Doodad Kind of Town

The Other 12-Movie Meme
August 30, 2008, 1:25 pm
Filed under: Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, Woody Allen

I’ve been tagged by Joseph Campanella of CINEMA FIST with a new, 12-movie meme. This, of course, is a new twist on the “original” New Beverly Cinema 12-Movie meme first started by Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre – and this one comes courtesy of MovieMan0283 at the Dancing Image.

As Joseph notes, this one is “damn difficult.”

The challenge is as follows: “Pick 12 movies that you’ve never seen before, and that are very difficult to find on video.” (More specifically,the films can’t be available on Netflix.)

The difficulty was in finding films I had always wanted to see that weren’t available on DVD; pretty much everything on my ‘want to see’ list is there and waiting for me on Netflix, or very soon will be. I hedged about including Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” and Visconti’s “Ludwig” since both are being released on DVD within the next six weeks. (Which is well before I’ll probably get around to seeing them.)

So this list does not represent my “Holy Grail” of film experiences. In most cases, I’m curious about – but not passionately interested – in the films I’ve listed. But if I’d rent them on DVD if they were available. Eventually.

In alphabetical order:

1) “Brewster McCloud” – Early Robert Altman – it came right after “M*A*S*H,” although it wasn’t nearly as successful. Bud Cort plays a eccentric loner whose dream is to strap on mechanical wings and fly around inside the Houston Astrodome. Also marks the film debut of Altman regular Shelley Duvall. I wouldn’t give this a film a second thought if Altman’s name weren’t on it But Altman’s too smart and too iconoclastic a filmmaker to have made this as cloyingly quirky as it sounds.

2) “Fedora” – Billy Wilder’s 1978 adaptation of a Tom Tryon novel about a reclusive, aging film actress (Marthe Keller) and the producer who tries to lure her out of retirement (William Holden). It’s hard not to think of Wilder’s earlier classic “Sunset Boulevard” when you hear about this one; I’m interested to know how they compare. “Fedora,” however, was barely released, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it show up on TV. That suggests it may be an utter failure, but I’d like to see for myself.

3) “Girlfriends” – A late ’70s comedy/drama about the friendship between two women – one who pursues her independence and an artistic career and one who opts for traditional marriage. Melanie Mayron (who went on to television’s “ThirtySomething”) plays the independent-minded one. It came out when I was in college, and got a fair bit of attention, but I never got around to seeing it. The director, Claudia Weill, went on to make a romantic comedy with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas (“It’s My Turn,” which I saw and liked), then apparently worked only in television from that point on. I have a feeling that “Girlfriends” may be horribly dated now, but I’d still like to check it out, if only for the late-70s nostalgia it may invoke in me. That it also has Christopher Guest in a feature role only adds to my curiosity.

4) “King Lear” (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 version) – Its alternate title is “King Lear: Fear and Loathing,” which evokes Hunter S. Thompson and suggests this may be a sort of “gonzo” experience. And “gonzo” sounds like the right adjective for a film whose cast includes Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Godard himself, and stage director Peter Sellars as a character named William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth who is struggling to re-write the Bard’s works from memory after they’re destroyed in the Chernobyl disaster. In other words, this isn’t your high school English teacher’s “King Lear.” Completed in 1987, the film wasn’t actually shown anywhere until 2002, and apparently it’s been around enough to generate some IMDB comments (“aggressively, offensively, violently boring” was my favorite). But it’s nowhere to be found on Netflix.

5) “The Little Drummer Girl” – Long before she got caught in an endless loop of 60-year-old-dingbat roles, Diane Keaton was a formidable actress who frequently played complicated, shrill or difficult women. (Though you’d never know it these days, her range goes far beyond “Annie Hall.”) In this 1984 adaptation of a John Le Carre thriller, Keaton plays an actress with controversial political views on the Israeli/Palestine conflict who get lured into an actual Israeli intelligence mission. (I’m sure any and all similarities to Vanessa Redgrave are entirely coincidental.) What can I tell you, folks? “Mad Money” pushed me over the edge. I need to see some gritty, intelligent work from Keaton again, and this film (which I missed on its initial release) might just do the trick.

