Archive for the Woody Allen Retrospective Category

Scoop (Woody Allen) 2006

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on July 4, 2013 by moviemoses


Sorry, I know that’s not helpful. I also know many people find this to be a funny light comedy from Woody Allen as evidenced by its score on IMDb. All I know is I’ve seen this both times. Both of the times I’ve seen it have come after the good comeback of Match Point and both times this has killed the good will that came from that movie. Allen is like an addict to laziness and here he has had a relapse.

Scoop is about an American journalism student named Sondra (Scarlett Johansson). She gets a tip from the ghost of a legendary journalist (played by Ian McShane) that wealthy aristocrat Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a serial killer known as the Tarot Card Killer. Sondra tries to investigate but finds herself falling in love with him.

It is really not a good sign when Allen is seemingly going back to the realm of Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small Time Crooks. Alright, I’ve been trying to write about this movie and have been sitting in front of my computer for a long time because with all these movies and reviews, I am really struggling to think of things I haven’t said already. How fitting given the fact I am reviewing a director that is struggling to think of things he hasn’t said already.

I have bemoaned several times the laziness of Allen and maybe I need to go into that a bit more. I know several Allen apologists who will mention the fact he has made a movie every year since he started and it wasn’t effecting his quality before. To that, I say we are talking about a different Woody Allen. Younger Allen was energetic and had a million ideas bursting out of him. He was always experimenting with tones and styles and camera work. While he tried at times to emulate directors he loved, he was still trying to do his own thing. So while he made a movie a year, none of them felt lazy because they were earnest attempts at art.

Now it seems like Allen does movies, not from a genuine love of film but because he can’t be retired. It is like the man has no hobbies and no friends to hang out with so doing something like Jade Scorpion is a better thing to do during the work week rather than sitting at home doing nothing. The ideas for his comedies lately have been rejected joke concepts that he keeps in a dresser drawer that he blows the dust off of. It doesn’t help he makes cracks that he only does one take with actors because he would rather be at the Knicks game than doing this.

Younger Woody wouldn’t have made Scoop for the same reason he threw the joke concept in his desk drawer in the first place. It is because there isn’t enough to make a good movie out of it. The jokey premise is that a dead journalist comes back as a ghost to help this useless student crack a massive story but they do nothing humorous with it. The premise is there solely to get the plot moving but Ian McShane is wasted and so is the character. He just shows up every 10 minutes to say something like “You need to figure out who the Tarot Card Killer is.” and then disappear. That’s it.

Really the comedy in this movie is all about the kind of buddy cop-ish dynamic of Scarlett Johansson and Woody Allen. First off, Scarlett is just odd in this movie as she is I guess trying to do a Woody Allen impression like Branaugh and Cusack and it so doesn’t work. There are brief moments where Allen throws out a funny quip but for the most part, it seems like scene after scene of bickering that is trying to disguise itself as witty banter. I felt as if this movie was in a loop becuase every five minutes we would get this scene:

Sid: Peter is the Tarot Card Killer
Sondra: That’s crazy Sid! I swear you have a screw loose.
Sid: *stammering* Then how do you explain X.
Sondra: That could come from anywhere. Jesus Sid, how suspicious are you? Peter is a nice guy he couldn’t have done it!
Sid: *stammering* The guy is weird, Joe Stromberg…
Sondra: You’re wrong Sid. Peter wouldn’t hurt a fly! I’m done! You guys are crazy! You have a screw loose!

These scenes go on and on and on and on and on and they recur every couple of minutes. Where is the joke? Where is the witty banter? Yes, I know I’m not quoting verbatim but that is the gist. One person brings up a bit of circumstantial evidence and the other person whines that the other person is crazy. That’s it! By the 50 minute mark I was stupidly yelling at the TV to shut up because all the characters would do is pointlessly bicker at one another.

