BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I don’t write hits. My plays are art. I write them specifically to go unproduced.”

Shadows and Fog, Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam were Allen’s on screen adaptations of his plays. September was his Bergman-esque attempt to create the feeling of a staged play on film. But Bullets Over Broadway was his first time depicting the cut-throat and deceptive world of New York Broadway on the silver screen. It’s a fun 1920s period farce written (with co-writer Douglas McGrath) during the most turbulent period of his life, but set in a time that Allen has such an affinity for, almost as if an act of escapism: “It was just a great, colourful time. Everything was very glamorous. It was really highly sophisticated. So I like to set some of my films in those years, because it’s fun.”

Allen’s comedic introspective to the creative process begins with young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack), a man of unwelcome integrity and idealism in this industry. In order to get his Eugene O’Neill-lite new play God of Our Fathers produced, he makes concessions by accepting funding from mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) in return for his wannabee actress moll Olive (Jennifer Tilly) getting a part in the play. As David succumbs to the glamour of leading lady Helen Sinclair (Dianne Weist), Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be the true genius behind the typewriter. Shayne initially rejects the suggestions from “some strong-arm man with an IQ of minus 50”, but the dialogue and narrative plotting are revolutionized through the collaboration. He takes it from a “cerebral and tepid” draft where the “lucid” stage directions and the colour of the binder are the only things worth saving, to a genuine Broadway hit; the Belasco Theatre where David’s play is rehearsed and staged in New York is actually where Don’t Drink the Water finished its run in 1968 after 598 performances. In the process it quickly begins to pose questions on the moral authenticity of your art and how far you’ll go to protect it.

Allen has often chosen not to step in front of the camera in his films, generally in his more dramatic work where he recognises his limitations as a performer. But this is the first time Allen has written a role fashioned for his classic persona, yet passed it onto another performer. There is much of Allen in David Shayne, who is effectively placed as Allen’s surrogate in rejecting himself as an artist. Shayne has gotten away with selling his soul to the devil for the accolades he desires. But in battling between artistic license and artistic compromise, he eventually comes to the realisation that he’s a fraud and ends his career as an artist. Allen similarly appears to accept his limitations of not being able to match the quality of the directors that he idolizes and his incessant proclamations of never having made a great movie that he’s happy with. Yet he instead chooses instead to persist, year after year.

After TriStar reneged on their three film deal with a year to go, Allen’s (then) good friend Jean Doumanian – one of his closest confidants and companions since his early stand up days – brought in her production company Sweetland Films. Backed by her billionaire partner, they provided Allen with his biggest ever budget – a 25% increase to $20 million – and a considerably larger seven-figure directors fee than his usual union minimum. This extravagance was put towards the gorgeous period detail, helping it to become Allen’s most Oscar nominated film.

The only success of those seven nominations was Weist as the pompous dame, the second time Allen has led her to Oscar success after Hannah and Her Sisters. What a difference between these two performances, going from the sweet and charming Holly to the narcissistic and praise driven dame. Helen Sinclair is a casting choice against type, similar to Farrow’s in Broadway Danny Rose, but how superbly the tender and naturalistic performer takes to histrionics and broad melodrama of this diva is riotously entertaining: “They’re your words. I’m just a vessel – they fill me!”, “Oh, I don’t know which ex-husband. The one with the mustache.”, “No, no, don’t speak. Don’t speak. Please don’t speak. Please don’t speak. No. No. No. Go. Go, gentle Scorpio, go. Your Pisces wishes you every happy return. Don’t speak!

Helen Sinclair is a big enough personality to fill any film, but this is one that delicately balances an assortment of big personalities who are more than just caricatures placed together for comedic effect. The ensemble playing them are unanimously terrific: Tilly as the arrogant, attention seeking and out of her depth Olive; Jim Broadbent as the humble British stage star prone to uncontrollable phases of stress eating; Rob Reiner as the deluded intellectual (“An artist creates his own moral universe”); Harvey Fierstein as Sinclair’s suitably sassy agent; Tracey Ullman as the giddy co-star who eventually begins to resemble her ever-present chihuahua; and Palminteri as gangster turned brilliant playwright Cheech, whose straight talking knowledge of the real world transforms Shayne’s pretentious writing. There’s a even an amusing cameo from Stacey Nelkin, an actress who Allen began dating in 1977 when she was 17 years old and supposedly inspired the story of Manhattan.

