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Platter Chatter 2013: The Music, The Music

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Still cleaning the confetti and party poppers of all the 2013 pop culture… here are my thoughts about the music.

Three favorite Releases of 2013 (in descending order)

3. Phosphorescent/Muchacho

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            I know “Song for Zula” is the marquee song on this one, but I don’t really think of this record in terms of individual songs. Muchacho, for me, is a record that is tied to the summer of 2013 and worked as soundtrack music to my mundane adventures. I first listened to it at Logan Airport on my way back from a conference in New Hampshire. I found myself zoning out to this album while staring at a neck pillow kiosk; these weird yelps from “Ride On/Right On” synching with various passer-bys trying on these neck pillows. It added this epic feel to the most pedestrian of scenes. Muchacho was also a big part of a trip to Costa Rica with some friends later in the summer. Here, the record again worked to provide context and soundtrack to what was essentially a coked-up Miami Vice mansion in the middle of a tropical paradise. I don’t really have a tangible reason why I love this album so much, but the fact that it meshed perfectly with these two totally different locales without missing a beat has to say something…

2. Kanye West/Yeezus

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            I swear I’m not trying to be contrarian, but this is my favorite Kanye release thus far; in fact, it is the only one that I really like at all. Weird then, that what is considered to be his coldest, most abrasive record yet is the one that I find most accessible. Now… there is some troublesome content here, mostly having to do with his lyrics in regards to women.  His boasts make me squirm in embarrassment for him, as does his Bound 2 video. But the fact that he actually created that Bound 2 video is really interesting, right? What kind of a person thinks that capturing the mood of that particular song with images of wild stallions, boobs and motorcycles is the right choice? It is just so beautifully ridiculous. I don’t know- I find him equally hilarious, embarrassing, stupid, incisive, and fascinating, and the same can be said of Yeezus. At least for me.

1. Vampire Weekend/Modern Vampires of the City:

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         I thought this would be a boring choice, and maybe it is. But I can’t really believe Vampire Weekend made my favorite record of the year. I hated- HATED- their first two records; they both reeked of smugness and just a whisper of sanctimony. Didn’t care for their appropriation of world music or that pseudo-Africana Peter Gabriel shit. I was NOT excited about the prospect of album #3.  Then it arrived… and I kept listening and listening. “Diane Young” grabbed me during an SNL performance, and then “Step” revealed itself. “Step”, by the way, is the best song of 2013.  I have been unpacking the lyrics there since I first heard it, but I don’t necessarily care what Ezra Koenig is getting at. I am more interested in how he shapes his vocals around the lyrics- the dips and valleys as he maneuvers his voice around words such as Angkor Wat, Berkeley and Alameda. His vocal dexterity is pretty impressive; check out “Worship You” for an example of that. And “Hannah Hunt” is a beautiful slow build. I read a review of this record recently that described their first two albums as (and I’m paraphrasing) “made by an obnoxious kid who is too smart for his own good, and then mellows out upon getting a girlfriend. Modern Vampires of the City is the record when Vampire Weekend gets a girlfriend.” That sums it up pretty well.

 Close but no guitar (the next five or so)

4. National/Trouble Will Find Me

5. Daft Punk/Random Access Memories

6. Earl Sweatshirt/Doris

7. Chance the Rapper/Acid Rap

8. Foxygen/We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

Songs for a compilation (without using any songs from my top 5)

  1. James Blake/Retrograde
  2. Earl Sweatshirt/Pre feat. SK La’Flare
  3. HAIM/The Wire
  4. I Blame Myself/Sky Ferreira
  5. Courtney Barnett/Avent Gardener
  6. Danny Brown/ Side B (Dope Song)
  7. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas/Instant Crush
  8. Pusha T/Nosetalgia
  9.  MGMT/Alien Days
  10. Foxygen/Shuggie
  11. Schoolboy Q/Collard Greens
  12. Superchunk/Me and You and Jackie Mitoo
  13. Okkervil River/Where the Spirit Left Us
  14. MIkal Cronin/Weight
  15. Jason Isbell/Elephant
  16. Majical Cloudz/Bugs Don’t Buzz
  17. ASAP Rocky/Wild for the Night
  18. ASAP Ferg/Shabba
  19. Chance the Rapper/Good Ass Intro
  20. Arcade Fire/Here Comes the Nighttime
  21. National/Pink Rabbits
  22. Julia Holter/Hello Stranger

