Tag Archives: Drama

Review: Blue Jasmine

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett1(dir. Woody Allen, 2013)
(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Nestled amongst a seemingly unending European sojourn (his previous took place in Rome, his next 1930s France), Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s return to the states since 2009’s shabby Whatever Works and provides the foundation for his most biting, raw and germane film in quite some time. However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. What starts as a typically breezy jaunt through feminine angst – accompanied by the usual stereotypically mapped place-setting and neuroses inflected humour, descends into tragedy as quickly as the film’s protagonist waxes boastingly lyrical about her once dexterous life to anyone unfortunate enough to gain her attention.

Blue Jasmine opens with Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, on toxically rousing form), a financially destitute ex-socialite, aboard a flight from New York to San Francisco to seek refuge from the ruinations of her past life. She’s the forty-something widow of a Bernie Madoff-esque businessman-cum-exploiter (Alec Baldwin) who, unbeknownst to his blissfully unaware spouse, fuelled their luxuriously moneyed lifestyle through shady deals and stolen equity. In the wake of her climactic fall from grace – and her husband’s jail-set suicide, Jasmine (refashioned from Jeanette, which “had no panache”) turns to adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) for both a reprieve from the past and an incentive for a new, frantically cobbled together future.

In a steadfast bid for substantiality, Jasmine attempts to rise above what she sees as the menial ineptitude of Ginger’s blue collar existence by deciding to embark on either a career in interior design or resume her education in anthropology, a scholarly background she quickly dropped for a man who promised her bountiful wealth and status amongst New York’s upper crust. Looking to maintain that her stay in San Francisco – already a step-down from her dwellings in Brooklyn – will be as temporary as possible, Jasmine assumes a position of weary advice-giver to Ginger by schooling her in the dos and dont’s of her relationship with greaseball Chili (Bobby Cannavale) whilst simultaneously becoming the object of affection for a lecherous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a budding congressman, played by Peter Sarsgaard. She also learns that a life of haughty entitlement overshadowed by a murky history ensures that her desire for a second bout of upward mobility is as bottomless as the glass of vodka constantly by her side.

Through sustained flashbacks we see the lofty highs and eventual lows of Jasmine’s marriage to Hal, where cracks were blanketed by her blissfully unaware, somewhat conscious ignorance and a complicity she surmises as herself being a witless bystander in a world she was ill-equipped to navigate, only enjoy. Although the segueing between present and past becomes slightly jarring on an assemblage front, its use as a method to show how the reverberations from one have a lasting, damning effect on the other allows the layers of Jasmine’s cracked and sadly conflicted personality to gestate. It also establishes the dichotomous relationship between Jasmine and Ginger, which is expertly investigated (and written) in the current tense as the characters continue to share vastly dissimilar outlooks on, and expectations from, life and the men who weave in and out.

In a powerhouse, awards-worthy performance, Blanchett excels as the delusional and mentally unstable pill popper, who arrives in San Francisco a washed-up relic of a pre-recession America with a vicelike grip on the material remnants of a bourgeois regime and a tendency to speak to herself (a narrative device Blanchett is fully capable of making appear organic). Once again charting the boundaries between comedy and tragedy, this is the most consistently together Allen has been for a while; his script is dense and ponderous as it tackles relatable and modern issues, something quite alien to his cinema of late. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved.

Review: Stuck in Love

Screen shot 2013-06-13 at 15.31.55(Dir. Josh Boone)

Following in the footsteps of Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (2012) – a soft-core ditty that met Woody Allen-esque cross-generational romance with an insatiable attempt to make literature sexy, director Josh Boone makes a similar stab at making the romantic tribulations faced by a family of writers remotely interesting in his feature debut Stuck in Love (2013). Binding together a cast of able and likable stars, writer-director Boone takes a comparable approach to storytelling made popular by such long-form TV ‘dramadies’ as The OC (2003-2007) and One Tree Hill (2003-2012) in that he draws as much emphasis on his teenage characters as he does on their parents by mapping their various frictions and allegiances. Yet, as tenderly rendered as these imbalanced relationships are, they engulf a film that resembles an overly long novel whose dense pages far outweigh its meagre spine.

