Sunday, June 28, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: Annie Hall

The Story: Boy, if only...

I can't tell you how many times I've stood in a movie queue and wished I could pull an expert from the crowd and say "would you tell this chump what an idiot he is?" (That way I don't have to do it myself!)

"Myself." Key word. Because that's the funny thing about Annie Hall (one of the funny things). It's not about "Annie Hall." It's about "Alvy Singer," and by saying that we're saying Woody Allen. It is a very rare thing to find a Woody Allen movie without the "Woody Allen" character in it. Even those movies where he doesn't appear, he's in it, portrayed by someone else: Mary Beth Hurt in Interiors; Mia Farrow in so many of his movies; John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway; Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity; Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And it's the rare movie of his that isn't focused—obsessed—with himself.*

At least that character is learning something in those movies, becoming wiser about themselves and the world. And it's amusing to see Allen view himself in a series of cultural mirrors—the reflection cantilevering through Bergman or Fellini, Chekhov or Tolstoy, German expressionism or Damon Runyon. At least, the character is learning and not fooling themselves. Much.

Which is the comedic conceit of this film—Alvy Singer is so self-involved that he can't abide an opinion opposing his own, whether from the guy behind him in line, or his girl-friend standing next to him. He's a little island of discontent in a sea of normalcy. But from his view, everybody's got a problem except him. So, he turns to the only sympathetic listener he has. He breaks the fourth wall to talk to us, the audience—we're here for him, right? But, it's clearly a fantasy—a dream-situation, not "life"—one that he has absolute control over, and he can pick and choose the participants, pull out experts at a moment's notice (and they'll agree with everything he says), make fun of the people who irritate him (while making fun of his own foibles and control issues) and still control the argument. He is captain of his fate and his life, whether he acknowledges it or not—at least in the flash-back structure of the film. It is about memory, after all. And we're all directors of our own memories.

Ain't movies great?  Don't you wish life was like that?

The Set-Up: Annie Hall is a very episodic film about the love affair of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and Alvy Singer (Woody Allen). In this early scene, their relationship is already in trouble, and Alvy, on edge because of their tension, can't keep his opinions to himself about a man who can't keep his opinions to himself.

Uh...I, uh...Action!

Man in Line: We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It is not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You know, you get the feeling that he's not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say. 'Course I've always felt he was essentially a...a technical filmmaker.
MIL: Granted, La Strada was a great film—great in its use of negative imagery more than anything else. But that simple cohesive core...
Alvy Singer: I'm...I'm...I'm gonna have a stroke!
Annie Hall: Well, stop listening to him. know, it must lead through an artist's work, leading from one to the other. You know what I'm talking about?
Alvy: (sigh) He's screaming his opinions in my ear!
MIL: Like all that Juliet of the Spirits or Satyricon. I found it incredibly indulgent. You know, he really is. He's one of the most indulgent filmmakers. He really is...
Alvy: Key word here is "indulgent."
MIL: ...and without getting, well, let's put it this way...
Alvy: What are you depressed about?
Annie: I missed my therapy. I overslept.
Alvy: How could you possibly oversleep?
Annie: The alarm clock.
Alvy: You know what a hostile gesture that is to me?
Annie: I know, because of our sexual problem, right?
Alvy: Hey, you...Everybody on line at the New Yorker has to know our rate of intercourse?
MIL: It's like Samuel Becket—ya know, I admire the technique, but he doesn't, he doesn't hit me on a gut level.
Alvy: I'd like to hit this guy on a gut level!
Annie: Stop it, Alvy!
Alvy: Well, he's spitting on my neck! You know, he spits on my neck when he talks!
MIL: And then, the most important thing of all is a comic vision... Annie: And you know something else? You know, you're so egocentric that if I miss my therapy you can only think of it in terms of how it affects you!
MIL: Weltanschauung is what it is...
Alvy: Probably on their first date, right?
MIL: It's a world-view...
Alvy: Probably met by answering an ad in The New York Review of Books; "Thirty-ish academic wishes to meet woman who's interested in Mozart, James Joyce, and sodomy." What do you mean our sexual problem?
Annie: Okay!
Alvy: I...I...I mean, I'm comparatively normal for a guy raised in Brooklyn.
Annie: Okay, I'm very sorry. My sexual problem, okay? My sexual problem, huh?
(A man in front of them turns to look at them and turns away)
Alvy: I never read that! That was Henry James, right? Novel...uh, the sequel to "Turn of the Screw"? My Sexual...
MIL: You know what it is? It's the influence of television. Yeah, now, Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms of it being a high, a high intensity, you understand? A hot medium, as opposed to a...
Alvy: What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!
MIL: ...As opposed to print.
Alvy (turns to camera): What do you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you? It's just maddening!
MIL: Wait a minute! Why can't I give my opinion! It's a free country.
Alvy: He can you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that? And...and the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan--you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan's work!
MIL: Oh, really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called "TV, Media, and Culture," so I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity.
Alvy: Oh, do ya?
MIL: Yeah!
Alvy: Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So, so there, just let me...let me...let me...come over here a second.
(Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a lobby standee)
Alvy: Tell him.
Marhsall McLuhan: I hear, I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong?** How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

