With “My Annie Hall,” New York Seniors Remake Woody Allen

A tight shot of a bespectacled man in a tan suit appears on the screen. “The other important joke for me is one that’s, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s wit and its relation to the unconscious,” he says. “And it goes like this — well, I’m paraphrasing: ‘I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ ”

Most viewers will recognize the bit from the 1977 classic Annie Hall, but the speaker is not Woody Allen, that film’s writer-director and star. Rather, the face on the screen belongs to Harry Miller, a 94-year-old Manhattanite, and the film is My Annie Hall, a thirty-minute remake of the Seventies original that has a very unique twist — it stars a cast of New York City seniors in their seventies through nineties, and this Wednesday, August 15, it is having its very first public screening at the Strand.

My Annie Hall is the brainchild of Matt Starr and Ellie Sachs. A native of New Jersey, Starr is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans from the comical to the political — among his other performance projects is Amazon Boy, an experimental delivery program for Amazon. Sachs, a born-and-raised New Yorker, has a background in theater, producing, and directing. She has facilitated improv workshops at maximum security prisons and just last year starred in Sing Sing’s production of On the Waterfront. In addition to My Annie Hall, Sachs and Starr also recently partnered on the Museum of Banned Objects in collaboration with Planned Parenthood, which opened at the Ace Hotel earlier this year. The exhibit imagined a dystopian world where contraceptive and reproductive health products are banned.

The Annie Hall project was inspired by Starr’s grandmother and her struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I was out to lunch with my grandma [a few years ago] and she kept asking me the same questions over and over — the conversation became cyclical,” he explains. “It was really sad. I wanted to come up with a more creative way for us to communicate that broke that cycle. When we got back to the house, I put on Casablanca, thinking it would be nice to watch something from her younger years. While we were watching, she began reciting the lines of one of the characters and then I began reciting the lines of the role opposite her.”

Directors Matt Starr and Ellie Sachs, on location with their star, Harry Miller

This became their new form of communication, and when Starr returned to New York City from visiting his grandmother in Ohio, he knew he wanted to replicate this concept on a larger scale. Enter Sachs: “I met Ellie, who has a background in directing theater with diverse communities, and told her the nucleus of the idea, but no idea of what to do with it.”

“I’m really interested in representation, and who gets to tell what stories,” says Sachs. “I’ve directed theater in low-income housing, schools, prisons, and juvenile detention centers — this is another population that is either frequently silenced and, in particular, is often trivialized. When we see older adults in movies or on TV, they’re usually just a joke or a small part.”

The two got to work right away, visiting the city’s senior centers to pitch the idea. After a series of rejections, they finally got a bite from Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. “We were lucky,” says Sachs. “Jessica Balboni and Rebecca Sullivan, who run the center and the arts programs, are fantastic, smart, and love embracing wacky, outside-of-the-box ideas.”

Sachs and Starr billed the project as a weekly “Interpretive Film Class,” explaining to their students that, ultimately, they would all be shooting a film — one that would be its own entity. Classroom time was spent auditioning the actors, building relationships, and workshopping the script. The film crew would be composed of volunteers, with postproduction costs covered by funds raised through an Indiegogo campaign. All the pieces were in place but one: the classic movie they’d be re-creating. Starr and Sachs gave the class a list of ten films to vote on. The final tally came down to Singin’ in the Rain and Annie Hall. Somewhat sensibly, the seniors decided the latter would be more feasible, all things considered.

For several months the volunteer film crew and a cast of twenty or so seniors shot all around the city, capturing some of Annie Hall’s most iconic moments. There are Alvy and Annie on the tennis courts; that iconic opening monologue staged against a beige backdrop; the jazz club where Annie softly sings “Seems Like Old Times”; and the split-screen his-and-hers therapy sessions. The crew even managed to replicate the famous lobster fiasco. The directors tried their best to film at the same locations Allen and company did. “At one point while we were shooting a couple came up and said they remember when the original Annie Hall was filming in that exact spot,” says Sachs.

Annie meets Alvie, redux


Of course, the whole thing could have collapsed without the suitable talent in front of the camera. The casting process was an intense, multiround affair, featuring different configurations of actors in the hunt for that Woody Allen–Diane Keaton alchemy. Stepping into Allen’s tennis shoes as Alvy Singer was the aforementioned Harry Miller, a tap dancer and two-time Emmy-winning set designer for Captain Kangaroo and Guiding Light. The role of Annie was taken by Shula Chernick, a 73-year-old dynamo who can speak and sing in nine languages and actually used to work at a senior recreation center herself.

In December 2017, after months of shooting, the film debuted with two private screenings at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. A packed house of elderly people and young creatives alike filled the auditorium — some who may have seen Annie Hall on the big screen during its original release, some who may have watched Annie Hall for the first time on Netflix.