 Favorite show of the year:

Saw exactly zero shows in 2013.  BUT… I did teach a class focusing on live performance to 8th graders.  We did a two-week examination of the 1960s through two documentaries: Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. Neither one of these documentaries has very good live music on them (although the Joe Cocker stuff from Woodstock needs to be seen to be believed); instead, the live performance serves as a framework of the spirit of the 1960s working perfectly (Woodstock) and then crashing and burning (Gimme Shelter). Aside from the Hell’s Angels, there was not a whole lot of difference between the concept and planning for these two separate concerts that were separated by a time period of merely 4 months or so.  So why was one an unqualified success and emblematic of all that was good about the 1960s and the other was nothing less than a descent into hell? Anyway, these two docs are must-sees for any fan of live performance.

 Oh, you could do worse than Googling Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985. Watch Freddie Mercury hold a billion people in the palm of his hand.

The one song I want you to listen to from 2013

“Step” by Vampire Weekend.

 Okay, you can go anytime.  Seriously.  Get out.

 Avett Brothers.  Has Vest Rock run its course?

 I never thought I’d like it, but I do:

 Vampire Weekend

 Thankfully I did not give up on:

 Vampire Weekend

 Old discovery:

 “Fantastic Voyage”- David Bowie (Lodger), “Rainbows”- Dennis Wilson (Pacific Ocean Blue), “Marley Purt Drive”- Bee Gees (Odessa), “To Be A Lover”- Billy Idol (Whiplash Smile), “A New Career in a New Town”-David Bowie (Low), “Pressure”- Billy Joel (The Nylon Curtain), “Sword of Damocles”- Lou Reed (Magic & Loss)

 Big fan, but damn this was disappointing:

 Justin Timberlake. FutureSex/Love Sounds was the best Prince album since Sign O’ The Times. The 20/20 Experience (both parts) was boring and indulgent. I didn’t even really dig his SNL appearances- he keeps repeating variations on the same sketches that he did 5 years ago. I don’t know- I wouldn’t say he’s coasting, but I think he overestimated how far we are willing to go with him.

 Thought he was hilarious in Llewyn Davis, however.

 To do list (need to give it more time or a real first-try):

 Chvrches

Frightened Rabbit

Yo La Tengo

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Thematic Cage Match!: The Movies of 2013 Part II

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In which some of the movies of 2013 with thematic similarities are placed in a metaphorical cage and forced to do battle. 

 Today’s Match-Up:

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and Blah Blah Blah”

This is the End vs. The World’s End

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I saw but two of the three “End of the World” comedies in 2013, but plan on seeing the third (It’s a Disaster) as I hear it is fantastic as well. What is up with really funny movies about the end of days? I think the key to the ones I saw are that they have a lot more going on than just watching the comedic actors meet grisly ends (although that is great too, Michael Cera!)

This is the End, the best “summer” movie of 2013 is funny in the way that, say, Superbad was funny. It works as an excuse to watch those Apatow guys semi-improvise some of the funniest dialogue around, but they’ve been doing that faithfully since The 40-Year Old Virgin almost 10 years ago. This is the End, a movie about the appearance of the Rapture during an awesome James Franco party, has all that, sure, but it also turns out be a fairly thoughtful meditation on friendship and what it means to be “good,” especially for these guys for whom hedonism is always a very, very easy option. As the “chosen ones” on Earth are ascended into heaven, our heroes (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Franco) find themselves not only stuck in Franco’s house during the escalating apocalypse, but bickering with and fighting one another as well.  Everyone is hilarious here, playing some version of themselves, but my favorites were Robinson and Baruchel, who give the movie the heart it needs to be more than simply Superbad Goes to Hell.

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The World’s End is not as literal about the armageddon as This is the End, but its vision is possibly more disturbing. Rather than God cleaning house, the human race finds itself “Starbucked”; that is, homogenized to the point where nothing is offensive or off-putting, but also completely lacking in character or edge. Yeah, this has been done before in The Stepford Wives or the variations on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The World’s End overtly pays the piper in its derivativeness. Edgar Wright and the gang have always repurposed what came before for the greater good, and here it is in the name of framing how we yearn for “better days” that probably never existed, how we view ourselves as a slight variation on our younger, “better” selves when in actuality that variation is probably massive, and how strengths at one time in your life can easily turn into weaknesses later on. Oh, and its funny as shit, too.  I love this movie.

