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The Heat (2013)
Bullock and Especially McCarthy Deliver the Goods in Feig's Action-Packed "Bridesmaids" Follow-Up
When I saw the trailer for this rambunctious 2013 action comedy, I was none too excited to see this film despite the expert hands involved, specifically co-stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig in his sophomore feature after the surprise smash of 2011's "Bridesmaids" which featured McCarthy in her breakout role. Interestingly, it is not her unapologetically rapacious turn as Megan that serves as the inspiration for McCarthy's role as pugnacious Boston detective Shannon Mullins. I think it's the hilariously crazy rant she unspooled as the mad-as-hell mother in the outtake shown during the end credits of Judd Apatow's "This Is 40". This sharp comic actress is a master of timing, and her character's nasty-edged tirades produce pure comedy gold. She and Bullock generate real chemistry as a mismatched pair of social misfits who are thrown together to take down a Boston drug lord. As written by Kate Dippold, the film is little different in premise from any other cop-buddy actioner made since "48 Hours" and "Lethal Weapon". The novelty is that they're women. In that respect, it does resemble a distaff version of the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy, "The Other Guys".
Bullock plays straight-arrow FBI agent Sarah Ashburn who is gunning for a promotion based on her enviable track record of captures, but the problem is nobody in her department can stand working with her due to her arrogance. Her boss sends her to Boston to work on the drug case and also her people skills. Mullins is Ashburn's polar opposite, a fear- based cop who knows the neighborhoods that Ashburn desperately needs to search. Just as Ashburn wears no-nonsense pantsuits, Mullins looks like a streetwise biker with her worn Paw Sox T-shirt and fingerless leather gloves. The movie consists mostly of their personal embattlements as each can't stand the other, but hints of mutual respect lurk as Mullins sets up a diversion at a drug supplier's apartment while Ashburn picks up an incriminating cigarette butt. There's also a funny nightclub scene where Mullins cuts up Ashburn's outfit in the restroom to make her look sexy enough to distract a dealer while installing a tracking device into his smartphone. A hilariously executed drunken binge provides just the bonding moment they need to join forces to nab their prey. At the same time, Dippold's screenplay is not without its share of predictable elements.
For example, Mullins has a fractious, mouthy family right out of "The Fighter" and a brother who could be a linchpin in the case (shades of "Conviction"). This gives her character a tether to humanity that appears a bit forced amid all the action. Moreover, after Mullins and Ashburn reach the turning point in their relationship, the plot doesn't seem to matter as much, and the pacing feels uneven. There are a surprising number of grisly moments including ones involving an oyster shucking knife and an unexpected tracheotomy, but these moments appear true to the genre. The 1970's-style credits are a plus as well as the rap-heavy soundtrack coordinated by Mike Andrews. Bullock is really playing another variation of "Miss Congeniality" only much more uptight, and while she does it very well, McCarthy steals almost every scene. Feig has surrounded them with an eclectic supporting cast including Demian Birchir ("A Better Life") as Ashburn's patient boss, Tom Wilson as the prematurely aging precinct captain, Marlon Wayans as a fellow FBI agent who has a crush on Ashburn, Jane Curtin in a too-brief role as Mullins' judgmental mother; and MADtv's Michael McDonald and SNL's Taran Killam in unexpected roles. Solid entertainment.
Before Midnight (2013)
Linklater, Hawke and Delpy Reunite for an Enriching Third Time
If a youthful sense of hope informs "Before Sunrise" and a wistful sense of regret does the same in "Before Sunset", then a begrudging sense of resignation must be the overriding theme of this 2013 romantic drama as director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater picks up the story of Jesse and Celine 18 years after they first met on a train to Vienna. This time, they are an established couple though tellingly, still not married. Jesse indeed left his loveless marriage after the end of "Before Sunset", and the lovers are now in their early forties raising twin girls. For the second time, Linklater wrote the script with co- stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and together they achieve a level of familiarity with their characters' relationship that makes the incidental story resonate in ways quite unexpected. Unlike the first two films, there is no ticking clock manufactured to provide a need for resolution by the end. Instead, the fate of the couple's relationship is entirely in their hands, and now that we have an emotional investment in the characters, that's what makes this entry more compelling.
