Saturday, March 8, 2014


Year 6, Day 67 - 3/8/14 - Movie #1,666

BEFORE: I'm skipping over "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days", because I've seen them both before, so as a result both Mia Farrow AND Dianne Wiest carry over from "The Purple Rose of Cairo".  Both actresses appeared in the two films I'm jumping over, so this linking would have happened no matter what.  Once you're in the Woody Allen acting troupe, you're set for work...

THE PLOT:  At a summer house in Vermont, neighbor Howard falls in love with Lane, who's in a relationship with Peter, who's falling for Stephanie, who's married with children.

AFTER: The whole point of this project, at least at first, was to discover what could be learned by the proper positioning of one movie next to another.  (And, yes, it's all based on my personal definition of what constitutes "proper".)  So, in watching the errant Woody Allen films in chronological order and close together, I'm better able to discern the similarities between them.  If "September" can be the more downbeat, dramatic version of "Hannah and Her Sisters", then this film can be the more downbeat, dramatic version of "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy". 

In both films three couples are involved, and nearly every character is involved with one person and longing for another, circling back to the start.  There's a similar chain here, with four characters forming a rough quadrangle, though it doesn't loop back upon itself this time.  A neighbor loves the lead female character, who loves the writer staying in her guest house, who loves a married woman.  Everyone is chasing the (more or less) unattainable, and nobody is satisfied with who they CAN get.

For that matter, nobody seems very satisfied at all, and life is ultimately meaningless, everything is pointless, and eventually the universe will collapse in upon itself, due to the excess gravity caused by everyone's extreme self-loathing.  I mean, come ON.  Can't we also justify a little happiness now and again?  Isn't our ultimate demise also a double-edged whatsit, like if we're all going to die someday, can't we use that as a reason to enjoy ourselves, rather than be paralyzed with indecision?

To be fair, the lead character's mother is on the scene, and she does know how to party.  She's led a full, interesting life and she's not done yet, she rolls with the punches, and seems to have overcome the family tragedy that's vaguely alluded to for most of the film, even though the lead character clearly has not.  Obviously there's more to this backstory, which I shall not reveal here.

The writer character could be a stand-in for Woody himself, I suppose.  If Woody does not appear in one of his films, part of the puzzle is determining which character is supposed to be him - this also lends more insight into "Interiors" because the same actor was in that film - did he play a writer there too?  I'll have to check - but I didn't know he was in several Woody Allen films before spending so much time on "Law & Order".

I guess the general rule, though, for keeping one's marriage intact would be to never spend time in a country house with other couples.  According to Woody's films, that's just asking for trouble.

A little investigation tells me this was loosely based on a Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" - which doesn't help me at all, because I know even less about Chekhov than I do about Bergman.  And what I do know is filtered through other films, like this one.  So again I just have to take the story that's presented to me here and make my judgment.  This forces me to regard a power outage and a ouija board as contrivances, similar to those seen in films earlier in the week.

Also starring Sam Waterston (last seen in "Interiors"), Elaine Stritch (last heard in "Paranorman"), Denholm Elliott (last seen in "A Room With a View"), Jack Warden (last seen in "Guilty As Sin").

RATING: 3 out of 10 jazz records

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Year 6, Day 66 - 3/7/14 - Movie #1,665

BEFORE: Mia Farrow carries over for a third night in a row.

THE PLOT:  In 1930s New Jersey, a movie character walks off the screen and into the real world.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Ruby Sparks"  (Movie #1,627)

AFTER: I'm not sure why this film makes the list of "1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", and the majority of Woody Allen's catalog doesn't, but whatever.  Such decisions are above my pay grade.

Like "Ruby Sparks", this film investigates the pros and cons of falling in love with an imaginary character somehow made real.  In this case, an explorer named Tom Baxter notices a woman who comes to see the movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo" again and again, and he gradually falls in love with her, and somehow breaks through the fourth wall to appear as flesh and blood in the movie theater and run off with her.

This causes a number of problems, such as the other characters in the film being unable to move the plot forward without this character - they simply do not know what to do without him, because he's central to the plot.  (However, each character believes, mistakenly, that they are the central character in the film - nice touch.)  Also, the woman in question is married, so she's not completely free to have a relationship, even with a fictional character.

