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Kicking the Tweets
Saturday
Jul162011

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

The Wizards' Wavering Place

"Maybe there’ll be some magic in Deathly Hallows: Part Two that will make everything worthwhile.  But I have a feeling we’re in for more moping and teleporting and reciting of spells before the inevitable, glorified lightsaber duel—the outcome of which is as easy to guess as the weekend box office."

That's one of the closing lines from my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. I'm almost disappointed at having written it because I'm now left with little new to say about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two. I blame the film for that, as I'd hoped to write about how the last decade had actually built to an amazing, satisfying conclusion; but that's not true.

Not in the least.

Okay, let me qualify that. If you're a fan of the Harry Potter films, Part 7, Part 2 (as I like to call it) will likely have you singing its praises as one of the year's best movies. It is sufficiently spectacular, kinetic and noisy--and there are more tertiary character deaths and nerd-triumph moments than you can shake a wand at.

If you're a fan of the books, well, that's a bit trickier. As with every entry in this series, Part 7, Part 2 has been criticized for either not showing key moments from the sacred text or sucking the drama out the clipped versions it does show. If you can let that sort of thing go, you may have a great time.

Personally, I spent much of the film wondering why it took eight movies to tell this particular story. The only elements that really play into the finale are the horcruxes--trinkets containing pieces of the evil Lord Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) soul that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) must destroy--and those were mentioned for the first time in either the last movie or the one before it. I've copped to having a crappy memory when it comes to these movies, but I can't think of a single plot point or character motivation from, say, parts one, three, or five that ties directly into the events of this movie.

The whole Harry Potter story is no more complex than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and could have said everything it needed to say in three 90-minute pictures (for instance, Harry as a freshman, sophomore, and senior at Hogwarts). Everything else is just personality-free, nonsensical filler.

Please, temper your cries of "Blasphemy!" and hear me out. Many of my Pott-head friends tout the final books of the series as being the darkest and most adult. That may be true, especially for stories aimed at children. But for people past the quarter-century mark, I would hope these movies are more iCarly than Apocalypse Now. With the possible exception of the last two installments, the Harry Potter movie franchise is a rinse/repeat formula of grade-school peril that should move and surprise exactly no one.

Jeez, for all my ranting, I haven't even touched on the plot. Here goes: Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) find the last batch of horcruxes and destroy them. Hogwarts is decimated during the final showdown between the virtuous students and Voldemort's legions of dark wizards, trolls, and werewolves. Harry kills Voldemort and lives to spawn a "Further Adventures of"-enabling son/wizard-in-training.

We all knew things would pan out this way. Hell, you could walk into this movie completely ignorant of the books or the previous movies and lay out the plot in about three minutes. The only mildly interesting part of Part 7, Part 2 is the number of homages it pays to other, better films ("homage" is the kindest word I could think of). During a break-in of Voldemort hench-person Bellatrix Lestrange's (Helena Bonham Carter) magical vault, we get a new version of not only the Star Wars trash-compactor scene, but also the "throw me the idol and I'll throw you the whip" line from Raiders of the Lost Ark--all in about three minutes' time! Combine that with a climactic moment in which Ron's mother (Julie Walters) tweaks Sigourney Weaver's famous line from Aliens, and you have the perfect storm of market-tested entertainment: déjà vu for the adults; wholly original moments for their ignorant kids; and a theatre shaking with puzzling, thunderous applause.

I did like some of the last thirty minutes. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves yank on the audience's heart strings with both a flashback to the secret relationship between the "evil" Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), as well as a touching moment where Harry meets with translucent, glowing versions of his dead parents, mentors, and various members of the Jedi council. I can't tell if the material was actually well executed, or if I merely projected my own loss issues back at the screen; but for once, something rang true in this series.

The movie looks really nice, if not utterly generic. The special effects team makes use of the hundreds of millions of dollars allotted them and convincingly renders dragons that soar and force fields that sparkle and deteriorate. The only dodgy bit of CG in the movie appears in the Snape/Dumbledore scenes, where, instead of hiring a younger actor to play the Snape of twenty years earlier, the studio decided to apply a waxy--dare I say embalmed-looking--smoothing effect to Rickman's face. I've never been really impressed by fantasy-movie visuals: the best-rendered castle is still just a castle, and these tent-pole blockbusters aren't about to risk a single patron-dollar on challenging, imaginitive special effects.

