Blue Jasmine Features Cate the Great + Woody the Has-Been

Directed by Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics, 98 minutes, PG-13.
* *

Cate Blachett’s titular performance raises the only interesting question in Woody Allen’s latest film: Can a person win a Best Actress Oscar for starring in a putrid film? Make no mistake about it–this is a very bad film indeed. Woody Allen has been cranking out films like a latter-day Mack Sennett and, frankly, I wish he’d just stop–he hasn’t had anything to say for decades, yet he keeps saying it.

Jasmine has the world on a string–a very thin, frayed one as it turns out. She’s married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a world-beater investor who lavishes her with furs, jewels, designer duds, a beachside mansion, a stepson, and the wherewithal to live as high-rolling New York socialite/charity maven. He even promises to help Jasmine’s working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her mechanic husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) invest windfall lottery winnings in ways that he promises will relieve their money worries forever. Who couldn’t see this coming? Hal is as shady as the rainforest, and as crooked as the tail of the pig he truly is. And when piggie Hal goes to the abattoir (federal penitentiary), Jasmine goes from riches to rags.

Pretty nice rags, though. To recover from her nervous breakdown and rebuild her life, Jasmine flees New York for San Francisco, where now-divorced Ginger lives with her two children. The new tenant she hoped for was her airheaded boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), not her condescending, pill-popping sister. In one of the film’s many continuity errors, Jasmine is supposed to be flat broke, but she always seems to have cash for taxis, restaurants, booze, and glamorous threads, the last of which she wears to her community college courses and beneath the smock she wears at her job as a dental office receptionist. Blanchett is terrific as a woman on the verge. She plays Jasmine with such icy calculation that we come to see her as Hal’s feminine counterpart–one who will either scheme her way to the top, or join him in an Icarus-like crash and burn. That is to say, Jasmine will either land a new Hal, or become one of those medicated street people who wander about talking to the air. Her performance is reminiscent of that of Gena Rowlands in the 1974 classic A Woman Under the Influence– a volcanic combination of sophistication and psychosis. 

I suspect that Allen was trying to show the values and worldview gaps between the haute bourgeoisie and the working class. The problem is simple: Donald Trump understands the working class better than Woody Allen. As a result, once Allen steps out of the world of cocktail parties, art openings, trendy restaurants, slinky dresses, and jazz bars–is he aware that any other types of music exist?–he doesn’t have the slightest idea how people talk, act, play, or work. As a result, his take on workaday schmoes is more insulting than Jasmine’s. Dr. Flicker’s (Michael Stuhlberg) attempt to grope Jasmine is ham-handed, creepy, and insulting to the dental profession. Allen also portrays Ginger as if she’s a trailer-park low-life ready to bed any guy who feeds her a line. (Her apartment, by the way, seems pretty nice for a woman who is supposedly working-class poor.) And are we supposed to believe that Chili has a heart of gold? He’d better have one, because Allen’s depiction of his mental acuity places Chili somewhere between a potted plant and a Labrador retriever.

Where will Jasmine end up–in Marin County, or San Francisco’s Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital? In a story this poorly told, not even Cate Blanchett can make me give a damn. And I say, no, to an Oscar for the same reason I don’t think a baseball player on a last-place team should get a Most Valuable Player award.Who needs the magnificent Cate to primp the feathers of a turkey?

Rob Weir


Oscar Short Action Films Not a Strong Category

2013 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts (2014)
113 minutes, Not Rated
* * *

Those who don’t live within easy commuting distance of a major film festival seldom get to see the shorts, documentaries, and animated films that get nominated for Academy Awards. One can only applaud the recent trend of packaging these for theatrical release even, as is the case this year’s live action shorts, the films are more mundane than magnificent.

The challenge for live action shorts, as we are reminded ad infinitum by the intercalary comments linking films, is to convey an entire story or narrative within a very short period of time. That’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation and the commentary is a major drag on this year’s collection of shorts. Remarks from directors such as Matthew Modine, Steve McQueen, and Anne Rosellini are little more than padding to stretch the program to nearly two hours. Far too often, their comments have nothing to do with the films at hand. Modine, for example, tells us that Stanley Kubrik didn’t have an ending in mind when he began shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an interesting story, but what a nearly three-hour film has to say about shorts is never revealed. In like fashion, we are told that short films often rely upon humor or irony to convey their point. There’s not much of that among the 2013 nominees! Synopses follow in reverse order of how I assess their merits.

