing this, he manages to live in a New York brownstone apartment and spend all of his time eating in restaurants, drinking coffee and browsing around vintage record stores while chatting with his mentor, a depressed school teacher named David (Allen). His girlfriend is a screeching, self-obsessed harridan named Amanda, played by Christina Ricci – basically reprising her role from ‘The Opposite of Sex’. It’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) but without the good bits, like jokes and interesting characters.

Amanda

Welcome to Hell.

World's most irritating couple.

World’s most irritating couple.

Biggs plays Jerry as a passive, spineless lightweight who can’t believe his good fortune in snagging a babe like Ricci (!?) and so clings to her despite the fact that she treats him like something which has fallen out of a hospital bin. Allen acts as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, hovering around in the background of the plot while attempting to warn Jerry of the impending destruction of the human race – he buys Jerry a rifle and survival equipment and urges him to ditch Ricci as soon as possible (this last point at least is very good advice). Some people have interpreted Allen’s role in the film as a sort of magical time-traveller who has come to save Jerry, but frankly I can’t even begin to form an opinion on this idea.

Squeeze

David Dobel: “They’re having a sale here on surplus Russian Army rifles.”

Jerry Falk: “What?”

David Dobel: “Well suppose you’re home one night, you know, in bed masturbating and some guys try to break in. You need protection.”

Jerry Falk: “I just dial 911.”

David Dobel: “Have you ever dialed 911? It’s like trying to get a mortgage.”

Danny DeVito is also in the film for some reason, and he’s at his most grating as Jerry’s incredibly loud and ineffective agent. During one scene in a restaurant (there are about fifty of these), Jerry gently suggests that he might be looking to find another agent – one who can perhaps find him work – and DeVito has to act upset, stumble around weeping and then have a heart attack. If you ever wondered why we don’t see him in films any more, it’s because Danny DeVito can’t actually act. It’s not a good sign that Woody, in ‘manic hand-waving’ mode, is able to translate his character’s feelings into a more intelligent and nuanced performance, but DeVito manages to make him look like Alain Delon in ‘Le Samouraï’.

Agent collapse

And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to…

David Dobel: [After passing two men outside a bar.] “He just looked at us and said to the other guy ‘Jews start all wars.’ You got to keep alert for these things! You don’t want your life to wind up as black-and-white newsreel footage scored by a cello in a minor key.”

The main offender here however is absolutely Christina Ricci. She’s not the strongest actress in the world (where did she go?), and indeed it would take a remarkable talent to make this character work, but nevertheless her performance here is simply mind-meltingly awful. Of course it doesn’t help that Biggs just hangs around moaning and breaking the fourth wall while she takes advantage of his generosity, but even in the scenes which act as flashbacks to their first romantic encounters you can’t help but wonder what on earth he sees in this person. Take a look at some of the other emotionally unstable female characters in Allen’s films and you can see where an actor could go wrong and make them unlikable. Would Mary Wilkie have been even remotely tolerable if Diane Keaton hadn’t brought her some wit and warmth in ‘Manhattan’? Would we feel any sympathy for Jasmine if Cate Blanchett hadn’t portrayed her with that touch of Dubois-esque tragedy in ‘Blue Jasmine’? Hell, even Ellen Page managed to make her Monica character both alluring and faintly ridiculous in ‘To Rome With Love’, and that was a role written in the exact same mould as Ricci’s Amanda. The idea that Allen didn’t have five minutes to take Ricci aside and actually direct her boggles the mind, so I can only assume that her ghastliness is completely intentional. Unfortunately this still boggles the mind as it’s such a terrible decision…

Jerry Falk: “Do you love me?”

Amanda: “What a question! Just because I pull away when you touch me?”

Strife

There is an argument to be made that perhaps Allen populated this film with cruel and misanthropic characters as a move to make a darker kind of romantic comedy. His own character’s explicitly negative view of humanity, total fear and mistrust of people and use of humour as a weapon would certainly back up this claim. His sudden rages, which include taking a tire-iron to a car which steals his parking space, almost make the film worth watching just for how strange they appear (try to imagine Woody Allen smashing up a car with a tire-iron), and yet the film offers no pay-off to this intense negativity, except for the glib line that life, being so full of horribleness and misery, is like, “anything else.” So, is it any wonder that we feel so gypped by this mean little film? David becomes a fugitive after shooting a cop who makes anti-semetic remarks towards him, Jerry moves to LA to become a script writer for sitcoms, and Amanda shacks up with the doctor who treats her for panic attacks, and presumably sets about making his life some kind of living hell.

Almost worth it for this scene alone.

Almost worth it for this scene alone.

David Dobel: “…and the next thing I knew they made some crack about my religion which I found in poor taste.”

Jerry Falk: “Religion? You’re an atheist!”

David Dobel: “Yes, I’m an atheist, but I resented the fact however obliquely that they implied that Auschwitz was basically just a theme park.”

A few years ago Quentin Tarantino (didn’t expect to see his name, did you?) was asked for his favourite films of the ’00s and he listed ‘Anything Else’ as one of his top ranking movies of the decade. Now, we all know Tarantino hasn’t actually made an intelligent film since 1997, but I assume he must be seeing something here which I’m missing. So, I’ll try to find some good points in amoungst the endless horror…

Stockard Channing is quite… em…

No, I’m sorry. I can’t think of anything else.

Stockard Channing actually has a memorable role as Amanda's mother; a hard drinking, coke snorting nightclub singer.

Stockard Channing actually has a memorable role as Amanda’s mother; a hard drinking, coke snorting nightclub singer.

‘Melinda and Melinda’ (2004)

Melinda and Melinda

After ‘Anything Else’ there is the profound feeling that sitting down to watch all nine hours of ‘Shoah’ would be a comparatively fun way to spend the day, so it’s a relief (and sort of a cheat, but not really) to move onto ‘Melinda and Melinda’. Taking the premise that any story can be viewed as either tragedy or comedy, depending on the telling, it starts with a dinner conversation between Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine (I’m guessing Andre Gregory wasn’t available) playing writers whose work is poles apart in its subject matter. Shawn claims that the essence of life is comedy, while Pine sees the world quite differently.

