Friday, April 28, 2017

Annie Hall on its 40th Birthday


In what will be news to no one, Woody Allen’s Oscar winner Annie Hall is an absolutely marvelous motion picture. This classic tale of neurotic love in gritty Gotham remains a witty and vital entertainment, not aging a day since its initial release in 1977. The film, despite a thick stew of European influences, stands as an icon of the Great American Romantic Comedy and indeed both enlarges and transcends the genre’s conventions.


Annie Hall was originally conceived as a rather dark murder mystery with a minor comedic subplot, directed by Allen under the full imitative sway of the European auteurs he so admired. As Editor Ralph Rosenblum recounted in his superb book When The Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins,  Allen’s footage consisted of such a chaotic clash of styles a coherent assembly was impossible. By retooling the script with co-writer Marshall Brickman, Allen was able to pare down his sprawling narrative to a relatively simple romance, told in a highly inventive way.


Within Annie Hall’s hilarious sight gags and slicing witticisms, viewers will note distinct flourishes of Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. But Allen himself was becoming a more confident and assured filmmaker, no longer relying solely on his nebbish persona for laughs. Annie Hall was the first Allen film set squarely within his personal world: the excitingly grungy Manhattan of the 1970s, when the city was still a funky ethnic and economic smelter rife with avant-garde and dangerous possibilities, and not the glossy haven for well-heeled tourists it is today.


Simply put, Annie Hall is about the ill-fated relationship between a successful stand-up comic named Alvy Singer (Allen) and the title character, a charmingly scatterbrained Wisconsin-bred singer and actress (Diane Keaton). They meet through mutual friends one day at a tennis court, and a tender, if somewhat erratic, romance evolves. Over the course of the film the couple will endure all the transitions - both joyous and agonizing - that imperfect love typically inflicts on its victims.


Along the way, Allen and Keaton generate moments of hilarity laced with melancholy. But the film’s poignancy is counterbalanced by perfectly timed insertions of comic abstractions left over from Allen’s original, darker vision. In a scene that looks like a discard from Fellini’s Amarcord, viewers meet a few of Allen’s grammar school classmates. Through direct address, these innocent youngsters reveal their adult fates; an array that includes heroin addiction and kinky fetishes. In a famous segment that only gets funnier with repeat viewing, Allen produces renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan for a classic beatdown of an overbearing film critic. But these blackouts are more than mere comedic cutaways; they cleverly enhance exposition and momentum. Allen’s hilarious encounter with two unibrow Mafioso types outside a movie theater establishes his characters’ fame and success, while the scene’s coda – Keaton’s late arrival from psychotherapy – adds a frothy layer of fashionable neurosis. Profound insights are delivered with economy and brutal efficiency. A magical scene with Keaton involving a runaway lobster is reprised with Alvy’s new girlfriend (Wendy Girard), with heartbreakingly different results, while young Jeff Goldblum, with one line of dialogue, perfectly sums up L.A. in the 70s.


Through caustic wit and stinging observations, Annie Hall delivers a perfect snapshot of 1970s America; a time when leisurely navel gazing and wacky self-help regimens determined a pampered generation’s cultural legacy. It also offers a frozen-in-time capture of an assortment of extraordinary talents at their creative peaks. While Allen, Keaton, Rosenblum and cameraman Gordon Willis would all go on to make many more films, their brilliant collaboration on this production has never be exceeded. The intervening 40 years have not diminished Annie Hall’s sparkle, but given its sharply-hewn facets and fanciful dimensions deeper beauty and value. And we are all the richer for it.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

12 Angry Men on its 60th Birthday


12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s tension laced set piece from 1957, is the story of a lone juror (Henry Fonda) who seeks to impede a jury’s rush to judgment in a capital murder case. 12 Angry Men is a drama that grows organically from tiny seeds; seeds that 90 minutes later produce a harvest of shameful revelations. Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.


The physicality of the production couldn't be simpler - twelve jurors sequestered at a conference table trying to reach a unanimous verdict – but that simplicity is deceptive. Through meticulous blocking and skillful performances, the scope of the story far exceeds its spatial confinements, and creates a dramatic web that encompasses the social spectrum. Through an impeccable ensemble cast, Lumet and Rose explore the dynamics of that spectrum: the entrenched dogma of the extreme contrasted with malleable souls who simply go along for the ride. The script inverts its own logic and sets forth a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, all of which are overcome by one man who refuses to submit to intellectual laziness. Lumet’s frames grow increasingly tighter, eventually isolating each juror as his preconceptions and prejudices are swept aside. Soon, all each man has left is his own self interested acceptance or denial; the intellectually honest concede their errors, while the ideologues battle on with bilious spite. But the tides of change are irresistible, and even the most deep-seated hatreds are powerless against them; a lesson we all need to remember in these troubled times.


12 Angry Men is an actor’s picture in the truest sense, its unrelenting pressure dependent on timing and technique. Here, established stars like Henry Fonda and Ed Begley freely mingle with relative unknowns who would go on to long careers in television and film. Over the course of the film, each actor is given his moment to shine, and in vignettes great and small there are no awkward or fumbled moments. Fonda, as thoughtful, empathetic Juror 8, acts as the film’s navigational moral compass; his intellectual cool providing a counterpoint that both infuriates and impresses his fellow deliberants. His polar opposite, Lee J. Cobb, delivers a pitch dark rendering as an authority-worshiper who can’t wait to slip the noose on the young Hispanic defendant; his thirst for vengeance driven more by personal failures than any desire for justice. The great Jack Warden adds another winning performance to his portfolio of regular guy slobs while Robert Webber, as a slick adman, provides the film’s scant comic relief. In a superb sequence, E.G. Marshall’s self-righteous stock broker has his Road to Damascus moment when he fails a memory test administered by Fonda, opening a floodgate of second guessing by his fellow jurors.


Any analysis of Sidney Lumet’s directorial style – and his extraordinarily successful 60 year career – starts with great respect for actors, as evidenced by the whole-cloth fashioning of 12 Angry Men’s nameless characters. Some dominate while others recede into the background, yet it’s clear each actor is working from a tightly defined backstory. Their biographies rarely come into play during the narrative, but each man’s history and place in the world form vital building blocks to character. Yet, Rose and Lumet build beyond types, and their jurors emerge as fully human and fully believable; each man a product of unseen experiences held deep in the soul. These hidden layers give 12 Angry Men its pervasive sense of simmering contempt and suppressed violence, and elevate the film into an American classic. It’s a bare knuckle fight to the finish, with the sharp daggers of intellect and decency as the weapons of choice.


10 Years of The Savages

The Savages struck a vibrant chord with me when it was first released 10 years ago. It’s all about a pair of 40-ish siblings...