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The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 2 (1992-2011)

by The Playlist Staff
May 20, 2011 7:54 AM
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“Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)
It’s a strange world: in the throes of devastating personal scandal, Allen turned in his funniest, most optimistic and delightful film in years. In fact, two of the changes made as a result of outside pressures probably improved the film immeasurably: casting a spiky Anjelica Huston instead of a much younger actress to give Allen a slightly more age-appropriate flirtation, and more importantly, replacing Mia Farrow with a beguiling Diane Keaton -- against whom a mock-irate Allen subsequently railed for getting more laughs than he does, despite the fact he’d written the material to make him look like the funny one. Actually, they’re both on top form, and the portrait of a long-term marriage that finds much-needed spice when a neighbour dies (finally turning to the murder sub-plot famously excised from "Annie Hall"), is one of the most endearing depictions of an adult relationship that Allen has ever managed. It’s peppered with allusions to classic films, fun until the end when it unashamedly rips one off, but that’s just nitpicking, especially in a movie that sends you giggling into the credits on a final gag worthy of Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond. [B]

“Bullets Over Broadway” (1994)
Just as David Lynch proves his versatility by making something like "The Straight Story" now and again, so, too, can Woody Allen escape from his characteristic grotto of nebbish anxiety when the occasion calls for it. One of the rare occasions in which the director shares a screenwriting credit (a one-off collaboration with Douglas McGrath) "Bullets over Broadway" is Allen at his best (7 Oscar nominations in total to prove it), one of his purest unalloyed joys since the “early, funny ones” and free of any of the wider existential moroseness which often threatens to overwhelm his later work. John Cusack is fantastic (one of his best roles) as the 1920s "Barton Fink"-ish egotistical, conniving playwright with delusions for a career like Eugene O’Neill. But the real strength of the film is to render the rest of his Broadway players a horror show collection of freaks, pedants and oddballs. Jennifer Tilly is particularly fantastic as the screeching, dunderheaded mob doll Olive (misunderstanding the word “fore” during her table reading as a dour psychiatrist, she asks “So you’re telling me it’s like I’m talking about golf?”) and Dianne Wiest, of course, is killer in an Oscar-winning performance as the vainglorious Helen Sinclair, who seduces Cusack by lustily breathing, “Don’t speak!” like Gloria Swanson off her face on prescription drugs. [A]

“Mighty Aphrodite” (1995)
Probably best remembered as being the movie that won Mira Sorvino a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award before she fell into oblivion (maybe her cruise ship took a turn into the Bermuda Triangle?), "Mighty Aphrodite" remains one of the most charming movies from a not-exactly-fertile period for the auteur. While the story is fairly typical Woody -– he is a father looking to identify the biological mother of his adopted son, while stressing out about his marriage (to Helena Bonham Carter) –- the setup is enlivened by another typical Woody flourish. In this case it's a Greek chorus narration (led by F. Murray Abraham), with the characters sometimes interacting directly (or commenting) on the action (Michael Rapaport plays an excellent Brooklyn knucklehead too). It's the Greek chorus bit that stands out the most thinking back on the film, even moreso than the performance by Sorvino, as a squeaky-voiced hooker with a heart of gold. Maybe that's for the best, since some of the story beats are sort of icky (Allen sleeps with Sorvino at one point), and threaten to corrupt an otherwise adorable, wholly enjoyable story. Thankfully it's no Greek tragedy. [B+]

“Everyone Says I Love You” (1996)
Lush with the sensation of romance in exotic places, Allen’s modern-day musical (scored with lip-synched 1930s standards) occupies a curious place in his ouerve, capturing a family of East Side New Yorkers in transition in the midst of Giuliani-era Manhattan. Romance has got them tangled, from young engagements to old flames flickering once again, all the while Allen purposely drains the image in a sea of brownstones and Central Park foliage, at once nostalgic and cynical. Allen’s eye for actors remains lively and generous, leading to a number of standout performances, though the film falters with Allen himself, who plays a single man who absconds to Venice to meet the girl of his dreams. As with many latter-day Allen pictures, the age discrepancy is glaringly unaddressed, compounded by Julia Roberts, who has a face at once too innocent and wounded to portray a dream girl, giving her character intriguing layers that simply have no payoff. At its best, “Everyone Says I Love You” is otherwise sweet and swoony, Allen’s customary cynicism peeking through what is otherwise a joyous, sweetly engaging narrative. [B+]

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More: Feature, Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen

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  • surendra bhana | November 22, 2011 5:46 PMReply

    Why are there no black people in his movies. Is he a racist?

