Thursday, August 19, 2010

Modern Maestros: Woody Allen

Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Woody Allen
Known For: witty comedies about life, dramas about love, often though not exclusively set in New York
Influences: Early comedy owes much to cartoonist Jules Feiffer, drama much to Ingmar Bergman.
Masterpieces: Anything I write here is going to get me in trouble. But let me say I agree with the popular sentiment that Annie Hall is most of all. Also Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and maybe The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Disasters: Disaster is such a strong word and there are several that may (yet may not) qualify.
Better than you remember: And for everyone there's at least one Allen film that the world seems to loathe but you love. For me it's Scoop (recently).
Box Office: Annie Hall is tops with 136 mil.
Favorite Actor:You may think it's Diane Keaton (7) or Mia Farrow (13) but in fact Woody Allen's favorite actor is Woody Allen, having starred in 17 Woody Allen movies.

Woody Allen is nothing if not a victim of his own prolificness. Anyone who steps up to the plate as much as he does is going to strike out a lot. But the hits he gets are often home runs, or at least triples (someone help me before I stretch this metaphor out any more). My standard for this series has been to ask whether a director has made at least two notable quality films in the past ten years. And though it's fair to say that he's been missing more than hitting lately, Woody Allen certainly meets that standard. The two films of note here, of course, are Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, though I also find Scoop to be just as good as both of them. I mention that not because I can really make a case for Scoop, but to point out how Allen's "bad" films even have worthwhile elements that speak to people. And so there are people who think Melinda and Melinda was great or who champion Whatever Works or Cassandra's Dream. The question with each new Woody Allen film isn't whether or not it'll be wholly embraced by the critical community and play for awards but also whether it'll be a small gem that you and you alone seem to appreciate.

Allen's career has been much discussed, especially in the 70's 80's and 90's. His thoughtful New York comedies, his sentimental love notes to jazz and early cinema, his Bergmanesque dramas have all been analyzed and analyzed again. To focus on his recent career is to focus on a man abroad, outside a city more closely associated with him than perhaps any other modern man. The two previous aforementioned films of note came from England and Spain respectively. Thematically they are about the nature of passion and how it is rooted in the seductive call of the foreign away from the warm and safe loving embrace of home. This is what Woody Allen thinks about when he's in Europe. While the man's heart clearly belongs to New York City, it is obvious that his experiences flirting with locations that belong to the hearts of others has breathed a new tilt into his career with interesting results.

A brief note about Allen's "lesser" films of recent years. While they may not have achieved a critical consensus, they still explore classic Woody Allen territory, touching on issues of love, loneliness, crime and guilt. They still feature quality acting and classically glamorous cinematography. It's comforting that Woody, if not consistently great, is still consistently Woody. And that's why we keep coming back and rooting for another hit. It's why his movies are still embraced and anticipated and rolled out at high status film festivals. It seems odd to suggest that perhaps more than any working director, Mr Allen's bad films are almost always worth seeing. Yet it requires a special kind of talent to accomplish that and it's worth celebrating. Allen's next film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger premiered in Cannes to pretty good reviews and will arrive for our consumption soon. If you're not excited for that, the next film after his next film will feature French First Lady Carli Bruni and is hotly anticipated for the fact. That's the thing about Woody Allen. There's always another shot at greatness around the corner.


Bia said...

Likes: Anything Else, Melinda & Melinda, Celebrity, Vicky, Cristina.

Matt said...

I LOVE Woody Allen.

Hannah and Her Sisters is at the top of my list but I love Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan, Bullets Over Broadway.

I think his absolute worst film is The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, but it would be a decent but average film for another director.


Matt -- he's one of my favorite directors, too. and I agree that Jade Scorpion is the total nadir. But i think it's bad enough to be just bad period :) not bad for him. Just bad.

Andrew R. said...

He is great, but he has made a few flops. But hey, so has Spielberg.

His Top 10:
1. Annie Hall-I lurf it. 1977 is the only year I declare a tie for Best Picture-Star Wars Episode IV and Annie Hall.
2. Hannah and her Sisters
3. Purple Rose of Cairo-One of the best movies about movies.
4. Bullets over Broadway-"I'm Helen Sinclair!"
5. Crimes and Misdeameanors
6. Vicky Christina Barcelona-his best film in a while
7. Match Point
8. Manhattan-teensy bit overrated, still great
9. Zelig
10. Mighty Aphrodite

I am predicting You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger to be in between Zelig and Mighty Aphrodite. (There's a fair drop in quality between the two.)

