In 1993, whilst under heavy fire from the media regarding his split with Farrow and in the middle of a nasty custody battle over custody of their children, Woody Allen released yet another movie. “Manhattan Murder Mystery” is a light hearted romp that reunites him with Diane Keaton in a role originally intended for Farrow. Keaton and Allen play a high class married couple who accidentally stumble upon what they believe to be a murder. Co-Starring Alan Alda and Angelica Huston the movie is fun, frivolous watch which showed that the on screen chemistry between Allen and Keaton was still there after all those years. It also proved that regardless of what was happening in his personal life Woody Allen was still an accomplished and extremely focused film director. He escaped from the pressures of reality by immersing himself in even more work.
In 94 he directed “Don’t Drink the Water”, a TV movie based on a play he had written in the 70’s. Set in the US embassy in Russia, the TV movie starred Michael J Fox as the son of an American ambassador who falls for the daughter of a visiting American family. The movie is available to buy on Region 1 DVD and it is worth a watch, Fox is a perfect lead for this piece and Allen plays the father of the tourist family making for great comic relief.
That same year saw the release of “Bullets Over Broadway”, a comedic crime caper that was right up his alley. Set in the 20’s the film follows the struggles of aspiring playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) who reluctantly aggress to cast the ditzy girlfriend of a dangerous mobster as the lead in his debut play in order to secure financing for it. The film is again, like the best Allen movies, a wonderful comedy of error with many twists and turns and whip sharp dialogue. It also features great turns from Dianne Wiest as an overbearing diva actress and Chazz Palminteri as a mobster who has more knowledge, love and skills in regards writing and staging the play than Cusack’s character. It’s a very clever and wholey original comedy that still holds up as one of Allen’s greatest works. He seemed to be doing pretty good for himself after losing Farrow who served as his muse throughout the 80’s.
1995’s “Mighty Aphrodite” is another classic movie where Woody Allen plays a character who looks into his adopted son’s lineage only to discover that the boy’s biological mother is in a fact an absent minded prostitute played to perfection by Mia Sorvino. Inspired by the myth of Pygmalion, the film is backed by the imaginative use of a Greek chorus as a narrative device. Woody Allen now in his third decade as a writer/director was still pushing the envelope and experimenting with new styles and story telling techniques, and as “Aphrodite” goes to show, it was still paying off.
He went even further with his next movie “Everyone Says I Love You” by making it a musical, a very brave move for such an established director. With an all star cast, Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Alan Alda, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore and Allen himself – the movie featured New York neurotics and their convoluted amusing love lives set to show tunes standards of the 20s, 30’s and 40’s. It is a remarkable movie, one that many expected Allen to fail with. Luckily he knocked the ball out of the park with this movie, giving further proof (although to be honest, at this stage none was needed) that he is the one the most talented directors around, able to turn his hand to any genre, put his own stamp on it and have it prove to be a success. The highlight of the movie is the final number between Allen and Hawn, two former lovers, who do a wonderful slow dance under the moonlight in Paris whilst singing ‘I’m Through with Love’. The scene features some remarkably impressive aerial dance moves and is all filmed in one breathtaking shot.
97’s “Deconstructing Harry” is another underrated film that stars Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore and Woody himself. It’s loosey based on Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” but unlike previous attempts to pay his respect to Bergman’s work, this movie is executed with an unmistakable Allen touch. His next movie “Celebrity” although an admirable effort falls short of greatness due to it’s meandoring story and a slightly irrating performance from it’s leading man Kenneth Branagh. 99’s “Sweet and Lowdown” fared much better, featuring Sean Penn as Emmet Ray -the words second best guitar player The film follws his frustrations with living in the shadow of Django Reinhart and includes a stellar performance from Samantha Morton as Penn’s mute love interest.
Allen entered the new millenium with “Small Time Crooks”, a slight yet enjoyable pieece, co starring Tracy Ullman and Hugh Grant. 2001 brought us “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” a film which makred the beginning of Allen’s cinematic slump. Like I said in Part 1 of this retrospective, even a bad Woody Allen movie bears some merit and to it’s credit “Scorpion” did feature a charming premise of Woody Allen as a 1920’s insurance investigator who is brainwashed into becoming a jewel thief by a nefarious hypnotist. It also has a cracking climactic set piece. Unfortunately his next following film did not have as much going for it. “Hollywood Ending” is perhaps the worst film Woody Allen has made. It is a lifeless comedy about a moive director who loses his sight during production. Allen plays the lead role and does his best with it but ultimately it is his most underwhelming work where many of the jokes fall flat and the one gag plot does little to hold your interest. Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci starred in his 2003 effort “Anything Goes”. This movie would have been a perfectly enjoyable Rom-Com had it come from anybody else, but as a Woody Allen film it is well off the mark. Three bad movies in a row it seemed like Woody Allen was finally, after all these years losing his touch.
