Rifkin’s Festival

Posted on January 27, 2022 at 5:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive/sexual material and some drug use, language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 28, 2022

Copyright The Mediapro Studio 2021
“Stardust Memories,” released in 1980, is one of Woody Allen’s best films, a semi-autobiographical story of a writer/director who attends a film festival where he is being honored. He is surrounded by people who want something from him or try to impress him with fatuous faux-intellectual comments and struggles with his purpose as people keep telling him they prefer his earlier, funny films. He is also torn between two women, a wholesome, devoted single mother and a troubled musician. We see glimpses of some of his films and at one point he has an encounter with super-intelligent aliens who tell him that if he wants to help humanity he should write funnier jokes.

Forty-two years and almost as many films later, Woody Allen returns to the setting and some of the themes of that film with “Rifkin’s Festival,” about a man who attends a film festival and is torn between two women as he is having an existential crisis about his purpose.

That man is Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), who once taught film classes about classic European cinema but is now mired in working on a novel. He is not happy about attending the festival in San Sebastián, but he is worried that his wife, Sue (Gina Gershon) has a crush on one of her PR clients, a director who is being honored at the festival. Woody Allen for decades has been more interested in churning out movies than in taking the time and care to give the characters or storylines any depth, so Mort does not respond to this concern by talking to her or trying to be more engaged and thoughtful. Instead he sulks and develops psychosomatic symptoms. The title is something of a wry joke as Mort never goes to any of the festival’s screenings or events. The only films he sees are the ones in his head.

At a superficial level, it is mildly entertaining, with some very clever lines and the fun for cinephiles of seeing Mort’s angst expressed through placing his situation in the context of his favorite films, from “Jules et Jim” to “Persona.” Mort barely qualifies as a character but thanks to Wallace Shawn he is able to get some sympathy from us. The other characters are barely sketched as concepts, Sue and her director client as antagonists created out of Mort’s deepest insecurities and Jo (Elena Anaya), the doctor he consults and starts to flirt with, just another Allen fantasy figure, though thankfully one who is an actual grown-up.

I have nothing but support for those who have concluded that they do not wish to watch any more of Woody Allen’s films because of his behavior or his alleged behavior. But for those who separate the art from the artist, I would say that this movie at least gestures at some of the criticisms he has faced (see actual grown-up point and some reconsideration of intellectual snobbery — as well as some endorsement of it. All of it is treated very lightly and so pretty to look at that for a moment it almost seems that there may have been a second draft before he said “Action.”

Parents should know that this movie has mature themes including adultery and some strong language and sexual references, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: What should Rifkin have said to Sue about his worries? What will he do next?

If you like this, try: “Stardust Memories” and “Annie Hall”

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Wonder Wheel

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drinking, references to alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and off-screen violence, references to mob killings
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 3, 2018

Copyright Amazon 2017
Writer/director Woody Allen continues to explore questions of fate, chance, and choice he has addressed with much more art and understanding before in “Wonder Wheel,” a dreary, dull story set in 1950’s Coney Island. Unlike the character who talks about responsibility, Allen tries to duck his own failures by having his stand-in narrator tell us that the story is filled with metaphor and symbolism. That stand-in is Justin Timberlake as a lifeguard named Mickey who wants to write big, dramatic plays like Eugene O’Neill, and he addresses us directly in an unsuccessful attempt to make the story appear more meaningful.

Mickey, who is going to school on the GI bill after his service in the navy during WWII, is having an affair with a married older woman, Ginny (Kate Winslet). She is a waitress at a clam joint on the boardwalk, but she tells him she is a former actress who is just playing the part of a waitress. Her husband, Humpty (a blustery Jim Belushi) runs the carousel. She has a young son from her first marriage who lies, steals, and sets fires everywhere. And Humpty has a daughter named Carolina (Juno Temple), estranged since she married a mobster five years earlier, who shows up because she is on the run. She has left her husband and shared some information with law enforcement, and now goons want to kill her.