It doesn’t help that our main character seemingly doesn’t give a fuck about solving the case. Seriously, there is almost nothing in it for her. The story isn’t that Sondra is super motivated to be a journalist. She feels like she was forced to England out of obligation and the story falls in her lap. She doesn’t feel threatened by Peter and falls in love with him. So why should we care? Remember back to a movie called So I Married an Axe Murderer? It was a while ago when Mike Myers had a career. Anyway, that movie is a masterpiece compared to Scoop. The character in that movie is scared for his life and is actively looking for evidence that either confirms or denies his beliefs. Along the way he is put in awkward and sometimes life threatening situations. The story is always moving, the characters are motivated, and most importantly that movie was funny.

Scoop is not funny. Take one of the few recurring jokes of the movie in which Allen, who plays a minor magician called Splendini, wows upper class twits with stupid card tricks. I guess it is a joke that these snooty upper class aristocrats are amused by the same thing that would barely amuse a five year old but they don’t just stop with one time. Allen does that joke another three times during the movie. Or take another “joke” near the end where Sid dies trying to rescue Sondra because he always had trouble remembering to drive on the left side of the road. That joke is barely a joke for one but it is strange that that is seemingly the high point of the humor for this movie. I shouldn’t have to be digging for the jokes in this supposed comedy.

I know I am being a real grinch despite doing this retrospective out of love for Allen. But it is hard going through all of his movies and experiencing the dreadful lows this man has done. I know there are die hards who will disagree vehemently and who will call this a breezy fun comedy. To me Scoop was painful as it is 90 minutes of bickering and extremely forced comedy from someone with whom comedy was effortless at one point in his career. This was a hard movie to sit through this late in the retrospective.

Match Point (Woody Allen) 2005

Posted in M, Woody Allen Retrospective on July 4, 2013 by moviemoses

Match Point is about Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a semi professional tennis player who is now an instructor at a country club. He gets in a relationship with Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and has hopes of marrying into an upper class family. Trouble comes when Chris falls for struggling actress Nola (Scarlet Johansson) who threatens his family life.

Initial reactions toward Match Point probably were more glowing than they should be but I can certainly understand why. Slogging through Allen’s filmography recently has been like eating Ramen noodles for every meal for a month. Your first real meal back will probably seem like Filet Mignon no matter what. In this case, we don’t get Filet Mignon, but a well cooked steak nontheless.

The obvious movie to liken Match Point to is Crimes and Misdemeanors. But it would be unfair to say that even though they share the same themes that they are necessarily trying to do the same thing. While Crimes was trying to be a pure philosophical statement about morality, I think Match Point is settling for being a straight thriller. In Crimes, the murder was simply a means to get to the discussion. In Match Point, follow Chris as we learn all about him and his situation. Our questions are more about what he is going to do and whether he will get away with it or not, rather than musings about justice in a godless universe.

This is where the film really shines. Allen does a great job with creating tension in this movie. All during the crime we are unsure as to what mistakes he will make or whether anyone will see him. After it happens, we are on the edge of our seats during his interviews with the police and whether he will slip up with his story.

There are things that still keep this movie from being as interesteing as Crimes. For one, Chris is a little too cold and calculating to be a lead we can really get invested in. I get that was the point that Chris can think ahead which makes him capable of what he was doing. But in Crimes we could somewhat sympathize (at least a little bit) with Landau’s tortured character and his moral crisis. Chris’ cold demeanor has him come off more sociopathic than anything else.

I also found myself more entertained with the two stories of Crimes than the one in MP. The Allen subplot was a welcome respite from all the heavy material. In Match Point all we have is the one story which make things a little tedious by having it be one note.

Match Point is obviously no Crimes and Misdemeanors but it is still a very good and effective thriller. Allen effectively ramps up the tension when it comes to the third act. While the themes of morality and class are not as strong as in Crimes, they still do elevate the material. This is a refreshing film after the dreadful last couple of films and it doesn’t hurt it feels like Allen actually gives a crap on this one. This is definitely one worth recommending to people.

Anything Else (2003) Woody Allen

Posted in A, Woody Allen Retrospective on July 4, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $18 million
Worldwide Gross: $13 million

I don’t know about the world at large but I had no idea about this movie being released when it first came out. I remember first seeing it in the Blockbuster and by the box cover thought it was a lame Direct to Video cash in on the mild success of the American Pie films. Then I looked on the back and saw it was done by Woody Allen and then thought “How far has he fallen that he has to do DTV films now?” Well, it got a theatrical release and despite initial bomb status, has found a cult following. Sure, there are many that hate it, but it does have its defenders. Quentin Tarantino has it as one of the best movies in the last 25 years and even Allen considers this as one of the best movies he’s done that best represents him.

