Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Alice (1990)

Then The first time I read about Alice was in the late, somewhat lamented Starburst Magazine who seemed quite surprised to be covering a Woody Allen film but were polite and lengthy all the same with a giant picture of Mia filling three quarters of a page. When I finally saw the film as part of the HMV splurge of 1994, I was bored, although I think I did have a cold at the time. One should never watch films for the first time when you’re running a fever. It’s not fair to them.

Now We’re through the looking glass now people, just over halfway through this adventure. As I may have mentioned, I’m tending to watch, through Lovefilm, the movies that the BFI are programming in a given month and in March they’ve scheduled, because of the Tim Burton 3D spectacular, adaptations and films influenced by Alice In Wonderland. From my vague memory I’d wondered why Woody’s film wasn’t included, given the potions and ghostly goings on.

Showing the BFI’s keen curatorial sensibilities, the reason this film wasn’t included (unless it was because of print availability) is that though Alice enters a new emotional wonderland aided by the herbs with their fantastical properties, the icons of Lewis Carroll’s story aren’t included. There isn’t a white rabbit exactly. Some people are seen playing cards and Alec Baldwin’s ghost has a Cheshire cat grin. But if Mia’s character was called Mildred, the audience might not make a direct connection.

In fact, now that I turn as ever to the Bjorkman interview, he actively distances himself from Carroll, stating that he chose Alice because it’s “a quintessential kind of rich WASPy name” and it might as well have been Leslie. Woody instead explains that he was trying to make a comic version of Another Woman, with the device of listening in (this time through invisibility) as the way of provoking the character to change her life after viewing her so-called friends and position from the outside.

That allows him to finally give Mia a proper starring role in which she’s allowed to offer the wide range of emotions that she was always obviously capable of but generally only allowed to offer one character at a time. Across the film, via the herbs, Alice becomes a seductress, adultress, gossip, horrendously stoned and finally as feminine as she’s perhaps ever been. Mia is one of my small revelations during the process; far from the repellent slightly winy figure I’d remembered, she’s funny, resilient and at times incredibly sexy. And that’s just in this film.

She’s ably supported by the men, but Woody is careful never to let them take over, with understandable exception of Keye Luke as Mr. Yang, her spiritual guide who’s hypnotic voice drives her forward. If William Hurt at times seems like he’s wandered in from an Adrian Lynne domestic revenge thriller, Joe Mantegna is incredible, demonstrating how underused he’s been across his career playing dozens of mafia figures. His speechless reaction to Alice’s advances is one of his best ever scenes. When Woody says that half his directing is done in the casting, this is the kind of film which demonstrates what that means.

There are other casting surprises. Baldwin (in the same year as Hunt For Red October) appears as the ghostly presence of one of Mia past lovers, offering relationship to advice to Mia just as Bogart did for Allan in Play It Again, Sam. A post-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd has a tiny role as a tv producer. This is Bernadette Peters’s only appearance in a Woody Allen film as a Muse (“Very deep is exactly where he wants to put it”). At one point a famous model is pointed out, she turns around, and it’s Elle McPhereson. Even Bob Balaban is in there somewhere towards the end. It’s also a good film for Woody ensemble watchers with Julie Kavner cameoing, Blythe Danner and the first appearance from Judy Davis.

As you can tell from all these paragraphs I’m quite enamoured with Alice (and its casting). It’s not his best film; it’s at least ten minutes too long and Carlo Di Palma is back behind the camera with his very long takes which make some scenes drag a bit. The orientalist “other” approach to Far Eastern culture is a shame but in vogue at the time (see Gremlins and Blade Runner). But as an attempt to inject magic and fantasy into what theorist Molly Haskell called “women’s films” and offer a third way at the conclusion from the usual climax of such things as marriage or oblivion it has to be applauded.

Alice was seriously underrated. By me.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Then Another Friday evening Leeds Metropolitan University viewing. In 1993, I think. Even then I could see that in producing a film every year Woody had developed a system of larger budget pieces with large casts and smaller chamber works, somehow managing to deal with huge themes on different scales. Spoilers ahead. Spoilers!

Now In Crimes and Misdemeanors, rather like the old sitcom Dream On, Woody employs old film clips to comment directly on the action, to show the differences and similarities between “fiction” and “reality”. His first and most interesting choice is Hitchcock’s Mr & Mrs Smith, which as we saw last year was that director’s only, not particularly successful, attempt at straight romantic comedy. Crimes is about similar genre games, devoting near equal screen time to a late Hitchcockian thriller and a romantic comedy and seeing if they can exist within the same universe.