The problems are compounded when the actor who played Tom Baxter shows up to investigate (he simply can't have a character that looks like him running around, causing trouble, and apparently in the 1930's, "trouble" meant raping women) and the actor comes face to face with the character, who looks just like him, but doesn't understand how everything works in the real world.  For example, in the movie world, the screen usually fades to black before a love scene, so the character has no idea what comes after kissing...

Although this is a wildly original idea (but is also simultaneously a throwback - in some of the old Buster Keaton films I think his character used to walk off the screen into the movie-viewers "reality") the question then becomes: are we supposed to take the events depicted as literal truth?  Should these events be taken instead as the fantasy of a woman in an unhappy marriage, who longs after the people and places she sees on the movie screen? 

Setting the film during the Depression is a stroke of genius - that's really when movies exploded in popularity, because as someone says in this film, everyone was sad and had no money.  For some reason I want to dispute this - I think maybe somebody somewhere had money during that time, but perhaps this was the prevailing perception.

NITPICK POINT: I get that the characters in the film didn't want the projector to be turned off, for feat that they would cease to exist or something - but doesn't the film take place over several days?  Wouldn't they have to shut the projector off at some point, or close the theater at the end of the night?  How long could they keep the projectionist in the booth, constantly changing reels, just to keep the characters on the screen?  It's a nice idea overall, but once you start examining the logistics of keeping an image on the screen around the clock for three days, the premise starts to fall apart.  I know, I know it's a fantasy but I still have to figure out how it's all supposed to work.

Also starring Jeff Daniels (last seen in "Looper"), Danny Aiello (last seen briefly in "Broadway Danny Rose"), Edward Herrmann (last seen in "Welcome to Mooseport"), John Wood, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Zoe Caldwell, Dianne Weist (last seen in "The Horse Whisperer"), with cameos from Milo O'Shea, John Rothman (last seen in "Stardust Memories"), Glenne Headly (last seen in "The X-Files")

RATING:  6 out of 10 bottles of champagne

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Broadway Danny Rose

Year 6, Day 65 - 3/6/14 - Movie #1,664

BEFORE:  I'm skipping "Zelig", because I have seen that one before.  I caught a bit of it a few weeks ago on cable, and that was a reminder that I've forgotten a lot about it, so a re-watch at some point is in order.  Perhaps this December I can re-watch the Woody Allen movies I've seen before.

The thing I meant to talk about yesterday, but I forgot to get around to, is the concept of "failing upwards".  Having the benefit of working for the same filmmaker for 20 years, I've been able to watch him enjoy greater success and recognition, despite some missteps.  I'm sort of getting that from the Woody Allen chain - not every film is going to be perfect, but if you can learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them, and maintain a steady output of (mostly) successes, you can gain a certain measure of respect, even if it's self-imposed.

Think about Michael Jackson, was every song perfect? Impossible.  Did he have failed projects, misunderstood lyrics, even hard-to-decipher videos?  Of course.  But he stuck around so long that when he started calling himself "The King of Pop", most everyone fell in line and agreed that he deserved the title.  Same with Howard Stern, who (perhaps jokingly) declared himself "The King of All Media" - in that case you either get the joke or concede to his influence.  Bill Plympton now is called "The King of Independent Animation", and who's to say the title isn't deserved?  He's been making his own cartoons his way for over 25 years.

I don't think Woody ever declared himself the King of anything, but I think I'm watching the part of his career where he really started to grow into his own style - so essentially he made his own genre, and became the King of Making Woody Allen Movies. 

THE PLOT:  In his attempts to reconcile a lounge singer with his mistress, a hapless talent agent is mistaken as her lover by a jealous gangster.

AFTER: 13 films into my Woody Allen chain, and I think this is the most successful narrative so far.  Also known as the strongest story, without excessive jumping around in time (there's just one small instance of that...)  Non-linear storytelling is often used to cover up a weak story (just put the parts in order and often you'll see where the slow parts are), but another, more elegant (and less offensive) way is to use a framing device.

