The 90s are often considered as one of Woody Allen’s weakest periods, but the new box set chronicling his work during the era certainly makes a strong case against that. Like Allen’s filmography in general, it is a mixed bag of films, but the majority in the set are among his finest work. Allen also found a home at Miramax during the mid to late 90s, which certainly suited his more idiosyncratic films of the time.
The first film in the set is Bullets Over Broadway (which has recently been adapted as a Broadway musical) and was considered a return to form for Allen. John Cusack plays the Woody Allen stand-in character and it’s up there with the very best; it was also one of Cusack’s first films where the Cusack we know and love now is visible following his shaky teen film years. It’s a very fun and farcical tale of Cusack playing a playwright who is forced into hiring a gangster to get his play finances. The gangster demands his girlfriend to be hired as an actress, she proves to be naturally terrible, but the gangster escort has a knack for dialogue and rewrites the script.
The next film in the set is Mighty Aphrodite and it is easily one of worst films in the collection. It stars Mira Sorvino- the “it-girl” of 1995 (she went out with Quentin Tarantino famously) who plays a prostitute who is the mother of Allen’s adopted baby; he tries to befriend her and stop her ways. Sorvino is absolutely dreadful, with her high-pitched voice that is as grating from her first appearance to the last. She raised her misgivings about the voice to Allen, but he said it would work and that he had it written into the budget that he could reshoot the entire picture if necessary. Sorvino went on to win best supporting actress for the role, but why and how is a mystery to me. However, Peter Weller makes up for the disappointing performance from Sorvino in an unexpected supporting role playing the lover of Allen’s wife.
Everyone Says I Love You is the most surprising film of the set- it’s Allen’s one and only musical to date; he obviously has a great love of musicals and despite the film’s songs contributing little to the plot, it works very well. It contains all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen film: the lives of upper middle class New Yorkers and their relationship problems, but with added surrealism seldom seen in a lot of Allen’s work, including equally surreal musical numbers sprinkled throughout; the dancing souls singing “It’s Later than you think” is particularly Fellini-esque in its surrealism. The script is also razor sharp with some of Allen’s finest dialogue in years and the cast is exceptional- it features a young pre-Fight Club Ed Norton along with Tim Roth who is responsible for some of the biggest laughs as an ex-convict with whom a liberal mother has befriended. Lukas Haas plays a young Republican and some of the film’s wryest humour is about his views.
Deconstructing Harry on the other hand is one of his most bitter films to date, but similarly also one of the finest in his long career. It’s very much a spiritual counterpart to the earlier Stardust Memories (which I love) but during its time it was reviled by critics and is still a contentious film for many of his fans. Woody Allen plays Harry Block, a misanthropic writer who has agreed to accept an honorary degree at a university that threw him out. Deconstructing Harry was considered by some as a return to form (not an uncommon statement to make in relation to Allen) but it fared poorly at the domestic box-office, and as usual, it made some money in Europe where he is most worshiped. The film has some moments of pure brilliance, particularly in its casting with Billy Crystal as the devil (he also plays the boyfriend of a girlfriend who has left Block) and Robin Williams as a blur. It mixes fantasy and reality very deftly, much like its obvious influence-Fellini’s 8 ½.
Celebrity was the last film he made for Miramax; it’s about a writer- Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh)-who plays the Allen stand-in who is an unsuccessful novelist-turned travel writer. Lee faces a mid-life crisis and decides to take up celebrity journalism after he divorces his wife Robin (Judy Davis). He moves in and out of the celebrity world of New York City while he questions his purpose in life. It’s superficial to the extreme, but that seems to be the point: to reflect the superficiality of many of the characters. It’s somewhat scattered and suffers from pacing problems, which isn’t typical of Allen’s films. The film really picks up when Leonardo DiCaprio’s arrogant drug fuelled film star character comes on screen and it remains one of his finest performances before he started working with Scorsese. Branagh tries his best to mimic Allen in every detail, but at times you wonder why Allen didn’t just cast himself. It also features a nice supporting role from Winona Ryder.
Sweet & Lowdown is the penultimate film in the set and it is Allen’s love letter to his fondness of 1930s jazz. It stars Sean Penn as jazz guitarist Emmet Ray and it’s partly told in a mockumentary style, which harkens back to Allen’s Zelig. Emmet Ray is considered by some as the 2nd best guitarist in the world only behind Django Reinhardt whom he idolizes. The film borrows from Fellini’s La Strada with Samantha Morton’s portrayal of a mute who joins the hustling Emmet Ray on the road after they fall in love. It’s one of Allen’s more sweet and melancholic films and it was planned long before his first film for United Artists, Bananas. It remains a fitting end to the 90s for Woody Allen and features a great cameo from the pope of trash John Waters.
The unremarkable Small Time Crooks completes this collection and is the only film of the set made in the 2000s, and it marks the start of the decline in quality of his film in the 2000s. It’s a failed heist film in which Woody Allen plays a useless robber who tries to rob a bank but fails miserably, and the cookie shop which they used as a cover flourishes to great success. Allen’s wife Frenchy, however, dreams of a more classy and sophisticated lifestyle and takes lessons from Hugh Grant’s art dealer in a quest to become more cultured. Thankfully, like so many of Allen’s films, it is a tolerable 90 minutes long.
The set also includes the documentary Wild Man Blues which is at times a hilarious account of his jazz band’s 1996 European tour. Woody Allen has been performing New Orleans Jazz as a clarinettist for many years and can be seen at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel every Monday Night. It was the first public insight into Allen’s controversial relationship with his current wife Soon-Yi Previn but it comes across very sweet in the film. The film’s highlight, however, is the awkward conversation he has with his parents in which his mother unsubtly expresses her wish for him to marry a “nice Jewish girl” and disapproves of the fact he is with an Asian women. It’s a nice and unexpected extra, especially since Woody Allen usually disapproves of bonus features on DVDs.
Woody Allen Collection 2014/DVD /Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment/DVD Release Date: 7th July 2014 (UK)/Rating:15/Cast: Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Jennifer Tilly, Hugh Grant, Leonardo DiCaprio/Buy: Woody Allen Collection [DVD]Powered by Sidelines