Category Archives: DVD-Bluray

Because sometimes a movie I missed on the big screen can look just as good (or terrible) from the comfort of my living room. [Hey, you try living in a city that releases an average of 900-plus films a year!]

On the 30th Anniversary of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… Country: USA. Director: Rob Reiner. Screenwriter: Nora Ephron. Language: English. Cast: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan,, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Harley Jean Kozak, Steven Ford, Lisa Jane Persky. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rating: CLASSIC.

Jane Austen once wrote how difficult it is for a man and a woman to establish a relationship not based in sex with her timeless classic Pride and Prejudice. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, or plain skipped every literary assignment you were given in high school, you’ll definitely know at least the bare-bones premise of the story and the development of its characters who for the most part remain blind around the fact that they love each other.

Flash-forward almost two centuries later and Nora Ephron, an author known for her acerbic, razor-sharp wit, developed, in conjunction with director Rob Reiner, a movie based on themselves to a degree (even when neither of them had been in a relationship with each other, which makes me wonder how that would have ended). The result… well… it’s made cinema history, thirty years later, as it gets re-released to either new audiences who might walk into theaters and watch it out of hearsay or moviegoers suffering from a case of nostalgia who, like me, saw it when it came out on cable in 1990, and want a shot at experiencing it — love in New York! oh, so romantic — on the big screen.

Who would have thought that this little movie which was a surprise hit back when and would have garnered more had it been considered for Oscar nominated performances by its two leads (who anchor the movie with their chemistry and those lines written by Ephron), would by now have entered our lexicon with that the line, “I’ll have what she’s having?” If only anyone knew back then, what comedic material they had in their hands. This is why you owe it to yourself to experience this movie. Rent it, buy it, or go check it out again in any retrospective near you. It’s that good of a film, you can watch it over and over and the entire film feels fresh and up to date. Much of what was true then rings true now, as men and women continue to circle each other and attempt relationships with each other.

[Heck, entire series have been created based on this “let’s be friends only” rule. Most of “Friends” was angled at this type of dynamics, and “Seinfeld” offered yet another example of a woman and a man being friends with no interest in each other whatsoever. “Sex and the City” brought this setup to the late 90s and the start of the new millennium, and “Will & Grace” took it a whole other direction by flipping sexuality and establishing a solid friendship with hints of sexual tension not just in its two main leads (Will and Grace) but in its two other leads (Jack and Karen).]

In short, When Harry Met Sally is timeless and the best movie Woody Allen never made (although it does bear some slight relation to Allen’s Annie Hall). With not only Carrie Fisher and the criminally underrated Bruno Kirby on board to produce a solid foursome, but also, as I mentioned earlier, the brilliance of New York City a its own character, to provide ample scenery for the clueless couple at the center to fall in love. And with a killer view of the Empire State Building (as seen in Harry’s character’s loft apartment), or with those walks both Harry and Sally take throughout the Upper West and Central Park, who wouldn’t want to meet someone and fall in love?

ON DVD: THERAPY FOR A VAMPIRE

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Sometimes you have to switch your brain to off and let the images fly across your TV. In this case, I rented a little Austrian movie I’d missed earlier in the year because it played for only one week at the Landmark and was gone — not even to second-run theaters like Cinema Village or perhaps Village East. If you like vampire flicks, this one may be for you: imagine that you’re Sigmund Freud, world-re known psychoanalyst, and in walks a rather elegant man of the exotic, eastern European name of Count Geza von Közsnöm (Tobias Moretti, essaying a sexier take on VIncent Price’s angular visage), and he has a story to tell you. You see, he’s lost his forever beloved Nadila (watch how he levitates in ecstasy at the sheer mention of her name!) and he’s, well, in pain. Pain mostly because he’s married to a woman he doesn’t love but must bear with — the Countess, a woman of a ferocious temper(and severe Louise Brooks bob) who trashes everything involving a mirror because she, as a vampire and other-kin, can’t see her reflection. Woes for the undead, perhaps? Freud, not knowing who he’s dealing with, comes up with a perfect solution: there is an artist who can paint a person’s likeness to such extent that it’s as if they were seeing into a mirror.