In this film, we see a bunch of older comedians eating at a NY delicatessen - they're telling jokes, swapping stories, and one relates the story of Danny Rose, which forms the main narrative of the film.  This is even better than telling a story in flashback, because people telling stories to each other often skip over the slow bits, and get right to the funny parts, and even exaggerate the details for a larger comic effect.  This gives Allen the freedom to focus on the best parts of the story, and if anything needs further explanation, he's got the option to have the comedians fill in the details.

I love NY diner culture, and delicatessen food as well.  I think today I'll have to get a big deli sandwich for lunch - corned beef, pastrami & chopped liver on rye, along with potato salad and a matzoh ball soup.  I'm still waiting for Sarge's Deli on 3rd Ave. to re-open after a fire last year, so I have to order from Mendy's, which means no cheese on the sandwich.  Still good though.  I'll eat it in Danny Rose's honor.

There are still a few contrivances, like the mistaken identity, which should have been rather easy to correct, but nobody seemed to have the time.  The use of an old Italian woman as a psychic was another one.  The chase scene didn't go on too long, and the way that they got the female lead to realize she had feelings for Danny was nice and subtle.

Also starring Mia Farrow (also carrying over from "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy"), Nick Apollo Forte, Edwin Bordo, with cameos from Milton Berle, Michael Badalucco, Joe Franklin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. (last seen in "Robin and the 7 Hoods")

RATING: 6 out of 10 balloon animals

UPDATE: I just got an e-mail, Sarge's Deli has RE-OPENED!  I knew something had set off my deli sandwich Spider-sense.  Now I wish I hadn't ordered from Mendy's...  Still, this is the best news I've heard all week. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Year 6, Day 64 - 3/5/14 - Movie #1,663

BEFORE: With Woody Allen carrying over as an actor yet again, and with me about a third of the way through his filmography, it's time to assess - what have I learned so far?  I think I've determined that the lovable loser persona that he developed was essentially a put-on, and once he transitioned from comedies to dramas, there was more willingness to make semi-autobiographical films about his relationships.  Even if the actresses in question were no longer linked to him romantically, apparently they all maintained some form of professional friendship.  And with that, we kick off the "Mia Farrow" films tonight.

THE PLOT: A wacky inventor and his wife invite two other couples for a weekend party at a romantic summer house in the 1900s countryside.

AFTER:  The obvious title reference is to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and thankfully I watched a version of that about a month ago, but the plot is more of a nod to Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night", about which I know nothing.  So without any experience with Swedish films, I'm left to just take the film as it appears, which is something of a bedroom farce, with three couples swapping partners, and nearly every character being partnered with one lover while dreaming of being with another.

Woody's character, Andrew, is married but his wife has lost all interest in sex, and that once again sets off his trademark neurosis and introspection.  Andrew is a inventor of dubious acclaim, having created a prototype helicopter that seems to work when the plot needs it to work, but also crashes when the plot needs it to crash, or for comic effect.  He's also invented some kind of prototype film projector, however he believes that it is somehow a link to the spirit world, as there is talk about "ectoplasm" and it's used under seance-like conditions.  Which leads to another question - what year does this take place?  There is an old motor-car seen, so perhaps it's set in the 1920's?

Andrew's faithfulness is tested when his engaged older cousin comes to stay at his house, and his cousin's fiancée is a woman that he has some history with.  They apparently never slept together, but they wanted to, and this is a source of great regret, which is another source of anxiety.  But Andrew's not the only one who falls for the fiancée, his best friend Maxwell, a doctor, also feels an attraction to her.  Maxwell brought his nurse to the countryside as his date, but also seems to have some history with Andrew's wife, so really the romantic possibilities for these 6 people are nearly endless, and everyone seems to have at least two possible partners.  The cousin seems at first to be left out in the cold, but he eventually gets paired up with the nurse, which makes sense only because she's the only other person in the house without a lover at that point.