In the Bjorkman interview Woody says that like Hannah and Her Sisters, he was being influenced by novels and mentions Tolstoy as a standard. But his experimentation goes deeper than that because he looks to see if it’s possible for the thriller to have a happy if morally ambiguous ending and the rom com to end in tragedy. Martin Landau’s happily married ophthalmologist Judah is adulterous and gets away with murder; Woody Allen’s unhappily married documentary maker Cliff thinks about adultery (a lot) and is rewarded with divorce, the suicide of his subject and a broken heart. The audience is left intellectually stimulated but not emotionally satisfied.

Something I did notice watching the film in sequence is how the relationship between Landau and Anjelica Houston’s air hostess patterns as the playing out of the Frederick/Lee coupling from Hannah, if she’d been less emotionally stable and he was more arrogant about his position in society. I don’t think Caine’s character was so ethically black that he would have even considered Judah’s “solution” but both films share the existential discussion of what a man is capable of, even if here, the internal discussion reserved for voiceover is played out against a backdrop of dream sequences and the return of the spectres of Another Woman.

Incidentally, this is the last of these three films photographed by Sven Nykvist in sequence. A few days ago, I made the rash statement that all of the cinematographers that followed Gordon Willis were to some extent following his lead. I still stand by that. Nykvist is more free with his camera work and longer scenes do take place in front of a camera which is moving about an environment more than Willis who tended to hold a shot for a period taking in a full space. More close-ups perhaps. But just as when he worked with Bergman the director’s vision had primacy, so the pallet and shapes in these three films aren’t that different. The colour pallet hasn’t shifted outrageously.

Cliff’s resulting hatchet job reminds me of the Yesterday’s Men, the satirical documentary about former PM Harold Wilson which was suppressed, though subsequently clips have been used elsewhere, one of which shows Wilson at a clifftop with a specially commissioned song by the scaffold "Yesterday's Men" playing over the top. Here's the key audio clip. People really don't like to be made fun of in what they think is going to be a serious portrayal, especially if they have no sense of humour about themselves.

Daryl Hannah plays an uncredited role as one of Alda’s conquests. Nora Ephron features in a speaking role and the film ends on voiceover with a series of clips from earlier on – was Woody homaging When Harry Met Sally back again? Crimes also has one of Woody’s best one-liners and certainly the most on the nose since Annie Hall. When his sister suggests that in marriage, “Once the sex goes, it all goes,” Cliff replies, “It’s true. The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.” If ever one of his jokes developed a life of its own! Often imitated, seldom bettered.

Now, and I’ve been waiting to do this, finally I can ask:

Who’s In It From Doctor Who?

Claire Bloom as Miriam Rosenthal:

Was The Woman/The Doctor's Mother/The Doctor's Daughter/Susan/The Rani/Flavia/Iris Wyldethyme/Jenny/Romana/whoever the hell she was in The End of Time

Liverpool Twestival 2010.

Liverpool Life Last night I attended/visited/went to the Liverpool Twestival which this year/season/month was at the Pan Am bar at the Albert Dock.

A really entertaining evening and even easier than previous gatherings because instead of a sea of unfamiliar faces, there was immediately someone to wave at.

Not that I wasn't still a bit nervous about doing something horrendously embarrassing.

Not that I don't think I entirely managed to get away with it.

Must not wear big heavy shoes again.

Luckily, there were still plenty of new people to shamelessly hand my moo minicards out to.

Entertainment was provided by Man Get Out and later some jazz musicians.

I won a pizza delivery voucher in the raffle, a good enough reason to cheat on my self inflicted cheese ban. I'm trying to lose some weight.

Reports suggest that the event managed to raise over a thousand pounds for the official charity Concern.

Congratulations to @paulinecoxy for organising such a marvellous and relaxed and successful event.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Then When Harry Met Sally was the first film I recorded on the Matsui video recorder I was given for Christmas on Boxing Day 1992. That’s the recording I watched incessantly week in and out for years. Imagine my surprise when I finally invested in a sell-thru copy and realised the BBC had snipped the swearing in the argument scene after Harry met Helen over Surry With A Fringe On Top.

It’s one of my favourite films, poster on my wall for nearly a decade, top five, copper bottom, listed in by hundred things about me on this blog and printed on a Moo minicard. No one involved, from Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal to Norah Ephron and Rob Reiner would make a better film and I don’t think that a romantic comedy of this quality has been produced in the past twenty years. It’s miraculous.