The artist in question is Viktor (Dominic Oley) and his girlfriend Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan) who engage in a lot of arguments because he keeps painting her as a Garbo-esque blond when in fact she’s a brunette. [I would have chosen Harlowesque, but Ivancan’s features are not as round as the real Harlow, but closer to the Garbo’s more angular ones. If anything she has a slight resemblance to Anny Ondra, one of Hitchcock’s first blondes.] Anyway, their relationship is tepid at best and well, works best when they’re apart. Viktor gets hired to paint the Countess’ portrait and the Count, upon seeing Lucy, realizes she is the woman of his past, and courts her. I’m not going to say what happens next, but if you’ve seen the type of crazy the screwball genre can produce, you’ll probably guess the several weird left turns this story takes. Therapy for a Vampire doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before, and it’s only middling as a comedy. The only standout I would say is that of the actress playing the Countess — Jeanette Hain. For a woman ages undead, she’s clearly out for blood and guts and manages to walk away with the entire movie — and a new picture.






ON DVD: LOLO

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

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Julie Delpy  must have had the 60s in mind when she was creating her latest movie, Lolo, which hit Rendezvous with French Cinema last March and went on to a middling, limited release. From the opening sequence, featuring a song by Andy Wiliams (Music to Watch Girls By) that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in a Doris Day comedy, I was expecting the sort of sexual picaresque that would successfully blend 60s sensibilities with 10s awareness. Surprising, given the fact that Delpy has created one of the most complex female characters in the last 20 years featured in three interrelated movies, that her Lolo manages to be something of a deflated mess. The concept is, a woman and her friend (Delpy and Karin Vlaard, the latter who gets some really wicked lines in the movie) travel to some ultra provincial spa to get away from it all. In that trip she bemoans she would like to meet a man. Cut to them actually meeting that man, in the form not of a suave hero a la Jean Dujardin but of comedian Dany Boon who seems up for anything. Delpy isn;t exactly impressed, but eventually thaws to Boon. Except that she;s got a son at home. the Titular Lolo. And Lolo doesn’t want Boon anywhere near his mother. Guess what happens next.

This is the kind of comedy that was rampant all over the 30s and 40s — classic screwball if you will, complete with screeching heroines, clueless heroes, and mischievous in-betweens. By 2016, Lolo as a story, as a movie, and as a whole, is a massive, unbelievable misfire on all accounts. How can Delpy write her own character as a woman so clueless? Did she really think this farce was to be taken seriously? She puts poor Boon into a car wash of humiliations as if it were a test to see if he was the reincarnation of Jonah in the belly of the whale. By the end, when all was said and done, I would have preferred he leave the picture with half of his dignity left. It’s just all completely unrealistic. And while I don’t mind a bit of fantasy and escapism, at least have the characters act somewhat credible.






TWO MOVIES ABOUT GRIEF: DEMOLITION AND JOSHY

Two movies that focus on the topic of grief have just come out on DVD and streaming platforms and while they couldn’t be more dissimilar, both share the same concept of internalization of pain and loss that eventually finds its way to the surface, albeit by very different avenues.

Demolition

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Demolition, the latest film by Dallas Buyer’s Club and Rush director Jean Marc Vallee depicts mourning as a thing to at first suppress (although the pain is never quite buried). Jake Gyllenhaal essays yet another complicated character as Davis, a man who in the very first scene of the movie loses his wife in a shocking way. He then starts to feel not pain — there is a scene early in the movie where Davis is at his wife’s wake and he’s in front of a mirror attempting to induce himself into grief. We later learn there was a lot of anger at the wife that was left unresolved, and a series of letters written to a department that handles complaints for broken or malfunctioning vending machines attracts the attention of Karen (Naomi Watts) who literally becomes the voice on the other line and the recipient and correspondent for Davis’ ongoing outburst of confessions. That these two should meet is the conceit of the story, but when it happens, sparks don’t immediately fly. Karen, it seems, comes with her own set of baggage — a somewhat controlling boyfriend and a son who is discovering his nascent gayness and to whom Davis gravitates (albeit gradually) as a potential father figure.

