Saturday, September 22, 2012

Stubs - Scoop

SCOOP (2006) Starring: Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Ian McShane. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen. Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Letty Aronson, John Davis, Gareth Wiley. Runtime: 96. Color. U.S.-U.K. Comedy, Mystery

Woody Allen’s career may have peaked in the 1970’s, but he continues to write and direct movies to this day. And while they are no longer guaranteed box office, he does occasionally still make acclaimed and successful films, such as Midnight in Paris (2011). Allen, noted as a New York filmmaker, has been forced to make movies abroad for the last seven years, and it seems to have genuinely breathed new life into his career.

His biggest success prior to Midnight in Paris was the movie Match Point (2005), his first film made in England. The next year, he returned to London and made Scoop, reuniting the director with Scarlett Johansson, a young actress he had worked with in Match Point. And while Scoop did not receive the same attention as Match Point, it is still a very good and very interesting film.

The story begins, oddly enough, at the memorial service for a British news reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Following the service, several of Strombel’s contemporaries gather at a local pub to hoist a drink to their now dead colleague.

Next we cut to Strombel on board a boat captained by Death crossing the Styx. There, Strombel starts up a conversation with Jane Cook (Fenella Woolgar), who tells him that she died of poisoning. She suspects it was due to the fact that she had evidence that her boss, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) was the notorious serial killer known in the tabloids as the Tarot Card Killer due to the fact a tarot card gets left at the murder scene of short haired brunette prostitutes. Strombel is so intrigued by the story that he escapes the death boat.

Meanwhile, Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is in London on vacation, but is also trying to get an interview with director Mike Tinsley (Kevin R. McNally). But instead of getting the story, she sleeps with Tinsley instead. She’s upset by her own lack of professionalism, but Vivian (Romola Garai), the daughter of the London family she’s staying with, talks her into attending a performance by a magician, the Great Splendini (Woody Allen), aka Sid Waterman. Sondra volunteers to participate in the finale of the show, wherein, Splendini puts the subject in a box and makes them disappear. But while Sondra’s in the box, she encounters Strombel’s ghost, who has momentarily escaped the Grim Reaper and is drawn to her because she is a journalist. He tells her that Peter Lyman is the Tarot Card killer and urges her to investigate the story.

Not sure what to make of what happened, Sondra returns to Splendini between shows and begs him to let her go into the chamber again. Splendini has little patience and practically pulls her out of the chamber, when the ghost of Strombel appears to the two of them. Convinced there is a story, Sondra decides to investigate and drags Sid along with her, pretending he is her father. On their first attempt to break the story, they end up following the wrong man, since there are no good photos of Lyman on the internet. But all is not lost. The family she’s staying with know Lyman and know some of his habits, such as a daily swim at a private club. But since the family are members they can get Sondra and Sid in as their guests.

Once there, Sid and Sondra work out a scheme to get Lyman’s attention. While Sid goes off to have tea, Sondra pretends to be drowning. Being the gentleman he is and the only other person in the pool, Lyman saves her. She introduces herself as Jade Spence, the daughter of a rich Floridian. Enchanted by her beauty, Lyman asks her to attend a party at his parent’s estate. Even though he’s supposed to be a rich businessman, Sid can’t help but do card tricks and bits of magic. But while Sondra tries to keep Lyman occupied by awkwardly talking about things like Tarot cards, Sid goes through the house looking for clues. He finds only one, a doodle on the back of an envelope Lyman made with the name Betty G.

But when they return from the estate, neither Sid nor Sondra is convinced Lyman is a murderer. Sid has been invited to play poker at the club and is doing very well before Lyman shows up late. The next morning, both Sid and Sondra are concerned when there has been a new Tarot Card murder. Sid surmises that Lyman would have had enough time to have killed the prostitute before showing up at the club. Sondra wants to dig deeper and get a look at his house. Which she does, after a date with Lyman.

He takes her down stairs of his townhouse to a climate controlled vault where he keeps rare and expensive instruments his family has collected. Down there, the two share a kiss and she spends the night. Meanwhile, Sid is doing his usual act, when Strombel appears to him, and apparently the entire audience. He tells Sid to remember three numbers 16, 21, 12, though he doesn’t tell him what they are for.

After sex, Sondra and Lyman make small talk. She compliments his aftershave and he tells her it’s Yardley, a fragrance he’s used since he was a teenager and has never stopped using. He wants her to stay for breakfast and while he’s getting some champagne to celebrate their togetherness, she goes through his bedroom for clues, coming across a photo of a short-haired brunette woman, whom Lyman identifies as his mother, beautiful but unfaithful. Sondra begs off breakfast and meets up with Sid, who tells her what Strombel’s ghost had told him. By now, Sid knows it’s a combination and Sondra remembers that the vault has a combination lock.