“It’s the quintessential love story,” says Sachs of the film’s appeal. “It’s messy, warm, affectionate, funny, and very bittersweet.  And love doesn’t have an age — it doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to any person on this planet at any point in their lives. I also love the film’s inventiveness in terms of structure — Annie Hall is a memory movie, told out of order. I think the structure is especially salient in regards to our actors; a lot of them are looking back on their lives and thinking of the most prominent and important memories.”

Harry Miller as Alvie Singer, and Shula Chernick as Annie Hall

In a world where so much emphasis is put on youth, My Annie Hall is more than just a remake; it sends a message that, yes, there is life beyond your forties and fifties and sixties. Heck, there’s plenty of life to live even in your nineties, if you play your cards right.

“I think we live in one of the most ageist societies — people are so fixated on youth and beauty,” says Sachs. “And youth and beauty become conflated with relevance in our culture, which is a real shame. Society, and people, benefit greatly from having friends at different ages. We are given the gift of perspective when we hang out with people outside of our age bracket. Even before doing this project, some of my closest friends and the people I enjoy hanging out with most are my parents and their friends. I think it’s weird that’s not more of a thing, but hopefully that can change. Loneliness, aging, and separation between age groups is a common thing, but other countries are actually addressing it.”

“I want people to be inspired to get more creatively involved with their senior communities,” says Starr. “They need us as much as we need them.”


New York Plays Itself: Touring the City’s Celluloid History

If you squint hard enough at the Museum of Arts and Design, you can almost make out the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering up Broadway, across Columbus Circle, toward Central Park West. At least, that’s how it felt on the TCM Classic Film Tour. Over three hours, across a route spanning the Upper West Side through the park to the East River, this journey by bus past the cinematic landmarks of New York City references more than a hundred movies (Ghostbusters among them), dating from 1898 to 1998.

New York City, the birthplace of the American film industry (OK, along with New Jersey), is a massive, if unintentional, pop culture time capsule. Location scout Nick Carr’s blog Scouting New York appraises every nook and cranny and bodega of the city with an artist’s eye, documenting in photographs how famous film locations have changed throughout the years. And, unsurprisingly, there’s a thriving breed of tourism specifically devoted to pilgrimages to TV and movie sites, whatever your taste: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Seinfeld, superheroes, Real Housewives, or — if you don’t mind traveling beyond the Lincoln Tunnel, to the hinterlands of the Garden State — The Sopranos. This TCM-flavored expedition, offered through On Location Tours, specifically limits its purview to classic films shot in Manhattan.

TCM bus tour
John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow outside the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Actor and producer Sarah Louise Lilley served as tour guide on a recent Sunday morning. Lilley, who moved to the United States from England as a teenager, speaks with the slightest glimmer of a British accent — which, as she enthusiastically expounds on movie legends of yore, it’s easy to reimagine as a Katherine Hepburn mid-Atlantic lilt. (I’m not sure if this effect would hold true on On Location’s Sex and the City Hotspots tour, which Lilley has also hosted.) At times, there was an almost virtual reality–like quality to the experience, when Lilley’s commentary and film clips, cued up to play on overhead monitors when we passed the real-life locations within them, transformed the present-day city seen from the bus windows into a long-lost version of itself. As we passed through Columbus Circle, we saw a tour bus packed with bumbling out-of-towners in 1950’s Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, the political rally in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle plots to assassinate a senator, and the apartment building where Lois Lane resides in Superman. A little farther north, the Dakota’s facade had recently been cleaned, looking much less dark and foreboding than it did in Rosemary’s Baby. Had Lilley not pointed it out, the subway grate at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously posed in The Seven Year Itch could have been any one of the city’s thousands and thousands more just like it, unglamorously trod on every day by locals and visitors alike. I wasn’t the only New Yorker on my particular tour, which also hosted a family of tourists from South Africa. Lilley and her fellow TCM guide Jason Silverman report attracting movie fans of all ages, from newborns up to Lilley’s own grandmother, then ninety-six. “I’ve had kids who were ten years old completely clean up in the trivia contest,” says Silverman.

TCM bus tour
Marilyn on 52nd and Lexington, in Billy Wilder;s The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Lilley and Silverman, residents of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, respectively, have been guides for TCM since this tour was first offered in 2013. (The tour’s blueprint has largely remained the same in that time, although movie-related news and anniversaries bring certain films and their associated landmarks to the forefront.) On January 30 at 8 p.m., they’ll appear on the Turner Classic Movies network to introduce four perennial New York–centric favorites: King Kong, The Producers, On the Town, and North by Northwest. As a lifelong movie buff, Lilley calls the experience of shooting with host Ben Mankiewicz a “dream come true.” Lilley, whose acting credits include The Mysteries of Laura, was “indoctrinated” into loving classic film by her father. She suffered from colic as an infant, and he discovered that the only way to stop her screaming was to pace back and forth with his daughter on his shoulder, old movies playing on the television. “He said by the time I was three months old, I’d seen Casablanca hundreds of times,” Lilley recalls. Silverman’s cinematic education began only a little later. “At the age of six, instead of watching whatever the latest cartoon was, my family was like, ‘Great, it’s time to watch Gone With the Wind,’ ” says the Chicago-native actor, seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as a quaalude-buying teenager. “I remember distinctly at the age of ten, on holiday break in Florida, my father sat me down and showed me The Godfather.”

