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Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate the Great

Courtesy of impawards.com

Courtesy of impawards.com

Blue Jasmine Review

By Adam Tawfik

The film industry hails Woody Allen as something of a god even if much of his iconic status is residual from accomplishments including Manhattan, Sleeper, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and especially the most definitively Allen-esque Annie Hall.

In these films, the writer-director (and sometimes leading man) cultivated a unique brand of urbane humor that borrowed the frenetic, silly pace and hyper-neurotic characters of the silent-era and screwball comedies, updating them with franker sexuality and more emotional baggage.

Courtesy of pitch.com

Courtesy of pitch.com

Although the energetic Allen consistently produces films featuring eclectic ensembles of celebrities and character actors, few of his efforts of the last twenty years equal those of his artistic zenith (roughly the 1970s to mid-1980s). Around the same time Allen married his adopted Vietnamese daughter his films largely tended towards an endless droning of shrill and whiny characters, and an unconvincing coupling of an older man (often portrayed by Allen or an Allen surrogate) and an inappropriately younger woman (usually Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately).

Amidst the heap of subpar films, Allen occasionally produces a worthwhile venture. Blue Jasmine, his latest release, not only finds him returning to good form, but ranks amongst one of the strongest films in his entire oeuvre.

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Jasmine, a biting satire and bleak drama, delves into the misfortune of a recent widow (Cate Blanchett) whose husband’s (Alec Baldwin) Ponzi scheme (and eventual arrest and suicide) leaves her broke and addled, forcing her to flee from her NYC penthouse to her working class sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) small San Francisco apartment, where she wreaks havoc on everybody’s life while self-imploding in her narcissism and delusion.

The power in Allen’s screenplay is in its amusing but unflinchingly adult treatment of its characters. The film provides a strong framework to elicit sympathy for Jasmine, a woman over forty who has to support herself after years being provided for during her marriage and learn the most basic life skills such as learning to operate a computer in order to get a college degree for interior design. At the same time, the strong emphasis on her many flaws tempers any sympathy felt for her.

From the very beginning from the way Jasmine babbles nonstop to the passenger next to her on the plane about her recent misfortunes, we know she’s going to be unsympathetic. Jasmine makes her contentious relationship with Ginger worse by her snobbery and condescension towards her sister (whom she feels is an underachiever) and her gruff boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and his friends. A great deal of the humor and the gravitas comes from Jasmine’s inability to rise from being a flat character, but what makes it interesting is that it has dramatic repercussions as the world around her changes.

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

This by no means suggests that Cate Blanchett gives a one-note performance. In fact, the magnificent Blanchett is by far the film’s largest asset. It’s been too long since she’s had a strong protagonist role and she’s one of those actresses whose supernatural talent can almost singlehandedly carry a film, like here (or sometimes, as in the case of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, her dynamic presence is the only reason to watch).

Jasmine has tapped into new depths of Blanchett’s range. Blanchett, who often has an androgynous quality (that makes her the perfect choice to play people like Galadriel or Bob Dylan), plays her first ultra-feminine character since Notes on a Scandal. In her hands Jasmine comes across like a more cynical and savvy Mad Men-era wife.

More remarkably, Jasmine gives Blanchett an opportunity to introduce her great skills as a comedian, imbuing the film’s tone with her droll readings. Where many actresses would probably approach the histrionic character with overly-theatrical ballyhoo, Blanchett’s understatement heightens the humor of her character and the situation. Blanchett shows the craziness in her face, progressively turning more troll-like. She also conveys haughtiness through her expression, having great capsule moments; the total register of disgust on her face when Chili’s friend wants to date her is hilarious.

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Sally Hawkins as the other major character is the perfect foil for Blanchett’s staidness. It’s Ginger who is the dynamic character and film’s heart, as she convincingly portrays an unsuspecting basically happy-go-lucky woman in spite of the adversity in her life and the only one who gives Jasmine any compassion; it’s funny and heartbreaking when she has a brief falling out with Cannavale because she buys into Jasmine’s notion that she’s an underachiever, and embarks in an ill-fated fling with a seemingly sweet and respectable man (Louis CK).

Cannavale convincingly shifts between Chili’s charismatic gregariousness, volatility, and insecurity, often within seconds. Scenes between him, Hawkins, and Blanchett explore the tension and differences between them with comedy and drama shifted between; for example when Chili finds out about Ginger’s fling, there are some genuinely frightening moments, such as when Cannavale unhinges the phone off the wall in his character’s drunken rage; but Blanchett’s nasty one-liner comments offset that with humor.

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

The film’s only flaw is the New York flashback passages which are mostly ineffectual because the country club characters don’t develop past the point of window dressing and the scenes aren’t well integrated into the film. The biggest missed opportunity is in the major underdevelopment of the husband, leaving Alec Baldwin, who just got off a stint of 30 Rock where for seven years he made an unscrupulous executive imminently compelling and hilarious, nothing to do but give a stiff and bland performance.

Some of this undefined disparity between the two cities in the script is rectified by the strong technical crew. Set designers Kris Boxell and Regina Graves deserve praise for providing some of the more memorable scenery in an Allen film, providing an interesting contrast between the stuffiness of upper crust NYC with lots of whites and creams while painting an eclectic San Francisco with an array of soft pinks, greens, and yellows.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Suzy Benzinger’s assemblage of breathtakingly gorgeous and chic outfits heightens the personification of Jasmine as a decadently rich ice princess flaunting her upper echelon status. The deep red cocktail dress at Jasmine’s birthday party in particular is a standout, doing wonders for Blanchett’s ivory skin.

