Ok, Fine, I Watched It: “Annie Hall” and “The Truman Show”

Despite my better efforts, there are some huge gaps in my film-watching repertoire. Gaps which, since 90% of my friends are just as film-nerdy as I, I am constantly given sh*t for. Which I super deserve. So, with summer in full swing, I’ve decided to get to work on catching up on these gaps. This week, I check out 1977’s best picture winner “Annie Hall”, and 1998’s film-everyone-can-finally-shut-up-about-because-I’ve-seen-it-now, “The Truman Show”.

ANNIE HALL

As you should know, (I mean, I do say it every week) there are some huge gaps in the list of films I have seen. One of those gaps is the filmography of Woody Allen. I’d seen bits and pieces of his films in classes and things like that, but I had yet to see a film of his beginning to end. Yeah, I know, I’m a bad film nerd and a bad comedy writer, I’ll accept that. But because of this, I really didn’t know what I was going to think of this cinema classic. I hoped I’d love it as much as the person who recommended it to me, but I didn’t know for certain whether or not I would. Good news, I did!

The film, Directed and co-written by  Woody Allen, stars Allen himself, as well as Diane Keaton, with Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, and many others in notable supporting roles. The movie traces Allen and Keaton’s relationship as it jumps back and forth through time in a personal, fantasy-filled romp that is as funny as it is effective. It’s another one of those movies with a  deceptively simple plot summary, hiding a much more complex film underneath. That’s not to say that this film lacks in any way when it comes to its story structure, though. As a movie, it manages to pull off an out-of-order story with no confusion, which is remarkably impressive. At no point in the film was I unsure about when the scene I was watching took place, as everything was communicated elegantly. And, take note of this films of today, it didn’t need to write “Two years ago” across the top of the screen for me to know that. All it had to do was show how the characters were interacting, and give a little hint through the dialogue and I got it fine. I know it seems weird that I’m pointing something like this out, but that’s precisely why I am. When a film does story structure as well as this one does, you don’t even notice it.

Also on the “so good you didn’t even think about it” list, is the use of Allen as a narrator and storyteller in the film. His monologues to camera and fantasy sequences flow seamlessly into and out of the narrative. Hell, this film manages to squeeze in “Peabody and Sherman”-esque animation at one point and it doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest! Every moment where Allen steps out of the scene to address the audience, while including some of the funniest jokes of the movie, is immediately clear as a fantasy, without a dumb sound effect or camera filter to be found. Another expert bit of craft is in the setup. We are told from the beginning that Allen and Keaton will not wind up together by the end of the film, giving every scene between the two of them a subtle undercurrent of sadness. It also has the effect of forcing the audience to root for a relationship we know is going to fail, which would normally be really hard. For a film to do that is like handcuffing yourself to a safe before running a marathon and then somehow managing to win the marathon anyway. At this point “Annie Hall”, you’re just showing off.

Let’s talk about the characters. It would have been very easy to make both of the main characters perfect human beings who we want to root for no matter what, but the film shies away from that. Allen’s character can be legitimately kind of a d*ck at times, but the film never lets him even approach unlikeability, which is a tough line to straddle. He still remains really endearing as a character, but at the same time, you can fully see why his relationship with Keaton didn’t work out in the film. Speaking of Keaton, the movie pulls off a similar trick with her. Showing her as a real human being with strengths and faults. She portrays her character so well, it’s easy to see what Allen’s character sees in her, while also showing a character with some problems of her own.  It’s good that both main actors nail their respective roles as well as they do, because this is a film that lives or dies on performances. And in this case, it really ascends to a new height of quality through Allen and Keaton. Although the film took a little while to hook me, once it did, I was deeply invested in the story and characters. Also, like “The Graduate”, I feel I should mention that this movie is really funny. I kinda get obsessed with the filmmaking and storytelling techniques, but yeah, no, it’s a great comedy as well.

The literal only bad thing I can say about this movie is that Christopher Walken is criminally underused.

FIVE out of five stars.

