Film review – Blue Jasmine (2013)

12 September 2013
Blue Jasmine: Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

For almost 50 years Woody Allen has been making films that explore the existential despair that there is no greater meaning to life beyond immediate human experience and how we define ourselves. Another key theme running throughout Allen’s films is how the management of this fragile state of despair can very easily result in comedy or tragedy depending on the circumstances and outcomes. In Blue Jasmine Allen once again explores these ideas, but with a rigor, sophistication and conviction that has not been present in his career since 2005’s Match Point or even 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Added to the mix is a post-Global Financial Crisis exploration of class conflict, and notions of privilege and entitlement.

The film begins with a gag about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) who had been unloading intimate details of her life story to a complete stranger who had mistaken Jasmine’s talking to herself as an invitation for a conversation. Through the awkward social encounter and following scenes it becomes apparent that Jasmine has left a privileged life in New York to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who lives in San Francisco with her two children. A modern day incarnation of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a fading former socialite who is desperately clinging onto a sense of herself that no longer exists. She is both reliant on and resentful of Ginger’s hospitality and attempts to help her.

Jasmine is so accustomed to wealth that she is indifferent to being waited on and has no concept of the value of money. Ginger, on the other hand, has lived a poor lifestyle throughout her adult life, where money is a constant concern. Neither Jasmine nor Ginger are happy with their current situation and both look for ways to become somebody else, but the results are mixed to the extent that by the time the film is coming to a conclusion, the scenario where Jasmine talks to herself in front of complete strangers becomes a moment of tragedy.

In his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, Allen contrasts a comic telling of a story with a tragic telling of a story by showing two versions of the same story, but one to emphasise comedy and the other to emphasise tragedy. The thin line between comedy and tragedy has been an ongoing fascination for Allen and in Blue Jasmine he depicts this fragile line far more successfully and subtly than he did in Melinda and Melinda. Instead of the approach of defining specific scenes and characters as comic and others being tragic, Blue Jasmine shifts back and forth with impressive ease within scenes. Movements of genuine pathos transition into funny exchanges, without the pathos being compromised, and then back again. These smooth tonal shifts are a remarkable achievement and displays Allen’s mastery over his material. It also significantly helps that all his actors, especially Blanchett and Hawkins, are similarly able to execute the delicate balancing act that is required.

Blue Jasmine also displays Allen’s ongoing development as a filmmaker who for almost a decade has been making films in Europe, away from his beloved New York, the setting of so many of his most significant films. Blue Jasmine brings Allen back to the USA, but setting the film in San Francisco is a notable statement that distances Allen stylistically from his previous American New York-set films. Blue Jasmine even begins with a majestic shot of an airplane flying Jasmine from New York to San Francisco, visually affirming the transition. And while New York is still used as a setting in Blue Jasmine, it is a setting that only exists in the flashback scenes that depict Jasmine’s previous life married to Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) whose wealth was generated through crooked financial deals. New York is a city of the past and the setting of a lifestyle and version of reality built on fraud.

On the other hand, San Francisco is shot with far more long takes and camera movements than that which are typically used in Allen’s films. There is also a lot of warm light and red tones, giving San Francisco the sensuality of the European cities of Allen’s recent films, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), which like Blue Jasmine was shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. The San Francisco setting is also important since it is also the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which like Blue Jasmine is a film about a woman being rebuilt to conform to a romanticised ideal. Of course, the key difference is that in Vertigo the female reconstruction is done by the obsessive male protagonist, while in Blue Jasmine it is done by Jasmine to herself.

The sensual red and orange colour scheme used in so many of the San Francisco shots also allows for some interesting costume choices for Jasmine. In the New York flashbacks she predominantly wears white, suggesting a sense of emptiness or lack of passion. When in San Francisco she begins to wear more earthy colours to suggest at the least the potential for some kind of grounding. However, as her unrealistic ambitions start to crumble, she is drawn back into a world of white. First she reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist office, where the colour scheme is clinical white, and then as she pretends to be an interior designer the spaces she is associated with are similarly characterised by white or dull colours.