Thankfully his creativity blossomed again with “Melinda and Melinda”. A fantastically conceived movie which tells the same story twice, once as a comedy and once as a tragedy. I love this film and think that it bears a wonderful, thoughtful and ingenious premise, and although critical reception upon it’s release was quiet mixed none could argue that it was an original idea and went to prove that Allen still had a fire in him that made him a director who was not afraid to experiment and try new ideas and story telling techniques.
Creatively rejuvenated from his experimental “Melinda and Melinda”, Allen went on to write and direct one of his biggest box office hits- “Match Point”. Set in London, this gripping erotically charged thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlet Johansson was a huge success. It surprised both movie goers and film critics who deemed Allen too old and out of touch to produce anything relevant to modern cinema. The film’s success led Allen to shoot his next movie “Scoop” in London also and again feature Johansson. The film, while no where near as popular or as gripping as “Match Point”, is a light hearted, harmless little comedy that includes a game turn from Hugh Jackman as a villainous magician, and Allen and Johansson as the reporters on his trail. Capping off his “London Trilogy” is 2007’s “Cassandra’s Dream”, a gloomy murder thriller starring Colin Farrell and Ewan Macgregor as feuding brothers. The film is unremarkable and plays like a feature episode of East Enders. Like “Anything Else”, “Cassandra’s Dream” would have been a fairly passab le mediocre film had it been made by anyone else but coming from Allen it sorely lacks in the wit and masterful craft of previous efforts, especially coming after the success of “Match Point“.
As you will have no doubt guessed by now, when Woody Allen produces a poor movie, it is inevitable he redeems himself with an absolutely cracking, entertaining and original piece of cinema. This was the case with his “Cassandra” follow-up “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. This movie reunited him once more with Johansson and also starred, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz who famously won an Oscar for her role as a mentally fragile jilted lover. Like “Match Point”, Allen surprised everybody by making such a contemporary, youthful and energetic film, even though he was in his mid 70’s. This film is also similar to “Match Point” in that you would be forgiven for thinking it belonged to another director rather than Allen. It is remarkable that even this late in his career he has never turned stale. Even with the few missteps in his catalogue he has always found a way to keep things fresh and interesting. His next two films 2009’s “Whatever Works” starring Larry David and 2010’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” featuring an all star ensemble cast (Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin) were returns to standard entertaining Allen fare, with witty dialogue, feuding families and unsuspecting plot twists. They were perfectly enjoyable and kept Allen on the map. However in 2011 he released a movie that returned him to the former heights of “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”.
“Midnight in Paris” is a magical film that reminds you of not just how ingenious Allen is a wrier/director but also how important he is to modern cinema. The movie stars Owen Wilson as a Hollywood screenwriter who longs to be a novelist but lacks the inspiration and motivation. While visiting Paris with his fiancé he takes a midnight stroll through the Parisian streets and ends up back in the 1920’s where the film comes to life. To say any more would ruin the great story that Allen set’s up for Wilson. It is a very intelligent and original concept that also deals with quiet heavy themes, such as nostalgia and wheter or not it’s good to cling to ideas of the past or to let go and make the most of the present. In an age of needless sequels, endless reboots and lacklustre forgettable movies “Midnight in Paris” was a well needed shot in the arm. It is cinema at it’s purest, witty, magical, breathtaking and effortlessly charming. To think that Woody Allen still has it in him to produce such timeless work is unbelievable. He is still as relevant and as important to cinema as he was when he first started back in 1969 with “Take the Money and Run”.
Currently putting the finishing touches on his latest movie “Nero Fiddled”, Allen, aged 78, still has plenty of stories worth telling and a loyal dedicated audience who will follow him. This week do yourself a favour and check out one of his movies, be it through the BFI retrospective or on DVD. He is one of the greatest movie directors of all time and an important figure to the history of cinema.
Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen is currently screening at the BFI Southbank and will run until February 8th. You can find more details here.
You can catch up with Part One of my Woody Allen retrospective HERE.
You can catch up with Part Two of my Woody Allen retrospective HERE.
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