Blue Jasmine Review

Woody Allen’s gotten some of his steam back and Blue Jasmine is a pretty great movie for him. It’s fun and playful and a bit tortuous. It’s got a lot of interpersonal tension between its characters that roils in a very quiet way until it ultimately explodes.

Blue Jasmine is the story of Jasmine, a New York City socialite, who’s lost everything. She was a figurative mob wife while her husband was guilty of something involving money and illegal off-shore accounts. I think there was something about a ponzi scheme, not sure. It’s not important. (Do you get it?)

Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) is left with nothing and is forced to move to San Francisco to live with her sister for a bit as she gets her life together. She’s teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown as a result.

Jasmine is not a terrible person (though her personality can be abrasive) and you’re hoping the best for her. She takes up a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and works at learning computers so she can be self-sufficient. Her sister, meanwhile, is more of a lowly slums girl (from Jasmine’s perspective) who was screwed over by her husband’s asset management and Jasmine takes no responsibility for it.

That these are brought up passive aggressively is a testament to the writing skills of Woody Allen, but he still needs to pick his subjects better. Once again, we’re dealing with upper crust New Yorkers. Once again, we’re dealing with a story about infidelity.

Blanchett really does a number on this film, so much that I’d rival her with Amy Adams. While I think Adams would win if American Hustle were strictly about Sidney, Blanchett  will win because a) she’s the focus of the film and b) her position and acting is far more obvious.

That’s not a knock at all–Blanchett absolutely nails this role in the lilt of her upper crust accent and disaffected New York hautiness. There’s one scene in particular, when Jasmine is looking for some vodka and can’t find it, that she loses her shit and shouts “Who do I have to screw to get a vodka around here” in the most visceral tone. We never see that side of Jasmine again, sadly, but it burns bright enough to leave an impression.

Her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is the antithesis–a low down hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who’s beginning to think about the relationships around her. Hawkins does a fantastic job with this role, fitting it quite neatly, but doesn’t provide a whole lot of depth because, again, the movie is about Jasmine and not her. When she sees Jasmine is poison for the people around her, she kicks Jasmine to the curb.

The movie is essentially about Jasmine’s dependence on the kindness of strangers and how that ends up hurting her. She eventually recedes into her personality habits and hurts the people around her. It ends with her being homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

It’s a bleak ending and one I hoped wouldn’t happen, but it was still a pretty decent movie and Blanchett really did chew the scenery in it.

 

Verdict: Pretty good character drama, Blanchett nails her part and will probably get an award or two, Hawkins does pretty well.

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American Hustle Review

I’m a big lover of David O. Russell films. His films explore realities of characters and nobody ends up the same by the end of it. They’re thoughtful and thought-provoking and fun and crazy and engaging. He always gets the best of his actors.

American Hustle, though, isn’t quite as good as his previous work.

The story is about a grifter and his girlfriend who get caught by the FBI and wrangled into a major sting of politicians and mobsters. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld (Irv), the master grifter. Amy Adams plays his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser, who acts as Lady Greensleeve when grifting. Irv and Sydney are busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie forces them to help perform a sting on Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). When they get through to the mayor, whose main goal does seem to be helping his city, more politicians come through the door and it links to a couple of mobsters as well.

Irv also has a flamboyant sparkplug wife who he’s not particularly interested in: Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence). When she’s brought into the fold against his wishes, she gets jealous at Irv and Syd’s relationship and begins playing with fire, putting the entire mission in danger and nearly killing Irv. Irv figures his way out of it, though, and etc. etc. etc.

Russell took an extraordinary amount of time to develop the characters. He’s absolutely the best in the business at this and American Hustle succeeds because of it. It doesn’t transcend into the realm of other-worldly, though, because of it.

The film itself doesn’t quite maintain its focus. If it were more character-driven, I’d expect it to be another slam dunk for Russell. It isn’t, though. As a whole, the plot wanders and misses a few major points here and there, failing to really identify what it’s about.

That’s not to say this movie isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s pretty dang good. It’s entertaining and treats us to a pretty fun, sometimes scary, ride. It’s just not one of the best movies of the year.

At the expense of the movie as a whole, Russell does get a few great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, who stole some scenes but was clearly allowed to, and Amy Adams. Adams comes off weird to some in this one because she plays a far more subdued character in an otherwise over-saturated movie. She’s, however, the best actress in the movie.

Women with low self esteem do this thing with the edges of their mouths where they’re constantly frowning. It’s pretty common among women who’ve been sexually traumatized. Adams does this throughout the movie. I’ve never seen an actress even do that before. You can even see it in her face when she’s frowning that she’s … I don’t know, there aren’t words to articulate this well enough. She’s vulnerable and afraid to be hurt again and feels like its coming. Women in these situations also tend to not want to be themselves. All of these issues, and that frown, go away when she’s Lady Greensleeve.

The best part of Adams’ role is the accent: it’s terrible, changes locales, and disappears completely when she’s pushed.

Verdict: Very good, but not great movie. Amy Adams delivers a subtly brilliant role, one deserving of Best Actress in most years.