Lest you think I'm being unfair, I should mention that I've seen every one of the Harry Potter movies on opening weekend; I've given each a chance to impress me story-wise, acting-wise, and visually, and have been let down, year after year after year. If I'm to evaluate these films solely on the notion that they're meant to entertain kids then, sure, I'll concede that they're perfectly fine; bloated and rather silly, but perfectly fine.

But looking at them from an adult perspective, it frightens me to think that there are so many people who accept these films as solid entertainment. Were it not for morbid curiosity and a duty to my readers, I would have abandoned these movies eight years ago. Now that the whole thing's finished, I can safely say that Harry Potter is to fantasy what Friday the 13th is to horror--a completely disposable, semi-annual tradition that has more to do with generating cash through cheap spectacle than telling any kind of a coherent story.

Everywhere I go, I see poorly Photoshopped Part 7, Part 2 posters that simply say, "It All Ends." To which I invariably nod and think to myself, "Thank Christ."

Note: Given the special occasion of this being the "last" Harry Potter movie, I splurged on the 3D LIE MAX experience ("LIE MAX" refers to the much-smaller-than-an-actual-I-MAX-screen that some AMC theatres are passing off as the real thing; branding's a bitch--watch out for it). Unless you've been saving all year so that the family can see Part 7, Part 2 in this manner (matinee price: $16 a pop), do yourself a favor and opt for the regular, glasses-free presentation. The film's visuals are dimensional enough that you don't need cardboard cut-out versions of the characters flying at you in order to be thrilled.

Friday
Jul152011

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

Space Shuffle

I could be wrong about this, but I believe Hellraiser: Bloodline was the first horror movie to kick-off the "...in Space!" trend (as in, "It's Leprechaun...in Space!" and "It's Jason...in Space!). Had makeup-effects-artist-turned-director Kevin Yagher known that the fourth entry into this series would be such a pop landmark, he might have kept his name on the picture--instead of using the classic shame-onym, Alan Smithee.

Smithee does a decent job with the material. Though not as eerie as the first film or as unsettling and expansive as part two (we'll leave three alone for now), Bloodline is the most unique of the Hellraiser sequels; the story bounces from a futuristic space station orbiting Earth to eighteenth-century France to mid-nineties New York and back again with ease. The horror elements aren't frightening so much as weird and gross--which, honestly, appears to have been the aim.

Really, the person who should've removed his name from the movie is screenwriter Peter Atkins. In a moment, I'll tell you why.

Bloodline tells the story of Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), a scientist working on a space station of his own design. The year is 2127, and he's just completed the most significant architectural structure in the history of man: an mirror-lined, inhabitable version of the series' puzzle box, which can summon the demons of Hell. Merchant's plan is to conjure, trap, and destroy the cadre of monsters who've haunted his family for centuries.

Before he can complete his mission, a military unit boards the station and takes him into custody. He'd gone rogue on his backers and dismissed the rest of the crew in order to carry out his secret work, and now finds himself being interrogated by an officer named Rimmer (Christine Harnos). Much of the film is told in flashback, as Merchant takes Rimmer on a tour of his cursed ancestry.

In the 1700s, a toymaker named Phillip L'Merchant (still Ramsay) is commissioned by French aristocrat Duc de L'Isle (Mickey Cottrell) to create a special puzzle box. The wood-and-brass faces shift and reconfigure themselves with the right touch, and de L'Isle appropriates its mystery for use in the dark arts--summoning a demon to inhabit the body of a peasant girl that his man-servant, Jacques (Adam Scott), murdered. The demon, Angelique (Valentina Vargas), betrays de L'Isle and spends the next couple of centuries as Jacques's slave, offering up sex and, apparently, agelessness.

