Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

THOSE BLOODY ITALIANS

This week Great Old Movies takes a look at Italian horror films, specifically those bloody "giallo" movies or gialli (the plural).

"Giallo" simply means yellow in Italian. (You would think it would denote the color red for blood, but the term derives from Italian pulp-type fiction with yellow covers.) But giallo has come to mean a certain type of mystery film or thriller. It has a broader usage in Italy itself, but elsewhere it denotes a specific type of shocker. There is usually an unknown maniac (or at least someone who acts like a maniac but may be quite sane and cunning) on the loose killing several victims in often flamboyant and vicious ways. There is a gruesome emphasis on the deaths. And a convoluted plot that may lead decades back into the past to explain motives or bring the killer to light.

Gialli were influential in some ways on the American slasher films that followed, although these tended to have much more simplistic plot lines. One could also argue that Brian De Palma, who made very classy "slasher" films at the beginning of his career, was as much influenced by Italian gialli as he was by Hitchcock.

Probably the first great giallo director was Mario Bava, whose Blood and Black Lace was very influential on later films, including those by the second great giallo director, Dario Argento. (Argento should certainly have been represented in this week's films, but when I put in my DVD of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it proved to be defective. However, type in his name in the search bar above and many of his films will come up.) Argento helmed such gems as Deep Red and Dario Argento's Trauma, both of which are masterpieces of the genre.

BLADE OF THE RIPPER/ NEXT!

George Hilton
BLADE OF THE RIPPER (aka Next!/aka Next Victim!/aka The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/aka Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh/1971). Director: Sergio Martino.

Running away from a strange and abusive lover named Jean (Ivan Rassimov of Spasmo), Julie (Edwige Fenech) marries a pleasant and balanced man named Neil Wardjh (Alberto de Mendoza of One On Top of the Other) in Vienna. Unfortunately, Neil is not that exciting, so Julie takes up with an aggressive stranger named George (George Hilton) and they begin a passionate affair. While this is going on, a mad slasher is on the loose in the city, and one of Julie's friends, Carol (Conchita Airoldi), becomes the latest victim. Then Julie finds herself being stalked by an unknown figure. Which of the three men in Julie's life is the maniac, or is it someone else? Blade of the Ripper is an interesting giallo film with a more involved plot than usual, but its main distinction is its brilliant twist at the end. Edwige Fenech [The Sins of Madame Bovary] takes her clothing off at the drop of a hat, and there are other undraped females throughout, at times giving the pic the tone of soft core porn. The movie doesn't compare to the best of Dario Argento, but it does boast a suspenseful sequence in the parking basement of Julie's apartment house and a tense scene on the stairs, as well as one creepy murder sequence. The acting is more than adequate. Don't expect beautiful views of Vienna, although one murder scene does take place near the palace outside the city. Sergio Martino also directed Torso.

Verdict: Suspenseful if un-stylish giallo thriller. ***.

THE FIFTH CORD

Franco Nero and Pamela Tiffin
THE FIFTH CORD (aka Giornata nera per l'ariete/aka Evil Fingers/1971). Director: Luigi Bazzoni.

After a New Year's Eve party, a young man named John Lubbock (Maurizio Bonuglia) is attacked in a tunnel by an unknown person and nearly killed. Investigating the case is reporter Andrea Bild (Franco Nero of Killer Mermaid), who has an ex-wife, Helene (Silvia Monti), a little boy, Tonio, and a girlfriend named Lu (Pamela Tiffin of The Pleasure Seekers), and who drinks way too much for his own good. Then there is a series of murders, with a doctor's wife being the first victim (in a well-handled sequence), as we hear an unidentified person on the soundtrack talking about how much he likes to kill people. The Fifth Cord is a non-bloody giallo film that has a nice look (thanks to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) but which doesn't compare to the best of Dario Argento. The story is completely confusing (Nero's thick accent doesn't help), and the motivations of the killer seem ridiculous (and homoerotic in a strictly old-fashioned sense). There is one very creepy and suspenseful scene when the little boy winds up alone in a house with the lights out and is stalked by the killer. Wolfgang Preiss plays the inspector on the case and Edmund Purdom is a minor character. Nero began a long relationship with Vanessa Redgrave when they worked on Camelot; they married in 2006.

