I've not always been the biggest Woody Allen fan. Some of his films are fantastic, but others have done little for me. I sometimes find his endless stream of neurotic dialogue a bit annoying at times. Because of this I'm a bit reticent to watch all of his films, but my love of Annie Hall, Manhattan and a few others draw me back now and again. I haven't seen many of his films because of this, and most not for a long time. This new set from Arrow Academy, Woody Allen: Six Films – 1979-1985, contains a number of well received Allen films starting with Manhattan and I'd only seen two of them, so I figured it would be a great way to see if I can regain a taste for Allen and plug some gaps in his oeuvre.

The films in the set are Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

I wasn't sent a copy of Manhattan to review, so I'm skipping that even though I've seen it in the past. I imagine most of you will have seen it or at least be well aware of its reputation as one of Allen's best films though, so I doubt you need to read yet another review of it.

Stardust Memories

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper, Marie-Christine Barrault
Country: USA
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1980

A lot of Allen's films are semi-autobiographical or at least clearly based around his own neuroses or personal experiences. Stardust Memories seems even closer to his life than usual though. Allen plays a popular film director who is invited to a retrospective festival celebrating his career. He's putting the finishing touches to his latest film during this time and is struggling to maintain control over it as everyone wants him to adhere to expectations and make a straight-up comedy like his “early funny ones”. Added to this, he's caught between three very different women and can't decide who to settle with.

I thought this was fantastic. It's personal, yet imaginatively presented. I also liked the fact that the autobiographical content isn't just focussed on Allen's love life or philosophies as usual, it largely examines his feelings on the reception of his films and the expectations put upon him. Everyone Allen's character meets in the film has an opinion on his work and most of the comments made are similar to common critiques made on Allen's actual films. The annoying crowds of admirers, press and critics constantly hounding him reminded me of Don't Look Back. Like in that film, it was made when the artist in question was at a turning point. Dylan was starting to go electric and Allen had been trying to make more mature films over the previous few years.

The film also reminded me of Fellini's 8 1/2. That is semi-autobiographical too, and both are artfully shot in sumptuous black-and-white with a surreal aspect to proceedings. Indeed, Allen doesn't merely present a simple story mirroring his own life. He instead chooses to flash back in time throughout as well as offer fantastical flourishes when he sees visions of his childhood self trying to be a magician. We also catch glimpses of the character's films, which play like exaggerated versions of Allen's own true work. It's fascinating to see the director lampooning himself like this.

Similarly, I loved the press conference scenes where Allen's character gives gag answers to every question asked. The jokes are pretty funny, but there's a subtle bitterness and resentment behind them as though he's just saying what they expect or want him to say, which elevates these scenes to another level.

It's a wonderful film that deserves to share the same praise that Annie Hall and Manhattan receive. It's not hugely dissimilar to those films, but I felt it had a little more zing and more of an arthouse sensibility in its direction. I haven't given it the full five stars because I rarely do on first viewing, but I get the feeling a second watch might push it to the top of my list of favourite Woody Allen films.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer, Julie Hagerty, Tony Roberts, Mary Steenburgen
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1982

Not quite the Shakespeare adaptation the title suggests (although it's very loosely based on A Midsummer Night's Dream), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy sees six characters come together to stay in the country, including hosts Andrew (Allen) and Adrian (Mary Steenburgen), a married couple who are having problems in the bedroom. The other four characters are made up of a soon to be married couple - the ageing philosopher Leopold (Jose Ferrer) and much younger Ariel (Mia Farrow in her first of many roles under the direction of Allen), as well as Allen's lustful friend Dr Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his nurse girlfriend Dulcy (Julie Hagerty). Over the course of a day or so the six flirt, cavort and attempt to switch partners before learning some valuable lessons about themselves.

This is the film in the set that had the weakest reviews so I had quite low expectations going in, but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. I can see why it didn't receive the same acclaim that Annie Hall or Manhattan received. It's not nearly as rich in content or intelligence as those, so feels much more throwaway, especially coming straight after Stardust Memories. Some far-fetched sequences with Andrew's crackpot inventions don't quite work either. However, it's not without its plus points and I enjoyed watching it.

For one, the film looks gorgeous. DOP Gordon Willis makes the most of the sun-kissed countryside setting. You just want to step into the film and join the characters out on the lawn and in the woods. Being a period piece, the costume and production design all look pretty too, adding to the attractive milieu.

