Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Woody Allen's Canon

Upon the release of Woody Allen's 41st film, "Midnight in Paris," here are my critiques of the Woodman's work. 


Interiors (1978)
93 min., rated PG.
Grade: B + 

Woody Allen breaks the mold with "Interiors," a decidedly somber, Ingmar Bergman-esque piece and his first film that doesn't include comic relief or himself. Three sisters, poet Renata (Diane Keaton), unhappy artist Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), and actress Flyn (Kristin Griffith), must deal with the separation and divorce of their emotional mother (Geraldine Page) and impatient father (E.G. Marshall). 

Page acts from her heart in a delicate, heartbreaking performance as Eve, and Maureen Stapleton is very good too as Pearl, their father's twice-married girlfriend from Florida. All of the performances are open and vulnerable, and the conversations are interesting. Gordon Willis elegantly shoots with a painterly eye for detail in the space of empty rooms and characters staring out windows. Sure, the final scene is cinematically contrived but understated and it stays with you long after. 

Deliberate, downbeat, and often painfully devastating, "Interiors" is experimental Allen, staged very much like a play, but it's powerfully acted and maturely done. 



Manhattan (1979)
96 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

"Manhattan," writer-director Woody Allen's love poem to New York and relationships, is a worthy follow-up to "Annie Hall" and among his best. His adoration for the city he calls home shows especially in the romantic, celebratory opening with Gordon Willis' magnificent black-and-white cinematography of the Brooklyn Bridge and fireworks over Central Park and George Gershwin's grand “Rhapsody in Blue” music on the soundtrack. 

Allen stars as Isaac Davis, a neurotic 40-something comedy writer who's dating a high schooler, Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). His married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with a kooky Philadelphia journalist, Mary (Diane Keaton), who criticizes Ingmar Bergman. Isaac's second ex-wife (Meryl Streep), now in a lesbian relationship, is writing a whole book about their marriage. 

"Manhattan" is scathingly bittersweet and witty if not as endearing as two years ago with Allen and Keaton in "Annie Hall." Allen really shows his brilliant sense of humor and timing, and Keaton is nothing less than wonderful. There's the memorable, visually magical scene of Isaac and Mary sitting in silhouette facing the Hudson River. In one of her first bigger roles, 17-year-old Hemmingway is smart and innocent. 

After Annie Hall, "Manhattan" is just the right companion piece to that earlier film, both wistful odes to love and loss rather than fantasy happy endings. 


Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 
104 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: A

Woody Allen's heartfelt, literate, evenly balanced Robert Altman-esque ensemble piece is structured like a chapter novel, revolving around three New York sisters with themes of love, relationships, and faithfulness. 

Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the nurturing lamb to her two sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), a flighty former alcoholic living in a loft with an artist (Max von Sydow), and Holly (Dianne Wiest) is the free-thinking aspiring actress who owns a catering company with her always-overshadowing friend (Carrie Fisher). Hannah is married to Elliot (Michael Caine), an accountant, who's in love with Lee, and Hannah's ex-husband, Mickey (Allen), a hypochondriac TV executive, thinks he's dying. 

Allen intersperses his typically acute sense of humor with sensitivity, and as the film takes place over the span of two years, beginning and ending at Thanksgiving, much has changed from when we first Hannah, Lee, and Holly. Each character has a voice (literally, a voice-over) but it works, they have arcs, and every performance is finely tuned. 

Full of warmth, truth, and humor, "Hannah and Her Sisters" is a treasure and quintessential Woody Allen next to "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." 



Alice (1990)
106 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

In filmmaker Woody Allen's "Alice"—a musing, light-as-helium comic variation on "Alice in Wonderland" and Federico Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits"—his lamblike muse and girlfriend Mia Farrow snags the title spot. 

She's Alice Tate, a rich, pampered Manhattan housewife who spends her days shopping, pedicuring, and gossiping with her socialite lady friends. At an appointment with Chinese healer Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), an ersatz for psychoanalysis, he treats her with hypnosis and mystical herbs, making her realize that she's holding onto her youth. When she meets a handsome, gentle divorced dad (an appealing Joe Mantegna), she begins fantasizing about having an affair with him. But while she's a mousy, goody-goody Mother Teresa and believes in fidelity with her husband (William Hurt), her fantasy becomes reality. 

Although Allen takes time off from the lead spotlight, his one-liners slip through and Farrow is virtually in the “Woody role” with her fast-thinking jitteriness. She's charming. Blythe Danner shines as Alice's distant but down-to-earth sister, and Bernadette Peters and Alec Baldwin enliven their small roles, respectively, as Alice's muse and ghostly first love. Unfortunately, Julie Kavner and Judy Davis don't even register here in bit parts. 

"Alice" is certainly Woody-lite, not always comfortably blurring the line between hokey fancy and affirmativeness about a woman's selfless self-discovery, but it sure is sweet.


