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SEPTEMBER

september.mzzzzzzz (4048 bytes)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Denholm Elliott, Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Jack warden, Sam Waterston, Dianne Wiest
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  83 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

“Do you really want to die?”
“No…that’s my problem.  I’ve always wanted to live.”


Film ***

September is Woody Allen’s modest but emotionally effective attempt at a chamber drama.  Like a play, the film takes place within a single setting, and unlike some of Allen’s other notable films, there are no narrative “tricks” such as flashbacks, living memories or fantasy.  The storytelling is linear and straightforward, and works mostly because some of his regular actors give their greatest performances here.

The movie takes place in a family summer home as the summer is winding down.  We learn through the dialogue that Lane (Farrow) has spent a few months there recovering alone from a breakdown.  The house is now filled with people, including her one-time star mother Diane (Stritch) and her new physicist husband Lloyd (Warner), plus her best friend Stephanie (Wiest).  This group of characters, along with two neighbors, a struggling writer, Peter (Waterston) who has become close to Lane, and another family friend, Howard (Elliott), are the parts that make up a story about love, hate, guilt, and heartbreak.

Within the confines of this small setting, we soon see the patterns.  Lane is in love with Peter, who is in love with Diane.  Diane is spending time away from husband and children wondering if her marriage can be salvaged, and as Lane’s friend, tries to deny her own feelings for Peter.  Meanwhile, Howard is in love with Lane, despite their age difference.   Some of the film’s most sad and truthful moments involve the characters who push away those who love them, while trying to embrace the ones that don’t, and the structure of the story makes it so that certain characters are dealing with both emotions at the same time.

Diane and Lloyd, however, are a different story.  While their relationship is good (and sexually active, we are told), Diane is obviously a bit self-centered and bitter about losing the youth and vitality she once had as a star.  “It’s hell getting older,” she remarks at one point.  “Especially when you still feel 21 inside.”  Lloyd is loyal and dedicated to her, beginning so many sentences with a smile and “your mother this” and “your mother that” in praise that it starts to sound like a mantra from him.

During a freak electrical storm that interrupts a would-be party, the lights go out, the drinks pour, and the inhibitions crumble away.  There will be much revealed before the night is over, with moves being made, hearts being crushed, and secrets revealed, some of which are genuinely surprising.

The beauty of the film is in the dialogue, and they way they vaguely suggest connections from one scene to another.  Lloyd, for example, solemnly tells Peter of his beliefs as a physicist that the universe is morally ambiguous and violent, and there is nothing out there except our own physical reality.  This point seems emphasized when Diane, alone with her ouija board, tries tearfully to talk to the spirit of her first husband about Lane.  “Rap if you can hear me,” she begs out loud to no one.  And true to the fantasy-free form employed by Allen here, no rap comes, not even a deceptive one.

There’s something inherently sad about a summer home at the end of summer…at least, in my estimation.  Woody Allen has stated that part of the inspiration for the film came from Mia Farrow’s own summer place, which struck him as a good setting for a family drama.  There are more than a few symbols at play…summer turning to autumn equates getting older and possibly the closing of a more invigorating time in one’s life.  The act of packing up the house and shutting it down seems to suggest loneliness, as the halls and corridors will remain sadly silent for at least another year.  These are all the sort of thoughtful touches that make Allen’s dramas so appealing.

If there is a problem with the movie, it’s that the structure gets a little emotionally claustrophobic.  We as an audience are closed up in this house with these people for a little too long, with all the turmoil and angst being revealed and unloaded.   We care about the characters, but the picture reaches a point where many will find themselves questioning if they care enough to endure all of this.  Sometimes it plays like being a spectator in a house where a terrible argument breaks out…that level of discomfort.

Yet the insightfulness of Allen’s script is a plus, as is his first rate ensemble cast.  I’ve seen many of his pictures with Ms. Farrow and Mr. Waterston, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen either actor in finer form than they are here.  Diane Wiest delivers a performance equal to her Oscar winning work in both Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway.  And Elaine Stritch is a real revelation as the matriarch whose selfish behavior may have inflicted a lifetime of pain on her daughter.

I wouldn’t quite rank September with the likes of Another Woman or Interiors, but it is still a good enough film to reinforce Allen’s reputation as a writer and director capable of handling thoughtful drama as well as ingenious comedy.  And, as we learn near the end, since the events in the picture actually take place in August, September as a title might, just might, suggest that these characters are ready to let go of the past and look toward the future once again.

BONUS TRIVIA:  This picture represents Allen’s second completed version of September.  Unsatisfied with his first effort and the performances of some of his actors, he elected to re-shoot the picture with Stritch, Waterston and Elliott replacing Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia’s real-life mother), Sam Shepard and Charles Durning respectively.  According to Allen, the original version no longer exists.

Video ****

Gorgeous!  By far, this is the best looking DVD video presentation I’ve yet seen for a Woody Allen film.  Kudos to MGM/UA for an anamorphic transfer that captures the beauty of Allen’s vision and Carlo Di Palma’s superb cinematography.  Color, contrast and level of detail are quite perfect throughout, and when the lights go out, images maintain their integrity even in the dark.  Tones are natural looking and well contained throughout, with excellent separation and no distortions of any kinds.  The remarkable interior sets and designs come across with magnificent and minute detail.  There is no grain or compression to mar the pristine images.  For fans of Woody Allen, this transfer will be digital heaven.

Audio **

Like all Woody Allen films, this one has a simple mono mix, punctuated by some nice jazz music and cleanly rendered dialogue, and even a little dynamic range, though hardly a speaker-rattler.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

A thoughtful and insightful film about love, loss, guilt and ultimately optimism, September is a wonderfully crafted movie by Woody Allen that only suffers from occasionally getting too close for its own good.  With this beautiful DVD offering from MGM/UA, this is still one no Allen fan should pass up, and its inclusion in the new Woody Allen Collection makes the box set all the better for being there.