The movie flows leisurely picking up the particular rhythms of conversations that show how words can become weapons. The story begins at the end of an idyllic Greek vacation where the couple has been staying with friends of various generations. As Jesse puts his now- adolescent son Henry on a plane headed back to Chicago, it becomes clear that his ex-wife didn't take the divorce well and now has full custody of Henry. Jesse shares with Celine his struggle in being so far away from Henry, and they banter about the challenges of parenthood and her indecision around accepting a government job. You would think that the stage they are in their lives would not yield much in the way of romantic sparks, but when they meet their friends for a farewell meal, they return to their familiar selves as they discuss the challenges in making human, much less romantic, connections in the digital age. Their friends decide to treat them to a romantic night at a nearby hotel, and the dialogue comes back to just the two of them. The chemistry between them percolates in a subtle manner as they walk to the hotel stopping to ponder the sunset.
Once at the hotel, the friction begins mildly when the front desk clerk, an effusive fan of Jesse's books, insists Celine autograph her copies. Although she obviously served as his inspiration, she had nothing to do with the writing and bristles at the request. Then a phone call from Chicago sets off tensions that had been simmering between the two about the possibility of moving away from Paris to Chicago. Their verbal combat scene has the brutal honesty and up-and-down rhythms that feel more realistic than most such fights depicted on screen, and that's what makes the scene more powerful since things said in the most matter-of- fact way sting with inevitable consequences. Looking understandably worn, Hawke and Delpy know their characters and each other's so well they don't need to sketch out a backstory. We've already seen it, and together with Linklater, they've written it and perhaps will continue to shape their future. The director and actors continue to evolve as much as the characters do. So where will Jesse and Celine as 50-year-olds be? Chicago perhaps
"Before Tomorrow" maybe?
Deadly Is the Female (1950)
B-Movie Couple-on-the-Lam Classic Still Resonates with Emotional Conviction
The emotional complexity of the lead characters in this 1950 film noir is what continues to surprise about this low-budget B-movie that has understandably become a cult classic among cineastes. As cannily directed by Joseph H. Lewis, there is a feral, white-heat energy that fuels this film from start to finish. Lewis manages to make the film jump back and forth from documentary-like to highly stylized with quicksilver cuts, the sum of which somehow melds together into a crazy- great melodrama that clearly serves as the precursor for later couple- on-the lam movie classics such as Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Terrence Malick's "Badlands". Written by Dalton Trumbo (under a pseudonym as he was blacklisted at the time), the story is pretty basic. Bart Tare is an orphan whose obsession with handguns starts pretty early in his life. Motivated by what he sees as his own self-worth, he becomes an expert sharpshooter as he moves from reform school to a stint in the Army and then to an uncertain existence as Bart isn't sure what he's supposed to do with his life.
Enter Annie Laurie Starr, a dead-shot trick-shooter who comes to town as part of a traveling carnival, and the fireworks ignite immediately when she shoots at him with a prop gun and then competes in a marksmanship contest where each shoots matchsticks on a crown placed on the other's head. This audacious bit of foreplay is only the beginning when he impulsively decides he wants to marry her, and in turn, she convinces him to go on a cross-country crime spree to live the life of Riley. He willingly goes along with the plan, but self-doubt strikes him at every adverse turn. Annie, on the other hand, is a classic "bad" girl who shoots people dead out of an addictive fear of getting trapped, but she genuinely falls in love with Bart when she recognizes how much he is willing to sacrifice of himself to be with her. Their torturous relationship is offset by some fascinating set pieces like an unedited bank robbery scene near the film's midpoint where the camera is planted in the backseat of a car the couple has just stolen. The actors feel like they're improvising their dialogue during a single take of several minutes' duration.
The robbery occurs off-camera, and after she pistol-whips a local cop, the two get away as shots are fired at them. Their clean escape is captured perfectly in Annie's face as she smiles in an almost post- coital fashion that summarizes the dark nature of her character perfectly. The actors give blazing performances that make indelible impressions. John Dall is an interesting footnote in mid-century American cinema as he only made a handful of films, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" where he played one of a pair of gay murderers. As Bart, he conveys his character's constant self-doubt and false bravado with precision, even if he does seem over-the-top in a few key scenes. A petite Welsh-born beauty, Peggy Cummins was supposed to be a big star three years earlier when she was cast in "Forever Amber". But she was fired and never gained a footing in American films until this one where she dazzles with a Bette Davis-like intensity but with a deceptively demure manner that makes her portrayal surprisingly sympathetic. This is a gem well worth seeking out.