6) “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” – Brian Moore’s novel about a poor Irish spinster – winding down her days in a lonely boarding house room, comforted only by copious amounts of whiskey and some misguided notions about a fellow boarder’s interest in her – is probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. But I’d gladly brace myself for this sad story again just to see the phenomenal Maggie Smith in the the title role. (Bob Hoskins has a supporting role, but interestingly dominates the film’s poster at left. Go figure.)

7) “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” – I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen this; I could be wrong. I have vague memories of a seeing seeing some D. W. Griffith films in my college Introduction to Film course, but don’t recall whether this was one of them. Anyway, it’s from 1912, it’s got Lilian Gish in a major role, and it’s generally thought to be the first gangster film.

8) “The Red Desert” – Over the last year, I’ve been sporadically renting Antonioni films. This is the only one I want to see that isn’t available on Netflix. I don’t even remember what it’s about, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve loved discovering Antonioni’s work so far, and I’m sure this one will be just as challenging, baffling, and ultimately rewarding as the others.

9) “Saint Joan” – Jean Seberg was 18 years old and fresh out of Iowa when she won a national contest to play the title role in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Shaw’s play. By all accounts, she held her own alongside such estimable talents as John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, and Richard Widmark. I read “Played Out; the Jean Seberg Story” years ago, and have wanted to see “Saint Joan” ever since, but have had few-to-no opportunities to do so.

10) “So Sad about Gloria” – Ok, this is the wackadoo selection on my list, so bear with me. I remember reading newspaper ads for this 1974 film which promised: “The heartbreak of ‘Love Story.’ ‘The terror of ‘Psycho’.” Since “Love Story” and “Psycho” were two films that loomed very large in my early adolescent experience, I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the one film that could combine the intense emotional drama of both. (Perhaps some young rich Harvard hotshot lost his poor-but-beautiful-and-witty lover to the bullet of serial killer?) But “So Sad about Gloria” – rated “R” and showing in only a couple of theatres in the far-off big city – was out of my reach. God only knows why it popped up in my brain again, but a quick glance at IMDB shows that the people who wrote that intriguing ad copy may not have been familiar with the actual film. It’s a cheap exploitation flick about a recently released mental patient who has dreams of herself committing ax murders. There’s quite a stretch from that plot to the whole “Psycho meets Love Story” concept, but one I’d like to figure out for myself. (Bonus weird fact: the director, Harry Thomason, went on to co-produce the TV series”Designing Women.” That’s quite a stretch, too.)

11) “Those Lips, Those Eyes” – A backstage romantic comedy set in a summer stock theatre and starring Frank Langella, Glynnis O’ Connor (what happened to her?) and Tom Hulce. It’s about people doing musical theatre and it has clips of musical numbers from well-known shows, and that’s about all it takes to get this former community theatre performer interested in seeing it. (Well, that and the fact that it’s got Frank Langella, who was pretty damn handsome at the time. ) It got decent reviews when it was released in 1980, but never made much of a showing in theatres.

12) “Wild Boys of the Road” – An early film by Wiliam Wellman (“Public Enemy,” “Wings”), this Depression drama focuses on a group of teenagers who are forced to become vagabonds, searching for work after family circumstances become desperate. I saw clips of it in a documentary on Wellman shown on TCM, but neglected to record the film when it was shown later that evening. I’d like to get around to seeing it someday.

And now,the final part of the meme is to tag five fellow film bloggers, so I am tagging:

Marilyn at Ferdy on Films
Fox at Tractor Facts
Alexander at Coleman’s Corner in Cinema
Nick Plowman at Fataculture
Daniel at Getafilm

"Vicky Christina Barcelona"
August 17, 2008, 6:51 pm
Filed under: Woody Allen

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are the best things to happen to Woody Allen in years.

By now you may have heard that “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is the best Woody Allen movie in 20 years. Even if that were true (to my mind, both “Bullets over Broadway” and “Small Time Crooks” would easily best this one), it’d be damnation with faint praise at best. Pretty much everything here except Bardem and Cruz amounts to the same pretentious twaddle that Allen’s been dishing out for years, only wrapped up so prettily that you might not notice.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johannson) are two graduate students spending a summer in Spain. Vicky, the more grounded and conventional of the two, is researching her thesis on Catalan identity. (There was an awkward moment when several members of our Saturday night audience giggled over this revelation, apparently understanding her to be researching “Cattle and Identity.” Which sounds like a vintage Allen joke and could have set up a much funnier film to come.) Christina, by contrast, is a restless, artsy free spirit, who hasn’t found out what she wants from life or love, “but knows what she doesn’t want.”