Alvy: Boy, if life were only like this.

Annie Hall

Words by Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen

Pictures by Gordon Willis and Woody Allen

Annie Hall is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* I forget the movie, but one of the prototypical Allen lines is "What's wrong with masturbation? At least it's sex with someone I love!" ***

** The link on that line goes to—yes—a paper dealing with the subject of that confusing line.

*** In fact, it's Annie Hall.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

Humor Me
"Forget it, Jake.  It's Cloud-Town."

One should never make an assumption going into a movie because it will cloud the experience and make you not appreciate what is really up there on the screen as a personal experience, rather than by, say, assessments of critics, studio-hype, or the impressions evoked by a trailer.

Pixar's latest, Inside Out, looked to be not much. The characters are cartoon-y, and not impressive in their rendering, like (you know) Minions or like a lot of the output of Dreamworks Animation. Pixar movies are events, pushing the form of animation, digital graphics and for just plain story-smarts, and the only time they've failed (I'm thinking the Cars movies and Planes) they've really dumbed down the artistry on all fronts. Inside Out looked to be like that, a place-holder until they could get The Good Dinosaur finalized.

Silly me. Inside Out may be the best Pixar movie yet, and that is saying a very Big Something. One of the best things about the studio's output has been its story-sense—that story comes out of character. Here, they do the flip-side: character comes out of story.

