on July 3, 2010
When I first wrote 12 months ago (it's now 6/11) the price was almost double what it is now, and it was cheaper to buy all three sets separately.
Hence I gave it one star and a warning to buyers.
At the current price, its about $7 a film, for a huge collection of 19 mostly brilliant films by one of America's most important film makers. An very good deal. So now its an easy five stars. Grab it while you can.
My comments on the three sets;
This collection is currently the only way to get new region 1 copies of some of Allen's greatest and most important films at a reasonable price including 'Love and Death' and others. I can only hope that these films keep going in and out of print in anticipation of an upgraded hopefully blu-ray release to join the terrific blu-rays of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan", but there's always the danger that they've gotten caught up in some sort of rights war, in which would make grabbing this set now even smarter.
My brief reviews of each, on a 4 star scale;
Bananas (1971) ***1/2 Incredibly funny, broad, slapstick, surreal political satire as Woody takes over a Latin American country to impress a girl. A few bits feel dated, and it didn't make me laugh quite as much as 'Take the Money and Run' when I recently re-watched Allen's 'early funny films', but it still has more than it's share of great comic moments. The whole trial sequence is genius worthy of the very best of the Marx Brothers. (Or, in a more modern context Monty Python). Personally I don't love the score -- it tends to underline jokes that don't need the help. It was after this that Allen went away from having music written for his films, using existing pieces instead, which became a huge part of his filmmaking style.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) *** While all the early Woody Allen films are funny and worthwhile, this is probably the most uneven to my taste. Allen took the famous, serious non-fiction book about sex, and turned it into a series of short comedy pieces. A couple segments are pure genius (inside the male body during sex, Gene Wilder falling in love with a sheep), a couple are pretty good (Woody as a medieval court jester trying to have an affair with the queen, who is locked into a chastity belt, a mad scientist creates a giant milk squirting breast that goes on a rampage) and a few are real duds. Also, of all the Allen films, this might have the weakest DVD print/transfer quality.
Sleeper (1973) ***3/4 While all of Allen's early comedies are pretty wonderful, this film represents a big leap in technical proficiency. For the first time you sense him really thinking about how the camera is telling the story. And in finding Diane Keaton, Allen was finally paired with an actress who's comedic strengths were a great match for his. This film relies less on verbal jokes (although there are brilliant lines) and more on visual gags. It almost feels like you're watching a great silent comedy at times. Better music too, with jazz taking over from traditional score the first time in Allen's films. A funny, inventive, sophisticated if sometimes wonderfully silly comedy, with almost no dead moments. For me it represents the beginning of the shift from Allen as a brilliantly funny writer and comic who happened to make films, to becoming one of our very best filmmakers.
Love and Death (1975) **** I'm not surprised this was rumored to be Allen's favorite film. I'd say it's the best of his flat out comedies. All the strengths he was gathering as a filmmaker came together in this brilliant satire of (among other things) 19th century Russian literature, war, epic films about war, Ingmar Bergman, etc. etc. It's very very smart, and very very funny. An amazing mix of sophisticated intellectual verbal comedy, parody, low and high-brow visual gags (from speeded up film of bopping a character repeatedly over the head with a bottle, to homages to great images from early Russian films) , terrific cinematography, and some real ideas, both political and philosophical. Diane Keaton is wonderful, and fully comes into her own as Allen's on screen equal partner. And the look of the film shows the deep visual sophistication that would become a hallmark of the next phase of Allen's career; Annie Hall, Manhattan, etc. With this film Allen completed his journey from brilliant joke teller to brilliant director-writer. It would be his next film, Annie Hall, that would make the world realize he was a world class filmmaker. But you can see the all groundwork laid here, and have a lot of fun in the process.