  • Eric | May 25, 2011 11:48 AMReply

    Match Point needs to be a straight A.

    VCB is definitely A-, and is not an overrated film by any means. Great script full of twists, and spectacular performances by Cruz and Hall. One of his best latter-day films.

  • Ivan | May 21, 2011 10:44 AMReply

    @Leah Zak: I was being sarcastic, Judy Davis never won an Oscar, though she was nominated twice.

    Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for 1992)
    Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny)
    Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives)
    Joan Plowright (Enchanted April)
    Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End)
    Miranda Richardson (Damage)

  • Billyboy | May 21, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    This (excellent) retrospective should remind us how underrated Allen is as an american artist. In 50 years (hopefully less) people will look back and be amazed by how a man produced a film a year for almost 40 years with complete artistic freedom and a highly decent output.

    In my book, Allen has only made one truly bad film. And that's Scoop. Awful film. He even described it as a "kleenex of a film."

  • Stuart Ian Burns | May 21, 2011 3:10 AMReply

    Here's the thing about Melinda and Melinda.

    When I was reviewing Hitchcock’s career, and reached his final film, Family Plot, I registered disappointment that it wasn't a “summation” that it didn’t gather together his old motifs, underscore what he was trying to do with film. What I’d failed to notice was that he already had with North By Northwest with its wrong man plot, insignificant mcguffins and Cary Grant; everything after that was atypical.

    Rewatching Melinda and Melinda, his final New York film before visiting Europe, I had the same vibe; at the end of a five picture deal with Dreamworks, it’s almost as though he’d assumed he might not be making another film in New York and so he’d decided to underline everything he’d done before, like a story arc reaching its emotional crescendo.

    Which is why everything seems so familiar – it’s deliberately so. I thought that tragic Melinda –- hereafter known as Melinda-T -- reminded me of Judy Davis (on reflection eerily so) – she’s being written that way. In that story, Chloe Sevigny is playing the Mia role with Johnny Lee Miller filling in for the likes of Gene Hackman or Sam Waterson. Comedy Melinda – hereafter known as Melinda-C -- is playing the Mia role in that story, with Will Ferrell as Woody, Amanda Peet as Diane Keaton and the role of the dentist would clearly have been picked up by Tony Roberts. Woody’s conjuring the ghosts of his past, but he’s a good enough scriptwriter to be able to evoke this without having to give too much direction.

    But there are also structural and visual repetitions. The comedy/tragedy two-story aspect appears in countless of his films, some I realise now more subtly than others. It’s in both Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, though the levels are far closer and more subtle than in Crimes and Misdemeanours. Melinda and Melinda is the first to name and make them specific. Melinda-T even talks about the kind of premeditated murder perpetrated in Crimes. Melinda-C is lured out to the Hampton’s as happens in Annie Hall. Woody has also had specific geographic locations in mind when doing comedy and drama as though it depends on which side of his little speck of New York you live on as to how you’re life is likely to unfold.

    He also makes plain his tendency to use jazz for comedy, classical for drama even to the point up including the switcheroo over the opening and closing titles. And almost all of the music either on track or at least composer level has appeared in one of his previous films, with Duke Ellington as his signature composer. He even seems to homage When Harry Met Sally by employing Ellington’s version of Don’t Get Around Much Anymore which featured so prominently in Reiner’s film (with an added note that when that scene on the side walk happened I had a lump in my throat). Now it’s easy to suggest that this is simply Woody running out of ideas, going over old ground. But they’re too pronounced for them to be simple recycling or coincidence; even after the fumbling Hollywood Ending he’s clearly too engaged with the process for all of these decision not to be deliberate signs.

  • The Playlist | May 21, 2011 2:43 AMReply

    BTW, lots of this is subjective. To ME?

