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MGM Studios DVD presents
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Mickey: I-I-I've got the classic symptoms of a brain tumor.
Gail: Two months ago, you thought you had a malignant melanoma.
Mickey: Naturally! You know, I mean, the sudden appearance of a black spot on my back—
Gail: It was on your shirt.

- Woody Allen, Julie Kavner

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: November 05, 2001

Stars: Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner, Carrie Fisher
Other Stars: Sam Waterston, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Tony Roberts, Joanna Gleason, Daniel Stern, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, J.T. Walsh, John Turturro
Director: Woody Allen

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (mature situations)
Run Time: 01h:46m:48s
Release Date: November 06, 2001
UPC: 027616860453
Genre: romantic comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Quick—what do almost all Woody Allen films feature more than any other director's (besides Woody Allen...)? Fabulous roles for women. Since Annie Hall, this auteur has created an Amazon horde of memorable female characters, all of whom embody the multitudinous facets of being a woman, as well as the exasperation men experience in relation to them. No wonder we love him.

Hannah and Her Sisters just might be Allen's pièce de résistance. With six distinct and indelible women—Hannah (Farrow), a successful actress and mother; her own mother Norma (O'Sullivan, Farrow's real mom), an aging actress; her sister Holly (Wiest), a struggling actress who starts a catering business with her friend, April (Fisher); the youngest sister, Lee (Hershey), an avid neophyte, and Mickey's (Allen) assistant, Gail (Kavner)—he crafts an entertaining and provocative interior of familial relationships, sibling polemics and emotional escapades that rivals the best of 19th-century literature.

But the women are not alone here. Hannah's husband, Elliot (Caine), is infatuated to distraction with her sister, Lee; Frederick (von Sydow) is the reclusive, didactic artist Lee lives with; her father (Nolan), who is overshadowed by his wife; Mickey (Allen), her ex-husband and father of her children; and David Tolchin (Waterston), an architect who can't seem to decide if he is interested in Holly or April, wooing them both with opera and other intellectual pursuits. While Elliot is perhaps most central to the story, Hannah is the tie that binds them all—and therefore, this naturalistic comedy—together.

In less than two hours, the film carries us over the course of 2 years, bookended by Thanksgiving dinners. We learn enough about each of these many characters to think we know them—a truly stunning feat, but only the place where good writers begin. Allen puts such genuine dialogue in their mouths that each persona becomes both unique and familiar, and this superb cast delivers every moment with garrulous authenticity.

While Hannah's family experience their habitual contentions, the character that threads through the story is Mickey, a faint-hearted TV executive and the epitomic Woody Allen we now think of when his name is mentioned: a timorous, dissatisfied Jewish hypochondriac who strikes out with women and happens to be terrified of dying. Fearing he has a brain tumor, Mickey provides most of the film's comic release: Desperate to comprehend the incomprehensible—the fundamental questions of life and death ("I thought, 'Well, what if I'm wrong? What if there really is a god?' After all, nobody really knows. But then I thought, 'No. MAYBE isn't good enough. I want certainty or nothing.'")—he casts his faith into the spiritual wind to search for answers. At one point, he turns to Catholicism, and does a bit of shopping that becomes more of a Jewish joke on goyishe ways. In the end, he has his epiphany, and it's the Marx Brothers who deliver his raison d'être.

Although Mickey Saxe is quintessential Woody, he does not steal the show. Every member of the cast, down to the ambient characters, present a flawless ensemble effort that adds to the organic realism of the whole:

Michael Caine, who won one of seven Oscars® for which the film was nominated, renders Elliot so utterly human in his heart that we forgive him his many, many flaws. Dianne Wiest (who won both of her Oscars® in Allen films, including this one) stretches Holly from breathlessly manic to sweetly enthusiastic, with a flashback to irritable cokehead in between. Hershey is vulnerable and lovely, although somewhat dispassionate. And yes, even Farrow holds her own as the sympathetic and sensible sibling everyone relies on—and envies—in turn.

"You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question 'How could it possibly happen?' is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is 'Why doesn't it happen more often?'" - Frederick

Max von Sydow. Speaking distractedly, eating a sandwich, washing it down with coffee, he delivers these lines as if he's thought them, in that moment, himself—to say nothing of his jealous rage, minutes later. Stunning in his brevity, his Frederick represents one of the minor roles that highlight the subtle texture of the script, for which Allen won Hannah's third Academy Award® (original screenplay).

Also, watch for a brief cameo from John Turturro as an angry writer on Mickey's show; Julia Louis-Dreyfus with impossibly big hair; and a throw back scene to Allen's 1973 effort, Sleeper.

Hannah and Her Sisters is infused with veracity, pathos and humor, but its most conspicuous quality is brilliantly inconspicuous: this may well be the original "show about nothing." Allen leads us through a subtle gamut of condensed emotions, and we walk away content, having experienced something—it's just that it was an uneventful something.

What did happen, happened to us: While Allen guides us through the ordinary peccadilloes of our mortal coils, he magnifies those things we take for granted and invites us to cherish the mundane. He offers the concept that there are no answers, there is only life and that we should "enjoy it while it lasts." In this spirit, he gives us a glimpse of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, reminding us that life is in the details; that we live every minute as best we can until the clock runs down.

Not exactly a drama or a comedy, this is an uplifting experience in that oh-so-Woody way.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: MGM gives Hannah and Her Sisters a 1.85:1, anamorphic transfer that has a few more flaws than most of the others in its previous two Woody Allen Collections. Colors, especially skintones, seem to lean toward red in darker scenes. Contrast is steady and details seem natural and precise.

While there is no excessive grain, the image is sporadically marred, most notably an odd, triangular blue mark that appears over Allen's left shoulder, about 16 minutes in. These defects are only remarkable when compared to MGM's efforts with other transfers in this set. Nonetheless, a thoroughly watchable image, if imperfect.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is offered in English, French and Spanish, and presents the wordplay here with no notable distortion. Dialogue is natural and even, which is of ultimate importance when these loquacious characters overrun each other. Allen's musical choices seem likewise unaffected, and his use of the dreamy standard, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered as the romantic theme lingers on in the mind.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Single-fold booklet
Extras Review: White subtitles in French, Spanish and English appear within the image, but are somewhat edited to keep pace with the often rapid dialogue: "I can't keep focused" is used to represent "I can't keep my mind on the show." When the exchanges overlap, the interpretation can be dismal. Again, the subtitles default to French ON, a minor annoyance.

The original trailer, which shows an excellent balance of the film's warmth and humor, is offered in 1.85:1 and is in good shape.

As usual, the standard 16 chapter stops fall short. A single-fold booklet with production notes is included.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

"I like him. I think he's a sweet guy, the few times that I've met him. 'Cause he's a loser. He's awkward and he's clumsy like me. So I like that... I always like an under confident person, you know?"

We know, Woody.

Hannah and Her Sisters is damn near perfect and deserves an equal transfer. While dissecting the ordinary exploits that define the human essence, it all the while celebrates them. If your brain hurts when you think, cross back over your Maginot Line (look it up) and rent Bananas. This is an exuberant accomplishment you won't soon forget.


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