Five Film Favorites: Underrated Films by Woody Allen

Woody-Allen-Camera

By Ted Salins

This article was first published on August 29, 2013 at Bijou Backlight. It has been reprinted here with the express permission of the author and editor.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has opened bigger than any of his films with a whopping two week total of $8 million at only 121 theaters (Box Office Mojo calls this “historic”). It will likely be his third film in this century to top the $100 million mark, but in a long prolific career not all of his films were adored — there have always been hits or misses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s his movies were grossing less than their cost. Critics lost their gush, home TV audiences had given up and his producers were scrambling until they accepted the tax exempt offers from Europe which revitalized his oeuvre; but a mediocre Woody Allen movie is still usually full of sharp observations and great scenes. I’ll take a bad one over most movies any day.

Below are five films that are generally cited as critical and box office failures. They all need to be re-evaluated:

shadows-and-fog-1991

Shadows and Fog (1991)

A Kafkaesque black and white horror movie about a deranged strangler loose on the streets of 1930s Eastern Europe? From Woody Allen? You betcha. Filmed at night on the cold, foggy streets of Newark and Manhattan by Carlo Di Palma, it is as atmospheric as a Universal horror classic. If you don’t think Allen can’t handle the horror genre, watch the scene where the strangler confronts aging scientist Donald Pleasance in his lab — it will send chills up your spine. You’ll momentarily forget this is a comedic parable about creeping fascism. In addition to Pleasance and Allen, it has a modest cast (I’m joking): Mia Farrow, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Madonna, Fred Gwynne, Kurtwood Smith, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and a delightful trio of bawdy prostitutes played by Jody Foster, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates. One of his best movies ever.

curse of the jade scorpion

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Unlike his insecure schlemiels in other films, Allen for once plays a confident womanizer, C.W. Biggs, an insurance fraud investigator, who is a successful, self-assured professional at the top of his powers. It’s fun to watch him play this type, especially as he seduces a fetching Charlize Theron. He’s more William Powell than Alvy Singer, but he meets his match in an efficiency expert played by Helen Hunt brought in to modernize old school techniques as practiced by veteran C.W. They HATE each other. Hunt, performing under Allen’s direction and speaking his dialogue is a match made in acting heaven. She is smart mouthed, sassy, concise but ultimately warm hearted — Allen obviously had the snappy dialogue of “His Girl Friday” in mind when he wrote this. Beautifully filmed, great period atmosphere of the 1940s; Dan Ackroyd co-stars.

cassandras-dream-PDVD_015

Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Nothing like the stylized, heavily art directed period pieces above, “Cassandra’s Dream” takes place in the belly of modern day London and is the most terrifying, edge of your seat exploration of guilt, murder and mayhem. Allen, an admitted paranoiac, clearly wants you share in his personal anxiety and in that sense this film is a triumph. Ewan MacGregor is Ian, Colin Farrell, his brother Terry, two working class stiffs who see a way upward with the help of their gangster uncle played with sinister aplomb by Tom Wilkinson. Without giving anything away, Terry is tormented by his criminal actions and descends into a booze and pill swilling anxiety — I don’t think the actor has ever been better. This film is raw and when Hayley Atwell’s character, Angela, goes on a first date with Ian, her banter is so sexual and full of lust you’ll wonder if some movie screens caught on fire. As always, Allen is not afraid to put women in the driver’s seat; the nearly eighty year old continues to school much younger people on sex and seduction. The great Sally Hawkins co-stars.

celebrity

Celebrity (1998)

Woody’s blatant, vicious, wince inducing look at the world of New York celebrity, fashion, show business and ego. Critics and audiences walked out of screenings, hardly anyone saw this box office bomb; yet if you find chunks of society to be pompous, arrogant, vapid, self-centered and shallow — this may be your cup of tea. I love it. Time will be good to this audacious classic. Shot in glorious black and white by the legendary Sven Nykvist, it is relentless and funny. Kenneth Branagh plays the Woody Allen schlemiel as if it is a dramatic Shakespearean convention; Judy Davis, the female lead, is his neurotic ex-wife. For the price of one film you get a cast at their trashy best: Leo DeCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Jeffery Wright, Wynona Ryder, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Adrian Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Aida Turturro, Hank Azaria, Joe Mantegna and Gretchen Mol among others.

scoop

Scoop(2006)

After the critical success of “Match Point” audiences seemed disappointed in this light comedy, but it’s one of those great “bad” Allen films. The film opens on The Grim Reaper’s boat; Ian McShane is Joe Strombol, a celebrated crime reporter who has been killed in a car accident; he strikes up a conversation with a young secretary newly murdered by her dashing financier boss Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) after she learns he is the serial killer terrorizing London’s young women; What a scoop! Strombol’s appeals to The Reaper fall on deaf ears — he’s got to get back — so he jumps ship into the dark, foggy waters. Woody is hilarious as Sid Waterman, a second rate illusionist from New York doing a series of shows in London. He pulls a volunteer from the audience, a young American journalist wannabe Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) to make her disappear inside a “de-materializer” box. Once inside, Strombol’s ghost appears and gives her the scoop. This is her big chance! She needs to get to know and investigate Lyman. She employs Sid to be her father as a cover and the comic duo encounters near misses and mishaps. Of course Sondra is unsure if the financier is in fact guilty and she falls in love! Charles Dance and Romola Garai co-star.

Ralph Kiner, the baseball Hall Of Famer and long time N.Y. Mets radio broadcaster was interviewing the legendary, rotund Dodgers’ manager Tommy LaSorda before a game.

“They say you love Italian food Tommy,” Kiner asked, “what’s the worst you ever had?”

LaSorda responded, “It was magnificent.”

Each one of these so called “bad” Woody Allen films is magnificent.

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