Saturday, 8 February 2014

The complete Woody Allen (continued) - Reviews #184

That's frankly a deeply misleading title. I've no idea what possessed me to use it. There's no way I'm revisiting most of his noughties films, because they're rubbish. Still, I was more than happy to go back to these ones, which are coming up in chronological order:

Zelig (1983) - "I'm 12 years old. I run into a synagogue. I ask the rabbi the meaning of life. He tells me the meaning of life, but he tells it to me in Hebrew. I don't understand Hebrew. Then he wants to charge me $600 for Hebrew lessons."

It's a little piece of Allen genius, but there aren't many one-liners in this brief, ingenious mockumentary, inspired by the faux newsreel near the start of Citizen Kane.

Woody is Leonard Zelig, the "human chameleon" who unwittingly inhabits the physical characteristics of those around him, a trait that turns him into a national sensation during the Jazz Age. Mia Farrow, in her second film with the director (though the first to be shot), is the psychiatrist who brooks the medical consensus by insisting that his problems are all rooted in his mind. Shot as a retrospective documentary, complete with taking heads and perfectly rendered "newsreels", not to mention a fake film-within-a-film and spoof novelty records, it's an incredible technical achievement, armed with an effortless sense of the credibly absurd, and with a real purpose behind it.

Because what might appear at first glance to be a throwaway, one-joke comedy is actually a deft satire on celebrity and conformity, with an inspired sting in the tail. In fact, the film's only real shortcoming is that it lacks the emotional pull of most of Allen's other '80s films: the scenes in which he and Farrow converse in relative privacy are the most affecting and funny in the picture - but they're also too brief and few in number.

It's a must-see, though, because it's something completely different: a pitch-perfect pastiche with a real purpose, a sharp sense of humour and a slightly underdeveloped presence of heart. Plus Farrow in a doctor's coat. This is the film that launched my enduring crush (on her, not on doctors). Hubba hubba. (3.5)


September (1987) - This is Woody's most underrated movie, an emotionally draining, Bergmanesque chamber piece drawing abstractly on the Johnny Stompanato affair, as a self-pitying bag of nerves (Mia Farrow) - still haunted by shooting dead her mother's gangster boyfriend decades before - interacts with other unhappy souls at her Vermont house.

There's her outwardly vivacious mother (Elaine Stritch) - a former movie star accompanied by her husband (Jack Warden) - a moody writer with whom Farrow is besotted (Sam Waterston), the married woman he loves (Dianne Wiest), and Farrow's own, benevolent suitor (Denholm Elliott).

The film underwent a notably difficult production, with Allen being forced to entirely reconstruct the interiors of Farrow's country house on a soundstage, before scrapping a first attempt at the material after it had been finished, re-working the script and replacing half the cast. But the artificial, stagily claustrophobic setting works wonders, and - while it would have been interesting to see Farrow's mother, '30s movie star Maureen O'Sullivan in the Stritch role - the additions do have their compensations.

The material is some of Allen's best. Though Farrow's character can come down on the wrong side of whiny, there are proper psychological factors underpinning her behaviour, and the criticism from various reviewers that these people's problems aren't worth caring about seems flatly shortsighted. Yes, they're middle-class, white and largely affluent, but their confusion over their identity, their thwarted passions and their purpose in life are surely universal, and not caring about someone who's mentally ill because they're a bit annoying is The Wrong Response.

The Stompanato story is a great basis for a study of childhood trauma echoing down the decades, and Allen's recourse to physics in trying to articulate the chaotic meaninglessness of existence, if rather conveniently achieved (Stritch's husband happens to be a senior physicist), cleverly underscores a film that's positively throbbing with emotional angst.

The movie does have a few shortcomings. It arguably reaches its zenith at about the midway point, during a nicely conceived power-cut - as Elliott lays bare his feelings for Farrow, and Wiest struggles valiantly with the pull of adultery (oh really, Woody, how novel) - and has its moments of repetition, while Waterston, though not bad, frankly can't hold his own in this kind of company. But most of it's very special indeed. It's intelligently directed, scored by some lovely Art Tatum tunes and, belying the project's rocky history, Allen seems in total control of his themes and his language, shorn of the verbal artificiality that can sometimes intrude on his drama. The acting, though, is the real treat.

Farrow has some brilliant passages, Elliott is absolutely sensational, and Wiest gives her greatest performance ever, casting a torch into every flaw, every frailty in her character's psyche. The scene in which she succumbs to temptation is a masterclass in screen performance: a credible epiphany articulated largely with the back of her head. She's miserable, sensuous, guilt-ridden - often all at once - her voice cracking over her dialogue, her eyes full of fire. I know she's only acting, but boy is she good at it.

