A complete review of a film discussed in each chapter will be posted here on a periodic basis.
Each review will be accompanied by 'snippets' of other films reviewed in that chapter.
All of those reviews, in full, are included in the upcoming eBook, Reel to Real. Please join the dialogue.

Sweet and Lowdown - Full Review
(Successes and Attempts)

“...While Celebrity is much better than suggested, Sweet and Lowdown (1999) is Woody’s most underrated film since Another Woman. Now, I don’t pretend to know why, but merely chalk it up to critics’ biases, and confusing the word ‘comedy’ for ‘lightness’ (as it used to be with Radio Days). In short, so much about the film reeks greatness: the faux documentary form, which allows it to exist in a faraway, almost hallucinatory milieu; the characters, which are well-sketched even in the barest of gestures and scenes; the romantic inversions, which play on both emotional and intellectual levels, thus satisfying both; the music, the visuals, the narrative arcs, and most of all, the acting, which keeps this well out of the company of lighter Woody comedies, such as Shadows and Fog, and into much deeper territory that’s often felt, but rarely understood, and much less articulated.

“The film’s structure is reminiscent of other Woody mockumentaries, with a primary narrative enhanced by the existence of a voice-over and a number of talking heads, thus lending mythos to the man at its center: the fictional Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a 1930s guitarist “second only to Django Reinhardt”, a reality Emmet not only admits, but is deeply affected by. In fact, one of the film’s chief successes is how it manages to make Sean Penn’s comic, exaggerated, and downright dislikable character into a thing of sympathy, by giving him an emotional core that the viewer can relate to. After all, Emmet is not at all a ‘good guy’, as evidenced by his treatment of Hattie (Samantha Morton), his cowardice, and all-around irresponsibility. And yet, he is not a true villain, either, as he is naive, child-like, and utterly clueless of the world around him, given that he has little to no sense of self. In this way, Hattie -- poor, mute, talentless, and superficially weak -- is very much his foil in these regards, in not only what she lacks, but also in what she has in light of his own failings. This is evident at the film’s start, wherein Woody Allen (who appears as a talking head) calls him “pathetic”, as we hear stories of Emmet’s fainting when coming face-to-face with Django Reinhardt, pimping out women, drinking, and getting stuck in debt. Yet his music has a strong emotional component and sounds quite unlike his exterior personality, implying an inner depth that the viewer wishes to see. It’s a manipulation, no doubt, but a good one, for it subverts character in a way reminiscent of Alex’s ‘turn’ in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where the villain likewise becomes the film’s hero. No, it’s not as deep, here, but is the sort of clever touch that a deeper narrative will unfold from. Then, in some of the film’s running gags, Emmet is seen stealing a worthless ashtray, ‘shooting rats’ (literally), or ‘watching trains’ (again, literally), activities that are for some reason important to him, as he truly gets into such, but can never explain why when pressed. This further characterizes him as child-like, for despite not seeming to get much benefit from these hobbies (women, especially, hate ‘shooting rats’), he is ‘pulled’ by them, regardless, for reasons that are simply beyond his understanding. Although some might dismiss these as throwaway details, they in fact help characterize Emmet as a real human being whose boorish nature becomes quite secondary to the viewer’s sense of his true self.

“In time, he is shown with his girlfriend who berates him for holding in his feelings, while Emmet ripostes that he’s a “true artist”, a common (and telling) refrain throughout the film. After a show, he tries to pick up women on the boardwalk, splits the ‘spoils’ with his drummer, only to end up with the cute but deaf Hattie, who -- as per Samantha Morton’s consistently great performance -- seems taken by Emmet’s attention, and merely accepts his rebukes and condescension as part of ‘his way’, without ever really believing them, herself. (‘First time I had sex, seven years old’, Emmet prattles at one point, and she merely interrupts his pointless aside by bringing over his guitar.) This is another great touch, for she is always the bigger person, knowing more of herself than Emmet does of himself, at times outright playing with his frustration re: her being mute. She never takes things too seriously, given what Emmet is, thus often coming off as a weak or easily deceived woman, yet being neither, as later events go on to show. The two go up to his hotel room, as Hattie -- in another wonderful little detail -- starts to undress him quite unexpectedly, thus giving her yet another character arc that deepens her and takes her even further away from the stereotype she at first glance seems to be. At times, she gets jealous of Emmet’s flirtations, as when, in one scene, Emmet smokes opium with women and wakes up in Pennsylvania, runs back to Hattie, and catches her on the way to the boardwalk as she sits down on a park bench to eat a small, simple sandwich she’s wrapped in wax paper. It’s a minor detail, but one that crops up over and over again and shows how stable and consistent she is over time, for while Emmet is slipshod, lacking a true core, Hattie is not, and is ultimately better off without him.