Shadows and Fog (1991)
85 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

Woody Allen's tepid experiment in German expressionist style comes and goes like a puff of smoke. In "Shadows and Fog" (based on the filmmaker's comedy play “Death”), a Jack the Ripper-esque serial strangler lurks in the shadows of a European city during the 1920s and strikes in the fog! 

Allen casts himself as another nebbish schlemiel, a bookkeeping clerk named Max Kleinman who's roused from his sleep to help a band of vigilantes find the killer. Naturally, Allen peppers the gloom and doom every now and then with his one-liners, but they're more than mild here. 

The real suspense lies in which actor will pop up next, but so little is done with the cast. Allen's dear Mia Farrow gives the same whiny, lamblike performance here as a sword-swalling circus act, whom we're supposed to believe is mistaken for a prostitute and wholly desired by John Cusack. John Malkovich is surprisingly dull as a circus clown, Farrow's husband. Julie Kavner is momentarily amusing as Max's bitter ex. Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, and Jodie Foster show up as the hookers at a brothel, as do Madonna, Katie Nelligan, Donald Pleasence, and Wallace Shawn in bit parts. Allen's entrapment of the strangler with a magician's (Kenneth Mars) help is an absurdist highlight. 

"Shadows and Fog" would make Fritz Lang and Franz Kafka proud, but will leave Woodyphiles wanting. Nice try but a non-starter in Woody's canon. 


Husbands and Wives (1992)
108 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” obviously at the top of Woody Allen's commandments, comes out full throttle in "Husbands and Wives," the Woodman's most perceptive, witty, and generous look at broken relationships. 

Allen casts himself as Gabe, a faithful (New York) writer and English professor who, along with his wife of 10 years, Judy (Mia Farrow, with a haircut that makes her look like Dianne Wiest), get a very formal announcement by their two married best friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), that they're splitting up. Of course, Gabe and Judy's marriage becomes endangered once a student (Juliette Lewis), who's attracted to older men, looks his way. Then once Sally gets jealous that Jack has already moved on to a chatty airhead (Lysette Anthony), Judy sets Sally up with a sweet colleague, Michael (Liam Neeson). He falls hard for Sally, but Judy is in love with him. 

This truthfully messy exploration of marriage has the characters making confessions in a talking-head couch setting to an off-screen voice that's either a shrink or an interviewer; it's a device but effectively gets us into these people's heads. It's no concidence that life imitates art in "Husbands and Wives," with much conjunction to Allen and Farrow's real-life breakup, as Allen allows us to understand the emotionally fragile and confusing period after a breakup, the dull security of marriage, and the excitement of spontaneous sex. 

In a well-written scene in a cab with Allen and Lewis (the camera on her the entire time), her dialogue in criticizing Gabe's book is so pointed about the film's own themes. Husbands and Wives is so well-acted that we believe these characters exist. Davis is incredibly good as hyperactive, hypocritical Sally. Her character could've been a shrew cliché, but the great Davis goes deeper, finding the rage, confused feelings, and vulnerability of Sally. And veteran director Pollack gives a stellar performance as a man sinking in self-delusion. We see him finally crack at a friends' party where he literally drags his girlfriend out. 

Shot documentary-style as if we're eavesdropping on these couples, the antsy, handhand camera and jump cuts, made to make things feel raw and real, are often distracting and feel overly rigged but don't break the film. 

One of Allen's most emotionally intimate works to date, "Husbands and Wives" is done with the truth, wit, angst, and irony that we've come to expect from the filmmaker's voice.


Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
104 min., rated PG.
Grade: A -

Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" marks a few great returns. It's a return to classic, funny Woody (especially after his past work dealt with heavy themes), his first-co-writing collaboration with Marshall Brickman since "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," and it's his first pairing with Diane Keaton since "Manhattan." 

Allen and Keaton play Larry and Carol Lipton, a long-married couple afraid they're turning dull like their friendly old neighbors, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen). Then Lillian drops dead of a heart attack, case closed. But Carol becomes suspicious of Mr. House acting a little too cheerful as a widower. The Liptons' old close friend, Ted (Alan Alda), plays along with Carol's theories and helps her out in her Nancy Drew sleuthing. 

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" is a flat-out entertaining caper. The mystery plot is actually pretty clever and suspenseful, kind of a Hitchcockian goof on "Vertigo" and "Double Indemnity." And the Woodman's funny quips, phobias, and one-liners are on full display here and so consistent it's hard to keep up or stop laughing. It's a pleasure to see the reunited teaming of Allen and Keaton (whose role was originally intended for Mia Farrow), whose frantic verbal rhythms and neuroses go hand in hand. They feel so at ease with one another that their natural chemistry recalls Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Alda and Anjelica Huston (both appearing last in Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors") are also very sharp as their friends, respectively, a divorced playwright who still yearns for Carol and a sexy fiction writer that gives Larry the eye. 

The one complaint for this very enjoyable film is the same conceit that somewhat plagued last year's "Husbands and Wives": Carlo DiPalma's voyeuristic, roving, handheld cinematography. It's mostly smooth but is sometimes annoying. But this Allen lark is so fun and involving that it hardly matters.


Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Woody Allen's first stint since "Alice" behind the camera without being in front of it is "Bullets Over Broadway," an entertaining Roaring Twenties-period comedy. 

Subbing for Allen is John Cusack as an earnest, nervous playwright, David Shayne, who thinks he's a real artist and gets his latest play financially backed from a Mob boss (played by who other than Joe Viterelli). There's a catch: David has to find a part for the gangster's moll, a helium-voiced, untalented flapper named Olive (Jennifer Tilly). He assembles a flaky crew of thespians, who all put in their two-cents whether David takes them or not, but Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), a glowering gangster that acts as Olive's bodyguard, ends up influencing David because, hot damn, he knows how people speak in real life. Naturally, as David begins taking Cheech's suggestions, the play improves. 

The period flavor is tasty from the golden oldies on the soundtrack (Cole Porter's “Let Misbehave”) to the sumptuous costume design to the art direction, and the dialogue is smart and funny, if not the Woodman's most memorable (co-written by a new collaborator, Douglas McGrath). It's the cast that really gooses things up: Dianne Wiest, hilariously over-the-top, as an over-the-hill, pompous Broadway prima donna Helen Sinclair (who sells her catchphrase “Don't speak!” with theatrical verve); the blowsy Tilly nailing the shrill sex-bomb; Tracey Ullman as a hyper-perky actress with her yippy dog in tote; Jim Broadbent as a gluttonous Englishman who's always feeding his face; and Palminteri, though playing another gangster, charges his Cheech with charisma and surprising intellect and brings on the darkest laughs. 

"Bullets Over Broadway" isn't guns-blazing Woody Allen (some praise it as one of his best), but it's juicily acted and good fun.



Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Writer-director Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" starts out as a Greek tragedy, with a Greek chorus in a stone amphitheater, but we soon realize it's Allen's new device in lieu of his narration. 

Allen is back in frame with his one neurotic personality in New York playing a sportswriter named Lenny. Helena Bonham Carter, obviously in the Mia Farrow role with her lamblike voice, is his art-dealer wife Amanda who wants a baby, so against Lenny's wishes, they adopt a son. After a bit of detective work, he finds his adopted son's biological mother, Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a flighty hooker and porno actress with a lot of different names including her stage name “Judy Cum.” Sorvino shines as the towering, Mickey Mouse-voiced Linda, who's more than just an airhead or the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype. 

Winning an Oscar for her work, Sorvino showcases her daffy timing and on-screen warmth. The joke is that upon meeting Linda, Lenny squirms at every kitschy knickknack in her apartment to every innocously delivered raunchy lick of dialogue that comes out of her mouth. And Lenny's conversation with Linda about setting her up with a dumb boxer (Michael Rapaport), also an onion farmer, is hilarious. The editing is sometimes disjointed and the Greek-parody segments, while amusing, get in the way. 

More vulgar and lighter than most of Allen's work, "Mighty Aphrodite" is still funny and entertaining. Although it's refreshing Allen doesn't write himself ending with Linda, the Greek-like deus ex machina is ironic without ever getting too messy.



Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B + 

Where else are you going to find hospital orderlies and patients dancing around and singing “Makin' Whoopee”? A Woody Allen movie, that's where! His charming and contagiously happy fantasia "Everyone Says I Love You," his first musical on celluloid, is hard to resist. 

Allen's character Joe is a divorced writer living in Paris who contemplates suicide after being dumped by his French girlfriend. Instead, he returns to New York, where he's still on good terms with his charitable ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), now married to Bob (a very funny Alan Alda), but still loves her. Of course, this is Allen's movie, so that doesn't stop him from tailing other *cough* (younger) women like Julia Roberts. Bob's daughter, Skylar (Drew Barrymore), is about to be engaged to Holden (Edward Norton), a nice schnook in love. She accidentally swallows her Harry Winston ring. 

There's a lack of story, though told from the point-of-view and narration of Joe and Steffi's daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) telling us about her politically diverse Upper East Side family, but it's mostly an excuse for Allen to put on a show! 

Everyone seems to be having a good time being in love, gamely breaking into a ditty of ballads from the '30s and '40s (the one exception is Barrymore, whose voice was dubbed and it shows) and fancy footwork. Even if the cast wasn't aware they'd be in a musical until after they signed up, they try their best modestly. Only Alda, Hawn, Norton, and Tim Roth (as an animalistic ex-convict smitten with Skylar) have the most confident pipes, but that doesn't stop the rest, most of all Allen who's no Fred Astaire. With very few cuts during the music numbers, the actors (usually surrounded by back-up dancers) show their stuff like in a Broadway show. One quibble: the camera has a tendency to drift away from those singing for no reason other than to get reaction shots from those watching. 

