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Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

   One of the most intelligent and mature movies of Woody Allen's career, as well as one of his most accessible, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) blows apart the anhedonic nebbish of his best early films and resolves that the meaning of life is life. 
   The movie concerns Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) and the men who keep messing up their lives as those men try in vain to remain relevant. Hannah is married to a well-off accountant named Elliot (Michael Caine) who is in love with Lee. She is involved in an odd relationship with Frederick (Max von Sydow), a frustrated but gifted artist many years her senior. Holly exploits Hannah's need to be liked by hitting her up for permanent loans as she struggles to find her purpose in life. Holly has even survived a date with Mickey (Woody Allen), who just happens to be Hannah's ex-husband. If this description sounds soap opera-esque, the characterizations run infinitely more deep than that. 
   Part of what makes this movie so special and spectacular is the way plot and characterization become one and the same. Everyone here is searching for something. If you asked each person, she or he would give an answer specific to that character. By the end of the film, however, we recognize that they have all been seeking the age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Just as in real life, not everyone arrives at an answer. Von Sydow's character is perhaps the most sympathetic because as he loses Lee, we ache with the knowledge that she has been his sole (soul) connection with the world outside his home studio. His self-analysis gets projected out at the world--and not in a favorable way--to the point where he watches television just to have something that makes him feel superior. 
   While I will resist giving away more of the story, I will tell you that the story appears to have been extremely important to the director. Gone are the self-conscious camera angles and affinity for black and white cinematography. Nowhere do we find the homage to foreign filmmakers. What we do get are living, breathing people with honest problems that materialize through deception, desperation, exploration and even a bit of procreation. This was a major evolutionary leap in Allen's development. By the mid-1970s, he had already joined the ranks of the world's best filmmakers (Kubrick, Kurasawa, Bergman, Fellini, Vargas, Altman, Godard). With Hannah and Her Sisters, he became a stylist of the tallest order.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

BLACK AND WHITE FIREWORKS

Manhattan
   
   The star of Woody Allen's movie Manhattan (1979) is the one named in the title. The people who move through the veins and arteries of this motion picture pump the heart and flex the neurons, yet it is the borough itself that is the protagonist of this beautiful film. From the opening sequence that ends in stratospheric celebration to the ending that begins with a boyish grin of anticipatory dread, Manhattan sings its own song, speaks of itself, writes its own future, directs its own blocking, strategically casts its shadows, meticulously sprinkles its pixie dust of light throughout its planetarium and floods its streets with a diversity as broad and wondrous as that of life itself. 
    In 1979 Woody Allen was the king of the world. Fresh and hot off the success of staying in Michael's Pub to play clarinet on the night the Academy Awards bestowed deserved honors for Annie Hall and the tepid yet kind reviews of Interiors, he was poised to make whatever kind of movie he wanted. What he created was a picture of the breadth of despair camouflaged in horse-drawn carriages through Central Park, smart jokes about the stupidity of intellectualism, the puerile attraction of a young Mariel Hemingway that gets transmogrified into something extremely legitimate, the total rejection by a magnificent Meryl Streep, and the brain diseased narcissism of Diane Keaton (I'm speaking here of these actors' characters, of course, not the women themselves) within a room that pours out into the city while friendships--hard won--disintegrate like particulates of pollution, all for the sake of that illusive bastard Love. 
    Because it is Woody Allen, we are also given tremendous insights into his character's feelings about the sterility of television, the struggle to express anger rather than to grow a tumor, the lies of a literary life, and pretentious people going to see movies with titles they cannot even pronounce. Also because it is Woody Allen, we get all kinds of subtle items that hop up and tap us on the shoulder before running away, such as the fact that about half the interior scenes in this movie begin with bookshelves in their backgrounds, or the siting of two lovers who pass on the street looking very much like the two in Annie Hall who made reference to their own shallowness, or the orchestrated facial interaction among Allen, Keaton, Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne as they attempt to establish an awkward equilibrium at the symphony. It's all love and hate, suicide and despair, smart jokes and betrayal, and you'll love it even if you live out west.
    It also has a short sequence with the late Michael O'Donoghue, and for that alone your time will be well-spent. Plus you get to see the also late-Bella Abzug. So buy your tickets, clean your DVD-players, polish your Christmas tree lights: it's time for you to get transported to Manhattan

