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THE LURE OF AN IMAGINED PAST
THERE WAS A time when many, myself included, believed that Woody Allen was destined to be the greatest American filmmaker of the second half of the twentieth century. But that was long ago.
At some point, many movie-lovers—and, again, I include myself in this number—became bored and utterly disenchanted with the prolific filmmaker. To be completely honest, part of my rejection of Allen derived from the Soon-Yi Previn scandal. When a man of late middle age shtups a young woman he's known since the age of seven or eight, that makes him a dirty old man. When the girl is the adopted daughter of his (then) life-partner, that makes him something worse.
Still, I didn't stop going to see Woody Allen movies because I thought he was morally damaged. I stopped watching Woody Allen's films because his work became depressing, pretentious, and annoyingly repetitive. It was about the time that Allen became a New York knock-off of Ingmar Bergman that I decided that life was too short to bother with his annual cinematic production. (I'd rather watch an out-and-out stupid movie than one that is a silly bore but believes that it is profound.)
It's a shame, really. Those early Allen films—in which he channeled the Marx Brothers instead of the turgid Swede—were such fun! Sleeper (1973), one of his several sf/fantasy efforts, is a great example of Allen at his entertaining best. He then progressed past his "Marxist" early work to a style that was at once realistic, deeply personal, and still full of energy and humor. Annie Hall (1977), which rightfully cleaned up at the Oscars, was Allen at the height of his powers.
Other good films followed as he moved from his Diane Keaton to his Mia Farrow period. But I think the last Woody Allen film I really enjoyed was another of his fantasy-tinged stories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, in 1985. About the time of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), I lost interest in Allen's work. And seeing later films on cable from time to time has never turned me back into a fan.
Is it possible that I am no longer capable of fully appreciating a Woody Allen film? Perhaps. For I have just watched one of his most charming and audience-friendly films in many years, and I must admit that it left me quite cold. The movie in question was Midnight in Paris, and it is, above all else, exactly what the Production Notes describe it as: "Woody Allen's valentine to the City of Lights."
This particular valentine might be a bit too lacy and flowery for some tastes, however. Allen gets much of his funding, and most of his current fan base, from Europe, so the exuberance of his affection of Paree is understandable. And, brother, there is no mistaking it! The movie opens with an excruciatingly long series of filmed picture postcard shots of Parisian landmarks and quaint scenes set to an obligatory old (Sidney Bechet) jazz number. It seems to go on forever. Even Rick Steves would have gotten on with things before Allen does.
But everyone loves Paris—except for the future bride and in-laws of a disenchanted screenwriter named Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), that is. The snooty Republican businessman, John (Kurt Fuller) and his interior designer wife, Helen (Mimi Kennedy) wish they were back in the land of the "Tea Party." And their spoiled daughter, Inez (Rachel McAdams, struggling to play the opposite of her normally charming screen persona) seems similarly inclined to play the WASPish ugly American. Inez only enjoys the shopping, and the pedantic prattle of another old friend, an American academic currently lecturing at the Sorbonne—and at anyone else willing to listen to him—named Paul (Michael Sheen). But what Inez really wants is for Gil to forget his pretentions as a novelist, embrace his career as a hack script-doctor in Hollywood, and buy her a fancy mansion in Malibu.
Gil has no interest in Paul's guidebook verbiage or his own successful path to fame and fortune, though. He simply wants to explore the Paris of his memory and imagination. And when Inez is unwilling to tromp through the city with him, day and night, he wanders the streets of Paris on his own. One midnight, while the church bells toll, a vintage Peugeot rolls alongside of him and stops. Several costumed and tipsy travelers inside the car extol him to climb in. And naïve idiot that he is, he complies. Before long, and much to his dazed amazement, Gil realizes that he has somehow traveled back to his favorite era, Paris of the 1920s.
Since this feat of time travel is more a simple plot device than an excursion into actual science fiction, Allen never bothers to even attempt to explain how or why Gil goes back nearly a hundred years; or how he seems to come and go from the past so easily. But one thing becomes quickly clear, he's not back in the past by his lonesome. In fact, he ends up hanging out with all the artists and writers he most admires—few of whom are actually French. Expatriates like himself, they come from Spain, England, and most especially the good ole U.S. of A.
The first fun-loving couple he meets is none other than Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). And before long, Gil and the audience have fallen into a world of parties, barrooms, cafes and salons peopled with almost everyone of renown from that time and place. Yep, it's a Wikipedia article on the Lost Generation come to life. The lit-crit bit parts come fast and furious. Artistic luminaries appearing (albeit sometimes silently) include Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí. A few (like Djuna Barnes) are relatively obscure these days, but most are so recognizable that they are easily impersonated in brief vignettes and then promptly dismissed by the film's auteur and the audience.
Midnight in Paris is a bit of a one-joke skit, carried out at length. The name-dropping tended to grate (on me, at least) after a while. Most of the famous folk are forgettable as characters and seem to have nothing to do with Pender or the plotline. There are three notable exceptions. One is the still-young Papa Hemingway, played, all arrogant machismo, by Corey Stoll. His terse yet self-important pronouncements are played straight, and are therefore utterly hilarious. There is more homage than parody in Kathy Bates's portrayal of Gertrude Stein, but her brief portrait of the artist as sponsor and advisor to the greats has an equal sense of fun. Adrien Brody is on the screen very briefly, but his depiction of a feverishly loopy Salvador Dalí is the movie's greatest delight, with or without his pronunciation of the word rhinoceros.
