Thursday, March 31, 2016

Manhattan Review (Classic Write-Up)

Certain filmmakers have a recurring feature in their filmography to utilize their city/state of birth as a prominent figure in their motion pictures, taking a well-known location and attempt to weave in more nuance and depth into an environment and its inhabitants that many may normally dismiss as just a tourist trap. Jean-Luc Godard has Paris, France. Richard Linklater has Texas and, of course, Woody Allen has New York. For his ninth motion picture, Manhattan, (one that came two years after Annie Hall, Allen's movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars), the importance of New York to the filmmaker can be seen in how this film is titled after one of the five boroughs that can be found in New York City.

In addition to directing and being one of the two writers (the other writer being Marshall Brickman) on Manhattan, Allen also stars as Isaac, a man whose paranoia over everything that crosses his path is only outmatched by his self-absorbed tendencies. He's just quit his job, is dating a far younger woman, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and is concerned with steadily decaying state of the city he grew up in and loves very much. And now, his married friend, Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with a woman named Mary (Diane Keaton)....and wouldn't ya know it, after spending an evening together, Isaac and Mary get along just wonderfully.

Manhattan concerns itself with the myriad of relationship quandaries its various characters experience, which, as Isaac himself states at the end of the movie, works as a way for these individuals to ignore the larger in scale problems in our world. Allen and Brickman show a real knack for developing interesting characters and dialogue, both elements that are crucial for a motion picture like this whose entire crux is built upon assorted relationship drama. Isaac is a particularly well-done creation when it comes to dialogue, him being able to frequently spout out classic Woody Allen-esque witticisms without it ever detracting from his personal growth as a fictitious character. Both characterization and wit are able to work in lovely harmony.

In addition to delivering some solid acting and writing, Allen also flourishes as a director with Manhattan, especially from the perspective of delivering a most visually pleasing film, shot entirely in black-and-white. That famous opening sequence, depicting various shots of New York City life to the tune of Rhapsody In Blue (as well as various attempts at insight from Isaac) sets the stage for the aesthetically satisfying sequences that follow. Major kudos should be given especially for the way sequences in darkened environments are lit, with the lighting being not only being aware of the film's color scheme but taking advantage of the monochromatic look of Manhattan to create some marvelous imagery.

The best example of this comes when Isaac and Mary chit-chat in the astronomy section of a museum, with the juxtaposition of their more mundane conversation set against the cosmic backdrop of planets and stars already being memorable from a visual perspective. But the way their silhouettes are presented in this particular environment, with only the faintest trace of their bodies being seen,struck me as noteworthy in its unique beauty. To boot, this isn't just a scene to razzle-dazzle the audience with pretty images to distract from how empty the rest of the picture is. Nope, this serves a clear purpose in the overall narrative and serves as a winning showcase of the terrific chemistry between Keaton and Allen.

Romance is not a surefire recipe for happiness in Manhattan. It's more like a gateway to momentary distraction and eventually leading to more problems than you can count. Woody Allen is not out to make the romanticized version of either the concept of love or that famous city that he grew up in. Nope, he's here to do something far more interesting conceptually and he's got a game cast (including Meryl Streep, who barely looks any different 37 years ago!) to help him ace the execution of that particular concept.

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