Friday, May 11, 2012

THE FURIOUS ILLUSIONS OF WOODY ALLEN

Woody Allen
    Alvy Singer relates a joke near the end of Annie Hall, a bit of corny humor he uses to make a point about love. "This guy goes to a psychiatrist and tells him, 'Doctor, it's my brother. He thinks he's a chicken.' The psychiatrist says, 'Why don't you turn him in?' The guy says, 'Can't do it. We need the eggs.'"
    That joke offers a grand state of mind in which to enjoy the movies of Woody Allen. They may be illogical, maddening, even ridiculous, but just as with love, we need the eggs.
    The writer-actor-director made his bones with blatant comedies such as Bananas and Take the Money and Run, then plied an intellectual skill to what would later be thought of as romantic comedies such as Play It Again, Sam, Sleeper, and Love and Death. Then came the deluge. Annie Hall (1977), which no less a personage than Gene Shalit referred to (even at that time)) as Woody Allen's breakthrough movie, a film so good that on Oscar night the director decided to play clarinet at Michael's rather than go collect his Academy Award. Interiors (1978) was a bit of a stumble, an intensely serious film presented to an audience primed to expect intellectual slap-stick. Then seemingly from out of nowhere exploded the raging beauty of Manhattan (1979), the first of a series of black and white exercises in post-natal delivery, where Allen the director at last freed himself up enough to take chances that he could not have dared while still learning his craft. The scene of the stars in the background where Allen and Diane Keaton escape the rain is worth ten times the price of admission all by itself and the humanist Allen emerges for perhaps the first time, although certainly not for the last.


     There followed a bit of a retreat after the commercial and critical success of Manhattan. Stardust Memories (1980), beautifully filmed and psychologically studious, felt to many people like an attack on the audience that had stayed with Woody all those years, what with the constant reminder from walk-on characters in the film demanding that Sandy Bates (looking for all the world like Marcello Mastroianni) return to making funny movies again, although the scene at the UFO convention rips with a violent hilarity ("Aliens took over the planet long ago. And I'm the only one who knows!") Still, it was better than no Woody Allen movie at all and I think most people felt good that the director still had his edge.
     Allen slid back considerably with his next picture, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), a movie which seemed to be nothing more than a pale attempt to blend high art with Allen's desire to force new paramour Mia Farrow into the deserted shoes of Diane Keaton. 
    But all was forgiven with the cinematic and story-telling brilliance of his next five consecutive smashes. Beginning with Zelig (1983) and ending (perhaps) with Radio Days (1987), Woody Allen proved beyond all doubt that he had the outraged humility and shiny sharp imagination of the best speculative or fantasy/fiction writers. 
    Right smack dab in the middle of this barrage of brilliance appeared the first of the two films under discussion today, that being Broadway Danny Rose (1984). Allen inhabits the title role, that of a third-rate talent agent and manager who books borderline acts like a blind xylophone player and a one-legged tap dancer, as well as a beautiful woman who plays songs by touching the tops of glasses. One of Danny's problems is that every time he actually discovers someone with genuine talent, he helps the person get near to the big time glare of success and the soon-to-be-a-star leaves him for a more prestigious manager. Danny Rose is genuinely mystified by this treasonous behavior. He simply cannot understand how his friends would come to treat him this way. He is puzzled by this and that bewilderment is in turn one of the main reasons that he has stayed small time. And yet everyone struggling in the business knows Danny Rose and everyone has a favorite story about him, especially the older comedians who are now struggling to make ends meet. It is through their eyes that we get to know Danny Rose and even the most hilarious perspectives on this dear man shatter the heart like a glass tossed against a fireplace. The one story which forms the main thrust of the film reveals Danny's and Woody's recurring humanism, as well as their humanity, which are not necessarily one and the same thing. When the talent agent finds himself betrayed by a lousy lounge singer whom Danny has risked his very life in order to give the man the break of all breaks, we watch Rose (what a perfect name!) celebrating Thanksgiving with his other clients, talking about how TV turkey dinners are maybe even better than the regular kind. Broadway Danny Rose does justice to those of us who never gave up on Allen's ability to cast furious illusions across the eyes of the movie theatre. 