Despite this array of superstars, the film suffers from their lack of sympathy. The entertainment derived from them is almost akin to watching a season of Big Brother that loses it’s spectacle appeal. The second act picks up the pace but for the comedic and thematic heights that Allen intends his big ideas to reach, it falls flat. The ending is also disappointingly wholesome and quickly resolved for an artist who takes great pleasure in presenting the painful truth to life’s consequences. Perhaps Allen’s personal strife at the time gave him the impetus to indulge in a happy ending, but I think that Cheech would have some unpleasant comments for Allen about this.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Jesus. Claustrophobia and a dead body. This is a neurotics jackpot.”

Allen fans and Annie Hall-ites of all descriptions have been clamoring for a modern day peek into what became of those luffable, loavable and lurvable characters. Woody has repeatedly toyed with the idea of showing them young and old, having saved unused footage from the original shooting that was used in Anhedonia; the sprawling three hour original version of Annie Hall. Yet Manhattan Murder Mystery is likely the closest we, and he, will get to this holy grail as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman rework an unused murder mystery subplot from their initial story of Annie Hall. The premise was that Alvy and Annie miss the film where Alvy refuses to go in 5 minutes after it’s begun, go home and find out their neighbour had died. Allen purportedly  tried to use a similar subplot in Hannah and Her Sisters. Given a full length feature to breathe, this concept becomes a very fun and funny caper. It’s a light and bubbly comedy first and foremost, and a great one at that, but it’s also a creative murder mystery story indebted to The Thin Man that keeps you guessing.

Outside the confines of the erratic relationship of Annie and Alvy, this story of excitement and adventure flourished in the lives of middle-aged couple Carol and Larry Lipton. The same basic notion remains, with their elderly neighbour Lillian House (Lynn Cohen) dying from a hert attack the day after they meet her. Carol cannot shake a feeling that Lillian’s husband Paul (Jerry Adler) is somehow involved in the death and becomes absorbed with fascination at solving things, with enthusiastic help from her friend Ted (Alan Alda) and unwilling help from her husband. Allen’s kvetching is perfect foil for Keaton’s detective devotion, and who else could be their lovechild than Zach Braff (in his film debut). When Anjelica Huston isn’t playing the victim of the perfect murder, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors, she’s helping to solve one here as the slightly too clever novelist. Her partial role in the plotting is to serve as an alleged sexual interest for Larry to destabilize the harmony of his marriage. But her real value to Allen comes in her overview of the sequence of events, which feels a little too expository for the audience to get in on the act.

You can’t have material originally envisaged for Diane Keaton performed by someone else. Although this reworking was originally written with Mia Farrow in mind, Keaton coming on board provided a comedic performance that Allen admits outdoes his own writing. The script was too tightly plotted to make significant changes that played to Keaton’s sensibilities, rather than Farrow’s. But the “greatest screen comedienne we’ve ever had next to Judy Holliday” changed the comic center of the piece and thus the tone of the picture. Working with her was “great therapy…a great palliative” for Allen in the wake of his irrevocable personal and professional separation from Farrow and boy oh boy if she isn’t the same for the audience. Making her first proper appearance since 1979’s Manhattan (overlooking a minor cameo in Radio Days), she sizzles and dazzles. Keaton has represented a missed figure in Woody Allen’s work during the Farrow era. Allen’s formal structure of writing parts specifically for her to perform altered the kind of films he would write. There’s no need to complain when that results in the quality of work that is Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days and Husbands and Wives, but sometimes you just long for Keaton to call Allen a fuddy dud.

This is another classic fish out of water scenario that shaped the success of Allen and Keaton’s collaborations in the 70s. Allen really embraces this, throwing back to physical comedy of his early funny ones. Fighting with a phone cord on his face and struggling to put on his shoe having been woken up sleep deprived are two amusing examples of how Allen is still maturing as a comedian. He doesn’t need to destroy himself in a Buster Keaton slapstick sequence like the Execu-ciser from Bananas to get a laugh. He’s refined his comedic performance to get the most out of the little and apply them to the everyday. It’s funny because it’s happened to us and we relate. This level of comedy peaks in the hysterical scene where the team make a blackmail phone call to Paul House made up of recordings of his mistress taken from a fake audition. But what actually makes it so brilliant is Keaton’s reactions, as her tepid enthusiasm for engaging in the plan turns to expected exasperation at Allen naturally almost fumbling it all up.

