No other Woody Allen film has ever been hustled into oblivion faster than this black-and-white mélange of Mittel-European nightmare, absurdist farce, and homage to German expressionism--sort of Woody Allen meets Franz Kafka in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, set to Kurt Weill's score for The Threepenny Opera. Yet the daft experiment is not without charm and, as the title suggests, oodles of atmosphere.
In a murky, seriously deranged cityscape only a studio art department could create, a giant bald strangler (Michael Kirby) is going around killing people with piano wire. The authorities are powerless (though he stomps about freely, occasionally declaiming speeches), so vigilante posses start roving the streets. For some reason, they dragoon a noisy nebbish named Kleinman (Allen) to assist them. So Kleinman goes into the fog, kvetching, and meets Irmy (Mia Farrow), a circus sword swallower (no double-entendres, please) whose clown of a husband (John Malkovich) is two-timing her with the strongman's wife (Madonna). Add an "et cetera" here, because the big, mostly wasted cast also includes Kenneth Mars as the strongman, Donald Pleasence as a philosophical coroner, John Cusack as a student who mistakes Irmy for a prostitute, and Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, and Lily Tomlin as the real prostitutes in whose company she happens to be at the time. None of this adds up, and the whole thing moves and feels less like a film than one of Allen's oddball New Yorker sketches. Still, as the fever dream of an art-house addict, it has its moments. --Richard T. Jameson
Alice is one of Woody Allen's more grounded whimsies, though viewers with a low tolerance for feyness might miss it. Here goes Mia Farrow again as a nattering Manhattanite with a girlie-girlie voice and a well-to-do husband of 16 years (a stockbroker played by William Hurt) who doesn't always notice whether she's in the room. One day a back pain sends her up a dim staircase in Chinatown to see an acupuncturist (the valedictory role of the beloved Keye Luke). He has quite a bag of tricks--including hypnosis and a versatile assortment of herbal teas--and enough insight to recognize that Alice's troubles lie somewhere other than her sacroiliac. Under Dr. Yang's ministrations, Alice goes on a Wonderland voyage through her own life, fantasizing about having an affair with a dusky stranger (Joe Mantegna), flitting about Manhattan as an invisible spirit, and--most unlikely of all--talking straight with her various relatives, past and present.
Like so many Allen films, Alice wavers between scenes imagined with deftness and precision (like Farrow and Mantegna's astonished mutual seduction) and other scenes and notions that are merely touched upon and then abandoned before they can develop any rhythm and complexity, persuade you they were worth including, and justify the presence of so many nifty performers--Judy Davis, Judith Ivey, Gwen Verdon, Robin Bartlett, Alec Baldwin, Holland Taylor, Cybill Shepherd, Blythe Danner, Julie Kavner, Caroline Aaron--who mostly wink in and out again as cameos. Nevertheless, almost all Woody's looking glasses are worth passing through at least once. --Richard T. Jameson
Along with Deconstructing Harry which would follow seven years later, this is Woody Allen's most somber comedy-drama, as well as his most ambitious film of the 1980s. Allen weaves together two central stories about very different groups of Manhattanites, linking them through a mutual friend, a rabbi (Sam Waterston) who's going blind. This image is key to the sometimes ponderous, often clever musings on faith, morals, and vision (or lack thereof) that obsess his deeply troubled and unhappy characters. At its center, the film explores people who, through lack of religious conviction or arrogance, rationalize their awful, selfish acts by presuming that God couldn't possibly be watching.
