Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

If you ever owned a DVD of a Woody Allen movie, you will know that there are never any special features. There is probably no budget for a behind-the-scenes documentary crew following him around on his film shoots, heck, Woody Allen has said he does not even like the concept of special features. He even burns the deleted scenes after the film is completed.

Up till now, the only way to truly learn about Woody Allen’s process was through books. I own Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax (who’s in the film as his biographer) and Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman, which both are all fine reads and great insights into Allen’s creative process. I knew most of his stories: his workman-like approach, his approach to casting, , .

The structure of the documentary is tailor-made to its subject and it really fits. It chronicles Allen’s life from his career transitions beginning from a young joke writer to stand-up comedian to a filmmaker. Much of Allen’s frequent collaborators and family are interviewed, including his sister, actors, co-writers, casting director and producers. Each film that he’s made is covered more or less but much more emphasis is placed on his creative phases: his early funny films, the transition with Annie Hall and the Diane Keaton era, the Mia Farrow era, Match Point and now the current European city phase. The behind-the-scenes section on the set of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger where you see Allen rehearsing a scene with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in an argument scene was a real treat. Also, my top five favorite Woody films are all covered (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Stardust Memories, Everybody Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry and Midnight in Paris), so I am a happy camper.

I had a dumb dream once where I met Wong Kar Wai and he took off his infamous sunglasses, looked me straight into the eye and spoke to me. I woke up realizing I saw Wong Kar Wai’s eyes in person and felt like I knew something deeper about him because I was in his presence.

That’s how this documentary made me feel. Despite that my previous knowledge, I didn’t know anything about Woody Allen in terms of a human being. The documentary offers that close proximity as we basically hang out with Woody Allen for 3 hours. We take a trip with Allen around New York visiting various locations like his cutting room, his old elementary school (which he hates), the jazz club (where he plays the clarinet every Monday) and the local cinema he used to frequent (inspired the idea for Purple Rose of Cairo) and we see the space of his own world and can visualize where the genesis of his ideas come from. One major highlight is when we’re in Allen’s actual home where he shows you his typewriter and takes out his notes for story ideas and reads out a few of them.

It’s an absorbing experience as we gain great insight into Allen as a human being and an artist. It totally makes up for the lack of special features for every Woody Allen DVD. A highly recommended experience for fellow Woody Allen fans.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

On October, 24 2001, Michael Perry and his friend, Jason Burkett, decided steal a Camaro from the the Montgomery home of Sandra Stotler. Perry entered the house through the garage. Perry shot Sandra Stotler with a shotgun and the two men dumped her body in Montgomery County’s Crater Lake.

The duo then returned to the gated community where Sandra Stotler lived and waited outside the locked gate until the dead woman’s son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson arrived. Perry and Burkett lured the teens to a wooded area and killed Adam Stotler and Richardson. Perry and Burkett, driving the Isuzu Rodeo Adam Stotler had been using, went back to Sandra Stotler’s home and finally stole her Camaro. They kept the Camaro for no longer than 72 hours and were finally apprehended after a gun fight with the police. Perry received a death sentence and Burkett received a life sentence.

Into the Abyss is the new documentary film from Werner Herzog, it focuses on the two convicts and various people affected by the crime. In his documentaries, Herzog always seeks what he calls the “ecstatic truth”, his theory that storytellers should never look away from the truth. It’s not enough that we know that murder exists. You have to look at it face-to-face. Once you do this, you will find a whole well of deeper truth.

That was my experience watching Into the Abyss, on the surface it covers a very depressing subject. At the helm of any  lesser director it would probably be depressing. Instead, it cuts right through and takes you to different places emotionally beyond “hey dude, murder is depressing, so be depressed while you watch this”. It’s emotionally raw, the parts about the victim’s families dealing with the victim’s deaths are powerful stories. We see that it so much more harder to grieve when one’s death was over something so meaningless. Mostly we can say that these deaths are all made from wrong choices. Did these people have a choice? Some seemingly did and some claimed they did not. It would be so much easier to judge and encapsulate how we feel about a person’s actions if we did not look at the whole truth of his predicament.

There is humor at times, but it’s not there to break tension. It comes as part of the ecstatic truth. Herzog greets the father of Jason Burkett, Delbert Burkett, who is also in prison, “How are you?” The sits down and casually snaps a “I’m fine.” Herzog half-scoffs, “How fine (are you really)?” Delbert recounts how he testified for his son in court and pleaded to the judge not to execute Jason. He blames himself for not being there as a father and never gave his son a chance for a good life.

It’s even romantic at times, the wife of Jason Burkett speaks about how she fell in love with her husband and desires to bear his child, despite that they will not be together for 40 years until he makes parole. She holds a sonogram picture of the baby and that was an unnerving moment. As she held up the picture, I wondered if the child is another seed of criminality. That’s what I saw. I think other people will have different interpretations. The film is dense enough for it.

