And now this, the third in my series reviewing the films of Woody Allen, with this post covering Husbands and Wives through Small Time Crooks. 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 is a series of four posts – one per week over the course of a month – each including reviews of ten of Allen’s films in the order in which they were released.
Any and all Oscar nominations are noted under each of my “reviews”, and click on the posters for the trailers!
Husbands and Wives (1992) | A+
Allen is in fine form here, and I am not sure why I find a movie about divorce, break-ups, infidelity and the like so comforting, but I have seen this movie at least 50 times and it gets better and more enjoyable every time I see it. It ages gracefully I suppose. I think because this was written and filmed right before Allen’s personal and public “troubles” (and subsequently released at the time it went public) – he had a lot of inspiration that hit home and just gave this movie a very real and natural feel to it. It’s not a preachy film with its subject matter (like so many of slightly similar movies can turn into in the wrong hands), but simply – and I’m sure due to the hand-held camera style it’s filmed in (another level of freshness to this film) – it’s basically a documentary. But it’s a warm film. The characters all feel real – even Allen cuts down on his slapstick-y paranoia to play an everyday New Yorker – and the cinematography & production design is just gorgeous – with Autumn reds, browns and rain-swept streets highlighted predominantly. On top of it all you have the performances. First, highly underrated actress Judy Davis has one of the best performances I’ve seen in any movie (not just an Allen movie), and Juliette Lewis who for some reason just never gets the recognition she deserves for this movie when people speak of her filmography. Add the wonderful and departed Sydney Pollack, and Mia Farrow, then round it off with Liam Neeson and Allen, this is just – dare I say it – brilliant! Perfection. Oh – and what is about? It’s about husbands and wives.
Nominations | Best Supporting Actress (Davis), Best Screenplay
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) | A+
For this film it was a reunion of sorts, and at the same time a bit of a fresh start. After Allen’s personal troubles became public, he decided to take it light for his next film, and to do that he teamed up for the first time since Annie Hall with his co-star from that film (and real life ex-girlfriend) Diane Keaton. Also back in the fold was the co-writer of Annie Hall (Allen rarely has co-writers), Marshall Brickman, who worked as co-writer on this film as well. This lovely piece of celluloid is a perfect gem, and in this fan’s eyes – one of his best. As for the story, well, the title sums it up nice and simply – it’s a murder mystery that takes place in Manhattan. When Larry (Allen) and Carol’s (Keaton) neighbor passes away, wild ideas are floated about as to what happened, but when Keaton becomes an on-the-fly PI – it turns out the theories of her and her friend Ted (Alan Alda) may not be so crazy after all. I have seen this one more than any other of Allen’s films, so we are probably talking about 70 times I would guess at this point. Yes, I’ve spent 140 hours of my life watching this movie over and over again – and it’s still not enough and it never gets stale at all. Every location is charming and beautiful. Every note of music is perfectly chosen. Every performance is spot on. The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is superb. The chance to see Anjelica Huston in a comedic role is refreshing. As well, Allen may not get many accolades for his acting chops, but he nails this role perfectly. It’s hard to get lost in any Allen performance – it’s always apparent you are watching Woody Allen – but he steps out of his shell a bit for this one and puts in a hilarious role. Apparently something about his personal troubles helped him put out two of his best works, back to back, as this one is breezy, it’s whimsical, it’s really really funny, and its even tense at times. And if you’re a sucker for Allen’s one-liners, delivered with his physical brand of comedy – you’re in for a treat here. And is that Joy Behar, and Zach Braff? WEIRD! Perfect for any occasion, this movie is pure comfort food. Very HIGHLY recommended.
Larry Lipton: You could go the route I did and buy her a set of handkerchiefs.
Carol Lipton: Well, they were very nice though, and they had my initials.