At a party at Lyman’s house, Sid manages to sneak down to the vault and rummages around the room, though he gets accidentally locked in there by one of the servants. He is saved, when Sondra gets worried and goes looking for him. He tells her the combination and she lets him out just in time so that Lyman doesn’t catch him in the vault. Sid by now is convinced that they are on a wild goose chase searching the vault. Lyman pulls Sondra aside and begs her to stay the night, which she does.

And while he’s sleeping, Sondra sneaks back down to the vault where she makes a casual search. Under the French horn she finds a stack of Tarot cards. (Incidentally, Sid had found the same French horn in the previous vault scene on its side. He even started to make a joke about a French horn player before putting it back.) But upstairs, Lyman wakes up and calls out for her. But she has already returned with an alibi glass of milk to help her sleep as an excuse for being up at 4 am. You can sense that she’s nervous being with him, but he asks her if she would consider staying in London after her vacation ends.

The next morning, Sondra and Sid discuss what she has found out. While he’s convinced it points to guilt, Sondra is skeptical. Owning Tarot cards and being late to a poker game aren’t the sign of anything. They discuss calling the police, but Sondra insists that she wants to get the story if there is one.

In the next scene, it is Sondra’s birthday. In a public park, Lyman gives her an expensive bracelet, but begs off celebrating it with her, saying that he has out of town business to take care of. Sid offers to take her out for her birthday for Indian food. She seems preoccupied. She thinks Lyman might be leading up to ask her to marry him.

Back at her friend’s London house, Sondra is once again visited by Strombel’s ghost. He sensed that Sondra was falling in love, so he escaped, again. While he agrees that there is not enough evidence to get Lyman arrested, he is convinced that there is too much circumstantial evidence for Lyman not to be guilty. He warns her not to act too hastily as Lyman would walk and her credibility would be shot. But as he’s fading he implores her not to let him down.

That night, in a storefront Indian restaurant, Sondra sees Lyman walk by across the street. She and Sid take chase, but lose him in the confusing streets of London. But they do find themselves near where a murder had just taken place. A woman comes out of an apartment house shouting that someone has just been killed and another resident confirms a Tarot Card was found next to the body.

The next morning, Sid and Sondra go through the newspaper stories about the murder. This time the victim is named, Elizabeth Gibson, another short-haired brunette. They debate about going to the cops, but decide instead to have a real newspaperman look at her story. Luckily, her host family knows one that works at the Observer.

While Mr. Malcolm (Charles Dance) believes the story is vivid he tells her that no newspaper would print it as it would be libelous to do so. All she has are theories that would only tarnish Lyman’s reputation without a single strand of substantial proof. Again the same arguments that Sid and Sondra have debated about are raised by Mr. Malcolm. And he doesn’t believe that Strombel was her original source for the story. When Sid says that she could have sold the story to a tabloid, Mr. Malcolm informs them that to have done so would have been a disaster for everyone involved, since the real Tarot Card killer, a handy man named Henry Banks, had just been arrested by the police and confessed to all the murders. Evidence had been found linking Banks to the crimes, as well as he having led them to two additional bodies.

Now that it appears Lyman is in the clear, Sondra is faced with another problem. She had lied to him over and over again about who she is and what she was doing. Finally though, she is alone with Peter on the estate and they both confess to each other their lies. Peter confesses that he lied when he said he was going out of town on business. The truth, according to Peter, is that a company his father owns is merging with a company in the Middle East and they didn’t want details leaked out to the press. Sondra confesses her lies to Peter, including her real name, her relationship to Sid and her suspicions that he was the Tarot Card murderer. Peter laughs about her thoughts that he could be the killer. She asks about the Tarot deck in his music room, but he tells her that it was a surprise for her, based on a previous conversation they’d had. Peter wants to move on with their lives.

But Sid is convinced now that Peter is a murderer and a liar. He comes back to the doodle Betty G and found that the woman who was murdered on her birthday was named Elizabeth Gibson. Betty is often a nickname for Elizabeth. Sid spells out the same clues and circumstantial evidence they had found and supposes that Peter folded in his murder of Betty G into the Tarot Card murder crime wave. He’s convinced that Betty was blackmailing Peter for something, though he doesn’t know exactly what.

Strombel appears again to Sid to find out how Sondra reacted. Strombel tells Sid to check the Tarot deck to see if a card is missing, right after he warns him that he will not be able to return again. Strombel has cheated death all the ways he could.

Determined to uncover the answer, Sid goes to Elizabeth Gibson’s apartment house to ask about her. He finally finds someone that knew her. She tells Sid that Elizabeth was known as Betty to everyone. She bemoans the fact that Betty had dyed her blond hair brown and cut it so short. She tells him that Betty did it to please a regular client, Peter Yardley.

Sid calls Sondra at Peter’s estate to tell her what he had found out about the last victim. But she doesn’t want to hear it. Peter listens in and hears Sid tell her that he’s convinced of Peter’s guilt and hears Sondra to stop being paranoid.

