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The Woody Allen reviews: 1987 – 1993

Posted by therebelprince on November 22, 2013

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

18. September (1987)

A group of friends and family spend the summer together in the home of a world-weary matriarch (Elaine Stritch) and her depressed daughter (Mia Farrow).

Allen’s Chekhovian experiment places six actors in a single location, and shoots almost like a play. Not highly regarded among the establishment, September is by no means a great work, at is strongest when analysing Stritch and Dianne Wiest’s unsatisfied and guilty wife, but at its weakest with a rather useless satellite character played by Denholm Elliott, and – surprisingly – Farrow, who gives perhaps her only uninteresting performance in an Allen film. (For those playing along at home, Allen was really cranking out films at an alarming rate – this film was shot very quickly, and then shot again when Allen disliked the first version!) Yet in its own way, September is as immersive as one of the director’s period pieces, revelling in the contradictions of each individual human being through a series of intimate scenes until we’re as familiar with them as they are with each other. It’s a lovely experiment that manages to find a different approach to Allen’s trademark themes, and further cements his directorial prowess… but probably for Allen die-hards only. 3.5 stars.

with Sam Waterston, Jack Warden and Rosemary Murphy

19. Radio Days (1987)

Through the eyes of a Jewish-American family in Queens, tales are told of the Golden era of radio.

A simply sublime compendium of tales, drawn from Allen’s childhood and celebrity tales of the era. There’s little in the way of plot, but there doesn’t need to be. This is a bravura experiment in nostalgia that both romanticises and deflects. Farrow has great fun as a downtrodden waitress and would-be singer, with notable performances by Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker as the young Allen (Seth Green!)’s parents, and – unsurprisingly at this point – Wiest as his social-climbing aunt. Assembling a band of regulars (Keaton, Shawn, Roberts) and innumerable others in fleeting cameos, the writer-director weaves together vignettes covering everything from adolescent lust to the vagaries of fame and fortune, all filtered through the eyes of a Greek chorus of young boys. A straightforward but constantly unpredictable gem. 5 stars.

Gena Rowlands in "Another Woman"

Gena Rowlands in “Another Woman”

with Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Larry David, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Judith Malina, Kenneth Mars, Josh Mostel, and Don Pardo

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Direction

20. Another Woman (1988)

After overhearing a stranger’s psychiatric analysis, a philosophy professor (Gena Rowlands) is awakened to make a personal change.

Yet another film about an upper-middle-class intellectual tormented by a lack of fulfillment, you may well ask? You may be right, but I’ll defend this one to the hilt. Allen’s Bergmanesque exploration of Marion Post is amplified considerably by Rowlands’ staggering performance. Maybe it’s purely personal, but I connect with this film to the point where it haunts me. Ian Holm, as her deceptive husband, and Betty Buckley as an old friend who unleashes a scathing truth, particularly stand out, but the film also boasts intelligent performances from Gene Hackman, Frances Conroy, John Houseman and Martha Plimpton, among others. (Despite being on the poster, Mia Farrow makes only a small, if important, appearance in the final reels.) This heartache has been felt previously, in the scripts for September and Interiors, but those films were the works of a director, which made them thrillingly cohesive projects but always one step removed. Another Woman puts Allen’s screenwriter chops first and foremost, and that makes all the difference. Far more successful than Allen’s next single-character work, Alice, Another Woman is a thrilling match of writer, director, and performer. 4.5 stars.

with Sandy Dennis, Philip Bosco, Blythe Danner, David Ogden Stiers and Harris Yulin

21. New York Stories: “Oedipus Wrecks” (1989)

A henpecked lawyer (Allen) is stunned when his mother (Mae Questel) disappears during a magic act, soon becoming an omniscient presence in the skies.

Three short films by notable directors, placed together really only on the merit of all being set in New York. Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” is an intelligently funny little piece on how adulthood deflates our dreams, while Francis Ford Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe” is – dare I say it – terrible. Thankfully, Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” is out-and-out hilarity. Allen’s persona fits perfectly with Questel’s shrieking presence, and the condensed length calls to mind what his early ’70s films could’ve been with two-thirds the running time. It’s a straightforward narrative that could easily have slotted in to one of the director’s vignette films. Instead, Allen gets to up his shtick (this is the most purely jokey Allen work we’ve had in a long time) without the threat of a lengthy running time to bolster. Delicious. “Oedipus Wrecks”: 4.5 stars.

with Farrow and Julie Kavner

Mae Questel in "Oedipus Wrecks"

Mae Questel in “Oedipus Wrecks”

22. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

A respected doctor (Martin Landau) decides to have his mistress (Anjelica Houston) killed after she threatens to destroy his reputation and lifestyle. Elsewhere, a small-time filmmaker (Allen) begins to have adulterous thoughts for his producer (Farrow).

