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To Rome With Love - review

Ryan Gilbey dissects the decline and tentative rise of Woody Allen.

To Rome With Love (12A)
dir: Woody Allen

To wish for world peace may seem naive but it’s an act of the staunchest realism next to the hope that Woody Allen will one day return to making films worthy of his name. The phrase “It were all fields around here when I were a lad” has fallen into disuse now that the same effect can be conveyed by saying: “I recall a time when Woody Allen was a filmmaker of wit and elegance.” Looking at the evidence – nothing exemplary since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and no actual greatness since Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993 – you’d have to conclude that the old Allen, or rather the middle-aged one, is gone and he’s not coming back. Why this is a cause for consternation is unclear. Is it not better to have laughed and stopped than never to have laughed at all?

The problem has been the sheer breadth of the disparity between then and now. Gone is the pioneering use of narrative – the mockumentaries such as Zelig and Husbands and Wives, or the collage techniques of Annie Hall and Radio Days. Gone, too, is the stand-up sensibility of Sleeper or Love and Death, and the arresting roles for women, most of which were so meaty that one could overlook the inbuilt prerequisite that the female characters usually had to find Allen irresistible.

Expectations have been adjusted steadily downwards since at least The Curse of the Jade Scorpion in 2001 (a movie that even Allen considers his worst). It was marketing considerations that nudged Allen’s name into the small-print on the Match Point poster in 2005 – he was a commercial liability by then and the idea of anyone paying knowingly to watch a Woody Allen thriller was unthinkable in an age when people were reluctant even to see one of his comedies. The concealment worked: the film was a hit. But so debased was the brand that it had to be all but expunged in order to sell the product.

Now the plaintive cry goes up each year from Cannes or Venice announcing Allen’s return to form – a claim as devalued as the Zimbabwean dollar. The best we can hope for is that each picture will be less bad than the last one. Right now, the last one was Midnight in Paris, which was as feeble as it was popular (it grossed $150m, more than any other Woody Allen film). Perhaps the lowest point among many in the film was the scene in which the time travelling hero (Owen Wilson) gave Luis Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, only for the surrealist genius to demand to know why the guests in the scenario are unable to leave their dinner party. You heard right: Owen Wilson outfoxed Buñuel.

So it’s a perfect time to receive with gratitude Allen’s comic roundelay To Rome with Love, easily his least-bad movie in a decade or so. (Don’t scoff: faint praise is still praise.) Its incurious affection for the tourist spots of Rome places it alongside Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Everyone Says I Love You in the Linguaphone School of Film-making. But while the movie (Allen’s 42nd) feels like what it is – a late-period bagatelle from an artist too remote to render human encounters without mannerism – its silliness is rejuvenating.

It cuts back and forth between four unconnected stories characterised by fantasy or farce. John (Alec Baldwin), an architect, is wandering through Rome when he happens upon Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student who reminds him of his younger self. In fact, he is his younger self: what else for John to do but intervene in the romantic mistakes of his youth? Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an office drone who bemoans the cult of celebrity, only to find it attaching itself to him arbitrarily. Suddenly his choice of breakfast is being debated by the nation, and his morning shave is a TV ratings smash. Should you have wondered what sort of Twilight Zone episode Fellini might have written, here’s your answer.

Allen himself plays Jerry, a former opera director who arrives in Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), to meet their daughter and her new partner. But Jerry is distracted when he hears a tenor voice emanating from a shower stall, tempting him out of retirement. Meanwhile, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), a prim young man from the sticks, is about to introduce his bride to his family. But it is Anna (Penelope Cruz), a prostitute stumbling into the wrong hotel room, who is mistaken for his wife in a development that even Ray Cooney might consider a tad contrived.

Not one of the stories adds up to a hill of borlotti beans, but the echoes and resonances between them generate a cumulative spell. Each plot concludes with the renouncing of the superficial, and a return to humility: Americans and Italians alike are disabused of their illusions, and the only enduring magic is shown to be the chance and chaos of love.

Although the movie delights in the possibilities thrown up by being lost in a foreign city. Allen himself sticks as closely as ever to his personal map. Wherever he sets his films, the hotels are always luxurious, each shot is fit for a picture postcard, and prostitution is an upbeat career choice for the go-getting young woman about town.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture