Woody Allen: His Underrated Past, European Present, and Upcoming Return to New York
Allen's latest, To Rome With Love
There are few things more quintessentially New York than Woody Allen. No matter how many reruns of Sex and the City I watch, or how many visits to the MET, the city that never sleeps always brings to mind Woody Allen, arguably America's greatest living filmmaker.
I'm hardly alone in associating Allen with the Big Apple. But for nearly a decade now, Allen has taken a cinematic break from the American metropolis and shifted his films' focus to European cities -- namely London, Barcelona, and Paris. His most recent offering, To Rome With Love, opening at the Coral Gables Art Cinema July 6, is set in -- you guessed it -- Rome. The film features a layered story line brought to life by an impressive ensemble cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Judy Davis, and Allen himself.
It'll be hard to beat the success of last year's Midnight in Paris, his biggest box office success ever. But though film critics haven't been falling over themselves with praise, To Rome With Love will undoubtedly still pack that Woody Allen charm that makes his films incredibly watchable even when they aren't exactly his best work. So as we wait for Woody's latest cine a la Italiana why not revisit some of his earlier stuff? I'm just going to assume you've seen Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crime and Misdemeanors, and Bullets over Broadway. (If you haven't, well, we can't be friends.) Those classics aside, here are some unexpected favorites.
Wild Man Blues
This film has the distinction of being a Woody Allen film that is not by Woody Allen. Rather, it is a film about Woody Allen, or more specifically, about Woody's love of jazz. Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (whose film Harlan County U.S.A is a seminal work of American documentary filmmaking) follows the filmmaker as he embarks on his first tour of Europe playing the clarinet with his jazz band. What makes this film so particularly great is seeing Allen as himself: interacting with wife Soon-Yi and sister Letty, and displaying his love of music and performing, a passion that may rival his love of cinema. You also get to discover that Woody is actually quite good with the clarinet. This isn't a self-indulgent celebrity hobby, but a rather accomplished musician taking it on the road. Yet, for all the wonderful behind-the-scenes moments, what truly makes the film is when we get to meet Woody's parents, whose home is where all his countless accolades end up. This hilarious exchange underscores where all that remarkable wit and inspiration for so many of Woody's characters must have come from.
Everyone Says I Love You
If there's one thing you can say about Woody Allen, it's this: The man has chutzpah. In 1996, Allen tackled a long since dead format: the american musical. The result was one of the most charming, if underappreciated, films in his body of work. Starring alongside Allen were Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Ed Norton, Natasha Lyone, Tim Roth, and Drew Barrymore. The music was drawn from a mix of American standards, and the film is peppered with moments of homage to Busby Berkely and early-American musicals. It's wonderful to see these big stars burst into song and turning the mundane (is anything truly mundane in a Woody Allen film?) into sweet magical moments. Set primarily in New York and focusing on an über-wealthy Manhattan family, the film is ultimately about the quirks and complications of love -- especially when we try to be someone we're not. Perhaps what makes this film so endearing is its sense of familiarity. Everyone is likable, the music is recognizable, and the story, while far-fetched, has the sense of a 1950s Billy Wilder comedy you've seen before. Yet when a fatalistic Woody decrees "I'm going to kill myself. I should go to Paris and jump off of the Eiffel Tower....If I took the Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier," you know you're in wonderfully different territory.
So what's next for Allen? Apparently, Woody is already at work on his next film, which will be set in New York and San Francisco. Early reports have Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay attached.
As much as we're looking forward to that (for both the cast and the settings) it's the news that Bullets Over Broadway is being adapted for the Great White Way that has me most excited. It's exactly what New York City needs: a dose of timeless Manhattan wit that Woody knows best.
In the meantime though, let's soak up this European sojourn before Woody's self-imposed cinematic exile comes to an end. What better way to spend an evening at the theater than discovering Allen's trademark New York neurosis translated into Italian passione?
Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.
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