Category Archives: Woody Allen

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

“I can’t listen to too much Wagner. It makes me want to conquer Poland.”

Manhattan Murder Mystery, a 1993 film from Woody Allen, is one of the titles I tend to forget when I recall this director’s impressive list of films. While it’s not as profound as many other of Allen’s films, it’s definitely very good and very, very funny.

manhattan murder mysteryThe film, set in Manhattan, of course, begins with husband and wife Larry and Carol Lipton (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) coming back to their apartment building and running into some neighbours, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). While Larry was looking forward to watching an old Bob Hope film, Carol drags him back to the neighbours’ apartment for coffee and a late night chat. The next few boring hours are spent with the Houses discussing their exercise equipment and Paul House’s stamp collection.

This seemingly uneventful evening becomes strangely significant when Lillian House dies of a heart attack shortly afterwards. Carol’s suspicions are aroused by the fact that Lillian never mentioned heart problems when discussing her exercise equipment, and her low-grade doubt is flamed into action when Carol sees the new widower, Paul. In Carol’s opinion, he’s just too happy, and so much to Larry’s dismay and discomfort, Carol begins to “investigate.”

Since Larry won’t cooperate with Carol’s intense interest in Paul and the possible murder of Lillian, Carol turns to old flame, playwright, Ted Alan Alda). Not only does Ted encourage and participate in Carol’s investigation but he also becomes involved in her long-held dream of opening a restaurant.

Meanwhile Larry begins to confide in a sexy and somewhat obnoxious author, Marcia Fox (Anjelica Houston), and when she advises him to pay more attention to Carol, Larry finds himself on a stakeout.

On one level, Manhattan Murder Mystery is the story about whether or not a murder has been committed, but on another level, there’s a moral to the tale. Larry was very reluctant to meet the neighbours because, after all, meeting neighbours leads to relationships which can often be messy. Larry’s worst fears begin to come true–not only is it possible that he’s living next to a murderer, but he gets mixed up in the possible crime. But even worse than that is the idea that he may lose his wife to someone willing to listen to her theories.

The film presents a world that Woody Allen is extremely familiar with, and it’s a world of affluent intellectuals who discuss their lives and their problems with their shrinks, but it’s also a world in which people may have a little too much time on their hands. Are Carol’s suspicions correct or is she just letting her imagination run wild? Is Paul a murderer or he is just “this guy who gets his jollies licking the back of postage stamps”?

Many of the film’s hilarious scenes allow full scope for Larry’s neuroticism and anxiety as he finds himself getting dragged deeper and deeper into a very uncomfortable situation. He should have stayed home and watched that Bob Hope film. Manhattan Murder Mystery concludes with a homage to Lady from Shanghai.

“Not everyone is up at 1 am watching the porn channel.”

“Claustrophobia and a dead body: A neurotic’s nightmare.”

“I like this woman. She’s lurid.”

“I can’t bluff or lie without giggling.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be cured with a little prozac and a polo mallet.”


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Husbands and Wives (1992)

“I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”

The film  Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny examination of marriage, begins with married couple Professor Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) engaged in a low-level bicker right before their friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) arrive for the evening. The two couples plan a night out enjoying each other’s company over dinner, but before they leave for the restaurant, Sally has an “announcement.” With a sort of subdued excitement, Sally tells Gabe and Judy that she and Jack are going to separate.

Husbands and wivesSally’s announcement is delivered with the same sort of emotion you’d expect if this couple had made a decision to go on holiday in the Bahamas rather than their usual destination. While Judy is devastated by the news, which to her seems irrational and enitrely unexpected, Gabe is suprised but content to accept Jack’s statement that it’s “no big deal.” The news is so unsettling to Judy that the evening is entirely spoiled.

Sally and Jack’s announcement of a separation kick starts the rest of this very funny film. While the tightly-coiled Sally claims to look forward to being single, she becomes the date-from-hell when she discovers that Jack has had a woman on the side for some time, and that he’s now living with his bimbo aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony).  Judy fixes up Sally with the lonely office bachelor Michael Gates (Liam Neeson), a man who’s just broken up with his long-term girlfriend. And added to the pot is Gabe’s young student, Rain (Juliette Lewis) whose short story “Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction” gets his attention.