Now I haven’t gone mad by the way. I know this isn’t a Woody Allen film exactly in that he had nothing to do with its production, but as a way of extending the entertainment, I’m also including a few films which to an extent have clearly been influenced by Woody’s films to one degree or another.

Stephen J. Spignesi devotes an entire chapter in The Woody Allen Companion (title: “The “Woody Allen Movie” Not Made by Woody Allen” would you believe) to reproducing an article from Premiere magazine in 1989 pointing out the similarities between this film and Allen’s oeuvre, with Spignesi himself offering a few more.

He describes writer Ephron as Woody’s biggest fan and the argument is persuasive. From the credits, which feature white writing on a black background (albeit in the wrong font) to the closing moments which seem to meld elements of Annie Hall (Harry realising he’s in love with Sally during a montage just as Woody did) and Manhattan (running to sweep her off her feet afterwards just as Isaac did for Tracy).

They inhabit similar sonic landscapes with Harry Connick Jr. offering renditions of many of the song which had appeared in Woody’s films, particularly It Had To Be You, whith Diane Keaton sings so touchingly in Annie Hall. Similarly, Sally’s wardrobe has more than a passing resemblance to Annie’s. The overall impression is of an love letter to Woody's films with Diana Keaton.

Ephron also does drops references into her dialogue to people putting their names in books so that they’ll be able to tell who’s is what at the end of a relationship (Annie Hall), to Casablanca and to the ordering of food (Play It Again, Sam). There is an improvisational quality too, with the likes of "pepperrr" made up on the spot (and you can see Meg looking off camera to the crew in embarrassment).

As Spignesi notes, the framing structure, of older couples talking about how they first met, is similar to Take The Money And Run even if they’re not speaking directly about Harry and Sally. And the ravishing shots of the city, from the oranges of Central Park to the modernist concrete of the museums suggest the colour equivalent of what Manhattan achieved.

Some of the connections offered are more tenuous. They both have reading scenes and scenes set in bookstores, characters sharing professions and the repetitions of actions without the other person appearing for melancholic purposes. The former feels more like a coincidence and the latter merely a trope of romantic comedy in general.

I think it’s more clearer to say that When Harry Met Sally, the Woody Allen films and the Neil Simon's are all part of a romantic comedy sub-genre set in the upmarket Autumnal sections of New York set to a jazz soundtrack, amongst people of a particular social class who read similar magazines and attend the same kinds of parties with Sex In The City and Friends the televisual equivalents.

The rhythms of Ephron and Allen’s dialogue are very dissimilar; When Harry Met Sally sounds closer to a Robert Riskin screwball comedy from the 30s, the cultural references more pop culture related and middle brow, television rather than theatre. It’s also shot in more conventional style – Gordon Willis favoured characters in landscapes whereas Barry Sonnenfeld, the photographer here, lets most of the action play out across Meg and Billy’s faces.

Similarly it could be argued that Reiner’s film might not have existed in this form without Manhattan, Annie Hall, even Hannah and Her Sisters providing some of the ground work in presenting New York as a place as potentially romantic as Paris or Venice, except of course that it also ignores the contribution of Neil Simon, especially Barefoot In The Park.

I’m just, having watched the film again in relation to Woody’s career, weary of saying that When Harry Met Sally is “The “Woody Allen Movie” Not Made by Woody Allen” because it’s not.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Somebody or The Rise and Fall of Philosophy (1989)

Then See below.

Now Somebody or The Rise and Fall of Philosophy is a twenty-five minute short film made in Germany by director Axel Hildebrand. According to the imdb (and I think you can see where this is heading) it’s about “gorgeous philosophy student Heather Buttkiss who hires hard-boiled private eye "Kaiser" (="Emperor") Lupowitz to find God (because everyone else in her class will just speculate but she wants to *know*). His investigation leads him to Jewish rabbis, atheistic gangsters, even the Pope himself. But when HE is found murdered, "Kaiser" himself falls under suspicion.”

Woody has a writing credit because it’s based on one of his plays, “Mr Big” which appears in the first collection, Getting Even (1971). I’ve not been able to track down the Hildebrand version, but YouTube offers this rendition of the hiring scene from the North Carolina School of Arts School of Filmmaking featuring what looks like (but obviously isn’t) a twelve year old Simon Pegg:

And if that isn’t enough, here it is again in East European, origin less certain:

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: New York Stories: Oedipus Wrecks (1989)

Then Fittingly for a film with three different strands, I can think of three distinct times I originally watched New York Stories. At Tris’s flat, at university and during Channel 4’s New York at Christmas season. I can’t remember which was the first. The first section, Life Lessons is in my top three favourite Scorsese films (the others being The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator – I’m weird) and I’ve previously waxed lyrical about film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s contribution here. Coppola’s Life Without Zoe has also been mentioned in relation to the Eloise animations.

