Saturday, August 10, 2013
I don't enjoy seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the big screen. There, I've said it. At one point, it was a fun experience bringing "virgin" friends, but that was long ago. These days, I prefer to enjoy the film at home, on DVD, far from the hurled insult humor and juvenile and sexualized cast re-enactments. Because believe it or not, despite its reputation as a bad movie deserving of this midnight treatment (even among its fervent followers), Jim Sharman's colorful melange of perverted horror movie in-jokes and outrageous musical numbers is a well-made and truly marvelous genre-blending, gender-bending classic. Initially conceived as a stage musical by British actor-songwriter Richard O'Brien (who also plays Riff Raff), both O'Brien and Sharman, as well as original cast members Tim Curry, Little Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn, made the transition from stage to screen with the support of producer Lou Adler and 20th Century-Fox.
To recap the story of Rocky Horror Picture Show (hereafter shortened to RHPS): Brad and Janet, a conservative couple from Denton, Ohio, find a road journey cut short by a flat tire. They walk through the rain to a mysterious castle, where butler Riff Raff and maid Magenta introduce them to Dr. Frank N. Furter, a tranvestite mad doctor who has created life itself in the form of muscle man Rocky. Frank's former lovers Columbia and Eddie are thrown into the mix, and so is Dr. Scott, a wheelchair-bound scientist who tries to save Brad and Janet from Frank's dastardly plans. The storyline actually becomes far more complex than expected, but it's all part of the fun.
I will be bold here: anyone who continues to assert that RHPS is a bad movie is ignorant. All of the humor is intentional, and it works. In the end, RHPS is a cheeky spoof of a multitude of B-movies, from the "old dark house" genre to This Island Earth, with a generous splash of twisted sexuality that has no doubt contributed to the film's following. The songs are killer, with the "Time Warp" trying to introduce a new dance craze, "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" singing the praises of abandoning chastity for balls-to-the-wall sluttiness, and "Sweet Transvestite" the perfect introductory number for the outrageous Frank N. Furter. I've always had a soft spot for "I'm Going Home", Frank's swan song, but there really isn't a dud in the bunch. Even the songs usually omitted from soundtrack albums, Rocky's "The Sword of Damocles" and the ensemble piece "Planet, Schmanet, Janet", are superb.
You can't even fault the film for technical flaws. Beautifully shot, nicely edited, and with an ever-impressive set design, this is not some cheap-jack production, or if it was, it surely doesn't like to show it. The mostly British cast is of course highlighted by Tim Curry as Frank, in a performance that in a more liberal year should have won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He's just that good. Visiting Americans Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon equip themselves very well within the campy proceedings, with Sarandon especially fun as the corrupted innocent Janet, and rocker Meat Loaf makes a brief but strong impression as Elvis-wannabe biker Eddie. His song "Hot Patootie" is nothing short of spectacular.
Many have continued to say that RHPS is the original cult film, or the ultimate cult film. Well, if a film enters the mainstream and is loved or enjoyed by just about everybody...that cult seems to have transformed into a religion, or at the very least ceased to be a cult. Everyone knows about the midnight screenings and it's a rite of passage for many young people getting in touch with their sexuality or just hoping to fit in. In my opinion, to continue to be a cult film, there should be resistance to it from the general movie-going public while it is embraced by a minority of followers. No one resists RHPS anymore. It's part of the pop culture lexicon.
Your enjoyment of seeing RHPS with cast re-enactment and audience participation entirely depends on two things: the cast and the audience. Truth be told, both will likely be filled with high school and college drama and/or improv students who, desperate for attention, enjoy being loud and in the spotlight. This is part of the problem. The youthful reverie of contemporary RHPS screenings surely cannot be what they originally were like in the 70s and 80s, when the tradition began. There is almost non-stop yelling at the screen of mostly unfunny barbs at the expense of the cast and the film, with some tasteless pop culture nods tossed in for topicality. Some jokes land, most just seem childish and desperate. There are just as many inside jokes between cast members and recurring audience members, which don't add to the "fun" at all. Was it always like this? I always leave RHPS screenings with a splitting headache. This also begs the question: what is the purpose of making fun of a comedy or a spoof? All the laughs are right there on the screen. Perhaps it's a desire to interact with or contribute to the humor within the film, but I don't think that's the case with the RHPS audiences.