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Philomena Review

Whatever.

Verdict: Oscar bait-y. Decent story that’s ruined by meta-story and melodrama. Has its moments, but is at other times plaintively manipulative. Judy Dench does have some fine bits in it, but that’s about it.

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12 Years a Slave Review

Whoa.

Let me start off by saying this movie isn’t as brutal as you’d think–not in the way that you’d think. There’s only a few scenes of abject brutality and punishment and they’re over pretty quick. What sticks with you is how pervasive it is; how impossible it is to escape; how long this goes on. It’s a presentation of the massive, systemic issues with slavery and that’s what sticks with you.

Hollywood has never truly had a great film on slavery. Roots showed the slave life for what it was, but wasn’t as complex. Glory had the complexity, but didn’t show the slave life.  Steve McQueen put together a movie here that shows slavery for its complexity both through slaves and slave owners. It didn’t pull its punches. It didn’t hide slavery’s brutality, but it didn’t indulge in torturing its audience either. It held the gravitas while allowing the audience to hope. It played with the audience’s ideas of right and wrong and brought it back into the morals and ethics of the time period.

This is the movie that slavery deserves.

12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup’s slavery. He was a free man living in New York with a wife and two children, living as a violin maker and player, until he was kidnapped, tortured into accepting a life as a slave, and working as a slave for 12 years. That’s the basic gist of it. The rest is the nitty gritty details of slave life.

The most incredible part of 12 Years a Slave is how humanizing it is. There are no GOOD GUY or BAD GUY signs hanging around actors necks. It shows the spectrum of people both inside and out of slavery. We’re with Solomon throughout this movie, but we’re still watching his torture, we’re feeling it in him and all of his thought processes. While he starts the movie thinking this is a temporary situation, he changes into finally accepting that he’s a slave. All credit is due to Ejiofor for hinting at those issues with just looks on his faces–and to McQueen for getting that out of his actor.

And yet, we were transported to this time where this was all right and normal. It was the way of the land. Nobody stood up against it. People saw what was wrong with it and did nothing.

The film itself is a little disjointed–as it should be, since we were given extremely specific examples of brutality and the operations of systemic oppression in antebellum south in a 12 year span. The action in it though comes together to form a pretty solid narrative, piece in piece out, of the overall affectations of slavery.

I remember reading in my US History textbook about how some slave owners never even heard of whipping slaves, as if there were good slave owners. For once, a movie showed one of these slave owners and didn’t pull its punches. Even the “good” slave owner, Ford, (played very convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch), tortured his slaves psychologically, forcing them to stockholm syndrome there way into loving him. Solomon gets rewards for being a good slave and he seems to be OK with that, waiting for his moment to break free.  In addition, Ford was an apparently decent man, but still complicit in everything wrong with slavery.

Maybe the most powerful part of this movie is when Solomon is finally freed and it dawns on the viewer that this was “only” 12 years for one man who was lucky enough to be freed. It wasn’t every day of his life, of his parents lives, of his grandparents lives, of every life before in his lineage and most likely after. He wasn’t going to see his children born into slavery and suffer the same life he had, playing while other slaves were hanged in front of them, beaten and raped. The entire tone of the movie absolutely nailed the constant chaos of the environment in an otherwise normal field work setting.

My hope is this will be used in schools to teach about slavery and the complexities of systemic slavery.

Verdict: Maybe the greatest movie on slavery ever made, will rest easily among the best historical dramas in film.

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Gravity Review

It’s Oscar baiting season, so I’d like to start off with my favorite so far.

There’s a great short story by Jo Ann Beard called The Fourth State of Matter (you can read it here on the New Yorker’s site). In it, she describes working at a science magazine when a gunman walked in and shot up the place. She was out of work for the day because her husband had left her. A good number of her coworkers died. Since she moved to the area and no longer had a husband, she had no one to talk to about this, despite a few people who sympathized. She uses the idea of floating in space as a metaphor for the constant turmoil, numbness, and disconnection she experiences after the event.

Gravity is gonna be remembered for its visual effects and not its story. That’s a tragedy because Gravity is one of the best movies with a message I’ve ever seen.

Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone. She’s more or less an astronaut mechanic sent to fix the Hubble telescope. Some space debris collides and tears apart her ship, as well as some of her coworkers. It shatters her reality, sending her adrift in the atmosphere as she loses all contact with anyone that can help her. The movie is about her finding her way safely back home. This entire thing, including the visuals, is a metaphor.

George Clooney plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky. He likes to tell stories. While floating in the majesty of space, he calls himself a bus driver, cognitively reframing that, even though this seems like an enormous and rare mission, there’s nothing special about it other than it’s happening above the earth. As things fall apart, he maintains his role as navigator for Stone, helping her adjust amid the turmoil and helping he get back home, often acting supremely casual in terrifying circumstances.

In essence, the film is a meditation/narrative on surviving trauma. The movie very clearly sympathizes with Bullock, who fights every inch to save her life.