One doesn't want to talk too much about the particulars in depth because there is a lot of that, and part of the joy of Inside Out is discovering that depth and just how far the writers (especially) and the Pixar team go to achieving it.  So, here's a gloss: Inside Out is about Riley (voiced by Kaitlin Dias), an 11 year-old girl living in Minnesota, into ice-hockey, and living a fairly normal life.  Her family (Mom and dad are voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) move the family to San Francisco, uprooting Kiley's normal, changing schools, leaving friends and on a basic level shattering her "normal."
That "normal" began as an infant when she first opened her eyes and experienced "Joy" (voiced by Amy Poehler). The emotions that drive Riley throughout her childhood are brilliantly imagined and worked out on a mechanical level, but "Joy" is soon joined by "Sadness" (Phyllis Smith of "The Office"—brilliant). "Fear" (Bill Hader), "Disgust" (Mindy Kaling—ditto), and "Anger" (Lewis Black—of course). These five emotions mix and commingle, fight and compromise, getting Riley through her day, then call it "a day" when she goes to sleep. (One of my favorite lines is this summation from "Fear": "Okay, we did not die today. I call that an unqualified success!")
Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness monitoring in Head-quarters.
But "The Move" has put a serious whammy on the life of Riley, taking her completely out of her comfort zone, creating a crisis of her unconscious and throwing her emotions into a tizzy—see where this is already going? It will take some serious adjustment in her head for things to be set right, and that quest is where the bulk of Inside Out if focused. It's an animated psychology lesson (that won't freak out the Scientologists, as they say the same things at their molten core), a philosophy strategem (that can't be accused of social engineering) and probably does as much as a library of self-help books to get your head on straight (and, even in 3-D, it only charges $10.50 an hour—the chairs are comfortable, too). 
It won't affect the Greek's, either, who saw personality in the same way, although controlled by four "humors," each one tied to a body function. In decreasing orders of "Joy," they are sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric. These four aspects controlled personality and informed their medicine, their social interactions, even their arts. Inside Out continues the long tradition of breaking personality into aspects which control our behaviors, our actions, and, ultimately, our lives. It examines character and motivation, not as merely a means to create drama, but to explain our selves.
It does all this and it's a flippin' cartoon!  A flippin' cartoon that looks as sophisticated as Gerald McBoing-Boing.* But, then when has a flippin' cartoon tackled childhood angst and the complex dynamic of personality? Of how past experience informs and shapes us, and ultimately guides us, whether we are aware of it or not. It's a cartoon that will entertain children with its bright colors and simple concepts and educate adults, while not preaching, but entertaining, teaching by example and inspiring a path. A warm feeling of familiarity spread through me while watching Inside Out and I can't believe I would be alone in this feeling.
This is what is amazing about the group of artists that make up Pixar, who pioneered the techniques and pitfalls of dimensional computer graphics, only to see their accomplishments copied and emulated. What nobody else has been able to grasp, though, is their story-telling sense. Because, even though the graphics sensibility is a technique that can be copied, their way of combining comedy with a solid lesson-learning prospectus, with the risk of injecting drama—heart-wrenching drama—into their films, whether its the melancholy 'When She Loved Me" sequence of Toy Story 2, the remarkable life-story prelude of Up, the basically-silent first section of Wall•e, or the furnace sequence of Toy Story 3, has taken narrative and emotional risks that only make the films far richer than any technological advance or artist's technique could create.  This is also something inherited from the Greeks.
I can't recommend this one highly enough. The most praise I can heap on it is to merely so "go." Do not hesitate. Go see it. Whatever version you see, however much you spend on it, will be worth it. 

Inside Out is "dedicated to our kids. please don't grow up. ever."

May Pixar do the same.

If you want to see Pixar's amazing graphics capabilities, the short preceding it, Lava, will fulfill that need.

* Okay, I'm simplifying there, although the characters of the emotions are definitely mindful of basic UPA cartoons.  The home scenes are the same artfully detailed images Pixar lavishes attention on.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Jurassic World

You Bet Jurassic
"We're Just Used to Being the Cat"

It was tough to find parking when I went to see Jurassic World the other day—the parking lot was filled. The film has achieved the status of having the "highest grossing weekend" of any movie in history (surpassing the original Avengers).* That says something: the word-of-mouth is good, the marketing strategy worked, its box-office achievement inspired more movie-goers. In fact, it has surpassed the original in terms of box office crunching. I find that odd. Steven Spielberg's follow-up sequel The Lost World didn't do this well, nor did Jurassic Park III, even though those films had the original stars of the first in them (Jeff Goldblum in Lost World, Sam Neill and Laura Dern in III) and only B.D. Wong is around from the first one here. You could say that all the dino's were the stars of the film, especially the veteran T-Rex's and ingenue velociraptors. The director has only made one other film, the considerably low budget Safety Not Guaranteed, and the films are now far removed from Michael Crichton's original books.  So...why now?
The answer can probably be found in one of the themes of the film—there are many, sourced from other Spielberg films and diverse movie references—the finally-opened-because-we-worked-the-bugs-out theme park attracts visitors, sure.  But, business has leveled off.  So, to bring in the patrons again, they're going for a new route for producing dinosaurs under the dictate "Bigger. Louder. More Teeth."
Spielberg reference: the bait is a great white shark
That sounds like a movie tag line, and I'm surprised it hasn't been used on a poster for this...yet. But, it is "bigger, louder, more teeth" and it has an element that the other "Jurassic's" didn't have—more victim potential. This is the one that follows through on the original intent of the first novel; they've actually opened up a theme park for rich tourists to go see all the cute, cuddly dinosaurs that have been bred for the purpose. The disconnect in the first film was that if they're making a tourist attraction, why breed the most dangerous— and carnivorous—of the dinosaurs that would pose a danger to the folks paying good money. Dead customers are not return customers (one could make the same point about zoo's; tigers are good and all, but you don't exactly having zoo-goers walking amongst them. The park at Isla Nublar turns the zoo concept backwards—the dinosaurs run free, it's the tourists who are behind glass (in this case not the old Range Rovers on a track like the first film, but roving perspex spheres that look very, very vulnerable and prove to be so in the film). One wonders why they would breed the most dangerous of the dinosaurs in the first place, but, hey, what good is a dinosaur park without a T-Rex?
We'll put in the pterodactyls later...or is it The Birds?
Less of an insurance risk, actually.

