Sunday, June 01, 2008

What's Up With Woody? Case In Point - CASSANDRA'S DREAM


It used to be that a new Woody Allen movie opening was an event. 

In the summer of 1989, the North Carolina Museum Of Art in Raleigh had a film festival focusing on the acclaimed writer/director/star.

Every Friday night a different Woody Allen film was shown in chronological order. and I went to nearly every one (I missed HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, but had seen it already if I remember correctly). It was timed to lead up to the release of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS that fall.

After that, throughout the '90s, Woody Allen movies played at many theaters in the Triangle area, mostly art houses, but there was some multiplex action too, so it was a bit of a sobering slap to have his latest film be the first one in my lifetime to not play in my hometown of Chapel Hill. 

I grew up with Allens films - my parents told me that they took me to see SLEEPER at the Plaza theater (now an empty lot) when I was four years old, but I dont remember the experience. 

Of course not, right? Despite the declining quality of his recent work Im pulling for the Woodman - I believe he can still pull a great movie out of his ass one day. But, sorry to say, this one, newly released on DVD, aint it:

CASSANDRA’S DREAM (Dir. Woody Allen, 2007)

There is a scene early on in Woody Allens 38th film as director in which the protagonists (Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell) in the middle of a discussion in a garage leave the shot while the camera stays still.

While the dialogue of their tense talk is still audible they exit into a back room for a few moments then reappear with no breaks; no cuts. It is notable because it is one of the only times, apart from the standard white on black opening credits that is, that this British brothers gone bad thriller feels like an actual Woody Allen movie. 

As it goes on with the questionable character of their Uncle played by Tom Wilkinson, fresh from his crazily sane (or sanity-driven insanity) turn in MICHAEL CLAYTON, showing up with a out to the brothers financial worries, a few unmistakable Woody Allen themes pop up - jealousy and greed to be exact. 

A murder movie in the mold of Allens last hit MATCH POINT is the order of the day but since I was in the minority that was unfavorable to that first foray into British societal class crime, I am even less forgiving to this unmoving neo-noir creeper caper.

Comparisons are inevitable to BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, Sydney Lumet’s thriller also involving corrupt money-mad brothers doomed to fail in matters of finance and family; but this can’t really be considered a copy-cat because production of it was well underway years before that film was forged and it certainly doesn’t have anything in common with its narrative structure. 

Still it doesn’t bode well that that fine film would so definitively overshadow Allen’s incredibly self-conscious effort to make such an uncharacteristic and cold morality play as this. MacGregor and Farrell put in solid performances that show signs of rehearsing and multiple-take re-focusing but the material they have to work with feels like it came from pages of a first draft with the repetition fat uncut.

Wilkinson energizes the few sweaty desperate scenes he’s in but he acts as if he has secrets he’s not willing to share with the brothers, the audience, and even the movie. The female characters don't make much of a mark either - as gorgeous as Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, and Ashley Madekwe are they are just decorations on a boy’s club class project. 

CASSANDRA’S DREAM, named after a boat the brothers name after a race winning dog at the tracks that doesn’t really have much of a consequence to the movie’s themes, is unfortunately another movie misstep for Woody Allen. In trying to make a movie so unlike any other from his canon he ended up with a film so indistinct that it is instantly forgettable.

Whew! Next Time I'll Tell you what I really think. This August comes yet another Woody Allen film - VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA which as a Spanish murder movie (that's just going by the trailer) doesn't look like a very characteristic work either. The oft repeated line from STARDUST MEMORIES (and real life) was that of his movies folks prefered “the early funny ones” well I’m going to start calling all his filmography before the last decade - “the early good ones”. So for the blogosphere film geek record here’s my list of my top 10 favorites of the early good ones:

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Woody Allen Films

1. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) 

As the title pretty much states this is a serious drama with a comic subplot. Martin Landau plays a wealthy ophthalmologist whose massive guilt over murdering his mistress (Angelica Huston) puts him in existential turmoil. 

In the subplot Woody Allen plays a struggling documentary film maker in a bad marriage who pines for a PBS producer (Mia Farrow) while he has to do a fluff piece portrait of a man he despises - a corporate TV bigwig played by a perfectly smarmy Alan Alda. 

A top notch screenplay filled with great lines like: “Comedy is tragedy plus time” and “Show business is, is dog-eat-dog. It’s worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls.”

2. MANHATTAN (1979)



Shot in widescreen black and white with a Gershwin score, and again a magnificent script this a rich rewarding movie over and over. Relationships, digs at shallow popular culture, pithy party repartee, heart breaking partings, and so on - Allen captures New York in the “Me Decade” like nobody else could. The great cast (Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemmingway, Meryl Streep) all inhabit the material beautifully. 

Of course again, there are the great one-liners: “My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.”


3. ANNIE HALL (1977) Allen’s most popular movie (it won the Best Picture Oscar) is an obvious but crucial choice because it signified a new direction and style after years of silly (but still terrific) comedies. 

Diane Keaton (who won Best Actress) as the title character and Woody as, well, Woody (actually his comedian character's name is Alvy Singer) do their crazy chemistry thing over an almost surreal mix of 4th wall breakage, childhood memory revisionism, overlapping comic dialogue, and even animation. “If life was only like this!”Allen says directly to the camera at one hilarious point and yes, I often wish it was. 

4. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) Hard to separate this from the real-life break-up of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow but this take on Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE has a lot more going for it than what is now dated gossip. 