All of this could be set up in a few brief scenes, but this is a movie where everything has to be said at least twice, just to drag it all out. Slate’s Sam Adams writes that Allen is trying to justify some of the highly-controversial choices of his personal life and attack his former partner (and mother of his current wife) in this film. It is equally possible to read it as a mea culpa, with Ginny’s confession that she destroyed her one chance at personal and professional happiness when she betrayed her first husband, belatedly realizing he was the love of her life, but just could not help herself. Is this fate? A recurring character flaw? Allen does not seem interested enough to follow through.

The production design gorgeously brings to life the look of 1950’s Coney Island, the beach, the boardwalk, and the rides. Ginny and Humpty literally live under the ferris wheel that gives the film its title, reminiscent of Alvy Singer’s family living under the roller coaster in “Annie Hall.” Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives a romantic glow to many of the scenes, perhaps making a link between Ginny’s red hair and the fires set by her son. The actors do their best to bring the characters to life, but with a repetitive, underwritten script and sour, dreary tone, it is as though instead of putting his characters in a story he tossed them like pennies in search of an I Ching fortune. In life, we can debate the role of destiny, fatal flaws, and choice. But a writer is in control of all three for his characters, and no amount of visual flair or acting talent can obscure the failure to make those choices meaningful.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, adultery, strong language, drinking and alcoholism, references to domestic abuse and child abuse, smoking, and references to mob violence.

Family discussion: What symbols can you identify in this story? What does the ferris wheel mean? What about the fires?

If you like this, try: “Crimes and Misdemeanors”

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I Wonder Why Three Fall Movies Have the Word “Wonder” in Their Titles

Posted on August 16, 2017 at 8:00 am

A few years ago, it was the number 9 that popped up in a bunch of movie titles.  This year, it’s the word “wonder.”  Two are based on best-selling, award-winning books for children, Wonder, by  R.J. Palacio, the story of a boy with a facial deformity who enrolls in public school for the first time, and Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick, which has two parallel stories, one in words, one in pictures.   The third is “Wonder Wheel,” from writer/director Woody Allen, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake.

Oh, and the summer’s biggest box-office hit was: “Wonder Woman.”

I wonder what’s coming next!

NOTE: Thanks for the reminder!  Another upcoming film is “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” based on the remarkable real-life story of the man who created Wonder Woman (and invented the lie detector!).  It looks, well, wonderful.

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Woody Allen’s Netflix Series: Crisis in Six Scenes

Posted on September 23, 2016 at 8:00 am

“Crisis in Six Scenes” is a new six-part series from Netflix set in the 1960’s. Writer/director/star Woody Allen plays a television writer married to a therapist (Elaine May), and Miley Cyrus is their daughter, who is caught up in the protests of the era. It will be available for streaming on September 30.

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Interview: Alex Sheremet on Woody Allen (Part 2)

Posted on September 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm

Copyright 2015 Take Two Publishing
Copyright 2015 Take Two Publishing
This is part 2 of my interview with Alex Sheremet about his book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. You can read Part 1 here.

He keeps coming back to a character’s taking moral judgement into his own hands to commit murder, most recently this year in “Irrational Man.” What do you think this idea of literally getting away with murder is so resonant with him?

I think the fixation began with Woody’s desire to show death and evil as realistically as possible, and Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal (Crimes And Misdemeanors) is, perhaps, the most realistic killer captured on film. In short, it is obvious that the number of murders (usually unsolved) far outnumber the confessors- meaning, guilt is a malleable thing, and can be siphoned off for one’s own uses and rationalized away. Art has rarely shown this (especially not well), and the biggest example that we have of murder and guilt in the arts is Crime And Punishment. This film is an inversion of that, and even though Cassandra’s Dream does show guilt eating away at things to the point of destruction, even that is treated in a way that basks in its own inversions and exploits the viewer’s sense of complacency.

Bergman and Fellini are often mentioned as clear influences on Allen. Who else would you add to that list? And which current directors most look to him as an influence?

