For Reel


Radio Days (1987)
April 29, 2017, 6:59 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
Radio DaysOn the heels of one of his most narratively ambitious features (the much lauded Hannah and Her Sisters), Woody Allen released this equally ambitious piece of nostalgia that serves as a series of anecdotes about what it was to grow up in the 1940s. Santo Loquasto’s set design recreates a crowded, rambunctious house of the period—a place where the radio was always on, its legends inevitably burrowing into the inhabitant’s psyches. Allen’s wistful voiceover confirms that the film’s ambition is to serve as a sharing of memories rather than to string the audience through a typical narrative, and as such Radio Days admirably suggests the ways that memories (already prone to half-truths) can intermingle with media in unusual ways. That is, as much as it recounts what it was like to grow up in the 40s, Radio Days spends much of its runtime detailing anecdotes relating to radio, such as the fact that a famous gunslinger could actually be voiced by a man with the stature of Wallace Shawn. And yet, if the radio could lie to the listener, it was a lie that its devotees truly believed in—a relationship not far removed from the ways we interact with our own histories. If Radio Days is successful in independent vignettes, however, its aimlessness comes to its detriment. Memories are founded not only by the “tone” of a specific period, but by the hopes and dreams of the people you surround yourself with. In Radio Days, the supporting characters are largely comical afterthoughts, whose interactions with the Allen stand-in are largely forgettable. For a film that celebrates humanity, none of the people in it particularly resonate. We can take Annie Hall similarly as a film about memory, and if that film lacks the obsessive tone control of this one, it more profoundly deals with how our interpersonal relationships shape the people that we come to be.



A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
October 10, 2016, 10:50 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
2.5 Stars
a-midsummer-nights-sex-comedyWhile Interiors can be regarded simply as a pale imitation of Ingmar Bergman, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is less specific in its homage but feels similarly inert, with Woody Allen’s insistence on imitation overpowering his own narrative voice. The homages to Jean Renoir and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night are there, but the film mostly plays as Allen’s take on an Eric Rohmer film in that it tests relationships in the idyllic countryside, the frame often composed of lush greens with sunlight pouring through the foliage. It ranks among Allen’s most visually beautiful films, ironically serving as a counterpoint to Allen’s general disinterest in the country. Among the film’s biggest misgivings is that it is consumed by its males—all egotists who become hopelessly jealous of one another despite their own good fortunes. The woman are the objects to pine over, defined only by the complications they cause. An exception is a late scene in which Mary Steenburgen develops a sudden insatiable sexual appetite (the only moment in which the erotic is of any dramatic interest), but otherwise both Allen’s perversions and comic voice are castrated by the material.



Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Director: Woody Allen
3.5 Stars
everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-sex-but-were-afraid-to-askBananas, Woody Allen’s sophomore feature, laid the groundwork for many of his themes to come while maintaining an anarchic joy in the surreal. Regardless, its breathless pacing and manic shifts gave it the feel of a sketch writer throwing all of his ideas on the screen. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… redeems that film’s shortcomings by embracing an episodic aesthetic, allowing Allen to not only embrace his wildest ideas, but giving them room to flourish in a comparatively self-contained context (this structure allows him to hit the reset button every ten minutes or so). Not all of the chapters work, but the ones that do are remarkable—the sustained humor of the “What’s My Perversion?” sequence shows a comic discipline in building to a priceless climactic image, and the “What is Sodomy?” chapter allows for a sustained scene in which Gene Wilder convincingly shows his growing sexual fascination with a sheep. The unifying thread to all of these stories is that the ways we degrade ourselves in the name of sex is inherently funny. Allen makes a convincing case for it. In the film’s final, most elaborate sketch, Allen displays every variation of his comic mastery, from his neurotic performance, to the surreal imagery, to the impeccable timing of the lines delivered by Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall.



Bananas (1971)
October 10, 2016, 10:42 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
bananasThat Bananas is one of the films that Woody Allen later teased as being one of his, “earlier, funny ones,” doesn’t so much suggest that he regressed as a filmmaker from this point, but that it represents Allen’s purest ambitions as a young artist. Whereas Allen’s philosophical interests would contend with the humor of his later pictures, Bananas is the work of a young comedian who seems in a hurry to throw everything he can at the screen—as a collection of sketches, it barely coheres itself together, instead favoring a madcap pacing that is rendered all the more nutty by Marvin Hamlisch’s score. If Allen was rarely better as a physical comedian, however, Bananas still shows his weaknesses. In the New York subway scene (with a cameo by a young Sylvester Stallone), Allen’s apparent Little Tramp impression feels mechanical and forced. As Allen allowed himself to be more outwardly sad as a performer (beyond the cutesy self-deprecation of his earliest films), he began to register sympathetically enough to get away with this sort of thing. Bananas is frequently brilliant if only for the scenarios it dreams up, but its quality is too inconsistent to rank it alongside Allen’s best.



