Husbands and Wives (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) wait for their friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), in their home so they can head out to dinner together. Gabe and Judy are expecting to eat Chinese food, but what they do not expect is to swallow the news about Sally and Jack getting a divorce. The couple discloses it so flippantly, Gabe is left not knowing what to think or say while Judy responds with a smidgen of hostility. This is a surprise to Gabe and Judy, to say the least, because they have always believed that Jack and Sally share a great marriage. Meanwhile, the divorce forces Gabe and Judy to inspect what does not work in their marriage and face the possibility that perhaps what they have, too, is beyond repair.
“Husband and Wives,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is a picture that is alive, so observant about human psychology and behavior, that looking at the way the characters move and react as well as listening to them speak and be quiet recalls the feelings of reading a novel so immersive, you keep wanting to know more about what happens next even after encountering the final word on the last page.
The four principal performers are not only equal to the task of creating complicated and fascinating characters, they are attuned to one another’s rhythms so no one shines more brightly than the other. For instance, I admired the way Davis allows Sally to be so shrill and controlling and yet at same time opening her up just a little so that we can feel the pain and shame that she grapples with for not being more thoughtful toward her former husband when he needed her most. Pollack gives Jack a certain level of exhaustion from constantly being corrected and criticized by his ex-wife. He is the first to decide to search for happiness, however he defines the word, and just when we think he has it, Jack starts to question the value of his newfound relationship from behind Pollack’s spectacles.
On the other hand, Farrow plays Judy almost like a mouse in voice and the way she scuttles about the apartment. And yet, arguably, she is the smartest of the four—most interesting in that maybe she is not even aware of it—because she has a way of always getting what she wants. Allen, sporting his usual but signature nervous energy, makes us feel for Gabe that even when the thought of having an affair crosses his mind, we do not hate him for it.
The screenplay treats each character like he or she is worthy of being understood. This is reflected in way Allen controls the camera during confrontations. When someone is being attacked with verbal daggers, we are behind that person’s shoulder to make it appear as though we are also being criticized. Then, when that person on the defense takes the offensive position, the camera floats behind the other character’s shoulder so we get to hear where that person is coming from.
All the while the focus is on the dueling faces and how their expressions change throughout a course of a fight. If I were the one behind the camera, I would not have done it any differently. This is because, at least for me, when I confront another person, my eyes go directly on the other’s face to see which of my words trigger the most response: To learn which ones hurt so I can use them again during the heat of the moment and, conversely, to learn which words not to use when things have settled down.
The picture has the courage to poke fun of itself, too. Gabe, a college professor, decides to let one of his most brilliant students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), read the novel he is working on. Though she claims to love what she has read, she criticizes Gabe, which is really Allen, the director, only under a different name, for his ideas especially how he perceives women. Rain’s assessment of the novel can be taken as a direct criticism of the film which is very smart because it is one step ahead of the thing I plan on addressing initially. That playful self-awareness adds an additional mirror alongside one already being held in front us.
“Husbands and Wives” is able to successfully balance quiet desperation as much as the expressions that demand attention. It stumbles a little toward the end, however, when it uses a storm as a symbol of intensity boiling from within each character as well as the washing away of animosities. It is an elementary storytelling technique and yet so heavy-handed that I am reluctant to say that the writer-director has gotten away with it. Still, it is astute about what it wants to say and perceptive about how we might react to it.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
★★ / ★★★★
In midtown Manhattan, as famous comics in suits share a meal in a restaurant, their topic of conversation moves toward Danny Rose (Woody Allen), a personal manager of various acts which range from bird performers to blind xylophone players. One of the men claims he has the funniest story about Danny which occurred many years ago when the manager was close with Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), an Italian singer who finds that his career had peaked in the 1950s but has decided recently to make a comeback. It turns out that his decision to once again step into the spotlight is largely influenced by Danny.
Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Broadway Danny Rose” is a mild comedy, sometimes very funny but sometimes very flat, perhaps more than half its jokes directed more toward people who already have a knowledge of the entertainment business. Fortunately, a lot of the performances are entertaining which serve as a sort-of distraction from the jokes and references that fail tickle my insides.
Allen as the lead character is especially entertaining. Danny being a smooth-talker, I found it interesting that he uses his hands quite often, palms directly toward various persons he addresses, as if adopting a stance, readily able to deflect a verbal attack when they happen to see through his flattery. But his nice words are not always false. I enjoyed trying to recognize which compliments he genuinely means because he knows how to appreciate the little things apart from being a competent, sometimes very good, personal manager.