Anything Else is about young comedy writer Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs). Jerry is trying to come into his own despite a bad talent manager (Danny DeVito) with the help of older mentor David Dobel (played by Allen). During this he has a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci).

I would have played “Stop if you’ve heard this before” but you would have stopped me at “Set in New York…” before even getting to Annie Hall, writers, intellectuals, actress, jazz score, relationships, evil women, etc. So okay, this is a modern “Greatest Hits” of Annie Hall. Clearly this movie has found its fans and maybe initial press was bad because of recent failures. Once again, the point of this is to find hidden gems. Sorry to disappoint you guys but I will not be in agreement with Quentin Tarantino.

One of criticisms for this movie is the portrayal of women; mainly Amanda. No longer are the women in Allen’s movies just slightly neurotic or finnicky but now straight up evil harpies. Amanda doesn’t just do wrong, but he seemingly has malicious intent. As I mentioned in a previous review, in the past Allen was much more able to take as well as he gave. In Annie Hall, Annie may have issues, but Alvy was just as bad if not worse. In Anything Else, Amanda is evil and Jerry is as innocent as an angel.

Now I could forgive this if the writing were better. I could see a movie about a shy door mat who meets a brash mentor who teaches him to take control of his life. In that case, you can play the humor more broadly and have the characters be more shallow. Anything Else kind of plays like that in how Jerry has David who dispenses wisdom at the drop of a hat. The problem is that relationship isn’t fully capitalized on and the comedy isn’t as wacky as it should be. All David does is state the obvious: you should dump your agent, you should dump Amanda, etc. He should be putting Jerry in wacky situations to build his confidence. There is one scene like that where David comically beats on a bully’s car with a tire iron but the whole movie should have been like that. I’m thinking more Trent from Swingers, and Woody is thinking more like a nebbish Qui Gon Jinn.

I got fed up with the characters in this movie. Amanda is obviously the antagonist so you can’t be interested in her. But Jerry is so pathetic we don’t care about him either. It doesn’t help that we never get that big a turnaround in his character or that the antagonists don’t get a proper comeuppance. Because of all that I could never really get into the movie or the comedic situations.

I will give both credit and criticism for the casting of Jason Biggs. The credit is that Biggs isn’t like all the other non-Woody castings in that he doesn’t try to do an impersonation of Woody. I am so sick of other actors trying stutter and wildly gesticulate trying to make Woody happy and here Biggs just plays a nice kid. It is rather refreshing to just have Biggs seemingly be himself which comes off as more casual. The criticism comes in more about the writing of Allen in that Jason Biggs cannot deliver the lines. Biggs has to give the same pretentious lines about Dostoevsky and deliver the same witty banter Allen would and he just can’t do it. It is not in Biggs’ character to say those lines so his prattling about existentialism or whatever goes over like a lead balloon.

Anything Else didn’t do much of anything to keep me interested. At best it can be amusing especially with the relationship between Jerry and David where the chemistry really comes through. But most of the time the humor was played too tame for it to either be witty or zany. The characters hurt the movie the most by being either being so passive or malicious that you can’t be invested in what happens to them. This isn’t among the worst Allen has done (although his recent work has really lowered the bar) but it is not good either. This is only for those extremely forgiving of Allen’s lesser works.

Hollywood Ending (2002) Woody Allen

Posted in H, Woody Allen Retrospective on May 29, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $16 million
Worldwide Gross: 14.5 million

Val (Woody Allen) is a director that has had a recent string of failures. His ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni) pulls some strings in order to get him the latest big film to get him back on track. A problem arises though when Val develops psychosomatic blindness on set.

