August 30, 2009

I am always so torn on Woody Allen. On the one hand I feel like I'm missing a piece of relevant pop culture by not appreciating his films more (or, you know, at all). On the other hand I just get so generally annoyed watching him that I want to claw my eyes out. I suppose I could just watch the films he's not in... or, I don't know, watch his films stoned... I'm not sure what the answer is but every so often I feel like maybe my tastes have matured to the point where I can appreciate some sub-level of his humor that I didn't notice before so I give him a try again. It's like an on-going experiment in self-torture. It hasn't been a successful venture but something sadistic in me refuses to write him off completely. So here's the rundown of my life with Woody thus far:

Casino Royale
(1967) - writer, actor
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) - writer, director, actor
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - writer, director, actor
Bullets Over Broadway (1994) - writer, director
Antz (1998) - actor (V)
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)- writer, director, actor
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) - writer, director

I don't remember Casino Royale as vividly as some but I remember finding it funny and loving Peter Sellers. Of course there's not a lot I don't love Peter Sellers in, my dearest favorite film of his being the inimitable Dr. Strangelove. I liked David Niven as well and enjoyed that Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder in Dr. No) played the original Vesper Lynd because my dad raised me to be a Bond nerd like that. I don't even remember Woody Allen at all. So Casino Royale was a win because I liked it and didn't even notice Woody.

Admittedly I watched Antz for Sharon Stone. She was the voice of Princess Bala. She was good; I find it impossible to believe there isn't a diva or spoiled princess role out there she wouldn't be able to play to the hilt. I was annoyed by Z's whining and moaning throughout which makes sense because he's the one voiced by Woody Allen. But any movie that has Christopher Walken (as the voice of Colonel Cutter) and Gene Hackman (as the voice of General Mandible) in it automatically gets so many points for awesome that it outweighs my irritation. So Antz was a win despite Woody Allen.

I either fell asleep or left the room during The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and never bothered to finish it at any other point. I roundly hated what little I saw of it. Admittedly I went in biased - Helen Hunt annoys me as thoroughly as Woody Allen does and they're two of the leads - but the whining and squinting would have done me in regardless. I'm just going to go ahead and call Jade Scorpion a loss. I'm never going to re-watch it to find out if I'm right or wrong.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
is a real puzzle for me. I only watched part of it though I forget why that is. I liked the beauty of the Spanish setting. I really like Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz has grown on me. She's very good at disappearing into roles, which I love, and she's also great at crazy. Javier is good at disappearing into roles as well but he's also good at smouldering and being sexy so really the film should have charmed me far more than it did. I didn't hate what I saw of it. However, Scarlett Johansson is tapioca to me. I understand that she, like tapioca, exists and that there are people out there with a taste for her. But I just see her as bland, beige, and vaguely off-putting. She doesn't act so much as pout and jiggle which, I suppose, is not terrible to watch if that's what you're in the market for but as she's not my type I remain unconvinced by her. And there was an awful lot of whining in Vicky Cristina which is often my main complaint with Woody Allen. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a question mark, then. A film I may have to re-visit to decide upon.

Bullets Over Broadway I watched for John Cusack. I tend to watch movies by director or actor. I go through somebody's entire filmography which is a far more interesting way to watch movies, in my opinion, than by genre or release date because if the actor or director is any good you get a very diverse and eclectic film sampling and discover some hidden gems. (It may surprise you to learn that I discovered The Grifters this way - through John Cusack and not through Anjelica Huston at all.) Anyway, in my John Cusack phase I watched Bullets Over Broadway and I loved it. The characters are both very Woody Allen and yet structured to fit the specific 1920s mob/theatre setting. They are brilliantly rendered. Jennifer Tilly's fabulous Betty-Boop-on-helium rasp and clueless mob moll and Dianne Wiest's alternately grasping and aloof alcoholic diva are amazing. Bullets occupies a strange place in Woody Allen's filmography, from what little I know of it, because it is so firmly grounded in a setting that is not 'now' and 'everyday' and doesn't feature Woody himself in any frame. It is one of the only films on this short list that I loved without reservation at first blush but I must admit to only watching it once so I don't know if that affection would still hold. I'm not sure it's wise to test it. Bullets Over Broadway is a strong win and in this case it's because of Woody Allen - because he really is a wonderful director, he's good at casting, and he wisely stayed off-screen.