What it all means to Gil, who longs to complete his novel (about a nostalgia merchant, no less) in some Paris attic, is unclear even to him. He gets some encouragement and advice from Ms. Stein. And in her home he meets a fashion designer and serial muse to Picasso and others, named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). The two are drawn together. And it is soon apparent why. Just as Gil longs to go back to a grander time of the post-WWI time period, the woman he meets in the twenties also longs for a grander and more creative time. For Adriana, the Belle Époque was the time to be in Paris. So before you can say can-can, Adriana and Gil are hobnobbing with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas.
And the moral of the story? Something about the grass always being greener in another century. And that you should never trust an American, like the shrewish Inez, who doesn't want to live in La Ville-Lumière. Owen Wilson gamely plays the Woody Allen surrogate in this cinematic outing, but despite all the pretty settings (from Versailles to Giverny), the countless cameos of literary and artistic greats, and even a bit part played by the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni), this seemingly fresh pâtisserie of Francophilia still felt like the old, stale Woody Allen I have come to know and loathe.
But maybe it's just me. The Cambridge, MA (mostly white-haired) audience I saw the movie with laughed throughout, and applauded at the end. So I won't be offended if you see Midnight in Paris and judge for yourself.
Even if Woody Allen has a tendency to be thematically and stylistically repetitive in his films, his lapses of self-plagiarism are nothing compared to a movie franchise, produced (four times) by Jerry Bruckheimer, and originally based not on a comic, toy, video game, or (perchance, impossible) novel, but rather on an amusement park ride. I speak, of course, of the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy plus One, which harks back to historic days of island-hopping privateers and pirates. Exactly which "historic days" are being depicted is somewhat in question, as the movies play fast and loose with times, settings, and characters. But let's assume that it is early twenty-first century interpretation of the late seventeeth (before the 1692 destruction of Port Royal) and early eighteenth (1716-1718 was when Blackbeard terrorized the Carolinas and the Caribbean) centuries.
The first three movies, all directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (based on characters by Elliott, Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert, and on Walt Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme ride), did seem to be cut from the same crazy quilt cloth. But it was interesting to watch how increasingly digressive and bloated the films became as time progressed. They also employed more and more elaborate (and very impressive, I must admit) FX and makeup effects, and wilder fantasy elements at every turn.
Trying to recap the storyline of the first three movies would be a fool's errand, and my mama didn't raise no fool. Suffice it to say, the films (which involved doomed treasure and men, competing pirates, and the efforts of the ruthless British and the East India Trading Company to control the seas) were mostly an excuse for fights, chases, and explosions, followed by more fights, chases, and explosions. Besides the recurring roles of vengeful yet appealing Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), there was also the ongoing love story of an adventurous young couple, Elizabeth and Will, played by Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom. But as everyone in the world knows, the real star of the films was and is an eccentric, rum-soaked pirate named Jack Sparrow, played (initially, at least) to the hilt by Johnny Depp.
With his heavy use of kohl eye liner, his braided and trinketed locks and beard, and the flamboyant swish of his swash, Depp's anti-hero had all the appearance of a stereotyped gay buccaneer. But perhaps he was simply the first metrosexual. For, except for an occasional harassing leer or air-kiss at a British naval officer or opposing pirate, his sexual interests appear to be directed to the opposite sex.
As would befit a character meant to elicit affection in a movie audience, Jack Sparrow is—in almost all cases—quite a harmless and charming scoundrel. More cut-up than cutthroat, his treachery usually comes to naught. Unlike real pirates of the day, he is no murderer or torturer. And although he has a great many swordfights, his blade very seldom finds its mark.
Since Jack was the real star of the original trilogy, when Disney decided to go back to the well again, they wiped out almost all the stars of the original movies—why pay those extra salaries!—and made the fourth film all about Jack. Captain Barbossa returns, but the young lovers are gone. And Brit power only exerts itself in the early London scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Interestingly, the early London action—which includes an elaborate cream puff acrobatic chase—happens to be the most energetic and entertaining part of the whole movie. There's a real theatricality to those early moments, as befits the work of new director Rob Marshall (Chicago).
Shortly thereafter, the action shifts south again for a tag-team search for Ponce de León's Fountain of Youth. And that's when the tedium begins.
Although both the British and the Spanish, competitive as always, are in the hunt, no one is more interested in finding the magical waters than a beauteous lady pirate and former convent novitiate, Angelica (Penélope Cruz) and her long-lost father, the completely ruthless, even demonic, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). It seems that Blackbeard has had his death foretold, and he must perform a ritual involving the mystic waters, chalices, and the tear of a mermaid to be able to continue his illustrious career of torture, murder, and plunder.
There is supposed to be a hurtful romantic history between Angelica and Jack. But this is never really elucidated upon. And although Ms. Cruz is as lovely as ever, she has no discernable chemistry with Johnny Depp, and seems almost embarrassed to be playing the stereotyped fiery Latina part. Mr. McShane, likewise, certainly knows how to play a psychotic villain, but his heart doesn't seem to be into playing this particular one. (Geoffrey Rush, at least, continues to enjoy his role as the classic pirate turned privateer.)
The plot here is less convoluted than in the story meanderings of the first three movies. But that does not make it a better movie. The FX are not half as awe-inspiring. You get the sense the filmmakers thought they were guaranteed a big payday and therefore did everything (but Johnny's salary) on the cheap. Blackbeard is a monster, but ultimately a rather banal one. He doesn't have the tragic back story or amazing makeup that Bill Nighy made full use of in his role as Davy Jones in movies two and three.
As most sf fans probably know, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is (very, very) loosely based on Tim Powers's (far, far) superior 1987 novel entitled On Stranger Tides. So, here's some sincere advice: Skip the movie, and seek out the novel. You'll have a much more enjoyable time!
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