Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stroke of Midnight


After my regular theater conspired against me seeing Midnight in Paris last week, I used my recently-gained time off to go out of my way to rectify that particular situation. Once again my destination was the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, a mere twenty-five minute walk from my apartment. Because it doesn't play the blockbusters, it's not my usual film-going destination, but if I want to see an indie release and the big boys can't deliver, Coolidge hooks me up. I honestly didn't know going in that it would be worth it, however. I'm not so much a fan of Woody Allen's directing these days. While his early works are among the most heralded films in Hollywood, more recent releases have hardly made splashes, with even the well-regarded Vicky Cristina Barcelona over-hyped save for the stellar acting by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz and the beautiful Spanish setting. Even when his films have been critically acclaimed, they often don't attract nearly the attention from audiences that most Hall-of-Famers pick up. Sure, some of them make money, but when you consider that he puts out at least one movie a year, it's shocking how little overall attention his career actually gets. Part of that has to do with his public persona. I'm sorry, but there was no way the whole "breaking up with Mia Farrow and then marrying her adopted daughter" was ever going to take on a positive spin. Actors still seem to want to work with him, which is positive at least (but then again, some also want to work with a convicted child rapist, so there's your counterpoint); still, the idea of a "Woody Allen" picture can hardly be appealing these days since his name neither guarantees success nor publicity. But enough about box office grosses and paparazzi politics; Midnight has had almost no ill spoken of it, hence my desire to catch this before it completely slips my mind and I have to scrounge for it in three months on DVD.

It's gonna be a long night
Following her parents on a business trip to the capital of France, successful screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) travels along with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) to what he considers the greatest city on the planet. Wishing to avoid interacting with Inez's pompous friend Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil wanders the streets of Paris alone until he hinds himself lost. When the midnight clock strikes, he finds himself magically transported back in time to the 1920's, what he considers Paris' greatest era. Gil interacts with the famous artists who frequented the great city during that time, and the more often he visits the past, the less he wants to remain in the present, where he feels unwanted and under-appreciated by the people around him.

"Would you like a little more pretentious attitude with your Cabernet?"
The trailer for Midnight in Paris is a good example of one that doesn't do the parent product justice. While in the two minutes you're given to decide whether you want to see the film, Midnight comes off as unfunny, dull, confusing and perhaps a bit trite, certainly not the epitome of entertainment that the critics' circle would have you believe. What actually comes out is shockingly fun; not only is the dialogue clever and the story sound, but Allen really lets you see why he considers Paris to be such an amazing city. Many camera shots are beautifully realized, either allowing you to wonder at  the city's beautiful skyline or marvel at the maze of its enclosed streets. Allen doesn't let you get the idea that Paris is anything less than a MAGICAL city, and that means the human drama centering around the location's charismatic aura feel more honest and natural, not unlike Vicky Cristina Barcelona's love affair with Spain.

Yes, that's Allison Pill. Very different from her Scott Pilgrim role
One of the best aspects of Midnight is actually meeting the many writers and artists who Gil is inspired by on the big screen. From F. Scott and Zelda Firzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stall) and Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Gil is at first terrified of the implications that he has become trapped in the past, but eventually grows comfortable as he discovers that he is where he wanted to be all along. He's reliving a golden period in Paris' history, and we get to see the combined fruits of that labor. It helps that the actors convincingly portray the more characterized of these in the few scenes in which they appear. Though they may not be the most important part of Midnight, they are still an entertaining and charming element, crucial to the success of the picture.

Dammit, now I want to be there NOW
The acting present here is also better than you might initially think. I can't remember the last time I've been excited to see Owen Wilson in ANYTHING (just that it's been a LONG time...), but it's little surprise that he can take on Allen's written dialogue and come out on top. Though it would be easy to dismiss Owen as a Woody Allen knockoff, he really does seem to make the role his own, and not come off as just a cheap copycat. Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Adriana, a 20's Parisian whom Gil falls for and is also in love with the French capital. It's not the strongest Cotillard role I've ever seen, but she still manages to exude the same charm that has powered her Hollywood career. McAdams and Sheen are good in their roles, though both are essentially portrayed as "the bad guy" and are shown having no redeeming qualities. It's one thing for Sheen, whose character Gil can't stand due to his pompous nature. But one of the themes Midnight introduces is the idea that someone can be in love with two women at once, and while it's easy to see our intrepid explorer falling for Adriana, it's equally difficult to see him having fallen in love with Inez. There's no reason given for Gil to fight for Inez, a seemingly strange omission when that theme is so obviously struck.The coup that casting directors pulled off was hiring former model and singer Carla Bruni to play a small role. I don't know how they managed to secure President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife for the part, but the gorgeous Bruni does a good job, even if her involvement in the film itself is more than a bit surprising.

Bruni can read books to be any day
Spending my afternoon seeing Midnight in Paris ended up being much more entertaining than I could have imagined, as the storytelling, acting, and surprising humor kept me intrigued and attentive throughout the entire film's run. Sure, it's a bit fantastical and at times a bit to-the-point (especially during the present day scenes), and some scenes are slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but I honestly never expected in this day and age to love a film featuring BOTH Allen and Wilson. Honest and charming, it falls in at #8 for 2011. For Allen, Midnight in Paris might be his best work in years, or at least his most deservedly attended. After all, far too many of his works have fallen by the wayside, never to be recovered. Does anyone out there even REMEMBER Cassandra's Dream? Or Scoop? Melinda and Melinda, anyone? If you do go ahead and give yourself a gold star, but I guarantee you most people DON'T. That's the real tragedy of Allen's career; in the decades to come, much of his work will likely fade into obscurity, while James Cameron's Avatar will sadly be remembered for generations to come.

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