Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Woody Allen: The Magic Lantern (Midnight in Paris)

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
Sony Pictures Classics

One of the greatest living filmmakers in the world hits his peak this decade with a flawlessly magical gem which is pure cinema. Woody Allen has seen highs and lows in his fascinatingly potent career. Spanning from stand-up comic to intellectual slapstick helmer to award lauded serio-comic auteur to critically reviled has been only speaks volumes to his profound impact on American culture and the psyche of the world at large. His films are obsessive to the point of beauty, thematically repetitive to the point of genius, and centered on the one great subject since the Greeks, love, to the point of no return.

His heavy influences, Bergman and Fellini, remind us of the great generation he came from, and how much has been lost in the derelict years spiraling to now, where a shallow, shapeless piece of garbage like Todd Phillips' The Hangover Part 2 is the most popular movie in the nation. Allen's neurotic New Yorkers, transfixed by the illusion of love while trembling before the idea of God and eternity, have become a sub-genre, a refined style in and of themselves. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Midnight in Paris is a sublime work of art. Allen utilizes his old comic set up, the sensitive, self deprecating young artist with a partner that's all wrong for him ( a brilliant Owen Wilson, filling in for Allen, in his best performance, and a sly Rachel McAdams), casts them into one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, Paris, but then does something extraordinary. With his recent films, he would have just gone on in this vein, mining the ups and downs of modern love through an Allen glass darkly, surrounding them with temptations in the forms of characters. Instead, Allen looks to his past, especially his fanciful masterpieces The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice, and even farther back to his adolescent influences. Fellini's The White Sheik and Bergman's Hour of the Wolf come to mind.

Gil (Wilson) finds himself inexplicably transported to 1920's Paris, the world of his great literary idols, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein, as well as the great artists, Dali and Picasso. There, in the incandescent burn of yesteryear, he finds true love in the form of muse Adriana (an always radiant Marion Cotillard). Allen's seamless slipping from past to present, his incredible plot devices, and the sheer joy of life and art one feels as it all unfolds, affirms this as a major work, Allen's best since the misunderstood Celebrity. All of his films in the interim have been fascinating, from his slighter (Small Time Crooks and Whatever Works) to his powerhouses (Match Point, Cassandra's Dream and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to his most underrated (Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Melinda and Melinda) and everything in between. It has without a doubt been Allen's most unjustly maligned decade, and it may turn out in hindsight to be his greatest.

Master DP Darius Khondji was the impeccable choice to contrast two worlds: the harsh daylight of the present and the smoky amber of the past, recalling the look of Allen's 90s masterwork Bullets Over Broadway. The director's themes of love, humanity, fate, nostalgia and mortality have never been more poignant or powerful. The magic lantern handed down from Bergman has never shined brighter in Allen's hands. Midnight in Paris is one of the master's finest creations, the Allen film we've been waiting a decade for, no questions one of the best films of the year.

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