 The reliably affable Greg Kinnear plays Bill Borgens, the head of this outré precocious and rigorously well-read family. He is stifled by a bout of writers block founded on his obsessions with his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), who left him three years ago for a younger, tighter man who owns a gym (and whose sole characterisation is a rippling torso). The two share different relationships with their ferociously independent daughter Samantha (Lily Collins), who arrives home from college with the news that her first novel is being published. Bill – who endures excitable sporadic sex with a married neighbour (played by Kristen Bell) – is delighted by the news whilst Erica uses it at yet another opportunity to reach out to her estranged daughter, to frosty avail.

Meanwhile Samantha’s younger brother Rusty (Nat Wolff), an ardent Stephen King devotee who aspires to be just as successful, attempts to win over the girl of his schoolyard dreams but faces an uphill battle with her chequered history with substance abuse. As Samantha begins to challenge her stern views on love and companionship – brought about by the pangs of her parent’s separation – by considering the advances of fervent romantic Lou (Logan Lerman) (a fellow King enthusiast), the romantic situations surrounding her begin to blossom, paving the way for various life lessons to be learnt and emotional barriers lifted.

Clearly attempting to be a turning point for the sort of contemporary teen-specific film that bathes in sex and frivolity, Stuck in Love has far too much going on in its variety of spikily plotted sub-narratives to make it anything other than annoying and unfocused. Boone shows a knack for teasing out the charms of his attractive cast but fails at juggling his characters and their occurrences, sacrificing an initially light timbre to wildly melodramatic and soft-edged tonal turns that amount to formulaic conclusions and generic, even totally predictable, resolutions. Similarly overegged are the director’s desires to create a notch on the belt of timeless romantic-comedy-drama by attempting to do something a little different, but his over-soundtracked film and its Über-cultured, ultra-modern inhabitants prevent it from being just that. Scenes of characters fawning over Bright Eyes CDs and sobbing to Elliot Smith’s Between The Bars in the pouring rain are as close to a director forecasting what’s cool and what’s not as cinema gets, even if his pop-culture proclivities are a little dated.

Speaking of cool, and re-referencing Liberal Arts, books are working their way back into cinematic consciousness as examples of the attractiveness of individuality and the importance of articulacy. And though Boone contrives obvious oppositions to the static process of simply reading a book (seen with Bell’s fitness fanatic bigamist and Erica’s six-packed and brain-dead gym bunny hubby), he ceaselessly reminds you that literature is imaginative and fashionable despite his film being anything but.

DVD Review: Breaking Bad Season 5 – Part One

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(Originally posted at CineVue)

Mere months away from the final batch of episodes of Vince Gilligan’s critically acclaimed televisual juggernaut that will round off the show’s judicious lifespan, fans now have the chance to reacquaint themselves with the first eight in Breaking Bad – Season 5. Following on from the suspense-laden, action-packed fourth season, which saw Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) struggling to overcome the extenuating forces stopping him from becoming the undisputed kingpin of his local crime underworld, SeasonFive – part one sees Gilligan diligently slotting every miscellaneous element into place before an almighty send-off, all the while delivering a prelude that is just as exhilarating and cunning as season’s before it, perhaps even more so.

After overcoming the sinister grip of meticulous criminal kingpin Gustavo Fring last season, whose Machiavellian hold over the duo’s methamphetamine drug syndicate proved to be his ultimate undoing, Walter quickly begins establishing himself as the ruthless new head honcho of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cementing his transformation from well-meaning chemistry teacher and family man to full-blown drug lord, Walter partners up with various sources – including shady handyman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – and fully subsidises a supremely lucrative venture that once started as a means to a protective end for his family.

Now his cancer is in remission, Walter begins to lose sight of his original motivations yet continues a venture into the capitalism of narcotics fuelled only by greed and the thirst for power. However, the fruits of his nefarious, and increasingly homicidal, schemes are threatened by a new development in the investigation led by his relentless brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent circling closer to his long sought-after prey. As explosive events conspire to challenge his ascension, Walter begins to recognise the difficulties and unease that comes with his wearing of a most perilous of crowns.

