Since October of 2010 I’ve been revisiting each film from writer, director, and actor Woody Allen in preparation for this year – the 40th anniversary of the release of what is considered by many to be Allen’s first film, Bananas. Of course he did release a few films prior, but it was Bananas that was the first to began the yearly string of releases that came to be known as the quintessential Woody Allen film.
Allen has for years been one of my top five favorite directors, and looking back at his long career (one film per year for 40 years) it’s really quite astounding. Sure, it’s true that most of the time Allen doesn’t branch nearly as much as other filmmakers. But there is a particular and familiar universe that he has created and lives in 99% of the time, and it’s a style all his own, a world where he invites you into every new year – to meet new characters, and the stories they have to tell.
My reviewing skills are admittedly not very strong, and the above quote from Capote – “it isn’t writing at all – it’s typing” – is never more prevalent than with this post, but none the less this was very fun for me to revisit all these movies again over the past months – and exciting to share at least a few of my basic thoughts to the world (ha!) on one of my top five favorite filmmakers. The timing couldn’t be more fitting as well not only because of the 40th anniversary of Bananas, but because this year saw the release, surprisingly enough, of Allen’s biggest financial success in the United States – Midnight in Paris. This will actually be a series of four posts – one per week over the next month – each including reviews of ten of Allen’s films. These will be in order of release, beginning in this post with 1971’s Bananas and ending with 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.
Any and all Oscar nominations are note under each of my “reviews”, and click on the posters for the trailers!
Bananas (1971) | A-
Although there were a couple movies that came prior to this, I start with Bananas as to me it was the official start of the “fully realized” and quintessential Allen cinematic experience. This was in his prime when it came to slapstick comedy – and even though there is a plot and basic outline, it’s clear this film started out as a series of sketches that ended up having to be tied together with some sort of story. That story – and I say that loosely – revolves around Allen finding himself reluctantly leading a rebel movement against the dictatorship of the tiny fictional Caribbean nation of San Marcos, and soon becomes that nation’s new president. But that’s all you need to know, as the pure intention here is slapstick humor – and it succeeds wildly. The first 15 minutes are classic self-deprecating Allen, including a run in on the subway with Sylvester Stallone, and it’s only uphill from there.
Play It Again, Sam (1972) | B+
This is one of less than a handful of movies Woody Allen was heavily involved in but did not direct, but he did write the screenplay based on his own Broadway play of the same name. He is also the lead actor, so, it counts in my book. Allen plays, well, Allan, a San Franciscan who has gone through another divorce, and with the help of his friends (played by Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) he decides to hit the dating scene again. Despite trying to keep up appearances, things don’t always go so well, with Allen’s usual hilarious slapstick comedy accenting his dating troubles. Meanwhile, because of his obsession with the film Casablanca, the ghost of Humphrey Bogart keeps appearing with “advice” – and that Casablanca theme runs strong throughout the movie. This is a very fun imaginative film, mixed with Allen’s overall ridiculousness (which is a compliment of the highest order), and the supporting performance from Tony Roberts who is always fantastic in every Allen film he appears in. On top of that, I can’t think of a movie where Diane Keaton looked any more beautiful than in this. A fun, hilarious movie that I can’t recommend enough.
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex, *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) | C
What was meant to be a funny movie inspired by a popular book of the same name that came out in the 1960’s, this one unfortunately to me was outweighed by just plain disturbing moments. The style of the film is series of skits – or chapters – each bringing to life questions raised in the books. Certain skits are inspired, like Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?, which is shot in the style of Italian film-making from the 60’s; What Are Sex Perverts? which is a game show in which panelists (including Regis Philbin) attempt to guess a contestant’s perversion; and What Happens During Ejaculation?, in which Woody plays a sperm inside a male who, amongst all the other sperm, are controlled by the men in the brain, played by Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds. Funny and clever stuff, but for me there are two segments portraying incredibly creepy male characters that overpowers what good is in this film. One involves the wonderful, late Gene Wilder as a doctor who ends up being involved romantically with a sheep, and the other about an older man who likes to dress up in women’s clothes. It’s probably just me, as I can see how people would find those segments funny, but there is just this dark creepiness to it that steers me away from this movie every time I glance at it on the shelf. It’s not a bad movie, it’s actually quite well made and it was a big hit when it came out, so it’s probably just me, but this is my blog damn it! HA!
