Woody Allen

Café Society (2016, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen opens Café Society himself, with a voiceover. It’s a deeper voice mix than usual for Allen–who doesn’t appear in the film–and even though he’s doing expository narration, there’s an intentional distance in that deeper voice. Allen’s not the star of the film. In some ways, even lead Jesse Eisenberg isn’t the star. It’s the 1930s, he’s a young man from New York trying to break into Hollywood. He works for his successful uncle (Steve Carell in a genially morose performance), he romances Kristen Stewart. Things don’t go as planned, of course, which sets Eisenberg on an unexpected path.

The narrative toys with the idea of being an epical look at this young go-getter’s rise and fall, but Allen’s not interested in it. He likes the characters too much and the film loiters around them. Maybe there’s some dramatic narrative going on off-screen–if Allen and Corey Stoll, as Eisenberg’s gangster brother, ever wanted to do a picture about Jewish mobsters, Society shows the two of them would excel at that collaboration. The main story does follow Eisenberg, with these short interludes with the rest of his family and then Stewart, but the gangland ones with Stoll are just phenomenal.

Eventually, it’s Eisenberg who gets those interludes and not everyone else. There’s just too much good material for his family–Jeannie Berlin as the mom, Ken Stott as the dad, brother Stoll, sister Sari Lennick and her husband Stephen Kunken. It’s a movie set in Old Hollywood, gorgeously and glamorously photographed by Vittorio Storaro with beautiful attention to period detail (especially Stewart’s costumes) and all Allen wants to do is get back to New York. Hollywood, for Eisenberg, Allen and Café Society in general, is too false a dream.

Great performances from pretty much everyone and very good ones from everyone else. Eisenberg’s character doesn’t get an epic story arc, but his performance does get to mature throughout. Society is often very funny. Even when it’s sad, it’s still pretty funny. Allen’s clearly enjoying the production. Problematically, his narrative doesn’t emphasize the things he and editor Alisa Lepselter end up focusing on. Lepselter saves the third act. There’s lovely work from Stewart and Eisenberg as it winds down, but Lepselter is the one who puts it all together.

Stewart’s great, Eisenberg’s good–though his family steals his thunder (particularly Berlin and Stott)–Parker Posey is fantastic in a smaller but showy part. It’s an extremely solid motion picture, exquisitely visualized. It might have helped if it had gone on longer; it only runs ninety-six minutes, which isn’t enough for all the great performances Allen gets from his cast.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie), Steve Carell (Phil Stern), Blake Lively (Veronica), Parker Posey (Rad Taylor), Jeannie Berlin (Rose Dorfman), Ken Stott (Marty Dorfman), Sari Lennick (Evelyn), Stephen Kunken (Leonard) and Corey Stoll (Ben Dorfman).


Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)

Bullets Over Broadway has a lot going for it. Between Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest, there’s a lot of great acting and great moments. There are a decided lack of great scenes, however, thanks to director Allen’s choice of John Cusack as leading man. Cusack doesn’t so much give a performance as imitate Woody Allen, though not all of the time. Occasionally he gives an overly affected performance and comes off as mocking the material. As opposed to Wiest, who gives an overly affected performance and embraces the material.

There are also some big writing problems, like the narration. For whatever reason, Allen and co-writer Douglas McGrath go with some useless narration from Cusack to show time progressing. There are a half dozen better devices they could have used, but if Cusack’s performance of the narration weren’t terrible, it might work a little better. But a lot of it is on Allen, especially the moronic ending, which relies entirely on the nonexistent chemistry between Cusack and girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker.

There’s some really nice supporting work from Jim Broadbent. Some okay support from Joe Viterelli and Tracey Ullman. Not so good supporting work from Jack Warden. He and Cusack’s scenes together are particularly bad.