One fun, cleverly upbeat song-and-dance sequence at a funeral home, “Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think),” has a bunch of ghosts shaking their groove thing. In the closing number “I'm Thru With Love,” preceded by a Groucho Marx party in Paris for New Year's Eve, Allen and Hawn's flight of fancy at the Seine banks is lovely, romantic magic. Allen's cinematographer Carlo DiPalma (since "Hannah and Her Sister"s) captures the enchanting beauty of Italy and New York in the winter. 

Though not his most thematically daring, "Everyone Says I Love You" is Woody's most delightful.


Deconstructing Harry (1997) 






96 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Writer-director Woody Allen's 28th film, "Deconstructing Harry," is certainly his most ambitious and personal autobiographical opus about self-analysis, but also his most sour, profane, and narcissistic work. Or, his confession of being self-obsessed and unable to love. Even in the end, his creations applaud their maker. It's like his first really R-rated movie, as Woody makes his alter ego vulgar, charmless, and unlikable. 

Allen plays Harry Block, a writer suffering writer's block (get the joke?) and depression. He pops pills and chases them with booze. He cheats. He sleeps with whores. He's not winning any Man of the Year Award anytime soon. Harry wrote a thinly disguised fictionalization about his own life, including an affair with his ex-wife's neurotic sister (Judy Davis), who's in an outrage (not too unlike Dianne Wiest's Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters). 

Being cast in a Woody Allen film must feel like a privilege. It's certainly audacious for its cornucopia of actors (Caroline Aaron, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams) that parade around the film. The cast is good but the mishmash of fictional characters as a template for the “real” people distracts at times. Davis and Alley, as his second wife, act up a storm in rage, while Louis-Dreyfus and Moore amusingly play these women in the novel (Benjamin and Tucci stand in for Harry). Goodman has a surprisingly winning perormance as patient black hooker Cookie. Hemingway, far removed from her tender role in "Manhattan," is wasted. 

Frequent Allen editor Susan E. Morse makes a lot of jump cuts, obviously a choice like in "Husbands and Wives," but it feels more sloppy and overly indulgent. 

"Deconstructing Harry" has some great moments and performances, and the old Jew's darkest, most caustic humor about Judaism, sex, women, and the F-word, but it's a rambling psychiatric-session stunt. The most hysterical vignette involves Robin Williams as an actor who's always “soft” (out of focus) on film. (“Get some rest and just see if you can sharpen up,” the confused director tells him.) 

The last vignette includes an elevator ride to Allen's erotic fleshpot version of Hell that Billy Crystal makes fun as the wisecracking Devil. Harry won't win Woody any new fans, but Woodyphiles might call it his most brutally honest film since 1992's "Husbands and Wives."


Celebrity (1998)

113 min., rated R.

Grade: C 



Woody Allen stays behind the camera this time around in his ensemble piece "Celebrity." Kenneth Branagh, in the “Woody role,” apes the flustered tics, and even his fickle ways of never settling with one woman, to the best of his ability. But he's miscast and nobody plays Woody better than Woody. 



Branagh plays Lee, a journalist who has run-ins with some of Hollywood's celebrities and there's never a dull moment. He's recently divorced from his schoolteacher ex-wife, Robin (Judy Davis, very neurotic and brittle), who was devastated to find Lee was having an affair. 

By turns entertaining and boring, with vignettes that work and others that do not, the shallow, scattershot "Celebrity" doesn't have much to say besides, most transparently, how we and Allen view celebrities. At least it's crisply shot in black and white by Sven Nykvist (his fourth collaboration with Allen), though Allen's beloved New York is used to little effect. 

The large cast recruited here is handled better here than the one in last year's "Deconstructing Harry." Davis brings her fidgeting in full swing here and she's easily the most interesting thing in the film as Robin, who actually has the biggest arc after meeting a man in the TV industry (Joe Mantegna) that gives her the confidence she needs. Everyone else mostly gets a laugh or a moment, then walks off. Charlize Theron is stunning as a libidinous supermodel. Melanie Griffith rings true as a movie star who thinks she's still being faithful to her husband if she only cheats from the waist up. Leonardo DiCaprio is wildly off-the-wall but probably playing close to the truth as a rebellious young movie star who trashes a hotel room, beats his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), drinks and does drugs, and has a threesome. Bebe Neuwirth, as a hooker, has a hilarious scene with Davis where she teaches her how to perform oral sex on a banana; it's a delirious bit of physical comedy. Winona Ryder also sparkles as a struggling actress that Lee goes after. 

With that cast, it's watchable, but even the greatest filmmakers have disappointments and "Celebrity" counts as Woody Allen's most disappointing.


Small Time Crooks (2000)
95 min., rated PG.
Grade: B 

Writer-director Woody Allen shows his face on screen for the first time since 1997's "Deconstructing Harry" in the lead with "Small Time Crooks," classic Allen that's no more and no less a sweetly enjoyable caper. 