The film follows Sally’s dating adventures, and Jack’s ‘relaxed’ new life with his aerobics instructor, while in the meantime Gabe and Judy’s marriage dives into the slow-burn of decay and disintegration. Gabe and Judy engage in night-long bickering that begins innocently enough with pointed questions tossed like javelins, and these sometimes esoteric questions devolve into accusations as the night wears on.

As the characters pursue each other in a sort of A Midsummer Night’s Dream compendium of unsuitability, shrewish, sour Sally dates the needy Michael, Jack watches inane comedies with airhead Sam, and Gabe wonders if Rain will be his next kamikaze woman.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style, the drama is intersected with interviews conducted with each of the subjects as they answer questions or render their version of events. Woody Allen’s savvy and often merciless approach to marriage captures all the subtle nuances–denial, avoidance, projection, and sex as a tool to dance around so many other issues. Judy’s ex-husband even makes a few appearances in interview slices as he recalls Judy’s passive-aggressive behaviour and while he argues that she “gets what she wants,” we see it happen through flashback encounters with Gabe and in a passionate argument with Michael.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is my favourite Woody Allen film, but Husbands and Wives comes a very close second. Marriages are impenetrable to outsiders, and each marriage has its own rules of play–often unspoken and barely understood by its participants, but in Husbands and Wives Woody Allen’s wit and intelligence effectively dissects the hellish dynamics of two very different relationships. From any other director, Husbands and Wives would be just another drama, but Woody Allen constructs two very believable marriages and then tears them apart with his usual inimitable style.

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Cassandra’s Dream (2007)


“The only ship that’s certain to come in has black sails.”

Murder and guilt are two recurring themes in the films of Woody Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors makes my Top Film list, but other more recent Woody Allen films also chew over the same issues (Match Point & Scoop). At first glance Cassandra’s Dream may seem to be a lesser effort, but it’s a mistake to dismiss this film too quickly. Think of Cassandra’s Dream as a Greek tragedy, and you’ll be a lot happier with the film.

Cassandra’s Dream tells the story of two working class brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) in London. Ian works at the family restaurant, but he doesn’t plan to stay there for long. Although the film does not examine Ian’s past, there are hints that Ian who burns with ambition and the quest for material wealth has had a series of failed business plans. His latest get-rich-quick scheme is to invest in ‘hotels’ in Southern California. Although Ian acts as though he’s doing his father a favour by ‘helping out’ in the restaurant, the shoe may be on the other foot. Ian never seems to actually work in the restaurant–instead the place seems to fill the function of a personal cash machine for Ian. When Ian meets an ambitious “high maintenance” actress, Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell), he comes under increasing financial pressure.

Terry, on the other hand, is ambitionless, and he’s in a loving, successful relationship. He’s content to remain as a mechanic, and from his boss’s repair shop, he ‘lends’ the flashiest sports cars to Ian. Terry’s secret vice is gambling, and unfortunately he’s not particularly good at it.

Ian and Terry enjoy a good relationship, but they are so alike in some ways and yet also so opposite that in some scenes they appear to be halves of the same person. While Terry is more like his father, Ian seems to take after his mother (Clare Higgins)–a woman who never allows her husband (John Benfield) to forget that he’s a loser who owes his salvation to her wonderful, millionaire brother, Howard (Tom Wilkinson). Howard–a wealthy plastic surgeon with clinics all over the world–looms like some distant god in the family’s life. Ian, who inherits his mother’s avarice longs to have the sort of lifestyle enjoyed by Uncle Howard, and he certainly doesn’t intend to work for his first million.

The family is thrilled at the news that Uncle Howard is arriving for a whirlwind visit to England, but it soon becomes horribly apparent that Howard is there for a reason. Howard’s mask of genial wealthy uncle slips, and underneath is a cold calculating man who expects his nephews to pay back all of his earlier generosity through a brutal murder.