The handheld camerawork from Carlo Di Palma follows on from Husbands and Wives. It takes on a different meaning here, changing from an intimate faux-documentary about marriage to a fast paced murder mystery etching a comedic guidebook of how to reinvigorate a marriage. What the camera focuses on, where it pans to and from all act as tense clues and play off serious conventions in the genre. But it also develops classic conceits of Allen’s cinematography in interesting ways: shifting viewpoints around a dinner table and among ensemble discussions in rooms; both gliding and jarring the camera among the surroundings at the appropriate times; dialogue being delivered out of shot for over 10 seconds when Carol and Larry walk around a water fountain in a park. A confrontation and shoot out in the back of an old cinema surrounded by mirrors also showcases Di Palma’s obvious talent in composure, composition and style. It messes with your perspectives in a very Hitchcockian way, yet it’s a blatant homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai as that very film is playing in the background. Allen’s “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again” line seals its place in history – at least it’s not imitating bad television for once.

Huston describes the shooting as “oddly free of anxiety, introspection and pain”, qualities which ironically embody his previous film Husbands and Wives. “It’s just a lark for me. A vacation…It’s sort of like giving myself a personal reward. Just an indulgence.” Allen said. In the year that he was having, he evidently felt that he needed it. What a gift it is to us too. He’s not been this fun and entertaining since the charming Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. As Allen describes it, it’s “just the kind of picture I loved to get lost in as a kid…a very pleasurable experience”. It’s remarkable that Allen could make a film this enjoyable while going through the adversity of a very public trial in the court and in the media though a prolonged custody battle and allegations of child molestation.

As part of their mild marital inquiry, Carol asks Larry “You don’t think we’re turning into a comfortable old pair of old shoes do you?”. You could well imagine Annie and Alvy evolving into these two 16 years down the road, such is their instantly dazzling chemistry, but you could never imagine their relationship being symbolic of a comfortable old pair of shoes. If this is the last time that we see Allen and Keaton on screen together, they go out in delightful style (“I’ll sit with you through the opera next week. I already bought the earplugs”; “I’m your husband, I command you to sleep. Sleep! I command it. I command it! Sleep!”). But we still keep hoping for an encore, because we need the eggs.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I’ve always had this pension for what I call kamikaze women. I call them kamikaze’s because they crash their plane, they’re self-destructive, but they crash it into you and you die along with them.”

What is the secret to a successful relationship? “Whatever works” suggests Sydney Pollack’s Jack at the end of Allen’s candid exploration of the marital disintegration of two upper class New York couples. Ever the pessimist, Allen’s suggested answer to the question to us (and himself) is to not expect too much out of life. The separation of Jack and Sally (Judy Davis) provides the catalyst for their close friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) to confront their own gradual failures, and Allen to examine why we sabotage our satisfaction in his most painfully truthful piece of work on the realities of the human condition. It’s his ode to Bergman’s Scene’s from a Marriage; an intimate eavesdrop into real people experiencing real emotions and living in real exchanges.

These couples, and all others, are different. They require different tactics to sustain them based on the individuals, the circumstances, the histories, the way we develop as humans during them. You have make it work in different ways, maybe as “a buffer against loneliness”. or you don’t. It’s a theme Allen would revisit in 2009 in the very literally titled Whatever Works. Ironically that film did not work and the messages are articulated much more astutely here. These explorations of the same question come in different forms, different genres but also different perspectives. At this time Allen was in the final stages of his own strained relationship with Mia Farrow, which perhaps explains the violent and volatile depictions of these profiles than the comparative pleasantries of similar New Yorkers in Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Another Woman. In fact, Mia found the famous erotic polaroids of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in Allen’s apartment in the final days of principal photography, so re-shoots and editing were done during the tumultuous breakup. Thus it’s not surprising to see the film and their relationship on screen reflect the turmoil off it. TriStar capitalised on the media fervor to record Allen’s biggest ever opening weekend of $3.5 million.

