Thursday 28 July 2011

My Woody Allen-athon: Part 3 (1981 - 1987)

Part three of my experiences watching every Woody Allen movie in chronological order

The most exciting blog series on the internet.

You can find part one here (along with an explanation as to why I decided to embark on this project): Woody Allen-althon: Part 1

As my project progressed I ended up reading more and more interviews with Allen in order to get a different perspective of his work for my "Afterthoughts" on each film, but I tried not to read anything about a film I hadn't watched yet.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

This is Allen's second period film, this time set in turn of the century America, and it looks beautiful. After the stunning imagery of Manhattan I probably shouldn't be surprised, but this is the first time that beauty like this has been shown in colour in any Allen film, and from how it looks, I can only say that I believe he's truly mastered the technical aspects of film-making at this point in his career.

Sure, there's still plenty of his trademark "static camera with people walking in and out of frame", but thankfully not too much (I'm definitely finding myself getting fatigued at this particular technique at trying to make dialogue scenes 'quirky' and 'interesting', surely he has more tricks up his inventive sleeve?), but there's some gorgeous scenes here. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if putting his dialogue heavy scenes in some visually interesting places (like a dense forest with a perfectly empty spot for a character's face -- a wonderful shot in this movie) was something that inspired him to choose this setting.

Despite the Shakespeare connection, the title made me think of a frivolous 60's sex comedy, but the film itself was actually very warm, thoughtful and charming, and doesn't go for laughs a minute. I was quite surprised by this, but really only because of the title (I feel it mis-sells and cheapens the film a bit).

The philosophical musings and period setting reminded me of Love & Death, but it was a bit more of a "grounded" (if that's the right word) comedy. (There was only a bit of "zaniness", and what was there was worked very well.) The main theme of the film was harsh rationalism versus whimsical hopes and dreams, and Allen comes down on the side of the latter, in a very amusing way.

The plot of the film (three couples spend a weekend together in a big house, and everyone has their eye on someone else) helps pull you through the slower moments: Hilarious misunderstanding and wacky sex-antics must be just around the corner, you believe, but really the film comes out as quite subdued, but in a very warm and romantic way.

Ultimately a very enjoyable and well-crafted treat from an auteur who's still finding new and interesting things to do.

According to Allen, this movie was just something he wrote in two weeks while getting ready to make Zelig (see below). He wanted to create something "light", so he wrote it and shot it before the aforementioned film (although they actually overlapped for a bit).

Apparently no-one came to see it and it was considered a financial failure (just like September, Allen noted in 1994).

I still have fond memories of this film, and would definitely watch it again if I was in the mood for something sophisticated but light.

ZELIG (1983)
wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Zelig is a phenomenal change of pace for Allen and surely his most ambitious film so far (if only technically). The entire film is a 'documentary', like Take the Money and Run, but this time done with much more seriousness and attention to detail: The film never breaks out of 'character', as it were, and always feels like a real documentary. As a result the film is narrated, in the usual documentary way, with modern-day talking-heads intermixed with 'archive' footage (the latter of which features Allen).

Although Zelig is, as noted, very technically impressive with incredible attention to detail (the older footage looks incredibly real, which is wonderful), its documentary style does keep the audience at an emotionally cold distance, even though there is a strong story, which is well told. This hollow feeling is sometimes hard to ignore, and in some ways the film feels as vacuous as the titular character.

The ultimate message of the film is "be yourself", and it feels a little weak. In spite of the film's flaws, I cannot be too harsh, though. Allen is adept at spinning a good story from his characters and the film keeps you interested, knowing how to pull you along.

In all, Zelig is definitely an entertaining and very clever film. Allen is still pushing himself into new territory and is, I'm happy to discover, still finding new ground to break. It's just a shame that I didn't connect with the film as much as I would have hoped.

Interestingly, the character of Zelig never talks directly to camera (unlike other main characters), and I wonder if this artistic choice is the reason why I felt so distanced.

Quotes from Allen about fascism

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Broadway Danny Rose is another light-hearted comedy from Allen. It's a bit of a 'caper', in precisely the way I usually dislike comedies (I think it's very hard to do a 'caper' well, and even Allen struggles a bit to keep the pace up) but it's still a wonderfully constructed movie with a very warm touch.

The story is deftly told and Allen has created an interesting character for himself to play -- even if he's probably not the best person for the role, and falls into his 'neurotic' routine a lot of the time. Thinking back, this is probably the film's weakest aspect: This character, ageing Broadway producer Danny Rose, despite looking very different, felt exactly like the same character Allen has played many times in the past.

The other characters, however, are much more rounded (Mia Farrow really shows off her versatility too, she's barely recognisable). The other main character is good, too, although the actor playing him (Nick Apollo Forte) has a few sub-par moments (not that surprising giving he was a real-life cabaret singer, with limited experience in acting).

