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 begin 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 is a series of four posts – one per week over the course of a month – each including reviews of ten of Allen’s films. These are in order of release, with this the second in the series covering his films Zelig through Shadows and Fog.
Any and all Oscar nominations are noted under each of my “reviews”, and click on the posters for the trailers!
Zelig (1983) | B
It’s quite interesting to me when I look up the box office numbers on this movie and see that it made upon its release in 1983 today’s equivalent of about $26 million. It just seems unfathomable to me that such a film could even be released, never mind making a fair amount of cash. Just goes to show how popular Woody Allen was back in the day that something like this could even do relatively well. It’s great it did because it’s such a unique film, and a great one at that. Zelig is a “mockumentary” about fictional character Leonard Zelig, played by Allen, who is the world’s first human chameleon – able to transform his appearance to that of anyone who surrounds him. The film takes place in the 1920’s and thus it’s filmed in the style of newsreels from that time, which helps convey the fact that Zelig became a celebrity due to his unique ability. With the use of bluescreen technology, they convincingly have Zelig hanging out with Calvin Coolidge, Adolf Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Josephine Baker, just to name a few. Zelig is 28 years old now and the effects are still incredibly impressive. In fact if one didn’t know who Woody or Mia Farrow (who plays a doctor researching his “condition”) were, I could see one being possibly fooled by the effects, although probably not by the story. I haven’t seen this movie too many times, as it’s more of an amusement than a great movie with great performances, but it is definitely worth seeing for its unique story and style.
Nominations | Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design
Broadway Danny Rose (1984) | B
This one is propelled to greatness by fantastic comedic performances by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow – playing against type as much as they can in an Allen film (especially when you ARE Woody Allen). He plays a very Italian talent agent (mixed with his neurotic Jewish side), Danny Rose, who tries to reconcile one of his top clients with his mistress (Farrow), only to be mistakenly seen as her lover, which upsets certain members of the Italian community he lives in. The type of characters Allen and Farrow portray in this film might be perceived on paper to be annoying and a disaster waiting to happen, but they play their characters beautifully and it only continues the great chemistry they had on the silver screen during the 80’s. Shot in lovely black & white and showcasing New York again as it was in the slightly grungier 1980’s, this is fun one to watch. Not one of his best, but great all the while.
Nominations | Best Director, Best Screenplay
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) | A-
Any movies that are itself a celebration of cinema just hits a real soft spot with me. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a woman unhappy in her marriage with her cheating, abusing husband (played by Danny Aiello) and unhappy with where the effects of the Great Depression have led her in life. So to escape the doldrums of her current day-to-day, she goes to the cinema for every new release to get lost in that week’s fantasy. After seeing The Purple Rose of Cairo a few times, her unspoken wishes come true when the lead character on screen (Jeff Daniels) breaks the barrier with real life and jumps out of the screen – bringing himself into Cecilia’s world and helping her escape her real life on a whole different level. Meanwhile back at the theater, the remaning cast members sit around on screen waiting for the return of their lead, and the theater patrons & management are up in arms as to what to do. This is one of those movies where only one word can sum it up – “charming”. Fun movie and one of Allen’s most unique movies.
Nominations | Best Screenplay
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) | B
A fine cast that includes Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow and the always fantastic Dianne Wiest rounds out this story about a group of family and friends (specifically, Hannah – and her sisters) and their intertwined searches for love – past and present. Similar in style to other Allen films that see-saw between drama and comedy – this one also adds more of a romantic vibe to it, which itself see saws between nauseating and fantastic. Ultimately it’s a good film, but not his greatest (despite this being one of Allen’s bigger box office successes). Luckily the splashes of comedy help, and specifically (and coming from one who thinks sneezing means impending death) it’s very funny to see my own health worries played out through Allen’s (surprise!) neurotic hypochondriac character, Mickey Sachs.
Awards | Best Actor (Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Wiest), Best Screenplay
Nominations | Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction
Radio Days (1987) | A
This is one of the few, if not only comedy of Allen’s that doesn’t need to venture into near slapstick territory to be really fun to watch. While still changing the names of the characters, this is very clearly one of Allen’s most autobiographical, depicting the early teen years of his childhood in the days when families gathered around the radio in its golden age instead of the televisions and computers of today. The cast is fantastic, including of course Mia Farrow (wow – that accent!), and then the charming Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner, Wallace Shawn and one of the first roles from Seth Green, who plays Joe – the Allen character. They all fill this insanely nostalgic film with perfect comedic performances next to its beautiful art direction (Oscar nod), which in my view makes this an instant classic on par with A Christmas Story. Of course it isn’t a seasonal classic, but the quality is right up there, if not better. It’s hard to beat funny sequences including a segment depicting one’s reaction to The War of the Worlds radio drama that confused so many listeners, and the opening segment when a radio show calls a home and the phone is answered by burglars who have just broken into it. Essentially the film is a series of comedic vignettes about those unique days of radio, but they are sewn together perfectly under the guise of Allen. Highly recommended. And keep an eye out for Larry David who plays a very small part in one of his few roles in an Allen movie. Just listen for the yelling, if you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, you can’t miss it.
