Jul 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine

I am ambivalent about Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's loose adaptation, or rather re-purposing, of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to current day San Francisco and New York. The good news is we are not getting Allen's by now customary two-hour European travelogue. He is back stateside. His cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarrobe likes warm, golden tones (a bit too much for my taste), and as is the case in every Woody Allen movie, even the title character's sister; a cashier in a supermarket, has an apartment that many upwardly mobile professionals would kill for, full of well-curated tchotchkes (production design is by the great Santo Loquasto).
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a modern-day version of Blanche Dubois, in full mental breakdown mode. She is astonishing, but I was surprised by the unrelenting ferocity of her collapse. This ain't the precious Southern wallflower with delusions of grandeur, who teeters perilously between gentility and the brink of madness, as I understand Blanche. This is a woman who is already completely out of control, and if it wasn't for the fact that Allen has made a career of depicting such women in different levels of hysteria, I would probably be less bothered by her. My question is, does Allen feel empathy for Jasmine? Is she a character that we can empathize with or is she designed to rile us against the haughty indifference of the rich? She certainly seems to feel empathy for no one but herself.
For Allen introduces a welcome twist: Jasmine is married to a Wall Street crook a la Bernie Madoff (Alec Baldwin). They live in splendor until they don't, and she has to come and live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in some shabby chic hood in San Francisco. Allen is incapable of having an ugly city in his films, but let's face it, you can do much worse than Frisco for a fall from grace.
Still, Jasmine's face as she walks into Ginger's apartment is one of the most priceless looks of withering contempt ever committed to film. Blanchett has some great moments, and because she is a spectacular actress, who can be utterly over the top and still be mesmerizing, I am sorry to say there is little nuance to the character. She is an alcoholic, pill-popping wreck, and although it is, at times, horrifying fun to watch her protean self-involvement, she never really tries to change. Blanchett plays her straight, so she is funny in a brittle, tragic way. To her credit, she refuses to do comedic shtick and sticks to the pathos. It's a bravura performance.
Whereas Blanche Dubois uses her delusion as a tool to survive her downfall, Jasmine is not delusional (except in that she talks to herself); she is a nervous wreck, which is less interesting. And then there are the little issues with verisimilitude. I can buy that Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett are adopted sisters, but I never understood where they came from. In a movie about class, this is important. Did Jasmine marry up and become a snotty dame? Is her hauteur adopted or naturally regal? I would have liked to know.
Still, even though the movie rambles a bit, there are a couple of great scenes, particularly one where Jasmine babysits her chubby nephews, and a very funny scene that thwarts the awaited ring of a suitor. All you need to know about the class abyss in America is in every scene where Baldwin and Blanchett have to share the frame with their poor relatives. The stiff, falsely courteous body language of the rich, their unfailingly polite but unspoken distaste and embarrassment are blatant and painful. And watching Blanchett is like going on a demented rollercoaster of pain. She keeps the movie from its own flabbiness, and, somehow, her character a beat away from caricature.
There are many little pleasures in the film, best one of which is Andrew Dice Clay's perfect turn as the sister's ex-husband. One is equally happy in the lovely company of Louis C.K. as a schlubby Don Juan; a very funny, sweet Bobby Cannavale as Chili, despite the lame name, a much nicer version of Stanley Kowalski; Michael Stuhlbarg, pitch perfect as a creepy dentist; and the suave Peter Sarsgaard. The males are more grounded than the females. As stereotypical as they are, they all bring a measure of reality that the female characters lack. Yes, as far as late Woody Allen movies go, this one is a tad richer, a tad less of a trifle. It is an astringently bittersweet comedy, and not much of a comedy for poor Jasmine, down and out, and adrift in the world for looking the other way.

Jul 27, 2013

The Hunt

This gripping film by Thomas Vinterberg deals with a heavy subject in a sharp, lucid way, and has the unbearable tension of a thriller. Lucas (the fantastic Mads Mikkelsen, Best Actor prize at Cannes for his work here) is a quiet aide at a Danish kindergarten in some small town in the forest. It's an unlikely job for a guy like him; he used to be a school teacher and his school closed, so he took the next best thing. He loves the kids and they love him. He is acrimoniously divorced and is trying to see his teenage son more often. He has lots of friends in town, a town where men go hunting, drinking and bonding, where he has several very close friends.
His life is completely upended by an accusation of sexual abuse in the kindergarten, a literal instance of all hell breaking loose. Vinterberg unleashes Lucas' hell in controlled increments that are at once completely realistic and increasingly shocking. He is not interested in the potential ambiguity of the accusation. From the very beginning we know Lucas didn't do it. What becomes hell is when reason, common sense, a man's character and his reputation, are abandoned in favor of hysteria and a lynch mob mentality.
Who can go into the nebulous psyche of a young child and make sense of her confused feelings? If at first the principal tries to deal with it without panicking, quickly, whatever the kid is saying, which is impossible to know with any certainty,  becomes true because: why would a child lie about a thing like that? Soon, things escalate beyond reality, and Lucas loses everything, becomes a pariah, is shunned and attacked. Yet it is not in his character to act like some sort of Bruce Willis, bent on justice and revenge. He is a decent, rational man, who even balks at trying to convince people of his innocence. How can it be possible that his closest friends believe him capable of such a thing?
What preoccupies Vinterberg (as he has shown in other films like The Celebration), is the mass hysteria that can take root in close-knit societies, and by corollary, at large. This is a psychologically precise, extremely well-written film (by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm) with surprising turns after every scene. Each turn is predicated, not on our knee-jerk reactions of instant revenge, swift justice and uncomplicated broad emotions, but on the carefully constructed and observed reality of the characters and the infinite layers of intimacy in their lives.
There are times when one thinks The Hunt is about to slide into cruel audience manipulation. At certain points you hear yourself almost demonizing the child, who is inflicting such careless pain on an innocent man, but the filmmakers don't let it happen. This is a principled film that deals with almost unfathomable emotional complication in each and everyone of the characters: the principal, the kid, the kid's parents, Lucas' son, his godfather, the woman he loves.
The child flip flops back and forth depending on all the stuff the adults are putting in her head and her own sense of something going terribly wrong, and she does tell the truth more than once, but by then no one is willing to listen. They are past the point of thinking and now it's all perverse fantasy, reaction and revenge. Towards the end there is a semblance of a happy ending that almost had me tearing my hair out in disbelief. But never fear. Vinterberg's clear-eyed film shows that one can never recover from such a taint. An unmissable film.