The film is light-hearted and fun, with silly bad guys and funny situations, in fact there isn't a mean-spirited bone in its filmic body. The only real let-down is, as I said, Allen falling back on one-liners during moments of duress (and really, aside from the oversized glasses, excessive hand-gestures, and saying things like "darling", it really is the same character we've seen him play many times before).

This problem is a little surprising considering how writing strong characters has been one of Allen's strengths in the past, and while everything else in the film shows real skill, it's undeniable that his own character is a bit stunted.

The ageing comedians who bookend the film, and who "narrate" the story, are a great touch, but as a result if feels like we never really "meet" Danny Rose. Like Zelig, he's just someone we hear about from others.

Anyways, the film is shot in black and white and it feels very "right" for the story, and ultimately I really enjoyed watching it. Once again Allen shows talent for a well-crafted and solid story, while doing something very different. Even with the problems with Allen's character, there doesn't feel like there's anything stale here, and I'm really looking forward to the next film.

Allen apparently contradicts himself in two interviews... Very confusing.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Wow, what a great film. A perfectly constructed piece of fiction, even if I'm not totally over-the-moon with how it ended. Hard to believe that this is from the same mind that created Manhattan -- this film revels in its fiction.

I think this is easily Allen's most successful mix of fantasy and drama so far. I really liked Broadway Danny Rose, but looking back this feels leagues beyond it. I was very swept up in the story and the film kept that difficult 'hyper-real'/drama balance perfect throughout. (Something I more used to seeing failing rather than succeeding.)

It was also, shockingly, a very nice change of pace to watch an Allen film without Allen appearing in it. I think by keeping himself behind the camera it really allowed the film to go places it couldn't have gone otherwise. (I think it's really getting difficult to see Allen in any other character than the one he's famous for -- and even his style of delivery, as most clearly heard through Mia Farrow's character in this film, is now getting clich├ęd.)

The cinematography is refreshingly different here, too. The static-camera 'half-joke', so long ago worn out its welcome from when it first appeared in Annie Hall, is now completely missing. The camera had some nice dramatic movement, too.

The casting was great, the film never lulled, it was perfectly constructed and very entertaining. I imagine, rightly or wrongly, that the ending may have been controversial. I did foresee the betrayal (I was thinking two scenes prior that that's what I'd do if I were writing it -- although I still had a happy ending in mind), but I didn't enjoy how it ended, despite its realism. A film so fictional shouldn't end like that, I think. It felt far too serious, and almost a cheap-shot/sucker-punch to the audience.

I have to admit though, that despite finding it somewhat odd/hard to believe that Farrow's character could so easily "escape" again, so soon (which makes her seem very shallow), the ending did play well. To be fair, I'm not sure how Allen could have ended the film with a happy ending (don't tell me that was a happy ending) without dipping from the quality of the previous 80 minutes.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the look/cinematography of the "30s movie" was really spot on. The acting was, too (except maybe Jeff Daniels's, which stuck out a bit). The storyline of this fake film, however, seemed hideously poor, even for a jokey pastiche. Still, that was probably deliberate pandering to modern-day audiences (or possibly even a reference to some terrible 30's films I've never seen).

I fully expect Allen to return to realism for his next film. I feel we've had far too much fiction lately for his tastes -- and possibly mine: Give me something contemporary, Mr. Allen, and make it good!

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Carlo Di Palma, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

A wonderful emotional drama! What comedy was there (Allen's characters searching through religions, etc.) wasn't even needed -- this is Interiors done right (ok, maybe that's controversial, but aspects of it, definitely); they're both dramas, both modern day, both centering around the lives of three sisters.. but Hannah wasn't nearly as self-important. It took me on an emotional roller-coaster without me even being aware of it, until it was over and it hit me.

It's interesting because the drama was done so well (it really didn't labour under the weight of its own pretensions) that I found the comedic moments to be the weakest. It's not that they weren't funny, it's just that they weren't needed -- the drama was just wonderfully effective by itself.

I related to many parts of the story -- Michael Caine's character's relationship problems (feeling the need to look after someone, but finding himself with a wife who was actually very self-sufficient). Diane Wiest's lack of confidence (with Mia Farrow's character dampening her enthusiasm). Woody Allen's character's desire to find reasons to live in a meaningless and Godless universe.

The pains were all there, and I imagine lots of people were able to relate to them, but only Allen's character's troubles were totally resolved at the end of the film. Caine had an affair and realised he loved his wife -- but they never dealt with the actual problem: That he didn't feel like he could look after Mia Farrow (did they talk and resolve it? It would be hard work and probably wouldn't work in the long run). Weist's pain was not resolved in any way other than finding someone who appreciated her work (although her family were shown to enjoy it, too) - nothing was 'fixed' - if they weren't enthusiastic she'd still be hurt. It's an interesting thing to note, because despite all this, the ending feels very upbeat and emotionally satisfying. In fact, you could very well describe Hannah as a 'feel good' movie.