THE TRUMAN SHOW

Unlike “Annie Hall”, which I didn’t know if I would love, I was very excited about “The Truman Show”. I’ve always been a fan of grounded science fiction and high-concept films, both of which are labels I’d apply to this movie. I mean, I’d also been told how great this movie was a bunch of times by various people in my life, so that also inflated my expectations of this movie as well, I won’t deny it. Expectations this film fully met.

The film, inspired loosely by an episode of the 80’s revival of “The Twilight Zone,” was directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol. (The Twilight Zone episode was “Special Service” written by noted comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski, if you’re curious). The film stars Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, and Noah Emmerich, although Carrey and Harris really own the film’s running time. The plot follows Truman Burbank (Carrey) who lives in the town of Seahaven, going about his days unaware that his entire life is a preordained, carefully coordinated reality show, and everyone else is in on it. As Truman starts to discover the truth, showrunner Christof (Harris) and all of Truman’s supposed friends and family begin conspiring against him. Truman struggles with what is real and who he can and can’t trust, while the whole world watches. That plot summary should already tell you whether or not you’ll like this movie. If, upon hearing the plot, you pumped both fists in the air and yelled “Hell yeah, I’m in!” like I did, you should have a pretty great time. If you didn’t do that exact thing, then you’ll probably want to skip this one.

The story itself is remarkably engaging. For this review, I’m mostly speaking off the cuff because I could barely tear my eyes from the screen to take notes. The first half of the film has this unsettling, uncanny valley quality to it, with the fakeness of Seahaven feeling one finger tap away from collapsing like a house of cards. Everything adds to this quality, from the camera angles to people in Truman’s life delivering pointed product placements to the camera. Most of these things start out funny, before delving into the darkly uncomfortable later on. The fact that most of the shots in this part of the film clearly come from hidden cameras wordlessly adds the voyeristic quality necessary for a film like this. As Truman gets closer to the truth, the intensity ramps up and the menace of Seahaven increases dramatically. This culminates in an edge-of-your-seat climax during a storm at sea that took my breath away. The pacing of this film is one hundred percent on-point. No moment is unnecessary, and the entire film is streamlined and elegant. I do wish some aspects of the film’s universe (e.g. Truman’s father’s return to the show) were better explored, but there’s nothing in the film that I wish wasn’t there.

Some of the imagery in this film is truly mind-blowing and haunting. The producers’ headquarters in the fake moon and the patrolling citizens of Seahaven searching for Truman are both legitimately terrifying, supervillain-ish pieces of imagery. The design aesthetic of Seahaven is pure 1950’s in that Norman Rockwell sense. All the wholesome goodness without any of the dark undercurrents of reality. The subtle unreal moments of Seahaven, from the product placement to the repeating background characters craft a world that constantly reminds you how fake it is. The film also does a great job of world-building. It doesn’t bog itself down in explaining every little detail of how the show itself works. It gives us little moments showing the weather control or the artificial sun, but doesn’t obsess itself with the small stuff. I’m not gonna lie, though, I did chuckle a bit at the fact Christof’s production team literally built a G.I. Joe-style Weather Dominator.

Truman himself is the lynchpin that holds this entire thing together. Carrey turns in a fantastic performance, showing Truman’s breakdown elegantly. His thoughts are immediately apparent from Carrey’s face in many scenes, without any dialogue needed. While everyone else is great, especially Ed Harris, whose brief appearances as Christof are chilling, it’s Carrey who really steals this movie. Truman himself starts off as a fairly typical, boring character, but as the film goes on, we slowly see more and more of his true, deeply burried, personality. With Truman’s story, it could have very easy turned into a heavy-handed message about the evils of reality television, but the film doesn’t take that road. This isn’t a film with one, clear-cut message. There are many great interpretations of the movie that I don’t feel anywhere near qualified enough to discuss after just one viewing. One thing I do feel qualified to say, though, is that this is certainly a film worth watching.

FIVE out of five stars.

Well, that’s it for this week, la-di-da, la-di-da, la la, next week, I’ll take a look at two films, one of which I’ve been told to watch quite loudly. And if I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight!

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