Annie Hall (1977)**** Quite simply one of the best films about romantic relationships ever made. Brilliantly written. Brilliantly acted -- Diane Keaton is tremendous, the supporting cast is full of gems and Allen himself takes the leap to present himself as a real (if funny) human being and not a walking joke. And brilliantly
photographed by the great Gordon Willis of 'The Godfather' and many of most important films of the 70s and 80s. Wildly funny and ultimately heartbreaking. It's hard to imagine anyone who has ever been in love, or struggled through grown-up relationships NOT identifying with a lot of this film. I loved it in my late teens when it first came out, and I love it even more 32 years later. Every time I see it I notice different details, depending on my own current life experiences. A film of enormous wit, humor, invention, and understanding of the human heart. Its completely unique, playful and idiosyncratic in style and approach, but that experimentation somehow only makes it more accessible and universal. If you haven't seen it, you owe yourself a try, even if you're not a Woody Allen 'fan'. And if you saw it long ago, it may be time for another look.
Interiors (1978) ***1/4 A totally serious, almost theatrical examination of the meltdown of a rich, WASPy family might seem worlds away from anything Allen's earlier films prepared us for, but for the most part he's very up to the task, creating a gallery of disturbing and unforgettable moments and characters. Yes, it's derivative of Bergman, but it's also pretty damn good. Beautifully photographed by Gordon Willis, with amazing performances (Geraldine Page, Mary Beth Hurt, Maureen Stapleton in particular are brilliant, but everyone is good). The script does border on cliché at moments, and some specific dialogue is clunky, but there's something deeply moving and hard to shake in it's overall final effect. Under appreciated in its time, it's faults now seem very forgivable, and there's excitement in watching a great filmmaker stretch his talent in a new direction.
Manhattan (1979) ***3/4 One of the most stunningly beautiful to look at films of the last 50 years, made with great wit, and full of strong observations about loss, aging, and how we lie to ourselves. Still, it doesn't quite rise to the level of `Annie Hall' for me in terms of timelessness or emotional impact. A film I really, really like, respect, see why others have it on their '10 best of all time' lists, etc. but feel guilty that I can't flat out love. Somehow all the adult characters' self-obsessed narcissism keeps me at arms length. I identify with moments, but -- unlike Annie Hall - not the whole. That said, it's strengths are so strong, and it has affected so many so deeply that I would say its a film any film lover owes themselves the chance to see. If nothing else, Gordon Willis' photography will leave you with images you'll never forget.
Stardust Memories (1980)**** I know -- I'm supposed to like 'Manhattan' more. I know -- this straddles the line between homage and rip-off when it comes to Fellini... But it's so physically beautiful, and so full of unforgettable moments of humor and heartbreak, that I can watch it over and over and just see more and more in it. It's an odd, wonderful mix of sad, angry, surreal and very funny. It's a chilling, hysterical look at the emptiness of being famous, at what it means to not trust your own worth as an artist, what it means to be scared of happiness. The jump cut sequence with Charlotte Rampling is one of the best, most incisive pieces of film-making I've ever seen. Period. For me, it's a tragically underrated film. This is brave, unique, special film-making in a world with far too little.
While perhaps this 'middle' collection of Woody Allen's films is a tiny touch more inconsistent than the first, it's still a remarkable for a collection of films by one of our best filmmakers.
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) *** The earliest, and for me, the weakest of the group, though far from 'bad'. A cute and charming romp. A group of friends in the early 20th century get caught up in a weekend of love and sex in the country. Certainly enjoyable, if not really much more. Gordon Willis's photography is nowhere near as amazing as his earlier collaborations with Woody, and the film doesn't have any wildly funny moments. But the writing is witty, and the acting solid if not triumphant. It just doesn't feel like a Woody Allen film somehow. More like a nice, solid, unassuming French farce. That's not a bad thing, and this film is still better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood, with a sweeter, more upbeat tone than usual for Allen. It's just coming on the heels of masterpieces like 'Annie Hall', 'Manhattan', and 'Stardust Memories', and just before other great films like 'Zelig' 'Hannah and Her Sisters', and 'Purple Rose of Cairo', it can't help but pale a bit in comparison.