A lot of the action in the movie is a metaphor and a sort of facsimile of cognitive processing therapy. The metaphor here is that she experiences a major trauma: people around her are killed and she’s sent adrift into the atmosphere with no guidance. Kowalsky navigates her back to the ship. She then relives these horribly traumatic moments as she jumps space craft to space craft. The tumult and agony for Stone of just trying to survive is great and costly. She loses people important to her on the way until she’s the only one left.

This isn’t just a narrative about trauma itself, but a metaphor of the greater process of trauma. Surviving trauma is similar to Stone’s story. People who survive the initial trauma often get out of it (with some help), but then begin isolating, self-preserving, withdrawing. This is when, for a number of them, they commit suicide.

It’s a tough thing to grasp for people who haven’t been through it (or seen someone go through it) and it can come off as overly simplistic and a little sappy for those that haven’t. I think that’s the case here.

At the lowest point of the film, when Stone finally finds the Russian escape pod, but can’t figure out how to get to the Chinese one, Stone begins to withdraw. She contacts a guy through a ham radio. The guy doesn’t speak her language (metaphor). Think of all of the times you were at your worst, horribly in the dumps, and you start talking to someone and they’re not even close to understanding what you’re going through at that moment. Stone goes through this and withdraws and accepts her fate, resigning to suicide.

She then talks to a mental projection of Kowalsky, who cognitively reframes this whole situation. He navigates her back to fighting for her life because life itself is worth living. She fights perilous scenes and survives. She comes back down to earth (metaphor). She takes her first step on land (metaphor).

This is the problem. Because it’s such a simple story of loss and navigating through trauma, the film comes off as overly simplistic and shallow. The panic and high stress and anxiety in the film are channeled to the viewer and it is SUPER INTENSE watching it on an enormous screen and that distracts from the film’s subtleties, yet enhances its overt (and seemingly simple) message: trauma happens, but it’s survivable and makes the person stronger.

That message was well delivered. Cuaron capitalized on every bit of action in the movie. It was meaningful. It’s one of the few truths of the human experience. It was a goddamn impressive piece of work.

It’s a shame most people aren’t seeing that, though.

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Interview: Clayton Kershaw Talking Pitches and Their Order

Found my tape recorder with some old interviews on it. Discovered one with Clayton Kershaw from this game here.

 

What was your best sequence of the game?

I don’t know. I threw a couple change-ups [to Soto] to get back to 1 ball, 2 strikes. The third curveball, you know, he took for strike 3. That was the best sequence, I guess, using all of my pitches.

Do you feel the curveball broke particularly well, or did it fool him, or was he not looking for it?

Yeah, he wasn’t expecting it, especially for a strike, so um. Any time I can throw off-speed for strikes that gives me something else to throw.

Sorry to ask about this, but that home run to Soriano, what was the sequence? Slider, fastball, fastball?

Yeah, he hit a 2-0 fastball out of the park. I’d rather give up a home run than walk him. That’s just the way it is.

Was it mislocated?

[smiling wryly] I dunno, I’ll look up the film and let you know tomorrow. A homer’s a homer.

——

 

 

Funny how different he sounds in his interviews today. Good kid.

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Pacific Rim Review: Why Wasn’t This Expanded Into Two or More Movies?

Let’s be honest here, you’re not seeing this movie for the acting–and that’s great, because despite a pretty solid cast and a few surprisingly good performances, the story and the acting are … not great. I love Idris Elba and there was nothing he could do for this. I don’t like Charlie Hunnam, and although he wasn’t awful, he couldn’t stop himself from playing Jax Teller again (bleugh). This isn’t their fault, though, as there just wasn’t enough time to tell this story. One movie was clearly not enough.

You are seeing this movie because robots and monsters. And it’s awesome. The fighting sequences are incredible–balletic, almost. They’re intense and at times I found myself squeezing the armchair a little too hard. They hold your attention and make the boring dialogue palatable. 

There isn’t much to say about this movie outside of that, except for one thing (which I’ll get to in a second). The story, the acting and most of the things that help a movie tell its story were lacking. Everything was crunched together, tightened so hard that a number of things were left out. You had to wonder how much was left on the cutting room floor–and how much was cut out of the first script.

There’s a much bigger issue here, though. In a movie era where everything is made to fit a trilogy or more, here comes a movie tailor-made for a trilogy and it gets one movie. Del Toro and Beachem packed in so goddamn much that an entire script’s worth of movie was explained in the first two or three minutes. They even laid out how this would’ve worked for a trilogy:

1. First kaiju attack + first jaegers and the first victory over kaiju.

2. Kaiju getting stronger and stronger (Empire Strikes Back kind of ending).

3. The majority of this movie.

And it could’ve been really, really good. Like, legendary good.

There was so much to unpack in this movie that the world of jaegers and kaiju came off as stunted. I honestly wanted more background here, and I don’t say that for a lot of movies.

Regardless of what you thought of the acting and the script and all that stuff, this movie promised robots and monsters fighting. And it was awesome. We’ll remember it for being fun and cool, but there’s a part of me that’s always going to wonder why this one didn’t get a multi-movie deal and a chance to spread its wings.

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