Montreal Film Journal

THE DIRECTORS SERIES (25)



1969
Take the Money and Run 71
[ This early (pre-"Spinal Tap") entry in the mockumentary genre depicts the sordid life of a spectacularly incompetent career criminal named Virgil. In his directorial debut, Woody Allen machineguns gags at us like there's no tomorrow, but also finds time to give us a taste of that which would drive most of his movies: love, of course. "After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse." ]

1971
bananas 64
[ Allen's Marx brothers phase continues in this satirical farce which pokes fun at everything from the awkwardness of buying porno mags to the violent absurdity of South American dictatorships. There's even an appearance by a pre-fame Sly Stallone as a hoodlum! I love how the gags just keep coming, so that even if one misses there'll be another hit the next minute. ]

1972
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask 40
[ This series of vignettes concerning such vital questions as "what is sodomy?" and "what happens during ejaculation?" is hit and miss, but there are some good bits with Gene Wilder and a sheep, a giant killer tit and Woody as a sperm! ]

1973
Sleeper 65
[ Enter the white-on-black opening titles and the accompanying jazz music. This is one of Woody's most visually arresting films. Set in 2173, "Sleeper" is full of futuristic vehicles, designs, robots... There's also plenty of absurdity (giant banana peels, orgasm machines, etc.), some cutting political satire (2173 America is a police state where dissidents are casually "reprogrammed") and Allen directing the lovably kooky Diane Keaton for the first time. "My name is Rex. Woof. Woof. Woof." ]

1975
Love and Death 89
[ Wow, I thought I had a good grasp of Allen's cinema, but his filmography keeps surprising me. I used to think that all his movies took place in New York and dealt with relationships, yet here's this gorgeously crafted epic set in Russia. Woody's his usual neurotic, wisecracking self and Diane Keaton is adorable and funny as always, but around them there's war, tragedy, duels and Prokofiev music! It's a peculiar blend, but it makes for one of Allen's best movies. ]

1977
Annie Hall 95
[ review ]

1978
Interiors 18
[ Woody does Bergman in this first drama about sisters whose glacial relationships grow even more miserable when they must deal with the separation of their parents. Allen describes it as "real drama of the hardest kind, where conflicts are small... seething and complicated." In other words, 90 endless minutes of women hating each other – and themselves. Wake me up when it's over. ]

1979
Manhattan 85
[ review ]

1980
Stardust Memories 87
[ The artsy-fartsy opening scene is puzzling at first, until you realize it's a set-up for a hilarious reversal scene in which Woody acknowledges those who miss his "early funny ones". The picture that follows has satirical elements, but it's mostly very autobiographical with a touch of whimsy. There's a definite Fellini feel, in tone but also in style (love the B&W photography). And the women are great, as usual: Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper and, especially, Charlotte Rampling. ]

1982
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy 73
[ Written in two weeks and casually shot during the pre-production of "Zelig", this ensemble piece plays lightly around the themes of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", with an added sense of irreverence and sexual forwardness typical of Woody. This film is oddly underrated. Oh, it's not a major work, but it's got pleasant countryside locations, beautiful use of Mendelssohn music and amusing characters: a frigid wife, a slutty nurse, a sleazy doctor, a pompous-ass philosopher, Woody being Woody (but in a flying bicycle!) and Mia Farrow making her first appearance in one of his pictures. ]

1983
Zelig 75
[ Allen's second mockumentary has him starring as a chameleon-like man who puzzles doctors and fascinates the masses through the ‘20s and ‘30s. A brilliant pastiche of old newsreels with a peculiar sense of humor, it's also poignant in an offbeat kind of way. Everyone wants to fit in, right? ]

1984
Broadway Danny Rose 60
[ Another B&W film set in and around New York, a period piece, with Woody playing a former comedian turned talent manager named Danny Rose. Nothing to see here, this is typical Allen fare, right? Well, not quite. Here you got this fat Italian has been crooner, his Mafia moll mistress (an unrecognizable Mia Farrow), even hit men! We're far from the intellectual circles Woody usually chronicles, this is more like something Scorsese or Coppola would do, but played for laughs. It's a pretty oddball flick, not one of Allen's best, but still enjoyable enough. ]

