Friday, January 16, 2015

BLUE JASMINE 2013

By now I'm convinced that Woody Allen could shoot a science fiction film on the surface of the moon and it would still come out looking as if it took place in New York.
As filmmakers go, Allen is a little like those American tourists who travel all around the world only to Westernize the experience: staying at American chain hotels, eating American food, interacting with other American tourists, and insisting on speaking only English. Ever since Allen went to the UK in 2005 to remake Crimes and Misdemeanors…I mean, to film Match Point…critics have been falling over themselves praising the revitalizing effect locations like France, Spain, and Italy have had on his work. I've been a fan of Woody Allen's films since 1969s Take the Money & Run, but for all the local color they reflect, I think his recent spate of off-the-continent films feel more like General Foods International Coffees retreads of his old stuff.
But just as one resigns oneself to copious amounts of rear-screen projection when one seeks a Hitchcock film, it comes with the territory (so to speak) that no matter where a Woody Allen film takes place; you're going to get Manhattan.

I've been entertained by, but haven't really liked, a Woody Allen film since 1996s Everyone Says I Love You (interesting distinction, that). And in spite of my fond feelings for Annie Hall, Radio DaysManhattan Murder Mystery, September, Broadway Danny Rose, September and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the only Allen film I think of with a great deal of affection is Love and Death (1975), and that's chiefly because it's wall-to-wall funny.

All of that changed for me with Blue Jasmine, a movie that, while taking place both in Allen's beloved New York and a strange, Allen-esque San Francisco where all the working-classes speak with Jersey accents; is nevertheless the very first Woody Allen film in I don't know how long that was able to take me by surprise. In addition, I believe it's the only Allen film I've ever been moved by. His most urgent, vivid film in years, Blue Jasmine teems with an energy I haven't felt in any of the director's recent going-through-the-motions efforts, and thanks to the monumental performance of Cate Blanchett, becomes a kind of flawless portrait of human weakness.  
Cate Blanchett as  Jasmine "Jeanette" Francis
Sally Hawkins as Ginger
Bobby Cannavale as Chili
Alec Baldwin as Hal Francis
Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight Westlake
Andrew Dice Clay as Augie
As is his wont, Allen disavows any intentional allusions to either the Bernie Madoff case or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in this tale of a chic New York socialite (Jasmine, née Jeanette) whose life falls apart after her husband’s illegal business dealings lead to the abrupt dissolution of her marriage, wealth, status, and tenuous grip on reality. Destitute, disgraced, and more than a little delusional (the penniless Park Avenuer still travels First Class, dressed in Chanel, carting an array of Louis Vuitton luggage); Jasmine is forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. More “estranged" to be exact, as Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live in a manner she’d really rather not grow accustomed to with her adoptive sister, Ginger, a working-class divorcee with two kids and a taste for guys who speak in dese, dems, and dose (cue the Ed Hardy clothing and Jersey Shore douchebag haircut).
"Tip big, boys. Tip big because you get good service."
Jasmine, who has fallen on extremely hard times and in minutes will tell her sister she's "Worse than tapped out," thinks nothing of tipping a cab driver $100  

Years spent living a princess’ privileged existence on Long Island and Park Avenue have left Jasmine singularly ill-prepared for coping with the steady bombardment of class-based culture shocks and workplace wake-up calls she encounters in her attempts to start a new life. Attempts thwarted by her own deluded sense of entitlement; a tendency to zone out and talk to herself; and a crippling nervous anxiety she medicates with fistfuls of Xanax washed down with Stoli martinis with a twist of lemon.
As flashbacks reveal the contradictory reality behind the veils of illusion, self-invention and self-deception Jasmine relies upon to get through life, we come to better understand not only the poisonous, disruptive  effect she has on those around her, but ultimately how her self-sabotaging ways have caused her to be the instrument of her own destruction.

