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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Joe Marchese of The Digital Bits

Woody Allen: A Documentary (DVD)

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Woody Allen: A Documentary
2011 (2012) - Thirteen's American Masters (Docurama Films)
Released on DVD on February 14th, 2012

Dolby Digital

Progran Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-

When director Robert B. Weide's Woody Allen: A Documentary was first mooted, many eyebrows were raised. After all, the director is famously content to keep himself out of the public eye and not the type to sit down for interviews. Yet that's exactly what Allen did for this authorized portrait. The 2011 documentary has received a 2-DVD presentation courtesy of Docurama Films and New Video, and while it isn't exactly whitewashed, this comprehensive look at the auteur's career is unlikely to win over those who aren't already fans.

Presented in two segments originally aired on PBS' American Masters, Weide's film is told in a straightforward, chronological fashion. It blends newly-shot interview footage of Allen with archival interviews plus countless clips of films and television appearances over the years. Much as Allen has typically had access to Hollywood's brightest in casting his films, his imprimatur has allowed Weide to secure interviews from stars including Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Rock and Antonio Banderas, plus fans like director Martin Scorsese. Allen's biographer Eric Lax appears onscreen as does Allen's sister Letty Aronson, ex-wife and actress Louise Lasser and friend and co-star Tony Roberts.

Though A Documentary clocks in at 195 minutes, it doesn't present a complete portrait of the artist. The first segment covers the period through 1980's Stardust Memories, an intensely personal film that was greeted by poor reviews. Some of the documentary's rarest footage is included in this 111-minute chapter as it covers Allen's early years as a television writer, stand-up comic and eventually a screenplay author and actor before becoming the hyphenate writer-director (and sometimes actor) known today. The second segment then crams over 30 films into 90 minutes, with many of Allen's classics and not-quite classics not even registering a mention. (The first segment, too, doesn't discuss every one of Allen's efforts as writer, actor or director, egregiously omitting the notorious Casino Royale, in which he appeared as spy Jimmy Bond!) This is understandable, as Weide evidently didn't wish his film to become an "And then he directed..."-style documentary, but the inequitable amount of time spent on the last thirty years of Allen's career leaves the movie a bit imbalanced. Due to the film's emphasis on Allen's early years, his weightier, more dramatic fare sometimes is given the short shrift in favor of his crowd-pleasing comedies.

Still, there's plenty to admire. Best are the scenes in which Allen revisits his old Brooklyn neighborhood. He shares memories of the houses in which he grew up and the schoolyards in which he played, and resignedly visits the sites of old movie houses now transformed into retail stores. Allen seems genuinely content to recall his childhood. He's done this often in his films but never before in front of the camera, as himself. He also invites Weide into his New York apartment and displays the old manual typewriter on which he still types his scripts to the present day. There are no deep personal insights, but Allen lets down his guard just enough to share some stories previously untold. Although Allen has professed that his films aren't autobiographical in the sense that audiences and critics sometimes assert they must be, clips of his many movies are, naturally, used to illustrate an observation made by the director or another interview subject.

Of course, he's always at the ready with a self-deprecating quip, an art he's perfected from his earliest days as a stand-up comedian. It's both off-putting and humorous when Allen matter-of-factly reflects on the scandal in which his longtime companion Mia Farrow found him having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The director, already enshrined as an American comic institution, was suddenly splashed on the cover of New York tabloids with headlines like "EVIL" emblazoned on his face. He recalled his reaction: "I didn't think I was that famous... but apparently it was a good, juicy story... It took a little edge off my natural blandness." Allen and Previn have now been married for fourteen years, roughly two years longer than the time he shared with Farrow, but she is curiously absent from the film save for a few fleeting glimpses. The absence of Farrow from any interview footage is no surprise at all. Others talk about the situation, with Allen's longtime producer Robert Greenhut describing the actress as a "trouper" for finishing her scenes opposite Allen in Husbands and Wives after the scandal had broken.

Docurama's DVD release includes Part 1 on the first disc and Part 2 on the second disc. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1:78:1) with the film clips seen in their original aspect ratios. The image is expectedly clean and crisp. Audio is available both in 2.0 and 5.1, though the latter track offers little the way of the rear channels. It is a pleasure, however, to find the second disc bolstered by the presence of special features. Collectors of his cinematic ouevre know that Allen has notoriously refused to allow bonus material on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of his films, preferring for those works to speak for themselves. The bonus featurettes include five cut sequences from the documentary totaling around 18 minutes plus a short 6-minute interview with the director prepared for American Masters. The best of the shorts is 12 Questions with Woody Allen, in which Weide queries him on a variety of random topics from the hardest thing he's ever had to give up for health reasons ("Malteds!") to his most annoying characteristic ("Constant whining"). It's all too easy to draw the line here between the real man, or at least how he presents himself, and his onscreen characters. There's also an extended version of the film's interview with Mariel Hemingway that's pleasingly candid, and footage with Woody's late mother.

Taking in the film plus the near half-hour of special features, it's difficult to dislike Allen, who shrugs off any mention by the admittedly-admiring filmmaker Weide with what doesn't seem like false modesty ("It's not rocket science. It's just storytelling... "). Indeed, when he was awarded a statuette earlier this year for the Original Screenplay of his latest film, 2011's Midnight in Paris, Allen as usual skipped the Academy Awards ceremony. His last appearance at the awards show was following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in which he delivered a spot-on, heartfelt and funny monologue as a cheerleader for his beloved New York City.

Although Allen has diversified his shooting locations in recent years due to economic considerations, penning stories of London, Barcelona and Paris, he remains a quintessential New Yorker. A contemporary of Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, as well as a disciple of Ingmar Bergman, Allen continues to prove that his timeless and singular style can still be relevant and commercially successful when least expected. There's a pleasing comeback arc to A Documentary, as the film concludes with Allen enjoying the plaudits received for Midnight in Paris after enduring the disappointing reception accorded recent films like Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Weide is filled with obvious affection for his subject, and if you share that love of Woody Allen's films, chances are you'll find much to admire in this entertaining, first-rate documentary.

Joe Marchese

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