“Despite saying he’ll leave her, however, Emmet ends up taking her to Hollywood, where she fixes a tire as the car breaks down, while he plays guitar. It’s another great little ‘acting’ moment, down to her happily setting the tire, then spinning it, gently, to the sound of Emmet’s playing. Emmet later hustles a local talent show for money, then sits around a campfire as she eats yet another white-bread sandwich, as Allen’s ‘documentary’ voice-over describes how a director decides to use Hattie in a small romantic part, despite Emmet’s own jealousy. Emmet goes back to the East Coast, possibly to avoid any more situations like this, finds out he’s broke from his business manager, and in need of a ‘budget’. In one of the film’s great scenes, he storms into their hotel room and tells Hattie that ‘the party’s over’, and that she’s been ‘spending too much’. It is hilarious, for Emmet is a prolific gambler and all-around squanderer, but insists that she should switch her doctor for a ‘veterinarian’, and turns out a tiny night-light, as they’re not ‘the electric company’. The fact that Emmet genuinely believes any of this could make a difference -- and seems to have a ‘plan’, to boot -- further sketches him as child-like, even likeable, at times, despite his poor behavior. Hattie, however, has a present for Emmet’s birthday, which she refuses to take back despite his monetary concerns. It’s a pair of ‘kid gloves’ he once wanted as a child, and a birthday card which expresses her love, as she looks expectantly at him while he reads it in a state of fright and -- dare I say it! -- genuine affection. It is yet more great acting, for one does not even see her face at the critical shot, yet absolutely knows the face she’s making at him, an elision that really deepens the emotion by forcing the viewer to supply what’s implicitly there, and parallels what happens at their final meeting. Later, Emmet tries to escape from a gig, as he’s told Django Reinhardt is in the audience, only to fall through a roof that leads him to a stash of counterfeit money. Hattie eats yet another white-bread sandwich, and gets driven to a restaurant on a splurge, as their relationship seems as strong as ever.

“In time, however, Emmet meets Blanche (Uma Thurman), a femme fatale who -- like Angela in Cassandra’s Dream eight years later -- represents the ‘elegance’ and ‘class’ the film’s protagonist utterly craves as a boy and man, but could never get. Blanche starts to question him about his activities, re: shooting rats, stealing, and watching trains, thinking there is a depth to it all that she only needs to uncover. As time goes on, she gets more and more insistent, almost as if she’s ‘slumming it’, fascinated, as she is, by all the wrong things. In fact, she is more or less a prototype of the guilty white liberal that would become an archetype by the 1980s, asking questions, prodding, trying to ‘save’ a man that -- by his own admission -- simply does not want to be saved. This is, then, the White Knight Syndrome in reverse, for the knight is now merely wearing a corset and rides a mare, with no real plan for such, nor tangible direction. She finds his dirty history ‘perfect’, and even goes as far as saying she would like to be a ‘whore’ for a year -- again, the classic bored white woman with pretenses to art and higher things she’s never had. At this point, he’s left Hattie (also elided but implied, which makes her eventual reappearance all the more devastating) and marries Blanche, only to be heartbroken by Blanche’s infidelities as she goes for yet another ‘dangerous’ type. She admits she married “for the wrong reason”, but in fact does not truly understand the reason, herself, as she’s stuck in the same kind of cycle that Emmet’s in, telling a hit man that she’s enraptured by his ‘heart of darkness’, thus starting yet another doomed relationship, and not knowing why. In this way, Blanche is an archetype, and a well-sketched one, to boot, with enough ‘tics’ to keep her from strictly being a symbol, as the viewer wonders what is in her mind as she watches Emmet cry at records of Django Reinhardt, or when she asks her silly but earnest questions.

