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ANNIE HALL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  April 29, 1998
 

Film ****

Annie Hall is quite simply one of the funniest comedies ever made, and also one of the most adventurous.  It established Woody Allen, who had primarily been known to that point for making farcical comedies like Bananas and Sleepers, as one of America’s premier film directors.

The movie explores a relationship from beginning to end, but not necessarily in that order.  From his opening monologue directed right at the camera, Allen indicates this will be a love story told from memory.  As such, there is a fractured time line, and scenes that for the most part don’t seem to have a structured beginning or ending.  Like memories, they float along from one to another, and different sequences seem to call to mind other ones.

What makes this an ingenious technique for a comedy is in the way Allen is able to juxtapose scenes for maximum effect.  For instance, he recalls that he was a “reasonably happy” kid, and that immediately cuts to a scene of his mother complaining to her doctor that the boy’s been depressed.  Or Christopher Walken’s strange speech, which turns out to be one of the funniest moments of the movie…but you don’t realize it until you view the scene that follows it.

In other words, Allen has found a way to tell a comic tale in a purely cinematic way.  Through careful editing and scene construction, he creates and heightens the humor in a way no other medium could do.  But he also finds creative ways to make other techniques work for his comedy as well.  There are two hysterically clever uses of split screen, one involving Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Keaton) in joint therapy sessions.  The way these two scenes build off one another simultaneously is incredibly funny.  An even better one occurs earlier, where the two sides of the screen show the marked differences between Annie’s family dinner and Alvy’s.  The juxtaposition is funny enough alone.  But when both sides start talking to one another across the split screen, it gets even better.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Allen also throws in a bit of animation for good measure.  And finally, his method of constantly removing the “fourth wall”, stepping out of his own scenes to address the audience, are brilliant.  The scene on line at the New Yorker is one of the best examples, and one of the most shining moments to come out of the art of film comedy.

But the technique always serves the story, rather than dominate it.  And at the heart of this film is an often comical, sometimes touching, and amazingly honest look at a couple that comes together and eventually grows apart.  The fracturing of the time line is never hard to follow, and serves the script perfectly, leading the audience from moment to moment and back again.  Sifting through the past is rarely ever a linear experience, anyway.

And the screenplay, by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, is one of the funniest and most brilliant ever penned.  We get inside these characters, and understand what makes them tick.  What they do in comedy often expresses something in our own memory or experience.  I always like the scene early on, where Alvy and Annie share a funny moment in the kitchen with some escaping lobsters.  Later, near the end of the film, we see the same scenario with Avly and another woman, who doesn’t get into the spirit of it.  It’s a failed attempt to recreate a magical shared memory, and it’s both funny and a little moving.

With this picture, Woody Allen achieved something Scorsese, Kubrick, Hitchcock and other influential directors have not.  He received a Best Director Oscar.  The film also won honors for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and a well deserved Best Actress for Diane Keaton.  The fact that Allen was also nominated for Best Actor made him the first person nominated for writing, acting and directing a film since Orson Welles did it with Citizen Kane.

Not many comedies win the coveted statue anymore, but there’s a good reason this one did.  Not only was it funny, but it was revolutionary in proving that a comic film could also be a deep, complex, rich and cinematic work of art.

Video **1/2

Overall, the disc is good enough, but not as good as I had hoped.  Many scenes are striking and beautifully rendered, others come across a bit soft, with a little bit of noticeable grain from time to time.  The print is fairly good, but it still shows its age from time to time in the form of nicks, scars and debris.  I actually found this an interesting disc to compare the widescreen and standard versions on.  The standard version is an open matte full frame, and a quick look at both sides really demonstrate how much more organized the framed widescreen version comes across. 

Audio **

The soundtrack is an unremarkable mono mix, typical of all Woody Allen films, which serves the dialogue and considerable lack of music well enough.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Annie Hall is a landmark comedy, and one of the best American films ever made.  In an era that can’t seem to get enough of the formulized romantic comedy, this is a picture that delights in both breaking conventions and playing to the audience’s intelligence, and in presenting a relationship in an honest, but still comic, way.  It’s Woody Allen’s masterpiece.