Jul 9, 2013

La Camioneta

A very poignant, surprising documentary by Mark Kendall, this film focuses on a unique journey. Who knew that many used American school buses, most of them in perfect shape, are auctioned relatively cheaply? Enterprising people from Guatemala and some countries in Africa buy them to provide privatized public transportation in their countries. What is promptly discarded in the US after a few years of use in pristine, uneventful roads, is transformed into a crowded haven for people who can't afford to have their own transportation in less fortunate countries.
La Camioneta begins at such an auction in Pennsylvania, and follows the journey of a handsome yellow school bus and his driver through the treacherous Mexican border, where there are always shakedowns by the authorities, to a village in Guatemala. There, the bus is sold quite expensively to an enterprising dreamer, who has always wanted to drive his own bus. The bus is repainted in lovely colors and shapes by a humble and gifted artist, and blessed by a Catholic priest, so it will be safe from extortion and violence from organized crime, which runs rampant in Guatemala, a very poor country with high levels of crime.
The drivers and their families fear for their safety. A TV report mentions that 130 of them have been killed by the mob. But this is what they do and what they love to do, and there are barely other jobs to choose from.
The entrepreneurial spirit is not exclusive to Americans. Trying to eke out a living in a beautiful, albeit impoverished, unsafe, corrupt, uneducated country, is not enough for men of dignity. They don't have most of the advantages of educated, economically stable people, but they have the same drive to succeed. Many leave and come to the US, and others like them stay behind. They all risk their lives to do better.
Through this journey we get a look at the economic and social disparities, and the resulting symbiosis, (which so many Americans are hell-bent on denying) between the US and countries like Guatemala.
By the end of the paint job, which is made by stenciling, using newspaper and masking tape, one roots and fears for the newly colorful bus and the sweet, resilient people that will make it their transport as they work and fight for a better life.

Jul 7, 2013

I'm So Excited!

This film is not as great as Pedro Almodóvar's most radical comedies, but it is a fun return to his uninhibited puckish self after some of his more serious, and in my view, unnecessarily pretentious, recent outings.
I'm So Excited! bears Almodóvar's classic looseness and epater l'espagnol signature. He is Spain's most gifted fool (in the Shakespearean sense of the word), making happy mincemeat out of everything that is provincial, strait-laced and hypocritical in Spanish society, this time lashing out at Spain's latest shameful financial scandals, as well.
It's an uneven, raunchy, dirty romp, rough around the edges, but it is buoyantly entertaining, often very funny, and in some sequences, absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the work of master of color, cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, and Almodóvar's production design team. The vibrant color scheme is an inch from the garish, but it never plunges into vulgarity. For a movie that resembles a ramshackle skit comedy, it looks fabulous.
For years, Almodóvar explored the theme of the fluidity of human sexual desire, and expressed his own gay sensibility by telling stories of beleaguered women, but this time it's all flamboyantly, openly gay. So instead of his fabulous women like Carmen Maura and Rossy De Palma, we are treated to three male stewards, all raging queens, led by the great Javier Cámara, who in their loves and lusts are reminiscent of those broads. A big part of what makes Almodóvar's films hilarious is the way his characters speak. He has a prodigious ear for the chatty patois of his countrymen and the kind of obvious, inane, opinionated things his characters say are always a hoot. Although the subtitles in English are for the most part pretty accurate, everything is so much funnier in his brand of Spanish.
I'm So Excited! is a little fable about a society (Spain's, the world's) that hypocritically objects to the pursuit of pleasure and sexual freedoms, while engaging in much more destructive practices. This is embodied by a plane flying from Madrid to Mexico City, with a sparsely populated business class, and a packed like sardines economy class, somehow cheerfully going down in flames. It's a disaster movie a la Almodóvar, which is far more spirited and fun than the humorless, neanderthal-like mayhem produced by Hollywood with gazillions of dollars.
The three stewards are in charge of keeping spirits up in business, and people zonked out in the main cabin. The pilots are family men who like gays on the side; the only passengers awake are the handful that travel on business, and from whom we hear convoluted stories. Their lives may be coming to an end, an opportunity for the filmmaker to unfurl his sense of humor and engage once more in his undying love for campy melodrama (which is where he loses me. I much prefer his impish side).
As playful and loose as he is, Almodóvar is no hack. Some sequences are exquisitely made, and almost breathtaking. The musical number that gives the film its title in English is a spectacularly staged mini-production, a modest extravaganza of craft with three men dancing in the aisles of a plane. And there is a stunning sequence where the director eschews the graphic scenes of impact by cutting to an empty airport, lying in wait, bracing for disaster, without showing an ounce of debris or a drop of blood. Despite Hollywood's efforts to the contrary, he trusts that we can still rely on our imaginations, and it is a contrary kind of showstopper. He even builds a surreptitious suspense and has the gall to stage a plane evacuation as a giddy, dreamlike ending, all afloat in extinguisher foam.