Despite it supposedly being written two years prior to filming, there’s still all the unmistakable and uncoincidental resemblances to real life details clouded by a subjective lens. Farrow’s performance is heightened because of the raw personal circumstances surrounding it and the close proximity of the on screen fiction to the real life fact. The unforgettable scene with Allen and Farrow towards the end was actually re-shot after their split. “It’s over and we both know it” she says to Gabe, or Allen, such is the difficulty separating life and art. “Art doesn’t imitate life, it imitates bad television” after all. Farrow took days of convincing to return by producer Robert Greenhut and knowing these circumstances as a viewer darkly enhances the scene.

Her archetypal performance in the 12 Allen films she starred in didn’t vary much outside of the more comical Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days – tender, mellow, mousey and affecting. Here she again lives within these characteristics but brings an enjoyable fierce quality. She provided Allen, and us, with some lovely performances over 12 years; the wild caricature Tina in Broadway Danny Rose, the eternal optimist Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the heartfelt titular Alice, the traumatized recluse Lane in September and her troubled Judy here are standouts. It’s remarkable that she was so consistently great as his muse yet so consistently snubbed by the Oscars to not receive a single nomination from such a strong catalogue of work.

Farrow cannot claim all the on screen plaudits in her final foray with Allen, however. Judy Davis is extraordinary with such compelling passion, ferocity and frustration. It’s easy to play these actions in their obvious manner, but how sincere she is with them in Allen’s magnificent situational writing (such as arguing over the phone with her ex on a first date, in his apartment, over multiple phone calls while suggesting they should “cut his fucking balls off!”) brings such a blackly comic quality. She’s dynamite here and was dutifully nominated for the Academy Award. A young Juliette Lewis is equally outstanding as the manipulative seductress Rain. She and Allen slowly develop a connection beyond their teacher-student relationship as Rain becomes an artistic confidant that Judy cannot be for him. The scene in the cab where they discuss the draft of his new novel is utterly breathtaking cinema. The psychological examination it gives us of both people in this social minefield is gripping, enhanced by how Allen is kept off screen entirely as we focus exclusively on Rain as she progressively reveals her true feelings about his artistic treatment of women and him as as a writer.

Allen’s most affecting moment as a performer comes in Broadway Danny Rose, but it’s a rare and welcome sight to see him play such intimate and complex choices – and do them so skillfully. Another wonderful exchange with Rain, as she finally makes a tipsy move on him at her 21st birthday party in her kitchen, is his finest work in front of the camera. It subverts expectations from Allen in both performance and writing, as he rejects her approach and does so in such a genuine and sweet manner. It’s surprising from a man who for once isn’t “using sex to express every emotion except love”, despite how equally manipulative he could be at this point. In fact, this developing relationship with the teenager and younger women in general is selfishly expressed as “some kind of symbol of lost youth or faded dreams”, which brings profound shades with the revelations that came out with teenager Soon-Yi.

While the mockumentary Zelig was a painstakingly detailed two year process to complete, this has an air of effortlessness and stripped back simplicity to it. Allen focused purely on the content and the action rather than the prettiness of the craft around it, cleverly framing the action within the context of a raw documentary. He wasn’t “tied into conversation tonal shooting…I cut when I wanted to cut (often mid sentence and at the emotional peak of arguments) and stuck on anything I wanted. I didn’t care about the niceties of it…I wanted to make a picture with no relation to beauty or any rules”. The jagged, dissonant and disturbed editing style actually compliments the psyches of the characters. Despite this purposely rough camera work, cinematographer Carlo di Palma has clearly choreographed and orchestrated things superbly with some stellar lengthy one take scenes. It was cheaper and faster to shoot than any of his previous films – I’d argue that it’s better than them all too.

Simply, this is Allen’s most human and pulsating work. There’s life in every syllable spoken and withheld. Dark humour, tragedy and thrills combine with a frightening level of familiarity to the past and present thoughts, actions and dilemmas that we dare not bring to our conscious. These characters have longings, impulses, compulsions, fantasies and daydreams that we hide behind in our daily outward personas. That it is styled and structured as a documentary explains things literally, but it also gives Allen some leverage to play into these conceits and explore unfamiliar worlds sides to the kind of people who populate his work. And how hilarious it is too – “Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ”, “Was the notion of ever-deepening romance a myth we had grown up on, along with simultaneous orgasm? The only time Rifkin and his wife experienced the simultaneous orgasm was when the judge handed them their divorce”. It’s brilliantly romantic, heartbreaking, visceral, bitter, unsympathetic and truly one of my favourite films.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Nothing is more terrifying than attempting to make people laugh – and failing.”

