When the name Woody Allen comes up, the conversation (when it doesn't run the gamut of tabloid fodder) always turns to the somewhat universal notion that "he just don't make 'em like he used to". And this is surely a fact, yet at the same time it is a rather cheap way to shorthand the career of such an artist as Mr. Allen. But since that is the case, and it probably makes for better drama, please allow me to shorthand his career as well.
First we have the early, "funny" pictures, self-mocked by Allen himself in his Felliniesque Stardust Memories. Films such as Bananas, Love and Death and the best of this early period, and Allen at his Chaplinesque best, Sleeper, were all quite enjoyable comedies, but they were only laying the groundwork for the prominent period to come next. The period of fifteen years - from 1977's Annie Hall to 1992's Husbands & Wives - that one could, and probably should, call Allen's "Golden Age".
This Golden Age is a time period that encompasses such comedies as Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Purple Rose of Cairo and the aforementioned Stardust Memories, such dramas as Interiors and Another Woman, and whatever category one can throw Zelig into. This is an age that saw Allen grow out of pure comedy and into a realm of mature, witty sophistication (playing on the whole Keaton vs. Chaplin debate). This is also an age that raised Allen's work to such heights, that the director will probably never be able to recreate it, no matter how many continents he finds himself running off to.
To keep going with such cheap shorthand, next would come what one might call the "Post-Mia Period". Some quite enjoyable films were made during this decade+ long period, including Bullets Over Broadway, the Faustian Deconstructing Harry, the oddity Sweet and Lowdown and the oft-overlooked Celebrity, but this was also a time of lesser movies ranging from the only slightly above average (Mighty Aphrodite, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to the mediocre (Small Time Crooks, Everyone Says I Love You) to the bad (Anything Else, Hollywood Ending) to the downright horrendous (Curse of the Jade Scorpion). An uneven period that went south real fast and real hard.
And then comes the current period - the Post New York period. Beginning with his first London-based work, Match Point, which worked as a comeback of sorts (if one wants to use such an unflattering term as comeback), Allen went forward with a seeming new voice - and a seeming whole new career across the pond. Granted, this newfound voice involved the rather insipid beauty queen Scarlett Johansson as muse (though Allen himself would stay behind the camera or play father figure at this point in his septuagenarian hours) and gave us such duds as Scoop and the all but completely unseen Cassandra's Dream, but it also gave us his best work since the end of the Golden Age Woody - Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Of course, after a quick, and mostly unremarkable (yet fondly nostalgic) return to the streets of Manhattan with Whatever Works (based on an old screenplay originally meant for a late seventies adaptation) Allen has returned with his 41st film - You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The fact that it took nearly 550 words to finally even mention the title of this latest Allen, perhaps says a lot about what I thought of said film - which is not much of anything, good or bad really. What can easily be called typical middle ground Allen, Stranger, stars Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin (in yet another great performance - his understated mensch steals the show time and time again, and the look on his face in the final moments of the film are beyond priceless) and Lucy Punch in a performance that can steal the rug right out from under even Anthony Hopkins. Stranger is never a bad movie, but at the same time, it is never really a good film either. Just lying somewhere in between, it flutters somewhere in the Allen ether that neither disappoints nor educates.
And so we have now finally come to the end of my cheap shorthand full of sound and fury that never really signifies much of anything (90% of which never even discusses the movie in question!?) and all that can really be said is - it may not be Annie Hall, but at least it's not The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Well that and Josh Brolin and Lucy Punch are more than worth the look. [11/04/10]