The Family (2013)
Disparate Elements Refuse to Gel in Besson's Absurdist Mob Comedy
Known for bringing a hip edge to populist genre pictures that focus mainly on high-octane action with a heavy dose of U.S.-influenced pop culture, Luc Besson is a French filmmaker who directed some terrifically audacious films in the nineties (1994's "Léon: The Professional", 1997's "The Fifth Element") but has largely focused on producing and writing since the millennium. He comes back to the director's chair with this 2013 mob comedy which bears his signature mark of extreme, almost fanatical violence within the context of a story that already feels unsettled as neither a crime melodrama nor a family situation comedy. With a screenplay co-written with Michael Caleo, Besson has made a tonally unbalanced film whose primary saving grace is an adroit cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. Neither is a stranger to this milieu as they appear to play extensions of characters they've already played in "Goodfellas" (which is given a cheeky nod in the plot) and "Married to the Mob". That's fine by me since both bring a world- weary finesse to their portrayals that elevate the cartoonish movie into something close to human if not quite humane.
The fancifully graphic story focuses on Giovanni Manzoni, his wife Maggie, their daughter Belle and their son Warren. He is a second- generation mobster who decides to turn state's evidence against Don Luchese, a Brooklyn crime kingpin. After a failed attempt to rub out Manzoni at a family barbecue, Luchese is sent to prison, and in turn, the Manzoni tribe enters the Witness Protection Program where they end up being renamed the Blakes and relocating from the south of France to a village in Normandy. Each family member has trouble fitting in because they all share the same volatile temper and the same immoral sensibility to solve any problem with brutalizing violence. Manzoni is Fred Blake who pretends to be a history author writing about the Normandy landings and beats up a plumber who tries to rip him off. In my favorite scene of the movie, Maggie blows up a local grocery store when the proprietor makes fun of American vulgarity in French. Belle pummels a would-be lothario with a tennis racket after he tricks her into joining him and his buddies for a not-so-innocent picnic. Warren seeks revenge against the local school bullies by creating a confederacy of outcasts with sought-after skills and connections.
All their proclivities come to a head when Luchese discovers their whereabouts through the most contrived of circumstances. De Niro can play this type of role in his sleep, but credit him for not making this another Fockers sleepfest as he brings genuine warmth to a character that finds a cathartic release in his newfound purpose in writing his memoirs. Even in her bleached blond flashbacks, Pfeiffer displays her shopworn beauty with little vanity and manages to create an empathetic character out of what could have been a shrewish caricature. Tommy Lee Jones plays exactly to type as the stoic agent who leads the protection detail for Manzoni. "Glee" alumnus Dianna Agron brings a refreshing calmness to the role of a bad girl who is at heart a soulful teen falling in love for the first time while never forgetting her obligation to the family. John D'Leo fits well into the deadpan demeanor of a been- there, done-that kid brother as Warren. But Besson just doesn't know how to mesh the considerable comic chops of his core cast with the violence he wants to showcase, especially in the final gun battle sequence, which would have been fine in a straight-ahead actioner but just refuses to bring this truly absurdist movie together. It's a marginal disappointment considering all who is involved in this production including executive producer Martin Scorsese.
Cuarón's Dazzling Space Odyssey Turns into a Cathartic Journey of the Human Spirit
The irony of the film's title is that there isn't any, gravity that is, but that's not to say it lacks gravitas. It does in ways both unexpected and transcendent. It's been seven long years since Alfonso Cuarón's last film, 2006's emotionally propulsive thriller, "Children of Men", which was a masterful work of suspense in the midst of one seriously dystopian vision of the apocalypse. Somehow, the less-than-prolific filmmaker manages to surpass that impressive work with this terrifying yet genuinely profound 2013 science-fiction thriller that buzzes by in a fleet 91 minutes. Although Ang Lee effectively used 3-D CGI effects to enhance the magical realism of "Life of Pi", I have never seen a film use them as purposefully and powerfully as Cuarón does here within the dramatic structure of the story. Co-written with his son Jonás, the screenplay, by contrast, is life-size in its intimacy and even with all the technical jargon, at times poetic. This combination gives the film an almost mythic reach and at the same time, brings insight into the way the human spirit works against the overwhelming emptiness of space. The story takes place about 372 miles above Earth, and the alternately ethereal and scarifying setting is captured in brilliant detail by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and special effects master Tim Webber.