Allen plays Ray, an ex-con New York dishwasher who lives paycheck to paycheck in a cramped apartment with Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), his loud, straight-shooting stripper-turned-Fmanicurist wife. So he thinks up a half-baked get-rich-quick scheme: buy out a closed-down pizza shop so they can tunnel through the basement wall and rob the bank next door. With his gang of three dummies (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz), Ray is the “brains” behind the operation and Frenchy distracts the public upstairs baking cookies. Then their cookie-store “front” becomes such an overnight sensation that wealth goes to their head. And as Frenchy strives to become a more cultured and sophisticated socialite, Ray and her grow apart. 

The plot is ever so thin and shapeless as an episode of "The Honeymooners," but it's more about the funny one-liners and endearing performances. Allen's screen character is still a nervous jokester but he plays Ray as a less intelligent schmo. Ullman is a delight and hilariously on par with Allen, delivering sharp-tongued wisecracks. Screenwriter Elaine May does wonderfully daft supporting work, stealing every scene as Frenchy's cousin, May, a dumb broad who hasn't a clue what's going on but always speaks the truth. Hugh Grant, the major star here, is only okay as a con artist whom Frenchy hires to educate her on art and opera. 

"Small Time Crooks" is certainly a small time effort from Allen's canon but still fun. 


The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

Mr. Woody Allen has fallen into a slump of just making slight movies rather than great movies, but it's still Allen, and "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is a wispy little screwball comedy. Natch, the Brooklyn-based Big Apple lover sets his film in Manhattan but in the 1940s, and it's just a pleasure to watch. 

He stars as CW Briggs, a crack insurance investor and ladies' man who's considered a dinosaur by his firm's new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt). At a nightclub, they both get hypnotized by a con artist (with the swing of a jade scorpion) into loving each other and whenever “Constantinople” or “Madagascar” is uttered on the phone they're put under and go into a trance robbing jewels from an estate safe. And even though CW is old, short, and nearsighted, can Fitzgerald tame him? 

All of "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" feels gentle and old-fashioned with the Woodman's classic sharpness still showing up in his mostly zingy dialogue. Attractively shot, the film has a sparkling period flavor of a '40s film noir, and all the women are groomed like Veronica Lake. 

At 65 years old, Allen is still at it with his fidgety, stammering persona and a lot of his one-liners work. In the dame role, Hunter keeps up with Allen's "His Girl Friday"-style spitballing and gives it right back to him with insulting barbs in a battle-of-the-sexes. Theron gets some playful wordplay as a promiscuous actress when trying to seduce Briggs. For instance, when the hot little number first meets C.W., she purrs “You don't seem tough enough to go after criminals,” and he jumps back with “Really? Maybe if I slapped you around a little bit you'd change your mind.” (Side note: it's starting to become less charming that Allen takes home women 30 years his junior.) Other supporting cast members shine as well, like Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn, and Elizabeth Berkley. 

The chuckles and smiles are pretty consistent through the lightweight fun of "Jade Scorpion," even if the romance is so contrived that only a hypnotist could make Hunt fall in love with Allen. They can love to hate each other, but the attraction between the two is inconceivable. 


Hollywood Ending (2002)




112 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C + 

Since the early '80s, Woody Allen has written and directed a film every year. So as the trend of his latest work goes, "Hollywood Ending" is pleasant but uneven and rather weak Woody. 

Here, he stars as Val Waxman, a movie director in desperate need of a hit. His producer ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) gives him a shot, thinking he'll be perfect for the Manhattan-set script, “The City That Never Sleeps,” but Val is bitter about compromising with the studio head (Treat Williams) who stole his wife. Then when Val all of a sudden becomes blind, he lies about it and makes the picture anyway. 

The psychosomantic blindness situation makes "Hollywood Ending" a one-joke movie, although it is a funny joke, with plenty of sight gags and slapstick bits that hit. Like when an actor asks which prop gun he should use, Val answers with “that one.” Or when he pretends to admire the poster art for his movie, but he's “looking” on the wrong side. A business student being hired as the translator for the Chinese direct of photography and as Val's pair of eyes is also a nice touch. One glaring hole is that Val can't even detect which direction people's voices are coming from; don't actors master this? 

Woody just doesn't do enough with this slight premise, as the blindness ends up never becoming of much consequence and Val gets the girl, even after the film dailies are rendered incoherent. What more, the script runs out of steam with a half hour still to go. And since the filmmaker is back to playing the eccentric, fidgety persona he started with, his neurosis, kvetching, and stuttering delivery are becoming annoying at this point, as is his casting of much younger women (i.e. Tiffani Thiessen) who want to get into the frog prince's pants. 

All that said, the film still has its fleeting pleasures: funny, well-timed Woody lines, hypocondria, those jazzy Bing Cosby tunes, and sharp insider jokes about agents and art directors (i.e. rebuilding a set rather than using the real Times Square). 

In Leoni, she's a compatible foil for Allen to play off him comedically, but their romance is sterile. Also, Debra Messing has proven she has energy and comic timing, but here she's wasted as Val's dumb, questionably talented girlfriend. Mark Rydell, however, is funny as Val's agent who never stops smiling, and George Hamilton is just right as a tanned studio flunky. 

