Tag: Woody Allen

The Front (1976)

The Front (1976)

The Blacklist is skewered in this heartfelt comedy that turns tragedy

Director: Martin Ritt

Cast: Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsey (Francis X Hennessey), Lloyd Gough (Herbert Delaney), David Marguiles (William Phelps), Danny Aiello (Danny LaGattuta), Josef Summer (Committee chairman)

The first Hollywood drama about the “the Blacklist”, the shamefully unconstitutional banning of left-leaning Hollywood figures from working as a result of the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into alleged communist subversion. If there was any doubt how personal the film was to its makers, the credits scroll with the Blacklisting dates of many of its makers including Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, Mostel, Bernardi, Gough and Delaney. The Front is a tragedy told with a wry comic grin. Perhaps the makers knew that if they didn’t laugh they’d cry.

When screenwriter Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is blacklisted he asks an old friend, small-time bookie and cashier Howard Prince (Woody Allen) to attach his name to Miller’s scripts and submit them. In return Prince will keep 10% of all payments. The scheme is so successful Prince becomes “the Front” for two other writers and the quality and volume of Howard’s ‘output’ wins him a lucrative job as lead writer on a successful TV show, while his ‘genius’ wins the love of idealistic script editor Florence (Andrea Marcovicci). But, as the Blacklist takes hold – driving out of work actors with tenuous links to Communism like the show’s star Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) – will Howard take any sort of moral stand about what’s happening in America?

The Front took a bit of flak at the time for not being more overtly angry about the Blacklist – as if the only response possible was spittle-flecked fury. However, today, its mix of comedy and real, visceral tragedy looks like the perfect response. The Front embraces the Kafkaesque ridiculousness the Blacklist created. Howard locked in an office at his studio to do an emergency re-write, calling Miller who taxies round replacement pages. Howard’s general ignorance of writing in general and his desperate mugging up on Eugene O’Neill and Dostoyevsky to pass them off as ‘influences’. The fact the list hasn’t done anything to stop these writers’ work from getting out there.

It’s also strong on the sense of underground community that grew among the banished writers. As veterans themselves, Ritt and Bernstein could be nostalgic about the sense of ‘all being in it together’ that the unemployed scribblers had.That vibe comes across well form Miller, Delaney and Phelps meeting in restaurants, libraries and hospital rooms to knock ideas around. There is the espionage-tinged excitement of watching script pages being palmed across to Howard like dead-drops. The film never forgets the gut-wrenching difficulty, stress and pain of not being able to work openly. But it also remembers the family feeling of a support network, giving people the courage to keep going.

But then the Kafkaesque comedy slowly drains away, as the punishing injustice creeps to the fore. Studio fixer – and vetting officer – Hennessy (played with self-satisfied relish by Remak Ramsey) calmly pressures creatives to turn on each other. Sure, there is comedy in him telling a victim of mistaken identity that there is nothing he can do to help him as the guy has nothing to confess to – that’s Kafka – but Ritt doesn’t miss the desperation and fear in the victim’s eyes. To Hennessy everyone is guilty, innocence is something that needs to be proved – and it’s a lot less funny when he strips people of their livelihoods because their personal views don’t fit.

The film’s true tragedy is actor Hecky Brown. Beautifully played by Zero Mostel, in a performance of a jovial front placed over ever-growing bitterness, anger, self-loathing and despair, Hecky can’t work quietly behind a front. As an actor, once he’s under suspicion, he’s unemployable. Despite his jokey pleas that he only marched on May Day and subscribed to the Socialist Worker (six years ago, when as he points out the USSR were our allies) to impress a girl, he’s goes from star to begging for work at the Catskills. There the manager is all smiles and pays him $250 for a gig worth thousands (based on a real life incident that happened to Mostel – and the pain and anger of it is still in his eyes).

Mostel’s performance is the heart-and-soul of the film which follows his increasingly bleak tip into despair. He scuffles with that Catskills manager over his hypocritical sorrow. Staying in Howard’s apartment, he despises himself as he searches through Howard’s desk for incriminating evidence. In a striking scene, he berates “Henry Brownstein” (Hecky’s real name) for stopping him turning state’s evidence. It’s a sad, moving picture of the real human cost of this injustice that helps moves the film past comedy and into dark drama.

And to get an even better of how serious this human cost, what could be better than placing a self-interested, politically disengaged chancer at its heart and seeing how he responds. The casting of Woody Allen – in one of the few films he appeared in and didn’t write – is perfect. There is no-one more politically disengaged and full of pinickity obsession that Allen. Howard Prince is a decent guy but his main interests are money (his eyes light up at earning 10% for nothing), his fancy apartment, seducing Florence and the adulation from fawning producers.