The other key colour is the colour referenced in the title: blue. The absence of blue in the film indicates the full extent of Jasmine’s self-delusion. She frequently mentions the song ‘Blue Moon’ being her and Hal’s song. However, the audience never get any sense of the significance of this song other than Jasmine’s increasingly unreliable statements, and the song appears in the film as if it is only something Jasmine hears. The constructed mythology of the song as integral to her sense of self ties in with her overall delusion, which includes turning a blind eye to Hal’s criminal activities; like a gangster’s wife she preferred to enjoy the benefits of his behaviour without any moral burden. And finally, not only is the ‘blue’ of the title absent within the film’s production design, but the second element of the title – her name Jasmine – is also something she has constructed and not her real name.

The idea that the world of the film, as presented to the audience as Jasmine’s idealised world, is built on absent foundations, then fuels the film’s depiction of class differences. Like the couples in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Jasmine and Ginger’s arguments reflect class based resentments and conflict. However, the aspects that define the class differences are exposed as falsities. One of the falsities the film presents for why Jasmine enjoyed a life of privilege while Ginger remained poor includes Jasmine being genetically superior as they are both adopted so not birth sisters. Another suggestion, cruelly made by Jasmine, is that Ginger never worked hard enough, reflecting a popular piece of rhetoric used to justify social inequality.

The explanation for social inequality that Blue Jasmine ultimately presents is that it all comes down to luck, with a bit of ruthless opportunism to push things along. Jasmine’s comfortable lifestyle in New York was the result of marrying Hal, with the opportunistic element being her blind eye to his fraudulent business dealings. An early irony from early in the film is the revelation that Ginger and her previous husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) also came into some money through the luck of winning the lottery. However, rather than using the money for Augie to start his own business, he and Ginger were convinced by Jasmine and Hal to let Hal invest it and therefore Augie and Ginger lose all the money when Hal is arrested and charged.

The arrogant belief in privileged entitlement and the naïve concept of the ‘noble poor’ are both exposed as forms of self-delusion that rely on tenuous concepts of class and wealth to define who we are. However, Blue Jasmine also suggests these forms of self-delusion are appealing because, in true Allen fashion, life is presented as essentially meaningless. Without the delusion of happiness for what we have got, we will fall into catatonic despair. This is both hilarious and deeply upsetting, and over the duration of Blue Jasmine the audience feels both sets of emotion, even within the same scenes. And while Jasmine is in so many ways an unlikeable character, Allen’s writing and direction along with Blanchett performance make her continually sympathetic. Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Hanna (2011)

19 July 2011
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)

A dark modern fairy tale crossed with an international spy thriller, Hanna is an exhilarating film that draws on a range of cultural anxieties surrounding children. The films titular character Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) is both an innocent experiencing the world for the first time and a highly efficient killer, trained since she was a child in isolation in Northern Finland by her ex-CIA father Erik (Eric Bana). On the run from the ruthless intelligence agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), Hanna is something of a helpless babe in the woods encountering civilisation, social interactions and sexuality for the first time. However, she’s also part of the cinematic tradition of monstrous children where her outward appearance of innocence and youth makes her murderous abilities so much more disturbing

At first glance Hanna may seem like a similar character to Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, but while the characters have a similar background the films are stylistically and thematically very different. With its bold production design, thunder electronic soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers and overall hyper-real tonality, Hanna feels directly inspired by the 1990s European classics Nikita and Run Lola Run.

Hanna: Marissa (Cate Blanchett)

Marissa (Cate Blanchett)

Director Joe Wright may be best known for period films Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (he also did The Soloist), but his films have always displayed a remarkable grasp of how to best engage the audience visually. In particular, Wright is quickly becoming an expert in the use of extended uninterrupted long takes, to give scenes an enhanced real-time sense of drama and tension. Wright’s mastery of this challenging cinematic technique was evident in the spectacular Dunkirk beach scene in Atonement and once again during several key moments in Hanna.

