And now I present the final entry in my series of posts reviewing the films of Woody Allen, this time covering his films The Curse of the Jade Scorpion through Midnight in Paris. 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 has been a series of four posts – one per week over the last 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!
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) | D-
This movie is insufferable. It’s not a complete wreck – only because in this biased Allen fan’s eyes his mere presence is enough, as he is funny as always. However, with this one it couldn’t be more clear Allen was able to get movies green-lit because of his tremendous track record, and not on a case by case basis. Allen plays an insurance investigator in the year 1940, who finds himself hypnotized by a criminal magician – getting him to steal various jewels. When not hypnotized he is back at his job and investigating the very crimes he unknowingly committed. There are other plot points going on, but it doesn’t really matter all that much. There is just something very very off about this movie that I can’t pinpoint. One that I can, which I think is what kills any chance that this movie had, is its casting. Dan Aykroyd is skin-crawlingly bad in this, one of the worst performances I have seen in any movie. Why he wasn’t fired and replaced when Allen saw the dailies I have no idea, but maybe he just knew this movie had no hope and wanted to just get it done with. Also Helen Hunt – who I am not a fan of to begin with, is piss-poor, completely robotic and just awful. A good match for Aykroyd I guess. Nauseating. I suppose it’s not all bad, Allen IS funny, the 40’s production design is good and it does have Wallace Shawn and Charlize Theron. It might be worth seeing for a laugh (at it, of course), but I would wait until you see ALL his other films first before seeing this. It’s no Plan 9 From Outer Space, but in the Allen universe, this one is lost in space. POW!
Hollywood Ending (2002) | D+
Smack dab in the middle of the string of 3 lackluster films Allen made in the early 00’s, this is probably the best of the three. It still has its cringe-inducing moments where Allen – in his late 70’s – somehow has a magnetism that draws young beautiful women to his side, but one may feel better watching it thinking the absurdity of it all is purposefully written for comedic effect. Due to Allen’s all too public personal life, it’s hard to think that is actually the case. Regardless, and as uninspired and awkward this movie is (and its poor casting – George Hamilton, Treat Williams and Tiffani Amber Thiessen? Really?), Allen’s performance at least draws a fair amount of laughs from his physical comedy – one’s that hardcore Allen devotees will find enough to give this a passing grade. As a writer and filmmaker of Allen’s caliber, this is one of his few films that are best saved for last.
Anything Else (2003) | D
By the time this film came and went, one had to think that Allen may have “finally” lost it completely. To put it nicely – it’s a complete mess. First, look at that poster. It tells you everything you need to know, which is they had to resort to desperate marketing to try to get anyone to his movie – including Allen fans. Those fans were I believe quite worried when they saw the casting. Some are good in their own right (Stockard Channing, Christina Ricci), but together – with the likes of Jason Biggs and Jimmy Fallon?! This is the only movie that Allen made where it felt like he was trying to copy himself. Nothing about it feels “naturally Allen”. The writing, the acting, everything is trying to live in Woody Allen’s world – but they aren’t even in the tri-state area. Maybe the one redeeming quality is Allen playing a slightly militant character – which is so against his nature that it’s amusing to watch – but it’s too little too late. Christina Ricci is pretty cute – that’s something!
Melinda and Melinda (2004) | C+
This is one of those movies from Allen during a period of what I found to be unfinished products. It’s in the vain of Crimes and Misdemeanors, with half the movie being a drama, the other half being a comedy. But unlike that movie (which had two different stories), this is one story of a slightly emotionally unstable woman looking for real love, trust and stability in her life being told twice – once as a drama, and once as comedy. It plays well in parts, but suffers from some sub-par casting choices, and even the good ones – while doing their best with the material – seem to be lacking direction. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, it has funny moments and good performances (Radha Mitchell, Chloë Sevigny and even despite instinctively trying to do a Woody Allen impression, Will Ferrell is funny), but it’s aching for one final script re-write, and one more round of auditions. Amanda Peet, really? But thank you for Steve Carrell – that always helps.