1985
The Purple Rose of Cairo 91
[ Allen does an amazing job here of quickly setting up Mia Farrow's endearing character, then quickly having her leave (sort of) her abusive husband (Danny Aiello) and her thankless waitress job. We're left really wondering what she'll do, especially since the carefully balanced tragicomic tone opens up all kinds of possibilities. It's very much surprising and wonderful how the story goes into all-out fantasy, with Mia's character going to see the same picture over and over until the romantic lead (Jeff Daniels) notices her, steps out of the screen and woos her away! This is one of the most evocative depictions I've seen of the relationship between movies and those who watch them. It's easy to see why the 1930s "champagne comedy" which serves as film-within-the-film would charm Farrow, but we are also charmed by her "reality", which is the film we are losing ourselves into, right? ]

1986
Hannah and Her Sisters 93
[ review ]

1987
Radio Days 63
[ Funny. I slowed down my Woody marathon because I was getting a little tired of his voice, but hearing it again after a coupla weeks off filled me with joy and nostalgia. Which is appropriate, because this is a nostalgia piece about Allen's childhood listening to the radio. The film's anecdotal structure makes for an uneven melody, but it's got a chorus you can hum to and some catchy verses. Mia Farrow, for one, keeps surprising and delighting me. ]

1987
September 67
[ "God! I can't believe my mother!" What is it with women and their mothers? OK, if your mom left your beloved dad or a sleazy gangster who you had to shoot, it's understandable for the relationship to be tense. But still, I don't get why women who clearly can't stand each other don't just stay out of each other's way, even if they're related. Anyway, the film's a pleasant surprise. The boring coldness of "Interiors" made me fear Woody's stabs at drama, but "September" can actually be warm and funny, in a very understated way, mind. You just want to hug Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest, and Elaine Stritch is good too as the self-centered mother. There's something very theatrical about the way the story unfolds, but it ends up unresolved, sad but true. ]

1988
Another Woman 55
[ Gena Rowlands plays a philosophy professor who sublets a one-room apartment to start work on a new book, away from noisy construction around her house, only to find that it's next to a psychiatrist's office and that she's able to hear his sessions. She takes interest in an anguished, very pregnant patient (Mia Farrow), which leads to her questioning her own choices in life. After the staged play-like "September", this is Woody's attempt to do literature on film, with lots of wonderfully written narration, flashbacks, dream sequences... It can get rather dry and pretentious, but it's mostly sad. So sad. ]

1989
Oedipus Wrecks 32
[ I love Woody Allen as much as the next guy, but this short (his contribution to New York Stories) just does not work. It does have an interesting plot. Allen plays Sheldon, a self-conscious, nervous Jewish banker who spends a great deal of time whining about his mother to his shrink, and it's not hard to understand. His mom is an obnoxious, annoying old lady who keeps embarrassing him, telling whoever will listen about his love life and his childhood. For example, she's against him marrying a divorcée with three children (Mia Farrow, who else), and she'll let everyone know. The plot thickens when mom disappears and returns in a different form, and the film soon sinks into unfunny comedy. There's all that weird stuff happening, but it's kinda tiresome after a while. We still feel Allen's talent somewhere in this mess, but this really ain't a good film. It's watchable, but it ain't, like, a must. ]

1989
Crimes and Misdemeanors 80
[ "Comedy is tragedy plus time." An ophthalmologist (Martin Landau)'s mistress (Anjelica Huston) wants to reveal their affair to his wife, so he talks to his brother (Jerry Orbach) about taking care of her, permanently. Meanwhile, a loser documentary filmmaker (Allen) is convinced to do a profile of a "pompous ass" TV producer (Alan Alda), with whom he winds up competing over the same woman (Mia Farrow). Woody's 18th feature aptly mixes comedy and tragedy. Intelligently written, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is like Hitchcock with zingers. And rabbis. And bizarre sexual mishaps. "A strange man defecated on my sister!" ]