The performances are also strong and enjoyable. The characters may be a little larger than life, but that's all part of the fun and helps exaggerate the inherent differences between them all. It's the character interactions that make up most of the comedy and although it's not laugh-out-loud hilarious, it's consistently entertaining from start to finish. The climax and finale in particular are a lot of fun. Some of the character resolutions can be guessed early on, but not how they'd get there.

I'm not sure there's a whole lot more to say about the film. It's not Allen's best, but it defied my expectations. It's slight, but enjoyable, breezy fun. Beautiful cinematography and solid performances help elevate it a little further too, even if it lacks the depth and cinematic playfulness of Allen's better work.

Zelig

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Patrick Horgan
Country: USA
Running Time: 79 min
Year: 1983

Zelig was a film in the set I was really looking forward to, as I'd heard good things and was intrigued by the concept and style. The film is framed as a documentary, set in the 'Jazz age' of the late 1920's and early 30's, telling the story of Zelig (Allen), a man who has a strange chameleon-like ability to adapt to his surroundings. Not only does he adopt mannerisms of those around him and manage to fob himself off as part of any given crowd, he actually changes his appearance to look like them too. He becomes famous for this and struggles to deal with life in the public eye. Only one person seems to want to help and not exploit him, Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychologist who thinks she can 'cure' him of his curious ailment. As she begins studying and treating him, the two fall in love.

It's often thought that Allen's strongest qualities as a filmmaker are his writing, but people often forget how cinematic a lot of his work is and in Zelig he gets to show off his ability to craft a highly original and technically complex film. The film is made up of a mixture of real newsreel/documentary footage, sequences shot for the film and some combinations of both where characters are placed within old films or photos. The latter is occasionally done using chromakey (green screen) techniques, which stands out in literally two shots, but on the whole Allen and his crew do an amazing job of fusing all of the footage together. Old stock was used to shoot the fictional material to make it stand nicely side by side with the older pieces.

There are also present day interviews used to frame the story, as well as voiceover narration. These help create the feeling of a true documentary instead of the 'found footage' style of mockumentary we too often see these days. Some of the people interviewed are actual big name intellectuals like Susan Sontag too, which goes further to add 'authenticity', although some of the wackier comedy elements prevent you from thinking the film is actually true to life.

Away from the technical achievements of the film, Zelig is also very funny. Allen mines the idea of someone changing their whole appearance and personality to fit in for as many gags as he possibly can. Some jokes even seem to be making fun of Allen himself, as the narrator describes how Zelig uses “psychological double talk” and picks up comments from others to make him sound like an intellectual. One comment talking about Zelig's father says “his performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream was cooly received” - this must surely be a jab at the negative press put upon Allen's previous film.

The film does move quite slowly though, even at a short 79 minutes. The story is rather slight, yet the film crams in a lot of different material, particularly in the first half, so it feels longer than it is. The second half becomes more focussed on the central couple though, which helps ground the film and keep it moving. There's a fun climax in Nazi Germany too.

Overall, it's unique, cleverly made and, most importantly, very funny. Its dense content and flimsy plot might make for a slower pace than I'd like, but with such a short running time and plenty of strong gags, the film is still highly recommended.

Broadway Danny Rose

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Nick Apollo Forte
Country: USA
Running Time: 84 min
Year: 1984

After the unusual Zelig, Allen played it pretty safe with Broadway Danny Rose, writing and directing a fairly light mistaken identity romp. It sees Allen play the titular Danny Rose, a half rate talent agent/manager who feels he's about to finally hit the big time with loyal washed up lounge singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who's set to rekindle his early success on a wave of nostalgia. It all seems to ride on a particular gig, which hits problems when Lou is caught cheating on his mistress Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), who is his lucky charm and was due to go to the gig under the guise of Danny's date so as not to cause friction with his wife. Luckily Danny arrives early at Tina's before the concert, so has a good chunk of the day to try to convince her to come. Unfortunately, the mafia family of one of Tina's wannabe lovers think Danny is the one that has made their boy unhappy, so Danny and Tina get a hit put out on them. Thus begins a (less madcap and convoluted than my description suggests) farce set around the Italian American community and nightclub world.

