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The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 2 (1992-2011)

The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 2 (1992-2011)

Woody Allen’s latest, “Midnight in Paris,” begins its roll-out in theaters today, and with it comes the second part of our complete retrospective on the great writer-director’s work. (check out yesterday’s Part One here). We pick up in 1992, with “Shadows and Fog.”

It’s generally seen that the last 20 years have been something of a downswing for Allen: most, if not all, of his worst films have come from this period. But there’s plenty of gems below as well, including films that didn’t necessarily get the love they deserved at the time. In the meantime, “Midnight in Paris” is one of the director’s best films in a while (read our Cannes review here), and we hope that his next film, a Rome-set comedy with Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Roberto Benigni and the first on-screen performance from Allen in six years, continues the trend.

“Shadows and Fog” (1992)
Shot in luminous, shrouded black and white by Michelangelo Antonioni cinematographer Carlo DiPalmi, doing his best German Expressionist, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau impression, the appropriately titled “Shadows and Fog” is an ambitious entry in the director’s catalog. Here, Allen takes the starring role in this Kafka-esque comedy of misunderstandings as an especially sniveling and cowardly bookkeeper who is innocently caught up in a vigilante group that is searching for a local serial killer who has thus far eluded the police (major hat tip to Fritz Lang‘s “M“), in an unnamed European city in the 1920s. A second story, which eventually meets up with the first, revolves around a circus clown (John Malkovich) searching for his sword-swallower girlfriend (Mia Farrow) who gets mixed up in the intrigue happening in a nearby whorehouse and the desolate scary streets of London where a strangler (and angry mobs) currently roams unfettered. Featuring an excellent supporting cast including John Cusack, Madonna, Kenneth Mars, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Julie Kavner, William H. Macy, Wallace Shawn, and Lily Tomlin, “Shadows and Fog,” is vintage Woody Allen. [B]

“Husbands and Wives” (1992)
If “Husbands and Wives” has a moral, it’s that marriage is not the happily ever after — just the “after.” It’s Allen’s usual cast of Upper East Side residing, bundle of neuroses, waxing lyrical about relationships. The film follows two married couples and best friends — Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) and Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) — the latter of which have decided amicably to separate, or at least they say it’s amicable. Jack and Sally test the dating pool and the limits of their own independence and dependence on each other. Meanwhile Gabe and Judy find the base of their relationship shattered, as Gabe finds himself attracted to a young precocious student (Juliette Lewis) and Judy develops feelings for a man in her office (Liam Neeson). The ensemble all perform brilliantly, in particular Davis, as the brilliant and uber-neurotic Sally who was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her excellent turn in the film (Woody was also nominated for his writing). The film, shot in documentary style with seemingly few lights and effects to pretty things up, does nothing to endear you to the “ugly” characters, but aesthetically it’s a very inspired move and a breath of fresh air and B-12 shot to the creative energy of the film. The dialogue as always is on point, and lightens the heaviness of watching relationships decay because they refuse to change. [B+]

“Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)
It’s a strange world: in the throes of devastating personal scandal, Allen turned in his funniest, most optimistic and delightful film in years. In fact, two of the changes made as a result of outside pressures probably improved the film immeasurably: casting a spiky Anjelica Huston instead of a much younger actress to give Allen a slightly more age-appropriate flirtation, and more importantly, replacing Mia Farrow with a beguiling Diane Keaton — against whom a mock-irate Allen subsequently railed for getting more laughs than he does, despite the fact he’d written the material to make him look like the funny one. Actually, they’re both on top form, and the portrait of a long-term marriage that finds much-needed spice when a neighbour dies (finally turning to the murder sub-plot famously excised from “Annie Hall”), is one of the most endearing depictions of an adult relationship that Allen has ever managed. It’s peppered with allusions to classic films, fun until the end when it unashamedly rips one off, but that’s just nitpicking, especially in a movie that sends you giggling into the credits on a final gag worthy of Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond. [B]