Now The New York Stories project was an idea that turned up in a discussion between producer Robert Greenhut and Woody, who was looking for something to cleanse his mental pallet on the back of working so intensively on September and Another Woman. Originally the three directors were to be Allen, Scorsese and Spielberg, but Steven was busy and so Coppolla plugged the gap. True to form, up until the publication of his interview with Bjorkman he hadn’t seen the film, which is a shame because he was missing Nick Nolte’s best performance, Rosanna Arquette looking dazzling (and oddly like a taller Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a rather wonderful evocation of the coping mechanisms of lonely rich kids.

Woody’s end of the film was a product of an idle daydream. He was listening to a Sydney Bechet jazz record one day and wistfully looking towards the sky and wondered about how cool it would be if the soprano saxophonist appeared and filled the city with live music. Then he thought that funnier idea would if it was his mother and all she did all day was nag. Then he thought of the magic show, of her disappearing from an illusionist’s grasp only to have her giant eyes regarding her son’s every move. The stroke of genius in terms of this is portrayed in the film, is that the city is beguiled by her (and her crime fighting abilities) while Woody’s character Sheldon and his fiancé slowly find their world is falling apart as she turns large parts of the New York community against them.

Oedipus Wrecks is (or was – these tenses are becoming increasingly confusing) his outright funniest film since Annie Hall. Of course to an extent that’s by design – romantic comedies by their nature can’t spend all of their time being just funny – but the laugh quotient in this half hour is higher than some films which deliberately go out of their way to be outrageous bursts of glee. Obviously a lot of that has to do with Mae Questel’s delivery as the archetypical mother whose relationship with Sheldon is not unlike Barbara Lott in the Ronnie Corbett sitcom Sorry! emasculating her son at every turn effectively until he finds a nice goy. But Woody’s also on his best form in years, his timing superb as his eye continually roll with the recognition that his mother is in the process of embarrassing him. Again. The moment in which he realises that Julie Kavner’s “psychic” is the woman for him is one of my favourite Woody Allen moments so far.

To be fair and balanced (eep) Stephen Spignesi in The Woody Allen Companion is less thrilled with Wrecks. He speaks of potential squandered, of scenes being too short for the humour to register, the occult rituals with the funny head dresses not being milked nearly enough. And that Mia basically walks through her role though he acknowledges her beauty. Right, Mia first. Whilst its true that Mia’s role isn’t huge and she doesn’t have that much to do, with such a slender running time in fact all she needs to do is to be straight-laced, non-Jewish, a bit unsympathetic and unacceptable to Sheldon’s mother.

The jokes: Spignesi wrote that criticism in the early nineties and I wonder if it’s a product of a time when film comedy and especially gag based film comedy was slower. True, the Airport films were very fast paced, but often the jokes played out within much longer scenes, whereas the cutting in Wrecks is often very swift and perhaps that’s simply become more acceptable in the world of The Fast Show, Family Guy and Robot Chicken when a scene is barely in play before the joke comes and the viewer is faced with another scenario. Over time we’ve learned to appreciate some jokes, even visual, stop being funny once you’ve laughed at the punchline.

Two final bits of casting trivia. The film was Kirsten Dunst's screen debut playing one of Mia's kids (altogether now -- oh bless!). Larry David also features as a theatre manager:

Erm... It looks like the Sugababes project is over for now. In the week when Lada Gaga and the Glee Cast fight for the top slot in the charts (Gaga winning with a travesty of a video), 'Sweet 7' dropped from the top 30. Without plaudits from the music press and further afield (even The Guardian gave them a poor review), it seems the public had little time for this middling electronica. Their time has passed we're sure.

miniblog archive

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  • BBC One ageism.

    TV You will have seen or heard a story this morning accusing the BBC of ageism yet again, especially on BBC One. The Guardian reports:
    "The study, which examined a week's worth of TV output, found that BBC2 had the highest proportion of actors and presenters aged over 50, with 37%, but BBC1 had just 20% of its presenters and cast members aged over 50%, compared with 27% on ITV1. Channel 4 had only 12% of presenters actors aged 50 or over, while Channel Five had none at all.

