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Month: July 2012

Woody Allen Round-Up

Woody Allen Round-Up

I’ve now posted on all 18 of the Woody Allen titles listed in Peary’s GFTFF — which happens to cover every single feature he directed (and/or starred in) up to the time of the book’s release. Interestingly, I’m voting all but one as “Must See” — providing evidence either of Allen’s indisputable genius during the first half of his lengthy career, and/or my personal fondness for his work:

For Allen fans, it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite title from the above list, or even a few favorites, given that so many of his earlier movies delight on a variety of different levels. Like many others, I have a personal fondness for Annie Hall (it’s probably the Allen title I find most consistently clever, enjoyable, and romantic) — but I also wouldn’t want to live without repeat visits of Sleeper or Zelig (close runners-up). Manhattan earns my dubious vote as the most highly regarded Allen film which I find least personally satisfying, though (naturally) there’s much about it to appreciate — and I’ll try it again in later years to see if my opinion has changed.

Having recently rewatched so many of Allen’s films during a short period of time, I’m once again enormously impressed by the trajectory of his creative vision — shifting from his “early, funny” films (each an enjoyably gonzo comedic treat), to the heartbreaking yet life-affirming insight of Annie Hall, to the devastating emotional rigor of Interiors, to the complexity and joy of Hannah and Her Sisters. Meanwhile, those interested in tracing thematic trends across an auteur’s lifelong vision will surely have a field day with Allen’s work, given how much of it is based so closely on elements of his own life — carefully crafted as fictional narrative, yet oh-so-clearly a manifestation of his own idiosyncrasies and interests. Some parallels are obvious — i.e., the close overlap between the three grown sisters in Interiors and those in Hannah and Her Sisters. Others are subtler — i.e., as Peary astutely points out in Cult Movies 3, the connection between Alvy Singer’s initially liberating yet ultimately claustrophobic “mentoring” of “naive” Annie Hall, and the “imposing, Nosferatu-like” role played by “Max von Sydow as Barbara Hershey’s possessive, soon-to-be-dumped mentor” in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Any discussion of Allen’s career would, of course, be incomplete without mentioning what he’s produced since 1987 — which amounts to an astonishing film-a-year, much of it (unfortunately) not worthy of a film fanatic’s attention. Below is a chronological list of his theatrically-released full-length features as of 2012:

  • September (1987)
  • Another Woman (1988) (not must see, but recommended)
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) — MUST SEE
  • Alice (1990) (not must see, but recommended for Allen fans)
  • Shadows and Fog (1991)
  • Husbands and Wives (1992) (not must see, but recommended)
  • Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) — MUST SEE
  • Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
  • Mighty Aphrodite (1995) (not must see, but recommended simply for Sorvino’s performance)
  • Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
  • Deconstructing Harry (1997) (not must see, but recommended once for diehard Allen fans)
  • Celebrity (1998)
  • Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
  • Small Time Crooks (2000) — MUST SEE
  • The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) (not must see, but recommended for Allen fans)
  • Hollywood Ending (2002)
  • Anything Else (2003) (not must see; skip this one)
  • Melinda and Melinda (2004)
  • Match Point (2005)
  • Scoop (2006) (not must see, but recommended)
  • Cassandra’s Dream (2007) (not must see, but recommended)
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) (not must see)
  • Whatever Works (2009) (not must see)
  • You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) (not must see, but mildly recommended)
  • Midnight in Paris (2011) (not must see, but recommended)
  • To Rome with Love (2012)

It’s been too long since I’ve seen many of these films to say definitively whether I’d vote them as “modern must-see” titles or not — but the ratio of essential to non-essential titles in this list will certainly be much, much lower. I’ll check back in later, as I rewatch the second half of Allen’s oeuvre and carefully select the wheat from the chaff. [ADDENDUM: I’m casting my votes now, as I rewatch these later titles; as predicted, very few are “must see”, though a surprising number are recommended — at least for Allen fans.]