On learning of what his box has brought forth, L'Merchant tries to steal it back to create a reverse gateway. Angelique catches him in the act and curses his bloodline to eternal torment before killing him. A couple hundred years later, New York architect John Merchant (Ramsay again!) begins having visions of Angelique, now a high-society temptress who's severed ties with Jacques. She visits Merchant's latest building, a towering, modern something-or-other with massive chunks of the puzzle box jutting out of every surface. Using a dumb businessman as bait, Angelique summons Hell's badass, Pinhead (Doug Bradley). Together, they plan to use one of L'Merchant's old designs to construct a permanent open door between Hell and Earth.

Obviously that doesn't work out, as evidenced by the film's future-set bookends. Indeed, Bloodline's middle portion is merely a rip-off of the climax of Wes Craven's New Nightmare with different actors and a monster that won't shut up.

Yes, here's where Atkins' script really hits the fan. He wrote the previous two installments, too, and each one became progressively more out-there and exponentially talkier. I have too much dignity to actually clock his screen time, but I'd bet Bradley spends a good ten (maybe thirteen) minutes monologue-ing during this barely-ninety-minutes picture. Worse yet, the words coming out of his mouth aren't interesting: they're like the bad, morbid poetry a preppy kid would write to woo the Goth hottie in English Lit.

Pinhead's pontificating drags the movie down so much that I could barely enjoy the brief pockets of levity, as when twin security guards get melded together to create a new member of Hell's army; or the film's last fifteen minutes, which manage to both presage Jason X (i.e. "...in Space!") and make it look like groundbreaking, high-production cinema. The rules of Hell become garbled, too: the fact that Pinhead can't tell a holographic projection of Merchant from the real thing calls the master cenobite's whole mystique into question--maybe he was distracted by the sound of his own booming voice.

It's a shame, too, because this didn't have to be the last theatrically released Hellraiser movie. The ideas are interesting, and the acting alternates (mostly) appropriately between over-the-top and sufficiently serious. The gore is inventive, particularly the scene where the formless Angelique fills in the skinned peasant girl's hide like someone trying on a sock that'ts two sizes too small.

I suspect the problem is that at some point, too late in the production, a lot of people realized they were making Hellraiser 4, and a little bit of their spirit got sucked into the malignant box of wasted creative energy. Retrospect is a bitch, though, and if any of them had had an inkling as to how magnificent their movie would look compared to the next decade-and-a-half of direct-to-video sequels, I'm sure at least the director would have proudly slapped his real name right back on the poster.

Wednesday
Jul132011

Another Earth (2011)

Orbituary

Ten years ago, while attending Comic-Con in San Diego, I met an artist who showed me an independent vampire book he'd created. As I recall, it was a couple hundred pages long and still "in-progress"; the illustrations reminded me of my own best work at age twelve; and they guy spent twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of his story's premise--none of which appeared to have yet made it into the printed material.

Occasionally, I'd slip a question into his mile-a-minute pitch, such as, "Why do your vampires have laser vision?" or, "What's the significance of the time-traveling spaceship, and how does it fit into this diner scene?" His answers laid the foundation for the artistic bullshit detector that I've used to judge entertainment and media ever since:

1. "It doesn't matter, 'cause that's where the imagination comes in!"

2. "What do you think the significance is?"

I'm going to let you in on a secret that will segue into a review of the new film Another Earth (I promise): Not all art has value. I've met and experienced the work of hundreds of artists who hide behind this cultural myth that all art (particularly theirs) is inherently worthwhile, simply by virtue of having been created. Quality rendering and audience accessibility, in some circles, are considered passé--expendable nuisances that stand in the way of the artiste splattering their soul across a canvas or projecting it onto a movie screen.

There is no shame in either admitting that you don't understand a piece of art, or in accusing the artist of being deliberately opaque. The human brain has a network of wonderful alarm bells that will sound whenever contradictory information is presented as gospel. If art cannot meet the viewer half way, a courtesy hand-wave is always appreciated. One should not require encyclopedic knowledge of the creator's history or philosophical and political views in order to understand why a small, black circle in the middle of a thirty-foot white canvas represents the history of the universe. Sure, that information might supplement an art fan's experience, but the only stars a casual gallery-goer is likely to see will emanate from the knowledge that someone has made several grand off a fifty-dollar (max) investment of time and materials.