Café Society (2016)
August 5, 2016, 9:52 am
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Director: Woody Allen
2.5 Stars
Cafe SocietyWoody Allen’s turn to digital filmmaking and to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is essential for the Los Angeles of Café Society, demonstrated by sunburnt surface pleasures that prove too intoxicating to resist even for those who should know better. That unrequited Hollywood dreams are present throughout the film is evocative of its ethos—this is a film about chance and disappointments, and about how sometimes life forces one to make decisions without knowing whether or not they will prove to be the right one. Like Manhattan, it’s a film of “what if?”s, with an appropriately bittersweet series of close-ups in the final scene to punctuate the point. Unfortunately, even for late period Allen, there is a distinct feeling of sluggishness—the voiceover narration from Allen sounds like it was recorded in a single take, the dialogue is less natural than usual, and the actors struggle to look like they’re doing anything more than playing dress up. There’s a subplot involving Corey Stoll (who continues to be a fascinating screen presence despite barely saying a word) that one thinks will amount to more than a tangential B plot and yet it never does. Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman is never taken to task for his actions throughout the film—instead, the potential romantic missed connection is put on the shoulders of Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie, the implication being that if she misses her chance then she’s the one who’s screwed everything up. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a film about the messiness of life plays like a rough draft. The delightful Jeannie Berlin contributes some effective cheap laughs and Stewart excels at externalizing her fraught internal conflict, but the film lacks the edge and complexity of even substandard recent Allen fare like Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight.



Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
February 24, 2016, 2:12 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
4.5 Stars
Crimes and MisdemeanorsThe 1970s took Woody Allen from a director of comedies to a man who was trying his hand at drama–1978’s Interiors is the most radical shift in his filmography, an Ingmar Bergman homage that had few of the hallmarks of a traditional Allen film at that point. The 1980s, then, were a decade where Allen continued to explore both his comic roots and the heftier themes of his more serious material. Crimes and Misdemeanors might be among Allen’s bleakest efforts, but ironically it doesn’t always feel that way–when the film follows Cliff’s (Allen) courtship of Halley (Mia Farrow), it has the feel of the doomed romance of one of his comedies, with audiences enjoying the residual pleasures of eating take out and watching old movies. But the plot involving Martin Landau’s Judah is suffocating in its dread, with Landau giving a remarkable performance as a man not only suffering with guilt, but newly aware of his potential and the impact of his decision-making. There are some problems with the juxtaposition–Judah is rewarded for his evil deed, and the picture wants us to believe that Cliff is ultimately a mench who has drawn the short straw (despite the fact that he’s bitter and enormously self-destructive)–but both halves of the story articulate how morality is measured in the modern age, the extent to which our choices define us, and how we construct our places within our social world.



Irrational Man (2015)
August 7, 2015, 10:04 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3.5 Stars
Irrational ManIn Magic in the Moonlight, Colin Firth played a pompous braggart who took exception to the work of a perky young spiritualist played by Emma Stone. It was a pitting of Firth’s intellectualism against Stone’s admittedly mystical, but moreover emotional relationship with the world. Similarly, Irrational Man casts Joaquin Phoenix as a philosophy professor who uses a detached, intellectual rationalization to justify his plotting of the perfect murder, whereas Stone realizes that the world is slightly more complex than such hypothetical rationales. The worldview of insulated academics is not new to Woody Allen, but Irrational Man is another fitting chapter in the extraordinary anthology that is his film career, furthering the impotence of his self-obsessed narcissists and instead relying on his sentimental side, exemplified by the naive, essentially good Stone. Even when half-asleep, Phoenix is an intense, unique performer, and one largely unfamiliar to Allen’s recent works. He’s far from a stand-in for the director himself–he doesn’t joke about his insecurities and various dissatisfactions, but rather is driven further into despair and egotism. Some of the dialogue is on the nose and the repetition of The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” reaches the point of parody, but Irrational Man is a satisfying continuation in Allen’s contemplation of a divided self, a rivalry between the intellectual and the emotional/practical.