Tag: Alan Alda

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Martin Landau and Woody Allen reflect on Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Caroline Aaron (Barbara), Alan Alda (Lester), Woody Allen (Cliff Stern), Claire Bloom (Miriam Rosenthal), Mia Farrow (Halley Reed), Joanna Gleason (Wendy Stern), Anjelica Huston (Dolores Paley), Martin Landau (Judah Rosenthal), Jerry Orbach (Jack Rosenthal), Sam Waterston (Ben)

Successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has it all: respect, fortune, a loving family…and a mistress. That mistress, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), won’t play ball and disappear but actually wants Judah to deliver on his half promises of leaving his wife. Should Judah confess all, as his rabbi friend Ben (Sam Waterston) suggests? Or should he follow the advice of his gangster brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and remove Dolores permanently? Meanwhile, documentary film-maker Cliff (Woody Allen) has been hired by his brother-in-law, pompously successful TV producer Lester (Alan Alda), to shoot a film celebrating Lester’s life. During the shooting, Cliff can barely hide his irritation – or his growing attraction to Halley (Mia Farrow), the associate producer both he and Lester are romancing. Who will she end up with?

Dostoyevsky – could you live with a murder? – gets the Woody Allen treatment in one of Allen’s most highly respected, but troubling films. To be honest, I didn’t much care for Crimes and Misdemeanors. I have moral qualms about it – and, I will hasten to add, these qualms have nothing to do with the lack of punishment for Judah. Crimes and Misdemeanors hides its blatant cynicism and loathing for people, underneath some fine acting and good jokes. But its possibly one of Allen’s most unlikeable works, where his sympathies seem hideously astray.

It wants to be an exploration of the guilt that follows a crime. But to be honest, aside from some expert furrowing of brow and distressed line deliveries from Landau, I’m not sure Woody has much to say about guilt. Furthermore, I think he is inviting us to sympathise with Judah not because he feels bad (and even then, so what?), but for various extenuating circumstances. Namely, he’s a good man (he has all but funded a new hospital wing by himself) with a loving family and is a dedicated doctor. Furthermore, his mistress is presented almost exclusively as a demanding and difficult floozy (Anjelica Huston in an unflattering part – although at least she gets more to do than Claire Bloom in the thankless part of Judah’s wife, an almost non-existent role).

Frankly, the film suggests Judah’s motives are more complex than just removing a self-caused problem and since he feels shock (sorrow for Dolores or the crime seems noticeable absent, and it feels like Allen mistakes the one for the other) and is a nice guy, we should think again about our knee-jerk reactions of right and wrong. Problem is, Judah is not a nice guy – he’s shallow, self-pitying and self-justifying – and watching a character with, it turns out, no real morals go through a moral quandary doesn’t make for engaging viewing.

Judah’s moral reaction to the murder is insubstantial. Essentially guilt makes him wonder where there is in fact a God after all – before deciding that, on balance, the probability is that the universe will not punish him. Other than that, I’m not sure Allen has much more to add to the discussions of right and wrong. Dostoyevsky made hundreds of pages of conscious and guilt shattering a man’s equilibrium. Allen can’t manage more than about ten minutes of screen time, let alone 90 minutes.

Perhaps that’s why Crimes and Misdemeanors is padded out with a second, almost as long, unconnected secondary plot. It’s a one-sided rivalry between Allen’s film-maker and Alda’s pompous producer, with Mia Farrow as an artistic waif who serves as the prize for this unspoken competition. (This is perhaps one of the worst Allen films for female characters: we have two cold, personality-free wives for the main characters, a shrill mistress, a bland artistic waif and Woody’s character has a sister who is tied to a bed and defecated on. How did the same guy write Hannah and Her Sisters?)

Again, Allen’s sympathies lie with the idealistic, uncompromising Cliff, even more so because his interest in making films people don’t want to see makes him, in Allen’s eyes, noble. Compare and contrast with the film’s loathing for Lester – hilariously played by Alan Alda as a neat self-parody. Lester is everything Cliff isn’t, but secretly wants to be (though I’m not sure Allen realises this): successful, well-regarded, admired, rich and gets all the girls. No wonder the film hates him – even though, to be honest, he doesn’t seem the bad. After all, the sort of drive and ambition that Lester has is exactly what makes a man successful.

