The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Woody Allen reviews: 1994 – 2000

Posted by therebelprince on November 29, 2013

Kenneth Branagh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gretchen Mol, Adrian Grenier: "Celebrity"

Kenneth Branagh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gretchen Mol, Adrian Grenier: “Celebrity”

The fourth 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.

27. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

An idealistic 1920s playwright (John Cusack) gets in over his head when his breakthrough play involves an alcoholic seductress (Dianne Wiest), a mafia henchman (Chazz Palminteri) with designs on the script, and a star who is talent-free but connected (Jennifer Tilly).

Thoroughly entertaining, Bullets Over Broadway continues the director’s run of classics. Cusack is well-cast in the central role which, although far less complex than most of Allen’s leads, allows a centre in which to ground all the wackiness. (The triptych of Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, and Sean Penn in the three lead male non-Allen roles of the ’90s is a bizarre range indeed!)  Tilly and Palminteri provide delightfully committed performances, ably backed by Tracey Ullman, Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, Harvey Fierstein, and Jim Broadbent. It’s Wiest who steals the spotlight however (just like her demanding character) in a high-octane performance that Allen apparently originally intended for Mia Farrow(!). Very funny and invigorating, the film may suggest itself as another analysis of artists making art, but really that’s a side-plot. (The scene at the end where Fierstein, Cusack, Stacy Nelkin and Mary-Louise Parker argue the politics of art and sex is delightfully anachronistic compared to the film’s otherwise escapist approach to history.) Many of the characters are quite one-dimensional (Ullman has a dog and makes crass jokes, Broadbent likes eating in every situation) so this is no Manhattan. Instead, it’s just very, very entertaining. 4.5 stars.

with Joe Viterelli, Edie Falco, Tony Darrow, Debi Mazar and Tony Sirico

Academy Award win: Dianne Wiest (Best Supporting Actress)

Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Tilly), Best Supporting Actor (Chazz Palminteri), Best Director, Best Art Directino/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design (Jeffrey Kurland)

28. Don’t Drink the Water (1994)

A New Jersey family (Allen, Julie Kavner, Mayim Bialik) cause an international incident while vacationing in Europe, to the despair of the interim American ambassador (Michael J. Fox).

Adapted from Allen’s 1966 play, Don’t Drink the Water is an amusingly written film that would undoubtedly play better as a light night out at the theatre. The basic concept is standard Allen material: an aggressively mundane family at the centre of a high-stakes situation they seem completely unconcerned about, and the farce is kept at a decent pace (although Austin Pendleton has to work incredibly hard to make his one-note character keep ringing different bells; again, this would play far better at the theatre). Kavner and Bialik give assured performances, ably backed up by Dom DeLuise as a priest-cum-magician (who’s not particularly good at either), however ultimately it’s quite a flaccid affair. Filmed for television in a short space of time, the film looks and feels like it, with Allen directing at his most passive. It’s an interesting curio for fans, but ultimately just what you’d expect of a 1994 TV movie: forgettable. 2.5 stars.

with Edward Herrmann, Vit Horejs, Rosemary Murphy, Robert Stanton and Josef Sommer

Mighty Aphrodite29. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

A sportswriter (Allen) tracks down his adopted son’s birth mother, and is stunned to learn she is a prostitute and porn star (Mira Sorvino).

Coming after an intense run of classics and directorial gems basically unchallenged since 1983’s Zelig, this is a comparatively lightweight movie that draws far simpler performances from its supporting cast but remains satisfying. Allen’s presence has grown a bit stale (indeed, excepting Antz, I’m not hugely fussed on any of his performances until 2003’s Anything Else) but underneath the situation comedy, his character of Lenny is the centre of a touching character piece. Helena Bonham Carter makes the most of her role as Lenny’s ice-cold wife, and F. Murray Abraham has great fun at the head of the film’s delightful Greek Chorus narrating the film’s events from an iconic remove (which also consists of David Ogden Stiers, Jack Warden and Olympia Dukakis!) – gags that work better perhaps for drama school grads than your average punter, but are enjoyable nonetheless (even if one could argue they’re one of many Allen “gimmicks” in his ’90s films). Mighty Aphrodite is anchored by Sorvino’s clever, sympathetic portrayal, turning a thoroughly un-Allen character into something funny, broad, hopelessly obtuse… yet also precisely drawn at the same time. The script neatly sidesteps some of the expected plot twists by introducing Michael Rapaport’s Kevin at the start of the third act, and continues to appeal from there on out. 4 stars.