Verdict: Second-rate giallo with some interesting aspects. **1/2.

BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA

Giancarlo Gianinni
BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (aka La tarantola dal ventre nero/1971). Director: Paolo Cavara.

Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Gianinni) investigates a series of murders in which people are paralyzed with a drug and then are stabbed in the belly, in much the way a wasp kills a tarantula (to explain the title and little else). Black Belly of the Tarantula is a very confusing picture with an awful score by Ennio Morricone, who was clearly not much inspired by the material. Stefania Sandrelli plays Anna, Tellini's wife, who figures in the moderately tense finale, and also in the cast are Barbara Bach, Barbara Bouchet, and Claudine Auger [Twitch of the Death Nerve] as women connected to s spa and modeling agency. Gianinni, who went on to much, much better things in a long career, gives an okay if somewhat disinterested performance as a cop who wants to get out of the business (even as the actor probably wanted to get out of the movie). Black Belly is not an especially intriguing nor admirable example of the Italian giallo film. In fact, one could rightly state that the best thing about the movie is its title. A much, much better horror flick for Giannini was Mimic

Verdict: Blah dubbed thriller which wastes everyone's talents. **.  

THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES

Barbara Bouchet
THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES (aka La dama rossa uccide sette volte/1972). Director: Emilio Miraglia.

The inhabitants of Wildenbrook Castle are supposedly under a legendary curse where every hundred years a bad sister murders the good sister and several others. Speculation about this curse was started by a very old painting depicting a "red queen" murdering another queen dressed in black. When their grandfather dies, it precipitates a series of vicious murders centering around three sisters: Kitty (Barbara Bouchet of Casino Royale), Franziska (Marina Malfatti), and Evelyn, who has supposedly gone to America. We learn early on that Evelyn is dead, but who is that who is dressing up like the Red Queen and killing people she encounters, especially those associated with a fashion house where Kitty works? A police inspector (Marino Mase) works the case and his suspects include Martin (Ugo Paglial), who takes over when the original managing director is stabbed to death; model Lulu (Sybil Danning); Martin's crazy wife, Elizabeth (Carla Mancini); and others. A couple of the murders are fairly inventive, but the picture has no style whatsoever, although it does have some suspense and holds the attention if you're in the mood for a second-rate giallo. An Italian-West German co-production. Miraglia also directed The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, which was better.

Verdict: Beware those cackling queens! **1/2.

THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS

Franco Agostini and Giampiero Albertino
THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (aka Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?/1972). Director: Giuliano Carnimeo (Anthony Ascott).

A performer named Mizar (Carla Brait) finds a woman's body in the elevator of her building. Not much later Mizar herself is forcibly drowned in her apartment's bathtub by an unseen killer. In spite of this Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and her friend, Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), move into the murdered woman's flat. One of the chief suspects for the murders is Andrea Barto (George Hilton), who is manager for this and other apartment houses. Jennifer is befriended by a neighbor named Sheila (Annabella Incontrera), who lives with her elderly father, a violinist (George Riguad). (It is made clear that Sheila is a lesbian who is attracted to Jennifer, but she is not exactly "predatory" as she has been described in write-ups of the film.) The masked killer breaks into Jennifer and Marilyn's apartment, but doesn't manage to kill them just yet. Most sensible people would move out of the apartment as fast as possible, but Jennifer needs to stay there so that the rest of the plot can be played out. The Case of the Bloody Iris holds the attention, but the murders will not be gruesome enough for some viewers. Fenech [The Sins of Madame Bovary] has a mostly European following, and seems competent enough as Jennifer, although Gampiero Albertino and Franco Agostini perhaps offer more flavorful performances as Police Commissioner Enci and his assistant, Redi.

Verdict: Acceptable giallo film, **1/2.


THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT

Shirley Corrigan and Anthony Steffen
THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT (aka Sette scialli di seta gialla/1972). Director: Sergio Pastore.