The Ansonia (Three Days of the Condor, The Sunshine Boys, and Single White Female), once an opulent residential hotel that kept dairy cows on its roof to provide fresh milk for guests, casts its regal gaze onto Verdi Square, a triangle of green space bound by 72nd and 73rd streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue. This was once known as Needle Park, the title location for the Joan Didion–scripted, Al Pacino–starring heroin drama The Panic in Needle Park. “All those movies in the Seventies showed a really dark, dangerous side of New York City, and that’s so different than the happy little farmers’ market area that is there now. I love those stops that really give you windows back in time and spark your imagination,” Lilley says.

TCM bus tour
Al Pacino (center) in The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

We took in Lincoln Center’s Revson Fountain, immortalized by The Producers and Moonstruck. Then the TVs on the bus played a dancing sequence from West Side Story (soon to be remade by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner), set among the soon-to-be-demolished tenements of San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that stood on the site of Lincoln Center’s campus until Robert Moses had other ideas. In most locations, the particular businesses that populated films’ famous shots are long gone, made ghosts by Manhattan’s breakneck pace of renovation and gentrification. You can still recognize the buildings by their bones, even if the Vitamin Shoppe and the now-shuttered Rita’s Italian Ice that currently stand at Broadway and 92nd Street didn’t themselves make cameos in Hannah and Her Sisters. The most recent movie featured on the tour is You’ve Got Mail, most of which was shot within several blocks of the Upper West Side. The children’s book store owned by Meg Ryan’s character was then Maya Schaper Cheese and Antiques on West 69th Street but is today a humble dry cleaner. The owner only learned his business had a Hollywood pedigree when the tour bus began stopping outside. Now, Lilley reports, he sells You’ve Got Mail DVDs on site. The tour doesn’t go south of the Empire State Building, or else Katz’s Deli, the site of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally…, would surely make an appearance too.

Silverman typically takes charge of the Saturday tours and Lilley the Thursday ones, during which the streets are generally far most congested than on weekends. “When we hit traffic, it’s like a double-edged sword for me,” Lilley says. “I feel bad we’re running behind, but at the same time, now I can really talk at length about all these movies.” On any day, the most likely logistical challenge the duo faces is the city’s unpredictable road closures, but they can always adapt. “The worst possible circumstance for a classic movie tour is if the DVD player doesn’t work, and that’s only happened to me, knock on wood, once,” Silverman explains. (It made for a “unique” tour.)

Both Lilley and Silverman cited Sutton Place Park as their favorite movie landmark on the tour, a tiny, peaceful lookout onto the East River with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge. “We’ve taken so many New Yorkers on the tour that have never been there before. It’s so cinematic. I feel like I’ve taken numerous people’s holiday card photos there,” Lilley says. She isn’t kidding — nearly every person on my bus waited patiently for her to snap their picture.

TCM bus tour
Manhattan (1979) with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Sutton Place is the swanky, townhouse-lined neighborhood that lies just south of the bridge. “The history of New York and the history of film is beautifully interwoven there,” Lilley says. In the early-twentieth century, the same stretch of East River waterfront was home to not only luxurious apartments with views to match, but poverty-stricken tenements and the gangs who inhabited them, as depicted onscreen in 1937’s Dead End. By 1953, Sutton Place had become the must-have address for the trio of enterprising husband-seekers — Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall — in How to Marry a Millionaire. But Sutton Place’s most memorable contribution to film history is as the setting of the most iconic image from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Allen and Diane Keaton take in the early-morning view from a bench in the very park where we’d climbed off the bus to stand.

Woody Allen’s legacy, of course, is a deeply controversial subject. In general, Lilley and Silverman explain, they try to relate Woody Allen films to their physical locations without engaging any deeper with the subject matter of those movies. “I can’t imagine doing the tour and not making the Sutton Place stop, because it’s so iconically shot in Manhattan,” Silverman says. “But the content of the movie — especially what’s come out in the news over the past couple of years about the making of the movie [Allen’s then-sixteen-year-old costar Mariel Hemingway has said that he tried to seduce her] — I don’t really, can’t really watch Manhattan anymore. But I can appreciate how they filmed and shot this particular scene.”

For those who’ve never visited New York, iconic movie locations have likely done more to inform their conceptions of the city than any guidebook or exhaustively annotated history ever could. Silverman, for one, grew up “obsessed” with King Kong. “For me, King Kong and the Empire State Building are synonymous,” he says. “I went to NYU, and in my freshman-year dorm, if I poked my head out the window, I got a view of the Empire State Building. Being in the city ten years, doing this tour hundreds of times, every time I pass by the Empire State Building, this is New York to me.”

