Category Archives: Drama

Blue Jasmine

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Class Dismissed

Cate Blanchett is a great actress.  But Blue Jasmine is not a great movie.  In my humble opinion, it’s not even a good one.

This is an unpopular view.  Blue Jasmine received great reviews, and is considered one of the best Woody Allen movies in years.  Having recently seen Annie Hall (more on that topic on a separate blog post) nothing compares to old Woody Allen films.  Even the middle period has some gems (I am a particular fan of Bullets Over Broadway, in which Chazz Palminteri kills Jennifer Tilly for being a bad actress).  Some of Woodoy’s recent movies, including Midnight in Paris, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), are fun and worth seeing.

And the funny thing about Blue Jasmine was I couldn’t figure out what I didn’t like about it.  (I’d never make it as a real critic, don’t quit your day job Alice).  Cate Blanchett’s performance is wonderful. Even the way she clutches yet caresses her Birkin handbag is somehow Oscar-worthy. Alec Baldwin is great as Jasmine’s Shyster husband.

My brother Richard figured it out.  He said, “Woody Allen can’t write working class characters.”  And that is the problem.  The story is about a  Madoff–like wife who has lost her husband as well as tremendous wealth due to Ponzi fraud.  She is forced to move in with her sister, a working class woman in San Francisco.  All the working class characters (Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, and even much-loved Louis C.K.) are stilted.  They’re not funny, they’re not believable. and their scenes drag.  And without giving away the story, the arc of the movie is frustrating.

Woody Allen shines depicting educated, affluent, neurotic New Yorkers.  In the past several years, his movies have featured these kinds of characters located in European cities for budgetary reasons.   When Woody writes what he knows, it works.  Blue Jasmine falters when Woody Allen steps out of his comfort zone.

Rating:  ** (out of ****)

Before Midnight

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Scenes from a Marriage

So now I get to blog about a second movie by one of my favorite directors, Richard Linklater (here’s the first (https://amorganresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/bernie/).  For those unfamiliar with this talky trilogy, in Before Sunrise Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and spend the day together.  In Before Sunset they reunite years later and Jesse debates whether to leave his wife and child for Celine.  Before Midnight again fasts forwards some years, and now Jesse and Celine are together living in Europe, have children, and are on vacation in Greece.  In my opinion, Before Midnight is easily the best film of the series.  Here’s why.

As the great film columnist A.O. Scott notes in the New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/movies/the-hard-work-in-before-midnight-amour-and-other-films-and-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)  there is a reason why most romantic films end when the marriage begins.  After boy gets girls, what’s to watch?  Anyone who has been married for a long time knows that marriage isn’t glamorous.  Often, it is petty and mundane.  Before Midnight exposes the long slog.

As with Before Sunset, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater wrote the screenplay.  They were nominated for an Academy Award for Before Sunset and I hope they are nominated again since the writing is fantastic.  The Greek setting is idyllic.  Both Delpy and Hawke are tremendous  The directing style is patient.  Most of the movie consists of long takes of Jesse and Celine talking.  Other movies are chock full of fast takes, numerous characters, and lots of action.  Before Sunset respects its characters and its audience.

Jesse and Celine each have long-standing issues.  He feels guilty that he seldom sees his son from his first marriage and she feel conflicted about her career and resentful about having to do most of the childrearing.  As the layers of their marriage are peeled back, we go from friendly flirtation to full-on war.  Although this is not an enjoyable film to watch, it is a worthwhile film, and it made me think about marriage in general, and my marriage in particular.  Rare is the film that induces this kind of introspection.  Bravo to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Stranger Than Fiction

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On My Top Ten List

My 15 year old son had never seen Stranger Than Fiction.  So last night we watched it.   Over the years I have seen this movie many times.  It is one of my all time favorites.  Here’s why.

Amazing Acting.  All the performances are first rate.  Will Ferrell plays a straight man (in fact, the ultimate straight man – an IRS tax collector) who unwittingly becomes the main character in a novel.  Other actors include Emma Thompson as the writer of the novel with a major case of writer’s block, Queen Latifah as her assistant, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a tax-averse baker, and Dustin Hoffman as an English professor/occasional lifeguard.  All are a joy to watch.  Truly.

Wonderful Writing.  The movie is all about art, life, and the intersection of the two.  The story is creative, unusual and thought-provoking.  Unlike most films, the ending is extremely strong.

Surreal Soundtrack.  The quirky soundtrack helps set the tone of this odd, wonderful film.

My son asked me whether this movie received any critical acknowledgement when it came out in 2006.  My understanding is that it was fairly under-the-radar but over the years has garnered support.  With this post, I am attempting to add to the buzz (hey I may be a little late but it’s my blog!)  See Stranger Than Fiction.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Mud

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Boy Heaven

When I was little, I loved adventure stories.  My favorite author was Jules Verne.  I still have fond memories of repeated readings of The Mysterious Island, a classic desert island yarn.  If you like adventure stories, Mud will appeal.

The story follows two teenaged boys, Ellis and Neckbone, both of whom live in riverside rural poverty and have dodgy family situations.  They discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), living on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Mississippi.  Mud is on the lam, having committed a crime to protect the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  Adventures ensue.

