Film reviews 50: “Blue Jasmine”, “Rush”, “La Grande Bellezza”, “The Kings of Summer” and 11 others…

blue jasmine cate blanchett woody allen
This fortnight: “Birth”, “Blue Jasmine” (pictured above), “Borrowed Time”, “La Grande Bellezza”, “Hunger”, “I Killed My Mother”, “The Innkeepers”, “The Kings of Summer”, “Old Joy”, “Rush”, “Sexy Beast”, “Terri”, “This Must Be the Place” and “Wendy and Lucy”.

Life is strange, isn’t it? Why, this morning I poured milk on my cereal only to remember that life is finite.  The average rating is 6.17/10 with film of the month being Blue Jasmine. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Birth (2004) – 4/10

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière, Mile Addica, Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall
“How is Mr Reincarnation enjoying his cake?”
“He likes it.”

birth cameron brightI’ve had Birth on DVD for a few years, but never got round to watching it. There’s something off-putting about the cover that conveys an ambitious project which couldn’t meet expectations. That’s coupled by remembering a Peter Bradshaw review around its release that made frequent Kubrick comparisons.

Well, I tucked into Birth in preparation for seeing Glazer’s follow-up Under the Skin at London Film Festival, and it’s hard to shake off the Kubrick influence. The still camera precision, cold mood and score, they all evoke Eyes Wide Shut and Artificial Intelligence – both of which I’m sure Glazer viewed during production.

Glazer’s definitely not Kubrick. I’m also not a fan of Sexy Beast or his “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” video. He does, however, make a valiant attempt at creating suspense for first half of Birth. The story begins with an intriguing premise: a 10-year-old boy insists that he is the reincarnation of Nicole Kidman’s dead husband. They stare at each other, then share a bath and a kiss – all of which is creepy in a paranormal and social sense, without coming across as indulging in any perverse fantasies.

Some of that credit belongs to Glazer who creates claustrophobia around Kidman’s dilemma, with invisible walls shutting off her similarly aged fiancé and senses. The best example is a continuous close-up of Kidman’s face at a classical music concert; forced to sit quietly and concentrate on the music, while obviously thinking about only one other topic.

But that moment (which is easily the film’s highlight) is equally down to Kidman, whose troubled facial expressions are magnificent enough to hide how little depth lies in the script. The unsettling atmosphere and lead performance can’t disguise that the narrative revolves around a single line, with little suspense or mystery on top.

The lack of ambiguity in the final act perhaps pins down everything wrong with Birth. If I was at the 2004 Venice premiere, I would have joined in with the booing crowd. At least I can treasure the accidentally hilarious moment when the 10-year-old boy discusses fulfilling Kidman’s needs while eating ice cream – an image more ridiculous once the ending is revealed.

Blue Jasmine
(2013) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis CK
“I want the past, past.”

blue jasmine louis ck woody allen sally hawkinsIt’s been a while since Woody Allen’s last great drama, Sweet and Lowdown. The output during the intermittent 14 years, ignoring the comedies, retrospectively feels like a number of casting experiments where talented actors attempt to adapt to Allen’s language. With Blue Jasmine, Allen finally finds an ensemble who form their own distinctive voices through his loose direction.

In decades from now, the film will undoubtedly be remembered for Blanchett’s captivating flexibility and crumbling mental state. I don’t mean any disrespect to Scarlett Johansson or Radha Mitchell, but neither coped with the impossible shadow of Allen’s past muses (Mia Farrow as the female personification of his anxiety, Diane Keaton as the complementary antithesis). Blanchett, however, sets the new mark with a lead performance that displays both sides of Jasmine’s fragility: a one-time dependent socialite, reduced to the gibberish mess hidden by Louis Vuitton handbags.

The back-and-forth time structure of Blue Jasmine juxtaposes the extreme nature of Jasmine’s financial situations, while uncovering hidden similarities that would otherwise not be spotted. She initially lives a life of luxury in New York, funded by her wealthy husband Hal (Alex Baldwin); their swimming pool’s clear water typifies her ideal lifestyle.

