Annie Hall (1977)

★★★★★

Annie Hall PosterDirector: Woody Allen

Release Date: April 20th, 1977 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Films are often categorised under the “escape” section of our everyday lives. We watch to disassociate with reality for short bursts of time, to be present only within the context of the tedious romcom playing out on screen. Or the spectacular science-fiction trek that hurtles us towards another planet. Or the not-so-scary slasher flick we’ve seen a hundred times yet whose economical frights we still get a kick out of. Every so often though, there’s a film that commands our attention and refrains from releasing its grasp even long after the credits have finished rolling. Woody Allen’s infectious romantic dramedy is that film. Presented in a simple-yet-effective manner, it’s the delivery of the piece that approaches astounding. Annie Hall truly is a hallmark of American cinema.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is an ardent New Yorker with a panache for eccentricity and a motor mouth to back it up. He’s also a comedian who plays doubles tennis every so often, and it’s on one of these sporting jaunts that Alvy meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The connection between the pair is palpable from the moment they first awkwardly converse.

This isn’t a complicated film. Sure, it gets caught up in a barrage of intellectually stimulated dialogues echoed by apparently complex characters but that’s wholeheartedly where the fun lies. And it really is fun. Alvy is an erratic guy who just about holds it together by way of his methodological consistency. He wants to know the who, what, where, when, and why about everything because this allows him to pick apart and challenge. (“Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.”) Maybe it’s the comedian in him, but one gets the sense that his mannerisms have been ingrained since childhood — Alvy alludes to the adolescent trauma enforced by the roller coaster that often rattled above his house.

On the other hand there’s Annie. Not quite carefree but certainly free-spirited, Annie is bubbly and bumbling. The chipper lass ain’t entirely sure of herself when we first meet, though she steadily gains resolve and direction alongside the spitfire that is Alvy. They’re quite different people and share a relationship that invariably teeters between effusive and choppy. She’s Los Angeles, he’s New York. Certainly, their premier interaction post-tennis match embodies the joyous authenticity of the couple. The scene is awkward and endearing and hilarious, and from then we can’t take our eyes off of pair’s dynamic nor remove our permanent smile induced as a result of their witty banter. The film is all about them, fortunately. In some ways we feel unduly cut short at 93 minutes, but in others the hour and a half feels like a perfect summation of director Woody Allen’s vision. For a film so focused on two people — it does flirt with a variety of issues, but hones in on their relationship — Alvy and Annie are perpetually watchable.

Aided by semi-prominent collaborator Marshall Brickman, Allen’s original screenplay ensures his characters’ long-term watchability is a certainty. It’s outstanding. The film is bookended by two Woody Allen (or Alvy, but we get the sense they’re the same person) monologues, both of which represent the writer — and actor and director — at his most prosperous. Endlessly quotable (“Joey Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols!”) and unafraid to tackle a whole range of affairs from 70s New York culture to drug use to the US East/West divide, Allen and Brickman’s screenplay rightly bagged an Academy Award at the organisation’s semicentennial ceremony. The narrative never suffocates its characters; even on the odd occasion when an overly vague cultural reference escapes Allen’s cerebral pen, the film skips along unscathed, our viewing experience likewise resilient.

This might also be one of the filmmaker’s funniest outings. With light-hearted subtlety often capitalised on by Allen and his acting partner Diane Keaton, Annie Hall never stops short at provoking laughter. Whether it’s a character living up to expectations — in the case of psychiatric results, it’s two characters — or a swivel away from narrative convention, humour is always lying in wait and we’re eternally willing to guzzle. The latter of these two examples sees Alvy accuse a pompous cinemagoer of being too indulgent. Allen, in this instance himself a quasi-critic evaluating the pretentious kind, is also poking fun at himself and the plethora of ‘don’t sneeze or you’ll miss the point’ diatribes he has written into the film.

As previously alluded to, the piece is shot abiding by a mantra of simplicity that serves to position the spotlight on its characters and accentuate their presence. The camera lingers on conversations for a long period of time because it knows it’s peering into aural gold. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy springs to mind, a romantic moment in time that shares many intricacies with Annie Hall and was undoubtedly influence by Allen’s effective candour. Periodically we do see a few neat tricks play out, such as Alvy and company breaking the third wall or random subtitles translating small-talk for real thoughts, but these aren’t just pithy inclusions. Rather, they serve a purpose, be that to inject amusement or make a specific point about life.

The performances from Diane Keaton and Woody Allen ought to speak for themselves, but it’s worth noting that they’re wonderful. Annie Hall plays out in a non-chronological fashion. We already know the ending because it’s also the beginning, but that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s the journey that counts, and this journey is one of the very best.