P.S. (8/9/12): I recently stumbled upon this indispensable website/blog for Allen fans:

http://www.everywoodyallenmovie.com/

It’s dedicated to much the same project I’ve been engaged in myself recently, albeit on a grander, much more detailed scale. You’ll find yourself unable to stop clicking from title to title, reading Trevor’s insights into each Allen film as he watches them in chronological order and makes extensive thematic connections. What’s most interesting to me is how strongly we differ in our critical opinions of many of Allen’s later titles, demonstrating once again how fickle and subjective Allen-allegiance can be; I think it ultimately comes down to each viewer needing to decide for him/herself whether any given (post-1987) title is worth watching or not. At any rate, definitely check his site out!

Radio Days (1987)

Radio Days (1987)

“Radio — it’s all right once in a while. Otherwise it tends to induce bad values, false dreams, lazy habits. Listening to these stories of foolishness and violence — this is no way for a boy to grow up.”

Synopsis:
During the 1930s and ’40s, a young boy (Seth Green) and the members of his working class family — including his mother (Julie Kavner), his father (Michael Tucker), his unmarried aunt (Dianne Wiest), and others — find solace and excitement in a variety of radio shows.

Genres:

Review:
The final Woody Allen film listed in Peary’s book — actually included in his Addendum to the first printed edition — is this overtly nostalgic homage to Allen’s youth, a time when radio reigned supreme in households as the preferred mode of daily entertainment, news, and escape. While many of Allen’s previous films had included flashback scenes to a version of his childhood, this was the first to fully explore that particular era in American history, primarily through the lens of his alter-ego’s working class household — stuffed to the gills with not just his quibbling parents (Kavner and Tucker) but his married aunt (Renee Lippin) and uncle (Josh Mostel) and their teenage daughter (Joy Newman) as well as his single aunt (Dianne Wiest). Resolutely episodic in nature, the film portrays snippets from each character’s lives, most revolving in some way around radio — for instance, when Aunt Bea (Wiest) goes out on a date with a man she has hopes of possibly marrying, it’s Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater production of War of the Worlds that irredeemably dooms their nascent romance.

Meanwhile, several radio stars themselves come to all-too-human life — most notably the dapper male half (David Warrilow) of the morning radio show “Roger and Irene”, possessing an insatiable lust for a young cigarette girl (Mia Farrow) whose own infatuation with radio eventually blossoms in unexpected ways. Farrow’s trajectory is one of two the film perhaps follows most closely — the other being that of Wiest, whose desire to meet and marry Mr. Right clashes with her incurable pickiness. Farrow’s ditzy character remains a bit of a caricature, but Wiest turns Aunt Bea into a lovably neurotic soul we can’t help wishing the best for. But the primary memory one leaves the film with is that of a collective era, painstakingly recreated through Santo Loquasto’s period sets (and shot by DP Carlo di Palma).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Santo Loquasto’s impressive art direction

  • A wonderfully nostalgic flashback to a distinct era of entertainment

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall (1977)

“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

Synopsis:
A neurotic comedian (Woody Allen) falls in love with an aspiring singer (Diane Keaton), but they’re ultimately too mismatched to last.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that “Woody Allen’s first genuine comedy masterpiece is an autobiographical, therapeutic work” in which his on-screen alter-ego, a stand-up comedian named Alvy Singer, “thinks back on his relationship with an equally neurotic” aspiring singer, played by his former girlfriend (Keaton, whose real-life last name was Hall, and whose nickname was Annie). He argues that the “film is very perceptive and romantic in addition to being hilarious” — indeed, it’s amazing how easily we can laugh at and enjoy the proceedings of the film, given that we know from the beginning how things will end for Alvy and Annie. Peary notes that “the two characters are real and we root for them to work out their problems; but, like Alvy, we come to realize that they were meant to be no more than positive influences on each other during difficult, transitional times in their respective lives.” He points out how “sweet” Alvy’s final comment is “at the end” of the film — a moment that’s guaranteed (even on repeat viewings) to bring a lump to your throat.

