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Woody Allen
Woody Allen, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, George Grizzard, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch, Tracey Ullman
Woody Allen

They took a bite out of crime.
Box Office:
Budget $18 million.
Opening weekend $3.88 million on 865 screens.
Domestic gross $17.071 million.
Rated PG for language.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Monoraul
English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 12/19/2000

• Theatrical Trailer
• Production Notes
• Cast and Crew Biographies


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Small Time Crooks (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

One of the most persistent myths about the work of Woody Allen stems from the widespread belief that all of his earliest films were easily his best. Itís the old line about how much better he was when he made the ďfunnyĒ movies.

Perhaps many will disagree with me, but as I discovered when I plowed through most of these older movies last summer, Allenís first few films really werenít very entertaining. Pictures like Bananas and Sleeper had some moments, but they also missed quite frequently and lacked much depth or consistency.

On the other hand, I could understand the lack of satisfaction with Allenís more pretentious and ďseriousĒ later works. Forget the Bergman-wannabe of Interiors; even allegedly-comic pictures like Manhattan and Stardust Memories seemed forced and lacked much spirit. Compared to these artsy semi-duds, the early, more overtly-comic flicks appeared fairly strong.

For me, the only truly satisfying period of Allenís first decade as a filmmaker came right in the middle. 1975ís Love and Death and 1977ís Oscar-winning Annie Hall neatly combined the wackiness of the early films with the maturity and depth of the later ones and provided easily the best work of his career. Iíve enjoyed some of his movies since then, but these two likely remain his peak.

As I alluded, Allen has been pretty inconsistent since the end of the Seventies, but most of his work has stayed in the semi-serious vein. Because of this, long-time fans should happily greet the release of Small Time Crooks, a film that more strongly resembles his earlier works than anything heís done in quite some time.

Actually, that statement isnít completely true because Allenís first few films were exceedingly broad pieces. He grabbed any gag he could find and threw it on screen with little care for plot or pace. STC presents a better-unified work, but it hearkens back to the silly characters and general nuttiness of the older movies.

STC most consciously evokes 1969ís Take the Money and Run due to the storyline. Here we find semi-loser Ray Winkler (Allen), a failed criminal who still dreams of the big score. He decides to rob a bank and will tunnel into it from an unused pizza shop two doors down from it. Ray enlists wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) to front the store; sheíll sell cookies there.

Ray enlists a variety of moronic henchmen and they start their task. What no one anticipates is that Frenchyís cookies will become a huge success, and all involved soon become millionaires when ďSunset FarmsĒ spreads its wares nationwide.

Unlike Allenís earlier pieces, STC is more about characters than situations; the set-ups are really used just to let us explore the personalities better. The reason the film echoes his older movies stems from the nature of the characters. Theyíre more consciously stupid and broad than weíve come to expect from him.

Which is a good thing. Allen always plays a nearly-identical character in his flicks; even when he doesnít appear, a proxy - such as Mia Farrow or John Cusack - takes on the Allen role. Ray isnít radically dissimilar to the usual Allen part - the man canít change his delivery and attitude enough to make that occur - but heís a far enough cry to make the role something more enjoyable. Rayís ignorant, and willfully so; when Frenchy tries to improve herself, he doesnít want to go along for the ride. It was a lot of fun to see Allen play such a simple and somewhat-nasty character; his ineffectual threats of violence toward Frenchy were surprisingly amusing.

Iíve always liked Ullman, but I must admit her portrayal of Frenchy could be rather grating. Ullman adopts the most nasal and whiny of American accents; it seems neither realistic nor amusing. Nonetheless, Ullman adds some dimensionality to the part; I initially really disliked her take on the role, but I grew to find more positive aspects as the film continued.

At times, Small Time Crooks can be a little too clever or condescending for its own good. Films with dumb protagonists need to revel in their stupidity more than we see here; Allenís tone feels too smarmy and superior for the most part. Nonetheless, I thought the film was a generally entertaining and amusing affair that offered a nice respite from Allenís usual pretensions. Itís a nice change of pace that works pretty well.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio C- / Bonus D-

Small Time Crooks appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, this is a simply terrific picture that presents almost no concerns.

Sharpness usually seemed excellent. A few interior shots in Rayís apartment appeared ever-so-slightly flat, but the vast majority of the movie came across as crisp and well-defined. Moirť effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV seemed minor. Print flaws were equally nonexistent. I saw no signs of grain, speckles, scratches, tears, blotches, grit or other defects.

Colors appeared absolutely wonderful. The film showed some lovely hues that were perfectly rendered and seemed exceedingly true. Probably my favorite example came during an early shot of Ray and Frenchy on their apartment buildingís roof; the scene occurs at sunset, and the warm orange tones appeared magnificent. Black levels also were deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed excellent. Low-light situations came across as smooth and appropriately-dark but lacked any excessive heaviness. To see how good these shots can look, check out the aforementioned sunset scene; Ray and Frenchy can be seen perfectly clearly through the darkness. (This starts at the 7:35 mark, if you want to jump to it.) All in all, Small Time Crooks looked terrific.

Less exciting is the filmís monaural soundtrack. For what it is, the sound seemed adequate, but the simple fact remains that a movie from 2000 should not have single-channel audio. However, Allen apparently dislikes multi-channel mixes, so I guess weíre stuck with mono audio for all of his films.

The situation made selecting a grade for the sound difficult. I encountered the same problem when I reviewed Allenís Sweet and Lowdown. The audio itself seemed good, but the lack of ambition means it simply canít compare favorably with other modern films.

As such, I chose a rating of "C-". As a whole, the sound came across as clear and crisp. Dialogue always seemed natural and accurate, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were clean and realistic and displayed no distortion. Because Allen used very old jazz recordings for the score, the music seemed thin and weak, but I canít fault the soundtrack for that problem; it resulted totally from the source material. Ultimately, the DVD duplicates the original recordings accurately, but it still merits a below-average grade because of its monaural nature.

Since Allen apparently dislikes supplements on DVDs, we find very little on this disc. Production Notes offers some solid text about the film. The piece is brief but fairly interesting. The same notes appear in both the DVDís booklet and on the disc itself.

Cast and Filmmakers provides basic biographies for eight actors and seven crew members. The listings for Allen - which are the same under both categories - differ, however, in that they include no biographical information; we simply find filmographies for him. At least these are nicely annotated; they provide details of Oscar nominations and victories.

Lastly, we find the movieís theatrical trailer. Itís a pretty modest package, but I guess itís about as good as weíll get for an Allen film.

At least the movie itself is pretty good. Woody Allenís work has been rather hit or miss throughout his career, but Small Time Crooks provides some of his better work, at least over the last couple of decades. The DVD features an absolutely fantastic picture, monaural but clear audio, and almost no extras. The lack of supplements makes the package less endearing as a purchase, but Allen fans should be happy with it nonetheless. For others, Small Time Crooks at least merits a rental.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.25 Stars Number of Votes: 8
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