Pay particularly close attention to the uninterrupted seventeen-minute sequence that opens the film. It's a bravura piece of cinema by anyone's standards. In brief, bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone is on her first space mission studiously installing a device to fix the Hubble Space Telescope on the U.S Space Shuttle Explorer. Mission commander Matt Kowalski is a veteran astronaut who devilishly spacewalks around her in a jet pack. Mission Control reports that the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites which transforms into a massive attack of hurling debris that arrives in a matter of seconds and will continue to make an orbital return causing massive destruction every ninety minutes. There is no time for the crew to return to the shuttle much less Earth, and the damage to the craft and nearby International Space Station is extensive. It's enough to say that Stone sets off on a journey not only of physical survival but spiritual awakening as her character has been in a listless state since a senseless personal tragedy occurred back home. If you don't count the voiceovers at the beginning, there are only two actors who make up the entire cast, and they are grade-A stars who bring their personal charisma to the fore.
George Clooney has the smaller of the two roles as Kowalski, and he uses his natural insouciance to great effect as his wisecracking gives way to a character who provides the knowledgably becalming tone that Stone needs at the story's most critical points. He makes one particularly risky scene work by the sheer magnitude of his character's life- affirming bravado. He also impressively wrote the scene. Even so, this is Sandra Bullock's film from start to finish, and it amazes me how she wasn't even among the top casting choices for the role (Angelina Jolie turned it down twice). Although Stone may come across as emotionally stunted, Bullock offers her natural likability as a necessary counterbalance. However, that observation short-changes her stellar work here, especially the pure physicality of her performance. Intriguingly, her character is not that far removed from the one she played nearly twenty years earlier in "While You Were Sleeping" in that both deal with personal losses with an emotional alertness that wins us over completely. Only this time she does it with a graceful maturity that deepens the catharsis of the incredible odyssey she experiences, this in spite of a few overtly sentimental moments thrown in for good measure. Regardless, this is Cuarón's towering cinematic achievement, and the movie truly stands on its own.
Emotionally Distant Oedipal Tale Is More Somber Than Titillating
I suppose one should feel grateful that filmmaker Anne Fontaine ("Coco Before Chanel") doesn't stoop to montages of crashing waves on the Australian surf to epitomize the ecstasy that two middle-aged women feel when they fall in love with each other's sons in this solemn 2013 melodrama that treats its taboo subject with surprising matter-of- factness. The core of the story lies in the misguided affections between older women and younger men, but the oedipal nature of the relationships give the film a moral subversion that never really titillates. That's because Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton ("Atonement") appear more interested in the characters' inability to let go of one another in an idyllic setting in a remote cove in New South Wales (beautifully lensed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne). Based on Doris Lessing's 2003 novella, The Grandmothers, the film centers on lifelong best friends Lil and Roz, beautiful women in their mid-forties and true soulmates who live very close to each other. Lil is a widow, while Roz's husband is a theater director who finds a better opportunity in Sydney fully expecting Roz and son Tom to move with him. Meanwhile, Tom and Lil's son Ian have over the years become best friends who like nothing more than to surf and spend their days lying on a floating pier in the sun, a major symbol of escape in the story.
However, late one night, Ian gives Roz a passionate kiss which signals the beginning of their insatiable affair. When Tom finds out about their tryst almost immediately, he seduces Lil in an act of sexual revenge, but it quickly turns into an affair of equal carnality. Because the boys made the first moves, both women do not regret the consummations that occur, and in fact, jointly celebrate the love they have been able to find in their own backyards. They commit to their respective arrangements for quite some time until the inevitable occurs. Younger rivals show up and force Roz and Lil to reassess the long-term feasibility of their relationships. Years elapse, and when they become, in fact, grandmothers to their boys' girls, the unconditional bonding that occurs between the two mothers becomes genuinely intractable, and even when betrayals occur, their loyalty remains uncompromised. Ironically, this is part of the film's pervasive problem. While I wasn't expecting knockdown catfights given the film's reverential tone, I was waiting for scenes of more palpable tension that would have given a sense of jeopardy to their friendship. Fontaine, however, would have none of those melodramatic conventions in her film.
From her perspective, the true love story is between the two women, and the males are simply plot devices to give them something to talk about. Despite some awkward dialogue that would likely draw an unintended guffaw in a crowded theater, the performances of the two leading actresses are exceptional. Not looking as shopworn as she tries to convey, the ever-youthful Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") portrays Lil with a mix of insecurity and confusion that comes across as quite natural. With a flawless Australian lilt and her model-ready beauty not about to fade into the night, Robin Wright ("House of Cards") brings a sexy world-weary élan to Roz that makes it easy to see why Ian would fall in love with her. As Ian, Xavier Samuel ("The Twilight Saga: Eclipse") brings out all the latent angst of his smitten character, while James Frecheville ("Animal Kingdom") plays Tom in a flatter, more elliptical manner since his character is the most sketchily drawn of the four. For a movie that relies so heavily on creating a sense of empathy for the two women, I was constantly surprised how little Fontaine drew on either actress' innate ability to build a higher level of emotional resonance in their characters. Perhaps that was the director's intention, but the limitations of her distant approach become all too clear in the melodrama of the last half-hour.
The Butler (2013)
The Reach of Daniels' Episodic History Lesson Exceeds Its Grasp But Whitaker's Performance Shines
Director Lee Daniels is not one for subtlety in his filmmaking approach. Reminiscent of Douglas Sirk in his prime ("All That Heaven Allows"), he has an old-fashioned Baroque style full of melodramatic flourishes that work surprisingly well for an emotional powerhouse like 2009's "Precious". A lot of that now-recognizable style is on display in this fictionalized 2013 historical drama, but it doesn't work quite as well when he is trying to give a history lesson of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a relatively recessive character like Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who survived seven Presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. Fortunately, Daniels cast Forest Whitaker as Gaines, and the actor responds with an intensely reflective performance that manages to capture the character's innate nobility and conflicting emotions. Gaines is based on a real-life White House butler, the late Eugene Allen, who actually started with Truman, but screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO's "Game Change") appears more intent in juxtaposing Gaines' insulated existence with the encroaching revolution embodied by the travails of his eldest son Louis.
The film's timeline spans some eighty years starting with an eight-year-old Cecil working the Georgia cotton fields in 1926 when one day, he suddenly sees his mother taken to a cabin where she is raped by a disreputable white farmer and in turn, his father shot point-blank in the head for looking at the farmer in a questioning manner. The farmer's grandmother (a throwaway cameo from Vanessa Redgrave) brings Cecil into the house and has him trained as a servant, an experience that allows him to escape to North Carolina and then to Washington D.C. where he lands a job as a waiter at the exclusive Excelsior Hotel. Noticed by White House staffers, Gaines is hired as a butler in 1957 during the Eisenhower Administration. He proves to be ideal in his role as he silently does what is expected from him given "there is no room for politics in the White House". Gaines becomes a passive spectator to defining moments in the political and social landscape from the late-'50s until his retirement in the mid-80's when he plays a pivotal role in the black staff finally given equal pay and opportunity for advancement.
Meanwhile, through it all, his saucy wife Gloria stands by him fighting alcoholism and the temptations of an amorous neighbor while struggling to connect with a son estranged by his father's subservient profession. In quick succession, Louis becomes a Freedom Rider, an aide to Martin Luther King, a Black Panther, a failed congressional candidate, an anti-apartheid activist and finally a Congressman. Despite a stalwart performance by David Oyelowo, he becomes something of a convenient plot device to personalize actual historical events such as the Greensboro sit-in at Woolworth's (a devastating montage) and King's assassination in Memphis. It brings a "Forrest Gump"-like tone to the story that sometimes feels trivializing. Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, infuses Gloria with so much of her larger-than-life persona that it is often difficult to see anyone but Oprah, yet she manages to retain credibility throughout and handles the movie's dramatic high points with aplomb. Daniels takes a similarly starry-eyed approach to his casting of the White House inhabitants, and the results are often distracting.
Robin Williams is uncharacteristically restrained and consequently wasted as Eisenhower. Looking far more like Bobby than Jack, a too- youthful James Marsden trivializes Kennedy to the level of a prep-school student. Liev Schreiber is a blustery caricature as Johnson, while a prosthetically altered John Cusack manages to etch a thumbnail portrait of paranoia as Nixon. Alan Rickman looks strangely anesthetized as Reagan, but Jane Fonda places her authoritative stamp on Nancy in just one brief scene. The same cannot be said of Mariah Carey's brief and muted appearance early on as Gaines' catatonic mother. The framing device of a meeting with Obama (gratefully seen only in archival footage) brings the plot full circle with the elephantine point being made that Gaines was able to live to see the day when a black man could become President. Nonetheless, despite an emotional catharsis that lands with the impact of a sledgehammer and the multitude of stunt casting, the movie works on a basic emotional level because Daniels and Strong are so determined to use Gaines' life as the singular plot thread that brings all the landmark moments in the civil rights movement into dramatic focus.
