Tag Archives: Woody Allen

WOODY ALLEN’S WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966)

What’s up Tiger Lily (1966) is from ‘s early period, when he was a funny guy, but he was also just as prone to experimentation in his Genesis period (his next project was the infamous experimental James Bond disaster Casino Royale, which he acted in and co-wrote). The concept for Tiger Lily is so simple, one wonders why no one had attempted it before (or since): Allen took a Japanese spy film—a not so subtle ripoff of the Bond films called The Key of Keys, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi—and redubbed it. Allen himself appears to introduce this one-of-a-kind, playful hybrid.

Allen has since dismissed What’s Up Tiger Lily as juvenile doodle, but its youthful pulse on the absurd is convincing, winning, and is probably the closest he gets to authentically weird cinema. There are some who maintain that in addition to being his first film, Lily is also his funniest.

Most of the mainstream suddenly became acquainted with Allen with this film, which was an unexpected hit (Allen later joked that his overnight success was a decade in the making). In addition to the dubbing, Allen also re-edited  the film, and the result is so refreshing that the original film becomes a viewing ordeal (the opposite of what happened whenever ‘s edits inexplicably made godawful films even worse, i.e., Face of the Screaming Werewolf).

Whether or not What’s Up Tiger Lily is Allen’s funniest film is debatable, but it’s certainly his silliest, because of its inherent helter-skelter weirdness. Its the cinematic equivalent of a Mad Magazine, with subtle-as-a-pair of brass knuckles humor and spliced-in performances from the Lovin’ Spoonful making it a bouncing off the wall party favorite (it’s probably not as fun to watch alone). There are just as many jokes that fail as ones that work, but they are delivered with such kinetic, Tex Avery-like speed that it hardly matters. Comparatively, the whole of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seems like an academic lecture.

Allen and his team are not so much writing here as jotting down improvisations (” Woody, since the story is difficult to follow, would you mind giving the audience a rundown on what’s gone on so far?”) There’s certainly no polish in the lame impersonations (“This Peter Lorre impression is killing my throat”), animated stars covering the nipples of cabaret dancers, blatant sexism, jokes about confusing Japanese with Chinese, vibrators, cattle prods for the bedroom, Japanese toys,  masturbation, along with non-stop ethnic and religious jabs:

“Spartan Dog! Roman Cow! Russian Snake! Spanish Fly! Anglo-Saxon Hun! I’m dying—call the rabbi! I had an idea that it was Mormon Tabernacle Choir who helped you escape, but there was no motive. The Best thing about my mother is that she can really take a punch!”

“Did you bring the mayonnaise? Never mind, we’ll use Miracle Whip! No bullets? Ah, but if all of you in the audience who believe in fairies will clap your hands, then my gun will be magically filled with bullets!”

Poster from What's Up Tiger Lily (1966)

In Allen’s version, walking-erection superspy Phil Moskowitz (Tatsuya Mihashi, also the star of 1960s films The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low) has received a commission from the High Majah of Raspur to find the Secret Recipe for Egg Salad, which is now in the hands of the evil Shepherd Wong. Assisting  Moskowitz are two buxom Japanese babes: Teri and Suki (“I’m such a great piece”) Yaki (Mia Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi, who also appeared together in King Kong vs. Godzilla and the 007 entry You Only Live Twice).

To quote that eternally underrated band, The Sparks, this is the film in which we see Allen with Angst in His Pants.  It’s no wonder that the sophisticated filmmaker holds this adolescent, politically incorrect, blatantly racist, sexist, sloppy, and dated entry in such contempt. It may be an embarrassment for Allen, but the rest of us will be losing our stitches.

 

WOODY ALLEN’S PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

In her review of ‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), critic Pauline Kael wrote: “it seems scaled to [Mia Farrow’s] cheekbones.” This is Kael at her charmingly brief, astute best, inspired by what may be Allen at his best. Allen jumps from the diving board of ‘s Sherlock Jr. (a List Candidate), Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and his own Play It Again, Sam (1972). In turn, The Purple Rose Of Cairo influenced film such as Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief (1989), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). When released, The Purple Rose Of Cairo received almost universal critical acclaim, but its downbeat ending and flights of fancy put off American audiences.

I vaguely recall a review of the mediocre Bing Crosby vehicle Pennies From Heaven (1936). The critic (I think it was Leslie Halliwell) made a point that the Depression era man was all but forgotten, an alien in the contemporary world. Not to Allen, whose warmth here is both sensitive and genuinely emotional. Allen finds the pulse of a Depression era prerequisite: balancing fantasy with the all too austere physical world, which demands Allen’s deflating-the-cinematic-tire finale.

