Midnight in Paris

June 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Woody Allen has been making films for nearly four decades, and he somehow has remained a prominent filmmaker even today. His films have ranged from screwball comedies (“Sleeper”, “Bananas”) to poignant dramas (“Another Woman”, “September”), and he’s always had a knack for blending comedy and drama (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Sweet and Lowdown”). Sometimes he’s just been plain whimsical, like in “Purple Rose of Cairo”; and here, in his latest feature, “Midnight in Paris”, he seems to have recaptured some of that magic again.

It’s almost impossible to know how Woody Allen continues to do this. He’ll be 76 years old in December and he has shown no signs of slowing down. Sure he’s made some weak films in the past decade (his worst being “Hollywood Ending” by far); but instead of giving up after all of the bad press, he kept going. In his last few years he’s had some more success with “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Whatever Works”. But “Midnight in Paris” really is the film that’s brought him back to his original form.

Every Woody Allen formula is in here: the bickering married couple who’s joined incidentally by an old friend, usually of the woman, and of course the friend is a sniveling jerk. The husband of the married couple is a bit neurotic or awkward. Here he’s played by Owen Wilson, invoking just enough of Allen’s spirit to be charming and just stopping short of an “impression” of Allen. His wife is played by Rachel McAdams, who does a fine job with Woody Allen’s always witty and snappy dialog. The sniveling jerk is well played by Michael Sheen, although you know if this were made 20 years ago, it’d be Alan Alda most likely playing that role, Woody playing the husband, and Diane Keaton playing the wife.

The plot revolves around the couple, Gil and Inez (Wilson and McAdams respectively), staying in Paris while Gil is trying to complete a novel–his first in his career as a writer. He’s a Hollywood “hack” screenwriter who I suppose would be your David Keopp or Shane Black. Someone who can whip up a blockbuster but has no real “soul” as a writer. He feels lost; but he’s found something in Paris. He wants to stay there. His wife wants to live in Malibu and continue being rich. You can already tell these two will not get along in most of their scenes together, and certainly their chemistry for this kind of banter works because Wilson and McAdams just devour their roles so well. Wilson has those big blue wondrous eyes that make you believe how much of a dreamer he is. And that’s exactly what you need to believe because one night after a dinner, Gil decides to walk the streets of Paris instead of going out dancing with his wife and her friends. He claims he needs some inspiration for his novel, which is about a man who owns and operates a nostalgia shop. Gil himself identifies with the character because he, himself, is sentimental about the past and would love to live in Paris in the 1920’s.

That night, as the clock strikes midnight, Gil gets his wish. He’s approached by an old automobile, a Pugeot, and he gets in and realizes he’s sharing a cab with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Later that night, he meets THE Ernest Hemingway and asks if he’ll read his book. Hemingway won’t because he’ll “hate” it (“If I don’t like it, I’ll hate it; if I do like it, I’ll hate it because I’ll wish I wrote it” to paraphrase). But he says he’ll let Gertrude Stein read it because he trusts her opinion.

Once Gil is transported into this world, the film flows like a Monet. It is an absolute joy to see all of these classic artists (which include Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali) mingle with each other, and with Gil. You can see in films like this, and “Radio Days”, how sentimental Woody Allen can be. And when he is, he really delivers.

There’s a bit of exposition in the third act that wraps things up with another character a little too easily; but by that point, we’re so whisked away in this world and wrapped up in it like a warm blanket on a chilly night that we don’t care about logic or formula. The ending is predictable as is the journey–but you want to take it anyway. This really is Woody Allen at his best and he’s right at home with this material. There are also some big laughs in the film, but you’ll be smiling the whole way through anyway.

A character in the beginning talks of nostalgia as being a crutch. Something we use to escape reality and live in the past. But what Allen proves is that revisiting the past can also open things up about yourself that living in the present may never do. It’ll teach you things about yourself, where you belong, and what you need to do for the future. In the present we take things for granted, in the past we learn what we’ve taken for granted. I mentioned before who the cast would’ve been in this film if it were made 20 years ago. It’s interesting how watching this movie made me think of older Woody Allen films, as I’m sure it will for anyone who is a fan. But as much as I was looking back on Allen’s career while watching the film, it never took away how much I enjoyed the movie I was watching–in the present.

Woody Allen continues to prove how great of a filmmaker he is, and this is just more evidence of that.