When the fortune inevitable disappears, she’s stuck in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins); as Allen’s films have always shown, life outside is New York is far less romantic and a somewhat unpleasant awakening.

Jasmine is always on the verge of self-destruction, with her actual nervous breakdown (between the shifting present tense and flashback) held off-screen. Subsequently, Blanchett has to subtly display her descent through an astounding range of mannerisms. In New York, she’s uncomfortably oblivious to her husband’s infidelity, which is expressed through class-related snobbery towards Ginger. When alternate scenes shift forward to San Francisco, she can barely sit still, expressing her sadness through unspoken behaviour and twitches – a unique skill that places Blanchett ahead of her peers.

In fact, Blanchett already proved her versatility in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, playing two sisters sharing a passive-aggressive cappuccino. Blue Jasmine taps into that double-side introspection, almost to the extent that Jasmine should overshadow the rest of the cast.

She doesn’t, mainly because everyone similarly benefits from Allen’s “do what you want” style of film-making. The unusual inclusion of foul-mouthed comic Andrew Dice Clay was at first surprising, but he and Bobby Cannavale bring a violent energy usually absent from Allen’s oeuvre. Similarly, known megalomaniac Louis CK is surprisingly effective as an outsider not too far from his character in Louie.

Hanging together the threads is Sally Hawkins, who is the grounded influence forever ignored by Jasmine. If Blue Jasmine really is Allen’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire, then Hawkins is Stella, the sensitive neutral who’s gradually broken through her sister’s unstable behaviour.

Even if it’s not a straight reworking, Allen has the wit and emotional power of Tennessee Williams. It’s definitely his best for years, all without retreading past glories. Blue Jasmine is both funny and devastating, forming the culmination of the dramatic style he’s been trying to achieve this century.

Borrowed Time
(2013) – 2.5/10

Director/Writer: Jules Bishop
Starring: Theo Barklem-Biggs, Philip Davis, Juliet Oldfield
“Make my tea, punk.”

borrowed timeBishop spends a lot of time trying to make London a character, but should have spent more time working on the real human ones. As a response to gritty East End dramas, the positive message emerges from an unlikely friendship between an elderly taxidermist and a burglar who enters his home. The humour is dreadful (the “make my tea, punk” line is not a one-off) and rounded off with an unfunny caricature called Ninja Nigel.

La Grande Bellezza
(2013) – 8.5/10

English title: The Great Beauty
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
“Our parties have the best trains in Rome.”

la grande bellezza (the great beauty, paolo sorrentino)Because those trains don’t go anywhere, it is alleged. Sorrentino’s soaring tribute to Rome is rather like a modern update of La Dolce Vita that’s similarly structured with vignettes as DNA, encompassing an abstract mixture of excess and internal decay. I was mostly disappointed by Sorrentino’s last film, This Must Be the Place; La Grande Bellezza inverses Sean Penn’s weirdness and spins the manic energy into the city.

Jep, a one-time author in his 60s, attends extravagant parties with a wry smile – and these parties really are extravagant, with the hedonistic sheen absent from Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. But Jep is a more complicated figure, who doesn’t look at the past in such an obvious manner; he lies in bed, staring at a swimming pool in the ceiling. It’s like taking a telescope to watch midnight constellations, only to envisage various memories of decadence.

Sorrentino’s camera moves with sophistication to find Rome’s most captivating corners, as remembered by Jep’s life of expensive sex and upper class socialising. Fortunately, for a 142-minute epic with such an unclear narrative, the screenplay is frequently funny and ready to mock the self-seriousness of ambitious art; a 10-year-old girl’s attempt at a “Jackson Pollock” comes across as more “John Squire”.

La Grande Bellezza, as the title might suggest, invites the viewer into Jep’s decadent lifestyle – both aimless and dizzying with instant gratification. Not everything is completely “grande”, however – the absent plot jarringly inserts an ex-girlfriend for a touch of sentimentalism. Furthermore, after two hours of dancing around overt confessions, there are a few too many “This is how I feel…” dialogue moments.