1990
Alice 69
[ Alice (Mia Farrow) has "become one of those women who shops all day and gets pedicures", but a visit to unconventional acupuncturist Dr. Yang makes her realize that she wants more out of life. Bored with her husband (William Hurt), she gets involved with a saxophone player (Joe Mantegna) and discovers she's capable of things she never thought she could do. This is one of Woody's most theatrical films, with scenes morphing into other scenes morphing into flashbacks and various fantasist gimmicks. Farrow is funny and touching as always, Mantegna's a charmer and Keye Luke is hilarious as Dr. Yang. ]

1992
Shadows and Fog 77
[ Fellini meets Murnau in this Kafkaesque B&W tragicomedy, which has Woody unwillingly taking part in "the Plan" to catch a mysterious serial killer. Meanwhile, sword-swallowing circus performer Mia Farrow leaves unfaithful clown John Malkovich, finds refuge in a whorehouse (employing the likes of Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates!) and ends up servicing young student John Cusack for $700! Full of expressionistic cinematography, deadpan humor and philosophical symbolism, "Shadows and Fog" is as unique as it is pleasurable. ]

1992
Husbands and Wives 90
[ Woody's defining 1990s film, like "Hannah and her Sisters" defined the ‘80s and "Annie Hall" defined the ‘70s. Not necessarily the best, but the picture that's the most in tune with the decade's broken social state. It feels like Allen's been working towards this his whole life, building up to this heartbreaking piece that's stripped down both emotionally and stylistically. "Husbands and Wives" takes the form and tone of a documentary, with handheld camerawork, jump-cuts and talking-head segments, but this couldn't be more different than "Take the Money and Run" and "Zelig". The film was made while Woody and Mia Farrow's real-life relationship was in its death rattles, so this story is harsh and raw and cruel... "Closer" didn't invent anything! The women here are passive-aggressive ball-breakers, the men are dirty old cheating bastards, how can their marriages not self-destruct? Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis come off charming enough, but new prospects always do. Spend enough time with them and you'll eventually get on each other's nerves. Depressing, sure, but mostly insightful, brilliantly written and wonderfully acted – Sidney Pollack and especially Judy Davis complete the great cast. ]

1993
Manhattan Murder Mystery 84
[ review ]

1994
Bullets Over Broadway 88
[ "I haven't had a drink since New Year's Eve." "You're talking Chinese New Year." "Naturally. Still, that's two days. You know how long that is for me?" Ah, divas, if they didn't exist we'd have to invent them. This isn't on the level of masterpieces like "All About Eve" or "Showgirls" (!), but it's a clever and funny backstage tale nonetheless. John Cusack plays a neurotic playwright whose latest play is bankrolled by a mobster on the condition that he'll cast his bimbo girlfriend, but she quickly clashes with him and the other actors. Meanwhile, the play finds it still going through endless rewrites... by the gun moll's bodyguard! Here Allen fully realizes what he attempted in "Broadway Danny Rose" , his previous gangster/showbiz comedy, and he directs one of his best ensembles ever. Dianne Wiest deservedly won the Oscar for her flamboyant portrayal of the alcoholic actress, John Cusack makes a wonderful Woody stand-in, Jennifer Tilly is hilariously clueless, Chazz Palminteri and the recently deceased Joe Viterelli do their best heavies, and Jim Broadbent and Tracey Ullman are amusing as well in smaller parts. ]

