Monday, November 18, 2013

New Fillums

BLUE JASMINE is the latest film to be subtitled 'Woody Allen's comeback'.  After the delight of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS Woody has gone serious on us again with this riff on A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (only without the genius).

Cate Blanchett stakes a claim for the Best Actress Academy Award with her performance as the titular Jasmine, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Once the pampered wife of a Wall Street investment advisor, she has now seen her East Side existence vanish with her husband's imprisonment for embezzlement and the loss of everything to pay his debts.  At her wit's end she flies (first class of course) to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger.  It turns out that they were both adopted and have never been particularly close.

Several years earlier, Ginger and her then-husband Augie had visited New York to celebrate a sizeable lottery win.  Jasmine had suggested her husband invest the money rather than use it to set up Augie in his own business.  The resultant loss of their money ruined Ginger's marriage although she is magnanimous enough not to blame Jasmine.  She is now preparing to marry her mechanic boyfriend Chilli who, needless to say, Jasmine views with distaste.

Jasmine dominates life in Ginger's small apartment above a fast food joint although she loathes living there.  While working as a doctor's receptionist she also attends an evening class in computing which she believes will lead to a career as an interior designer.  Through a classmate she and Ginger are invited to a swanky housewarming party.  At the party Jasmine and Ginger both meet new men: Dwight, a wealthy widower with political aspirations, believes Jasmine's line about being a designer and invites her to work on his new apartment while Ginger is drawn to Al, a sound engineer.  Needless to say Jasmine and Dwight are soon a couple which she hopes will return her to the highlife while encouraging Ginger to dump Chilli for Al.

Yes Blanchett is an absolute tour-de-force as Jasmine, crackling nervous energy from every pore but at no time do you ever feel sympathy for her predicament, so that when she looks set to marry Peter Sarsgaard's unlikely Dwight you simply wait for her comeuppance.  As the plot's homage (shall we call it that?) to STREETCAR is so strong this attitude to the main character is strange as this is a feeling you never feel towards Blanche Du Bois, no matter who is playing her.  Cate Blanchett deserves the praise she has been given but I agree when friend Andrew opined that if it had been Lindsay Lohan playing the role then that would be a genius performance!

Woody Allen stores up all the audience's sympathy on Sally Hawkins as Stella - sorry - Ginger and she turns in a very likeable performance.  Alec Baldwin is excellent as Hal, Jasmine's husband who is as slippery with women as he is with money and there are surprisingly effective performances from comedians Louis C.K. as Ginger's pursuer Al and Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, her embittered ex-husband.  Although I had problems with the tonal quality of his script, Woody Allen kept the tension building and it's good to see him still delivering films of this quality.  No one wants to see a return to the nadir of HOLLYWOOD ENDING.  Oh and he has compiled an excellent soundtrack too.

I had expectations of what THE BUTLER would be like and sure enough director Lee Daniels went that extra yard to match them.  Sadly.

The film was inspired by Eugene Allen, a staff member at the White House from 1952 to 1980 who buttled for seven presidents.  The key word is 'inspired' as they have taken the premise and shoehorned it into a clichéd script of The Individual (And By Osmosis The Race) Triumphing Over Adversity.  Oddly for a film about the empowerment of black workers it doesn't stretch to scriptwriters as it's written by Danny Strong, a white actor-cum-writer.

Forest Whitaker plays the adult Cecil Gaines who by the time we meet him has endured seeing his father shot by a racist farmer who had just raped his mother into a state of catatonia.  His move from "field nigger" to "house nigger" is courtesy of the farmer's mother (Vanessa Redgrave in a spit and a cough) who impresses on him that when serving it should be like the room is empty.

Sadly this is how the part is seen by the scriptwriter too as Whitaker, while always interesting to watch. is given nothing to chew on, he always seems to be backing out of rooms saying "Thank ye sir".  To THE BUTLER's detriment, all the way through it I was comparing it to THE REMAINS OF THE DAY where again a butler is seen against the political events of the day.  But where Stevens' wilful ignorance of his appeasing employer is a facet of the devastating emptiness in his life, Cecil is seen to admire all his employers while the personal reactions are given to his loving but dissatisfied wife and his two sons but here screenwriter goes into pure cypher mode.

The older son is there to personify the various threads of black civil rights struggle so he joins the Freedom Riders then finds himself sitting on Martin Luther King's bed in a certain motel room.  After MLK checks out, as 'twere, he becomes a Black Panther only to find out that they are quite aggressive and so becomes a college graduate and a Congressman.  Just like that.  Meanwhile his younger brother is one of those adorable sons who studies hard, is cheeky but in a cute way and smilingly tells his brother that he's going to Vietnam.  I bet he loved reading that page of the script.

Oprah Winfrey was effective as the bored and boozing housewife - it was like a not-so-dry run for a possible stab at Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF - David Oyelowo did what he could with the older cypher son and there are nice supporting turns from Cuba Gooding Jnr. as a fellow White House staffer and Colman Domingo as the senior staffer who teaches our hero the works.  The parade of stars as the presidents is a bit like an Equity costume party: Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman shuffle on say a few lines (on the toilet if you are Schreiber) while Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan has to be seen to be believed.  Needless to say it ends with the Obama Presidency, I was half-convinced he would play himself at the end but I guess his agent asked for too much money.

Andrew provided the screening tickets for THE BUTLER and also for RUSH.  Not the most obvious of viewing for me but I thought I would give it a go after having seen the excellent SENNA documentary recently.
Maybe it was a bit too close to seeing SENNA as again we were given the framework of two rivals going head-to-head with a growing antagonism building between them.  And once again it turns out that the truth has been cut to fit the fictional length in Peter Morgan's script as Niki Lauda and James Hunt actually had a good relationship off the track.  But that isn't good for drama is it?  So we have a replay of the ol' AMADEUS clash between the gifted but undisciplined person against the technically exact but dull one.  I think I have sussed the Peter Morgan schtick - substitute new brash ideas vs. old hand and you have Peter Morgan's THE QUEEN. FROST/NIXON, THE AUDIENCE, THE DAMNED UNITED, THE DEAL, LONGFORD, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP... let's face it, you could stage a Peter Morgan retrospective and all the scenery you would need would be a table and two chairs.
Ron Howard, not a director I am overly keen on, ramps up the track action with much whizzing, air streams flattening grass verges etc. and seat-shuddering revvings and gear-changes.  The sound design carries off-track as well - a champagne bottle doesn't just pop it EXPLODES, doors SLAM, shoes CLACK.  We get it... it's a testosterone existence.  Hans Zimmer's score is also outrageously over-the-top.
Good performances from Daniel Brühl as Lauda, Chris Hemsworth (taking a rest from Thor duty) as Hunt and Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife Marlene sustain the interest although the film could do with taking a few lessons from it's subject matter as it sometimes seems to drag.

By the way, when exactly did actors become so superfluous to the films they are in?  With no opening credits in RUSH, there are 13 - 13! - end credits before the first actor's name appears.  When exactly did this start?  Is it a way of producers and directors putting their stars in their place?  "Yes we paid you more than you're worth so you will have to wait for your name on the screen bitch". 

I don't know about you Constant Reader but I don't go to see a film for the Executive Producers.

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