Cassandra’s Dream develops with the cold clear lines of a Greek tragedy as Ian and Terry are sucked into their fate, and just as a Greek tragedy doesn’t function to answer extraneous issues, the film doesn’t answer all of the questions it raises. What’s so interesting here is the fallout from the crime. Ian only stands to benefit from the crime, and so to him the murder is just a hurtle to overcome on the path to his new rock and life lifestyle in California. On the other hand, the murder will not create any real benefit for Terry, and so to him the aftermath of the crime leaves him face to face with his old life and his addictions.

These characters face their flaws and are inevitably destroyed by their flaws. While Woody Allen does not seem to hit the right notes with his creation of the British working class (for that try Mike Leigh), nonetheless this examination of morality replaced by materialism is still great stuff.

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Anything Else (2003)

“There was something compelling about your apathy.”

In Anything Else–a Woody Allen film, Jason Biggs plays Jerry Falk–a comedy writer based in New York. Falk lives with Amanda (Christina Ricci), and while Falk is enthralled with Amanda, it’s obvious that the couple have serious problems. Amanda is unreliable and flakey, but Falk finds excuses for Amanda’s behaviour. Paula (Stockard Channing), Amanda’s out-of-control mother moves in. Falk’s agent is Harvey (Danny Devito)–who’s as greedy as he is incompetent. Falk finds excuses for Harvey too. Falk has a pattern of absorbing outrages.

Enter… David Dobel (Woody Allen)–another comedy writer (and teacher). Dobel and Falk immediately strike up an easy friendship. With Dobel, Falk finds that he has a confidant, friend, and mentor. Finally, Falk can express himself to someone who is interested.

Anything Else does not compare to Woody Allen’s best films Crimes and Misdemeanors, Purple Rose of Cairo, etc., but, nonetheless, this is vintage Woody Allen–perceptive & humorous. The film’s biggest failing is in the casting of Jason Biggs as the comedy writer. He is the foil to Woody’s peculiar, eccentric worldly wisdom, but the Falk character is not quite believable somehow. I kept seeing Edward Burns in this role. Christina Ricci was great as Falk’s self-centered, pretentious girlfriend, and Stockard Channing ( a very talented comedienne) was amazing as Amanda’s ridiculously demanding mother. Channing and Ricci made a very believable mother-and daughter team. The character of David Dobel was fascinating, and I would have to say that David Dobel’s dialogue was always hilariously surprising. So for Woody Allen fans, I recommend Anything Else.

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Melinda and Melinda (2004)

“Did you shoot all your furniture?”

Woody Allen’s comedy film, Melinda and Melinda begins in a New York restaurant as two playwrights discuss their craft. The playwrights (Wallace Shawn & Larry Pine) discuss the merits of comedy vs. tragedy, and then to illustrate their argument, they both create stories–one comic, one tragic–involving a character named Melinda (Radha Mitchell). The film flashes back and forth between the playwrights’ discussion, and the two ‘Melinda’ stories.

In both of the Melinda stories, the Melinda character arrives in town and disrupts the lives of a married couple. In one version, Melinda is the old school friend of Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) who’s married to Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an egotistical actor. In the other version, Melinda is the downstairs neighbour of successful filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet), and her loser, unemployed husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). In both stories, the element of adultery appears–along with other crossover elements–such as a single dentist, safaris, suicide, dinner parties, and even the racetrack. And these elements are all used for different purposes as both stories unfold. For example, the dentist in one story is a sweet, lonely widower, but in the other story, he’s a suave playboy who owns an ostentatious mansion in the Hamptons.