So why does September never get bracketed in with those Allen classics? Frankly, your guess is as good as mine. Possibly because it's only got about three jokes, and sombre isn't what people expect - or want - from Woody. Possibly because its trailer is the worst marketing job of all time - wordless close-ups of the actors' faces - and people who saw it have never got over it. Or possibly because all those who've seen the film were so dumbstruck by how ace it was that they forgot to tell anyway. Anyway, it's great: the most unjustly-neglected film in Woody's back catalogue. See it. (4)


Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) - One of Allen's true masterpieces, and arguably his most ambitious film: a pair of faintly interlocking stories unfolding in successive chunks, one a gripping, gutting tragedy, and the other a hysterically funny comedy.

The serious story is an astonishingly intense, brilliantly-directed piece about a doctor and philanthropist (Martin Landau) trying to deal with his mistress (Anjelica Huston), a loose cannon intent on bringing his world down around his ears. The other narrative is lighter than air: a comedy classic about Allen's resentful, unsuccessful documentary maker being asked to shoot the authorised biography of his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an impossibly smug TV producer and his rival for the affections of colleague Mia Farrow.

It's superbly put together - its pivotal event falling at the exact mid-point - handsomely shot by Bergman's favourite, Sven Nyqvist, and full of Allen's distinctive dialogue. Do people talk like this? Perhaps not anywhere I've been, and yet the language is deep and beautifully pitched, the themes universally resonant, and the characters diverse, real and unforgettable, brought to life by a remarkable cast. There's Landau's conflicted atheist, Huston's hysteric, Sam Waterston's thoughtful, almost angelic rabbi, Allen's frustrated thinker, Alda's apparently superficial success story, and a pair of different yet equally lonely women in Farrow and Caroline Aaron.

Its central theme - tied up in a lovely closing voiceover - isn't only the obvious one suggested by the title, though I don't want to say more here, or indeed to spoil my favourite joke in any Allen film, which comes when Woody has to explain to his wife the misfortune that has just befallen his sister.

It's a film that manages to be bleak, heartbreaking and yet ultimately, somehow, uplifting, often in the most unexpected of ways. (4)


Alice (1990) - Isn't it annoying how Americans pronounce "herbs"? Yes it is.

Anyway, onto the film. This is a mature, idealistic if somewhat shambolic Woody Allen comedy-drama which interrogates the complacent lifestyles of his usual set, while throwing in a few supernatural and comedic flourishes.

Mia Farrow is the titular character, a lapsed Catholic who goes to see a mysterious Chinese acupuncturist (the great Keye Luke), only to have her back pain diagnosed as upper middle class malaise. Luke gives her a succession of improbable potions to take, which allow her to study, and alter, her comfortable life.

Some may quibble with the usual Allen idea that leading a more truthful, worthwhile life involves cheating on your partner, but Farrow is excellent, the music is particularly well-chosen, and there are several unforgettable sequences in the film's rather jumbled, erratic narrative.

Alice's brief transformation into a vampish, jazz-loving flirt is funny, while the passage set around her childhood home is simply one of the best things Allen has ever done, incredibly beautiful and profound. The same might have been said for the spine-tingling sequences featuring the ghost of her great love, had someone more talented than Alec Baldwin been cast in the part. (3)


"He has come into possession of some very alarming information."
"Like what, did he get the results of his IQ test back?"
Don’t Drink the Water (TVM, 1994) - What have you achieved so far in life? Me neither, but I have seen every one of Woody Allen's theatrically released films. I make that slightly neurotic distinction because, well, neurotic is Woody's default mode, and it also explains where this movie comes in.

Don't Drink the Water was a daft diversion, made for American TV, which Allen squeezed in between Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, and had always eluded me until now. So, in light of my recent rewatchathon of some of Woody's finest (and Sleeper), I sold my DVD of The Mask of Dimitrios, as I've started doing with movies that don't quite match my expectations, and replaced it with this one. Is that interesting? I just don't know anymore.

Allen wrote the source play in 1966, when the Cold War material was not just timely but so relevant as to be almost satiric by default. It was made into a film three years later starring Jackie Gleason, but Woody hated that, the annoyance apparently enduring for decades, until he could attempt to put it right.

I haven't seen the original, so I can't compare, partly because I wanted to watch Allen's version first, and partly because the late '60s was a wasteground for American screen comedy, with most of the hits having dated far worse than their '30s equivalents. Of course I'm generalising massively, but on the one hand you have Allen's directorial debut and The Graduate; on the other, The Producers, Casino Royale and an abundance of mediocrity in which once great actors, directors and writers seemed to mislay their talents and their supposed replacements failed to deliver: Caprice, Walk, Don't Run, Support Your Local Sheriff! and those slapstick epics that make me want to cry.