But there is also a singular pleasure to be found in discovering, or rediscovering, film landmarks lying in plain sight. “I really love having New Yorkers on the tour, because they’re always running around, head down,” Lilley says. “To give yourself permission to stop and take a look at a block you’ve been on maybe a hundred times and really see it for the first time, I think it’s magical.”


An “Annie Hall” Re-Release? Really, We Don’t Need the Eggs

Any other year and I might chuckle at the timing of a re-release of Annie Hall. If you’re hoping to target Woody Allen’s core audience, you could do worse than Christmas. Film Forum might as well have ordered Chinese, stuck a fan in the lobby, and propped open the theater doors — a bat signal for bored Jews biding their time till the stores reopen.

Christmas 2017 is perhaps the last possible moment that Park Circus could issue this restoration onto theater screens. It’s not just that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of Allen’s most widely appreciated movie, a comedy about the failed romance between nebbishy TV writer Alvy Singer (Allen) and his shiksa goddess, aspiring singer Annie Hall (an exuberant Diane Keaton). Two months after the New York Times and the New Yorker broke the truth about Harvey Weinstein, opening the floodgates to a torrent of revelations about some of Hollywood’s most powerful and beloved men, it’s debatable whether audiences still have an appetite for Allen’s films — or, at least, a willingness to celebrate them in public. (His latest, Wonder Wheel, has not lit the box office on fire.)

Of all these powerful and beloved men, Allen is the one who’s perhaps enjoyed the benefit of the doubt the longest while doing the least to dispel the fog of misgiving that has come to surround his output. Years after Allen left Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom he married in 1997 (they began their relationship in the late 1980s, when she was a teenager and he was in his fifties), critics continued to wax poetic about the triumph of Manhattan, Allen’s 1979 black-and-white affair in which he cast himself as a forty-two-year-old man dating a seventeen-year-old girl. In 2017, writers still feel comfortable praising Allen’s work with only the odd parenthetical blemish indicating the director’s messy “personal life.”

Allen, of course, denies any connection between his life and his work; in 2015, he told NPR, “I never see any evidence of anything in my private life resonating in film.” This is ironic, for Allen is the godfather of blurred lines, and in many ways Annie Hall set the standard for a now-familiar mode of comic confession, an effective collapse between the character and his creator. The film’s opening, in which Alvy delivers a rambling monologue straight to the camera against a blank backdrop, owes a debt to Allen’s early career as a pioneering stand-up comedian who helped encourage the trend toward a less showy, more personal and conversational style of delivery. “I have some trouble,” Alvy tells us in this opening, “between fantasy and reality.”

As a kind of realist fantasy of a mid-century, middle-class Manhattan bubble, you can’t do better than Annie Hall. The pillow talk (“Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience”), the party chatter (“I forgot my mantra”), the portrait of neurotic New Yorkers who read The Second Sex in bed and mill through book-lined Upper West Side apartments — for all these reasons, Annie Hall has remained indelibly fixed in the canon of American cinema. It’s a great send-up of the kinds of people who do a lot of, in the words of Joan Didion, “emotional shopping around,” yet never seem to have jobs to go to or appointments to keep other than with their analysts.

And yet, in retrospect, Annie Hall looks more aspirational than satirical, a kind of catalog for the idle, self-absorbed masses with money to burn. For my grandparents and their friends, Allen’s contemporaries, it was simply the truth about being Jewish in the 1970s. Allen taught a generation of Jews how to laugh with the post-Holocaust paranoia that was, thirty years out, still just below the surface of Jewish collective memory. For them, there’s no irony whatsoever to Alvy’s dragging one girlfriend after another to see a four-hour Holocaust documentary. The scene when, over dinner with Annie’s WASP-y Wisconsin family, Alvy has a vision of himself through her Grammy’s eyes — as a bearded, Orthodox, payot-sporting Jew — was positively cathartic for that generation, validation of a neuroses that dare not speak its name.

The movie hums with neurotic energy, flitting from scene to scene like a fidgety patient free-associating on the couch. Alvy is a mess, but Allen the filmmaker doesn’t indulge Alvy the character’s worst impulses, at least not without a challenge. In back-to-back scenes, we see Alvy encourage Annie to take college courses — and then, months later, Alvy disparage her when she does, insinuating that her professor is only interested in her thoughts because he wants to sleep with her. Allen’s onscreen persona is a stock type that has become ubiquitous in the decades since Annie Hall, a character that probably owes a greater debt to Alvy Singer than any other: the lovable schmuck, the asshole who’s our asshole. Allen has the good sense to put the movie’s most deplorable line, about sex with sixteen-year-old twins (“Can you imagine the mathematical possibilities?”), in the mouth of another character.

