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Woody Allen
Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Brian Markinson, Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol
Woody Allen

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some substance abuse.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Actor-Sean Penn, Best Supporting Actress-Samantha Morton.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Standard 1.33:1
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono
English, Spanish, French

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 6/2/2000

• Theatrical Trailers
• Talent Files

Music soundtrack

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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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Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Although Woody Allen's salad days are long behind him, he can still crank out some pretty entertaining movies at times, as 1999's Sweet and Lowdown demonstrates. It will never be regarded as a classic, but it makes for a modest and enjoyably charming viewing experience.

SAL functions as a "biography" of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). In this Spinal Tap-esque "mockumentary", we learn details of Ray's life, most of which come through in the form of performed anecdotes; we often see interview snippets from Allen and other jazz experts who lead us into Ray's various exploits.

Most of the tales concern women, especially when Ray meets mute waif Hattie (Samantha Morton) and - despite his protests - obviously falls for her. Ray eventually splits with Hattie and marries heiress Blanche (Uma Thurman) on a whim. By the way, this doesn't fall into the category of "spoiler" - it's on the box, so if you think this information harms your enjoyment of the story, blame Columbia-Tristar for putting it on the case.

Even if my comments could be considered "too much information", it's unlikely these plot revelations will affect how you feel about the movie. This isn't The Sixth Sense, after all; SAL isn't the kind of film that revolves around plot twists. Since it's strongly character-based, any enjoyment one derives from it really stems from the caliber of the performances, which are really quite good.

Both Penn and Morton received Academy Award nominations for their work in SAL. I'm not sure they deserved that high of an honor, but I felt they both offered very solid performances. SAL takes place in the 1930s, and the acting seems designed to match the style of movies in that era. As such, the performances appear more broad and affected than we'd expect today, but within the context of the subject matter, the actors work appropriately.

Based on the few excerpts of the film I'd seen, I expected Penn to annoy the bejeezus out of me as Ray. He adopted a funny little voice for the part that somehow managed to avoid driving me nuts. Actually, after the first few minutes, I barely noticed it. I've liked Penn for many years, and though he's done better work, he provides an amicably comic presence as Ray. There's not a tremendous amount of depth to the performance; although Ray seems haunted by some demons, we get no real hint of them. However, that somewhat superficial quality seems appropriate for the material; a more intense performance would belong in another film, not a cute and pleasant one like this.

Morton's performance also possessed the ability to annoy, but she sidesteps this area neatly. Even more so than Penn, she really looks like she stepped out of a Thirties film. Actually, her performance appears more rooted in the Twenties, when silent movies were dominant. Hattie is a mute, so Morton doesn't speak a word of dialogue; she has to convey her character through gestures and facial expressions, which she manages to do quite nicely. Really, the only problem I had with her casting is that she looks like she's about eight years old in the role; Hattie would seem more at home in an "Our Gang" short and to see her cavort with a much older man - Penn's nearing 40 - kind of creeped me out.

But not terribly, and the movie seems most lively when Morton appears onscreen. I've always liked Thurman, and she's adequate as the educated, refined and opinionated Blanche - the polar opposite of Hattie - but the movie sinks without Morton. During the last third of the film, Hattie barely appears, and the picture becomes more of a drag. It's not truly bad, but it loses its spark without Morton, and it felt like a bit of a chore to get through it.

Despite that problem, Sweet and Lowdown provides a generally pleasant and entertaining diversion. It's not deep, it's not terribly original, it's not anything special, but it is fun and charming for the most part. It manages to remain largely inoffensive without seeming sappy or overly bland, and it should seem appealing to a wide audience.

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

Sweet and Lowdown appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. Although not completely flawless, the movie looks quite good and offers a very satisfying picture.

Sharpness appears consistently excellent; it seems crisp and well-defined from start to finish. I noticed some minor moiré effects and a few more jagged edges that seem to result from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV - Morton's omnipresent hat causes most of these - but both issues were pretty small nuisances. The print itself looked perfectly clean; I detected no signs of grain, scratches, speckles, hairs or other flaws.