Esther said...

I'm a huge fan of the Wood-man.

Annie Hall is one of my 3 favorite movies, along with Casablanca and The Graduate. Last year, I had the thrill of seeing Tony Roberts on Broadway in The Royal Family and telling him at the stage door how much I loved it.

I saw it when it first came out - 32 years ago, yikes! Certain scenes resonated with the neurotic part of my Jewish sensibility, which I usually keep in check. ;-)

I agree with all the masterpieces you mentioned. I'd also add that I love Radio Days, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway.

The more recent stuff, I'm kind of meh about.

/3rtfu11 said...

I started renting Woody Allen movies because of Judy Davis. In the end I fell deeply for him as a filmmaker. Personal favorite – Interiors best usage of older actresses and younger actresses in a movie.

Michael said...

Former Woody Regular I'd Love To See Him Re-team With: Dianne Wiest.

Current Woody Regular I'd Love To See Him NOt Re-team With: Scarlett Johansson

I like "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" but I don't necessarily love Scarlett like I'm supposed to. Anyone else?

Seeking Amy said...

Michael: I think Scarlett is quite good in Match Point but totally colorless in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's a shame because I think she actually might have had the most to work with but she was such a limp fish in the movie. That part when she's like "I'm sorry I ruined your weekend!" on the plane ride was cringe-worthy.

Anonymous said...

i ♥ woody.

aclp said...

Vicky Cristina is horrible. The characters are walking cliches, it simplistic, based on old stereotypes, shallow, the characters are one dimensional, catalan culture is poorly portrayed, the representation of latin cultures and latin people is laghauble and built on stereotypes, Barcelona is not shown as a real city but as one gigantic touristy postcard, the characters have no development whatsoever, the story is dull and unimaginative, the dialogues are ridiculous, the whole movie is one gigantic cliche.

The curvaceous adventurous free spirited porn star looking blonde x the skinny shy uptight conservative brunette.

The free spirited artistic bohemian cultured educated wild at heart europeans x the wall street provincial narrow minded uptight ignorant american.

The ridiculous latin lover, and the hot tempered, fiery hearted explosive short tempered crazy unbalanced passioned mentally unstable latin woman who's always fighting ot arguing with someone, screaming, shouting, shooting people or commiting suicide.

The hot tempered passionate sexy wild at heart fiery warm latin couple who's always fighting and screaming at each other, having a "latin passioned wild relationship"....

Its one cliche after another, and all poorly done.

PS= Flamenco guitar and spanish language in Barcelona???? Don't think so Woody.

PS= The movie's representation of what a master's thesis is supposed to be is ridicule at best.

aclp said...

But, Annie Hall is one of the greatest movies ever made, and Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Zelig, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives are all masterpieces.

aclp said...

I never thought Allen would one day write lines such as : "I love him, but I'm not in love with him" as I saw him do in Vicky Cristina. The dialogue in that movie was really bad.

Come on, every single tv drama has used this one.

aclp said...

I think ScarJo was bad in both Match Point and Vicky Cristina, but I think in Match Point it had a lot to do with her character, which had no consistency whatsoever.

But I think she was bad in both. In Vicky Cristina it was embarassing, as Cruz, Bardem and Hall all acted circles around her.

Volvagia said...

I'm not as passionate about him as you are, Nat. He's a good director, and he's certainly fast, but maybe he should think about what he's doing more carefully. Kubrick could have, at the end, made 3-4 movies a decade if he wanted, but they wouldn't have turned out as what we got. Kubrick's only misstep of any kind was Full Metal Jacket (why not make a full movie out of army training?) Woody Allen has only hit greatness on every third movie these days, which begs the question, "working too much?"

Volvagia said...

And by the way: Star Wars best of the year? Here's the nominees:

1977 Best Picture:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 4
Annie Hall - 2
Star Wars Ep 4 - 3
Eraserhead - winner
Suspiria - 5
Killer of Sheep - 6
Saturday Night Fever - 10

(Other spots to be filled later.)