What better way to show the impact of the Blacklist injustice, than to see how Howard slowly shifts from a man so disinterested he doesn’t even know what the Fifth Amendment is, to someone who feels compelled to make a stand. Slowly he finds he can’t ignore the injustice – there is a beautiful moment when Howard embarrassedly drinks and stares at a poster on the office wall at the back of the frame while Hecky begs for $500 from that Catskill’s manager. He gradually realises a fun ride for him is a dystopian nightmare for others – his self-satisfied shrugs turning into real principle.

Because, he will learn, HUAC doesn’t care for names – they care about breaking people. Being as ignorant and disinterested in politics as Howard won’t save you. That’s what Ritt and Bernstein have been driving to: this wasn’t Kafka, it was Orwell, it wasn’t about the obstructive indifference of bureaucracy but Big Brother’s ruthless rooting out of thought crime. So, when Allen tells them – in the final lines of the film – to go fuck themselves, and the film freezes so he can walk out of it, you really understand why this is a glorious cry of wish fulfilment straight from the heart of the film-makers.

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Woody Allen’s relationship falls apart in Husbands and Wives. Life imitates Art?

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Gabe Roth), Judy Davis (Sally Simmons), Mia Farrow (Judy Roth), Juliette Lewis (Rain), Liam Neeson (Michael Gates), Sydney Pollack (Jack Simmons), Lysette Anthony (Sam), Blythe Danner (Rain’s mother), Ron Rifkin (Richard), Cristi Conaway (Shawn Grainger)

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are shocked and confused when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) calmly announce before dinner they are separating. Both find themselves new partners – Judy’s colleague Michael (Liam Neeson), who Judy is also attracted to, and new-age aerobics trainer Sam (Lysette Anthony) – but also discover the grass is not always greener. Meanwhile, Judy is increasingly discontented with her childless marriage and Gabe develops a flirtatious friendship with his student Rain (Juliette Lewis), an aspiring writer with a fixation on older men.

You can’t watch Husbands and Wives and not think about the real-life relationship between Allen and Farrow. The film was their last collaboration and released just as their incredibly public separation filled the newspapers (which it has continued to do ever since). Farrow is cast as a character that, like Hannah and Her Sisters, feels like a twist on her own life – only this time darker. Again, the conceiving of children is a major problem for the Allen-Farrow characters and Farrow’s character is described as considerate but overbearing, with the addition here that she is passive-aggressive and manipulative. You can’t help but think, how much was Allen already resenting her?

But, leaving aside the psychology (I think it’s a fair thought though – Allen’s own films have commented numerous times on how writers re-write their own lives, and there are more than enough signs Allen does the same) this is still one of Allen’s most impressive works. Husbands and Wivesexplores the complex nature of adult relationships, in particular how familiarity can breed a dissatisfaction with our own lives. It also looks at how moving on is never easy and how we are still tied with emotional cords we can’t easily cut to the very people we might want to leave behind.

So, Jack can jump into his new relationship with the younger and sexually exciting Sam (Jack smugly sings the virtues of healthy living and watching silly films). But he is still overcome with jealousy when Sally also starts dating. Sally says she enjoys the single life – but during a date constantly retreats into a side room (where she can be easily overheard by her date) to phone Jack and berate him for moving on so soon after their separation. Allen argues that, discontented and problematic as Jack and Sally’s marriage may be, it is so familiar to them that the idea of leaving it is too much.

Essentially, the shared memories and experiences of a long-term relationship make it too difficult to move on. The separation of their friends makes Gabe and Judy readdress their own relationship – and the find its closer to the rocks than they think. With the passion gone, Gabe feels Judy doesn’t need him while Judy is unhappy with Gabe’s unwillingness to have a child. Judy doesn’t share her poetry with him and Gabe feels she is overly critical of his new novel (and is unhappy about the character in it who is clearly her). Inevitably (it is Allen) sex comes into play – both Gabe and Jack are sexually dissatisfied: Judy has lost interest and Sally can’t enjoy sex (not even with Liam Neeson).

Gabe, therefore, allows himself to get closer to Juliette Lewis’ student on the creative writing course he teaches. Again, being Allen, there is a considerable age difference – but at least that’s addressed in the film, as every single one of Rain’s exes are older men, all with positions of authority over her (a family friend, her psychiatrist, her teacher…). Lewis is rather good as this coquetteish flirt, and Gabe is (at first) much more open to her criticism of his book than he was from Judy (largely as, consciously or not, he wants to get in her pants).

The film is shot with a cinema verité fly-on-the-wall immediacy, echoing documentary. It has the characters pop-up as talking heads throughout, discussing their perceptions and feelings to an unseen interviewer. It’s an approach that has mixed results – although an interesting new way for Allen to use the internal monologue. The documentary approach does, however, produce some excellent scenes. Most striking, the raw hand-held energy of the opening scene, where Jack and Sally announce their separation to the rising horror and shock of Gabe and Judy, surely one of Allen’s finest shot and acted scenes.

