Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Woody Allen,

I have a long history of not really liking the films of Woody Allen.  I feel my reasons are and were sound, and should you like to know why I haven’t liked them, you can see them explained here and here, or I can quickly summarize…Diane Keaton.  Okay, to be fair, that isn’t the only thing that doesn’t appeal to me about his films, it certainly doesn’t help them out in my opinion though.  But recently the strangest thing happened to me.  I saw a Woody Allen film that while well thought of, isn’t one of the ones that every one mentions when talking about Allen (those being Annie Hall, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the worst film ever made, Manhattan Murder Mystery).  The film in question was inhabited by real characters that actually could exist outside of the confines of New York City (although they don’t necessarily need to).  They are subject to a real emotions, and motivations that weren’t added for comic value.  Strangest of all…I liked this film quite a bit.

Mia Farrow plays Hannah, the trustworthy, dependable, and somewhat discounted anchor to her family.  Her sisters, played by Diane Wiest, and Barbara Hershey, use her as a means of support in their endeavors.  Hannah’s parents waffle between lovey-dovey, starry-eyed affection, and drunken accusations with a touch of distrust.  In an effort to hold their relationship together, Hannah is put into the role of arbitrator and peace-keeper, all the while attempting to keep her own life and marriage on track.

Hannah’s husband, Eliott, played by Michael Caine, sees her as a boring but necessary part of his life, instead lusting after her sister Lee.  The both of them enter into an adulterous relationship based solely on lust and desire, and only later confront their desires for stability, reassurance, and regularity that each receives from Hannah.  Though Wiest’s character, Holly, has a much less destructive relationship with her sister she is still constantly borrowing money which she uses for a variety of failed career ventures.

As usual Allen puts himself in the film, although this time around he relegates himself to a much smaller role.  As Mickey, Hannah’s ex husband, he plays one of the few redeemed characters in the film (not in a bad way mind you, every one in the film is perfectly cast in their roles), and the relationship that develops throughout the course of the film provides the film with a rich, tangible, and completely enjoyable center.

Though it lacks the groundbreaking structure of something like Annie Hall, and doesn’t quite provide the super iconic imagery of something like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters is by far one of Allen’s best (right up there with the aforementioned Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors).  Allen’s fascination with the existence of God and the meaning of life has never been handled better than it is here, and neither has the pay-off from such questions.  By the end of the film, my heart was singing, and my own troubles were forgotten, left for another time.

It is at this point that Allen fans could rightfully tell me, “I told you so…” (although they’d be only half right).  So consider me told.


Sleeper (1973)

Sleeper – 1973

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and John Beck

So being relatively new to the films of Woody Allen, I’ve learned that it’s possible to lump them into certain groups dictated by genre as well as by the phase of his career.  You have his neurotic comedy phase of the early 70’s, his Ingmar Bergmanesque phase of the 80’s, and then you have the crap-o-rama phase of the 90’s.  In between these, you’ll also find an occasional homage to a different genre.   Manhattan Murder Mystery, for example, is a nod to the screwball comedy, and then there’s the very Hitchcockian thriller/mystery that is Match Point.  And then you come to a film like Sleeper.  Part slapstick comedy in the vein of Benny Hill, part science fiction adventure, all boring and unfunny.

Allen, plays the role of Miles Monroe, a man who is frozen after a botched medical procedure only to wake 200 years later in a future that resembles a sort-of Three Stooges take on 1984.  The people of this world are kept sedated by television, sex, and drugs, as their leader runs the government with his police force.  Already an outlaw, Miles has to hideout in disguise as a robot butler in the home of a flighty, shallow, young woman, Luna, played by Diane Keaton.  Naturally things go awry, and they end up on the run together.

Normally, this sort of story would get me pretty jazzed to see the film.  I am a big fan of science fiction, comedy, and the novel 1984.  In this case however, the comedy is so blatantly dumb that I wonder if anyone even looked at the script before approving and funding it.  I have absolutely no idea how this film made it onto a best of list like this one when truly funny, well executed comedies such as The Big Lebowski have been woefully left off, but I’m sure it must either be some sort of nostalgia on the part of those editors putting the list together or maybe this film was a really big inspiration to someone (hopefully it inspired them to never make a movie like this again.)

To be fair, I don’t know that I quite “get” Woody Allen’s comedy.  I didn’t really like Annie Hall, and that was supposedly one of the funniest movies ever, and I downright hated Manhattan Murder Mystery mostly because it was fucking awful!  Sleeper, though, is filled with the sort of obnoxious kid humor that only 5 year olds think is funny.  By comparison the work of The Three Stooges seems downright academic.

In terms of acting, Woody Allen switches between his usual nervous, comedic delivery, and outlandish pantomime.  In short, there is no developement or depth to his character.  This seems to be par for the course though, as none of the other characters change or grow at all either.  One argument might be that this is a comedy, and its sole intent is to be funny not moralize or chart growth.  My response to that is…even the characters in films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun progress as people, so why shouldn’t the characters in Sleeper?

All in all, I did not like this film, and I definitely feel that it shouldn’t even have been placed in the top 2001 movies of all time.  See it if you want, but see it at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Reds (1981)

Reds – 1981

Director – Warren Beatty

Starring – Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Paul Sorvino

In terms of scale and message, the films generally found on the list of 1001 movies you need to see before you die tend towards epic.  If not in actual length, then in the scope of the story, the message, or even the acting.  Reds is no exception, delivering in each of these areas, but does it live up to the critical praise that I’ve heard going into watching it?  The answer…sort of.

