The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 1 (1966-1990)

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by The Playlist Staff
May 19, 2011 8:17 AM
20 Comments
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“Interiors” (1978)
Famous for being his first straight-laced serious picture, this very Ingmar Bergman-indebted film (as in, were those left-over wigs and did they clone Liv Ullman?) serves as the cream in-between the fantastic "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" cookie, only it lacks any sort of sweetness. Featuring an ensemble of psuedo-intellectuals and would-be artists, sisters Renata and Joey (Diane Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt) are devastated when their father decides to take a trial separation from their mother Eve (Geraldine Page). Nasty suicide attempts by the heart broken mother follow, and in-between the siblings either complain about their responsibilities or attempt to keep their other halves in check while they nurse their parent out of her rut. However it's only until the recent bachelor returns with Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), his new bride-to-be and polar opposite of all, that the film really gets going. Pearl is inarguably most important character - the one they look down upon as a simpleton, but for all of their philosophical and deep discussions, she's the only one that's happy. Unfortunately, Allen's script is much too on the nose, and while his form and style here are undeniably impressive, its distant behavior and lack of heart keep it from resonating at all. What we have here is a somber piece from start to finish, something that feels like a play full of one-note characters and overly pronounced themes. It's a shame, too, because it might be his most visually astonishing film to date. [C+]

“Manhattan” (1979)
This writer was only 13 years old when Woody Allen made a once-in-a-lifetime appearance at the Academy Awards, with a plea that directors revitalize the scarred city post 9/11. The applause was thunderous, the standing ovation lengthy. Perhaps some of the industry’s finest recalled those effervescent first notes of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" buoyed by an immortal skyline. Shot in black and white, the titular city takes front and center stage while Allen refines the tragi-comic storylines he’d visit time and time again. This time Isaac (Allen) pursues 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), while close friend Yale (Michael Murphy) cheats on his wife with Mary (Diane Keaton). Allen's writing here is typically sharp and his musings on "Why is life worth living?" is a darling moment for the typically dour auteur. What stands out above all else is a picture of the Big Apple, one of the greatest committed to film -- and a force that shapes and rejuvenates Issac. "Manhattan" is funny and sad, wise and a notch in Allen's long-running showering of love on New York City. Hey Woody, we could use some of that old magic now. [A-]

“Stardust Memories” (1980)
"Stardust Memories" has been called an homage to Fellini's "8 1/2," though as Tony Roberts says in the movie -- “Homage? We outright stole it.” Allen breaks a number of social (and filmmaking) conventions before the film ends. He talks about the emptiness of success and celebrity (which is the ultimate American taboo) and the futility of romantic love. These are, of course, subjects Allen has touched on previously in his other films but never with such a heavy hand. "Stardust Memories" is tinged with a feeling of tired despair from Allen -- despair with his fans, the critics, his work and the world in general. Though he is still trying to answer some of the big questions, the usual quips and punchlines don't hold the same lively charm.The dream (or nightmare) feel of the film owe a lot to cinematographer Gordon Willis, who easily turns the black-and-white footage from lush to surreal to stark, with surprising fluidity from shot to shot. The flashbacks that we aren't sure are flashbacks are equally as fluid, while the Godard-ian jump cuts and self conscious script all add to the dizzying feel of the meta film-within-a-film narrative. The characters are like caricatures, or more likely two-dimensional memories brought to life, lacking depth but overflowing in significance. "Stardust Memories" (despite Allen’s frequent denial) feels personal and revealing. However the futility of searching for meaning within a movie is also one of the last jokes of the film -- ''What do you think was the significance of the Rolls-Royce?'' someone asks. ''I think it represented his car,'' is the answer. [A]

“A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982)
You'd think a movie called "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" would have been a whole lot less boring. But you'd be wrong. An often agonizing grind, the film is loosely based on Allen favorite Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." (Watch the Criterion Blu-ray of "The Seventh Seal" to hear a wonderful Allen monologue about why Bergman was so amazing.) Everything about "Comedy" is dull – its period setting, its straightforward philosophical discussions that border on rote dissertations, and the flat cinematography. Even the talented cast (including Mary Steenburgen, Tony Roberts, and Jose Ferrer among them) can't do much to up the energy levels of this hopelessly sleepy film. It's the cast, though, that provides the one interesting footnote, when looking at it in the context of Allen's filmography – this was the first movie to star his future-wife Mia Farrow. And we all know how well that went – about as well as this movie. [D]

“Zelig” (1983)
A curio in a filmography that is distinguished by repeating themes, “Zelig” masks Allen’s typical gripes and philosophizing with a mockumentary sheen. Presented as a black-and-white documentary on Leonard Zelig (Allen), the “human chameleon”, the film is a portrait of a misfit accepted by society when he discovers the power to literally metamorphose into the people around him. With the use of then still-innovative blue screen tech, Allen hobnobs with Calvin Coolidge and comes within shooting distance of Adolf Hitler. The efforts to make the film look like an authentically aged piece of history are impressive but in this day and age of “Grindhouse”, they unfortunately don’t do much else then remind you of the artistry going on behind the scenes. A romance between Zelig and Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is sweet but ultimately thinly plotted. See the film for the historical cameos and modern day legends Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag keeping a straight face while commenting on the phenomenon as if it happened. [B]

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20 Comments

  • Kitty C. | December 1, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    In Hannah and Her Sisters, Holly and her catering partner, played by Carrie Fisher, were competing for the attention of Sam Waterston's character, NOT Holly and Lee.