Do I Have to Do Everything? (Directed by Selma Vilhunen and Kirikka Saari, Finnish with subtitles). This film shouldn’t be here. It’s a funny, but very slight, seven-minute film about a disheveled , disorganized family of four ruled by a discombobulated mom who thinks she’s the only thing that keeps it from disintegrating into chaos. Everything that can goes wrong as she rushes to get everyone off to a wedding. I was glad it was there given the heaviness of three of the films, but it’s little more than the clown leading the circus crowd to the exit.

That Wasn’t Me. (Directed by Esteban Crespo, 23 minutes, Spanish with subtitles and some English). This is probably the odds-on favorite to win given Hollywood’s penchant for honoring ‘important’ films. It deals with two Spanish doctors somewhere in war-torn Africa–think Mozambique or the Central African Republic–who have the misfortune to be taken captive by child soldiers and their abusive adult general. It centers on Paula, one of the doctors, and Kaney, a boy-soldier. I found it both horrifying and unrealistically manipulative. The last quarter of the film is mechanistic.

The Voorman Problem. (Directed by Mark Gill and Baldwin Li, 13 minutes). This one has a recognizable star, Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson in Sherlock), who plays a psychiatrist called into a prison where a man claiming to be a god has the place in an uproar because the inmates believe him. Is he? This is a mildly amusing film, though there’s nothing terribly original about the not-who-we-think-he-is setup.

Just Before Losing Everything (Directed by Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras, 30 minutes, French with subtitles). This is a very creepy film about a woman named Miriam who is trying to flee an abusive husband with her young son and daughter in tow. To accomplish this, she needs to complete severance paperwork at her work and wait for her sister to pick them up. The clock is ticking, but not as loudly as nervous hearts in the theater.

My favorite film was Helium (Directed by Andres Walter and Kim Magnusson, 23 minutes, in Danish with subtitles). It takes place in a hospital for terminally ill children. Enzo is only supposed to clean up around the place, but he meets Alfred, who knows his fate and isn’t much mollified by promises of Heaven. He does, however, draw great solace from magical stories of the after-death realm of Helium, which Enzo spins from Alfred’s love of airships. Some may find it mawkish, but I was touched and charmed.

One last gripe about the packaging: If you’re going to tout the artistic freedom of short films and how an individual director has total control, don’t spotlight five films whose sponsors, credits, and contributors list is longer than Hannibal Lecter’s rap sheet.

Rob Weir

Museum Hours: The Profoundity of Silent Images

Museum Hours (2012/2013)
Directed by Jem Cohen
The Cinema Guild, 107 minutes, Unrated. In German & English.
* * * *

Not much happens in Museum Hours, but surrender to this gorgeous small film and you will be mightily rewarded. And, thanks to a 2013 North American release in theaters and DVD, you’ll have your chance.

The film’s thin story centers on Anne (Margaret O’Hare), an Irish-Canadian woman forced to scrape together and borrow money to make an emergency trip to Vienna in the dead of winter, where her cousin lies mortally ill in a hospital. All she can do is wait and stretch her meager cash stream as best she can. Tea, cheap pubs, a drafty down-market hotel room, and trips to the Kunsthistorisches Museum are about all she can manage, but she’s enthralled by the latter, especially the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Anne spends so much time in the museum that she eventually strikes a friendship with Johann (Bobby Somers), a former hard-rock music manager who fled club madness for a tranquil life as a museum guard. After hours, Johann shows Anne his Vienna–an ordinary city bathed in gray by the weak wintery light, not the glitzy Vienna of opera and the haute bourgeoisie. A love affair? Not as you’d anticipate.

The film feels like a documentary, a mood enhanced by the lack of an accompanying musical score. There are long shots in which the camera pans museum walls and lingers on a mystical Tintoretto, a lush Raphael, or a moody Rembrandt. The pacing is languid, but it’s hard not be drawn in by gorgeous cinematography and razor sharp images produced by filming in a 1.78:1 high definition aspect ratio. It’s not quite 35mm quality, but it’s as close as I’ve seen in a while. And the film needs to move slowly because its real star is a dead man: Brueghel.

