Archive for August, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Monday, August 26th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The tremendous Cate Blanchett supplies a tour-de-force performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a Blanche DuBois meets Bernie Madoff moral tale that represents one of the writer-director’s strongest and most sustained efforts since 2005’s “Match Point.” Allen’s ever-prolific late period contains more clunkers than gems, but the misfires (“To Rome with Love,” “Whatever Works”) haven’t tarnished the delights (“Midnight in Paris,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). “Blue Jasmine” doesn’t surpass “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” perhaps Allen’s finest exploration of the psyche’s darkest corners, but the new film is a worthy addition to the filmmaker’s oeuvre.

Blanchett appeared as DuBois in the Sydney Theatre Company’s revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (performed in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and many commentators have drawn comparisons between Tennessee Williams’ tipsy, fading belle and Jeanette “Jasmine French” Francis, Allen’s richly imagined hothouse flower. While the “Streetcar” allusions in “Blue Jasmine” can keep Williams aficionados busy – see Manohla Dargis’ review in “The New York Times” for a thorough account – Allen has shaped the homage into a stern portrait of desperation both loud and quiet.

Miraculously, Blanchett wills the elitist, entitled Jasmine into spaces of pathos and vulnerability. The fallen Park Avenue socialite’s doomed marriage with a swindling financier (Alec Baldwin) has left her without means and a place to live. After fleeing New York for San Francisco to crash with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine’s sense of privilege collides with the working class world inhabited by her sibling, a grocery clerk whose boyfriend, an auto mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale), deeply resents the needy Jasmine’s inconvenient imposition. Jasmine’s plans to rediscover herself are by turns pathetic and misguided, and Allen nails the clash of classes in a series of jittery outbursts and cruel recriminations.

Allen explores a number of his pet themes, including self-delusion, wealth, opportunity, greed, and the fallout from amour fou. The fortunes and misfortunes of both Jasmine and Ginger are examined in detail, and Allen includes numerous flashbacks to explain Jasmine’s precarious and deteriorating mental health. Even though both blue and white collar stereotypes abound in the outward appearances of the film’s inhabitants, Allen wisely withholds judgment on his players, allowing the viewer to understand the motives of all significant parties, most of whom make poor decisions at one point or another. Along with Hawkins, Baldwin, and Cannavale, support is provided by Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, and Peter Sarsgaard.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Blanchett, however, and although it’s far too early to make award season predictions, nobody would be surprised if she earns an emphatic series of accolades later this year for her work as Jasmine, a role David Denby has called “the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career.” Allen currently holds the record among living filmmakers for directing the most Oscar-winning performances (six total, five by women), so it is little wonder that actors seek opportunities to appear in his movies. Blanchett, like Dianne Wiest before her, makes room for humor while striking the perfect notes of seriousness and sadness. By the time we join Jasmine on a park bench in the movie’s stirring coda, she has become very difficult to forget.

Jobs

Monday, August 19th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An embarrassing, half-baked product that stands in diametric opposition to the stamp of quality and user experience demanded of its subject on his company’s game-changing devices, “Jobs” is not the biopic Apple fanatics, or anyone else for that matter, wanted or needed. Director Joshua Michael Stern violates every law of competent filmmaking, stacking his movie with surface-level historical highlights instead of thoughtful ideas and explorations of what might drive and inspire a visionary person to innovate within a dynamic and highly competitive industry.

“Jobs” is so uninvolving, it could inspire a game in which participants tally the number of times the title character is shown barefoot, applauded by staff, nearly comes to tears, or breaks out a combination of the smirk/intense gaze. Ashton Kutcher’s passing resemblance to the younger version of the man (the actor is currently 35 and Steve Jobs died at 56 in October 2011) does not translate into a nuanced performance, and a portion of the blame belongs to screenwriter Matt Whiteley, who insists on giving Jobs a string of uninterrupted zero-to-sixty escalations from tranquility to rage. And Kutcher’s misguided exaggeration of Jobs’ ambling walk is just a bad joke.

If “Jobs” has a single redeeming feature, it can be described in the willingness of the filmmakers to remind viewers that Jobs could be selfish, savage, mercenary, and deluded. When told he is his own worst enemy, we are all inclined to believe it, since so many of the movie’s interactions are predicated on Jobs being a massive tool in matters of interpersonal communication. One gets the feeling that the nonstop loops of scenes exploring Jobs’ battles with Apple suits, his shabby and abusive treatment of employees, and his grotesque disloyalty to the people in his circle of closest friends are in the script to illustrate the man’s complexity and the burdens of genius, but the effect is cartoonish.

Stern and Whiteley eschew any close examination of Jobs’ personal life except in tiny glimpses when it suits their larger design. The movie hints that Jobs carried around a chip on his shoulder regarding his status as a child given up for adoption. Additionally, Jobs’ cruel rejection of his daughter Lisa (born 1978 to Chrisann Brennan) is minimized. Neither Brennan nor Laurene Powell are seen as significant in the life of Jobs, although Brennan (played by Ahna O’Reilly) has a small scene in which she is comforted by Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) after Jobs kicks her to the curb. It is certainly debatable whether the filmmakers’ decision to omit content dealing with the pancreatic cancer that would claim Jobs’ life was a wise decision.

Supposedly, Aaron Sorkin’s own script about Steve Jobs consists of only three scenes – each one playing out in real time prior to major Apple product launches – but if the writing is even a fraction as good as Sorkin’s work on the screenplay for “The Social Network,” the future movie would still be better than “Jobs.” In 1981, Bud Tribble coined the term “reality distortion field” as a means of accounting for the uncanny way in which Jobs could seduce himself and others into total belief in and commitment to an endeavor, especially when the odds against success were high. “Jobs” the movie so completely misses that charisma, the result is all Zune and no iPod.

