(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) In the grand scheme of writer/director Woody Allen’s career, Melinda and Melinda feels both like a partial return to form and a transitional film. Occurring right before Allen’s European phase, it takes place in his Manhattan playground and features the kind of high concept that he played with in the earlier segments of his career—specifically, what if the same initial situation led to two separate stories, one tragic and one comic. Radha Mitchell stars as the same protagonist in both stories, with a typically good cast surrounding her in both versions. There is no single Allen analogue to be found here, showing the way that most of his European movies would go. Unfortunately, the concept of having playwrights arguing over whether life is a comedy or a tragedy by telling competing stories is perhaps better than the actual result: the cohesion between the stories is disappointing, as are the echoes going back and forth between the two of them. It’s the kind of device that a younger filmmaker may have been able to exploit more daringly, because as it is Melinda and Melinda often feels like a comfortable and perfunctory return to the kind of gently upper-class Manhattanite comedy that Allen did throughout his career. We’re more or less in the same apartment blocks, going to art-house movies, discussing literature and philosophy in the same ways other Allen characters have done. This does not, in other words, do much to expand Allen’s repertoire but it can be a comfy return to form for his audience. The result is predictably middle-of-the-road, liable to please those who think it will please them. It’s a specific kind of film, the kind where even an inconclusive abrupt ending becomes a gag in itself. In other words, don’t care too deeply about it.
(On DVD, November 2018) I’m not sure I even want to get romantic advice from Woody Allen, but if you can park that thought for 90 minutes and rationalize that the age difference between then-almost-fortysomething Allen and Diane Keaton was a mere ten years, then you may start to like what Play It Again, Sam has for you. Riffing from Casablanca so thoroughly that a viewing of the 1941 film is almost required before tackling this one, this romantic comedy takes us in the neuroses-fuelled inner life of one recently divorced San Francisco writer as he obsesses about his singlehood and Humphrey Bogart. While technically this isn’t a “Woody Allen movie” as he merely wrote and acted in it, but did not direct, Play It Again, Sam does count as one of Allen’s earlier, funnier movies, especially when “Bogart” pops up to provide advice to the protagonist, or when the protagonist’s equally-imaginary ex-wife starts interacting with him. It leads, quite predictably, to an airport tarmac climax, but it’s a good ending. In-between the premise and the conclusion, we have enough of Allen’s usual neurotic pattern to last us for a while, along with his interactions with Keaton. Play It Again, Sam may not be a deep or transcendent film, but it does work, and it will work best for those who do know and love Casablanca. (Who doesn’t?)
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) On paper, I’m sure Casino Royale was a great idea. In fact, the film does work better from a conceptual viewpoint than a practical one … which is a fancy way of saying that the film is a mess. From a cold viewing, the film makes no sense: it’s an attempt to satirize Bond, and it goes off in all directions at once, making failed jokes in multiple segments that barely relate to whatever plot we can identify. Some moments are funnier than others, and the high-spirited finale is pure comic chaos (in the good sense of the expression), but much of the film simply falls flat. Coherence is a major issue when entire scenes have their own idea of what humour is, and when the actors aren’t following the same plan. And what a list of actors! A young Woody Allen, a remarkably fun Orson Welles goofing off with magic tricks, First Bond Girl Ursula Andress playing (a) Bond, David Niven as “The original” Bond (before Connery ruined the name), Jean-Claude Belmondo for thirty seconds and a bunch of other cameos. Peter Sellers is occasionally fun, but he seems to be acting in another film entirely. The film’s production values are high enough that we’re left to contemplate a bizarre result, clearly made with considerable means but without a coherent plan. What to make of it? The key to understanding Casino Royale is to read about the film’s unbelievable production. It started with the intention of copycatting Connery’s Bond film series through the rights of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but was realigned to a satirical comedy once Connery made himself unavailable. Then, for some reason, the film became a creation from five different directors, with a sixth trying to patch the gaps between the sequences. Then Peter Sellers, who wanted to play a dramatic Bond, started sabotaging the production before leaving it entirely before his scenes were completely filmed. Given all of this, it’s a minor miracle if Casino Royale makes even the slightest sense. That doesn’t make it a good movie (although there are maybe twenty minutes of good comedy here, as long as you keep only the scenes with Sellers, Welles and Allen) but it certainly explains how we got there. There may have been messier productions and movies out there, but Casino Royale is a case of its own. (I saw the film as a young teenager, but the only moment I remembered from it was Allen’s line about learning how to tie women up in the boy scouts. Go figure. Or don’t, given that I was a boy scout.)
