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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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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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Only God Forgives Review: Slightly Obtuse, Very Beautiful, Pretty Damn Good.

The following part is without spoilers. There will be spoilers below.

This is a tough movie to review. On one hand, it’s a Nicolas Refn movie. You kind of know what you’re getting when you walk in: lots of beautiful shots, lots of very violent, explicit gore.

On the other hand, it’s not like most previous Refn movies. The one character you’re following isn’t a hero (more on that in the spoilers if you want). He’s not Bronson or The Driver. I know a lot of people wanted to see Drive 2. This is entirely not Drive 2, no matter what the promos suggest.

What you do get is a very, very gorgeous movie that’s at times other worldly. Thailand is a completely different land from most of the world and Refn takes advantage of its bizarre beauty, casual sexual explicitness, and quasi-Wild West nature. It’s stranger in a strange land, but the viewers are the strangers this time.

Its biggest strike, however, and probably the biggest reason why most of the reviews so far are negative, is that the narrative isn’t neat and tidy. It’s very subtle. But once you see it, you see the movie that was supposed to be made.

It starts out other worldly. The scenes don’t seem connected and it looks more like you’re watching a bunch of random shots stitched together to make a movie. They make greater sense by the end. The intention is to make the world seem different and it is.

It starts with Julian (Ryan Gosling) and This Other Guy (that turns out to be his brother Billy (played by Tom Burke)) in a kickboxing gym. They pass some drugs. Billy and Julian then go out for their nightly hooker run. Billy finds his 16-year-old hooker, rapes her and murders her. The police find him, docile on the bed with the body on the floor. This one guy, the apparent ringleader, who we later found out is Chang, brings the girl’s father in. The girl’s father kills him. And that’s where the story starts. Chang cuts off his arm.

There’s some odd bits about premonition, dreaming and anticipation here. Julian goes to find the father to shoot him and finds out that the father was just given the opportunity after Billy had raped and murdered the girl–Chang was really behind it.

To make matters worse, Julian’s demanding, cruel mother flies into town to avenge her son’s death and is deeply disappointed in Julian for not killing the father despite knowing Billy had raped and killed his daughter (her exact response is, “he probably had his reasons”).

From there, the vengeance clouds the plot. One person tries to kill another and it builds and builds to a crescendo. Only it’s not really a crescendo.

And there’s one detail the audience needs to figure out to make sense of the movie.

If you want a hint, Refn hid it in the contrast of white and black in clothing.

Spoilers ahead. There’s more review below, so just skip this part.

The one thing that I think most people miss in this movie is Chang is actually the good guy. He’s, in fact, a lieutenant of the police, as Refn pointed out last night at LA Film Fest. That’s why the police officers are constantly around him–he’s actually their boss. He isn’t a ringleader of any kind. His main goal is the protection of his citizens and he is cruel to be kind a few times.

Refn hides this very effectively with some slight of hand movie tricks–camera angles, music, acting from Vithaya Pansringarm. Pansringarm is actually fantastic in the film. He’s absolutely menacing throughout, more or less emotionless. He’s also a fabulous fighter and uses that short sword of his with authority. If you didn’t know he was the enforcer of law, it’d be easy to construe him as the “bad guy.” In fact, I think that was Refn’s intention.

The easiest way to figure that out is by following Julian. Julian is the weakest link in a crime ring and everyone around him is cruel, unusual, and without morals. Julian seems to have some morals, though. Watch for the colors of his shirts. When he loads the gun and aims it at the father of the murdered 16-year-old, he’s wearing a white shirt. He chooses not to kill him after hearing his story.

Later in an apparent dream sequence, while wearing a black shirt, he chooses to be particularly violent to someone who just so happened to be in the same room as him.

Julian wears a white shirt for most of it, which signals his motives: they’re honorable. Even when he’s wearing his black suit, the shirt is always white.

Likewise, Chang’s undershirt is white and his motives are also honorable. However, he wears the same black outer wear throughout because he’s not a particularly forgiving man and his motives are unclear throughout most of the movie.

Julian’s mom is regularly wearing some kind of black undershirt or bra and is often masking it with a white dress or shirt, particularly in her death. Her motives are always dishonorable, though she puts a much nicer cover on it than deserves.

Chang, it turns out, is “God” from the title. Refn confirmed this last night. He’s the only one who forgives. And he spares the life of three people in the entire movie: the only three people who accept the consequences of what they’ve done. Each of them ask for forgiveness in different ways. The father is regretful, but doesn’t know what to do next. The man who hired the assassins completely accepts the consequences of what’s to befall him, but asks his son to be spared (we don’t know what happens to him after that, but I’m guessing he lost a hand). And Julian, although he doesn’t have a particular fault except for killing a man who was about to kill Chang’s daughter, accepts it and is willing to lose his hand.

Movies that play with the protagonist/hero/antagonist/villain roles tend to suffer. As we’ve seen from Breaking Bad and Mad Men, viewers will go a long way to defend the protagonist, even after he’s murdered people in cold blood. I’m about 90% sure this is why most people didn’t like it. That and the scene where Julian sticks his hand inside his mom. That was weird.

There’s also a part about the movie that’s about impotence and not being a good son. That one’s a little more obvious and I think you can figure it out for yourself. If you’re confused, look for the open hand-feminine/closed hand-masculine moments.

Spoilers over.

The movie does have a decent plot, it’s just well-hidden. If you spot it, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t, I understand your complaints. If you do and still don’t like it, that’s understandable.

Without that, though, the movie is jarringly gorgeous. Very  few shots are wasted and the colors pop. Refn captured the day-glo nights, the rural shack life, the seedy underbelly, the sort of humble indifference of good and bad in the streets of Bangkok just within the visuals. It’s alluring. Watch it on a big, big screen.

Though Gosling is extremely muted–Refn commented he wanted Gosling to act as though he were in a dream for parts of the movie (for a reason)–his portion of the movie is still pretty damn good.

The two people who really steal the show, as they should have and, hopefully, with Refn’s intention, were Chang (Pansringarm) and Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Both are great characters. Crystal is an absolutely cruel woman, willing to embarrass her son to a huge degree in front of his supposed girlfriend. When push comes to shove, she’s weak.

Chang is a fantastically calm man in the face of a strong challenge. He’s comes off as sinister and a bit frightening. His role is absolutely bizarre and amazing and Pansringarm plays it remarkably well.

 

As a whole, the movie is obtuse and a little weird. It’s supposed to be. Whether or not you like it is a different issue.

This movie will probably be divisive for years to come and I can see it getting a cult treatment eventually, a little less beloved than Drive.

But I loved it.

 

8.5/10

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