Larry Lipton: Yeah, and I didn’t even know her size.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994) | A
Anchored by two fantastic performances by Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly, and not to mention probably the strongest supporting ensembles in any of Allen’s films, this is another entry into what was a decade straight of fantastic entries into his filmography. This one revoles around struggling playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) who has been given the opportunity by his manager to bring his newest play to Broadway. He even has the Norma Desmond-inspired Helen Sinclair (Wiest) on board for her big comeback. The only hitch? This opportunity is fully financed by a big time mobster who requires his airhead girlfriend (Tilly) take the lead. Of course David is not having it and chaos ensues. This is a very funny movie, specifically because of the performances, and frankly it’s pretty difficult to take one’s eyes off the screen whenever Dianne Wiest is on. She completely transforms herself and it’s a simply fantastic (and ultimately a much deserved award-winning) performance. Then you’ve got Tracy Ullman, Harvey Fierstein and goodness is that Mary-Louise Parker? She’s no Nancy Botwin here. This is one of those movies where it’s hard to understand why awards for casting are not given out. Very fun, very very funny and highly recommended – of course.
Awards | Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)
Nominations | Best Supporting Actress (Tilly), Best Supporting Actor (Palminteri), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design
Don’t Drink the Water (1994) | A
Originally a play written by Allen that debuted on Broadway in 1966, it was turned into a film just 3 years after it’s publication with Jackie Gleason in the lead. The results were poor – as seen no more strongly than in the eyes of Allen himself. So 25 years later Allen decided to get the film done right under his direction, this time as a TV movie for ABC and using his usual production crew (DP Carlos diPalma, production designer Santo Loquasto, etc). The plot is simple – Walter Hollander (Allen) and his family somehow end up behind the Iron Curtain for vacation and end up having to seek asylum in the US Embassy, one that is filled with a cast of characters bumbling through the job after the departure of the current ambassador, leaving his son (Michael J. Fox) in charge of the embassy. What sounds like a project that didn’t have much going for it turned out to be one of Allen’s best, specifically because of the hilarious script and fantastic great comedic performances of Allen, Fox, and Julie Kavner (Mrs Hollander). Even Mayim Bialik does a decent job as the Hollander’s recently engaged daughter who falls for the newly minted ambassador during their stay. This is just a really fun screwball comedy, and again if you find Allen’s neurosis and style of one-liners, this is Allen in finest form in all his over-the-top glory. Highly recommended.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995) | A
For some reason I get the feeling this, one of Allen’s best, is being forgotten with time, and I can’t really figure out why. Anchored by a fantastic, hilarious and award-winning performance from Mira Sorvino, this is a really fun movie about Lenny (Allen) who adopted a child with this wife (Helena Bonham Carter), and then becomes curious in finding out who the child’s birth mother is. This leads him to the quirky, charming albeit dim porn star/prostitute Linda Ash (Sorvino), to whom Allen becomes determined to help turn her life around. The story is narrated by a Greek chorus who appears and disappears at various moments throughout, tying the plot up with the story of Oedipus. There’s something very comforting about this movie to me, maybe because it seems to balance out all the different forms of comedy Allen does, instead of just focusing on one style. Mighty Aphrodite is a prime example of Allen at this best, especially scenes between him and Sorvino which are just fantastic (their first encounter has me in tears each time from laughing). Michael Rapaport is fantastic as well I should add. I can’t recommend this one enough.
Awards | Best Supporting Actress (Sorvino)
Nominations | Best Screenplay
Everyone Says I Love You (1996) | A-
With an open mind, you could find this movie to be incredibly fun. When I first saw it, I did enjoy it, but I don’t think I appreciated the way it deserves to be. I’m not really sure of what decade this is influenced by, but its a musical in the style of films from somewhere between the 1930’s and 1950’s. The fun twist is that all the musical sequences are sung by the actors, none of which are trained vocalists in any manner. So that’s funny, you see? HA! The plot basically involves some various romances amongst a rich extended Manhattan family of self-proclaimed liberal Democrats. The extended part of the family includes Joe (Allen), the ex-husband of Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who travels to Venice for the summer with his daughter DJ (Natasha Lyone) and falls, with DJ’s assistance, into a relationship with Von (Julia Roberts). Other romances include the on-the-rocks engagement between characters played by Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore, a teen crush between Natalie Portman and a local neighbor, and of course the marriage between Hawn and Alan Alda. Everything here is just pitch perfect (other than the singing of course). From the sets, the scenery of Venice, Paris and New York, the casting, even the costuming is spot on somehow. It’s a bright, colorful, cheery and fun movie, and is one of his very few that I like to say is breezy from beginning to end. And something about the ending, where an ex-husband and ex-wife can still share wonderful moments together as friends and parents, including what I would say is the best shot of any of his films with Allen dancing with a flying Goldie Hawn under a moonlit Paris night – just very charming and beautiful stuff. It’s all quite refreshing really, and proof that this movie is indeed a fantasy from another time on many many levels.