Blind musician Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave) overhears what appears to be a murder plot while in a restaurant. A drug-addicted woman, Susan (Giovanna Lenzi), is being forced to participate in several murders that are very cleverly achieved. With the help of his major domo, Burton (Umberto Raho of That Man in Istanbul) and lady friend, Margo (Shirley Corrigan), Peter tries to trace Susan's trail and uncover who is behind the murders. Other characters include Francoise (Sylva Koscina of Deadlier Than the Male), who runs a modeling agency; her lover, Victor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart); the blackmailing Helga (Annabella Incontrera); and her lover, Wendy (Liliana Pavlo). There is a harrowing sequence when Peter is lured onto a roof with gaping holes in it, and a rather disgusting, overly gross lady-gets-slashed-in-the-shower sequence that is out of sync with the rest of the movie. The Crimes of the Black Cat holds the attention and has interesting aspects, but it hasn't much style. Anthony Steffen appears to have been dubbed by Edmund Purdom.

Verdict: Reasonably absorbing giallo film. **1/2.

SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS

SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS (aka Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso/1972). Director: Umberto Lenzi.

Someone is murdering women in grisly ways and leaving behind half-moon shaped medallions. When Giulia (Uschi Glas) nearly becomes the next victim on her honeymoon, the police decide to let everyone but her new husband, Mario (Antonio Sabato), think she's dead. Assuming she will be safe enough, Mario embarks on his own investigation after Guilia tells him she first saw the half-moon medallion with an American man at a hotel she then owned. The killings continue as Mario tracks down a heroin addict named Barrett (Bruno Corazzari) who thinks he can identify the American. But every lead only seems to cause frustration. Inspector Vismara (Pier Paolo Capponi) thinks he's found the killer, but the true murderer is only revealed at the climax. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is quite entertaining, with some gruesome if not too repulsive murder sequences, one involving a power drill that reminds one more of the American slasher films that would follow. Umberto Lenzi also directed the very weird Spasmo. If you're hoping to see something stylish like a Dario Argento film, you'll be disappointed, but at least the movie doesn't bore.

Verdict: Enjoyable minor giallo. **1/2.

THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW

Craig Hill and Lino Capolicchio
THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (aka Solamente nero/1978). Director: Antonio Bido.

Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) comes to Venice to visit his brother, the priest Don Paolo (Craig Hill), who lives in a small town on an island near the city. Haunted by an incident where a young woman was murdered years ago, Stefamo's memories are awakened by a series of new murders. Stefano begins an relationship with Sandra (Stefania Casini of Suspiria), whose own stepmother (Laura Nucci) becomes one of the victims of a fiendish killer. The Bloodstained Shadow is a reasonably intriguing Italian thriller/giallo film whose murders are not quite as gory as in similar films, but we do have the sequence when a woman's head is thrust into a fireplace and is engulfed in flames. Other characters, suspects, and victims include a midwife, Signora Nardi (Juliette Maynial); Count Pedrazzi (Massimo Serato), a music teacher whom Don Paolo accuses of fiddling with his young male students (a sequence which given recent events in the Catholic church may raise some eyebrows); and  Dr. Aloisi (Sergio Mioni), among others. After a few red herrings and twists, a satisfying conclusion unmasks the killer and also provides a mostly believable motivation. The film's production is greatly enhanced by location filming and the brooding shots of mysterious Venice and environs. Craig Hill [Detective Story] was a B movie leading man and TV performer in the fifties and sixties who later did much work in Italy. Juliette Maynial was most famous for Eyes Without a Face

Verdict: Has its flaws, and it's not especially stylish, but it's one of the better giallo films. ***. 

A BLADE IN THE DARK

Anny Papa and Andrea Occhipinti
A BLADE IN THE DARK aka La casa con la scala nel buoi/1983). Director: Lamberto Bava.

Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) is working on a score for a horror film directed by Sandra (Anny Papa). His friend, Tony (Michele Soavi), lets him stay in a large and beautiful villa that he manages, and Bruno quickly encounters two women, Katia (Valeria Cavalli) and Angela (Fabiola Toledo), both of whom are horribly murdered on the estate. Bruno also has a girlfriend named Julia (Lara Lamberti), about whom he becomes suspicious. Investigating, Bruno discovers that their deaths may have something to do with the picture that Sandra is working on. A Blade in the Dark boasts a highly tense and suspenseful approach, although most viewers will see the ending a mile away. The murder sequences are sadistic and gruesome. The music by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis is very reminiscent-- in fact, downright imitative --  of the scores by Goblin for such Dario Argento films as Deep Red. A Blade in the Dark imitates Argento's films with its half giggling-half crying maniac and the convoluted plotline, but it's not in the same league as that director's work. Nevertheless, Bava, the son of Mario Bava, manages to hold the viewer's attention and keep him riveted during key sequences. In this picture, at least, Bava is clearly influenced by his father, Argento, and even Brian De Palma. Actor Michele Soavi also directed horror films such as Stagefright (1987).

