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Reviewing My Collection: Three Films by Woody Allen
The Films of Woody Allen: An Introduction
Woody Allen is a truly interesting figure in cinema, and in entertainment at large. On the one hand, he is one of cinema's most consistent directors--he puts out a new film almost every year with a precision that cannot be called clockwork but which still trumps nearly every other working director (and especially working auteur), and there is seldom any doubt when watching one of his films that one is, indeed, watching a "Woody Allen film." He consistently brings on board large and impressive casts, and has worked with a veritable who's-who of Hollywood (and, increasingly, international) actors. Also, few filmmakers better appreciate the value of music in film, and his films consistently rank among my arguments for the Best Use of Music in Film Oscar. On the other hand, he is famously reclusive and media-shy, has openly denounced the same awards organizations that love to laud his work, and has been dogged for decades by rumors and half-truths regarding his, shall we say, extracurricular activities (the most recent of which caused a big stink when Hollywood refused to back away from Blue Jasmine, one of Allen's most lauded and accomplished films, in the wake of accusations by his adopted daughter Dylan). In short, he is a director that many people ardently love, and just as many love to hate, but few who are students of film will deny that the man has made a lasting impact on the medium.
As noted before, there are certain hallmarks that define most Woody Allen films. One is the music, which tends to have an old-school, jazzy feel, but which also frequently makes use of local flavor--the Spanish guitars in Vicky Cristina Barcelona helped make that one of the finest soundtracks ever released (it is worth noting though that the old-school jazz of Sweet and Lowdown made for an even finer soundtrack). Also of note is the dialogue, which is generally quite fresh and original, and peppered throughout (in most cases, to greater or lesser degrees) with some truly wicked gallows humor. Finally, certain character traits are almost always on display: neurotic, narcissistic, flighty, pseudo-intellectual, demanding, unyielding, unfaithful, morbid, pessimistic, artistic, etc. His lead characters are usually involved in the arts somehow, are often writers, are usually contemplating an affair or some similarly self-destructive relationship (and often engaged in one), and are often attracted to someone that many would call not at all age-appropriate. They also frequently get an unconventional ending, either in their favor (Match Point) or decidedly otherwise (Blue Jasmine). It is often said that "A bad Woody Allen film is better than a mediocre film by most other directors," and I fully agree with this statement. Even September and Interiors were interesting to watch, well-made productions, despite being depressing and often boring. As to the subjects of this article, many would place Celebrity, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome with Love near the bottom of the Woody Allen barrel, and there are folks that would call each one of these a bad film. That said, they each still currently command a 6.3/10 rating on the Internet Movie Database, a reasonably respectable rating when compared against cinema as a whole. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I finally made time for this mini-marathon; it just about cracked me up that the three Woody Allen films waiting to be watched and properly added to my collection happened to have the exact same rating. Anyway, I found it to be an interesting evening of viewing, and a fair cross-section of the Woodman's later films, if a bit more of a downer than I'd prefer. Anyway, enough of the intro--on with the movies.
First up is a film from 1998 that holds the distinction of being one of the few Woody Allen films I had acquired on VHS before switching over to DVD, Celebrity. This also has the distinction of having been recommended to me when I first really got into movies--in college--by a friend who declared it his favorite film; based on what I've read and heard since then, he was in the clear minority on that one. That said, I have always felt that this is a rather good film, and I do think it is a bit underrated. Filmed in stark black-and-white, and featuring Kenneth Branagh's uncanny (many would say distractingly so) impersonation of Woody Allen in the lead role, this film is a scathing satire about the pitfalls, vacuousness, and transitory nature of celebrity, as well as the lengths to which people will go to attain it or hold onto it. Branagh plays Lee Simon, a struggling writer currently working as journalist while hawking a screenplay nobody really wants, and who is desperately seeking youth in all the wrong (female) places. While I admit it was a strange choice to have him so thoroughly channel Allen--John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway and Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown both did a fine job channeling Allen while creating characters of their own--Branagh so thoroughly nails the performance that I don't hold it against him the way many do. Meanwhile, his ex-wife Robin (played with great skill by a frayed, neurotic Judy Davis) is struggling to come to terms with being on her own, in which process she is aided greatly by TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), who is quite probably the most decent and likeable character in the cast. The movie skips back and forth between the two stories, finding time for some fine supporting work from the likes of Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron and a hilariously over-the-top Leonardo DiCaprio (gleefully skewering his post-Titanic image as a pretty-boy primadonna); look out as well for some shorter cameos, including Bebe Neuwirth as a stripper Robin goes to for "bedroom advice," and a pre-fame J.K. Simmons in a hilarious blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as a montebank hawking fake religious souvenirs. Overall, this is a dark and brooding film, but it does have its fair share of morbid and/ or angsty humor, and its usual billing as a comedy is not fully inappropriate. Feel free to give it a go; for my part, I am glad this was the first in the trio.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Next up, we have a much more recent film, but one which nonetheless has much the same vibe as the previous one, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Whereas Celebrity dealt heavily with the illusion of happiness fame can bring, Stranger deals with other ways in which we fool and delude ourselves. There is Helena (Gemma Jones, probably never better than here), who finds comfort in a psychic after her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) leaves her to pursue a younger man's life, before long marrying a high-priced prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), meanwhile, is stuck in an unhappy marriage with a shiftless jerk named Roy (played with memorable nastiness by Josh Brolin) who is waiting by the phone for word that his second novel will finally be published. They each find a measure of solace by meeting new people; she takes a new job and starts falling for her boss, Greg (a charmingly self-deprecating Antonio Banderas), and he begins a flirtation with their neighbor Dia (the lovely Freida Pinto). Even greater measures are taken by these and other characters as the film goes on, most of which end in ruin (but one of which takes a charmingly sweet route to the finish). Much like Celebrity, Stranger is less focused than Woody Allen's best work, but is still eminently watchable; it is dark, and pessimistic, but there is enough humor, enough, optimism (in certain areas), and enough skill in the presentation to make the film well worth watching. It is lucky, though, that this was also not the last film of the evening.