We know these things because the film’s narrator tells us so. At great and uninspiring length. I’m no fan of voiceover narration; nine times out of ten, it’s an indication of lazy filmmaking. A good director and good actors should be able to show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, and not resort to spelling it out for us. And the narration in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” does not justify itself. At one point, while we watch Bardem hurrying out to his car in darkness, the narrator unhelpfully adds, “Juan Antonio hurried out in the dead of night.” Well, duh.

But back to our story. Bardem plays a hunky Spanish painter who approaches our two heroines in a restaurant one evening and invites them to come away with him for a weekend of sightseeing and hanky-panky. Vicky, because she’s the grounded one who’s engaged to a stolid young stockbroker, declines in the form of a lengthy, analytical put-down. But Christina, because she’s the free spirit, cocks her head seductively, tosses her blond mane and purrs acceptance. We’re ten minutes into the movie, and Allen’s familiar paint-by-numbers approach to character development is solidly in place. Nevertheless, soon both women are taking off with Bardem in his private plane.

Christina gets sick at the outset of the trip, so it’s the uptight Vicky who joins Bardem in a visit to his poet father, drinking copious amount of wine, listening to romantic guitar music -and ultimately, making love in the moonlight. Confused and guilt-stricken, she returns quickly to her relatives’ home in Barcelona. Christina, meanwhile, recovers and gets her shot with Juan Antonio. They fall in love, and she moves in with him.

And that’s when the movie really takes off.

Because Juan Antonio has a crazy ex-wife, Marie Elena (Cruz) who once tried to kill him. She winds up on his doorstep again after a failed suicide attempt when she has nowhere else to go, and he takes her in; with Christina, the two of them form an initially uneasy – and eventually tres sophisticated – menage a trois. From her first appearance, Cruz seizes the film and makes it her own. She’s not afraid to be completely unhinged, nasty, snarly and over the top, but she’s never scary, only hilarious. Most of her dialogue is in Spanish, but even if there were no subtitles, I think we’d still laugh. Something about the ridiculousness of her petulant irrationality needs no translation. The crazy/beautiful woman is a stock character in Allen’s films; he fetishizes unstable women in way that, at its worst, feels a little sick. But Cruz’ performance is miraculously light-spirited, not creepy. Nothing about her behavior would make you want to spend time with her, and yet the movie feels a lot more fun and buoyant when she’s around.

And Bardem and Cruz have an amazing onscreen chemistry that is both delicate and electric. When they spar, you get a sense of what their whole relationship history has been about, the passion as well as the fighting. During their scenes, you completely forget you’re watching a Woody Allen movie. And I do mean that as a compliment.

To be fair, though, they’re not the only ones giving performances that are infinitely better than the material. The role of Vicky is humorless and overwritten; it’s to Hall’s everlasting credit that she make something real and touching out of the caricature she’s been handed to play. A lesser actress would have turned Vicky’s extended rants shrill; Hall makes them persuasive and reasonable. Similarly, her transformation (under Bardem’s spell) into a relaxed and sensual creature has a subtle, unforced luminosity.

Johansson’s Christina, by contrast, is nothing special. Her performance feels almost phoned in, as if the only direction she were given is to part her pouty lips, toss her hair around and look game for anything- and she barely accomplishes that much. I know Johansson loves working with Woody, but I don’t think he’s done anything valuable for her career. She deserves much better parts than this.