I hope you like one joke because that is all this movie has to offer. The joke being repeated is how Woody stares blankly in the distance instead of looking someone in the face and he also trips over things. I’m sorry I don’t have much to dissect and analyze but that is the long and the short of it. We have Woody Allen stumbling around for two hours. You know, one of the things I admired most about Allen prior is his sense of timing for a movie. I said before he was probably hard wired by his experience as a stand up to get in and out with the material as fast as possible. Most of his movies hover around 90 minutes as a result (with some comedies barely at 80 minutes) and I am very grateful. There is usually no fat on his movies and they move at a very brisk pace. Real life Woody Allen must have suffered a brain injury because he thought this movie had so much material, he couldn’t possible trim this from 112 minutes. Just for some perspective, Crimes and Misdemeanors, a philosophical musing about morality and justice in the universe is about 100 minutes. This movie about Woody bumping into chairs is 12 minutes longer than that.

This is all contingent on the physical humor in this movie being funny. Comedy is of course a subjective thing, but in my opinion this is so not funny. Maybe because I think of slapstick as being a young man’s game. It is something to see for example Jim Carrey flopping around and getting hit and quite another to see a late 60’s Jim Carrey get the shit beat out of him. One of these is cartoonish, and the other is elder abuse. But the other thing is this physical humor isn’t varied or fresh. A physical comedian could think of entire set pieces around a person being blind. This is an extreme example but Charlie Chaplin I’m sure could make a movie about a blind guy going here and there or playing a sport or driving a car etc. In Hollywood Ending, Allen thinks it is the height of hilarity that Woody can’t look someone in the face because he is blind. Of course, that joke doesn’t work either because a blind person can fucking hear someone and point their face in the direction where someone is talking. It is also so gut busting to see Woody bumping into furniture. It is not. You are no Buster Keaton Woody, you are not even Mr. Bean.

Even his dialog isn’t funny anymore. Much like in Jade Scorpion, we have a scene where Allen and Leoni establish their relationship, and it is just as agonizing. I think there is a big difference with how Allen treats his women now as in the past. In the past, Allen was always very self deprecating. He was willing to take as much as he gave out. But here, Allen comes off as a very bitter and cruel old man. Prior to this scene Ellie begs the studio exec to hire Val again. And keep in mind, Ellie had no ulterior motives here. She was doing this out of the kindness of her heart. Ellie meets with Val to lay out the groundwork of the movie. The „comedy“ of this scene is that Ellie wants to get to business, but Val interrupts by ranting about how she left him. Again, all that we know up to this point is Ellie is a nice girl who did an altruistic act and Val is making a complete and utter ass out of himself by yelling at a soft spoken woman in the middle of a crowded restaurant. What an asshole. Then he completely screws the movie by filming it blind costing the studio exec millions. Allen wants us to rejoice this because the studio exec is supposed to be an asshole. But we see nothing but the fact he is a loving boyfriend who gave a failing director a break because he is a nice guy. Wow, what a fucking asshole. And we have to sit through nearly two hours of this unlikable asshat as he makes everyone’s lives miserable through unfunny physical comedy? Oh joy! No no, please Woody, I want the three hour extended edition please.

Okay I am starting to rant and I’ll stop. Point is Hollywood Ending is shallow and unfunny to say the least. There is just not enough imagination to keep this premise going 90 minutes let alone 112 minutes. What was once effortless, now is a Herculean effort to even elicit one chuckle from me in a two hour film. This part of his career truly is the pits.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) Woody Allen

Posted in C, Woody Allen Retrospective on May 29, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $33 million
Worldwide Gross: $18 million

CW Briggs (Woody Allen) is an insurance investigator who is currently having trouble at work with the new efficiency expert Betty (Helen Hunt). The two hate one another but are drawn together on a case when a hypnotist (played by David Ogden Stiers) hypnotizes them and forces them to steal jewels without their knowledge.