Case in point: The other night, I attended an advanced screening of Mike Cahill's Another Earth. Afterwards, Steve Prokopy of Ain't it Cool News moderated a Q&A with Cahill and his co-writer and star, Brit Marling. Both creators' answers to questions about their movie confirmed the suspicions I'd wrestled with for the last hour of the run-time. More on that in a minute.

Marling stars as Rhoda, an exceptionally smart, college-bound teenager who ruins her future by driving home drunk from a party. On the radio, she hears that scientists have discovered an identical Earth that's gradually coming into view in night sky. Rhoda looks out her window while speeding down the street and, sure enough, there's a little, blue dot flickering in the blackness. Moments later, she's stumbling out of her wrecked vehicle, surveying an unconscious Yale professor, his dead, pregnant wife, and their young son, whose abrupt exit from their car stripped him of his arms and his life.

Four years later, Rhoda's released from prison and returns home to live with her parents and younger brother. She takes a custodial job at her old high school and skulks around town in her free time, watching the second Earth that now looms several times larger than the moon everywhere she goes. One night, she enters an Internet contest to join the first manned shuttle to "Earth 2". A Richard Branson-type entrepreneur (Rupert Reid) has funded his own mission and invites everyone on the planet to write a 500-word essay on why they deserve to go.

In an attempt to break out of her guilt shell, Rhoda visits the home of the professor whose life she destroyed. John (William Mapother) lives in a big, decaying house in the middle of nowhere. Peeking through his window, Rhoda sees that he's become a passive hoarder of booze empties, and has given up on his passion for composing music. She knocks on the door. He answers. She chickens out of an apology and instead poses as a solicitor for a cleaning service. He invites her in, and for the next several weeks, these two damaged people begin literally mopping up the mess their lives have become.

Until this point, Another Earth really had me. It was on my Year's Best list for sure. Cahill and Marling capture isolation, guilt, and shame in that first half-hour like nobody's business. The movie is quiet, honest, and promises a fascinating sci-fi surprise as the second-Earth storyline takes shape in the background. Each scene between Rhoda and John is undercut with tension; I waited for him to recognize her through his sad, drunken haze as the girl who killed his family.

And I waited.

Then I waited some more.

Through the time-skipping scenes where Rhoda and John play Wii boxing and eat pizza and gradually fall in love, I waited for an explanation as to how he could not recognize a girl whose face he would surely have seen in court if not on television. Sadly, the explanation comes about three-quarters of the way through the movie, long past the point where I'd assumed the filmmakers were just going to ignore it altogether. It happens shortly after John buys Rhoda's ridiculous lie about why the cleaning service she claims to work for has neither a record of her employment nor the checks he's made out to them for months.

I have a bit of unsolicited advice for Cahill and Marling: Explain crucial plot point such as the identity problem early. It will keep the audience from tuning out (as happened to me) or laughing at the sex scene between your protagonists (as happened to the rest of the audience at the screening).

Another Earth rapidly spirals into ridiculousness and pretension, and all of the cool introspection and somber stylistic choices are abandoned (actually, beheaded) for melodrama and a deteriorating sci-fi subplot. Rhoda wins the ticket to space and decides to confess her sins to John before she leaves. He is, of course, furious, and she runs from his house confused about her feelings for him and her motivation for wanting to meet the alternate-Earth version of herself. In the end, she gives John her ticket in the hopes that he will reconnect with his family on the new planet.

It's a touching sentiment, I guess, but it ignores a pretty big question: What if alternate-Earth John and his family are still alive? Wouldn't that thrown an even greater psychological wrench into everyone's lives? How would you feel if a sad-sack version of yourself showed up one day and wanted to move in? Would you let them sleep with your spouse? Help raise your kids? Can two such beings even co-exist, given that the movie posits both realities as sort of splintered pieces of mirrored realities (or something)?

These big questions mutate into even bigger questions. The last scene of the film takes place four months after the shuttle launch to Earth 2, and sees Rhoda running into her alternate-Earth self--presumably in her own reality. Earth 2 Rhoda is well-dressed and looks like the young professional she was once destined to be. How did she get there? How long does the trip between planets take? What was Earth 2's reaction to receiving guests?