As far as Allen’s screenplay goes, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” suffers from many of the same weaknesses as his other recent films. There are the annoying lapses in logic (how is that Vicky, a graduate student studying Catalan culture, has never learned to speak Spanish?) There are the superfluous cultural references, awkwardly inserted to give the film intellectual cred (there’s a lot of talk about Gaudi architecture, but we barely get to see any of it. It’s never shown in sufficient detail or glory for us to understand why Vicky – or anyone – would be inspired by it. If the Gaudi church really has such an influence on a major character, it ought to be almost a character itself.) But the sumptuous Spanish locations are filmed so gorgeously and ravishingly that you sort of let this stuff slide. It’s amazing how a few sun-soaked shots of Spanish countryside can make a mediocre little film feel like a decadent, late-summer escape. Allen isn’t really getting any better as filmmaker as he get older, but at least he’s learned how to pick his locations.

Come back to Manhattan, Woody Allen, Woody Allen!
January 28, 2008, 12:05 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

“Cassandra’s Dream” is the worst Woody Allen movie in years – and that’s really saying something considering he’s already foisted upon us “Hollywood Ending,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Anything Else” and “Melinda and Melinda” just since the turn of the century. It’s illogical, poorly written, and sleep-inducing at the very moments when it ought to be putting you on the edge of your seat.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers from a hardscrabble Cockney family who dream of obtaining the good life. Farrell, a lovable grease monkey with a gambling addiction, dreams of just being able to provide a nice home and the occasional lovely trinket for his sweet, adoring girlfriend (nicely played by Sally Hawkins). McGregor, on the other hand, has bigger fish to fry; he’s eager to invest in luxury hotels and impress his actress girlfriend (Hayley Atwell). Farrell runs up huge, unpayable gambling debts, while McGregor is desperate to lure the beautiful Atwell away from all the other potential suitors lining up at the stage door. These guys need a lot of cash and they need it now.

Enter their uncle Howard, who just happens to be a top Hollywood plastic surgeon with plenty of income to spare. Good old Uncle Howard is played by Tom Wilkinson with just enough thunder and madness to suggest he hasn’t quite shaken off his raging bi-polar nutjob character from “Michael Clayton.” When he shows up, “Cassandra’s Dream” – which was pretty ridiculous to begin with – goes completely off the rails.

(Warning: there are potential spoilers ahead, so if I can’t dissuade you from seeing this steaming turd of a movie, don’t read the next few paragraphs.)

The pivotal scene in which the brothers ask their uncle for money – and he asks for a favor in return – is laughably underscored with rumbling thunder at climactic moments. Seems Uncle Howard’s business affairs are being investigated and he is potentially looking at years in jail. Farrell asks incredulously what his uncle has done, and Wilkinson roars in return,”You don’t get to where I have in life playing by the book!!!”

Exactly what book is he throwing out the window? (Hopefully not the one titled “How to Perform Safe, Effective Cosmetic Surgery”) I mean, he’s a plastic surgeon for God’s sakes! He’s not Charles Foster Kane or the head of Enron; what’s the worst he could have done? Overcharged for nose jobs? Given Restylane treatments to aging actresses in exchange for kinky sexual favors? Are there really jail terms for that kind of stuff?

Of course, there’s someone who knows what Uncle Howard’s been up to – someone who’s “had dealings” with him (whatever that means), and if the boys would just quietly knock him off, they can get their money and live happily ever after. What choice do they have? Uncle gets his favor, the brothers get their money, but the happy ending is not to be. Farrell is tormented by their dirty deed, while McGregor just wants to get off to California with his girlfriend in tow. Ultimately, McGregor is forced to make a painful decision in order to save his and his uncle’s hides.

The real tragedy is that Farrell actually gives quite a good performance in this film. He’s sweet in his scenes with Hawkins, and heartbreaking in his latter scenes when the weight of what he’s done proves too much to bear. Alone among an otherwise distinguished case of actors, Farrell actually transcends the horridness of the lines he’s been given to speak. (There isn’t one line of dialogue in this film that sounds like anything a real person would have ever said, at any time.) Farrell is the only thing that kept me awake, frankly. (Although he didn’t have the same effect on the gentleman sitting behind me, who snored loudly through most of the movie.)

