Friday, January 27, 2012

ANNIE HALL (UA 1977) MGM/Fox Home Video

Not since 1938's You Can't Take It With You had a comedy won the coveted Best Picture Oscar until Annie Hall. Since then, no comedy has even dared try and for good reason. Along with Manhattan (1979), Annie Hall (1977) is probably Woody Allen's greatest artistic achievement - a darling existentialist romp through the rather severe neuroses of a pair of pixelated misfits. Co-written by Marshall Brickman and Allen the film takes romantic banality to a whole new and sublimely hilarious level. The film's uncanny biographical similarities with Allen's real life have caused some critics to suggest that Annie Hall is really about Allen's relationship with co-star Diane Keaton - a fact Allen denied then and continues to deny to this day. In retrospect, Annie Hall marks a significant departure for Allen from his previous movies. The plot is played mostly serious, if with brilliant, often scathing and supremely sardonic wit that only Woody Allen can provide. Originally intended as a drama with a murder mystery as its focus, Annie Hall ultimately became a study of imperfect (in some cases, seriously flawed) male/female relationships.
Our story opens with socially repressed misanthrope, New York TV comedy writer Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) and his misshapen reflections on his life thus far. Alvie sees himself as a typical Jewish man but tends to see Jew haters, both real and imagined lurking everywhere in his midst. To alleviate this religious angst Alvie relies on wasp friend, Rob (Tony Roberts) who chronically calls him 'Max' and inadvertently sets Alvie up with social neurotic Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) during a tennis match.  Annie is obnoxiously funny, a horrendous scatterbrain and a truly terrible driver. Her idiosyncrasies (smoking marijuana before, during and after sex) leave Alvie feeling even more socially inept and awkward, but with the added emotional hindrance of being hopelessly in love. Alvie engages Annie on a strictly platonic level at first. In point of fact, he thinks she's pretty dumb and encourages her to take night course to improve her mind. Unhappy chance for Alvie that Annie takes up his suggestion. As her intellect grows so do Alvie's insecurities - that she might leave him for someone more intellectually stimulating.
Annie introduces Alvie to her family. Her mother (Colleen Dewhurst) encourages the match, but Annie's severely disturbed brother, Duane (Christopher Walken) only seems to add to Alvie's nervous uncertainties. Annie wants to be a singer. At first, this dream goes unrealized. In fact, her nightclub debut is an unqualified disaster. But fear not. With Alvie's encouragement, Annie presses on, eventually garnering the respect of her audience and even the interest of big time L.A. record producer, Tony Lacy (Paul Simon). Alvie and Annie fly out to the coast (Allen poking devilish fun at the feather-headed superficial celebrity sect). Although Annie elects to stay behind to cut a record - thereby forcing her to breakup with Alvie she eventually returns to the Big Apple, though not necessarily to Alvie or even to that cloistered neuroticism she once knew.
Alvie runs through a series of even more tragically flawed relationships (Janet Margolin, Carol Kane and Shelley Duvall) only to realize too late that Annie has been the one for him all along. Regrettably, by the time he's figured this out it's really too late to go back and repair the damage in their relationship. Alvie will just have to live with the fact that he has let his soul mate get away. Woody Allen’s ability to fashion a cohesive story out of disjointed - often seemingly pointless - vignettes is not only admirable, but brilliantly realized. His non-linear narrative nimbly explores the past, present and future all at once, incorporating first person narrations and even animation to revitalize what is essentially a very conventional romance between two very unromantically inspired people.
Take, for example, the scene where Alvie is waiting outside a theater for a movie date with Annie. Alvie is suddenly accosted by an ardent fan (James Burge) who makes a damn hilarious nuisance of himself by screaming Alvie’s name and credentials to passersby. This scene, like the next where Alvie and Annie are forced to listen to a pontificating amateur critic while waiting in line for tickets, ends only when the criticized author - Marshall McLuhan – miraculously turns up from behind one of the lobby marquees to admonish the man and reaffirm Alvie's faith in sweet revenge. "If only life were this simple," Alvie muses. But these sequences have absolutely nothing to do with Alvie and Annie's romance. Nevertheless, they help to set a style, a mood and a tone for the film that ultimately satisfies and, even more miraculously, enriches the romantic thread along the way to its next deceptively explorative moment.
Woody Allen is of course his usual brilliant self-deprecating self – employing a direct address to the audience throughout the film that is quite engaging. Christopher Walken makes a welcomed edition as Annie’s off kilter brother. Diane Keaton won her Best Actress Oscar for this film. But knowing her as we do today, she seems to be playing herself rather than a character; her wacky delivery of lines and unconventional wardrobe just par for the course of who Diane Keaton is in life. So, does she still deserve the Oscar? Arguably, yes. Her performance is eclectic and moody and fraught with an intuitive ability to create empathy for the character. Only in retrospect does Annie Hall play like a quirky precursor to Seinfeld; another story about New Yorkers that, in truth, have very little to say but said it magnificently well as masters in the art of time-suckage.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray easily bests the disgustingly below par DVD transfer from 1999. Despite being repackaged many times over the years the non-anamorphic DVD was always woefully undernourished. The Blu-ray rectifies the first great sin. We get a transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs. But the image is, I suspect, at the mercy of less than perfect film elements. Worse, it looks at times as though it has been sourced from 720p digital files simply bumped to a 1080p resolution.
Colors are slightly faded and contrast levels much weaker than expected. There are even a few instances where film grain has that digitized look to it. *Check out the scene where Annie and Alvie stroll near the Hudson at twilight near the bridge. It's not only excessively grainy, but background information hints at some 'tiling'. Sharpness is also another issue. The Blu-ray is softly focused. Details don't pop as they should. In fact, there's a very flat appearance to this transfer. Background information tends to get lost or simply blend in without distinction. Darker scenes lack fine detail. Overall, I have to say this is a middling to below middling effort. Compared to the aforementioned DVD anything – even this Blu-ray is light years ahead of the game. But Blu-ray is advertised as the definitive way to watch movies. This Blu-ray does not live up to that promise! The audio is mono as originally recorded, and although dated, gives us an adequate representation of the original listening experience in keeping with Woody Allen's minimalist approach to making movies (at least, movies from this vintage in his career). There are NO extras!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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