Casting was superb, direction was great, Farrow is someone else once again. The cinematography, the first collaboration between Allen and Carlo Di Palma, wasn't beautiful, but the film has its own look, and told the story well. The static camera gag was all gone -- phew!

Interesting to note: If this film was as successful as I think it should have been, then I imagine Allen should feel a lot more confident doing drama in the future. Will we see a lot more of it? Will he move on after his next film Radio Days (which I'm aware is a comedy) to doing drama until he has a dramatic failure? Time will tell!

In all I have to say that this really was a wonderful film. The perfect tone of the drama elements is what Interiors should have had (well, in a way -- they are different films). Intelligent, provoking, warm, optimistic, funny (in places) and entirely effective at what it set out to do. Allen is still very vital and his work is a real joy to watch. I think Hannah and Her Sisters might stick out as one of his most successful, along with Annie Hall.

Random notes:
After the fallout from Stardust Memories (see part two of this series) it's surprising that Allen would put Mia Farrow in a role where she is, essentially, herself: She loves being a mother, she has adopted kids, and talks about wanting to live in Connecticut. Very surprising! Anyone could easily read all kinds of relationship problems into the movie -- she's too self-sufficient, he respects her, but doesn't love her. It feels like he settled for her (in the way Allen's character did at the end of Stardust Memories!). Maybe it's all hindsight, and shouldn't be read into, but after the furore with people getting confusing Allen with his character in Stardust Memories, it's a surprising choice -- they even use her real kids and her real mother in the film! So strange.

Although Allen was playing the same sort of character he usually plays, he felt very different for a lot of it, here. He actually had a very strong character that wasn't diluted by the inevitable humour. Having a different main male lead (Caine) was great, too. Another thing to note is the oddness at how late Allen's character was introduced so late into the film, because he becomes a major character afterwards, even though he's separate from the other stories.

Lots of surprisingly great small roles were here, too: Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern (back from Stardust Memories), and even a young Julia Louise Dreyfuss.

Almost exactly the same three sister dynamic from Interiors is seen here: Central "strong" one, insecure/artistic one, lost one. Is Hannah's lighter tone less realistic than Interiors, I wonder? Not sure, but I prefer it.

As I stated, the ending feels genuinely upbeat and leaves the audience on a high. A very difficult thing to do convincingly in a drama, but Allen really pulled it off, despite the fact that many of the characters don't have a satisfying resolution (a strange dichotomy that's probably worth examining!). Unfortunately, Allen saw the same holes in the resolutions as I did and says that he didn't consider the ending to be upbeat at all. "Vaguely hopeful" is how he describes it, which kind of kills one of the film's main successes... the 'happy' ending. Once again Allen is at odds with his audience.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Carlo Di Palma, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Radio Days felt like Allen's love letter to the 1940s, particularly its music. That's really what I take away now that it's finished. It's very nostalgic and is beautiful in many ways, but I felt some barrier preventing me from totally getting sucked into its world -- possibly it's hyper-real moments, or maybe its unusual structure. Jumping from character to character allowed for some great moments (some hilarious) but it also maybe stopped me from connecting on a deeper level to any of them. Or, possibly more accurately, the film wanted me to connect with the nostalgia, but I couldn't (for some reason).

None of this is to say that structure/jumping around was flawed, if anything it shows Allen's mastery of storytelling that something so discombobulated should feel so cohesive. It is, as ever for Woody Allen movies, entertaining, enjoyable and by no means lacking -- I just didn't love it.

It's strange to think back to a Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy and see how much Allen has changed and progressed in that short time. It's hard to believe that that filmmaker would end up making a film about his own childhood.

One thing that might have kept from me from falling in love with the nostalgia was the film's look -- it just wasn't very pretty. In fact in places it looked TV ugly -- quite surprising, but perhaps due to what must have been a demanding shoot (so many period details, locations, extras, etc.). Production wise, the attention to detail was phenomenal, above and beyond what I'd expect from a Woody Allen film. I have to wonder if they had a larger budget on this one.

This film tries very hard, and very nearly succeeds, in capturing what I imagine it must have felt like living in the 40s. Growing up with your family around you all the time, learning and living through the radio. The outbreak of war, welcoming in 1944, the little girl trapped in the well. Some great moments, but I found myself pulling back and not feeling totally immersed in this world.

The cast was excellent, if a little too star-studded (Diane Keaton, Tony Robbins, Jeff Daniels all have cameos - as if he called in every favour), but some other were unintentional, Seth Green, William H. Macy, etc. The only weak link was Mia Farrow who grated the high-pitched Sally White (although she was great as the sophisticated version of her character). It felt like a throw back to Singing in the Rain, but didn't work nearly as successfully.

In all, a solid film, filled with sweetness and nostalgia, but one that I felt failed at thoroughly engaging me.