One of the most chilling moments for me was the interview with Fred Allen, the Captain of the Death House Team in Texas, where the prisoners are brought to be executed. He describes the procedure of taking the patient to be lethally injected and his struggle with keeping the job after lethally injecting 125 convicts. A notepad is shown noting the times of the procedure of Michael Perry’s execution: when he arrived, when he was strapped to the bed, when he was injected and when he passed. That struck me still. I did not have an emotion for that.

Herzog does not narrate as he usually does and I think that was a good aesthetic choice. He only conducts the interviews. Herzog’s own views are implied in the film (he is against the idea of capital punishment), but it’s not as loud of a statement as one would experience in a Michael Moore film. It is unlike Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he needed to answer, “Why the hell are we looking at these caves for 2 hours?”  There is no question of why we need to watch this and Werner Herzog takes a step back from telling us his personal views. The viewer is left to decide how they want to judge the actions Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Herzog provides no answers, but asks all the right questions.

Why did these three people die for a car? Why did these two kids kill for a joyride? How does death affect a family? How do you live your life knowing that you will be executed next week? Is there any real purpose to executing Michael Perry? After all, it won’t bring them back. Does anyone, including the state, have any right to take a life? Just because the law says so, does that make it right?

At the end, It left me raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I thought about the absurdity and ironies of life. Into the Abyss reflected the human predicament and how as human beings we think we know everything, but we are not even close to understanding ourselves.

Nightfall by Roy Chow

Nightfall by Roy Chow

The setup: When the horrible disfigured corpse of popular classical singer Han Tsui (played by Michael Wong) is found washing on a shore, Inspector Lam (played by Simon Yam) is called to investigate. The investigation leads to Eugene Wong (played by Nick Cheung), a recently-released ex-con who was responsible for the death of Tsui’s daughter, Eva (played by Janice Man). And basically, Inspector Lam investigates and more things happen.

Nick Cheung, after a long journey through of supporting and comedic roles, is now  praised for his acting since he won Best Actor in the Hong Kong Film Awards for The Beast Stalker, where he played a one-eyed criminal. His best performance is actually On The Edge, where he played an undercover agent recovering back to a normal life, but is ostracized by both the police force and the triads. In Nightfall, he genuinely brings some creepy moments as Yeung, the muted criminal.

Simon Yam is very watchable in anything. Playing a disheveled drunk cop does not play to his strengths. He is always better placed in roles where he can underact using the context of the scene. He doesn’t get to chew as much as scenery as he just brought in for a very normal unchallenging role. Janice Man is a very pretty girl, she brings a fine graceful presence and does a competent job. I hope to see more of her and watch her improve.

Now comes to the finale of this post, I must talk about the black hole, charisma vacuum of this movie, Michael Wong (Russell Wong’s dumber less talented brother) He is, for the lack of a better word, atrocious. He switches between English and heavily-accented Cantonese and it is sad to watch. I do not know how he is been able to sustain this for his entire career.

A mentor of mine had a theory on why Caucasian actors always seem to overact in Chinese films (i.e. the police chief in Ip Man 2). Language is not only a way of speaking, it also embodies a world view and its own set of emotions. Why English-speaking Caucasian actors overact is because a Chinese-speaking director lacks the ability adjust the emotionality of their performances because they are not familiar with the emotions of the language itself. It’s just merely a theory, but I’m bringing it up because it allows me to say that Michael Wong has proved that one can be a horrible actor bilingually. He is completely devoid of any emotionality and in every scene he proceeds to chew up the scenery by shouting his lines.

The set piece at the Lantau Island feels forced and stagey. I don’t see why a policeman would take a suspect on a scenic cable car ride to interrogate him. It ends up being a commercial for the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car ride. It’s a fun scenic ride and all. I do recommend it if you are visiting Hong Kong, but it took me out of the film.

Story wise, the film makes a choice of putting the finale sequence before the reveal and it loses it wad. Part of the craft of telling a story is determining the order in how the events are revealed. After the grand finale, there is no dramatic weight to what’s happened before once the conflict is already resolved. It takes the audience out because we do not know the significance of the climax while it is happening. Telling the audience afterwards is just flatulent. Yes, they “M. Night Shyamalan-ed” it. I’m going to use that as a verb from now on.

It’s a passable thriller but I can see how a few more script meetings and hiring Russell Wong instead of Michael Wong would have improved the movie immensely.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Days before Christmas, a child Pietari (played by Onni Tommila), the son of a reindeer herder Rauno (played by Jorma Tommila), stumbles across a supposed archeological excavation located on a mountain near his remote rural home. Strange things begin to occur: large herds of reindeer are found dead and children start disappearing across the town. The reindeer herders begin an investigation and unravels the shocking, ugly truth about Santa Claus.