Winner:  The World’s End

Thematic Cage Match!: The Movies of 2013 Part I

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In which some of the movies of 2013 with thematic similarities are placed in a metaphorical cage and forced to do battle. 

 Today’s Match-Up:

Part 3s

Iron Man Three vs. Before Midnight

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This one isn’t really all that close, but that shouldn’t be considered a knock against the pleasures of Iron Man Three.  In fact, the addition of Shane Black as director is the best thing that could have happened to this franchise, especially since Iron Man 2 was the very worst of the Marvel “Avengers Lead In” movies. All the hallmarks of a “Shane Black” movie are there: it is set at Christmas, the dialogue is fast and really (REALLY) funny, and it involves a hero at rock bottom forced to use his wits. I love Shane Black movies of the 1980s- The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and Lethal Weapon are all perfect embodiments of the Black formula- and with a collaborator like Robert Downey Jr., there is no reason why Iron Man can’t continue to pay dividends.

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But where Iron Man Three worked and worked very well, Before Midnight is transcendent. The “Before” series is the best trilogy ever made- better than the Toy Story’s, better than the original Star Wars trilogy.  The best thing about this latest chapter is how subversive it was while at the same time remaining completely honest about the situation the earlier films have created. Yes, Before Sunset has one of the best endings of any movie ever, but to be honest, the decision made at the end would have caused a HUGE problem for Jesse and Celine.  That is what Before Midnight is all about. Because this relationship, any relationship really, isn’t easy to maintain. Jesse and Celine fight in this movie in a way that feels real in a way that only comes from people who know one another intimately. The cheap shots and the truthful nastiness are so well placed and timed that it all left you feeling terrible in a way that the earlier two movies did not. Still, this is a must-see; not necessarily the movie that fans of the series may want, but definitely the one that needed to happen.

Winner:  Before Midnight

Summertime Rolls 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Spoilers Directly Ahead…

Its gutsy to take on Star Trek 2. But then to attempt a recreation (and an inversion) of  its most famous scene? Man… not sure how I feel about that.

But let me back up a tad. Star Trek Into Darkness zips right along, the action sequences faithfully dropping jaws in a manner that allows it to compete with summer blockbusters in 2013. The actors, especially Chris Pine, have now made these characters their own. Consider the difficulty of doing that- the original cast of Star Trek are so ingrained in the public consciousness that when a “reboot” occurred in the late 80s, they went with a whole new crew of characters and called it “The Next Generation.” The very notion that we would or could accept a new Spock or Kirk seemed impossible, but I am more than ready to hand the reins to this new cast. And yeah, I guess I even liked the (eventual) bad guy played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is asked for the most physical evil performance in one of these movies since Christopher Lloyd in Star Trek 3.

But the big budget blockbuster aspects of this don’t make much space for the talkative, nay, ponderous, nature of the earlier Star Treks, especially the ones with the original cast. Granted, the budget in the Shatner/Nimoy days didn’t really allow for the kind of action seen in Into Darkness, so those movies relied on intellectual gamesmanship and strategy as much as, you know, Shatner throwing haymakers.

In fact, in Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Khan never even come face to face. Instead, the battle is one of wits, and I think I liked that a little better than a series of action scenes, even if they are as good as the ones in Into Darkness. I get that Khan here is a superman, but we only see that physically. Never did we really see what a master manipulator he could be, and I missed the intellectual games he played with Kirk in Wrath of Khan.

That final moment, which essentially recreates the Spock death from Wrath of Khan, just can’t match the emotional impact of the original version. With that, we had the entire original run of the series to get to know those versions of the characters, so losing one meant a lot more (not to mention, I never felt for even one second that Kirk was going to remain dead). Khan’s vengeance meant more, too, since we knew what Kirk had done to him in the past and what that eventually ended up meaning for Khan and his men.

That said, I like that this movie had the balls to take on this story and give me a different version. I enjoyed this more than Iron Man 3 in the blockbuster battle for summer 2013. Who is going to top it?