Thriving within what some are calling the latest “golden age of television”, where a handful of shows channel and challenge their more filmic equivalents, Breaking Bad has remained a fixture for audiences with a hankering for phenomenally handled and acted drama. These preliminary episodes represent the show at its towering best, offering breakneck narrative advancement with the sort of visual flairs and complex story arcs many shows merely dream about replicating. It’s all too rare for a show as packed with incident and events as this to remain fresh and inventive, yet this is testament to Gilligan’s careful maintenance and delineation of a well-constructed story peppered with engaging, deeply realised and relatable characters.

The acting is, as usual, astounding; from Cranston’s colossally frustrated Walter to Aaron Paul’s moralistic yin to his partner’s unsettling yang, and there isn’t a weak episode in the bunch, filled as they are with scenes of relentlessly high stakes plot development. A scene of Walter and his increasingly frightened wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) gazing at the mounds of illicit cash his empire has amassed is as powerful as anything the show has conjured before, detailing both the lengths this man will go for the preservation of his family and the enticement of megalomania.

Packed with in-depth special features, Breaking Bad – Season Five is a bracing preface to – based on this evidence alone – a final portion that will be a monumental event and an almighty cause of sorrow for fans the world over.

Review: Gimme the Loot

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(Adam Leon, 2012)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

If distinguished American filmmakers Woody Allen and Spike Lee amalgamated their cinematic perceptions and thematic concerns into a single project, chances are it would end up closely resembling Gimme the Loot (2012), the feature debut of resident New Yorker Adam Leon championed by fellow director Jonathan Demme. After competing in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently going on to win the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in the same year, Leon’s film arrives boasting a fair amount of positive buzz that is completely warranted; it is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices.

Set over two balmy summer days in and around the hustling Bronx borough of New York City, Gimme the Loot sees two frustrated teenage friends Malcolm and Sofia (competently played by Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington, respectively) embarking on a mission that will bring their passion for graffiti to a publically broadcasted crescendo. After a rival gang defaces their latest piece, the pair plot to get revenge by ‘tagging’ the Mets Home Run Apple: an iconic NYC landmark whose ruination they believe will fully put their name on the graffiti-artist map.

However, after learning they need to raise $500 to pull off such a spectacularly hare-brained scheme – a steep fee they cannot immediately fund – Malcolm and Sofia set off on an adventure through the sun-soaked and diversified streets of the The Big Apple’s murkier underbelly, fuelled by the opportunity of illicitly gaining money from black market spray cans, stolen narcotics and pilfered sneakers. Throughout their quest for cash, the two come across a diverse range of characters who either enhance or hinder their plans, especially a divisive stoner (Zoë Lescaze) who may or may not hold the key to their ultimate success.

Light-hearted, short and evenly judged, Gimme the Loot excels through Leon’s – who cut his teeth directing short films and music videos – refusal to let it become more than it needs to be: an upbeat and simple tale of the joys and possibilities of youth rather than it’s numerous drawbacks. Of course, whilst the forms of variously contentious juvenile delinquency seen dabbled in by the characters is not to be venerated, Leon (who also wrote the screenplay) captures it all as acts of anxiety performed by kids with financial and personal hardships, as well as their only source of immediate income. This is all acted out on real locations through often guerrilla style conditions, and cinematographer Jonathan Miller does an excellent job of pinpointing the sometimes gritty, always vibrant and unpredictable streets of a city in continuous motion.

Joining the pantheon of filmmaker’s who know exactly how to project the look and feel of a contemporary urbane climate and its many facets, Leon has created a universally identifiable story of friendship and, as teased at the end, love that is as soulful as it is pleasantly optimistic.

Robot & Frank

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(Jake Schreier, 2012)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Taking a bold and refreshing step in new directions within a genre clogged up with overt derivatives, Jake Schreier’s confident debut Robot & Frank (2012) is a dutiful shot in the arm to science fiction that calmly addresses a range of prescient topics without overcrowding them with easy answers or flashy aesthetics.

