Crimes and Misdemeanors

August 22, 2012

Just what kind of contract does Woody Allen have, anyway? The Woodman, one of our most talented and thoughtful directors, seems to be able to do exactly as he pleases–without regard to box-office viability–even though he hasn’t had a big commercial hit in years.

And Allen’s films seem to get smaller, more intimate, as he goes on. September and Another Woman were chamber dramas, while his hilarious segment in New York Stories was, of course, just a short. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen shows no sign of raising his sights. The issues are large in terms of ethics and philosophy, small in terms of story.

The film follows two stories, linked only intermittently. The larger of the two is about an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) whose lover (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom). The lover becomes crazy enough that the doctor considers having her done away with.

The other story is about a documentary filmmaker (Allen) who gets hired to shoot a self-serving portrait of his big shot brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an unctuous TV mogul. The film doesn’t turn out so well—Allen cuts in shots of Mussolini during Alda’s speeches—but Allen does meet an attractive producer (Mia Farrow) during filming.

This side of Crimes and Misdemeanors contains the film’s laughs, which are prime Allen (he remembers to the day when his wife stopped having sex with him; it was April 20, Hitler’s birthday). As they weave together, the two different stories examine the various moral choices people make, from the major to the minor.

It is all interesting enough, and many of the funny moments are superb. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Allen is repeating himself in many of the movie’s situations; the courtship of the Mia Farrow character is familiar enough to be stock. And there are conversations that continue the overdone tendencies of his last few films, in which characters spell things out in labored theoretical terms. Does Allen know people who talk like this, or do these discussions take place in his head?

Still, there is Allen’s scrupulous visual sense (with help from cinematographer Sven Nykvist), and a lovely unforced performance by Martin Landau, fresh from his supporting Oscar nomination for Tucker. Landau nicely captures the turmoil of a man living in two worlds, trying to figure out the difference between a crime and a sin.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1989

Always meant to watch this movie again, but haven’t had a chance in the last 23 years. 23 years? Jesus. In any case, it’s highly regarded by many Allen fans, and it’s one of the films to bring his streak of misogyny to the surface.


New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.


Another Woman

December 7, 2011

Yes, the latest Woody Allen movie is one of his serious outings. No, it’s not as pregnant with (to use on old Allenism) heaviosity as Woody’s previous film, September. In fact, the new one, Another Woman, goes a long way toward erasing the memory of the studied, constricted seriousness of September.

Another Woman is narrated by its main character, a historian, Marion (Gena Rowlands), who is on sabbatical from her teaching position to write a new book. She takes a writing office in downtown Manhattan, which happens to be next door to a psychiatrist’s office. As the walls are thin, she can overhear voices, and one afternoon she begins to listen to the story of a profoundly unhappy woman (Mia Farrow).

This causes Marion to reflect on her own life, which, the more she examines it, turns out to be rife with disappointment. This is a fascinating, and as it turns out, quite beautiful narrative device; at one point Marion actually runs into the unhappy patient and buys her supper, which leads to an important discovery. And, throughout, Marion’s narration on the soundtrack is like her own voice coming from the analyst’s couch, available for us to overhear.

Allen skips around in time, to show us Marion’s life as a promising child, her affair as a college student with a professor (Philip Bosco), a chance encounter with an old friend (Sandy Dennis) who brings up some unpleasant memories, and even into a fantasy sequence in which Marion plays scenes from her life on a stage.

At the center of her ruminations is her affair with a writer (Gene Hackman), which happened just before she entered into marriage with a detached and emotionally arid man (Ian Holm). The Hackman character represents the one great regret of her past, a promise of a life richer than the one she is living now. (He is in only three or four scenes, else Gene Hackman’s superb, heartbreaking performance would be an Oscar winner.)

Except for Hackman, and Holm’s teenage daughter, played by Martha Plimpton, the characters in Another Woman wander through an emotional desert, emphasized by the sameness of Santo Loquasto’s production design; everything is in dry shades of beige and khaki.

The film was photographed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and Allen has been accused of borrowing some of his ambitions and themes from Bergman’s films. In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffman actually called it plagiarism. That’s a bit much, but I do think that Another Woman is a bit shy (at less than 90 minutes) on background and detail; Allen asks us to accept a lot of faith. He frequently has his characters tell us his themes, rather than letting them emerge through action and behavior.

But no other American director is making movies quite like Woody Allen’s these days, movies that are deliberately about the way intelligent, thinking people talk and act, about the way they find each other and betray each other and love each other. Another Woman is not his best, but it has moments that are as tender as anything seen this year.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1988

Another draft of this and Allen might have had an absolute gem instead of a very good picture. There are a handful of Woodys that are flawed but good enough to bear repeat viewing, which provide an opportunity to say: this is why Allen is a good director, and this is how he falls short of the next rung. Another Woman is one of those.