And...really, everything has gone so well there in the past, what could possibly go worng?
Let me count the ways. For one thing, they're breeding hybrid dinosaurs, creating a new one called the "Indominus Rex" from sources unknown. Then, there's a visit from an overenthusiastic and ambitious InGen "suit" (Vincent D'Onofrio) who is all giddy about the possibility of "weaponizing" dinosaurs (oh, that's a really good idea—set 'em loose, get the job done and wait for them to attack their minders). Then, we've got the surly park ranger, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) who fancies himself a "raptor whisperer" attempting to train velociraptors—oh, there's a really, REALLY good idea. Part of the appeal of the 'raptors from the earlier films is that they were dinosaur bad-asses—you couldn't trust them and they were cunning and relentless. So, here's this guy who thinks you can train these things like a poodle. For the movie franchise, isn't that a bit like undercutting the brand? Say, like making "Godzilla" a good guy? (Oh, wait, they've done that).
Then, there's the Park's Operations Manager Clair N. Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who while all of this is going down, meeting with investors, as well as a visit by the CEO of the corporate holding company (Irrfan Khan, always a pleasure), as well as having to take care of her two nephews who have been tossed by their parents (Judy Greer, Andy Buckley) who are hoping to have some time away from their kids so they can plan their divorce. She's also had a short-lived dating thing with Grady that didn't amount to much because they're such polar opposites. Things are probably problematic on a GOOD day, with so many guest-stars arriving, things will probably go south and in a big hurry.
Normal at Jurassic World
Now, don't get me wrong, Jurassic World is pretty-darned good, and in a way that's not so familiar in feeling to the other films, while being slotted to be an entertainment machine: it's constructed of so much past history of JP and a lot of other movies, it has a nicely formed cookie-cutter familiarity to it, which gives it a nice comfort level in its ability to provide discomfort. And it is so gleeful in its depiction of a corporate Disneyland with killing machines, it didn't remind me so much of an adventure movie, as say, Jurassic Park was, so much as a "Summer Movie" placeholder, designed to make audiences feel good. 
Not-so-normal at Jurassic World (it must be "Fog" theme-day)
Let me explain: Jurassic World does not put me in mind of Jurassic Park, so much as Jaws 2. Remember that one? The original Jaws was an adventure story about peril that disrupted a resort Summer. It was moody, and had high stakes, even while Spielberg was trying to milk as much screams and nervous laughter out of the material. Its sequel (which is odd because Spielberg had nothing to do with it, while he was part of the development of this film) had the trademarks of the first film (sharks chasing people, Summer, tourist season), but it had a peculiar mood, which featured cute teens in jeopardy, water-skiers in jeopardy, a general "fun-in-the-sun" kind of vibe that just didn't play well with any sort of adventure at sea aspect that was at the heart of the Jaws concept. It was Universal Studio's attempt to "theme-park" a meteoric success, to disassociate it from its roots and shoe-horn it into "Summer fun" activity.
Grady and Dearing realize they're going to have to do some re-stocking.
The Indominus Rex kills for sport.
Jurassic World has that same feel. As competently made as it is, one gets the feeling there's an attempt to shoe-horn more entertainment value by 1) putting tourists in jeopardy; 2) making the velociraptors more relatable to audiences, making them almost personalities (maybe the film-makers remember the dinosaur scene from The Tree of Life with its 'raptor that spares its helpless prey?); 3) promoting the Universal brand by emphasizing the "theme park" aspect of it and tying it into the "Summer" activity feel of things. Jurassic World isn't so much a movie blockbuster as it is a cross-promotional activity designed to re-emphasize the money-potential to be garnered by the corporation that produced it. It has more things on its agenda than merely being an entertainment in its own right. It has to be an advertisement, as well.
Probably the dumbest thing about Jurassic World:
"Release the 'raptors..."


