Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Then I first saw Melinda and Melinda at FACT Liverpool in May 2005. I’ve previously reviewed the film on this blog. Let’s read what I said: “I think what makes it a more watchable and probably accessible film is that it feels like a richer experience. The central conceit, of a story being told from a tragic or comic perspective from an initial stimulus is a discussion of the essence of drama. That discussion occurs throughout the film as the two stories echo each other, moments being mentioned or redescribed in differing configurations, with suicide played in the darkness and light in equal measure. It gives the piece a background bigger than the characters and their situations.”

Now When I was reviewing Hitchcock’s career, and reached his final film, Family Plot I registered disappointment that it wasn't a “summation” that it didn’t gather together his old motifs, underscore what he was trying to do with film. What I’d failed to notice was that he already had with North By Northwest with its wrong man plot, insignificant mcguffins and Cary Grant; everything after that was atypical. Rewatching Melinda and Melinda, his final New York film before visiting Europe, I have the same vibe; at the end of a five picture deal with Dreamworks, it’s almost as though he’d assumed he might not be making another film and so he’d decided to underline everything he’d done before, like a story arc reaching its emotional crescendo.

Which is why, as I noted in my contemporaneous review, everything seems so familiar – it’s deliberately so. I said I thought that tragic Melinda –- hereafter known as Melinda-T -- reminded me of Judy Davis (on reflection eerily so) – she’s being written that way. In that story, Chloe Sevigny is playing the Mia role with Johnny Lee Miller filling in for the likes of Gene Hackman or Sam Waterson. Comedy Melinda – hereafter known as Melinda-C -- is playing the Mia role in that story, with Will Ferrell as Woody, Amanda Peet as Diane Keaton and the role of the dentist would clearly have been picked up by Tony Roberts. Woody’s conjuring the ghosts of his past, but he’s a good enough scriptwriter to be able to evoke this without having to give too much direction.

But there are also structural and visual repetitions. As I noted the comedy/tragedy two-story aspect appears in countless of his films, some I realise now more subtly than others. It’s in both Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, though the levels are far closer and more subtle than in Crimes and Misdemeanours. Melinda and Melinda is the first to name and make them specific. Melinda-T even talks about the kind of premeditated murder perpetrated in Crimes. Melinda-C is lured out to the Hampton’s as happens in Annie Hall. I notice now that Woody has also had specific geographic locations in mind when doing comedy and drama as though it depends on which side of his little speck of New York you live on as to how you’re life is likely to unfold.

He also makes plain his tendency to use jazz for comedy, classical for drama even to the point up including the switcheroo over the opening and closing titles. And almost all of the music either on track or at least composer level has appeared in one of his previous films, with Duke Ellington as his signature composer. He even seems to homage When Harry Met Sally by employing Ellington’s version of Don’t Get Around Much Anymore which featured so prominently in Reiner’s film (with an added note that when that scene on the side walk happened I had a lump in my throat). Now it’s easy to suggest that this is simply Woody running out of ideas, going over old ground. But they’re too pronounced for them to be simple recycling or coincidence; even after the fumbling Hollywood Ending he’s clearly too engaged with the process for all of these decision not to be deliberate signs.

Though I’m following the US release dates (or wherever the film was first shown) in the title brackets for these posts, Melinda and Melinda was released in the UK in 2005. At the close of that year, Lovefilm had a poll of the worst films of the preceding twelve months. Viewers ranked it fifth. Here is the list:

1. Revolver
2. Alexander
3. Fantastic Four
4. Be Cool
5. Melinda and Melinda
6. Valiant
7. House of Wax
8. Bewitched
9. Herbie: Fully Loaded
10. The Dukes of Hazzard