It's interesting to note how the Rocky Horror revelers intensely dislike the film's sequel, Shock Treatment (1981). This may be one of the most underrated and unfairly maligned sequels in film history. In many ways, it surpasses the original with its humor, and the score is equal to, if not better than, the RHPS score. However, perhaps it's best that it remain a true cult film, enjoyed by a select few. I imagine it would suffer the same cruel fate as its predecessor if the midnight movie crowd got a hold of it.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Over the years, it has just become a common assumption that any British Invasion rock group vehicle movie released in the wake of A Hard Day's Night (1964) is terrible. This must stem from one simple fact: none of these bands are the Beatles, so both their music and their movies shouldn't logically hold a candle to those of the Fab Four. Perhaps after all these years, it's time to re-evaluate the band vehicle genre without comparing all of its films to Hard Day's Night and Help! (1965). Yes, even though Herman's Hermits are kinda ridiculous as a band, their star vehicles Hold On! (1966) and Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter (1968) are not at all terrible. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who never really hit big over here, still do not disappoint with Finders Keepers (1966). At this rate, I'd be willing to bet that even...ugh...Freddie and the Dreamers aren't so bad in Seaside Swingers (1965) and Gerry and the Pacemakers' Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965) couldn't be as disappointing as one expects (by the way, when will these see the light of day?).
Continuing this surprising pattern, Having a Wild Weekend (1965; also released as Catch Us if You Can), the Dave Clark Five's star vehicle, is an unexpected delight. To begin with, the band members doesn't play themselves. The quintet is a stunt team working on an advertising campaign for the meat industry of Britain, which is using perky blonde Dinah (Barbara Ferris) as its poster child. When Steve (Dave Clark) and Dinah have had enough of the ad game, they take off from a commercial shoot in a rented car and make plans to escape to an island Dinah is considering buying for the weekend. Along the way, they are pursued by the ad company president's henchmen and encounter a group of pre-hippie burnouts, a lecherous middle-aged couple who whisks them and the other four stuntmen to a costume party, and an enterprising farmer attempting to turn his sprawling home on the Moors into a wild west-themed tourist trap.
Directed by a pre-Hollywood John Boorman and photographed by the superb Manny Wynn, Having a Wild Weekend looks great and actually plays like a dramatic road movie more than a musical or a comedy. In fact, the film only really stumbles when Boorman attempts to turn it into a comedy, with a poorly blocked and edited slapstick chase scene taking the honors as the film's worst moment. Even the title is slightly misleading: the entire film is spent trying to get to Dinah's island for said weekend, but in fact the "wild weekend" is the journey itself, as the youthful semi-romantic couple shuns elder authority figures and attempts to renew their love of life. In fact, for a rock vehicle film, it's shocking what little rock there is to be found here. There are no musical numbers in the film, and there are a mere 4-5 Dave Clark Five songs heard on the entire soundtrack, most repeated throughout. The group spends very little time together, as Dave Clark is pushed into the starring role, relegating his four band mates to the background. They're practically comic relief while Clark plays an early version of the angry young man archetype found in late-60s films. Clark's brooding and handsome act is very believable, and he probably could have successfully pursued an acting career if he'd wanted to. Barbara Ferris, so good in a variety of projects like Sparrows Can't Sing (1963), Children of the Damned (1964), and Bitter Harvest (1963), is quite excellent as the girl with more going on behind that pretty face. It's also a nice surprise to spot some interesting cast members, including an uncredited Sheila Fearn as one of the teenage dropouts, the unusual-looking Yootha Joyce as Nan, the upper-class wife drooling over Steve, and comic character actor Robin Bailey as Guy, her husband attempting to seduce Dinah with his vintage movie memorabilia. Remind me to try that trick sometime.
