Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Oeuvres: Woody Allen

People have often said Woody Allen is in a slump lately, but is that really true?

OK, maybe one misses the halcyon days of Annie Hall followed closely by Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters followed closely by Crimes and Misdemeanors. But consider this: For nearly four decades, the man has cranked out a movie per year, with very few gaps.

A filmmaker that prolific is bound to have more peaks and valleys than, say, Terrence Malick. And out of those dozens of films, there are very few out-and-out misses. There are some disappointments, to be sure, but even when Woody misses, he very rarely bores. Even now, it seems wrong to refer to him as Allen. It's WOODY. Not many directors can lay that kind of claim. 

Please note this list only consider's Woody's theatrical movies as director - not the handful in which he is only an actor, like Play It Again Sam, which he wrote but did not direct. I have not yet seen Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, September or Another Woman. Unfortunately, I have seen the bloated mess that is the 1967 Casino Royale, but Woody's scenes are its sole saving grace.

I'll start with his newest film first, then work my way chronologically. 

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Woody's latest, is, alas, one of his lesser lights. With a cast including Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and Josh Brolin, the performances certainly cannot be faulted, and there are enough high points to hold it together. Still, with unevenly written characters, this seems like a poor man's version of Husbands and Wives. GRADE: B-

Take the Money and Run: Woody's directorial debut is dated and rough around the edges but the funniest scenes are hysterical, particularly the marching band with the cello. GRADE: B+

Bananas: Very funny stuff, with a handful of slow spots. And it's fun to think that one of the muggers Woody outsmarts is a before-he-was-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. GRADE: A-

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask: Uneven, as most omnibus films are, but worth a rental for the "What happens during ejaculation"  all by itself. GRADE: B

Sleeper: My favorite of the "early, funny" films with hilarious slapstick, and it certainly helps that this marks the first teaming of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. GRADE: A

Love and Death: Funny while it's on, but a little pretentious and not terribly memorable. GRADE: B-

Annie Hall: Still Woody's best film. Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. GRADE: A+

Interiors: Woody's first straight drama (and first film in which he does not appear) is quite affecting, with powerhouse acting. GRADE: A

Manhattan: Great, but not one of my favorites as it is is for so many, but this opening is Woody's best. Absolute magic. GRADE: A

Zelig: Ingenious mockumentary that also bears the distinction of being hilarious. GRADE: A

Broadway Danny Rose: A little inconsistent, but it's chock full of funny lines. GRADE: A-

The Purple Rose of Cairo: The brilliant conceit of this movie (movie star steps into the real world) is achingly sweet and sad.

Hannah and her Sisters: If Manhattan had Woody's best beginning, this film has the best ending. GRADE: A+

Radio Days: Slight but amiable period piece. GRADE: B

Oedipus Wrecks: Woody's contribution to New York Stories is a gem, with an hilarious performance by Mae Questel AKA Betty Boop. GRADE: A

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody's most ambitous film - and his other absolute masterpiece besides Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters. GRADE: A+

Alice: Very, very odd - and yet rather affecting for all that. One does not often get to see Mia Farrow fly. GRADE: B

Shadows and Fog: An intriguing Expressionist experiment that's more interesting for its form than its actual content. GRADE: B-

Husbands and Wives: The pseudo-documentary style put many people off, but I thought it made the film unique - and one of Woody's best in the 1990s. GRADE: A

Manhattan Murder Mystery: Criminally underrated, this hilarious film uses the same documentary style as Husbands and Wives with a very diferrent effect - but it works. GRADE: A-

Bullets Over Broadway: Woody's best film of the 1990s with loads of laughs. Everybody quotes Dianne Weist's "Don't speak" line, but I loved Chazz Palminteri's "You don't write like people talk." GRADE: A

Mighty Aphrodite: Mira Sorvino is hilarious. 'Nuff said. GRADE: B+

Everyone Says I Love You: One can debate whether casting non-singers (including Woody himself) in a musical, but in places, it's as lovely and lyrical as most anything MGM made. GRADE: A-

Deconstructing Harry: How many films do YOU know of where Robin Williams appears only as a blur and Billy Crystal plays the devil? GRADE: B+

Celebrity: One of Woody's very few misfires never connects. Kenneth Branagh's too obvious attempts to imitate his director don't help. GRADE: C

Sweet and Lowdown: I'll always remember this quirky little film as my introduction to Samantha Morton. And what an intro it was. GRADE: B+

Small Time Crooks: Funny but slight, not terribly memorable. GRADE: B-

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion: An amusing trifle/period piece, with some choice exchanges. "You know, there's a word for people who think everyone is conspiring against them." Woody: "I know, perceptive." GRADE: B

Hollywood Ending: A great premise (director suffers hysterical blindness) offers some funny moments, but Woody surprisingly fails to milk it for all it's worth. GRADE: B-

Anything Else: Casting Jason Biggs as a Woody-esque figure with Woody actually IN the movie was a weird gambit, but it kinda sorta worked, resulting in a minor but entertaining work. GRADE: B-

Melinda and Melinda: This time Woody takes his great idea (feature the same character twice, but in a comedy and a drama) and executes it very well. Radha Mitchell is superb in the dual lead role, and in a minor miracle, Will Ferrell imitates Woody better than Kenneth Branagh did. Underrated. GRADE: B-

Match Point: Woody's first excursion into Europe was his best film of this decade. It's great to see Woody try to be Billy Wilder and still be Woody. GRADE: A

Scoop: Again we have a minor but satisfying comedy, with Woody and Scarett Johhansson meshing surprisingly well. GRADE: B

Cassandra's Dream: Woody tried again too soon to make another moody thriller and this time shot blanks. His weakest film. GRADE: C

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: The voice-over narration is a tad off-putting and not really necessary (a flaw shared by You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) but the love rectangle of Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem makes for some very hot sparks. GRADE: B+

Whatever Works: Larry David makes for the funniest of the Woody surrogates so far, but not to be overlooked is the very fine and touching performance of Evan Rachel Wood. GRADE: B


David M. Allen M.D. said...

Do see "Stardust Memories." I think, after finally seeing it recently, that it is one of the most unfairly criticized movie.

So what if he was making fun of his audience and channeling avant garde filmmakers? The sequence where he dreams that his shrink finally gets him to unleash his anger is priceless.

I think Bananas is his funniest - it's between that and The Court Jester w/Danny Kaye as my pick for funniest movie ever. Howard Cosell covering an assassination on Wide World of Sports and the attack of the United Jewish Appeal still crack me up whenever I think of them.

Anonymous said...

Zelig is definitely one of my favorites.