Verdict: Real creepy movie with several very bloody sequences. ***.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

THE YOUNG DOCTORS

Ben Gazzara and Fredric March
THE YOUNG DOCTORS (1961). Director: Phil Karlson.

Dr. Joseph Pearson (Fredric March) is an experienced pathologist who finds himself with a new, younger colleague, Dr. David Coleman (Ben Gazzara). David sees a lot that's wrong with the operation in the hospital, but Pearson tells him that he has tried to do the things he suggests but is always told it costs too much money. Experienced, but hopelessly set in his ways, Joseph scoffs at the thought of a certain blood test for a pregnant woman that David feels is crucial, and he prevents the test from being made. Even as this is going on, David discovers that a nurse he is falling for, Cathy (Ina Balin) may face the loss of a leg due to bone cancer. While some of the medical information in The Young Doctors has to be taken with a grain of salt due to advances in medicine over the past fifty years, the picture works on an emotional and dramatic level and is not just a schlocky soap opera like many of the subsequent doctor movies that were made afterward. March is excellent, although he perhaps makes some odd choices in how he plays some of the final sequences. Gazzara [A Rage to Live] is also quite good, although he's never what you could call a charm boy in his romantic scenes, but Ina Balin [The Patsy] is as lovely and efficient as ever as nurse Cathy. Another fine performance is from Eddie Albert, doing some of the best work of his career as another doctor, particularly in a tense, beautifully-done sequence when he  operates on a baby that nearly dies. There's also surprisingly good work from Dick Clark as yet another doctor who is the father of said baby, and Aline MacMahon [Babbitt] scores as Dr. Lucy Grainger, who ministers to Cathy. Elmer Bernstein has contributed a nice score as well. Based on "The Final Diagnosis" by Arthur Hailey. The same year that this popular film was released came the debut of two famous TV medical dramas, Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.

Verdict: Very absorbing drama with several expert performances and decided emotional impact. ***1/2.

LOOKER

Albert Finney and Susan Dey
LOOKER (1981). Written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Cosmetic surgeon Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) does work on several beautiful women who obsess over certain "imperfections." You would think that he would wonder where these women got the exact-to-the-centimeter measurements of their alleged flaws, but Roberts only worries about it after they start being murdered. The murders are traced back to a sinister TV test group, Digital Matrix -- although it is never really explained why the women are murdered -- who plan to use computer-generated images to replace real people not just in commercials but in political ads -- or something like that. They have also invented a gun that freezes people in their tracks so to them it appears as if time has passed by without their being aware of it. While the technological stuff is not without interest  -- although by now it's rather dated -- Looker is still an astonishingly dull movie despite all the running around. There's one decent, fairly suspenseful scene in which Larry and his surviving patient, Cindy (Susan Dey), break into a lab, but the chase sequences which make up most of the movie aren't that exciting and Finney [Shoot the Moon] looks ridiculous playing action hero, especially when he dresses up like a cop  -- he's wasted in the movie anyway. Dey is appealing enough, and James Coburn and Leigh Taylor-Long are appropriately reptilian as the couple who run Digital Matrix, but -- typical for Crichton -- they aren't given actual characters to play. Darryl Hickman [The Tingler] plays Larry's associate, Jim, and looks good with a beard. Michael Crichton's attempt to have himself another hit like Westworld didn't work this time. Some of the pretty women who play Larry's patients can't act to save their lives -- literally.

Verdict: Not worth a "look." *1/2.

MARCELLO MASTROIANNI: HIS LIFE AND ART

MARCELLO MASTROIANNI: HIS LIFE AND ART. Donald Dewey. Birch Lane/Carol; 1993.