Our hosts discuss the essence of life. Comic... or tragic?

Our hosts discuss the essence of life: comic… or tragic?

Another guest (Neil Pepe) suggests a story for them to try this theory with, and we’re suddenly introduced to the two worlds of Melinda Robicheaux. One world exists as a light-hearted romantic comedy where love is always just around the corner, and the other as a determined tragedy where the characters struggle to find any happiness in their lives. In both stories – which run parallel as the film flits in between them, occasionally cutting back to the two writers – Melinda is played by Radha Mitchell, while the supporting cast are different in each, even as they play comedic or tragic versions of much the same characters.

Mitchell at 'Tragic' Melinda, glass in hand.

Mitchell as ‘Tragic’ Melinda, glass in hand.

'Comedy' Melinda: A noticeably sunnier disposition.

‘Comedy’ Melinda: A noticeably sunnier disposition.

Melinda is recently divorced, has just moved to New York and is looking for a job and a place to stay. This is about as much as the two stories have in common though, as Allen manages to create a distinctive tone and story arc for each, and Mitchell gamely rises to the challenge of playing the same character in two very different ways. To see ‘tragic’ Melinda is to observe a woman on the very edge of madness. She chain smokes cigarettes, pops pills like there’s no tomorrow and drinks like a fish. She’s obsessed with her weight, age and lack of progress in life, and she’s quite resigned to the fact that her problems are all her own fault; the result of an affair which has cost her her husband and two children.

Wreck

‘Comedy’ Melinda on the other hand inhabits a world in bloom, full of cute, tree-lined streets and friendly neighbours who are more than happy to invite her round to dinner and set her up with charming dentists. In this world it is Melinda’s husband who had the affair, and thank goodness they didn’t have kids or it would have meant an ugly custody battle (no room for this in comedy-land). The cast in each story perfectly reflect the tone, with indie stalwarts Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brooke Smith supporting the tragic side, and a more Hollywood-friendly cast for the comedy, which features Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet and Josh Brolin (as the charming dentist).

A world in bloom.

A world in bloom…

...and a charming dentist (Josh Brolin).

…and a charming dentist (Josh Brolin).

Melinda: “He just knew how to touch me.”

Hobie: “You mean emotionally?”

Melinda: “No, with his hands.”

Greg: “What do you do for exercise?”

Hobie: “Tiddly winks. And the occasional anxiety attack.”

A brief ray of light for 'Tragic' Melinda in the form of musician Ellis Moonsong.

A brief ray of light for ‘Tragic’ Melinda in the form of musician Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Melinda: “The minute you allow yourself sweet dreams you run the risk of them crashing down.”

Unhappily married: Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller).

Unhappily married: Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller).

It’s unfortunate that – despite Allen’s attempt to maintain a balancing act – the tragedy is by far and away the more involving story of the two. Tragic Melinda is simply a more interesting character, and watching someone struggle with life is always more of a draw than watching somebody breeze right through it. In the lighter story, Melinda’s neighbour, Hobie (Ferrell), starts to fall in love with her and desperately tries to think of ways to get her attention. When his frosty wife, Susan (Peet), begins to set her up with eligible men, Hobie attempts to sabotage their plans and win Melinda’s affections.

Kiss

This story sort of belongs to Ferrell’s character, who becomes its main focus since Melinda doesn’t actually have any great problems to overcome. It’s a familiar case though, of the lead actor doing his best to play the part as Allen might have played it ten or twenty years before, and like Kenneth Brannah in ‘Celebrity’ (1998) before him, Ferrell simply tries too hard to emulate Allen’s neurotic kvetching, resulting in a rather patience testing performance.

An inexplicably underused Steve Carell appears for a brief cameo in the 'Comedy' story.

An inexplicably underused Steve Carell appears for a brief cameo in the ‘Comedy’ story.

Ferrell has been great in comedies like ‘Zoolander’, and his skill in playing dramatic roles has been proven with films like ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ and the underrated ‘Everything Must Go’, but a part like Hobie needs to be more than a facsimile of the old Woody routine for us to really care. While he’s not as outright annoying as Brannah was, his performance lacks the intelligence and charm which Allen can bring to these kinds of characters.

It’s in the tragic tale of Melinda that we really get to see what Mitchell can do, and she’s absolutely great here. From the moment she enters the apartment belonging to her estranged highschool friends Laurel (Sevigny) and Lee (Miller), with all the force of a tornado, Mitchell seems to have the role down, and she manages to maintain a level of slightly deranged melancholy from which it’s impossible to look away, right to the bitter end. Melinda in this story has no great expectations. She tries to apply for jobs but has no delusions of ever getting them, and when Laurel and their friend Cassie (Smith) set her up with their own “charming dentist”, she takes one look at the poor schmuck and quietly explains to him that she’s not ready to start dating yet. The one ray of light in her story arrives in the form of a pianist (Ejiofor) she meets at a party, with the unlikely name of Ellis Moonsong. Melinda falls hopelessly in love with Ellis, but his presence in the lives of her unhappy friends only serves to further break apart their own failing marriage and, needless to say, the ending isn’t a happy one.

Eyes

Melinda: “I loved you…”

Ellis: “I don’t have a satisfactory explanation. You know these things happen.”

Including ‘Melinda and Melinda’ does feel like a bit of cheat. As Allen’s last film before his move to London for ‘Match Point’, ‘Scoop’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, it’s really only in here by default. It’s a clever idea and it’s successfully realized, even if the comedy still feels familiar and rather quaint. The tragic element however, works almost perfectly. On watching Allen’s last film ‘Blue Jasmine’ I was struck immediately by the similarities between its central character and the ‘tragic’ Melinda, and it serves as a reminder that Allen has made so many films now that he almost can’t help but recycle the same characters.

Help

Both Jasmine and Melinda share characteristics with Judy Davis’s ‘Sally’ from ‘Husbands and Wives’, Anjelica Huston’s ‘Dolores’ from ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989) and even Diane Wiest’s ‘Holly’ from ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ – women on the edge of a nervous breakdown. By placing the comedy and drama into separate stories and cutting between them as the film goes along, Allen manages to achieve a nice mixture of light and dark, and it’s possible to see how one would not work without the other. Sure, it’s been done before (the saccharine Paltrow vehicle ‘Sliding Doors’ springs to mind) but here at last we have that Allen vibe back again – the interweaving of character driven comedy and philosophical themes which makes his work so interesting.

