The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Woody Allen reviews: 1977 – 1986

Posted by therebelprince on November 15, 2013

Diane Keaton is Annie Hall

Diane Keaton is Annie Hall

The second set of my Woody Allen capsule reviews are below. As in the previous post, all ratings are subjective, and I thoroughly recommend Every Woody Allen Movie for a more detailed analysis of them all.

09. Annie Hall (1977)

A New York comedian (Allen) dissects his relationship with a neurotic woman (Diane Keaton) a year after it came to an end.

A marvelous movie, beginning the Golden Era of Allen’s work. The film’s imaginative conceits call to mind his earlier works (rather than filming the famous therapy sequence in two parts and then splicing them into a split-screen, the director had a “split set” constructed), but the subject matter and serious character analysis prefigure his grand ’80s experiments. Building out of the two leads’ earlier, short-lived relationship, Keaton has described her performance here as barely even acting, and that may be fair enough, but the character she creates here is positively effervescent. Allen has never had greater chemistry than with Keaton, and the film comes alive because of it. They’re surrounded, at the same time, by lovely performances, although the film’s focus is certainly narrowed around Annie herself. Indeed, what the film shares most with its ’70s brethren is that the “young” Woody is still more powerful when telling a single tale. Starting with the next film, he will allow his vision to telescope further and further outwards, never quite becoming Altman but not for lack of trying! Separating Annie Hall from the so-called “early, funny films” is a growing sense of longing and loss; the film’s final moments – as Alvy and Annie move on from their complicated relationship – still haunt me. Four decades on, one feels as if much of the world still judges Allen by the standards of this movie, which is grossly unfair given what lies ahead, but I can think of many directors who would kill for one film this good. 5 stars.

with Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Christopher Walken, Janet Margolin, Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Paul Simon and Marshall McLuhan

Academy Award wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Keaton)

Academy Award nomination: Best Actor (Allen)

10. Interiors (1978)

A wealthy, artistic family faces emotional rifts and self-doubts after the patriach (E.G. Marshall) unexpectedly separates from his mentally fragile wife (Geraldine Page).

Allen’s first experiment in crafting a film with deliberately zero laughs, Interiors is slow and heartbreaking, an almost relentless analysis of pity and self-hate. This single-mindedness begins to drag in the film’s middle, and many reviewers complained that Allen’s philosophy as a writer had a “fatal disconnect” from his Bergmanesque aims as a director in this instance. The films of Bergman and Fellini seemed to come naturally (although I’m sure that’s a fallacy), whereas it’s clearly a labour of love for Allen, who is more of a writer-turned-director than vice versa. Still, for all this talk, I remain infatuated with this movie and its exquisite direction. Laughs (and, by extension, the earthy approach to life they bring) figure in all of the director’s films I rank higher than 4 stars, with the exceptions of the single-minded Another Woman and Match Point. Usually, these large families inspire witty deflation from Allen’s pen, and instead we’re left with a film that seemingly exists just to grind its characters further and further down. (There is actually one very funny sequence, where the siblings discuss increasingly airy-fairy philosophy while Maureen Stapleton as Marshall’s vibrant second wife unwittingly deflects them, but even it exists primarily to prefigure the grim ending.) Regardless of whether you find Allen’s camera direction to be inspired or mere mimicry, Interiors reminds us one of Allen’s greatest strengths: pointing the camera and somehow extracting grueling performances from his cast. Here, highlights include the fetching performances of Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt as sisters dominated by their family pain and suppressed rivalries, Stapleton bringing an effortless charisma, and Page, who gives a revelatory performance as the jilted matriarch, simply one of the most sublime things Allen has ever committed to film. 4 stars.

with Sam Waterston, Kristin Griffith and Richard Jordan

Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Page), Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton)

11. Manhattan (1979) 

A divorced comedy writer (Allen) examines the women in his life: a 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemmingway), his lesbian ex-wife (Meryl Streep), and his best friend’s mistress (Keaton).