Allen’s most ravishing pictures have been in monochrome and this marks his first return to black and white since 1984, after a hot streak of 5 in 7 years with cinematographer Gordon Willis. Allen has had confidence in the complete command of his craft since his dramatic departure in 1978, but this is his first movie since Manhattan to truly exhibit his collaborative talent in the area or cinematography. It’s an explicit but loving homage to the German expressionist cinema of the 20s and 30s, featuring environments that resemble the work of Fritz Lang, Franz Kafka or Robert Wiene. These are enhanced even more by the very appropriate soundtrack full of songs from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Manhattan was admittedly a much deeper and meaningful piece, with the cinematography framed around a poignant love letter to a city with a touching love story at its centre. Shadows and Fog, however, is more an opportunity for debating the nature of evil; how the characteristics, tendencies and impulses that drive people to murder can otherwise be harnessed into positive actions or “highly creative ends” in other people. It’s also one of his most anti-Semitic films, although suggestions that it’s a metaphor for the evil that was the holocaust are far-fetched.

Based on his one act play ‘Death’ released in 1975, this is a bit of a throw back to his comedy of that time. Allen’s original persona, overflowing with the neurotic quirks and mannerisms of his early funny ones, play off violence and intimidation here in a classic fish out of water scenario. Vintage quips include: “A deranged person is supposed to have the strength of ten men. I have the strength of one small boy, with polio”; (to a sword swallower) “What happens when you get hiccups?”; “I can’t make the leap of faith to believe in my own existence”; “May all your ups and downs be in bed”; and “Family is death to an artist”, which is perhaps very telling of Allen and Farrow’s domestic placement at the time.

The Allen of old is especially present in a scene where he attempts to hide out at his ex-wife’s house from a lynch mob. It’s a funny circumstance, but revelings of lust and adultery undermine the protagonists sympathy in his eternal ignorance of his role in the societal good deed.

The title itself plays up the cinematic compositions and aesthetic throughout the film. This wonderful work fills frames with meandering shadows, fog, reflections and refraction. The camera pans, zooms, angles and slowly swoops around as if caressing the mise-en-scene. Stylised by silhouettes and heavy, unrealistic back lighting, it’s very striking and aesthetically daring.

The scene circling around each member of the dinner table at the brothel references a similar scene (also shot by Carlo di Palma) from Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s an elegant and sensitive touch for a film surrounded by violence. Luscious and rewarding sights such as these are complimented by the great work from production designer Santo Loquasto, who together create a world that feels equally endless and eerily confined.

Allen has never had trouble assembling capable casts, but this may be my favourite and most impressive based on cameos and early career performances – John C Reilly, Madonna, John Malkovich, John Cusack (in a much less Allen-esque role than he would later play in Bullets Over Broadway), Jodie Foster (who has the distinct pleasure of licking Allen’s nipple), William H Macy, Kurtwood Smith and Wallace Shawn all appear.
Allen’s tendency in this era is for indulgent exercises, yet here he is less refined and sincere in his approach than something like Radio Days.

The balance of comedy and a tragic trajectory does bring an effective uneasy and eerie atmosphere. But the final act drops a lot of simmering arcs and, inevitably, the entire conclusion building throughout the picture is unresolved in a bait and switch. It’s a visually arresting film with both tense and fun moments, but a plot that becomes more dreary as it develops.

This would be the final picture Allen would release with Orion, who filed for bankruptcy shortly after its New York premiere. They had released his last 11 films since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. As the company was set up by former staff from United Artists, who released every Allen film before that from 1969s Take the Money and Run, this would mark a significant shift in the production and financing of Allen’s films.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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ALICE (1990)

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“If you want, we can go talk about our kindergarten that would give him the best chances of getting into an Ivy league school.”

Magic realism and the way it works itself into his work has been one of Allen’s most identifiable themes. Who can forget the scene with a young Allen in Stardust Memories, the out of body experiences in Annie Hall, the core of Magic in the Moonlight, the fantasy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, his mother transporting to the New York skyline after a magic trick gone wrong in Oedipus Wrecks?

