While this is, to my taste, the most uneven of the three region 1 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.