What better way to spend your time off over the Christian holiday of Easter than to watch the films of one of the world’s most famous Jews? This 10-disc box set from Reel DVD (literally a cardboard sleeve over a DVD case so as to take up minimal room on one’s shelf) features all nine directorial efforts from Woody Allen between 1994 and 2002 is a fine one-stop shop for Allen fans and newcomers alike, perhaps made even more interesting by the fact that this was a notoriously rocky period for Allen’s creative legacy. I’ve seen all the titles found within and they run the gamut from the sumptuously made and inventively comic Bullets Over Broadway (1994) to the downright ham-fisted and terrible The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001). Such are the perils of making a film almost every single year.
The set’s finest moments come from the first few discs. Bullets Over Broadway is vintage Allen, and whilst encompassing all that Allen is so known for it is done in such a fantastically new way for the director. These mobsters, mistresses and their surrounding Broadway types–especially Dianne Wiest giving one of the greatest ever Oscar-winning performances–are a hoot to spend time with, as are the New York crazies that populate Deconstructing Harry, a film that sails along nicely until it turns into a curiously wooden (hah hah, right!) take on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Sweet and Lowdown features rather marvellous performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, whilst Celebrity is a perplexing, but oddly entrancing, black and white look at the world of a fame featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron.
Allen’s career is currently hiding high on the success of titles like Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, for which he won his fourth career Academy Award. The late 1990s and early 2000s, however, were far less kind as titles The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending and Small Time Crooks lack much of what makes him such an original. One of his keenest tricks is to insert a device – something one could almost describe as “wacky” – that allows his films of people simple sitting around talking to play as a far more uniquely original morsel. Consider the Greek tragedy framing device of Mighty Aphrodite, the trip to Hell in Deconstructing Harry or the musical sequences of Everyone Says I Love You (which features a brave Julia Roberts churning out a song in a voice only a mother could appreciate). It works as often as it fails, but it’s one of the things that set Woody Allen apart. Of his 23 Oscar nominations, 14 are for Best Original Screenplay and while Bullets over Broadway is the only title here that ventures close to his greatest works–which are, for my money, Manhattan (1979), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Interiors (1978)–there is still some exceptionally fine work to be found within this set.
The tenth and final disc is dedicated to a documentary by Barbara Koppel (Harlan County U.S.A., Shut Up & Sing) entitled Wild Man Blues that follows Allen and his jazz band’s 1996 tour of Europe. It feels inessential and occasionally quite formless, but it’s a rare case of Allen’s life being examined without the introspective nature of being written, directed and starring Woody himself. Still, if viewers are arriving to this collection of films–it unfortunately doesn’t come in a Blu-ray alternative–on the back of Midnight in Paris then I’m sure they’ll be surprised, enraptured, confused and elated all at various points. It’s not his finest collection of films, but any spotlight paid to this fascinating man and his career is a spotlight worth fixing your gaze upon.
The Woody Allen Collection: 1994-2002 is out through Reel DVD.