Now, quite different from the rock group vehicle film is the 60s rock musical genre. Films in the latter group feature a number of different performers and groups in musical numbers, most often tied together with some semblance of a plot. The best of this genre is arguably The TAMI Show (1964), which is just one performance after another by superstars like The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, and The Beach Boys, among others (Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, The Barbarians, The Blossoms, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, etc.). Its follow-up, The Big TNT Show (1966), with Ray Charles, The Byrds, Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, The Ronettes, and many others, is also killer. But rock musicals seem to have been kickstarted as far back as the 1950s by Sam Katzman, who produced a number of twist and rock cash-in films for Columbia (1956's Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock, 1961's Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist). The incredible number of rock musical films of this type is staggering, and capturing such a variety of performers on-camera is musical gold. Even if the films are less than stellar, hearing and seeing so many interesting varieties of music is always worthwhile.
Just for Fun! (1963) is billed by Anthology Film Archives as a vehicle film, but it's actually one of these rock musicals packed with performances by both well-known and obscure acts. As might be expected from any musical, the story is slight and is merely there to hang plentiful musical numbers on. However, the sheer volume of music vs. plot makes for an exhausting film when one song ends and another begins almost immediately after. This wouldn't be a problem if the music was consistently good, but as the last gasp of pop music before the British Invasion rocked the globe, I concluded the film with two questions: "Where are the girl groups?" and "Can't the Beatles show up already to save music?"
The plot, which is peppered with terribly unfunny moments, follows two political parties as they change the voting age to include teenagers, but disregard anything the teens have to say about the issues. In this case, the sole issue is that TV will stop showing so many musical programs. No way, man! The youth of England, led by singers Mark Wynter (yuck) and Cherry Roland (who has trouble not looking at the camera), then starts its own political party (yeah, don't ask how) and throw some musicians into the running as their candidates of choice. We never learn who their elected representative is in the race for Parliament, just that the Fun Party wins, but if you thought Wild in the Streets (1968) was the beginning of anti-youth youth films, that nonsensical film must have grabbed its ending from this import.
So who are the acts in the film? Maybe more importantly, who are the good ones worth hearing? It's doubtful you've heard of most of these bands, though there are some names here. Brian Poole and the Tremeloes are probably the best-known; Poole is geeky hot and their song "Keep On Dancing" (no relation to the Gentrys song) is great. The Springfields, with Dusty front and center, are superb performing "Little Boat". The aforementioned Cherry Roland opens the film with gusto singing the title song. There are three good instrumental groups, the Sounds Incorporated, the sleek Joe Meek-produced Tornados (best known for the organ-driven "Telstar"), and the superior Jet Harris band, who are photographed dressed all in black with sparse lighting highlighting the band members' faces and instruments. Harris returns with Tony Meehan to sing a so-bad-it's-good cover of "The Hully Gully", highlighted by the use of a bored-looking female drummer on stage with the singers. It's camp-tastic.
There are visiting Americans in the mix, too, and not to be biased, but they're among the highlights of the film. Ketty Lester (a decade before her turn as a horrifying morgue vampire in Blacula) sings a sultry soul number; Bobby Vee sings two tunes, including his hit "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes"; The Crickets sans Buddy Holly, but still trying to sound like him and/or the Everlys, also play two songs, both very good; Johnny Tillotson sings "Judy", a song that feels about five years past its prime, but he sells it. The most surprising appearance, and maybe the best of the film, is by a Swedish band, The Spotnicks, who are actually head and shoulders above most of the British groups, with their heavily accented cover of "My Bonnie" performed in astronaut suits. In the film, the Spotnicks are telecast in via satellite to lend support to the Fun Party, and on that note, it seems that the UK version of the film had Sylvie Vartan doing the same from France. She would have enlivened the proceedings quite a bit, I imagine. Jimmy Powell is also missing from the US version from Columbia, which is a shame because he's kinda dynamite, too.