The late great Sydney Pollack, in what is definitely his best performance, and Judy Davis announce their divorce to Allen and Farrow, before their planned dinner out together mind you, and the two couples struggle through crises caught on a shaky cam with odd cuts and a docudrama style. Juliette Lewis as a writing student of Allen says: “Life doesn’t imitate art - it imitates bad TV”; in this film though, art does a pretty good impression of awkward desperate living. 

5. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) Smack dab in the middle of the Reagan era and Woody’s Mia Farrow era as well, this is another sweet blend of comedy and drama. A large cracking cast including Diane Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine (who won an Oscar for it), Sam Waterson, and Carrie Fisher keep the proceedings lively but Allen on the verge of suicide and getting rejuvenated by a chance midnight moviehouse showing of the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP is why this movie makes the list.



6. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) At the movie theater I work at part time one of my co-workers, who has worked at theaters for over 20 years, often remarks that this is his favorite Woody Allen film. Fitting for a projectionist to love a movie that largely takes place in an old 30’s movie palace. 

One of Allen’s best premises, a character (Jeff Daniels) in the movie within a movie of the title walks off the screen and into the real world of the depression because he falls in love with a woman (Mia Farrow) in the audience. Farrow sighs: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can't have everything.”


7. ZELIG (1983) Looking a lot like I am stuck on 80’s Woody Allen, huh? A mockumentary (I don't care if Christopher Guest hates the term) about a human chameleon played by Allen who can change his form or ethnicity depending on the company he keeps. 

Through the movie magic of editing and insertion Zelig finds himself rubbing shoulders with key players in early 20th century history - Hitler, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, and James Cagney are among those who convincingly appear in archival footage. Forget the forgery that was FORREST GUMP, and relish ZELIG.


8. LOVE AND DEATH (1975)Woody’s War and Peace! Much headier than the comedies that made his name this was the most ambitious of his early career - an epic period piece with battle scenes and much Foreign film influence but the silliness and rapid-fire jokes ranks this as one of his all time funniest films. Another great pairing with Diane Keaton and yes, another great script. One of many hilarious one-liners: “There are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about.”


9. DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) The last great Woody Allen movie IMHO. It is different terrain with vulgarity, profanity, and depravity and that’s just what comes out of scorned lover Judy Davis’s mouth! Woody Allen plays Harry Block, rumored to be based on author Philip Roth, who takes everyone’s suffering and turns it into literary gold, as his ex-wife says. 

His creations catch up with him and he takes a look back at his parasitic existence with help from a large cast featuring Robin Williams, Billy Crystal (as the Devil!), Richard Benjamin, Demi Moore, Tobey McQuire, and a clever cameo by Mariel Hemmingway. Maybe the most acerbic and divisive film of Allen’s career.



10. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) I have a soft spot for this one because it is the first Woody Allen movie I remember seeing as a kid on television. Maybe one of the first mockumentaries it tells the story of Virgil, a petty thief who goes from heist to the slammer again and again. Essentially a series of sketches filled with patented one-liners and sight gags, it remains one of my favorites of his early funny ones because of the sheer amount of material that works. 

I saw it again recently on TCM and it still holds up. Virgil on meeting his wife (Janet Margolin) for the first time: “After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.” Okay! 

Now, there are a number of other Woody Allen films I love and recommend as well (like BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, RADIO DAYS, and SLEEPER) but that’s my top ten. Maybe this’ll encourage some young novice film geek to put some of the Woodman’s work in their NetFlix queue.

More later...

5 comments:

Ibetolis said...

Like you, it now breaks my heart to see what Woody is reduced to. I can't bring myself to watch his latest movies, I stopped sometime after The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

I love your top 10 and I'm as pleased as punch that someone else has not only recognised the greatness of 'Deconstructing Harry' but have put Crimes and Misdemeanors at Number 1.

For me, that's the film that Woody Allen was always meant to make. I could seriously watch it every day.

Great post.

Anil Usumezbas said...

Nice one, definitely encouraged me to see some more Woody.

Like you, I love Manhattan and Annie Hall (Manhattan is probably my favorite, but I haven't seen Crimes and Misdemeanors yet) but I also like Match Point. True, it's not your typical Woody Allen film but consider this: If the film didn't have his name attached to it, would you like it more than you do now? Maybe it's all about the expectations. Simply because it's a very strong story with rich themes about love, loyalty and human sexual nature, presented in a masterful visual and aural composition, I love it. Therefore I find his sudden change of style quite exciting - only to see what else he's capable of doing. But of course, Match Point will not satisfy anyone with a strong urge to see a 'good old Woody Allen film'.

Haven't seen Cassandra's Dream yet, but everyone seems to agree it sucks. The fact that Lumet created a better example out of a similar concept probably doesn't help.

Michael J. Mendez said...

I guess I have to appreciate the fact that after thirty years of making movies, Woody has decided to try something different. I think his next one might be something different, but back in the old Allen vein.

Like the list, tho, but I have a soft spot for Bullets over Broadway and other Woody Allen movies where someone else plays the Woody Allen role.

Graham said...

I have to say, this is one damn fine Woody Allen list. The only things I'd change is moving Deconstructing Harry up a bit (it's certainly in my Top 5), some slight rearranging of the top 5 (Hannah or Manhattan at top for me), and dropping Take the Money and Run for my favorite of the "early, funny" ones: Sleeper.

As far as Match Point, yeah, that movie sucked. Scoop was so much better; it was kinda a bad movie, but had funny performances from Allen and Ian McShane. As for the master's almost two-decade long downhill slide, I have no idea what happened. I do know that he made Vicky Christina Barcelona because the Barcelona tourist board invited him to their town, which maybe doesn't bode well for artistic integrity...

Piper said...

No Sleeper?