AMANDA -- but to be fair to the movie, never in VCB is it assumed / conveyed that you're supposed to believe these are deep snapshots or that her thesis is supposed to be great. Part of the point is that these girls are just passing through and the "transformations" are surface level.

at least that's how i remember it. skimming a culture rather than understanding it and snapping back into place.

but maybe i'm giving it too much credit. I just don't think it's meant to be a literal or deep examination of cross cultural experience.

VOLVAGIA -- well, i'm no longer passionate about him. I could only contain that passion through so many weak efforts. Now i look forward to the movies but they don't feel like "must see" in the way they did for 15 or so years of my life. I mean in the mid 80s these would always be my "most awaited" of the year. but maybe that was the rush of youthful discovery of movies and as I've stated many times PURPLE ROSE performed a total whammy on me.

SEEKING AMY -- agreed about the colorless part. It's strange and it could be that the character is underwritten but it seems like she just didn't dig deep enough. Not sure.

aclp said...

I understand your point Nat but even if it was just "two girls passing through" why did everything have to be such an obviuos cliche?

Bradem and Cruz's characters (and their relationship) are caricatures, not real, layered, complex people. They are wlaking-talking lame simplistic cliches.

anarchi said...

I looked forward to each new Allen film, until his Mia/Soon Yi scandal.

That ruined Manhattan for me (a favorite despite the always creepy affair with a teenager, but made worse with fact). I can't separate the man from the artist, mainly since so much of the time his films have an autobiographical storyline.

I'll still watch, with no passion...and with some guilt.

Help me...

anarchi said...

I looked forward to each new Allen film, until his Mia/Soon Yi scandal.

That ruined Manhattan for me (a favorite despite the always creepy affair with a teenager, but made worse with fact). I can't separate the man from the artist, mainly since so much of the time his films have an autobiographical storyline.

I'll still watch, with no passion...and with some guilt.

Help me...

Anonymous said...

PS= Flamenco guitar and spanish language in Barcelona???? Don't think so Woody.

Good lord. What language do they speak in Barcelona (Spain), then? Swedish? I mean, apart from catalán?

Flamenco guitar? in Barcelona? Where does rumba catalana come from -for the annoyance of the rest of the country, by the way?

You may have a point though, Woody Allen didn't show the street prostitutes that give blowjobs in the city center. He couldn't show the Barcelona that fines Shakira for shooting a video in the city either, you're right. Maybe he didn't show the things you wanted him to show?

I agree with Nathaniel, though. I think you missed the point of the movie, just as Vicky and Cristina.
I'm so fed up with people who regurgitate other reviews with no a single idea of their own, especially if this comes from barceloneses who think their farts don't stink.

aclp said...

Anom, I'm not from Barcelona, but I've been there many times because my godfather is catalan. I'm not a catalonian myself, but I have had many experiences with them to know how important their identity is-and how much of a big point it is for them to speak catalan and not spanish. And it is pathetic that a girl who claims to love catalan culture and who wants to do a thesis about it not to know such a thing and ignore the language completly.

But that's just one of my complaints about the movie. The way americans x europeans is portrayed is ridiculous, silly, stereotypical and cliche, as are the representations of latin men, women and their relationships.

aclp said...

And anom, you should have read that I also complained that the city was not portrayed as a real city, but as a sequence of touristy post card spots.

Randomly meeting someone just in front of Parc Guell's dragon? Really? Could it be any more cliche, touristy and obvious?

aclp said...

And by the way- Many many british movie critics desliked Match Point because they said that the London (the greatest city in the world) shown in the movie was obviously seen by a non londoner who didn't get the city and they also said that Woody didn't get english culture as well, and that was clearly the work of a foreigner who did not understand the culture he was talking about.

Volvagia said...

Mid period comedy seems like a mixture of Sturges and Bunuel.

IslandLiberal said...

I went on a big splurge of Allen movies earlier this year; I'm generally a fan, though I'm actually not so much into his earliest comedies as many people are.

My top five would be:

Annie Hall
Broadway Danny Rose
Bullets Over Broadway
Match Point (his best film, in my opinion)
The Purple Rose of Cairo

Anonymous said...