It wouldn’t matter so much if Cliff wasn’t remarkably similar to him, but considerably less charming. Just like Lester, Cliff is a self-important bore, cuddling his lack of success as proof of his genuineness. Cliff has no problem with effectively creepily stalking Halley (despite being married – fine though as Allen thinks she’s a bitch). Cliff’s passive aggressive assertions that Halley deserves someone like him rather than someone like Lester aren’t romantic, they’re creepy. (Needless to say, Halley ends up with Lester, to Cliff’s shock, horror and disappointment – while his wife plans to leave him).

Now I get it, there are people reading this who will think “well yes you just don’t like it because you want a simple ending where the baddies are punished – well life isn’t like that”. That’s not the case: I’m fine with films where murderers escape scot-free: but I generally want the film to know they are bad people. Crimes and Misdemeanors doesn’t. And it doesn’t really have anything of interest to say. It’s one of Allen’s films where his cynicism about humanity is exposed too heavily. You long for a bit more critical insight into Cliff, or for a more acute exposing of Judah’s self-interested excuses. You get neither, instead Allen ending on the note that the universe is dark and indifferent and only love can change things. There’s lots of the first two and precious little of the third here.

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio excels as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), John C Reilly (Noah Dietrich), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Senator Owen Brewster), Ian Holm (Professor Fitz), Danny Huston (Jack Frye), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn), Willem Dafoe (Roland Sweet), Adam Scott (Johnny Meyer), Matt Ross (Glen Odekrik), Kevin O’Rourke (Spencer Tracy), Kelli Garner (Faith Domergue), Frances Conroy (Katharine Houghton), Brent Spiner (Robert E Gross), Edward Herrmann (Joseph Breen)

Howard Hughes grew up wanting to make the biggest movies in the world, fly the greatest plans and be the richest man in the world. He achieved all of this. He ended his life a wild-haired long-nailed recluse, terrified of stepping outside his controlled zone, a victim to crippling OCD. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a triumphant, brilliantly engrossing, sumptuous exploration of Hughes’ years of triumph, where everything seemed to go right publicly – even while everything was beginning to go wrong internally.

It’s Scorsese’s second teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio – and while DiCaprio’s boyish good looks don’t really relate to what the real Hughes looked like, his charismatic enthusiasm, passion and determination brings Hughes triumphantly to life. It’s a brilliant performance, which dominates the movie. DiCaprio seems to completely understand power of driving ambition, who will mortgage everything he has time and time again to achieve his dream – and also the force of personality needed to turn those dreams into success. But obsession drives both success and eventual personal disaster. There is always something slightly fragile about DiCaprio – maybe its those boyish good looks – and here he brilliantly captures the tragedy of a man clinging to his sense of self, struggling with the demons within him.

Scorsese’s film gloriously balances the epic with the personal. It so brilliantly relates to the irrational but very convincing fears of those suffering from OCD, that scenes featuring Hughes obsessively plucking tissues from boxes, or stuck in restrooms scared of touching the door carry a real sense of threat. The grandness of much of the rest of the film – and the sense we get have how much more Hughes could have achieved – means the demons he carries are even more affecting. Imagine what he could have done, if he wasn’t terrified of even the smallest germ, or was able to put aside his destructive urge to control every inch of his environment and the people in it.

All this tragedy works because the grandness is so impressive. Scorsese’s film looks beautiful. The filming was inspired by replicating the visual and colour styles of contemporary Hollywood. The early 1930s-set section of the film apes the toned look of early-colour (green appears blue, most strikingly at a golf course) with full colour only appearing when the film hits the years of technicolour. The 1940s sequences are inspired by touches of film noir, leaning into the early days of epic technicolour by the end. It looks striking and also amazing. The production design is similarly breathtaking, while the film is shot and assembled with a wonderfully vibrant energy.