The dialogue feels mostly improvised, which seems like both a help and a hindrance at the same time.  It helps the film because the conversations tend to feel natural and unrehearsed, but it's a hindrance because at times it seems like the characters aren't sure if they should be working together toward the same goals, or if they should remain at cross purposes with one another.  The first rule of improv is the "Yes" rule - whatever one character suggests to another, the other person should agree to, because the first person could have some kind of plan in mind, and saying "No" will nip that in the bud. 

But this doesn't really work when sex is involved, because the first character would say, "Do you want to make out?" and then if the 2nd character says, "Yes", well the dramatic tension and anxiety's pretty much over at that point, right?  So instead the 2nd character has to say, "No", at least at first, in order to maintain the chase.  It sorts of strains the bounds of credulity to think that people would come together and separate in such an organized fashion, something akin to a square dance where everyone changes partners, but it's probably best just to accept this as a contrivance and move on.

Also starring Mary Steenburgen (last seen in "The Help"), Mia Farrow (last seen in "The Omen"), Tony Roberts (also carrying over from "Stardust Memories"), Jose Ferrer, Julie Hagerty (last seen in "U Turn"),

RATING: 5 out of 10 butterfly nets

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stardust Memories

Year 6, Day 63 - 3/4/14 - Movie #1,662

BEFORE: I'm also going to skip "Manhattan", because I've seen that one before.  Also, it features Woody Allen playing an adult man in a relationship with a much younger woman, and I'm afraid that one comes a little too close to his actual personal life.  Plus that's just plain icky now.

THE PLOT: While attending a retrospect of his work, a filmmaker recalls his life and his loves: the inspirations for his films.

AFTER: Well, at least this started out as a topic that I know something about, which is film festivals and retrospectives.  I've programmed a few Plympton retrospectives at some notable festivals, which is a lot of work for me, but of course helps to raise his profile in whatever part of the world chooses to feature one.  And having Woody's character, Sandy Bates, speak about his filmography was a great framework for working in some of his one-liners (as responses during the Q&A session) but also a chance to poke fun at his real-world critics, who by this time were wondering why he stopped making comedies. 

I'm assuming that this was familiar territory for Mr. Allen as well, at least at the time this was made - not only visiting film festivals, but meeting women and picking up women.  I finally figured out that the events seen in this film were not meant to be taken in literal order - perhaps the visit to the film festival is the framework, and while at the festival the filmmaker is sorting through his memories about past relationships.  However, this was not exactly made clear.  

Without any frame of reference, or any organizing timeline, even if the fragments allow for excessive time-jumping, it's tough to put them in any kind of order.  We see him living with an actress, then later there is a scene where he first meets her on a set, and then later in the film we are told they've since parted ways, and the actress is living in Hawaii.  Other scenes have Bates involved with an ex-girlfriend who has just left her husband, and he wants her to move in with him - I wondered how this arrangement would work, since he apparently was also living with the actress at the time.

Also, we never get to see the dissolution of any of these relationships - it's meet and seduce, meet and seduce.  Again, without any reference to a timeline, I just thought that the central character was practicing some form of free love or juggling multiple relationships, as opposed to serial monogamy.
Even if I allow for non-linear storytelling, it's essentially the same situation over and over - at some point it ceases being drama and crosses over to bragging - look how many relationships I can have!

I'm also not sure what the metaphors were supposed to mean, or if indeed they were metaphors at all.  Sad people ride a train to a junkyard - meaning what, exactly?  What do the train and junkyard represent?  What about the hot-air balloons?  And the space aliens? 

In the end, I maintain that something could have been done, something SHOULD have done, to organize this better and make things clearer.  Putting subtitles on the screen reading "Five years ago" or "Six years earlier" would be clunky, but at least the job would have gotten done.  Filming the present scenes in color and the flashbacks in black and white would have been another option, but I understand that could have been problematic in itself.  Perhaps genuinely using the Q&A session as a framework, with each question and response triggering a different memory - that's maybe the route I would have suggested.  But I wasn't asked.

Also starring Charlotte Rampling (last seen in "Melancholia"), Jessica Harper (last seen in "Love and Death"), Marie-Christine Barrault, Tony Roberts (last seen in "Play it Again, Sam"), Daniel Stern, with cameos from Sharon Stone (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead"), Laraine Newman, Louise Lasser, Brent Spiner.