During the Q&A, Prokopy made a couple of hilarious references to this being the rare movie that forces the audience to use their brains. My problems with Another Earth stem from doing exactly that, and I blame the filmmakers for having no satisfactory answers. Cahill's stock response to questions about the movie's meaning and ending went something like this:

"Me and Brit have some ideas worked out about what it all means, but we don't want to detract from whatever your interpretation might be."

So, I guess I'm the idiot for expecting a film to have a coherent beginning, middle, and end. What Cahill said might be true, but I frankly don't believe him. In fact, I don't want to believe him, because that would make him a giant asshole. I feel the same way about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, another gorgeously shot film that contains so much obfuscation and half-explanations that the only way to describe it is to make stuff up about ideas that the piece itself doesn't actually support. If you want to make a movie that's a "visual poem" that "doesn't have to make sense", that's fine. Just be honest about it.

If you genuinely want to make a film that speculates on the grand mysteries of life and the possibilities of alternate realities, take the time to map it out, seal it up, logic-wise, and then start shooting. If you want to make a serious relationship drama about peoples' connections in the wake of a tragedy, make it relatable to an audience that, say, understands how human beings work.

Barring that, don't waste everyone's time. Certainly don't charge them ten bucks to sit through a ninety-minute (or two-and-a-half-hour) con. The world is full of notebooks and hard drives containing failed stories and terrible movies; in the broadest sense, yes, they are all art. But if we are to appreciate the really good stuff, to recognize not only process and passion but also a creator's integrity, we must distinguish between art that gets there and art that falls short. If there's a planet on which Another Earth is considered solid filmmaking, I never want to visit it.

Sunday
Jul102011

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Working for the Weakened

So, maybe there's hope after all. I'd expected Horrible Bosses to be another un-funny, alpha-male comedy in the vein of Hall Pass or Hot Tub Time Machine, but it's much better than it has any right to be. What the movie lacks in originality, it makes up in personality and hilarious, often rapid-fire dialogue delivered by a cast that makes a lot of really interesting choices.

Horrible Bosses is about three friends who hate their jobs for various reasons. Nick (Jason Bateman) works for the devil incarnate: a pompous, manipulating sociopath named Harken (Kevin Spacey) who coerces him into drinking Scotch at 8am and working ridiculous over-time for a promotion he dangles but never intends to grant. Dale (Charlie Day) is a dental assistant who, because of a hilarious technicality that led to his being placed on the Sex Offender Registry, is forced to take a job in the office of Dr. Harris (Jennifer Aniston)--a nympho who threatens to ruin Dale's recent engagement unless he puts up with constant sexual harassment. Lastly, we meet Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), the one guy who starts out loving his job, but who finds himself at the mercy of a bloated, Kung Fu-obsessed lowlife named Bobby (Colin Farrell) after the kind, old head of the company drops dead.

Over drinks one night, the three discuss the logistics of murdering their bosses. What begins as a boozy mental exercise evolves into a search for a cheap hit man. They follow one botched encounter at a seedy hotel room with a trip to an urban dive bar, where they meet an ex-con named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx). Since the guys can only scrape together five grand for their hit, Jones becomes a "murder consultant", helping them navigate the pitfalls of contract killing. The first step is a pact to kill one another's bosses, to throw cops off their scent.

The movie kicks into high gear as Nick, Dale, and Kurt set up surveillance missions and prove to be the world's most inept criminals. They're not stupid, just way out of their depth. On a single night, they destroy (and inhale) Bobby's massive cocaine stash and leave the cell phone they stole from his house inside Harken's mansion. Later, Dale inadvertently saves Harken's life by resuscitating him during a peanut-allergy attack. Throw in Kurt's inability to keep his pants on--leading to ill-timed affairs with both Dr. Harris and Harken's town-bike wife (Julie Bowen), and you have the perfect ingredients for a Big Mix-up Comedy.