Yet Allen’s most magical works, in the sense of their charm and theme, don’t need the supernatural frivolity on show during Alice. We’re presented with sometimes wistful flashbacks infiltrating the present, invisibility, a wise muse appearing when most needed, the power to make any man fall in love with you and more. But consider the romanticism of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the sentimentality of Purple Rose, the nostalgia of Radio Days and Sweet and Lowdown, the spectacle of Midnight in Paris, the unbelievable yet touching journey of Zelig. They achieve their status and aura from marrying genuine pathos with a sprinkle of cinematic magic. Alice instead gets straight into the magical conceit and imposes its conventions without any understanding of the context or background on the characters.

Titular upper-class housewife Alice begins questioning her 16 year marriage and her privileged lifestyle after developing feelings for a handsome saxophone player. Subconsciously suffering from a sore back, her troubles are truly emotional, even superficial. A Chinese acupuncturist prescribes a series of reality-altering herbal remedies to alleviate her troubles of dissatisfaction. These herbs lead not to bed rest but to supernatural adventures, unexpected personal insights and necessary confrontations with who she had become since her Catholic upbringing.

You might not be surprised to know that the film was originally titled ‘The Magical Herbs Of Dr Yang’, and thank goodness for that change. This fantasy and fantastical action, with both comic and dramatic overtones, brings inevitable comparisons to The Purple Rose of Cairo. In fact, there are very similar moments towards the end of both films when Farrow’s characters end up losing both men she loves by choosing the route of less reality. On both occasions there is a choice, yet her final choice here is one in herself rather than of either man. She devotes her life to Cambodia to give herself and her children deeper values after an adulthood of superficiality. It’s another blurring of reality in Allen’s work considering Farrow’s philanthropy, generous adoption of disadvantaged children and worshiping of Mother Teresa.

But at the core of the comparison comes the realisation that Alice does nothing better than its predecessor. It’s essentially the same to The Purple Rose of Cairo as Deconstructing Harry is to Hannah and Her Sisters – a breezier, messier, softer spoken and less potent reiteration. Allen’s script does have some lovely dialogue though – the lines “I try to look pretty so your friends can admire your taste”, “I hold onto my youth, but he doesn’t notice” and “Love is a very complex emotion. No rational thought…much romance, but much suffering” speak so piercingly from their quiet delivery.

However, coming off such success at displaying how his comedic and dramatic passions can coalesce, Alice never seems to find its tone or placement like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It has fun moments of wacky hijinx, affecting moments (all anchored by a sweet and heartfelt performance from Farrow, with one hilarious seduction scene) and existential detours into examinations of midlife malaise. But his whole idea never assembles the meaningful stakes, interesting sub-characters or engaging performances to hang it on.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)

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4-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Idea for a farce – a poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.”

There’s certain expectations with most Woody Allen pictures; a New York setting, a large degree of wit, a beautiful woman delivering a great performance, suffocating neurosis, people talking out of frame, jazz. You don’t normally come to one with the intention of having your values and morality tested. Yet with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen distills his cinematic hallmarks and philosophical passions into a meaningful debate on the decency of human impulse. It chews so tenderly on the impact of our every decision in the governance of our conscious; how we are defined by the choices we make and how it affects our position in the universe. It’s a masterful conclusion to a decade of dominance in cinema, with a collection of 10 films that challenge the consistency and quality of any filmmaker from any period.

The title lays it out plainly: what is a crime, what is merely a misdemeanor and how do we rationalise them into these compartments? The loosely connected parallel stories of ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) and fledgling documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) challenge this thesis, as they confront the depths of their values in the pursuit of self-perceived innocence and a clear conscious. Judah’s dramatic arc undoubtedly has more gravity in this regard, as he green lights the ‘perfect murder’ of his strung-along mistress (Anjelica Huston who’s great in her anxiety, neurosis and mental trauma) to save his reputation and marriage. Breaking Bad captivated us with similar commentaries 19 years later, in showcasing the transformation of an ordinary man taken from one sin to deeper sins. The dread in the viewer here comes not only from the suspense of whether Judah will get his comeuppance, but the understanding that he realises his capacity for these stakes, and whether he will revisit it later in life.

Like almost every Allen film since 1977, this deals with the intellectual middle-class of New York. That demographic actually serves a potent purpose here, as Allen shrewdly comments on the inability of intellectuals to properly rationalise their ethical dilemmas. Judah’s struggle before and after the deed leads to questions such as “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is what shes doing to me just?” In this self-centered pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in life,  murder equated to infidelity, and murder resulting from the fear of your infidelity becoming known isn’t the same as any other motivation. The end result of Judah’s moral code is a refusal to let her “destroy his life”.