Zelig (1983)**** Amazing technically, with a lot to say about society, conformity, and how we see ourselves. This brilliantly made mock documentary about a 'human chameleon' in the 1920s and 30s who unconsciously changes his appearance in a desperate attempt to fit in and be liked, is hilarious and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Some of the visual effects are still astounding by modern standards. And Allen gives a performance that is surprisingly subtle. There are a few slow moments, and a few jokes feel self-conscious, but not enough to hurt the film in any way. This is tied with 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and 'Hannah and her Sisters' for my 2nd favorite Allen film behind 'Annie Hall'. One of the greatest films by one the great filmmakers of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Very worth seeking out.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)***1/4 A sweet, fun, well-told, Damon Runionesque fable of a well meaning if pathetic theatrical manager getting caught up with the mob. Not quite as amazing as Allen's very best films, but there's a touching, gentle, funny humanity that runs through it all. Mia Farrow gives what is arguably the strongest performance of her career -- she certainly stretches way beyond her usual image -- to play a tough, gum chewing mafia gun mol. It's also interesting to see Woody play a bit more of a 'character' than usual. The film has some lovely black and white images, even if its not as striking as the greatest of the Gordon Wills/Allen collaborations like 'Manhattan'. A good-hearted film that will make you smile more than laugh out loud, it's well-worth seeing if you have any fondness for Allen's work.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)***1/2 An utterly sweet, inventive and charming film that examines our love affair with the movies and our need to escape into fantasy. The central device of the wall breaking down between the characters in a film and those watching is great fun, and both Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels do some of their very best work in this. That said, for me, it lacks a little of the depth and complexity of my very favorite of Allen's film. It's a little too cute and simplistic in the middle, although the first and last third, and the uncompromised ending are terrific. It doesn't quite hold up on multiple viewings
the way 'Annie Hall', or 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' or 'Hannah and Her Sisters' or 'Zelig' do. But even 2nd tier Woody Allen is better than almost anything else out there. And on a certain level, with great filmmakers its about personal taste, not right and wrong. (e.g. Is Chaplin's 'Modern Times' better than 'City Lights' ?) So, if you like Allen's work at all and you've never seen this, you owe yourself a look to decide for yourself.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)**** A wonderful mix of moving and funny, thought provoking and silly. There's amazing acting all around from the first rate ensemble cast including Diane Wiest, Michael Caine (both of whom deservedly won Oscars), Max Von Sydow, Allen, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey etc. (Mild spoiler) It features a rare movie happy ending that's actually earned! This is probably the closest to Annie Hall of all Woody Allen films in the mix of wit, technical proficiency, sophisticated style, acting, emotion, etc. He takes a bevy of characters and creates a complex heartfelt portrait of family, lovers, friends, and artists that's funny but with insightful bite. A rare film that acknowledges how wonderful life is, without denying how hard it can be at the same time. Or at least how hard we find ways to make it.
Radio Days (1987) ***1/4 A beautifully looking film, both in its production design by the great theater designer Santo Loquasto, and the wonderful photography by Carlo Di Palma, in his first of several fruitful collaborations with Allen. Together with Allen's witty, tender script, and a host of wonderful performances, the film does a terrific job of creating an intentionally larger than life, and slightly surreal memory piece of short stories about growing up in an age when radio was still the king of entertainment. It's a small, sweet. charming piece. Some of the stories are flat out great, some occasionally feel a bit meandering or pointless, but none are truly weak. The best moments rival Felliini's `Amarcord'. Perhaps not among Allen's greatest films, but still better than the vast majority of what has gotten produced in America in recent years.
While this is, to my taste, the most uneven of the three Woody Allen box sets, it still has at least one truly great film in 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and solid work in 'Another Woman', 'Alice' and 'Shadows and Fog'. Only 'September' is the rare Allen film that doesn't really work for me. Of course, with any great filmmaker personal taste is a big part of it, and while I wouldn't agree, I wouldn't call anyone who thought this was the best, not the weakest of the three sets crazy. Indeed, as my specific reviews below note, a number of these films have grown on me over the years.