Nominations | Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction
September (1987) | C
Ahhh yes, this one. September. I think this one has fallen through the cracks for so many reasons. Primarily I think because it’s a drama but as it runs it’s course it simply doesn’t have much to say. It has a small plot of course, but it doesn’t take the viewer on much of a ride or a journey at all, and by the end (and thankfully it’s only 80 minutes long) it feels mostly like an empty vessel. Even the poster you see above seems to convey something quite severe, a dramatic, profound and sad event in a woman’s life, but it’s misleading. Nothing really happens. “Having said that”, despite taking place entirely in one Vermont summer-house, the movie conveys wonderfully through its lighting and sound a warm summer evening, which itself creates half the atmosphere this film needs. And perhaps its the dialogue, or the cinematography, but this movie doesn’t just feel like an adaptation of a play, but it feels like you’re seeing a play that has been filmed right in the theater. Supposedly this was Woody’s intention with this, so job well done! The screenplay is just obviously written for the stage through and through, and that is another plus in the few charms it has. And of course it being practically a play, it showcases some great actors and performances, especially the wonderful Elaine Stritch who has done a lot of stage work in her career. Maybe it’s just me, but I just find her charming in anything I’ve seen her in. Dianne Wiest is also fantastic, and nice to see her doing a full on dramatic role in one of Allen’s films, not just semi-dramatic or comedic. Overall this isn’t a good film, or a bad film, it’s just sort of there, sitting quietly and content with itself in Woody’s back catalog. Worth seeing of course for its own uniqueness, but save it as one of your last.
Another Woman (1988) | B
It’s hard to go wrong when a movie has Martha Plimpton in it, and uses the beautiful composition 3 Gymnopedies : Gymnopedie No 1 (written by Erik Satie), but this film did have to make Allen devotees worry a bit upon its release. Not because of its quality, but because it was his second drama in a row – when he had only made 3 dramas total of the 20 films he had released at that time. Luckily it’s a good film, yet one of his least remembered movies, despite a great performance from Gina Rowlands about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. She ends up finding ways to work through it, guided by her overhearing the psychiatrist who lives next door helping another woman going through her own crisis – who that threatens her life. It’s not as heavy as it sounds, and unlike many dramas, Allen knows to keep it short. Clocking in at 80 minutes, it’s the perfect amount of time to show a glimpse into this woman’s life – and is a strong element to what makes this movie a success.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) | B+
Once in a while Allen doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind what his next film should be, a comedy or a drama. So why not do both? That’s exactly what he decided to do in this interesting little film. The drama side revolves around Dr Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) whose mistress (Angelica Huston) is trying to reveal their affair to his wife. It leads to Rosenthal taking very selfish and ghastly actions, which only leads to different and terrible levels of guilt he hadn’t thought about beforehand. On the comedic side, Cliff (Allen) has been hired by his big time TV producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda), whom he despises, to make a documentary about him. While in production me meets Halley (Mia Farrow) and falls for her instantly. Cliff is of course now cheating on his wife in hopes that a future with Halley is in the cards, but she may not be entirely ready or even interested. Both stories are convincingly portrayed, and having the very heavy-handed story of Rosenthal broken up with the light-hearted Cliff story makes it much more tolerable. Makes you wonder if Allen had done the same with Interiors and September then they might have also been more enjoyable – as when he does drama, it is drama in the truest sense of the word. Either way this is a rewarding move to watch – just be prepared for a total night and day experience.
Nominations | Best Supporting Actor (Landau), Best Director, Best Screenplay
Oedipus Wrecks (a segment in New York Stories) (1989) | B
Allen wrote, directed and starred in the final segment of this collection of shorts by New York’s most famous filmakers. The other directors were Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola (who co-wrote his segment with his daughter and future director Sofia Coppola). It’s a fluffy bit of cinema, but clever and cute all the same, especially the performance by Mae Questel. She plays the mother of Allen’s character, Sheldon, and an overbearing one at that. When she disappears during a magic act at a performance he and his fiance (Mia Farrow) takes her to, Sheldon thinks his worries have disappeared, but she returns in the grandest, most over-bearing fashion imaginable. What at first seems to be a situation that is simply too much to take, Sheldon soon comes to realize he not only misses his mother, but she is a bigger and more positive influence in his life than he ever realized. Trademark Allen – funny and light all the same.
Alice (1990) | B+
This is another one of Allen’s “breezy” and “whimsical” movies, the type that are always good to watch no matter what mood you are in. Alice, played by Mia Farrow, is an upper class stay-at-home Mom who gradually realizes she is looking for something new in her life, be it a new love or simply a more meaningful existence. With the aid of some ancient herbs from a mystical Chinese acupuncturist (with “side effects” like her inner flirt coming out, becoming invisible, and see ghosts from the past), Alice sees a clearer picture of her life and the direction it needs to lead. Farrow is fantastic and charming as always, and helps this feel like one of Allen’s most complete (yet, least remembered) films.
Nominations | Best Screenplay
Shadows and Fog (1991) | A
This is one of my absolute favorite of Allen’s films. Sadly it’s one that was overlooked at the time of its release and thus it’s now a bit of a forgotten gem. Beautifully shot in black and white, it appears to take place somewhere in Germany or eastern Europe in the early 1900’s. The main plot revolves a group of vigilantes who have taken to the street to hunt down ‘The Strangler’ who has been killing off locals – and Kleinman (Allen), who is reluctantly drawn into the hunt. That Allen is able to take such elements as black & white cinematography, eastern Europe and murder so funny and enjoyable is quite a credit to his comedic talent. He balances the dire surroundings with his usual one-liners and physical comedy, and the cast is fantastic. Kathy Bates, John Cusack, Mia Farrow, Jodie Foster, Julike Kavner, Madonna, John Malkovich, Donald Pleasance, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Lily Tomlin and others. It’s probably just me, but the mix of atmosphere, Allen’s humor and this cast, it’s fantastic from beginning to end.
COMING NEXT WEEK : Husbands and Wives through Small Time Crooks