The central story--a neo-noir of sorts--follows a fortuitous ophthalmologist (Martin Landau, all sweat and grimaces) who faces the prospect of his obsessed mistress (Anjelica Huston) ruining his life by telling his family of their affair. Desperate, the doctor hires his slimy criminal brother (Jerry Orbach) to eliminate the situation, and then suffers overwhelming regret afterwards. The flip tale is more typical Allen. Funnier and lighter, it focuses on an impossible romance between Allen's character and Halley Reed, a film producer played by Mia Farrow. Between Allen and his Hollywood fantasy stands his brother-in-law (Alan Alda, perfectly cast as an obnoxious, successful sitcom producer), who also desires Halley. Allen is Landau's opposite: an honest, struggling documentarian who cares nothing about fortune, suffers in a loveless marriage, and is surrounded by triumphant phonies. The nice-guys-finish-last moral may be as contrived as it is devastating. Yet, when Landau and Allen finally share a final scene during a wedding, their faces, subtle body movements, and contrasting fortunes somehow suggest that indeed God may be blind, and if not, the deity has a very sick sense of humor. --Dave McCoy
This underrated film is by far Woody Allen's most satisfying I-wish-I-were-Ingmar Bergman movie, and in its elegantly constrained fashion it teems with imagination--not to mention a glorious cast. Gena Rowlands plays a philosophy professor who, subletting an apartment as a writing office, finds that the confidences murmured to her psychiatrist neighbor are audible through the air vents. In particular, the fears and desperation of a younger, very pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) trigger a stream of reveries regarding the professor's own life, past romances, and troubled family. Some of these seem to be straightforward memories (though we take too much for granted, and that's part of the point); others are theatrically stylized, with different actors taking over roles initiated by others (Rowlands sometimes appears in long-ago flashbacks, trading off with Margaret Marx as her younger self).
Allen had, like his protagonist, recently turned 50, and the sense of personal stocktaking here is much more compelling--and much less self-indulgent--than in a lot of his other films. Surely the magisterial presence of Rowlands made a big difference. She's in excellent company, including Ian Holm as the prof's tightly wrapped husband, Sandy Dennis as the dear old actress friend who hates her guts, and John Houseman as her widower father. Like Lloyd Nolan's in Hannah and Her Sisters and Keye Luke's in Alice, Houseman's turned out to be a valedictory performance. We cherish it--along with the inspired casting of David Ogden Stiers as, in effect, the younger John Houseman. --Richard T. Jameson
September is best known as the movie Woody Allen made twice, bang on top of each other, and still brought in on time and on budget. He decided the casting wasn't working, switched some actors and roles, and altogether dumped Sam Shepard (who subsequently had very uncomplimentary things to say about Allen as a director of actors). That was some kind of achievement and said reams about Allen's efficiency and adaptability as a filmmaker. Unhappily, the congratulations end there, for September is the single most excruciating viewing experience the Woodman ever invited audiences to share.
You could say September is Interiors without the laughs (joke: there are no laughs in Interiors either), without the pull of the Hamptons shore outside the windows, and without the chill, elegant eye of Gordon Willis behind the camera. Members of a thoroughly unappealing family convene for a weekend in Vermont. Over the course of it, almost everybody reveals a lurking preference to have a new significant other in his or her life. You will not care who, how, or why, or acquire any insights into the mysteries of human relationships. Just as Maureen Stapleton brought the breath of life to the emotionally stunted mollusks in Interiors, so here Elaine Stritch injects some sting as Mia Farrow's irrepressibly bitchy mother. The other cast members are Sam Waterston, Dianne Wiest (fresh from her Hannah and Her Sisters Oscar®), Denholm Elliott, and Jack Warden. Them you may sympathize with, for theirs is a thankless task. --Richard T. Jameson
A sweet and clever combination of anecdotes and autobiography, Radio Days draws heavily on Woody Allen's childhood. Fittingly, the unfolding episodes are woven together by music--lovely hits of the 1940s like "In the Mood" and "That Old Feeling." Some episodes are built around radio itself (like the burglars who answer the phone in a house they're burgling and win a radio contest), and others center on the life of a young Jewish boy (Seth Green, clearly playing a version of Allen himself as a child). Though light in tone, Radio Days is an ambitious re-creation not simply of an era, but of radio itself. Nowadays radio is little more than a way to sell pop tunes, but it used to transmit dreams; watching this movie, you get a taste of how inspiring this simpler medium could be. --Bret Fetzer