Match Point (2005) | A-
Woody Allen. Tennis. Scarlet Johansson. I personally couldn’t ask for a better combination, and luckily it turned out quiet well, with Allen making a complete turnaround after his last few semi-duds. Sure this movie has some over-the-top performance moments, especially from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as an aspiring English socialite, but at the same time he is perfectly cast for the role. If his performance is intended or not, it’s hard to tell, but it’s cringe-inducing… and perfect. Oh, and did I mention Scarlett Johansson? Some of her scenes could have been written and directed by Allen with a bit less camp, but when the material is right, she shines. This film succeeds when placed in the context of the Woody Allen universe, basically because he’s ventured into new territory. He’s now based his movie in England instead of his New York home, and similar to when he started dabbling in dramas, he’s now trying out “thrillers” – although I say that lightly. It’s hard for me to judge this movie as a stand-alone entry in the world of cinema, but in Allen’s universe, it’s a refreshing change of pace, and done brilliantly.
Nominations | Best Screenplay
Scoop (2006) | A
This is one of my favorite of Allen’s comedies as it’s a celluloid version of comfort food. You can sit down and watch it with full attention at any time and it’s a great experience, or you can put it on in the background and it’s nice to have it there, keeping you company. It was a nice change after Match Point‘s over-the-top seriousness, and to see Scarlett Johansson’s comedic chops just a year later, it has become clear to me after repeated viewing of both that film and this one that this performance is the better of the two. Her top quality to me is to take on the role by not acting like “how you’re supposed to act in an Allen film”, but to make it all your own, and she does just that. There’s no real need to go into the plot, as it’s not as important as the light-hearted mood of the film, but basically it’s about murder and magic. The key to the film’s success is the interaction between Allen’s and Ms Johansson’s characters, including Allen’s still hilarious skill of physical comedy and one-liners. If that alone is enough to make a movie pure gold, then you will be in heaven with this one, but just add in Johansson’s bubbly enthusiastic naivety (her character, I refer to) and you’ve got a brilliant new comedic team. This isn’t the best review as it’s not the easiest film to explain why I love it so much, but I guess that’s the nature of comfort food.
Cassandra’s Dream (2007) | C-
Allen’s third film in a row to take place in England intends to be a brutal thriller, but instead it unfortunately comes across more like a cut-rate mid-afternoon Agatha Christie made for TV movie. The plot involves two brothers, Ian and Terry (McGregor and Farrell) who are in serious debt due to Terry’s gambling problems. They turn to their wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson – the film’s one genuinely good performance – albeit brief) for help. He agrees – but only if Ian and Terry are willing to murder someone who is causing Howard trouble of his own. They in turn agree and perform the task without getting caught, but Terry’s overwhelming guilt begins a spiral for both the brothers that threatens their plan and their lives. There are actually many good elements to this film – possibly because it is a classic old story – but the execution by Allen is just weak here. It feels rushed, it feels like its going through the motions, and only three films in and it already feels like the English setting has somehow gone stale. And not to mention most of the performances in this which practically feel phoned in. It’s no fault of the actors necessarily, Allen is known to film scenes in just one take and not be demanding of his actors – and it really shows here more than any other film. It’s nearly a remake of Match Point, and just two movie on, it wasn’t very promising for Allen. Luckily it turned out to be a small blip on the radar. I don’t necessarily recommend this one, especially compared to dozens of his other films, but it’s probably worth seeing, to, you know, form your own opinion. It’s not a disaster, and has it’s moments, and a great score by Philip Glass. Just don’t expect too much.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) | A-
Once you get past the insanely annoying and twatty-sounding narrator, this is quite a fun little movie. Sure, it’s kind of the usual basic Allen plot lines – some sort of romantic entanglements – be them serious, funny, or silly – but for this movie the plot to me is not what drives this one. For me it’s more of the smaller moments – the moments that are so charming they more than make up for some of the few downfalls which are really annoying (the afore-mentioned narrator; the boyfriend character of Rebecca Hall). You have the Spanish soundtrack which is a welcome change from the usual Allen big band choices. The affectionate relationship Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem) has with his father. The gorgeous Barcelona scenery and the warm glow of the cinematography its shrouded in. The contrast in outlooks on life and love that bonds the two main characters. The casting is great – including Patricia Clarkson who is underused but always welcome in just about any film she appears. The calm, quiet and charming confidence of Bardem’s character and performance. And then Penélope Cruz shows up and just steals the movie as Gonzalo’s sort of ex-wife, and an unstable one at that. I’d never really seen her in many movies before, so I didn’t understand her potential, but it was obvious for me in this one what a talent she is. Maybe seeing her firecracker of a character screaming and yelling in the streets of her home country in her native tongue is what it took for me, but WHATEVER WORKS, she is fantastic in this – very funny – and just a beautiful and perfect performance. Despite a few flaws this is surprisingly well-rounded film and shows when Allen branches out beyond his comfort zone – just a little bit – his skills as a writer and director – still to this day – become more apparent than one would think.