Of course, they are mainly horrified because they see they have even less in common, really, than Jack and Sally. While Allen throws in one happy marriage – Rain’s parents seem loving – he also makes it clear their daughter is maladjusted. Husbands and Wives suffers under Allen’s cynicism for humanity – there isn’t a lot of hope in here, other than you might find a more functional type of contented misery. The sympathy also drifts more to the male characters: Gabe is a sort of innocent, Jack impulsive but his actions justified. On the other hand, Judy is a manipulator, Sally an shrill, frigid neurotic, Sam an idiot and Rain a temptress.

The performances are good. Judy Davis is very good (and Oscar-nominated) as the difficult, emotionally confused Sally. Pollack is fittingly smug as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Neeson rather touching as an overly needy editor. Allen and Farrow play familiar parts, but with an accomplished ease. It’s just that Husbands and Wives is a rather glum watch – for all the jokes. It takes a depressing, rather archly cynical look at a world that doesn’t have a lot of promise in it. While it might well be truthful, the documentary approach of the film sometimes brings it closer to the Allen/Farrow home than you might find comfortable.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Martin Landau and Woody Allen reflect on Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Caroline Aaron (Barbara), Alan Alda (Lester), Woody Allen (Cliff Stern), Claire Bloom (Miriam Rosenthal), Mia Farrow (Halley Reed), Joanna Gleason (Wendy Stern), Anjelica Huston (Dolores Paley), Martin Landau (Judah Rosenthal), Jerry Orbach (Jack Rosenthal), Sam Waterston (Ben)

Successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has it all: respect, fortune, a loving family…and a mistress. That mistress, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), won’t play ball and disappear but actually wants Judah to deliver on his half promises of leaving his wife. Should Judah confess all, as his rabbi friend Ben (Sam Waterston) suggests? Or should he follow the advice of his gangster brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and remove Dolores permanently? Meanwhile, documentary film-maker Cliff (Woody Allen) has been hired by his brother-in-law, pompously successful TV producer Lester (Alan Alda), to shoot a film celebrating Lester’s life. During the shooting, Cliff can barely hide his irritation – or his growing attraction to Halley (Mia Farrow), the associate producer both he and Lester are romancing. Who will she end up with?

Dostoyevsky – could you live with a murder? – gets the Woody Allen treatment in one of Allen’s most highly respected, but troubling films. To be honest, I didn’t much care for Crimes and Misdemeanors. I have moral qualms about it – and, I will hasten to add, these qualms have nothing to do with the lack of punishment for Judah. Crimes and Misdemeanors hides its blatant cynicism and loathing for people, underneath some fine acting and good jokes. But its possibly one of Allen’s most unlikeable works, where his sympathies seem hideously astray.

It wants to be an exploration of the guilt that follows a crime. But to be honest, aside from some expert furrowing of brow and distressed line deliveries from Landau, I’m not sure Woody has much to say about guilt. Furthermore, I think he is inviting us to sympathise with Judah not because he feels bad (and even then, so what?), but for various extenuating circumstances. Namely, he’s a good man (he has all but funded a new hospital wing by himself) with a loving family and is a dedicated doctor. Furthermore, his mistress is presented almost exclusively as a demanding and difficult floozy (Anjelica Huston in an unflattering part – although at least she gets more to do than Claire Bloom in the thankless part of Judah’s wife, an almost non-existent role).

Frankly, the film suggests Judah’s motives are more complex than just removing a self-caused problem and since he feels shock (sorrow for Dolores or the crime seems noticeable absent, and it feels like Allen mistakes the one for the other) and is a nice guy, we should think again about our knee-jerk reactions of right and wrong. Problem is, Judah is not a nice guy – he’s shallow, self-pitying and self-justifying – and watching a character with, it turns out, no real morals go through a moral quandary doesn’t make for engaging viewing.

Judah’s moral reaction to the murder is insubstantial. Essentially guilt makes him wonder where there is in fact a God after all – before deciding that, on balance, the probability is that the universe will not punish him. Other than that, I’m not sure Allen has much more to add to the discussions of right and wrong. Dostoyevsky made hundreds of pages of conscious and guilt shattering a man’s equilibrium. Allen can’t manage more than about ten minutes of screen time, let alone 90 minutes.

Perhaps that’s why Crimes and Misdemeanors is padded out with a second, almost as long, unconnected secondary plot. It’s a one-sided rivalry between Allen’s film-maker and Alda’s pompous producer, with Mia Farrow as an artistic waif who serves as the prize for this unspoken competition. (This is perhaps one of the worst Allen films for female characters: we have two cold, personality-free wives for the main characters, a shrill mistress, a bland artistic waif and Woody’s character has a sister who is tied to a bed and defecated on. How did the same guy write Hannah and Her Sisters?)