That Judah is an eye doctor is no coincidence, rather it’s part of some really strong symbolism from Allen – a man who helps other people improve their sight, yet is incapable of clear moral vision. While his Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston, whose little anxious touches resemble a modern day performance by Joaquin Phoenix, though ironically not his in one of Allen’s other morality tales involved murder, Irrational Man) goes physically blind while being metaphorically blinded by his faith to the realities of society. This unjust world is suggestive of Allen that there is no God there to punish the deserving; you can be free of a permanent feeling of guilt and only you can punish yourself. But for how often Allen mocks Judaism, he takes it very seriously here and offers Ben wise words to combat Judah: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel, with all my heart, a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”

The comic side to the film sees Allen’s Cliff selling out by making a documentary on his big shot brother-in-law television producer (Alan Alda) while falling for a producer on the documentary (Mia Farrow’s Halley). The original cut had only one scene with Alda, more of the side story with Cliff’s sister and niece (which does seem to go nowhere in this final edit) and features Mia as a social worker in a nursing home for vaudevillians where Cliff is making a documentary. These changes appear to made valid improvements, even if it did require re-shooting 80 out of 139 scenes, making it his most re-shot film outside of the completely reworked September. It’s profoundly and poetically written, earning multiple nominations and winning a WGA for best screenplay. At times it is overly done though, slipping into expositional monologues. But the cast do a terrific job with the words, Landau in particular who was also nominated for multiple awards in an unconventional headline role.

Originally titled ‘Brothers’, this balance of comedy and drama is something Allen has longed to accomplish and came closest with Hannah and Her Sisters. The philosophical drama and farcical comedy would combine again more rigidly in 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, to much less success. But here the comedy, drama, existentialism and thrills of both stories converge sublimely in such playful construction. For instance, one moment you have the suspense of Judah receiving a call from a detective which transitions into a scene with Allen at the cinema watching a rendition of “Murder He Says” from Happy Go Lucky. As inherently tragic as the film is, there’s still some blistering jokes slotted in:

“He’s interested in producing something of mine.”
“Your first child!”

The flashback device is often used by Allen to good effect. They’re usually there to inform audiences about narrative details: Annie Hall is almost a film of scenes in shuffle mode but the trips that he, Annie and Rob take back to observe his childhood are richly informative and comical; Stardust Memories floats to the past; Broadway Danny Rose gets a lot of comedy out of prior endeavors. But here, Judah’s silent contemplation from the past, in the form of flashbacks for the viewer, not only inform us of this non-present time but act as methods for him to work through his conscience. It’s less artificially inserted for the sake of narrative necessities and more organic from the characters mental dialogues.

Woody, either arrogantly or stubbornly, opines on the tendency for his work to reflect reality rather than the superficial happiness of Hollywood. Judah, as if knowing that Woody Allen himself makes movies in New York, tells Cliff “You want a happy ending, you should see a Hollywood movie”. It’s as downbeat and morbid as he’s become, with Judah left unpunished and at peace with his moral values. While Cliff serves a prison sentence of four months away from Halley (as he did with Tracy in Manhattan) and a broken heart upon her return. It’s a very dark and disturbing ending even for Allen, which leaves you contemplating your own moral balance in the modern world.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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ANOTHER WOMAN (1988)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I wonder if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.”

Before Allen took a modern swing at Tennessee Williams and deception in his last Oscar winner, 2013’s Blue Jasmine, he explored a less melodramatic kind of mid-life crisis in Another Woman. It came at a time when his relationship with Mia Farrow – who features here as Hope, pregnant with who would become Satchel Ronan Farrow and giving up the lead role because of that – was beginning to show private signs of breakdown and abandonment through accusations of deception. The other woman in their private life at this time was actually another girl, Mia’s (and then Woody’s legally) adopted daughter Dylan, who Mia felt Woody was showing a disproportionate amount of attention and affection to – effectively stealing his love from her. In fact, Hope’s first speech to her psychiatrist about being deceived could almost be taken from Mia’s own words in court (or in her own psychiatry sessions) just a few years later, surrounding her other adopted daughter Soon-Yi’s affair with Woody. How prescient of Allen, whose final roles he gave to Farrow (Hannah and Her Sisters onwards) were that strongly reflecting their private life and her family background that some have accused it of being a pseud-cathartic vehicle for her own psychoanalysis. The pinnacle of this life-imitating-art would aptly be in Farrow’s final film with Allen, Husbands and Wives, filmed partially during their break up and so reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding them.