The lead performances from and Mia Farrow are exemplary. Perhaps the most unfortunate repercussion of the acidic Allen/Farrow split is the loss of his ultimate leading lady. She is matched by Jeff Daniels’ insipid matinee idol and Danny Aiello‘s thug of a husband (Allen acted opposite Aiello in 1976 in Martin Ritt’s The Front and the two would collaborate again in 1987’s Radio Days). As he did in Midnight In Paris (2011), Allen embraces the simplicity of romanticism while offering a droll critique, shorn of cynicism.

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)Stuck in a loveless marriage to her husband, Monk (Aiello), and in a low-paying job as an New Jersey waitress with a tyrannical employer (David Kierserman), Cecilia (Farrow) seeks sanctuary in her daily visits to the cinema. On one such occasion, the screen character of Tom Baxter (Daniels) literally walks off the screen and into her life. In the real world, Tom, a product of the Hays Code with remnants of silent screen mannerisms, discovers the alien concepts of sex, pregnancy, poverty and street fighting, which allows for ecstatic, precise comedy. Gil (also Daniels), the Hollywood actor who plays Tom, enters the real-life drama, giving rise to Allen’s clear-eyed peeves (we knew they were coming). Still, Allen’s writing is exquisitely stylized. Watching this film from his middle, mature era, we realize that it’s not his directing—which has become jaded in the last decade—that impresses, but his writing. Of course, Allen includes his self in his assessments, mocking the pretentiousness of his own Bergman adulation, while extolling those small movies which make us laugh.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is an innovative, folksy classic. Who would think that possible from Allen? Actually, it’s totally within character.

Next week the Woody Allen series wraps with the early experiment,  What’s Up, Tiger Lilly (1966).

WOODY ALLEN’S CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) AND MATCH POINT (2005)

In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly). is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a   Dostoyevsky diving board  for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).

Judah Rosenthal () is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital  affair with flight attendant Dolores (). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).

Still from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)Landau earned an Academy Award nomination for his role. He had been nominated for the previous year’s Tucker: A Man and His Dreams and would be nominated again (and finally win) in 1995 for playing in ‘s Ed Wood. Landau shines in his nail-biting, pacing-the-floor moments, but it’s Alda as the vulgar, bouncing-off-the-walls, dumbed-down producer who steals the film.

Both Lester and Cliff are competing for Halley (Mia Farrow). Will she choose the romantic outsider artist, or status through money? As Ed Wood () tells Georgie Wiess (Mike Stall) in Ed Wood, “Georgie, this is drama.” Actually, here it’s bleak comedy, and the film peaks with this love triangle.

Crimes And Misdemeanors repeats familiar Allen themes. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) there is love unrewarded. As in Dostoyevsky, there is murder unpunished. Despite those familiar themes, Crimes and Misdemeanors excels in lucid, innovative storytelling. There is symbolism aplenty (the blind rabbi, the ophthalmologist’s father warning him that God can see everything). It is the type of film that literary minded students are prone to dissect, but Crimes’ self-assured humor is what wins us over.

In Match Point (2005), Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” serves as Allen’s literary reference (in addition to Dostoyevsky). Some critics found it a weaker sibling to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but also noted it was Allen’s best film in a decade. Putting aside sophomoric better than or weaker than gauges, Match Point again finds Woody in superior narrative form. He has listed it as being his best work, undoubtedly aided considerably by Remi Adefarasin’s icy, noirish lens work. At 124 minutes, it is also his longest film to date.  Refreshingly, Allen is forthright about influences when Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is depicted reading “Crime And Punishment.”

Still from Match Point (2005)The object of Chris’ obsession is Nola (), and the two lead actors give sizzling performances. Myers’ mechanically cold blue eyes contrast with Johansson’s earthy anxiousness (Allen worked with her again in 2006’s Scoop and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Like the antagonist/protagonist in Dreiser’s epic work, Chris comes from poverty. He is on a tennis tour when meets affluent pro Tom (Matthew Goode). Tom’s girlfriend is the wannabe actress Nola. At the opera, Tom plays cupid, introducing Chris to his single sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The seeds of marrying right are planted. However, after Tom dumps Nola (she doesn’t live up to familial expectations), Chris throws the proverbial monkey wrench into his own machinery when he begins a torrid affair and impregnates Nola.

