Friday, October 12, 2012

Black and White Haze: "Shadows and Fog" (1991)

How can an expert film maker like Woody Allen screw up a black and white film about a town's struggles with a serial killer? Here is how.

There is not so much of a plot as there is a series of weak vignettes. Allen is a nebbish bookkeeper who is recruited by a band of men to help them catch a mad strangler who is terrorizing an unnamed but seemingly European city. The problem is, and the only laughs come from, the fact that Allen is not told what his role is in the plan, and he wanders around for the rest of the film trying to find his place in the capture.

Mia Farrow is a sword swallower from the local traveling circus who leaves boyfriend John Malkovich and ends up in a brothel sleeping with John Cusack. She later meets up with Allen, and they stroll around the streets as Allen is eventually suspected of the growing numbers of murders. He frequently runs into people from his life, and they all have little scenes with him, before the final stupid capture of the killer back at the circus, which does not go as planned.

I would have given this film one star except for two things: the running gag involving Allen's role in the vigilante plot, and Carlo DiPalma's cinematography. The film is beautiful black and white, with great set design, and every shot is a photograph. This will remind you of those old films from the twenties and thirties, where the bizarre sets and art direction put you in a world you have never experienced before.

Allen gives himself the more funny lines. The rest of his cast talks like they just stepped out of one of his modern day New York films. Immediately, you dislike Farrow and her constant whining.

Ditto for Cusack, who is wasted as the john who thought he found true love. On top of all of this, Allen tries to tackle deep issues like the existence of God and the meaning of life, but he does it in such a surface way, you care about the answers as much as you care about the characters- zilch. An anal retentive viewing of this might glean deeper meaning, but who wants to sit through this again and again? Instead, you just sit watching this and spotting the stars, and there are plenty of them.

A special note about Madonna. The rest of the cast overacts a little during this, maybe to make the Woodman happy as a director. However, Madonna, in her brief role as the woman who comes between Malkovich and Farrow, delivers her lines so flatly, I thought she might be talking in her sleep. Please, Hollywood, city of dreams and full of people who think they know what we want, stop putting this woman in films and making us suffer through her "acting."

I am a fan of a few of Allen's films, his best two are "Manhattan" and "Radio Days," but this indulgent failure just serves as an example of why so many people out there just cannot stand him anymore. I cannot recommend "Shadows and Fog" unless you watch it for the aesthetic beauty, with the sound down. (* *) out of five stars.