A revelation, even coming after the brilliant duo of Radio Days and Another Woman. This film is positively existential, openly modeled after a Russian novel, gradually searing into the psyche of every character in the film – and, by extension, all of society. It’s fair to say that – rarely for an Allen film – the women are given the shaft here. As the lead characters’ wives, theatre luminaries Claire Bloom and Joanna Gleason are given little with which to make an impression, while Houston is stuck in an annoyingly one-note character and even Farrow, despite a sweet performance, has to make most of her big decisions off-screen. Yet that’s because those characters are all in service to the central men. Landau dominates the “A-Plot” in a truly fearless performance as a perfectly evil yet perfectly normal man, but Allen also shines, and he’s ably assisted by Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston – as the devil and angel, respectively, on Landau’s shoulders – and Alan Alda, playing the most self-absorbed character this side of Norma Desmond. While analogies-as-scripts often leave a slightly sour taste (merely due to that forced remove), the most powerful are those that act on more than one level. Crimes and Misdemeanors is very much a tale of how we live with evil and our sins. Yet it’s also a grounded character piece about a comic everyman and a tragic one (a proto-Melinda and Melinda?) who fall prey to their basest urges. (Plus, it features the line “a strange man defecated on my sister”, so who can complain?) It will leave you shaken, and that’s a good thing. 5 stars.

with Stephanie Roth, Frances Conroy and Caroline Aaron

Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Landau)

23. Alice (1990)

A wealthy woman (Farrow) begins to analyse her own life after a series of visits to a seemingly magical Chinese herbalist (Keye Luke).

I’m not from Allen’s social set, however I do share many of their cultural interests and viewpoints. As a result, I can only try to imagine what it’s like for someone with no experience of the intelligentsia to appreciate the problems in his films: they seem so unimportant compared to the problems most of the world struggles with, surely! For me, Allen’s skill in structuring light and shade, combined with his enviable cast of performers and locales, has always created a believable world that exposes the viewer to those high concepts while also comfortably deflating them on occasion. Yet, Alice is one of those times when I just can’t get attached. This woman’s daily life is so cushy, and Farrow’s performance too distant, her existential quandary feels foggy and deluded. There’s a lot of magic here (deliberately), as Alice takes various potions to reinvigorate her life, and the director crafts the fantasy sequences with aplomb. It’s no surprise that this movie is seen as Farrow’s equivalent of Keaton’s Annie Hall. Yet, it’s really not. The film drags, the magic never quite sticks, Luke’s character is arguably a racist amalgam, and Alice is never a character in the same way Annie was. Maybe this is just because of Farrow’s choice to play her so emotionally cold, but – for an actress who gave us Cecilia, Sally White, and Tina Vitale – I’m inclined to lay my blame on the man at the top. 2 stars.

with Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Holland Taylor, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, June Squibb, Cybill Shepherd, Gwen Verdon, Patrick O’Neal, Bob Balaban,Caroline Aaron and Bernadette Peters

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay

–. Scenes from a Mall (1991)

written by Roger L. Simon, directed by Paul Mazursky

A married couple (Allen, Bette Midler) fall apart, reconcile, and fall apart again over one tumultuous day.

Allen and Mia Farrow in "Shadows and Fog"

Allen and Mia Farrow in “Shadows and Fog”

One would think a film that deliberately casts Allen and Midler at the height of their careers, directed by Paul “Enemies, A Love Story” Mazursky, and set over one farcical day in a restricted location would be cause for comedy gold. One would, unfortunately, be wrong. Better reviewers than I have outlined the massive problems with this film but a few notables: the stunning miscasting of Allen as a mullet-wearing, surfboard-toting goy, the lifeless screenplay that sets up two believable characters and then fails to make their subsequent actions either true-to-life or hilarious, the increasingly bored direction. It’s just, in general, a waste. I’m giving it one whole star only because the three of them are all at least talented and on the set at the same time as one another, which at least beats 1967’s Casino Royale1 star.

with Bill Irwin

24. Shadows and Fog (1991)

In a surreal, 1920s world, an unpopular man (Allen) is shanghaied into pursuing a vigilante with the aid of a down-on-her-luck circus artiste (Farrow), but no-one is willing to let him in on the plan…

