Monthly Archives: August 2013

Blue Jasmine Review

"Yeah, baby...this expression's got 'Oscar' written all over it."

“Yeah, baby…this expression’s got ‘Oscar’ written all over it.”

In 1988, Woody Allen released Another Woman, a film about a woman whose delicately constructed world unravels as she learns that she is not well-liked by her family and friends. Twenty-five years later, Allen releases Blue Jasmine, where a similar character’s troubles have been amped up 100%. Gena Rowlands played a woman who alienated everyone around her with her judgmental arrogance. Cate Blanchett plays a woman who alienates herself from everyone around her by existing in denial.

Blue Jasmine tells the story of Jeanette Francis who adopts the name Jasmine, and is herself adopted improbably along with Ginger, her adopted sister, but of no blood relation. I say improbably, because these two are the definition of “different sides of the track;” Jasmine grows up to become a wealthy socialite, while Ginger (Judy Hawkins) grows up to become a hardscrabble working class single mom. The obvious differences between these two are pretty apparent, and it’s a little hard to swallow that their paths would be so divergent being raised within the same household. But more interestingly is the difference between these two in regards to how they deal with life’s blows. Ginger is much more of a streetwise pragmatist, dealing realistically with the knockdowns of life and love, whereas Jasmine is poorly suited to deal with anything as her bubble collapses around her.

The bubble that Jasmine has created is one consisting of material wealth, social connections, and objectivism as a trophy wife by her philandering real estate investor husband Hal, played smoothly by Alec Baldwin. Jasmine arrives on the doorstep of her sister’s San Francisco walkup after her husband is jailed for felony theft (in a “five minutes ago” nod to Bernie Madoff) and hangs himself in his prison cell. She lives in denial of her husband’s affairs and unethical business practices because, to put a fine point on it, it’s convenient. She’s the upper Eastside Carmella Soprano. It’s clear that Jasmine could never accept anything less than the best, as seen in flashback when Ginger and her one-time husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, who, with this role and his role on Entourage, is more entertaining than his “Hickory Dickory Dock” standup ever was) visit Jasmine and Hal at their Hamptons home. Jasmine’s disdain for the two of them and what they apparently represent is palpable. And even when she imposes upon Ginger in her desperate, now bankrupt widowed state, Jasmine attempts to maintain that bubble, by harshly assessing Ginger’s life and her relationship with current boyfriend Chili (Bobby Canavale, who adds a little dash of Tennessee Williams by way of Stanley Kowalski to Jasmine’s Blanche).

From there, we view, sometimes cringe, at a woman who literally unravels onscreen. Cate Blanchett is so effective portraying a character who is wholly ill-equipped to deal with adversity, there were times I wanted to jump onscreen and put her out of her misery like a horse with a broken leg. Even when she is afforded modest to grand opportunities to regain the life she had, either fate or her own machinations sling her back down, as evidenced by her interaction with a socially awkward dentist (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg) and an affable statesman (Peter Sarsgaard). The movie alternates between the present and the past, where we learn how Jasmine arrived at her desperate present situation. I’m not usually a fan of the flashback within the present narrative, but it is done very effectively here. Actually, the flashbacks, to a certain degree, provide relief from the misery of Jasmine’s situation in the present narrative.

There are a few of the Allen tropes here; of course, the character of Jasmine allows us to be privy to the lifestyles of the upper crust Manhattan set, a familiar setting in much of Allen’s work. Ginger, Augie, Chili, and a too-briefly onscreen Louis C.K. provide the typical Allen love triangles, but thankfully, it’s much less farcical here. As with many of his films in the recent past, all is awash in a light sepia and I suspect that, like all his film titles and credits, Allen’s tombstone will be scripted with a Windsor Light Condensed typeface. He also returns for portions of the film, to his New York home. After setting his last few films in London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome, I was beginning to wonder if Allen was knocking out a film each year while on vacation.

All the cast are pitch-perfect, but make no mistake about it: this movie belongs squarely to Cate Blanchett. As the movie starts, I was made to feel like I was watching just another neurotic stand-in for Woody, but she quickly dispelled that assessment. Her performance is so convincing, I literally found it difficult to watch her onscreen as she descended into near-madness. I care nothing for Oscar buzz or predictions, but there’s no way she goes unnoticed by the Academy. This is such a well written, well directed and well acted film that, between Woody and Cate, I don’t know who should be more appreciative of the other. 4/5 reels

 

Elysium Review

Matt Damon has been assimilated

Matt Damon has been assimilated

Someone should tell Neil Blomkamp that he’s got the support of Peter Jackson behind him, ever since his terrific directorial debut with District 9. He doesn’t have to cut corners by constantly shooting in slums. In this case, it’s the slums of Mexico, doubling as Los Angeles 2154 in his new film Elysium.