Blue Jasmine brings thorny cringe-comedy and a surprisingly unflinching emotional intensity (especially for a Woody Allen movie) to an irresistible premise which set class tensions, familial rivalry, accountability, guilt, remorse, ethics, consequence, and identity as the backdrops for a character study of an intriguingly neurotic woman hanging to life by a tether.
"I want to get my degree and become, you know, something substantial!"
Penniless and possessing zero marketable skills, Jasmine is forced to take a "menial" position as a dentist's receptionist

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Blue Jasmine has many terrific things going for it from the outset, starting with the jittery and highly unreliable narrator that is Jasmine French (she’s so unreliable we don’t even know if French is her real maiden name or one she made up). Embodying as she does the worst of the kind of upscale New Yorker Woody Allen vacillates between admiring and resenting (think Interiors), a great deal of pleasure is derived from seeing this insufferable, Paltrowesque snob brought low by her circumstances. But the beauty of the script (and Blanchett’s performance) is that our attitude toward Jasmine grows into something resembling, if not sympathy, then perhaps compassion, in direct proportion how little of her fragile sense of self the film is willing to leave her with. She's a difficult, largely unlikable character, but it's surprising how much I found myself just hoping she could stay out of her own way long enough to pull herself out of the mess she'd created.
The Times of Your Life
I love the narrative structure of Blue Jasmine. Half of the film's most compelling dramatic and comedic conflicts arise out of the forced social interaction of radically dissimilar characters with conflicting/opposing objectives. The second half is like a forensic psychology dissection of Jasmine's earlier life, exposing the glaring and telling discrepancies between reality and the kind of desperate self-centered survivalism that lay behind Jasmine's penchant for turning a blind eye to everything...particularly herself.
Jasmine in Happier Times
A vision of the morally poisonous allure of wealth worthy of Fitzgerald, Dreiser, or Flaubert

PERFORMANCES
When Cate Blanchett was awarded the 2014 Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Blue Jasmine, she always made it a point to thank Woody Allen for his screenplay. I specify screenplay and not performance because, based on everything I've read, Allen is one of those hands-off directors who leave actors to shape their performances for themselves.
I’ve already expressed the opinion that Woody Allen doesn’t really do anything but Woody Allen, and on paper, Jasmine is just another in a long list of his fragile, flinty neurotic females. Had he written it in the 90s, she would be played by Judy Davis; the 80s, Mia Farrow; the 70s, Diane Keaton. Jasmine isn't anyone Allen hasn't introduced us to many times before; it's just that in the very capable hands of Cate Blanchett, she turns a Woody Allen "type" into a real person. Arguably the first real person ever to inhabit a Woody Allen movie.
Another Man, Another Chance
Jasmine's sister, Ginger, meets nice guy, Al (Louis C.K.) 
The Australian-born Blanchett (who in 2009 appeared in a Liv Ullman directed production of A Streetcar Named Desire) is as affecting with the scenes requiring stylish élan as she is in the scenes revealing Jasmine’s rapid mental and emotional deterioration. Blanchett is genuinely heartbreaking in these moments, the sprawling messiness of her character’s inability to grab hold of anything real within herself, single-handedly redeeming some of Allen’s more familiar and clichéd bits. (Allen exhibits no feel at all for San Francisco – which very well may be the point – and seems most in his element when giving voice, through Jasmine, to a certain cluelessness as to how regular people go about the business of living without benefit of buckets of money).
Cate Blanchett - Armani spokesmodel and Vogue fashion plate (top) - has a look ideally suited to credibly portray an elegant member New York's elite super-rich. Playing a character whose identity and sense of self-worth has always been wrapped up in how others perceive her; Blanchett is at her most poignant when showing us a woman struggling not to let others see how hard she's fighting to maintain what is essentially a steadily crumbling facade.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Outside of Blanchett’s amazing performance, one of the major reasons I've come to rate Blue Jasmine as my #1 favorite Woody Allen film is because it deals with so many of the themes and subthemes I tend to seek out in movies. I've always been drawn to human-scale stories that hold the potential for emotional violence (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Carnage, Reflections in a Golden Eye), so a combustible character drama with plenty of strained conversations and heated exchanges like Blue Jasmine is practically an action film to me.
Jasmine's ideal life turns out to be anything but
I also love movies that ask us to examine our notions of wealth and the American success myth (The Day of the LocustA Place in the Sun), and why it is so many of us are willing to trade our souls and compromise our ideals in its pursuit.
"But a cheat is a cheat."
Jasmine's ethical code goes MIA when she gets the opportunity to start anew with
European diplomat, Dwight, a "substantial" man of wealth and position  
I've a weakness for films that dramatize our limitless capacity for fooling ourselves, and not since Shelley Duvall's Millie Lammoreaux (3 Women) has there been a more absorbing depiction of delusional behavior run amok than Blanchett's Jasmine French.
Struggling to find the line between reinvention and self-deception
Although it's Blanchett's show all the way, the entire cast of Blue Jasmine turn in impressive performances. Particularly English actress, Sally Hawkins, who was terrific in Allen's underrated Cassandra's Dream (2007), and Bobby Cannavale, who I liked so much in Annie. (I recently saw the film, Lovelace and enjoyed seeing both Cannavale and Peter Sarsgaard - who share no scenes in Blue Jasmine - in the cast).