I really love and only slightly loathe Manhattan Murder Mystery for reasons that have everything to do with Woody Allen on both sides of the coin. I loved the cast, the twist on the murder mystery script, the sort of ode to New York that runs through the film, and the lightness of the proceedings. It's a very funny film. Snappy, quirky, playing on cliche and convention with a sort of knowing wink. I loathed Woody Allen's same self-deprecating, moaning, schlub character. I start to believe that's just who he actually is on some level because he plays that character in more films than not (even as an ant he's whiny and self-deprecating). And I loathed some of the same snappy banter that made up part of what I loved. The exchanges between Diane Keaton and Woody as husband and wife get bogged down in minutiae, they talk over each other, they talk in circles, they are constantly walking and moving and whining and it really does drive me quite mad. But in the rest of the film this same technique works to marvelous effect. In the dinner scene where Diane's Carol and Woody's Larry are plotting with Anjelica Huston's cool Marcia and Alan Alda's smugly sincere Ted it's just genius. Everyone has an opinion, nobody waits for the other's opinion to be fully voiced before weighing in, both men trip over themselves to shower Marcia with compliments and Carol grows prickly because of it. And somehow the plot moves forward without you even realizing it. There are plenty of subtle and not-subtle homages to both Hitchcock and noir in the film as well. It's vaguely Rear Window-esque in that it involves one character's belief that a crime has been committed by a neighbor despite lack of proof and the fumbling antics to prove said crime. Manhattan Murder Mystery is also as much about soundtrack and New York as plot since it contains sequences that are just plain beautiful and seemingly designed to make you want to visit the city. The casting - especially Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, and Jerry Adler - is a wild success. I usually always find Diane charming, this is no exception, and I've loved Alan Alda's witty and slightly slimy charm in everything since M.A.S.H. Anjelica Huston is a no-brainer for me, I think she is one of the greatest actresses of our time, but here she cements that belief with a supporting performance that nearly steals the film. Her Marcia is incredibly cool and savvy, the kind of woman men love to love and women love to envy. And Jerry Adler provides a very necessary solid and slightly suspicious turn as the neighbor in question. If only Woody Allen didn't irritate me so with his wormy screen presence. And yet, he does provide a nice contrast to the self-assured Ted and the cunning Marcia. This movie does prove to me that Woody Allen, no matter what else he may be, is a fantastic director. That this movie can contain moments of genuine suspense, seemingly effortless snappy banter, a lighthearted goodwill, and visual and auditory poetry about Manhattan without coming off as a disjointed mess is nothing short of genius-level skill. He knows what he's doing behind the camera and it shows. Manhattan Murder Mystery therefore becomes a resounding win despite Woody's grating onscreen presence and because of, once again, his knack for casting, comedy, and skillful direction.

Which finally brings me to Crimes and Misdemeanors. I still don't know what to make of this film and I've watched it three times. I watched it while working my way through Anjelica Huston's filmography. It marks her first appearance in a Woody Allen film and if nothing else, Crimes and Misdemeanors proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is an actress who can do anything. If, like me, you watched Manhattan Murder Mystery before coming to Crimes and Misdemeanors you would perhaps be justified in expecting to see a character similar to her sly and sexy Marcia. After all, Woody Allen always plays variations on the same character, Alan Alda is usually vaguely smarmy and amusingly confident, Diane Keaton is frequently adorably neurotic. But in Crimes Anjelica plays against any type she has played before, embodying the impetus to one of the titular crimes in playing Dolores Paley, a needy, insecure, and shrilly emotional mistress to Martin Landau's successful opthamologist. Dolores is nothing modern audiences expect from Anjelica who seemed vaguely pigeon-holed into types of gothic villainy after The Addams Family until Wes Anderson and TV freed her. Even in 1989 Dolores wasn't anything you'd expect. She's simultaneously highly distasteful - she has almost no sense of self on her own, existing solely for the affair with a panicky desperation that is painful to watch - and incredibly sympathetic. She's awkward and makes a play for having the upper hand in a no-win situation that only seals her own fate. It's an absolutely fabulous performance and pairing her with the weighty 'good man on the edge' warmth and presence of Martin Landau is a cagey move. It lends what I call the 'crimes' half of the movie a gravity that Woody Allen isn't generally known for. It features the same jittery, talking-over-each-other dialogue that punctuates his films but it works. The other half of the film - Woody Allen's films frequently appear comprised of two seemingly disparate halves that are sewn together by incidental 2 degrees of separation relationships and feature similar themes - or what I call the 'misdemeanors' half, is a lot weaker in my estimation. All the comedy and witty repartee as well as most of the regular Allen players are found in this half but paired against the 'crimes' half it doesn't so much add lightness as detract from the depth that Martin Landau's predicament plumbs. It's charming and Mia Farrow and Alan Alda (in what is ultimately a weirdly non-essential lead role) turn in the best of the performances. Mia Farrow is just ethereal in everything. She is instantly likable, even more so when she's holding her own against a sea of testosterone, blustery confidence, and neurotic worminess. But the stitching together of Woody Allen's twitchy and whiny desire to commit adultery with her as a thematic echo of Martin Landau's Judah's frightened efforts to extract himself from his soured affair with Anjelica's Dolores are less cohesive than the tapestry woven of disparate parts in Manhattan Murder Mystery. The sentiments raised in Crimes and Misdemeanors are much blacker and the questions are heavier and there is a lot more to ponder than simple light-and-dark banter can allow. It can't be dismissed - like most of Woody Allen's better efforts it contains far too many layers to just shrug off - but it is memorable for reasons that are harder to live with. It's jarring where Manhattan Murder Mystery is poetic. That said, I would have to call it a win in spite of itself because it does linger in the subconscious and benefits from more than one viewing to unravel the moral implications on display.

Obviously this is a sadly incomplete list and in order to properly assess the life work of an iconic writer/director/actor I will need to see more of his films. But his onscreen presence is just so grating to me that I'm not sure I can take it. Still, as I've proved to myself in the course of writing this, the sum of the individual parts of his films is frequently greater by far and if he is the most irritating part I can still come out ahead in the end. Besides, I haven't yet watched Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Husbands and Wives so I can't pretend this is a complete summation of my opinion on Woody Allen until I at least have those three films on record.

What do you think, pretty mortals? Do you like or loathe Woody Allen? Why? If you lasted this long in reading this epic post you must have some kind of opinion. Weigh in and help me decide what to watch next, if anything.

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