Awards | Best Supporting Actress (Cruz)
Whatever Works (2009) | A
This is one movie I can 100% admit I am completely unable to look at this from an objective point of view. It’s a dream combination of Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Woody Allen, and thus, from my fanatical point of view, bias is not strong enough a word. David plays a character (Boris Yellnikoff) that seems to come natural to him – a bitter, old, New York curmudgeon – and if you find that sort of personality to be funny (at least on film) – you’ll be in heaven here. Underneath it all though, there’s a sweetness to it all. When Melody St. Ann Celestine (Even Rachel Wood) arrives from Mississippi outside Boris’ apartment building looking for refuge, he reluctantly takes her in, and over time develops a relationship, and then somehow finds himself married to her. Then, when Melody’s mother arrives looking for her (played by the fantastic Patricia Clarkson), she finds herself going through her own interesting transformation, realizing that whatever works – just go with it. Everything is taken very lightly (as the title suggests), from the relationships on-screen, to the breezy, bright and beautiful summer atmosphere that the New York setting creates. It may be fluff and it may be silly, but it’s funny, and the actors (particularly Wood and Clarkson) play it perfectly. I see beauty in the weird things sometimes, and I do find this one to be a beautiful piece of celluloid. “Oh my god, entropy!”
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010) | B+
Another London-set comedy, this time about the highs and lows of shifting relationships between a small set of interconnected families and their friends and colleagues. Typical Allen, with a few twists or even for him a refreshing change, where stories are left unfinished – so much so it makes you wonder – is this the time for Allen’s first sequel? This one is buoyed by fantastic acting from Naomi Watts and Anthony Hopkins who should have been recognized during awards season, as well as a great performance from Gemma Jones who plays the mother of Ms Watt’s character. Light and breezy, Allen struck a great balance from the straight on comedic and straight on dramatic tones of his very recent films. Of all his London-based films, something about this one feels actually British to me. So, time to leave! ….
Midnight in Paris (2011) | A-
This one has been hard to fully digest as I have only seen it twice. “Only” – and it only came out a few weeks ago (well, when I wrote this)! HA! However, I am still able to report that this is a fantastic movie, and surprisingly so. I was very excited for this release but for some reason my expectations weren’t so hot. I like Owen Wilson quite a bit, but for some reason I wasn’t convinced he would be a good lead in such a movie, but my assumptions proved incorrect as he does a fantastic job in the role. His performance is very funny, very natural, and he luckily doesn’t try to imitate Woody Allen in any way, which a lot of actors seem to attempt when Allen isn’t in the film (see Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity). Midnight in Paris is just very very fun – and breezy! I love that description, can you tell? BREEZY! Gil (Wilson) is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams) and is on vacation with her parents in Paris. He decides to take a late night stroll, and the next thing he knows – when the clock strikes midnight – he is transported to his golden age, Paris of the 1920’s, and ends up meeting and hanging out with many artists of the time (Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, etc). He then meets Adriana – who is currently dating Pablo Picasso, of course, (the ridiculously beautiful and charming Marion Cotillard) and his plan on where his romantic and professional future is headed – his reality of 2010 – becomes altered forever. The casting is fantastic (even the First Lady of France Carla Bruni does a good job in a small role as a tourist guide), the sets are beautiful, and Paris looks simply gorgeous – and this coming from someone who is yet to be convinced of the beauty of Paris. I know, I know, I’m weird. This is a very very fun movie, funny, silly and very charming all around, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it, or even read it. HA!