Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Life like Frames in a Film Reel

Is this blog dead!?

NO! It's just sleeping. Or it was, anyway. Novel-writing and all that. I've run out of steam, motivation, and topics to write on in regards to my usual content in here, which you all know and love. (As reflected by the few of you who remember this place exists, haha.)

Basically, this is gonna be a short one, just to get warmed up again for blogging more in April. And with that, I'm introducing a new subject. This is a pretty all-purpose personal writer-guy blog anyway, so I figure I can get away with adding whatever sorts of new content I feel like - and besides, some of it might be of interest to more readers or something, as well. Can't just write about life and love and such all the time - especially when I haven't had enough topics to write on in that regard anyway, lacking in inspiration as I have been.

So rather than boring you all with another retarded comedy piece (I'm sure I'll come up with something to that capacity later this month anyway.), I hereby introduce This Jackass Talks Movies! Yes, I know what you're thinking (As I always say, in all my predictability) - whaddaya mean movie-talk!? This guy knows nothing! Very Socratic of you. But you remember what they did to Socrates in the end - and it had nothing to do with puppies. Think before you speak when facing my horrific oppressive regime here in relatively-unread-blog-country. (Where the law requires the wearing of bowler hats and at least three monocles at all times.) I've taken a few film courses in my time and turned into a pretty huge independent/art house and foreign film junkie in the past half-decade or so anyway, and I figure I may as well start a regular-ish feature for content focusing on another hobby I'm good at talking about - one that'd probably be more accessible to the average internet-goer. (I've kind of avoided blogging too heavily on video games largely to avoid driving off the disinterested, admittedly, while I try to blog about those - when I do - from an angle non-gamers could read and understand, at least. It can be a pretty insulated hobby, practically a subculture unto itself on the internets.)

I would've given it a more focused name - like maybe "Movies You've Never Heard Of!" - but that sounds kind of pretentious anyway. And I'm sure I'll run out of movies nobody's heard of to talk about after a while.

What could I be starting with? None other than Van Flesher, Randy Mack, and Zack Ordynans' Burning Annie. Given that it was released on 2004, never saw much theatrical distribution to speak of, isn't exactly easily found everywhere on DVD, and still has less than 200 votes on the IMDB (And a total star score that really isn't a good indicator of its quality, as a result of their rather unbalanced mean calculated scoring system.) four years after being made, I'd say it qualifies pretty well as a film most people have never heard of. Of course, to get a bit more of a glance at it, you may want to view the trailer.

In its essence, the film itself is a love poem to Woody Allen films. Gary Lundy leads the relatively small to no-name cast (Which works to the film's benefit, as it can when a less-identifiable cast of genuine talent is assembled - it can make a cast even more believable as their characters. Something many big Hollywood celebrities can't pull off in films, especially their own vehicles - but then, a great many stars in Hollywood aren't exactly good actors, per se.), pretty much only identifiable before (To me at least) from a small supporting role in Donnie Darko. He plays Max, a fairly traditional sort of Woody Allen archetype brought to a modern college setting (Though exactly how modern is a little hard to discern. I'm under the impression that it was set sometime in the late '90s, given that the N64 was the video game console of choice for the group of friends the film focuses on, and an NES and SNES are visible in the background in their suite as well.), hopeless and cynical as you'd expect. He hangs out with his friends whom he shares a suite with in the dorm (The film itself actually filmed on a real West Virginia college campus and providing a far better and more realistic portrayal of college than most.), has his own college radio show at the dead of the night that nobody listens to, and little faith in humanity, love, and himself. Practically raised on Woody Allen films, he says, and hooked on Annie Hall, he has, as they put it, "a love-hate relationship with love and hate."

As the film progresses, Max attempts a relationship with a friend, Beth, and watches it crash and burn quickly, leaving them to attempt to salvage their friendship with the occasional conversation. Max doesn't know how to let his own guard down, facing a constant clash within himself between his outer defensive smartass that plays everything off with a witty remark or crack of some sort or another and his true, unguarded self - who isn't actually a bad person, just someone afraid to let his guard down and be hurt. He'd rather play video hockey and watch Annie Hall than really live in the moment - something I can admittedly relate to greatly - in his life. After the collapse with Beth, Max meets another young woman, Julie - played well both as a believable person and Woody Allen style character by Sara Downing - who listened to his radio show on Beth's recommendation. The two cross paths several times on campus as time passes and Max watches his friends fall in and out of relationships, sitting back and making cynical comments all the while. The two eventually begin a fumbling relationship while he and his friends speculate that watching Annie Hall was a curse on their relationships, and noticing similarities between Julie and the character of Annie herself - making Max all the more insecure and uncertain of what he feels and wants.