    Nevertheless, perhaps because his budgets often exceeded the box office gross, Woody Allen stopped getting the type of distribution necessary and appropriate for a filmmaker of his worth. And so it was a few years before he came back stronger than ever with the floodgate-bursting beauty of Shadows and Fog (1992). If Annie Hall was the first breakthrough and Zelig the second, certainly Shadows and Fog was the third. Based loosely on a one-act stage play called Death, which in turn was based on a section of his book Without Feathers, S&F reasserted the humanism of comedy without sacrificing the inherent courage required to go out on a stage, or appear on a movie screen, attempting to make people laugh, something painfully understood by the clown character played by John Malkovich, only one of about twenty brilliant actors in this spooky and even occasionally disturbing movie. Among the others are Donald Pleasence (in quite possibly the creepiest role he has ever had), Lily Tomlin (who evokes more about loving a man than any lesbian who ever lived), William H. Macy (although you have to look hard to find him), Jodie Foster (looking, I am embarrassed to admit, sexier than at any time in her adult life), Kathy Bates (perfect, as always), Madonna (who delivers her lines with all the skill of a young Katharine Hepburn), David Ogden Stiers (quite intimidating, however briefly), Mia Farrow (still in the director's good graces and still not quite what the audience had come to expect), John Cusack (as the rancid intellectual, type-casting in all likelihood), John C. Reilly (from a time when no one outside his family knew his name), and (again, if you look close) Fred Gwynne. But this is much more than a movie with some of Allen's favorite people in it or something to do with a script that was just lying around. This movie was all about furious illusions, about how a nebbish accountant-type person finds himself in absurd circumstances--so absurd and comic they would mystify Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka--and how he comes to terms with his own latent courage by at long last joining the circus, just the metaphorical way we all do if we are lucky enough to figure out who we really are. 


    Well, after that Woody started getting all good and stuff and making critically acclaimed movies that were only ever shown in New York City and other presumed cultural meccas, except for the excellent Deconstructing Harry (1997), which got a wide release, and last year's shoulda-been-a-winner Midnight in Paris. The fact is he hasn't made a movie since Shadows and Fog that has been anything less than wonderful and deserving of all the accolades received. 
     As something of a post script, I should remind you that Barbara Kopple created what I think was a fascinating documentary of Allen on a tour of Europe called Wild Man Blues (1997) during which he played clarinet. Even though I doubt this movie revealed anything that Woody didn't want it to show, the scene with his parents, where his father is particularly unimpressed with some reward a town has given to his son, is so touching it bites nearly fifteen years later. Anyone who thinks they don't like Allen should watch that scene before deciding for sure. 

   By way of following up on yesterday's report of homegrown terrorists near Disney World (CLICK HERE), here is the latest from our southern colony. 
Prior to their arrests last week, members of the American Front (or AF) apparently plotted to attack  an anti-racism group during a May Day rally in Melbourne, Florida. They filled a car with firearms, began making other weapons and came to Brevard County to do surveillance on their anti-racist skinhead opponents. 

    I will now quote from the sworn affidavit of Special Agent Kelly Boaz. 
    "The American Front is a militia-styled, anti-Semitic skinhead organization and is a known domestic terrorist organization. Marcus Faella [one of those arrested Tuesday] has been planning and preparing the AF for what he believes to be an inevitable race war. Faella has stated his intent during the race war is to kill Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. . . Faella views himself and the other members of the AF group as the protectors of the white race. He regularly conducts firearms, explosives, and military/tactical training for AF members and other white supremacist groups. He conducts his training on the property located at 6173 Harris Road, St. Cloud, Florida, and on the Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is several hundred acres of Florida woodland and swamp. . . The Faella property is surrounded by barbed wire fence and contains two pit bulls. [They] have built three fortified entrenchments out of railroad timbers and these are staggered and focused  toward the driveway. . . Faella has cut firing ports out of the sides of his trailer. . ." 
    According to a confidential informant who was privy to the goings on in the compound over the last few months, Faella conducted routine weapons training, including procedures for how to break down automatic and semi-automatic weapons. 
    Late yesterday afternoon, CNN reported that an eleventh member of the American Front was arrested, this person being Verlin Lewis. Mr. Lewis is charged with the same three crimes as the other ten, being conducting paramilitary training, firing into an occupied dwelling, and exhibiting hate-prejudice while in the commission of another crime. 
    Incidentally, just out of curiosity, I tried to go to the American Front's website, but it has been disabled. However, I was able to find some sickening hate-talk on a site that calls itself Volksfront International, a twisted group that considers itself a "secular, fraternal" organization out to protect the white race and those of European decent. I mention this because these folks, in common with the American Front, preach not only an inevitable race war, but advocate what counter-terrorism specialists refer to as a "third position," which, as we discussed yesterday, rejects capitalism as a Zionist conspiracy and associates itself as an alternative to leftist or right-wing politics, despite its undeniable thumping of goosesteps and fondness for the images of a boot stamping on a face forever.