Cinema

“You didn’t tell me this was a Woody Allen movie!”

The films which followed this rocky period proved Allen hadn’t lost his touch (err, well… there was ‘Scoop’ of course, but that’s a film for another day), and while I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the recent work quite as much as his ‘vintage’ films, I’m grateful that we still have a film-maker as talented, hardworking and funny as Allen around. If life is indeed divided into the horrible and the miserable, as Alvy Singer tells Annie Hall, then I’m glad I can feel miserable with the best of them. Because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.

For Allen fans or those interested in gaining insights into his work and its themes, I highly recommend the book ‘Woody Allen on Woody Allen’, edited by Stig Bjorkman, published by Faber and Faber.

Additional:

My own list of the best Allen films is generally subject to change, but if you’re looking for good ones to get you started, first of all, don’t watch any of the films discussed at length above, and instead check out these:

1. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

crimes3

A respected ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) has his mistress (Angelica Huston) murdered before she can expose their affair to his wife, but must deal with the guilt of his crime while questioning the illusion of morality and reflecting on his own religious upbringing. Meanwhile, a married documentary filmmaker (Woody Allen) falls in love with another woman (Mia Farrow). Deftly balancing two narratives which interweave before they finally connect, this film stands as perhaps Allen’s most successful in terms of dramatic storytelling, observational comedy and philosophical insight into the human condition.

2. Another Woman (1988)

anotherwoman

Philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) has just turned fifty. She is working on her new book in a rented apartment, but due to a quirk in the ventilation system she can hear the clients of the psychiatrist in the office next door. She is drawn to one in particular: a suicidal young woman (Mia Farrow) who is heavily pregnant. Marion reflects on the past as she begins to follow this other woman, and soon realises that her previously held beliefs and assumptions about her own life are further from the truth than she could have imagined. Tragically overlooked on release, Another Woman is a remarkably well observed character study with an absolutely brilliant lead performance from Rowlands.

3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

purplerose

A waitress in 1930s New Jersey (Mia Farrow) witnesses a miracle when a character from the movie ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’  (Jeff Daniels) literally steps out of the screen and into her life. Pretty much a perfect fantasy-comedy, highly inventive and original, and Allen’s favourite of his own films.

4. Match Point (2005)matchpoint

An amoral former tennis pro (Jonathon Rhys Meyers) insinuates his way into the lives of a wealthy British family, marrying their manipulative but naive daughter (Emily Mortimer) and gaining a high-ranking position at one of her father’s firms. When his affair with a failed American actress (Scarlett Johansson) turns sour, he is forced to consider drastic action to prevent losing his privileged new lifestyle. This one seems to split fans, with some considering Allen’s first British film as failing to capture a realistic portrayal of life amoung the English upper middle-class, instead offering a typically skewed and American, ‘postcard’ view of London, but taken on its own terms it’s a brilliantly tense thriller.

5. Sleeper (1973)sleeper

This early Allen comedy is set 200 years in the future, where a cryogenically frozen musician named Miles Monroe (Allen) from the 1970s is woken by rebels opposing a totalitarian dictator. When their base is raided by the incompetent fascist police, Miles poses as a domestic robot, and meets the extremely untalented poetess Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton). Miles has to adjust to his new life in a world of giant, genetically modified vegetables, orgasmo-booths, pleasure-orbs and robot dogs (“Woof woof woof. Hello, I’m Rags!”), until the rebels track him down and convince him to take on the government and assassinate the mysterious ‘Leader’. Sleeper is a wildly silly and knockabout farce with some hysterical sight gags harking back to the silent film era (the idea was originally to set the film in a world in which talking was banned), excellent chemistry between Allen and Keaton and some wonderfully creative and beautiful ‘future-world’ design elements.

Allen’s worst film, incidentally, is a little-seen television movie from 1994 called ‘Don’t Drink the Water‘.

Review of Scooter McCrae’s ‘Saint Frankenstein’.

81041_310x459This review originally appeared on QuietEarth.us.

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a short before, but this one is worthy of special attention.

Back in 1994, filmmaker Scooter McCrae wrote and directed Shatter Dead, an allegorical, micro-budget zombie film in which the living dead are presented as essentially confused and disenfranchised wanderers, as opposed to flesh-hungry monsters. It’s a rough little film, shot on video, full of ideas and arresting imagery (it won a Best Independent Film award at the 1995 Fantafestival), it’s undone only in part by an extremely limited budget and some amateurish acting, yet for me it stands as a highly creative and influential work in the world of underground video and horror.

In 1999, McCrae started on his follow-up, the sleazy, violent and downright bizarre cyberpunk thriller Sixteen Tongues. With this work, McCrae would explore the effects of overstimulation in a highly sexualised, technocratic culture; one drenched in pornographic imagery and on the brink of social collapse. Sixteen Tongues is a very difficult watch; it’s full of creative concepts and interesting characters, but casts such a grim worldview and is populated by characters so unpleasant and disaffected that it’s simply exhausting to sit down and take it all in.

McCrae’s films seem characterised by an otherworldly, uncompromisingly transgressive quality which for many is an instant turn-off (there are also the low budgets) but for me they are something special; these are raw and absolutely original films – representative of what underground cinema is all about. Once one emerges from McCrae’s world, things don’t quite look the same.

1_saint_frankestein_melanie_gaydos_as_shelley

Melanie Gaydos as the titular Saint Frankenstein.

Naturally then, it was with some excitement that I read last year that McCrae was putting together a segment for an anthology film called Betamax, and that his addition would be called Saint Frankenstein. Unfortunately that project has not yet come together as planned, but having finished his film, McCrae has decided to present it as a standalone short, and it’s genuinely very good. So, history lesson over – let’s talk about Saint Frankenstein.