So, too, Louis C.K., in I Love You, Daddy, his professed homage to — and interrogation of — Allen, declines to give himself the film’s ickiest role. C.K. had been hounded for years by rumors of sexual misconduct — rumors that were confirmed on the eve of the film’s release, which was then canceled. He cast John Malkovich as the sixty-eight-year-old renowned director with a reputation for taking an undue interest in teenage girls, and himself as the concerned father of one such girl. Annie Hall is a precursor to the now-standard model of creating a sitcom around a comedian’s stand-up material and onstage persona. Jerry Seinfeld did it with Seinfeld, Louis with Louie, which often explored the title character’s shame and inability to control his impulses, and even included a scene in which Louie forces himself on a woman. Unlike Seinfeld, Allen and C.K. baldly inserted material into their work that, in retrospect, looks a lot like confession.

Timing is everything, in comedy and in life. If the allegation, dating to 1992, that Allen molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow had surfaced in the wake of the Weinstein stories and the #MeToo movement, it’s hard to imagine Amazon Studios going forward with its theatrical release of Wonder Wheel, or a rep cinema promoting a festive holiday screening of Annie Hall. Then again, it’s hard to imagine Allen would still continue on, business as usual, and yet here we are.

In 2017, we’ve witnessed the often-disastrous results of blurring the line between jokes and serious statements, between fact and fiction, between person and persona. The good stuff is marbled through with the bad, so if you want your tax cuts, you’ll have to put up with racist fearmongering and climate-change denial; if you want Matt Taibbi’s important book on Eric Garner, you’ll have to accept his history of misogynist bullying under the guise of political satire. If you want Diane Keaton charming her way from Manhattan to L.A. (“La-di-da!”) in a tie and vest, you’ll have to endure ninety minutes of Allen’s shtick, too — along with everything we’ve learned about the man in the years since Annie Hall won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

At the end of the film, Alvy talks to the audience again, this time in voiceover. “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” he muses. Tell me about it. Still, there are moments when we have the chance to get it right in life, too. This Christmas, I think I’ll order in.

Annie Hall
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Park Circus
December 22–28, Film Forum



The IFC Center’s “Celluloid Dreams” series has proven to be one of the highlights of the fall repertory season. Already, the program has offered 35mm screenings of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and Joan Micklin Silver’s unheralded 1979 gem, Chilly Scenes of Winter, which the IFC Center’s website aptly describes as “the crucial missing link between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance.” Tonight’s selection offers what is perhaps the series’ most intriguing pairing between film and special-guest speaker, with playwright Annie Baker presenting the theatrical cut of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). Baker — who will sign copies of her Pulitzer Prize–winning The Flick after the show — tried to see Fanny herself at the IFC Center a number of years ago, but found the digital projection frustrating. Thankfully, this “Celluloid Dreams” event is, like the rest of them, a 35mm affair.

Thu., Dec. 4, 7 p.m., 2014


Onur Tukel’s a Hilarious Chatterbox Vamp in Summer of Blood

The tasteful white-on-black title text suggests that this motor-mouthed vampire-in-Brooklyn comedy is meant to suggest the best of Woody Allen, and writer/director/star Onur Tukel’s unrelenting comic patter confirms it. But Tukel knows something Allen didn’t: that the supremely self-involved lover/chatterbox frumping through Allen’s films was always a bit of a monster.

So Tukel gives us Eric, a furry schlump in stained business-casual, his cocksure smirk hidden behind a gray tumbleweed of beard. He’s a creep who thinks he’s Alvy Singer. In the first scene, he rejects a marriage proposal from his gorgeous lawyer girlfriend (Anna Margaret Hollyman), telling her, once the conversation has turned to her mother’s wish that the two break up, “I hate your mom anyway. In a playful way I hate her. I mean, if she died tomorrow I wouldn’t be that upset or sad — I mean, I’d be sad because you were sad.” And he goes on like that, for the whole movie, the words spilling from his mouth like that silverware Harpo steals in Animal Crackers — just when you think he’s done, more drops out. He’ll say the wrong thing, giggle to himself, half taking it back, and then spew something worse, all with the breezy certainty that it’s everyone else who is loathsome. Seconds after fantasizing about her mother’s death, Eric adds, “Babies are worthless anyway.”

At all moments he mutters brain-addled comedy, much of it barbed and hilarious, not because the words themselves are funny — it’s his conviction that they are. Eric weaves his asides over, under, around, and through everyone else’s lines, and everyone else glares at him like he’s the world’s biggest prick. He might be — after he’s bitten by a vampire, that girlfriend, now an ex, demands he bite her, too, and give her his power and immortality. He reacts just like he did when she proposed.