Colors could be slightly muddy at times, but that results from the many scenes that take place indoors with low light conditions; considering those sources, it's a surprise the results look as clear and bright as they do. Hues are generally nicely saturated and accurate, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels are deep and dark, and shadow detail appeared appropriately heavy without being too opaque; the latter was another important factor, given the many nighttime and low-light scenes, and the DVD handles them nicely. All in all, Sweet and Lowdown looks excellent.

My grade for the film's soundtrack may cause some controversy because a "C-" seems awfully low for a mix that doesn't really have any audible flaws. It is true that I discerned no significant issues with the quality of the sound on this DVD. Dialogue displayed some slight edginess at times but usually appeared natural and clear, with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects are clean and realistic, with no signs of distortion, while the music seems smooth and lively; both of those elements lacked any substantial low end so their range appears limited, but they offer acceptably strong fidelity.

Given those sentiments, why did I stick the film with a not-too-sweet and rather-lowdown "C-"? Because the audio is monaural. I have no objection to mono sound - from a movie released in 1959. However, no film from 1999 should have one-channel audio, particularly not one from a major studio and a successful and extremely well-established filmmaker.

Not for a second will I argue that SAL should have provided a spastic, cranked-up surround track that dazzled us to distraction; a film of this sort requires a fairly subdued mix. However, stereo would have been acceptable and appropriate for the material; give me just a stereo track and I'd bump my rating up to at least a "C+", and toss in some light surround activity, I could even go as high as a "B". But if I'm supposed to compare the audio of SAL to the hypothetical "average" movie from 1999, I can't give it anything higher than a "C-", for monaural sound is really below modern expectations. Honestly, I feel that even the "C-" is a gift; only the good clarity of the audio kept me from dropping it into "D" territory. As it stands, the mix sounds decent but suffers from a severe lack of ambition.

For the record, I checked a listing of Allen's other films, and although it doesn't appear that the Woodman is completely wedded to monaural sound, he does seem to prefer it. The only recent film of his that apparently used anything other than a one-track mix was 1997's Deconstructing Harry, which included a 5.1 soundtrack.

Why is Allen so stuck on mono? I don't know, though I'd guess it's for reasons similar to his decision to make all of his credit sequences look exactly the same; he's a no-frills filmmaker who doesn't want to (in his mind) clutter his pictures with anything that might possibly distract from the focus on story and characters. Although I don't agree with that idea, I could understand how someone would feel that way, especially in the case of SAL, where one could argue that such basic technology helps the film fit in with the time period depicted. Of course, that logic should also dictate that the movie be filmed in black and white, and that didn't happen. In any case, Allen will probably continue to make films with only monaural sound, and I'll continue to give them relatively low grades.

Sweet and Lowdown contains few supplemental features. Columbia-Tristar (CTS) continue to offer the worst Talent Files in the business; their listings for Allen, Penn, Morton and Thurman contained extremely sketchy and brief information, though I did learn that Allen and my father share the same birthday. (Perhaps this accounts for his longtime love of Allen's films? Hey, I adore U2, and Bono and I were both born May 10, so who knows if there's some cosmic connection!)

The DVD wraps up with a fairly large sampling of trailers. We find the promo for SAL itself plus previews for Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery and Husbands and Wives, Thurman's Gattaca and Les Miserables, and Penn's U-Turn. Unlike most CTS titles, this DVD includes no booklet with production notes inside its case. The supplements stink, but since Allen apparently opposes adding "extras" to his movies, it looks like this is the way all of his DVDs will be.

Despite that, Sweet and Lowdown makes for a moderately winning DVD. The film itself is a light and breezy little tale of a fictional jazz legend and his problems with women, and it provides a charming and enjoyable experience. The DVD offers excellent picture and sound that is clear but loses points due to the fact it's only monaural; the disc also features virtually no extras. I don't think highly enough of either the film or the DVD to recommend purchase, but Sweet and Lowdown would make for a solid rental.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2142 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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