It’s an original spin on the Santa Claus myth. The idea that Santa Claus was a supernatural being who’s duty was to punish naughty children. It put me on the edge of my seat as it was so fresh to see everything we know about Santa Claus turned into a dark evil thing. I was wondering which direction the story was going to go. The story knows exactly how much information to give you at certain points to keep you engaged and guessing. Rare Exports manages to build up its mystery up with discipline and competently builds to a worthy action-packed finale.

They manage to create some genuine dark creepy moments as well. There’s a great scene where a captured Santa Claus figure sits naked and totally unresponsive in a room. The adult reindeer herders scratch their heads over what to do with him. As a child (who has done something “naughty”) enters and the Santa figure springs to life, slowly setting his eyes locked onto the child, ready to pounce on him. The audience is ahead of the characters on what’s going on, but only so slightly. We become afraid for what will happen to these children if the parents cannot protect them from dark forces. It does touch to some cautionary tale-like themes about the safety of children (though it’s too scary for kids under 12).

The thing I loved most was how they crafted the Santa Claus conspiracy, it titters between a fictionalized conspiracy, myth and reality that makes you almost think,”Hey, this could happen.” And that balance alone makes it a fresh viewing experience.

Funny enough, I did see this during Christmas and I do recommend it as a Christmas movie if you ever get sick of watching Love Actually or any of the Die Hard movies over and over again. But in all seriousness, I wouldn’t wait till next December.

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

“Wait, so it’s a horror movie about hitmen? How does that work?” That’s how I reacted the first time I heard about the premise of Kill List. What possibly can be scary about hit men?

The set-up? A British soldier Jay (played by Neil Maskell) returns home from Kiev. He is suffering from his disturbed past from a non-specific failed mission in Kiev. He’s strapped for cash and his wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring) urges him to take a job with his old friend Gal (played by Michael Smiley) as contract killers. His disturbed past surfaces as he spins out of control during jobs and ominous employers raise the stakes.

You may be thinking: what the heck is scary about that?

The way we take information has progressed and audiences have evolved. Subtext has now become supertext. Kill List is a film that understands this and chooses to plays all it’s beats beneath it’s surface.  It is not about what is being shown to the audience. It is everything that is not being shown: an off-kilter look, an obscure comment and a random action. There is something happening behind the curtains and all these random little things engage you to ask questions. “What the hell is going on?” “Why did she do that?” Kill List engages through creating distance with its audience.

One must remember the first rule of horror: it is never being literal. Horror stories are about ideas. Anything physical (i.e. a monster) is a mere physicalization of an idea.

The film ended and I was unnerved. I did not know what idea it was that I was rattled by. It’s a looming feeling that sits there in front of you. I felt like rewatching the film again to check if I missed anything. But I did not miss anything. I had no grasp on what it was and that’s quite unsettling.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.

Senna by Asif Kapadia

Senna is a documentary film that depicts the life of Brazilian motor-racing champion, Ayrton Senna.

You do not need to know anything about Formula One racing or even have to be remotely interested in it to enjoy this film. The story provides you with the technical knowledge that you need to know. The most noteworthy thing is, Senna works on primal storytelling instincts. There’s a guy, he loves racing and is pretty talented at it. He wants to race with the best team. The best racer on the best team (Alain Prost AKA “The Professor”) does not want to be second. They are on the same team but they race for themselves. Tensions arise.

Senna and Prost’s rivalry seemed too dramatic to be real. The rivalry was akin to Maverick and Ice Man in Top Gun. It is unbelievable this all really happened. There is a writing credit in the film’s credits (by Manish Pandey) though I imagine that is more compiling the facts to tell the most dramatic order possible than rewriting facts.

Film is an amalgamation of all the arts (photography, music, theater, storytelling etc.), the only new art form to arise out of film is editing. The idea that putting two separate images next to each other can evoke a whole new independent meaning. Senna is a film composed mostly of archive footage and interviews and it is truly impressive the amount of emotion and drama that was conveyed through archive footage. The story was told with great flow. It’s great to know that the editing by Greger Salls and Chris King has been recognized at this year’s BAFTA awards.

Ayrton Senna himself is a fascinating subject. We see the passion and determination in his eyes and you cannot help but root for him. It was not about being the best. Senna speaks of racing as his way of spiritually connecting to God. Racing was simply his purpose.

The musical score by Antonio Pinto brings out Senna’s spirituality and subtly sets the story from Senna’s perspective. Essentially you are either hearing Senna’s feelings or “how we should feel about the situation”. The music at the finale was particularly impactful.

I do not know thing one about Formula One racing and honestly I still do not know very much having seen the film. But Senna took me into another world and it gripped me all the way through. By the end, it struck me still and raised all the hairs on my back ( even though I am Asian).

I could not recommend this more, do not let the fact that this is about racing stop you from seeing it. Give it a chance!

It is one of the best films of 2011.