I miss the old days when Woody made movies in New York – when his characters cracked wise about sex and psychoanalysis, strolled through Central Park, waited online at the art house to see Ingmar Bergman flicks, and listened to Louis Armstrong records. It was a insular world, but one Allen understood well, and mined effectively for both drama and laughs. Setting his films in London does nothing to enhance them; they don’t really take advantage of their setting to any degree. I’m not excessively knowledgeable about London, but I’m pretty sure that there many interesting things happening there besides lower-class lads struggling to get rich and resorting to murder in order to do so. It’s time for the Woodman to come home. Unfortunately, his next film is set in Barcelona, rather than Manhattan. It remains to be seen what that will do for him, but one thing is sure: he’d be hard pressed to make anything as bad as “Cassandra’s Dream” next time around.

Kicking Back with TCM: The Dick Cavett-Woody Allen Interview
January 19, 2008, 4:07 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

This was a brutal week for me – it started out with excruciating dental pain and an emergency root canal, followed by a whole week of unanticipated crises at work. And just in time for the weekend, arctic winds blew into town and brought with them a wind chill factor in the neighborhood of 15 below.

Friday night was therefore not a night to hit the multiplex; it was a night to stay home, stay warm, and unwind. Or rewind, as the case may be. I’ve been recording a lot of good stuff from Turner Classic Movies over the last couple of weeks, and having a quiet Friday night gave me a chance to catch up with it.

TCM has been re-broadcasting selected programs from Dick Cavett’s 1970s talk show from time to time. I finally caught his 1971 interview with Woody Allen. It was a fitting way to kick off a weekend in which I’m hoping to catch Allen’s newest film, “Cassandra’s Dream,” although it had the distinct feeling of having been pulled from a time capsule.

At the time of this interview, Allen was not long out of his stand-up comedy years, having directed only two films (“Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” Well, three if you count “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” which he apparently doesn’t, since he consistently refers to “Take the Money” as his first directing effort.) It’s fascinating to hear the young Allen talk about filmmaking. “I like my films to look sloppy,” he tells Cavett – and his early films do indeed have a slapped-together, loosey-goosey feeling. Obviously, he aspires to a more polished aesthetic these days.

I found particularly interesting Allen’s claim that he didn’t like to see other comedy films because he was afraid of being influenced by them. He went on to say that the great film directors like Fellini – whose work was very personal – didn’t need to be aware of anything outside themselves in order to make their art. That’s a telling comment, and one that I think still applies to (and limits) Allen’s work to this day. His entire oeuvre has a very insular feeling, as if he has no cultural references outside his own immediate experience. And I don’t think that relocating his films from Manhattan to London in the last few years has changed that at all.

When Cavett asked him to name three films he would consider among the very greatest, Allen came up with only two titles “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal.” With a little prompting from Cavett, he eventually added “The Grand Illusion.” The boy has taste, I’ll give him that. (And, c’mon, we knew he’d throw at least one Bergman film in, right?)

It wasn’t all about movies, though. Cavett, a long-time, close friend of Allen’s, coaxed out a relaxed, happy-go-lucky side of the comic/filmmaker that we rarely see anymore. Allen – cracking wise about his love life and his years in analysis, playing clarinet with a jazz combo – was charming, silly and self-deprecating in a breezy, offhand sort of way. It was a refreshing contrast to the Old Mr. CrankyPants persona that comes through in the occasional interview these days, and a reminder of how laugh-out-loud funny Allen was in the days before he got so-o-o-o serious (and before the scandals in his private life started to somewhat overshadow his work as a director and performer.)

I also finally got around to watching “Sweet Smell of Success,” a classic I’d managed to miss for years. But I’ll save that for another post.

Thoughts on the AFI Life Achievement Award
November 28, 2007, 10:30 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols, Woody Allen

It won’t happen till June, but the American Film Institute is giving its next Lifetime Achievement award to Warren Beatty. That’s certainly fitting enough – Beatty has a distinguished career of over 40 years as an actor, director, screenwriter and producer.

But looking over the list of those who have received the honor in the last 35 years (the first award was bestowed to John Ford in 1973), I felt some disappointment. (See the complete list here.)

The AFI never got around to honoring many of the deserving film artists before they shuffled off this mortal coil. Among those passed over (all of whom were still alive when the awards were started): Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant. (Although I recall hearing or reading somewhere that Grant was offered the award, but declined it. Something about being embarrassed by the idea of a staged tribute.)

