BR: Alice (1990)

April 27, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: December 19, 2017

Genre:  Comedy / Fantasy / Drama

Synopsis: A Chinese herbalist helps a wealthy but emotionally numb married woman cope with ennui and the sudden attraction to another man.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Alice is clearer example of Woody Allen revisiting his familiar template of an unhappily married woman going through a series of personal adventures before she decides it’s time to change her life and begin a second and more enlightened phase that may not even require a husband or boyfriend.

Mia Farrow is the titular wife & mother who knows slick & sleazy husband Doug (William Hurt) is having an affair with someone, but it takes a chance meeting with single dad & jazz saxophonist Joe (Joe Mantegna) to spark a fantasy of having her own illicit affair. The attraction between the two is evident one fateful afternoon while picking up their respective kids from an elite school, but her leap of faith in extra-marital romance happens only after she consults with a very senior Chinese herbalist (Keye Luke), who prescribes small packets of green and white power which enable her to approach Joe with bold confidence.

Alice’s first go transforms her into a provocative would-be lover, launching a seductive exchange and name dropping that impresses Joe with her sudden deep knowledge of jazz greats; a second attempt renders her invisible with near embarrassing results; and a third concoction backfires by making not Joe falling head over heels with her, but every other man at a pretentious party.

What pushes Alice to act on that heart-pounding leap is the recurring spiritual appearance of first true love Ed (Alec Baldwin), who emboldens her into making serious choices, and forcing her to let go – not only of Ed, but of a very upscale world that’s insulated her from vital life challenges and allowed Doug to get away with stifling her deep desire to embark on a writing career.

There are multiple ways to assess Alice: a familiar tale of an emotionally numb woman reawakening and embarking on new adventures; a genuinely compelling snapshot of a person who’s given up on challenges because she’s accepted the dismissals, unkind kidding, and bad advice from her supposed life partner and close friends; and more interestingly, Allen setting his drama not as a salute to 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies and melodramas, but a glossy 1950s tale.

Allen’s familiar use of jazz tunes are present (up until 1990, he hadn’t hired a composer to pen an original score since 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex), but like the romantic weepy An Affair to Remember (1957), the music is more orchestral; instead of tunes lifted from scratchy 78’s, Allen opts for pristine, lush orchestral jazz and lounge exotica that’s very much indicative of late 1950s melodramas.

Carlo Di Palma’s extraordinary colour cinematography is as soft and cozy as a down pillow, making it logical to support scenes like Alice and Ed’s meetings at the school with Jackie Gleason’s string-heavy instrumental tunes. Allen also breaks from his usual period fixations by selecting music performed by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Neal Hefti – artists rooted in Bebop – but he still weaves in some Duke Ellington and Erroll Garner, albeit more mid-career recordings.

If the conflicts seem trite and Alice’s privileged lifestyle and Big Worries rather precious (if not grating), Allen still makes his tale fairly fresh by including fantasy elements typical of 1940s romantic comedies. Alice’s dilemma of becoming visible at the worst time are mined for optimum awkwardness, and Ed’s ghostly visibility has the two flying over NYC like Lois Lane and Superman, as in the 1978 classic film. (During that extended sequence, we expect Alice to mumble her own iteration of “Can You Read My Mind” as the former lovers bank and glide over the metropolis.)

Where the film feels a little bit dated are the scenes between Alice her aging herbalist, with Luke playing Dr. Yang like a wise old Asian from a 1950s comedy; it’s not offensive per se – Luke’s too good of an actor, and in his final film, radiates such warm charisma that Yang doesn’t bristle, but it’s the one characterization that should’ve been updated, especially Yang’s cliched broken English.

Of Allen’s 1980s & 1990s films, Alice is packed with an unusually luxurious roster of fine actors, most of whom have just a handful of scenes, if not just a single moment. Julie Kavner is a decorator, Cybill Shepherd a cold TV producer and Alice’s supposed good friend, and Blyth Danner is Dorothy, Alice’s sister who doesn’t hold back on telling her the worst mistake she ever made was marrying rich snot Doug.

There’s some Bergmanesque flashbacks to the sisters’ past – Patrick O’Neal is glimpsed in a super-short birthday celebration and vanishes thereafter – and Gwen Verdon has a short dialogue scene with Alice. Holland Taylor pops up in a hair salon, and director James Toback plays a mouthy bullying screenwriting professor.

At 106 mins., Alice also signals Allen’s increasing move to longer dramas, and the extra 15-20 mins. over his prior 85-90 min. standard affects the film’s pacing; it’s still relatively brisk, but the extra length deepens the sense that Alice is a reformulation of prior Allen archetypes and a template that would become more oft-used.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a gorgeous transfer, flattering Di Palma’s masterful lighting, colour design, and elegant cinematography, and there’s an isolated mono music & effects track featuring the source jazz cues.

Julie Kirgo’s essay highlights the deft touches in direction, casting, and art direction, especially the way Alice is ‘rolling’ in an absurd life with multiple servants and impeccable attire that glows gently under Di Palma’s lighting; as noxious as her world may seem to the average middle class, there’s a strange coziness to the colour palette that maintains a soft and gentle balance among the décor, design, and costumes, which is no easy achievement.

Woody Allen films released by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975),Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose(1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), September (1987),  Radio Days (1987), Another Woman (1988), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Alice (1990), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), and the Allen starring in the Red Menace satire The Front (1976).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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