Whatever Works (Allen, 2009)

Every time Woody Allen turns a corner seemingly leaving his late career mediocrity behind, he makes something like Whatever Works, a tedious, maladroit third person comedy shooter that fails to illicit any laughs or complexities. Allen returns home to NYC, jumping back across the pond after four films set in Europe, and the shift re-reveals his greatest flaws as a comedian and filmmaker. Whatever Works blatantly exposes its reflexiveness through the biting and condescending mouth of Boris (Larry David), Allen’s stand in who consistently addresses the camera breaking the fourth wall with reckless abandon, gleefully preaching contradiction and irony. Much like Boris and his legions of “cretons”, Whatever Works comes across as plodding, overblown, and despite many interesting subjects, completely idiotic. Allen’s ramblings about love, fate, tragedy, and comedy  are astonishingly stale, lacking immediacy in areas that demand passion and reflection.

Where Vicky Christina Barcelona revels in the sensual nature of the environment and languishing beauty of its character’s dilemma’s, Whatever Works painfully charts the ideologies and “developments” of simplistic, obvious characters looking for answers in world that can’t provide any. It’s the same old bullshit from Woody, and his inability to mix up his auteurist vision makes me yearn for his days of glaring originality and brilliant nuance, the days of Hannah and Her Sisters, Another Woman, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. VCB shows signs of that Woody re-emerging, but the likes of Scoop and Whatever Works beat down the hope of him ever regaining his master status again. I’ve never felt this weary with one of my favorite all-time directors.

Manhattan (Allen, 1979)

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I hadn’t seen this in years, yet it feels like an old friend I didn’t quite fully appreciate. Manhattan is possibly Woody Allen’s must subtle film, walking the line between character study and romantic comedy, blurring the rules of Cinema by devoting an entire seemingly simple story to one specific dynamic space. Of course this approach highlights many different moments and places depending on the viewer and their mood, whether it be the dynamic Gershwin-themed opening crescendo, the brilliant use of light and dark in the planetarium, or the cramped, frenzied decor of Isaac’s small apartment. This makes Manhattan one of those rare films that changes effortlessly upon repeat viewings. Also, the great ending struck me as Allen’s most superb singular moment where his writing, directing, and acting all converge to illuminate one character’s potential downfall and last chance at happiness, where a flood of emotions cross the screen for just a second, leaving a great wealth of possibility to consider while the credits roll.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen, 2008)

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Maybe 2008 wasn’t that bad of a year for American cinema after all. Since I posted my year end summation where I blasted recent homegrown output, I’ve seen three exceptional American films – The Wrestler, Wendy and Lucy, and now Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Consider me humbled.

Woody Allen’s latest European jaunt is his best film in years, definitely since Crimes and Misdemeanors, and it’s not just the hypnotic locale that makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona so enthralling. Allen’s crisp and clever screenplay realizes a stunning theme of disappointment running through the veins of each character, no matter their perceptions about love. While much of the film seems dictated by the contrasts between Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the real pleasure lies in how each functions as a three dimensional character, not hindered by convention or cliche.

In the end, they are linked by a distinct understanding of each other, best on display when Cristina tells a fascinated Vicky and her indifferent yuppie fiance about a tryst with Spaniard artists Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).  Men are either oblivious or inept throughout the film (except for the great narration by Christopher Evan Welch), and Allen makes sure to highlight this gender alienation, favoring the struggle and complexity of his female characters. This motif echoes the best films by Pedro Almodovar and Allen must have had the Spanish master in mind when casting Bardem and Cruz in these meaty roles. Vicky Cristina Barcelona floats through the light Spanish air with a sense of longing and solace, pushing toward an inevitable lineage of momentary adventure, stifling romance, and heart-numbing dread.

Cassandra’s Dream (Allen, 2008)

Cassandra’s Dream,  Woody Allen’s latest London-based tragedy, sashays through the director’s familiar and fateful terrain of guilt, murder, and morality, proving in the process how tired this particular formula has become. Coming right on the heels of Scoop, arguably Allen’s worst film to date, Cassandra’s Dream initially seems like a small resurgence, especially considering how masterfully the opening twenty minutes unfold. In a tightly paced first act, Allen introduces brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), two fledgling Brits eager to transcend their working class upbringing for the wealthy lifestyle of worldly uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). Allen infects these scenes with good tidings and whimsical luck (Ian meets a woman, Terry wins big at the track), early ruminations of moral flaws and compromises too strategically placed to go unpunished. But when Ian and Terry get embroiled in a murder plot hatched by their seedy uncle, the film turns familiar (at least for Woody) and inconsequential, overtly depending on a trivial plot device interchangeable with those in Match Point or Crimes and Misdemeanors, two other tragedies equally concerned with the philosophical consequences of crime. Where those Allen films slowly reveal the inherent tension building between each character and their class-driven environments, Cassandra’s Dream rehashes these themes through a tepid lens, failing to elicit a sense of physical or psychological danger. Through this blatant thematic repetition, the inner struggle of Allen’s characters, or the very origin of their conflicted decisions, have become derivative and repetitive, byproducts of a major director countlessly mining the same material hoping the audience will find it just as interesting as he does. Allen’s stark tragedy is starting to resemble unintentional comedy.

Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)

Near perfection. Probably Woody Allen’s greatest film, a giant amongst a canon of monumental work. Watching Annie Hall for the umpteenth viewing, it’s the first time I noticed the fact his patented white credits on black background are not accompanied by music, which is rare for Woody, even more startling when you realize how much energy the rest of the film contains.

Woody’s sly mixture of reflexive voice-over, his self-address to the camera, brilliant performances all around, especially by the perfect Diane Keaton, all add up to what I now believe to be one of the most enjoyable film experiences. I could go on for days about Woody’s use of color, especially in his sunset shots with Annie, the New York skyline or ocean in the background, both to mystify relationship nostalgia and parallel the sadness of breaking up, personified by Woody’s rebellion against the L.A. policeman at the end.

It speaks volumes about men and women attempting to figure each other out, yet feels so amazingly tight as a narrative; nothing is outside the realm of Alvy Singer’s (Woody) mental domain, and the film will always be a fascinating place to visit.

Scoop (Allen, 2006)

Ouch! This latest Woody Allen (who is one of the top five American filmmakers of the past thirty years) screams for attention with it’s over the top performances (Scarlet Johansson has ruined another film) and redundant running gags, which make it almost unwatchable on every level. Some of the banter between Johansson and Woody Allen is flat out awful, cringe-worthy in fact, especially late in the film when the inane plot tries to go into Match Point territory but ends up feeling like other Woody shit fests like Curse of the Jade Scropian. Leaves you asking the question, why did this ever happen?