This may be less than it should be but "Hollywood Ending" hopefully doesn't mark the end of the Woodman. Maybe he just needs to take a year off to get re-energized, realize it's quality over quantity, and write some sharper jokes. 


Anything Else (2003)
108 min., rated R.
Grade: C + 

When the standard white-on-black opening credits come on, cued to Billie Holiday, you get the reassurance that writer-director Woody Allen might be back in top form. In a way he is, but throughout most of "Anything Else," he's just coasting and recycling the wonderful "Annie Hall" from 26 years ago. That film had more wit, memorable lines, and more interesting characters, whereas this one's a minor effort. 

Acerbic and hyper-neurotic Allen stars but fortunately steps out of the lead role, playing nebbish, articulate writer David Dobel, who takes Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), a disciplined (and just as neurotic) aspiring nightclub-comic writer, under his wing. Allen passes the torch to Gentile Biggs, a younger version of his Jewish self who talks to the camera about his relationship with the most difficult woman on earth, Amanda (cat-eyed Christina Ricci). She tortures her boyfriend with her mood swings and insecurities, whining about how “fat” she is and complaining about their sex life. 

Like anything else Silent Generation's Woody has written and directed, "Anything Else" is all about the dialogue, and the Generation X actors here are up to the task of the stuttering rhythm of the man's smart, snappy dialogue without just sounding like marionettes. Allen doesn't forget to give himself some gem one-liners (“You chose psychoanalysis over real life? Are you learning disabled?”). The men are more anxious and pathetic here than the women, but Jerry and Amanda are both such shrill and abrasive people that you want to slap them silly until they shut up. Notwithstanding a great speech in a restaurant, Danny DeVito is greatly underused as Jerry's loser agent, but Stockard Channing does funny supporting work as Amanda's alcoholic, pill-popping mother who comes to live with her and Jerry. (There's a cocaine scene with Channing that calls back to "Annie Hall" as well.) 

Saying Allen repeats himself would be unfair, even if he gives us more observations on relationships and Allenisms about philosophy, sex, masturbation, religion, jazz music, and every and now then a good joke. Not to forget, New York (photographed by Allen's new collaborator Darius Khondji) still has that beautifully warm glow. 

So despite the fine work by the actors and some verbal wit, "Anything Else" is more small time Woody. 


Melinda and Melinda (2004)
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Woody Allen's return to form is more of a return to the same material and although executed with middling results, "Melinda and Melinda" is still a diverting piece of work from the Woodman. 

Is it comedy or tragedy? Is a funeral funny? You be the judge. As four friends chat over dinner get to talking about how stories can be funny or tragic, the two playwrights (Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn) take turns spinning the same yarn. Woody creates two versions of the same story about Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a draggled woman with baggage. In the tragic story, she drops in unannounced on a childhood friends' dinner party of a Park Avenue couple (Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller). Bored and high-strung, she expects to start her life anew. The lighter comic one finds the offbeat Melinda, having overdosed on pills, busting in on another dinner party of an out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his indie-film director wife (Amanda Peet), who are in a passionless marriage. Josh Brolin co-stars as a charming, well-off dentist that gets set up with Melinda, while Hobie gets jealous. 

"Melinda and Melinda" has an interesting setup with parallels and opposites connecting both stories, somewhat treading water, but the tragic story is the least interesting of the two with too many self-involved characters. 

Mitchell is the reason to even see "M and M," as she capably handles the rival tones and plays Melinda with more than one note. Ferrell wouldn't be your first choice for Allen's younger surrogate, but he's a likably dim sadsack and nails more than less of the lines (“The Chilean sea bass lightly dusted with lime!”). Peet is also funny and natural for Allen's style as Hobie's all-work-no-foreplay wife, and Brooke Smith just right as a pregnant friend in the tragedy portion. 

"Melinda and Melinda" still has that old-fashioned Allen-y feel, and his written banter isn't without wit and its tartly amusing moments. Some of the other actors don't grow into Allen's comic/intellectual verbal rhythm as well, coming off stilted that you can just feel the puppeteer pulling the strings. 


Match Point (2005)
124 min., rated R.
Grade: B + 

Although there's no universal truth for the last time Woody Allen made a great picture (his last five or so were enjoyable if not great), "Match Point" marks Allen's true comeback and full-hearted accomplishment. It's uncharted territory, meaning it's not a comedy and he leaves his beloved New York for a literal change of scenery in London. And it's his longest work to date. 

Sure, this dramatic film still opens classically with the same white fonted credits over black, but it's all scratchy opera records rather than the old jazz standards. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, not asked to mimic Allen's fumbly neurosis, plays Chris, a slick Dublin-born fellow who comes to London to work as a club tennis pro. He meets rich good chap Tom (Matthew Goode) and is quickly taken into the high-society family fold that he's soon in a relationship with Chris's sweet sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris's attention is instantly absorbed by Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a flirtatious starving actress from Colorado, also Tom's fiancee. Eventually, he's welcomed into the father's business firm, flourishes, and marries Chloe. But when Tom unexpectedly dumps Nola, Chris decides to have his cake and eat it too, as he embarks on a secret affair with Nola and things just get complicated from there. 