A lot of (literal) physical demolition happens throughout the movie and it involves Davis, somehow reenacting the moment his own marriage failed, or perhaps trying to feel into the faulty wiring that made his marriage such a dysfunctional mess. I felt more pain during the moment the home — a beautiful, cold, grey monument to contemporary architecture — gets the hammer. I guess it’s what suffering in the 21st Century has to be — something visceral where the guts get removed and a whole lot of spillage has to happen in order to magnify the inner angst of the hero. It’s “suffering,” man! We get it. “I’m in pain; this is a metaphor for pain! The gimmick (compared to Davis’ confessions and later involvement with Watts’ character) seems to skirt around the edges of the real drama involving his in-laws (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper), and one that Davis tends to avoid and prolong as much as he needs to. I guess it’s that long, torturous road to the inevitable moment where Things Come Out in the Open.  When it actually happens, it’s actually something of an anticlimactic moment, but I’ll let you decide.

Demolition is what I would call, a director’s personal movie; one he wanted to make regardless if it made money or sense; as long as it was the story he wanted to tell, that’s all that mattered. It takes a long time to pick up after its opening sequence, and even longer to get there, and in the interim, there is Jake Gylenhaal, doing yet another solid performance as a man slowly dragged to a feeling point.

 

Joshy

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Joshy also tackles the notion of grief but does so in a completely different way, and often with mixed results. Where Demolition goes for the internal and repression of pain, Joshy takes the intervention route. Personally, I tend to cringe at an intervention-type movie (and my recent review of the summer indie movie The Intervention is not exactly praise), because it’s been done so many times before and other than provide a cute study of shallow people getting to know each other at a shallow level, there is really no other reason to do such a get together. And while that is exactly what happens throughout the movie, it does manage to extract several rather comedic scenes bordering on the surreal and even nihilistic.

Following the sudden death of his girlfriend Rachel (Alison Brie) Joshy (Thomas Middleditch) and some friends organize a get-together in Ojai to what would have been his bachelor party. However, instead of coming together to mourn, they’ve come together to get their party on because who wants to suffer, right? In the middle of their weekend of debauchery they do whatever boys do on a night together short of wrecking the entire house — go to bars, meet women, one of them a cute thing (Jenny Slade) who clearly has a crush on Joshy’s friend Ari (Adam Pally). Other seemingly random events follow, often with the weird ease of jazz transitions, One hilarious sequence has a creepy Alex Ross Perry (who directed Listen Up, Philip and Queen of Earth), one of Joshy’s friends who is extremely neurotic about, oh, pretty much everything, hitting on and then doing something rather creepy to Audrey Plaza. A second comes much later when Lauren Weedman shows up as a spiritual sex worker of sorts; her lines alone are the price of admission. And then, suddenly and before you know it, Joshy becomes an entirely different movie — and I mean that in a good way.

I’m going to call Joshy a messy impromptu comedy for the way it lets its characters mingle and feel each other out, often with weird but funny results. Grief is never far from the surface of the picture; after all, the guy just lost his girlfriend, but instead of focusing on this in a way that, let’s say, Woody Allen might have, it decides to let Joshy come to his own moment while engaging in some healthy distractions along the way. If it doesn’t exactly patch things together, that’s the point — sometimes stuff happens and others may or may not want to accept it. There is a weird similarity on how things play out when the crucial scenes arrive in both Demolition and Joshy, which in a way, while not quite operatic as perhaps one would like, just serves to show how awkward relations are per se.






ON DVD: THE DANISH GIRL

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

i’m going to have to admit to a pesky little secret. I’m actually glad Nicole Kidman — for all of the excellent actress she can be when she desires — didn’t get the part of Lili Elbe when she was lobbying for it a little under ten years ago. I recall after seeing her in Manderley she had become attached to the project where it languished and floated in the background until it seemed to fade away . . . that is, until it took on a new life under Eddie Redmayne and the rest as you have seen, is history. It’s not that I don’t believe she would have played the part well; I just think it was the entirely wrong project for someone of her essence.

Enter Tom Hooper, Redmayne, and Alicia Vikander, hot of a gaggle of good movies that gave her the clout to get the part of Gerda Wegener, the artist-wife of Einar Wegener who inadvertently introduces him to not just donning female clothes and posing, but discovering a greater reality — that he, in fact, was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

The Danish Girl comes at a time where trans-visibility is making its mark in society and tells the story of the first recorded male to female transgender person with grace and sensitivity without becoming too melodramatic. On that note and many others, I would say it does a good job and there are a couple of rather striking sequences, such as when in search for a therapist to treat his ‘malady’ Einar almost finds himself committed against his will and uniformly considered to be insane and a pervert. Or the smaller moments when Einar, as Lili Elbe, smiles and lifts up her arms to cover up her chest in a coy pose, you can forget that it’s Redmayne that you’re seeing and realize this is a woman on the verge of being a fully realized creature.