Again, Allen’s sympathies lie with the idealistic, uncompromising Cliff, even more so because his interest in making films people don’t want to see makes him, in Allen’s eyes, noble. Compare and contrast with the film’s loathing for Lester – hilariously played by Alan Alda as a neat self-parody. Lester is everything Cliff isn’t, but secretly wants to be (though I’m not sure Allen realises this): successful, well-regarded, admired, rich and gets all the girls. No wonder the film hates him – even though, to be honest, he doesn’t seem the bad. After all, the sort of drive and ambition that Lester has is exactly what makes a man successful.

It wouldn’t matter so much if Cliff wasn’t remarkably similar to him, but considerably less charming. Just like Lester, Cliff is a self-important bore, cuddling his lack of success as proof of his genuineness. Cliff has no problem with effectively creepily stalking Halley (despite being married – fine though as Allen thinks she’s a bitch). Cliff’s passive aggressive assertions that Halley deserves someone like him rather than someone like Lester aren’t romantic, they’re creepy. (Needless to say, Halley ends up with Lester, to Cliff’s shock, horror and disappointment – while his wife plans to leave him).

Now I get it, there are people reading this who will think “well yes you just don’t like it because you want a simple ending where the baddies are punished – well life isn’t like that”. That’s not the case: I’m fine with films where murderers escape scot-free: but I generally want the film to know they are bad people. Crimes and Misdemeanors doesn’t. And it doesn’t really have anything of interest to say. It’s one of Allen’s films where his cynicism about humanity is exposed too heavily. You long for a bit more critical insight into Cliff, or for a more acute exposing of Judah’s self-interested excuses. You get neither, instead Allen ending on the note that the universe is dark and indifferent and only love can change things. There’s lots of the first two and precious little of the third here.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest are Hannah and Her Sisters one of Allen’s finest films

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Mickey), Michael Caine (Elliot), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Carrie Fisher (April), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Norman), Daniel Stern (Dusty), Max von Sydow (Frederick), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Sam Waterston (David)

Hannah (Mia Farrow) is divorced from Mickey (Woody Allen) and happily married to Elliot (Michael Caine). Eliot is in love with Lee (Barbara Hershey). Lee is Hannah’s sister. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is considering dating Mickey. Holly is also Hannah’s sister. This whirligig of relationships is the heart of Hannah and Her Sisters, one of Woody Allen’s finest and certainly most humane films. Witty and heartfelt, it’s one of his sharpest scripts, crammed with acute observation and fine gags and is directed with a coolly introspective eye.

Allen splits the film into multiple sections, each opening (like the chapter of a novel) with a quote from the scene we are about to watch. Music plucked from Allen’s beloved classics (most often, and fittingly considering its romance theme, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered) frequently bridge scenes. Internal monologues is used often to allow us to explore the inner lives of the characters (the actors do a marvellous job reacting on screen to this internal thought process we are hearing).

The film uses a host of inspirations carefully mixed into Allen’s Manhattan Metropolitan middle-class milieu. The entire film has an autumnal Chekovian feel to it, with a rich sense of lives continuing ‘off stage’ as much as on. While the title obviously echoes Three Sisters, it’s study of romantic and intellectual entanglements overlaps with Chekov, as does the film’s love of wordplay. There are also, of course, echoes of Bergman (with gags) both in the film’s episodic structure but also its framing device of three Thanksgivings dinners, reflecting Bergman’s triumphant Fanny and Alexander.

The most effective thing about the film, in addition to its wit, is the surprising warmth it feels for the characters. Not always in an Allen film does one find the sympathy and empathy so widely spread – there is usually at least one character who is the target for the writer’s scorn. But here, no major character is presented as either the butt of snide humour or sneers. Even von Sydow’s pretentious artist is capable of searing emotional pain, and its hard not to sympathise with him as clients enquire whether his art will fit with their home décor. Each scene carefully balances the perspectives of multiple characters to allow us to relate to what each of them is going through. It’s possibly the largest cast of fully-rounded characters in an Allen film, and his most generous film.

It’s a film that avoids judgement over its characters, despite the frequently terrible and morally troubling things they do. It’s a film that understands the heart is an uncontrollable but resilient muscle, which doesn’t always guide us to the right or the easy things. Of course today, with Allen, you think it’s probably not a surprise he had sympathy with a group of people engaged in relationships that often involve profoundly betraying others. But at least her understands the irresistible urge people have to continue doing things they shouldn’t.

It’s hard not to overlook that the film’s least explored character (despite her multi-layered performance) is Mia Farrow’s Hannah. Poor Hannah, the still, moral centre of the film, is betrayed by both her husband and her sister (to their mutual guilt). Allen leaves her in ignorance – even though she knows something is wrong – and while Allen acknowledges what Elliot and Lee is doing is wrong, he mitigates things by making clear Hannah’s decency and generosity makes her overwhelming. While we see the impact a sudden distance from her husband has on Hannah (in a great shot she talks to him while he is off camera in another room, making her look like she is talking to a wall), Hannah is one of the few characters we don’t get the insight of an internal monologue for, and that feels like an easier way for Allen to maintain our sympathies for others.