I'd say this set is a must for any fan of Allen's work, or serious film student of the last 40 years of American filmmaking. For the more casual viewer, I'd call only 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' absolutely essential.
My thoughts on the specific films (starred on a 1 to 4 rating system);
September (1987) **1/2 While I liked it better on a second viewing, it still comes across as a much less powerful `Interiors'. While I appreciate the experiment of never leaving the single set of a house interior, it feels self-consciously like `an experiment'. It also feels stagy, and even the wonderful cast (Diane Wiest, Denholm Elliott, etc.) can't help but sound stiff and theatrical at times. Basically it's sort of imitation Ibsen/Chekhov, where a few characters sharing a
summer house, are all in love with the wrong person, with lots of pain and guilt and hidden secrets from the past. The strongest element is the absolutely lovely, subtle cinematography. That's enough to bring certain scenes depth and richness. There are some moving moments, but in the end it all seems wispy and thin and kind of forgettable.
Another Woman (1988)***1/4 It's funny, this is a film I enjoyed much more on a recent DVD viewing than I did on it's initial release. Originally I found myself distanced, experiencing it as an intellectual exercise. Maybe I've grown up some since then. It's a film that has a lot to do with loss and middle age identity confusion that well might speak to a viewer with more life experience. This time around I found the ending very moving, some of the acting flat out great (Gene Hackman, Gena Rowlands), and a lot of it very, very good, (Ian Holm, Martha Plimpton, etc.). For me, the biggest weak spots were Rowland's voice overs which often awkwardly, coldly explain things the visuals are already giving us with far more subtlety and emotion. But for a film that was relatively ignored at the time of its release, its a surprisingly worthwhile addition to the body of Allen's stronger work, and well worth checking out if you've either never seen it, or -- like me -- didn't quite 'get it' on it's release 22 years ago.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)**** Deeply moving, deeply though-provoking, brilliantly acted and occasionally very funny. A disturbing, dark film about human nature that still manages to leave room for a glimmer of hope within it's chilling bleakness. Martin Landau is amazing, but all of the cast make significant contributions. One of the few films I can watch over and over, with no loss of its power. Every time I watch it I end up pondering my own sense of morality, my questions about whether there is truly justice in the world, and the extent to which good people do bad things. And yet, along with all those heavy ideas, this is also entertaining, witty, and occasionally very tense story-telling of the first order. For me it's second only to 'Annie Hall' amongst Allen's huge body of work, and stands as one of the few truly great films of the 1980s.
Alice (1990)*** While I still don't flat out love this film, I liked it much more on a second viewing. While my original problem with it - thematically it's in some ways a weaker, less original re-make of `Purple Rose of Cairo' still stands, I found myself charmed, caught up and moved, off-setting those moments that are clunkier, too cute, or even borderline racist in their stereotypes. It will never be my favorite Allen film, but it's certainly still a strong effort and Mia Farrow may never have been better. There's enough movie magic here, that it's certainly worth seeing, and for myself, owning.
Shadows and Fog (1992) *** Another mid-career Allen film unfairly dismissed both by critics and (I must admit) myself at the time of it's release. Sometimes with great filmmakers we get spoiled, and anything flawed or less than pure genius gets maligned for being weaker than that filmmaker's very best work instead of being appreciated for being miles ahead of most of the films that get made. I was shocked at how much better I liked this on a recent re-viewing almost 20 years after seeing it in the theater. Yes, the super-star cameos still seem a bit distracting and self-serving, but nowhere near as much as in 1992. Yes, some plot elements work better than others, the ending is kind of clunky, etc. But this is still a great-looking, visually dense film, that manages to tread (most of the time) a very difficult tightrope of being funny and playful, while still exploring disturbing themes of paranoia, guilt, crowd mentality, religion, etc. Certainly not a great film, but a brave one more worthy of being enjoyed for it's strengths than attacked for its admitted shortcomings.