with Peter Weller, Claire Bloom, Danielle Ferland, Pamela Blair, Paul Giamatti, George de la Pena and Tony Sirico

Academy Award win: Mira Sorvino (Best Supporting Actress)

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay

30. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn in "Everyone Says I Love You"

Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn in “Everyone Says I Love You”

The emotions of an upper-class family in Manhattan are followed in song from New York to Paris and Venice.

Unsurprisingly, Woody Allen’s decision to create a romantic musical among the upper-crust is full of blissful performances and unexpected laughs. After Allen and Farrow parted ways, the director has enthusiastically returned to lightness and laughs. The characters here are as broad and goofy as the supporting players of Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Mighty Aphrodite; what makes them sing (pardon the pun) is that they’re walking around in a self-conscious Hollywood fantasy. Goldie Hawn and Alan Alda are perfectly cast as the bleeding-heart couple at the centre of this extended family, with amiable turns from Drew Barrymore, Natasha Lyonne, and Tim Roth. The old-time standards – deliberately performed by actors with average singing ability – come naturally to Allen, allowing him to strike a neat balance between the magical and the everyday. While the direction is light and smart, the screenplay is unfortunately bursting at the seams (a problem that will recur in the next couple of Allen films). Characters come and go too quickly, with some (Edward Norton, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman) making the most of their moments, but others (Billy Crudup, David Ogden Stiers, Julia Roberts) under-utilised in their limited time on screen. Roberts is perhaps the greatest failure here as – unlike Mira Sorvino or Elisabeth Shue in the movies before and after this one – she’s given absolutely zero motivation for a sudden, seemingly sane interest in Allen. Still, this is not a movie that needs deep analysis (even if the characters do); it’s exactly what it looks like. A delightful confection, but a confection nonetheless. 3.5 stars.

with Gaby Hoffmann, Robert Knepper, Edward Hibbert and Patrick Cranshaw 

31. Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Deconstructing HarryOn his way to receive an honorary degree, a successful writer (Allen) recalls how his habit of taking inspiration from family and friends has come back to haunt him.

A strange beast of a film, the – shall we say – deconstructed style of Deconstructing Harry has its ups, its downs, and its in-betweens. As Harry Block, Allen gives an uninspiring-but-satisfactory performance, although the overly-obvious surname of his character is just one of many blunt moments in this underwritten film. This film’s “gimmick” is nice and complex, with scenes shuffling between present, past, and fictionalised versions of both, allowing Allen to return to a slightly earlier style of filmmaking, less fluid and more revue-like. The endless cosmos of Allen’s mind sometimes seems like the Encyclopedia, or one of those Enquire Within Upon Everything books. He has stories to tell that encompass everything from high philosophy to the bodily care of prostitutes, so this style of film works for him. Some of the cast get thankless roles – Elisabeth Shue is left to fawn over Allen scene after scene, and Kirstie Alley is reduced to little more than a shrieking banshee – but others have a lot of fun. Highlights include Tobey Maguire as a younger, fictional Allen, Demi Moore as a psychiatrist who begins to obsess over her Jewishness, Robin Williams in a short skit about an actor perpetually out of focus, and Hazelle Goodman in a scene-stealing role as Allen’s latest hooker, with other notable performances by Stanley Tucci, Caroline Aaron and Shifra Lerer. Disappointingly, Deconstructing Harry represents the nadir of Allen’s attempts to show the workings of an artist as, despite everyone telling us how brilliant Harry is, his works all seem cartoonish, his humdrum existence calling into question how the guy obtained so many fervently passionate wives and ex-girlfriends. It’s a film I find tough to rate, as my initial disdain has passed – although I still find the concept never quite hits that home run it’s looking for – but the individual scenes ultimately provide a great deal of amusement. 3 stars.

with Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Jennifer Garner, Paul Giamatti, Viola Harris, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Eric Lloyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Billy Crystal

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay

32. Celebrity (1998)

A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) sinks into the muck of the celebrity world after a divorce, while his ex-wife (Judy Davis) searches for new meaning in the world of television.