Radio Days

May 27, 2011

With the opening scene of Radio Days, Woody Allen sets the comic-nostalgic tone that permeates his newest film. The narrator’s voice begins a “Once Upon a Time” story about two bumbling burglars ransacking a darkened home. Suddenly, the phone rings, and the dimwitted thieves decide to answer it.

Cut to the source of the call: a live radio broadcast of “Name That Tune,” where the announcer breathlessly informs the “homeowner” that he will win big prizes if he can identify some songs. Which, with amusingly misplaced intensity, the burglar promptly does (“Uh—lemme think—”Dancing in the Dark’?” “You’re absolutely right!”).

This sharp comic idea is capped by the real homeowners awakening the next morning to the sight of a truckload’s worth of unexpected gifts being dropped on their doorstep.

Throughout the film, Allen, who narrates, but does not appear on screen, balances the colorful memories of old radio shows with warm family comedy. It’s all set in the late 1930s-early 1940s (ending on a bittersweet New Year’s Eve, 1943), as Allen recalls his Jewish upbringing—fictionalized, of course—in New York.

Allen’s youthful alter ego, played by the latest in a long line of pint-size Woodman clones, Seth Green, grows up in an off-center household. Against the lived-in jumble of his extended family (the parents are played to perfection by Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law” and Julie Kavner), the boy’s imagination is fired by the magical presence of the radio. Allen’s affectionate voice introduces a string of radio stories, and they weave in and out of the family comedy with seamless grace.

The anecdotal recollections are uncannily accurate take-offs on the radio stories of the time, such as the goofily exaggerated profile of the courageous baseball pitcher who keeps making comebacks despite losing a leg, than an arm(“Luckily, not his pitching arm”), then his sight.

Then there’s the time the little girl in Pennsylvania gets stuck at the bottom of the well, and all the nation holds a vigil as rescue proceedings drag on. That’s exactly the sort of event made special by the particular power of radio.

Elsewhere, radio memories intertwine with personal ones: Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” hoax spoils a promising date for the narrator’s spinster aunt (Dianne Wiest, the third sibling from Hannah and Her Sisters); or the time the socialist neighbor’s radio blaring on a Holy Day sends Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) next door to complain, only to have him return an hour later spouting the party line: “Why should I atone? The only sin is the exploitation of the workers!”

I’m not giving away all the good parts. Rest assured there are many more—this film is a Whitman’s Sampler, stuffed with goodies and songs and gags at every level. For whatever happy reason, Allen continues to mine the warm streak of Hannah and Her Sisters (with the gorgeous work of the same cinematographer, Carlo di Palma), and his backward-looking affection is infectious.

The episodic nature of the film allows a bunch of Allen’s collaborators to step in for small roles—most prominently Mia Farrow, as a cigarette girl who charts a most unusual course to radio stardom. Also popping up: Tony Roberts, Jeff Daniels, Wally Shawn, and even Diane Keaton, contributing a pretty swan song.

On one viewing, Radio Days feels like an advisedly minor film, a polished cameo along the lines of Purple Rose of Cairo, rather than a major Allen opus. But with Allen making at least one movie a year, the occasional minor work can be allowed, and this one is particularly nice to spend time with.

First published in the Herald, January 1987

I grew up listening to nightly broadcasts of vintage radio shows on Seattle’s KVI, so I was a sucker for this movie’s particular feel and focus. Now that almost 25 years have passed since the movie came out, its evocation of that era grows even dimmer than it was in 1987, and perhaps more precious. As I would classify the majority of movies made by Woody Allen since 1987 “minor,” Radio Days is more of a major than I thought it was at the time.


Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.


The Purple Rose of Cairo

May 25, 2011

Ever since he is early, knockabout comedies, Woody Allen has always had a bittersweet streak. It’s a tendency that reached full flower in the romantic glories of Annie Hall and Manhattan, but it was always there.

It remains with Allen, but lately the sweet has been dominating the bitter. Woody’s latest films, particularly Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, have been sweet-souled, whimsical little movies, full of charm and small-scale humor. They’ve also seemed just a bit insubstantial, even if they may be every bit as well-made as his earlier high points.

This newest, The Purple Rose of Cairo, continues in this vein. It’s a slim, utterly likable fantasy about an unhappy New Jersey housewife (Mia Farrow) whose solace in life is disappearing into the movie theater and losing herself in the flicker on screen. One day, however, the screen looks back at her—when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), an archeologist-adventurer-poet character in a silly comedy called The Purple Rose of Cairo turns to her and asks her why she’s seen the movie five times.

Naturally, the housewife (not to mention the rest of the audience) is disconcerted—but she’s even more surprised when the character steps out of the screen and rushes her out of the theater. You see, he has fallen in love with her, and he wants to get a taste of real life.

