This brief review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris will be very Allenesque. By that, I don’t mean that it will be packed with urbane, occasionally surreal witticisms about relationships, but rather that I’ll be borrowing whole sections of it from the last review I wrote of a Woody Allen film. Names will be changed, but I’ll be able to save time and energy by just copying and pasting directly from the previous article, which was mostly about Spectacular Attractions favourite Naomi Watts‘s performance in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Borrowed passages are highlighted in blue. Continue reading
These days, each new Woody Allen film offers me only the dispiriting sight of a once volcanically creative artist continually raking over the same old ground, barely challenging himself, and dragging his esteemed cast of actors into his circle of stifling complacency. I say “these days”, but I haven’t seen a satsifying new Allen film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. It must be difficult to make a full-blooded character out of such schematic raw material as Allen gives to his leads here. In this case, Watts plays a woman who has subordinated her own ambitions (she wants to be a mother, and an art dealer – Allenesque shorthand for a character who is intellectually able and culturally curious) to her husband’s attempts at reviving his stalled writing career (writing block being Allenesque shorthand for a character who is … well, it’s hardly a shorthand – he’s just preoccupied, ironically, with intellectual creatives who can’t produce creative work any more). Continue reading
Remember that joke in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are trying to flirt, and the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking? It’s a charming little gag, right? Now imagine that it was extended across the whole film – every single line of dialogue was captioned with an “honest” translation that punctured each character’s attempt at wit, persuasion or self-promotion. It would be excruciatingly tiresome after a few minutes, right? If you suspect that the previous sentence is true, you don’t need to read any further than this – The Invention of Lying will bore you rigid, and you should avoid it at all costs. If you need more persuasion, perhaps I should bring out the big guns, an insult I don’t deploy lightly: The Invention of Lying is the worst film I’ve seen at the cinema since Highlander II.
From the very first minute, I was distracted by the inconsistencies of the film’s “high concept”. It’s set in a world where humans have evolved without the ability to lie, and so they seem duty bound to spout whatever’s on the top of their head. It begins with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner going on a date – she, of course, immediately declares that she finds him unattractive and will not be having sex with him. It’s a neat way to set out the rules of this world, but the flatness of the humour left me enough laughless minutes to get distracted, and it all collapsed. So, people deliver brutal statements of disinterest and verbal abuse at every turn, yet nobody ever gets offended? And still they prattle in with communication that is never met with a reaction? If total truth-telling makes people very efficient and utilitarian in their choices, why do people bother persisting on bad dates? Why is Gervais’ boss nervous about firing him if nobody cares about causing offence? So, everybody believes everything at face value, never questions authority, yet human history has developed exactly as it has in the real world? Science and technology developed normally, even though there was presumably never a need for the curiosity and inquiry needed for such things? Can people behave deceitfully if they don’t say untruths out loud? Ricky Gervais invented God so that people might have something to make them feel better about dying? Phew, that settles the possibility that making up fantasies to cope with the vicissitudes of a harsh and random universe is a natural human instinct. But … where did that church come from?
Now, I really shouldn’t have been thinking about any of this. I should have been too busy laughing. I didn’t sit through Woody Allen’s Sleeper (another film in which a comedy writer built a plot around portraying himself as a privileged outsider who runs rings around a robotic, pliant society due to his exceptional grasp of societal instincts,) worrying about the impossibility of cryogenics and cyber-dogs. That’s because Sleeper is full of great jokes. The Invention of Lying was met with almost complete stony silence, and that was in a city-centre multiplex on a Friday night. In a cinema that sells beer in the aisles. Personally, I laughed once, and that was during a cameo from Steven Merchant and Barry from Eastenders that is so daft and incongruous that it just lightened the whole mood by stepping out of the plodding, self-important movie that had clumsily tried to incorporate it.
Ricky Gervais has built a career out of self-mockery, but it’s not fooling anyone when it’s a sideways strategy to buy himself the right to schmaltzy, self-aggrandising plotlines where the world comes to recognise him for who he really is: of course he’s a better, more rounded human being than everyone else – he’s written everyone else to be a self-absorbed, shallow wage slave and then placed them in a world that automatically justifies him lazily keeping them that way. It’s an ego comedy in the tradition of What Women Want (Mel Gibson is the only man who can hear what ladies have in their brains! Imagine the possibilities!) Bruce/Evan Almighty (Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell becomes God/Noah! Watching them exercise their powers on an unsuspecting world is bound to be hilarious!), but there’s also a hint that Gervais fancies himself as a Larry David-style, misanthropic sage, cutting through the bullshit of a boobytrapped social scene with his own brand of common sense (and bringing in celeb friends in the process). In a move from which even M. Night Shyamalan might balk, he casts himself as a screenwriter who invents the entire concept of fiction (prior to which, all movies consist of filmed of lectures detailing the key facts of history. He might play the role of a revolutionary in the entertainment industry, but in this script Gervais is hidebound by sentimentalism and half-baked religious satire: his character invents a “man in the sky” to comfort his dying mother and explain away all the inconsistencies in his other fabulations. Fine, a satirical statement that religion is only possible in a world where lying is possible, but it ends up so compromised in the process – the idea of the consolatory untruth is introduced without further comment. So, lying is OK, and blind faith is its natural complement.