Allen takes a smarter route than George Stevens did in A Place In The Sun (1951), his update of “An American Tragedy.” In the earlier film, Stevens cast as an unattractive, pathetically nagging girlfriend to Montgomery Clift. When Clift contemplates murdering Winters to further his romance with the wealthy Elizabeth Taylor (in one of her most sensuous roles), we can only feel relief. Although none of the characters in Match Point rise above being reprehensible, Johansson, at her most complex, inspires more sympathy than Winters did. As in the source material, there is a pointed condemnation of unfettered capitalism, but Allen also makes a comment about existence without meaning: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” By removing himself from the film’s ensemble cast, Allen’s commitment to the unfolding narrative is complete. Upon its release, many critics cast it as Allen’s most atypical film. There is a degree of truth in that, but Allen also manages to make avarice and homicide pay, when we almost expect a Dickens-like Scrooge to heed the ghost’ warning. In Allen’s world, the response is quite different.

WOODY ALLEN’S ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983) finds in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.

Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like ). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.

Susan Sontag informs us: “Zelig was the phenomenon of the 20s,” and that “according to Saul Bellow, Zelig was amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they did not want to be touched.” It is not surprising that Allen casts a critical Freudian eye on social conventions of America’s past. As a character, Leonard Zelig literally mirrors Western neuroses. As a compositional image—and this film is about image—Zelig is the guy with the vacant stare in the photograph’s bent corner. A non-personality, Zelig becomes the film’s co-personality. The eternally underrated Mia Farrow gives comic zip to both Zelig and “The Changing Man” film housing him. The film’s most animated scenes are on the therapy couch, where she becomes Zelig’s reflection, peeking through the corner of her glasses with a “you want to go to bed with me? But, I’m not pretty” look as she adjusts herself at the edge of the seat.

Allen compares Zelig to a character out of Kafka (along with Freud, another obsession). Indeed, Zelig’s transformations are more sepia insect than Technicolor chameleon, and the community’s response to him is one of initial curiosity, followed by reaching for the insecticide.

Still from Zelig (1983)Zelig leaps from hobnobbing with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin to becoming an anonymous speck in the Nazi machine. After he is cured, Zelig becomes the provocative intellectual hated by American working class heroes. Naturally, he is rehabilitated after his fall from grace, rendering his idiosyncratic, celluloid promenade as an archival blueprint for precision in poignancy.

Allen is hardly a model of American filmmaking. He is New York, not Hollywood, and never attended film school; but his body of work stands as a unique immersion into the study of film. In his studies, he avoids the pratfalls of being too sentimental (Chaplin) or too glacial (). Once Allen made it clear that he would not be contained by our “funny man” category, he composed his own parties, showing up in a plethora of hats and suits: warm, beautifully bleak, elitist, anti-elitist, nostalgic, and modern. Like Zelig himself, Allen revels in his own contradictions with individualistic conscientiousness. In other words, Allen is always authentically Allen. Zelig is a testament to that.

WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new album,  at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.

Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”

Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), (), (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.

The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.

Still from Midnight in Paris (2011)Gil () is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.

Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. Lea Seydoux (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.

Next week: Zelig (1983)

CAPSULE: CASINO ROYALE (1967)

DIRECTORS: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge (uncredited)

CAST: David Niven, , Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, , Barbara Bouchet, Joanna Pettet, Terence Cooper, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, Jacqueline Bisset, Bernard Cribbins, Ronnie Corbett, Anna Quayle, John Huston, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Vladek Sheybal, Burt Kwouk, Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, David Prowse

PLOT: There really isn’t one, but here goes: Sir James Bond (Niven) is called out of retirement by M (Huston) when the new head of SMERSH is revealed to be Bond’s nephew, Jimmy (Allen).

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird in the way a film by  or  is; nevertheless, it’s another one of those out-of-control, all-star, over-budget fiascoes that leaves you wondering “What were they thinking?” If this website were called 366Self-IndulgentMovies.com, Casino Royale would definitely make the list.