Peary spends part of his review in both GFTFF and Alternate Oscars — where, like the Academy, he designates Annie Hall as Best Picture of the Year — naming some of the picture’s “so many great moments” (indeed, it’s difficult to resist doing this — my stills below attest to my own challenge in picking just a few scenes to highlight!). These include the classic balcony scene, “during which Allen provides subtitles that reveal what each is really thinking (both worry they’re blowing it with each other)”; “Alvy silencing an obnoxious, self-impressed, self-professed [Marshall] McLuhan expert who talks pretentious drivel in a movie line by pulling McLuhan out of a poster to tell the man, ‘You know nothing of my work'”; “Alvy battling monstrous spiders in Annie’s bathtub;” “Grammy Hall look[ing] at Alvy and… see[ing] him as an Hassidic Jew with a long black beard, curls, black hat, and black frock coat”; Alvy “sneez[ing] $2,000 worth of cocaine across a room”; and many, many more.

In his review of Annie Hall for his third Cult Movies book, Peary writes that “it’s safe to say that every Woody Allen film has a cult following”, but “only Annie Hall is loved… by every Allen fan, as well as those obstinate moviegoers who still won’t concede Allen is a great filmmaker.” (One wonders what Peary would think at this point about Allen’s most recent spate of lackluster films… But I’m still more than willing to agree with his assessment.) He notes that “it’s actually hard to find someone who hasn’t seen this irresistible movie several times, who doesn’t have a tender spot for it…, who wouldn’t make it the Woody Allen film they’d like to have if stranded on a desert island”. He further notes the historical relevance of the film by writing that it “marked Allen’s transition from a functional and slapdash, though instinctively funny, filmmaker to one who is technically innovative, thematically sophisticated, intent on capturing the beauty of the women and the city (New York) he loves, eager to explore his characters, and passionate about using the storytelling medium to its fullest”. To that end, one little-discussed aspect of Annie Hall is how cinematically creative it is — see Tim Dirk’s Greatest Films site for an overview of the many techniques Allen employs throughout the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Diane Keaton as Annie Hall (awarded Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Woody Allen as Alvy Singer (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Countless memorable scenes





  • Fine use of New York City locales
  • Creative cinematic techniques

  • Plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners:

    “You know, I don’t think I could take a mellow evening because I don’t respond well to mellow, you know what I mean? I have a tendency to, if I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot.”

Must See?
Yes, most definitely — multiple times. Enjoy!

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Broadway Danny Rose (1982)

Broadway Danny Rose (1982)

“Life’s short; you don’t get any medals for being a boy scout.”

Synopsis:
A down-on-his luck theatrical manager (Woody Allen) pins his hopes on a singer (Nick Apollo Forte) who he hopes will soon make the big time; but his plans become complicated when Forte refuses to sing in front of Milton Berle unless his moody mistress (Mia Farrow) is there, and Allen is tasked with convincing her to attend.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this Woody Allen comedy about “a former Borscht Belt comedian turned down-and-out Broadway agent for some of the least talented acts imaginable” “never reaches the hilarious heights of Allen’s classics”, but possesses a “truly sweet oddball character” in the title role of Danny Rose. Indeed, Danny is possibly Allen’s most likable alter-ego, given his endearing devotion to “all his clients”, even “a stuttering ventriloquist and an elderly couple who make balloon animals”. The running “joke” of the film — that Allen’s clients inevitably shift to another agent once they’ve achieved any level of real success — demonstrates that Danny’s loyalties may be somewhat misplaced, yet one can’t help cheering him on in his comedically hopeless endeavors. The storyline (efficiently, humorously scripted by Allen) remains enjoyably wacky and fast-paced throughout, as “Farrow and Allen have an exciting adventure together”, and Allen (mistaken for Farrow’s lover) eventually becomes “wanted” by her mob connections.

Though Allen does a fine job playing such a sympathetic character — and Forte is completely convincing in his debut role (he wrote his own songs as well) — Farrow’s performance is the true surprise here: she’s literally unrecognizable at first in her “blond wig and dark glasses”, using a “convincing New Jersey accent”; her character’s cynical, self-preserving approach to life functions as an effectively stark contrast to Danny’s eternally helpful optimism. Meanwhile, Allen’s use of a flashback structure to frame the storyline — involving a group of stand-up comedians who reminisce in a diner about Danny Rose — perfectly establishes the film’s tone and milieu, allowing Allen to pay homage to the performance medium that gave him his start in show business. One may question why DP Gordon Willis chose to film the picture in (admittedly gorgeous) b&w (perhaps to evoke an era of nostalgia?); but while I believe the film could have worked just as well in color, I won’t begin to quibble.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Woody Allen as Danny Rose
  • Mia Farrow as Tina
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s (many) “best” films.

Categories

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Interiors (1978)

Interiors (1978)

“She has no direction; I expected such great things from her.”

Synopsis:
Three grown sisters — a successful poet (Diane Keaton) married to a struggling novelist (Richard Jordan); a would-be artist (Mary Beth Hurt) in a relationship with a political writer (Sam Waterston); and an aspiring actress (Kristin Griffith) — all deal differently with the increasingly unstable mental state of their mother (Geraldine Page), and with the lively new girlfriend (Maureen Stapleton) their father (E.G. Marshall) has recently started dating.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that watching this “unusual Woody Allen film” when it was released in 1978 was “an excruciating experience” for many viewers, given that “ready to laugh, we saw before us a humorless Bergmanesque drama (without Allen in the cast)”. However, he notes that seeing it again later, he finds it a “truly beautiful, painstakingly written and directed, outstanding if… too serious film” about three adult sisters who “all grew up considering themselves failures”. Much like he argues in his review of Allen’s later Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) — which possesses numerous thematic similarities — he notes that Keaton, Hurt, and Griffin are all “emotional cripples, afraid of one another because of the damage each is capable of inflicting”, and “jealous of [each] other’s successes.” He writes that “what’s most impressive about Allen’s film is that he creates a logic for why his characters respond to each other as they do”; even if we don’t particularly enjoy watching these sisters (and Keaton’s dissatisfied husband) wallow in their sorrows — and find the “snobby pretentiousness” of their “criticism of books, plays, [and] articles” unbearable — they’re indisputably all-too-human.

Indeed, with a mother like Page — who during the film “suffers a breakdown and attempts suicide”, yet was clearly mentally unhinged long before the action begins — it’s no surprise at all to see what a mess Keaton et al. are (nor to question the desire of Marshall to get out of the marriage as gently yet quickly as he can). Page’s tragic performance is note-perfect, as is Marshall’s — though arguably the most memorable “older” performance is given by Stapleton, “whose bright clothes are a jolt to the picture”, and who “brings life to the drained group”. Peary notes that a final scene involving Stapleton and Hurt (which I won’t spoil here like Peary does) is the “most special” moment for him, in a film filled with “many emotionally devastating moments”. To that end, how well you ultimately respond to Interiors depends largely on: a) your willingness to suspend preconceived judgments about what a Woody Allen film “should” be, and b) your willingness to invest in the outcome of these (mostly) not-very-likable characters. For my part, I was resistant at first (as Peary notes, it’s still far “too serious” a film), but quickly found myself caught up in the power of Allen’s uncompromising vision. Good for him for daring to make a movie just the way he envisioned it, and to foil his fans’ expectations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Page as Eve
  • Maureen Stapleton as Pearl
  • E.G. Marshall as Arthur
  • Fine cinematography by Gordon Willis

Must See?
Yes, as an unexpectedly powerful family drama by Allen. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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Front, The (1976)

Front, The (1976)

“Nobody admits there’s a blacklist — I mean, they just say your script’s not good enough, you’re not right for the assignment, that kind of thing.”

Synopsis:
In the 1950s, an apolitical cashier (Woody Allen) agrees to act as a “front” for his blacklisted friend (Michael Murphy) and two other television writers, taking 10% of their earnings as commission. Soon he finds himself in a sticky situation, as his activities are monitored by HUAC and he’s asked to “name names”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s clearly an enormous fan of this “excellent, often forgotten little picture” (written by Walter Bernstein, directed by Martin Ritt, and starring Woody Allen) — enough so that he names it the Best Picture of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, and lists no “runners-up”. He writes that it’s “humbly, gently, humorously made”, with “much ironic humor com[ing] from the absurdity of the situation, where a man can be blacklisted if the committee gets his name mixed up with that of a ‘leftist sympathizer’ and he can’t clear himself unless he can name names”. He adds that “despite the film’s friendly tone, viewers get a sense of the paranoia, desperation, and insanity of the period, and come to understand why those who were blacklisted — like Bernstein and Ritt” (and several actors in the film, including Zero Mostel) “still detest those who gave testimony during the fifties witchhunt”. He concludes his review by noting that the “film is a tribute to those who took moral stands during that time”.

While I agree with Peary that The Front remains a powerful and riveting drama — one which all film fanatics should see, simply for its important subject matter — it’s not quite “best picture” material; it eventually devolves into comedically melodramatic fairy tale territory in its final reels, and the romantic subplot between Allen and a beautiful television employee (Andrea Marcovicci) feels underdeveloped. The most affecting aspect of the film is the subplot involving comedy actor “Hecky Brown” (Mostel), whose situation most succinctly embodies the true paranoia of the period. His inability to remain employed after being unable (or unwilling) to “name names” sends him on a degrading downward spiral; Mostel’s performance is both brave and visceral in its depiction of Hecky’s despair and resignation. Allen gives a fine performance as well, playing a variation on his typical character (his “Howie” is “a funny guy, which makes him appealing” to his girlfriend and Hecky), yet one who undergoes a profound shift in political awareness.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Woody Allen as Howard Prince (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Zero Mostel as Hecky Brown

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful evocation of a notorious era in Hollywood.

Categories

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Stardust Memories (1980)

Stardust Memories (1980)

“We enjoy your films — particularly the early, funny ones.”

Synopsis:
While attending a retrospective of his films, a beloved movie director (Woody Allen) reflects upon his challenging relationship with a former girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), reconnects with his current partner (Marie-Christine Barrault), and flirts with the pretty young girlfriend (Jessica Harper) of a film professor (John Rothman).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in making Stardust Memories, “Woody Allen takes Fellini’s autobiographical 8 1/2 and applies it, one assumes, to his own life”. He notes that the “picture is [a] daring change of pace for Allen and contains wit and insight into [the] life and thoughts of an Allen-like filmmaker”, but argues (somewhat cryptically) that it’s “not a success”, in part because “we don’t really like” Allen’s character, someone “whom we can believe is much like the real Allen”. He concludes his review by asserting that the film “should certainly be funnier”, and notes that “many” (including Peary himself??) “resent the way ‘Allen’s’ fans are depicted.” Indeed, Stardust Memories is a notoriously contentious film in Allen’s oeuvre, though I’ll admit I remain puzzled by this designation. It’s easier to understand critics’ (and audiences’) “resentment” over Allen’s drastic shift away from comedy with Interiors (1978) — but Stardust Memories is drolly amusing enough to classify as a darkly humorous comedy-of-life, even if it’s not as overtly designed for laughs as his “early, funny” pictures (to quote a character in the film itself).

After writing and helming 8-9 full-length films (including such certified classics as Annie Hall and Manhattan) — and thus revealing himself to be a cinematic auteur of the highest stature — Allen fully “deserved” to make a movie like this, one in which he explores the conflicted nature of his own phenomenal success. One can only imagine the nightmarish existence endured by celebrities of any kind, let alone those (like Allen) who appear to long for a semblance of privacy and normalcy in their everyday lives; in Stardust Memories, Allen is able to show us in satirical detail exactly what it’s like to be confronted on a daily basis by “everyone under the sun who needs a favor”, ranging from a look at one’s fledgling script, to endorsement of worthy causes, to simple yet incessant autograph requests. (And, to Allen’s character’s credit, he handles these requests remarkably graciously, if with an obvious level of underhanded dismissiveness.)

Meanwhile, the bulk of the narrative revolves around the typically tortured romantic existence of Allen’s alter-ego, Sandy Bates, who (much like Michael Caine’s adulterous accountant in Hannah and Her Sister) seems to secretly desire a troubled female companion who “needs” him, rather than a confident and mature mother-figure (the latter embodied here by Barrault, and in HAHS by Mia Farrow). Rampling, Barrault, and Harper are all fine in their respective roles, and Gordon Willis’s b&w cinematography superbly highlights Bates’s stylized existence (it’s difficult to miss the humorously outsized “portraits” of torture decking the apartment walls of this man who’s “obsessed with world suffering”). To that end, Peary rightfully points out the obvious connections between this film and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in its “conclusion that those who have comic gifts… should present comedy to the world… whereas others should tackle serious themes”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
  • Effectively stylized art direction and sets

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s most personal and insightful films.

Categories

Links:

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

“Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds, and in the end none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do.”

Synopsis:
An accountant (Michael Caine) married to an actress (Mia Farrow) falls for his wife’s sister (Barbara Hershey), who’s involved with an older artist (Max von Sydow). Meanwhile, Farrow’s other sister (Dianne Wiest) struggles to find both romantic and personal happiness, and Farrow’s ex-husband (Woody Allen) — a successful television producer — suffers an existential crisis when he learns he may have a brain tumor.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while Hannah and Her Sisters (“Woody Allen’s most acclaimed film”) remains a “sweet” movie in many ways, it’s nonetheless “startling how mean [many of] his characters can be to one another”, given that “they say vicious things” and “betray each other’s trust”, and they “are insensitive, they lie, [and] they are accusatory”. He points out that “every character is deeply wounded at some point, finds himself or herself on shaky ground, and fears the future”. However, given Allen’s structuring of the film to cover three consecutive Thanksgivings in the lives of Hannah and her family, we also see that “within brief periods of time… lives can change to a miraculous degree, people can mature…, [and] sad people can find the happiness that one year before seemed out of reach”. (Note: As in his review for The Purple Rose of Cairo, Peary’s overview of HAHS oddly contains quite a few spoilers, so I’ll refrain from quoting more specifics here about the narrative arc.)

Peary points out that “Wiest, Farrow, and von Sydow stand out in the wonderful cast” (I agree); however, he notes that he wishes “all the characters were a bit more developed” — though it’s difficult to see how this might even be possible, given the limitations of such an abundantly cast, intricately overlapping script. Indeed, there are so many narrative threads interwoven across HAHS that one wonders at first how Allen will balance it all — yet everything eventually comes together, with all the characters’ lives intersecting in decidedly “incestuous” ways (perhaps no great surprise). Peary concludes his review by stating that “having Mickey [Allen] convert to Catholicism, although funny, is overdoing it a bit”, but I disagree; several of the script’s laugh-out-loud visual gags come courtesy of this narrative jaunt (which feels entirely realistic, given the character’s literal soul-searching).