The plot is driven by Lou’s performance in front of a crowd where Milton Berle, playing himself, is to determine if the singer was entertaining enough for Las Vegas. Danny wishes Lou to remain calm and focused prior to the big night but this seems impossible because Lou has just had a fight with his mistress, Tina (Mia Farrow), and there is a possibility that she will decide not to come to the show for moral support. As a very hands-on manager, Danny goes to visit Tina and the duo get into all sorts of trouble.
The partnership between Tina and Danny has its share of laughs as we learn that the two embody very different mindsets. Tina’s pessimism is reflected through her wearing a pair of sunglasses, which she never takes off, as a beautiful and adventurous day unfolds in front of her. On the other hand, Danny, despite wearing a pair of glasses, personifies positivity, as if the accessory helped to magnify the beauty the world around him. Their differences—in personality and perception of the world—create jokes that work even though the situations they are thrusted into at times come across predictable.
Despite the film being shot in black and white, I found that the world the characters inhabit seems to be full of vibrant energy, especially when there are extras on the background. It almost feels like we can go up to them and they will have their own stories to share. I noticed the extras as the characters on the foreground lost my attention, either from being too quirky or when the material verges on insularity, too “theater.”
While “Broadway Danny Rose” provides light entertainment, I could not help but feel it could have been about much more. The sadness toward the end hints at a more insightful level of commentary about how it must really like to work in show business.
Widow’s Peak (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kishannon, Ireland is essentially ruled by old widows, spearheaded by self-important Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (Joan Plowright), who likes to pass the time engaging in juicy hearsay. Word has it that the house up on the hill is recently purchased by a young widow named Mrs. Broome (Natasha Richardson), an Englishwoman raised in America. Initially, the ladies are suspicious of Mrs. Broome, but her jocund personality quickly wins them over. But not Miss O’Hare (Mia Farrow). She suspects that the newcomer is up to no good.
“Widow’s Peak,” directed by John Irvin, is a period comedy with an edge. The mystery when it comes to which character is up to something, depending on whose perspective, and why is an interesting affair until the very last scene. Thus, although the plot does not take dramatic twists and turns, pressure bubbles just underneath the surface and we anticipate the inevitable eruption.
The majority of the amusing moments are embedded in social gatherings, especially when Miss O’Hare and Mrs. Broome are within a few feet of one another. When they are not too busy clawing at each other’s throats after a dance, they send smiles on each other’s way yet their eyes communicate an entirely different story. We relate because we have all been in a situation where we enter a room and a person we cannot stand just happens to be there. We pretend it does not bother us and yet the longer we do it, the more unbearable it becomes. It is simply icing on the cake when that person just happens to feel like saying hello and we are forced to acknowledge the pestilence.
The plot is driven by questions. For one, why is Miss O’Hare so intent on hating Mrs. Broome? At least from our perspective, the latter has not done or said anything to the former that might force her to go in a fit of rage. But the more interesting question is why the older rich ladies keep Miss O’Hare in their company. The widows consider having money as a requirement to be in their snobbish circle. Miss O’Hare is far from affluent and she is not as refined as they are. One has to wonder if Miss O’Hare knows something about the widows which, if they happen to come to light, might provoke shame.
The romance between Miss O’Hare and Con Clancy (Jim Broadbent), the town dentist, needs further detail. Farrow and Broadbent have very little chemistry, possibly due to the age difference also acknowledged in the film, so I found it necessary that they have more scenes together to prove to us that they are a good fit for each other. When Miss O’Hare eventually gets the short end of the stick and is consistently humiliated in front of people, Clancy is the one who rushes to comfort her. Due to a lack of meaningful scenes between them, Clancy comes across as more like a contrivance of the plot rather than a complete character, a man with his own opinions and ideas.
The power of “Widow’s Peak,” based on the screenplay by Hugh Leonard, is its subtle dialogue. For example, I enjoyed the way the mood suddenly changes from snarky to grim depending on what is said coupled with the number of beats between words uttered. The melding of a period comedy and thriller elements is very strange but the filmmakers are able to make it work somehow. Our curiosity in terms of what is really going on underneath the social pleasantries inspires us to dig a little deeper.
Dark Horse (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Abe (Jordan Gelber), over thirty years of age and an avid vintage toy collector, still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and has no intention of moving out any time soon. He is relatively content with where he is even though his romantic life can use a bit of spark. Opportunity presents itself when he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a self-proclaimed failed writer, at a wedding. Although they have absolutely no chemistry upon first contact, Abe feels she is right for him so he proposes marriage on their first date. To his surprise, she eventually accepts. However, like Abe, Miranda has her share of problems, those that ought not be taken lightly.