COMMENTS: Not to be confused, ever, with the marvelous 2006 Daniel Craig film (which might well be the finest Bond movie yet), this 1967 boondoggle is based very loosely on the same source material: Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The product of six different directors, including John Huston (The African Queen) and Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and six writers, among them Ben Hecht (Notorious), Billy Wilder (Ninotchka) and  (Candy, Barbarella), the 007 spoof Casino Royale is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Clocking in at an excessive 137 minutes, it’s a completely incoherent psychedelic mess, which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, can come off as intermittently hilarious.  Reportedly, the film was as chaotic to make as it is to watch, with Sellers and Welles warring on the set, and the former finally walking off the movie before it was finished. The final result, however, comes off as so utterly insane that the abrupt departure of Seller’s character (“Evelyn Tremble”)–who is (SPOILER ALERT!) murdered offscreen–fits right in with the freewheeling, anything goes “storyline” of everything else in the film. This version of Casino Royale is probably best remembered for the two hit singles spawned from the soundtrack: the bouncy, jaunty title song played unmistakably by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and the languid, Oscar-nominated Dusty Springfield ballad, “The Look of Love.” Burt Bacharach’s score is a true relic of the Swinging Sixties, and large chunks of it show up in the third Austin Powers film. In fact, Austin Powers probably wouldn’t exist at all without Casino Royale. If one pays very close attention, it is striking that parts of this movie actually do bear a resemblance to the Daniel Craig “remake.” Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Andress) who is kidnapped and then betrays him. He also plays cards with Le Chiffre (Welles), who later straps him to a chair and tortures him (although not in the notorious way that he does in the 2006 film). When Bond escapes, Le Chiffre –(SPOILER!) is shot in the head by SMERSH. Of course, these plot strands go back to the original novel, but that’s all that is left of Fleming.

By the end of Casino Royale, matters have gotten so out of hand that there are appearances by the Frankenstein monster (Prowse, who later played Darth Vader), a performing seal, a clapping chimp, and a troupe of stereotypical tomahawk-wielding “Indians” dancing the Frug. Since the film opened right before the Summer of Love, one has to wonder; what were the cast and crew smoking?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hideous, zany disaster… a psychedelic, absurd masterpiece.”-Andrea LeVasseur, The All-Movie Review

CAPSULE: ANNIE HALL (1977)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:  Woody Allen

FEATURING: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

PLOT:  Neurotic NYC comedian Alvy (Allen) falls in love with would-be cabaret singer

Annie Hall still

Annie Hall (Keaton), but his inability to relax and enjoy life ultimately dooms their relationship.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTAnnie Hall isn’t weird, at all.  Some people, however, believe it’s weird, and have even tagged the film as “Surrealism” on IMDB.  I doubt Luis Buñuel would agree.  What people misperceive as weird in Annie Hall are the numerous “breaking the fourth wall” stylistic techniques: speaking directly to the camera, having the adult Alvy visit his own flashbacks and comment on the action, including subtitles explaining what Alvy and Annie are really thinking as they flirt at their first meeting, and including an animated non sequitur explaining that Alvy most identified with the Wicked Queen in Disney’s Snow White.  These techniques, however, are employed in the service of the most conventional plot Allen had conceived up to that time: a true-to-life, impeccably characterized tale of the rise and fall of a romance.  The directorial tools he uses to tell his tale may be unconventional and self-conscious, but they sure ain’t weird.

COMMENTS: Notwithstanding the fact that it’s clearly lodged in the comedy genre, Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s first “serious” movie.  As a dual character study of hapless Alvy and flighty but lively Annie, it shows more depth and ambition than Allen’s previous wacky comedies that had no higher aspirations than too make audiences laugh (and to depict Allen as someone so smart that the audience feels flattered to get his references to Kierkegaard or whomever).  Annie Hall is shamelessly autobiographical (Allen and Keaton really were ex-lovers), and doesn’t try to hide it.  Fortunately, the film’s laden with memorable gags that will stick with you the rest of your life: Alvy’s schoolmates describing their adult interests (one is a methadone addict); Christopher Walken’s brilliant, brief turn as Annie’s unhinged brother; Jeff Goldblum’s even briefer single sentence bit as a trendy Hollywood meathead; and Allen’s classic one-liner regarding masturbation.  Most of the jokes tend towards the witty instead of the sidesplitting, eliciting an appreciative chuckle rather than a hearty belly laugh, but the witticisms come so fast and furious that they keep the audience on edge to see what Allen will come up with next.  They also effectively hide the underlying pain of the tale: Alvy is masochistically self-sabotaging and will never be happy in a relationship, and Annie is too full of life to let Alvy drag her down.  All in all, it’s not quite as relentlessly funny as the comedies that preceded it—BananasSleeper and Love and Death—but Allen’s crafty direction shows a mastery of this particular material that’s hard not to admire.  Allen let the critical praise heaped on him for this serious effort go to his head, turned to directing dramas at the peak of his comic success, and would be only sporadically funny again—a tragic loss for the world of comedy.

The original screenplay was titled “Anhedonia”, a psychological condition describing the inability to experience pleasure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gave a fresh confidence to Woody and a generation of solipsistic stand-up comics and it created a new genre, what we might call ‘the relationship picture’, that dispensed with formal narrative… the actual production was a chaotic affair and the picture only came into focus when its editor Ralph Rosenblum reduced the first cut of 140 minutes to a tight 95 in which the real and the surreal co-exist.”–Phillip French, The Observer(DVD)