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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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“Deconstructing Harry” (1997)
One of Allen’s most uncompromised, angriest works, “Deconstructing Harry” is also, with distance, one of his strongest. Allen plays Harry Block, a tortured writer who is undergoing a breakdown in his twilight years, as fantasy and reality begin to merge. While he has used his friends and family for inspiration frequently, his works start to come to life and intermingle with his own, throwing him into a tailspin as he deals with the side affair of another lover and a career honor he feels is undeserved. The film is one of Allen’s most autocritical works, taking to task both his critics and his own artistic/masturbatory tendencies, but it’s also filled with a number of absurdist touches provided by a peculiar all-star cast -- look out for Billy Crystal in a memorable cameo as The Devil. “Deconstructing Harry” has moments of free-form hilarity, but the self-serving pettiness of his characters are also refreshingly on display, painting a portrait of an artist in transit who can never sit still, even as his work begins to cannibalize him. [B+]

“Celebrity” (1998)
Of all the Woody Allen surrogates throughout the years (Owen Wilson being the most recent), none are weirder than Kenneth Branagh as a novelist-turned-tabloid journalist (following, of course, a disastrous divorce) in "Celebrity." The casting of the British thespian is bizarre in and of itself, especially since "Celebrity" was released at the tail end of Branagh's impressive Shakespeare run. But what's even odder is how spot on Branagh is in terms of mimicking Allen's series of jerks, tics and stutters. It's uncanny and spot-on in ways that few of the Allen stand-ins usually are, and it makes "Celebrity," which is basically a series of vignettes with Branagh bumping into various celebrities (usually playing exaggerated versions of themselves), way more compelling. The best cameo goes to Leonardo DiCaprio, upending his badboy image by snarling that Branagh is so sensitive that he "should write fucking greeting cards." [B]

“Sweet and Lowdown” (1999)
Though Woody Allen’s has often missed the mark in his later period, this film is a shining example of everything the writer/director can do right when he's firing on all cylinders. He gets revelatory, surprising, Oscar-nominated performances out of Sean Penn, as narcissistic fictional guitar player Emmet Ray (transparently based on the legendary Django Reinhardt), and Samantha Morton as mute, adorable Hattie, Emmet’s lover. He uses a faux documentary style to augment the grandeur of Ray’s life and artistry, with smart dialogue that is quippy and fun in one of his best scripts he's ever written that balances dramatic moments equally with comedic ones. But moreover, as a lifelong lover and performer of jazz, this is one of Allen's biggest love letters to the music, myths and larger than life personalities that surround it. [A-]

"Small Time Crooks" (2000)
We're so used to seeing Allen as a neurotic intellectual that it's sometimes refreshing to see him playing at the other end of the spectrum, and his performance in "Small Time Crooks" is only first among a cluster of fully-flung idiots. Riffing, at least in part, on Ealing crime comedies like "The Ladykillers" and "The Lavender Hill Mob," Allen plays Ray, a jailbird who plans to rob a bank next to a bakery, only to discover that the cookies that his wife Frenchy (an excellent Tracey Ullman) has been selling as cover for the heist are far more lucrative. It's an oddly structured piece, like two films crammed into one (the middle act, featuring Hugh Grant as a sleazy artist, parodying the class system, is pretty weak), but it's mostly enjoyable, if uneven. And in a now-rare acting appearance by the great Elaine May, it has one of the great supporting performances in the Allen canon. [C]

“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001)
Every year brings us a new Woody Allen picture, bringing with it grousing on the side-lines about how the creator of Alvy Singer is scuttling closer to the grave by tarnishing his cinematic legacy. It’s a fixed pattern critics have slid lazily into; the notices for "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" were often written with the same shit-eating rictus grins on their faces as they were a decade ago for "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." With the benefit of hindsight, the film’s period setting, slight plot (a magician hypnotises Woody into becoming a jewel thief against his will) and Allen’s subsequent inability to find funding for films produced in America, affirm the now-orthodox decline thesis. So is Allen terrible in the lead role of C.W Briggs, “a shallow, skirt-chasing egomaniac” and “myopic insurance clerk”? Yes. Is there a modicum of sexual tension between he and Helen Hunt, the ‘saucy’ efficiency expert whose feminine wiles are supposedly up the yin-yang? No. Was Allen too old at this stage in his career to be hit on by an earthen, breast-exposing Charlize Theron? Take a guess. [C-]

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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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