Summertime Rolls 2013: Iron Man Three

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My main problem with Iron Man 2 was that there was so precious little of Tony Stark tinkering in his insanely cool lab, proving that he is not only the richest man alive, but also the smartest. Iron Man Three makes up for that and then some; Tony Stark is rarely suited up for action, and even when he is, he is now able to control the suit remotely.

This is actually a good thing; RDJ remains more interesting as Tony Stark than when we see his smushed head surrounded by digital readouts in the Iron Man mask. So I like that… but he is certainly a bit more than just a billionaire playboy with a cool suit in this one. Stark disables an entire team of professional assassins in one scene with nothing but McGyvered oven mitt. Outthinking the enemy? I have no problem believing that, but when Stark starts ass kicking sans suit, the character has started to believe his own hype.

That is a small quibble. A larger one is the villain… Now, I’m torn here. I really love- LOVE- the bold move they make with the Mandarin. It takes guts to do what they did, and all I can say is that they are lucky they had an actor of Ben Kingsley’s calibre to pull it off. That said, I found the bad guys here to be bit ill-defined in other respects, their powers, strengths and weaknesses changing to fit the given scene.  Why does an Iron Man pulsar merely slow them down in one scene and then rip them in half in another? 

And why wasn’t Tony ready for that attack on his Malibu compound? He has, after all, a fleet of Iron Men (a pretty good optional title for this movie) that eventually come to his rescue. It seems as though they could have helped him out in this scene in particular.  And if not them, how about Don Cheadle’s Iron Patriot? Tony Stark threw down a fairly public gauntlet for the Mandarin; I would imagine his best friend would be aware that there was danger afoot. And come to think about it, doesn’t the fact that Cheadle gets his own Iron Man suit sort of diminish the Iron Man brand?  Yeah, I know that Stark designs them, but now that there are so damn many Iron Men every where you look, what makes one better than the next?

Never mind, this is a really fun movie overall. But here’s the thing, and sorry to keep pulling at this thread- I don’t think they have found a decent bad guy for Tony Stark in any of these movies, The Avengers included. When you look at the great superhero bad guys- The Joker, Doctor Octopus, General Zod (Terrence Stamp model)- the nastiness all starts with some strong motivation (even if it is just anarchy, in Joker’s case). I’m still not quite sure what the Mandarin hoped to pull off here, but I guess it really doesn’t matter. What is good is very good (the Air Force 1 rescue is excellent) that I would happily line up for “Tony Stark’s return”, as the closing credits promise.

What is the Definitive 1980s Movie? Manhunter?

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1980s

The movies of the 1980s had their own flavor, too, and that is what I want to get at. What is the DEFINITIVE 1980s movie?  That might be an impossible question to answer, but over the next couple weeks I will take a look at some key contenders to the title.  But first, as always, some criteria to narrow the search.

Criteria:

1. There must be a 1980s song attached that defines it the movie when you see it. In other words, when you now hear this song, you must think of the movie before anything else.

2. I think the theme of “Triumph of the Underdog” must be present somewhere in the movie. This theme was almost as common as the overuse of the montage in 1980s movie.

3. Must contain a montage sequence.

4. The movie must have introduced us to an actor in a star-making performance.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it is the first movie the actor made, just their “star-making” performance

Today’s Contender:  Manhunter

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The problem with arbitrary criteria like the one listed above is that once it’s established, you’re kind of stuck. But, you have to draw the line somewhere, I suppose. In the search for the “Definitive 1980s Movie” (whatever that means), the list would be endless unless there were some lines within which you must color.   Hence, the criteria.

But where does that leave the work of Michael Mann, a writer/director/producer whose work simply oozes the eighties in style, costumes, hair, music… His oeuvre rivals a John Hughes, for instance, in terms of iconographic 1980s images. Of course, his main contribution to 1980s pop culture was on television- Miami Vice (on which he was executive producer).

A pastel-coated take on undercover cops front-loaded with throbbing music by Jan Hammer, Glenn Frey, and Phil Collins?  America said, yes please, at least in 1984 when it premiered.

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But Mann had also directed two films by that point: Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983).  Both films showed Mann’s prowess at combining atmospheric music, in this case with Tangerine Dream, with striking visuals. But he had not yet developed the visual style that peaked with Miami Vice one year after The Keep, that of an MTV video coupled with gritty drama.

In terms of his films, the best example of his “Vice Style” culminated with 1986’s Manhunter.

