Tag Archives: john cusack

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I don’t write hits. My plays are art. I write them specifically to go unproduced.”

Shadows and Fog, Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam were Allen’s on screen adaptations of his plays. September was his Bergman-esque attempt to create the feeling of a staged play on film. But Bullets Over Broadway was his first time depicting the cut-throat and deceptive world of New York Broadway on the silver screen. It’s a fun 1920s period farce written (with co-writer Douglas McGrath) during the most turbulent period of his life, but set in a time that Allen has such an affinity for, almost as if an act of escapism: “It was just a great, colourful time. Everything was very glamorous. It was really highly sophisticated. So I like to set some of my films in those years, because it’s fun.”

Allen’s comedic introspective to the creative process begins with young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack), a man of unwelcome integrity and idealism in this industry. In order to get his Eugene O’Neill-lite new play God of Our Fathers produced, he makes concessions by accepting funding from mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) in return for his wannabee actress moll Olive (Jennifer Tilly) getting a part in the play. As David succumbs to the glamour of leading lady Helen Sinclair (Dianne Weist), Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be the true genius behind the typewriter. Shayne initially rejects the suggestions from “some strong-arm man with an IQ of minus 50”, but the dialogue and narrative plotting are revolutionized through the collaboration. He takes it from a “cerebral and tepid” draft where the “lucid” stage directions and the colour of the binder are the only things worth saving, to a genuine Broadway hit; the Belasco Theatre where David’s play is rehearsed and staged in New York is actually where Don’t Drink the Water finished its run in 1968 after 598 performances. In the process it quickly begins to pose questions on the moral authenticity of your art and how far you’ll go to protect it.

Allen has often chosen not to step in front of the camera in his films, generally in his more dramatic work where he recognises his limitations as a performer. But this is the first time Allen has written a role fashioned for his classic persona, yet passed it onto another performer. There is much of Allen in David Shayne, who is effectively placed as Allen’s surrogate in rejecting himself as an artist. Shayne has gotten away with selling his soul to the devil for the accolades he desires. But in battling between artistic license and artistic compromise, he eventually comes to the realisation that he’s a fraud and ends his career as an artist. Allen similarly appears to accept his limitations of not being able to match the quality of the directors that he idolizes and his incessant proclamations of never having made a great movie that he’s happy with. Yet he instead chooses instead to persist, year after year.

After TriStar reneged on their three film deal with a year to go, Allen’s (then) good friend Jean Doumanian – one of his closest confidants and companions since his early stand up days – brought in her production company Sweetland Films. Backed by her billionaire partner, they provided Allen with his biggest ever budget – a 25% increase to $20 million – and a considerably larger seven-figure directors fee than his usual union minimum. This extravagance was put towards the gorgeous period detail, helping it to become Allen’s most Oscar nominated film.

The only success of those seven nominations was Weist as the pompous dame, the second time Allen has led her to Oscar success after Hannah and Her Sisters. What a difference between these two performances, going from the sweet and charming Holly to the narcissistic and praise driven dame. Helen Sinclair is a casting choice against type, similar to Farrow’s in Broadway Danny Rose, but how superbly the tender and naturalistic performer takes to histrionics and broad melodrama of this diva is riotously entertaining: “They’re your words. I’m just a vessel – they fill me!”, “Oh, I don’t know which ex-husband. The one with the mustache.”, “No, no, don’t speak. Don’t speak. Please don’t speak. Please don’t speak. No. No. No. Go. Go, gentle Scorpio, go. Your Pisces wishes you every happy return. Don’t speak!

Helen Sinclair is a big enough personality to fill any film, but this is one that delicately balances an assortment of big personalities who are more than just caricatures placed together for comedic effect. The ensemble playing them are unanimously terrific: Tilly as the arrogant, attention seeking and out of her depth Olive; Jim Broadbent as the humble British stage star prone to uncontrollable phases of stress eating; Rob Reiner as the deluded intellectual (“An artist creates his own moral universe”); Harvey Fierstein as Sinclair’s suitably sassy agent; Tracey Ullman as the giddy co-star who eventually begins to resemble her ever-present chihuahua; and Palminteri as gangster turned brilliant playwright Cheech, whose straight talking knowledge of the real world transforms Shayne’s pretentious writing. There’s a even an amusing cameo from Stacey Nelkin, an actress who Allen began dating in 1977 when she was 17 years old and supposedly inspired the story of Manhattan.

Despite this array of superstars, the film suffers from their lack of sympathy. The entertainment derived from them is almost akin to watching a season of Big Brother that loses it’s spectacle appeal. The second act picks up the pace but for the comedic and thematic heights that Allen intends his big ideas to reach, it falls flat. The ending is also disappointingly wholesome and quickly resolved for an artist who takes great pleasure in presenting the painful truth to life’s consequences. Perhaps Allen’s personal strife at the time gave him the impetus to indulge in a happy ending, but I think that Cheech would have some unpleasant comments for Allen about this.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Nothing is more terrifying than attempting to make people laugh – and failing.”