Bubbling through "Match Point," as voiced by Meyers' Chris, is a metaphor of luck over morality that's first represented visually by a tennis ball hitting the net. The coolly deliberate story starts with its class distinctions, then has some beats as an adultery drama, and changes gears into a high-stakes thriller but in plausible fashion. Allen covers some of the same themes and philosophies—infidelity, lust, obsession, morality—from his previous work, especially his "Crimes and Misdemeanors," as he evokes Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” and Hitchcock albeit with subtlety and without clichés. The ending is not mechanical either but more of a meditation on crime, chance, and fate. 

Meyers brings the right kind of surface charm and outward composure to the increasingly immoral Chris whose consequences of his actions turn out lucky, not great. Johansson is absolutely enticing and seductive with her throaty, come-hither sex appeal as Nola, although her character becomes more of a nag even after a crucial plot development. Meyers and Johansson smolder on screen together. Mortimer is lovely but her Chloe is so damn naïve and passive-aggressive even when she's pushy about having a baby (her character and a key scene recall Mia Farrow's Hannah in "Hannah and Her Sisters"). 

Most unlike any other film the auteur has made, "Match Point" is sexy, smart, serious-minded, and Allen's most confident, elegantly shot filmmaking in a while. The man's 70 and this is his 36th feature film, if you're keeping track, and that's not just from years of hard luck. 


Scoop (2006)
96 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

“Minor Allen” was nothing new before last year's "Match Point," Woody Allen's most original and Hitchcockian piece of work in a good while, but now the auteur is back to his trifling tricks. No matter, Allen's follow-up "Scoop," also set in London, is light, beguiling good fun. 

Sondra (a likable Scarlett Johansson), a Brooklyn journalism student visiting the Big Ben city, gets handpicked to go on stage by magician Sid Waterman (Allen). Inside a box, she comes across the spirit of famous reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) who hands his scoop over to Sondra—he knows the identity of the Tarot Card Killer. She decides to go undercover, and together Sondra and Sid contrive to meet the suspect, Peter Lyman (a suave, charming Hugh Jackman), at a private club pool (she's posing as an aspiring actress and Sid is her father). But of course, Sondra begins to fall hard for Peter even if he's a murderer. 

The droopy-eyed Allen is really beginning to look his age (70) on screen, last appearing three years ago in "Anything Else," but his one-liners still pop (“I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism” or “I never gain an ounce, because my anxiety acts like aerobics so I get the exercise.”). His bug-eyed expression behind the wheel of a European smart car is hilarious. Johansson, still a cutie behind those mousy Mia Farrow glasses and night-time retainer, is a good foil for Allen, like the next Diane Keaton. Thankfully, Allen's more of a father figure than a love interest for her, but trying her hand at fostering the Jewish kvetch's mannered-neurotic shtick, the leading lady is not much of a bumbler. McShane, first shown on a ship guided by the Grim Reaper (a nod to Allen's Love and Death?), is mostly a plot device for the film. 

Music by Peter Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss Jr., as well as “In the Hall Of The Mountain King,” add to the lark-ish charm. 

A slight effort, borrowing a bit from "Manhattan Murder Mystery," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and "Small Time Crooks," and the whodunit mystery isn't really worth solving, but "Scoop" is a silly charmer that simply wins you over. 


Cassandra's Dream (2007)
108 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

Oh, how far the great Woody Allen has fallen. On the British heels of "Match Point" and "Scoop" now comes "Cassandra's Dream," an ineffectively weighty thriller about money, class, family, and murder, and it seems the filmmaker's stuck this time in London without a passport. 

Allen's fresh new players Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play two Cockney blue-collar brothers who dream of striking it rich and having a boat to call their own. Terry (Farrell) is a gambling mechanic in a steadily happy relationship and Ian (McGregor) is a would-be entrepreneur who pawns himself off as a rich tycoon to earn the fancy of a self-obsessed actress (newcomer Hayley Atwell). When both run into financial ruins, they ask for help from their well-off Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). He agrees to assist them but on one condition: whack a colleague who could put Howard away for life. 

McGregor's Ian is too much of a whiner when it comes to the romance but he becomes more confident than Terry and oddly keeps his cool after the deed is done. Farrell gives the more interesting performance of the two, feeling his head spinning and the sweaty apprehension and then the post-murder guilt. Together, their brotherly chemistry feels relaxed, and their British accents maybe too relaxed. Wilkinson, as usual, is amusingly persuasive in his limited screen time. 

