Friday, August 23, 2013

"Summer Movies I Don't Hate"

Oh, how judgmental!

Come on!  It’s summer movies!

Do you remember what the young studio audience member said when you asked him what he thought of the Best of the West pilot filming?

“It’s better than I can do.”  You’re right.  I am duly chastened.

You’re welcome.

Okay, very good.  Now…

Here’s the enigma.  It has been widely reported by people who have appeared in his movies that Woody Allen does not tell his actors how to read their lines or how to play their parts. 

So there’s that.

However, curiously…

Despite all this attested-to freedom, how come Woody Allen’s movies – specifically in this case Blue Jasmine – feel so constrictingly controlled?

It’s like a Wes Anderson movie but with older actors, every detail – the costumes, the set decoration, the lighting, the “exactly right” casting – scrupulously attended to, the sum total yielding a meticulously-made movie that does not feel alive. 

Blue Jasmine is a mounted butterfly under glass – exquisitely rendered, but cold.  Not excluding Cate Blachett’s universally praised performance, destined for an Oscar nomination, because actors invariably get nominated when their characters are mentally ill. 

(I wonder how the actual mentally ill feel about that.  “She acts nuts and gets put up for an Oscar.  I exhibit the same behavior and lose ‘television privileges’ at the ‘Facility.’”) 

All that control, and yet, Woody’s renowned for his “just have fun, kids” directing style.  It’s confusing.

Or maybe not.

Here’s what I know, based on the sum total of one encounter with Woody Allen.  I have already told this story, so I’ll stick to the essentials.

I got to interview Woody Allen for my column in a Toronto newspaper when I was twenty-four, and Woody was starring in the Broadway production of Play It Again, Sam, which he had also written.  I was invited into his dressing room, with the proviso that at a half an hour before “curtain”, it would be time for me to leave.

I arrive for the interview carrying a recently purchased reel-to-reel tape recorder inside what was designed to resemble a narrow, black attaché case.  Woody said he was fine with my taping the proceedings. 

I turned on the tape recorder, and began asking my questions.  Almost immediately, while casually responding, Woody, who had just returned from playing in a theatrical league baseball game, began pounding his fielder’s mitt really hard with his fist, ostensibly to create a more ball-catchable “pocket” in his glove. 

What wound up on the recording, I would later discover, was primarily the pounding.

You get it? 

Woody 1:  “Have fun with it, Earlo.”

Woody 2:  “But don’t think for a second that I’m not in control.”

Blue Jasmine is a skillfully-made movie.  But the mitt-pounding left a considerably deeper impression.

On the other hand…

In A World…

Written, directed by and starring Lake Bell, who for all I know was encouraged by the belief that, “If Woody can do it, so can I.”

And so she did, and for a debuting feature, it is a commendable effort.  Of the two films, in my view if you only have enough money for one overpriced movie ticket…

It’s In A World… by five lengths.  (That’s horseracing lingo.  How it got in here, I have no idea.)

Let’s start with the essentials.  In A World… gives substantial roles to actors with big  noses.  By that standard, I am already an enthusiastic fan.

Secondly, In A World… tackles an arena that is at once trivial and important – although what in show business is not? – that no one has ever focused on before:

The subculture of the movie trailer “voice-over” specialist. 

This, to me, is genius.  I mean, the idea is just sitting there, and nobody to that point had picked up on it.  Then, one day, an actress, imaginably sitting in a darkened theater, not only notices but adds a twist, wondering,

“How come there are no female ‘voice-over’ specialists?”

And we’re off to the races.

(I don’t know, maybe I unconsciously want to go to the track.)

Here’s what I like about younger writers, noteworthily exemplified by Lake Bell, which, not coincidentally I am certain, is the only writing element with which I, as an older writer, identify.  (And could, I believe, comfortably pull off, if I ever got an idea for a movie.)

The characters listen to themselves, the result being that, when they say something embarrassing or tasteless or impulsive or funny, they are fully aware that they did it, acknowledging what they have just blurted in the ensuing dialogue.

Like every other style, this approach can be overdone and become cliché and ultimately parodied on Saturday Night Live (when Lake Bell is guest hosting.)  Though undeniably fresh-sounding and conversational, In A World… may at times be inordinately pleased with its own self-awareness.  (Oo-oo.  A ghost just appeared in the room and uttered, “Physician, heal thyself.”)

But I choose to forgive such excesses. 

Like many small movies with promise – especially movies opening in the summer – In A World… has been precipitately overpraised.  There is stuff wrong with it, most significantly, the performance of the chief antagonist, played by Fred Melamed, who in real life is a “voice-over” specialist, and appropriately exhibits the “great pipes.”  Unfortunately, Melamed is deficient in providing the “layers” that a successful “trailer-voice” announcer doesn’t need but a featured player in a movie does.

Still, In A World… offers so much humanity and verisimilitude and understanding and playfulness and fun…

Which is a hyper-descriptive way of saying,

It’s better than I can do.

And, at this point, it is better than Woody Allen can do as well.

Take that, Tape Ruiner. 


Anonymous said...

I left "Blue Jasmine" muttering to myself how overrated it was. Overly talkative, repetitive on the nose whining, something I detect in a lot of Woody's later efforts. Alec Baldwin's part was forgettable. Dice, ironically, was among the most dynamic, I thought. Grinding out a movie a year is commendable on the one hand, but waiting for true inspiration to strike might make for better films.

Mac said...

Very interesting story about Woody Allen. I kinda prefer people who are upfront about their control-freakery. It's somehow more palatable than the passive-aggressive type. "In a World" looks great, I'm sure Lake bell has a fine career ahead of her. Like you say, there's an idea hiding in plain sight, I suppose what separates the Lake Bell's from the rest of us (well, from me anyway) is the ability to see it.

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