What’s up Tiger Lily (1966) is from Woody Allen‘s early period, when he was a funny guy, but he was also just as prone to experimentation in his Genesis period (his next project was the infamous experimental James Bond disaster Casino Royale, which he acted in and co-wrote). The concept for Tiger Lily is so simple, one wonders why no one had attempted it before (or since): Allen took a Japanese spy film—a not so subtle ripoff of the Bond films called The Key of Keys, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi—and redubbed it. Allen himself appears to introduce this one-of-a-kind, playful hybrid.
Allen has since dismissed What’s Up Tiger Lily as juvenile doodle, but its youthful pulse on the absurd is convincing, winning, and is probably the closest he gets to authentically weird cinema. There are some who maintain that in addition to being his first film, Lily is also his funniest.
Most of the mainstream suddenly became acquainted with Allen with this film, which was an unexpected hit (Allen later joked that his overnight success was a decade in the making). In addition to the dubbing, Allen also re-edited the film, and the result is so refreshing that the original film becomes a viewing ordeal (the opposite of what happened whenever Jerry Warren‘s edits inexplicably made godawful films even worse, i.e., Face Of The Screaming Werewolf).
Whether or not What’s Up Tiger Lily is Allen’s funniest film is debatable, but it’s certainly his silliest, because of its inherent helter-skelter weirdness. Its the cinematic equivalent of a Mad Magazine, with subtle-as-a-pair of brass knuckles humor and spliced-in performances from the Lovin’ Spoonful making it a bouncing off the wall party favorite (it’s probably not as fun to watch alone). There are just as many jokes that fail as ones that work, but they are delivered with such kinetic, Tex Avery-like speed that it hardly matters. Comparatively, the whole of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seems like an academic lecture.
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In her review of Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), critic Pauline Kael wrote: “it seems scaled to [Mia Farrow’s] cheekbones.” This is Kael at her charmingly brief, astute best, inspired by what may be Allen at his best. Allen jumps from the diving board of Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock Jr., Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and his own Play It Again, Sam (1972). In turn, The Purple Rose Of Cairo influenced film such as Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief(1989), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). When released, The Purple Rose Of Cairo received almost universal critical acclaim, but its downbeat ending and flights of fancy put off American audiences.
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In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly). Woody Allen is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a Dostoyevsky diving board for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).
Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital affair with flight attendant Dolores (Anjelica Huston). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).
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Zelig (1983) finds Woody Allen in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.
Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of Buster Keaton in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like Charlie Chaplin). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.
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For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new David Bowie album, at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.’” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition. Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.” Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen … Continue reading WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)