Artist in Spotlight: Woody Allen

I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen – unfortunately, to many, he’s known as the creepy old guy who married his girlfriend’s daughter. What he did was gross, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s made some amazing films – many of them are some of my favorite movies. His style of comedy is very cerebral, and he’s written some amazing parts for women – actually, I think he’s one of the greatest writers of women’s parts, and many of his actresses get nominated or win Oscars for their performances.

Often his movies coincide with what is going with his personal life – he uses his films to explore some of the issues he’s tackling, including death, sex, marriage and parenthood. His work was best in the 197o’s, though he’s made some great films in the 1980’s as well. The 1990’s and the 2000’s were pretty spotty, though – some of the latter works were actually pretty horrible, though there were a couple of bright spots that I’ll include. Any comments are welcomed.

Sleeper (1973) – this is Allen’s fifth film he directed – it’s a pretty high concept film. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a jazz musician who cryogenically frozen and thawed 200 years later. He wakes up in a world ruled by a police state. Allen hooks up with Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a bubbly socialite. They fall in love and end up in a screwball revolt. Though the film’s plot may sound a bit strange, the script’s hilarious and both Allen and Keaton have a wonderful chemistry.

Love and Death (1975) – this another interesting entry in Woody Allen’s resume. Like Sleepers, Love and Death has an interesting plot – it’s a period film, set in during the Napoleonic Wars – not a natural setting for a comedy. This is a funny movie, but I find it a bit challenging, because Allen includes his interest in philosophy by having his main characters engage in philosophical wordplay. Another plus for this movie is that it’s another great Allen-Keaton collaboration.

Annie Hall (1977) – this is probably Allen’s greatest film. It’s a bittersweet comedy, very autobiographical with Allen trying to examine his failed relationship with Keaton by writing this wonderful film. Keaton’s performance in the title role is brilliant and she proves herself a genius comedienne. Beautiful and fresh-faced, she plays the inspiring force in Allen’s Alvy Singer, whose life is completely changed after being in love with Annie. The supporting cast is great, with a special note to Tony Roberts, Christopher Walken and Colleen Dewhurst. The film won a slew of awards for both Allen’s writing/directing and Keaton’s acting. There are lots of one-liners (“don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love”), but there is a lot of emotional truth in the film, and the ending is a major tear-jerker.

Interiors (1978) – This is probably his best drama, with obvious inspiration from Ingmar Bergman. This is another Keaton film as she plays a frustrated poet who deals with the split of her parents with her sisters. This isn’t an easy movie to love – it’s stark, but still worth a watch.

Manhattan (1979) – A great valentine to New York City – try not to be moved by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Allen plays Isaac Davis, a man who is having an affair with a teenager (a luminous Mariel Hemingway), while pining for his best friend’s mistress (Keaton). Isaac is a comedy writer, who finds his work unsatisfying, and tries to distract his general feelings of midlife crisis with his relationships with the various women in his life. One of his ex-wives, Jill (Meryl Streep), came out as a lesbian, who is writing a memoir about their failed marriage. Like Annie Hall, Allen combines heart-tugging melancholy with his trademark wit.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – Like Sleepers, this film has a pretty interesting concept – set in the Great Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow), escapes the doldrums of her boring life and loutish husband by going to the cinema. While watching the title film, one of the characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), breaks the fourth-wall and encounters Cecila. This is when the film gets a bit strange – the film’s producer learns that Tom Baxter’s missing, so he goes to the actor playing Baxter, Gil Shepherd, to convince him to return to the film. The ending is pretty sad – but it’s still a wonderful film. I’m not a huge fan of Farrow, but she’s very good in this.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – this is probably Allen’s best film of the 1980’s. Again, his ability to write wonderful female characters shines in this film. Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey star as a trio of neurotic sisters who deal with their relationship with each other and the men in their lives. While the sisters love each, sibling rivalry affects the way the women relate to each other as well as how they evaluate their own lives. The cast is perfect, along with Michael Caine, Allen and Carrie Fisher.