I typically hate Big Mix-up Comedies because they're really hard to pull off. What sets Horrible Bosses apart from lesser films of its kind is the screenplay by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan M. Goldstein. Their characters are all sarcastically witty and vulgar, and manage--over the course of the film--to break out of archetype territory. Yes, Nick is The Buttoned Down One, Dale is the Hyperactive One, and Kurt is the Freewheeling Man-whore, but like the characters in Office Space, they maintain a slight air of relatability and truth throughout. Their reactions to the increasingly messy situations they find themselves in don't play as phony; this is most evident in their constant questioning of their own motives and schemes.

I also appreciate the fact that, like the excellent 30 Minutes or Less, the writers and director Seth Gordon aren't afraid to take their kooky premise to its logical, dark conclusion. There's a fantastic, shocking turn about halfway through the movie that shifts the tone into one of real, high stakes drama. Horrible Bosses is a comedy from start to finish, but it abruptly takes away its protagonists' upper hand and underscores all the jokes that come after with genuine desperation.

None of this would be possible without a wonderful trio of villains, who are so spectacularly weird that they might as well headline Batman's rogues gallery. Kevin Spacey appears to have reprised his role from Swimming with Sharks, playing Harken as an overpaid, undersexed boy who happens to run a company. His icy stare and delicious threats made me cringe. Colin Farrell essentially plays the Tom Cruise part from Tropic Thunder, burying his movie-star looks under fat padding and a gross, bulb-headed comb-over. Aside from his iffy American accent, he does a great job with the role, imbuing Bobby with a level of sexist, macho grandeur that is so specific it must have been modeled on a real person. Jennifer Aniston has the least to do, but it's refreshing to see her play the overbearing sexpot instead of the Good Girl Who Can't Get No Man. I've always felt that, as an actress, she's neglected her obvious physical attributes--perhaps intentionally--but in this movie, she explodes in a role that stops just shy of parody.

Despite all this high praise, Horrible Bosses has a couple of high-profile problems that almost ruin the whole show. The first is Charlie Day. I know his geek-cult cred from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is not to be sullied, but I have to say he grated on me. A cross between Police Academy-era Bobact Goldthwait and Hammy from Over the Hedge, he comes across as a walking, breathing cry for attention. He has slightly less manic tantrums in some scenes, but his exaggerated performance make Dale the least realistic of the three leads; that's not to say I didn't laugh a lot at his character's antics, but there is such a thing as too much chocolate cake.

The next problem, the doozy, is the film's climax. The creators spend so much time setting up what promises to be an intense and intricate showdown between the three monster bosses and their put-upon employees that to see everything squandered in a single, rushed car chase is nearly unforgivable. I can't get too far into this without spoiling the event that upset the movie's tone, but everyone's problems are resolved by conveniently-on-the-scene cops listening to a villain confessing everything on tape. I felt cheated, and if it hadn't been for the following ten minutes getting things (mostly) back on track, I probably would have written Horrible Bosses off as a loss.

Movies like this and 30 Minutes or Less offer a wonderful, stark contrast to easy, lowest-common-denominator fare like Bad Teacher and Bridesmaids. Yes, both sets of movies are comedies, but only one is funny, in my opinion, because they actually work for their laughs. Any hack can whip up a few diarrhea and dry-humping jokes, but it takes someone special to make a gag about a former Lehman Brothers executive offering hand jobs at Applebees for beer money into both a plot point and a tragi-comic statement about life outside the movie theatre. Horrible Bosses can be appreciated by switched-off yahoos who just want to hear the word "fuck" and get a nice near-shot of Jennifer Aniston's boobs; but it's made for a different caliber of comedy fan--one that's so fed up with the sad state of mainstream comedies that they could just kill someone.

Saturday
Jul092011

Annie Hall (1977)

The Case for Remakes

Oh, no.

How did this happen?

As you may have noticed, I've been on a Woody Allen kick lately. Whenever I tell people this, their inevitable response is a variation of, "How great was Annie Hall?"

When I tell them that I haven't seen it, the first reaction is shock; the next is kind of an envious endorsement of the Oscar-winning classic: how wonderful it will be, they say, for me to watch it at an age when I'll be fully able to appreciate it (as opposed to, I guess, being exposed to the movie young and having to grow into it--or something).