RATING: 4 out of 10 autographs

Monday, March 3, 2014


Year 6, Day 62 - 3/3/14 - Movie #1,661

BEFORE:  Well, the next Woody Allen film in the chronology would be "Annie Hall", which would have been great to watch around Oscar time, since it won the Best Picture award for 1977.  But, I've already seen that, so I'm skipping it.  But that film does provide the acting link from Woody to Diane Keaton (last seen in "Love and Death")

I did watch the Oscars live (well, almost live, I was always about an hour behind on my DVR), which is something I have not done in years.  I hadn't seen most of the nominated films, but I was still pulling for Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine", since that's probably the next film from 2013 that I'll be watching.  Plus she gets added to a long list of actors actresses who have won Oscars or nominations for starring in Woody's pictures, like Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz.

THE PLOT:  Three sisters find their lives spinning out of control in the wake of their parents' sudden, unexpected divorce.

AFTER:  This feels like a left turn in Woody's filmography, not just because the material is so dark and depressing, but because you can't really see any connection to a film like "Bananas" or "Sleeper" - you'd be hard pressed to see how this film could be directed by the same guy.  And without the connective tissue of "Annie Hall", it's even harder.

Here's what I think happened: "Annie Hall" did really well, got a lot of great reviews, won Best Picture, etc. etc. And it's a funny film, but it's also a serious film, a relationship film, about a man trying to figure out where a relationship went wrong.  When it struck a chord with audiences, the director fell into a sort of a trap - thinking "Aha, this is what people like, well I'll give them even more of the same in my next film!" 

I say it's a trap because ultimately this leads directors to try and make the film they think people want to see, rather than the film that they themselves want to make, or the film they should be making, or the film that wants to get made.  The public is notoriously fickle, and anyway they tend to have very visceral and simplistic reactions to things, so trying to satisfy the public is like kicking a field goal when the goalposts are constantly moving back and forth.

Anyway, I ended up taking this as sort of a precursor to "Hannah and Her Sisters", which is one of my favorite films, and seems to share quite a bit of plot in common with this one.  Both films feature three sisters, two of whom are married (one to a cranky creative guy named Frederick) and the third is an unsuccessful actress.  Also, one has shifting career goals and doesn't know what she wants to do with her life - that's a lot of plot points to have in common, however "Hannah and Her Sisters" is ultimately comical and generally positive, and this one just isn't. 

Then again, if you take the entire Woody Allen filmography as one big genre, then of course you're going to see elements repeated from film to film, like divorce and feelings of inadequacy and guys named Frederick.  Because those are things that occur in various families and settings, so you'd expect to see certain things again and again from a man telling dramatic stories.  I can't really say the man ripped himself off, but then even if he did, what's the harm?

Anyway, this seems to really be about the way that family members tend to talk, and sort of undercut each other, giving each other back-handed compliments that are really insults.  At one point, one of the sisters calls her father's girlfriend a "vulgarian", but I thought she said "Bulgarian", which didn't seem to make much sense.  Although that character did just return from Greece, which borders on Bulgaria, and some of Woody Allen's previous films made fun of Armenians, so I thought maybe this was just a sort of play on that.

They say this is an homage to Bergman, however I have no experience with Bergman's work, so I'm out of my depth here.  I can only take the film as I take it, based on the experiences I have had.  And one of the night scenes was so dark that I had to check Wikipedia to see what was taking place.

Speaking of my experiences, I had to scramble today because I heard from Bill Plympton, who's over in Europe at the Anima Festival in Brussels.  It seems the first screening of "Cheatin'" on DCP (Digital Cinema Package) was screening way too dark - in brightness, not in subject matter.  I had to rush to the lab that made it today with a co-worker to investigate.  Somehow they outputted the file to our digital drive with the colors way over-saturated, and the contrast jacked way up.  This made the night scenes, like the ones at the carnival, much too dark.  So I had to contact all the festivals that are currently screening it and let them know to screen from the back-up BluRay we sent, and NOT from the DCP on the drive.  I probably should have checked the quality of the DCPs before shipping them, but there just wasn't time.  But the lab should never have let these DCPs go without comparing them to the source files - the problem would have been obvious if they had.  Now I have to get the lab to re-do their work, get the drives back from the festivals, and then get them shipped out to the next festivals in line.  Such is life in the trenches of independent animation-making.