Saint Frankenstein is a 17 minute two-hander starring Melanie Gaydos and Tina Krause. It takes place in a dingy hotel room where a confident and flirtatious prostitute named Carla (Krause) visits an unusual client (Gaydos), receiving far more than she bargained for in the process. What starts off as a curious conversation piece featuring a hypnotic monologue from Gaydos – playing a brutally scarred and surgically disfigured Frankenstein’s monster – shifts part way through into an almost comic book-style romp. In blending literary references with fantasy, historical fiction, pseudo-erotic body-horror, and religious imagery, this is a film that is difficult to categorise, but suffice it to say, it’s very unusual, and a lot of fun.

In terms of quality of craftsmanship it’s important to note straight away that Saint Frankenstein is a big step forward from McCrae’s previous work. The film looks terrific, the work of a real professional. The way in which it is shot, the creative design elements and the performances all come together very well here, and yet, crucially, it contains the personal touch inherent in all of McCrae’s work.

10313760

Tina Krause as Carla.

The design and effects work by Dan Ouellette, Brian Spears and Pete Gerner is genuinely startling. Gaydos is a model and actress born with ectodermal dysplasia, a genetic condition which gives her an unusual, rather striking appearance, and in playing the character of ‘Shelley’ (an appropriate pseudonym if ever there was one) she is required to wear layers of prosthetic scars, including an autopsy scar down the middle of her chest, and stapled laceration running across the middle of her head – it’s really pretty savage. Gaydos’s performance is magnetic and downright eerie. Her character is presented initially as somewhat shy and withdrawn, but once introductions are made Shelley offers a remarkable soliloquy describing the events following the original Frankenstein story, and it’s at once compelling, chilling, and oddly heartbreaking. Although her voice is dubbed, Gaydos’s slow, deliberate movements express the pain and melancholy of her character rather beautifully. Shelley’s voice is provided by Archana Rajan, whose steady, controlled even tones manage to project a benign, almost playful quality, while at the same time feeling vaguely sinister and menacing. The film is worth seeing simply for this fantastic scene alone.

If shorts can contain a second act, then Saint Frankenstein‘s unexpected shift in tone at around the halfway mark would certainly qualify. I won’t say much for fear of spoiling the story, but following Shelley’s strange confession, a reveal – quite literal – spurs things into action, and we’re faced with a confrontation which leads to a skillfully choreographed scene of violent action. Although no stranger to shooting action, it is again apparent that McCrae has pulled out the stops here, and in terms of nuts-and-bolts direction, the denouement of Saint Frankenstein is well ahead of the rough-and-ready style of his previous films.

The film features an original score, and this warrants mention as it’s composed by the legendary Italian maestro Fabio Frizzi (Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead). Frizzi’s haunting synth melody perfectly captures the mood of the film, and it’s hard to imagine these images having the same impact without his atmospheric, dreamy score.

saint_frankenstein_1_klein

The most satisfying element of the film for me is that it retains the hallmarks of a Scooter McCrae film (tension, unease, violence, strange and unpleasant sexual imagery, unapologetic and rampant weirdness) while building on his previous work, offering something altogether more sophisticated. If there were any complaint I could level at this work, it might be that it doesn’t approach the same social issues which so concern McCrae’s feature work. Shatter Dead, it can been argued, reflects the divide between rich and poor, quick fix cultism, and the desire for eternal youth and beauty which preoccupies western culture. Sixteen Tongues remains relevant today, prescient in its depiction of a world in which characters must use their credit cards to switch off ubiquitous screens projecting an endless loop of pornography, violence and religious propaganda, a concept well ahead of its time and one that’s been borrowed in years since by other sci-fi dystopia, including Charlie Brooker’s Black MirrorSaint Frankenstein, to its credit, is a simpler film, a brief glimpse of an alternative vision of a classic story, or as McCrae puts it, “The first chapter in an ongoing project dedicated to a modern rethink of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

If a sequel or feature adaptation is in the works – and here’s hoping that it is – we can be sure McCrae will infuse it with his typically heavyweight ideas, and if he commits to the same level of skill and care in direction as evident in Saint Frankenstein then we’re in for a real treat.

I’ve had the pleasure of trading emails with McCrae over the last few weeks, and he has generously agreed to an interview for this site, to discuss both Saint Frankenstein and his previous films. A superbly erudite and imaginative guy, it’s sure to be a fascinating read, so keep your eyes open.

Saint Frankenstein is now available to rent or buy and it is well worth the price of admission.

Interview with Alex Cox on ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’. (Plus, link to download full movie!)

This interview originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Alex CoxHaving recently completed post-production on his new feature, Bill, The Galactic Hero, Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) is ready to release the film for free online. Adapted from Harry Harrison’s novel of the same name, and funded through Kickstarter, the project has been a collaboration between Cox and students at the University of Colorado, where Cox currently teaches production and screenwriting. Blending science-fiction with satire, it’s a micro-budget feature, shot in black and white, and incorporating Cox’s own brand of dark comedy, and politically conscious, counter-culture attitude. Having taken almost 30 years to get the film into production (studios considered it “too anti-war”) it’s fantastic that he has finally been able make the film on his own terms and without compromise, as it should be. You can read my review right here. You can also DOWNLOAD the ENTIRE FILM for FREE here.

I had the chance to talk to Alex about the film, the process of getting the book onto screen, comparisons to other sci-fi movies, working again with Iggy Pop, and little about what to expect next from this renegade director…

Bill poster

Now that Bill is completed, how did you find the experience overall, and would you consider making another film in this way?

Exhausting. I can’t teach school and make a feature simultaneously again! So I will have to go back to making features and paying people.

You’re credited as writer and director on the film, but there are additional directors listed in the end credits. Given the collaborative, low-budget approach taken with Bill, would you say that you were the main creative force behind the film, or was this very much a group effort?

Harry Harrison was the main creative force behind the film! I directed most of the first act and all the third; act two and parts of act one were directed by students and recent graduates of CU. All films are group efforts; this one was no exception though the shared direction is unusual.

How did you find the experience of letting others take over direction for sections of the film? Were you quite comfortable and confident in their abilities?

It was a pleasure. We’d established a working style and pace and since they hadn’t done features before they didn’t know how fast we were going.

bill1

University of Colorado students, filming scenes of a desert planet, at Cathedral Gorge, Nevada.