The person whose internal monologue we hear the most is her conflicted husband Elliot. Hannah and Her Sisters may be unique in that it has two characters who are clear Allen substitutes. While Allen plays one, Caine is the husband (who looks alarmingly like a prediction of future developments in the Allen-Farrow relationship). Caine is superb, not least because he turns lines you can hear could be delivered with an Allenesque twitchiness, into ones crammed with utter emotional genuineness.

For all that he is a cheat, Elliot is strangely guileless and rather sweet, plagued with guilt and also giddy as a schoolboy, begging Lee to read an ee cummings poem that carries special meaning for him. Caine makes Elliot a genuine human character, a flawed man trying to avoid hurting people (but causing pain everywhere). If Branagh in Celebrity (with his distracting Allen imitation) showed how much of a slave to Allenesque delivery you can become, Caine shows how heartfelt simplicity and underplaying can bring out deeper emotion from Allen’s dialogue. Allen also rather brilliantly directs this abashed dance of attraction: from Caine’s internal monologue telling him to play it cool, moments before he kisses Lee, to the camera framing Frederick’s sketches of a naked Lee directly in Elliot’s line of sight while he tries to think of literally anything else.

Caine also matches superbly with Barbara Hershey, excellent as a woman who feels trapped in her life and drawn to Elliot despite herself. Lee’s current relationship is with Frederick, wittily played in a near parody of Bergmanesque brooding by Max von Sydow, who takes a late lurch into real vulnerability, a pretentious artist who is part-lover-part-tutor and is disconnected from the real world, Lee is virtually his only link left with it. Frederick is clearly a tutor and surrogate parent, as much as a lover to Lee – and that attraction to a figure who can take responsibility in her life is clearly something she’s attracted in Elliot. The slow, guilt-ridden coming together of Elliot and Lee – and the slow deflation of this fling – is the emotional heart of the movie.

The film’s other two arcs provide more of the gags. Woody Allen gifts himself some of his finest comic moments as Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (the second Allen stand-in) undergoing an existential crisis after he discovers he is in fact not dying of a terminal disease. Dianne Wiest is similarly excellent (and also Oscar winning) as Hannah’s unsuccessful sister Holly, a would-be actress too insecure to find success. Wiest is not only funny, but also vulnerable and affecting, as she tries to find her place in the world. In many ways Wiest plays a third version of Allen here, as she becomes a neurotic writer channelling her real life into writing (to the consternation of her sister).

Changing reality into scripts is the only thing awkward about Hannah and Her Sisters today. Hannah and her extended family (and many children) are a thinly veiled portrait of Farrow’s own family (Hannah’s mother is even played by Farrow’s real life mother Maureen O’Sullivan). Like Allen and Farrow, Mickey and Hannah needed to adopt and foster children. And of course Eliot’s affair with Hannah’s sister eerily mirrors Allen’s own affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter, and the film’s sympathy for Elliot sometimes seems like an unsettling excusing of Allen’s future conduct. That’s not even mentioning one of the film’s earliest jokes is Allen’s character complaining about the cutting of a child molestation skit from his Saturday Night Live-ish show (“what’s the problem half the country’s doing it” quips Allen, a joke that doesn’t work today for so many reasons).

But put that aside because, whatever your opinion of Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his finest films. It’s expertly shot and directed with a real unobtrusive ease (Allen’s innate understanding of this Manhattan world contrasts sharply with how at sea he is in his European movies). The acting is spot on. As well as being very funny, the moral conundrums the film explores are sympathetic and witty, as are the flawed human beings behind them. Possibly his best film.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate Blanchett dominates the screen in Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Jasmine Francis), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Alec Baldwin (Hal Francis), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight Westlake), Louis CK (Al Munsinger), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Flicker), Aldren Ehrenreich (Danny Francis)

Every so often an actor intersects with a director and, such is the actor’s brilliance, they seem to take the film by the scruff of the neck and almost carry the director along to success. Such is the case with Blue Jasmine, a film so seized upon, so wonderfully played and brilliantly observed by a truly phenomenal (she won every award going) Cate Blanchett, you feel Woody Allen just let the camera record her work and carefully built the film around her.

Allen’s film, easily one of his best of his troubled later years, is a modernised remix of Streetcar Named Desire. After a Ponzi scheme scandal leads to her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) arrest and suicide, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) finds herself landing in the poor end of San Francisco and sharing a house with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) collapsed after Hal’s dirty dealings destroyed their lottery win landfall. Jasmine, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, living half in the present and half in an imagined version of her own past, soon clashes with Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and eventually finds hope for a second chance with diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who is oblivious to her background.

The parallels between Blue Jasmine and Streetcar should be pretty clear to anyone reading that summary, and Allen draws some neat modernisation parallels (and thankfully, and wisely, drops the rape plotline that ends that play) between the two. Placing Blanche/Jasmine as the trophy wife of a corrupt businessman, who has shut her eyes to his dealings and let her own intellect drain away in shallow frippery, works really well. Not least dramatizing very well the cultural shift from this extreme wealth (detailed in a series of cleverly interwoven flashbacks) to the relative poverty of normal life.