Allen's reworking a lot of the same morality themes he did in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point," but the writer-director doesn't get away with murder here. You wish there was more giddyup in the story and pacing, and less bombast in Philip Glass's musical score, and this time, Allen's dialogue has more exposition than it does wit. The leading up to the murder is staged like darkly humorous, mischievous Hitchcock and decidedly bloodless, the right touch by Allen's pan-left, but the film's abrupt ending is Greek tragedy or just an ironic shaggy-dog joke. 

Said "Match Point" still wasn't just a fluke, but the “earlier, funnier ones" are looking real good right about now, as "Cassandra's Dream" is anything but a dream, especially for Woodyphiles.




Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

96 min., rated R.

Grade: B 



Shaking off his love for Manhattan, the witty and sexy concoction that is "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is writer-director Woody Allen's fourth consecutive European project. The title refers to the names of two American women traveling in Barcelona, Spain for a summer vacation. 


Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Allen's newest muse) are completely diverse best friends, who meet and are offered to be seduced by a suave painter/Casanova, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), for a weekend full of wine and lovemaking. The strait-laced Vicky is married to a boring white man, while Cristina is the more adventurous one. Soon, Cristina settles into a lusty three-way relationship with Juan and his unpredictable, loose-cannon ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who won an Oscar for her fiery performance). 

Allen's breezy and perhaps “Frenchiest” piece of work is cast to perfection and the attractive stars are engaging in their performances, heightened by a palpably laid-back atmosphere, but it's not without its flaws. Christopher Evan Welch's narration is way too obvious, an unnecessary and condescending device used rather than allowing the images and performances to speak for themselves. Even the exotic Spanish country is a character in itself, and Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography gorgeous. 

And even if this trifle ultimately doesn't add up to a lot, the writing is smart, the music charmingly quirky, and the characters richly written. 

Whatever Works (2009)
92 min., rated PG-13.

Grade: B

Woody Allen dusted off an old script once intended for Zero Mostel and re-wrote it to suit the talents of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Larry David. Behind the camera, Woody is in fine fettle with "Whatever Works," the auteur's first comfort-zone return to New York City in five years after going European. In fact, it works as a time warp to earlier Woody. 

David is the right replacement for Allen's archetypal nebbish, eccentric persona, playing Boris Yellnikoff, a limping, crotchety, cynical old Jewish misanthrope who talks down to everyone, including us directly. Right off the bat, Boris breaks the fourth wall and bitter Boris makes it loud and clear that he's not a likable guy. And this is not “the feel-good movie of the year,” so if we want to feel good “go get a foot massage.” A self-absorbed, self-professed genius who thinks all children are imbeciles and a germaphobe who sings the “Happy Birthday” song twice when washing his hands, Boris attempts suicide by jumping out his apartment window but hits the canopy. He shows a hint of humanity (after a while, of course) when taking in Melodie St. Ann Celestine (a beguiling Evan Rachel Wood), a Mississippian runaway waif begging for food. Melodie develops a crush on him, Boris thinks it's inappropriate, but whatever works. 

The Boris character is off-putting, but he warms up, and his courtship with Melodie is happily treated with charm, not smarm. David (seeing his chicken legs in shorts) and Wood are excellent, as are Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr., as Melodie's divorced parents, who evolve their characters into interesting directions. 

"Whatever Works" may not be quintessential Woody, as it's scraps of his other work, but still a sharply written, enjoyable diversion with New York flavor, so whatever works. 



You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
98 min., rated R. 
Grade: C

Woody Allen rejuvenated himself five years ago with "Match Point" in London, and now returns to the European city, filling his yearly quota. Like the film points out from the start and at the end, Woody's trifling "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is just like the old Shakespeare quote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Although Allen is no idiot, this entry is more of a meaningless exercise filled with a talented cast reading his Allen-y dialogue in a poorly used London. 

As this joyless tale of marriage foibles and extramarital lust would have it, everyone desires something in their unfulfilled lives, but hasn't Allen said enough on the subject? The daffy Gemma Jones and Anthony Hopkins play a newly separated older couple when the old guy, working out, tanning, and teeth-whitening to seek his lost youth, marries a flashy ex-prostitute (Lucy Punch), while she listens to a fortune-telling friend who tells her she'll meet someone great. The couple's daughter (Naomi Watts) has her own marriage unravelling with her self-absorbed novelist husband (Josh Brolin), who's attracted to their soon-to-be-married neighbor/muse (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto) while said wife's tempted by her handsome boss (a wasted Antonio Banderas). 

Most of these characters are unlikable whiners that we don't care about, don't deserve what they want, and stay the same throughout. 

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" has its moments and has the tone of a feather, but it's a shruggable effort from Woody Allen of all people. The narration is grating by Zak Orth, sounding a lot like Allen himself, and feels more like a demonstration. And Brolin has to be the most misguided candidate to impersonate Allen's neuroses or call his love object “a hot little number.” Pinto, loved by the camera, and Punch, an absolute floozy hoot, land the most impression. 

Allen tries to say that illusions work better than the medicine, but his new movie is only an illusion of his earlier, better work. 

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