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

San Andreas

Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?
"...And Upon This Rock I'll Build My Search."

San Andreas, like Titanichits the disaster movie formula just right—have a catastrophic event, but concentrate on just a handful of people. Oh, there are a lot of people in San Andreas. it's just that their roles amount to only a few seconds before we don't care about them anymore. They're basically innocent by-standers caught in the shaking.

Nope the action is extraordinarily focused: it's just Dwayne Johnson's extended-family-by-divorce (Carla Gugino, Ioan Gruffud, Kylie Minogue, Alexandra Daddario), the love interest for Ms. Daddano (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his brother—who fulfills the role of "kid in jeopardy"(Art Parkinson), the folks at CalTech (Paul Giamatti, the handy reporter-expositioner played by Archie Panjabi, and some student-players).

And that's it.*

No, really. That's it. It ain't an all-star cast in line to fall through the cracks, it's basically that clutch of actors doing their best to be interesting...and the rest who get minimal screen time, who are lucky if they last past an edit. If you're going to have a big disaster, best to keep it intimate, I guess.
It's just another day for LAFD Chief Rescue Pilot Raymond Gaines (Johnson**): a blonde in a tank top and tight jeans (Morgan Griffin) has just careened off the freeway (damn kids, texting and driving) and her car is suspended on a tree-limb in a deep and tight gully and it takes some kind of helicopter wizard to get deep enough in the trench to winch her out. Ray's your man. One of the young turks on-board decides she's cute enough to rescue himself but gets himself pinned in the attempt. And (uh-oh) they're running out of gas. So, even though he's the Chief Pilot, Ray does the job himself, grabbing the girl, freeing the turk and whisking them both up to the chopper. Radiant smiles all around.  
"They" say that this is a shot from San Andreas on the Interwebs,
but it's actually from Fast and Furious 6..because 1) that's Gina Carano
(not Carla Gugino, but one can see the confusion..???) next to The Rock and
2) he's not wearing his LAFD helmet (which is why they're using the pic)
Hey, we're just getting started. Witty banter post rescue turns into domestic drama/skin shot as Ray cell-talks to daughter Blake (Daddario) sunning herself poolside in a bikini. I have completely forgotten what they talked about. I think it was a bicycle. Now, one could grouse about this (if this male writer weren't so grateful), but there is a general obsession with pulchritude in San Andreas. Now, it is both of the female and male variety, which is damned fair of them. And one would be suspicious of that if the women in this film weren't as capable (and frequently more so) than the men involved (when they are not completely incapacitated, like stuck in the back-seat of a vehicle being crushed by a crumbling garage, for instance). No, Carla Gugino runs like Captain America across calving roof-tops rarely missing a step; Daddario can find emergency supplies at the drop of fire-truck and doesn't even break a sweat when pulling a big shard of glass out of a femoral muscle, and when she runs...whatever else is in the frame becomes irrelevant. And forgotten.
Oh. The bicycle. Back to that. She needs it for going to school in San Francisco, which Ray will be driving her to. Well, that plan collapses when he drives over to his estranged wife's house and finds that boyfriend Daniel (who's moving in) will be doing that. Oops. Somebody forgot to mention that. Poor Ray. His family is starting to split apart.

He thinks HE has problems.