Alicia Vikander, however, to me, makes the movie come alive. Much of what transpires gets displayed on her face and her character’s art: the subtle expressions of confusion and playfulness that she experiences when Einar, after attending a party, reveals he’s wearing her undergarments, for example. To that, followed by their frequent incursions into stores in what now is known as cosplay. Clearly Gerda could not know what was brewing undrneath the surface, and when she realizes just what’s happening . . . well.

There are portions of the movie that seem a little tacked on for an enhanced dramatic story, such as Lili’s fumbled romantic encounters with a male friend (Ben Whishaw) but other than that The Danish Girl as a whole is a well crafted vision of what could have been the real Llii Elbe as recorded (some events are compressed to create a more fluid storyline and technically, Gerda did leave her husband years before his transition although they remained in contact and maybe initiated a lesbian relationship, a thing left unexplored in the final film version), and I believe this movie will serve as a study for future generations on how transgender men and women would have been seen at the dawn of the XXth century.






ON DVD: CREED

Creed:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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If anyone would have ever told me that there was yet another story waiting in the wings within the Rocky Balboa saga I would have laughed out myself into a coma for reasons that are more than obvious. How many times did Rocky have to fight against an unbeatable opponent? All that was left was placing him in the ring against a cyborg, or an alien or worse, a spoof (which actually, did happen: I can’t but think Grudge Match was in some way a not so subtle jab at all the Rocky movies gone bad). No, by the end of 2015, the Rocky Balboa story had come to a close, end of the line, time’s up, shop is closing. EVERYTHING MUST GO.

But . . . of course, there is always a but. It’s a “but” that was probably born in the seeds of Rocky V. Somewhere the spirit of Sage Stallone lives on this film, but now the part of the surrogate son has been taken over by a one-time rival and later friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, a young man rescued from a life of possible crime and delinquency who learns of his origins and now watches his father on YouTube clips. When he leaves what seems to be a promising job in an LA firm to come all the way back East to where it all started — Philadelphia — we can sense a hunger in Adonis. He wants this, to get in a ring and fight . . . but he needs the guidance to get there. And that man is none other than Rocky Balboa.

But no, this is not another Rocky gets in the ring and fights movie — far from it, Rocky, now owner of the restaurant that memorializes his wife Adrian’s name (she has died of cancer, off-screen), is far from the passionate man he once was. He’s become a much more sedate person, speaking in quiet tones, and can offer but a meal to this kid who wants his help in training him. It’s only after some serious thought in a touching scene where Rocky visits Adrian’s grave that he relents to become the young Adonis’ mentor while keeping his identity a secret from other boxing gym owners who may want to jump in on the money bandwagon and make a quick buck off of associating with Adonis.

At its heart, Ryan Coogler has reinvented a tired old rags to richers / ignominy to fame story that made Rocky a household winner in 1976 and spun it into powerful life with some truly ferocious direction and acting from both Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone that has to be seen. Jordan, much like the younger Rocky, is a reserved mask of tenacity hiding a bruised soul that needs to forgive himself before he can come into his own in the ring. Stallone now steps into the role made famous by Burgess Meredith, and I will say, his scenes are handled almost delicately — with measured weight, dignity, and the right amount of subtle pathos. Stallone’s Balboa is a tired man hiding a deeper secret, who still can “put ’em up and show a kid how it’s done. It’s his most elegant performance to date after years and years of playing uber-macho characters. Tessa Thompson is also a standout as Bianca, the girl Adonis falls for who has some issues of her own. Someone give this actress a  movie already–she’s been oozing presence now for three standout pictures starting with Dear White People and Selma.

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Creed is still a Rocky film at heart and isn’t afraid to show its somewhat manipulative streak, but you can forgive it for being so because of the near-perfect direction Ryan Coogler gets out of its story and performers. If you thought seeing Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was the emotional peak of a man ready to get dirty, you need to see Creed’s biker sequence. It’s as operatic as anything committed to screen.