Bergman, Fellini, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, Bob Hope (especially the persona), and Buster Keaton all had their place. I probably would not add much to the list of artistic influences. As for the work that’s been influenced by Woody, there is- literally- all of the ‘city’ rom-coms from the 1980s-90s, to shows like Sex And The City, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (his best film, in fact) and- I’d wager- the majority of films that try to put romance front and center as a ‘serious’ topic. I think the majority of these attempts failed, however, partly because so many fans take works like Manhattan and Annie Hall at face value and don’t recognize how so many of their illusions are being skewered.

Which is his most under-appreciated film?

It’s a tie between Stardust Memories (one of the 10 or 20 greatest films ever made) and Another Woman. Stardust Memories, in particular, has been seen as an ‘attack’ on Allen’s films, which is both ridiculous and irrelevant. In fact, it is one of the deepest comments on art and human relationships that I’ve ever seen, from the illusory ending of the ‘inner’ film, to the way that Sandy- despite being neurotic and the like- is both wanted and demanded by thousands of others not necessarily for his fame and money, but because he is a complete person. He simply knows HOW to create and retain a measure of health and self-purpose that the others do not. Yet his flaws are front and center, too, even as the film ends on a positive note: that all of these conflicts, from Sandy’s fears, to his fans’ neediness, are self-made, and immaterial in the end. In short, no one escape’s Woody’s eye…not even great artists, as Sandy apparently is. It is simply wrong, factually, to call Stardust Memories dour. And it has more a ‘happy’ ending. It is an ennobling one.

Is “Radio Days” is most autobiographical? Or “Annie Hall?”

Probably neither. Radio Days captures the spirit of what Allen has gone through and valued, but not necessarily the specifics. Annie Hall has small parts of his relationships and upbringing, but that’s about it. Stardust Memories and Interiors have elements of his life with Louise Lasser, and Husbands And Wives is viewed- incorrectly- as a kind of corollary to his relationship with Mia Farrow. It’s hard to get an artist’s “real life” from his work of art, unless one is dealing with a memoir. But you get much more than that: you get an artist’s INNER life, which is necessarily richer than the details. It’s not the details, per se; it is the REACTION to these details and how they’re interpreted and re-interpreted that matters most.

You say that with “Mighty Aphrodite” Allen stepped “outside his comforts.” What was different with this film?


It featured a number of self-conscious changes/additions. The ridiculous use of the Greek chorus might have an analogue with his skewering of the Russian literary classics in Love And Death, but while the earlier film was all gags, there are a number of truly serious and poetic moments in Mighty Aphrodite. For example, Michael Rappaport’s character is probably the dumbest character he’s had to this point- and while Cheech (Bullets Over Broadway) was a thug, he was an intelligent one. By contrast, Michael Rappaport plays an idiot that, instead of merely being forced into the role of a pure idiot, is fleshed out by whatever means possible for such a limited human being. Thus, when Mia Sorvino is having dinner with Rappaport, you see just how little the two can talk about, and how little- by extension- most people really have in their own relationships, built, as they are, upon things that don’t really last. And Rappaport, on his end, delivers a wonderful little monologue about a ‘dream’ he has- to be dropped naked into the middle of the snow by a bird. No matter how comic it is, there is also something knowing about the scene, too- that these are the limits for so many people, anyway, and that this is the way they create and retain meaning. In short, characters get precisely what they deserve: criticism, prodding, but also the opportunity to show off their own depths, if in fact they are available.

Which is your favorite score in his films?

I’ve always been partial to the music in Hannah And Her Sisters and Radio Days. The latter probably has Allen’s best use of music, while Hannah does interesting things with song titles and lyrics that often go at odds with what’s on the screen- as if Allen means something other than what he shows.

What do you want him to do that he has not done so far?

At this point, I’d want him to simply rest. He’s done more great work than almost any other filmmaker in cinematic history. The longer that he attempts to draw his material past the point of his own talent, the more filler he’ll be responsible for. If his last film were 2007’s stellar Cassandra’s Dream, we would all be tantalized with ‘What’s next?’ and hope that he’ll continue. Instead, we had the question answered in a way that will simply not matter a half century from now. On the other hand, I don’t really care, personally. Again: he’s done great work. He has certainly earned the right to waste people’s time so that he could pass the time in old age. Let him do what he feels he must.

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