Unlike Allen’s Alvy, hyper-verbal Eric actually doesn’t have much of a way with words, and he’s absolutely not an aesthete. His idea of an insult is to accuse another man of not knowing the song “All You Need Is Love”: “You know who the Beatles were, don’t you, butthole?” Tukel allows a delicious, confident pause before that butthole, as if the put-down is so powerful he needs to leave a break for applause. Then the butthole itself pops out with hilarious finality, as if he were saying Q.E.D. When the man he’s upbraiding says something about opening a can of whoop-ass, Eric’s nonsense becomes straight-up Popeye-talk: “I’ll drink a six-pack of whoop-ass for breakfast. I’ll drink a keg. In fact, I was thinking of opening a whole brewery…”

On and on it goes. There is a plot: Eric becomes a vampire, learns to mesmerize people, and stages undead threesomes that devolve into debates about misogyny. Eventually he shows up blood-soaked to the job where all he ever does is masturbate to a stolen photo of co-worker Penelope (Dakota Goldhor). “You look like Godzilla used your shirt as a maxi-pad,” his boss tells him, and Eric, for once not the aggressor, responds that such an insult must constitute sexual harassment.

Any 30 minutes of Summer of Blood might have me in hysterics. But the sputtering torrent of Eric’s yakking proves wearying over 90: Dude’s built for speed-dating. Sometimes, the talk actually shocks. After Eric becomes a vampire, and begins bedding the women who rejected him after his breakup, blood soaks his bedsheets. His landlord asks what the deal is. “I have terrible back acne,” he says. “When I lay down to sleep, it’s like bubble-wrap — pop, pop, pop.” Right there this on-the-cheap indie comedy bests any current horror flick in terms of gory gross-out. It also trumps all current comedies in say-anything brio. Best way to watch it: Roll with it for a while, do something else, come back later, laugh a lot, wince some, shake your head, do something else, wonder at what this guy will get up to next.


It’s Been a Year Already?

“The heart wants what it wants,” Woody Allen has taught us, and apparently what his heart wants these days is not to have to bother with writing second drafts of film scripts. His latest, Magic in the Moonlight, plays like a sumptuous vacation, its stars larking in ’20s finery about the grandest estates of Provence and Côte d’Azur. Each frame is buttered by heavenly wealth — the splendor is part Rules of the Game, part Mount Olympus from the original Clash of the Titans. But as the stars roam those gardens and vistas in their jaunty flapper couture, the story feels shapeless, un-tailored, defiantly off the rack.

Magic in the Moonlight‘s mystery is pedestrian and predictable, and its lovers — Colin Firth and Emma Stone — fall for one another for no reason other than they happen to be the leads in a Woody Allen movie. Everyone declaims the film’s meager themes, as if we’re watching the actors’ what’s-my-motivation? prep work rather than their final performances. Even Stone and Firth find speaking Allen’s lumpish dialogue to be something like getting down a mouthful of oatmeal. Occasionally, an actor will shape a line with the hopeful sharpness of a joke, which suggests that someone on set may have been telling them that the film is a comedy.

Firth has his moments, which is no surprise — he’s Colin Firth. He plays Stanley, a famous but secretive stage magician and a boor of towering self-regard, who thinks he’s the only person alive who has noticed that superstition is bunk and that there might not be a God. The plot Allen concocts for him might have come from a ’54 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: A magician friend (Simon McBurney) invites him to the home of some jillionaires to smoke out a comely medium (twinkly Stone) who seems to display miraculous gifts in séances — and who is poised to marry the handsome heir to the fortune, despite being a Midwesterner with no pedigree. Can rational Stanley expose what must be a very clever fraud — and preserve the class order?

Stanley tells us again and again that he believes in a rational universe. Allen has spent his life doing that, too, but always allowing for one exception: the reckless illogic of hearts. The tension between cool know-it-alls and their mad gushes of desire have fueled many of his richest and most insightful films. Rarely, though, has that conflict been so baldly and blandly aired. It even gives the film its slapdash act structure: The first two-thirds show us Stanley chipping away at the mystery in listless séances and dithering, flirty interrogations, scenes Allen bites into with all the vigor of an old Irish setter gumming a tennis ball.

That wraps up with half an hour of movie left — but somehow still long after you’ll have worked the truth out for yourself. After that, Magic in the Moonlight lurches from overdetermined rationality to fantastical romance, as the godless universe bends over backward to unite a pair of characters who have not previously connected in any way that mere audiences might have noticed.

Stone does what she can: In trance and romance both she’s more sly than the words coming out of her mouth, and she crinkles prettily at Stanley, but only Allen knows what exactly she’s crinkling at. Anyone nostalgic for those scenes of Annie Hall getting upbraided for not going back to school will relish Stanley giving Stone’s medium prickly lessons in Nietzsche and survey-course Shakespeare quotes. Has anyone yet assembled a YouTube super cut of Woody Allen heroes telling younger women which books to read? And by this late date, is there even any point in crunching the numbers between Allen’s leading men and leading ladies? If X is Stone’s age, Firth’s is 2X + 3.