Allen and Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan"

Allen and Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan”

Leaving aside the frustrating question of why Streep only ever did one Woody Allen film, Manhattan is a vibrant follow-up to Annie Hall, exploring all of its characters with the complex approach Allen developed solely for the title character in that previous film. It’s a dense work, packed with Allen’s sardonic views on mankind, but also reveling in his aesthetic values that will figure more frequently in his work from here on out. Is there anything more gorgeous than Allen’s use of Gershwin here? As he gradually assembles a stable of recurring actors, Allen allows their public personas to bring out new layers to the characters, or alternatively to deflect what we thought we knew. Keaton gets to respond to her Annie Hall persona, while Wallace Shawn in particular is cheekily deployed. Hemmingway’s performance is really stunning, utterly convincing as a 17-year-old somehow enamoured of Allen’s divorced nihilist. New York City has never seemed so beautiful. In spite of the many highlights still to come, Manhattan may just be Allen’s most essential work. 5 stars.

with Michael Murphy, Anne Byrne, Karen Ludwig and Michael O’Donoghue

Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Hemmingway)

12. Stardust Memories (1980)

While attending a retrospective of his life’s work, a filmmaker (Allen) recalls his life and loves.

An unusual work that, in many ways, seems like a rebuke from Allen against his growing legion of Annie Hall-loving fans. The director’s merciless take on the vicissitudes of fame is well worth revisiting, particularly in light of the public waves Allen has ridden in the three intervening decades. Stardust Memories seems to be one of those Woody films that fans either love or hate, yet I find myself somewhere in between. Whereas the later Deconstructing Harry takes the same conceit but plays it in a far more sprawling, less focused way, this film has a deliberate style that can only be praised, and an inventiveness that reminds us that just because the director has become quite highbrow of late, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Still, while the film has a cohesive style, it retains the vignette feel of his earlier ’70s fare. Stardust Memories is well worth watching, particularly as a milestone in Allen’s relationship with his fans, but it retains the crucial issue of all his skit-based  films: great when it’s great, inane when it’s not. 3.5 stars.

with Jessica Harper, Tony Roberts, Marie-Christine Barrault, Charlotte Rampling and Louise Lasser

Mary Steenburgen in "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy"

Mary Steenburgen in “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”

13. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

In the early 1900s, a philosopher (Jose Ferrer) and his much-younger fiancee (Mia Farrow) spend a farcical weekend with a crackpot couple (Allen, Mary Steenburgen) and their sexually-free guests.

Not everyone’s favourite comedy, AMNSC is noticeably gentler than anything the director has done before, and – for a farce – spends arguably far too long setting up the situation. Devoid of his typical quick-fire persona, Allen’s script instead enjoys quiet character moments (particularly by the perfectly-cast Steenburgen) rather than much in the way of wit. Thankfully, the cast are largely up to the task: Ferrer and Tony Roberts have great fun as men of opposing philosophies, Allen continues to pit his oddball persona against an era that’s not quite ready for it, and the men are trumped by the effervescent Julie Hagerty and, moreso, Mary Steenburgen, who is nothing short of radiant here. Cast after Keaton was unavailable, this was the first of Farrow’s 13-film streak with Allen, which would only end when their marriage spectacularly crumbled. She’s perfectly fine here, but gives little hint of the exuberant performances she’ll be bringing on a regular basis. On the one hand, the examination of this halcyon lifestyle is hardly a “sex comedy”, and anyone expecting a 90-minute romp in Allen’s typical vein will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, the film is simply beautiful, directed by a version of Allen who could never quite find the popularity of the viewing public. The picnic scenes, particularly, are mindblowing, reminding me of nothing so much as Picnic at Hanging Rock. This is a quieter approach to philosophy than the director has typically used, and while there’s certainly some farce in the mix, it’s the pastoral sequences that linger in the mind. To be fair, the film never goes far enough in either direction – farce or bucolia – to be quite cohesive. Yet, I don’t mind admitting I’m sweet on this film, and willing to give it some leeway. 3.5 stars.

14. Zelig (1983)

A documentary focusing on a 1920s doctor (Farrow) and her greatest case: a man with a unique, chameleon-like ability (Allen).