The best thing about Bullets is Allen’s matter-of-fact presentation of violence. It’s simultaneously shocking and mundane, as opposed to the film itself, which oscillates between mundane and annoying. It does move pretty well though. The good acting moves it right along.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Douglas McGrath; director of photography, Carlo Di Palma; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Robert Greenhut; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Cusack (David Shayne), Chazz Palminteri (Cheech), Dianne Wiest (Helen Sinclair), Jennifer Tilly (Olive Neal), Tracey Ullman (Eden Brent), Jim Broadbent (Warner Purcell), Jack Warden (Julian Marx), Joe Viterelli (Nick Valenti), Mary-Louise Parker (Ellen), Harvey Fierstein (Sid Loomis) and Rob Reiner (Sheldon Flender).


Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story (1971, Woody Allen)

Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story recounts the rise to power of one Harvey Wallinger, friend and aide to Richard M. Nixon. Wallinger is one part buffoon, one part creep, one part sex addict–Allen revels in the part. He opens the short with a recounting of the 1968 election with some creative editing before introducing his character. He is the subject after all.

Crisis balances absurd humor with intelligent–though not insightful–observation of Nixon and his cronies. Allen goes for some easy jokes at Spiro T. Agnew (though probably not so amusing at the time) but for the most part he lets Nixon speak for himself. There's a great bit with Allen–in character–describing everything so untrustworthy about Nixon's face with a subsequent speech clip proving him right.

Eric Albertson's editing is phenomenal. The bit players giving interviews are great.

It's assured and energetic and deserving of far more in-depth consideration.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; edited by Eric Albertson; produced by Jack Kuney.

Starring Woody Allen (Harvey Wallinger), Diane Keaton (Renata Wallinger), Louise Lasser (Harvey’s ex-girlfriend) and Richard M. Dixon as the President of the United States; narrated by Reed Hadley.


Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

There are a lot of interesting things Woody Allen does with Blue Jasmine–genre shifts, a somewhat fractured narrative style where he reveals lead Cate Blanchett’s past in glimpses–but the most surprising one has to be when she ceases to be the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject.

Blanchett sort of shares the picture with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister. Blanchett was a rich New York wife, now she’s down and out and having to stay with working class Hawkins in San Francisco. For the first half hour or so, Allen plays it like he’s working on the relationship between the two women. Or maybe something to do with Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’s current boyfriend or Andrew Dice Clay as her ex.

Allen gets some exceptional performances in the film. Blanchett’s peerless in the lead. She’s a target for derision, for pity, for anger, often with Allen having her change gears immediately during a scene. Hawkins is good as the sister; she doesn’t have much to do except react to Cannavale or Clay. Both of them are fantastic, with Clay being something of a revelation.

In other supporting roles, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are both good. Baldwin’s fine in his part too. There’s just nothing to compare with the intensity of Blanchett, Cannavale or Clay.

Allen’s use of San Francisco is muted. Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography is excellent, but it’s just a setting for the story. Most of the shots are close-ups.

Jasmine’s quiet, loud and excellent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cate Blanchett (Jasmine), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Louis C.K. (Al), Tammy Blanchard (Jane), Max Casella (Eddie), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Flicker), Alden Ehrenreich (Danny) and Alec Baldwin (Hal).


To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)

To Rome with Love is sort of hostile to its viewer. Allen sets up three (or four, depending on how you want to count) plots and plays them all concurrently. However, these three (or four) plots don’t necessarily coexist in the same Rome, certainly not at the same time they linearly play out in the run time. He’s also a little dishonest in how he introduces them–Alec Baldwin’s plot gets a big introduction but it immediately shifts gears.

Wait, there are four plots. I keep losing count….

There’s Alison Pill as a young American tourist. Allen and Judy Davis play her parents. Allen and Davis are great together, in case I forget to mention later. Davis just sits and watches him, with real laughs at his deliveries.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who gets entangled in Jesse Eisenberg’s love triangle with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.

Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi are honeymooners. Penelope Cruz figures in at some point.

And then Roberto Benigni is the example of the middle class Roman.

Okay, there are four plots. There are sort of five.

Anyway… the best ones are the Tiberi and Mastronardi one and the Benigni one. Or, as one might say, the Roman ones.

Pill’s not in her story enough, though it’s fairly charming.

The one with Eisenberg misfires. He’s ineffectual, Page’s woefully miscast and Gerwig’s great but underutilized.

