on 21 June 2010
This collection is currently the only way to get new region 1 copies of some of Allen's greatest and most important films, including 'Annie Hall', 'Stardust Memories', 'Interiors', 'Bananas' and others. I can only hope that these films are going out of print in anticipation of an upgraded re-release (hopefully blu-ray?), but there's always the danger that they've gotten caught up in some sort of rights war, in which case this it could be a while before these films reappear, and grabbing this set now makes even more sense.
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)**** II 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.