In my Bernie review, (https://amorganresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/bernie/) I mentioned how glad I am to see Matthew McConaughey take on interesting roles which test his range.  His performance as Mud is outstanding.  Mud is charismatic, but crazy, with a rats nest of hair and terrible teeth.   Mud is likeable, yet deeply flawed, and as the narrative arc of the film unfolds the boys realize this.  The other actors are strong as well, particularly the boys.  In the tradition of many “girlfriend” roles (see the Bechdel test, http://bechdeltest.com/) Reese Witherspoon’s part is underwritten and as a result the scenes featuring Juniper are weak.

Also, Mud drags a bit.  As my friend Barbara said, we could have done with a few less scenes of the boys boating up and down the river.  Some of the story lines are unresolved, or edited in a confusing way that leaves the viewer a little, well muddled.   But these are small points.  It is always a pleasure to see a movie which defies easy categorization and is made free from the constraints of the big studios.  Mud is worth seeing for McConaughey alone. But also for an unusual and artfully constructed Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn reboot.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

The Great Gatsby

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Excess and Expectations

The Great Gatsby is about excess.  Excessive wealth, excessive alcohol, excessive lusts, and above all excessive home décor (at least in this movie).  When it comes to showing all this excess, Director Baz Luhrmann succeeds in a big way.  The film is over the top, pulsating, gyrating, everybody into the pool craziness.  The movie succeeds in being deliberately vulgar.

Now we come to, well, Great Expectations.  Herein lies the challenge. The Great Gatsby is arguably the most widely read and beloved American classic.  There is no way the movie can live up to the book.  And in fact the film received decidedly mixed reviews.

Judged on its own merits, The Great Gatsby is Good.  I found the film beautifully shot, well acted and faithful to the book (at least my daughter told me this, I read the book 30+ years ago and only remember the faintest outline of the plot).   Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job with a challenging role – although it might have been better for everyone’s sake if the script pared down the number times he had to utter “Old Sport.”  Carey Mulligan and Tobey MacGuire are strong in supporting roles.  The much-discussed contemporary soundtrack works well.  The colors are vibrant.  Daisy’s dresses, jewelry, and haircut are fab.  The movie is highly visual and entertaining, and that, in the end, is Great Good enough for me.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Oscar Worthy

I liked the book.  I loved the movie.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a rarity, a movie that is actually better than the book upon which it is based.  Kudos to first-time director and screenplay author Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the original book.  Teen movies receive scant critical acclaim; that the film was mentioned as a possible (if improbable) candidate for an Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards nomination is indicative of its quality.  Since it is, in fact, a teen movie, it wasn’t nominated.  But it should have been.

Perks has it all – a great script, amazing acting, wonderful character development, a pulsating soundtrack, and a real locale – Pittsburgh, in all its grainy, gritty, glory.  This is not a movie that was shot in an anonymous suburban locale in order to gain favorable tax breaks from a revenue-starved locale.

The movie perfectly captures the joy and heartbreak of adolescence. Charlie (Logan Lerman) the eponymous wallflower, is a high school freshman who suffers from mental health challenges.  Having no friends among his peers, he is befriended by a group of Seniors including Sam (Emma Watson), her half brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), and their cohort of friends.  These are the kind of high school students who describe themselves as “The Island of Misfit Toys” and regularly attend and act in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.   These are the freaks and geeks.

Each of the three main actors does a magnificent job.  Charlie is sad and quiet, yet smart and observant.  Sam is vibrant and passionate, and Emma Watson has a killer American accent.  And Ezra Miller is heartbreaking and incredibly charismatic as Patrick, brave enough to be gay and out in high school.

The film succeeds on every conceivable level.  It has it all – humor, joy, sadness, pain, wit, and tremendous tenderness.  The handling of mental health challenges is well done, and Joan Cuzack has a brief but memorable role as a stalwart psychiatrist.  I am a sucker for both high school and mental health films, so this movie had me at hello.  But this film is the real deal.  See for yourself.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Anna Karenina

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Visually Sumptuous

I popped the DVD in, started watching, and thought  “you’ve got to be kidding.”  The stagey, show within a show look to Anna Karenina is more than a little pretentious.  But wait, there’s more.  The visual approach works, and it is fantastic.

Anna Karenina is a highly melodramatic tale.  It’s all about Imperial Russia.  The characters are emotional and deeply soulful, old school Russians.  The visual style is amazing – rich, vibrant colors, images of workers tilling the golden fields in unison, grand parties with elaborate ballgowns (the film won a well-deserved Academy Award for costume design), and Keira Knightley fetchingly attired in great necklaces and lots of fur.  Parts of the film take place in a theater, and it can be hard to tell the actors apart from the audience, which helps make the point that society is always watching, and judging (kind of like this blog!)

The acting and script are not nearly as good as the art direction. Jude Law plays the dour Karenin against type and nails it.   Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Vronsky and lacks the charisma needed for the role.  Not only does Keira Knightley have wondrous bone structure, but she is reasonably convincing as a virtuous wife destroyed by passion.  Part of the reason the acting isn’t tremendous is because the actors are given too little to work with.  Maybe I was too taken with the cinematography to pay attention, but the story skips around and is hard to follow.  Despite these foibles, this film is worth seeing.  Visually, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)