Woody Allen (Part II)
My journey through selected titles in Woody Allen’s work is continuing…and expanding. I’ve nearly seen everything I set out to at first, but I keep adding new titles to my list. Despite sitting through experiences ranging from moderately disappointing to intensely so, I’ve realized that I immensely enjoy watching Woody Allen and seeing people and situations through his eyes. I haven’t really checked out his more comedic, screwball type stuff, but I plan to; he delivers his own one-liners so perfectly that it’s elicited more than a few loud laughs. Perhaps the man’s sensibilities are an acquired taste. I don’t love everything I’ve viewed, and I see from several die-hard fans that a number of titles are borderline intolerable. Yet, I think they are mainly disappointing only in comparison to his great work (or maybe they’re just not good movies). Even the worst Woody Allen film probably has intriguing moments and comedic gems. His prime may be past, but we keep watching for that one title that knocks you out. In my case, simply picking and choosing rather than chronologically checking off every film, I’ve come across much more than one such title. Let’s start with the bad first.
To my dismay, I found Match Point (2005) to be an essentially terrible film with little redeeming value. This was even more disappointing because many fans view it as the beginning of, or as an example of, a mini-renaissance in the man’s career. He gets credit for branching off, that’s for sure (both in locale, cast, genre, and subject matter), but the ambition can’t cover up the fact that I didn’t find it a successful branching off. It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds: a writer who specializes in humor involving New York and Jewish neurosis (forgive the reduction) switching gears in an attempt to do a tense, atmospheric thriller in London. The acting ranges from charismatic and believable (thank you, Matthew Goode) to intermittently electrifying (Jonathon Rhys Meyers doesn’t quite get there) to self-conscious and ludicrously frantic (Scarlett Johansson, who is not helped by the script). The roles don’t feel lived-in; the plot is derivative and schematic; any sign of tension evaporates quickly; and the final fifteen minutes are so unbelievable that they’re nearly excruciating. At this point, considering the film was praised in many circles as one his best in a number of years, I found myself thinking that I may not continue my Woody Allen endeavor.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): Thankfully, I didn’t give up. I wasn’t particularly excited about viewing this title, considering it is as praised as Match Point is. Yet, it’s pure joy, from start to finish. I wouldn’t classify it as either a comedy or a tragedy; it finds its own space and develops its own atmosphere and puts the viewer into such a great mood. Every single member of the impressive ensemble (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, and Chris Messina) hits it out of the park, creating completely believable characters that are not tied down by an overly elaborate plot. Gone are the static medium shots and long takes and unimaginative lighting set-ups of yesteryear Woody Allen. The cinematography and editing, while not distractingly brilliant, breathe in a way that they do not in other Allen work. This intoxicating locale allows Allen the unrelenting cynic to lighten up and show us art that points to human expression and unspeakable beauty. It’s not all a walk in the park, however. The trading sexual partners, unfulfilling marriages, and human restlessness and dissatisfaction revisit some of Allen’s most pervasive themes. What we’re left with is still a bittersweet vision of life; at least this time, we get to see the sweet in all its glory. The film depicts human sadness with matter-of-factness, human beauty in cinematic fantasy, and the mix of both with the perfect touch of heightened realism. I absolutely adore this film and can’t wait to watch it again.
My opinion of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of measured admiration. Because this is another Allen film that is generally mentioned as one of his best, I was slightly disappointed. There is a lot to like, but for some elusive reason, it didn’t all click for me. I found the Allen plotline somewhat forgettable (although Alan Alda is great) and familiar (in the midst of a disintegrating marriage, a man pursues another woman, only to be rejected by both). The Martin Landau plotline is about a man’s guilt after having his lover killed for fear of his wife growing wise (because it’s about the aftermath, it’s not trying to be a thriller like Match Point). He becomes existential, asking questions about a moral order, God, punishment for sins, and the ability to carry such a weight of guilt around. The two plotlines converge at the end, although the result isn’t entirely satisfactory. I also didn’t like that the female characters are not particularly well drawn or well acted. I feel for this one about the way I do for Husbands and Wives. I like them fine, but they don’t move beyond clinical experiments that look good on paper to hitting me on an emotional level (the latter comes closer, even though I had more overt problems with it).
Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bullets Over Broadway (1994) won me over from first scene to last. It’s absolutely hilarious in both a broad way and a more intelligent, inside-baseball way (fans of theater will love it). The plot is genius, and you can never quite gauge where it’s going. John Cusack is at his endearingly stuffy best; Dianne Wiest ploughs through every scene with utter conviction; Jennifer Tilly, in a role that requires her to be both intolerably annoying and as pitiable as a naïve child in over her head, hits every note perfectly; and Chazz Palminteri finds a person where a stereotype could easily be. There’s a lot of Allen here, but the subject matter and humor is not as specified; I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie. You’re not asked for much on the cerebral side of things (although if you’re looking, you could extricate food for thought about artistic compromise, failed aspirations, and art for the working class). It almost takes on the feel of a dream or a fantasy. You don’t want to wake up to the harsher realities of life; unlike most Allen films, however, you’re not nudged to do so.
Well, that’s all for now. I still have more stuff to check out, but I’m loving the stunners as much as I’m liking the only moderately successful. Let me know what your top Allen films are.