    Overall, the The Older Faces Audit, by market research consultants PCP, found that 22% of presenters and cast members were over 50, compared with 34% of the general population. The study, commissioned by retirement village company Anchor, monitored TV programmes on the five main terrestrial channels from 20 February to 26 February.
    Taking into account that no one seems to be taking a metaphoric baseball bat to Channel 4 because it's still considered to be a "youth" service even though it's predominately trying to go toe-to-toe with BBC television much of the time, I haven't really been trained in quantitative research but two elements are likely to skew the results away from favouring BBC One in that week.

    From the information available, the survey doesn't include all on-screen contributors from the information provided, just presenters and actors. If you included contributors -- ie, interviewees, guests and contestants on gameshows, the figure would be increased considerably. To just include presenters and actors poorly represents what is being presented on screen. Most of the people being interviewed on Countryfile for example are over fifty but they wouldn't have been added either.

    Plus, one week's worth of programmes looks like a very small sample for this kind of survey, since special events can blur the statistics. Looking at the schedule for BBC One that week, In an ordinary week, the usual episodes of Larkrise, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise and New Tricks would have bumped up the numbers, but at the end of February there was also loads of live athletics and the Bafta Awards. How did they deal with that? Did they include all of the people giving and receiving awards because from what I remember it was mostly young people giving older people the "bronze" faces.

    But the survey looks spurious anyway because it apparently Five had no presenters or actors on screen for that week, despite the multiple episodes of NCIS with David McCallum who was born in 1933. An import, certainly, but in looking at other reports trying to find a copy of the survey on-line, I've found nothing to say what did or didn't include in that direction. If they did only feature home-grown material then that has to be underlined.

    Whilst it's true that older presenters and actors can get a raw deal on television, attempting to prove the point by narrowing the statistics is not the way to go. They can come back to me when they've looked at a few month's worth and a larger sample and properly represent what the viewer is actually seeing on screen.

    New nu-Who new USA trailer.

    That's more like it. Loads of dialogue, moments of charm ("They're scared of me..."), more a sense of what the performances are going to be like and a confirmation that this is a very different programme from the one which ended on New Year's Day.

    New nu-Who new USA trailer.

    That's more like it. Loads of dialogue, moments of charm ("They're scared of me..."), more a sense of what the performances are going to be like and a confirmation that this is a very different programme from the one which ended on New Year's Day.

    Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Another Woman (1988)

    Then A rare example of a film that I watched during a television broadcast which was on Boxing Day 1994 according to the BFI’s film database. I fell asleep. Which interesting because I fell asleep on this occasion as well. What we have here is Woody Allen film as possible cure for insomnia.

    Now One of Woody’s more obvious filmic experiments, in Another Woman he asks whether its possible to have an intellectual as a sympathetic character within a relationship drama. Generally in films, the sympathetic clever people tend to be boffins prophesising then battling against global decimation, detectives or within a story in which their learnin’ is beside the point. In Another Woman, Gina Rowlands’s character is confronted with the truth that her intellect has subsumed her emotional side leading her to distance herself from those who are supposed to closest to her.

    Unfortunately, and this demonstrates the failure of the experiment, she also succeeds in distancing the audience from her as well. That’s not technically because of Gina Rowlands’s performance. She’s accomplishing what Woody called upon her to do which is to shut down the more histrionic elements of her work with Cassavettes. It’s simply that as the director suspected because he nearly puts the words in Mia Farrow’s pregnant mother’s mouth, we’re unable to unpick the connection between the characters life and accomplishments and her attitude, understand why someone like that could be so neurotic.

    The director originally envisioned the central idea as a comedy. A man moves into an apartment next door to a psychiatrists office and like Rowlands hears the confessions of a young lady which he then uses to help or seduce her. He then switched the idea, in a pre-echo of Melina and Melinda, to see what it would happen if it was a woman and a drama and a Bergmanesque piece at that. Perhaps his mistake was to draw it even further away and make Farrow’s character even less consequential, not have the two real characters meet too far into the picture, preferring instead to shift their connection into dream sequences and the metaphysical.

    It seems as though Rowlands’s learning experience could have been in taking this daughter-like figure under her wing helped along by the extra insight provided by her eavesdropping, forever changing her own behaviour to accommodate whatever Mia is thinking of her, more of a two-hander, a rare occasion when Allen’s ability to gathered a wonderful cast works against the product. Not that there isn’t a guilty pleasure in seeing Hackman, Holm, Plimpton and Danner in a Woody Allen film – it’s an example from this period of the director moving away from his typical repertory – except in this case they’re a distraction from the main point.

    Here, nevertheless is my favourite scene. "I've never liked you. By the way, can I borrow some money?"