  • Emmett Booth | May 21, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    Imagine what the Woodman who made Sleeper would've done with Anchorman had it been his.

  • goldfarb | May 20, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    like many Allen has a special place in my heart/mind that most other filmamkers never will...and when I see each new film year after year my views are never confined to that film alone (for good or bad)...I always see each film as an additional piece of the larger Woddy Allen World...so they tend to average out, the outright classics bringning up the lesser efforts...

  • Catherine Scott | May 20, 2011 1:47 AMReply

    About Jeff Daniels what we meant was not that he is no longer a good actor, but that, as you've pointed out, his good roles today are few and far between (even though he often does a good job in his films).

    What we probably should have said was that he was worthy as a leading man on top of being a good actor, since we don't see him taking many lead roles today; it's easy to forget that he was once leading man material.

  • In Defense of Jeff Daniels | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    "and it’s easy to forget that Daniels was quite a good actor back in his day."

    This statement truly offended me. Jeff Daniels has made many bad movies over the years, but is still a great actor. In the last decade he's had some really strong performances -"The Squid and the Whale" "The Lookout" "Goodnight and Good luck" come to mind, and show that he is still at the top of his game in the last 10 years, how dare you insinuate he was only good "back in his day."

    Not to mention he owned the 90's with his performances in "Dumb and Dumber" and "Gettysburg."

    Carry on.

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    The urge to grade them in relation is understandable and frankly, it's how we *generally* do them, but in this case we didn't for whatever reason.

    But it's kinda the way one should review films. Like if "Sucker Punch" gets a C-, but like "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" gets an F, one might say, "how do you give POTC4 an F* and Sucker Punch a C-???" and then answer is well 1) like all reviews, it's subjective and 2) we're not grading them in relation to the film, we're grading them on the film itself and how good, bad, successful or failing they are.

    *i made those grades up, i cannot recall what they were graded other than they're both ass. :)

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    That's a good point, I wasn't thinking about how different critics were reviewing different movies. And someone who reviews Take the Money and Run shouldn't check with the person who reviews Manhattan to make sure their grades match up.

  • Christopher Bell | May 19, 2011 9:42 AMReply

    I'll have to agree with the grade for "Another Woman." Interesting premise but painfully dull and quite a slog. I like "September" better, but I really do feel like those straight up dramas (which includes "Interiors") feel rather hollow at times.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    Reducing Annie Hall's grade for any whiff of "misogyny" seen in 2011?

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    The grades are worth fighting over, yes, but remember, they're subjective. Yes, there's no way those early Woodies are A's over the aforementioned classics, but that's MY opinion. Also the person who graded say, Take the Money and run, didn't grade say, Annie Hall and if they were being done in relation to each other (as they sometimes/usually are) it would have been different.

  • Billyboy | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    Both Zelig and Another Woman are completely underrated.

    Zelig is not only one of the greatest parodies of all time, but a groundbreaking film in FX development and brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis. People talk about the "brilliant FX work" in Forrest Gump when Hanks meets Kennedy. Guess what? Allen did that almost 15 years earlier and much more brilliantly than Forrest Dud.

    Another Woman might be his greatest straight drama. Gena Rowlands gives a superb performance completely ignored back then. Allen describes this film as one of his most personal.

    Except those two, good restrospective ,guys.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    I recall missing the earlier pictures, started in '77 with Annie Hall. After that I was so hooked on Allen I went to Interiors like my GF made me buy an artsy lamp, meanwhile holding out hope for the next year's Woody, looking forward to a comedy. It turned out to be Manhattan. To me Manhattan was in the same league as that year's Apocalypse Now. As a devout worshipper of the Woodman, in 1980 I sped to his next, Stardust Memories, expecting it to be Manhattan 2, instead hit it like going face-first into a brick wall at 80 mph. That movie was where the '70s ended.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 19, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Correction: That Manhattan write-up is an English rose.

  • Erik | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    You know, it's funny - I'm one of the most devoted Woody fans out there, but I wouldn't rate anything he did before Love and Death higher than a C, and I think Interiors and especially Another Woman are great flicks. I would even put Another Woman in my top five of all Woody movies.

    Guess I'm the opposite of the fans depicted in Stardust Memories!

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    sorry, that Manhattan write up was really weak.

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    Great work, but that write up was really weak.

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:04 AMReply

    There's no way Love and Death and Take the Money and Run are As if Manhattan and Annie Hall are A-. Annie Hall maybe, but Manhattan?! Crazy.

  • Hayden Maxwell | May 19, 2011 8:53 AMReply

    And let me champion Alice a little. The Alec Baldwin scene is beautiful.

  • Edward Davis | May 19, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    Whoa, generous grades, guys. Count me in for the "Interiors" dust-up. That's A-grade all the way.

  • Yer | May 19, 2011 8:42 AMReply

    Allen may make a film every year, but in many of those years the output has been mediocre. I'd rather have Malick's once a decade, but high quality output then Allen shoot until it sticks approach. That being said I saw "Midnight in Paris" two nights ago and it is fantastic, his best in years.

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