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February 10, 2012

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Allen 'still trying to make great film'

THE chimes may have tolled midnight in Paris, but in Hollywood, it's the dawn of another career revival for Woody Allen after his biggest hit in decades and a new round of awards accolades.

How much will the success of "Midnight in Paris" change the filmmaker's career? Not one bit, says Allen.

In nearly 45 years of alternating between toast of the town and yesterday's news, Allen has barely deviated from a simple formula: make a movie a year on an economical budget and avoid the show business baubles - counting box-office grosses, obsessing over reviews, glad-handing for awards - that would distract from his routine.

"I've managed to avoid over decades the hit-flop syndrome," Allen said during a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he and his Dixieland jazz band wrapped up a six-city tour. "Most filmmakers work in that spectrum, and they have the pluses and minuses. They get the delight and pleasure out of a great hit, and they love the awards, they love the parties, the opening-night parties, the premieres. The box-office returns are heady for them, and they love it. But when something doesn't work, very often, they have trouble getting money for their next picture.

"I've never had that problem. I've never had their joys or their lows. I've just sort of existed since 1968 making films kind of on a low flame, burning on a low flame. And that's fine, because the fun for me is to make the picture."

By the time the romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris" began packing theaters last summer, Allen was on to the next film, preparing to shoot his ensemble comedy "Nero Fiddled" in Rome. He had put "Midnight" behind him, but his love letter to Paris was charming critics and fans like no other Allen film had done in ages.

A clever romp examining people's perpetual discontent with modern times, the film stars Owen Wilson as an American writer whose yearning for the 1920s Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald gives him a chance to spend some quality time with his idols.

Allen may not have been counting the grosses, but the rest of Hollywood was as "Midnight in Paris" became the independent-film success of the year with US$56.4 million domestically and well over US$100 million worldwide.

The film has four nominations at this year's Golden Globes, picked up an original-screenplay nomination for the Writers Guild of America Awards and brought Allen his first Directors Guild of America nomination since 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Already the record-holder with 14 writing nominations at the Academy Awards, Allen seems likely to pad that total and possibly pick up his first Oscar directing nomination since 1994's "Bullets Over Broadway" and first best-picture nomination since 1986's "Hannah and Her Sisters."

"Woody Allen still has a lot to say, and he's as prolific as ever, and he's at another peak," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released Allen's last three films, among them "Midnight in Paris," and is putting out "Nero Fiddled" this summer. "Look at 'Midnight in Paris.' It's one of the freshest, most-original screenplays imaginable. It's a fantasy film with no special effects."

No special effects, that is, except rhapsodic images of Paris - a city 76-year-old Allen says he would consider moving to if his wife were not set on remaining in Manhattan. It is also the latest in a long line of magical casts the filmmaker has assembled over the decades.

Roles in Allen's films have brought Oscars to Diane Keaton, Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest and others, while 1977's "Annie Hall" won best picture, director and original screenplay. Allen also won a screenplay Oscar for "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Even with such awards success, Allen talks about his films as though they're a lightweight body of work.

"I'm still trying to make a great film, and that goal keeps me going," Allen said. "To keep trying to make something that I feel could play alongside films that I consider great. If there was a festival in a theater, and they were showing 12 films, and they were showing 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Bicycle Thief,' that I could have one of mine in there with it, and they would say, 'Oh, yeah, that's one of the 12'."

Recent Allen films such as "Whatever Works" and "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" left fans and critics indifferent.

But his movies almost always find enough of an audience domestically and overseas to make their money back on modest budgets of generally less than US$20 million.

And Allen occasionally scores a mini-hit like "Match Point" or "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," two of the seven films he has shot in Europe in recent years after decades of shooting mainly in Manhattan.

The upcoming "Nero Fiddled" is another light comedy, told through four simultaneous story lines, and it marks Allen's first time on screen since 2006's "Scoop." He co-stars with Penelope Cruz, who won an Oscar for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni, Greta Gerwig, Judy Davis and Alison Pill.


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