Sleeper (1973) | A
This one is brilliant, especially when compared to Allen’s other films, because it is probably his most effective film. I say that because (and I am not sure if this one bothers others as it does me) it’s vision of the future is so bleak, sterile and clinical that it’s incredibly depressing to watch (even though the budget at times leaves a lot to be desired). It makes the story much more “believable” of course, which is why it’s effective for me, but I rarely look forward to watching this movie. Which is a strange thing to say, because this is also one of his funniest and well made. The story is simple. Miles Monroe (Allen) is awoken after 200 years of being cryogenically frozen, finding himself in a world (the year 2173 to be exact) that looks like a giant Apple store, with a dash of totalitarianism. Miles ends up befriending Luna (Diane Keaton) and together they dive into an adventure trying to stop some nonsensical “Aires Project”. Anyway, this movie is pure slapstick and Allen is at his best in this one. It’s one scene after another filled with his perfectly over-the-top physical comedy and top notch one-liners, and much of it to the tune of his big band Preservation Hall Jazz Band which he even still plays with to this very day (see Wild Man Blues). I hope not to sway anyone away with the bleak future talk – it’s probably just me who feels slightly disturbed by it – as this is a very fun and very very funny movie.
Miles: Where am I anyhow, I mean, what happened to everybody, where are all my friends?
Aragon: You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly 200 years.
Miles: But they all ate organic rice!
Luna: What’s it feel like to be dead for 200 years?
Miles: Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills.
Love and Death (1975) | B+
Thus far in Allen’s filmography he’s taken us to a Caribbean dictatorship, San Francisco, the year 2173, and into the brain of a man during sex. In Love and Death, Allen’s last stop in his early more “experimental” phase before more or less ending up in his hometown New York, is Russia in the 1800’s. The plot involves the solider Boris (Allen), who along with his distant cousin & wife Sonja (Diane Keaton) – when not engaging in endless philosophical debates – plot to assassinate Napoleon. Basically it’s just a new setting in which to house Allen’s modern and comedically out of time jokes and physical slapstick, but the juxtaposition continues to work brilliantly and this is a very funny movie. And of course if you don’t find it funny, the soundtrack of the film will help the time pass, it consisting mostly of ‘Troika’, the 4th movement from Segei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, which is insanely fantastic. This one is absurd, pure lunacy, and it’s grand in scale in both production and humor, and luckily Allen’s last purely silly films is a high note. Can he possibly top it with Annie Hall? Time will tell!
Annie Hall (1977) | A+
I generally don’t 100% agree with the general consensus by people when they talk about any director’s best work, but with Woody Allen I do. This movie is pure perfection. I mean, when is the last time a comedy won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards? Ok, it was Annie Hall in 1977. Allen’s observations on falling in and out of love, his observations on types of people he and everyone encounter every day, his ease of blending his one-liner style of stand up comedy and hilariously surreal vignettes (a more progressed version of what Allen did in ‘Everything You Always Wanted…‘) into a linear plot line; it’s a recipe for greatness. Annie Hall is a hilarious film with outstanding performances from Diane Keaton and Allen, and unlike some of Allen’s other work, it’s brilliance that appeals to the masses on a grand scale – there’s something for everyone to relate to. I can”t recommend this movie enough. La di da indeed.
