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The AFI Top 100 Films: Annie Hall (#31)

Entertainment 150Annie Hall (1977)
Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

I was surprised by the warmth of Annie Hall, though I’ve seen enough Woody Allen movies at this point that I shouldn’t have been. It has all those things you expect in a Woody Allen movie — the hyperverbosity, the focus on the absurdities of human behavior, the sharp observational humor, and I think that might be because it’s the first Woody Allen film that really establishes the template for what comes after.

Annie Hall is a quasi-autobiographical account of his relationship with the titular woman, though I’ve read here and there that it’s actually based on the film’s star, Diane Keaton. If that’s true, then she’s a tremendously good sport about having the rise and fall of an entire romance fictionalized and thrust out there for the world to see. Allen himself vehemently denies that his romance to Keaton has anything to do with anything, though, and he’s just writing what he knows. I think the rumor persists precisely because Allen seems to wear his heart on his sleeve in his writing, that his movies — no matter how exaggerated or farcical — end up feeling intimate because people and their innermost thoughts are always at their core. It’s hard to imagine someone writing so deeply without having lived it.

Here, a stand-up comic named Alvy Singer is a stand-in for Allen. They share the same birthday, Singer uses the same jokes that Allen did when he was a beginning comic, and they come from roughly the same background. Still, when Singer’s early life is dramatized so we have an understanding of where his neuroses come from, there’s so much that’s so outlandish it’s hard to believe he’s being literal. When he mentions that his apartment was underneath a subway, what we see is so surreal that it’s a genuine surprise when he comes back to it later on as an adult. Holy shit, you think, that’s an actual thing.

There’s a wonderful tension in that, where surprises are lurking in every scene, where you’re not quite sure what’s actually happening and what’s a flight of fancy. What starts out as a riff on a common-enough frustration — a know-it-all knowing it all very loudly behind you in line — ends with the subject of the argument (Marshall McLuhan, a prominent cultural academic at the time) coming out to tell the guy directly that he’s just wrong. A scene where Alvy and Annie grope awkwardly in conversation suddenly comes with subtitles that spell out the subtext in each comment. Allen throws everything at the wall to see if it sticks, and what’s amazing is that nearly everything does. Each scene is a delight, and I’m really impressed that he could sustain that for most of the movie.

Actually, maybe Michael Cera's surpassed it by now.

“This is the most awkward rooftop conversation in the history of mankind.”

The overriding theme, of course, is how people fall into and out of love. We watch Annie and Alvy through their first meeting, their gradual intertwining into each other’s lives, and the protracted, messy disconnection that happens long after the relationship ends. It’s a bittersweet affair; we know exactly why Annie and Alvy are so great together, and why they’re ultimately not quite right for each other. By the end of the film, when Alvy picks over the wreckage of their relationship, we’re right there with him, sympathizing, going back to try and figure out what happened. Ultimately, we simply have to do what he does. We shrug, take the lessons that we can, and trust that our wounds will stop bleeding all over the sidewalk in time.

Even though so much of the movie deals with the break-up, we never once are encouraged to take sides. Annie can be incredibly frustrating, but she’s always understandable. Through the worst of their affair, there’s a deep and abiding love there that never goes away.

And that’s ultimately what makes Annie Hall (and most other Allen movies) so warm. Even when he’s pointing out the absurd behavior of the people around him, or when he’s hiding behind the glasses of a nebbish misanthrope, we can see through his writing that above all, Woody Allen loves people — all of their messy contradictions, the inexplicable behavior, the wild variety of personalities and opinions. His best scenes are those where people have settled down somewhere private and just talk to each other about all the things that only seem to come up after a long night. You walk away with the tingle that comes with meeting someone you find really special. Allen’s able to draw that quality out of all of his characters, even the ones who may or may not be stand-ins for the people who have broken his heart.

Before Annie Hall, Allen was known primarily for farces and broad comedies. There’s definitely a farcical sensibility that runs through the movie, but it’s grounded by the weight of Alvy’s relationship with Annie, and afterwards the hopeful melancholy that comes with putting that relationship to rest. There should be a word for that kind of feeling, the one you get where you look on an incredibly difficult time and recognize the wisdom it gave you. Then I would be able to sum up Annie Hall in just one word. But it looks like several hundred will have to do.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: It Happened One Night (#35)

Entertainment 150It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
Written by Robert Riskin (screenplay) and Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)
Directed by Frank Capra

One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I’ve discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called “Poverty Row”. Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a ‘humbling experience,’ so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that’s the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn’t think much of the final cut of the film.

Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia’s biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the “big five” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).

Actually, this might be how they got to the Oscars.

“Will pay gas for ride to better movie.”

Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What’s impressive is you wouldn’t know it by just watching the film — it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I’d like to think the latter.

Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn’t approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that’s his actual name — he’s not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).

Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he’ll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That’s the only set up you need before it’s off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I’ve ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can’t stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they’re building on the template these guys formed.

Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he’s always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she’s quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways — Ellie may be inexperienced, but she’s tremendously quick-witted. It’s great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.

It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she’s such a fully-realized character. She’s helpless not because she’s a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she’s never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.

It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that’s come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can’t quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I’ve taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I’d never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There’s a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I’m sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.

This is a grand romantic comedy that’s about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It’s about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it’s only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they’re reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can’t quite catch a break. Together, they’re an unstoppable bickering force. The world — and the audience — is in the palm of their hands.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Philadelphia Story (#51)

Entertainment 150The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay) and Phillip Barry (original play)

In the very first scene of The Philadelphia Story, we see wealthy socialite CK Dexter Haven (Grant) packing his bags into his trunk angrily. His wife Tracy Lord (Hepburn) follows him out, carrying his golf clubs. She rips out his driver and breaks it over her knee. In retaliation, he puts his hand on her face and shoves her right back through the doorway. It’s shocking, but the chemistry and comic timing of Grant and Hepburn are so good that it comes off funny instead of violent. And it wonderfully sets the tone for the relationship of the divorced couple as well as the movie based around them.

Two years later, Lord is preparing to marry an ambitious businessman (John Howard) even though not everyone’s sure it’s such a good match. Haven has his doubts about it, so he hires two journalists to cover the event — and hopefully ruin the wedding. Just to make things even more awkward, he arrives as a third unannounced guest. What follows is a carefully structured unraveling of the nuptials and everyone’s relationships, so that by the end of the movie even though some things are completely destroyed you have the feeling that everything’s been set right.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. So many things could have gone wrong here. Lord is a severe woman who could have easily come off as cold and mean if not for the wonderfully manic energy, warmth and vulnerability Hepburn brings to the role. Grant plays ‘old money’ down to a T, and even though he spends most of the movie sniping with Hepburn he comes across as affable and smooth. Stewart is the biggest risk here, as one of the hired journalists. I’ve only seen him in noble, nice-guy roles and here he plays someone who can only be described as a jaded asshole. Totally different dressing, but he wears it well.

All of the characters have deep flaws that aren’t only exposed for all to see, but dissected in detail. Hepburn’s socialite Lord gets the worst of it, and it’s no small feat that she comes away as well-regarded as she does. Despite the sniping and constant jockeying for social position, there’s a clear love that shines through between the characters, and I’d like to think this is because of the easy camaraderie between the principal actors. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart apparently never needed another take of their scenes, despite ad-libbing quite a bit. That’s even more impressive to think about when you watch the middle of the film, the alcohol-soaked party and after-party in which the flinty shells everyone’s wearing starts to dissolve. The revelation of character and the easy, organic comedy that’s given equal measure is truly a sight to behold.

The energy ramps down towards the end, once Lord has learned her lesson and the villain (as much as there is one) is dispatched. People start pairing off happily, and I have to say this is the weakest part of the movie. Lord’s character arc is strongest here, and it wraps up well enough, but there’s not much left for the other characters to suggest they’ve made the movements they need to take towards the film’s resolution. So a lot of the emotional notes ring false right when they’re supposed to be truest, which is a bit of a let-down considering how great things were chugging along before.

Even still, Lord’s arc is a really good one. In order to love someone properly, you must be aware of and accepting of their flaws. She wasn’t even aware of how harsh she could be until it was brought to her attention (granted, in a really terrible way by her absentee father) and she learned how to face the consequences of a terrible mistake she never actually made. Having someone leading her by the hand to show her a bit of grace was the very thing she needed to learn how to be graceful herself.

I tend to have a hot-and-cold relationship with the screwball comedies of old; sometimes the frenzied energy just leaves me behind and I simply can’t connect with anything on the screen. The Philadelphia Story is certainly quick, but it slows down to breathe when it needs to and some of the best scenes are when two people take a break to really get to know each other’s point of view. Everyone involved really knows what they’re about, and for the most part it gives the movie a breezy, effortless energy that carries it through quite well. Any fan of Hepburn, Grant or Stewart should definitely give this a look.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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