Reds tells the sweeping story of journalist, John Reed, and his on again-off again-on again love interest Louise Bryant, feminist and fellow journalist.  The story of their relationship plays out against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution in what used to be Russian, then was the U.S.S.R., and is now Russia again.  The young idealists, find first attraction, then lust, and finally passion in both their marriage, and in the people’s movement taking place across the ocean from their home in New York.  Warren Beatty, acting as director as well as the star, and lead character of the film, plays Reed, an affable yet driven man passionate about the voice of the working man.  Louise, played by Diane Keaton, is determined to be a writer yet has trouble gaining recognition for anything other than being Reed’s girl.

The smoldering relationship between Bryant and Reed is central to the success of the story, whereas the political message was muddied a decent amount for me because of the fact that the film pre-supposes a certain amount of knowledge about world history.  Since I came to the film not knowing as much as I would have liked, I feel that I missed out on a good portion of what I was supposed to be appreciating.  As such I wasn’t as enamored with the film as I feel I would have been otherwise.

In terms of production value, set-pieces, costuming, and feel, the film leaves nothing to the imagination.  We are treated to a rich tapestry of the lives of those living in the early 1900’s.  Some of this production value is seen, while more is added through the inclusion of testimony of those who had lived through these events.  This testimony often served as chapter breaks for the film, and took the form of on-camera interviews discussing the real-life people (Reed and Bryant) being played by Keaton and Beatty.  This tended to give the dramatized portion of the film more weight, more than it would have had on its own at any rate.

With the exception of Diane Keaton (of whom I am just not a fan), the casting of the film was fantastic.  I particularly liked, Beatty, Jack Nicholson as boozy writer Eugene O’Neil, and Maureen Stapleton as the impassioned and deported Emma Goldman.  With the exception of Beatty, each other character was played by someone who was perfectly matched for the role they were playing.  Again with the exception of Mr. Beatty, no one actor was able to steal the limelight and outshine the next one.  That is, of course, not to say that Beatty was bad in the role, or that he did a disservice to the film by acting in it, on the contrary, I would be willing to bet that without his star power the film would never have been made at the scale that it was.  He does, however, turn in the least compelling performance, and is most likely of every other actor and actress in the film to rest on the laurels of good looks.

All in all, Reds was a compelling work that I still don’t feel that I fully appreciate, but I do appreciate it’s and Beatty’s commitment to turning out a quality product.  Not only do I recognize that fact, but I applaud it.  Not as fun or accomplished as Bonnie and Clyde, but well deserving of its place on the list.

“Man, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton fuck a lot in this movie, every other scene they’re humping each other.” – Ashley


Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall 1977

Annie Hall – 1977

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Tony Roberts

I know, I know, it seems like sacrilege that a film student, and self professed movie fan like myself, has never seen Annie Hall (till now of course), but somehow I’ve managed to live my entire life never having seen a Woody Allen movie until just this last year.  In the time leading up to this year I’ve heard so much praise lumped on Woody Allen, that I started going out of my way to avoid his movies, the one exception being part of Hollywood Ending that I saw while on a trans-Atlantic flight.  Needless to say I started to grow a bit of chip on my shoulder about him, but now that I can finally legitimately weigh in on a couple examples of his work I have to say that I don’t get what most of the hype was about.

Annie Hall, like a lot of his work is a little too self obsessed for my liking.  Allen’s nervous delivery doesn’t really work for me, and the stories that his characters are entangled in are decidedly unrealistic and predicated on the aforementioned neuroses.  Of the few Allen pictures that I’ve seen (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan, and now Annie Hall), all are filled with characters who never have to work, never have any real responsibilities, and seemingly don’t interact like any people that I have ever seen, met, or heard of.  Each of them has a loose story strung together with numerous instances of Allen and the gang sitting around talking.  That’s it.  No action.  No plot.  Nothing.

A few things that I really did enjoy about Annie Hall: 

1. The parts when Woody would interact with us, the audience, by breaking the fourth wall by giving us some insight into the characters and changing up the humor.  These moments always provided the most laughs and the most interesting camera work (use of split screens, sight gags, steady cam, slapstick humor, etc.), and provided a respite from the monotony of the rest of the film.

2. Seeing younger versions of actors that I know from later films (Jeff Goldblum, Shelley Duvall, Paul Simon, and Christopher Walken).


3. Allen’s obvious love for movies.  I love movies too, so I can certainly get behind his references to Truffaut, Bergman, The Sorrow and the Pity, and litany of other nods and winks to the greatest art-form around. 

I should note that I do not like Diane Keaton at all.  I thought she was a bad choice for the Godfather, I am completely uninterested in her recent stable of romantic comedy drivel, and she is a huge reason for why I have avoided Woody Allen so far.  Needless to say, that my favorite Woody Allen film so far has been the one that she wasn’t in (Crimes and Misdemeanors).  I’m not sure I have a very rational reason for disliking her as much as I do, but regardless the likability of actors IS a factor in what I think of the movies that I see.  

Of the 4 different Woody Allen films that I have seen, I would place Annie Hall at number 3 behind the fantastic Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the beautiful Manhattan, but way far ahead of the piece of shit Manhattan Murder Mystery.  Now, most would say that I don’t really like Woody Allen’s comedies, and I would agree, however that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to seeing more.  For some reason or another, the anticipation of seeing something that everyone else respects and loves is enough, so long as Diane Keaton isn’t in all of them.

Final thoughts:  Woody Allen seems to have built a career on re-making the same three movies over and over again (Neurotic Comedies, Ingmar Bergman Rip-offs, and his New York love letters).  One I love, one I absolutely hate, and the third I don’t particularly crave, but I enjoy watching anyway.