It’s also got plenty of wit. John Logan’s fast-paced script captures the sense of a fun of a man who was determined to turn his dreams into reality. John C Reilly is a lot of a fun as the weary number 2, constantly performing financial gymnastics to keep his bosses dreams afloat. Compulsion and obsession makes Hughes the sort of guy who will rebuild an aeroplane from scratch because of a minor flaw, or will reshoot a film because it will work better with sound. During the shooting of Hell’s Angels he keeps a private fleet of planes on the ground while waiting for clouds that will make the scene work. Frequently thousands of dollars a day are spent keeping projects ticking over, while Hughes waits for perfection. He’s not a man to compromise – and you can see why an artist like Scorsese would relate to that. While the film never lets you forget this obsessive perfectionism cuts both ways – and is as much a symptom of OCD as obsessive handwashing.

Scorsese’s passion for classic Hollywood clearly informs much of the first half of the film, that covers the shooting of Hell’s Angels and Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn. There are delightful cameos from Hollywood icons like Errol Flynn and Louis B Mayer. Playful references abound. The film’s emotional heart is the bond between the two larger-than-life ambitious figures Hughes and Hepburn. Cate Blanchett (Oscar-winning) is fantastic as Hepburn, a pitch-perfect impersonation that also captures her gsharp, uncompromising intelligence and no-nonsense energy. The chemistry between the two is spot-on.

The film’s second half covers more the aviation of the title, with Hughes’ struggle to break the near-monopoly of the skies owned by PanAm, with his own airline TWA. With Hughes starting to teeter on the edge of OCD collapse, even while energetically setting records in the air and fighting battles in the senate, its perhaps even stronger. It also introduces nemesis in Alec Baldwin’s smoothly manipulative Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and, most delightfully, an Oscar-nominated Alan Alda as a hypocritically corrupt Senator Brewster. The dinner and senate clashes between Alda and DiCaprio provide glorious energy to power the film’s final act.

It also serves as a last hurrah for Hughes. It’s DiCaprio that really makes the film work as this star burns itself out, finally succumbing to the compulsions that we know will see him end his days locked into a room at the top of a Las Vegas hotel. Moments carry a suggestion of fantasy – is Hughes imagining some of the shady figures he sees at the edges of frames? Are oddly toned late meetings with Ava Gardner (an underpowered Kate Beckinsale) an illusion? It’s all part of the the powerful sense of tragedy of seeing him end, wild-haired, peeing into milk bottles and stuck into loops of repeating phrases over and over again. Scorsese’s film superbly captures the immense sense of lost opportunities.

The Aviator is undeniably grand and triumphant film-making, that looks a million dollars. But it also manages – in thanks to a superb performance from DiCaprio – to capture a tragic sense of a man who burnt himself out at the height of fame and success. It tells two parallel stories without us realising it: a man achieving his dreams, even while his nightmares consume him. With Scorsese’s perfectly judged direction and some wonderful performances, this is both a sprawling epic and a very personal story of loss. While it seems very different from the films we might expect from the master, I think it might be one of his finest works.

Marriage Story (2019)

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are an estranged couple in Marriage Story

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Ray Liotta (Jay Moratta), Azhy Robertson (Henry Barber), Julie Hagerty (Sanda), Merritt Wever (Cassie), Wallace Shawn (Frank), Martha Kelly (Nancy Katz)

It’s a scenario that more and more marriages in our modern world head towards – divorce. And it’s never easy to separate from something that has dominated your life for years, and the more that bonds two people together, the harder to pull them apart. As the film says, “it’s not as simple as not being in love any more” – and the complex emotional bonds that form between people, and the inability we have to switch these on and off like lights, are what drive Noah Baumbach’s film, heavily influenced by his own real-life divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is a former child-star who has built a career as a respected theatre actor in tandem with her husband Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), an acclaimed and visionary theatre director. Living in New York with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), their marriage is dissolving with Nicole frustrated at Charlie’s selfishness, just as Charlie is angered by what he sees as her refusal to take full responsibility for her career choices. As mediation fails, Nicole returns to LA for a role in a TV series, taking Henry with her. With divorce papers filed in LA, the couple engage in a cross-state legal battle for custody and finances, with their positions increasingly weaponised into hostile encounters by their respective legal teams. No one is coming out of this one unscathed.