Allen does Kafka. Or does Kafka do Allen? Featuring stunning cinematography from Carlos Di Palma, this is yet another Allen film which – analysed scene by scene – is exquisitely directed. Every black-and-white frame breathes with chiaroscuro, and the deliberately studio-bound set (reportedly the largest single set ever built at the time) creates a wonderful, antique-movie feel. The film alternates from hilarious to touching to spooky to deliberately nihilistic, and hits every note. The problem is that it hits all these notes independently of one another, never quite creating a unified score. Perhaps this is for the best: after all, following through on the lives of the characters would have taken us away from the more Brechtian elements, while creating 90 minutes of solid Kafka without any trace of humanity would’ve been arduous. Indeed, while Allen clearly enjoys creating this world in which the protagonist must follow a plan no one will tell him about, it’s the human scenes that work best. Assembling a cast of luminaries in tiny roles, the director shoots naturalistic conversations inside the rooms of this dollhouse world, my personal favourite being the whorehouse run by the earthy Lily Tomlin and featuring Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates amongst its plain-speaking denizens. Still, the film plays nicely to the strengths of Allen and Farrow, with delightful turns from John Malkovich as an existential clown, Lily Tomlin as an earthy prostitute, Daniel Von Bargen as a determined investigator, and John Cusack as a lovelorn student, alongside shining cameos from Julie Kavner, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Fred Gwynne, Madonna (!) and others. Shadows and Fog may not be more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are thoroughly worthwhile. 3.5 stars.

with Philip Bosco, Michael Kirby, Kenneth Mars, Kate Nelligan, Donald Pleasance, James Rebhorn, Wallace Shawn, Kurtwood Smith, Josef Sommer, David Ogden Stiers and Charles Cragin

25. Husbands and Wives (1992)

When a seemingly happy married couple (Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack) separate, their actions force them to question love at a certain age – while the separation has a devastating impact on their closest married friends (Allen, Farrow).

Behind the scenes, this is the tumultuous end to Farrow and Allen’s 13-year (and 13-film) relationship, released at exactly the right (or wrong) time as their real-life marriage imploded under similar, outrageous circumstances. On camera, two decades later, Husbands and Wives remains one of Allen’s out-and-out successes, brilliantly excoriating its four characters and taking us on a fascinating ride through their self-delusions and greatest fears. Pollack comes out best, as his new relationship with a young woman of normal intelligence (Lysette Anthony) excites one part of his brain at the expense of the other, while Davis and Farrow wring every drop of life out of what could be a standard-issue Allen plot: falling for the same man (Liam Neeson). Allen doesn’t seem anywhere near as invigorated onscreen as he would be in the following year’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but that’s neither here nor there. The documentary format could be accused of screenwriting laziness; allowing your characters to tell their feelings directly to the camera takes a lot of pressure off the man at the typewriter. And while that has been true on many occasions, here it is just as justified as in the great Allen mockumentaries of yesteryear. Is anything more heartbreaking than that final sequence of interviews, as Davis and Pollack attempt to convince themselves of their own happiness? 5 stars.

with Juliette Lewis, Ron Rifkin, Blythe Danner and Cristi Conaway

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

26. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

A trio of bored Manhattanites (Allen, Keaton, Alda) investigate the suspicious death of their elderly neighbour.

Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Houston, Woody Allen: Manhattan Murder Mystery

Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Houston, Woody Allen: Manhattan Murder Mystery

If one wanted to find a fault, coming on the heels of Husbands and Wives, this film marks the beginning of Allen’s nostalgia phase, where almost every film seems like a conscious retread of themes, characters, or even wholesale scripts. Yet, this is another grand picture, elevated by the ease of the four lead performers (after the Farrow scandal, Allen wisely cocooned himself with friends and respected colleagues, including Anjelica Houston). Keaton’s presence clearly revitalises Allen as a performer, and the neurotic/affectionate/disheartened/deflating complexity of their relationship allows us to spend much of the movie wondering whether the conspiracy theories are completely wrong or completely right. Compared to some of the heights of the ’80s, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a surface-level potboiler, yet it is also effortlessly enjoyable, with a script that is light, bubbly, wise, and great fun. 4.5 stars.

with Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen, Marge Redmond, Ron Rifkin, Zach Braff and Melanie Norris

Next week: Allen’s career enters rollercoaster mode, from period elegance to public disgrace.

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