Written and directed by Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” is an increasingly bizarre specimen, sometimes examining its protagonist with a level of detachment so cold, it can put a frost to his blind, fiery passion to prove to everyone that he is good enough to be considered an equal. Gelber’s performance in portraying a character that reeks desperation holds a fragile magnetism.
On one hand, I found myself wanting to root for Abe because he is so hard on himself, often comparing his perceived lack of success to his father, a man who has established and has since run his own business, and brother (Justin Bartha), a doctor. On the other hand, I wanted to shake and yell at him to wake up, stop being so lazy, and move out of his parents’ house. It is clear that being around them is not healthy considering that there is always tension in the house. It is very awkward that Abe is both his father’s son as well as an employee who does not pull his own weight in the company.
The brief and awkward interactions between parents and child has a few interesting layers. The screenplay takes on social and personal issues, often simultaneously, from the generational gap to what it means to be–or perhaps the archetype of–a responsible, independent adult in America. Even though the issues that are touched upon do not receive equal time or focus necessary to drill deeply enough until the satire and irony reach a saturation point, the implications pack sufficient sting–darkly comic in nature–to get us to think about the protagonist’s motivations outside of his actions as well as what we might have done differently if we were in his situation.
While the writer-director almost treats Abe like a punching bag, Gelber plays Abe with vulnerability, capable of kindness and selfishness, changing it up as swiftly as winds changing direction. The contrast between approaches from behind and in front of the camera often hints at the sheer potential of the material.
Unfortunately, Blair’s performance is so over-the-top, watching her move and listening to her speak is like watching a major car accident on repeat. I felt her trying to emote so consistently that the hint of irony that her character is supposed to possess is buried under her overacting. She is supposed to ooze self-pity, perhaps we are even supposed to dislike her character, but I felt no joy in her performance. I was more interested in the relationship between Abe and Marie (Donna Murphy), the company’s secretary, due to Murphy’s deranged and energetic performance. Since there is a danger to Marie that Miranda lacks, why does Abe find Miranda more alluring?
“Dark Horse” is not as incisive as it should have been given a few limitations in front of the camera. The trickiest thing about movies mostly composed of very short scenes is that everything in one scene has to be good or else it feels noticeably insufficient. About half of the picture consists of interactions between Abe and Miranda. The latter struggles to be as genuinely interesting as the former.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershley) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) often met and discussed their lives over lunch or dinner in Manhattan. They talked about all sorts of happenings from their career prospects to pecuniary matters, but the main driving force of the film were the topics that they would rather keep a secret from each other. For instance, Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) had told Lee that he had fallen in love with her (should Lee tell Hannah about it?), while Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (Woody Allen) dated Holly (Was it appropriate for Holly to discuss it with Hannah?). What I loved about “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a quality almost always present in Allen’s more renowned pictures, was not a scene was wasted. It was all about character development as each character was given the chance to narrate a scene and share his or her thoughts about someone else or his increasingly complicated and desperate predicament. The first scene stood out to me because Caine’s character essentially had made the confession that he wanted to leave his wife for his wife’s sister. Allen immediately placed us in the husband’s shoes. When he moved toward the woman he was interested in, the camera moved with a sense of urgency, and we had no choice but to move with the husband and anticipate a potential train wreck. With marriage dramas, the tone could quickly become too depressing and suffocating. Allen was aware of this so he injected comedic scenes of the hypochondriac Jewish TV producer discovering that he might have had a tumor in his brain. Obviously, the situation he was in was quite grim but his reactions to certain revelations spearheaded the comedy. The person dealing with the situation was funny, not the situation itself. However, one major weakness I found in the film was the fact that I still did not know who Hannah was. She was overshadowed by her sisters, her philandering husband, and neurotic ex-husband. She was there when they needed help or someone to talk to, but in terms of her relationship with the audiences, I felt as though there was a disconnect. Toward the end, everyone admitted that she was the strong one and that she never needed help from anybody, but it was not the idea of Hannah I had in my mind. To be succinct and completely honest, I thought she was a bit boring–she was a nice woman but she was unexciting. Despite its flaws, “Hannah and Her Sisters” had a deep sophistication in its characterization of people constantly wrestling with their desires and needs. Best of all, I enjoyed its honesty in terms of people sometimes being unrelentingly awful, sometimes being beyond wonderful.