(On TV, September 2017) The good thing about rediscovering Woody Allen’s movies by going back in time is that they get funnier along the way. So it is that Love and Death is classic comic Allen, taking his usual nebbish character and placing him in the middle of an epic Russian war story. Much of the pleasures of the film are about seeing Allen’s character try to rebel against the conventions of the form, and cheerfully throwing contemporary anachronisms in a story that could (and has) been executed with such a straight face in other movies. The period detail is often very credible, and the jokes are funny enough to earn real laughs. Literate philosophical dialogue is a treat (especially as it forms the basis or further jokes), even though I suspect that I’m not catching even half the references to Russian literature or classic cinema. For a film that quite predictably ends with the death of its main character, Love and Death is remarkably upbeat even in its tragedies. Allen is near the top of his classic comic persona, while Diane Keaton is very good as his sparring partner and Olga Georges-Picot unlocks the hidden sultriness of the subgenre that the film parodies. I’m not sure what I expected from Love and Death (again; going back in time on Allen’s filmography sets very strange expectations) but I feel as if I got considerably more than I even hoped for.
(On TV, April 2017) I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing an artist and an artist’s work—something that has occasionally caused me a few retroactive pangs of guilt, especially in considering Roman Polanski’s work. Most of the time, those little bits of disapproval aren’t enough to affect me: I’ve got my list of good Woody Allen movies despite being aghast at his personal life. But for all of Manhattan’s reputation as one of Allen’s best, I understandably had a really hard time separating the movie (in which he gets romantically involved with a high-school girl) from Allen’s personal life (in which he got romantically involved with not one, but at least two high-school-age girls). As much as I tried getting into the rhythm and sensibilities of Manhattan, the film itself couldn’t stop getting me from thinking, “No, Woody Allen, no!” every time Allen and Mariel Hemingway (who, for all of the problematic aspects of her character, is terrific in the role) snuggled on-screen. So if I sound less than enthusiastic about Manhattan, keep thinking, “42-year-old guy writing a role in which he’s dating a 17-year-old girl”). Fortunately, there are other things to talk about in talking about Manhattan. The black-and-while cinematography is exceptional, some of the one-liners are very funny, the portrait of complicated romances is stronger than the usual pap that passes for romantic comedies, Diane Keaton is fantastic and the portrait of intellectual New Yorkers has a strong credibility to it. Oh, and Meryl Streep shows up for a handful of devastating scenes. Still, I was never completely convinced by Manhattan’s humour or its romance(s). Much as I appreciate the achievements of the film, I can’t quite bring myself to like it. You can credit Woody Allen for both reactions.
(On TV, March 2017) As I’m watching Woody Allen’s filmography in scattered chronological order, I’m struck by how his works seems best approached sequentially—there are definitely phases in his work, and they partially seem to be addressing previous movies. Hannah and Her Sisters does echo other Allen movies—Manhattan (which I saw between watching this film and writing this review) in tone and setting, I’m told that there’s something significant about Mia Farrow’s casting, and there’s a continuity here between Allen’s nebbish hypochondriac and the rest of his screen persona. Absent most of those guideposts, however, Hannah and her Sisters feels a bit … slight as a standalone. It’s nowhere near a bad movie: the quality of the dialogue, twisted psychodrama of unstable pairings and Allen’s own very entertaining persona ensure that this is a quality film. But in trying to find out what makes this a lauded top-tier component of Allen’s filmography, answers don’t come as readily. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Hannah and Her Sisters does things that have since then been done more frequently—Northeastern romantic dramas about a close-knit group of friends and family? Might as well tag an entire sub-genre of independent dramas … at least two of them featuring Jason Bateman. Familiarity, of course, is trumped by execution and so Hannah and Her Sisters does go far on Allen’s script. Allen himself is his own best male spokesman, although Michael Caine and Max von Sydow both have their moments. Still, the spotlight is on the sisters: Mia Farrow is terrific as the titular Hannah, while Barbara Hershey remains captivating thirty years later and Dianne Wiest completes the trio as something of a screw-up. There’s a little bit of weirdness about the age of the characters—although I suspect that’s largely because Allen plays a character much younger than he is, and I can’t reliably tell the age of the female characters. It’s watchable enough, but I’m not sure I found in Hannah and her Sisters the spark that makes an average film become a good one. I may want to temper my expectations—after all, not every Woody Allen movie is a great one, even in the latter period with which I’m most familiar.