Anyway, the plot here, as apparently in those earlier versions, concerns a young diplomat (Michael J. Fox) who's left in charge of the US embassy in Moscow while his dad's away. It's at this juncture that a family of snap-happy American tourists (Allen, regular collaborator Julie Kavner -the voice of Marge Simpson - and Blossom-era Mayim Bialik) run into the building, chased by Russian soldiers who think they're spies. The rest of the film has them trying to extricate themselves from the building and the country, and along the way there's space for many of Allen's preoccupations: new love, mystics, magic and Michelangelo.

It isn't very well-directed - the 4:3 format doesn't suit Allen's visual style, and his camera always seems to be about 15 feet away from whoever's talking - and in all honesty the film never really gets going, but it's pleasant enough, it's interesting to see Allen and Kavner essentially playing versions of his real-life parents, and every 15 minutes or so there are a flurry of funny lines. There's also the ageing Woody pretending to be a gunslinging cowboy, which wasn't something I ever expected to see.

A footnote then, really, but a fairly fun one, and worth it for fans.

Now I'm going to sell it and get something else. (2.5)


Deconstructing Harry (1997) - A film as swaggeringly confident as its lead character is pulsatingly uncertain, kicking off with a run of cool jump cuts set to syncopated jazz, then guiding us through a flamboyantly non-linear story studded with wisdom, philosophy and Allen's signature one-liners.

"Y'know, it's funny, every hooker I speak to tells me that it beats the hell out of waitressing," he tells Cookie, his prostitute of choice, while putting his clothes back on. "Waitressing's gotta be the worst fucking job in the world."

That's right, this is the sweary one: Allen's most adult film and perhaps his most obviously autobiographical, dealing with adultery, anxiety and alienation once more, but zoning in on the idea of a writer who is exceptional at his craft, but hopeless at life. That dichotomy is illustrated by the broad range of friends, ex-lovers and literary creations peppered throughout the film, most of whom want to tell him what a reprehensible human being he is, but not in such polite terms. For all that, he is off on a road trip to receive an honorary degree, like the main figure in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

The first half of the movie is extraordinarily good: ingeniously structured and full of inspired diversions, though the second, whilst frequently superb, does see Woody getting slightly tangled up with his story threads and throwing in a couple of fantasy sequences too many.

If you're one of Allen's acolytes, though, it remains an extremely interesting, important and insightful film, and, aside from his two genuinely great '90s films - Husbands and Wives, and Sweet and Lowdown - the best thing he did that decade, bursting with ideas and hysterical gags, and benefiting immeasurably from both his assured central turn and Judy Davis's amazing performance as his impulsive, insecure ex-mistress.

This is also the film in which an actor finds that he is literally out of focus, a concept that could only have hatched from the mind of one writer. (3.5)


Scoop (2006) - Well, this is awkward. The film, I mean. Very awkward. Clunky too. And stilted. Not as awkward as having your film part-funded by BBC Films, shooting it in London, and then not being able to get it released in Britain. But awkward nonetheless.

ScarJo, as I believe we're calling her now, is a journalism student in what I think is supposed to be England, except that no-one in England acts or talks like this, and you can't get a Coke in a glass at a bakery. Still, there are loads of people off English telly, like Phil Cornwell as the neighbour of a murder victim, Charles Dance as a journo, Alexander Armstrong playing a policeman and Romola Garai playing one of those (again, apparently English) women written by Allen who basically say nothing except "Daddy". So I suppose it must be England.

Woody meanwhile, is ScarJo's sidekick, a stage magician who's cajoled into helping her after he accidentally summons the ghost of a dead reporter (Ian McShane) during his act, who in turn gives her the scoop of the title: playboy millionaire Hugh Jackman might be the "Tarot Card Killer", basically the new Jack the Ripper.

It's a mixture of murder mystery and comedy where the suspense mostly consists of people trying not to get caught looking around a secret room, where Jackman has this annoying habit of killing Allen's one-liners dead if he's in the vicinity, by going "Ha" really unconvincingly, where ScarJo's performance largely consists of her wearing glasses, and where the script spends as much time explaining why the characters can't run their news story or go to the police as it does on the good stuff.

In fact, the whole thing feels slapdash and half-finished.

But I can't help it, I just quite like it. When Allen's not trading on upper-class English stereotypes, he has some really funny lines, McShane is fun in support, and the whole thing is basically slightly better than Sleeper. I'm not trying to re-appraise it as a classic, that would be silly (look at all that stuff I wrote above), but its status as Allen's worst movie is frankly daft. It's lively and well-intentioned and actually kind of fun. And have you seen Cassandra's Dream?

"I'll do the jokes, Sandra." (2.5)


Thanks for reading.

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