The farce builds nicely: The other characters in the Purple Rose movie sit around and worry about how to finish the film, while filmgoers are disgruntled by the lack of plot. The owner of the theater calls the studio head, who contacts the actor who played Baxter (also played by Jeff Daniels, natch) to fly out and find his imaginary alter ego.

Meanwhile, Baxter, clad in pith helmet and khaki knickers, is learning that real life is a tougher row to hoe than happily ever-after film existence, while the housewife starts to believe maybe she doesn’t need her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) to get along in life.

What a terrific idea for a movie—something of a variant on Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist enters a film and becomes a new character. Allen’s approach eschews slapstick and big laughs; he emphasizes Farrow’s wan love of movies, and Daniels’ energetic work (he was Debra Winger’s husband in Terms of Endearment) as the innocent Baxter and the fatuous actor who plays him.

Some of the choicest bits come courtesy of the fictional Purple Rose cast: Edward Herrmann, John Wood, and Deborah Rush do versions of Noel Coward, Edward Everett Horton, and Jean Harlow, respectively, and they exist in a beautifully realized recreation of an early 1930s black-and-white comedy, in which all the scenes are obliged to begin with one character jauntily bounding over to the cocktail table and piping, “Who’ll have an eye-opener?”

At 82 minutes, The Purple Rose of Cairo—the first of Allen’s films since Interiors in which he does not also star—is perhaps too modest for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I wonder what the ending of my review was before someone snipped it off to fit it onto the page? Because the way it stands, it’s too modest for its own good. Oh well. Maybe it fits the smallish accomplishments of this movie, which isn’t vivid enough in my memory to inspire any new insights.


Broadway Danny Rose

May 24, 2011

Woody Allen has sometimes been accused of “playing Woody Allen.” He retains essentially the same character from film to film: the uncomfortably intellectual neurotic with a romantic streak as long as the Brooklyn Bride.

As a criticism of his acting, this gripe doesn’t really hold water. Some great actors—Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, for example, not to mention Allen’s fellow comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—played basically the same characters in most of their films, and they now look like our best actors. It’s difficult, but somehow satisfying to an audience, for an actor to simply be himself on the screen.

That’s pretty much what Allen has done so far, and he’s done it well. In his new movie, Broadway Danny Rose, Allen essays a role that is clearly a “character”: the hyperactive, herky-jerky, small-time talent agent Danny Rose, whose invariably bizarre acts include a one-legged tap dancer and a woman who plays music on half-filled water glasses.

Danny Rose is a funny creation, with his hackneyed patter (a typical conversational gambit is, “Dahling, can I just say one thing?”), his schnooky energy, and his polyester shirts. He also has a touching belief in all his clients, no matter how awful they are—although he draws the line at managing the stuttering ventriloquist.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks: a group of New York stand-up comedians (played by real comics such as Sandy Baron and Corbett Monica) sit around in a diner and reminisce about good old Danny Rose. They tell anecdotes to crack each other up, and then one of them tells the all-time Danny Rose story, which will take up most of the movie.

It’s about the time Danny was managing the comeback of a former boy singer, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who is now well past his prime—if he ever had one. On the day of Lou’s comeback shot, a Milton Berle TV special, Lou’s girlfriend decides she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Poor Lou, devastated, starts hitting the bottle just hours before airtime.

Danny enters the scene to convince the girlfriend—played with almost unrecognizable vivaciousness by Mia Farrow—that she should show up for the special. He pursues her through a wild series of adventures, notably a nearly fatal encounter with her large and hot-blooded Sicilian family, who seem to have watched The Godfather one too many times.

Broadway Danny Rose takes on the style of a screwball comedy at this point, as we see that these two people may be falling for each other in the course of the excitement. The handsome black-and-white photography by Gordon Willis adds to this flavor.

But Allen only rarely conjures up the magic of a great screwball romp. He still may be too uptight as a director to really fly with this kind of material—remember how uneasy he seemed with the sunniness of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy?—and he occasionally slips out of character, speaking philosophical Allenisms that are wiser than Danny Rose’s powers would suggest.

And yet this is a nice movie. Allen has his tone of sweet melancholy very much in evidence, and he appears to be content to go for the low-key chuckle rather than the boffo belly-laugh these days. And that approach is perfectly in keeping with this modest tale of small-time people with big dreams.

First published in the Herald, January 1984

Not sure why I went with the elaborate opening to the review, except it really was striking that Allen was doing a character piece in this one. The movie still holds up pretty well, and Farrow gives one of her best performances (that was the really startling turn, more than Allen’s). The movie’s best touch is the meeting of the Borscht Belt comics telling their stories—those guys crowded the talk shows in the late Sixties and Seventies, bouncing around from Merv Griffin to “Love, American Style.” A fine Allen grace note to gather them here.


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