I’ll be honest: I do not know how to rate this movie, except to give it two reviews.

i) Looking gorgeous in a soft, mottled black-and-white, Allen’s modern-day retelling of La Dolce Vita isn’t so much a narrative as a series of episodes that happen to the same characters. There’s a lot of amusing dialogue (my favourite might be the director preparing for an all-black version of The Birth of a Nation) which – separated from the need for continuity or sequential logic – manages to make the film’s two hours feel quite pacy. In possibly Allen’s most staggering cast, highlights include Kate Burton, Bebe Neuwirth, Charlize Theron, Winona Ryder, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who positively steals the movie as a coked-up Hollywood up-and-comer, playing the role with a degree of parody one step below “knowing”, elevating his work above some of the performances which – despite being adequate – feel like famous actors doing their four days on set and collecting a paycheck. Celebrity is not a satire on movie-making (indeed, actual movie-making is restricted to the opening and closing scenes) but on the surrounding social wasteland. In this regard, the endless parade of faces seems

Charlize Theron in "Celebrity"

Charlize Theron in “Celebrity”

entirely fitting, and – even if the script sometimes feels like a treasure trove of funny lines Allen couldn’t find a home for – the black-and-white feels as earned for this soulless world as it did for the phantasms of Shadows and Fog.

ii) What is this movie? Allen’s confused script is never quite sure. What sets out to be a satire never goes far enough: Davis’ character rises to middling success, but ultimately gets what she wants without losing her soul. Branagh, meanwhile, ostensibly “falls”, but his original position was fairly uninteresting, and the choice to create the film as a series of vignettes leaves the lead characters’ alternating positions as barely readable amongst all the sound and fury. Beyond this, the lead performances further obfuscate whatever Allen was trying to do here. Davis is convincing in her early hysteria, and quite funny in her stilted attempts at stardom, but she feels somehow… miscast. There’s not enough comedy mined from the character, or perhaps it’s just that the few moments her storyline becomes quite pointedly critical – take, for instance, the famous scene where she takes fellatio lessons from Bebe Neuwirth’s hooker – don’t mesh with her essential goodness. (And why Joe Mantegna’s character stays with her is never quite explained.) Elsewhere, Branagh gives a performance I happen to enjoy, but it is literally an impersonation of Allen’s comic persona. This isn’t a bad thing (and he’s far from the only one), since Branagh is a far more likely target to be sexually molested by Theron and Melanie Griffith. However, I don’t quite get it. Is this supposed to be a Love and Death situation, where Branagh is a socially awkward man-child thrust into the big-boy world? If so, the direction never takes his performance far enough. Or is he supposed to be a real character brought down by the system? If so, why the performance at all? At their best, the cameos are scintillating. However, for most of the film’s running time, this feels like the watered-down version of a far greater satire that exists only in the director’s mind. What a shame.

Combining these two reviews, I’m left to think this: it’s a film that I’ll happily watch every now and then, getting a kick out of the many stinging barbs and charming performances. Yet it’s also a film I watch with a painful sense of what might have been. Removing some of the extraneous guff might have allowed some true sense of satire to emerge. If this is supposed to be a nightmarish A Star is Born, a narrative would have been good. Instead, Allen opted for the vignette approach, but failed to find both the necessary sharpness in Davis’ storyline and the requisite bleakness in Branagh’s. An enigma. an uncertain 2 stars.

with Famke Janssen, Debra Messing, Jeffrey Wright, Tony Sirico, Aida Turturro, Hank Azaria, JK Simmons, Dylan Baker, Celia Weston, Gerry Becker, Donald Trump, Tony Darrow, Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Lerner and Allison Janney

–. Antz (1998)

written by Paul and Chris Weitz and Todd Alcott, directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson

In an ant colony in New York City, an individualistic worker ant (Allen) attempts to find a way to truly express himself in his totalitarian society. 