That is a very unnoticeable fault, though. The daring visuals and preaching soundtrack make La Grande Bellezza something best seen in a cinema – and I say this knowing I could overlook how the person sat next to me checked her phone (on full brightness) at least 20 times (I lost count) and even audible spoke out loud (saying “Oh my God” to who exactly?) and didn’t even learn from a part of the film where a woman displays her rudeness by attending an experimental play only to be caught checking her phone in the back row (this person next to me was say towards the front of a semi-full Renoir cinema), but I’m not going to let things like that bother me.

The bottom line: The Great Beauty is a very apt title.

(2008) – 8/10

Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
“Guaranteed, there’ll be a new generation of men and women.”

hunger michael fassbenderHunger doesn’t begin with a straight history lesson, but 40 minutes depicting the violent treatment of IRA prisoners. The near absence of dialogue maximises the cruelty; arbitrary beatings seem even more meaningless. The single spurt of dialogue (a gripping single take of a priest visiting Bobby Sands) is subsequently more powerful, in volume and relief; Sands outlays his plans for a hunger strike – the priest is dismayed, yet it makes sense to the viewer, given the earlier sequences. They argue over semantics and whether a hunger strike leads to suicide or martyrdom. To McQueen’s credit, he presents both views right to the end.

Oddly, I estimate I missed about 20% of the drama through having to look away; given the lack of conversation, it was often covering my eyes to the sounds of someone being tortured. At one point, a prison guard does the same thing.

The claustrophobia has a few points of release that signal both sides of the suicide versus martyrdom debate. Thatcher’s radio reports are a clear source of Sands’ determination, as is a two-second shot of birds flying in the distance. Regardless of politics, there’s a gripping character study into the mindset of dying for a cause – inhumane treatment leads to a similarly illogical, successful response.

I Killed My Mother
(2009) – 7/10

Original title: J’ai Tué Ma Mère
Director/Writer: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, François Arnaud
“Dear Hubert, you’re a fish from great depths – blind and luminous. You’re swimming in troubled waters with the modern world’s rage.”

i killed my mother xavier dolanXavier Dolan’s stars in his allegedly semi-autobiographical debut at the age of 20 – all these facts play an unfair slant on how I Killed My Mother is perceived. Without prior knowledge, the drama is an admirable study into how homosexuality might and might not affect family bonds, even if the topic is never mentioned.

However, there’s an undeniable layer of interest in Dolan to some extent replaying his own life, even if it’s deeply over-dramatised and framed by unnecessary slow-mo. It also brings out flaws in the few scenes in which he’s not present – when the mother speaks, it’s more apparent the screenplay was written by a teenager in a moody flourish.

The drama definitely flourishes when it’s just Dolan and his mother, with their bickering relationship often fraught with unpredictability – instead of back and forth arguments, their fights are punctuated by genuine laughter and declarations of passive aggressive love.

I Killed My Mother moves away from that central pairing a few times, which causes a drop in interest when it turns into Dolan’s crazy adventures at a new school. It’s also present in the black-and-white close-ups that pop up now and then – they don’t add much and seem redolent of a new film-maker desperate to use any ideas in case there isn’t another chance.

Luckily, Dolan proves himself to be talented as a writer, director and actor. He’s still not the finished product, but he’s able to find unexpected drama in a mother driving her son to the video rental store.

The Innkeepers
(2011) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy
“It’s all bullshit. It’s all Hocus Pocus.”

the innkeepersTi West’s haunted house yarn is a slowburner that really leaves gaps between the scares. Hotel workers Paxton and Healy share amusing chemistry; their interest in the building’s history is more to pass the time, rather than deep desire. Subsequently, it takes a while for the night time noises to be properly investigated – and this wait requires patience.

The small character interactions aren’t developed or funny enough to justify the build-up. Similarly, the climax isn’t rewarding enough that I’d recommend The Innkeepers to anyone. Perhaps a different lead could have carried it off; Paxtop is entertainingly odd with her movements, but too cartoonish with her reactions.