“Realizing this, Emmet makes his way back to Hattie, who is seen walking to the same boardwalk bench after their first fight. It seems a couple of years have passed, if not more, yet she still has the same paper bag, it is still rainy, and she still eats the same sandwich, for little has changed of Hattie’s essence, even as she’s exchanged lovers and passed the time. After her initial shock at seeing him, the camera stays on Emmet, who’s been emotionally reserved until now, and although he still is, in a way, he simply cannot hide his disappointment when he asks her to go on tour, but is only given a note: that she’s married now, with kids, and happily at that. He asks whether it’s a boy or girl, and learns the answer, although we don’t. In reality, we don’t need to, for that is irrelevant to what Emmet is feeling, as he goes back to his hotel room, gets drunk by himself, takes a girl out to ‘watch trains’ and play guitar. In the film’s powerful ending, he tangentially and without prodding yells about having ‘made a mistake’, wrecks his instrument, and sobs, while the talking-heads come back and reveal that after this emotional outpouring, he was finally able to record music that equaled Django Reinhardt’s. It is a comment on art, on the one hand, but also on Emmet, himself, who is said to have ‘disappeared’ at some point, as the camera zooms out from the scene of destruction, thus visually recapitulating the idea that he has ‘faded away’ into oblivion. And this, to be sure, is the difference between a creation that strictly moves through idea (philosophy), and one whose ideas move through the creation itself (art), taking characters, narrative, poesy, and everything else with it, too, into a unified whole that is not only of reality, but responds ‘to’ this reality, as well. How else could Hattie be so real, and so believable? Why else would a sane viewer, after watching Emmet weave a path of selfishness and destruction, still feel empathy for the ‘bad’ man, and wish him well despite all that’s witnessed? It is a narrative and denouement only possible in art, as it’s tight, neat, and orderly, with a clear beginning, middle, and end that moves according to the demands of character, and not merely the filmmaker’s whims.

“As something of a jazz film, Sweet and Lowdown’s music ought to be touched upon as well. Many viewers have wondered whether Sean Penn is really playing the guitar throughout, and whose recordings are being played. In fact, Penn is only miming (Howard Alden is responsible for the actual music), and the recordings are both original compositions made to sound like Django Reinhardt, as well as a couple of pieces from Reinhardt, himself.[1] These are all fairly minor points, however, as the key thing to recognize re: a film’s music is how it’s used to further narrative, set a tone, or otherwise play off of the deeper elements within. Anything else, really, is mere footnote, and more akin to showing off than expressing wisdom. In short, Emmet’s guitar playing has a strong effect upon the viewer not merely because it’s ‘pretty’, but because we’re constantly bombarded with images of Emmet being an asshole. Yet the fact that Emmet has talent and a ‘pretty’ sound implies a personal depth such ill behavior can only hint at, and even at the film’s end, the guitar serves as a substitute for the sort of verbal communication that Emmet refuses. Allen’s musical choices also put Emmet into a milieu as he slowly gets mythologized by the film’s surrounds, and while Emmet, himself, seems to have some idea of this, he doesn’t really get what any of it means beyond the specifics of a single moment -- such as when Sidney Bechet’s ‘Viper Mad’ plays as he takes drugs at a club, or Allen’s use of a Dick Hyman song that clarifies things for Emmet re: Blanche’s infidelity, in a way that ordinary talking would not. At bottom, then, the film’s music helps separate the man from the artist (a typical Allen theme), even as it helps skewer that man as somebody that does not truly get the ‘what’ of his own life, or why he’d go on to do the kinds of things he has such compulsion for.