Annie Hall - Woody and Diane

Images credit: IMP Awards, Total Film

Images copyright (©): United Artists

Man on Wire (2008)

★★★★★

Director: James Marsh

Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.

The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.

It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.

The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.

Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.

The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”

The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?

As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.

And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.

Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

★★★★★

Credit: IMP Awards
Credit: IMP Awards

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Release Date: October 24th, 2008 (US); May 15th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

From the eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman comes Synecdoche, New York, the story of a debilitated theatre director who, fearing his impending death and the loss of his identity and legacy with it, decides to create a grandiose production based on his life in order to leave something behind.

Synecdoche, New York is like a Chris Nolan film blown way out of proportion. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a negative thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a turn at a man, Caden Cotard, who is slowly losing his grip both on life physically and mentally, as his perceived reality becomes something of a concoction of what is real and what is not real. Suffering from numerous ailments which are taking a toll on his health, Caden’s decision to devise an out-of-this-world (literally) theatre production in a massive warehouse in the theatre district of New York strikes up a number of questions about life, both for himself and for the audience (or, myself at least).

His inability to sustain a relationship with any woman plays an integral role in throughout film. He has three significant relationships during its course: his wife at the beginning who moves to Berlin to pursue her career in art, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener); an actress who is part of his cast and who becomes disenfranchised with Caden’s obsession about his production, Claire Keen (Michelle Williams); and Caden’s long-time assistant and box office manager, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Caden also has a less than productive relationship with his therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) and a non-existent to heart-wrenching affiliation with his misguided daughter, Olive (Robin Weigert). Perhaps this lack of a consistent connection and commitment mirrors Caden’s loss of a base in real life — he seemingly cannot sustain a healthy absolute existence — thus prompting him to focus all of his energy into an epic-scale production where his life, and all of those around him, he is able to view from the outside, as if it were fiction.

“Does anyone have any idea what the hell is going on?” Credit: Yahoo! Movies

Having only watched Synecdoche, New York once, I am absolutely certain there are a number of elements I missed whilst viewing the film, but one that definitely stuck out was Caden’s seemingly bleak view regarding his own life. For example, he is left almost angered at his original wife’s success over in Berlin, so much so that he continues to increase the scale of his own production, as opposed to Adele’s dedication to miniature art-work. Caden does not feel the world he lives in notices him (his wife and daughter have left him, his health continually deteriorates) and the only time it does muster something up for him — a MacArthur Fellowship — he takes that as a sign to build a legacy that he believes will have to be noticed and highly regarded when he inevitably passes. As the film progresses, so too does Kaufman’s direction and informal misdirection, as Caden’s life becomes increasingly blurred and entangled with the lives of his and his casts doppelgängers, with each doppelgänger hired to portray significant players in his own life as a part of his production. As a viewer, it is often difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening in Caden’s life, and what is a part of the production — even his actors often need to ask Caden to halt proceedings in order to talk in reality — adding to the overarching trench of mind-numbing facets on display.

Hoffman is exceptional as the lead character, forcing Caden’s anguish down the viewer’s throat, leaving a lump in it and generating total empathy for the character. At this stage in the game, average performances are not on the menu when it comes to Hoffman, who seems to be churning out one gourmet dish after another. The supporting cast all provide the necessary emotion and disconnection towards Caden, with Samantha Banks in particular standing out as Hazel, who seems not to share Caden’s fear of impending death as she decides to live in a burning house where death crackles along every wooden beam. Michelle Williams, pre-Blue Valentine fame, effectively acts as a fountain of sympathy towards Caden, before her disillusionment evokes the eruption of a fiery side. Charlie Kaufman certainly deserves praise for successfully carrying out the seemingly unenviable task of progressively directing doubt and fictitious elements into the film, without going overboard and turning proceedings into a complete mesh of insincerity.

“Not a clue.” Credit: The Film Stage

In the midst of all the gloominess and lack of clarity, Synecdoche, New York boasts characters who are crying out (again, literally) for sympathy and who, regardless of their faults — of which there are many — deserve sympathy from the audience. After being left speechless at the contents of the film itself, the emotion followed through like a ton of bricks for me. Although much of the film is based on deciphering what is real from what is not, there is a distinct element of something present which is grounded in everyday life. At its very simplest, the film is a portrait of a middle-aged man who is struggling through his job when we first see him on-screen, whose health is continually threatened and whose relationship(s) is crumbling. Okay, so it is not grounded in my everyday life (I am not quite middle-aged yet), but it certainly provides a commentary on a potential and very realistic life.

This is without doubt the most challenging review I have written, and it probably does not make a whole lot of sense if you have not seen the film (it might not even make any sense if you have), but to me that is in fitting with the surreal, but equally rational, thought-provoker that is Synecdoche, New York.

It will make you think, and then it will make you think again.