Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

Director: Woody Allen

****

From his earliest film travails in the late 1960s to present day, Woody Allen’s output has been constant, and that constancy manifests itself in many ways. On average, he makes a film a year (not bad for a 78-year-old), but his films almost always deal with the romantic and personal traumas of wealthy white New Yorkers. His settings have moved out of NY in recent years, to mixed effect. Match Point was the best of the bad bunch of flicks that arose from his London period whilst Midnight In Paris, an enjoyable soufflé of a film, won him his first Oscar in 25 years. Woody has returned to the States, but rather than settle back into his old groove, like a nebbish prospector he has headed West to Califor-nye-ay for inspiration. Marin County’s hardly a jump from parkside Manhattan wealth-wise, but the Pacific air seems to have given Allen the boost he’s needed.

With his script for Blue Jasmine, Allen appears to have rediscovered that cruel bite that often accompanied his sly wit to devastating effect in his films of the late eighties and early nineties. Watching our heroine Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) sufferings recalls the sharp edges of Crimes and Misdemeanors, albeit not quite as bitter. Jasmine travels from New York to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) incarceration for fraud. Jasmine’s wealthy lifestyle has been completely taken away from her, and all that’s left are addictions to alcohol and Xanax. Jumping back-and-forth between Jasmine’s elegant past and downtrodden present, we see the devolution of a character who was content to take all the good things sent her way, and can’t cope when the bad things come down the conveyer belt in a tidal wave of inevitability. There’s no Alice-alike reinvention here; Jasmine’s luck has well and truly run out.

Like life, Allen has little pity for Jasmine; this screenplay is his most challenging in years. There are no time-travelling Parisians or alternating tragic/comic versions of the story. Tackling ideas arising from the current economic downturn sees Allen back at his acerbic best, with arguably more frank putdowns and emotional rawness than in his last half-dozen films combined. Most of the ire comes from the men in Ginger’s life. Her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, shorn of blue humour and infused with a little charm for once) lost money with Hal, and is less than happy at Jasmine’s arrival. Meanwhile, Ginger’s new beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale) sees Jasmine as an opportunistic leech. It doesn’t matter to Jasmine; Augie and Chili are the kind of people she’s avoided most of her life. Arguably, so has Allen. He’s often been criticized for the dearth of characters of lower classes or other races in his films (His first major black character was the hooker in Deconstructing Harry. Oops.), but Allen begins to redress the balance here; Ginger’s blue-collar life is relatively solid. It also helps that Hawkins, Cannavale and Clay make for appealing screen presences.

At the heart of all this is Blanchett, giving another brilliant performance in a career full of them. However, Jasmine is a cut above the likes of Elizabeth I or Katherine Hepburn because we get a Blanchett performance full of a vulnerability many would have thought below her. Jasmine is a flighty talky woman, nothing new for Australia’s most exquisitely-jawboned export. Yet, she is also mentally unstable and in dire need of support and a reality check. Having previously played Blanche Dubois in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire must have aided Blanchett, as Blue Jasmine often invites comparisons. Instead of the kindness of strangers, however, Jasmine seeks the help of her own family, something altogether more distant. Her ego-fuelled attempts to bag a wealthy Marin politico (Peter Saarsgard, a dead ringer for Kelsey Grammer circa 1993) add little levity. Her lies and addictions threaten to bring her down further, but every tremble of the hand and watery-eyed stare ensure we’re with Jasmine all the way down.

It’s not as effortlessly insightful as Annie Hall, but Blue Jasmine does see Allen back in form in a way that makes his previous (alleged) returns to form seem almost throwaway. Most people would be bitter about a few things by the time they reach 78, and it’s good to see some bile and venting back in Woody’s words. Stay angry, mensch; sour Woody is always a cut above so much la-di-dah.

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Review: The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

The films of Paolo Sorrentino see him balancing tones and genres of all kinds and often to remarkable effect. The Consequences of Love broke heats and accelerated pulses, whilst Il Divo cast the ins and outs of Italian politics as a genuine thriller with style to spare. After his wobbly Stateside sojourn This Must Be The Place (a better film than you remember, despite its insistent peculiarities), Sorrentino returns to Italia for his greatest balancing act yet; The Great Beauty is a chic and elegant slice of commentary on Italy 2013, as the country staggers through a monied-yet-misguided post-Berlusconi haze. Luhrmann’s not-so Great Gatsby should take notes.

The greatest of beauties can be heartbreaking. The Great Beauty sets out its stall in its opening, as a Japanese tourist succumbs to a heart attack whilst taking holiday snaps of Rome’s fountains and ruins. From sudden death, we cut to life in the fast lane as classy revellers get down at a rooftop party. It’s not just any party; it’s the 65th birthday party of well-to-do man about town Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino’s muse, Toni Servillo). The music is blaring; the backdrop is a giant neon Martini sign; the entertainment is glass rooms with burlesque dancers flaunting their masked wares. From Fellini to Pasolini and now to Sorrentino, no-one does elite extravagance onscreen like the Italians. It’s positively intoxicating.

Jep is a chap to be celebrated, though he would not agree. A post as a reputable interviewer and journalist keeps Jep in the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, but he yearns for the successes of earlier years, in particular an acclaimed debut novel he’s never managed to match. Regret is written in the deep lines of Servillo’s face. Smiles and wry laughter continually give way to sighs and pregnant stares. He’s the wise man in a sea of bitchiness, self-sabotage and privilege. Playing host to frequent get-togethers populated by noteworthy writers and socialites, he drinks in the barbs and observations of the ivory tower populace. As he observes the to-ing and fro-ing, a hopelessness creeps into Servillo’s well-dressed frame. His soul is withered by these people. As flashbacks show, he had a youthful idealism once but, as a great man once wrote, too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.