The Company You Keep (2012)
Redford's Star-Heavy Paean to a Bygone Era of Political Radicalism Feels Somewhat Amiss
As much as I respect Robert Redford as an actor, director and founder of the Sundance Institute, I just find him too hard to swallow as the father of an 11-year-old girl, especially the one played so precociously here by singing prodigy Jackie Evancho. This is one of several perceptible discrepancies that kept me from becoming fully engrossed in this fitfully suspenseful 2013 political thriller. At 76, he still looks great for his age and has a long legacy of starring in similarly themed movies like "All the President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor", but our suspension of belief is put to the test when we are expected to believe that his character, a small-town lawyer named Jim Grant, turns out to be Nick Sloan, a former 1970's radical who would have been a fearless political agitator in his forties. While I believe it's never too late for anyone to start their lives over, there is an air of vanity in Redford's self-selection since he is also the director. Fortunately in that role, he shows his unerring professionalism and keeps the pacing tight despite the convolutions brought on by Lem Dobbs' screenplay.
The story begins when a middle-aged woman is suddenly arrested at a suburban gas station. Her real identity is Sharon Solarz, a former anti- Vietnam War radical who has been hiding in Canada under an alias for all these years. She makes one of her allowable calls to Grant, who becomes a person of interest for an intrepid newspaper reporter looking for his big break. Grant knows it's a matter of time before the FBI starts looking for him and goes on the lam, leaving his confused young daughter with his long-estranged brother. As Sloan, he is accused of participating with Solarz in a bank robbery that left a security guard dead. His former paramour Mimi Lurie is the only one who can prove his innocence, but she's in hiding as well and far less repentant about her radical activities. What follows is a series of encounters a bedraggled Sloan has with several former Weather Underground comrades. Each of them greets Sloan with different degrees of emotion depending on how they have carried on with their lives in the interim.
At the same time, Redford and Dobbs want to make a point of showing how history appears to be repeating itself with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pointing to the role of current tabloid-style journalism in fanning the embers in an irresponsible way. The movie ends up simplifying its points by turning the story into a morality play where key characters have to decide when to take a stand and when to concede if there is something even bigger to consider than political convictions. Beyond Redford's craggy presence, there is a starry mix of old and new faces that make the cross-generational casting appear even more pronounced. Julie Christie as Lurie, Susan Sarandon as Solarz, and Richard Jenkins and a vocally challenged Nick Nolte as fellow ex- radicals all make welcome appearances in the story, though their roles feel somewhat truncated. Shia LaBoeuf plays the reporter with his usual veneer of smarminess, but Brit Marling and Anna Kendrick lend surprising sharpness in small roles. Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper and Stanley Tucci fill in other supporting roles with aplomb.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody's Sharply Rendered Update of "Streetcar" Anchored by Blanchett's Brilliant Blanche-Like Turn
If you want to see this year's master class in screen acting, you need to watch Cate Blanchett's mesmerizing performance as Jasmine French, a delusional Park Avenue socialite wife in Woody Allen's 45th directorial effort, a sly, bicoastal update of Tennessee Williams' classic "A Streetcar Named Desire". As the film opens, her impeccably dressed character has hit rock bottom after her financial wizard of a husband is arrested and her assets are liquidated. In the throes of a nervous breakdown, she arrives in San Francisco and moves in with her kind- hearted sister Ginger who lives a modest, blue-collar life in a tiny apartment on the edge of the Mission on South Van Ness near 14th Street to be exact - with her two hyperactive sons. You can tell Jasmine is not only out of her element but quite judgmental about how her sister's life has turned out. The irony of Jasmine's patronizing attitude is that she is a habitual liar who is so angry about her destitute circumstances that she frequently talks to herself. The story follows the basic outline of "Streetcar" but takes some interesting turns, for instance, when she tries to better herself by taking computer classes while working as a receptionist at a dental office.
