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Rarely has Woody Allen set any of his movies in Brooklyn, the borough in which he was raised after spending the first eight years of his life in the Bronx.

Even "Radio Days," one of his most blatantly autobiographical films - and one of six superb mid-’80s Allen pictures in the brand-new DVD collection from MGM Home Video - sets the place where the young protagonist grows up with his eccentric but lovable family during World War II as Rockaway Beach, which is in Queens!

And all the other boroughs take a back seat when the awed young hero is taken to a glittering Radio City Music Hall by his aunt and her boyfriend: Manhattan has been transformed into a brilliantly exotic fantasy land. It is precisely at such moments when Allen’s usual reputation as a too-cerebral chronicler of miserable upper-class New Yorkers falls by the wayside and he’s shown as an equally adept screen magician, demonstrating his love of cinema by composing dazzling moving images.

Numerous such images brilliantly flicker throughout the films in this third MGM collection; as of this writing, only his painfully confessional "Husband and Wives" (from Columbia/TriStar) and his latest frothy - and admittedly funny - comedy, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" (from Dreamworks) are not on DVD. For those Woody completists, Paramount Home Video has just released the DVD version of the hilarious "Play It Again, Sam" (1972), which Allen merely adapted from his play and starred in, leaving the directing chores to the recently deceased Herbert Ross.

All six titles in the latest collection speak to the power and enticing allure of art - particularly the movies. Allen first cast Mia Farrow in the light, airy "A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy" (1982), starting a creative and personal relationship that lasted a decade, until you know what. Held aloft by its buoyant Felix Mendelssohn soundtrack and Gordon Willis’ lovely photography, "Midsummer Night" is 90 minutes of pure heaven.

The unusually complex mock documentary "Zelig" (1983) - predating "Forrest Gump" by 11 years with groundbreaking optical trickery that put human chameleon Leonard Zelig in historical footage and photos - is a thought-provoking parable on the vagaries of fame. Allen followed that with the broadly comic "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), a sweetly sympathetic tale of abject show-biz failures who never surrender their dreams of success.

"The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) shows how movies are our greatest escape from everyday reality even as their illusions cruelly smash hopeful lives. And the Chekovian canvas of "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) works best as a paean to a New Yorker’s fantasy: finding true love in the most unexpected places. When Allen and Dianne Wiest share their final kiss, it’s bliss that can only be found in the movies.

Along with Wiest and Farrow, many notables pop up in Allen’s increasingly large casts filled with ever-familiar faces. Among them are Mel Ferrer, Mary Steenburgen, Susan Sontag, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Michael Caine (who, along with Wiest, won a supporting acting Oscar for "Hannah"), Max von Sydow, Barbara Hershey and Julie Kavner.

It’s a tribute to their director that their performances are perfection.

 

Borough of Kings

Philip Bosco joined Allen’s loosely knit acting company in 1988’s "Another Woman," going on to bit parts of several other Woody films. But in "Borough of Kings" - a Scorcese-lite direct-to-video feature from Avalanche Home Entertainment set entirely in Brooklyn - Bosco sinks his teeth into the juicy role of Uncle Chicky, the neighborhood Godfather who’s as interested in the cut of his suits and his hair as he is in keeping "order."

"Borough of Kings" follows Jimmy O’Conner (Jim Stanek), an aspiring actor who wants to avoid the fate of those in his Red Hook neighborhood - his drug-addict cousin is dead, his good friend Tommy (Patrick Newall) is one of Chicky’s goons, his fireman dad perished in a blaze. After sneaking into an audition for the part of Banquo in "Macbeth" at the Public Theatre in the East Village - with help from cute assistant Anna (Kerry Butler) and a sympathetic director (Olympia Dukakis) - Jimmy just may find his escape route. But complications involving Chicky and Tommy ensue.

Although obviously derivative in its gritty look at the local mob mentality, "Borough of Kings" does have an energy all its own, courtesy of its attractive young cast, notably Stanek and Butler. (And, for those who are interested, yes, the Twin Towers are seen twice, including in the final shot of the nocturnal skyline.)

There are times when "Borough of Kings" exudes an almost unearned poignancy. Jimmy’s uncle is a fireman with Ladder Company 136, and the end credits thank both Engine Company 220 and Ladder Company 122 for their help. Wondering whether any of those companies’ men were affected by the events of Sept. 11 unfairly overshadows this unassuming, unflashy but effective little movie that’s worth seeking out for a weekend rental.

 

"Woody Allen Collection, Volume 3" [MGM Home Video, ($99.98)], a collection of six Woody Allen films is available now.

"Borough of Kings" [Avalanche Home Entertainment, (19.98)] is available now.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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