It sounds like you’ve been eager to adapt the book for quite a while. What inspired you to undertake the project now, and in this way?

Because this was an opportunity to make it. Probably the last one, since Harry died during the writing of the screenplay and I don’t think he would have given us an option thereafter!

What do you think Harrison would have made of your film now that it’s finished? Did he have ideas about how best to put it on screen?

He read two thirds of the script and gave notes, all of which were included. The return of the ‘drinky drinky’ robots was his idea. I think he would have liked the cast a lot – especially their ages. Take a look at the casualty figures for US troops in Afghanistan. Late teens to early thirties. That’s who gets to die for a meagre wage. Our cast is exactly the median age of the poor youth who get dragged into combat – 21-28 yrs old. Conventional hollywood movies cast actors who are way too old for the roles: Eastwood as a 70 year old policeman, Harrison Ford (looking really decrepit and bloated) as the captain of the space mission in Ender’s Game. If you were in the military Deathwish Drang wouldn’t look like Ernest Borgnine – she’d look live Devon Wykoff.

Bill-Galactic-Hero-Shoot

On the set of ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

Many fans of the source material would envisage a film adaptation as a colourful, big-budget affair. What struck me about your film was, in part, its sombre tone. Although the humour of the book, and its basic plot structure, are very much retained, was it your intention to focus on the darker elements of the story, the character’s desperation, and its caustic view of human nature? (Or am I just projecting?)

That’s it. Black and white can be funny too – DR STRANGELOVE and parts of ICARUS are hilarious. But it’s a great medium for telling a story without unnecessary things like colours getting in the way.

This is the first film you’ve made in black and white since Edge City (aka, Sleep Is For Sissies) in the late ’70s – did you find working with your students on a DIY project like this one reminded you of that experience?

All films are DIY, one way or another. And I managed to include some Black and White in Death & The Compass, too. It’s interesting how the hostility of the broadcasters to black and white was never matched by the commercial and rock video makers, who continue to use the form.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet Helior.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet, Helior.

The film makes reference to two other famous movie franchises, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. Was this a little nod to these films with similar themes, or a way to distinguish your film from the blockbuster treatment they received? (Or just a bit of fun?)

The original book is a riposte to Starship Troopers. Heinlein was quite offended by it. And Ender’s Game is the heir to Heinlein’s militarist fantasy – though it has a more complex attitude to the aliens, and in that way it resembles Harry’s work a little. The ending of the book Ender’s Game was good, I thought, though they struggled with it in the film: not through any lack of money but rather a lack of imagination.

What did you think of the changes Verhoeven and Neumeier made to the novel Starship Troopers for their film version? It’s generally recognised now as a satire on fascism and militarism itself, while also indulging in certain aspects of that fetishistic, militarist fantasy.

It just isn’t a very good film. A bunch of good looking kids shooting at giant ants? That isn’t what Starship Troopers was about. For all the money they spent they didn’t pull much off, especially compared to what they achieved – in irony and humor and visual genius – with the original RoboCop.

James Miller’s take on the character of Bill was interesting. I enjoyed his minimal style, as the character could easily have been overplayed by the wrong actor. Did you hold auditions for the role, and what won James the part?

We auditioned about 150 actors. Lily Grisafi, who played Eager, was the casting director. James wandered in by chance. He didn’t know there were auditions that day and was on his way to take a test. He is a very strong actor: what’s great about a feature is that the main actor gets to go through a character’s trajectory and to change, whereas when you act in a short (which most student films are) you are able to create a character, but not to develop it.

Bill4

Actor James Miller, in a rare moment without his space-helmet on.

Iggy Pop contributed a song to the soundtrack. How did he get involved, and was it good to work with him again?

I rang him up and asked him. My wife and I were talking about licensing a song from the new Bowie album but we don’t know him or how to enquire. Tod said, why not ask Iggy? You can just call him… so I did. He downloaded the book to his e-reader, saw a rough cut of the film (same process as Repo Man, minus the e-reader) and away he went! It was great to work with him again. He is unchanged.

How do you feel about the fact that many of your earlier films, some of which were not successful at the time, have recently been re-discovered and are finding a new audience on DVD? Walker, for instance, was badly handled by Universal and was not well received by critics, but has since become something of a cult classic.

I’m glad that Walker finally got some recognition, thanks to the Criterion DVD. Unfortunately it is still relevant and needs to be seen.

Have you had any further thoughts about making the Rudy Wurlitzer puppets-riding-dogs western? Or indeed, do you have any other films you’d like to make or are planning on making?

I talked to Rudy yesterday about Zebulon and another project I’d like him to write — it’s called Gunfighter Nation (no relation to the wonderful book by Richard Slotkin). The maestro says he has one more cartridge in his chamber. So we’ll see…

Alex, thank you for your time. All the best in your future projects and endeavors. To the Skies Avaunt!

Review of Alex Cox’s ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Bill posterIn light of the affection many fans have for Harry Harrison’s source novel – that playful, anti-war sci-fi satire of the 1960s – it is difficult to talk about Alex Cox’s crowd-funded, film adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero without feeling duty-bound to prepare viewers for what lies in store. This is because it is essentially a feature length student film, albeit one of considerable scale and ambition. It’s also a not-for-profit project, one which will be made available for free online. I must admit, during the first ten minutes of the film (which I had invited a friend unfamiliar with Cox’s work to watch with me) I was tempted to switch off and suggest something else, as I felt that awkward pang of embarrassment which occurs when one insists on playing a favourite song before realizing that nobody else in the room is going to enjoy it. Thankfully, after the initial shock of realizing just how lo-fi, rough and chaotic this little movie is, one slowly begins to appreciate everything which is going on within it: the imagination of the artists at work, the attention to detail, enthusiasm of the young actors on screen, and the appreciation of the book’s surreal and often black humour, which is largely maintained by Cox’s script.

Bill1

The film is not perfect by any means, and for many it’ll be a love-it-or-hate-it type situation, but one thing which is undeniable is the passion with which it has been crafted. Cox had been communicating for years with Harrison on the idea of adapting the book, and that he’s co-opted the talents of his own film students at the University of Colorado in finally putting it on screen seems like a fitting approach for this often radical and always unconventional film-maker.