Both Stone and Firth look smashing, posed on cliff sides and in roadsters with the sun in their hair, and that may be enough for audiences just hoping to buy 100 more minutes in Allen’s Midnight in Paris-style lost-generation timeshare. But by the end, Stone gets stuck playing the cheapest romantic comedy nonsense. To set up the cute final moments, her character must say and feel wildly contradictory things in back-to-back scenes — all toward a man who has, for most of the movie, been a charmless prat determined to shame her.

At one point, midway through, Stanley becomes convinced that she truly does have some ability to contact a spirit realm, which for him means science can no longer be trusted and that maybe there is a God, and on and on. He calls a press conference to announce this and introduce her to the world; it’s the movie’s biggest laugh, as, for some reason, the reporters questions are all directed at him.

Such uncertain, ill-considered scene craft is a hallmark of Allen’s late-late period. But I can say this for that sequence: It’s the one thing in Magic in the Moonlight that doesn’t feel dispiritingly familiar. Allen’s habitual productivity — a movie a year, whether he has something to say or not — has made his films something more like rituals than events. Last year in these pages Stephanie Zacharek compared going to see Allen’s annual offering to checking in on an elderly relative you hope is having a good day. A trick I’ve picked up is always to try to get such a relative to tell a story you haven’t heard before. Is it too much to ask the same of one of the world’s most distinguished filmmakers?



Martin Ritt’s McCarthy-era The Front made headlines in 1976 by tackling the controversial subject matter of the anti-Communist blacklisting that plagued Hollywood in the 1950s. During this period, left-leaning artists of all stripes who were suspected of Communist sympathizing were barred from working, and one of The Front’s main points of interest is the fact that a good portion of its creative personnel — director Ritt, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Walter Bernstein (who appears at Film Forum for a post-screening interview), actor Zero Mostel — were themselves blacklisted. Seen today, the film is a little dry, with Ritt keeping cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver) restrained outside of a single-take hotel-room scene. But Woody Allen as a cashier and low-rent bookie who gets hired to pass off the work of blacklisted TV writers as his own brings a measure of neurotic comedy to his role, creating a nice tension with the seriousness of Ritt’s overarching political agenda.

Sun., May 18, 3:10 p.m., 2014


Bullets vs. Broadway: The Woody Allen Musical, Sans Music, at Lincoln Center

Whatever you make of Woody Allen these days, and whatever you feel about the puffing-up process that swells a likable film into three hours of Broadway razzle-dazzle, let me suggest this: Of all screen-to-stage adaptations since The Producers, Bullets Over Broadway is, artistically speaking, the shrewdest choice, the one that has the greatest chance of honoring its source material and not leaving audiences just sitting there waiting for their favorite bits. The very idea of a Young Frankenstein musical kills the best joke in Young Frankenstein — the surprise musical number — and the greatest-hits nostalgia of Spamalot revealed just how daring and unique the original was: Broadway sanded the edges off, made sure the laughs were for everybody, and actually cheapened the ending of a movie the show wasn’t even based on: The Life of Brian, whose cheery crucifixion sing-along, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is now a decontextualized show tune rather than a singular achievement in comic blasphemy.

Not so with Bullets Over Broadway. The show, now playing at the St. James Theatre, is strenuously entertaining in a way no Allen film has been since Love & Death — it won’t let you go a minute without chucking showgirls and hot jazz-age hits at you. It often works, though, especially because, like the movie, it is anchored by superlative comic performances by its leading ladies. While watching I felt the freeze-headache joy I’ve only experienced at Broadway shows, moments where I smiled so much my face hurt despite wincing, a little, at the overkill.

Allen’s original Bullets (from 1994) is a peculiarly staid comedy, one that invites contemplation of the moral dilemmas the script adeptly pairs up with its farce — but not one so fresh and memorable that show tunes can wreck it. Despite its caricatures of gangland Italians and the bohemian Village, it’s shot in the distanced, observational mode of his dramas, even its defiantly unfunny execution scenes. The actors turn up, run the scene straight through, and Allen’s camera smoothly, slowly pursues them about the set, sometimes not catching their faces as they speak key lines. In that, his lens is a little like our eyes at a play: We catch as much as we can. Allen’s musical mines these scenes for their jokes, and he mints some fresh ones, too, a good number of them keepers, but rather than speak them in the pitch of naturalistic conversation, the actors here make sure we’re looking, and then they bat the gags out like beach balls at the audience. That’s not bad, necessarily, and it’s inarguable that it’s funnier — nobody’s face will hurt watching the original Bullets at Lincoln Center on Monday, when Susan Stroman, indefatigable director and choreographer of the new show, speaks after the film about the adaptation process. (If you’ve seen the show, you will notice that songs on the radio in the original get sung at the same moments onstage.)

