Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

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Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy (Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway (based on his relationship with 17-year old actress Stacey Nelkin on the set of Annie Hall when he was 43) and his behaviour regarding their son, whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Fact and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

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Woody Allen’s musical comedy is a delightful collage of Thirties movie genres – romance, screwball, ghost, crime, all told by the daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) of perpetually unlucky in love writer Joe (Allen) and his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who now lives in Upper East Side splendour with liberal lawyer Alan Alda, his engaged daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and their right-wing son Scott (Lukas Haas) and 14 year old twins (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman),  plus his ancient dad whose Alzheimer’s means he has to be supervised by their wicked Bavarian housekeeper. They have posh people problems ie none at all and when DJ pushes her father into a relationship with an unhappily married art historian patient Von (Julia Roberts) of her friend’s mother, a psychoanalyst, we get to see the sights in Venice where Joe affects a knowledge of Tintoretto to get into her good books. Everyone gets to sing (whether they can or not), there’s a dance routine in a maternity ward, a robbery involving one of Steffi’s pet criminals who breaks up Skylar’s relationship with Edward Norton, and it all culminates in a Duck Soup ball in Paris on Christmas Eve with Steffi and Joe recreating their romance from many years ago with a high-wire romantic dance by the Seine. Simply wonderful, nutty fun with a to-die-for soundtrack put together by Dick Hyman.

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

Match Point (2005)

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Who knew Woody Allen had it in him to make a tough sexy thriller? And here it is, a film that was transposed for financial reasons from NYC to London, featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton, an Irish tennis pro on the make who weasels his way into British society and his plans are almost derailed by the vengeful wheedling American actress (Scarlett Johansson) with whom he has an affair. To a degree, we’ve been here before with Crimes and Misdemeanours (and Love and Death!) and the references to Dostoyevsky are writ large not least because Chris is reading Crime and Punishment and his preference for tragic operas and a belief in luck dictate his life. The Brit crits weren’t in love with this as they believed Allen’s use of London locations – opera, tennis clubs, posh bars and restaurants, theatres, and country houses – were classist. Did they seriously believe the Upper East Side to be representative of working class NYC?! When Johansson threatens Chris with revealing her pregnancy to his wife Emily Mortimer, whose brother broke off their engagement, there’s only one thing to do … The tension is stomach-churning, Rhys Meyers is superb in a very demanding dramatic role, a contemporary arriviste Raskolnikov, with ScarJo providing the eroticism in a field of wheat in the rain. All in all it’s a great exercise in life, sex – and luck. And just listen to Caruso …

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

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Vicky and Cristina leave the US for a sojourn in Barcelona to, respectively, study Catalan identity (or possibly escape a suffocating engagement) and find something to do, when a newly divorced artist hits on them both. A truly funny adult comedy about sex and marriage and adultery and artists and their muses.(The art is by Agusti Puig.)  One of the later Woody Allen works that came as a total surprise after some serially indifferent work in Europe. This is the first time that Scarlett Johannson seemed like a girl’s girl and Hall is a very fine actress playing a funny role dead straight.(They previously worked on The Prestige together.) Javier Bardem is terrific as the Lothario whose crazy ex (Penelope Cruz) comes back to haunt them all. Allen is so good that we are at risk of underestimating him. This is just great.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

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When this was released it felt like Woody Allen had run out of ideas. In recent years, it seems like one of his warmest, funniest ones, filled with good humour, good jokes and some wonderful cinematic throwbacks:  that’s what two decades of non-classic cinema will do to a viewer, you re-evaluate everything you once judged harshly. Keaton and Allen are excellent foils for each other, Alda and Huston great support and the central mystery is satisfying and funny. Great late night entertainment.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

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After years of something akin to exile in Europe making so-so movies (with the exception of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) Woody Allen made a genuinely terrific piece of cinema. The story of Gil the nostalgic screenwriter who gets inspiration from his midnight encounters with the great artists of the 20s who congregated in the City of Light & Love, is brimming with goodwill, sentiment, wisdom and … love. The scenes with Hemingway and Dali are particularly hilarious. Watch this over and over …

Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

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The directing debut of producer Irwin Winkler which sanitised the blacklisting story by altering blacklisted Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay and neutralising the central character’s politics. For a better account of the period try The Front, written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt and starring (Ripley here) Woody Allen as the schmuck who allows a blacklistee to see scripts using him as … the front. In the meantime, this is carried principally by its starry cast.