Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”

Inside Llewyn Davis Review

Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.

The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.

Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.

In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.

Joe: Nicolas Cage in Grim Southern Gothic Tale

Joe (2013)
Directed by David Gordon Green

Joe is a grim, gritty, low key yet violent drama set in modern day rural Texas, but it could just as easily have been set 50 years, or even a Western set over a century ago. Nicolas Cage plays the title character Joe, an ex-convict who struggles with alcohol, a violent temper and a self-destructive streak. He leads a group of men who, fittingly enough, spend their days killing trees (so that stronger ones may be planted later). When a teenage boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in another gritty rural melodrama, Mud) shows up needing a job, Joe takes the troubled boy under his wing.

Gary has an abusive, alcoholic father (expertly played by Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor who died shortly after the film was made) and a mute sister. Both Gary and Joe are targeted by a psychotic local named Willie who was slapped by Joe in a bar fight. The plot here, however, almost seems secondary. These seem like characters who are so hard up and haunted by inner demons that they fabricate conflicts with one another to have a target for their rage and disappointments. Joe can be seen as a hybrid of several genres -coming of age, Southern Gothic and violent revenge melodrama.

The film is full of despair, hopelessness and senseless violence. The most violent scene depicts a brutal murder committed for no motive beyond one downtrodden character wanting to steal a bottle of booze from a weaker, even more downtrodden character. When Joe, ostensibly the hero, gets annoyed that a dog barks at him, he orders his own pit bull to kill the other dog. Joe also seems intent on returning to prison as he regularly taunts and provokes the local cops into arresting him.

There are a couple of other films that Joe reminded me of. Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is cut from the same cloth. Like Joe, that film has many amateur local actors (that one is set in Appalachia rather than Texas) and evokes the hardness and casual violence of life among the rural poor. Another film, probably even less well known, that covers similar territory is Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the 2003 documentary directed by Andrew Douglas, also set in the Appalachian region.

If Joe has a fault it has nothing to do with the performances, which are all top notch, starting with Cage, who is in everything from silly Hollywood blockbusters to fascinating offbeat works such as Wild At Heart. The darkness and grimness of Joe, however, sometimes borders on parody. This is a world where no one even seems to have electricity, as most of the night scenes are shot in dim rooms (they do have TVs, though, so apparently the darkness is to maintain the mood). At one point, Joe gives Gary a windup clock so he can wake up for work -even basic timepieces are exotic in this neck of the woods.

Joe is a gripping, well-acted film that explores an America usually hidden from view. Though it ends on a tentatively upbeat, if appropriately somber note, it certainly won’t leave you feeling very positive about the prospects of the human species.

Winter’s Bone

Directed by Debra Granik

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

I’m Obsessed With You movie review

I’m Obsessed with You (But You’ve Got to Leave Me Alone), the 2014 film directed by Jon Goracy, is one of several new indie films currently available for streaming on Hulu. This is an interesting, somewhat experimental movie based on a play by Genevieve Adams (who is also in the cast).

The film follows the lives of a group of college friends who meet in an improv group on a liberal arts college campus. Improv, the style of spontaneous theater where the players take suggestions from the audience, serves as the underlying theme of the entire movie. Essentially, the film is an exploration of what might happen if people refuse to acknowledge a distinction between (improve style) theater and real life.

The main rule of improve, we are reminded is to “always say yes!” As you might imagine, trying to live by this commandment could make life complicated. This concept makes for an often fascinating, though at times confusing, storyline, where it’s not always clear what is supposed to be happening and what is imagined. For example, throughout the film we hear voiceovers of (presumably hypothetical) obituaries for the characters. The film also skips around in time quite a bit. Around halfway through, it began to sink in that it would be pointless to try to see I’m Obsessed With You as having any type of conventional linear plot.