Now the rest... Goofy-looking Joe Brown, a kind of mix between Jim Carrey and Billy Idol, sings two songs. Kenny Lynch, who you may remember from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), also sings a pair of forgettable songs. Lynch, the sole black British performer, has zero charisma or soul. Mark Wynter, the male lead, contributes harmless fluff to the soundtrack. Freddy Cannon seems like the Roy Orbison of England: decidedly un-hip-looking, but with a killer voice. He sings two songs, both forgettable, and that can't be said about Orbison; Cannon can also do better, trust me. The absolute worst music in the film is courtesy of The Vernons Girls, a wannabe girl group who merely sing a song in unison, no harmonies and no attempt to be in the least bit interesting. In 1963, girl groups must have been a distinctly American phenomenon, or at least we were the ones getting it right. The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las would have beat the tar out of the Vernons. There are solo girl singers, too, like Louise Cordet, Lyn Cornell, and Cloda Rodgers. No unsung gems are these ladies. Only Cordet's "Which Way the Wind Blows" is mildly fun. It should also be noted that almost all of the acts are introduced by three famous 60s disc jockeys, Alan Freeman, David Jacobs, and Jimmy Savile, kind of like the UK Alan Freed or Dick Clark equivalents.
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Before music videos, before YouTube, there were Scopitones. What are Scopitones, you ask? Using a jukebox technology developed in France in the late 1950s, a Scopitone machine would store short 16mm reels containing filmed scenarios built around a popular song or artist. In other words, you would deposit your money in a Scopitone much as you would a jukebox and instead of simply hearing an artist perform, you would see them perform on a screen attached to the top of the machine. An essential guide to the world of Scopitones can be found here.
Introduced tonight at Anthology Film Archives by Gary Balaban, a quirky and engaging collector of films and music, the Scopitones, all from his personal collection, were presented in two reels, connecting a group of the 16mm films together. Reel 1 was almost entirely made up of French and German Scopitones, with a number of ye-ye girls like Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan. Foreign-language covers of popular songs like "Sherry", "The Locomotion", "I Got Stung", "America" from West Side Story, and even "Goldfinger" (!) were among the surprises to be found here. Reel 2 graduated to slightly more familiar American artists, many of the films shot in glowing Technicolor instead of the faded Eastmancolor tones of the European Scopitones. Procol Harum promotes their enduring hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale" in a later-period film, Frank Sinatra Jr. seems unsure if he's imitating dear old dad or Jerry Lewis in "Love for Sale", Nino Tempo and April Stevens sing a surprisingly downbeat version of "Land of 1000 Dances", Donna Theodore prances in a bikini and complains about men drooling over her in "Femininity", and buxotic Joi Lansing, peerless in my book, seductively croons "The Silencer" and her cult classic "The Web of Love", looking ready to pop out of her outfits at all times. Brook Benton in particular looks mighty embarrassed to be surrounded by white go-go girls dancing to an entirely different rhythm than that of his marvelous "Mother Nature Father Time".
The evening hit a snag when the 16mm mag sound project bulb went out, leading to the final group of Scopitones being projected without sound, but accompanied by oddly appropriate freakbeat tunes that miraculously complemented the images beautifully. While Anthology apologized and graciously offered to comp admission for their next Scopitone event, I can't imagine anyone not feeling like they got a full evening's worth of entertainment before the technical snafu. I sure as Hell did!
Now for the videos. I selected 10 of my favorite Scopitones from this evening and was surprisingly able to find all of them on YouTube, the world's greatest pop culture depository. Hold on to your hats and please to enjoy.
Friday, August 2, 2013
The most unusual thing about the film industry's history of looking down on the comedy and horror genres is that they're the most difficult kind of films to pull off. There is nothing worse than a painfully unfunny comedy or a cliched and horror film, and on the flip side, there are fewer pure pleasures than consistent laughter or the adrenaline rush of suspense and terror when a genre film is done right. The horror genre often feels like a horse carcass beat beyond recognition these days, with torture porn, found footage, and ghost stories spewed out semi-regularly in various venues (theaters, straight to video, on-demand, streaming). I recently wondered aloud to my fellow horror fan gal pal Lita Robinson, a writer for Diabolique Magazine, if the genre has just become so mediocre and predictable that any film that is the slightest bit above average gets a tremendous amount of attention. So I went into The Conjuring unsure if it would live up to expectations. After all, Drag Me to Hell (2009), raved about left and right, proved to be a more violent variation on the far superior Curse of the Demon (1957), and I forgot I had even seen the film a week later. The honest truth: this is the most effective horror film I've seen in a long while.
