Thursday Ten: Best Woody Allen Films

Following my Best of the Nineties project, I was a bit “listed” out. And coupled with a busy summer movie season (along with the usual real-life schedule), having time for any worthwhile writing (outside my usual posted reviews and screenplay dabbling) has been scant. But with the transition from the summer movie season to the always exciting festival season approaching has got me in a writer’s head spin. With a slew of mainstream efforts worth looking into (from Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium to Edgar Wright’s The World’s End) along with smaller independent films to look out for (Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now – already reviewed here), the year has proven to be a fruitful one.

Blue Jasmine, already released in New York and Los Angeles, will see be screened in Chicago tomorrow. One of the true great American auteurs, Woody Allen is a national treasure whose body of work towers over virtually any other contemporary director. Allen may not knock it out of the park every time, but with an unrivaled work ethic (Blue Jasmine is the director’s 43rd film since 1969), his misses are often complimented with a subsequent masterpiece.

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To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012)

Standing in line for a Friday night screening for To Rome with Love, I was asked what film I was waiting for. Without much thought, I misspoke and said Midnight in Paris – well, at least I got the director right. But that kneejerk response falls in line with my feelings for To Rome with Love and Midnight in Paris – the former lacks the lasting resonance of the latter. Even now, as I’m reflecting on Woody Allen’s latest European escapade, I’m finding it difficult to highlight any particular aspect of the picture. On that same note though, the picture’s formal competency makes the film agreeable without ever really impressing.

Allen strings together a quartet of narrative threads with middling results. The most promising of the bunch features Jesse Eisenberg as an architect who finds himself embroiled in passion with his girlfriend’s actress friend. The odd choice of having Ellen Page star as a sexual vixen while having Greta Gerwig function as the sidelined girlfriend is one of Allen’s more egregious missteps, but the general direction of this vignette is entertaining. It’s largely due to the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin’s role is particularly noteworthy as it’s the most ambiguous idea that Allen plays with in To Rome with Love. Eisenberg and Baldwin’s relationship tiptoes between fantasy and reality without ever truly siding between the two.

Another plot addresses the conceits of misappropriated celebrity (featuring Roberto Benigni). A third involves a case of mistaken identity that utilizes the tourist sights of Rome to great effect. And a final plot involves Allen himself as a retired music producer who discovers that his future son-in-law’s father has a gifted voice… only when in the shower. None of these narratives intersect with each other, and most interestingly, operate under different time frames. This is one of those rare cases where the different segments work best on their own terms as opposed to working as a part of the larger narrative framework. Allen’s arbitrary cutting between each plot line doesn’t do the picture many favors, but the material is so light and inconsequential, that it really doesn’t hinder its effect either.

To Rome with Love falls in line with Allen’s 2010 effort, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Both pictures rely on various narrative threads to address its larger thematic elements. But To Rome with Love is cleaner, lighter, shot more effectively, and just better than Tall Dark Stranger. The film is frivolous entertainment that packs the emotional weight of a postcard. What typically happens when receiving a postcard? It’s appreciated at the moment, stored away, and slips away in your memory. 

Rating: 6/10

Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

Continuing with my on-again off-again look into Woody Allen’s filmography, I admit that I was reluctant to pick up his Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories. Federico Fellini is a director that I am only vaguely familiar with – beyond traditional Film 101 studies of a few of his films I know most of his pictures by name alone. With that, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been driven to look into his work with the same sort of conviction that I have for Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Allen himself.

Stardust Memories opens with a scene that recalls Fellini’s - Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is on a train. He observes the people on board – it’s a dull bunch. He peers outside to another train going in the opposite direction – it’s a train full of life and extravagance. The larger implications begin to seep into his (and the audience’s) consciousness as Sandy attempts to bust out of the moving car. But the door is jammed and the interior begins to fill with sand, as the ambivalent passengers remain in their seats. We cut away from Allen’s worrisome gaze as we discover that the whole scene was part of a film.  What follows are critics and film executives dismissing Bates’ efforts – why be serious now when all of his previous “funny” pictures have been so good?

It’s probably the most interesting set-up to an Allen film I’ve seen yet, or at least the one that deviates the most from formal Allen expectations. Given the tepid response to his first serious mainstream attempt (Interiors), Stardust Memories seeks to address the circumstances of Allen’s fame while deconstructing (and reaffirming) preconceived notions of his celebrity. It’s most effective when Allen contends with the crowds of raving fans who always want something from him – he can’t outright reject them, nor does he have any intent of following up on his many promises. You get a sense that he wants to please, but overwhelming demand makes such a course difficult to embark.

While all of Allen’s films have an “Allen-type”, it was incredibly difficult to separate Woody Allen from Sandy Bates. Given Allen’s rich personal history made available to the public, there are certain prophetic instances throughout Stardust Memories that suggest personal tendencies in Woody Allen himself, rather than distinctive attributes to the written character of Sandy Bates.  In a lot of ways, it makes for some retroactively imposed moments of awkwardness as Bates discusses marrying a younger woman.

There’s a moment in Stardust Memories where Bates is visited by aliens. He asks what he should do when choosing between two women. According to the aliens (voiced by a high-toned Allen), such a decision is of limited difficulty given their high IQs – they let Bates know exactly who to go for. Bates goes against their word and picks the other woman. It’s perhaps the clearest statement that Allen makes throughout the whole film – he’s going to do what he wants to do. Intellect doesn’t play a decisive role in his choices – it’s a gut thing.