Less rubbish than Fantastic Four, more rubbish than Paris Hilton in House of Wax? It recieved a few mixed reviews, certainly, but really? The advertising didn’t help, probably with Woody’s participation, the more austerely dramatic elements downplayed and Will Ferrell made prominent on the poster suggesting something akin to straight romantic comedy. Steve Carrell also appears in the film too as advice guy in the Melinda-C story which I seem to recall being highlighted a lot too. That’s why I never to pay too much attention to advertising – it manipulates your expectations and usually in the wrong way.
Music We'll talk some more about the new Spotify some other time, but for early adopters, my profile is at this link, and includes all the playlists which appeared on this blog last year (and are available from the tag below).
Politics The Guardian has backed the Liberal Democrats (finally - I predicted it weeks ago) and offer a beautifully even handed editorial explanation. Here is the penultimate paragraph, but if you have the time I urge you to ignore it and go and read the whole thing:
"The Liberal Democrats were green before the other parties and remain so. Their commitment to education is bred in the bone. So is their comfort with a European project which, for all its flaws, remains central to this country's destiny. They are willing to contemplate a British defence policy without Trident renewal. They were right about Iraq, the biggest foreign policy judgment call of the past half-century, when Labour and the Tories were both catastrophically and stupidly wrong. They have resisted the rush to the overmighty centralised state when others have not. At key moments, when tough issues of press freedom have been at stake, they have been the first to rally in support. Above all, they believe in and stand for full, not semi-skimmed, electoral reform. And they have had a revelatory campaign. Trapped in the arid, name-calling two-party politics of the House of Commons, Nick Clegg has seldom had the chance to shine. Released into the daylight of equal debate, he has given the other two parties the fright of their lives.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Anything Else (2003)

Then We’ve now reached the films which I’ve already reviewed on this blog. I visited Anything Else at screen 3 of Picturehouse at FACT on Wood Street on Wednesday August 18th 2004 and wrote about it here: “Yet again I find myself rush headlong against general critical opinion. Does it do anything absolutely new? No. Does it at times feel like Woody Allen by numbers? Yes. But it doesn't matter. I would much rather go to the cinema and see something with a script which is half literate with a good 10-15 belly laughs and god forbid actually makes me think than the usual crud which passes itself off as a smart twentysomething comedy. The magic this time is that despite what poster might being telling you, these aren't perfect characters. For once the director lets their mess of neurosis come into conflict and see what happens.”

Now My critical opinion of the film hasn’t changed since I first saw it an I’d urge you to look at my comments from way back when since it saves me regurgitating them here, with the added observation of how similar those four paragraphs are to these reaction pieces. Since then I’ve watched Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park and noticed the similarities, the manic pixie dream girl and the romantic straight arguing in a tiny New York apartment, the matriarchal visitation. Of course, that’s slightly less psychoanalytical (slightly?) and Jane Fonda easier to love and understand than Christina Ricci, but the comparison stands and underscores what I was suggesting, when I was writing about the eighties, that Allen and Simon are working in roughly the same genre.

Similarly since first viewing, my film school sensibilities mean that I pay closer attention to the details of production, most specifically the mis-en-scene; we’re in an interesting period were Woody is changing photographers for each film – after decades collaborating with a particular crew member. Darius Khondji’s an interesting choice. He originated in Paris eventually working with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the likes of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children before moving to Hollywood and working with Fincher on Seven and Panic Room, and Bertolluci on Stealing Beauty one of my guilty pleasures. But all of these films have a different flavour and unlike Gordon Willis he becomes invisible with each director. I didn’t realise his range until I read his IMDb page.

Anything Else has a particularly theatrical look. Most of the scenes play out in just a few shots, but unlike some of the nineties films were the camera shifted about manically trying to take in all the action, the characters tend sit within shot or the camera pans with them slowly. Steady cam’s are generally from the front, car shots from the side. The general impression is of putting the cinema audience in the position of a theatre audience watching the actors play within the scenery in front of them. That’s especially underscored by the moments in which Biggs breaks out of the scenes (in much the same way as John Cusack in High Fidelity or Ian McShane in Lovejoy) blinks through the forth wall and addresses us. It’s another narrative device to fill in gaps in the time-frame, but also draws us in.

I think it’s these unusual touches which, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, made Anything Else one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films of the past roughly twenty years. Granted he’s also included Friday with Ice Cube but when you consider who he is and everything else he's selected, most of them fairly iconic, it's fairly incredible. Here is the list in video form as Quent auditions for the Film 2010 job:

He's right about Speed though I still think The Matrix holds up even with the bizarre mythology of the other two which improve immeasurably once you've heard the critics commentaries in the dvds. I’m digressing, but if any readers do happen to be interviewing Quentin at some point, I would be interested to know quite what it is that he loves about Anything Else ahead of the vast number of other films in the same genre which have been released in this time period.