In a not very promising pre-credits sequence, we meet Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married pair of paranormal investigators who help two nurse roommates deal with a creepy doll inhabited by a demon. The film thankfully improves with the introduction of the Perron family: truck driver father Roger (Ron Livingston), doting mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and daughters Andrea, Nancy, Christine, Cindy, and April (Shanley Caswell, Hayley MacFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver). The Perrons have purchased a secluded Rhode Island farmhouse at a bank auction and have high hopes for it to be just what their family needs to make a fresh start. The eerie haunting shenanigans begin after a boarded-up cellar is discovered. The family dog won't come into the house, little April starts talking to an imaginary friend, Rupert, who she says emerged from a music box, Cindy begins sleepwalking and banging her head against a mysterious wardrobe in Andrea's room, Carolyn begins developing strange bruises overnight, and Christine is woken in the night by something yanking on her leg. The Warrens are asked to investigate, resulting in what the credits crawl claims was a true-life case so "malevolent" they are only now allowing it to be publicly revealed. To give away much more would detract from some incredible shock scares and a supremely intense final third.
There is nothing particularly original about The Conjuring. We've all seen haunted house, possession, and paranormal investigation horror films before. We know that the youngest child will be the one in the most danger, the family dog is toast, levitating and a demonic male voice will be possession symptoms, etc. There are equal doses Amityville Horror (both 1 and 2), Poltergeist, and Blair Witch Project to be found woven throughout the narrative. But director James Wan, working with a very talented cast and a firm understanding of how the genre works best, has done something very special here. Set in 1971, the film has the visual style and storytelling panache of the best genre films of that decade. If you're an admirer of the "good old days" of horror, you will find a lot to love in The Conjuring, with contemporary twists keeping it fresh and lively. Wan has gathered together a talented ensemble of actors that keep things convincing at all times. Wilson is a solid actor, and Livingston has the lovable schmoe act down pat, but the film belongs to the women. Farmiga, who I've loved since her indie days of Dummy (2003), Down to the Bone (2004), and Running Scared (2006), enjoyed a career surge after The Departed (2006) and an Oscar nom for Up in the Air (2009). I'd follow her anywhere, and thankfully she never disappoints, especially here. Another indie darling, Taylor has been away from the big screen too long, and her last haunted house flick, an ill-advised 1999 remake of The Haunting, gave no indication of how good she could be in this kind of film. She is really put through the ringer as the tortured family matriarch, in a role that not just any actress could excel in. Of the girls, Joey King ("Christine") sells her sheer terror the best, especially in a suspenseful sequence where she sees a horrific...something...that neither her sister or the audience can.
Not everything works in The Conjuring: the aforementioned pre-credits sequence of a doll is nowhere near as striking as similar material in Wan's earlier (and very underrated) Dead Silence (2007); a comic relief policeman attached to the investigative team and his banter with the Warrens' assistant Drew isn't truly necessary (though the cop's eventual encounter with the supernatural is one of the film's highlights); and the demon's attempt to "make it personal" with the Warrens by targeting their daughter is, while effective, slightly feels like padding to boost the scares before the climax. But there is so much done right here that it's hard to fault Wan for these negatives. Any film that can make this hardened horror fan jump twice in his theater seat is one that can't be recommended enough.
Contemporary horror tends to produce one auteur darling every couple of years that the fans embrace and enthusiastically hope is the future of the genre. A decade ago, it was Eli Roth. Then it was Rob Zombie. Most recently it was Ti West. This year it's James Wan. Where West seems to have shot his wad with his first feature, The House of the Devil (2008), as all subsequent efforts have been fairly disappointing, Wan seems to be on a roll. He made a splash with 2003's Saw, considered the originator of the lamentable "torture porn" subgenre, but his follow-up film, Dead Silence, landed with a thud. It's time to re-evaluate that one, folks. His last genre film, Insidious (2010), received very positive notices from people whose taste I trust, but I have yet to see it. It proved successful enough to warrant a sequel, coming to theaters next month (September 13). If it's as good as The Conjuring, Wan will have released two superb horror flicks in one calendar year. When's the last time that happened?