The characters, played by Adams, Rachel Broshnahan, Manish Dayal, Thomas McDonnell and Jason Ralph, get involved in a variety of romantic triangles, career related mishaps and suffer from the type of existential crises and mood disorders typical of bohemians and people who attempt to allow their lives to be dictated by art.

Movies based on plays usually tend to be dialog-heavy and this one, which is overtly about the medium of theater, is certainly no exception. Still, much of the dialogue is witty and insightful and the performances are strong. This is not a movie for everyone, but fans of improv -or anyone interested in the possibility of a life that remains true to art at all costs- should find it worthwhile.

Radio Free Albemuth: Philip K. Dick’s Prophetic Dystopia

The novels of Philip K. Dick are not easy to translate into film, but Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon, does a good job at conveying some of the cult novelist’s more far out (yet far from implausible) ideas. Whereas Richard Linkater’s Through A Scanner Darkly was a mostly animated, surreal movie where the line between reality and hallucination was always on the verge of collapsing, Radio Free Albemuth is closer to being a conventional science fiction film. In fact, the movie has a deliberately retro feel to it, as it depicts an alternative late 20th century America that has too many similarities with the actual 2014 America for comfort.

The story follows a record store employee named Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who starts to receive mystical visions from a mysterious source called VALIS. He and his writer friend Phil (Shea Whigham, playing author Dick himself) try to unravel a mysterious series of events that involve interrogations at the hands of stormtrooper-like government agents and a radical organization plotting to overthrow the fascist government.

Radio Free Albemuth portrays a low tech, pre-Internet America that feels even earlier than the 1980s. The cultural climate is more like the 1950s and the enforced conformity, with the ever present threat of being hauled in for your political beliefs recalls McCarthyism, with some Orwell thrown in. It is, however, unsettling to note that, while the technology is retro, the proto-fascist political rhetoric spouted by President Fremont has an all too contemporary ring.

The film is a bit confusing when it comes to the time frame and how it relates to historical events. Dick wrote the novel in 1976 and it was published after his death in 1985 In the book and film, the Soviet Union has collapsed and America is run by the right wing President Fremont (Scott Wilson), who has been in power for 15 years. So Dick foresaw the end of the Soviet Union some 20 years before it actually happened. It’s worth noting that in the late 1970s, when Dick wrote the novel, the Soviet empire hardly seemed to be falling apart and the Patriot Act was still far in the future.

Dick’s vision can be seen as prophetic in a number of ways. Not only did he foresee the impending end of the Soviet Union, but his pre-9/11 foresight that the U.S. government would use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties was eerily prophetic as well.

Singer Alanis Morissette provides the musical talent for the story as Sylvia, a woman who also has visions and whose family is connected to that of Fremont in a mysterious way. One of the subplots involves inserting a subversive revolutionary message within a pop song.

Those not familiar with Dick, or with conspiracy theories and/or metaphysical ideas regarding parallel realities might find this material inaccessible and farfetched. The film also turns rather dark towards the end. Whereas it starts out with Brady being hopeful at accessing a higher intelligence, gradually the power of the Orwellian state overshadow the other elements. While Dick’s visions are metaphysical and hopeful on the one hand, they definitely tend towards the dystopian as well.

Radio Free Albemuth is certainly full of interesting ideas about consciousness, metaphysics, politics and what it might take to become free in the face of widespread oppression. These are themes that have universal relevance.

Radio Free Albemuth is currently available on Netflix Streaming.

15th Annual Woodstock Film Festival

The 15th Annual Woodstock Film Festival ran from October 15-19, 2014. The festival has grown quite a bit since its beginnings. While still centered in the town of Woodstock, NY, there are now film showings and other events in many other nearby towns, including Rhinebeck and Rosendale, effectively making it a regional Hudson Valley film festival.

In addition to showcasing a large number of narrative films, documentaries and shorts, this year’s WFF featured interviews and panels with director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For a Dream, Black Swan), Courtney Cox, Bruce Greenwood, and Ron Nyswanner.