Bill2

Introduced in a colourful animated segment, we watch as pizza delivery boy, Bill (James Miller), is coerced by a recruitment officer visiting his farming planet, into joining the intergalactic military to fight an alien lizard race known as the Chingers. The film then shifts to live-action monochrome, landing on our hero as we wakes up in his spacesuit and begins training under the ruthless tutelage of drill instructor Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff) aboard the flagship Fanny Hill. From here, we follow Bill as he navigates his way through a series of bizarre and often degrading encounters with his fellow troopers, before (literally) single-handedly destroying an enemy armada during a space battle and becoming the reluctant hero of the empire. Bill’s problems, however, have only just begun…

Bill3

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this a micro-budget film, and its problems mainly revolve around the limited resources available to the filmmakers. While I took no issue with the black and white photography, which actually helps provide a distinctive sense of melancholy and dread, complementing the darkly satirical tone, some will find it an ill-fitting approach to adapting a book which is characterized by its colourful cover art and cartoonish tone – but low-budget films need to do their best to look good, and monochrome is a forgiving format, plus, I dug the nods to Eastern block era sci-fi, ICARUS XB1, which Cox cites as a major influence. (We also sense shades of Roger Corman lurking in the background.) What sticks out more though, is the decision to dress all key players in white spacesuits, with only minor details to distinguish them from one another (Bill always has his teddy bear, so at least we know who he is) which makes for difficulty both in figuring out who’s who, and who’s speaking which lines. I suppose this could be taken as commentary on the uniform individuality of the troopers, but it still means that we have trouble getting to know the characters. There are additional problems with sound clarity, exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s voice is muffled by a space helmet…

BillenderstroopersThe actors here are mainly students, all young and, we sense, relatively inexperienced. Unfortunately this does give the project an amateurish feel, as tough-as-nails drill sergeants and hard-bitten troopers are played by fresh faced kids who, ultimately, struggle to convince. It’s unfair to labour this point though, as it’s part and parcel of a student film experience, but too often it detracts from the storytelling – taking us out of the film – and we can’t help but imagine a better movie recast with professional actors more suited to their roles. As it is, Miller gives a fine, low-key performance as Bill, keeping his reactions minimal, but instilling the character with the requisite innocence and bewilderment befitting of a conscript, before transforming him into a cynical burn-out by the film’s end. Devon Wycoff and Hayden Winston as (respectively) Deathwish Drang and the ship’s Chaplain, also provide memorable turns, and Lily Grisafi does well in lending her voice to Eager Beager, Bill’s suspiciously upbeat and perky comrade.

Bill4

Bill5

Where the film really shines, however, is in its visual design, where every penny of the budget is evident. Wonderfully imaginative scale model work on the spaceships, along with occasional CG animation and green screen effects, is well utilized during space battles and for establishing shots of the city-planet Helior, leaving us wanting more (in a good way). Live action segments are busy with amusing background details (the ubiquitous pro-war propaganda, sarcastic robots and sentient vending machines, several peculiar references to the film Ender’s Game), reminiscent of the kind seen in Cox’s own Repo-Man, which may reward second viewing. Many of the interior spaceship scenes were filmed in the concrete stairways and basements of campus buildings, but a third act taking place on a valley-encrusted desert planet and shot in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada, offers some genuinely startling shots of natural beauty, giving the film a chance to breathe, while also reminding us of Cox’s love of spaghetti westerns. For the scenes set on Helior, exterior shots are framed by stark, ultra-modernist buildings, while interiors are, again, a mixture of cramped basements and labyrinthine corridors: appropriately alienating and claustrophobic.

Bill4

Billofficer

Billships

The pace of the film is definitely one of its strongest points. Although split into three main chapters, its episodic nature dictates that for every scene or situation which doesn’t quite work, there’s always another ready to come along to try its luck. Standout moments include Bill’s recovery from losing his left arm in battle, during which he’s visited by unhelpful colleagues and well-wishers in hospital, before realizing that surgeons have fitted him with a second right arm by mistake. (“Now you can salute with both hands!”) While visiting Helior, Bill is forced to escape his old life and take a job in waste disposal, which mainly involves thinking of ways to get rid of a deluge of ‘unknown artefacts’ which constantly flood the garbage chute – forming a vast mountain of defunct and broken iPads (nice touch). Other visual gags work well, particularly a running joke concerning Bill’s friend, who has been so severely injured over time that he’s reduced to a life as a severed head, jutting out a little travel case, with a single flailing arm. Certain parts, though, feel less consistent, including a sub-plot involving a group of rebels with whom Bill becomes involved; a slightly overextended skit which ought to be funnier.

Bill Ambassadors Day

Billconvo

It’s worth mentioning that, although the film is a micro-budget feature, with directing duties divided between Cox and his students, there are individual scenes exhibiting remarkable skill in composition. These are the moments where the film hits its stride, and we become excited about the potential of this approach to film-making. One of the joys in watching Bill… is being provided the opportunity to think, “Maybe I could do this!”, and while it’s obvious that, as quite a considerable endeavour (it took 75 people and over 8 months to complete the film), this is easier said than done, there is a sense of fun in considering the possibility of shooting your own low-budget, transgressive science-fiction comedy. Maybe I should finally finish that screenplay I started years ago?

Billipads

Billgundeck

This film is rough, yes, and unapologetically so, but in acting as a counterweight to the appalling consumerist rubbish deposited into multiplex cinemas every week, it contains a genuine heartbeat, and that anarchic sense of ‘anything goes’ which so typifies the director’s oeuvre. Does this automatically make it good? No. There are weak moments, and it takes a while to find its feet. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. Alex Cox has been making films for 35 years; I’ve seen all of them, and they all have something to offer. This one might have more in common with his own early student film, the apocalyptic, art-house short, Edge City, than with the work for which he’s best known. I see this as a sign that he’s still a kid at heart, and while he’s learned the hard way that Hollywood has no time for radicals or idealists, perhaps it’s better that way, because fuck Hollywood.

Bill5
Additional: No information at present on when exactly the film will be available for download, as the backers have first dibs, but I’ll keep you updated.