“Bullets Over Broadway” (1994)
Just as David Lynch proves his versatility by making something like “The Straight Story” now and again, so, too, can Woody Allen escape from his characteristic grotto of nebbish anxiety when the occasion calls for it. One of the rare occasions in which the director shares a screenwriting credit (a one-off collaboration with Douglas McGrath) “Bullets over Broadway” is Allen at his best (7 Oscar nominations in total to prove it), one of his purest unalloyed joys since the “early, funny ones” and free of any of the wider existential moroseness which often threatens to overwhelm his later work. John Cusack is fantastic (one of his best roles) as the 1920s “Barton Fink”-ish egotistical, conniving playwright with delusions for a career like Eugene O’Neill. But the real strength of the film is to render the rest of his Broadway players a horror show collection of freaks, pedants and oddballs. Jennifer Tilly is particularly fantastic as the screeching, dunderheaded mob doll Olive (misunderstanding the word “fore” during her table reading as a dour psychiatrist, she asks “So you’re telling me it’s like I’m talking about golf?”) and Dianne Wiest, of course, is killer in an Oscar-winning performance as the vainglorious Helen Sinclair, who seduces Cusack by lustily breathing, “Don’t speak!” like Gloria Swanson off her face on prescription drugs. [A]

“Mighty Aphrodite” (1995)
Probably best remembered as being the movie that won Mira Sorvino a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award before she fell into oblivion (maybe her cruise ship took a turn into the Bermuda Triangle?), “Mighty Aphrodite” remains one of the most charming movies from a not-exactly-fertile period for the auteur. While the story is fairly typical Woody -– he is a father looking to identify the biological mother of his adopted son, while stressing out about his marriage (to Helena Bonham Carter) –- the setup is enlivened by another typical Woody flourish. In this case it’s a Greek chorus narration (led by F. Murray Abraham), with the characters sometimes interacting directly (or commenting) on the action (Michael Rapaport plays an excellent Brooklyn knucklehead too). It’s the Greek chorus bit that stands out the most thinking back on the film, even moreso than the performance by Sorvino, as a squeaky-voiced hooker with a heart of gold. Maybe that’s for the best, since some of the story beats are sort of icky (Allen sleeps with Sorvino at one point), and threaten to corrupt an otherwise adorable, wholly enjoyable story. Thankfully it’s no Greek tragedy. [B+]

“Everyone Says I Love You” (1996)
Lush with the sensation of romance in exotic places, Allen’s modern-day musical (scored with lip-synched 1930s standards) occupies a curious place in his ouerve, capturing a family of East Side New Yorkers in transition in the midst of Giuliani-era Manhattan. Romance has got them tangled, from young engagements to old flames flickering once again, all the while Allen purposely drains the image in a sea of brownstones and Central Park foliage, at once nostalgic and cynical. Allen’s eye for actors remains lively and generous, leading to a number of standout performances, though the film falters with Allen himself, who plays a single man who absconds to Venice to meet the girl of his dreams. As with many latter-day Allen pictures, the age discrepancy is glaringly unaddressed, compounded by Julia Roberts, who has a face at once too innocent and wounded to portray a dream girl, giving her character intriguing layers that simply have no payoff. At its best, “Everyone Says I Love You” is otherwise sweet and swoony, Allen’s customary cynicism peeking through what is otherwise a joyous, sweetly engaging narrative. [B+]

“Deconstructing Harry” (1997)
One of Allen’s most uncompromised, angriest works, “Deconstructing Harry” is also, with distance, one of his strongest. Allen plays Harry Block, a tortured writer who is undergoing a breakdown in his twilight years, as fantasy and reality begin to merge. While he has used his friends and family for inspiration frequently, his works start to come to life and intermingle with his own, throwing him into a tailspin as he deals with the side affair of another lover and a career honor he feels is undeserved. The film is one of Allen’s most autocritical works, taking to task both his critics and his own artistic/masturbatory tendencies, but it’s also filled with a number of absurdist touches provided by a peculiar all-star cast — look out for Billy Crystal in a memorable cameo as The Devil. “Deconstructing Harry” has moments of free-form hilarity, but the self-serving pettiness of his characters are also refreshingly on display, painting a portrait of an artist in transit who can never sit still, even as his work begins to cannibalize him. [B+]