Brueghel is often lumped with Hieronymus Bosch as a painter of debauchery and post-apocalyptic horrors. Not so, as art docent Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits) points out to a sceptical groups of visitors. She, the camera, Anne, and Johann force us to look deeply into Brueghel’s works to observe the mundane details. Through clever crosscutting between the paintings and perambulations through Vienna, Brueghel appears more as a documentarian committing daily life to canvass in both its prosaic and dramatic specifics. Did Brueghel paint fantasized deformities, reprobates, and horrors? Have you taken a good look around your world these days? How would they look on canvas in 600 years? And do we even see the mundane parts of life that Brueghel so lovingly rendered? Must we confront death to appreciate how precious those moments are? Indeed, this film suggests that sex, gluttony, food, beauty, horror, and death are the prosaic reality in all periods of history.

I won’t pretend that this film will be everyone’s bowl of gruel, but I found that it provoked more thought in its silences than most films inspire in their monologues. --Rob Weir


Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit: An American Autopsy. By Charlie LeDuff. Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-14312446-7.

Note: This review originally appeared on the Northeast Popular Culture Association Website.

Charlie LeDuff’s portrait of Detroit is horrifying and uncompromising. It’s guys who take $20 and the promise of a truck to torch a house, of street walkers turning tricks inside of derelict auto factories, of fried corpses hanging from the live wires they tried to strip for copper, of a dead man chucked down a shaft and frozen in a block of ice, of police cars without radios, and fire fighters with holes in their boots. Forget Motor City; it’s Murder City USA. The auto plants are mostly gone and the few jobs that remain pay $14 an hour, which adjusted for inflation, “…is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.”(6)

Who would want to live there, let alone do what LeDuff did: walk away from the New York Times to write a book, move from the warmth of Los Angeles to Michigan in the dead of winter, and take a job with the Detroit News? It might be home, but Detroit? After all, Le Duff’s book is subtitled An American Autopsy. There’s no money to be made in Detroit, unless you’re a politician like Kwame Fitzpatrick, who is doing 28 years when instead of being the city’s first self-proclaimed hip-hop mayor he became a crook with a penchant for phone sex, strippers, and skimming the city’s shallow public trough–just like his predecessors. Or Michelle Conyers, the 47-year-old wife of 84-year-old U.S. Congressman John Conyers, who did 27 months for bribery and kickbacks during her eight months as president of the Detroit City Council. Or white auto executives who took taxpayer bailout money and invested it elsewhere.

LeDuff’s story is heartbreaking. Detroit is where his prostitute sister died when she leapt from a car driven by a dangerous john, where his niece overdosed on heroin, and where a fire fighter buddy died in a blaze started by a street punk hired by a shady landlord that wanted to collect insurance money. It’s a city in which children must bring their own toilet paper to school, arson is as common as a snowy winter day, and a guy who threatens to mug you for a dollar can be bought off for fifty cents. Along the way we meet people trying their best to scrape by with wallets, integrity, and pride intact, and several that LeDuff’s investigative journalism manages to help. Some have called him a Good Samaritan, but LeDuff’s having none of it. “Why not admit it? I’m a reporter. A leech. A merchant of misery. Bad things are good for us reporters. ” (19) A very good reporter, I hasten to add–one whose gonzo journalism is eminently more vivid and readable than anything coming from academia. His socially conscious writing rivals that of Jonathan Kozol and Alex Kotlowitz.

LeDuff chronicles the city’s birth as a beaver-trading post in 1701, through its salad days as the world’s automobile capital, and into a long decline marked by race riots, deindustrialization, appalling corporate stupidity, union greed, and denial. LeDuff has no time for the latter. His gritty stories sparked numerous complaints from city boosters demanding to know why he never wrote of “lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom… parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.” LeDuff tartly retorts, “[T]hese things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.” (129) Indeed. Nearly 2 million once called Detroit home; now fewer than 700,000 do so.

LeDuff doesn’t want us to mourn for Detroit. He wants us to look at it deeply–as if we’re looking into a mirror, because he thinks it is a mirror: “Detroit can no longer be ignored because what happened here is happening out there. Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Miami are blighted with empty houses and people with idle hands. Americans are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing the debt grow slimmer by the day as good-paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate to foreign lands.” (5)

LeDuff tries to end his book on a high note but the book does feel like an autopsy.  Is there any hope? LeDuff sees America in decaying Detroit, but it may just be industrial America that’s on its deathbed. Salem, Massachusetts was once the capital of maritime America; Buffalo, New York that of the canal boat trade; Wichita, Kansas the queen city of the cattle drive; and Sacramento where gold mine fever raged hottest. Maybe we need to admit that Redmond, Washington now matters more than Detroit. Or, maybe, LeDuff is right. We’d better hope he’s not.

Rob Weir