“These are some of the film’s accomplishments, and they’ve been generally well-regarded, boasting a solid 78% on the RottenTomatoes website, with lots of recent, even more positive discussions and reviews online. Mark Hewitt correctly writes that the film is ‘underrated’ and notes Penn’s ‘genuine sweetness’,[2] a fact that really undermines what could have been a more typical character arc, and thus turning it into something memorable. Edward Howard notes the film’s ‘long gestation period’,[3] as Woody had originally written a screenplay called The Jazz Baby during his early comedic run, which was rejected for its utter bleakness and had to be reworked. It’s a great thing, then, that Sweet and Lowdown had time to grow, for while it is bleak at times, it is peppered with so many character ‘tics’ that make everyone not only quite believable, but gives them appropriate closure, as well. Hattie gets older and moves on, and the viewer simply knows that she’ll be alright; Blanche becomes a minor and forgotten writer, given how little she could offer to the world that was not mere vanity; and Emmet bursts with a few years of extreme creativity, only to become a kind of myth that -- unlike his friends and lovers -- finally has some longevity, for it is only art, as he well knew, that allows a human being to transcend himself.

“Nick Davis, however, is not so enthusiastic about all this, calling the film full of ‘overweening cruelty’ marred by ‘narrative laziness’.[4] He goes on to call it a ‘pastiche’ of ideas, rather than fully formed, as the mockumentary portion is only sometimes at play, and is much more bare-bones than in, say, Zelig, and Davis argues it is slapped on almost as an after-thought to make up for the central character’s ‘weak’ story. Yet this is clearly untrue as evidenced by the details of my synopsis, and a simple understanding of what the film is and isn’t. Yes, the central character is cruel in some ways, but that is as irrelevant as Alex’s cruelty in A Clockwork Orange, for the point is how a seemingly dislikable man can be forced onto a viewer’s good side, which was done, here, in the ways already described. It also makes little sense to call the central character ‘compelling’, then complain the mockumentary style was not prominent enough, for a great character like Emmet obviates the very need for this. Sure, Zelig’s complete irreality and rather thin story greatly benefited from the film’s structure, but Sweet and Lowdown, for the most part, is linear precisely because the characters are so strong, with the narrative merely flowing out of them. Put, say, Hattie into a room with an agitated Emmet, give her a present she’s wrapped for Emmet’s birthday, and simply maintain their character quirks and emotions, and you’ll naturally have your story right there -- or rather, a chunk of it, via one of the film’s best scenes, supported by other chunks in consistent, dependent, and self-referential ways. This is all that’s needed, for narrative, in most films, comes from characters, first, and how they interact with things and with each other, an idea Sweet and Lowdown understands and fully runs with.”

 

[1] Harvey. Pgs. 138-145.
[2] Hewitt, Mark. “Wednesdays with Woody: Sweet and Lowdown (1998).” Film Blerg.http://www.filmblerg.com/2012/09/19/wednesdays-with-woody-sweet-and-lowdown-1999/ 9/12/2012. Accessed 4/14/2014.
[3] Howard, Edward. Review of Sweet and Lowdown. Only the Cinema.http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.co.il/2008/11/1130-sweet-and-lowdown.html 11/30/2008.  Accessed 4/14/2014.
[4] Davis, Nick. Review of Sweet and Lowdown. Nick’s Flick Picks.http://www.nicksflickpicks.com/sweetlow.html 2/2000. Accessed 4/14/2014.

 

Excerpted from Manhattan Murder Mystery:

“....Thus, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is a good way to kick things off, for it captures much of the experimentation and oddities that would mark Allen’s films of the 1990's. Yes, it is a great deal lighter than Woody Allen’s best material, but is also a bit deeper than it’s been given credit for (especially by Allen himself), as well as being very well-made from a purely technical point of view. The characters all fulfill a bigger function that only we are aware of: to further elucidate Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton), Larry Lipton’s (Woody Allen) growingly neurotic wife. In fact, it is really her film, with much of the action, curiously, seen halfway through her eyes, and halfway through the viewer’s, and given the amount of overlap, it is sometimes impossible to tell the difference.”