Now, if somebody is taking this too far in any film-scholarly direction, one could say that this is a character set-up of magnification/identification.  As his word starts to shatter, Gaea does the same in sympathy. Well, if so, she's overdoing it. Over at CalTech, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti), who, after giving an alarming lecture in his Earthquake 101 class, is excited to hear that a bunch of "magnetic pulse rates" are "spiking" in Nevada.  Road trip!  So, he and a research assistant (Will Yun Lee) go to the oh-so-safe location of Hoover Dam to do "spike readings" (to quote any Republican taking money from coal interests or big-oil: "I'm not a scientist, so I really can't say...") with Giamatti safely on top of the dam and the disposable minority actor deep in some dam bowel of the thing. Things get spiky, then shaky, and ...oh no!
This might be from Superman, the Movie, come to think of it...
Giamatti runs back to CalTech (because that's what you do when you've been in a disaster that has probably closed roads including the one on Hoover Dam that doesn't exist anymore. And he has time enough to speculate to the handy TV reporter (who just happens to be filming there) that "The Big One" is coming, without once recalling Fred Sanford.
"So...WHEN did you say it was going to happen again?"
Back to the San Francisco trip, Ray, who had planned to take Blake, finds out creepy Daniel is taking her, instead. Ray furrows his brow and takes it like a 260 pound man. It turns out he's flying that day, anyway—what, he didn't know he was working?  Good thing, too, because he's the only one with his feet not on the ground when "The Big One" hits. Ray's ex is caught having a high-rise lunch with her future sister-in-law (Minogue), while Blake is cooling her heels in one of Daniel's San-Fran high-rises, passing time with a nervous job interviewee (Johnstone-Burt) and his buttinski little brother (Parkinson). And before you can say "spiking magnetic pulse rates" things start shaking.

And falling over.
Yowtch. These are the scenes we came to see—wholesale CGI destruction on a city-wide scale along with the resulting tsunami's, flooding and sinking buildings. And to insure the thing gets a PG-13 rating, we don't see that many people getting hurt. You know, they run out the exit door and the person following them sees that (woopsy) the next step is 40 floors down. Buildings calve on-camera.  People die off-camera. Just like real life. The scenes are spectacular, sure. But, they are also soulless to anyone without an Edifice Complex.
"Think Blake's in there?" "Hope not."
The rest of the movie is spent trying to put together what Nature and family history has rent asunder—Ray and ex try to get from smashed-up Los Angeles to crushed San Francisco to try and find Blake to be re-united as one big happy family...who have to live in a tent for the next twenty years. What do you think happens?
The "Hollywood" sign collapses for the umpteenth time in movies.
In the meantime, there are set-pieces and falling pieces of sets. There are enough practical effects with water that probably are the sole reason for California's drought and anything and everything citified gets smashed, crashed and dashed. Meanwhile, the problems of the Gaines family is all the movie cares about—one gets the impression that the "pitch" says "Family splits apart. Earth splits apart. Family gets back together." "Family Values Movie of the Summer." And California? Well, let's say we can start re-developing. The rental prices have finally bottomed out.
An extreme way to handle Norovirus...
The whole Gaines family story-line would have made a mere sub-plot in the old disaster movies of old—the The Hurricane's, the San Francisco's, even The Towering Inferno's. Those movies usually handled the entire of San Andreas' entire plot in a couple of shots—you see a distinctive couple early on and then several story-lines  and a whole lot of destruction later, you can pick them out re-united in a pan shot. But, it takes all of San Andreas to do that. Yes, the shots of earthquackery in both Los Angeles and San Francisco are spectacularly and even (perversely) lovingly rendered in their detail, and that's where the most care went into the film. Other than that, there's not much there, as the basis of it is pretty weak. But isn't that the lesson of every earthquake movie (or, for that matter, earthquake)? That you need to have a better foundation? 
"And I bought this place for the view..."
* Um, but if you look at IMDB, you'd think every actor in Hollywood worked on this thing. Yeah, maybe a couple hours.  It makes me wonder how many people on IMDB pad their resumes with this thing.

** An odd thought struck me in this particular performance: Johnson could be the love-child of Barack Obama and Arnold Schwarzenegger (With Schwarzenegger, you never know...)
Well, this'll solve California's water shortage