52nd New York Film Festival

2014 New York Film Festival Starts This Weekend

The New York Film Festival is one of the world’s longest running film festivals. This year marks the 52nd festival, held from 9/26 to 10/12 in several venues around the city.

Some of the notable films that will be shown include:

Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, directed by Alejandro G. Irritu
Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg

The festival will feature a variety of new and previously released films, along with special events, such as a special 30th anniversary screening of This is Spinal Tap and An Evening With Ethan Hawke, An Evening With Richard Gere and a talk by Henry Jenkins on A Brief History of Transmedia Worlds.

Wet Behind the Ears

Wet Behind the Ears (2013)
Director: Sloan Copeland

Wet Behind the Ears is a film I found on Hulu without having any prior knowledge of it. I always watch unknown indie movies with fairly low expectations (the same for most Hollywood movies, truth be told). This one, however, was a welcome surprise. It wasn’t only good for a low budget indie film, it contains some of the best acting and writing that I’ve seen in a while.

The movie starts off in fairly familiar territory, with recent college graduate Samantha (Margaret Keane Williams, who also co-wrote the script along with director Copeland) having trouble finding a job. After being turned down rather condescendingly by a friend of her father’s for a job in the advertising industry, she ends up working behind the counter in an ice cream shop and moving back in with her parents.

We follow Samantha’s low key but funny adventures as she searches for a better job. She runs into an old friend from college and he tells her about a promising job lead. Instead, she is lured into a meeting with a network marketing rep. Anyone who has any familiarity with this type of business will find this scene hilarious, as the man recites his pitch about getting rich via an endlessly expanding pyramid of distributors.

Samantha’s friend Vicky (Jessica Piervicenti) also plays a key role. The two friends were going to be roommates until Samantha’s lack of employment made this arrangement impossible. Vicky is then forced to find a new roommate. After turning down a couple of obviously (and hilariously) unsuitable prospects, she ends up sharing the apartment with an apparent nymphomaniac who brings over a new man every night and keeps Vicky awake.

A typical Hollywood rom-com might have put in a montage scene of awful roommates, but Wet Behind the Ears handles this in a much funnier way without using the montage cliche. Furthermore, the wacky roommates and would-be roommates are weird yet believable. One of the interviewees snobbishly critiques Vicky’s taste in art and demands a reduction in rent.

Samantha, desperate to escape her day job (where she is even harassed by a gang of obnoxious kids she went to high school with), she is tempted when her friend Dean (Doug Roland) tells her about his lucrative video piracy business. She lures Vicky into helping with a scheme that could net all three of them with a nice chunk of cash.

The genius of Wet Behind the Ears isn’t in the plot, but in the humor of the scenes, witty dialogue and nuances of the characters. The movie manages to perfectly capture a variety of very funny and well conceived character types. Arrogant New York City (the film takes place in Manhattan and Long Island) hipsters, such as Vicky’s boss are mercilessly skewed here.

I hope this film, which apparently enjoyed some success at film festivals, attracts a wider audience. It’s so much wittier than the average Hollywood film dealing with similar subjects.
Hulu, unfortunately, tends to bury little known films amidst hundreds of mediocre titles (including Lifetime and other basic cable offerings). Unless you go out of your way to unearth obscure indie films (as I do), you are likely to miss them. I’ve found a few gems this way, with Wet Behind the Ears being one of the best of them.

The film does have a Facebook page, where you can find out the latest news about it.

Summer of 2014 a Flop For Film Industry

According to figures from Rentrak:

Film Industry Has Worst Summer Since 1997

Some of this summer’s disappointments include unforgettable titles such as:

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Expendables 3
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Could it be that audiences are finally getting saturated with superheroes, sequels, remakes and other typical mindless Hollywood fare? With ticket prices and refreshments skyrocketing, alternatives like Netflix and Hulu are seeming like better deals all the time.

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