For more information on Bill, The Galactic Hero and other projects from Alex Cox, check out his blog right here.

Q&A with Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer at Basilica Hudson.

WalkerWhile stumbling around Youtube I found this video of Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer appearing for a Q&A session following a recent screening of Cox’s 1987 film, Walker. Written by Wurlitzer, a novelist and screenwriter most famous for his script work on Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the film forms a distinctive hybrid of historical fiction and blackly comic political satire. Starring Ed Harris as the American filibuster William Walker, it’s a genuinely transgressive piece of film-making, and watching it now in the wake of recent wars, Cox’s scathing commentary on Reaganite America’s involvement in Nicaragua feels increasingly relevant and more prescient than ever. Shot with a huge budget, but saddled with an unenthusiastic marketing campaign from a confused Universal Studios, the film met with failure at the box-office, and cost Cox his career in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most daring and original films of the decade – and one well worth checking out. (Additionally, the soundtrack by Joe Strummer is excellent.)

Read more about my obsession with Alex Cox and his career (and his highly underrated film Three Businessmen) in my very first blog article, right here.

Cox is currently in post-production on his latest film Bill the Galactic Hero, an adaptation of the book by Harry Harrison. Find out more and follow his progress at: www.alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com

Thoughts on “Life After Beth” – From EIFF 2014

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Beth PosterJeff Baena’s first feature as director is a respectable zombie-comedy, unfortunately hampered by a sense of deja vu when it comes to the material. There are a few clever ideas here, but an over-reliance on the old familiar tropes, and the ubiquitous use of comedy character actors all vying for attention does make it a bit of a mixed bag. Having said that, the film is well crafted and easily passes the laugh test by proving itself consistently amusing and playfully irreverent. Don’t expect to be blown away, and you might find it a decent piece of entertainment and a fine way to spend an evening at the movies.

Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a college student grieving the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who has recently passed away from a snake bite she received while hiking. Beth’s parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) invite him for dinner and to help pack up Beth’s belongings, and they bond over memories of her life while smoking some pot. Visiting their house again the next day, Zach is wildly confused when he sees Beth through a window, and he demands to know what’s going on. Initially convinced that her parents are involved in some kind of insurance scam, he eventually comes to understand that Beth, along with several other members of the local community, has actually come back from the dead. She seems normal enough, although her obsession with the attic is new, and she’s suddenly become freakishly strong and bad tempered. Zach thinks she’s a zombie, her parents think it’s a miracle, and nobody seems sure of whether or not they should actually tell Beth that she’s technically dead…

Beth Zack Kiss

Technically necrophilia.

Life After Beth benefits from a likable supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, and Matthew Gray Gubler as his overbearing, gun-happy brother. DeHaan himself doesn’t strike one as an obvious choice when it comes to playing comedy, but his performance in the lead role is suitably energetic, and for the most part he hits the right notes and delivers on laughs. As Beth, Plaza does a really good job. Her character’s slow escalation from confusion, to indignation, to eventual rage and outright hostility is handled very well. We get the sense that even when alive Beth may have had a few screws loose, but as a zombie she’s both unhinged and dangerous. Reilly and Shannon are also terrific as Beth’s distressed parents, showing signs of extreme denial as they try their best to keep their daughter in the dark over what’s happened, even as she starts to decompose…

"What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!"

“What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!”

There are some nice little touches to zombie mythology here too, as the living dead are not portrayed as outright flesh-eaters, but rather slightly lost and irritable souls who simply want to get back to their old lives. While the plot is vaguely reminiscent of films like Dead & Buried and Shatter Dead, its tone is resolutely comic, with a heavy dose of deadpan irony. I liked the fact that the zombies only relax when listening to smooth jazz and muzak, which is a nice idea, and a pleasing nod to the mall music from Dawn of the Dead. It’s also satisfying to see the gradual changes the zombie phenomenon has on the world the characters inhabit, from a brief shot of a background extra running for his life early in the story, to the eventual arrival of the military as things spiral completely out of control. Baena keeps the action limited to suburbia, thereby giving the story a more closed feeling and allowing Beth’s return to appear as something of a small-scale problem in an otherwise problem-free world. The characters are less worried about ‘zombies’ as they are about ‘the Beth situation’. It’s nothing which we haven’t seen before, but it’s well handled and provides the film with a little more atmosphere and suspense.

When erotic games turn deadly...

When erotic games turn deadly…

One of the problems is a general sense of familiarity to the story. Anyone who’s au fait with zom-coms and zombies in general may not find much new here to chew on. Couple this with an ending which seems very rushed and slightly too Pollyanna-ish, and the film feels distinctly by-the-numbers. Admittedly, for the most part, the movie is completely acceptable, zipping along with snappy one-liners and good sight gags, occasional gore and special effects, but it never quite seeming to become more than the sum of its parts. Despite being well constructed and with some strong performances (especially from Plaza and Reilly), the whole thing somehow manages to keep you at arms length.

Beth and Zach 2

“We are emo!”

The issue facing any contemporary zombie film, comedy or otherwise, is a market which is now so stuffed with new additions to the genre that in order to get noticed you need to have something genuinely fresh and interesting to offer. Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, which resuscitated the genre back in 2004, and Return of the Living Dead, which set the bar high as one of the first and very best zom-coms, are inevitable. Life After Beth is not in the same league as either of those films, although I felt that it had more soul and more interesting characters than 2009’s Zombieland, which struck me as a fairly cold and empty exercise in stylized violence, even if it was a superficially entertaining one.

Zack Funeral

Zach takes a moment to contemplate how totally empty and mean spirited “Zombieland” was.

Beth doesn’t really offer us anything new then, instead ploughing a well furrowed path while covering for its lack of originality with reliable comedy actors and well timed jokes. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re likely to enjoy the film on its own terms (and it is perfectly enjoyable). However, if you’re looking for anything exceptional here, keep looking. No doubt there will be another zombie film coming along next week, and the week after that… and after that…

Just checking...

Just making sure.