Word of warning: don't watch the official trailer for this. The teaser, linked below, is far more effective, and reminds me of a 1970s horror film preview.
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Jean-Luc Godard and I have a love-hate relationship. Every time I think I am won over to his peculiar yet certainly innovative films of the French New Wave, something sticks in my craw and detracts from his overall achievement as one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema. My previous review of his Week End (1967) proved controversial, and to be honest, my opinion of the film has changed over time, as I reflected on its powerful moments and troubling themes and came to the realization that it was in fact a masterpiece. I have to now wonder if my opinion of A Woman is a Woman will change months from now. For now, I think it best to share my initial thoughts on the film and what stuck with me, and perhaps in the future can revisit it and make more informed and in-depth observations.
The stunning Anna Karina, Godard's wife at the time, stars as Angela, a nightclub performer who develops the urge for a baby with her boyfriend Emile (New Wave favorite Jean-Claude Brialy). When he refuses, she turns to his best friend Alfred (New Wave poster boy Jean-Paul Belmondo), who has been holding a torch for Angela. Typical with Godard, the story is slight and rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
The pre-credits sequence, made up of large words flashed on-screen, gives the impression that Godard is making his first musical, and the film does make interesting use of its score. Rather than have his characters perform in musical interludes, the director plays with music throughout his sparse narrative. Music drops on and off the soundtrack, disappearing when Angela sings but reappearing during lyrical breaks, and one lengthy scene features a Charles Aznavour single, bemoaning his lady "letting herself go", played in its entirety on a jukebox. For some time, the characters speak in rhythmically spaced dialogue exchanges, but this concept doesn't last for the duration of the film. That said, music is a key element of the film's structure, whether it be original compositions by Michel LeGrand or snippets of popular songs.
The three characters play to the camera, bow to the audience, wink after dropping film references, and in other ways drop the facade of acting in a film. The fourth wall simply does not exist in Godard's world, and most of the fun to be had with Woman is a Woman is in seeing the actors and their director simply have a ball making a movie together. We ultimately don't care who Angela ends up with, nor if she ever gets that baby she's been pining for, but Godard does allow a semi-conventional ending to wrap things up. There are magical moments like a stripper's newest trick, which allows her to walk through a closet in underwear and emerge in a random costume, the quarreling lovers flashing book covers and titles to call each other names, Angela's musical number, capturing Karina in ravishing gel colors, and Alfred watching Angela's awnings as code for whether she will return to him or not, lighting the cigarettes of passers by as he waits until his cigarette burns down to nothing. Godard's films seem to work best as a series of vignettes, or at the very least are filled with memorable scenes that threaten to, but don't quite, make a compelling whole.
Shot in blazing color and widescreen, but with the avant-garde improvisational structure of his earlier black-and-white works, Woman is a Woman feels like the cusp film between early Godard (Breathless, Vivre sa Vie) and middle-period Godard (Contempt, Pierrot le Fou). As a film bordering these two phases of his career, it is not as accessible as films from either period. There was a surprising number of walk-outs while viewing the film at MoMA, including a couple sitting next to me expecting a musical with some semblance of a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. But the only commercial aspects of Woman is a Woman are the addition of color and widescreen to Godard's otherwise very singular and not always appreciable vision. Godard also demonstrates his consciousness of the New Wave by referring to both his own films (Belmondo says he doesn't want to miss Breathless on TV) and the films of his contemporaries (Charles Aznavour and Shoot the Piano Player are discussed, Jeanne Moreau appears in a bar and is asked how Jules and Jim is going). And naturally Godard refers to classic Hollywood throughout, most importantly giving Alfred the last name of Lubitsch, but also giving shout-outs to Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, and Burt Lancaster.