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Based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, Manhunter’s plot has FBI profiler Will Graham on the trail of vicious Tooth Fairy.  More importantly however, the book (and the film) introduced America to the character of Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor, as it is spelled here).  But how does it fit into the arbitrary criteria as the “Definitive 1980s Movie?”

Well, it doesn’t really, but wow, Manhunter has the 1980s in every strand of its DNA.  While there is no defining song in the way that, say, Footloose had “Footloose”, but the music here is pure 80s:  keyboard driven, atmospheric, and throbbing; cocaine as music.  The theme was written by Michael Rubini, but could easily have been Tangerine Dream.   Although used here for serial killer film, the score would fit in just as easily while watching Crockett and Tubbs tooling around the Gulf of Mexico in Sonny’s boat.

While not exactly the stuff of chart-topping soundtracks in the vein of Dirty Dancing or Top Gun, I don’t think anyone could argue the chilly 80s mood this music creates.

As for the second bit of criteria, the character of Will Graham fits snugly into the concept of the “Triumph of the Underdog.” Here is a guy who finds the most notorious serial killers in the country by empathizing with them, by getting in their heads. This was working just dandy for him until he found himself being attacked by one Hannibal Lecter, landing him in critical condition.

Manhunter opens with his old boss, Jack, calling him back for “one last case.” Might there be reluctance by Will and his wife and kid to go back to the “old life”? Might there be some redemption to be found in his stopping the Tooth Fairy from killing again (symbolized somewhat clumsily in Graham and his boy saving sea turtles from crabs)? Oh yes, on both counts. Now, this isn’t exactly watching Daniel LaRusso crane kick his way to victory, but not bad for a movie about some of the most depraved human beings to walk the planet.

As far as the use of montage in Manhunter… yeah, not much. I suppose you could argue the entire movie is composed of montage in the sense that he directs scenes that are designed to be visually stunning first and serve the narrative second. Two characters having a simple discussion about work?  Mann sets it in front of a giant glass wall with a view of the crashing ocean. So if a montage tells a story with a series of images… I know, its stretch.  Like I said, some of these criteria just don’t work. But I wanted to write about Manhunter, so… Moving on.

The final bit of criteria for inclusion on the Definitive List is that it introduces an actor in a star-making performance. As important a show as CSI turned out to be, William Petersen is still not an A-list star.  Nor is Joan Allen or Dennis Farina, despite Academy Award nominations and a legendary turn as a gangster in Midnight Run, respectively. Still, while there is no break out actor, per se, one cannot argue that there is certainly a breakout character:  Hannibal Lecter.

What can you say about this character that hasn’t been said? Obviously, Anthony Hopkins gave the performance that sealed the character in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame. But its also important to remember, if he built the Lecter House, he also burned it to the ground in the sequels (Hannibal and Red Dragon, which was essentially a remake of Manhunter.  But not as good.  Not even close).  Essentially, everything that was great about Lecter in Silence of the Lambs was destroyed as he became a charming quipster, essentially following the sad fate of one Fred Krueger in the later Elm Street movies.

Hopkins deserves credit for all he did for the character, but that doesn’t mean that Brian Cox should go unsung.  In fact, much of the psychotic intelligence and reptilian charm was firmly in place with Cox’s performance as the good doctor. The scene where he tricks the phone operator into giving him Graham’s home address (“I’m sorry, I don’t have the use of my arms…”) is so creepy in its efficiency and calculation.

Manhunter is a different type of 1980s movie, but one that certainly deserves to be in the conversation of the quintessential films of that decade. Michael Mann went on to make Heat, The Insider, and Collateral (among others); all contain some of the same visual style of Manhunter. But he none of his later movies evoke a decade so well distinctly as this 1986 sleeper.

So what do you think?  Is Manhunter the definitive 1980s movie?

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Peak Decades: Woody Allen

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As every decade has its own flavor, its own vibe, I thought it would be interesting to see when some prominent directors/actors were doing their best work. Sometimes its easy- while Francis Ford Coppola has been making movies since the late 60’s, it is clear that the 1970’s were his peak decade (and possibly the best run that any director will ever have-Godfather 1 and 2The ConversationApocalypse Now). There can’t even be an argument there, right?

But what about other artists who have been working for a while?  Was there a particular decade in which they were doing their best work?