But the film really works from the super-intelligent, hyper-brilliant, eye-catching wonderfulness of Cate Blanchett in the lead role. This is one of those performances for the ages, a tour-de-force of fragility, self-pity, self-deception, hostility, undirected anger, desperation and pain that dominates and shapes the entire movie. Blanchett is particularly effective because she never, ever overplays the role, but let’s these complex, contradictory emotions play constantly behind her eyes and slowly seem to dribble out until they dominate her entire body. Several times, Allen plants the camera and allows us to simply watch Blanchett go through various stages of mental collapse in front of our very eyes, with this amazing actress able to seemingly fall apart in slow motion in front of us.

Jasmine is a complex and fascinating character, in some ways hugely unsympathetic. She’s a massive snob, she certainly feels the world owes her something (she flies into San Francisco first class complaining she has had to sell everything just to make ends meet, while dragging Louis Vuitton luggage behind her), she lies when she needs to and treats everyone around her with a slight air of condescension. But she’s also  incredibly vulnerable, and carrying a great deal of guilt and pain, as well as only barely able to deal not only with the loss of her privileged lifestyle, but also her growing (but denied) realisation that the price of the lifestyle wasn’t worth the having it. 

The film throws her into a series of contexts that show her at her best and worst, as victim and as fantasist. Getting a job at a dentist’s reception desk – a job she seems to only barely have the patience or aptitude for – she is forced to see off the unwelcome advances of her creepy boss (played with a passive aggressive sleaziness by Michael Stuhlbarg) with horror. Later though, she wilfully deceives Dwight (a fine performance of assured arrogance by Peter Sarsgaard) about her background and character. She is partly right in her assessment of her sister Ginger having a very low opinion of herself, so only pairing herself with men who treat her badly; but Chili is also right about her having no regard or time for her sister when she was wealthy.

The use of flashbacks throughout the film works very well to show us Jasmine before and after her economic crash. What’s fascinating is that her fragility is an ever-present, kept suppressed under a shower of gifts, but quickly coming to the fore when Hal’s (has there been a better role for Baldwin than this jovial, greedy cheat?) serial infidelity is bought to her attention. It also serves to remind us to keep Jasmine at a certain distance, her own evaluations of what her past life was like frequently not squaring with the version we see.

All of this hinges on Blanchett’s brilliant work, but she’s not alone in delivering a fine performance. As her blousy sister, moving like a weathervane from person to person, changing her opinions quickly depending on her recent experiences, Sally Hawkins is possibly at her best here as well. Andrew Dice Clay is excellent as an honest Joe who hovers over the film like an object of destiny. Bobby Cannavale does some very good work as a feckless but sort-of honest Stanley Kowalski.

Allen’s direction is calm and almost in awe of Blanchett, and that’s fair enough because whatever you look at, it comes back to her striking genius in the film. Blue Jasmine may remove some of the depth that Blanche has (with her life of pain and guilt in the play’s backstory) but it substitutes that with a gripping exploration of a long-running mental collapse that is so movingly and superbly brought to life by Blanchett you can’t help but be engrossed by it.

Annie Hall (1977)

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on the quest for love and romance. How much of this is autobiographical eh?

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison Portchnik), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Janet Margolin (Robin), Shelley Duvall (Pam), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall), Colleen Dewhurst (Mrs. Hall), Donald Symington (Mr. Hall)

Why is love so damned difficult? And, as it is, why do we keep setting ourselves up for a fall with it? Why are we all such relationship addicts? These are questions that Woody Allen tackles in Annie Hall, the film that elevated him from comedian to Oscar-winning cinematic super scribe (he won three Oscars for the film – Picture, Director and Writer). Does it deserve its reputation? You betcha.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is a neurotic New York comedian (is it any wonder he was seen as synonymous with Allen himself?), twice divorced and incapable of maintaining a relationship. He meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, Allen’s ex-girlfriend playing Allen’s character’s eventual ex-girlfriend, using Keaton’s real name as a character name – confused?) over a game of mixed doubles tennis, and their immediate chemistry and shared sense of humour leads to a romantic relationship. Their only problem? Their innate neurotic self-analysis that stands forever in the way of maintaining a relationship.

Annie Hall is a deliriously funny film – I actually think it might be one of the funniest I have ever seen – with an astounding gag-per-minute hit rate. Allen uses multiple techniques to deliver gags: commentary, voiceover, celebrity cameos, an animated interlude, “what they are really saying” subtitles, flashback, direct to camera address – and the blistering parade of delivery styles never seems jarring, but ties together perfectly. Large chunks of the film are inspired high-wire dances where a punch-line is a few beats away, and the film never settles into a style or becomes predictable. So many of the jokes have become so familiar due to their excellence that it’s almost a shock to see them minted freshly here – and the fact they all land so effectively is a tribute to the performers. 

