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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?"
20

“Broadway Danny Rose” (1984)
While Woody Allen is rightly regarded as a film legend, what most people often forget is that the writer/director is also one of the last remaining links to an early showbiz world that no longer exists. Allen started his career as a comedy writer for folks like Herb Shriner and Sid Caesar. This was a time when particular type of stand-up comedy was enormously popular and an era when showbiz promoters were often as colorful as the acts they represented. Enter "Broadway Danny Rose." Played by Allen himself, he is the hilarious archetype of every huckster, smooth-talking salesman selling an act that ever graced the streets of New York City. The black-and-white film is told in flashback as comedians sit around at a table at the famed Carnegie Deli and swap stories about Danny Rose, and we get to see the tallest of all the tales. It seems that Danny Rose has done the impossible and resurrected the career of a formerly washed up tenor, landing him a gig the Waldorf. But of course, getting there is the issue. Tasked with getting the singer's brassy girlfriend Tina (an inspired Mia Farrow) to the show, Danny quickly runs afoul of her mafioso boyfriend and the result is a classic on-the-run tale. But Allen uses the format to celebrate an era that is best remembered in the oral histories passed along from entertainer to entertainer. While he pokes fun at those showbiz days of yore the film is also imbued with a nostalgia for it as well. "Broadway Danny Rose" is a reminder that while the lights may have faded on the entertainers of the past, their stories will never be dulled. [B+]

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) -
Woody Allen made quite a few excellent movies with his ex-wife Mia Farrow in his middle period, but none were better than this one about a battered wife (Farrow) during the Great Depression. When she goes to the movie theater to escape her troubles, one of the characters in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Ted Baxter (Jeff Daniels), breaks the fourth wall and comes off the screen to declare his love for her. Hijinks ensue in which Hollywood bigwigs try to separate the world of fiction from reality. The film is one of Allen’s best, and he’s even said it’s his favorite that he’s made. Farrow is adorable as the leading lady, and it’s easy to forget that Daniels was quite a good actor back in his day. There’s also a lot going on in terms of theme: what does it mean to be fictional or to be real, and what’s so good about living in the real world? [A]

“Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986)
Borrowing the loose, holiday centered structure from his hero Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny And Alexander” (except with Thanksgiving instead of Christmas) Allen’s tale of the loving yet complicated relationship between three sisters is one of finest achievements of the 1980s (alongside “Purple Rose Of Cairo” and “Crimes And Misdemeanors”) and certainly one of the best films of his career. As you might guess from the title, the story centers on Hannah (Mia Farrow) and explores the lives of her siblings Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (a heartbreaking and wonderful turn by Dianne Wiest) who orbit her life. The former bounces from a relationship with intense Frederick (Max Von Sydow) to an affair with Hannah’s husband, while the latter struggles simply to find her place in life, dependent on her sisters' support of her various career ventures. Both tender and outrageously hilarious, Allen once again captures the foibles of follies of middle age life and love with a keenly observed eye for the minor frustrations that can build into resentment over time. But one of the biggest highlights of the film has little to do with the plot at all. Lee and Holly are both pursuing David (Sam Waterston) and one evening he takes them both on a driving tour of New York to talk about the architectural wonders of the city. Right up there with the opening of “Manhattan,” this sequence is one of Allen’s most poignant postcards to his native city, shot gorgeously by Carlo Di Palma. “For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can't fathom my own heart,” says Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of the film’s thematic core. And while that may seem typically existentially morose for Allen, it's also one of his most optimistic, positing that even miracles are possible even when your life seems inevitably fated for disaster. [A]

“Radio Days” (1987)
Wedged somewhat awkwardly between one of Woody’s outright masterpieces and his run of explicitly ‘experimental’ fare, "Radio Days" often gets lost in the shuffle of the filmmaker’s busy period during the tail-end of the 1980s. It’s a shame as, helped by the director’s relationship with Orion Pictures, the film’s one of his most sophisticated, least self-consciously contrived and ego-driven pictures; engaging in the stuff of romanticized autobiography (comparisons with Fellini’s "Amarcord" and Neil Simon’s "Brighton Beach Memoirs" abound) without tipping over into his customary brand of self-aggrandizing neurotica. True, there isn’t much here we haven’t seen before. It’s in part a panacea to dead technology and a dead time – in voice over, Woody laments the voices of old radio stars that grow “dimmer and dimmer” – and it mimics a lot of the concerns of "The Purple Rose of Cairo," whilst its heaving ensemble even makes room for superfluous cameos from Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton. But it’s an ode to eccentricity, an aping of the foibles of family life during the late 1930s and early 1940s, a work that straddles the divide between the bleaker impulses of his output (Dianne Wiest’s lonely spinster a case in point) and the epigrammatic niceties of his New Yorker humor pieces. [B+]

“September” (1987)
Marked by a fabulous performance by Elaine Stritch, who plays an awful, incorrigible, selfish and self-centered mother, Allen's "September" is well-known as a theater-play that’s been filmed and is marked by long takes and few cuts. An ambrosial picture about secrets and lies, unrequited love, and crushed hopes, the autumnal "September" is a somber, slightly Bergman-esque chamber drama about a family and friends and the deceits and romantic betrayals that occur during a late summer weekend getaway in upstate New York. The bitter and bittersweet drama stars Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Jack Warden, Denholm Elliott and Sam Waterston, where past family resentments bubble over between Farrow’s depressive character and her overbearing and thoughtless mother (Stritch), and characters pine for objects of affection they can never attain. While the picture is no "Autumn Sonata" (Bergman's 1979 late-era masterpiece, which the film vaguely resembles), "September" is perhaps a little small stakes at times, but it’s not without its powerfully emotional scenes, generally between Farrow, Weist and Stritch. Interestingly enough, the picture was shot twice, as early attempts with Sam Shepard, Maureen O’Sullivan and Christopher Walken failed to create sparks. [B]

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


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