Allen has crafted his film into a clever juxtaposition of current and past events that feels jarring at first since it reflects Jasmine's precarious mental state but then melds into a dramatic arc which resonates far more than a straightforward chronology could have allowed. As a writer, he has become more vociferous in his dialogue without losing his wit. He doesn't pull punches when he showcases confrontations between his characters, whether it's between the two sisters, men and women, or people from different classes. Hostility can come in flammable torrents or in thinly veiled remarks. That Allen moves so dexterously in tone is a testament to his sharp ability in drawing out the truth in his actors. Blanchett is a wonder in this regard because there is something intensely fearless in her approach. Unafraid to lose audience sympathy for her character, she finds an innate sadness in Jasmine that makes us want to know what happens to her next. She also mines the sharp, class- based humor in Jasmine's struggles with one highlight a hilariously executed scene in a pizza restaurant where she explains to her confused nephews to "Tip big, boys".
The rest of the cast manage effective turns. Alec Baldwin plays Jasmine's swindler husband with almost effortless aplomb. Sally Hawkins brings a wonderful looseness to Ginger, Stella to Blanchett's Blanche, and finds a level of poignancy in her character's constant victimization at the hands of her sister as well as her brutish, blue-collar boyfriend Chili, played with comic fierceness by Bobby Cannavale in the Stanley Kowalski role. In a conveniently conceived role, Peter Sarsgaard gets uncharacteristically breezy as Dwight, a wealthy, erudite, and matrimonially available State Department diplomat who appears to be the answer to Jasmine's prayers, while Allen casts two unlikely comics in about-face roles Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's defeated ex-husband Augie and Louis C.K. as Al, an amorous suitor who brings Ginger a few moments of romantic salvation. Allen's European sojourn appears to have freed him up with the movement of characters in scenes and Javier Aguirresarobe's ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") camera-work complies nicely. The San Francisco locations bring a nice geographic change to Allen's storytelling, and he only uses the Golden Gate Bridge in a long shot once from the Marin side. This is Allen's best work in quite a while, and Blanchett is the ideal muse for his tale.
Won't Back Down (2012)
Two Fine Actresses Lend Heart to a Jargon-Heavy Drama About Charter Schools and Parent Trigger Laws
If not for the emotional resiliency of the two lead actresses, this 2012 feel-good drama about the reformation of a failing inner-city Pittsburgh school would come across as no more than a polemic. However, Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Dark Knight") and Viola Davis ("The Help") bring enough intense fervor to their roles of parent and teacher that this becomes a creditable film if not all that memorable. Director and co-screenwriter Daniel Barnz doesn't help matters much by stacking the deck so predictably in the script (co-written with Brin Hill) while tackling a serious exposition problem with a lot of education jargon that feels like it requires the viewer to take some preparation exam to watch it. Watching Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman'", is helpful since it covers similar territory by showing how students strive to become accepted into a charter school.
The plot here takes a more contrived route as it focuses on Jamie, a single mom holding down two jobs while becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of attention her eight-year-old, Malia, receives from her teachers in treating her dyslexia and dealing with bullies. Through happenstance, she finds a little-known piece of legislation based on California's "parent trigger" law, which allows parents and teachers, under certain circumstances and after rounds of approvals, to take over schools and run them entirely. This motivates Jamie to partner with Nona, a teacher at Malia's school, who has similar frustrations from an insider's perspective but has been stymied time and again by the system. The movie then takes us on their journey running through all the bureaucratic red tape that you would expect from an inspirationally- minded drama.
I give credit to Barnz and Hill for at least presenting a compelling argument against the cause by showing how the teachers' union would suffer major setbacks along the way. As Jamie, Gyllenhaal does her best work since her compelling turn as the struggling drug addict-mother in 2006's "Sherrybaby". She brings loose-limbed passion to her character's relentless drive toward realizing a charter school for her daughter. At first, Davis appears underserved by the script, but this actress has no problem conveying the gravitas and compassion needed to make Nona's evolution feel realistic. As Evelyn, the president of the teachers' union, Holly Hunter ("Broadcast News") - who would have likely played Jamie a couple of decades ago brings palpable conviction to her character's increasing moral conflict. It's good to see Rosie Perez ("Fearless") again on screen as Nona's sympathetic fellow teacher. Other supporting turns amount to stereotypes as dictated by the script. The subject of the film is quite worthwhile, but the treatment needed far more texture.