1995
Mighty Aphrodite 46
[ Woody's told many different kinds of stories, but it's still unexpected to find him tackling mythological tragedy. Now, calling this "a tale as Greek and timeless as fate itself" has got to be tongue-in-cheek, but the film does feature a Greek chorus and ironic twists of destiny. Allen plays a sportswriter who's convinced by wife Helena Bonham Carter to adopt a child. Years later, when he becomes curious to know who the birth mother was, he's stunned to learn she's a porn star-cum-hooker! That's pretty funny, especially everything around Mira Sorvino's Oscar-winning performance as the amusingly dumb and vulgar whore ("I feel I owe you a great fuck.") On the other hand, it's kinda distracting and discomforting how the plot mirrors the ugliness of the Mia Farrow thing – the girlfriend adopting kids, the couple losing the spark, the guy getting involved with a much younger woman... I also find that the Greek choir stuff, while kinda clever in concept, doesn't quite work, and neither do the subplots about the wife having an affair with Robocop and Woody trying to set up the prostitute with onion farmer Michael Rapaport. "Mighty Aphrodite" has got its moments, but it's still one of Woody's lesser efforts. ]

1996
Everyone Says I Love You 62
[ An homage to 1950s MGM musicals, but with actors who can't sing and can't dance! Instead, we're rewarded with a sprinkle of Woody Allen's trademark neurotic wit, and the film has a certain old fashioned charm. "I'm through with lo-ove..." ]

1997
Deconstructing Harry 86
[ Whoa! Manic edits and jump-cuts, Woody dropping F-bombs left and right as a pill-popping alcoholic three times divorced novelist who goes back to the school that once expelled him to be honored, bringing with him his kidnapped son, a hooker and a corpse! Gone is the charmingly neurotic Allen screen persona, we're now seeing the man behind the curtain, an obsessive, selfish prick who uses the women in his life's misery – which he often caused – in his writing, manipulating his ugly reality to make himself look oh so insightful and witty. Sounds harsh and heavy, and it is, but the movie is also a throwback to Woody's "early funny ones", with blowjob jokes, wacky bits with Death and the Devil and endless cameos: Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Tobey Maguire, Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Eric Bogosian, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crystal, Jennifer Garner... This is one of Allen's ballsiest films, but also one of his most fun. ]

1998
Celebrity 67
[ The striking opening ("HELP"), the B&W cinematography, the self-referential Hollywood satire... Shades of "Stardust Memories" anyone? The difference is that the Woody alter ego is played by Kenneth Branagh and he's not a filmmaker but a journalist. He still deals with celebrity though, not personally but pretty directly. There's the dumb actress (Melanie Griffith) he has to interview, the nympho supermodel (Charlize Theron) he spends a night on the town with, an out of control movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio) he wants to involve with his screenplay, the supportive girlfriend (Famke Jansen), the nerve-wrecked ex-wife (Judy Davis) who's replaced him with a dangerously nice producer (Joe Mantegna), the "obscure object of desire" extra (Winona Ryder), even Donald Trump pops up for a cameo! This is all very Fellini, but with a good deal of purely Allen gags:

"My body belongs to my husband. What I do from the neck up, that's a different story."

FEMALE FAN: "I use your exercise tape!"
FAN'S HUSBAND: "So do I."
FEMALE FAN: "But I exercise to it."

"He's one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black & white..."

"The skindheads eat all the bagels?"

"What's your next project?"
"Birth of a Nation, an all-Black version." ]

1999
Sweet and Lowdown 63
[ Alternating talking head segments by jazz aficionados (including Woody Allen himself) with "re-enactments", "Sweet and Lowdown" tells the story of Emmett Ray, the best guitarist in the world – after Django Reinhardt. A drunk, a kleptomaniac and a pimp who likes to shoot rats and to watch trains, this is a really fun character and Sean Penn is awesome in the role, as is Samantha Morton as his mute and half-wit sweetheart. The storytelling is a bit jittery, with plotlines introduced then not quite followed up on (even Morton disappears for half an hour at some point), but this fake biopic (which doubles as an homage to "La Strada") remains one of Allen's most enjoyable recent works. ]