(On TV, March 2017) As a filmmaker spends an entire movie being confronted by fame and the way fans bemoan his “earlier, funnier movies”, it’s hard not to read Stardust Memories as Woody Allen’s own commentary on his career at the time. Despite his noted denials that the film is autobiographical, it’s clearly influenced by his experience, even as a funhouse version of it. The scenes in which he’s bombarded by one request after another remain brutally effective as a distillation of what life as this level of celebrity must be. There’s quite a bit of Hollywood satire as well, as the studio keeps meddling with his latest work and as nearly everyone (even aliens) seem to agree that his earlier movies were funnier. As to whether Stardust Memories is good…. Well, the movie is acknowledged as divisive among Allen fans, and it’s easy to see why: shot in black-and-white, jumping seamlessly from reality to fantasy and from present to past, it’s both a meditation on fame and a film about romantic choices. It’s self-reflective, maybe self-indulgent and there’s a melancholic quality to the movie that coexists with the various jokes. There’s even some contempt for the audience to make thing even more layered. I found it interesting but not gripping: I certainly laughed unexpectedly at a few spots (and I’m not talking chuckles or grins, but real barks of laughter), which is more than I can say about most so-called comedies out there. At the same time, this is obviously not just a comedy, and given that I’m still piecing together a coherent picture of Allen’s career, I feel reasonably confident in saying that I don’t yet have all the information I need to process Stardust Memories to its fullest extent. I’ll give it a cautiously positive rating so far, subject to revision whenever I’m able to speak knowledgeably of Allen’s early and mid-career.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) As I’m exploring Woody Allen’s filmography, there’s a certain pleasure in seeing him back on-screen after a lengthy pause. To Rome with Love is an interwoven anthology film of four different stories playing against its roman backdrop, from Alec Baldwin’s recollections of a love triangle made alive to Roberto Benigni’s strange brush with fame to Allen discovering an unlikely signing talent to a couple of visiting newlyweds experiencing life in the capital. Like most ensemble stories, its interest rises and falls unpredictably, but the overall effect is strong, with enough romance, humour and weirdness to keep things interesting. Of the stories, I was most struck by Alec Baldwin’s resigned-but-wise reactions to the developing love triangle in-between Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page—it’s funny and a bit wistful at once, with plot and commentary joyously crashing in one another. The newlywed’s adventures are also funny, although occasionally too close to humiliation comedy for my taste. Allen’s segment is enhanced by a typical Allen performance as a nattering shmuck—the outlandish situation he creates is just the icing on the cake. Finally, there’s the unexplainable weirdness of an ordinary man (Benigni) brought to sudden fame and dropped just as rapidly—a metaphor for our social media age, perhaps, but still worthwhile on its own. To Rome with Love probably won’t endure as one of Allen’s classics—it’s too scatter-shot, too willing to make audiences laugh without deeper themes—but it’s a relatively good time at the hands of a comedy veteran, and perhaps his funniest film in a while. As an entry in his “European capitals” phase, it’s slight but decent.
(On TV, December 2016) There’s something both amusing and ungraspable at the heart of Zelig, a pseudo-documentary describing a 1930s man with a magical ability to take on the characteristics and abilities of the people he happens to be at the moment. Written, directed and played by Woody Allen, Zelig is best appreciated as an experiment in mockumentary filmmaking, blending original material with period footage in an attempt to create a story out of historical context. Allen is reasonably funny as Zelig, although at times it seems as if this shapeshifting ability is only a pretext for various impressions and makeup tricks. It does build to a finale that’s not quite as interesting as you’d expect from a simple description. I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief enough to fully invest in the movie. Zelig is reasonably amusing, somewhat sympathetic, but not exceptional unless you do (and I do) have a fondness for experimental-but-accessible cinema. My own viewing of the film war marred by an execrable resolution/compression image quality due to the channel on which it was broadcast, but since most of the film is deliberately low-resolution to ape the cameras of the times, this didn’t affect the experience as much as I’d have expected.