The criteria is as follows:

  1. The artist had to have been active in their field for at least three full decades.
  2. Artistic merit only, and by that I mean my opinion of artistic merit.  Not gonna worry about the decade they were most financially successful.  This will change which decade Nicolas Cage did his best work, for instance.
  3. While I will list everything the person has done in each decade, I will compare what I think are the best three.  There will probably be a few I haven’t seen, and will note those as well.
  4. I will only look at complete decades- no “Decades in Progress.”

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So, Woody Allen.  Obviously, there are a number of approaches to take here when considering in which decade he did his best work; do you look at him solely as a writer?  Actor?  What about his beginnings as a stand-up comedian in New York?

I decided that the best lens in which to look at Woody is through his directorial efforts, specifically his major films (of which he has been averaging one a year for 40 years!).  Even though he has directed a number of plays and TV movies in that time, they will for now be ignored.  Besides, I don’t think “Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story” from 1971 will make much of an impact in his 1970s output, especially when put up against an Annie Hall or Manhattan.

Additionally, he only directed two movies in the 1960s:  What’s Up Tiger Lily? In 1966 and Take the Money and Run in 1969.  I want to start looking at his stuff in the 1970s, when he had a full decade to lay down the Woody flava.  That said, I prefer Take the Money and Run to Tiger Lily, if only for the botched hold-up scene.

The 1970s:

 Directed:  Bananas, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan

Best Three:  Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan

Worst:  None are terrible, although I’m not a huge fan of Sleeper.

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Of Woody’s early “silly” comedies, I like Love and Death the best. But I’m one of those people who weren’t all that sad to see him leave the wackiness behind, so I guess Stardust Memories was superfluous for me. Woody’s take on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky doesn’t seem like it would translate to comedy, but the guy has always infused darkness and despair into his laughs. In fact, the two concepts of comedy and death are so intertwined in his work that it is impossible to separate them. A lot of people say that Annie Hall was the perfect bridge between his early comedies and his later, drama-infused smilers. But I dunno- I think that Love and Death works as that transition movie just as well.  Think of it this way:  if Annie Hall is Woody’s Revolver, then Love and Death is his Rubber Soul.

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The big one, right?  To this day, this is the movie that Woody is most associated with (rather than the story with which he is most associated which is when he married his stepdaughter.  But we’ll look at that when we talk about Husbands & Wives). But Annie Hall deserves every accolade it gets, even beating Star Wars for Best Picture. Here’s why:  with this movie, Allen rewrote the rules of romantic comedies.  Every single romcom from this point forward share a little of Annie Hall’s DNA, but most forget the innovation Woody employed. Oft mentioned is the breaking of the 4th Wall throughout, most famously when he produces Marshall McLuhan in line for The Sorrow and the Pity. But how about the disjointed narrative that jumps back and forth in time? The use of subtitles to highlight the differences between what we say vs. what we think? The fact that this most romantic of romantic comedies ends with the couple split apart?  An animated sequence?   Annie Hall is not my favorite Woody Allen movie, but it belongs in the discussion of most important films in the Allen canon.

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Manhattan is my favorite Woody Allen movie. It is a much more straightforward movie than Annie Hall, sacrificing much of the experimentation for what is now the absolute prototype for the romantic comedy done right. From the Gordon Willis B & W cinematography (has NY ever looked better on film?) to the atypical opening credits (eschewing his typical white Windsor font against black for the movie’s title represented by a blinking billboard). The cinematography makes the movie feel more “arty” than it actually is; in fact, this is one of the basest versions of the “Woody” persona that he’s ever shown us. Isaac Davis is self-absorbed, delusional, and fairly immoral in his relationship with a high school student, but Woody sells it with the ending, which has Isaac doing all the right rom-com grand gestures and still not getting the girl.  Perfect.

