Saturday, 31 December 2011

Movie Review - You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Familiar Bright Master
Rating : 7/10
Reviewer: Arunabha Sengupta

Even as the maestro struggles to slow down the inevitable trudge towards old age and oblivion, an addict cannot but perk up at the thought of a Woody Allen flick – especially one dealing with the intricacies of relationships.
Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanours – in his heydays, late seventies to early nineties, the celebrated filmmaker gave us some of the most poignant portrayals of the maze of emotional connections so common in urban life.
After a handful of pitiable digressions into inanity thereafter (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Cassandra's Dream), the veteran filmmaker did more than hint at a glorious second coming with the classy Match Point and the sparkling Vicky Christina Barcelona

With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, he attempts to recreate the magic of his earlier ‘80s experiments with complicated ebb and flow of passion, compromise and betrayal.
Does he succeed?
Ingredient-wise, YWMATDS has all that is required for a Woody Allen relationship caper. Well ... almost.
There is a stellar cast – including some very big names in Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas. There is a more than talented collection of actors – Gemma Jones in a major role, Freida Pinto and Lucy Punch in great cameos, along with the delightful appearance of Anupam Kher in a couple of scenes.
The storyline has enough drama, deceit, dilemma and doubt to keep hardcore Woody fans engaged and enthralled. It is almost as if the entire ensemble of Hannah and her Sisters has been fast forwarded into the noughties of the next century. All these make for a tailored-to-perfection Woody suit for the fan, but for a couple of missing threads.
The movie starts with the life of the demented and disturbed Helena (Jones) seeking solace in shady clairvoyance after the break up of her forty-year marriage.

The focus smoothly embraces the troubled relationship of Helena's daughter Sally (Watts) –  an art gallery executive, and her husband, the struggling novelist Roy (Josh Brolin). We witness the tottering balance of the two as they do their precarious synchronised walk on the narrow rope of fidelity. Sally develops feelings for her suave and successful boss Greg (Banderas). Roy – wrestling with anxiety over the fate of his new novel – succumbs to the sultry charms of the Indian girl across the street, Dia (Pinto), who takes off her clothes with metronomic regularity and without too much deliberation about lowering the blinds.
There is also the additional parallel plot of a ridiculous attempt by Helena's ex-husband Alfie (Hopkins) to regain his youth by marrying a cockney-spouting wannabe actress Charmaine (Punch).
In between the tangles of ardour and adultery, is etched a queer little intricacy involving poker, publishing and plagiarism.
The questions raised and the human frailty displayed amidst flashes of goodness and trust are reminiscent of vintage Woody. The performances are commendable.
Gemma Jones – more universally popular as Madam Pomfrey of the Harry Potter films – excels as Helena, an experience-weary divorcee leaning on pseudoscience for sustenance, superstitious and gullible, yet irritatingly interfering. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr., The Ring) gives a controlled performance, and somehow manages to look stunning even during scenes depicting most ugly altercations. Antonio Banderas is restrained, dapper and underplayed. Anthony Hopkins as usual does a great job as the age-battling, delusional and – ultimately – cheated husband. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) in her brief role looks sexy and exudes promise. However, the best performance is undoubtedly that of Lucy Punch (Bad Teacher) as the fortune hunting ex-escort, with her unabashed colloquial delivery and brilliant rendition of confused self-justification when caught red-handed in her act of infidelity. 

The background chore, as in any Allen film, is peerless, with a plot-relevant Schubert used to excellent effect. The cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond does for London what many of Allen's previous films did for New York – an eloquent ode to the city. In spite of the grey skies normally associated with the metropolis, it is shot almost entirely in bright sunshine - which to some extent mellows the cruelty of the characters to themselves and each other.
However, if the film falls short of the demanding level of Woody Allen's illustrious past, it can be attributed to a couple of incompatible ingredients.
Josh Brolin, overweight and wooden, is unconvincing as the author-husband. It is difficult to imagine such an uncouth voyeur ending up with sympathy and reciprocation from a much younger girl after openly admitting to getting a hard on by watching her undress from his window across the street. Even the gifted ability to recognise a far-off refrain faintly trickling through the same window seems too inadequate a virtue for a sensuous and engaged Freida Pinto to fall for him. Whereas Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters had played a similar role with élan, convincingly devious and yet with enough pathos to extract a semblance of sympathy from the audience, Brolin seems more likely to generate apathy and irritation.
The other shortcoming from a Woody Allen point of view is the absence of the man himself. Earlier, when such complicated equations were played across the screen, Woody would flit across again and again as a pivotal element, a neurotic and often pathetic character, adding a sublime element of comedy in the fray, moving the audience to both pity and laughter through his failed attempts at romance, mania about illness, raising comical yet poignant questions about death and god. It is only in one movie – the superb Bullets over Broadway – that Allen's curious shoes have been adequately filled by someone else, by virtue of a scintillating performance by John Cusack.
However, in the absence of the hilarity and pathos of a signature Woody character, the film is not as funny as one would expect of an Allen offering. There are punch lines and humorous situations, most of them coming from the irresistible Lucy Punch – but a devoted fan of the film maker will leave the show with a tinge of disappointment.
It is probably due to the advancing years of the thespian that the movie deals with the themes of aging and absence of god, apart from the pet Woody topics of betrayal and justice. The message that one can decipher at the end of it all is a reflection of the times – maybe even eternal. Is it a blessing to live in the world of illusion – without the rational intelligence that slices through the pretentions of society and lays bare the most uncomfortable truths?
Perhaps it is the treatment of this one question which makes it more than a worthwhile watch.

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