A thoroughly enjoyable experience, with a darkness of tone that contrasts nicely with the very funny, individual performances of the talented voice cast. Z’s philosophical dilemma is maturely dealt with; indeed it’s strange to hear Allen’s persona so openly used in a kid’s movie! The animation is good for 1998, but 15 years on it resembles an old computer game more than anything. From a technical standpoint, this film is hardly a rival to that year’s other bug movie, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, and I’d have to assume that children these days wouldn’t be so absorbed by it. But to me, Antz remains a well-paced 90 minutes, with an excessively talented cast from the days when regular Hollywood actors were cast regardless of any specific voice proficiency, and a high quirk factor. 3 stars.

with Sharon Stone, Jennifer Lopez, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Anne Bancroft, John Mahoney, Paul Mazursky and Jane Curtin

33. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

A womanising, shambolic guitar player (Sean Penn) in the 1930s begins a relationship with a mute woman (Samantha Morton), which is tested by the wonders of the age, and by his ambitions.

Samantha Morton in "Sweet and Lowdown"

Samantha Morton in “Sweet and Lowdown”

What a film! By removing himself from the proceedings (except as a talking head), Allen focuses on one of his great loves – jazz – and a thoroughly different approach to artists and their art. Emmet Ray (Penn) is unlike any other character in Allen’s canon: dense, complicated-yet-mostly-unanalysed, and talented in a genuine way, not the “tell, don’t show” approach necessitated by the gallery of writers and thinkers we’ve seen up to now. Zhao Fei’s cinematography continues Allen’s perfect success record when it comes to period films, and its intriguing melange of biography and mythology manages to maintain its surprises throughout the film’s running time. While the supporting characters are crammed in to the script as expected by this point (in acting circles, doing an Allen movie in the ’90s was a standard way to do two weeks’ work and earn a quick paycheck between TV and film gigs), they fill up a complex world that is yet another notch in Allen’s impressive period-film belt. Anchoring Sweet and Lowdown are three exquisite performances. Samantha Morton deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her entirely mute role, conveying the gamut of emotions while remaining ambiguous and never once over-obvious. Uma Thurman is a delight as an over-intellectual socialite who comes between the couple, but fails to grasp anything close to reality. And Penn is simply revelatory, completely disappearing into this character, part-genius and part-boor. Just lovely. 4.5 stars.

with Brian Markinson, Anthony LaPaglia, Brad Garrett, John Waters, Molly Price, James Urbaniak, Tony Darrow, Ben Duncan, Nat Hentoff, Douglas McGrath and Gretchen Mol

Academy Award nominations – Sean Penn (Best Actor), Samantha Morton (Best Supporting Actress)

–. Picking up the Pieces (2000)

written by Bill Wilson, directed by Alfonso Arau

After killing his unfaithful wife, a butcher (Allen) struggles to cover up the crime when her dismembered hand is discovered and proves to have mysterious powers.

I really don’t know what this is. As the synopsis may imply, this is a very strange film, even by Allen’s standards. It’s weird to see him speaking someone else’s lines, particularly in a film that – even with a rather blatant closing monologue – doesn’t quite have a purpose. The script veers from outright farce to existential angst by way of some weird ethical quandaries (Allen’s character – despite having sawed his wife in half and generally being a dick – seems to be the hero). The cast have a lot of fun, although they’re on various pages. Allen and David Schwimmer – as the priest at the centre of the fiasco – come out best, giving real but comic performances. Maria Grazia Cucinotta and Kiefer Sutherland veer much further over the top, but ultimately become enjoyable anchors of the plot. Less successful are the cartoonish elements thrown in by Andy Dick, Cheech Marin and Fran Drescher. It’s all over the place, unfortunately. Picking Up the Pieces earns a few points for it’s lovely look and obvious ambition, but… this is just very strange. 2 stars.

with Elliott Gould, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sharon Stone and Eddie Griffin

Next week: Allen hits some critical lows, before bouncing back across the Atlantic.


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