Allen adds some extra layers of class to proceedings to prevent the film from becoming just a daft chase comedy though. For one, there's an air of nostalgia for his nightclub days, highlighted by bookmarking the film with a group of ageing comedians reminiscing and moaning about current comic trends. There's a genuine warmth to scenes of Lou singing too, with the camera spending more time than usual probing the crowd as they lovingly watch him breeze through the old lounge room classics. Also, the film has a hint of melancholy, particularly in the bittersweet final act, which gives added depth to what could have been a rather slight film.

Don't let that fool you into thinking this doesn't work as a comedy though. The film is still very funny. I particularly liked how Allen made a cliched standoff in a warehouse between pursuer and pursued more entertaining by having a gun shot hit a tanker full of helium, leading to all the 'hard nosed' dialogue sounding rather silly.

The film zips along too and is very entertaining, not due to a particularly fast paced narrative, but due to the energy and charm of its characters. The central duo of Danny and Tina are particularly enjoyable with Farrow practically unrecognisable as the latter. It's a wonderful performance that's streets away from her previous two turns for Allen, her partner at the time. Allen is pretty much as usual although he shows a more subtly vulnerable side towards the end, particularly in a beautifully effective long shot which sees the three prime cast members walk towards the camera until Allen's heart is broken and he stops in full close up. It's a wonderful moment, not the sort most people pick out as a favourite in a Woody Allen film, but I found it particularly striking.

So, as with all the titles in this set, I liked Broadway Danny Rose a lot. It's a bittersweet nostalgic love letter to the nightclub circuit wrapped around an enjoyable light farce to keep it moving. Wonderful stuff.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello
Country: USA
Running Time: 82 min
Year: 1985

And so we reach the final film in the set, the only one reviewed here I'd seen previously, The Purple Rose of Cairo. I watched it a long time ago so couldn't remember much about it, other than having liked it quite a lot. So I was keen to give it a rewatch.

It's a period piece set in Depression era New Jersey, which sees Mia Farrow play Cecilia, a daydreaming, film-loving waitress and downtrodden wife to the abusive Monk (Danny Aiello). During a particularly tough time in her life she becomes obsessed with the latest film showing at the local cinema (the titular Purple Rose of Cairo) and during her fifth viewing, one of the characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), notices her in the audience and steps out of the screen to whisk her away.

This unusual phenomenon causes the film producers to panic and they and the actor playing Baxter, Gil Shepherd (also Daniels of course), try to track down the not quite so fictional anymore character, to prevent any damage being done to their reputations and industry as a whole. Meanwhile, Cecilia falls in love with both Baxter and Shepherd and, more importantly perhaps, gains strength and confidence through finally experiencing some real life adventure away from the silver screen.

This was every bit as good as I remember. Like Broadway Danny Rose it plays as a love letter to a time gone by as much as it does a comedy adventure. It's not just a love letter to old movies though (even if the scenes we see of the film within a film are clearly made with affection for the era), it's an ode to cinema in general and its ability to let audiences experience something exciting outside their mundane lives. The finale surprisingly avoids sentimentalism though, opting for something more poignant than the build up might suggest. Saying that, the film's domestic scenes between Cecilia and Monk are genuinely quite tough, with the latter portrayed as a believably unpleasant character who is horrible to his wife, but feigns remorse with just enough slimy charm that you understand why she hasn't successfully left him yet.

Once again, although there are darker layers to it, the film is still largely lightly entertaining and hugely enjoyable to watch. The scenes set in the cinema as the rest of the characters wait for Baxter to re-enter the film are particularly amusing and the fact that audiences still show up as they mope around and bicker is strangely prescient in today's world of reality TV overload.

It's a high concept comedy that works beautifully - an enjoyable romp which also has heart and just enough doses of reality to prevent it from becoming mere fluff. It's a perfectly formed love letter to the magic of cinema, yet shows its limitations at the same time. Strongly recommended.

Woody Allen: Six Films - 1979-1985 set is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality on all the discs is impeccable.

As is the norm with Woody Allen's films, there are no special features included which is a shame. I'd have loved to have learned more about the production of Zelig in particular. Allen doesn't believe in adding extras to his films unfortunately. However, you do get a 100-page hardback book featuring new and archive writing on all the films by Jamie Graham, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Geoff Andrew, Sophie Monks Kaufman, Sergio Angelini and Christina Newland. I haven't been sent a copy of this, but I'm sure it's a fine companion to the set and makes up for the lack of features.

Woody Allen: Six Films - 1979-1985
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