Thursday, September 12, 2013

Short Takes: Blue Jasmine, To the Wonder, and more

Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

Director Woody Allen has always had fantastic skill with writing great female characters. But he's never really written anyone like Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the widow of a wealthy investment banker (Alec Baldwin) who lost everything when the stock market crashed and his financial crimes were revealed. Jasmine has not handled this well: she's increasingly in debt and forced to move to San Fransisco with her sister (Sally Hawkins), though she tries to maintain her very expensive lifestyle. She's delusional about her situation, butting heads with both Ginger and her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) while spiraling further and further out of control. Blanchett latches on to this character with vigor, relishing the opportunity to play a post-meltdown Blanche DuBois in Allen's riff on A Streetcar Named Desire. Though Cannavale and Hawkins deliver good work, this is the Blanchett show, and her performance covers up some of the weaknesses in Allen's script, such as the way the episodic nature of the narrative makes certain tangents feel unnecessary. However, even if this doesn't stand up against Allen's greatest works, it's one of his better films from the past 20 years, which, given his recent output, is definitely worth celebrating. B+

To the Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick, 2013)

It's hard to believe that Terrence Malick even made another movie so soon - it's only been two years since the release of The Tree of Life, his magnum opus, and there's usually at least a five year wait between his projects. That it was released to very little fanfare is even more surprising, though that could be because of reports that it was met with boos at both Venice and Toronto last year. The film concerns itself with a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) struggling to hold onto their love in present-day Oklahoma, particularly when a former crush (Rachel McAdams) shows up, and a priest (Javier Bardem) wonders about God's existence. The most important thing to understand about Malick's films is that his narratives are only a loose framework; his actors aren't portraying flesh-and-blood human beings but ideas and concepts. Malick doesn't make films so much as he makes cinematic philosophical treatises about nature and humanity's relationship to it. Though the film is beautifully shot (there's no shortage of fantastic images; genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick find extraordinary beauty in everything from the Oklahoma plains to a Sonic Drive-In), his thesis is more muddled than it has been in his previous features. He seems to want to comment on how our personal relationships fail because of our modern disconnect from the natural world, but it never really becomes clear. It feels less like a professor unveiling his new treatise and more like a masters' candidate rambling after he's had a few beers. But what beautiful ramble it is. B

Monsieur Lazhar (dir. Philippe Falardeau, 2012)

A teacher in a Montreal school commits suicide, being discovered by one of her young students, Simon (Émilien Néron), hanging from the ceiling of her classroom. In the midst of this, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, volunteers to step in as a temporary replacement from the rest of the school year. Falardeau's film - an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 - could have been yet another "teachers change the world!" cliché, but instead, it morphs into a powerful film about dealing with loss. As Lazhar's true status in Canada are revealed, his involvement with helping the children - especially Simon - overcome their grief and continue to grow into adults becomes more meaningful. It's a true gem of a film. A-

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (dir. Shane Black, 2005)

This is the film you can thank for seeing Robert Downey Jr. in everything from summer tentpole films to HTC commercials, since his comeback wouldn't have been possible without his lead performance as a criminal-turned-actor pretending to be a private eye in Shane Black's stylish neo-noir. Assisting Downey Jr.'s Harry is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a detective who agrees to let Harry tag along in investigating a pair of mysterious murders that seem to be tied to Harmony (Michelle Monagan), a struggling actress and former crush of Harry's. At times, Black's screenplay and direction are too pleased with their cleverness, making it a sort of difficult to really enjoy the pleasures to be found. But when the film's various components come together, there's no denying that this is a legitimately fun action flick. Much of that is thanks to Downey Jr. and Kilmer's odd-couple pairing; they have great chemistry together, and both deliver excellent performances (this is especially impressive given that both - and Black too, for that matter - where considered washed-up circa 2005). It's an enjoyable ride. B+

Bullhead (dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2012)

Bullhead is the kind of film that would play best to its domestic audience (in this case, Belgian), but requires an international audience to hit Wikipedia first. The film details Jacky Vanmarsenille's (Matthias Schoenaerts) involvement in the Belgium hormone mafia, which itself involves injecting cattle with growth hormones and controlling the meat packing industry. There's also a terrible event from Jacky's childhood that affects his current situation, as well as tensions between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and Walloon (French-speaking) regions of Belgium. That's a lot to take in, and Roskam does a fine job at making the film work in it's own right as a crime thriller. Schoenaerts' performance, too, is terrific, allowing us into Jacky's world while still keeping parts of him sheltered. However, the film - also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 - just doesn't pull together in a very effective way. Its specificity is its ultimate undoing. B-

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