Also starring Geraldine Page (last seen in "The Pope of Greenwich Village"), Mary Beth Hurt (last seen in "The Age of Innocence"), E.G. Marshall (last seen in "Compulsion"), Kristin Griffith, Richard Jordan, Sam Waterston (last seen in "Heaven's Gate"), Maureen Stapleton (last seen in "Nuts").

RATING:  3 out of 10 analysts

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Front

Year 6, Day 61 - 3/2/14 - Movie #1,660

BEFORE: In advance of Oscar night, a look back at one of the darker chapters in Hollywood history, the blacklist that followed the McCarthy hearings.  Woody Allen carries over as an actor, though not as a director.

Also in honor of Oscar night, my wife sent me a link to a list on BuzzFeed of someone's ranking of the best Best Picture winners, along with comments over what "should" have won each year over the subjectively questionable winners.  Clearly, this person has their favorites among the also-rans, such as "Fargo" and "Pulp Fiction", and that influenced their choice of these films as Top 10:
10) Unforgiven
9) The Deer Hunter
8) It Happened One Night
7) The Bridge on the River Kwai
6) Lawrence of Arabia
5) The Silence of the Lambs
4) The Godfather Part II
3) Casablanca
2) The Godfather
1) All About Eve

That's all well and good, if you're that person - but I've now seen all 10 of those films, and I certainly wouldn't include "Casablanca", "All About Eve" and "It Happened One Night" anywhere NEAR my Top 10.  So you know what I have to do know, right?  I have to take all 67 of the Best Picture winners that I have seen (3 of the other 18 are currently on my watchlist) and apply my ratings from the ones I've seen during this project, and think about the ones I've seen before this project, and come up with my own personal Top 10 Best Best Pictures:
10) Million Dollar Baby
9) Shakespeare in Love
8) Braveheart
7) Forrest Gump
6) The Hurt Locker
5) Platoon
4) Slumdog Millionaire
3) Titanic
2) The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
1) Amadeus

This was TOUGH to do - if you don't believe me, try ranking your own top 10.  And then I looked at the films that would be #11-20, and they are phenomenal films too: The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Argo, The Last Emperor, The English Patient, The Bridge On the River Kwai, Dances With Wolves, American Beauty, Unforgiven.  I had to limit the list to films I thought were 8's or above, and then some had to be classified as 8.5's in order to advance.  You may disagree with my rankings (my wife sure did) but that's the point, it's all subjective, and when you get down to the best of the best, one's personal choices could be separated by a hair's width of a margin.

THE PLOT:  A cashier poses as a writer for blacklisted talents to submit their work through, but the injustice around him pushes him to take a stand.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Guilty By Suspicion" (Movie #187)

AFTER: I realize that Woody did not direct this film, but it's still a little strange to see him in a film whose opening + closing song: "Young at Heart", sung by Frank Sinatra.   Sinatra, of course, would be the ex-husband of Woody's future ex-lover, and the possible biological father of the son he would someday believe to be his.  Yeah, actors are a weird bunch.

But I like Zero Mostel, who was probably the best thing about this film, playing the over-the-top Hecky Brown, who eventually loses his star gig on TV because he once marched in a May Day parade, because he was hot for a leftist girl with a big booty.  Allen plays Howard Prince, who essentially makes the same mistake, falling for a TV showrunner who has her own Commie magazine.  Oh, plus he hangs out with blacklisted writers who can't get hired, and passes their scripts off as his own. 

The system works for a while, and he gets to keep 10% of his non-earned earnings, which allows him to pay off his gambling debts and start living a better life, but it's only a matter of time before someone sees him associating with the "wrong" people and he gets called in to testify.  Will he name names and roll over like the nebbish he usually plays? 

Also starring Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy, Andrea Marcovicci, David Margulies, with cameos from Danny Aiello, Charles Kimbrough.

RATING: 5 out of 10 rewrites