Ten minutes. That was literally the moment where I said „Oh no.“ at the concept of watching the rest of this movie. There is a scene so bad that starts this movie and it encapsulates perfectly how the rest of the movie is going to fail. It is a scene where Allen and Hunt are in a resteraunt trying to establish their work relationship. I know what Woody Allen was trying to do, but it ends up being a complete disaster. Allen is trying to make a romantic comedy about a couple that starts off as adversaries but become lovers. The movie that immediately sprung to mind is Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. But then upon saying that you realize why this would go horribly wrong even on paper. Woody Allen, even on his best day, is no Cary Grant. Woody Allen is the intellectual who can spout jokes off at the drop of a hat and who has a witty retort to anything. Cary Grant is the kind of person who would steal Woody’s girlfriend without any effort because he is so damn suave and sexy, and Woody would still probably end up being his friend because Grant plays the lovable rogue perfectly. They are damn near as opposite as you can get. And as I said before, that is even on Allen’s best day. This is 69 year old Woody Allen who sounds more like a confused old man rather than the rapid fire comedian of old.

You watch this scene play out and you are painfully aware of the disconnect between what should be there and what actually is there. You should see two sexy actors who are exchanging pithy barbs at one another and who are trying their best to conceal their attraction to one another. What we get is a pervy old man and a shrill secretary bicker and bicker and bicker and bicker until the scene mercifully ends. But it doesn’t end, because you still have the rest of the movie to go.

I’m sorry to keep harping on that one scene but it really is the movie. Stuff happens, the couple meet to bicker over what happened, more pointless stuff happens, the couple meet to bicker more, boring plot reveal, more bickering, conclusion, they love each other…for some reason. This on screen chemistry was supposed to be what carried the movie and when it died in the first ten minutes, you know you are in for a long ride.

I really don’t know what else was supposed to be interesting or funny about this. We know from the beginning what the plot is but for some reason we have to follow Allen as he tries to piece together a mystery we already know the answer to. You may think the characters might do some wacky things while under hypnosis but they don’t. Every couple scenes, Stiers’ character calls up to give the trigger word, Allen goes off like a zombie to steal jewels, and that’s it. Where’s the humor in that? I can understand a scenario in which it could be funny. For example if we had a movie where a hypnotist programmed several code commands in our main character and these codes could make him act in several different ways (for example he could think he was Don Juan or a tough guy like The Rock or some comedian etc.). The hypnotist thinks he eliminates the code words at the end of the show but our main character for some reason keeps them. So during the course of normal life, people use these ordinary words in conversation which are the code words which makes our character transform into another person altogether. Hilarity ensues. I shouldn’t be thinking of funnier movies while watching your crappy movie.

What else can I really say without repeating myself? Oh, this was the first time I was creeped out by the age difference in a Woody Allen romance. We have this scene where Chalize Theron is practically throwing herself onto Allen’s character and I have to admit I was feeling a bit uncomfortable. Seriously, it was semi-unbelievable in the 70’s and now its disturbing.

This movie was a chore. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but at one point I just had this on in the background while trying to beat Gradius on one life. You will find some apologist who loves any Woody Allen movie, but this one more than any other is the one pointed to as the low point in Allen’s career. This is an absolute botch of a filmmaking experience. It is like if Gordon Ramsey tried to make Filet Mignon and he somehow ended up with Jack in the Box Pizza Bites. Do not watch this, even if you feel you are a Woody Allen completist.

Small Time Crooks (2000) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on April 30, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: between $18 million and $25 million
Worldwide Gross: $29 million

I can’t find a solid number on the budget although I’ve had more say more pinned this at the 18 number rather than 25. This movie was one of his biggest recent US box office successes at the time although for the purposes of my blog a movie has to at least double budget to be considered a success.

This is where the fatigue REALLY sets in. This is bad because it is not even like I’ve seen these movies back to back to back. I started with Tiger Lily in mid 2011. Sometimes work has gotten in the way and sometimes it has been difficult to get copies of some movies (Small Time Crooks was surprisingly difficult) but it has taken some time. That being said it still doesn’t change the fact I’ve seen over 30 films from one guy and it fills me with absolute dread that only now am I entering the supposed bad period in Allen’s career. I know some people want to give the claim „Even bad Woody Allen movies are better than 99% of the stuff that is currently in theaters“. That is a nice platitude but that is unfortunately not true. I may not be the biggest Woody Allen fan seeing as how I have given some negative reviews to some of his more widely regarded films but even the best of directors can churn out shit when they want. It took me a while to actually put this movie in and not just because of delays in finding it. It was because I had to wait to be in a good enough frame of mind so I wouldn’t come in with a bad attitude and shit on it for no good reason. So after all that, here is what I think of Small Time Crooks.