The characters in the world of Woody Allen seem unable to live (satisfied, unhappily or just plain exist) without psychiatry. Exploring the psychology of human beings has fascinated Allen for much of his career, ironic since his own 40+ years of it has supposedly done no good to him. Hope’s sessions are overheard by Marion (a magnificent Gena Rowlands), who’s renting an apartment next door to complete a new book. This physical manifestation of upper class isolation matches Marion, an empty and lonely writer who notices much of herself in Hope’s confessions. Her eavesdropping prompts her to confront some well hidden and unresolved memories; Hope’s words become a passageway into Marion’s psyche, with her speak of self deception and self-destruction and regret being third party expressions of Marion’s subconscious turmoil.

Like the line from the Rilke poem she reads, Marion must change her life. Allen describes Marion as ‘strong intellectually but blocked out in her feelings’, which would be an accurate to many of his creations. But there is a cerebral and introspective nature to Marion common only to the characters of his previous dramas, Interiors and September. Her brother loathes her, her husband no longer feels for her and her best friend rues her (much to her own bemusement). A lifetime of safe and conservative choices has left her frozen, numb and cold – too cold according to Allen, admitting the lack of warmth to the character as the film’s key fault.

This is all a clever concept, one originally conceived in a comic fashion by Allen and eventually realised as that in Everybody Says I Love You. While here is not the comic incarnation of the idea, it’s purposely also not realistic in its dramatic context. Marion can block the sound out entirely from two couch cushions against the grill, so she has the choice to listen completely or not at all. The choice to continue blocking or to confront. It’s a classic cinematic convention that we buy into and here plays to the mental state of its protagonist. The narrative flows between present day reality and Marion’s troubled mind; transporting into her memories, hallucinations and dreams with a free fluidity.

After his experience on Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s well known that Michael Caine’s one piece of advice for Gena Rowlands was not to save your best performance for the close up, because Woody does no close ups. But with Bergman’s longtime collaborative cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s at the helm (the first of four with Allen), Rowlands and her complexity of thoughts are shot through multiple close ups of pulsating stillness. This uncommon use of the close up was a conscious attempt by Allen to match Bergman’s skill at ‘developing a language that can convey inner psychological states to audiences’. He achieves that on this instance. There’s much feeling in Nykvist’s work which, with its immaculate compositions, is impeccable here. He not only captures but traverses the players and their environments so gracefully. A particular visual motif is cutting people off or in half by playing with light exposure, walls separating individuals in the shot and hands covering half of a face. It’s a very Bergman film at its core, inspired heavily by Wild Strawberries and furthering the identity of Allen’s dramatic work as Berman-lite. Yet it’s as much a (loving and flattering) Bergman imitation as something like the well-regarded When Harry Met Sally is an Allen imitation.

September was Allen’s most theatrically structured film and there’s a carryover here, with dialogue and conversations textured well for the stage. This is no better emphasised than during Rowland’s surreal and superb dream where her real life exchanges are put on the stage and acted out by her peers. It’s good writing as always from Allen (although the dialogue is sometimes robbed of its subtext) and in comparison to September, this is no less well made or performed. It’s actually a more creative, engaging and controlled drama. The dream sequence for instance – with its eloquent use of Erik Statie’s Gymnopédie No 3, the contrast between dark backgrounds and exposed faces, and the playful amalgamation of fantasy and reality – is accomplished and skillful work.

But for all its conflict and embedded repression, the storytelling feels as unresolved as its central character. It’s not exhaustive of its material, at only 77 minutes and with a forced conclusion to this chapter of her life. She’s seemingly ‘at peace’ knowing that her affair was fictionalised in the novel of her ex-lover (an underutilized Gene Hackman) while the woman that she has obsessed over has now detached herself from society (similarly to Marion) and likely gone off to commit suicide? Like Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s an artificially pleasing but ultimately unsatisfying ending from a man who knows how to end a film with poise and poignancy. Sorry Woody, but I hope you accept my (minor) condemnation…

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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