Awards | Best Picture, Best Actress (Keaton), Best Director, Best Screenplay
Nominations | Best Actor (Allen)
Interiors (1978) | C
Oh yes, this one, Woody’s first foray into drama, and of the few dramatic films he made this is the most intense of them. But a quiet intensity, a slow moving film that teeters back and forth on the fence between nearly exploding into utter sadness and devastating events, or just complete boredom. The story involves three sisters who are coping with what they perceive as their sad lives, and the separation of their father and mother, the latter of which is having emotional problems so severe she at one time was admitted into a psych ward and given electroshock therapy. So yes, this is a doozy indeed. The performances are quite good, including Geraldine Page who deserves the Oscar nomination in her portrayal of the mother, Eve, and the art direction is also fantastic with it’s cold, chilly desolate sets, colors and scenery right from the opening shot. But as good as so many elements are, something just isn’t quite right. To me it doesn’t feel natural. The plot, the script, it all feels like it did not originate from a place of inspiration personally, but more of an artistic inspiration, to the point of being a mere imitation. When some compare this to much of Ingmar Bergman’s work, it makes you think if this was dubbed in Swedish you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It makes sense as well, since at one point Allen said of Bergman “(he’s) probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera”. Interiors is admirable in it’s execution, but it’s inspiration feels as cold as the world these characters are living in, and for that it’s hard for me to feel certain in any sort of opinion. It’s all just kind of “there”, going through it’s motions. Not a good film, not a bad film, just an admirable experiment. Save this one for last.
Nominations | Best Actress (Page), Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction
Manhattan (1979) | B
This one starts off with one one of greatest opening sequences of pretty much any film, a beautiful montage of black & white shots of Manhattan to a soundtrack of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. It’s quite touching actually in the most joyous way, an obvious love letter of sorts from Allen to his hometown, and seeing shots of New York City in the 70’s – it’s quite classic today. Even the most ardent New York hater would have to fall head over heels for the city after seeing that sequence. The mood is sort of out of place though when compared to the rest of the film. The story revolves around Isaac (Allen) whose ex-wife (the young and always fantastic Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their past marriage while at the same time he is carrying on a relationship with 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway – who does a great job with the role) – the latter of which was based on Allen’s real life relationship with Stacey Nelkin who was also 17 at the time of their relationship. Then Mary (Diane Keaton) shows up, and despite getting off on the wrong foot – Isaac falls for her, thus relationships end and new ones begin – with all the good and bad that comes along with it. Some truly incredible beautiful and iconic shots along with the reliable hilarious lines from Allen’s script more than makes up for the awkward Isaac & Tracy scenes and plotline. It is a movie you really do not want to miss, and I highly recommend it, but for me something is missing, a bit of a bite or an edge. It was written by Allen and Marshall Brickman who co-wrote Annie Hall together just two years earlier (and later on the fantastic Manhattan Murder Mystery), and to me it was them trying to recreate that Oscar-winning magic, and despite coming close, there is a void.
Party Guest: I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.
Isaac Davis: You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.
Nominations | Best Supporting Actress (Hemingway), Best Screenplay
Stardust Memories (1980) | C
Beautifully shot, but ultimately a cold wind blows across this one from beginning to end. The story revolves around film director Sandy Bates and the celebrity status and worship that accompanies his success reaching a boiling point to the point he questions the validity of his accomplishments. Some funny lines and undeniably beautiful imagery, but in the end it can’t make up for the lack of focus and inconsistent casting choices. There is definitely appreciation by many in critics circles for this one – but I always felt it was one of his more sub-par movies.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) | A+
For me the key to this movie is it’s atmosphere – which is something generally not prevalent in Woody’s movies. Badminton, lemonade, sex, humidity, fireflies, parasols, ‘the hissing of summer lawns’ if you will. It’s all front and center in this WHIMSICAL comedy – one of my favorites from Allen. Here he plays an early 1900’s crackpot inventor who along with his wife invite a few couples out to the countryside for a summer’s weekend. As the hours pass, romantic entanglements become intertwined as the summer hours drone on and on. There’s not a whole lot to say about this movie, as it’s a very light comedy, with nothing to say as it just breezes by. But that’s what makes it so lovely. Isn’t that what people want in the summer? A time to relax and to soak in the weather and the peace & quiet. This movie, and it’s cast, captures that sentiment perfectly. Perfection.
COMING NEXT WEEK : Zelig through Shadows and Fog