Allen’s most ravishing pictures have been in monochrome and this marks his first return to black and white since 1984, after a hot streak of 5 in 7 years with cinematographer Gordon Willis. Allen has had confidence in the complete command of his craft since his dramatic departure in 1978, but this is his first movie since Manhattan to truly exhibit his collaborative talent in the area or cinematography. It’s an explicit but loving homage to the German expressionist cinema of the 20s and 30s, featuring environments that resemble the work of Fritz Lang, Franz Kafka or Robert Wiene. These are enhanced even more by the very appropriate soundtrack full of songs from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Manhattan was admittedly a much deeper and meaningful piece, with the cinematography framed around a poignant love letter to a city with a touching love story at its centre. Shadows and Fog, however, is more an opportunity for debating the nature of evil; how the characteristics, tendencies and impulses that drive people to murder can otherwise be harnessed into positive actions or “highly creative ends” in other people. It’s also one of his most anti-Semitic films, although suggestions that it’s a metaphor for the evil that was the holocaust are far-fetched.

Based on his one act play ‘Death’ released in 1975, this is a bit of a throw back to his comedy of that time. Allen’s original persona, overflowing with the neurotic quirks and mannerisms of his early funny ones, play off violence and intimidation here in a classic fish out of water scenario. Vintage quips include: “A deranged person is supposed to have the strength of ten men. I have the strength of one small boy, with polio”; (to a sword swallower) “What happens when you get hiccups?”; “I can’t make the leap of faith to believe in my own existence”; “May all your ups and downs be in bed”; and “Family is death to an artist”, which is perhaps very telling of Allen and Farrow’s domestic placement at the time.

The Allen of old is especially present in a scene where he attempts to hide out at his ex-wife’s house from a lynch mob. It’s a funny circumstance, but revelings of lust and adultery undermine the protagonists sympathy in his eternal ignorance of his role in the societal good deed.

The title itself plays up the cinematic compositions and aesthetic throughout the film. This wonderful work fills frames with meandering shadows, fog, reflections and refraction. The camera pans, zooms, angles and slowly swoops around as if caressing the mise-en-scene. Stylised by silhouettes and heavy, unrealistic back lighting, it’s very striking and aesthetically daring.

The scene circling around each member of the dinner table at the brothel references a similar scene (also shot by Carlo di Palma) from Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s an elegant and sensitive touch for a film surrounded by violence. Luscious and rewarding sights such as these are complimented by the great work from production designer Santo Loquasto, who together create a world that feels equally endless and eerily confined.

Allen has never had trouble assembling capable casts, but this may be my favourite and most impressive based on cameos and early career performances – John C Reilly, Madonna, John Malkovich, John Cusack (in a much less Allen-esque role than he would later play in Bullets Over Broadway), Jodie Foster (who has the distinct pleasure of licking Allen’s nipple), William H Macy, Kurtwood Smith and Wallace Shawn all appear.
Allen’s tendency in this era is for indulgent exercises, yet here he is less refined and sincere in his approach than something like Radio Days.

The balance of comedy and a tragic trajectory does bring an effective uneasy and eerie atmosphere. But the final act drops a lot of simmering arcs and, inevitably, the entire conclusion building throughout the picture is unresolved in a bait and switch. It’s a visually arresting film with both tense and fun moments, but a plot that becomes more dreary as it develops.

This would be the final picture Allen would release with Orion, who filed for bankruptcy shortly after its New York premiere. They had released his last 11 films since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. As the company was set up by former staff from United Artists, who released every Allen film before that from 1969s Take the Money and Run, this would mark a significant shift in the production and financing of Allen’s films.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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LOVE & MERCY (2015)

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4 star | Dir: Bill Pohlad

About half way through Love & Mercy, I began to contemplate for the first time why I was watching a biopic on Brian Wilson; a man whose music has never appealed to me and whose personal tragedies had never entered into my awareness. Yet such is one of the wonders of cinema, which can engross and affect you in that which you didn’t think or even desire capable.

It’s a refreshingly restrained biopic, with a focus of two distinct periods of trouble and torture for this man which inform one another in a rich narrative harmony and equally inform viewers. They speak about Wilson as an individual, a musical prodigy and his legacy within both realms. Oren Moverman’s script is effectively serviceable for its purpose, but it’s truly the performances which propel this film into harmonic heights, with Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks in particular becoming very rewarding to watch. Pohlad’s direction is also a treat, especially in the studio scenes recording the iconic album Pet Sounds, but there’s a loss of tightness in the final third when narrative points become rushed and overlooked. It feels resolved too quickly and comfortably to not only justifiably account for Wilson’s own emotional trajectory, but also compliment the first half of this sensitively drawn, touching and compassionately told tale.

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