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

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 19, 2011 at 8:17AM

Making a film once a decade, like the Terrence Malicks of the world, is all well and good, but what's truly impressive is making a film virtually every year for 40 years, and, generally speaking, consistently making pretty good ones. And that's what Woody Allen's managed to rack up since his debut as credited co-director on "What's Up, Tiger Lily?"
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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]

This article is related to: Feature, Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen