There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. Taking Off was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.
In Annie Hall, Los Angeles is “a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” That was 40 years and 40 Woody Allen movies ago, and the humor that worked back then—L.A.’s mind-set summed up thus: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and plate of mashed yeast”—has mellowed with time. For Café Society, Allen remains skeptical about La-La Land, but this portrait of a New York lad trying his luck in 1930s Hollywood is sticky with nostalgia: wrapped in lush costuming, honeyed by golden California light, and scored to the vintage toe-tappers that Allen continues to love. Satirical arrows are dutifully aimed, but the overall gorgeousness makes the target a soft one.
The lad is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), whose Uncle Phil (Steve Carell in a good turn) has become a successful movie agent. Bobby gets stuck with menial jobs, but he’s able to observe chic pool parties and meet movers and shakers.
The new Woody Allen movie has the flaws that have become familiar in the latter part of his career: slack pacing, too much exposition, and a big age discrepancy between leading man and lady. I must be worn down by all that, because I truly enjoyed Magic in the Moonlight. The exposition’s still a problem — Allen’s script must explain the premise a dozen times — but here the languid pacing is just the right rhythm for this sunny dream of a film.
The setting is 1920s France, where a famous magician, Stanley (Colin Firth), takes on a challenge. Along with making elephants disappear on stage, he’s known offstage as a great debunker of frauds and charlatans.
Jules and Jim (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual-Format) is another Criterion upgrade of a previously released DVD, debuting on Blu-ray mastered from a new, restored 2K digital film transfer and released in a dual-format edition. An intense and reckless Jeanne Moreau delivers a performance steeped in mystery and enigma in Francois Truffaut’s tale of friendship and love. Oskar Werner is the Austrian Jules, a vibrant young biologist on slow, melancholy slide while Henri Serre plays his best friend, the enigmatic, introspective Parisian writer Jim. A scandal upon its release for its unapologetic treatment of a menage-a-trois, the film contrasts the stylistic freedom of nouvelle vague techniques (zooms, flash-cuts, handheld shots taken literally on the run) in the scenes of carefree youth with a somber, subdued approach for the “adult” years of impermanence. The handsome period piece jackrabbits through the story with concentrated scenes interspersed with newsreel footage and montages, pulled together by an interpretive “literary” narrator who layers the film with an added richness.
Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are two commentary tracks (one by co-writer Jean Gruault, Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouche, and Truffaut scholar Annette Insdorf, the other featuring actress Jeanne Moreau and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana), excerpts from the 1985 documentary The Key to Jules and Jim about the author Henri-Pierre Roche, an episode of Cineaste de notre temps from 1965 dedicated to Truffaut, and a segment from the series L’Invitie du Dimanche from 1969 with Truffaut, Moreau, and filmmaker Jean Renoir, footage of Truffaut interviewed by Richard Roud at the 1977 New York Film Festival, excerpts from Truffaut’s presentation at a 1979 American Film Institute “Dialogue on Film,” a 1980 archival audio interview with Truffaut conducted by Claude-Jean Philippe, video interviews with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and co-writer Jean Gruault, and a video conversation between scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic John Powers, a 1981 piece by Truffaut on Roché, and script notes from Truffaut to co-screenwriter Gruault.
It feels odd to write that Crimes and Misdemeanors (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray) is my favorite Woody Allen film. It certainly doesn’t make me feel good, though it does offer a mix of despair and elation, and it may be a tad heavy (and yes, perhaps even heavyhanded) at times. Yet I think it’s one of his masterpieces, with characters that live with such a power within their defining contradictions and a theme that reminds us that life isn’t fair and how we deal with the unfairness is the measure of our humanity. Martin Landau received his second Academy Award nomination for his understated performance of an adulterer who is ‘persuaded’ (by Jerry Orbach) to let a hitman take care of a problem, namely the mistress (Anjelica Huston) who refuses to go away. In a parallel story Allen is a documentary filmmaker who falls for his attractive producer (Mia Farrow) while shooting a distasteful project that he sabotages out of juvenile pique. The bittersweet turns simply bitter as it builds towards the climax, but even amidst all the emotional damage, Allen still finds a spark of hope. It’s one of his masterpieces. Sven Nykvist shoots the film with a mix of warmth and remove. And remember: if it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny. Features Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
Blue Jasmine (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, On Demand) earned Cate Blanchett her sixth Oscar nomination and clearly she is a wonder in this film. Woody Allen reworks A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche DuBois as a woman who remade herself into a Park Avenue socialite and is now adrift after her husband (Alec Baldwin) turned out to be a Madoff-like crook. Left with nothing but expensive tastes, an utterly self-absorbed personality, alcohol and pill abuse, and a nervous breakdown from which she has not completely recovered, she takes refuge with her working class sister (Sally Hawkins, also nominated this year) and her contractor boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) without a shred of appreciation.
Woody is often sharp with character study and Jasmine is something else, but his portrait of San Francisco working class folk is less convincing and carried only by the strength of a typically excellent cast (it also co-stars Louis C. K., Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg) and an honesty and commitment that the socially poised rich of the film lack. But Blanchett is riveting as the unraveling, self-pitying socialite on the skids, drinking and popping Xanax until it lubricates her slide into denial.
Blu-ray and DVD both feature a 25-minute press conference with actor Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard and Andrew Dice Clay and a shorter promotional “Notes from the Red Carpet” featurette. No surprise, Allen makes no appearance in any of the supplements. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Another Oscar nominee, Captain Phillips (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, On Demand) directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks (who was overlooked this year) as the captain of a cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates, arrives on disc and digital. The film picked up six nominations, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor in a Supporting Role for Barkhad Abdi, a Somali non-actor who made a vivid debut in the role of a pirate in a desperate situation. No review copy was made available before deadline so no notes on the extras.
The Prey (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), a French crime thriller that goes for rough-and-tumble grit over slick Luc Besson spectacle, is a clever idea with a lazy script more concerned with creating fights, chase scenes, and escapes from police dragnets than in constructing anything resembling intelligent police work. Albert Dupontel has an appropriately scuffed-up quality as Franck, a hard-luck bank robber serving out the last months of a sentence for a success robbery, until he has to escape when he learns that his recently released religious-fanatic cellmate (Stéphane Debac) is actually a serial killer heading for his wife and child. Alice Taglioni is the tough-as-nails detective assigned to track him down as new evidence (planted by the real killer) implicates Franck in a string of unsolved murders.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds—it’s basically The Fugitive with a creepy psycho in place of the one-armed man and the life of a kidnapped child at stake—and Eric Valette delivers on the action if not on the intelligence of the cops (who would forget to stake out the suspect’s own home after he escapes prison?). Franck takes a beating beyond human endurance through it all, but as long as the momentum keeps up, and you can almost overlook the rampant clichés and the script’s glaring missteps. Almost. No surprise, it’s already been picked up for an American remake.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Take the Money and Run and Bananas, Woody Allen’s first films as a writer-director-actor, were energetic messes redeemed by the novelty of seeing Allen’s comic vision transferred to the screen minus the dilutions of What’s New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale, on which he performed script and acting chores only. (Allen also worked on the experimental What’s Up Tiger Lily?, unseen by this viewer; and Don’t Drink the Water was based on an Allen stageplay.) Take the Money and Run and Bananas invoke far less the Buster Keaton–Charles Chaplin tradition of comedy actor-directors than they do the indulgent tradition of vehicle comedians such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, the excesses of whose generally funny films one almost invariably must be blind to in order to call the films themselves—as opposed to the comic performances—successful. In these early efforts one could forgive Allen his excesses, too, in order to get to the laughs because, after all, the man was still learning his craft.
Nineteen-seventy-two was the year that Allen seemed to arrive as a filmmaker and performer. The Allen-scripted, Herbert Ross–directed Play It Again, Sam benefited from the discipline Allen found necessary to include in its stageplay antecedent, and the cinematic and cosmic inevitability of its Casablanca-remake conclusion carried with it a surprisingly touching and self-informed realization of Allen’s comic persona. In contrast to Allen’s own egocentric directorial tendencies, Ross’s generally undistinguished direction contained two minor, but in retrospect significant, virtues: Meaningful presences other than Allen were permitted onscreen—Diane Keaton, Jerry Lacey, Viva, Susan Anspach; and for once Allen himself was guided successfully through a physical universe. Compare the economy and dramatic utility of the record-casting gag in Play It Again, Sam with the pace-, grace-, and proportionlessness (this from a man who studied with Martha Graham, and fancies himself a jazz musician) of another prop gag, the basketball business in Bananas, a bit that is flatfootedly typical of actor Allen’s attempts under his own direction at the sight-gag subspecies of physical comedy. (There are exceptions, of course: The wheelchair business in Sleeper, Allen’s fourth film as a director, comes instantly to mind, but even here actor Allen is subservient to the scene’s dramatic tension—the risk of discovery—and the upfront emphasis on mechanical anarchy.) Klutziness requires grace to define it, and the relative gracefulness of Play It Again, Sam‘s physical and behavioral environments imparted to Allen’s physical comedy a sense of chaotic interruption that his own (up until then) perpetually chaotic film environments did not underscore.
Who would have predicted that Midnight in Paris (Sony) would become Woody Allen’s most financially successful film ever?
On the one hand, the wish fulfillment fantasy of an American screenwriter (Owen Wilson) on a Paris vacation who is whisked back in time and welcomed into the company of the Lost Generation artists of the twenties, is pure lark, a waking dream of delights where the fondest wishes are delivered with idealistic perfection. On the other, Allen’s brings his fantasy to life with such affection and joy that he transports us into his dream come true as a shared fantasy. We, too, are embraced in the bosom of this society, welcomed into the company of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, et al. as an equal. All we have to bring is a little wit, and the amiable Wilson does just that.
Allen doesn’t work at convincing us it is anything but a fantasy. In fact, he revels in the fantasy and simply enjoys the experience, as does the tremendous cast he invites to the party. But no one exudes more delight that Wilson, the most open and accepting and amiably sincere of Allen’s stand-ins, strolling into every situation with a grin across his face and an easy acceptance of everyone he meets. No kibitzing malcontent here, Wilson is the soul of generosity. This is a man who just wants to share the joy of his discoveries. He just needs to find someone who values them as much as he does.
It’s also a heartfelt love letter to Paris. Taking his camera to the streets, Allen offers the loveliest walking tour of the city I’ve seen on screen, and in his time travel reminds us of the history that resonates in the very streets and skyline views of the city. Midnight in Paris is surely the most romantic vision of Allen’s career.
Rachel McAdams co-stars as his garishly superficial fiancée, Marion Cotillard is his twenties dream girl, and Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill populate the cast of artists populated the culture of expatriate artists in twenties-era Paris.
The DVD and Blu-ray both include the featurette “Midnight in Cannes,” a very brief (under five minutes) panel discussion at Cannes with director Allen and stars Wilson, McAdams and Adrien Brody. The Blu-ray also features a gallery of case and crew stills.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 1977]
Annie Hall is far and away the best movie Woody Allen has made. Much more importantly, it’s good and rich and satisfying in terms that, heretofore, have had only negative reference to Allen’s film career, demarcating the limits of his scope as a writer-director-star.
The picture was called Woody Allen Film throughout its two-year conception and realization—a title that made all-too-perfect sense with regard to the trajectory his filmmaking has been describing. With the qualified exception of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…, all Allen’s films have flaunted his personal centrality as pretender to the throne of Chaplin, Keaton, or whomever you happen to uphold as the comic star-auteur par excellence. Their cast lists abound in interesting players whose actual participation often amounts to nothing more than a walk-on; very few—Gene Wilder in Sex, Jessica Harper in the weird Persona parody just before the end of Love and Death—have managed to register decisively enough to be retained on the retina of memory the next day or, indeed, as long as the film itself lasts.
It’s not so much that Allen hogs the show. Where a Streisand wantonly upstages her fellow performers, co-opts directorial prerogatives, and even doctors the soundtrack and the final cut to ensure her primacy, Allen is scrupulously generous in some respects. Every last anonymous peasant, usher, and street passerby is identified in the voluminous end credits. Yet this generosity is tinged with a kind of embarrassed perversity: who, after all, are all these people, and who were they when the film was on? If anything, their corporeal presence tended only to interfere with their effective screen-life—as photographable analogs of verbal conceits in a standup Allen patter.
Nowhere was this failing more conspicuous than in the cinematic treatment of those actresses/characters officially designated as Allen’s lights-of-love: Louise Lasser in Bananas, Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Love and Death (but not Play It Again, Sam, the one “Woody Allen movie” not actually directed by Woody Allen). I can recall one near-sublime moment of independent existence in Keaton’s performance in Love and Death: having just announced her selection of a fiancé among the many suitors assembled for a fete, and then watched the doddering old gent drop dead with joy, she leaned forward with a desperate only-kidding gesture and said, “Right!—I meant—Boris!” In that instant, both character and actress were privileged to order time and space just as they and they alone liked. Then Allen took over again and Keaton went back to alternating between ninny and fickle deceiver.
Woody Allen Film ended up being named after the character Keaton plays in it. There’s nothing cosmetic about the gesture, even though the film opens with Allen delivering a long monologue straight into the camera, and even though, as always, we are hard put to say just where—or whether—Woody Allen leaves off and the character Alvy Singer, begins. Either or both are casting back over a broken love affair and trying, in the process, to make aphoristic sense of the personal, socio-historical and metaphysical mélange that has added up to a human life. Annie Hall—and the emotional and intellectual values reposed in her—appears to have assumed a crucial role in all this, even if “all this” remains Alvy Singer’s autobiography.
Allen’s movie shuffles chronology almost as freely as it violates conventional narrative levels to permit Alvy to address the audience, elicit—and get—informed commentary from passersby, or superimpose stream-of-consciousness subtitles over dialogue and action that is frantically leading in another direction. We first glimpse Annie comparatively late in her relationship with Alvy (rendezvousing at a movie theater where they hope to get in to Face to Face, they find the show has started already and so fall back on The Sorrow and the Pity); by now she has become an uneasy satellite of her lover, assimilated into his lifestyle but chafing against it, too.
Shortly thereafter, we observe their first encounter, and experience cultural shock: Diane Keaton is playing the Woody Allen role! Happening upon him after a casual double-date set of tennis, she blithers and flails, talking up a whirlwind from behind a manic smile and forcing their non-encounter to continue. Alvy, of all people, comes on as close to self-possessed as a Woody Allen character can expect to get; only an all but subliminally graceless move with an erect racquet handle gives away his own emotional derangement.
Physical gesture, and physicality in general, has a lot to do with Annie Hall‘s superiority to its predecessors. In an earlier Allen film, that surrogate erection would have operated more like the raison-d’être of the sequence, an exercise in shtickmanship wherein our Woody strutted his near-pathological grotesquerie to provoke our knowing yoks.
The yoks have usually come for, schlemihl or no, Allen’s goodwill has always been unmistakable, and in comedy that counts for a good deal. But physical grace has never been the performer’s long suit, and even when this was the comic point of an event, the joke usually seemed a little off-key; lacking the superb physical command of a Chaplin or a (Buster) Keaton, Allen could never shake free of the faintly compromising sense of turning himself into a routine rather than rediscovering his personal sublimity through mystically beautiful movement.
Annie Hall is full of marvelous behavioral business, none of it gratuitous; it’s entirely integrated with character and the evolution of character from scene to scene. Not only Alvy Singer but, for the first time, Woody Allen actually possesses a sexual being. The actor whom Roger Downey once described as appearing to be “in the last stages of terminal seborrhea” hasn’t submitted to glamour treatments. He has simply, with his own connivance as writer and director, put himself on the line in a one-to-one relationship with another creature endowed with independent being. And in so doing he has become, cinematically speaking, a whole artist and an important human being himself for the first time.
If it seems odd to speak of “another creature endowed with independent being” while also observing that Diane Keaton is playing the Woody Allen role, I can only invoke a long and glorious tradition of privileged creative bonding between certain male directors and their female stars. “Marlene is playing me,” Josef von Sternberg used to say, even as the viewer couldn’t help sensing that every male onscreen with Dietrich also represented a displaced atom of the director’s sensibility, desperately trying to keep her from leaving his orbit. Sternberg’s instructions often amounted to “Look at the door, count slowly to three, then glance right bellows the lens and smooth your shawl,” yet the luminous legacy of this behavioral engineering remains endlessly mysterious, impenetrably private.
Allen grants Keaton something like the Dietrich treatment at one point in Annie Hall (although as a matter of fact it more precisely recalls Blake Edwards’s rapt contemplation of Julie Andrews at the beginning and ending of Darling Lili). Alvy’s and Annie’s affair starts the night she botches a singing debut—”It Had to Be You”—in the world’s worst music bar, the most cluttered mise-en-scène this side of Altmanville. It’s on the way to ending the night she performs “Seems Like Old Times” as if musing out loud, swathed in Gordon Willis’s lushest shadows and endorsed by the sort of long take customarily reserved for star monologues. Annie can handle a show of her own and Alvy knows it; and from the summing-up vantage of his narrative, he now knows he’s missing something.
Very nice, you may say, but where are the jokes? Not to worry—they’re there, in abundance. But like the behavioral business they exist first and foremost to tell us about these two people. Indeed, humor is the most dependable vehicle of romance, the only sacrament for a marriage of true minds that makes sense in Allen country. Alvy Singer can buy Annie every treatise on death ever published, but he gets custody when they’re dividing their possessions (“That’s a load off my back,” she says breezily); on the other hand, the day they improvised a whole routine around some live lobsters scuttling across the kitchen floor becomes a talisman for checking the viability of subsequent relationships with other girls (“Is this a joke or what?”).
Relationships with other costars is yet another question. Although Keaton is permitted to complete her self-creation in Annie Hall, Allen is still frustratingly incapable of finding as much use for nifty people like Christopher Walken (seen briefly as Annie’s mad brother), Shelley Duvall (a Rolling Stone head), and Carol Kane (Alvy’s first wife) as we might like.
But he might make it. After all, here is an Allen movie with a final frame from which Woody Allen is absent—for a comic actor, something akin to death, and well we know that Woody doesn’t take his death lightly. We hear him, though, mulling over the joke about the man with a brother who thinks he’s a chicken. “Why don’t you have him committed?” asks the psychiatrist. “I would—but I need the eggs.” Onscreen, the traffic flows by. The rest of the world may yet get a chance to star in a Woody Allen film because, even in the spotlight at a standup mike, he needs the eggs.
Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 1977
Jack Rollins–Charles H. Joffe–United Artists, 1977. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Production design: Mel Bourne. Costumes: Ruth Morley. Editing: Ralph Rosenblum. Produced by Charles H. Joffe; executive producer, Robert Greenhut. (93 minutes)
The players: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison Portchnik), Janet Margolin (Robin), Colleen Dewhurst (Mrs. Hall), Donald Symington (Mr. Hall), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall), Helen Ludlam (Grammy Hall), Shelley Duvall (Pam of Rolling Stone), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Mordecai Lawner (Alvy’s father), Joan Newman (Alvy’s mother), Jonathan Munk (Alvy at 9), Marshall McLuhan (himself), Dick Cavett (himself), John Glover (Jerry the actor), Johnny Hamer (comic), Laurie Bird (Tony’s L.A. girl), Jeff Goldblum (party guest), Shelly Hack (shallow)
Copyright © 1977 by Richard T. Jameson
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
In Annie Hall Woody Allen has created his most personal, most serious, most painfully funny, and best film. The first three don’t necessarily imply the last, but in this case that’s the way it works out. The concern with the interrelation between comedy and pain—a transformation of the earlier Allen’s more prosaic concern with love and death—is the center of the film, as it is the center of the life of standup comic Alvy Singer, Allen’s thinly disguised portrait of himself. The simultaneous egocentricity and self-denigration implied in Allen’s portrayal of Singer—and, indeed, in Allen himself—is summed up in his delivery of a classic joke in his opening, Bergmanesque monologue. Like most of the jokes Freud cites in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, it’s not the kind of joke you laugh at: “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have me for one of its members.” True, Allen’s throwaway style evokes a chuckle; but for Alvy Singer there is more painful truth in this paradox of a joke than there is comic hilarity. It’s actually the second of two jokes that open the film, the first being an even less laughable one about life being ugly, miserable, depressing, and all too short.
The proposition that life is both agonizing and dear is sustained throughout. When record entrepreneur Tony Lacy invites Alvy Singer to a party that promises to be “very mellow,” Alvy declines, explaining, “When I get too mellow I ripen, and then I rot.” The vision of life-vs.-death pervades everything (“All the books you ever gave me had Death in the title,” girlfriend Annie Hall complains), and the double-layered vision is reflected emphatically in the film’s imagery. Alvy was born and raised in a house underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island: superficial joy on top of nervous depression: corrosive death gnawing at the underpinnings of assertive life. Alvy’s comedy—and the play he writes about himself and Annie near the end of the film—is his response to pain, and it is a fantasy response. The play ends the way Alvy wishes the real relationship with Annie had climaxed. Elsewhere he casually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater lobby sign to refute the bullshit artist in the ticket line who pontificates about McLuhan without knowing his work. “If life could only be like this!” Alvy tells the camera, acknowledging and embracing his own dependence on a fantasy of a world that will reaffirm and justify him and his ideas. In the film, people on the street don’t mind being stopped by Alvy to give their point of view, or elucidate their corner of the world; and many of them seem to have information and understanding to which he is not privy, though they are happy to share it with him and offer advice.