I felt the chills, especially from the persistent Dutch angles, with West repeatedly building suspense from what consistently doesn’t happen. But Paxton’s character even admits it herself: it gets boring when she’s on her own.

The Kings of Summer
(2013) – 6/10

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Chris Galletta
Starring: Nick Robinson, Moisés Arias, Gabriel Basso, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
“It’s common sense. It’s not like a raven told us to go away.”

I correctly guessed The Kings of Summer is by a young director, given how its eye for beauty is compromised by too much enthusiasm for fumbled ideas. I hate myself for bringing up the reference, but it really is Terrence Malick inflected with Wes Anderson – nearly all the strengths and weaknesses stem from the juxtaposition of those styles.

The coming-of-age story plays more as a boyhood fantasy, rather than the parental nightmare it really is. Three young boys run away to live in a tree house hidden in a forest, somehow constructing the wooden building in a quirky montage that lays out the plot’s dreaminess. Of the trio, Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) have a thread of friendship, as if escaping their parents is a mutual sign of respect. Biaggio’s inclusion as their third compatriot is entirely surplus to anything other than unadvised comedy – like sticking Dwight Schrute in The Tree of Life.

Not that much panic is made out of the boys’ disappearance. The police laughing it off, while one set of parents sarcastically decry a kidnapping that includes pasta and tinned goods. Subsequently, the main drama comes from a girl who comes between Joe and Patrick. It’s surprisingly moving (okay, surprisingly not un-moving), despite the 10 minutes of screen time the subplot is granted, which makes wonder if The Kings of Summer is generally more affecting than it first seems. The whole mood is wonderfully joyous, with doses of teenage rebellion and adolescent angst.

If it’s hard to take too seriously (despite some of the “this is what I feel” screenplay moments), at least it’s frequently funny. The town seems to be populated by sitcom stars and stand-up comics taking up small roles. The boys’ various parents include Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, while the police team of Thomas Middleditch and Mary Lynn Rajskub are a wisecracking double-act. Even the delivery guy is Kumail Nanjiani.

Even more notable is the gorgeous cinematography, particularly when the sun glares upon the runaways in their lazy hideout. When Joe grows a lousy beard, it’s a lovely joke that he continues his facade to be an independent adult, all while looking like a 12-year-old Xabi Alonso. But that self-awareness from the director, that it’s all a pretend world, is intercepted by twee humour that belongs to a substandard sitcom.

The juxtaposition of influences suggests Vogt-Roberts still hasn’t developed an individual voice. On the strength of The Kings of Summer, he has plenty of talent and a valuable phonebook, so his second feature should be one to watch.

Old Joy
(2006) – 6/10

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Will Oldham, Daniel London
“Sorrow is nothing but owrn out joy.”

old joy will oldhamAt the risk of sounding my age, Old Joy is both sweet and painfully dull. That’s a strange compliment to the deft silences and awkward pauses that spell out complicated, unspoken emotions between the two protagonists. Yo La Tengo’s wistful soundtrack spells out the troubled mood, matched by the swarming landscape.

(2013) – 7/10

Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer
“My car is your car.”
Note: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.

rush chris hemsworthBefore Rush, I didn’t recognise the names James Hunt or Niki Lauda. I possess no interest in Formula One and don’t own a driver’s license. Yet, the racing scenes in the second half of Rush are truly thrilling and had my heart, er, racing.

James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a dashing rock star who uses celebrity status and luscious locks to sleep with attractive strangers on planes. Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), however, is moody, insecure and awkwardly gruff. Their parallel struggles in life make passable entertainment, but the real drama starts on the road: the cars turn from metal into metaphorical vehicles for their psychological battles.

The 1976 World Championship was particularly significant for a life-threatening injury sustained by Lauda, who returned six weeks later with a disfigured face. The road becomes an extension for masculinity (even more than usual) while the two rivals playfully bicker; at the risk of death, they’d rather win a few points.