Husbands and Wives (1992) –  This should be called the “breakup movie” as this came out right when Allen’s relationship with Farrow imploded because of his love affair with her daughter. Allen explores the inherit difficulty of men dating much younger women – Allen must’ve felt judged by his relationships, as he highlights the sometimes foolish way older men behave when they chase after young women, especially when they leave behind their mature wives. Along with Farrow, this also has another fantastic Woody Allen actress, Australian star Judy Davis.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) – this was a light, fluffy film about a middle-aged couple, a bit bored with their lives, who find themselves sucked into a murder mystery. The film was funny and exciting, and as a great bonus, it was a reunion of Allen and Keaton, who hadn’t worked together in over 10 years. Their chemistry was undiminished as they seemed to slip effortlessly in their roles. Angelica Huston and Alan Alda also offer great support.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – Allen’s commentary on artistic struggle, this was a bright spot in the 1990’s – John Cusack’s Allen alter-ego, a struggling playwright who has a serious case of writer’s block; he’s strong-armed into hiring a gangster’s moll (Jennifer Tilly), but her escort proves to be a great ghostwriter, having a sensitivity that belies his work. While the play is being produced he also has to deal with the machinations of a demanding, temperamental stage diva, Helen Sinclair (Wiest, who won an Oscar). This is a great film and Allen proves he’s practically a magician because he manages to pull a wonderful performance from Tilly (who got an Oscar nomination). And Wiest is hilarious.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – This wasn’t one of Allen’s strongest films – it’s a pretty standard comedy, though there are some weird Allen touches (i.e. there’s a Greek chorus that provide running commentary on the plot). The reason to watch this movie is Mira Sorvino’s fantastic, Oscar-winning performance. Allen and Helen Bonham Carter play a couple who adopt a wonderful little boy. Allen’s obsessive personality has him search out his son’s biological mother, believing that because he’s so smart, attractive and athletic, she would be, as well. She turns out to be a ditzy porn actress/hooker, instead, though she has the requisite heart of gold. A minor entry in his oeuvre.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996) – Woody Allen and musicals don’t seem like a natural fit, but his entry into the Hollywood musical genre is a pleasant little filler. It’s a sparkling film with a game cast headed by Allen that perform with professional gameness. The musical talents range from the good (Goldie Hawn) to the mediocre (Edward Norton) to the severely-wanting (Julia Roberts). It’s not especially memorable, but there is a great, wonderful scene in which Allen and Hawn share a moon-lit dance, in which she literally floats into the air. Aside from that scene, the movie’s not all that thought-provoking, but still worth a gander.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) – Allen plays Harry Block, who writes about his life, as well as, about the lives of those around him – including his loved ones, that result in resentment and anger. Unlike most of his comedies, this film takes a large page out of Bergman’s book about middle-aged protagonists looking back at his life with regret and wanting. This was his last gasp of creativity for a long time.

Match Point (2005) – After almost a decade of released dreck, Allen made a comeback with this uncharacteristic thriller about a tennis pro, Chris Wilton, who falls in love with a woman who is dating Chris’ friend – He makes fateful decisions that will change their lives forever when he tries to figure out how he can get his girl and maintain his newly affluent life. This is a dark, exciting film a pretty big departure for Allen.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) – Penelope Cruz is the latest Allen actress to win an Oscar in this fantastic comedy, set in Spain. Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s latest muse, stars as a young, passionate woman who falls into a relationship with a sexy, beautiful Spanish couple (Cruz and Javier Bardem). She realizes the limits of her emotional and sexual freedom and passions, and learns of the limits that can arise when adapting herself into an untraditional relationship. Allen assembles a fantastic cast, headed by Cruz, and his skill for making his settings look heavenly are especially helped by the picture post-card locales of Barcelona.

Picture: Colin Swan


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