If you ever wondered what Woody Allen's A Streetcar Named Desire or Cate Blanchett as Blanche duBois would be like, Allen's newest, Blue Jasmine, should vividly answer those questions. Comparisons between Tennessee Williams' destruction of the Southern belle mythos and Allen's story of two sisters forced together when one falls from her ivory tower are bound to happen, but this film is much more about the delusion of grandeur attached to obscene wealth than the dynamic between estranged sisters.
Cate Blanchett is Jeanette, no, Jasmine, an egotistical high society matron who married rich and changed her name, transforming herself in the process. One gets the impression that Jeanette was like Veda in Mildred Pierce and Jasmine is the end result of a lifelong pursuit of the finer things. Her marriage comes crashing down when the Feds catch up with her husband (Alec Baldwin), who has been cheating the government and his financial backers, not to mention philandering behind Jasmine's back. Home and belongings are repossessed and Jasmine is forced to crawl to San Francisco (on first class no less) to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The two have not seen each other since Ginger's visit to New York with her then-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), and Jasmine finds that little sis has found another roughneck boyfriend named Chili (Bobby Canavale) since her divorce. As Jasmine struggles to find a job and complete her college education, she also begins to slowly unravel as the cold reality of her situation begins to chip away at her sanity...which was never very solid to begin with.
The trailer for Blue Jasmine almost sells it as a whimsical comedy, and while the film has its share of humorous moments, it really benefits from a veneer of darkness cast over its characters and their interactions. We follow Jasmine and Ginger, and while we hope that there is some hope for them when all is said and done, that simply won't be the case. It's interesting to note that both sisters are adopted, and while Ginger ran away from home because their parents supposed preferred Jeanette and made her own way from a young age, Jeanette never had to figure things out for herself. She dropped out of college to marry a man who spoiled her with lavish gifts and social standing, and when it all falls apart, she has nowhere to turn but to a sister who she sneers at for having poor taste in men. Jasmine is too busy judging Ginger's choices to notice that she has her own home, supports her two children with menial jobs, and is with a man who, while blue-collar and uncouth, loves her. But then Jasmine is not about these women coming together after so many years and learning to understand each other. It's about one continuing to make poor decisions, and the other settling into a comfortably numb existence. Allen doesn't much care for his characters here to grow or reach life-changing revelations, but that isn't necessary for us to appreciate the time spent with these hot messes.
In some ways, Jasmine feels like a Woody Allen film for people who hate Woody Allen films. He does not appear on-camera, nor has he cast a similar stand-in, but more importantly, his biting attack on the elitist upper-class is in direct opposition of his usual class politics. Sure, some scenes come off as "wealth porn", basking in the gorgeous homes and locations Allen was able to secure for shooting, but Ginger's apartment is never shown as being that big of a step down for Jasmine. Perhaps because with these changing economic times, it looks pretty damn cozy and downright familiar to today's audiences. While Allen's films tend to be aimed at a more elitist crowd of film viewers, Jasmine does not feel like it's intended for that same audience. This slightly new artistic point of view, and being his first film shot mostly in San Francisco, encourages me to recommend this film to just about everyone, including his detractors.
In what might be the year's first front runner performance for a Best Actress Oscar, Blanchett is a ball of nervous energy, when she isn't cruising through life with a breezy and entitled point of view. She makes it very difficult to completely dislike Jasmine, with her pitiful eyes and bouts of manic conversation with herself. We want Jasmine to find herself back into a kept woman marriage, if only so she can stop being so damn miserable and leave her sister to live as she wants. British Hawkins, well cast as flighty free spirits in films like Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Made in Dagenham (2010), slides nicely into the role of Ginger, though unlike Australian Blanchette, she has some trouble maintaining her American accent. It's good to see comics Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. here. While C.K. does his sad-sack "Louie" routine very well, it's Clay who is really impressive as Ginger's bitter ex-husband. All memories of Adventures of Ford Fairlane are forgiven. I don't know how to feel about Allen casting former "Bachelorette" Ali Fedotowsky as a physical trainer; recognizing this reality star in a legit film project unpleasantly took me out of the movie.