In this absorbing and well-written bio and career study of the actor, there are few first-person interviews, but Dewey makes up for this with an intensive look at Mastroianni's work and its context in the changing political and sexual landscape of Italy. Like many actors, it comes across that there wasn't much to Mastroianni beyond being an actor, but considering his talent and achievements that's more than enough. Mastroianni's often conflicting opinions on movies, the thespian profession, women, co-stars, politics and religion are prodigiously quoted (often too much so), but it is made clear that the actor had little use for the religious dogma of, say, Italian censors. Mastroianni was married to the same woman for many years but had numerous affairs, most famously with Catherine Deneuve. The book also goes into his work and relationships with such famous directors as Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio de Sica, Mastroianni hated being seen as the Latin Lover, but he happened to be quite good-looking and that was that. It's interesting that the actor became internationally famous despite the fact that he only appeared in one full-fledged American production, and -- frustratingly -- most of his films are unseen and unavailable in the U.S. However, his fine work in such films as La dolce vita and Le Notti bianchi are evidenced on DVD. It's strange that the photos of the actor used for the front and back covers are not flattering. Mastroianni died at 72 three years after this book was published.

Verdict: Exhaustive look at a fine Italian actor. ***1/2.

THE HAT BOX MYSTERY

Allen Jenkins, Virginia Sale, Pamela Blake, Tom Neal
THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947). Director: Lambert Hillyer.

Russ Ashton (Tom Neal of Detour) isn't doing too well as a private investigator, but he has an assistant-fiancee named Susan (Pamela Blake of Highway 13) and another associate named 'Harvard" (Allen Jenkins). The three of them are kept in hamburgers by Harvard's restaurant-owning girlfriend, Veronica (Virginia Sale of Those We Love), who also loans Russ money to go to Washington on a case. Meanwhile Susan takes an assignment herself, to photograph a straying wife as she exits a building for her husband (Leonard Penn) to use in a divorce case. The husband supposedly conceals a camera in a hat box for Susan to use, but she winds up shooting the woman for real -- as it's actually a gun that is hidden in the hat box! Susan finds herself in pretty hot water with the police, while the "husband" disappears ... The Hat Box Mystery is mediocre filler with a mystery that poses no threat to Agatha Christie but it does benefit from the enthusiastic playing of the main quartet of actors -- Sale is especially appealing in this.

Verdict: At least it's only 44 minutes long! **.

DOUBLE DEAL

Richard Denning and Marie Windsor
DOUBLE DEAL (1950). Director: Abby Berlin.

Buzz Doyle (Richard Denning), a new arrival in town, almost immediately winds up embroiled with two warring women. Terry (Marie Windsor) wants Buzz to work with her and her friend Reno (Carleton Young) on an oil well that she hopes will turn into a gusher. Meanwhile, Reno's sister, Lily (Fay Baker), who hates her brother because she feels he was responsible for her lover's death, tries to lure Buzz over to her side and work against the others. Then there's a murder or two, and the surprise unveiling of the killer. Double Deal is distinctly minor, but it features some likable players, and there's especially zesty work from Baker [The Star], Taylor Holmes [Caged] as the drunken if helpful, "Corpus" and James Griffith [The Amazing Transparent Man] as the slimy Walter Karnes, Lily's plaything. Thomas Browne Henry plays the cop on the case.

Verdict: Ho hum meller that doesn't even have a decent "cat fight" between the ladies. **.

SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS

Barbara Bach and Jean Sorel
SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (aka La corta notte delle bambole di vetro/1971). Director: Aldo Lado.

In Prague  journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) discovers that his fiancee, Mira (Barbara Bach of The Spy Who Loved Me), has gone missing. He enlists the aid of his boss, Jessica (Ingrid Thulin), who also has a yen for the handsome reporter. The police seem to think Mira has simply gone off on her own despite the fact that her clothing and possessions are still in her apartment. Most of the story is told in flashback from the bizarre pov of Moore, who is supposedly found dead and put in a morgue, where we can hear his thoughts but he is unable to communicate that he is still alive. (This is reminiscent of a famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode with Joseph Cotten.) That is really the only interesting element of this dull and confusing movie that features an inexplicable scene when Moore's friends come to witness his ... well, that would be telling. Sorel [Sandra] and Thulin [Cries and Whispers] both deserved much better assignments than crap like this. Ennio Morricone's eerie musical score is much better than the picture deserves. You have to see the orgy of elderly nudists to believe it! This could have used some gruesome murder scenes. An Italian-West German-Yugoslavian co-production, which tells you something.