I touched on the publicity in the first review, but looking again at the dvd box it is fairly disingenuous. Woody is listed in the cast and in the credits on the back and there is a photo of him on the inlay. But the main image of Ricci in a heart being carried by Biggs does suggest something rather more mainstream than what is there. As Roger Ebert says: “It's as if they have the treasure of a Woody Allen movie and they're trying to package it for the "American Pie" crowd.” It’s a much more complex than that. This playing down of the director’s participation would continue for the rest of the decade but it’s especially sad because in hindsight this is the last film (up until now) which would see Woody the actor philosophising on the streets of Manhattan and at his usual landmarks.


Politics Watching yesterday's events, one image struck me as being terribly familiar. Gordon Brown, head down, clutching his forehead:

Then I remembered ...

... a photograph of Nixon (source unknown) I employed as one of the title bars in the early days of the blog ...


Politics One of my favourite episodes of The West Wing is The US Poet Laureate. It's set during a presidential campaign and opens with President Bartlet giving short interviews to local tv stations. After one of the interviews, he's exchanging pleasantries with a newscaster and when we think he thinks the mike is off, he says of his opponent, the Bushalike Senator Ritchie, ". . . I think we might be talking about a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world. . . ."

Cue scandal, recriminations, generally a bad week in the campaign with the administration's token Republican, Ainsley Hayes, appearing on as many talk shows as possible in order to try and spin the story back their direction, as Bartlet is confirmed as the elitist his opponents suggest he is. At the close of the episode, press secretary CJ, who's also spent her time cleaning up the mess, questions her President on what really happened:

She heads back towards him.

Yes, sir?

I've been meaning to tell you, you've done really well this week with the open-mike thing.

Thank you.

He slips on his glasses and looks up at her.

Didn't turn out too bad.

No sir, it didn't turn out too bad at all. In fact, the whole country's talking about whether Ritchie's smart enough to be President. And you didn't take hit, 'cause it was an accident. You know, it occurs to me that even your choice of language was interesting. "A .22 caliber mind, in a .357 magnum world." That's unusual for you, a gun metaphor.

Bartlet doesn't look up, seeming to be engrossed in whatever he's reading.

C.J. [cont]
Toby mentioned to me that when each interview was over, all the interviewers wanted to talk to you about was Ritchie, and you took a pass each time. Until Philadelphia.

Now Bartlet slowly looks up at her.

C.J. [cont]
Mr. President, is it possible you saw that the green light was on?

He slips the glasses off and gives her an unreadable look.

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

C.J. smiles.

That was Old School.

He turns back to look at her.

Go knock 'em dead.

Bartlet walks away from her towards the microphones as cameras flash. He reaches the bank of microphones, and nods to his audience.
In other words, Bartlet made a deliberate gaff so that one of the subjects which wouldn't necessarily have entered the news cycle, entered the news cycle. If only politicians in the real world were this cunning.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Hollywood Ending (2002)

Then Hollywood Ending has notoriously gone unreleased in the UK even on dvd. I eventually found a region one copy at Vinyl Exchange in Manchester. It still has their sales sticker on it. £12. I’m guessing the first time I watched it was in 2003 since I’ve been annoyed about it on my blog a few times since.

Now After the revision of my appreciation of Curse of the Jade Scorpion, my hopes were high for Hollywood Ending – could it be that after the same number of years my appreciation of this film could have changed as well? Was this a hidden classic? Leonard Maltin seemed to think so according to the box were he’s quoted as saying “I laughed out loud … Woody Allen at his best.” The omission denoted by the ellipsis is important. Because as far as I can see all Maltin could possibly have said is “I laughed out loud at the ineptitude. This is not Woody Allen at his best.”

The problems are numerous. Many of them signalled by the trailer.

The self-refentialism, for example, is as horrifying as it is breathtaking. Woody plays a New York film director who apparently made a previous picture called Manhattan Magic who’s seen as being past his prime and trying to find his come back project. He likes to be left to his own devices and won’t let anyone see his work until it’s finished. Effectively, having built up the mystique of his films displaying a kind of mythic version of his biography, he’s trying to turn it to his advantage which somehow makes him look like a tired filmmaker running out of ideas.