Baumbach’s film is tender, sympathetic and offers a fine line of arch comedy and even farce (at points), that works over time to be as even-handed as it possibly can. The film’s sympathies are aimed not solely at husband or wife, but at the couple themselves wrapped up in the hostile, money-spinning world of divorce where, it’s strongly implied, the only real winners are the lawyers making thousands of dollars spinning out clashes as long (and as aggressively) as possible in order to cement their positions and keep their industry going.

The film is a solid denunciation of the entire industry that has grown up around divorce, where it’s seemingly impossible to find any arrangement alone without lawyers giving it a legal force, or to come out without that process consuming most of the wealth of the couple. Even worse in this case, the main battle-ground becomes the rights of each parent to access to their son, Henry’s college fund disappearing into a legal battle and the child becoming the centre of both fraught attentions and an unseemly competition for affection between both parents, effectively offering bribes for preferential responses from their son. All in order to prove that their link to him is the stronger.

The tragedy of all this – the way the system seems designed to turn personal relationships poisonous and bitter – becomes Baumbach’s focus. Brilliantly the film starts with a voiceover from both Nicole and Charlie in turn, over a montage, stressing the wide list of things they loved about their partner in the first place: part, it is revealed, of a mediation session that ends in disaster and Nicole’s walkout. But the closeness, the bond, the intimacy of these two people is revisited time and time again in the film. Legal dispute scenes and lawyer confrontations are followed by perfectly friendly home visits and regretful conversations. Legal meetings are bizarrely punctuated by coffee with conversation from the lawyers suddenly turning light and breezy. Then, as events hit a courtroom, moments like Charlie’s failure to properly install a car seat are spun out by lawyers as evidence of his risky disregard of his child’s safety while Nicole’s glass of wine after work becomes incipient alcoholism. 

For a film about divorce, it’s striking that it’s the process of divorce that turns the couple’s relationship increasingly toxic (culminating in a brutal scene where each throws increasingly personal and cruel abuse at each other for other five minutes). Sure there are resentments and anger at the front, but these are kept under reserve and still allow the couple to chat and negotiate amicably when they’re by themselves. As soon as the lawyers are involved, the mood steadily turns worse and worse. 

This is part of the film’s attempt to present the couple even-handedly. I’d say it only partially succeeds at this – with a 55/45 split in favour of Charlie, who is presented as the most “victimised” by the system, as the New York man having to prove he has a link to his now-LA-based-son. While Nicole does get a fantastic monologue (brilliantly performed by Johansson, full of regret, apology, anger and confusion) where she outlines Charlie’s selfishness, distance and probable (later confirmed) affair to her lawyer, the focus soon shifts to Charlie’s travails in the system. It’s him hit by a blizzard of demands from court and lawyer. It’s him who is separated from his son. It’s him who pays the biggest financial burden. It’s him who takes the biggest blows and has to bend his whole life to try and claim a residency in LA. It’s not a surprise Baumbach marginally favours his surrogate, but it does leave you wanting a few more scenes – especially in the latter half of the film – for the impact on Nicole.

However you keep on side with both halves of the couple thanks to the superb performances from Johansson and Driver. Johansson is both fragile and acidly combative, a woman who feels she has led someone else’s life for far too long. Driver is a bewildered gentle giant, but carrying a long streak of self-justifying self-obsession, clearly believing himself the only victim, but deeply hurt by the situation he finds himself in.

Supporting him are three very different lawyers. Laura Dern is on Oscar-winning form as Nicole’s brash, confident, ruthless defender with a smile so practised it’s hard to tell when it’s false or when it’s true. Alan Alda is endearing – but also gently out of his depth – as Charlie’s more conciliatory first lawyer (in one brilliant moment, Charlie interrupts a lengthy joke from Alda’s Bert during a sidebar with the frustrated put down “sorry Bert am I paying for this joke?”) while Ray Liotta channels De Niro roughness as his fiercely competitive second lawyer.

Marriage Story is a bittersweet, superbly made, moving but occasionally strangely funny story of a couple falling out of love and trying to find the way of converting that into a functioning co-parenting friendship. Throughout it’s not the couple, but the system making money from their dysfunction, that’s to blame in this marvellously written and superbly played drama.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.