Verdict: A real stink bomb. *1/2.

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Lawyer and client: Brooke Shields and Scott Glenn
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (2005 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Armand Mastroianni.

Defense attorney Betsy Tannenbaum (Brooke Shields of Communion) receives a large retainer from wealthy developer Martin Darius (Scott Glenn), who tells her he may at sometime be needing her services. He sure does -- when he's arrested for the serial murders of several women. Prosecutor Alan Page (Lou Diamond Phillips) is contacted by a lady cop named Nancy Gordon (Marilu Henner) who tells him that Darius, under another name,  managed to get away with several murders in another town ten years earlier -- his own wife and child were among the victims. Apparently there was a cover up in the other case, and Betsy must not only learn what happened a decade earlier, but figure out if her client is guilty of these new murders as well as the older ones. Based on an absorbing bestseller by Phillip Margolin, Gone But Not Forgotten is a suspenseful and entertaining telefilm, and the satisfying ending actually improves upon the novel. Shields makes a more than capable leading lady. Glenn underplays a bit too much to come off like the dynamic figure of the book, but the other performances are good, especially Robin Riker in the supporting role of a reporter doing a story on Betsy. Mastroianni also directed Grave Misconduct.

Verdict: Creepy cable movie with interesting, if far-fetched, twists. ***.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

WILD AND WOOLLY WOODY ALLEN

Two faces of Woody Allen


WILD AND WOOLLY WOODY ALLEN.

Woody Allen turns eighty-one on December 1st, 2017.

Love 'im or hate 'im, he has been an influential filmmaker for many years, and has come out with a great many movies, some wonderful, some awful, some in-between. He has had an interesting, some would say scandalous, personal life, mostly centered around his relationship with significant other Mia Farrow (who he was not married to), and her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

Whatever one's thoughts about that bizarre triangle, this week Great Old Movies looks at a slew of Woody Allen movies, from near-masterpieces like Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo to stink bombs like Stardust Memories to the merely mediocre like Bullets Over Broadway and Zelig. We also look at a recent biography of the man.

Whatever his flaws as a man and a filmmaker, Woody Allan was rarely if ever boring.

You can read posts of Allen's films that have been reviewed on this blog in previous months by using the search bar above.

STARDUST MEMORIES

Woody Allen realizes what a lousy picture he's made
STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), a Woody Allen-clone, goes to a retrospective of his work at the Stardust Hotel and encounters manic fans while he contemplates his past and several of the women he has loved or wants to love. These include actress Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling of 45 Years); French Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault of Swann in Love), who wants to marry him; and Daisy (Jessica Harper of Suspiria), a violinist with issues. Stardust Memories is Allen working in a Fellini-esque mode (with a bit of Bergman thrown in) and coming up so short that it's laughable. Not only is Allen no Fellini, but Stardust Memories is a rarity among Allen films -- it's criminally boring. There's no real plot to the movie -- and while there are the usual stand-up quips and interesting observations -- the dream sequences are tiresome and the real-life sequences aren't much better. There's limited fun in picking out which actor is playing which real-life person in Allen's life. If Allen thinks that peopling his movie with interesting faces will turn him into Fellini, he's sadly mistaken. Not only is this possibly the worst of Allen's films, it's one of the worst movies ever made. A self-indulgent mess.

Verdict: A tedious embarrassment for all concerned. *.

ZELIG

Zelig is examined by doctors
ZELIG (1983). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"[Freud] and I broke up over penis envy. He thought it should be limited to women. -- Zelig.