Rating: 7/10

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

Nostalgia is the subjective term that Midnight in Paris operates under and the singular obsession that Gil (Owen Wilson), the Woody Allen-type character, mulls over. He’s writing a novel, his first, and struggles with where to go with it. Gil’s career as a Hollywood-screenwriter has given him financial security, but he questions the quality of his work. Perhaps the eternal Woody Allen question that seems to plague him routinely is – will my work survive? Allen has noted in interviews that he does not expect as such, but conceivably, Midnight in Paris presents his first attempt at addressing the circumstances in which he believes as such.

Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) travel to Paris with Inez’s parents. The excursion provokes Gil’s admiration for the city, wherein he confesses that he wished to live in Paris during the jazz age – a golden age of cultural significance. Inez, the frustrating realist that she is, finds it difficult to grasp how someone could be so wrapped up in a period of time outside of the present. Her character is one that looks at the present, often treating Gil as if he were nothing more than a means  - she wants him to keep working and to accumulate wealth, unaware of the emotional work that is required of Gil in the process.

Things only get more difficult between the two when they encounter the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez. Paul and his mate take Inez and Gil out to dinner – the outing tests Gil’s limits of tolerating pseudo-intellectualism, as Paul tends to offer his opinion on culture at every turn, typically beginning his sentences with a “correct me if I’m wrong…”. Gil eventually disconnects from the group, and wanders the streets of Paris by night. Like a fairy tale, the clock strikes 12 and a mysterious car invites him for a ride. Shrugging at the consequences, Gil is transported to a party unlike one he has ever attended – Cole Porter sits at the piano as Zelda and Scott ask about his writing. Ok, something’s not right here. The Fitzgerald’s take Gil barhopping throughout Paris, where he encounters Ernest Hemingway with the promise of showing his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. Things are definitely as they were before, and while Gil is aware of the stark change in his surroundings, he accepts them. While most films that deal with time travel tend to reflect on the greater meanings behind the transportation from time A to time B, Midnight in Paris bypasses all the sci-fi riff-raff, instead just presenting the situation as is, with only light jabs at the consequences of the altering the time-space continuum.

What Allen achieves in Midnight in Paris is no simple feat – he catapults the audience into a world of utter delight. Midnight in Paris frames The City of Light as intoxicatingly beautiful. It’s impossible not to yearn to be there, to follow the path that the lovely Adrianna (Mario Cotillard) and Gil take as they stroll the brick road, discussing their misplacement in the world. At some point, Gil encounters a situation where he needs to accept his place, or reject it entirely – it’s the sort of moment that recalls Allen’s endings to his best films, from Manhattan to Broadway Danny Rose. Midnight in Paris not only achieves an ending that stands up to Allen’s greatest films, its overall quality places it among his very best.

Rating: 9/10

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)

A film like Deconstructing Harry is interesting to look at in hindsight. Now, Woody Allen’s prominence has diminished, as his scandalous affairs are no longer under the lens of media scrutiny. That’s the way it works sometimes – Charlie Sheen will undoubtedly release us from his flagrant media whoring when the time comes. But unlike Sheen, I always gathered that Allen never really wanted to make his private affairs so widely known to the public. If anything, Deconstructing Harry, an extremely personal film, is Allen’s plea to be left alone.

Woody Allen is Harry Block – a writer who takes his morally questionable life as inspiration to churn out fiction. After writing a novel that only thinly veils his infidelities, he finds himself struggling to connect with anyone. This is particularly inconvenient, as he is being recognized by the university from which he was expelled. Here’s an opportunity to validate his writing while simultaneously garnering respect from his son. But getting his son to come is difficult as Harry contends with his ex-wife’s disdain. Meanwhile, Block suffers from writers block – for the first time in his life, his social life has led him to lead a relatively secluded lifestyle, with not so much as a muse to inspire him.

Deconstructing Harry relies on Harry Block’s stories to create a general sense of the sort of life Block leads. This leads to some interesting visual and narrative nuances, as the product of Block’s fiction is visualized by actors like Richard Benjamin, whereas the real-life actualization of the event features Allen (as Block). Allen tinkers around with the format throughout the film, and ultimately, despite some initial reservations I had with its style, I liked it. Something I liked a little less was the film’s spliced editing style. It acts as a hindrance, and simply calls too much attention to itself.

Despite my minor quibble with the film, I found it to be surprisingly poignant and the antithesis of a lot of Allen’s work – Deconstructing Harry is surprisingly vulgar and literal. It’s like all of Allen’s pent up frustrations were recorded and clarified to ensure that no one misunderstands where he is coming from. And it seems to have worked – Allen makes the rounds from time to time, but ultimately, any discussion about the man tends to be geared toward his films. I bet he prefers it that way. I do too.

Rating: 7/10

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Woody Allen, 1993)

Manhattan Murder Mystery takes the standard Allen formula and adds a murder plot that, interestingly enough, doesn’t become the central narrative until halfway into the film. In fact, that aspect of the movie is overshadowed by Allen’s relationship drama, which is more or else the same thing he’s done in previous (and following) films. It’s because of that familiarity where it becomes a bit hard to embrace Manhattan Murder Mystery, largely because Allen has (a) already done this and (b) has done this better.

Still, there are aspects that I found uniquely enjoyable about the film. In the beginning of the closing act, there’s a lingering sense of jealousy between the central protagonists that was disappointingly absent throughout most of the picture. Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) distances herself from her husband Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) and grows fond of their friend Ted (Alan Alda). Ted entertains Carol’s ideas that a murderer could live next door moreso than Larry, therefore the couple’s ability to get along. Ted and Carol’s relationship develops while Larry sits on the sidelines. Only later are we introduced to a character that both Ted and Larry gush over, adding a dynamic that was sorely needed in the film’s relationship drama.

Allen does a noble job of blending a variety of genres together, and though it ultimately falls flat, there are glimmers of excellence in his failure.

Rating: 5/10