To Rome with Love
And finally we have one of Woody Allen's most recent offerings, 2012's To Rome with Love. In stark contrast to the previous films, this one's actually pretty fun. That said, I do have to agree somewhat with detractors who claim this is likely his most unfocused effort yet. There are four main plots in the film, each of which unfolds on a different chronology (one of which takes place over an afternoon, while one clearly unfolds over several months); each plot has no relation to the other, besides having Rome as a backdrop. Even so, I enjoy the film quite a bit, not the least of which due to the incredibly catchy theme music that runs throughout the film (it is unusual for a Woody Allen film to have so much emphasis on a single theme, but it works here). As to each of the plots, I'm sorry to say it, but the plot featuring Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and the usually delightful Ellen Page was not terribly interesting, and I would have enjoyed the movie more without it. I love Miss Page, and she does a great job here as the flighty would-be actress/ nymphomaniac Monica, but I just did not care for her character. Similarly, Eisenberg's Jack and Baldwin's John (who may have more in common than first appears) are not terribly easy characters to get behind. It's not a bad story arc, but it's weak compared to the rest of the film, and excising one story arc could have helped immensely with the "focus issue." On to the good plots... The longest story arc (in-story, at least) revolves around two young lovers and their families--one Italian, and one American. Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and Hayley (Alison Pill) meet one summer in Rome, and within months they are talking marriage; Hayley's parents (played by Allen himself and Judy Davis) fly in to meet the prospective in-laws, and all hell nearly breaks loose when Allen's Jerry learns that Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) has one hell of an operatic singing voice, and needles and wheedles him into sharing it with the world. Turns out, though, that Giancarlo can only be relaxed enough to sing in the shower--Jerry's solution to this provides some of the film's heartier chuckles. One of the film's few laugh-out-loud moments comes courtesy Davis; when an inspired Jerry asks his psychiatrist wife "What is the term for what I'm having?" she responds in perfect deadpan "A death wish." In fact, it was a pleasure to see Davis in this film; a mainstay in the Woody Allen films of the nineties, she actually had not done one of his films since Celebrity, yet here she seems perfectly relaxed and the perfect foil for his neurotic antics. The other two plots both featured primarily Italian actors. Of these, the one featuring Roberto Benigni was a hilarious condensation of Celebrity; it managed in a fraction of the time to do what the previous film had set out to do, and through Benigni's hangdog looks and perfectly timed mannerisms managed to be pretty freakin' hilarious. It is worth noting that this also ends a long absence of sorts for Benigni; not since 2002's critically-drubbed Pinocchio has Benigni been in a film with a wide American release, and not since 1993's even more harshly-drubbed Son of the Pink Panther has he been in an essentially American-produced film. Therefore, this is a nice treat for fans of the film that earned him his greatest and most enduring stateside success, La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful). Finally, there is the plot surrounding a young couple just arrived in Rome and immediately separated, and starring Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as the couple (Antonio and Milly), Antonio Albanese as actor Luca Salta, and Penelope Cruz as the (very popular) call girl Anna. Cruz is sexy as always, and does a good job keeping Tiberi on his toes, while Mastronardi and Albanese also work well together; Mastronardi in particular is unbelievably uber-cute, and I for one cannot wait to see more of her work. Incidentally, this was the story that took place over a single afternoon, and it is a rather sweet and charming story that nicely counterbalances the pessimism of some of the others.
Anyway, I didn't mean to run on so much longer on this film than the others, but I guess it was necessary to cover the more wide-ranging nature of the plot. This certainly was a fine choice for the final film in the mini-marathon, but it certainly could have been up to a higher standard.
Celebrity (8/10) No Oscar nominations.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (8/10) No Oscar nominations.
To Rome with Love (8/10) No Oscar nominations.
I will forgo trying to determine where these films were Oscar-worthy for the time being, though I may update this hub at a later date if I decide to start making those notes on older films. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my take on three of Woody Allen's less beloved films. Admittedly, these are nowhere near the level of Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sweet and Lowdown or Match Point, but at least Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine show that Allen can still make great films, and none of these three are at the bottom of the barrel for his films. Also, an 8/10 rating is quite good, showing that--to my mind at least--a weak Woody Allen film truly is still a good film. Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments on these and other films from the Woodman. Happy viewing!