This fake documentary looks at the life of weird Leonard Zelig, who takes on not only the personality of whoever he's with but even the physical appearance, becoming fat if he's with an obese person, and turning into a "Negro" if he's with a black man, and so on. Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) becomes his chief doctor and eventually begins a relationship with him, but just when he seems cured, it turns out that he's been rather busy while he was in other personalities, and the public affection for him begins to disappear ... Zelig is too long even at just 80 minutes, as we're asked to enjoy this stunt movie long after the basic premise has been sufficiently explored. The film mixes actual file footage with recreated 1920's scenes or cleverly inserts Allen into real-life newsreels. As usual, there are some funny lines and good performances, and there are those who will claim this is a masterpiece, but to me the movie is distinctly minor.

Verdict: Woody Allen's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. **1/2.

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE

Woody Allen as Danny Rose
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

A group of well-known comics sit around and talk about the past, and one of them (Sandy Baron) tells a long story about the theatrical agent, Danny Rose (Woody Allen), which comprises most of the film. Danny is a struggling agent who is now pinning his hopes on one client, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who had one hit record in the fifties and has been trying to make a comeback ever since. Things are finally going Lou's way, thanks to Danny, but there are complications. The very much married Lou has fallen in love with his mistress, Tina (Mia Farrow), and Tina is coveted by another man whose gangster brothers mistake Danny for her boyfriend. But there's an even worse betrayal in store for Danny. Broadway Danny Rose is one of Allen's best films, in which he portrays one of his most sympathetic characters, a decent man who cares perhaps more about his clients than he should and has a good heart. Mia Farrow and Forte are also right on the money in their portrayals of a hard-boiled woman who develops a conscience, and a vain man who gets a second chance and to Hell with everyone else. Allen's use of gangsters in his movies can be, as I've noted, tiresome, but that doesn't seem to be a problem in this picture. There are numerous fine supporting performances in the movie, but I especially liked Herb Reynolds as Barney Dunn, one of the world's worst ventriloquists. This was Forte's first and only film (he also had two television appearances, playing himself on Billions) and he's quite good -- he was basically a lounge singer and piano player when he was discovered by Allen; like Lou, he had one recording yeas in the past.

Verdict: A lovely movie. ***1/2.

THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO

Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"In New Jersey, anything can happen."

In a dreary small town in 1935, Cecelia (Mia Farrow) has an unhappy marriage with the often out-of-work Monk (Danny Aiello of City Hall). Cecelia seeks refuge in the movies, where she especially loves a film called The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the lead character, Tom Baxter, played by actor Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels). In an astonishing turn of events, "Tom Baxter" walks right off the screen and into the real world, leaving the other actors/characters in the movie standing around wringing their hands. "How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he leaves the movie just to meet her," muses Tom. Just as Cecelia, who begins a romance with the charming Tom, is trying to make sense of all this, the real Gil Shepherd, who has heard what's happened, shows up in town ... This movie and its look at how influential movies can be on real life and the necessary escape they offer may not work for everyone, but I found it charming, absorbing, and ultimately moving. The actors offer sensitive and dead-on portrayals. Van Johnson, Edward Herrmann, Zoe Cladwell, and Milo O'Shea, among others, appear in the film-within-a-film.

Verdict: Not perfect perhaps, but it remains one of Allen's most likable movies. ***.

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

Farrow, Hershey, and Weist
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"I particularly love the mother, just a boozy old flirt with a filthy mouth." --Hannah's mother basically talking about herself.

Hannah (Mia Farrow) has a happy life with her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). but she's unaware that he has fallen in love with her free-spirited sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey of Black Swan). As Lee and Elliot begin a guilt-wracked affair, Hannah's other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), a struggling actress, starts a catering business with her friend, April (Carrie Fisher), and the two both fall for married architect, David (Sam Waterston). Hannah's ex-husband, Mickey (Woody Allen) is drawn to Holly years after they had a disastrous first date. Like most of Allen'\s films, Hannah and Her Sisters is quite entertaining, with some fine acting from virtually the entire cast, but Allen himself -- who comes off like a stand-up comic sprouting lines, many of which are admittedly amusing -- doesn't really fit that neatly into the picture. I\m not sufficiently interested in exploring Allen's psyche to delve into any so-called deep meanings in his movies, but Hannah is engaging enough but no real masterpiece, despite its popularity. The business with Mickey thinking he may have a brain tumor is tasteless. As usual, many of the characters, admirably cultured, do what's expedient, not necessarily what's right. Max von Sydow shows up briefly as an older man that Lee discards once things heat up with Elliot, and Maureen O'Sullivan [Tarzan Escapes], Mia Farrow's mother in real life, plays Hannah's mother, with Lloyd Nolan [Portrait in Black] as her husband. Julie Kavner, who has a small role as a co-worker of Mickey's, does the same tiresome shtick she's been doing since she played Rhoda's sister on TV.