Deconstructing Harry (1997) | A+
This is without a doubt one of Allen’s best films. Feeling like a whole new, fresh, revived and inspired Woody Allen, this one is beautifully shot, cleverly edited, very funny, and just works so well as Allen decided clearly to push himself outside the box a bit, and because of that it feels very inspired from beginning to end. The story revolves around Harry Block (played by Allen) whose life is a bit in disarray, and in no uncertain terms is seeing aspects of his persona played out via dramatizations of his various short stories. The cast is huge and hilarious, including seeing Kirstie Alley finally show the comic chops she showed back on her days on Cheers, and Mariel Hemingway – who years earlier was Allen’s co-star in Manhattan. And to top it all off – it all still feels like quintessential Allen. I’ve seen this one dozens of times and it never gets old. It’s a complex, but somehow a very cozy and comfy film, and Allen continues to make New York City look and sound like a place I wish I could love.
Nominations | Best Screenplay
Celebrity (1998) | B
I’m not fully sure why after seeing this movie again after many years that I enjoyed it so much more – maybe it’s just one of those situations where the subject at hand gets better with age. When I initially saw it in the theater I was terribly annoyed with Kenneth Branagh playing the part that Allen would usually plays by doing a near complete impersonation, but now I found it quite fun and enjoyable. Maybe it’s simply the filling of the gap from the past few years where Allen hasn’t appeared in most of his films. Maybe also now that time has passed and the film’s s process of becoming more of an older film has progressed, it becomes all the more apparent the classic feel that a beautifully shot black & white film can bring to a movie. Watching this has been the greatest of surprises as I wasn’t looking forward to this one nearly as much, and as it turns out I’ve a new-found appreciation and thus I do recommend checking it out. An ageless Charlize Theron, an un-seasoned Leonardo DiCaprio, the consistently fantastic Judy Davis, then Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffith, and countless others all round out this take on modern-day celebrity, intertwined with the ups and downs of modern-day romances of course – this is Woody Allen after all. Lovely … surprisingly.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999) | B-
This movie has always felt to me like a wonderful and harmless little showcase. Not just for the wonderful performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton – both well-deserving of their Oscar nominations, but of all the wonderful jazz music that is at the forefront of the story. Penn portrays fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, who is “the second greatest jazz guitarist of his time, right behind Django Reinhardt” … well according to him that is the case. He is talented with the guitar neck, but he’s just as talented with the bottleneck – and because of that, real potential greatness that is within arm’s reach is simply too far away to grasp. In the meantime, the story is a pleasant observation on the life of Emmet, especially once he meets Hattie (Morton), a mute woman with whom he becomes involved in a relationship. More than the chemistry they do have on-screen, hers is truly a fantastic performance, especially considering she doesn’t utter a word through the entire film. Sweet and Lowdown is a nice story, with great production design, music and performances, but there is just something missing which I still can’t pinpoint. There’s not much humor, nor is their much drama. It’s all a bit directionless, which is nice at times, but when all the elements in this are so grand – when it’s lacking a strong direction – it just feels unfinished. A shame, as this could have been one of his best. Oh, and John Waters is in it! YAY!
Nominations | Best Actor (Penn), Best Supporting Actress (Morton)
Small Time Crooks (2000) | A
This is one of my favorite films by Allen as it contains all the elements that makes his movies classic. It’s a breezy screwball comedy with a fun script and a fantastic cast of comedians who are clearly having a great time making the film. Can you ever go wrong with Tracy Ullman, Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, the amazing Elaine May, and Woody Allen at this neurotic best? Oh and the plot? It’s about a group of bumbling con artists who in the middle of a new get rich quick scheme, find themselves getting rich quick in a whole different manner – running a mega corporation making cookies. Hilarity ensues. Can’t recommend this one enough.
COMING NEXT WEEK : The Curse of the Jade Scorpion through Midnight in Paris