In many ways, Annie Hall is a series of sketches loosely tied together with an overarching plot line. In fact Alvy’s constant commentary on events (a brilliant playing with conventional cinematic storytelling form), add to the feeling this is in some ways an illustrated stand-up routine by a gifted self-deprecating comedian. The material seems so synonymous with Allen’s personae (and the characters of Alvy and Annie so close to what we know about the actors who play them) it’s very easy to see the whole film as auto-biographical. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – particularly as the hit rate of the gags here is so phenomenally high. 

But what makes this film such a classic is that it is more than a collection of excellent jokes. Allen is also telling a story about romance – or rather or need for romantic connection, and how easily we can sabotage or undermine this through our own mistakes, errors and (above all) neuroses. Alvy Singer is almost chronically incapable of embracing happiness and contentment, with every good thing merely an interlude between crises. Annie is the most promising opportunity he has had for long-term contentment – and still his neurotic self analysis gets in the way. As such the film is about the quest for love – and the title Annie Hall(not the character) is a metaphor for this – to Alvy Annie Hall represents the perfect relationship, something he (and indeed she as well) will never accomplish. 

The film perfectly captures the dance of first meeting – the shy, stumbling early conversations of people who are attracted to each other but are both trying too hard (the subtitles here are a brilliantly funny choice – we’ve all thought to ourselves “what am I saying?” in that situation!). There is a wonderfully playful scene where Alvy panics over the cooking of lobsters – clearly playing up for Annie’s delighted engagement in it, as she photographs his distress. These photos appear in the background, framed on their wall, as their relationship breaks up relatively amicably later. At another point, Alvy attempts to recreate the same moment (same location, lobsters again) with a new girlfriend – only to be met with unamused, annoyed confusion. It’s a perfect little vignette that captures the magic of chemistry – and the difficulty of finding it or holding onto it.

Because what is striking is that Allen allows the relationship to break apart surprisingly early. Roger Ebert has written about Annie almost “creeping into” the film – and this is true. She is only briefly seen in the first 25 minutes (the first third of the film almost!) as the focus is on Alvy’s discussion of his background and childhood, and his past romantic failings and sense of disconnection from people. Then very swiftly after its establishment, the relationship is past its prime, with both parties finding it hard to keep the interest going. The second half of the film follows them amicably drifting apart – meaning this is probably the most romantic film about a long break-up ever made.

The film has a beautiful little wistful coda of Alvy and Annie meeting outside a cinema, each with new partners. In long shot we see them engage in an animated and engaged conversation while their new partners look on, nervously smiling. The magic link between them hasn’t faded away, and their importance to each other, and natural chemistry, hasn’t changed – but, the film seems to be saying, their natures work against them. It’s one of several touching moments in the film that demonstrate the heart that underpins the jokes. After their first break up, Annie calls Alvy round to get rid of a spider in the bath. He does so with comic incompetence, then in a still medium shot he comes to Annie in the corner of the frame sitting on the bed. They reconcile and then embrace tenderly – it’s a beautiful, moving, gag-free moment, all the more effective as its reality is contrasted with the humour throughout the rest of the film.

The film is a full of tender and real moments like these in between the jokes: it’s a nearly perfect balance between them. The parts are perfectly written for the actors: Allen is so brilliantly good here as Alvy that the character has essentially become the public persona of Allen (and allegedly his desire to never make a sequel was linked to his unease with the association between Alvy and himself). Diane Keaton (her real surname being Hall and her nickname Annie) also had this part perceived as a loose self portrait (her past relationship with Allen not helping). Truth told, it’s a very simple part and Keaton actually has to do very little in the picture beyond react (the focus is so strongly on Alvy) and deliver the role with charm – but she captures the sense of an era shift, a woman stuck between transitioning from the hedonistic 60s to the ambitious 80s, an ambitious free-spirit. The Oscar for the role was generous, but not undeserved.

For all the film’s emotional understanding and complexity, it’s the jokes though that you will remember, and they are glorious: Alvy’s schoolfriends telling us what they are doing now as adults; Alvy’s description of masturbation; the accident at the cocaine party; Christopher Walken’s monologue on driving; the puncturing of the pretention of a loud-mouth know-it-all in a cinema queue – it’s a blistering array of comic genius and it will have you coming back for more and more. It’s Allen’s most garlanded movie and it’s certainly the best balance he ever made between “the early funny ones” and his “later serious ones”. It’s simply shot, but told with heart, feeling and emotional intelligence and with dynamic, comic wit – it’s one of Allen’s greatest movies.