Verdict: Interesting and fun, but also kind of minor all told. **1/2.


BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

Dianne Weist and the ensemble 
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994). Director/co-writer: Woody Allen.

"I just pity any poor folk who have to pay to see this play."

In order to get his play mounted on Broadway, David Shayne (John Cusack of City Hall) allows in an inappropriate cast member, Olive (Jennifer Tilly of Seed of Chucky), because her mobster boyfriend, Nick (Joe Viterelli), decides to back the show. Nick assigns a bodyguard to Olive, a hit man named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who starts making impromptu critiques of the play .. only his criticisms are valid. Before long it's a question of who is the true artist behind the show. But what can one do about the screeching and awful Olive? Woody Allen does not appear in Bullets Over Broadway -- which is a plus or minus depending on how you look at it -- and it's another of Allen's pastiche films inspired by superior forties movies with a "modern"-type sensibility. It's another in a long line of movies that present sympathetic hit men, for one thing, while also showing him committing several murders. The movie takes place during the roaring twenties but it doesn't have much period atmosphere. Dianne Wiest won a supporting actress Oscar for her role of the diva Helen Sinclair, but while she is good, it's hard not to notice that she's simply trading off of decades of previous actresses who have played affected, breathless theater and movie stars; nothing new here. John Cusack is fine, although this is an actor who through no fault of his own is just hopelessly bland no matter what he's in. Tracey Ullman [Into the Woods] has a nice turn as an ever-laughing cast member who always carries her little dog with her, and Jack Warden is good as David's agent, but no one else is especially impressive, except perhaps Annie Joe Edwards, who is snappy as Olive's maid, Venus, but whom Allen doesn't allow to become a character in her own right. The movie is fairly entertaining and has some good twists and humor, but it's also kind of stupid, with the whole notion of a sensitive, artistic hit man being a little too precious for this critic to swallow. Allen may have been thinking of himself when he has Rob Reiner say "An artist creates his own moral universe." For those who hate Jennifer Tilly's voice and think she's a freak of nature, you'll especially enjoy one scene that comes late in the movie. To be fair, Tilly's performance is good even if she herself is a little flesh-crawling.

Verdict: The actors seem to be having more fun than the audience. **1/2.

CAFE SOCIETY

Jesse Eisenberg
CAFE SOCIETY (2016). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"First a murderer, then a Christian -- what did I do to deserve this?" -- Rose.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from Brooklyn to try his luck in 1930's Los Angeles, where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent. Bobby becomes friends with Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), unaware that she is his uncle's mistress. Later Bobby opens up a New York nightclub with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll of Dark Places). But can Bobby outrun his heart and Ben the law? Cafe Society is a pleasant Woody Allen movie without Allen in the cast. Wisely recognizing that he could no longer play the naive young man starting out in life, Allen cast appealing Jesse Eisenberg as his surrogate, and it was a smart choice. You can just hear Allen saying the dialogue in his inimitable way as we watch Eisenberg play his part, and play it well, although the better-looking man plays the real, shrewd Allen more than his usual nebbish on-screen persona -- another wise choice. The gangster stuff is as tiresome as it generally is in Allen's movies, but there are some fine performances, especially from Jeanne Berlin {The Heartbreak Kid] as Mother Rose and Ken Stott as her husband. The picture is handsomely produced, with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography especially breath-taking. Cafe Society is a nice enough picture, but it's still a minor effort with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion and a protagonist who can be annoying at times. The cast-off spouse of one character is completely forgotten, which is pretty typical of Allen since his split from Mia Farrow and even before. Eisenberg is certainly better in this than he was in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Storaro\s exquisite work was also seen in such films as Exorcist: The Beginning.

Verdict: Great to look at, with a highly pleasant lead actor, but no great shakes when all is said and done. **1/2.