Watching movies with Judge Erich Asperschlager is a Kafka-esque experience.
As I type this review, Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, has been nominated for four Academy Awards. Depending on when you read this he might already have won, or been shut out by a surprise Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked sweep. You never can tell with the Oscars.
Thirty-four years ago, Allen won four awards for Annie Hall, his first big hit and the film that introduced his brand of bespectacled neurosis to a mainstream audience. It beat out Star Wars for Best Picture, which seems to bother some people on the Internet who should probably watch more movies. The fact that anyone thinks a better movie than Annie Hall was made in 1977, or most years, means the film's Blu-ray release couldn't have come at a better time.
Facts of the Case
Annie Hall chronicles the ups and downs in the relationship between comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen, Manhattan) and small town girl Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, The Godfather). As they fall in and out of love, they deal with sex, death, drugs, guilt and their romantic pasts.
Annie Hall is a romantic comedy as written on a therapist's couch. The comedy comes mostly in the form of Woody Allen one-liners that aren't just sprinkled but poured onto Alvy's conversations with his friends and lovers. Funny is funny, and Allen is a master; but it's the romance that makes the movie. Annie Hall presents the lifespan of a relationship, running the emotional gamut from excitement to apathy, from contentment to anger.
Annie Hall is set in a world of analysis, both the self and professional kinds. Alvy over-examines his life. He obsesses about whether a colleague said "did you" or "Jew." He lets lingering questions about the JFK assassination drive a wedge between him and his first wife. He has been seeing a therapist for 15 years and looks to solve his problems with Annie by offering to pay for her therapy. Alvy Singer lives as much in his head as in the real world.
In its original cut, Annie Hall was a murder mystery with a romantic subplot. Allen wisely cut it down to focus on Alvy and Annie's relationship. Even so, it retains some of the feel of the film that never was. The story is a series of loosely connected scenes. Good memories collide with bad; and the present bleeds into the past. We accept Annie Hall's bizarre moments because it is a comedy, but there's more to it than that. Allen's non-linear narrative represents the way a person makes sense of a failed relationship.
Allen doesn't just break the fourth wall, he smashes it with a hammer, puts it back in the box and returns it to the store expecting a full refund. Characters speak directly to the camera. They walk in and out of each other's pasts, or become a ghostly form looking at themselves from across the room. Pseudo-intellectual conversations come with internal monologue subtitles. Characters talk back and forth across both sides of a split screen. There's even an animated sequence. Annie Hall wasn't just wildly ambitious for the '70s. After thirty-plus years, it's still more impressive than most of the films it inspired.
It's also very funny. Woody Allen one-liners mix with physical gags and mini-sketches. There are lots of famous faces in the film, including Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, and Jeff Goldblum—but the funniest is Christopher Walken's turn as Annie's Chippewa Falls brother. He gets a monologue that's every bit as good as the one he delivers in Pulp Fiction, and which sets up one of the film's best visual jokes.
Allen pokes fun at New York life, but saves his sharpest satire for Alvy and Annie's trip to the West Coast. The spectre of California hangs over much of the film, with Alvy's childhood friend Rob urging him to abandon Manhattan for sunnier climes. Allen's surreal version of L.A. is a plastic land of laugh tracks, radiation suits, and mashed yeast. It's populated by vacant people who take meetings, give out awards, and make emergency calls to spiritual advisors when they forget their mantras.
The visual style and humor provide a strong foundation for a memorable film, but what makes Annie Hall a classic are the lead performances. Played by one-time real life couple Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Alvy and Annie may not be the most conventional movie couple, but they are by far the most believable. It goes beyond chemistry. They fall into and out of love, split up, reconcile, fight, make love—and it never rings false. Even with all of the visual trickery and jokes, Alvy and Annie feel like people, not characters. It's astounding, and a credit to the actors, especially Keaton. She has the unenviable task of making us believe Annie would fall for nervous Alvy, and by golly she does.
Of course, the only happy ending for Alvy and Annie is the one he writes for them in off-Broadway play form. That's the difference, Alvy says, between art and life. It's also the difference between Annie Hall and most romantic comedies. Most of the movies Hollywood churns out are predictable, pat versions of the same improbable premise. Boy meets girl. Girl hates boy. Boy and girl fall in love too quickly, and live happily ever after. It's a frustrating cycle that suggest either filmgoers prefer the fantasy of love to the reality of relationships, or it's too difficult for most screenwriters to compress the complexities of adult relationships into two hours. I'm not sure why. Woody Allen did it in 93 minutes.
Annie Hall arrives on Blu-ray with a pleasing 1.85:1 1080p transfer. It's not the sharpest hi-def image, but it provides a noticeable step up from old DVD versions of the film. Detail is mostly good, with accurate color and a fine grain. Only a general softness keeps the transfer from being as impressive as the film itself. The audio is presented as lossless DTS-HD Mono. It's nothing special, but more than handles the dialogue-heavy soundtrack.
Woody Allen doesn't care about bonus features, so don't expect any here. No commentary, no featurettes, no deleted footage. All you get when on the Blu-ray—besides a beautiful hi-def version of one of the best modern films—is a theatrical trailer. Disappointing, sure. But don't let that keep you from buying this disc.
Woody Allen's detractors complain that he keeps making the same movie over and over again. If that's true, at least that movie is Annie Hall. It marked a turning point in modern film, and not only because it was one of the last times the Best Picture award actually went to the right movie.
The film begins and ends with Allen talking directly to the audience, not only about Alvy and Annie's relationship, but his general views on love. It would be easy to dismiss those views as cynical, but only in comparison to the fantasy relationships we usually see on screen. Annie Hall is honest about dating in a way very few movies are. Although the mirror Allen holds up to romance is clear enough to show every blemish and scratch, the image isn't warped. He might compare the search for love with a joke about a man whose brother thinks he's a chicken, but he never questions the search. He understands how badly we all "need the eggs."
Not guilty, Max.
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