It’s interesting to read that at a little over $31 million Jasmine is Allen’s most commercially successful film; considering his longevity, he’s still a niche director. As one woman in the audience loudly exclaimed as she left the theater, “I’ve never liked that Woody Allen.” Even if you’re not an Allen fan, you should still check out Jasmine for Cate Blanchett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

The Godless Jungle

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Only God Forgives (2013) Review

By Adam Tawfik

At the most basic plot level, Only God Forgives seems identical to countless other male-oriented revenge action flicks; a handsome, young white man Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). In the hands of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, God rises above the tediousness of most action fare on every level.

Amidst an epidemic output of gimmicky CGI or 3D flicks or equally unimaginative remakes of iconic classics that have flooded the Hollywood market in the last few years, God’s commanding surrealistic scenery is welcomed in an era where most directors pay little (if any) attention to mise-en-scene.

God, like Drive, Refn’s pervious film (also starring Gosling), is primarily a stylistic achievement. Although Drive sported some of the most jaw-dropping cinematography with virtually every frame as a colorful phantasmagoric orgasm, a vapidity in the narrative bogged down the overall film.

God evocatively employs mise-en-scene to convey the ominousness of the seedy side of Bangkok, particularly in its innovative but unsettling low-key neon red and yellow color scheme. Fused with a flurry of deep dark shadows, these normally warm colors add an anarchic psychedelic layer to a somber noir-like landscape.

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

The squalidness is reinforced in the background scenery. The large warehouse-like quality of many of the locations contribute an animalistic, subhuman quality to the proceedings. Alternately, other locations such as the nightclub with heaps of Chinese Lanterns and crowds of people still project a hollow emptiness in spite of the clutter. The nightmarish dream sequences with characters running around narrow corridors with red walls are aesthetically similar to Dario Argento’s Inferno and carry the paranoia and perplexity of the corresponding scenes, minus the camp.

God’s story and atmosphere is certainly harsher (perhaps too rough for many critics’ and audiences’ tastes), but ultimately more compelling than Drive’s. Yet it has been widely condemned as an incoherent, gratuitously violent mess.

This is because the filmmakers take an abstract, often un-PC stance on violence. On the one hand, they effectively present a dystopic world where violence is a necessary evil for survival, but at the same time, show how it spawns a vicious cycle of insanity. What gives God its power to disturb and transfix is its handling of the uneasy balance between rapid, senseless acts of violence and calculated personalized murders committed at an uncomfortably prolonged pace.

 

Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

The lapses of silence in these latter types of sequences don’t feel ponderous like they did in Drive, because they all contribute to creating mood and character. In one particularly off-kilter sequence, all the clients and prostitutes of the nightclub blankly stare (with the exception of a female prostitute) as head vigilante Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) progressively slices a henchman associated with Julian’s family (Gordon Brown) to death, giving the impression that this kind of brutality is quotidian.

The moral ambiguity of the central characters gives the actors something to sink their teeth into. In his previous film with Refn, Gosling’s pretty-boy mannequin-esque persona struck me as too inorganically sanitized for the role of a daredevil stuntman-by-day-hit-man-by-night operating in LA’s criminal underworld and the romantic subplot with Carey Mulligan was pointless.

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

God lets him draw on his delicate looks to create a vulnerable character whose cerebral demeanor isolates him from the ultra-sadistic misogynists surrounding him. Gosling convincingly shows the inner turmoil between taking issue with the violent status-quo (in particularly in avenging the death of his murdering rapist brother) and latent violent misogynist urges acted out towards Mai, an “entertainer” (bewitchingly portrayed by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) in his fantasy to compensate for his impotence.

Due to the predictably linear narrative and one-note archetypes in Drive, there was no doubt that the protagonist would be victorious. God offers no such assurance for Julian. Gosling bravely sheds the infallibility of the typical action hero as he allows himself to be beaten to a pulp several times on-screen by several people less virile than himself.

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

The most surprising adversary is Lt. Chang. As an average height, slightly portly middle aged man with soulful eyes, he hardly seems to be a formidable opponent for the muscular Gosling. But deception is his strength and Pansringarm believably projects a quiet but deadly ferocity, and in some scenes he appears and disappears as rapidly as a phantom. Even at his most heinous, Pansringarm brings an earnest and wise quality to his role.

In many respects Chang, not Julian, is the film’s true hero as he is the off-kilter God. Only he can exercise the right to moral vigilantism. In one altercation with the distraught father of the slain prostitute, who has just murdered Billy, Chang chops off his hand, reminding him that “This isn’t about your dead daughter. It’s about your three living daughters. This is to make sure you never forget them.” At the same time he is the most grounded character; he is the only one with a stable family unit and sings karaoke with his colleagues.

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

The most astounding revelation is Kristen Scott-Thomas, who sheds all traces of her elegant English sophistication in a bravura performance as Crystal, Gosling’s sadistic revenge-crazy matriarch. Audaciously resembling a white-trash komodo dragon, her uninhibited kinkiness and aggression is the root of Julian’s central conflict between his reluctance and morbid fascination with sex and violence.

Crystal makes no pretense of her partiality towards the brutish Billy over the passive Julian, whom she considers weak. In one darkly humorous scene, she belabors her comparison of Julien’s average-sized cock in favor of Billy’s “enormous” one in front of Mai, whom he has hired to act as his girlfriend, while he silently sits in shame. Hearing Scott-Thomas call Mai’s vagina a “cum-dumpster” makes this film required viewing.

Courtesy of IMDb.com

Courtesy of IMDb.com

God’s divisively zealous reception resembles that of Oliver Stone’s 1994 classic Natural Born Killers, which was also met with heaps of controversy and disparagement for its excessive violence. Stone and Refn are savvy at translating their heavy-handed directorial style into energetic, stylistic films that have the courage to provoke and disturb. If Killers can receive the love it deserves (even if it was ten years belated), here’s hoping that God will receive its deserved glory too.