The criteria for the Lifetime Achievement award are that”the recipient should be one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.” In 1993, the criteria was expanded to include “individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished. “

Well, that explains Tom Hanks. He got the award in 2002, at the ripe old age of 47 (!) Speaking as 47-year-old myself, there is no freakin’ way that a 47-year-old needs any damn lifetime achievement award! Don’t get me wrong – Tom Hanks is a legend in his own time – but that award could easily have waited another 20 years. Ditto Steven’s Spielberg’s award in 1995. At a mere 49, and with “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” and God knows what else still ahead of him, he was no candidate for lifetime achievement honors either.

Of course, it could be a very engrossing parlor game for movie buffs to pick their own Lifetime Achievement winners (or quibble with the existing list – and I think I can make a pretty strong case against the inclusion of Sean Connery, the 2006 honoree). In that spirit, I hereby submit my highly personal shortlist for the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement awards. I don’t believe any one of them is under 65.

1. Shirley MacLaine – In a career than spans over 50 years, Shirley has grown up on screen from a kooky, red-haired gamine to a salty-tongued grandma; she’s never once given a bad or boring performance in the process. She’s worked with the greats and the near greats, from Jack Lemmon to the Rat Pack, from Alfred Hitchcock to Billy Wilder to Bob Fosse. Her roles in “The Apartment,” “Some Came Running,” “Irma La Douce,” “Sweet Charity,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Postcards from the Edge” and many others are classic. And that’s just in this lifetime! She’s still a little kooky, but she’s formidable – and, at 74, she’s due for the honor.

2. Stanley Donen – He was choreographing MGM musicals when he was barely out of his teens. Before he was 30, he’d revolutionized the film musical, directing “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding” (where he devised a way to make Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling) and “Singin’ in the Rain” – after 55 years, still the greatest movie musical of all time. His subsequent career included classic romantic comedies like “Charade,” “Indiscreet,” and “Two for the Road.” Donen is 83 and hasn’t made a theatrical release in over 25 years – but on the basis of his early career alone, he belongs in this pantheon.

3. Mike Nichols –
I can’t think of another director whose films are so consistently smart, sharp and uniformly well-acted. With a 41-year career that includes “The Graduate,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” and the brilliant television adaptations of “Wit” and “Angels in America,” 75-year old Nichols is way overdue for this honor.

4. Francis Ford Coppola – Yes, you read that right. I scanned the list several times, and he’s not on it. And yes, most of his fellow seventies wunderkind directors are there (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese). If he’d only made the first two “Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” he’d still belong on the list, and at 68, he’s certainly old enough to qualify.

5. Jane Fonda – Ok, she’s GOT to be on a shortlist somewhere. In one career, she’s gone from cute comic ingenue (“Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat Ballou”) to sex kitten (“Barbarella”) to impressive serious actress (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “Klute,” “Julia,” “On Golden Pond”) back to comedy (“Nine to Five” and recently, unfortunately, “Monster in Law” and “Georgia Rule”)- and covered everything in between. Not to mention, if she gets the honor, it’ll be the first father-daughter dual win in the award’s history (pop Henry Fonda won in 1978).

6. Robert Redford – And he’s already got to be on the shortlist, too. I mean, c’mon! His classic acting roles (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “All the President’s Men,” “Out of Africa,” “The Natural”) and distinguished directing efforts (“Ordinary People,” “Quiz Show,” “A River Runs Through It”) would be enough to earn him the honor. But he also founded the Sundance Institute for independent filmmaker, which already got him an honorary Oscar in 2002. Incidentally, he’s a little crinklier, but still cute at 71.

7. Woody Allen – Ok, I saved my most questionable choice for last. His work certainly has advanced the art of film, and most of his pre-1989 output has indeed withstood the test of time. (It’s not like nobody on the actual winners’ list has any clunkers on their resume.) In my mind, just the combination of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” qualify the Woodman for lifetime achievement honors.

(Photos –,,

Movies I Watch Over and Over: THANSKSGIVING EDITION
November 21, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

I had planned to open my post today with these great pictures of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower that I snapped on my New England vacation 3 years ago; BUT Blogger and/or my photo editing software are not behaving tonight, so there goes the seasonal photo tie-in. Drat!