While the trailers present a pretty basic storyline, that of Matt Damon having to somehow get up to the space station Elysium where the 1% have made their home, the film has more social issues which it strives to beat about the head and shoulders of the audience. Earth has been laid waste through some unknown cataclysm; perhaps a global financial collapse, a world war, a climate catastrophe, it’s not really explained, and it doesn’t matter. Assuming you’re living on Earth as you read this and are aware of the current conditions of our planet and its people, accepting the third world milieu of Los Angeles in this film is not a stretch of the imagination. That’s why all the wealthy have left the planet for Elysium, where they live in the lap of luxury, leaving the rest of us poor saps to fend for ourselves on Earth, amidst crime, disease, unemployment and overcrowding. Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa, who apparently is the only white man left in L.A., is lucky to have his job at Armadyne, a corporation that manufactures robot policemen. That is, until he gets trapped in a containment booth and receives a lethal dose of radiation. Now it’s all about getting up to Elysium because, in addition to having the best of everything, every resident up there has a med-pod, which is capable of eliminating any disease or injury.

The trailers present this basic storyline, making it apparent that this movie is about making the case for the great schism between the haves and the have nots. That’s fine, most good movies couch social commentary in metaphorical tales. But, wow…to have a scene in the first ten minutes of the film where a band of Hispanics board makeshift ships to try to sneak up to Elysium? My head was already throbbing from being beaten over by the commentary. That, combined with the clear cut statement about healthcare, was a bit much, but I went along with the ride. The trailers had shown me in advance that I was going to be watching an analogy intended to demonstrate the inequality of good and bad healthcare (right after being irradiated, a robotic doctor tells Da Costa he’s got five days to live and tosses him painkillers, then fires him from the job), and the immigration subtext at the beginning of the film didn’t keep me from settling in for the ride, there was a lot of movie left to enjoy and I was okay with being subject to a social lecture.

However, the film hit me with multiple setups and plotlines; I ended up not being able to hang my hat on any of them. With the help of Spider, a high tech criminal, Damon becomes a quasi-cyborg to steal valuable information about Elysium from Armadyne’s CEO; in exchange for the information, Spider will help Max get up to Elysium. Okay. No wait…Max must get up to Elysium because the daughter of his childhood girlfriend is dying from leukemia…okay. No, wait…a black ops quasi-cyborg mercenary named Kruger is hired to kill Da Costa and take over Elysium and Da Costa must stop him…uh, no, it’s about a coup within Elysium’s government because the president doesn’t approve of the methods of those within his cabinet…wait, my head is officially spinning. All of these plots would’ve most likely made for one great movie. As it is, the plotting is an exercise in overkill. And most unfortunately, the final act of the movie contains a typical Hollywood fight scene and a plot point that provides no surprises whatsoever.

Bizarre performances are another element that mar the film. Jodie Foster, who is usually spot on (and in my book, the only woman who could’ve picked up the kickass action-heroine baton from Sigourney Weaver; here’s hoping Chloe Grace Moretz runs with it) delivers a really strange performance here. I learned from Wikipedia that she was playing a French character, so that answered the question of the weird accent she was using. But she plays Elysium official Jessica Delacourt like a budgie trapped in a cage; herky-jerky motions with her head and neck, eyes darting back and forth…truly odd. As I said, she plays a French character, so I’m curious…were Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tatou and Bérénice Bejo (Oscar nominee for 2011’s The Artist) all too busy to audition? And Wagner Moura as Spider is completely over the top. He doesn’t deliver his lines so much as howls them.

What makes the movie really worthy of viewing, besides Matt Damon’s performance, is the visual effects. This film really makes the case that the geeks at ILM and WETA should throw out their CGI computers and go back to scale models (well, all except for the team that created Gollum). Robots populate a significant amount of the frame and they look stunningly real; they do not look CGI, it doesn’t look possible that they are actors in suits, yet they move, they walk, and they fire weapons realistically. The spaceships and transports are photorealistic as well, and adding all the dirt and grime to the technology makes it all the more convincing. Matt Damon’s exoskeleton looks painfully real, like Star Trek Borg v1. And it is all very cool.Unfortunately, the aggregate plots and characters become overwhelming and key performances are off-putting. I’m not writing this movie off altogether, but I’m looking forward to Blomkamp delivering a better, more streamlined film next time. It remains to be seen if he can craft another story which takes place in a slum. Slumdog Millionaire 2: Rise Of The Machines? 3/5 reels