Amanda, about the political identity of Catalonia I don't care that much. I've travelled there a lot because I also have relatives there, but to me the so called Catalonian identity includes both languages, whether one likes or not. Personally, I've never found myself in trouble for speaking Spanish, if the other one wants to respong in Catalán, fine with me, I can understand it. But what pisses me off of those regional nationalistic feelings is that the bottom line is "we deserve better than you because of our birthplace" and that's something unacceptable to me. Though I can understand your father's need for his own identity, if you have the opportunity at birth of learning two languages and you choose to lear just one... it's shortsighted. But anyway, people speaking only Catalán are a minority, most of them -wise people- speak both, which is great.

As for the movie, the postcard thing: I think I've seen that point made hundreds of time by now. First, well they're two tourists, where are you supposed to meet them? in the boring, non tourist side of the city? No, they'll visit what everybody else does. And anyway, it's movie that aims at being watched internationally. People in Dublin watching the movie want to recognize that that is Barcelona, where they go on vacation. People like to recognize the places they've visited. And again, those are the touristic places, the ones that make Barcelona known around the world.

And then, there's suspension of disbelief. Of course they meet coincidentally in one of the most famous spots, as in other movies they come across each others in the middle of Manhattan (even more unlikely). And Rebecca Hall not speaking Catalán, are you serious? Did you expect when watching the movie that she'd do it? Plot-wise it'd be inefficient in the dialogues, and anyway she could've learnt at some point (one of those moments we don't see the characters offscreen) that Javier didn't speak Catalán, or maybe her traininig in the language had just been academic and she wasn't fluent. Lots of reasons, plot-wise. Outside the movie, the writer and director can't speak catalán nor Spanish, how is he supposed to control dialogues in Catalán? In Spanish, he let the actors go because they were native, but you can't let Hall saying her dialogues in catalán without direction.

Really, suspension of disbelief. Otherwise there's no way you can enjoy the greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite, the singing in Everyone Says I Love You or just the typical Woody Allen pairing with younger women in so many movies. If you're so picky about details you won't enjoy the movies and will get lost in the details. Trust me, I've been there.

As for the dialogues, you can't be serious, Woody Allen is one the greatest script writers ever, ever. Not every single line is highly quotable, of course not, but from that to ridiculous and cliché there's a long way. He has some tremendous, gee-ni-us lines Isabel Coixet* could only dream of writing.

*Just to cite a catalonian director who does precisely the opposite, and escapes from Cataluña in most of her movies, not to deal with those criticisms, probably, among other reasons.

Steolicious said...

You are so right, the point that even bad Woody movies are worth to be seen.

I guess I like them all in a weird way.

I like to list my favs, so...

Annie Hall
Hannah And Her Sisters
Bullets Over Broadway
Match Point
Cassandras Dream
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

but I also enjoyed...
Radio Days
Small Time Crooks
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Whatever Works
Shadows and Fog
Crimes and Misdemeanors

and Anything Else.

I'm not sure about...
Melinda and Melinda
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Sweet and Lowdown
Everyone Says I Love You
Mighty Aphrodite

And there are still enough movies left... which I really want to see... sometime
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Broadway Danny Rose
Husbands and Wives
Deconstructing Harry
2011 - Midnight in Paris

Tera said...

I'm a fan of vintage Woody Allen. Love and Death, Sleeper, Annie Hall ofcourse, Manhattan, Interiors.... True Hannah and her sisters, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Broadway Danny Rose were great, but there was something about him and Diane Keaton together that was perfect. Woody should stop writing for these bland young actresses like Scarlett Johansson and give Diane Keaton a great role. She needs it.

Tera said...

also, I think Woody just lost his spark as he got older. I don't think being prolific means you can't be great. Ingmar Bergman made back to back films. The Coen brothers are making back to back films, they made No Country For Old Men, Burn after Reading, A Serious Man, and have True Grit coming out. All back to back and all good films with No Country For Old Men being a masterpiece and A Serious Man being brilliant.

7Bis said...

I'll go along with the popular consensus on Woody's greats, but I *must* make an addition, as Husbands & Wives is at the top of my list - Woody's last great film, I think. Note-perfect performances all-round and oh so much savage-poignancy that it takes my breath away. I'm fanatical about Bergman and H&W definitely takes some serious cues from The Passion Of Anna, but I would go so far as to say that for once Woody transcended his hero-worship and actually topped the master for brutal honesty. It's horrifically funny and quotable too. Love, love, love this film.