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
At 79, Woody Allen is a filmmaker clearly out of touch in a lot of not-so-great ways: as usual, the only substantial roles for blacks you’ll find in Blue Jasmine are on the film's jazz soundtrack (there's something very Jasmine-like about Allen's love of black culture and antipathy for its people); but as one of the few directors still working with real people (not action figures), in actual locations (OK, so everyplace feels like New York, at least it’s not greenscreen), with stories that are actually about something…Woody Allen is also old-fashioned in a lot of ways that got me interested in film in the first place.
Which is to say, by recalling the bravura, female-centric dramas and character studies like Klute, A Woman Under the Influence, Images, and Diary of a Mad Housewife; Blue Jasmine feels like a film made in the 70s. And if you're at all aware of my fondness for that decade, cinematically speaking, you'll know what a major compliment that is.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

20 comments:

  1. I think Sally, a real favourite of mine, was unlucky not to bag awards and acclaim like Cate had but then maybe I'm biased, like I say I'm a huge admirer of hers, particularly her work with Mike Leigh - my favourite director.

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    1. Hey Mark
      I haven't seen Hawkins in many things, but I agree that she was very good here. Such an amazing job with the accent! Unfortunately I think she was a casualty of the studio's publicity machine that saw in the more high-profile Blanchett, an opportunity to give one of Allen's films (which tend to disappear after a month or two) a longer boxoffice shelf-life by putting all its money behind a (well-deserved) Blanchett campaign.
      And Mike Leigh is your favorite director? I feel out of the loop, I haven't seen a single one of his films.

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  2. Tut tut, though I can understand he probably doesn't travel well...but seeing as you can dig Babs Windsor and Sparrows Can't Sing ;) If you check any one of her films out, let it be Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky

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    1. Funny you should bring up Windsor, one of those "Carry On" films is coming on TV this weekend and I'm so looking forward to it!
      Anyhow, I have put "Happy Go Lucky" on my Netfix list. She may become a new favorite! Thanks!

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  3. Ooh what's the Carry On film? I can't believe we've gone from Woody Allen to the low-brow fun of Carry On's haha

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    1. Alas, Barbara Windsor isn't in it (I don't think) but it's "Carry on Cruising" with the ever-popular Dilys Laye!

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  4. Aw yeah it's a Bab-less one alas

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  5. Try "Carry On Cleo"--the perfect blend of smutty humor and fractured history. It's hard to believe any movie could cram as much innuendo into them as the Carry On films do, but I always end up busting a gut with laughter when I watch them, even totally aware of their reactionary politics and incredible sexism.

    Woody and I parted ways somewhere between "Manhattan" and "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy". His comedies just stopped being funny to me, while the dramas always seemed to be presented in a way that seems to have Woody assuming that his audience should root for the villain (especially in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and the shockingly-nihilistic "Match Point"--which was also sloppy as a police procedural too). I don't think we should be placed in a position of wanting someone to get away with murder so that his comfortable life will not be disrupted. "Blue Jasmine" is different in that Jasmine didn't bring about her downfall, but it still asks us as the audience to basically say she deserves the lifestyle she lost (a false lifestyle, funded by her husband's vast Ponzi schemes) because it was such a great lifestyle. There's something both amoral and unexamined in Woody's insistence over numerous films that the achievement of a certain quality of lifestyle should justify whatever it takes to maintain that lifestyle.

