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I used to think you were either a Woody Allen fan or you weren’t, either enjoying everything he wrote, directed and starred in (as is his wont) or dismissing every single film he was involved with. That is, until The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion came along. During its limited theatrical run in Australia the film turned that theory right on its head. Non-Woody fans found themselves enjoying this quaint little comedy, while dedicated aficionados found themselves doubled over in pain as they tried to sit through it.

I’m definitely a Woody Allen fan, after Mighty Aphrodite introduced me to Allen’s inescapable style of comedy as well as the delectable Mira Sorvino. Everyone Says I Love You reeled me in even further and firmly stamped my film tastes with a touch of good ol’ Woody. Now that The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion is released I can proudly say that my enjoyment of his films hasn’t waned a bit despite the critics being far from impressed.

Movie
The film is set in 1940’s New York, with the art direction, set and costume design looking particularly brilliant. Allen plays his usual awkward self, this time as a man named C.W.Briggs, an insurance assessor who is very successful at his job and is seemingly revered around the company. When an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald is brought in to clean the firm up a little sparks begin to fly. Briggs and Fitzgerald can’t stand each other, which becomes the main crux of the story.

"You are getting sleepy..."

On an employee’s 50th birthday evening the whole company ventures out to a bar and witnesses the hypnotic feats of a man named Voltan. The moment he pulls Briggs and Fitzgerald from the crowd to act as volunteers is exactly when the plot begins to get interesting. Voltan hypnotises the two using a pendant known as the Jade Scorpion and, much to the amusement of the others, manages to have them looking deep into each other’s eyes with love. He uses a key word to put both Briggs and Fitzgerald under his spell; when “Constantinople” is mentioned Briggs becomes and instant slave, while “Madagascar” puts Fitzgerald into her trance. Voltan knows full well the ramifications of this and uses these powers to turn the two into 1940’s “hypno-burglars”, committing jewel heists with ease then waking the next day without any recollection of what transpired.

Most of the humour comes from Allen’s Briggs as he is assigned the task of investigating a crime he committed himself. Throw in some bumbling private detectives designed for the sole purpose of having the mickey taken out of them and you’ve got a recipe for rapid-fire one-liners, Allen’s specialty. As only Woody himself can do, he bumbles his way through the entire film but, let’s face it, he’s only ever going to write and star in films where that character type is appropriate.

Even without the comedy aspect the film really works on the whole. There’s a bit of a noirish feel to the flick without it being too over the top and the intrigue is built with exceptional poise. There’s also some great value to the film in that there are numerous bits and pieces you’ll notice in a second viewing thanks to the knowledge you gained when watching for the first time. Jokes such as Briggs pouting “I’d hate to have me after me” are a quaint little touch.

Woody the burger flipper

Don’t be put off by the surprising General rating because there’s definitely some adult humour involved here as well as a great little story and some genuine wit that has become Allen’s trademark over the years. He might turn up the frequency level a fair bit on this one, firing the jokes off in quick succession, but none of this comes as a surprise to those who have seen the majority of his 30-odd films. If he’s not spouting the quick gags himself (“never bet on a horse with Parkinson's”) he’s giving them to the stellar support cast he so consistently assembles.

Helen Hunt is perfect for the role of Betty Ann, at times scathing in her remarks to Briggs yet delightfully sweet when she’s under hypnosis. Dan Akroyd is a little stale as Mr.Magruder, Briggs’ boss, who is having a secret clandestine affair with Fitzgerald, though he does have very little in the way of humour to work with. Charlize Theron shows she’s more than just a pretty face as the sultry Laura Kensington in a role reminiscent of Lauren Bacall or Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken in L.A. Confidential. Allen regular David Ogden Stiers is perfect for the devious Voltan, complete with the deep resonant voice of a hypnotist. Even Elizabeth Berkley gets a gig here, though she’s terrible at best in her very minimal screen time.

The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion is a very dialogue-driven film (which is par for the course with Woody Allen at the helm) and could well have worked on Broadway as a stage production. There’s nothing extravagant about any of it but the characters and genuine humour is so strong there’s never any need to raise the adrenalin level. The film plays very much like a mystery made in the ‘40s and succeeds in giving us a very enjoyable comedy with some strong performances to top it all off.

"Nope...the jewels aren't in there."

Video
The film is presented in 1.78:1 (the cover says 1.85:1) and is 16:9 enhanced, looking brilliant in its entirety. Sharpness is incredible and the deep colours brought out by the stunning cinematography make this transfer pretty spectacular. Nothing in the way of aliasing or artefacts to be seen, while the shadows and blacks are as deep as can be. The 1940s look is maintained whilst still giving us a young-looking transfer. There are no blemishes to be found on the print and the most has been made of the visuals, which are placed on a single layer, DVD-5 disc without a hitch. Brilliant.

Audio
Woody Allen movies have never been given the royal audio treatment and this one is definitely no exception. All we get with this release is a Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack, though it actually sounds OK. Dialogue is always very clear so you’ll never have to strain your ears to hear Woody’s rapier-like wit. The musical soundtrack, composed by a host of names including stage musical veteran Frank Loesser, slots perfectly into the film, with the poppish jazz numbers and cute little eucelele/mandalin ditties right on the money. It all helps to give the action a little more pep in it’s step, so to speak.

Extras
Continuing the trend, Woody Allen’s discs rarely come with much in the way of extra features so it comes as no surprise that this release is pretty sparse. What we do get are some relatively interesting production notes, very detailed cast & crew biographies and a theatrical trailer that tries it’s best to utilise some of the better gags in order to reel the audience in. The animated menu is simplistically attractive, with a little scorpion swinging around a nice mix of purples and yellows. But, sadly, that’s about all I’m afraid. Who wouldn’t love to pick Allen’s brains about some of his films and the way he goes about them? But I digress...

"Please Dan.....don't kiss me."

Overall
The film lasted only a short while in Australian cinemas, probably serving only a small niche market of Woody Allen fans or those who were after something less mainstream than usual. Thankfully the film has made its way onto rental shelves so at least there’s a chance more people will be exposed to what is a really entertaining 1940’s-style comedy. If Allen’s one-liners don’t raise more than just a little chuckle then I’d be very surprised. Granted, they may come a bit thick and fast for some people’s liking but there’s enough in the story and performances from the cast to keep you interested. There’s a stunning visual transfer that only Roadshow can provide, while the audio serves the film adequately. No extras on this one but no surprise there either, so overall you’ve got yourself a disc that’s well worth checking out.


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