All of Gervais’ work will inevitably bring back memories of The Office, and it’s worth remembering that that series was driven by beautifully observed, detailed performances that were underpinned by an empathy even for the most unpleasant or irritating characters. The Office had a superb ensemble cast, and Gervais generously granted them fully-rounded personalities and great lines – in this film he surrounds himself with a crowd of anonymous cyphers for his sollipsistic wish-fulfilment. Remember that scene where David Brent begs for his job? It was suddenly, surprisingly moving because it had been studiously earned over the course of a whole series, revealing the desperately beating heart of a man who we’ve been mocking for six episodes. When Gervais gets his big emotional moment in The Invention of Lying (i.e. tears flow and his voice goes squeakier), it’s sudden enough, but it goes by so quickly, a plotpoint rather than an emotional revelation, backed up by an insistent string section. It’s unironic, unreconstructed schmaltz, as is the tacky, rescued-from-the-altar conclusion. Gervais’ longstanding promise to innovate from inside the Hollywood system has fallen by the wayside in the rush to imagine himself at the heart of its most worn out formulae.
I don’t care about the Oscars. You don’t care about the Oscars. But awards season has just passed in the movie world, and I feel obliged to say something. So, I thought I’d look sideways and point out that the Visual Effects Society also dished out their statuettes last weekend. While the Academy Awards voters were deliberating over whether to give a visual effects gong to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight or Iron Man (the least explicable omission being Hellboy II), the VES were breaking down their specialism into a whole range of categories that might seem odd to most outsiders. You can see a complete list of the nominees here.
This year’s Oscars were singularly predictable. Even the “surprise” victory of Slumdog Millionaire was signposted a couple of months ago by its swooning reception in the US, further accentuated by the sudden and belated realisation of the other nominees’ mediocrity. Kate Winslet was finally rewarded, after a career of pestering, for her insistent, gosh-look-how-seriously-I’m-taking-this approach to the job of acting. The award that gratified me most (assuming that Heath Ledger‘s award was a foregone conclusion, and that his acceptance speech was always going to be the most acceptable) was Penelope Cruz‘ recognition for Best Supporting Actress in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Emphasis there is on the word supporting, because her performance was the only thing that lifted yet another terrible entry on Woody Allen‘s late-career c.v. Hers is the only performance that has any chance to cut loose, perhaps because she has an Oscar friendly crazy-emotional character play, and perhaps because, by speaking most of her lines in Spanish, she couldn’t be forced to mimic that over-scripted, stilted delivery that is becoming the director’s trademark. I really couldn’t comprehend why so many critics were hailing this a return to form for the director of Manhattan, Annie Hall, Sleeper, Bananas, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Love and Death, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Radio Days, Zelig, Take the Money and Run, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Bullets over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives etc. (sorry for the list – I had to remind myself that he’d made a lot of great films).
Vicky Christina Barcelona is marred by, amongst other things, a lazy, over-instructive voiceover by an all-too omniscient narrator. This disembodied voice tells us all kinds of stuff that we’d rather see than hear – it’s almost like listening to one of the audio description tracks you sometimes get on DVDs, but at least it saves Woody the bother of telling the story visually or letting his actors perform their characters’ emotions and actions. I keep saying that I’ve given up on Woody for good, but his forthcoming New York-based collaboration with Larry David is just intriguing enough to catch my eye again…
But hey, at least the Visual Effects Society got their act together and awarded The Dark Knight and Wall-E some awards. Complete list of winners is here. It’s notable that, while Brad Pitt was nominated (but clearly not in the running) for a Best Actor Oscar, the VES was voting Benjamin Button the outstanding animated character of the year in a live action film (Wall-E was the obvious choice for animated character in an animated film). Who was most responsible for the role? Could one have happened without the other? It’s amazing how the various societies carve up the awards allocations in so many different ways. It must be difficult not to win an award somewhere at some time (though I notice the blank space on my mantle-piece all of a sudden). I was very taken with the VES’ statuette, inspired as it is by Georges Melies, A Trip to the Moon, a subject which regular readers of this blog will know holds a nauseatingly large place in my heart.
I’m sure you’ve heard enough about the Oscars. At least they hoover up enough cash and advertising revenue to feed plenty of fund back into the good work done by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which they’re sure to spend wisely. Yes, really. What you’re really interested in are the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival’s Jubilee Awards, the top prize of which is $101,000 (after which, you’re going to need a very small camel or a very large needle eye if you’re still planning to get into heaven, guys). Sorry if that sounded sarcastic; this is interesting. It’s always interesting to discover that the most profitable independent film of 2008 was Fireproof, a film I’d never heard of (most Brits must have a similar relationship to the films of Tyler Perry, none of which has been released in the UK, despite consistently squatting at the top of the American box office), a film that outgrossed Milk, as the festival reports with satisfaction – take that, gay agenda! But wouldn’t it be great if the Oscars had criteria of quality as clear and concise as those of the SAICFF?:
- Sound biblical worldview
- Theological accuracy
- Holiness in presentation
- Quality of directing, script, acting, editing, soundtrack, etc.
- Production value
- Level of difficulty
- Wise and creative use of technological resources available to filmmaker
Level of difficulty? To watch or to make? They even have a special category for Creation movies, won this year by the wonderfully titled Noah’s Ark: Thinking Outside the Box for its “unwavering commitment to the Word of God”, sponsored by Answers in Genesis (whose explanation of dinosaurs is, paradox intended, depressingly hilarious). Still, it’s probably better than The Reader. You can watch part of it here. Fans of Brass Eye will enjoy the similarities. The development of a separate Christian film culture is not problematic in itself: audiences are already segmented and niche-marketed as it is, but such an isolationist cultural policy can’t be much fun for those who have to try and look like they’re enjoying its output. What could be less dramatically engaging than a roster of films whose moral stances are all predetermined as a condition of community support? I’m sure that Christians, too are moviegoers, and nobody of any political or religious inclination should be satisfied by films that don’t challenge and provoke them, but which instead flatter, confirm or conform to their expectations. But that goes for the Oscars, too…