Having just seen the film, I can safely say that it's my least favorite Woody Allen movie. But that's just a matter of really liking it versus being in love with it. I can only assume that, for the time, it must have been a groundbreaking film in terms of narrative structure, breaking the fourth wall, and introducing the world to Allen's brand of bitterly funny emotional truth. But I made the mistake of watching Manhattan first, a film he made two years later in which he improved a lot of the elements he'd sketched out here.

About three-quarters of Annie Hall is fantastic. Allen opens the film, playing standup comic Alvy Singer. He explains to the audience that Groucho Marx's famous line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member is the best way to describe his relationships. As he jumps back and forth in his life story, we see glimpses of a girl he laments breaking up with, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman pepper flashbacks of Alvy's tortured grade-school days with touching snippets of Alvy and Annie wrangling rogue lobsters in a kitchen, or meeting for the first time during a game of doubles tennis.

Annie is a ditzy free spirit who dreams of being a singer; Alvy is a neurotic, two-time divorcé who rebels against an intellectual class he can't seem to cop to being part of. Together, they support each other and live a cozy, un-challenging life of people-watching and going to movies. Over time, Annie decides she wants more, and begins seeing a famous musician named Tony Lacey (Paul Simon). Alvy tries half-heartedly to convince her to come back to him, but it's clear that Annie has moved on to a life of socializing and being active outside of her own head.

I loved the non-linear portions of the film. By seeing the Alvy/Annie story unfold out of order and interspersed with scenes from Alvy's first marriage and a couple of failed relationships in between, we avoid the movie's central problem until about the last half-hour: the movie is about a couple casually coming together, casually doing nothing, and then casually drifting apart. These scenes are fairly realistic, wonderfully acted, and intermittently funny. But in the end, when Alvy shrugs and re-iterates his Groucho philosophy, I was unsatisfied.

Alvy clearly thought he loved Annie, and Annie clearly owed a lot to Alvy's brazenness and kooky, brilliant mind. But she grew up and moved on, and Alvy didnt'--and it's unclear if she meant as much to him as he did to her. The story concludes with a "Guess I'll Try Again Next Time" vibe, and I got the feeling the movie could have just as well been about any of the exes in the picture. Alvy is the same guy at the beginning of the film as he is at the end, and all he has to show for his troubles is a play that he wrote about his most recent failed relationship. I'm not saying Alvy has to be sympathetic, but we should at least have a reason to care about the story he's just spend nearly two hours recounting.

It's frustrating, because there's so much great stuff everywhere--except in the main attraction; as opposed to Manhattan, which placed the same actors in a not dissimilar relationship and added layers of complication and betrayal to create a far more compelling story. In that film, Allen's character falls for an interesting, crazy intellectual and dumps his loving, college-bound girlfriend--only to realize at the end that he'd been chasing a fantasy all along. If you could combine Annie Hall's rich, storytelling trickery with Manhattan's gorgeous cinematography and character development, you'd have the most powerful, honest romantic comedy of all time.

If you've never seen either Annie Hall or Manhattan, I recommend watching them back-to-back, in chronological order. I screwed myself by doing the reverse, and found disappointment at the end of an otherwise outstanding film.

Okay, as long as I'm confessing things here, I should mention that I didn't love everything about the first part of Annie Hall. The childhood flashbacks were annoying as hell. With the exception of highly trained professionals, children should never be allowed to deliver adult dialogue. In one of the scenes, several kids stand up and tell the audience what their future selves do for a living, and it's clear that none of them understands the words coming out of their mouths. The clipped, mumbled delivery kills the comedic effect. Similarly, the idea of Alvy's dinner-table reminiscences of his overtly Jewish upbringing was executed far more effectively in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

I'm very conflicted. On one hand, I can appreciate how much Annie Hall must have meant to a lot of people in 1977, and in the early years of Allen's journey into more serious subject matter. On the other, I can't help but think of this as a flawed version of his stronger films. Sadly, I lack Alvy Singer's perspective-altering ability to hop around my own life story.