Allen experiments with narrative here… and doesn’t seem to like the results.

Rome… and gorgeous Darius Khondji photography help a lot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta and Faruk Alatan; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Woody Allen (Jerry), Alec Baldwin (John), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Ellen Page (Monica), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Ornella Muti (Pia Fusari), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Alison Pill (Hayley), Riccardo Scamarcio (Rapinatore hotel) and Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio).


Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)

Every shot in Manhattan, whether of the cityscape, the interiors or the actors, is so carefully and beautifully composed, it’s not surprising Allen lets the cast go a little loose. Gordon Willis’s black and white photography is luminous, giving the city an otherworldly, dreamlike feel. That feeling, thanks to Allen’s composition, carries over to some of the interior scenes too. There are these occasional observations of regular human activity, but with the composition and lighting, they appear singular.

Allen also holds a lot of shots—usually of himself. Manhattan’s really his film as an actor. It starts out having room for Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, but as the film progresses, Allen’s character takes over. His unlikely character proves to be the best protagonist, partially because Murphy and Keaton don’t give particularly good performances. Well, particularly is a little too complimentary. Murphy’s weak (and I love him, so it’s too bad) and Keaton’s mediocre. The same goes for Mariel Hemingway, who’s just a little too blasé—Allen gets away with a lot thanks to the composition and Willis’s photography, but it only covers so much.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent—Meryl Streep is hilarious, Anne Byrne Hoffman is good. It’s too bad they’re both in the film so little.

George Gershwin arrangements are the film’s score and it usually works to great effect. Sometimes the booming music and the lush photography overwhelm, making Manhattan transcend.

Manhattan’s an impressive film, though it can’t completely overcome the acting problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins; released by United Artists.

Starring Woody Allen (Isaac), Diane Keaton (Mary), Michael Murphy (Yale), Mariel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep (Jill), Anne Byrne Hoffman (Emily), Michael O’Donoghue (Dennis), Wallace Shawn (Jeremiah) and Karen Ludwig (Connie).


Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Woody Allen)

Crimes and Misdemeanors is not a particularly nice film. It juxtaposes two men in crisis–Martin Landau’s successful ophthalmologist has a girlfriend (Angelica Huston) who is threatening to tell his wife and Woody Allen’s failing filmmaker is crushing on the producer (Mia Farrow) of the his project. Allen’s only on the project, a biography of his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), because his wife insisted.

Landau’s part of the film deals with deception, guilt, regret and greed. There’s a lot about faith and rejecting religion and how family ties strengthen and slacken over time. Landau is stunning in Crimes, because he’s not likable, but he’s always sympathetic.

Meanwhile, Allen’s always likable. His first scene is opposite his niece (Jenny Nichols) and he truly cares for the kid. His scenes with her, and his sister (Caroline Aaron), are touching.

His part of the film is a light romantic comedy, if one forgets he’s married (though his wife, played by Joanna Gleason, is hideously evil). Allen and Farrow are good together; Alda’s hilarious as an obnoxious television producer.

Landau gets the majority of the run time, but around the final third is mostly Allen’s. Until the last fifteen minutes, where things come together and Allen tells the morale of the story.

He’s being intentionally mean to his characters and not worrying about the audience recognizing it. Allen’s never confrontational about it, however. The ending quietly shows the extent of the meanness.

Crimes is an excellent, thoughtful picture. Allen’s direction is utterly sublime.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Robert Greenhut; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Martin Landau (Judah Rosenthal), Woody Allen (Cliff Stern), Mia Farrow (Halley Reed), Anjelica Huston (Dolores Paley), Alan Alda (Lester), Jerry Orbach (Jack Rosenthal), Joanna Gleason (Wendy Stern), Claire Bloom (Miriam Rosenthal), Sam Waterston (Ben), Caroline Aaron (Barbara) and Stephanie Roth (Sharon Rosenthal).


Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)

Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s single stroke films. There are some painters in it, so using the paint stroke metaphor works rather nicely. The film’s about one thing; it’s about Owen Wilson’s Hollywood screenwriter who wants to be a novelist learning to take an active role in his life. There’s a lot going on around him—a whole lot, but it slowly becomes clear that one aspect is the salient one.