And shame on the Academy for shutting Creed out of directing, movie, and actor slots. Shame, shame, shame.

 

 

 

 






ON DVD: A BRIEF VACATION (1973)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.

The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.

This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.

Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.

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The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.

It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.






DVD REVIEW: KAHAANI (2012)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.
Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.

The cold, empty void that follows prestige and Oscar picture overload — a season that typically ends at the end of January, when I’m usually caught up with whatever I haven’t seen already — brings a sort of lethargy. If it weren’t for the sheer level of art-house and independent theaters in NYC who open the year with a handful of new releases and smaller festivals — New York Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, and Film Comments Selects, to name three — there would be precious little for me to watch.

Fortunately, having friends who also watch foreign and indies on VOD or iTunes helps, and as of late I’ve been introduced to a plethora of Bollywood movies that I’d like to share with you.

The first of the trio is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), a film that is as near as perfect as a thriller as I’ve come across. To put it mildly, Hitchcock himself would be proud of this accomplished, fascinating, richly plotted movie. Kahaani opens with a masterful sequence pregnant with pure suspense that starts in a lab where a scientist employs a lethal gas to kill mice and cuts to a scene in a subway train in Kolkata where people meet the same fate in a terrorist attack that recalls the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995.

Kahaani fast-forwards to two years later. Vidya Bagchi, an IT consultant and wife of an IT Specialist, Arnab Bagchi, who was contracted by the National Data Center and of whom she has not heard of, has arrived from London with the intent to find him. Despite her inquiries, the Kolkata police seems rather inept or passive to help, but a rookie cop, Satyoshi Sinya (Parambrata Chatterjee), sympathizes with her situation and agrees to assist her. Soon enough, Vidya and Rana learn that no one has heard of Vidya’s husband at the NDC, nor the hotel where he claimed to stay via photos sent to her phone. In the meantime, the head of the HR department makes a discovery and informs Vidya that Arnab resembled Milan Damji, an NDC employee who now has a restricted file. Parallel to this, a shlubby man who works at a claims department gets a text to eliminate someone. That someone is the very head of the NDC HR department.

Hitchcock once (loosely, in a sequence of quotes) expressed that he didn’t care if his story didn’t exactly tie in perfectly but managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. Kahaani offers a riveting conspiracy story in which a pregnant woman is at the center, inside a circle of danger that draws closer and closer and in a key scene, leads to an intermission literally on a breathtaking cliffhanger that had me screaming. I can’t imagine any thriller as of late that has managed to cause this effect on me in since the shocking revelation of Gone Girl and then its blood drenched sex scene.

One of the many surprises I discovered in watching Kahaani was that it offered me the opportunity to witness the city as a living participant other than as a postcard. Ghosh clearly mapped his locations out well and used them and the city’s religious festivities to the story’s advantage:  early in the movie Vidya admires some women in startling red and white saris. These saris are used for the Durga Puja celebration; later on, she will herself wear one in a nail-biting sequence filled with vivid red symbolism.

Vidya Balan acquits herself in the role of Hitchcock blonde/woman in peril, but who is also as astute as the men around her, able to hack computers and outsmart bandits. She’s given solid support by Parambrata Chatterjee as the young cop who has a crush on her, and especially by the compelling, super-creepy performance of Saswatta Chatterjee as a man no one should ever want to cross paths with. Again, I know I said it before, but this is a superb thriller with many twists and turns, and with a monster of a denouement that will make you think for days.

Below is a trailer for Kahaani:






New on DVD: Irrational Man

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Emma Stone falls head over heels for Joaquin Phoenix in Woody Allen’s clunker Irrational Man, now on DVD.