Fortunately, I can wrap up my series on favorite comfort flicks with a selection that has a definite tie-in to the Thanksgiving holiday: “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

“Hannah and Her Sisters” was released in 1986, and it turned out to be the almost-last-gasp of great filmmaking by Woody Allen. (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” his last great film, came three years later. As you may have guessed, I’m not expecting the Woodman to ever be this brilliant again. See my review of “Match Point.“)

Spanning three consecutive Thanksgivings in the life of an extended family, “Hannah” mines rich comedy from its privileged Manhattanite characters and their messy little affairs of the heart. Typical territory for Allen so far. It also memorably depicts the conflicts within a family. The titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) are the offspring of a volatile couple, retired actors played by Lloyd Nolan and Farrow’s real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan. Daddy was a bit of a philanderer and Mommy was (and continues to be) a mean drunk. Hannah, their eldest is a textbook candidate for Al Anonnurturing to the point of being controlling; forever helping, giving and fixing up the problems of both parents and siblings, but refusing to accept help from anyone else. Lee, the middle sister (Hershey) is a recovering alcoholic living with a moody Sweedish artist (Max Von Sydow, who skips out on Thanksgiving at Hannah’s because “I’m at one of those stages where I can’t really be around people.”) Little sister Holly (Wiest), a former coke addict, gamely struggles with launching an acting career, doing a little catering on the side, and looking adorable in her thrift shop/vintage finds.

Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine), feeling unneeded by his capable wife, starts an affair with Lee. Holly falls for, but never lands, a lonely architect. Hannah is puzzled by her husband’s coldness and indifference. Mom keeps drinking and picking fights with Dad.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s first husband, a TV comedy writer played by Allen himself, goes through a medical scare that leaves him searching for meaning and considering becoming a Hare Krishna or a Catholic before he goes on to find the meaning of life in the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.”

And all the while, big band classics (“I’ve Heard that Song Before,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”), plus a Bach harpsichord concerto, give us musical clues to the fragile state of the characters’ hearts.

Family drama is generally not Allen’s forte. His more serious attempts at the genre (such as “Interiors” and “September”) are chilly, bloodless affairs where the characters seem more like psychological constructs than people, and their heartbreaks are examined from a cool, intellectual distance. They’re intelligent, but not very involving.

Fortunately “Hannah” is about nine parts comedy to one part drama. Allen abandons his usual Debbie Downer-meets-Ingmar-Bergman style of screenwriting, and lets loose with the kind of self-deprecating wit that we saw in his early films (and the lines he gives to Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who both won Oscars, are as good as his own lines. He got a screenwriting Oscar, too.) And this time, Woody gets the family dynamics right. I tend to attribute that to the influence of his then-lover Mia Farrow, and her large extended family. Farrow herself spoke of this in her autobiography, although not favorably: “It was my mother’s stunned, chill reaction to the script that enabled me to see how he had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes of our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations.”

Ouch! Well, there is a lot of Farrow’s life in this movie. Her own children play Hannah’s kids (although they’re not seen much except in the Thanksgiving scenes). In fact, her own New York apartment stood in for Hannah’s. There’s another disturbing similarity which Farrow writes about in her book; Caine’s affair with Hannah’s sister in the film seems to mirror Allen’s flirtation and possible affair with Farrow’s own sister.

It’s hard to separate Allen films from his bad offscreen behavior in subsequent years. How do you watch him romance 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan” or college student Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives” without thinking about Soon Yi? Having read Farrow’s very damning book, it is harder now to watch some of their movies together. But I still like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” if only because it ends so much more optimistically than most Allen films: everyone is in love with his or hew own spouse, broken hearts are mended (“The heart is a resilient little muscle” as Allen memorably observes), family conflicts are resolved, and the future looks bright.

Were it any other director, such a sunny ending might seem trite. From Woody Allen, it’s practically a miracle.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reelin’ in the Years: "Annie Hall"
November 10, 2007, 3:46 am
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited, Woody Allen

There are movie geeks of a certain age who will always remember the summer of 1977 as the summer of “Star Wars.”

I’m not one of them.

For me, the seminal film event of that summer was “Annie Hall.”