The rest of the film, not to be spoiled, plays out in fairly traditional Woody Allen fashion - realistically, in this case, anyway - and enjoyably, overall. Everyone in their cast plays their roles well, some characters not getting fleshed out quite as much as one would like, but all avoiding being completely two-dimensional archetypes. (Save for bit characters, anyway, like a stoner and unpleasant frat boy that appear in a fairly early scene.) The soundtrack - pretty much all artists I didn't recognize - doesn't particularly stand out, but it complements the film well, working as a believable accompaniment to a modern college film. (They probably recognized that they would've been stretching it, had they gone so far in their homage to using a primarily jazz soundtrack, as Allen's films tend to.) The film itself is undeniably low budget - in watching where the camera goes and what it does and the quality of the cinematography itself, it's very obvious that they didn't have much to work with in the way of funding. That said, it doesn't take away from the film, either. Many classic Woody Allen shots and techniques - including very frequent breaking of the fourth wall to have characters view others' fuck-ups they weren't there to witness firsthand and comment, stepping right out of scenes, and talking directly to the viewers in monologue - are well integrated, and some Allen-esque color-tinting at times goes a long way in contributing to the visual feel of the film. The visuals wouldn't grab you anyway, though, being set at a real college, without any of the bells and whistles Hollywood tries to hang on college locales - there's certainly no faulting Burning Annie for its honesty there.

The real star of the film, though, is its script. Consistently biting and witty, it would definitely make Woody Allen proud. (And for the sake of the filmmakers, one can only hope he'd at least hear about it sometime, considering how few people seem to be aware of the existence of this movie. I lucked out with that Hollywood Video used movie bin. You never know what kind of gold you'll find there.) There's a lot of great fourth-wall breaking moments, social commentary, and pop culture references. (From several scenes spent with the characters sitting around playing N64 games and talking Kevin Smith movies, and even one such scene discussing how pop culture references are a cheap move in cinema, and how that if there lives were a movie, it would be downright terrible.) There's some real emotional resonance there, though it isn't hugely deep - it focuses on being more honest about relationships than warming or breaking the viewer's heart, and makes plenty of good points about love and relationships in college - and Lundy certainly plays a sympathetic, likable protagonist in Max. The film's conclusion won't blow you away or enlighten you, but it'll leave you with a satisfied feeling, having just viewed a worthwhile film with a smart, funny script. And all-in-all, it's the script first and foremost that makes Burning Annie worth seeing.

In short, if you're a Woody Allen fan, make a point of seeing Burning Annie. It shouldn't be too hard to find online, and considering its obscurity and the amount of talent involved in the film - while not without its flaws, it's a very well crafted Woody Allen style comedy/drama - it's certainly well worth seeing. These guys deserve more attention, and I certainly hope they get more chances to continue making indie art house flicks like this. It certainly beats out the average Hollywood dreck any day.

And thus, that concludes the first of my little cinema talk posts. Hopefully it was interesting enough, as I'm going to continue to focus on highlighting obscure films first and foremost, just for the sake of some more interesting content here and giving these movies the attention they deserve. There's a lot of good movies out there that just never get noticed.


Brian said...

I ran through your blog posts today and enjoyed them. You have a lot to say that's for sure. I was not aware that one of the creators of D&D recently died, but I have been out of the gaming relm for a while. I quit World of Warcraft over a month ago and haven't looked back since as I felt that was sucking the life out of me! What little bit of creativity in me was being stored away and ignored as long as I played that game. Probably since any bit of imagination was already determined. Anyway, I enjoyed your posts and am adding you to my "friends" list so I can keep coming back to your blog.

Kelly said...

Interesting discussion on films. I'm also an aspiring writer. Please check out my blog: www.levelations.com

Benjamin Fennell said...

Brian - Welcome. Always glad to see a new face and get feedback from a new reader. Hopefully I'll keep this thing consistently interesting enough to be worth sticking around, haha. Yeah, I was saddened by Gygax's death, I haven't played D&D in years myself, but I've seen him pop up enough in comedy. He was on an episode of Futurama some years ago, and even last year, he guest starred on the animated video gamer comedy show Code Monkeys. I never played World of Warcraft myself - though I like the main series games - but I generally avoid pay-to-play stuff, and got rather burnt out on MMORPGs back in the late '90s and early 2000s on some free ones I played back then. Too much of a grind, too many idiots, and no real sense of accomplishment or fun in the long run, so I just don't bother with the genre. My only real online gaming poison these days is the browser-based Kingdom of Loathing, which is a lot of fun, and easy to take a leisurely, relaxed pace with. Then I play the occasional DS or Wii game online with friends, and that's about it. MMOs really can suck the life out of you in many capacities though, I know exactly what you mean. Definitely a good thing that you quit playing, obviously. A lot of people have a hard enough time breaking their addictions as is, so hey, good job. And very cool, I'll give your blog a look as well.

Kelly - Thanks, I'm glad you thought so. I'll be highlighting more obscure and noteworthy films as time goes on in here. Probably at least one more later this month. And cool, always nice to meet a fellow aspiring author. I'll check your blog out.