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Memphis Flyer Swing Time

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Since the mid-'70s, Woody Allen has spent the majority of his Monday nights not behind the camera lens or a typewriter but sitting in a smoky bar — formerly Michael's Pub but now the lounge of the Carlyle Hotel — playing the clarinet in Eddie Davis' New Orleans jazz band. It has been, besides his films and his parents, the most consistent force in his life.

So it is surprising that Allen the legendary movie director has, until now, never made a film about the music that obviously means so much to him. Music has figured prominently in many of his films. The cityscape montage in Manhattan, set to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, captures that city's romantic grandeur like nothing since Fitzgerald. The sounds of Carmen Miranda and "September Song” are an indelible part of the comedic memoir Radio Days, a love note from the director to one medium told through another.

And Allen the clarinet player was featured in Wild Man's Blues, documentarian Barbara Koppel's chronicle of the Eddie Davis group's 1998 European tour.

But until his latest, Sweet and Lowdown, Allen had never specifically covered the milieu of the jazz musician, never explored the artistic, ethical, and personal issues this particular kind of artist faces. Now that he has, the result is fine, if not exemplary Allen — a sketchy but rewarding character study, full of thoughts to chew on and some fine comic bits.

Sweet and Lowdown centers on fictional jazz musician Emmett Ray, the world's greatest guitarist "except for this gypsy over in Europe." In fact, the gypsy, Django Reinhardt, a real-life jazz master who recorded in the '30s and '40s and who is still considered one of the most influential guitarists ever, is at once the bane and salvation of Ray's life. Though doomed forever to play second chair to the great Reinhardt, Ray is affected by him more than anything else in life. He cries when he listens to his recordings. And in the two (maybe three) face-to-face meetings he's had with his rival, Ray has fainted each time.

Ray is an eccentric, to say the least. He is prone to take dates to the city dump to shoot at rats, and away from the bandstand he is most at peace in a train yard watching the locomotives roll through. But these quirks are actually endearing in a man who, otherwise, is pretty much a bastard. He uses women for sex, money, and adulation. He is chronically irresponsible, living way beyond his means and frequently losing gigs for either showing up late, drunk, or not at all. Ray is crass, callow, and egotistical. His soul is as calloused as his fingers.

"If you would just open up inside, I think your playing would be even better," more than one woman tells Ray, to which his reaction is usually a shrug and a change of subject.

To create Ray, Allen had any number of true-life examples to draw upon. He recalls such self-destructive archetypes as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and even Reinhardt, who like Ray, had a gig-ending habit of disappearing for days at a time.

"I take one puff in New Jersey and I wake up in Pennsylvania," Ray complains after a four-day bender ends with him waking up in a cabin in the Alleghenies.

What brings Ray to wonderfully complex life is a seamless performance by Sean Penn. Penn is a great actor, an opinion apparently shared by his contemporaries who recently nominated him for an Oscar for his performance here in a role that is, by Academy standards, rather unsubstantial. He does seem to make more of Ray than is on the page.

Joining Penn on this year's Oscar ballot is Samantha Morton, the British actress who plays Hattie, Ray's mute girlfriend. This simple New Jersey laundress falls in love with Ray's music, and suffers any number of humiliations to be near it. For Ray, Hattie's silence reflects his words back on him, forcing him to see himself in new ways. Morton's nomination is much deserved; she manages to create a full character without a word of dialogue

As with many of Allen's films, astute media watchers can make corollaries between Sweet and Lowdown and its director's stormy, hyper-publicized personal life. Ray, at once a despicable personality capable of making the most beautiful music, could well be taken for Allen himself, one of film's most admired auteurs who was, nevertheless, vilified a few years back for beginning an affair with — and ultimately marrying — his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Likewise, when Ray ultimately shows remorse for leaving the one woman he really loved, it's tempting to interpret that as Allen's own recognition of his mistakes. But such comparisons are not fair to Allen or to his creations, who rightly deserve a life of their own.

Starting off in fine comic form, Sweet and Lowdown does sputter in the middle before ultimately, like Ray himself, petering out in the end. But sometimes songs end not with a big finish but just fade away, and Allen and Penn's real accomplishment here is creating Ray, a character who stays with you like the ghost of a melody. — Mark Jordan

Being a mother means never having to say you're sorry for having sex with a transvestite. Or something like that. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar defines motherhood in so many different ways in his Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Film) All About My Mother — it's about life and death, secrets and telling the truth, and it's not always confined to those with the XX chromosome.

All About My Mother stars Cecilia Roth as Manuela, a single mother who has lost her son Esteban on his 18th birthday. Before his death, Esteban carried a notebook everywhere he went. When Manuela would ask him what he was writing, he would answer — typically child to mother — "nothing." But Manuela reads his book after his death and discovers that he felt like half a person for never knowing his father, or even knowing who he was.

Driven by Esteban's wishes, Manuela travels from Madrid to Barcelona to search for the father and tell him for the first time that he had a son and that son is now dead. Manuela hooks up with her old friend Argrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite and prostitute who once lived with Manuela and her husband. One thing leads to another and Manuela finds herself working as a personal assistant to stage star Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who is playing Blanche is a traveling show of A Streetcar Named Desire and is having a difficult affair with the heroin-addicted actress who plays Stella. Manuela gives up that job to care for the ill and pregnant nun Rosa (Penélope Cruz).

There is something that doesn't quite follow in All About My Mother — the pregnant nun, the tranvestite-hetero female sex, but it is sweetly absurd and in keeping with Almodóvar's previous films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Almodóvar has a gift of touching on that thing about women and the human trait of caring. — Susan Ellis

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