I say that even though I didn’t actually get to see it until January of 1978. In the summer of ’77, I had just graduated from high school and was anxiously awaiting my escape from small town life to Indiana University. “Annie Hall” didn’t play anywhere within 50 miles of my hometown, let alone at the local theater. Only as a college freshman did I finally get to glimpse Woody Allen’s masterpiece. I remember it well. My friend, Jill, and I saw it at the student union building, and then we returned to the dorm to watch Chevy Chase host “Saturday Night Live.” The song “Seems Like Old Times,” sung by Diane Keaton in one of Annie’s nightclub scenes, lingered in my head the whole weekend. I know I’d seen an important film that night. I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Unlike other films I’ve written about this week, I’ve seen “Annie Hall” many times since 1978. I own it on DVD; before that, I owned the VHS tape. But sometimes a movie comes back into your life at a certain time and it takes on a whole new resonance.

This past summer, I was nursing a broken heart, and sometimes I would be doing that alone in front of my TV. As it happened, “Annie Hall” was in heavy rotation on cable at the time. I could find it at least once a week on one or the other of the Encore movie channels, and I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many times I watched it in the course of just a few weeks. (And yes, I know I could have watched my DVD at anytime, but somehow, just happening upon a movie that I had always loved made the watching a bit more special.)

At this particular juncture in my life, I found I could appreciate the film on three levels.

On the simplest level, it was just plain fun to re-experience classic moments that had always made me laugh: Alvy sneezing away about a thousand bucks worth of cocaine. His first grade classmates telling us where they end up as adults, culminating with the badly bespectacled little girl who solemnly intones “I’m into leather.” (I remember reading somewhere that Brooke Shields is one of the kids in that classroom, but I’ve never been able to spot her.) Alvy pulling Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to reprimand the blowhard in the movie line for knowing “nothing about my work.” Annie’s crazy brother, Duane, confessing to Alvy his desire to drive head on into oncoming traffic “because I think, as an artist, you’ll understand.” (Not to mention Alvy’s memorable look of terror as Duane drives them back to the airport.) Jeff Goldblum in the Hollywood party scene making a phone call because “I forgot my mantra.”

These scenes have another layer of meaning for me when I watch them now – they’re funny in their own right, but re-experiencing them also gives me the chance to re-experience who I was when I first saw them. It’s a pure nostalgia thing – every time I watch “Annie Hall,” I have the experience of enjoying the movie, plus the parallel experience of remembering what it was like to be in college in the late 1970s, at a time and a place when Woody Allen was like a God to us. (To my college roommate and I, anyway.) A time when my favorite outfits in my closet were combinations of vest, shirt and suspendered trousers that I referred to as my “Annie Hall” clothes. A time when I actually believed that I was going to go out to a world populated with the kinds of smart, sophisticated witty people that populated Allen’s films. Was I naive? Sure! But I was young.

But now in 2007, I was also contending with my broken heart. Like Alvy, I had loved and recently lost someone. I loved him still, and wanted him back, even as I acknowledged that we drove each other crazy. A line as simple as “Annie and I broke up, and I still can’t get my mind around it.” resonated strongly with me. The scene on the airplane back from LA – where Alvy and Annie muse separately about how their relationship isn’t working – and then Alvy observes that “A relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward. And I think what we’ve got here is a dead shark.” – well, that scene cut way too close to home. I had been trying to resurrect a dead shark for months. It was time to let it go. This time, seeing “Annie” was cathartic for me.

“Annie Hall” to me is classic, and yet very much of its time. There’s a level of appreciation for this film that I don’t think can be fully reached by anyone under the age of, say, 45 or so, because otherwise you can’t comprehend how fresh and revolutionary this film felt in 1977. Its non-linear structure, startling at the time, is commonplace today; its cultural references more dated and obscure. Along with “Manhattan” and (for me, anyway) “Love and Death” it represents a certain apex in Woody Allen’s career that I don’t think he ever reached – or will reach – again. But I keep going back to see his films, even though I’m often bitterly disappointed. Why? Well, to paraphrase Alvy Singer, it’s totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess I keep going through it because I need the eggs.
(photo from wikipedia)