But Sid is not deterred. He goes to Peter’s house and tells the housekeeper that he’s there to pick up his daughter’s red cashmere sweater. While the woman goes upstairs to look, Sid heads for the vault. This time, under the French horn, he finds a key. He’s not sure what to make of it and almost puts it back, but at the last minute pockets it. However, he isn’t fast enough to avoid detection by the housekeeper, who catches him coming out of the vault. Sid says his usual gibberish as an excuse and flees the scene.

The housekeeper, though, calls Peter and tells him what’s happened. Peter now thinks his jig is almost up. Meanwhile, Sid goes back to the apartment house and tries the key in Elizabeth Gordon’s door and it opens it.

Back at the estate, Peter takes Sondra out to the middle of the lake. Sid meantime, driving a smart car, beelines it to the country. When they are all alone, Peter confesses to Sondra that he is going to have to drown her. When Sondra asks why, he confesses to the murder of Betty Gibson. She was blackmailing him and he couldn’t let it continue. He studied the Tarot Case and rehearsed his plan just the way Sid had supposed. Sondra warns that Sid will tell someone if Peter kills her. But Peter counters that he’ll take care of Sid that night.

Cut back to Sid driving recklessly through the narrow roads. Peter gets more menacing, finally picking up Sondra and throwing her out of the boat. He watches her drown and then rows back to shore. Sid in his haste careens off the road and we hear an accident off screen. Peter rows his boat back to the house and, sounding hysterical, calls the police about a drowning.

The police arrive and come to the house to tell Peter they think they’ve found the body. Peter tells him a story about her going out onto the lake to commune with nature. He tells him about saving her from drowning and that she was a weak swimmer. Just then Sondra steps out from one of the rooms, still soaking wet and tells Peter she was lying and that she had in fact been the captain of a swim team.

Her story now completed, Sondra once again shows it to Mr. Malcolm who is very enthusiastic about it. She tells him that she has to thank Strombel for being an inspiration and to the late Sidney, who helped out with the investigation.

The film ends with Sidney on a similar barge that Strombel was on earlier in the movie, as it crosses The Styx River. Sid tells his fellow passengers that if he had been driving in America, he would have arrived on time and been a hero. When one of them asks what he did for a living, he tells them he was a magician. He offers to show them a card trick if they have the time, to which one of them says, “I believe we have eternity.”

Scoop is not Woody Allen’s best film, but I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. The film explores many of the same themes that Allen has touched on in the past. In fact, some of the movie was reminiscent of his Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), another somewhat underrated effort. In that film, Allen and movie wife Diane Keaton, solve the murder of a neighbor.

In many ways, Scarlett Johansson is the stand in for Diane Keaton, though there is no love interest between them. As I believe I have opined before, in a Woody Allen film, even if he’s not in the movie, there is someone who is speaking for him. Someone is the Woody Allen character. In this case, Allen is in the film and we get sort of stereophonic Woody, as Johansson does her best female impersonation of Allen’s usual nebbish character. While I am a big fan of Ms. Johansson, in this film she is sometimes a bad carbon copy, especially when she’s sharing screen time with the original.

Johansson is a beautiful woman, but it is hard to see the attraction that Peter Lyman has for her Sondra. Peter is presented as a man of the world, while Sondra is a college journalist who wears glasses and is easily flustered. I’ll admit I didn’t see his attraction for her, especially when his type must attract all sorts of women. Jackman is surprisingly good as the evil, narcissistic playboy. He exudes self-confidence throughout the film, the same way a sociopath would.

Ian McShane as Strombel is good, but he’s a bit of a one note performance. Whatever we learn about him is expository through other characters. It is an important role, but perhaps one that any mature British actor could have portrayed.

Allen is also good in front of the camera, but I think his best work was behind it. The script, which features many of Allen’s own clich├ęs, is very funny. Allen seems to write as though every town were his hometown, which is both good and bad. These are stories that could be told anywhere, which means he isn’t writing it just because it takes place in London. But at the same time, because they could take place anywhere they seem a little like transplants; change out the Met for Albert Hall, etc.

And there are holes in the script that take away from the strength of the mystery. The family Sondra is staying with in London seems to know just the right people and never ask any questions, as to why their young American houseguest is running around with a much older magician or seem worried that she is investigating a murder while using an assumed name.

And the clues are just a little too easy to find. Tarot Cards that were clearly not under the French horn in one scene appear there in the next. And why hide the key to the victim’s apartment in the exact same spot? And why not change the vault combination if you’re suspicious of prying eyes? And how fortunate that Sid would stumble across a neighbor, who knew so much information about Betty Gordon’s clientele and would willingly spill all the details to a reporter.

The film is very beautiful. I will give Allen credit that he treats every city he shoots in as if it were his beloved New York. Care is taken to show each location in its best light and the cinematography in this case done by Remi Adefarasin is the usual excellent that one finds in a Woody Allen film.

While I would recommend other Woody Allen films over this one for a first timer, Scoop is definitely worth watching if only to listen to the dialogue and not too closely to the plot.

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