Friday, July 28, 2006

Allen Analysis

There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.
-Alvy Singer, Annie Hall

From the opening moments of Annie Hall, the film is funny, familiar and touching. The above quote, the first joke Woody Allen tells in his opening monologue, has always rung true for me. Probably now more than ever before.

The film is filled with the misery and disappointments of life and love: An old woman walking down the street informs Alvy (played by Allen) that "love fades"; Alvy explains at one point that there are two people in the world, the "horrible" and the "miserable," and be thankful if you're only miserable.

I identify with the character, down to little details. The first scene, of a childhood Alvy visiting a doctor with his exasperated mother, is like a page from my own childhood. Could it be a lot of children out there worried about the "expanding universe?" When Alvy asks, "What's the point?" I realize I often ask this same question myself. I think the film is about answering that question. Or, perhaps saying there doesn't need to be a real answer or a real point. It just is.

Annie Hall has had real influence in my life. A viewing of it a few years back was critical in my decision to end a bad relationship. It isn't that I needed to see it to realize things weren't working. But, seeing the romance between Alvy and Annie Hall gave me a sense of peace (and final resignation) over my own situation. To paraphrase the film, what I had on my hands was a dead shark.

The best films always make me see something a little bit clearer in my life and myself.

In Allen's most significant work, he goes beyond his self-obsession and strikes a chord with the viewer. I think Annie Hall is the peak of his career, at least in terms of the prototypical Allen film. By that I mean any film where he's the star, playing his nerdy neurotic self and relating to other intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals-lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers on the street.

Those strangers often provide a punch line, and some wisdom:

Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?

Stranger: Yeah.

Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?

Stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

Stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.

Alvy Singer: I see! Wow! That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?

The first time I saw Annie Hall I was probably too young to comprehend what Allen was trying to get across. That the only truly happy people in this world are (perhaps) too empty to realize how complicated and difficult life (and relationships) can be.

It is an odd little scene, because Alvy is making a joke at the clueless couple's expense. But at the same time, he envies their ability to be happy and not worry and obsess over every little detail.

That said, it is very clear that Alvy is willing to endure the difficulties of life and relationships, that he wouldn't want the emptiness of the bland couple on the street. Allen's characters recognize the pain of life and in the end, they want MORE. Because when it comes down to it, the portions really are too small.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is both an exhilarating and frustrating film experience. Exhilarating in that it is original, thought provoking and at times extremely funny; frustrating in that its muddled hallucinatory trip makes one feel a lot like the detective/junkie portrayed by the god of "whoa" himself, Keanu Reeves.

Perhaps that's the point and trying to comprehend each and every nuance of the Philip K. Dick novel-turned-film is futile. It isn't really about understanding; it's about feeling.

Of course, as with the film’s fictional Substance D, there are only so many hits one can take before your brain starts to split off into competing factions:

Left Brain: When is this going to end? What the hell just happened?

Right Brain: If you want to understand it try reading the book. Besides, this is interesting and visually stimulating. Look at all the pretty colors!

Left Brain: It’s too long!

Right Brain: An hour and forty minutes isn’t that long. You sat through Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which was essentially a two and a half hour trailer for the third Pirates film. And not a very good trailer.

Left Brain: Good point.Come to think of it, when I see the box office numbers for brainless summer entertainment I sometimes wonder if Hollywood executives aren’t already slipping moviegoers Substance D or the marketing equivalent. And this from someone who loved the first Pirates and appreciated it in large part because it wasn’t your typical heat wave blockbuster.

But I digress. Getting back to Scanner, there's enough to recommend it and hope that its highpoints—the trancelike live action turned animation, the performances, particularly train-wreck-actor Robert Downey Jr.—can get some attention during awards season.

Downey is a master of enlightened drug-fused locution, turning his reading of single words like “murdered” into a kind of poetry. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson reminds the viewer what a deft comedian he can be, though his range remains in the realm of dumb brick to stoner, Larry Flynt notwithstanding. Then there’s Rory Cochrane, who is like some kind of junkie savant for Linklater. Back in Dazed and Confused he delivered many memorable lines, in particular one likening the dollar bill to marijuana. Here he doesn’t have a huge role, but a sequence in which he makes an important decision concerning a bottle of wine is one of my favorites. The moment is all about his character and doesn’t contribute to the overall story arc, yet it’s perfect.

And I guess that’s the crux of the matter. If I judged A Scanner Darkly as a whole, I’d call it a near miss. But its parts are worth a view. If Downey can get some traction and support, I think he’ll be remembered at the end of the year and into the Oscar season.

As for the rest, it’s such a hard movie to categorize. From what I’ve read it can’t qualify for animated feature—and besides, that tends to be where Oscar throws the kiddy choices. But if it can qualify, I think it should be considered.

To view or not to view...

Glancing over the list of Oscarwatch's first half winners it appears United 93 is the film of the first half. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach because frankly, I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready to see this film…I welcome input from those of you who have. Particularly New Yorkers who were here on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mad Mel

Will Mel Gibson’s new film Apocalypto garner Oscar attention, or has Mel been popping one too many little red Substance D pills?

But where are the pastels?

I’m all set for Miami Vice but I was a bit concerned by the lack of neon colors in the trailer. Will it update and honor the series it’s based on? One would hope so given its Michael Mann’s baby all grown up. I understand that if you’re not making a parody of Don Johnson’s white blazer you have to update it… but I’m also wary of another slick cop film. Please don’t be Bad Boys 3.

Note: This post was first published at