Match Point (2005)

Love and lust collide in Woody Allen’s bizarrely classless Britain

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Chris Wilton), Scarlett Johansson (Nola Rice), Emily Mortimer (Chloe Hewett Wilton), Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett), Brian Cox (Alec Hewett), Penelope Wilton (Eleanor Hewett), Ewen Bremner (Inspector Dowd), James Nesbitt (Detective Mike Banner), Rupert Penry-Jones (Henry), Margaret Tyzack (Mrs Eastby), Alexander Armstrong (Mr Townsend)

Match Point was originally intended to be filmed in New York, but Woody Allen could only raise the cash in Britain – so the location was shifted to London. The effect is a little bit like Julian Fellowes switching Downton Abbey to become a kitchen-sink drama in Liverpool: research has been done, the facts are all ticked off, but the understanding of the people and their situation just isn’t there. Maybe Allen should have hired Fellowes as a consultant. At least Fellowes could have told him an upper-class Covent Garden opera buff probably isn’t going to be in raptures about Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Woman in White.

Chris Winter (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a tennis pro, now making a living as a coach in an upmarket London club. He coaches Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), and they discover a shared love of opera. Soon Chris is a regular visitor to the Hewitt family, a suitor and later husband to Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and an employee at his father’s big city firm. He has everything he wants – except for Nola Rice (Scarlett Johnasson), Tom’s American actress fiancée…

The film was critically acclaimed in America but received a much more muted response here in Blighty. I can see why. Allen’s main problem is that he is tone deaf to the class hierarchy in this country. As such, he creates a Britain here that is close to something we would recognise, but subtly off. Chris is clearly from a lower social class than the family he marries into, he’s employed as a coach in a tennis club and he’s clearly less well travelled than the others. The family he marries into has a massive country house with servants, goes shooting at the weekend, runs a huge London business – it’s a modern day Downton Abbey.

If the same story was created by a British writer and director, Chris would clearly be presented as an ambitious, even ruthless, social climber looking to move up the ladder by doing everything he can to marry into a rich family and inveigling himself into their lives. Allen, however, doesn’t present the relationship like this – in fact, watching the film, I think it’s clear that he doesn’t really realise that Chris and his in-laws are in a totally different social class. He treats them all as if they are basically social equals, with money the only difference between them. For the British this just doesn’t fit in at all with our experience of the class system in this country – we know the Hewetts and Chris would always be aware of the social background difference between them, and that someone would comment upon it during the course of the film. No-one ever does. Class remains unmentioned. For a British person this just isn’t right.

So the “tragedy” if you like (or character flaw) of Chris should be that he is drawn sexually towards Nola Rice, despite it flying against his ambitions for moving upwards in his class. Instead, Allen’s script treats it solely as an affair of passion: the fact that the two “outsiders” in the social class (the working-class Irish boy and the American actress) are drawn to each other isn’t commented upon at all. The Hewetts are more suspicious of Rice because she’s an American and an actress, but the fact she (like Chris) doesn’t have a penny isn’t an issue. There is a lot of fertile ground here that any British director or writer would just know – but Allen fundamentally just doesn’t get it: he thinks the Hewetts are middle class not the loaded 1%+.

Of course, some of the problems are connected to Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the lead part. Watching him in this film, I can’t help but feel this is a solid 7/10 performance by an actor who normally bats a 5-6: he’s doing some of his best work on film, but his inadequacies as an actor can’t be overcome. It’s the eyes and voice for me: there just never seems much going on behind the eyes, and his unmodulated voice doesn’t bring any shading to his line deliveries. Chris should have the air of a slightly ruthless, ambitious but charming social climber – think Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets – but this is out of his range. Instead Chris is just a sort of blank that you can impose their own ideas on: it sort of works for the film, but it misses dozens of possibilities. He does well with the second half of the film and his guilt about the murder is well played, but it’s simply less subtle acting than is called for in the first half. He’s an average actor giving a performance above himself here.

Scarlett Johansson fares much better as a character who changes and develops dramatically over the course of the film, from mysterious, confident, sexy girlfriend to needy, frustrated, betrayed mistress. It’s a dramatic development throughout the film that is so skilfully done, it never feels jarring. Much of the cast is also strong: Matthew Goode is a real stand-out as Chris’ subtly spoilt brother-in-law, as is Emily Mortimer as a happy wife who never wants to think about the lie her life is. Rupert Penry-Jones and Margaret Tyzack have great cameos among the all star British cast.

The film takes place in a picture-postcard London (all the great sights are ticked off), and Allen directs with his traditional unfussy camera work. There is a certain pleasure to seeing big name British comic actors in tiny roles throughout (Paul Kaye, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Alexander Armstrong among others pop up in small roles).

Allen doesn’t understand Britain like he does Manhattan, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a decent film. The story’s theme of luck or chance vs fate doesn’t quite coalesce for me, but the feeling of events closing in on Chris late in the film does work very well, and I certainly felt the tension of whether Chris would get away with his eventual crime (even if I never really quite cared for Chris himself). Allen rates this as his favourite of his own films – which I guess goes to show you are never the best judge of your own work.