Monday 3 October 2016

Woody Allen, Amanda Knox and Macbeth: Your Week In Film (October 3-9)

Sleeper hit: Woody gets the boxset treatment in Six Films

DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV highlights for the next seven days...

Crisis In Six Scenes (Amazon Prime Video), Woody Allen's first TV gig in 20+ years, is a long way from the writer/director/actor's best work but he is nevertheless enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the ripe old age of 80. Allen's most recent film CafĂ© Society - a smart and bittersweet romantic comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart - was a real return to form after a couple of post-Blue Jasmine duds, and then there's Woody Allen: Six Films - 1971-1978 (Blu-ray) WWWW, the first in a series of three boxsets devoted to collecting a number - but not all - of his older movies.

I don't know whether there were problems obtaining the rights to What's Up, Tiger Lily? and Take The Money And Run (Allen's first two films as director) but this collection kicks off with Bananas (1971), his third outing. Allen is Fielding Mellish, a disaffected college drop-out who gives up his job as a tester of ridiculous products and ends up becoming the president of fictitious South American country, San Marcos. Some of the humour hasn't aged well (with the benefit of hindsight a gag about "advanced child molesting" seems especially egregious) and it is in reality just a series of sketches and sight gags married to a free-wheeling plot. But, with its satirical edge, references to philosophy and sexual politics, plus some clever set-pieces (getting real-life sports reporter Howard Cosell to top and tail the film was a stroke of genius), there are clear hints of just what Allen was capable of and where he was heading. 

His work grew more sophisticated with 1972's inventive Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (Gene Wilder's love affair with a sheep the highlight of seven amusing vignettes), outrageous sci-fi spoof Sleeper (1973), and Love And Death (1975), in which Allen drove a coach and horses through Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to hilarious effect. This early period culminated in the sublime Annie Hall (1977) - probably still the director's best-loved movie. In a little over 90 breathless minutes, Allen hits us with everything he's got - flashbacks, subtitles, fourth-wall breaking, animation, a cameo from Marshall McLuhan - and it's a wild, wonderful ride full of memorable lines ("La-di-da" is the least of it) and more belly laughs than some comedians manage in a lifetime. It wouldn't be nearly as good without Diane Keaton as the spoiled, mercurial and somehow utterly magnetic titular character though. 

The set comes to a dark and downbeat full stop with Interiors (1978), a fulsome homage to the work of Ingmar Bergman and one of Allen's only out-and-out dramas. Three sisters (Keaton, Kristin Griffith and Mary Beth Hurt) battle to keep their family together after the trio's father (EG Marshall) walks out on their mentally ill mother (Geraldine Page). It's a flawed but emotionally powerful work in which only Page's Eve is genuinely sympathetic. Everyone else (white, wealthy, privileged, arty) seems to suffer from a serious case of First World Problems, be it writer's block, umbrage at hostile critics or a simple lack of creative talent.

Page was Oscar-nominated for the role and it is the rawness of her performance that elevates the material every time she is on screen and holds the film together. Seeing - and enjoying - Interiors again after 20-odd years made me wonder why Allen hasn't returned to the well of pure drama (maybe the travails of his real life are dramatic enough). A second boxset, featuring the likes of Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose, is promised for December.

Interior monologue: Geraldine Page is raw and powerful

Allen has endured more than his fair share of infamy in the last couple of decades but it's nothing compared to the subject of Netflix documentary Amanda Knox WWW. Knox is, of course, the young American woman twice convicted then acquitted of the 2007 Perugia murder of fellow exchange student Meredith Kercher, and whilst Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's talking heads-led film probably won't win any awards for style or originality it's a crucial and fascinating watch nonetheless. 

That's mainly because it features Knox talking, in depth, about the murder itself and its terrible impact on her and co-accused former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, but also because it makes you wonder how on Earth a case based on such flimsy evidence and near-as-damn-it forced confessions (Knox was subjected to a 53-hour interrogation by police, containing physical and verbal abuse) could ever have made it out of the starting gate. 

The filmmakers strike (fool's) gold in their interviews with the Kercher case's prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, a man who styled himself after Sherlock Holmes (even filmed ostentatiously smoking a pipe at the original trial) and was convinced of Knox and Sollecito's guilt, mainly because of what he decided was their "inappropriate behaviour" (also known as 'kissing') after the crime's discovery. If Mignini's contributions are infuriating and exasperating, they are small potatoes compared to those of Nick Pisa, a slimy Daily Mail 'journalist' who'd be expelled from the National Association of Gutter Press for his distinct lack of class. His series of salacious 'revelations' (also known as 'fiction') involving sex games gone wrong and even satanic rituals helped convict Knox and Sollecito in the court of public opinion. And it wasn't long before a real court followed suit, sending the pair to prison until they were freed on appeal four years later (turns out that DNA evidence wasn't just flimsy, it was hugely contaminated).

I'd have liked a bit more detail (what was it like for the pair in prison? How did their families cope?) but Amanda Knox is a powerful corrective to the tide of errant nonsense and calumny that still passes for serious comment about the case. Of course, it's easy for Brits like me to mock the Italian authorities and their lax investigative skills but cases such as those of Barry George and the Birmingham Six prove that miscarriages of justice have no borders.

Murder in mind: Amanda Knox was rightly acquitted  

Subscription service Mubi have really upped their game this year, no longer just screening a range of interesting or rare old films but offering a number of exclusives too. Baden Baden WW½ was only in UK cinemas a couple of weeks ago but has already surfaced on the online platform, along with two of writer/director Rachel Lang's short films, For You I Will Fight and White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep. All three feature the same character - Ana Och (SalomĂ© Richard) - a directionless young woman with a big heart, who flits from job to job, place to place and relationship to relationship, without ever really finding her niche in life. Richard is excellent as boyish every-girl Ana while Lang perfectly captures that 'what the bloody hell am I supposed to do now' moment of panic that hits post-teens when they realise adulthood might not be for them after all.   

The last 20 minutes of Macbeth (Wednesday 5th, 21:00, Film4) WWW are probably the most visually stunning of any film I've seen in the last couple of years, as Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane and Michael Fassbender's murderer king faces off against his nemesis Macduff. Elsewhere, Snowtown director Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Scottish play' is a broodingly gothic, brutal and nightmarish affair, buoyed by suitably intense performances from Fassbender, and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Kurzel has an interesting take on the central character - he isn't just an ambitious monster spurred on by a pushy wife - but a battle-weary warrior unhinged by the death of his young son. It's a nice twist but one that fails to humanise the character as much as the director would clearly like it to.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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