Ray (Woody Allen) is a loser crook who has an idea for a heist. He is going to rent out the property of a store and dig a tunnel to the bank to rob it. He has his wife Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) run a cookie shop as a front. The heist fails but the cookie business does so well it makes them millionaires.

What’s odd is all the trailers I initially saw focused on the robbery portion when in actuality it is only a third of a film. And really I can see why because this was the best part of the movie. This is where you get all the characters together and the comedy can snap quickly between Woody Allen and Michael Rappaport and Jon Lovitz and Tracy Ullman, etc. Sure the comedy is very predictable and weak but it is fun enough that I thought if they could sustain it for the running time, this would be a good movie. Then we get to the other parts.

The second act is when Ray and Frenchy make their millions and if it didn’t feel like a sitcom before, it really feels like one now. We transition from a modern Honeymooners episode to a Woody Allen version of Married With Children. Seriously it is like Allen wrote a special episode where Al and Peggy get rich and they have to deal with those snooty upper class twits. But if there is a character I do not equate with Woody Allen, it is the semi-abusive lower class bum Al Bundy. Hell, I honestly don’t know why they didn’t cast him for this. This just didn’t work for me at all. For one it seems odd that Allen, who is almost a proud intellectual snob himself, is trying to write himself as the hero of the working man. But it all comes off as so weak and poorly written. Oh those rich snobs! All they eat are snails and caviar! Why can’t they eat a burger and watch the game? Seriously that’s how lazy this all seems. I’m surprised we didn’t get a person with a monocle to show up. It also doesn’t work in the fact that Allen does his best when he gives witty dialog. Here he is trying to play the shlubby every man and he cannot pull it off.

The third act seems like a desperate attempt to get to 90 minutes as we get an overstuffed ending where they lose their fortune and they try another heist and this character does this and this character does that and blah blah blah I don’t care.

At best this would have been a great two parter episode for Roseanne or Married with Children or what the hell ever. The humor is TV safe and is kind of carried by the good character actors Allen assembles around him. Unfortunately Allen quickly loses track of the humor and any good narrative. The rags to riches falls flat at best, and dies a slow painful death at worst. Allen both plays against type and writes against type and it shows in the forced and out of character humor. This may have worked in the 50’s but this is absolutely no good today.

Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on April 30, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $29.7 million
Worldwide Gross: $4 million

Sweet and Lowdown is a mockumentary about Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) who is a jazz guitarist in the 1930’s who was considered the second best jazz guitarist (first being Django Reinhardt). Many wild stories are told about Ray and we also learn about him falling in love with a mute (played by Samantha Morton).

This review may be really short but that is becuase my feelings are rather simple on it. This movie is absolutely carried by the performance of Sean Penn. Emmet Ray could have easily been a despicable character portrayed by most anyone else. Penn perfectly plays Ray as both a selfish prick, but also someone who is charming and slightly vulnerable. He also has to play the balancing act of being wildly over the top for the comic scenes, but at the same time make the dramatic scenes believable without giving the audience tonal whiplash.

The performances of Penn and also Morton (who gives a charming silent performance), elevate this movie from just a good movie in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the production is good. Allen does have a good sense of nostalgia as you get the feelings Allen probably gets with the time and the music. The writing and the overal story is also written well. I guess this is where some Allen fatigue sets in as I say the problem is I’ve seen the nostalgia and themes before. I’ll cover this later in my next review, but this is where seeing about 30 Allen films in a short time takes its toll. I will freely admit I would like this a lot more if this had been one of my firsts as opposed to being this late in the game.

Sweet and Lowdown is a sweet little movie. It is one of Allen’s most popular now and it is easy to see why. It is completely inoffensive and fun nostalgia trip which is carried by one of the best performances in an Allen movie ever. The rest of the movie is good, but they don’t quite feel on par with some of Allen’s true masterpieces. This is a movie I want to revisit down the road when my batteries are recharged and some of the elements don’t seem so stale. For now I liked this film, but I didn’t love it.