Fruitvale Station

Monday, August 12th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The incident was captured on several cell phone cameras while the train full of witnesses idled, and the footage from one angle is used at the beginning of writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station.” Coogler’s decision to start with the disturbing documentation of the gunshot that took Grant’s life permeates the film’s quotidian business of following one young person’s last day with foreboding feelings of dread, melancholy, and regret.

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan navigates the man’s frustrating contradictions with a keenly applied understanding of the knots and errors that contribute to any life’s mosaic. Grant’s mostly uneventful schedule is given several dramatic conflicts by Coogler that capitalize on the fresh-start promises afforded by New Year resolutions. Grant tries to come clean with girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of their daughter, about romantic infidelity and the loss of his supermarket job. Additionally, we bear witness to Grant’s tendency toward prevarication and poor choices, as he struggles to leave behind the drug dealing that placed him behind bars in one of two prison terms served.

First-time feature filmmaker Coogler demonstrates maturity and confidence periodically offset by a few unnecessarily manipulative portents of Grant’s destiny. A scene in which Grant comforts a pitbull that has been struck by a vehicle flirts with both emotional artificiality and symbolic transparency. The narrative unity of several “it’s a small world” coincidences converging in one transit car is also a stretch, but the core of Coogler’s agenda, expressed by his thought in a New York Times interview with Joe Rhodes that “When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something,” is omnipresent in the film.

While some critics have negatively responded to Coogler’s affirming portrayal of Grant, “Fruitvale Station” is no different from any “based on a true story” historical dramas that, as narrative fiction, imagine and invent dialogue, details, and demeanors of “real” people being portrayed by talented actors. Coogler shrewdly and soberly turns “Fruitvale Station” into a meditation on the full range of one individual’s humanness instead of an inquiry into racial division, use of force principles, and police brutality and misconduct.

In the New York Post, Kyle Smith made several dubious assertions, including the statement that “videos of the shooting don’t support a claim of outrageous policing.” The validity of Smith’s comment depends upon one’s definition of “outrageous,” but plenty of eyewitness testimony and the videos taken that day corroborate the fact that Grant was unarmed and on the ground when Mehserle pulled the trigger (the defense team made the argument that the officer confused his Taser with his firearm). Coogler’s take on the chaotic prelude to Grant’s death unfolds with markers of urgency and unpredictability, identifying the filmmaker as an artist to watch and “Fruitvale Station” as one of 2013’s key movies.

The To Do List

Monday, August 5th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Maggie Carey’s feature film debut “The To Do List” has received attention for gender-inverting the common masculinity of the “pursuit of sexual experience” trope that has fueled the plots of several raunchy comedies including “Porky’s,” “The Last American Virgin,” and “American Pie.” “The To Do List” is not the first rite-of-passage movie to be shared from the perspective of a female protagonist – “Little Darlings,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Juno,” and “18-Year-Old Virgin” represent a range of tones and agendas – but Carey’s unapologetic heroine Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), is so matter of fact about wanting to understand and acquire carnal knowledge on her own terms that the film has been called both “fake feminist” by Rafer Guzman and “radically feminist” by Inkoo Kang.

Carey, who wrote the screenplay on spec before it ended up on Franklin Leonard’s influential Black List survey, met Plaza in an Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre class and cast the future “Parks and Recreation” performer in a web series called “The Jeannie Tate Show.” In “The To Do List,” Plaza continues to hone her deadpan style, but overachieving valedictorian Brandy is considerably less sarcastic and cynical than April Ludgate. Brandy shares some movie DNA with Ione Skye’s Diane Court from teen hallmark “Say Anything…” and even though Skye was age-appropriately cast as a high school graduate, one of the gags of “The To Do List” is the “Beverly Hills, 90210”-style use of performers ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s as teenagers.

Set in Carey’s high school graduation year of 1993, “The To Do List” uses that specific date to mine music and fashion nostalgia as well as provide a framework for a plot that simply could not exist once Internet search engines began to provide instant access to definitions and illustrations of any and every possible sexual behavior. Brandy’s quest to check off the likes of French kissing, motorboating, hand jobs, pearl necklaces, dry humping, and cunnilingus (outside of a committed relationship and with multiple partners) will vex certain conservatives opposed to what might be perceived as the movie’s permissive/progressive affirmation of sex positivity. On the way from “straight A’s to getting her first F,” as the double-entendre of the trailer puts it, Brandy may very well challenge Kathryn Schwartz’s argument that virginity is a “vehicle for misogyny.”

Pursuers of raucous comedy and onscreen vulgarity will find many opportunities to laugh, although Carey mostly steers clear of using Brandy’s rendezvous for the most graphic jests. Instead, an errant bikini top and a gross-out tribute to the Baby Ruth scene from juggernaut “Caddyshack” provide Brandy’s biggest humiliations. Surely it is no accident that Carey constructs “The To Do List” in a way that tries to depict a contextual authenticity for Brandy’s sexual roadmap. The most compelling example of this occurs during the intercourse that Brandy imagines will conclude her homework: she has the presence of mind to be on top to increase the likelihood of orgasm.

The most disappointing dimension of “The To Do List” is the borderline apathetic treatment of the talented secondary cast members. Brandy’s BFFs, played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, importantly avoid slut-shaming their curious pal, even though Shawkat’s Fiona lashes out with the S-word in anger and humiliation when she feels betrayed by one of Brandy’s particularly clueless moves. Fiona and Steele’s Wendy are never developed beyond slight and flimsy approximations of self-actualized persons, and the lack of meaningfully communicated interpersonal relationships prevents the film from achieving the kind of richness and depth of character associated with the 1980s movies of John Hughes.