Runner Up:  Bananas

The 1980s:

Directed:  Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Zelig , Broadway Danny Rose,  The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah & Her Sisters, Radio Days, September, Another Woman, New York Stories (Oedipus Wrecks), Crimes & Misdemeanors

Best Three:  Zelig, Hannah & Her Sisters, Crimes & Misdemeanors

Haven’t Seen:  September, Another Woman

Worst:  New York Stories (Oedipus Wrecks)

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Zelig deserves a lot more credit for creating the mockumentary craze that continues unabated to this day, not to mention the debt Forrest Gump owes to it. Yeah, This is Spinal Tap came along the next year and really set the template for the Christopher Guest/The Office/Modern Family talking head style that is so prevalent today, but Zelig did it first and with much more verisimilitude. In fact, you could show Zelig to someone and sell it to them as an honest-to-God documentary, at least until Woody morphs into an obsese man or a black jazz musician.  Working again with Gordon Willis, Woody was as hungry and innovative a filmmaker that was working in the early 1980s, using vintage cameras and physically damaging the film to create the aged look he needed for the movie. Beyond it being an astounding technical exercise, it has a lot to say about a person’s identity and how we change to fit our audience.  All that, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome at 79 minutes. I don’t hear a lot about Zelig these days, and that’s a shame.

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Woody certainly trucks in existential questioning, but never more entertainingly or profoundly than in Hannah and Her Sisters. This isn’t even the “main” story of the movie, but the character Woody plays (Mickey) uses his hypochondria as a springboard to question first religion and then the very meaning of life. These aren’t easy topics to incorporate into a comedy (unless, apparently, you are Woody Allen), but he does it in such a funny and relatable way here that his emotional journey remains the most memorable thing about the movie for me. Who hasn’t found a weird bump or mole or pain in or on their bodies that caused their minds to run rampant until cancer is the only reasonable cause? The moment when Mickey receives the good news that he is healthy only to stop mid-jubilance to realize that his demise has only been put off, not prevented, is one of the most truthful things I have ever seen in a movie.  The fact that this subplot is only one part of a larger tapestry of connected plots, of which all work superbly, by the way, make Hannah a contender for Woody’s best.

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A movie split in two but united by a common theme: is God watching us or is everything that happens just a matter of chance? That is some heavy-duty material to wrestle with, even by late 1980s Woody Allen standards. But pull it off he does, courtesy of a never-better Martin Landau coupled with a dream-team pairing of Allen with Alan Alda. The Landau stuff first: as an optometrist who has an affair that turns into threat to his way of life, Landau shows both the moral wrestling match of having to deal with his situation or use his mob-tied brother to “take care” of the woman. His decision, and how he lives with it, is dark of the jet-black crayon variety. Allen juxtaposes this plot with a much lighter one but no less demonstrative of his theme.  Allen, as Cliff, is a documentary filmmaker who is in love with the producer of his latest film, a puff piece about a successful television mogul. He hopes that he can woo her with his integrity and intelligence; she instead falls in love with the charming and powerful TV mogul, played by Alda. “This is my worst fears realized!” Cliff cries when he discovers the truth. He hoped that some cosmic justice would prevail and the girl would end up with the “right” guy. But is there anyone truly looking out for the little guy?  Is God watching?

Runners Up:  Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days

The 1990s:

Directed:  Alice, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown

Best Three:  Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry

Haven’t Seen:  Shadows and Fog

Worst:  Celebrity

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Husbands and Wives was the last of Woody’s movies made before The Scandal. Of course, it was released after it came to light that he was carrying on a relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, but the public (and Farrow) had no idea while this movie was being made. I’m sure Farrow thought she’d be making Woody Allen movies for the rest of her life; ah, fate. To be fair, Woody has been outing himself as a cradle-robbing letch for some time now, as early as Manhattan. And he’d keep on doing it after Husbands and Wives as well, but never has that side of him seemed more pronounced than in this movie. The affair between Gabe (Allen) and one of his students played by Juliette Lewis became the main talking point in the film, but to only focus on that does not do this movie justice. First, Mia Farrow has to be given credit for playing one of the more manipulative and complicated women in the Allen canon; she plays her character of Judy as meek and passive at the outset, only to be revealed at the end as controlling and dominant. One has to wonder if this is how Allen saw her in those last few years…. But top drawer performances abound in Husbands and Wives, with special mention going to Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack as a separated couple who act as the catalyst for Judy and Gabe’s split. The direction of this movie is interesting as well; scenes and dialogue are cut off before they finish, characters drift in and out of frame… I suppose you could accuse Allen of utilizing the dreaded “Shaky Cam” here. But it is used here to represent the shaky ground these characters inhabit, and by the end it is Gabe himself who ends up alone. Again, I doubt Allen would ever write something that he would identify as “autobiographical,” but of all his movies, Husbands and Wives has to come as close as we’ll maybe ever see.