Melinda is the catalyst for the drama that unfolds in both stories, and Radha Mitchell plays these two roles brilliantly. As one Melinda, she’s a pathetic, neurotic, desperate mess, and as the other she’s quiet, low key and rather sweet. The script swings deftly back and forth between the restaurant conversation, and the two Melinda stories, and under Woody Allen’s skilled direction, the film doesn’t miss a beat. While two stories–one comic-and one tragic–are presented, essentially it’s all great entertainment. Even the tragic story somehow maintains a dark comic edge–thanks mainly to Mitchell’s performance as the hard-edged intensely desperate Melinda. This Woody Allen fan recommends the clever, refreshing and witty Melinda and Melinda highly.

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Match Point (2005)

“Did anyone ever tell you you play a very aggressive game?”

Of all of Woody Allen’s films, Match Point most resembles Crimes and Misdemeanors in content, and it can be considered a companion film. In Match Point former tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) gets a job teaching tennis at a posh London club. Chris, an Irishman, makes friends with upper crust Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), and soon he’s invited back to the country estate where he meets Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris also meets Tom’s American girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), and while he’s immediately attracted to her, he begins a relationship with Chloe.

The Hewetts aren’t bad people, but they’re shallow. Tom’s scandalous relationship with unemployed actress Nola infuriates his autocratic mother, and there are some great scenes as Tom’s mother–professing innocence–baits Nola about her non-existent acting career. While both Nola and Chris are outsiders vastly outclassed by the Hewett’s old money and social prestige, Chris is accepted but Nola isn’t. Chris is a social climber and a cipher, but he’s such a chameleon, in the beginning of the film his sincerity is difficult to gauge. A few clues are dropped–in one scene, for example, Chris reads Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment–an ironic choice–but he puts the book down to read an explanation of the text. It’s this sort of subtle clue that reveals that Chris’s motives in sucking up to the wealthy Hewetts are less than stellar. But Chris’s true character is revealed after he marries Chloe. He has an important job in her daddy’s firm, a splendid office, a gorgeous London flat, a doting, sweet-natured wife, but it’s not enough….

Match Point examines the balance of power in relationships, guilt, ambition and luck through its main character, Chris. It would seem that Chris experiences a stroke of luck when he stumbles upon Tom Hewett’s friendship, but how much is luck and how much is engineered by Chris? In spite of the great good fortune that comes Chris’s way, character will out, and Chris’s true character is revealed through a series of desperate events affected by both bad and good luck. Match Point is an intriguing, excellent film packed with surprises and containing a depth that resonates long after the film’s conclusion.

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Scoop (2006)

“Maybe he belongs to one of those clubs where he’s a crossdresser.”

Scoop the latest film from Woody Allen, falls into the light romantic romp category. While it lacks the depth of Match Point, it’s enjoyable, and hopeless Woody Allen fans (like me) will recognize familiar themes from some of his other films.

Budding reporter Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is in England staying with some wealthy British connections when she attends a magic show. Sondra is invited as a member of the audience to assist in one of the tricks performed by magician Splendini (Woody Allen). During the course of the trick, recently dead reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) contacts Sondra. In life, Strombel could never pass up a hot tip for a story, and in death he wants to pass the tip to a fellow reporter. Strombel tells Sondra that he’s just received a hot tip that the mysterious unidentified Tarot Killer who’s been stalking prostitutes in London is none other than millionaire Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).

Sondra can’t go to the police with a tip she’s received from a ghost, so instead she enlists the help of the reluctant Stromboli to investigate the Tarot killings. Together Sondra and Stromboli go undercover, assume new identities and infiltrate Lyman’s world.

The amateur sleuth team is reminiscent of the teaming of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Manhattan Murder Mystery but in Scoop there’s a strong, otherworldly element of magic (Alice) that conveniently acts as a Deus Ex Machina at times. It is delightful to see Woody Allen back at the fore of one of his films, and in typical Woody Allen style, his character’s insecurities and voice of caution were extremely funny. For this Woody Allen fan, it was good to see this perennial, talented comedian back in front of the camera. There’s nothing too serious here, and the film is clearly not intended to fall into the serious Woody Allen film category. Instead, this is just a lighthearted romp–nothing more and certainly nothing less. It’s enjoyable escapism.

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