2000
Small Time Crooks 68
[ review ]

2001
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion 49
[ New York, 1940. Woddy's an investigator for an insurance company who feels threatened when an efficiency expert (Helen Hunt) is brought in – especially considering she's a smart and driven woman ahead of her time, not at all like his sexy secretary (Elizabeth Berkley). Then when an hypnotist and a jade scorpion are brought into the picture, things get really complicated. This is a pretty silly movie, the casting of Hunt and particularly Dan Aykroyd is puzzling and not many of the gags connect. I did enjoy the banter between Allen and Charlize Theron (who plays a Lauren Bacall-style femme fatale), but other than that the film is a lightweight diversion at best. ]

2002
Hollywood Ending 37
[ Woody plays a has been filmmaker who's hjred to do a movie by his ex-wife (Téa Leoni) and her new beau (Treat Williams). This makes for a wildly self-referential inside-baseball picture, with Allen poking fun at himself and the film biz in general. We're light years from the finesse of "Stardust Memories" or even "Celebrity", though. Many of the gags fall flat (the whole psychosomatic blindness thing is particularly misguided and unfunny) and the "romance" between Allen's character and his ex-wife is just about the most unconvincing thing he's ever written. ]

2003
Anything Else 54
[ Even the lesser Woody Allen films have a tendency to make me feel good. Oh, Jason Biggs is desperately miscast as a neurotic intellectual comic writer (that's Jason SCHWARTZMAN you wanted here!), Christina Ricci tries for that crazy/adorable Diane Keaton thing but only comes up with crazy/unbearable and Jimmy Fallon is criminally wasted (only 5 minutes of screen time and not a single joke!)... Yet Woody's writing remains clever and irreverent and he's absolutely hilarious as Biggs' "raving, psychotic, lunatic" mentor. ]

2005
Melinda and Melinda 93
[ review ]

Match Point 78
[ review ]

2006
Scoop 70
[ review ]


2008
Cassandra's Dream 73
[ In South London, two working-class brothers ache to better their situation, one (Ewan McGregor) through investments, the other (Colin Farrell) through gambling, both of them through much bluffing. Relatively good blokes nonetheless, their sense of morality will be put to the test when their well-off uncle (Tom Wilkinson) asks them for a very delicate favour… Thematically similar to "Crimes and Misdemeanors" or "Match Point", this underrated picture is a Hitchcockian thriller with a dash of film noir and a sprinkling of Greek tragedy. Admirably assisted by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composer Philip Glass, Woody directs all of this effectively and his screenplay, while not reinventing the genre, remains thought-provoking and engrossing from start to end. ]



Vicky Cristina Barcelona 71
[ I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by this one. I liked it alright, but it's been so overhyped since Cannes as being one of Woody's best in a long time that I expected a more than this. Oh, the photography and the music are indeed warm and sensual, Barcelona itself is gorgeous (particularly Gaudí's architecture), Javier Bardem is a hoot as an aggressively sexual Spaniard, the eponymous duo of American tourists are wonderfully played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, and Penélope Cruz does sizzle as the hysterically passionate ex-wife of Bardem's character. So what's the problem? Well, I found the storytelling to be somewhat capricious and, once you get past the novelty of the setting, you quickly realize that this is very familiar terrain thematically for Allen, with little new insightful or witty observations about relationships and the such. One thing that might have set the film apart was if it made the most of its erotic potential, but even with much talk about making love and actresses as hot as Cruz and Johansson getting it on together (spoiler!), "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" remains oddly chaste. It's still a pleasant watch, but a new Woody classic, not so much. ]



2009
Whatever Works 72
[ This has got to be one of the most natural combination of filmmaker and actor ever devised. If you've ever watched "Curb Your Enthusiasm", you know already that Larry David is basically an angrier version of Woody Allen's neurotic Jewish intellectual persona, so it makes perfect sense for him to star in the writer-director's latest comedy. Now, this story of an ill-fated relationship between an aging misanthropic genius from Brooklyn and a pretty but naïve young woman from the Deep South (the irresistible Evan Rachel Wood) is hardly all that distinctive, but this remains an insifghful, funny and rather involving watch, with a few truly clever touches, notably the way David's character keeps breaking the fourth wall, to the great puzzlement of the people around him. ]


Next: YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010)