Our review of Love and Death (1975) (Blu-ray), published April 3rd, 2015, is also available.
Sonja: Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.
Boris: Yes, I've said that many times.
Love And Death is Writer/Director Woody Allen's parody of everything from the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, to the films of European masters Bergman and Eisenstein, also not forgetting to take aim at the philosophical musings of Kafka among others. The jokes, one-liners and sight gags come fast and furious, forcing everyone to remember what a pure comedic force-of-nature Allen once was.
The film chronicles the misadventures of Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko (Woody Allen), Russian, lover of life, women (not to mention self) and the biggest coward this side of St. Petersburg. Like the great Russian works which inspired the movie, the film shows both Grushenko's youth, life and eventual demise, closing out with Boris' dance with Mr. Death, all to hilarious effect.
I admit it. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. I have the ones I like more and I have the ones I can live without—please see 1987's September or 1990s Alice for the latter category. Love And Death, however sits along with one other Allen film, Manhattan, as my all-time favorite. I find Love And Death to be his funniest, most exuberant movie. The movie also serves as a bridge between the earlier, simpler films and his later, more serious minded work.
Upon first viewing the casual moviegoer will find a greater kindred between Love And Death and such films as Animal Crackers, Airplane or Kingpin than with later Allen movies like Crimes And Misdemeanors or Husbands And Wives. In fact, once Allen made his first foray into the style of his beloved Ingmar Bergman with his 1978 film, Interiors, he lost a lot of fans. Or as the aliens in Stardust Memories said, "We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones."
Introspection would come a short time later; with Love And Death all you get is go-for-broke funny.
Pretty much everything in the movie works. For every philosophical joke there is a pratfall or sight gag offered to balance things out. Allen would take his stock character and make him funny once more. It has always amazed me how he can usually play the same type of character, but always find a way of making him both funny and unique. As Grushenko, he once more plays the man who thinks he is a great deal brighter and worldlier than he really is. Combine that with the fish out of water aspect of the movie and Love And Death features one of Allen's greatest riffs on "his" character.
As Sonja, Boris' second cousin and the owner of his heart, long-time Allen costar/girlfriend, Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, Reds, The Godfather) has one of her funniest roles. Keaton does an amazing job of being both smart and sexy while also being somewhat of a ditz. It is a balancing act that goes a long way towards making the film work. More than any of his future costars, or lovers for that matter, Keaton was the perfect balance to Allen's neurotic based humor. She was light to Allen's darkness. Case in point, early in the film Sonja says that sometimes she feels like she is half saint and half whore. Boris retorts, he just wants the half that eats.
For one of the few times in his career Allen left the confines of his precious New York, choosing to film instead in Hungary and France. This is another example of Love And Death being somewhat special. The foreign locales give the movie a far different look. They add a feeling of scope often missing from Allen's films and are well shot with the cinematography of Ghislain Cloquet. Allen's savior Ralph Rosenblum cuts everything together with skill and razor sharp timing. Always a stickler for music, this time out Allen uses the work of Russian composer Serge Prokofiev to give the movie a strong sense of place and character.
When I first heard about MGM releasing the early Allen films on DVD, my first reaction was deep fear. After all, this is a filmmaker who really does not acknowledge home video and this is a studio with a pretty poor reputation for anything that does not feature a certain gentleman spy with a license to kill. So imagine my surprise when I found out most of the films being released were going to have anamorphic enhancement. The only hold out on the boxed set of films is Annie Hall (which is a rant for another occasion).
There are two versions of the film included. On one side is a 1.33:1 Full Frame presentation, which I ignored, and the other preserves Allen's preferred 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While there is a certain degree of film grain present throughout, the image, overall, is quite pleasing. Contrast is strong and consistent, with flesh tones being both accurate and natural looking. Blacks are deep and true with almost no pixel breakup or shimmer noticeable. The print used is in remarkable shape for a film from this period and it shows very few distractions such as scratches or nicks. All in all, a really good job from MGM.
On the sound front, 2-channel mono is the order of the day. Again this is Allen's method of presenting his movies and for what it is, it gets the job done. Dialogue is always clear and well presented, with such distortions as background noise or hiss held to a minimum. If there is any real weak spot with the soundtrack it is with passages that feature special effects such as explosions or canon fire. It is here that things show their lack of depth and fidelity. Once more no distortion is present but these areas sound thin and almost harsh.
Allen is also a nonbeliever in special content for his movies, so the DVD version of Love And Death simply features the film's original trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose non-fans of Woody Allen would find little here to change their minds as the film is a constant stream of Allenisms. Also if someone is only aware of Allen's later, serious work, Love And Death is going to come as something of a shock. It is very smart but is also quite broad.
While I know and respect Mr. Allen's feeling about special content, I really wish in this case MGM had included some kind of material about the things being satirized and made fun off. Knowing who Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Kafka are would certainly help the younger viewer. There are quite a few jokes that flew over my head for years until I became better read and well versed in the medium of film.
From my perspective I look at the films of Allen and see an evolution. I watch the movies and expect different things, bearing in mind from what period that particular film came from.
Love And Death was Woody Allen's fifth film in the director's chair and sits right before his critical breakthrough movie, Annie Hall. If you go back and look at the previous four movies, Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex and Sleeper, you get a chance to see the development of a cinematic genius. Its a journey worth taking because if nothing else Love And Death is one funny movie. Love And Death is a gag-fest where the jokes are right in your face and delivered at a relentless pace. As such, it is a movie that gets better with repeated viewings, if nothing else to catch the jokes that are missed the first time around because of laughter.
To top all of this off MGM contributes a really fine anamorphic transfer for which I am eternally grateful. Love And Death stands as a testament to my buying mantra, enhance it and I will buy. Priced to sell starting at $14.99, this is one comedy classic that deserves to be on the shelf and it receives my highest recommendation.
Writer/Director Woody Allen is acquitted of all charges as Love And Death is one funny movie. MGM is thanked for doing an anamorphic transfer for this laugh fest and this judge hopes it is the start of across the board treatment for all discs released. It would be a good thing to think of MGM in a positive light once more. Case dismissed.
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