The last of Allen’s concept/skit films until New York Stories, Zelig is also possibly the best of them. After half a decade of slowly adding pathos to the mix, Allen finds the ideal combination in this effects-laden analysis of one man’s decidedly confusing public life. The structure of the film is one of inspired fantasy, taking a basic concept and simply riffing on the various things that could happen. Yet somehow it is quite inspiring: there’s a warmth and gentility in Zelig’s story, a disconcerting yet enchanting mix of reality and fantasy (aided by the use of real-life figures and non-actors in most of the documentary roles), and remarkable use of film and photographic special effects. Just compare the blundering of a simple task like the obviously photoshopped wedding photos of Goldie Hawn and Alan Alda in Everyone Says I Love You with the beguiling use of effects here. This was a real labour of love. 4.5 stars.

Academy Award nominations: Best Cinematography (Gordon Willis), Best Costume Design (Santo Loquasto)

15. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

A hapless talent manager (Allen) and a mafia wife (Farrow) become unlikely partners on a road trip to save their careers… and their lives.

Mia Farrow in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"

Mia Farrow in “The Purple Rose of Cairo”

Growing up, I always assumed Allen was a popular director; after all, everyone knew him and his films. To learn that he was primarily a director who opened on a hundred or fewer screens was quite a shock! And, I have to say, as I’ve spent this year rewatching his works, I become increasingly disappointed with anyone who doesn’t get the magic of his films. Broadway Danny Rose is another enjoyable series of setpieces, buoyed by the one-time-only purely comedic pairing of Farrow and Allen. Their performances here are highlights of the canon for each of them (indeed I didn’t even realise it was Farrow for a good 15 minutes), and Allen is always flying high when filming in black-and-white. The film reminds me a little of an inverse It Happened One Night. Still, for all its qualities (and a healthy surplus of wit), Broadway Danny Rose is not quite as staggering as the astounding run of films it precedes. Not quite in my Top Ten, but a strong work from a director at the height of his powers. 4 stars.

with Nick Apollo Forte

Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

16. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

During the Great Depression, a down-on-her-luck waitress (Farrow) falls in love with Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), a fictional archaeologist who has fled from an escapist feature film.

A true gem. Magical, wittily scripted, a wonderfully-recognised period setting, a divine performance from Farrow, gorgeous special effects and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and somehow, out of all of this, a powerful meaning. From the ’60s to today, Allen has had a reliable chain of films that start from one fantastical idea and simply expand from there. The Purple Rose of Cairo is easily the best of this sub-genre, capturing one’s interest from start to end, finishing on a surprising note, tinged with something… not quite regret, but a sense of hope laced with reality. If the existential quibbling of a bunch of movie characters with an aggrieved, powerfully mundane audience doesn’t delight you, you’re not a true Allen fan! 5 stars.

with Dany Aiello, Edward Herrmann, Dianne Wiest, Deborah Rush, John Wood, Zoe Caldwell, Karen Akers, Milo O’Shea and Van Johnson

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay

17. Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

Over two years, the lives of an extended family are filtered through the eyes of one of their clan: an increasingly successful actress (Farrow).

Barbara Hershey in "Hannah and Her Sisters"

Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”

A well-deserved audience and awards favourite, the intelligent script makes its first success with its precise analysis of Farrow’s Hannah, and moves on down through Barbara Hershey’s confused adulterer, Dianne Wiest’s failing addict, Maureen O’Sullivan’s alcoholic fading actress, and Michael Caine – somehow – as a discontented milquetoast. The Purple Rose of Cairo embodied Allen as an escapist, and the impending September and Radio Days are evidence of his directorial experimentation and nostalgic hilarity, respectively. What we have here is the spiritual descendant of Manhattan, a sprawling tale of human sin and erudition, which – in the spirit of Allen’s own philosophy – refuses to ever talk down to its audience or, indeed, let them stop thinking for even a moment. In some ways, the diminishing returns of Allen’s ’90s output could be labelled endless reflections on this family, in all its varied glory. 5 stars.

with Allen, Sam Waterston, Lloyd Nolan, Max Von Sydow, Carrie Fisher, Joanna Gleason, Fred Melamed, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christian Clemenson, J.T. Walsh, John Turturro and Daniel Stern

Academy Award wins: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Film Editing

Next week: Allen’s greatest run of movies continues, from Radio Days and Husbands and Wives, to the unsung joys of Another Woman and Manhattan Murder Mystery.


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