(On TV, December 2016) I’m hardly the first reviewer to comment on how much more difficult it is to approach great movies than lousy ones. I often find myself immediately watching terrible movies as soon as they show up on Netflix or my DVR, while waiting months to get to the acclaimed ones. Part of it is apprehension, another other is responsibility and a third is probably a fear of running out of greatness. Great movies demand more and give more; they ask for engagement and attention and give us something that we couldn’t get otherwise. Great movies, for reviewers, demand to be approached with a great deal of respect—we want to be able to say something deserving of their greatness, and to bring something valuable to the conversation surrounding them, as impossible at it may seem today at a time when everyone’s a reviewer. Finally, I can’t help but feel that by watching an acclaimed film, I am removing it from my shelf of “potentially great” films that I still have to see. I open the box and unwrap the present. I resolve the quantum state of uncertainty about its potential greatness. The shelf of things that could blow my mind has one less item on it, and that makes me a bit sadder in some way. (Never mind that the shelf will always be too small to contain all the things that could blow my mind—even in this metaphor, it’s the principle that counts.) All of this to say that Annie Hall is a great film. It is, even forty years later, hilarious, wry, true and witty. It plays with the conventions of movies in ways that have been occasionally imitated but seldom equalled. It’s so good that a good dozen of its jokes feel familiar because they have crossed over in pop culture. (Although I suspect that I was exposed to most of them thanks to a work mentor who obviously loved the film.) One can say a lot of things about Woody Allen as a person (starting and ending with “Eeew!”), but his Annie Hall persona in is a pure distillation of his comic essence. The scattershot nature of the film diminishes it a bit (it often feels as a dramatized stand-up routine) and I won’t argue that it’s perfect—but it’s really, really good. Well worth watching even now, if only for Allen at the top of his game both as a filmmaker and a comedian, and for Diane Keaton’s charm.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every year brings its new low-key Woody Allen film, this one back to the meditative thriller à la Matchpoint. Here, a university professor bored by life find renewed purpose when he decides to kill a deserving stranger, and tries to get away with it despite growing suspicion by a student with whom he’s having a relationship. Directed without fuss and written to include copious amount of philosophical references (with a plot more or less adapted from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), Irrational Man is the kind of adequate film that Allen has perfected over the years, amusing to watch and generous in allowing actors to inhabit their characters but oddly inconsequential once the credits roll and the story is neatly wrapped. The most noteworthy elements of the movie are the performances: Joaquin Phoenix is good as the anti-hero, while Emma Stone (in her second consecutive Allen film) is serviceable as a curious student. Irrational Man is fine without being exceptional, better than most direct-to-video thrillers while lacking the oomph of more successful criminal dramas.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) If the mark of a great actor is making us sympathize with character we would otherwise find exasperating, then Cate Blanchett truly deserves honors for her performance in Blue Jasmine. The story of a woman struggling with life after the end of her lavish marriage to a convicted Wall Street fraudster, Blue Jasmine is a character study more than anything else; Blanchett faithfully reflects the multiple contradictory facets of the scripted protagonist and the result can be as affecting as they are maddening. Setting Blue Jasmine in San Francisco after a long series of films taking place in Europe, Allen doesn’t do much with the city, but keeps the focus on the idiosyncrasies of his lead character, and the interactions she has with the ones surrounding her. Despite glimmers of redemption, it doesn’t end well, or even as anyone would hope: By the time the film ends, it’s a mercy that we’re not shown more, because there is no happy ending possible. And yet, despite the lead character’s self-destroying flaws, Blanchett keeps our sympathy throughout. Allen’s self-effacing direction helps, and the able supporting cast knows their place. While Blue Jasmine‘s lack of a conclusion leaves without satisfaction, the journey has its moments.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Woody Allen’s “European capitals” tour continues to please, as romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris goes to the French capital for a bit of nostalgic introspection and historical comedy. As a Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the classics discovers that he can time-travel back to the nineteen-twenties, writer/director Allen turn in a film that appear effortlessly charming and quite a bit wise about the pernicious appeal of excessive nostalgia. Owen Wilson is his own unique self as the protagonist: Midnight in Paris would have been completely different with another actor, as Wilson’s hang-dog charm and wide-eyes befuddlement makes him a perfect match for the material. Otherwise, the performances to highlight are those in which a few actors get to play with historical figures; Kathy Bates is riveting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll is instantly compelling as Ernest Hemingway. As for the rest of the picture, well, it’s refreshingly mum about the time-traveling rationale, well-photographed (especially during its credit sequence, which shows us much of picturesque Paris in three-and-a-half minutes), generally amiable and maybe even untouchable for the kind of low-key comedy it aims to be. Compared to Allen’s latest films, Midnight in Paris is even a bit more hopeful and comforting in its resolution. (Well, except for the detective stuck in Versailles. Poor guy.)
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The idea of septuagenarian Woody Allen writing/directing a romantic comedy starring a pair of young women may feel strange, but looking at the result in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you have to give Allen all the acclaim he deserves. The film features two Americans holidaying in Barcelona: Rebecca Hall as the sensible one with a clear idea of her future and Scarlett Johansson as the flighty one in search of direction. The fun begins when they both fall (at different times) for the same man, and the repercussions that this has over both women’s self-esteem and sense of identity. That, perhaps, is where Allen’s maturity comes into play: by the end of the film, few questions have been settled satisfactorily, even though everyone seems to know a bit more about themselves. As such, don’t expect a conventional crowd-pleaser, even though Vicky Cristina Barcelona is light-hearted enough to qualify as a comedy. Good actors easily make up for whatever non-ending the film may have: While Johansson is decent as the titular Cristina, it’s Rebecca Hall who’s the film’s revelation as the brainier and more conflicted Vicky. Javier Bardem is scarily good as the tall, dark, handsome stranger that shatters the heroines’ world, while Penelope Cruz is almost as striking as the one force of chaos that upsets Bardem’s character. While the film doesn’t have enough of a conclusion to fully satisfy, it’s easy to get swept in this unconventional romantic comedy, and to appreciate the sights that Barcelona has to offer.