on 28 June 2010
While perhaps this 'middle' collection of Woody Allen's films is a tiny touch more inconsistent than the first, it's still a remarkable collection of important films by one of our best filmmakers. My individual thoughts, in chronological order (Note - I use a 4 star system);
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) *** The earliest, and for me, the weakest of the group, though far from 'bad'. A cute and charming romp. A group of friends in the early 20th century get caught up in a weekend of love and sex in the country. Certainly enjoyable, if not really much more. Gordon Willis's photography is nowhere near as amazing as his earlier collaborations with Woody, and the film doesn't have any wildly funny moments. But the writing is witty, and the acting solid if not triumphant. It just doesn't feel like a Woody Allen film somehow. More like a nice, solid, unassuming French farce. That's not a bad thing, and this film is still better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood, with a sweeter, more upbeat tone than usual for Allen. It's just coming on the heels of masterpieces like 'Annie Hall', 'Manhattan', and 'Stardust Memories', and just before other great films like 'Zelig' 'Hannah and Her Sisters', and 'Purple Rose of Cairo', it can't help but pale a bit in comparison.
Zelig (1983)**** Amazing technically, with a lot to say about society, conformity, and how we see ourselves. This brilliantly made mock documentary about a 'human chameleon' in the 1920s and 30s who unconsciously changes his appearance in a desperate attempt to fit in and be liked, is hilarious and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Some of the visual effects are still astounding by modern standards. And Allen gives a performance that is surprisingly subtle. There are a few slow moments, and a few jokes feel self-conscious, but not enough to hurt the film in any way. This is tied with 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and 'Hannah and her Sisters' for my 2nd favorite Allen film behind 'Annie Hall'. One of the greatest films by one the great filmmakers of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Very worth seeking out.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)***1/4 A sweet, fun, well-told, Damon Runionesque fable of a well meaning if pathetic theatrical manager getting caught up with the mob. Not quite as amazing as Allen's very best films, but there's a touching, gentle, funny humanity that runs through it all. Mia Farrow gives what is arguably the strongest performance of her career -- she certainly stretches way beyond her usual image -- to play a tough, gum chewing mafia gun mol. It's also interesting to see Woody play a bit more of a 'character' than usual. The film has some lovely black and white images, even if its not as striking as the greatest of the Gordon Wills/Allen collaborations like 'Manhattan'. A good-hearted film that will make you smile more than laugh out loud, it's well-worth seeing if you have any fondness for Allen's work.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)***1/2 An utterly sweet, inventive and charming film that examines our love affair with the movies and our need to escape into fantasy. The central device of the wall breaking down between the characters in a film and those watching is great fun, and both Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels do some of their very best work in this. That said, for me, it lacks a little of the depth and complexity of my very favorite of Allen's film. It's a little too cute and simplistic in the middle, although the first and last third, and the uncompromised ending are terrific. It doesn't quite hold up on multiple viewings
the way 'Annie Hall', or 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' or 'Hannah and Her Sisters' or 'Zelig' do. But even 2nd tier Woody Allen is better than almost anything else out there. And on a certain level, with great filmmakers its about personal taste, not right and wrong. (e.g. Is Chaplin's 'Modern Times' better than 'City Lights' ?) So, if you like Allen's work at all and you've never seen this, you owe yourself a look to decide for yourself.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)**** A wonderful mix of moving and funny, thought provoking and silly. There's amazing acting all around from the first rate ensemble cast including Diane Wiest, Michael Caine (both of whom deservedly won Oscars), Max Von Sydow, Allen, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey etc. (Mild spoiler) It features a rare movie happy ending that's actually earned! This is probably the closest to Annie Hall of all Woody Allen films in the mix of wit, technical proficiency, sophisticated style, acting, emotion, etc. He takes a bevy of characters and creates a complex heartfelt portrait of family, lovers, friends, and artists that's funny but with insightful bite. A rare film that acknowledges how wonderful life is, without denying how hard it can be at the same time. Or at least how hard we find ways to make it.
Radio Days (1987) ***1/4 A beautifully looking film, both in its production design by the great theater designer Santo Loquasto, and the wonderful photography by Carlo Di Palma, in his first of several fruitful collaborations with Allen. Together with Allen's witty, tender script, and a host of wonderful performances, the film does a terrific job of creating an intentionally larger than life, and slightly surreal memory piece of short stories about growing up in an age when radio was still the king of entertainment. It's a small, sweet. charming piece. Some of the stories are flat out great, some occasionally feel a bit meandering or pointless, but none are truly weak. The best moments rival Felliini's `Amarcord'. Perhaps not among Allen's greatest films, but still better than the vast majority of what has gotten produced in America in recent years.