The adrenaline rush (!) of the racing scenes must be credited to screenwriter Peter Morgan for fleshing out Hunt and Lauda. He subtly foreshadows their racing philosophies through early behaviour. For instance, Hunt’s womanising (he calls his divorce the “win of my career”) precedes a driving style that’s bold and reckless. Lauda is the meticulous alternative who over-prepares and is anxious about worst-case scenarios. When he continues to drive after the accident, it’s honking the horn in the face of Formula One’s shallow machismo. Under careful guidance, Ron Howard’s direction finds poetry in cars spinning circles on a single track.

The screenplay unfortunately doesn’t find much time for anyone else. One female model sums it up by rhyming “joy” with “boy” and “toy” when admiring one of the vehicles. Almost every woman in Rush is a one-dimensional sympathiser, or an air hostess opting to join the Mile High Club.

One explanation is that the drivers prioritise the finish line over loved ones, and sometimes the notion of being alive. When Hunt’s wife leaves him for Richard Burton, the Welsh actor barely makes an appearance; the film’s not interested, and can’t even see the gossip in the rear-view mirror. Why focus on scandal anyway? After all, Lauda, the “sensible” driver, says he’s willing to drive with 20% chance of death, but not 1% more. Now that’s a statistic worth placing on the posters.

Sexy Beast
(2001) – 4/10

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Louis Mellis, David Scinto
Starring: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Amanda Redman, Ian McShane
“Why are you swearing? I’m not swearing.”

sexy beast plane ben kingsleyKingsley and Winstone are fine actors and even better swearers, which is all documented in Sexy Beast. Less convincing, however, is the lame crime humour, with attempts at wit overshadowed by more tantalising surreal sequences that echo Glazer’s music video work.

(2011) – 7/10

Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writer: Patrick Dewitt
Starring: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina
“You yelled and screamed at me… for her?”

terriIt took a while for both Terri and Terri himself to win me over. At first, it seems like an atypical coming-of-age story about a quirky highschooler in need confidence. Wysocki is the eponymous loser: overweight, friendless, turns up to class in pyjamas. After ten minutes, he’s catching mice and feeding them to birds, but at least there’s a supportive teacher and blonde beauty in the distance. Oh God, I thought.

Luckily, it’s not that cliched. Wysocki’s rapport with Reilly is endearingly offbeat, mainly from the latter’s charming manner that suggests teachers have their own problems too. Similarly, Wysocki’s two friends (Zadina as a mischievous pupil, Crocicchia as a beautiful, depressed girl) never fit the true model of a wacky gang; it’s unclear if they’re even friends, beyond willingly spending time together.

After a while, they’re not quirky – they’re really fucked up. It’s not so much an ingenious twist by Azazel Jacobs, but avoiding expectations driven by the genre’s repetition. For that, Terri is an antidote for every minute wasted with the likes of Charlie Bartlett and Thumbsucker.

This Must Be the Place
(2012) – 5/10

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Umberto Contarello, Paolo Sorrentino
“It’s not a question of being careful. It’s a question of knowing how to play ping pong.”

this must be the place sean pennIt’s said the worst way of dying is living alone. That, or being as abrasively quirky as Sean “Robert Smith” Penn.

Wendy and Lucy
(2008) – 7.5/10

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond (short story)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton
“Sir, I’m not from around here. I can’t be an example.”

wendy and lucy michelle williamsReichardt’s beautifully low-key drama is ostensibly about companionship, but also centred on transportation. The whole film rests on Michelle Williams – homeless, poor and searching for her dog. It’s a tough performance that needs to arrest the viewer often through facial expressions, with much of the dialogue being her shouting the dog’s name in hopeful anguish.

It might be even harder for Reichardt; on paper, it might seem easy to film such a simple story. That can’t be said about picking up on little nuances or finding sympathy over the protagonist through small touches such as following a bird flying over an impounded car.

One heartbreaking element comes from the passersby who have their own lives, or the store employee who insists on following company policy. Williams is the stranger walking past at any moment, while I’m sat at home watching a DVD.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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1 Response to Film reviews 50: “Blue Jasmine”, “Rush”, “La Grande Bellezza”, “The Kings of Summer” and 11 others…

  1. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2013 film roundup | HALF A CANYON: The Greek chorus of UK film blogs

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