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Bullets Over Broadway represents the first of my favorite Allen movies that doesn’t actually contain a performance by Woody himself. After this movie, it seems to me that he had a more difficult time knowing when to step aside for a role; maybe because it is so difficult for actors to step into the “Woody persona.”  That said, it was absolutely the right choice here, as Woody the actor would not have worked as a struggling young playwright. John Cusack works just fine in the part; in fact, I’m not sure anyone did it better than him except for Michael Caine in Hannah and her Sisters and later, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris. The story, which focuses on how far an artist will compromise his art (and who is really the “artist” at work), is as funny as anything Woody has ever done, with two of the best characters he has ever written. The first is Helen Sinclair, played by Dianne Wiest in the second Woody Allen role for which she won an Oscar. She nails the dramatic pomposity of this aging actress, constantly insisting on “silence” with John Cusack’s David. The other character is Jennifer Tilly’s mob moll, Olive. It takes a very smart actress to play someone so dumb so well, and Tilly nails it (and earned herself an Oscar nomination as well).

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I think Deconstructing Harry would make a good double feature with Husbands and Wives in the sense that it seems as if Woody Allen is throwing down a mea culpa about himself in both. I could be wrong there, and as I said before, Woody doesn’t seem like the type of guy who is going to every admit to anything being autobiographical. Still, the idea of a writer who uses the people in his life as inspiration for his nasty stories has to be based on something Allen himself lives, or has lived, through. The “Woody” character that has been present in so many of his movies has never seemed this sad, nasty and poisonous. Many of the themes he has revisited time and time again are present here: what constitutes art and you have to sacrifice in your daily life and relationships to achieve that art (he revisited some of these ideas again in Sean Penn’s character in Sweet and Lowdown). I think Deconstructing Harry is one of his most underrated movies; it isn’t easy to like and it’s a bit disturbing to see him move beyond simple neuroses into flat-out self-loathing. Still, the 90s saw Allen at perhaps his most honest in terms of the stories he was telling.

Runners Up:  Everybody Says I Love You, Sweet and Lowdown

The 2000s:

Directed:  Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Melinda & Melinda, Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works

Best: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Worst: I guess Whatever Works

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The 2000s haven’t been my favorite decade for Woody Allen movies. Up until The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, I made it a point to see each of his films in the theater. Jade Scorpion cured me of that, and I never regretted waiting for, say, Hollywood Ending or Anything Else, to see at home. A lot of people feel that Match Point was the highlight of this decade, and while I liked it well enough, it seemed like it was drafting off Crimes and Misdemeanors a bit too much for me to take it all that seriously. If I had to pick one movie that I thought was great… well, there would be none, I’m sorry to say. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona came the closest, I suppose. It seemed smaller in terms of themes and benefited from him not swinging for the fences. Javier Bardem and especially Penelope Cruz (who won the Oscar for her role) were a good fit for Woody’s dialogue, and Rebecca Hall did a nice job covering for Scarlett Johannson’s deficits. I think the best thing about it was the locale, as Barcelona looked unbelievably beautiful. It has been said that nobody shoots New York better than Woody Allen, and he brings that same loving eye to this movie as well.

So there it is.  Are the 1970s, in which Woody made the transition from straight comedy into something deeper, creating two all-time classics with Annie Hall and Manhattan?  Or is it the 1980s, where we saw Woody experiment with the form, innovating and recreating with each new film?  The 1990s, in which Woody got much more personal with his movies, and what they sometimes lacked in consistency, they more than made up for with a new honesty that audiences had not seen before?

Three decades of movies, each of which makes a strong case for being Woody Allen’s peak decade. For me, it is the 1980s. Yes, my favorite movie of his is from the 1970s, but in a decade that he gives us not only Zelig, Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes & Misdemeanors, but also Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy… well, that streak has to be respected.  Even Stardust Memories, a movie I still can’t find a way into, was audacious in a way that makes later films like Small Time Crooks or Manhattan Murder Mystery look very small indeed.

If there were a second place, I’d go with the 1990s over the 1970s. It was spotty for sure, but Allen was doing some stuff there that felt so much more personal than at any other point in his career.

Woody Allen’s Peak Decade:  The 1980s