In contrast to the long take scenes are the sequences where Wright gets the pulse racing with his very engaging rhythmic editing. The scene with Hanna running through the tunnel system in a large underground bunker combines pulsating music, quick edits and low lit architecture consisting of mostly geometric shapes to give the sequence a weird aesthetic as if it were an modern art installation filmed like a music video. The action in Hanna is unconventional, unpredictable and even a little eerie since at the centre of it all is not Jason Bourne but a young girl who at times resembles a haunted child from a late 1990s Japanese horror film. With popular cinema so saturated in action-based spectacle, making action look so breathtakingly fresh and original is a significant achievement.

Hanna: Erik (Eric Bana)

Erik (Eric Bana)

The increasingly garish and surreal use of settings wonderfully expresses the film’s perversion of childhood in a similar way that the nightmarish fun park at the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai indicates the breakdown of logic and rationality for that film’s protagonist. In Hanna many aspects of the film are similarly overtly stylised and exaggerated to convey Hanna’s point-of-view as somebody encountering a world that she’d previously only learned about through reading Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Saoirse Ronan is superb at ensuring Hanna evokes a balance of sympathy and uncanny unease from the audience. Bana gives an effective low-key and oddly sweet performance as her taskmaster father while as the film’s villain Blanchett is gloriously over-the-top. The image of Blanchett emerging from the mouth of a giant wolf is completely unsubtle and obvious, yet it perfectly suits the tone of the film to deliver one of the most memorable singular cinematic images from the past few years. It’s the final touch to what makes Hanna such an extraordinarily visceral and subjective film, brilliantly straddling the divide between art-house and action cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Robin Hood (2010)

12 May 2010
Robin Hood: Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is something of an origins film designed to give a credible back-story to the mythical hero who lived sometime in 13th century England, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. In this new film Robin Longstride (as he is known in this film) is introduced as a solider from King Richard The Lionheart’s army. Robin’s disgust at what happened during the Crusades has compelled him to abandon the subsequent war against France and return home. On his way back he is compelled to fulfil the wish of a dying knight and becomes tangled up in both the affairs of the over-taxed city of Nottingham and the bigger threats to England from within and without.

Scott makes two bold moves by actually ending his film at the point that most Robin Hood films focus on  – Robin and his followers creating a secret community in the woods – and deliberately avoiding anything this seems too outlandishly mythical, in order to give the story some sense of (invented) historical integrity. Remember how tedious it was to discover that Troy contained none of the supernatural elements that made the original Greek myths so captivating? That is close to how it feels watching a version of Robin Hood that has decided to remove all the aspects of the story that made it so entertaining in the first place.

Robin Hood: Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

With both the director of Gladiator and its star Russell Crowe on board (working together for the fifth time) you may expect Robin Hood to be a film that at least, like Gladiator, consists of a series of impressive action sequences interspersed with overly earnest and clunky dialogue. Instead, despite a strong opening, Robin Hood is mainly just overly earnest and clunky dialogue with far too much unnecessarily convoluted plot detail.

Crowe never endears his version of Robin to the audience. It certainly doesn’t help that instead of making Robin a loveable rogue he is reduced to a pompous Braveheart-type warrior-of-the-people character. The final nail of the coffin is the unintentional parody of the ‘hero shot’ where Crowe emerges from the ocean screaming in slow motion. Cate Blanchett seems on autopilot as the supposedly tough and independent Marion Loxley and even the presence of Max von Sydow, William Hurt and Danny Huston does little to redeem the film.

Robin Hood: Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

The film has three villains and none of them are particularly interesting. Prince John is played by Oscar Isaac, who was sensational in Balibo but in this film just seems to repeat Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top villainous acting from Gladiator. Mark Strong does a little better as the treacherous Godfrey, the film’s main villain, but Matthew Macfadyen gets almost nothing to do as the Sheriff of Nottingham who in this film is relegated to an almost insignificant role.

Robin Hood is a bland film and by trying to appear so respectable it has lost most of the charm of the original folklore. The handful of ye olde mead drinking scenes, complete with lusty wenches and rowdy ballads, are embarrassing and even the cinematography and climatic battle sequence (when it finally arrives) feel flat and lifeless. Ridley Scott can’t always be expected to make films of the calibre of Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise but Robin Hood is one of his biggest disappointments yet.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

26 December 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.

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