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    1. Hi Deb
      "Carry on Cleo" is one of my favorites (although Carry on Cabby is my top non-Windsor faves).

      I love the issues you have with Allen's work. All valid and indeed what I've read many people have a problem with. But what I tend to find provocative about his dramas is precisely what you point out (and whether this is intentional on his part is up for debate).
      I often have a problem with the way American films lead the audience to a moral position. The bad guy is so obviously bad, the good guy so obviously good, American audiences are spoon-fed an ethical code that to a large extent I don’t think many people actually hold…they just like to believe they do.

      When I see a film like "Blue Jasmine" or "Match Point", I think the provocative argument is one of moral ambiguity. Some in the audience will find the lead and his objectives repugnant, yet at the same time other members of the audience are feeling as you say, compelled to root for a person with corrupted values. I think a movie that makes us confront what we really feel (even if it’s distasteful) is more interesting than one that reaffirms things we like to think about ourselves.
      That Allen doesn't come right out and tell us what we should be making of these complex, often reprehensible characters, has made for some heated post-viewing conversations.

      I see Jasmine as the full orchestrator of her fate and a severely morally compromised character who covets what we are all taught we should covet without ever examining the validity of alternatives.
      In the end I consider her even more culpable than her husband (who was an out an out crook)...Jasmine actually knows right from wrong and chose to "ignore" wrong because she was getting what she needed. The irony of her doing the right thing by calling the FBI is that it has nothing to do with the lives her husband has ruined...only the one she is most concerned about- her own.
      but that she is oddly sympathetic is nothing short of genius to me, because in my experience, bad people never feel they're bad, and often when you discover how they lost their souls...it can be heartbreaking.
      I'm veering off course, but what I'm trying to express is that the one thing I value in Allen's work is that he doesn't do the heavy emotional lifting for us. He shows us often terrible people making terrible choices, but i think he is amazing at refusing to tell us who the bad guys are. I kind of think he's the last American filmmaker capable of making the wealthy look truly repugnant. But isn't it cool (or at least provocative) that at the very same time there are some who find these depictions of the wealthy to be actually appealing?
      I love that about movies!

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  6. Hi Ken - glad you liked this film as much as I did. I am usually not much of a Cate Blanchett fan; I enjoyed her in The Talented Mr. Ripley but not much else until this performance blew me away...she really did deserve the Oscar as Jasmine.

    I understand your reservations about Woody Allen's cinema milieu...he really seems to glorify a wealthy, elite, white world, while at he same time poking fun at the often smug characters. I think his post-depression upbringing colors his cinematic vision...so many films of the 1930s that glorified wealth, from Dinner At Eight to Shirley Temple's Poor Little Rich Girl, were meant as escapist fantasy fare. But in this day and age to never portray either black or gay characters shows he is out of touch with reality...

    That said, I do count Hannah and Her Sisters (with cameo by the legendary pianist Bobby Short), Interiors and Alice among my favorite films, and immensely enjoyed Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and Manhattan. But I don't consider Allen to be a realistic filmmaker at all...he carefully constructs a tidy affluent world that I suspect NEVER existed in the first place, not even in the upper classes of NYC.

    Cheers, Ken!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Such an interesting point you bring up about Allen's upbringing and the kind of world view his films represent. One of the more interesting things about those "groundbreaking" filmmakers from the 70s who are still in there plugging away (Clint Eastwood comes to mind) is how often their old-world point of view starts to shade their new work. They sometimes comes of as moldy and out of touch as the classic filmmakers they unseated back in the day.
      Good, bad, or mediocre, Alen is at least prolific enough to produce enough works to inspire conversation, and most have at least one Allen film they like. I don't think most artists are particularly consistent, but for a time i thought Allen was going to become irrelevant; but a movie like this shows there's still something going on in that crabapple head of his. And Cate Blanchett (as my partner teases me about) can do no wrong in my eyes. I would so love to see her on stage.
      Oh, and I too agree that he's not a realistic filmmaker. He's darn near close to being as much a fantasist as Disney.
      Thanks, Chris!