Note: It’s interesting to learn how much of HAHS was apparently inspired by Farrow’s own life (the film was shot largely in her NY apartment, included several of her actual children, and cast her real-life mother — Maureen O’Sullivan — as her on-screen mother). Being involved with Woody Allen to any extent seems like a guaranteed ticket to creative “exploitation”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dianne Wiest as Holly
  • Michael Caine as Elliott
  • Barbara Hershey as Lee
  • Mia Farrow as Hannah
  • Max von Sydow as Frederick
  • Carlo di Palma’s cinematography
  • Allen’s Oscar-winning script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s best films.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Take the Money and Run (1969)

“I think if he’d been a successful criminal, he would have felt better.”

Synopsis:
An inept thief (Woody Allen) bungles his way through a series of robberies, while romancing and marrying a beautiful young seamstress (Janet Margolin) and attempting repeated escapes from prison.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Woody Allen’s first film as a writer-director-star is an often hilarious parody of both old-style gangster movies and character documentaries”, complete with “a narrator… who mixes hard-boiled commentary (“He’s wanted for murder…”) with straight-voiced absurdity (“… and for marrying a horse”). He notes that the “picture has less structure than Allen’s later films”, and that Allen “piles on the gags”, though he argues that “the immature humor and the forced humor [are] far outnumbered by comic gems” — such as “[Allen’s] Virgil playing cello in a marching band” and “Virgil being foiled in one bank robbery because the tellers can’t read his note correctly and in another because rival bank robbers turn up at the same time”. (I also love the scene in which Virgil attempts to escape from prison by carving a gun out of soap, only to be foiled by a rainstorm.)

Peary complains that “the worst mistake Allen makes is not keeping Margolin’s character normal”, but I actually disagree; while Margolin is lovely and appropriately naive (only a young woman bordering on dumb would fall for a loser like Virgil!), she’s ultimately too “normal” for her own good. Allen should have persisted in casting his then-wife, Louise Lasser, in the role; her “brief but effective cameo” (“You never met such a nothing; it’s hard to believe there was a mind working in there that knew how to rob banks!”) indicates what a difference this might have made. (And speaking of Virgil’s family life, where in the world does their infant son disappear to? He’s born, then suddenly reappears years later as a young boy.) Putting such quibbles aside, however, TTMAR remains an enjoyably loopy mockumentary, one of the first in what would become a mainstay subgenre made popular by Christopher Guest et al.

Note: Be sure to read TCM’s “Behind the Camera” article for fascinating background information on the film’s production.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many inspired and/or chuckle-worthy moments


Must See?
Yes, as a cult comedy, and for its historical interest as Allen’s first film as an auteur (not counting What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966]).

Categories

Links:

Bananas (1971)

Bananas (1971)

“This trial is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”

Synopsis:
A nebbishy product tester (Woody Allen) infatuated with a political activitist (Louise Lasser) travels to the Central American country of San Marcos, where he unwittingly joins a group of rebels (led by Jacobo Morales) fighting against the regime of the new military dictator (Carlos Montalban).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “early Woody Allen film” is “somewhat dated and contains several scenes so embarrassingly stupid that it’s hard to believe Allen conceived them”; he further complains about “Marvin Hamlisch’s irritating background music for the South American sequence”. However, he concedes that there’s still “much to treasure” about the film, and names a number of its most memorable sequences (including “Allen sneakily buying Orgasm magazine and having the dealer call across the crowded shop to ask its price” and “Allen ordering takeout food for 900 guerrilla fighters”). He notes that “best of all are his meeting and break-up with Louise Lasser”, whose quirky comedic sensibility is given full opportunity to shine here; he points out that “these hilarious and perceptive scenes are quintessential Allen that could easily fit into such later, sophisticated relationship comedies as Annie Hall and Manhattan.” Ultimately, while not as polished as Allen’s later films, Bananas remains an enjoyably gonzo treat for fans interested in seeing the early development of his talents.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Louise Lasser as Nancy
  • A creative premise with many bizarrely conceived scenarios

Must See?
Yes, as additional early evidence of Allen’s comedic genius.

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