Excerpted from Mighty Aphrodite:

“One of the film’s more interesting sequences is near the end, when Linda starts to date Kevin, and where this leads. After much back-and-forth, the two finally meet, and the Greek chorus follows them in the background, prophesying love, in one of the best choreographed moments that Woody has ever done. It is surprising, but poetic too, given how false this prophecy is (a trope within the film at large). In a fine scene, Kevin and Linda sit at a restaurant and talk, at times really ‘getting’ each other, at other times not, for they don’t truly know what to express, or how. In a great little digression, Kevin tells Linda of a ‘dream’ he has, wherein he’s picked up by an eagle, flown around the world, and dropped in the Arctic, naked, in the snow. It’s a comic touch, but also a serious one, as the viewer could tell Kevin finds this really meaningful, but doesn’t know why, and simply cannot express it in a meaningful way. It’s a Scorsese-like touch that, while not sustained, nonetheless shows Allen trying to work outside of his own material and succeeding, while Rapaport and Sorvino are exemplars of ‘naturalism’ and seemingly improv dialogue, without ever being boring or anomic.”

Excerpted from Everyone Says I Love You:

“Of course, the visuals are well done, too, as per virtually any Woody film, such as the ‘hockey’ scene, wherein the maid and the two youngest kids play around against the backdrop of black and white tiles, as Skylar’s (Drew Barrymore) marriage plans come undone. Or when three or four characters sing the title line of I’m Through with Love, adding their own appropriate twist, thus tying them together. Or when Skylar’s new boyfriend takes her through a beautiful autumn forest, only to then drag her to a robbery and car chase, thus setting up the viewer’s expectations, only to subvert them. Or the shots of Central Park in the snow, rivaling similar shots in other Allen films. Or Joe’s (Woody Allen) ‘reminiscence’ with his ex-wife by a Parisian bridge, as the two figures are accompanied by lights on the water, matching their own distance and length.  (Can we put to rest the oft-repeated, ridiculous idea that Woody Allen is somehow ‘non-visual’ in his art?) Yet the film’s best scene is the break-up between Joe and Von (Julia Roberts), as she practically looks ‘suffocated’ by her own colors, gelling, as they are, with those of Joe’s apartment and the gray outdoors….It approaches a seriousness the rest of the film lacks, and upon re-watch, one sees how often these colors are associated with Allen’s character, over and over again, as he ultimately becomes the film’s perpetual ‘loser,’ damned to repeat his choices and his ill luck no matter what might come his way.”

Excerpted from Celebrity:

“....At one point, Robin informs that she’s ‘become the kind of woman I’ve always hated. But I’m happier.’ This is a critical line, as it captures not only Robin’s own arc, but much of what is felt within the film, probing, as it does, the question of happiness vs. need, or joy vs. what is ‘good.’ Yes, Robin is happier, and in many respects is probably better off having divorced Lee and quit her job as a schoolteacher, but does ‘happier’ necessarily mean ‘better’? Not always, as Robin is also using words she’s once hated (“marvelous,” for instance, as Lee points out), and doing superficial things, and has, more or less, either become someone contrary to her inner nature, or has simply embraced it. Either way, one is hard-pressed to say Robin is completely better, given her admitted lack of self-respect now, which, despite the patina of confidence she’s been provided, is still there, and speaks to problems that she’s unable to truly get a hold on. No, this does not make her a bad person, merely one that’s not much of an improvement over Lee who, while a selfish loser, stayed true to this fact from beginning to end, while Robin started off weak but good, and grew into a person that she herself cannot truly respect. There is happiness in life, yes, and it’s not a bad goal, as far as such things go. But there’s also wisdom, and purpose, and the Socratic ‘good,’ which is much more rarely seen as life’s object, despite it having a longevity and selflessness that happiness does not.”

Excerpted from Melinda and Melinda:

“If the above two films are rather flat, then Melinda and Melinda (2004) is, if nothing else, a true ‘attempt’, and one that I’d argue is a mildly good success, to boot. It tells the tale of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), twice, once as a comedy, then again as a drama, as part of a conceit that begins with a dinner at a restaurant, wherein two writers argue about the superiority of either the comic or dramatic modes. It’s an interesting idea partly due to the fact that Woody himself already knows the answer to the film’s original question, but entertains both possibilities anyway, thus enhancing both sides in the process. Yes, it’s obvious at film’s end that the ‘comic’ side has been supplanted by the tragic. But it’s not merely that one is light, or doesn’t get as much screen time. It is also that one is being driven by the other, with ‘comic’ Melinda meeting a black pianist, like Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose import is not so much sketched in that scene, but in the prior ones with Ellis, for they, too, have a mutual essence….”

+ all other films from this time period.

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