“Celebrity” (1998)
Of all the Woody Allen surrogates throughout the years (Owen Wilson being the most recent), none are weirder than Kenneth Branagh as a novelist-turned-tabloid journalist (following, of course, a disastrous divorce) in “Celebrity.” The casting of the British thespian is bizarre in and of itself, especially since “Celebrity” was released at the tail end of Branagh’s impressive Shakespeare run. But what’s even odder is how spot on Branagh is in terms of mimicking Allen’s series of jerks, tics and stutters. It’s uncanny and spot-on in ways that few of the Allen stand-ins usually are, and it makes “Celebrity,” which is basically a series of vignettes with Branagh bumping into various celebrities (usually playing exaggerated versions of themselves), way more compelling. The best cameo goes to Leonardo DiCaprio, upending his badboy image by snarling that Branagh is so sensitive that he “should write fucking greeting cards.” [B]

“Sweet and Lowdown” (1999)
Though Woody Allen’s has often missed the mark in his later period, this film is a shining example of everything the writer/director can do right when he’s firing on all cylinders. He gets revelatory, surprising, Oscar-nominated performances out of Sean Penn, as narcissistic fictional guitar player Emmet Ray (transparently based on the legendary Django Reinhardt), and Samantha Morton as mute, adorable Hattie, Emmet’s lover. He uses a faux documentary style to augment the grandeur of Ray’s life and artistry, with smart dialogue that is quippy and fun in one of his best scripts he’s ever written that balances dramatic moments equally with comedic ones. But moreover, as a lifelong lover and performer of jazz, this is one of Allen’s biggest love letters to the music, myths and larger than life personalities that surround it. [A-]

“Small Time Crooks” (2000)
We’re so used to seeing Allen as a neurotic intellectual that it’s sometimes refreshing to see him playing at the other end of the spectrum, and his performance in “Small Time Crooks” is only first among a cluster of fully-flung idiots. Riffing, at least in part, on Ealing crime comedies like “The Ladykillers” and “The Lavender Hill Mob,” Allen plays Ray, a jailbird who plans to rob a bank next to a bakery, only to discover that the cookies that his wife Frenchy (an excellent Tracey Ullman) has been selling as cover for the heist are far more lucrative. It’s an oddly structured piece, like two films crammed into one (the middle act, featuring Hugh Grant as a sleazy artist, parodying the class system, is pretty weak), but it’s mostly enjoyable, if uneven. And in a now-rare acting appearance by the great Elaine May, it has one of the great supporting performances in the Allen canon. [C]

“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001)
Every year brings us a new Woody Allen picture, bringing with it grousing on the side-lines about how the creator of Alvy Singer is scuttling closer to the grave by tarnishing his cinematic legacy. It’s a fixed pattern critics have slid lazily into; the notices for “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” were often written with the same shit-eating rictus grins on their faces as they were a decade ago for “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” With the benefit of hindsight, the film’s period setting, slight plot (a magician hypnotises Woody into becoming a jewel thief against his will) and Allen’s subsequent inability to find funding for films produced in America, affirm the now-orthodox decline thesis. So is Allen terrible in the lead role of C.W Briggs, “a shallow, skirt-chasing egomaniac” and “myopic insurance clerk”? Yes. Is there a modicum of sexual tension between he and Helen Hunt, the ‘saucy’ efficiency expert whose feminine wiles are supposedly up the yin-yang? No. Was Allen too old at this stage in his career to be hit on by an earthen, breast-exposing Charlize Theron? Take a guess. [C-]

“Hollywood Ending” (2002)
When you shoot a movie a year, there’s no level of genius that can keep their inspiration that strong every time out. So yes, you get the occasional “Hollywood Ending,” a remarkably tone-deaf Hollywood satire that is both too inside-baseball and overwhelmingly broad and useless. Allen plays a celebrated director well past his prime (hmm…) who gets back into the industry by teaming with an ex-wife, a high pressure situation that causes him to become psychosomatically blind. Did you guess that the punchline involved him directing the film anyway? “Hollywood Ending” isn’t helped by the fact that Allen is working with one of his least-qualified casts, giving major screen time to the manic Tea Leoni and the bronzed, oblivious George Hamilton, resulting in a film that wants to take advantage of the lower standards of today’s yuckfests while also maintaining that classical Hollywood vibe. [D+]