Thoughts on Gerard Johnson’s “Hyena” – From EIFF 2014.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Hyena PosterBack in 2009 I covered Gerard Johnson’s first feature, Tony which I liked very much; a kind of low-key psycho-thriller set around a London housing estate and featuring a knock-out performance from Peter Ferdinando. With Hyena, Johnson is once again working with Ferdinando, who stars as the amoral police detective Michael Logan, working as part of a special drugs taskforce, whose extreme lifestyle of near constant drug and alcohol abuse and shady, underhand tactics threaten to upset what little balance exists in his life. The film is a significant step up in scope and ambition for Johnson when compared with Tony, and while I admire it for its confident stylistic flourishes, unflinching brutality, and for Ferdinando’s excellent performance, there are problems with pacing and character which ultimately undermine its strengths and have the effect of making it an oddly frustrating experience.

Set in London, the film follows Michael as he trades favours and information with gangs in exchange for drug money, clashes with his superior officers and hangs out with his disreputable colleagues on the taskforce, snorting cocaine, drinking huge quantities of booze and dividing up the spoils of corruption. After witnessing the violent murder, at the hands of Albanian gangsters, of the member of an established Turkish drug ring with whom he has close ties, Michael immediately and characteristically shifts his allegiance to this powerful new gang. By coincidence, he is ordered by his boss to investigate the Albanians’ operation, and look into evidence of sex trafficking, thereby blurring the lines between his role as cop and criminal. As the plot progresses, Michael must deal with an internal police investigation into his methods, and also come to terms with the consequences his actions have on the people who get caught in the crossfire.

Hyena club raid

“The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus.”

To begin with the positive: Hyena looks and sounds pretty terrific. The style of the film is established from the opening scenes of Michael and his crew gearing up for a raid and bursting into an underground nightclub while bathed in electric blue neon, savagely beating the clientele in a balletic slow-motion montage. The direction is energetic and confident, with hand-held camera work giving a sense of urgency to events. Matt Johnson provides a low-key, pulsating electronic score which nicely complements the overall atmosphere, and could stand as reason alone to check out this film. Ferdinando is excellent in the lead role, his knack for totally inhabiting his characters provides Michael with a realism not often seen in cinema and the film is stronger for his presence. The supporting cast provide admirable performances also, especially MyAnna Burning as Michael’s occasional girlfriend, and Elisa Lasowki as a victim of the Albanian sex trafficking system, whose plight gives Michael reason to question the moral vacuum he inhabits. The colour palette of the film is all intense blues and reds, which could be read as representing Michael’s duality, his position in the police, heaven and hell, or it may just be a stylistic choice, but either way it works to give the film a distinctive look and feel, and this is where Johnson succeeds admirably. The world the characters inhabit seems complete: scary and tough.

The problems with Hyena stem mainly from the nature of the main character, with whom I really found no sympathy. It is impossible when watching this film not to consider the parallels between it and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (and I make the distinction between Ferrara’s original and Werner Herzog’s playful remake) since they tread such similar territory.

When I met Johnson after first seeing Tony he spoke of his next project as a “British ‘Bad Lieutenant’… a ‘French Connection’ in London,” and Hyena is undoubtedly, demonstratively indebted to both those movies. The main difference, however, is that while Keitel’s lieutenant undergoes a powerful catharsis and redeems himself, Ferdinando’s Michael goes through the motions, but never really seems to learn anything. Ferrara’s film was lightening in a bottle and probably that director’s finest work, so it’s not exactly fair to compare the two, but looking at them together illustrates Hyena‘s real problem; we never really care much about Michael or see a side of him which lends us to sympathize with his situation. Johnson and Ferdinando don’t give the character any kind of back story or reason for his addictions and corruptions, and the languorous pacing of the film means that while we spend a lot of time watching him, he basically remains a mystery in terms of motives and history (while of Keitel’s character we can at least be sure that he has lost God). This may, of course, be the entire point. To know nothing of a character can give us the chance to learn as we go along, but the way Michael is written keeps us from ever getting into his head; he expresses regret and emotion one minute, but then seems to get on with the business at hand immediately afterwards, leaving us wondering if he’s really human.

"Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!"

“Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!”

The film is a little under two hours long, and as sign of how episodic and baggy it feels, it really does feel like two hours. The festival guide suggests (rather ominously) that the film’s pacing is “organic and adventurous”, but this could easily be a euphemism for ‘drawn-out and ill-considered’, as the narrative never seems to take off and fly, presenting instead a series of confrontations and set-pieces which work well individually, but do not weave together to form a satisfying story. Towards the end of the film Michael rescues a young woman who has been forced into prostitution, and attempts to save her in his clumsy efforts towards salvation. This plot device is as old as the hills, and it really doesn’t feel fresh when it’s used here.

The film is pretty unflinching in its use of violence, not gratuitously so, but enough to give the gore-hounds a certain satisfaction. One memorable scene involves a group of gangsters holding a conversation as they lean over a bathtub to slice a victim’s corpse into parts – the kicker being that the men are naked as they do so, yet appear so relaxed that they might well be playing cards – and it’s scenes like this which give the film an occasional darkly comic edge. The same cannot be said for an agonisingly ill-judged and needless rape scene which fails to elicit the intended response simply by dint of the fact that its graphic detail distracts us from the role it plays in the plot, essentially providing reason to mistrust the film, rather than follow it.

Hyena thugs

“Very sexy.”

Hyena, then, is a film which it is easy to admire in many ways, but very difficult to actually like. Johnson is clearly a talented director, getting the best from his cast and crafting a seedy and unpleasant world for them to stumble around inside, but the question remains: Who is this film really for? Police procedural thrillers thrive on anti-heroes and no-nonsense detectives, but Hyena‘s central character is not well formed enough for us to understand him as such. Horror fans will enjoy the gore and dark humour, but such scenes are relatively intermittent and not the focus of the narrative. Those seeking a Ferrara style redemptive drama will enjoy the obvious nods to his best work (Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant) but the film lacks the structure and pace required to work as such a genre piece, and moreover it is void of the catharsis and moral vision which those films held at their core. As we watch Hyena unfold, we also watch it start not to work, and while I enjoyed the film as a visual experience and a chance to enter a world I know nothing about, I found very little there to care about. It pains me to say it, but I’m not sure who I would recommend this film to. At the same time though, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Johnson does next.