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  7. Hi Ken,

    I liked but didn't love this film however as most folks were I was blown away by Cate Blanchett's performance. Whether it's an acknowledged inspiration or not there are heavy shades of Blanche Dubois in the character. Woody's placing of Jasmine in the rarified world of the super rich and Blanche wafting through the memory tatters of a crumbling gentility show that self delusion is a province that can trap anyone. The film isn't perfect but is loaded with fine work by everyone, even Peter Sarsgaard who I'm not a fan of is less irksome than usual.

    I thought Sally Hawkins was terrific and it was a shame that the avalanche of acclaim for Cate deflected serious attention of her work despite her nomination. She was charming in Happy-Go-Lucky, a much lighter film in Mike Leigh's canon that is his usual stock in trade which can be heavy going. Like Woody Leigh's output is variable, at least to me, but he is able to elicit great performances from his actors. Imelda Staunton gives one of the best performances I've ever seen in his Vera Drake. If you really take to Sally I'd suggest Made in Dagenham where she leads a cast that is chock a block with great actresses and an interesting story about women striking for equal treatment in the sixties.

    I chuckled at your observation that all Allen films no matter the locale are set in New York. I'd agree with that up to a point. This film most certainly has that vibe despite some lovely shots of San Fran but there are a few that have a different feel. Until recently my familiarity with his films was spotty but I've been trying to fill the gaps and have seen most of his notable films and quite a few of the less notable one too. Midnight in Paris is the one I think most fully uses it's different setting to best effect. Purple Rose of Cairo is perhaps his most individual and the one that uses his separation from reality and puts it in a most unique perspective.

    I think of all the directors whose work I've seen a wide selection of Woody's might be the one I have the widest range of reactions to. Two that are esteemed, Annie Hall and Manhattan I actively loathed but then Hannah and Her Sisters is one of my favorite films. Falling somewhere in between I usually enjoy his comedies, Bullets Over Broadway, Small Time Crooks, Radio Days etc., much more then most of his dramas which can be ponderous, Interiors...UGH, although I did really like Cassandra's Dream which you mentioned. However whether I love them, hate them or am indifferent he certainly can pull in casts that most other directors can only dream of. I think the reason for that, at least partially, is as you said he is still making character studies. No explosion, people still talk to each other-often in witty ways and you have to think about what you've seen both as you're watching and once the film is over. Also almost without fail his films have fantastic soundtracks of wonderfully complimentary music. He does have that reputation of being a hands off director, like Hitchcock, which might be part of the allure that draws so many talents to him, it's a test of their mettle. What's surprising is that even actors who are often middling elsewhere are frequently at their best in his films. Perhaps it's the surrounding quality of the players that makes them step up their game. I think a good example of that is present in Blue Jasmine in the person of Andrew Dice Clay. He could hardly be considered a stellar talent but he gives a surprising effective turn as Hawkins's ex-husband.

    His track record may be scattershot but I'm always curious about his next film. Sometimes I'm disappointed but just as often I'm rewarded with at least a pleasant viewing experience and sometimes an excellent one.

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    1. Hi Joel
      I think the shades of Blanche DuBois are pretty heavy here, and unless there are legal reasons for his doing so, I think Allen is full of it in denying that "Streetcar" is not an influence. Indeed, i even think there is something to some critics assertions that bits of his messy breakup with Mia Farrow play into his brutal depiction of Jasmine (particularly the tantrum scene). As a rule I never trust directors who claim nothing biographical enters into their films.
      I'm on board with your variable feelings about Allen's work, the good films are often very good, a few (for me, "A Midsummer's Night's Sex Comedy" are painful). I too tend to like the music, and I enjoy that they often give food for thought of fodder for disagreement.
      And like Altman (another hand's off director) he seems to get the best out of his casts. As you say, perhaps its everyone rising to the challenge of so many other interesting actors.

      Your last sentence says pretty much all I feel about Allen: "Sometimes I'm disappointed but just as often I'm rewarded with at least a pleasant viewing experience and sometimes an excellent one."

      Thanks, Joel!

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    2. I am not a huge Allen fan--for many of the reasons you give--but this film won me over--for many of the reasons you give.