One question worth asking: Why is it that the key murder brings the house down at the St. James, almost as much as the stellar dirty hotdog song? Is this by design, or one of those surprises that hit once the show found an audience, a consequence of whipping a modest, ethics-minded comedy into a laugh riot? In the next scene, one of the many that prove more thoughtful and affecting than in most event musicals, Zach Braff (in the role of the compromised playwright, originated by John Cusack) playacts a winning breakdown. This isn’t the my-goose-is-cooked panic of Nathan Lane in The Producers; instead, it’s classic Allen: a flailing moral inquiry, a crack-up in the face of the universe’s cruelty. Braff and the writing are potent enough that ghost of the applause of just moments before seems to howl behind him. The show, like the film, frets with the dorm-room bull-session question of whether art is of greater value to the world than any incidental human life, but the show actually digs deeper, implicating us — we clap for the wrong answer. Here’s the rare case where the musical made from the movie maybe should supplant the movie.


Shameless and Uncharismatic, Bullets Over Broadway Loses The Sophistication of Its Source Material

Bullets Over Broadway is an old-fashioned musical, if for you the term “old-fashioned” connotes a version of 1920s New York in which Italian-American stereotypes are the only ethnic other, most women know their place, and artists are all hacks.

Adapted by Woody Allen from his passable 1994 film, the story follows the career of playwright David Shayne (the charisma-deficient Zach Braff), whose agent finances his play with mob money. Shayne gets Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie, doing Carol Burnett to avoid aping Dianne Wiest), the leading lady he wants in more ways than one, but he also has to cast a mafia don’s untalented girlfriend, Olive (a shrill Heléne Yorke), as one of the leads. Adding to that humiliation, Olive’s bodyguard, Cheech (Nick Cordero, who stole any charisma Braff had left), displays so much talent at revising Shayne’s play that he ghostwrites a new version everyone adores. To protect his vision, Cheech bumps Olive off.

With the addition of many familiar songs of the era relentlessly woven in and director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s shameless, pandering glitz, any sophistication left from the film version also gets rubbed out. Some of the source’s dark jokes still land, but the question it raises, of whether a great artist may commit unconscionable acts — a timely one in terms of the controversy that has lately surrounded Allen — becomes moot with greatness so distant, the art barely separable from the unconscionable act.


Beautiful, Curious Go Down Death Unveils the Cathouse of Myth

Setting aside all the women are people too! thinking that might make us a touch more enlightened than our forebears, I have to ask: Is it possible that the old-world or frontier brothel could ever be as warm and brilliant a place as the movies posit it? In films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Woody Allen’s copy-and-paste Kafka curio Shadows and Fog, as in dozens of last-century bildungsromans, the house of pleasure doubles as the seat of civilization itself, a perfumed respite from the barbarism abroad each night. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s Go Down Death, a captivating excursion into surrealist Americana, shares that fascination — like some lacy moth, it flings itself toward the lamp light of a bordello at the end of all things. But the enjoyably unsteady film, haunted by visions and shot in beautiful 16mm black-and-white, never succumbs to horny nostalgia.

Set mostly in a cathouse in a fogged-over forest of ghost-skinned birch trees, Go Down Death observes johns, prostitutes, singers, soldiers, and flimflam men in a series of fascinating vignettes that it leaves you to assemble into a narrative. People say things like, “A garden is never finished. Or it’s always finished.” After burying a corpse, a child who we’ve earlier seen engaging in creepy discussions with a shape-changing doctor sings a song that goes, “Got a cow — his name is mediocrity.” (The music comes exclusively from the people in the brothel, a reminder of the oppressive silence of the world before ours, a point McCabe & Mrs. Miller likewise was good on.)

An older john, nude, parading about a tiny bedroom, declaims about his past to a prostitute, also nude but coyly covered — a perfect, gently moving inversion of the HBO aesthetic, and a suggestion that the idea of a man buying sex but really wanting companionship isn’t always just a justification. In the undefined American past of this film, when else would this fellow get to unburden himself, at length, to a willing listener? Another john, preparing to take his purchased woman from behind, instead inspires a scene of curious horror: She’s gone blind just before he enters her, and as he explains, with curious calm, that this has happened before, she can’t hear him, as her other senses are going, too.

The songs and incidents are credited to folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus, himself a bit of folklore invented for the film. Schimberg, in this debut, demonstrates rare assuredness in shooting and staging scenes, coaxing unexpected but true-feeling flourishes from his cast of mostly amateurs blessed with extraordinary faces. The influence of Guy Maddin is strong, but much of this is singular, and Schimberg’s made-up folk tales glance against the true weirdness of actual myth.

On top of all that, Schimberg pulls a first-rate switcheroo in the last reel certain to leave audiences thinking, arguing, rejecting, celebrating. Here’s one you’ll talk about long afterward, in this age where nobody has to pay for sex to enjoy a wide-ranging conversation.