PopMatters checks in on the latest fare from Woody Allen, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, while seeing a few mediocre new films, including the adaptation of Kazou Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go and the Paul Giamatti vehicle, Barney's Version.
This year, I haven't been running around like a chicken with it's head cut off like almost everyone else, mainly because there isn't anything that has played early on in the festival that I was super-excited to see and what I did see -- other than a few key exceptions that I will detail later this week -- failed to impress. All of the goodies wait at the end of this week's rainbow for me, so for Day 2's coverage we are looking at a decidedly mixed bag, sadly.
Dealing with familiar Woody Allen-isms such as age, morality and death, Allen's newest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, picks up nicely where his last film, Whatever Works missteped by turning the attention back onto the excellent ensemble of actors deconstructing the complications of romance, fidelity and rebirth, both artistic and spiritual. The characters live in a familiar microcosm, and you know when the classic black and white "Woody Allen" typefont rolls what kind of alternately outrageous and heartbreaking neuroses are about to unfold.
In the first scene we meet Helena (a never-better Gemma Jones), a crumbling, almost anachronistic figure who is depressed, fidgety, and confused. Helena, whose husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left her. Helena is seeking hope, something to sooth her jittery mind other than the whiskey she enjoys slamming. She tells her "psychic" spiritual adviser Cristal (Pauline Collins) that Alfie left because she told him the "truth." An outright burden for her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts, in a role that perfectly compliments her turn earlier this year in Mother and Child), Helena floats about like a gadfly in antique, yellowing lace and floral prints, shattered by the news that Alfie will soon marry the uber-gauche hooker/actress Charmaine (the outrageously hysterical Lucy Punch).
Meanwhile, Sally's unsuccessful writer husband Roy (Josh Brolin) cannot focus on anyting but his gorgeous neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto) "an obscure object of desire" (according to Allen, who was on hand for a exclusive, short press conference). The caddishly romantic Roy was a once sought-after tyro of the literary world who has failed utterly at delivering anything of substance since his first success many years ago. "I've written a lot of movies about writers, usually writers that are having problems," said the legendary Allen. "Its a typical kind of character tthat I would write. Somebody who fancies himself an artist and struggles with it and doesn't live up to his promise. That's the autobiographical strain of the movie."
Another autobiographical strain, one can surmise, is the theme of death itself, hovering over the proceedings even in the film's title. "I'll be 75 in another couple of months. I am doomed to see myself as being waning and decrepit anything I can do to obviate that is fine by me," deadpanned Allen to uprorious laughter from the entire room, but his treatment of Jones' Helena actually offers a view of hope for those who think time is passing them by and that feel as though there is nothing else left to look forward to.
Perhaps she is the surrogate for Allen's well-hidden optimism as she is given the film's first and final scenes, one of which indicates frantic hopelessness, while the other offers a sweet denouement. "I'm glad I'm not young anymore," said Anthony Hopkins. "I feel sort of at peace with it. We're all obsessed with death. My favorite line is from a T.S. Eliot poem: 'I have seen the light of my greatness flicker and I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker.' I think that's the most elegant, eloquent statement on death and life. Finally, it's all a joke. Life's a joke. It sucks and then you die (laughs)."
With this potent mix of themes and performers, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger emerges funny, moving (thanks mainly in part to Jones' brilliant turn) and entertaining in it's depiction of people who are in static relationships making new, thrilling connections that they did not think were possible. It is a thrill to see Allen can still bring out the best in each performer in his troupe. "The actors have instincts," said Allen. "When you write, you're in a room by yourself and you're writing and there's no connection with the real world. When the actors get the material and actually have to go out and do it and say the lines, their instincts come into play. They're all gifted people. They feel it, more than I felt it when I was home alone."
In the coming weeks, be sure to look for exclusive commentary from three of the ladies from You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Jones, Pinto, and Punch to compliment the upcoming PopMatters Performer Spotlight series that will highlight the women of the Woody Allen universe. Allen himself will offer an insight as to what connects these women across his filmography for the occasion.
Immediately, you know something weird is going on in the film adaptation of Kazou Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek's first directorial feature following 2002's creepy Robin Williams vehicle One Hour Photo. The environment is sterile, still. Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan, so great in last year's An Education) clinically describes her job and her past, which begins to unfold via flashbacks to the Hailsham home for children in 1978.