    The only films here of much value are
    - Shadows and Fog
    - Husbands and Wives (which i would grade as an A)
    - Bullets Over Broadway
    - Mighty Aphrodite (slight, but still enjoyable)
    - Sweet and Lowdown (A)
    - Everyone Says I Love You

    and for less, hey, this ain't so bad for late Woody, Match Point and Vicky Cristina.

    Many of these, i personally find awful or completely forgettable like Whatever Works.

    But again, subjective.

  • Erik | May 21, 2011 2:37 AMReply

    Guess I'll be the odd one out to defend Cassandra's Dream. It's true that the last scene is anticlimactic and that it came out a little too soon after Match Point, which was similar in quite a few ways, but I think that in itself it's a very decent, underrated flick. Colin Farrell's role is great, Tom Wilkinson is brilliant in it, and Sally Hawkins very charming in her minor part. It's also more clever than people give it credit for. It's definitely no top tier Woody or anything, but for me, it's not deserving of any scorn.

  • Leah Zak | May 21, 2011 2:28 AMReply

    @Ivan - She won for "My Cousin Vinny" which was released in 1992, but she won at the 93 Oscars

  • The Playlist | May 21, 2011 2:25 AMReply

    My bad on Davis. I had like three windows open of Woody films and their awards and i goofed. Apologies.

  • Ivan | May 21, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    I always thought Marisa Tomei won an oscar for best supporting actress in 1992, Was I wrong?

  • Cory Everett | May 20, 2011 12:42 PMReply

    Didn't hate "Cassandra's Dream" but think that "Anything Else" is by far the worst film in Allen's career, followed closely by "Whatever Works" (and "Small Time Crooks").

  • Howie A. | May 20, 2011 12:30 PMReply

    Looking through this list of Allen's later works, I was surprised how many of there films were strong films. One of the more comical assertions is that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is overrated when this is a sublime entertainment - a film winning in every conceivable way and a heck of a lot smarter than many give it credit for. I cannot think of a more beguiling romantic comedy over the last decade yet one with a slightly and just right bitter edge. Allen's film output in the 90's only has two losers - Shadows and Fog; Celebrity.

    It is the 2000's that hurt his rep a bit. Match Point is superb as is the aforementioned Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Scoop is utterly enjoyable and I am still perplexed on the reception by critics to that one. Whatever Works does contain one of the most underrated comic performances of the last decade by Evan Rachel Wood while You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger has several good performances. Small Time Crooks is funny. The rest, having not seen Midnight In Paris, is very weak. Still I look forward to this guy's films. Because coming out of the winners, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, just makes one feel they are seeing a genius at work.

  • James | May 20, 2011 11:45 AMReply

    I figured if this is a "complete" retrospective, "Don't Drink The Water" definitely needs to be there:)

  • James | May 20, 2011 11:44 AMReply

    You left out one of my favorites. "Don't Drink the Water" - 1994

    It's true it was made for TV, but it's a proper Woody Allen feature film in every respect. He wrote, directed and stars in it. It has the signature white-on-black titles, everything.

    Great cast, and some of my favorite Allen one-liners.

  • Christopher Bell | May 20, 2011 11:33 AMReply

    Glad that whoever wrote up "Vicky Christina" kept it real - that was way overrated when it was first released. Definitely solid but by no means as good as many made it out to be.

  • Drew | May 20, 2011 10:42 AMReply

    "Cassandra's Dream" was fucking miserable, no matter who they were trying to kill. Nothing will ever top that final scene for pure awfulness.

  • rotch | May 20, 2011 10:05 AMReply

    I couldn't agree more with Cassandra's Dream being the worst movie on Allen's filmography. That movie blows.

  • I liked Melinda and Melinda | May 20, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    I wish I could read something about Woody Allen without having to hear about "a movie a year" and "his past decade not being as good" or whatever. It's like a legal obligation that every single review of his movies or article on him has to have a statement like this. We know.

  • James D. | May 20, 2011 9:23 AMReply

    They weren't killing their uncle in Cassandra's Dream. They were killing someone who threatened to expose him, and were being paid by that uncle.

  • Rudy | May 20, 2011 8:58 AMReply

    The Playlist should do more retrospectives :D I enjoyed this

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