The blindness. The idea of a director becoming blind on the edge of making a film isn’t horrible – it sounds like the stuff of a Bergman film in fact. Except that the audience has a suspension of disbelief disconnect because no one on the crew other than a few select people who are “in on the secret” seem to notice even though the man is looking in the wrong direction all of the time and is often confused. Anyone tuning into the film half way through would be asking themselves why the director is blind and no one is mentioning it.

But the nature of the blindness is incoherent also; Woody’s character also doesn’t appear to have any audio acuity, he can’t also seem to tell from which direction someone is talking often conducting conversations with blank air even if the someone is sitting right next to him. Early on, during a pitch meeting, he mentions that he’s going deaf in his left ear but to no degree does that explain why he would need someone to turn him in the right direction to face someone speaking to him in a clear voice.

Even though much of the film takes place on what purports to be a film set, none of it looks like a proper film set and even if Woody’s character wasn’t afflicted there’s not much chance that the final film wouldn’t come out looking cheap and incoherent. In other words, this doesn’t look like the $60 million project this film within a film purports to be. This isn’t often a problem – and indeed in Bullets Over Broadway, the play hardly looked realistic. But even if Woody is trying to make a Hollywood satire, the fakeness is distracting.

When characters watch the dailies, they all comment on the fact that none of them make any sense that there are weird angles as though this was caused by the director’s blindness. Except that a decent cinematographer, albeit a Chinese cinematographer working through a translator, would surely, at the very least, be able to point the camera in such a way as to make the shots match up and make sure that was the case. Again, admittedly, this is supposed to be a farce, but if the viewer is stressing about this kind of detail, something major has happened at large.

But perhaps most damning, Woody seems have lost the capacity to see what his film is about, what’s working. Because outside of the strange blindness scenes and weird film satire ("I want to congratulate Haley Joel Osment on his life achievement award") the relationship scenes, the moments between the director and his ex-wife and later his son are as beautifully played as anything in his previous work. Téa Leoni is just wonderful in those moments when she’s recalling her marriage and at best her interaction with Woody recalls Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. But none of that can hide the unfortunate fact that this is Woody's first self-directed stinker.

The film is way too long and I’m wondering what might have happened if in trimming the twenty minutes that should have gone (back to his usual 90 minute running time), he couldn’t have lost the bulk of the blindness scenes in order to drag the film back to what it really wants to be which is a relationship drama with moments of slapstick along the lines of Manhattan Murder Mystery. Then, when the film opened the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, he wouldn’t have necessarily been relying on the final joke about his films being better appreciated in Europe to get the audience on side.
Politics I've contributed to the second week of the MSN Voters Panel: "I'm under no illusions about this; and Clegg has to be careful not to build a sense of his own entitlement, that what the polls are saying is correct. Those polls are also saying that the electorate is in flux and it's not until people fill in their ballot papers that we'll find out if the country is on its way to real change, if only in terms of the electoral system."

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  • Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Sounds from a Town I Love (2001)

    Then This short film was produced to be presented during The Concert for New York City, an event to benefit the victims of September 11th attacks. Predictably the wikipedia has a surprisingly detailed entry, including a set list though it fails to say where in the line-up the film appeared. At just three minutes long, it's well worth a look, especially since, even with this slender duration, it's still unmistakably a Woody Allen film:

    Now Sounds from a Town I Love looks like the potential opening scenes of a feature, a way of introducing some of the characters. You could imagine that somewhere along the line we'd keep returning to the same actors until eventually we discover that Griffin Dunne, Michael Emerson and Tony Roberts are playing the ex-husbands of Bebe Neuwirth and that like Hal Salwen's prescient Denise Calls Up, the majority of the piece will be conducted on mobile phones to show how they have transformed relationships in the contemporary Big Apple.

    Traversing what looks like most of Manhattan in just a couple of minutes, the look of the film flashes forward to Anything Else with its mix of steady tracking shots and steady-cam close-ups, though in a more guerilla style. This has to have been shot quickly. Woody has been lucky enough to enjoy fairly large budgets throughout his oscillating popularity, but perhaps what we see here is how he might approach film making if he was forced to do it much more cheaply, not that he'll be visiting Sundance any time soon.
    Elsewhere I've posted a review of last night's Doctor Who. As I said there, I was watching the BBC One Wales version so thankfully didn't see the Norton invasion (this illustrative clip is also a spoiler if you haven't seen the episode obviously). Whoever runs the complaints department at the BBC is probably having a fairly busy weekend as a result.