Here, in this place that the spectator would assume is simply an orphanage, we find a young Kathy with her two friends Ruth and Tommy. The children tell the new guardian Miss Lucy (Happy-Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins) that they never go beyond the gates of the looming school because they have been told gruesome stories of bad little children dying after venturing too far from the institution's protection. The film offers a peek into the three main characters backgrounds, and builds a little mystery along the way, until it is all bluntly undone by the loose lips of Miss Lucy, who informs her young charges of their true purpose: the children of Hailsham are actually part of a widely-accepted organ-farming process that has extended the lifespan of humans well past 100. Lucy lays out their not-so-rosy futures to looks of shock and horror: everyone there has been created to donate their vital organs to others and by the time they reach the third, maybe fourth time, they will have "completed"the mission and died in order for someone else to live longer.
Once the three sacrificial lambs leave in 1985, they are played by Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield and the whole film just heads downhill at a breakneck speed. The trio meets up with other donors from around the county at the bucolic "cottages" to await the farming of their vital organs. That such a unique meditation on loneliness, stoic mortality and destiny comes from the great literary mind that brought us The Remains of the Day is not altogether surprising given the common themes that bond the disparate works. However, all of the revelations feel rushed and strained, while the images seem obvious and unnecessarily blunt. Close-ups of ticking clocks, twee little birds fluttering away and dead-eyed, waxy and broken baby dolls are among the clunkers that just do not feel as though they belong in the film's construction and weigh everything down like an two-ton anchor.
The static film mortally wounds every actor's performance and the eggregious waste of the great Charlotte Rampling's talents in the nothing role of the headmistress of Hailsham is particularly unforgivable. Though Mulligan is lovely and perfectly capable in general, there is something uncommunicative about her acting here. At times she plays simply stiff when a more complex emotion is what is needed. Knightley's juicy role is undercut by sloppy editing and directorial choices and she hints at her character's venom and rage without ever realizing it, coming off more as moody and vague. The confusion and darkness that are all bubbling underneath Ruth's translucent, porcelain skin never surface properly. Garfield, sadly, is out of his depth altogether, giving what I found to a lackluster performance that doesn't hit the right stride.
Ultimately, Never Let Me Go is ineffective on almost every level and not as refined or smart as it had the potential to be. Had it been helmed by an auteur with the capacity for a little more visual dynamism -- maybe Sofia Coppola or even David Cronenberg -- this could have been a whole different ball game. Instead its just pouty, vacant posturing.
Cigars and whiskey. Why are these always the ultimate symbols of dissolution in movies about bitchy, lost, middle-aged lions who are slowly but surely headed out to pasture? In Barney's Version, these items are the first thing the viewer sees and that kind of front-loaded, cliched imagery is but one nail in the coffin for the rest of the movie.
Barney (Paul Giamatti) is a television producer who makes really bad, sleazy shows that revolve around slutty nurses. Like many straight, white, fat, short men of his age, Barney is a bit of a prick and surrounds himself with other pricks, unless you count the women of his life who are more like a rabid pack of castrators.
This film has a terribly dim, bordering on offensive view of women. Barney's first wife is a screeching harpy who railroads him into marrying her when she discovers is pregnant with his friend's baby. She drinks and smokes and schemes, especially when it comes to Barney. In addition to these exciting character traits, she is also suicidal, mentally ill and generally petulant. Playing his second wife we have an actress who excels at playing forgettable women, Minnie Driver. Driver hasn't had a decent part in more than ten years and here she starts out as a yammering dummy with a ridiculous Brooklyn Jewess accent and her character arc propels her into total shrew territory within the span of a few scenes.
Almost the second after she marries Barney, she becomes a raving harridan, as though marriage makes women unstable and men should avoid this commitment at all costs because women are so crazy. This character seems to exist to complain, be obnoxious, shout unreasonable, stupid orders and give blowjobs. In this boys club, all kinds of jokes and insults are hurled at the expense of women and or/ their vaginas. The men (or, let's be frank, the losers) like to "fuck" the women to "shut them up." Oh boy. Houston, meet problem. It isn't that portraying women in an unflattering light is always wrong, but when the female characters are there simply for this reason, then it most certainly is both wrong and pointless.
Hatred of women aside, there is Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father offering wry, if at times misogynistic support to his lump of a son. Hoffman manages the films only emotionally resonant scenes kvetching and kvelling around as a working class Jewish cop. The mystery that frames the action is dull, the visual storytelling is static and the camera feels dead, plus the whole affair is way too long, bloated at over two and a half hours. I can't imagine this film will do well in a wide release, it seems almost destined for failure in the straight to DVD market, to be rented only by those who know absolutely nothing about movies except that Dustin Hoffman once set the bar for quality. Oh how the mighty have fallen.