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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Woody Allen X Two

I've always been a little ambivalent about Woody Allen movies. Maybe this is because the first one I ever saw was The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which I went to see in the theater with my father. There were maybe fifteen people total in attendance, and my father was the second youngest. I don't remember disliking the movie so much (I'm ridiculously easy to please when I see a movie on the big screen) but I felt a little uncool being the only person my age there.

On top of this, there is the fact that the revelations of Allen's disgusting behavior occurred before I had seen any of his films. It's hard to motivate yourself to see the work of a person who seems so abominable. But eventually I caught Annie Hall on TV, and wanted to see if it really should have beaten Stars Wars out for Best Picture in 1977. I liked the movie a lot, and since then I've decided to be more open-minded and give his movies a shot. I liked Bullets Over Broadway (perhaps especially because Allen wasn't on-screen), and Scoop, and didn't mind Sleep. I didn't particularly like Manhattan, but I was in a foul mood at the time, so who knows?

Recently, I caught two more of Allen's films. Broadway Danny Rose and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Broadway Danny Rose is clearly a film made out of love. Love for a time, a place, and a way of life that is pretty foreign to my generation. My father loves this movie, and watching it with him I actually felt a little sad that I wasn't reacting the same way.

The movie is structured in an odd way. A group of old time comedians playing themselves are sitting around at a Deli telling a story concerning talent agent Danny Rose (Allen), which involves an alcoholic old Italian crooner, his mistress, and some out of control gangsters. I think in order to love this movie you may have to have seen these old comedians on TV, to have put up with the washed-up crooners in nightclubs, and to have a sense of nostalgia for the lives that this movie pays homage to. Some scenes, including a shootout in a balloon-storage warehouse, are very funny, but overall I couldn't connect to this movie. Allen's character was an even more enervating version of his stock personality. He kept repeating the phrase "If I could interject an observation at this juncture" and telling unfunny anecdotes about his relatives. I also didn't buy Mia Farrow as a high-maintenance Italian woman.

All that being said, the end of the movie, including Danny Rose's love of his less-than-superbly-talented acts, was heartfelt and moving. I'll give it a 5.1 out of 10.

Crimes and Misdemeanors I received a lot better. This is probably the first Allen movie I've ever seen that was a more serious affair. There were some funny lines, but they didn't stand out, and it seemed like that was a concious decision. Even Allen's trademark character is a little more subdued, allowing the drama to take precedence.

The movie's structure is also quite interesting. The movie tells two very different stories, only related on the flimsiest of coincidences. In story one, Martin Landau is an opthamologist whose mistress is about to rat him out, and his portion of the movie chronicles his attempt to come to a workable solution to this dilemma, while sorting out a Dostoevskian argument over whether or not there is a God, and if His absence means that anything is permissible.

In story two, Allen is a filmmaker with noble intentions, stuck in a loveless marriage, who watches what he thinks is a chance at happiness slip away. Allen's Cliff Stern is stuck in a world of ideals and morals and Hollywood endings, where badguys get there comeuppance and the true heart wins the girl. It doesn't sound so different from traditional Christian and Jewish theology.

The confluence of the two stories, (a chance meeting at the wedding of a mutual friend's daughter, the mutual friend a rabbi played by Sam Waterston) is a fascinating scene, where Landau's character bares, well, not his soul exactly, but bares himself to Allen, while Allen's character insists on maintaining a version of reality that the movie has basically assured us is a fiction.

I really liked this serious and yet not smugly intellectual film. Jerry Orbach and Alan Alda are great in supporting roles, as is Mia Farrow as Allen's love interest. I'll give it 8.8 out of 10.

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