Every frame drips elegance but despite the surface sheen, this is much more than rich folk having a crisis. The Great Beauty is about small people missing the big picture. In the eyes of Sorrentino and his skilled DP Luca Bigazzi, Jep is surrounded by the architectural and artistic magnificence of Rome, a beauty he continuously aspires to. Jep’s soul keeps him in touch with ‘la grande bellezza’, as seen in his burgeoning relationship with tart-with-a-heart Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) and his prospective interview with a nun (Giusi Merli) idolised as a ‘living saint’. The vices of the present and the icons of the past clash in The Great Beauty, but neither one overwhelms the other in Sorrentino’s balancing act. He’s also careful to take reference points from other films without over-exploiting them. Nods to Resnais and Reygadas can be spotted, and the spirit of La Dolce Vita looms large. Like Fellini, Sorrentino is interested more in registering a mood and time than a concrete plot, so some may see The Great Beauty as episodic. Yet with the over-awing sense of elegance and privilege set firmly in stone by Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello, the joins never show. Scenes jump between comic, tragic and tragi-comic, but when witnessed through Servillo’s angsty anchor, the jumps never jar. John Tavener and Europop can sit together at Sorrentino’s table.

The Great Beauty is beautiful, but is it great? The plight of the wealthy will always leave a sour taste in the mouths of some, and a 141-minute runtime might seem indulgent, especially for a film revolving around the weight of indulgence. However, only the most cold-hearted of folk would want to cut the fluid long takes of sun-kissed Roma. The Great Beauty is a reminder of the capacity for soulfulness, even in the city that could (barely) house the egos of Berlusconi and Ratzinger simultaneously. As Italy feels recession’s bite and Francis I extols social justice, Sorrentino shows us Rome here and now; bored with wealth, searching for soul and beautiful to the end.

Review: Rush (2013)

Director: Ron Howard

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com.

If the old sporting maxim of participation being more important than winning were true, would we ever have seen great dramatic rivalries that proved as riveting as the sports themselves? Evert vs. Navratilova. Liverpool vs. Manchester United. Ali vs. Frazier. The high-octane environs of Formula One are conducive to bouts of one-upmanship (think Mansell vs. Piquet, or Prost vs. Senna), but arguably the most infamous of the F1 rivalries was that between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and in particular their battle for the Driver’s Championship in 1976. The intricacies of this love-hate relationship are painted in director Ron Howard’s trademark broad strokes in Rush.

The previous team-up between Howard and writer Peter Morgan resulted in the bone-dry awards bait that was Frost/Nixon. Unsurprisingly, Rush manages to move a good lick quicker, though it takes a good long while for it to approach top gear.

A prologue sets up the 1976 German Grand Prix, where events will subsequently take a turn and the real meat of the story is to be found. A voiceover from Lauda (Daniel Brühl) accompanies Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) swanning about his car before the race begins. He flaunts his blonde locks and curvy entourage whilst Lauda sits in his car with both eyes on the prize. Any F1 enthusiasts will tell you this day ends badly, but before we do that Morgan and Howard feel the need to frame this rivalry within the well-worn and familiar confines of a biopic

We are brought back to the early 1970s to watch these two young hotshots work their way up their respective leagues. Lauda cobbles his own funds together to put his own team together, much to his father’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Hunt’s rich buddy Hesketh (Christian McKay) sponsors him all the way to Formula Three, where the Englishman and Austrian eventually meet and the animosity begins. In portraying the rivalry, it helps that the two have as many similarities as differences. The main similarity is unquestionably their cockiness; Hunt’s maverick charm and Lauda’s precise strategizing gives Morgan a chance to inject some humour into his script. Hunt shows no hesitation in seducing an attending nurse after a crash/fight, and Lauda is unrepentant when he declares to Ferrari team owners that their car is a shitbox. Offering subtle nuance where the dialogue offers little, Hemsworth and Brühl turn the cockiness to their advantage in likeable performances.

Yet despite these humorous streaks, Rush’s slick look and clever lines cannot cover up the fact that underneath the hood lies the engine of a biopic. Considering the spate of films we’ve had lately that are ‘based on true events’, it may be time for anyone seeking an award to look elsewhere before they all start blending into one another. Between this, Behind The Candelabra, The Look Of Love and The Bling Ring, it’s less déjà-vu and more déjà-vis. Before the central events of the Nurburgring, we must see Hunt and Lauda meet their wives (Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively) and build their reputations, as formula dictates.

Howard boasts little imagination when it comes to narrative, and Morgan’s box-ticking script compounds his skillset with a steady rise to fame followed by tragedy and a redemptive third act. Be that as it may, he has other skills to enliven proceedings, not least of which is an eye for period detail. The 1970s style is brought to vivid life in the cars and the costumes. We then watch said cars whizz by in a series of undeniably thrilling routs on the racetrack. The camera lays low on a chicane, the cars zoom by and Anthony Dod Mantle’s ever-superb lensing captures every rippling raindrop and every vibrating blade of grass.

When the opportunity comes along, Rush does just that; it rushes by in a dervish of bleached retro vibes and pounding drum beats (courtesy of Hans Zimmer, natch). Those opportunities only arrive after plot beats that are well signposted by design. Rush is reminiscent of Formula One in the late 1990s, when Schumacher was king. Plenty of high-octane thrills and the occassional surprise don’t mean you don’t know how it’s going to end.