Hooked on Film rating:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

I’m going to go out on a limb and defend Woody Allen for having made this oddity of a film rife with potential but flat as Kansas in tone and overall delivery. Allen makes a movie a year, and has done so since the late 60s. Ever since he gained status as the giant he became in the late 70s and throughout most of the 80s, the quality of his output starting with 1993 (a year Allen would rather forget) has slowly morphed into what I call diminishing returns that on occasion hold a spark of the wit and cynicism the man’s movies once held. This is the man who, ever since Match Point –widely considered to be his comeback film after having been all but forgotten (even as he relentlessly forged ahead, movie after movie)– went back into something of a valley of creativity peaking with the sublime Blue Jasmine (and gave Cate Blanchett another gold statue while also bestowing Sally Hawkins her first nomination for supporting actress). Magic in the Moonlight was a delightful farce that revisited, to a degree, the magician sequence from Shadows and Fog, and not only gave Emma Stone and Colin Firth well-rounded, amoral characters, but also gave veteran British actress Eileen Atkins a juicy part to sink her teeth in, and boy, did she.

There’s the often quoted saying that after a while writers tend to tell the same story over and over again. That isn’t such a bad idea, but when it becomes so self-referential as to resemble parody, then it poses a problem of either storytelling or focus. But far from me to tell Allen how to direct and write a film. The man has, as I said, made a film for nearly every year since 1970 and has himself stated profound dissatisfaction with their results.

Irrational Man falls under this category, and I’ll tell you why. In this movie Allen presents Abe Lucas (who is almost always referred to by first and last name), a philosophy professor who seems to have lost his sense of purpose in the world. When he meets Jill Pollard, sparks don’t exactly fly, but she is smitten. Why, we don’t know. The movie won’t tell us, and here she begins to talk non-stop about Abe Lucas as if he were some sort of god that she’d encountered. While doing this, she estranges her boyfriend, but then again, I’d walk out of the beating of a dead horse, if at all to conserve the peace, and either do so permanently or let this folly play itself out and return once the crazy was back to normal.

Jill doesn’t return to normal. She and Abe initiate a relationship that seems as platonic as it s uncomfortable, and while he’s at it, he throws Heidegger, Dostoevsky, and other Allen go-to existentialists for good measure with the enthusiasm of a man wishing death would just come and take him away. Jill, of course, fawns.

And then — the moment the plot turns into high gear. I think. Jill overhears a conversation at a restaurant and has Abe come over to her side to listen in. The people in the booth behind them –a woman and some friends — are discussing a nasty custody battle. It’s here that Abe’s light-bulb goes off, and he gets an idea as dark as anything presented on Discovery ID. He decides to kill the judge that would rule against the woman.

This in itself under a director more accustomed to suspense stories would have made an excellent story about moral choices and people who look into the abyss. The problem with Allen presenting it, is that he continually leaves his story as casual as a car commercial featuring cool people. His constant use of Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” seems to punctuate this off-handedness. It’s appropriate during the opening part of the movie, but like a joke that gets told too often, it runs itself to the ground or morphs into a swinging cocktail party. And then, that voice-over narration. Talk about committing an act of self-mutilation: that in itself becomes a fatal blow to the movie. Car crash. Bodies all over the place. Bring in the yellow tape; we have a crime scene masquerading as a comedy-thriller. The part of Annie Hall Allen (wisely) left out. Remember that?

And while I’m at it, to call the second and last act Hitchcockian (as some reviewers have) is an insult to the Master of Suspense. You just don’t care enough for any of the characters and there is no sense of dread, of a darkening of the plot, of a man even aware that he is having a repressed breakdown and will rationalize taking a few with him. And on and on, Ramsey Lewis winks at the audience. The audience? Not so much.

Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.
Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man.

Irrational Man is a colossal misfire that never  takes off or develop as a whole. Its schizophrenic scenario makes it seem like a disjointed, haphazard puzzle where all the pieces are there, but neither make an effort to try and fit.  Joaquin Phoenix is okay in his miserable character — at least he makes the part of Abe Lucas his own, kind of. Emma Stone and Parker Posey? They fare much worse, delivering two egregiously wasted  performances. They are interchangeable mannequins, stand-ins for the small roles that Shelly DuVall, Janet Margolis, and Carol Kane played in Annie Hall as women fawning head over heels over Allen the actor/director (who could be less interested in them, but morbidly fascinated with his own crumbling ruminations). Yes, they serve a purpose in the story, but seeing how Irrational Man took a backseat from entertaining to being on autopilot, the only question remains, what for? That, I will state, is a mystery this bland movie will not answer. Stick with Match Point for a good mystery. This, sadly, is throwable, recycled, half-baked, late-period Allen juggling for a plot.