“Anything Else” (2003)
There are a lot of things wrong with “Anything Else.” Jason Biggs halts his speech more than Jerry Stiller after root canal surgery, and often looks blankly off-camera like he’s after a batch of pastries to hump. His girlfriend, Christina Ricci, seemingly cast to type as a pathological neurotic with body dysmorphia and an “offbeat sexual quality,” is largely awful too. Only Stockard Channing‘s Paula — an outrageously volatile former interior designer desperate for Biggs to write her new “nightclub act” – can inject this leaden affair with any life. A couple of one-liners fly by (“I should have known something was wrong on the wedding night when her family danced around my table chanting, ‘We will make him one of us!’”), but Allen casts himself as reckless, apocalyptic grouch who drops in for random acts of opprobrium about rampant anti-Semitism, the meaninglessness of our daily existence, and is prone to increasing acts of violence against suedeheads that give him grief. Far from perfect, the film’s unrelenting and mirthless post-911 anhendonia is nonetheless compelling; one of Allen’s angriest films that uses the futility of romance as a sideshow to flirt with what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk.” Simultaneously flawed and underestimated. [C+]

“Melinda and Melinda” (2005)
Conceptually, “Melinda and Melinda” is a charming doodle – the titular character (played by the perpetually underrated Radha Mitchell) goes through mirrored storylines, both romantic, with one played as a comedy, while the other is a tragedy. So far, so good, right? Well, it’s much more tedious than it sounds, and besides some occasionally sparkly performances (Will Ferrell makes a better Woody Allen surrogate than you’d think, his nervous tics blown to oversized proportions), it’s mostly a drag. Before the second half of the movie concludes, you’ve already grown weary of its conceptual trappings, and the rest is just sort of boring, this despite supporting turns by Amanda Peet, Steve Carell and, in the rare instance of an ethnic actor in a Woody Allen movie, the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor. His velvety smooth performance is almost enough to save this movie from banality. We said almost. Fun fact: the Ferrell and Mitchell characters were written for Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder, both of whom were uninsurable at the time. [C+]

“Match Point” (2005)
Woody Allen’s first foray into Europe in 2005 marked a decidedly different kind of Woody Allen movie, demonstrating that he could come out of his wheelhouse and deliver a straight up, juicy genre sexual thriller. It’s also a relief that Allen’s hyperneurotic id has no direct stand-in here — of course it is present in the themes of sex, infidelity and control, but there’s no Allen himself fretting and pondering out loud, just the dangerously sensual Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. As opposed to Allen, who as a performer wears everything on his sleeve, Rhys-Meyers is a placid lake simmering with sex and intrigue right below the surface. The audience never knows what he’s going to do, and the actor achieves a performance that leads us to believe he doesn’t know what he’s going to either, until the moment he does it. Allen creates a world filled with beauty and money and class that never feels comfortable — there is a constant tension vibrating throughout. Some have muttered about Scarlett Johansson’s performance, but she’s ideal for the beautiful, fragile vessel on which Rhys-Meyers’ Chris projects his visions and fantasies of another life. Emily Mortimer and Matthew Goode are excellent as the foils to the leads, but this is Rhys-Meyers’ film; he’s rarely been as good. While some may argue it’s the poor man’s version of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (and they might not be totally off base) Allen skillfully creates such a taut suspension in “Match Point” that it isn’t until the credits roll that you remember to breathe. [B+]

“Scoop” (2006)
Coming after what many considered a late-career triumph in “Match Point,” most with short memories were disheartened to see Allen return to madcap slapstick. And while the story — involving a junior reporter tailing a handsome potential serial killer thanks to clues from a ghost — seems pretty slinky, “Scoop” is actually surprisingly winning. Among Allen’s films, there haven’t been a more attractive pairing than Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman, and Johansson’s beleaguered, somewhat dimwitted turn is matched in comic anarchy from a spirited supporting turn by Allen as a likely-doomed magician. “Scoop” never feels like there’s a clean balance between the chaotic supernatural elements of the story and the main serial killer narrative, but the whodunnit structure is carried by the comic work from the strong cast and Allen’s light, typically-bouncy direction. [B-]

