Some thoughts on two very different movies currently playing in theaters.

Midnight in Paris
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

To the surprise of many, Woody Allen’s 41st feature film Midnight in Paris has become his first substantial box-office hit in decades.  The movie has been a steady earner since its release in mid-May, hanging around in the Top Ten while other bigger, louder entertainments (such as the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean adventure) have tumbled out of the chart…though, to be fair, having earned far more money than Midnight in Paris will ever see.  Certainly, the movie’s success can be in part attributed to marketplace forces.  There’s always a large segment of the moviegoing public that’s underserved by the usual blockbuster-oriented summer line-up, which leaves room for a smaller movie to swoop in and nab those eyeballs.  (Little Miss Sunshine pulled off that trick a few years back, as did the very Woody-like (500) Days of Summer in 2009.)  But marketing can only take a film like this so far—word of mouth is what’s really going to get people to make an active effort to seek it out.  And that’s where Midnight in Paris really does separate itself from Allen’s recent filmography; audiences have taken to the movie with incredible enthusiasm.  As critics are quick to point out, the writer/director’s movies have been of wildly uneven quality for roughly the last decade.  For every Match Point or Vicky Christina Barcelona there’s a Cassandra’s Dream or Whatever Works.  Even the movie’s that have won critical attention (like Match Point, Vicki and, in some quarters at least, last year’s underrated You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) haven’t clicked with moviegoers, with few outside of Allen’s die-hard fanbase turning up to see them in theaters.  Midnight in Paris has managed to hit that sweet spot where the reviews have generally been very positive and people are showing up to buy tickets.

I have to admit that, despite the positive buzz, I was skeptical going into my viewing of Midnight in Paris.  For starters, Allen’s pure comedies—think Scoop, Whatever Works and, shudder, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion—have been his weakest movies of late, which is strange considering that he’s directed some of the funniest films in Hollywood history.  But a few rough patches aside (there’s just no getting around it: Allen’s dialogue has grown increasingly stilted and theatrical over time) I found Paris to be a delight, a witty, light-hearted confection that brought to mind classic studio comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, like The Shop Around the Corner and It Happened One Night.  That retro-feel is appropriate since it’s a film that’s obsessed with the past.  In brief, the plot follows a Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) visiting France’s capital city with his shrewish fiancée (Rachel McAdams, gamely playing the movie’s least likable character) and her Republican parents.  He longs to leave the lucrative, but personally unrewarding screenwriting trade and move to France to write his long-in-the-works novel, much like the generation of authors that inspired him—folks like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Stein.  To his amazement, he gets the chance to actually meet his idols when, during a midnight stroll, he climbs into a passing car and finds himself transported back to 1920s Paris for reasons that are never (thankfully) explained.  In addition to literary luminaries, Wilson also meets a stunning, fascinating woman (Marion Cotillard) and starts to seriously consider abandoning his life in the present to settle down with her in this magical past.

Midnight in Paris charms for a number of reasons—the cast (Wilson in particular is one of Allen’s best leading men in some time), the setting (always a beautiful city, Paris looks particularly inviting here) and the fanciful time travel plot (viewers that take this kind of thing seriously though, should be warned that Allen could care less about creating consistent rules for the back-and-forth time jumps—it’s purely a plot device to him, not a case study).  But what I really latched onto is the way the film taps into the notion that cities—particularly ones that have been around for centuries like Paris, New York and London—have led multiple lives.  Certainly, the New York of today bears only a passing resemblance to the New York seen in the ‘60s-era series Mad Men or the New York of Fitzgerald’s  ‘20s-set The Great Gatsby.  But certain remnants and landmarks from those past New York’s still exist and, when I happen to pass by them, I find myself wishing there was a way I could experience that version of the city.  (For example, not too long ago, I happened to pass by the Greenwich Village apartment building where Bob Dylan is said to have crashed when he first arrived in New York in 1961 and immediately had visions of heading over to the also still-standing Café Wha to hear his first concert.)  In Midnight in Paris, Wilson not only gets to visit Paris in the ‘20s, but later in the movie, he and Cotillard travel even further back to the 1890s and tour the city by gaslight.  Each era offers a distinctly different physical version of Paris, but the idea of the city, the promise of freedom and excitement it seems to offer, is unchanged.

The movie also brought to mind one of my very favorite stories from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series, one that posits that, just like the humans that inhabit them, cities have the ability to dream.  The city in that particular comic dreamed of a strange, inverted version of itself that stranded its visitors there, sometimes for decades.  I like the conceit suggested by Paris more—that when a city dreams, it dreams of its previous selves and invites a very lucky few to experience it, while also giving them the option to return home when they’ve had their fill.  And that latter point is the other reason that Paris carries significant dramatic heft beneath its light comedy.  While Wilson spends much of the movie mooning over the past, he ultimately realizes that nostalgia ultimately only serves to cut you off from the present.  It’s easy to forget this, but Allen has always been a remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental observer of human behavior.  His characters very rarely, if ever, wind up getting exactly what they want, sometimes deservedly due to their own actions and other times because of circumstances beyond their control.  (I’d use the phrase “twist of fate” or “act of God” but I don’t think that Allen believes in fate or any higher power for that matter.)  At his worst, he can come across as simply cruel and cynical, but in movies like Paris, Annie Hall and Purple Rose of Cairo, he arrives at endings that are perhaps best described as sweetly melancholic.  Like all good mainstream movies, Midnight in Paris entertains throughout and sends you out of the theater with several thoughts and emotions to mull over later.  No wonder then, that it’s one of this summer’s biggest success stories.


Crime After Crime
Directed by Yoav Potash

An unapologetic advocacy documentary, Crime After Crime announces its purpose in its first scene: it wants to free an innocent woman from prison.  That woman is Debbie Peagler, who, at the time the film begins, had spent twenty years behind bars for her connection to the murder of her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson.  According to Peagler and her family members interviewed in the film, Wilson initially courted her as a nice, upstanding guy, but soon revealed himself to be an abuser and a pimp that had no compunction about forcing her into prostitution to bring in more income.  After trying and failing to get away from him for almost six years, Debbie eventually moved out and hired two gang members to convince Wilson to leave her alone.  Instead, he wound up dead and she was arrested on charges of first-degree murder despite not having been present when the crime was committed.  At the time, her home state of California offered no protection for victims of domestic violence that are charged with crimes committed against their abusers.  This allowed prosecutors to threaten her with the death penalty unless she pled guilty.  Sentenced to 25 years in prison, Paeagler was routinely denied parole during the course of that term, despite being a model inmate.  In 2002, a new legal team picked up the case and their ensuing investigation revealed strong suggestions of misconduct within the D.A.’s office.  Director Yoav Potash condenses the attorneys’ six-year quest to free Debbie down to 90 minutes, with enough twists and turns to fill a Law & Order episode.  It almost goes without saying that the movie achieves its goal of winning the audience over to Peagler’s side and wanting to see other women in similar circumstances afforded the same opportunity to clear their names.  Where I’m somewhat disappointed by Crime After Crime is Potash’s decision to keep a major piece of information about Debbie a secret until the final fifteen minutes.  I understand why he chose to approach the narrative structure this way—it certainly makes for a compelling, almost novelistic climax—but withholding it from the audience affects our understanding of the film’s continuity.  Without giving too much away, it turns what seems to be a contemporaneous account into more of a memorial piece.  That doesn’t ultimately change the movie’s argument that Debbie Peagler was the victim of a series of unfair legal decisions, but it does affect the artistry of Crime After Crime as a work of non-fiction reportage.