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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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Cassandra’s Dream” (2007)
Certainly the nadir of Woody's recent "European period," and possibly the worst film of his entire, decades-long career, "Cassandra's Dream" is a slow, on-the-nose, plodding, wholly unconvincing crime caper that doesn't even crack a smile, let alone have any laughs. The tale of two brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) who agree to kill a man for their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson), the movie is clumsily paced and lacks even the most minimal thrills required for a thriller to actually, you know, thrill. Even with some stellar behind-the-scenes talent (Vilmos Zsigmond shot it and Philip Glass provided a rare original score) and notable supporting performances (this was the first time we ever remember seeing the reedy Sally Hawkins), the movie falls unbelievably flat. It's not a spoiler to say that in the final scene a detective describes a double murder that's central to the plot… and happens completely off-screen. In America it was released at the beginning of 2008. By that same summer Woody had completely redeemed himself, with the much, much better "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." [D-]

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
Don’t mistake “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” for anything more than a delightful trifle, a sensual romp, whatever you want to call it -- and you’re on the right track. A steamy love affair that is content to throw hints and the occasional glimpse of skin your way, Allen’s migration to unfamiliar shores bears filling fruit, even as stakes remain flighty, as neurotic Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and free-spirited Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) cross paths with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his tempestuous ex-wife María Elena (an astoundingly sexy and funnyPenélope Cruz, who won a well-deserved Oscar for this). It’s all feather-weight fun that would remain so in the hands of a director other than Allen, but Cruz and Bardem have amazing comedic chemistry (no wonder they hooked up afterwards) and a final scene suggests a sadness that obscures the comedic aspects in short time. [B]

“Whatever Works” (2009)
"Whatever Works" came out the same year as Ricky Gervais’ "The Invention of Lying," a vanity picture some took as a latter-day incarnation of one of Allen’s high-concept comedies of the early 1970s. The film was, much like Gervais himself nowadays, a proud bore that asked you concurrently to pity it whilst taking it for the most hilarious thing ever made, evoking Allen’s legacy by stealing his favourite font (Windsor-EF Elongated, typography fans) for its opening titles. Audiences would have done better to check out Allen’s own work, which promised a return to New York after a muddled European caesura, a reworking of a lost script from the 1970s (a screenplay originally intended for Zero Mostel) and one of Allen’s heir apparents in the lead role. Even if it didn’t fully follow through on such a sublime set of circumstances, "Whatever Works" is still catnip for dyspeptic atheists everywhere: pitting the lacerating Larry David as a failed physicist against a world of “submentals” and “inchworms.” The Bible Belt hicks are a little broadly drawn, and a romance with Evan Rachel Wood brings in extraneous autobiography, but its eventual conclusion has a deftness of touch the pretenders (still looking at you, Gervais) have never come close to touching. [C+]

“You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” (2010)
A middling entry, neither as atrociously bad as "Whatever Works" nor as stellar as "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" was largely overlooked, despite its unstoppable cast (Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and Naomi Watts are among the actors filmed by genius cinematographer and regular collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond) and glitzy premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The film is largely about faith, which is fitting, considering that many of those that appreciated the film were members of Allen's faithful – those convinced that the auteur, if not cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece like he once did, still has a lot to say about the human condition and the bleak-funny circumstances we often find ourselves in. Despite these sub-textual preoccupations, ultimately 'Stranger' doesn't leave you with a whole lot – it's interweaving stories based on happenstance and faith sometimes just feel like coincidence and cruel irony, which leave you more than a little cold. [B-]

“Midnight in Paris” (2011)
The more we think about Allen's latest, the breezy, romantic ode to the City of Lights, the more we like it. While the movie is, at least superficially, incredibly simple – a struggling novelist (Owen Wilson as the Woody stand-in) and his wife (Rachel McAdams) visit Paris. She spends time with her family and pretentious friend (Michael Sheen), while he goes on long, mysterious walks around the city. But it's in those walks, which serve as the whole middle section of the movie and have a magical, "Purple Rose of Cairo"-ish dimension we won't reveal here, that the movie springs to life in ways that few recent Allen films have. It's a spritely, spirited, often laugh-out-loud hilarious romp that will make you thankful that Allen is back to handling more lighthearted fare, after the occasionally dour "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and the downright grim "Cassandra's Dream." [B+]

Clearly, we're now missing "To Rome With Love," "Blue Jasmine" and now "Magic In The Moonlight," but this feature was written back in 2011. But click on those titles and you can get reviews on all of them to see how we felt. 

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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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