Set in ‘the near future’, Frank Langella plays the eponymous Frank, an aging cat burglar edging closer to the cusps of senile dementia. Living alone in a cluttered house, Frank spends his days thieving petty items from local gift shops and frequenting the local library where his friend Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) works, casually showing evidence that he is losing grasp of his memory. Despite the occasional visits from his son Hunter (James Marsden) and video calls from daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), Frank lives a life of grouchy solitude and pines for his productive days as a jewel thief.

Noticing that the lack of company affects his general wellbeing, Hunter invests in a robot butler (brought to life by the sultry voice of Peter Sarsgaard, channelling Kevin Spacey’s desolate tones in Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009)) to aid his father’s day-to-day existence; effortlessly carrying out the chores Frank cares little for. Immediately sceptical of this new addition, Frank – a product and cheerleader of the analogue charms of the old world – quickly begins to confide in his newfound friend, realising that its job to obey its master’s orders can be manipulated to his advantage. Conspiring to help save the library’s acquisition by a wealthy socialite, who looks to convert its dusty interiors to a more modernised community, Frank hatches a plan that requires his trusty robot to help in a series of burglaries, teaching it skills that are new to its artificial intelligence (lock picking, etc.) whilst forming a dependable friendship that is tested somewhat by the local law enforcement hot on their trail.

Marrying creative, and sometimes laugh out loud, humour with a subtle projection of an entirely plausible near future, Robot & Frank is a clever and outwardly light film that peers in on current issues regarding humanity’s embrace and  – to some extent – reliance on robots and technology, concerns that are not particularly overstressed by the relatively thin premise. Embedded amongst a leafy upstate New York, the story (a first-time feature from the clearly intelligent writer Christopher D. Ford) is stimulating through its existence as a sci-fi with only delicate and understated affiliations with genre conventions. Transcending CGI and action driven subplots (two of many elements all too comfortably associated with the genre), Schreier and Ford’s film contains only whiffs of technological advancement; a zippy vehicle here and a sleek robot there are features only drip-fed throughout an unidentified world that is almost familiar to a contemporary audience.

Much like the plot to switch the library from a house of knowledge to an augmented simulation of reality, the film calls to mind the current rivalry between books and the increasingly popular Kindle, with the latter doing away with and replacing the physical act of turning pages and actually buying and appreciating the written word. This is similarly mirrored by the character of the robot as, by and large, a replacement for humanity and the processes of memory; its computerised functions make for an interesting duality in conjunction with Frank’s ailing mental health.

Though not without its faults, namely the all too rosy finale, Robot & Frank is a film full of merits, and is both a poignant depiction of ageing and loneliness and sci-fi that refuses to give in to the normalities of the genre.

Review: Take This Waltz

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(Sarah Polley, 2011)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Following her most notable directorial effort  – the Academy Award nominated Away From Her (2006) – actress-cum-filmmaker Sarah Polley follows suit with Take This Waltz (2011), a puffy and unnerving study of grown up problems and specifically adult relationships. Just as Away From Her was something of an examination of how Alzheimer’s disease affects an elderly couple and their once unbreakable marriage, Polley maintains similar themes but relocates them to a more accessible but equally challenging portrayal of a woman caught between her affections for two disparate suitors.

Michelle Williams plays the central character Margot, a jobbing writer who meets the artistic, rickshaw-pulling Daniel (Luke Kirby) whilst on a business trip. They share an instant, intense chemistry fuelled as much by her sensitive vulnerability (“I’m afraid of being afraid”, she confesses) as his ability to pinpoint and make light of her various eccentricities. However, their looming and seemingly inevitable liaison is scuppered by her admission that she is happily married to cookbook writer Lou (a plausible and refreshingly understated Seth Rogen).

When, in a playful contrivance, Margot realises that Daniel actually lives across the street from her and Lou’s homespun idyll, the certainties that came with domesticity are shattered and she is forced to choose between the modest Lou and the more mystifying Daniel, with whom she secretly steals away erotically charged moments under the punishing gaze of a steaming Toronto sun.