In the film, Allen continues to search for his perfect stand-in and Wilson does a good job. It’s hard to say how much of Wilson’s personal situation plays into the perception of him as mildly tragic, though it’s always present. Probably doesn’t hurt he wrote some great scripts too.

The film has its quietly profound moments, nothing too neon. There are a lot of literary references, some art ones, a couple film ones. It helps if one knows them. Allen is enjoying himself and not worrying too much about anything else. The subject matter is one he’s interested in and doesn’t care if the audience can’t keep up. It’s closer to his absurdist seventies comedies than anything has been for a while in that way.

And he gets an absolutely amazing performance from Michael Sheen. Also great is Adrien Brody in his one scene.

Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Corey Stoll are all good. Rachel McAdams has too little to do, but does it well.

With Darius Khondji’s luscious photography, it’s a wondrously self-indulgent feast.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures and Stephen Tenenbaum; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Owen Wilson (Gil), Rachel McAdams (Inez), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Michael Sheen (Paul), Corey Stoll (Hemingway), Kurt Fuller (John), Mimi Kennedy (Helen), Carla Bruni (Museum Guide), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Tom Hiddleston (Scott), Alison Pill (Zelda), Marcial Di Fonzo Bo (Pablo) and Adrien Brody (Dali).


Sounds from a Town I Love (2001, Woody Allen)

Allen did Sounds from a Town I Love quickly, for the “Concert for New York City” benefit. It’s very short clips—about ten seconds—of (uncredited) people walking around New York on their cellphones. The snippets of conversation are all played for comedic effect, while still maintaining a mild sense of reality (some of the snippets are more real than others—the mother worrying her three year-old’s life is over after not getting into a preschool).

There’s a frequent balance between laughing at the conversation and at the speaker. Austin Pendleton’s director whose understanding of the south-central Asia countries is based on their film festivals is a fine example. If it weren’t Pendleton, it wouldn’t work. But he’s likable in his absurdity.

The snippets let Allen make Sounds very memorable very quickly… which then made me wonder how his use of the final snippet would be.

Unsurprisingly perfect.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Starring Marshall Brickman, Griffin Dunne, Michael Emerson, Hazelle Goodman, Rick Mowat, Bebe Neuwirth, Austin Pendleton, Tony Roberts and Celia Weston.


You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is an unexpected surprise. Allen mixes a very black comedy with this light, almost absurd relationship comedy. But he never goes too dark.

I’m trying to think of a example but will undoubtedly fail to explain. Anthony Hopkins marries his call girl, played by Lucy Punch. Funny situation. This marriage ruins Hopkins. It’s not quite a “just desserts” situation because Hopkins isn’t a terrible guy. No one, with one exception, really gets a deserved comeuppance. Instead, they just navigate these incredibly frustrating, dumb situations they’ve put themselves in….

Allen almost loses it all at the end–he’s using narration (from Zak Orth, who does a fine job) and it doesn’t feel quite right–but then he saves it. This save is immediately following another scene where he could have perfectly ended the film. But the save is better.

Every single performance in Stranger is outstanding, but Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin can do these types of roles. It’s Antonio Banderas who really surprised me. He’s this perfect Woody Allen leading man (even though he’s in a supporting role here). Seeing him bluster and think and speechless… it’s just fantastic.

Gemma Jones is the other principal cast member (she’s Hopkins’s ex-wife, they’re Watts’s parents, she’s married to Brolin). Allen treats her comically, until he establishes it’s her world and everyone else is living in it.

There’s some nice minor performances from Pauline Collins and Philip Glenister.

I expected something decent, but Stranger‘s great.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Jaume Roures; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Josh Brolin (Roy), Naomi Watts (Sally), Gemma Jones (Helena), Anthony Hopkins (Alfie), Lucy Punch (Charmaine), Antonio Banderas (Greg), Freida Pinto (Dia), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Jonathan), Pauline Collins (Cristal), Anna Friel (Iris), Ewen Bremner (Henry Strangler) and Zak Orth (Narrator).


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