My rating: :-)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

February 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“Nothing lasts,” he whispers to his lover, played eloquently by Cate Blanchett–Daisy. He’s grown younger at this point, at the point when he should be at middle age, reflecting on life that’s passing him by in backward time.

“Some things last,” she retorts.

Both of what they say is true, and is symbolized by a clock, and a journal. The clock represents something more than telling time. In fact, it tells time in reverse order. It’s created by a man who loses his son in the war, and thinks that by turning back the clocks, we can somehow grasp something again that we didn’t think we could. Maybe our boys won’t go off to war, he says. Maybe everything works out better. Then the man who creates the clock is never seen again.

This is how we open the film, with the elderly, and dying Daisy, telling this story to her daughter, who is by her bedside, listening. It’s 2005, in New Orleans, and the Saints are still playing preseason games–not even knowing they’re going to endure one of their worst seasons in yea–oh, yeah, right…the movie. Oh, so, yes–Hurricane Katrina is taking shape and headed toward New Orleans, providing a nice back drop to the story.

Then, the daughter takes a journal written by a Benjamin Button, and we begin the tale of how a child was born “old”, and “grows younger”. The book is full of various post cards and what not, but the daughter is able to read the passages, aloud, to her mother.

Button’s life begins in 1918, after his mother dies giving birth to him, he is a hideous monster who has all of the physical ailments that an old man would. In fact, the doctors don’t give him much time left to live. The father, who is stricken with grief over the loss of his wife, and is horrified by this monstrosity, drops the baby off on a porch at a house and leaves it. Queenie, a boistrous and vibrant young black woman, finds the baby along with her love interest, Mr. Weathers; and, after deliberation, they keep the baby and raise him.

Benjamin’s beginnings are interesting in that he is surrounded by old people, and he himself is old–but while he has the physical limitations of an old man, he has the curiousity and adventurous spirit of a young boy. He’s sort of in a reverse day care center. He watches his fellow housemates die while he gets younger, and falls in love with a young girl named Daisy, when he’s still old and decrepit. The girl is also taken with him, although it’s odd since she’s so young and he’s so old. But of course, we know they’re actually around the same age spiritually, and they grow a friendship that builds as the two grow older/younger together.

As time passes, Benjamin takes on adventures of his own, leaving the coop and faring off with a drunken captain of a tugboat, Captain Mike, who gets him laid, and drunk, and shows him the world. They go through World War II as part of the navy, once Pearl Harbor is bombed.

Meanwhile, Daisy becomes a famous dancer in New York City–and when the two meet again, they somewhat revisit the love they had for each other. But it’s fleeting, and she is too young to appreciate what he means to her, and goes back to her “life in the fast lane” in New York.

As the film progresses, and Ben gets younger and younger, he sees more and more death and decay rather than a young person would normally see life–with little reflection, and more wide eyed optimism. But nothing is lost on his maturity, and because his body grows stronger and his looks get increasingly nicer, he is able to enjoy some of the perfunctory, meaningless enjoyments of youth. But, as quoted before…nothing lasts.

The pace of the film is very good, with very few patches of “dead time”. The film does have a few moments where I think they take a few liberties with plot elements (I don’t know that we *needed* the daughter to throw a fit about finding out about where she came from; nor did I think it was necessary for the entire sequence-story of Daisy being hit by a car, even though I know it was supporting the theme of the film. Without it I think the film still would’ve worked fine). There are also a few elements of the script that don’t seem to fit thematically, and I think melodrama at times gets in the way of the bigger picture of the story.

Deeper into the film, Benjamin eventually reconnects with his father, and is given his name, “Button”. Some kind of simple metaphor is here, and my guess is that a button is an ordinary thing (i.e. a “button-down kind of life”), and that’s really what Benjamin is. That’s why I like the choosing of the title of this story as “curious” instead of “fantastic” or “extraordinary”.

Later on in life, Benjamin and Daisy have a child together, and that’s when Benjamin knows it’s time to leave for good. He knows Daisy can’t “raise two children”. It’s here when the film gets a bit more literal and less fable-like, but it doesn’t stray too far from its original premise or fantasy. Backward or forward, we enter and leave the world the same way. It’s all about the cycle of life, and the inevitability of death, and even birth.

And birth takes the form of death with Button, who of course leaves the world as a baby, thus completing the cycle of his life. The clock and the book are the two things left, and as Katrina washes away the clock as it’s still ticking, it’s evident why Katrina is used as a motif at.

Nothing lasts, indeed.

But some things do.

My rating: :smile: