Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: September (1987)
Studio Line: MGM

A shuttered, claustrophobic drama about six unhappy people trying to verbalize their feelings in a dark summer house in Vermont.

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Denholm Elliott, Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterson
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9; audio English Monaural, French Monaural, Spanish Monaural; subtitles French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; rated PG; 83 min.; $19.98; 6/5/01.
Supplements: Trailer; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | The Woody Allen Collection, Set 2

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/D-

Movies can provoke any emotional reaction under the sun. Laughter, tears, anxiety, joy, nausea - you name it, and you can likely think of a film that made you feel that way.

If I had to attach one word to the way I felt as I watched Woody Allen’s September, it would be “sleepy”. Though the flick only runs for 83 minutes, I barely was able to keep my eyes open during this dreary and turgid affair.

September is a character piece, albeit one with little drama and lackluster participants. The film focuses on a brief period of a few days during which some friends and relatives intermingle at the house owned by Lane (Mia Farrow). Lane’s mother Diane (Elaine Stritch) and her boyfriend Lloyd (Jack Warden) stop in for a few days, and we also meet Lane’s friends Steffie (Dianne Wiest), Howard (Denholm Elliott), and Peter (Sam Waterston). Some tension is in the air because of Lane’s semi-estranged relationship with her mother. It seems that Diane is a pretty pushy old broad, and weak-willed Lane is tired of her mom’s meddling and lack of support.

However, that mother and daughter stress is only one of the overtones found during September. We also find a very muddled series of crushes. Here’s how it all works: Howard loves Lane who loves Peter who loves Steffie who’s married and has kids who she’s ignoring for the summer so she can sort out her own mixed up feelings. Everyone frets about their feelings and seems fairly tense.

In a nutshell, that’s what September is about: feelings, and usually they’re unpleasant. Except for brassy old Diane and tolerant Lloyd, everyone else is so uptight and agitated that they all seem like they’re going to explode. Actually, this is an overstatement, as the two men involved in this love rectangle - or pentagon, if we include Steffie’s unseen husband - are fairly calm; it’s the women who corner the market on nerves.

Since all of these folks seem terribly self-centered, it’s no mean feat to stand out in the crowd, but both Farrow and Wiest do so with their frightfully annoying characters. Granted, Farrow’s usually fairly annoying, so her petulant moaning as Lane comes as no surprise. However, I usually like West, which made the level at which I disliked Steffie so astonishing. Among a crew of whiners, Steffie seems like the worst of the bunch. For one, it appears gallingly egocentric of her to abandon her family so she can idly play with her friends for the summer, but Wiest’s snippy demeanor ensures that we’ll find virtually nothing to like about her.

Wiest is also saddled with the worst dialogue in the movie. Amazingly, the alleged genius that is Woody Allen apparently wrote a line in which Steffie discusses her husband: “He’s a radiologist. He takes x-rays but I never let him take them of me because if he looked inside, he’d see things that he wouldn’t understand and he’d be terribly hurt.” Woof!

While most of the dialogue isn’t quite that bad, the vast majority seems to be depressingly superficial and pretentious. Allen desperately wants to make statements about life and relationships, but it all appears mind-numbingly banal and pointless. Unfortunately, Allen usually populates his films with pompous members of the alleged intelligentsia, and they do more than whine about their dreary lives. Perhaps this nonsense makes Allen and his friends feel better about themselves, but it’s hell to watch it.

If there’s anything positive about September, I couldn’t find it. It’s not that I oppose this kind of film, because I don’t. I actually really liked Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, a work that Allen blatantly rips off for parts of September. The problem is that Allen is no Bergman. That director could handle relationship films and make them seem effortlessly real and deep at the same time. Allen comes off as nothing more than a sad pretender. His own dissatisfaction with his comedic legacy appears clear through his lousy “dramatic” works, and September stands as a miserable testament to the worst material put out by this highly-regarded director.

The DVD:

September appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture had quite a few positive aspects, some consistent problems made it look less stellar than it could have been.

Sharpness was very strong throughout the film. A little softness crept in during a few shots, but these were rare. For the most part, I thought the movie looked nicely crisp and detailed as the DVD presented a detailed image. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no concerns, but print flaws were a bigger issue. Throughout the film, I noticed fairly frequent examples of speckles and grit, and the movie could become rather grainy at times. Much of this element seemed to result from the original film elements. A lot of the flick was shot in dim conditions and Allen apparently didn’t use much light that wasn’t natural on the set. As such, a fair amount of grain cropped up during these segments; check out the shots during the pool-playing scene with Denholm Elliot and Dianne Wiest to see some of the heaviest grain. Much of the movie passed without significant defects, but when they became heavy, they could be quite distracting.

On a side note, grain can be a touchy issue for DVD reviewers. Some folks argue that if a movie always showed grain - such as with Eyes Wide Shut - then the DVD shouldn’t be faulted for this “flaw”. This discussion relates to this question: should a reviewer grade a DVD’s picture or its transfer? In the former case, the image is seen as an absolute. If a movie looks bad, it doesn’t matter how it’s supposed to appear or how flawless the transfer of the original element may be; that film would still get a low grade.

On the other side, we have those who think ratings should be based totally on transfer. These proponents feel that it doesn’t matter if the movie looks like death; as long as it accurately replicates the source material, then it’s a top-notch transfer and it should get high marks.

Personally, I fall somewhere between these arguments, and I try to balance both sides in my reviews. Movies like September are tough due to interpretation of intent. Yes, the grain probably has always been part of the original film, but was this done on purpose? Some filmmakers like a rough-hewn look for certain flicks; Saving Private Ryan and Three Kings are well-known examples of intentionally-flawed movies. Does September fall into this category? I don’t think it does. I believe that the grain appeared due to low-light filming conditions and that it had nothing to do with artistic intent. I could be wrong, but I saw nothing in the flick that made me feel differently. As such, I regarded the grain as a flaw, even though it has always been there.

September featured a fairly bland, naturalistic palette, as Allen clearly avoided bright hues for this somber piece. Overall, the tones looked clear and accurate and they displayed no problems. Nothing in September will make you stand up and take notice, but the colors were clean and distinct within their parameters. Black levels seemed to be nicely deep and dark, and shadow detail appeared acceptably visible. That was important due to the prevalence of low-light situations. Some of the latter occasionally came across as mildly murky, but for the most part, they seemed well-represented. Ultimately, I thought September offered a very nice image that could have been “A” level if it looked cleaner.

As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, September offered only a monaural soundtrack. Despite the limitations of that format, the audio seemed to be fairly clear and robust. Not surprisingly, dialogue was by far the most significant aspect of the mix, and all of the speech appeared appropriately warm and natural. All lines were very distinct and crisp, and they lacked any edginess or problems related to intelligibility.

Otherwise, there was little to hear in this mix. Effects remained quite minor throughout the film, as they were restricted to quiet ambience for the most part. The loudest element came during a thunderstorm, and that portion of the mix sounded reasonably accurate and clear. I thought the thunder lacked much dynamic impact, but since it - like the rest of the effects - stayed firmly in the background, this wasn’t a real problem.

September didn’t offer a true score. Instead, all of the music heard during the film came from incidental sources. Music emanated either from records or from Dianne Wiest’s piano playing. As with the effects, the music always remained firmly in the background. Quality appeared to be fine, as the tunes sounded acceptably warm and rich. Ultimately, September didn’t provide an active auditory experience, but it showed fine clarity and the sound worked well for the film.

Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for September. All we find are some moderately interesting production notes within the four-page booklet and also the movie’s theatrical trailer. For the record, I thought the latter was one of the most perfect advertisements I’ve ever seen, as it succinctly let you know what kind of flick you’d find; the trailer’s drab, slow and says nothing of significance.

I won’t be so bold as to state that September is Woody Allen’s worst film. I haven’t seen all of them, so I don’t want to go on the record prematurely. However, it was the crummiest Allen flick that I’ve yet viewed, as it barely edged out Interiors for that “honor”. I intensely dislike both films, but September got the lower mark because it made me dislike Dianne Wiest, something that was hard to do. It was a pretentious piece that offered nothing creative or insightful. The DVD offered generally solid picture and sound but it failed to include any substantial supplements. While I applaud Allen’s attempts to grow as a filmmaker, his experiments like September completely fall flat. Even the Allen diehards should avoid this tripe.

Note: September can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1987-1992. The latter also includes Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alice and Shadows and Fog. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1987-1992 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $83.96 is about 16 percent off of the separate cost of all five movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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