Known mostly for supporting roles in films such as Mr. Nobody (2009) and Splice (2009), Polley once again excels at weaving together the numerous poignancies of relationships with a cinematically aware – and not to mention an incredibly lucid, mise-en- scène friendly cinematography courtesy of DoP Luc Montpellier – approach to drama. Take This Waltz is an offbeat and blazingly sexy look at the combined sizzling and cooling of a correlative three-way moored by the unreliable focal point that is Margot. Yet, It is with Margot that the tight weaving of the film unfortunately begins to unravel; though Polley sculpts an astute and observational character, brought to life by a physically and emotionally bare Williams in a typically engaging interpretation, her numerous self-consciously quirky foibles begin to grate, her whimsicality diluting the films exacting timbre.

While fine-tuning yet another female-focused distillation of emotional cracks, Polley is all too ready to introduce the beauty that comes with speculation without necessarily delving into the truths her film believes to be providing, so preoccupied it is with conveying unrest through buzzing, and admittedly glorious, visual and aural mastery. An appealing sequence at a pulsating, neon-lit fairground ride (cut to The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’) perfectly captures the whirring euphoric turbulence Margot is facing, yet it is one of many mere bandages that struggle to cover the sometimes insufferable posturing found elsewhere. As a study of a restless young woman trapped in a thirty year old body she is yet to acquaint herself with, Polley goes to great lengths to create a cerebral understanding of her emotional crisis, but does so only by making her film gradually lifeless and unsubtle. Like the aforementioned fairground scene, the lights abruptly come up and the coldness of reality worms its way back to the surface, exposing the tonal shallowness residing underneath.

DVD Review: It Always Rains on Sunday

(Robert Hamer, 1947)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Coinciding with the BFI’s Ealing: Light and Dark season, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) – given a pristine digital restoration by the National Archive – stands as a remarkable example of the films Ealing made that were somewhat overshadowed by their more popular, overtly comedic titles. Directed by Robert Hamer (who went on to helm perhaps the studio’s most acclaimed feature, 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets) and based on the novel of the same name by Arthur La Bern, the film is a soapy kitchen sink crime drama set amongst the working-class denizens of East London, and tells a tale of hidden desire suppressed by societal conformity.

Taking place during one rain-drenched Sunday, It Always Rains on Sunday begins by surveying its overarching location: a post-war London still suffering from the ramifications of bombings and deprivation. Aided by Douglas Slocombe’s bristling, noirish cinematography, Hamer gradually hones in closer to a gritty, close-knit Bethnal Green suburb until we reach our central protagonist: Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), a bitter housewife stuck in a dull marriage to George (Edward Chapman), who is much older than her.

Resentful of her precocious stepdaughter’s burgeoning social life and stifled by the incessantly nosey neighbours that surround her on all sides, Rose longs for an escape from her dreary lot in life, which dutifully comes in the form of Tommy Swan (John McCallum), who is on the run from the police having escaped from prison. Taking the opportunity to embrace Tommy, who is in fact an old flame from long ago, Rose agrees to hide him in her bedroom whilst she continues upholding the house’s domestic routine, keeping him away from the heated attention of the policemen roaming the streets outside, desperate to find their man.

Resembling the type of cinema Terence Davies (who appears as a talking head in the featurette ‘Coming in from the Rain: Revisiting It Always Rains on Sunday’, which accompanies the disc) is now known for: perusals through familial hardships spearheaded by tough, but emotionally vulnerable, matriarchs, It Always Rains on Sunday is a fascinatingly bleak Ealing drama that could be seen as a precursor to the birth of the British New Wave over a decade later. Signposting a distinct change of pace for a studio predominantly known for portrayals of war, Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday is both a distinct snapshot of urban England withered by conflict and a depiction of a bustling East End community peopled by market traders, gangsters and crooks, who weave in and out of the central narrative in a series of sub-plots that add to the feeling of a crumbling society.

Embedded amongst It Always Rains on Sunday’s multi-strand narrative is Withers’ Rose, a woman trapped by a drab, everyday marriage within an environment of inescapable and claustrophobic orthodoxy, whose world is rocked by a man who represents the freedom and passions she once enjoyed, however futile they eventually became. In the aforementioned featurette, writer Iain Sinclair notes how Rose “is almost a person of colour in a black and white world”, a world that, in Hamer’s hands, is as austere as it is inherently vibrant in a film of municipal turmoil.