Cassandra’s Dream” (2007)
Certainly the nadir of Woody’s recent “European period,” and possibly the worst film of his entire, decades-long career, “Cassandra’s Dream” is a slow, on-the-nose, plodding, wholly unconvincing crime caper that doesn’t even crack a smile, let alone have any laughs. The tale of two brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) who agree to kill a man for their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson), the movie is clumsily paced and lacks even the most minimal thrills required for a thriller to actually, you know, thrill. Even with some stellar behind-the-scenes talent (Vilmos Zsigmond shot it and Philip Glass provided a rare original score) and notable supporting performances (this was the first time we ever remember seeing the reedy Sally Hawkins), the movie falls unbelievably flat. It’s not a spoiler to say that in the final scene a detective describes a double murder that’s central to the plot… and happens completely off-screen. In America it was released at the beginning of 2008. By that same summer Woody had completely redeemed himself, with the much, much better “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” [D-]

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
Don’t mistake “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” for anything more than a delightful trifle, a sensual romp, whatever you want to call it — and you’re on the right track. A steamy love affair that is content to throw hints and the occasional glimpse of skin your way, Allen’s migration to unfamiliar shores bears filling fruit, even as stakes remain flighty, as neurotic Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and free-spirited Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) cross paths with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his tempestuous ex-wife María Elena (an astoundingly sexy and funnyPenélope Cruz, who won a well-deserved Oscar for this). It’s all feather-weight fun that would remain so in the hands of a director other than Allen, but Cruz and Bardem have amazing comedic chemistry (no wonder they hooked up afterwards) and a final scene suggests a sadness that obscures the comedic aspects in short time. [B]

“Whatever Works” (2009)
“Whatever Works” came out the same year as Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying,” a vanity picture some took as a latter-day incarnation of one of Allen’s high-concept comedies of the early 1970s. The film was, much like Gervais himself nowadays, a proud bore that asked you concurrently to pity it whilst taking it for the most hilarious thing ever made, evoking Allen’s legacy by stealing his favourite font (Windsor-EF Elongated, typography fans) for its opening titles. Audiences would have done better to check out Allen’s own work, which promised a return to New York after a muddled European caesura, a reworking of a lost script from the 1970s (a screenplay originally intended for Zero Mostel) and one of Allen’s heir apparents in the lead role. Even if it didn’t fully follow through on such a sublime set of circumstances, “Whatever Works” is still catnip for dyspeptic atheists everywhere: pitting the lacerating Larry David as a failed physicist against a world of “submentals” and “inchworms.” The Bible Belt hicks are a little broadly drawn, and a romance with Evan Rachel Wood brings in extraneous autobiography, but its eventual conclusion has a deftness of touch the pretenders (still looking at you, Gervais) have never come close to touching. [C+]

“You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” (2010)
A middling entry, neither as atrociously bad as “Whatever Works” nor as stellar as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” was largely overlooked, despite its unstoppable cast (Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and Naomi Watts are among the actors filmed by genius cinematographer and regular collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond) and glitzy premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film is largely about faith, which is fitting, considering that many of those that appreciated the film were members of Allen’s faithful – those convinced that the auteur, if not cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece like he once did, still has a lot to say about the human condition and the bleak-funny circumstances we often find ourselves in. Despite these sub-textual preoccupations, ultimately ‘Stranger’ doesn’t leave you with a whole lot – it’s interweaving stories based on happenstance and faith sometimes just feel like coincidence and cruel irony, which leave you more than a little cold. [B-]

“Midnight in Paris” (2011)
The more we think about Allen’s latest, the breezy, romantic ode to the City of Lights, the more we like it. While the movie is, at least superficially, incredibly simple – a struggling novelist (Owen Wilson as the Woody stand-in) and his wife (Rachel McAdams) visit Paris. She spends time with her family and pretentious friend (Michael Sheen), while he goes on long, mysterious walks around the city. But it’s in those walks, which serve as the whole middle section of the movie and have a magical, “Purple Rose of Cairo”-ish dimension we won’t reveal here, that the movie springs to life in ways that few recent Allen films have. It’s a spritely, spirited, often laugh-out-loud hilarious romp that will make you thankful that Allen is back to handling more lighthearted fare, after the occasionally dour “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and the downright grim “Cassandra’s Dream.” [B+]

Clearly, we’re now missing “To Rome With Love,” “Blue Jasmine” and now “Magic In The Moonlight,” but this feature was written back in 2011. But click on those titles and you can get reviews on all of them to see how we felt. 

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