      However, I admit, Allen's ridiculous insistence that this is not based, in many ways, on Streetcar really irked me personally for whatever reason. He's admitted in the past to when he's been influenced by previous works--is not admitting it now some sort of big in-joke that I'm missing? I was lucky to see Cate in the BAM revival of Streetcar and she was amazing (of course,) but likewise gave a very similar performance and I seriously doubt Woody didn't attend a performance.

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    3. Hi Erich
      I agree, Woody's denial, unless motivated by copyright concerns or fears he has to pay off the Tennessee Williams estate in some way, is blatantly ridiculous. Thrilling to hear you saw Blanchett in "Streetcar" onstage! Must have been amazing.

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  8. Hello Ken,

    I used to see every new Allen-film as they came along. That was until I saw "Deconstructing Harry" which I thought was a very poor comedy indeed. After that i was veeeeery selective of his work. I saw some that were good and probably missed loads of duds. I counted 11 of his movies that I skipped, but I liked the ones I saw (Small Time Crooks, Match Point, Vicky Cristina and Midnight Paris).

    I liked Blue Jasmine too. I thought it was very entertaining and well acted. Jasmine's character was a little too off-putting for me to be able to love this film. It's been a while since I saw it but I felt that she didn't change enough. She was so delusional that it was painful to watch. I never found her to be sympathetic.

    Blanchett was good but I really thought that Sally Hawkins was superb. I enjoyed your review and found it interesting to read about your conflicting feelings towards Allen. You really nailed it when you said Allen likes black culture but isn't interested in black people. He's so transparent.

    I laughed when you described Cannavale's "douchebag haircut"!!
    Keep Writing! -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Oh my God...I too used to see every Woody Allen film that came along, and "Deconstructing Harry" was my deal breaker, as well! I guess a certain kind of crap really strikes a chord!

      After that I really missed most of his output until "Cassandra's Dream."
      As far as Blue Jasmine is concerned, I think I really relate to it a great deal. Living in Los Angeles, I've met a good many Jasmine's in my time, and Blanchett is so spot-on it's terrifying.
      The fact that she never really changes or finds redemption is one of my favorite things about the film because it's so clear to us that she is offered numerous opportunities for both, but refuses to see them.
      I credit a great deal of what i find sympathetic about the character to Blanchett's performance. On paper or in the hands of another actress, i'm not so sure I'd feel the same.

      And Woody Allen...almost everything I read about him is quite odious, and certain films of his (like "Manhattan") are unwatchable. Sometimes he seems like a bubble boy, trapped in a world that stopped expanding sometime in the 1960s. But because every once in a blue moon (hee hee) he's able to come up with something like "Blue Jasmine," he's not an easy director to write off (like Clint Eastwood seems to be on the verge of becoming).
      Thanks for stopping by, Wille. I'm glad you enjoyed the post...I certainly enjoyed your comments!

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  9. To think that you have really met people like Jasmine! No wonder this film struck a chord with you. Where they able to improve their lives at all?

    As for Woody Allen - the less one knows about his private life the better!

    May I ask what it is about "Manhattan" that you don't like? - or maybe that would take too much time…
    -Wille

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    1. Well, of the several Jasmine-like people I've met (a couple are men), only one fell upon similar hard times and I really don't know if they were able to improve their lot. A certain degree of delusional behavior fails to allow a person to see how dire things have become. It's actually kind of painful to be around.
      The others do what Jasmines tend to do...rise like a phoenix out of the ashes and attach themselves to similarly delusional types and carry one, never growing, never changing. In a city like LA and in show business especially, not having a full grasp of reality is something of a professional asset. Like Woody, they seem to float above things, their feet only occasionally touching the ground.

      And as for "Manhattan" I think it's beautifully shot, but the central "romance" with the crypt-keeper-like Allen and schoolgirl Mariel Hemingway creeps me out no end.

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  10. Wow, Jasmines flock to California to lead glamourous lives. But they can be found anywhere, I guess.

    I like "Manhattan" for the photography and for Diane Keaton's character. Hearts are broken in that one too. It's bitter sweet. You're right, though, Mariel was cute but she was far too young for Woody.

    I was struck by what you wrote to Deb further up among the comments: "bad people never feel they're bad, and often when you discover how they lost their souls...it can be heartbreaking". So true and sad.
    -Wille

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