by Steve Habrat
Since 2007’s unremarkable crime drama Cassandra’s Dream and 2008’s sultry love triangle Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen has reverted back to making cutesier dramedies like Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the superb Midnight in Paris, and To Rome with Love. Now well into his seventies, Allen continues to make one movie a year to keep busy. In 2012, he snagged an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the enchanting Midnight in Paris, a win that you’d think he would have ended his career on, but he continues to push forward. I’ll be honest, I really worried that Midnight in Paris might be the last great film of Allen’s career, but I’m so pleased to say that the persistent writer-director blindsided me with Blue Jasmine, a stinging art-house portrait of a woman who had everything and ended up with nothing. With most of the comedy dropped, Allen builds to a climax that is sure to freeze you in your seat for a solid few minutes. Blue Jasmine is already a sobering slap, but it is made all the more captivating by a devastating Cate Blanchett, who will certainly have her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars.
Blue Jasmine begins with Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco in the wake of a nasty divorce and a financial scandal that led to her wealthy husband, Hal (played by Alec Baldwin), committing suicide. Broke, angry, and alone, Jasmine shacks up with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), with whom she shares a rocky relationship. In the past, Hal let Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (played by Andrew Dice Clay), in on a faulty investment deal that left the couple broke. As Jasmine tries to compose herself and restart her life, she meets a wealthy California Congressman Dwight Westlake (played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. The two quickly fall in love and plan to marry, but Jasmine’s dark past comes back to haunt her. Meanwhile, Ginger, who is set to marry the big-hearted grease monkey Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale), strikes up a romance with seemingly nice-guy Al (played by Louis C.K.), who has a secret of his own.
Based upon Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blue Jasmine initially comes on like a typical Allen film. Blanchett’s character is presented as a nervy and neurotic mess looking for any ear that will listen to her spew her tragic life story. She flies first-class even though she doesn’t have a penny to her name and she constantly reminds her modest sister that Uncle Sam took everything from her, even her precious furs. When she lays eyes on where she will be staying, she fights back vomiting and musters the thinnest compliment imaginable. When her angst becomes too overwhelming, she rushes for a bottle of vodka, pops a Xanax, and starts mumbling to herself about her lavish past with a philandering millionaire who showered her with expensive gifts to blind her to his unfaithfulness. She makes the viewer cringe as she scoffs at Chili, who she views as a loose cannon deadbeat who will never be able to provide for Ginger, even though Chili desperately tries to be as warm to Jasmine as he can. At times, you almost get the sense that Allen is concealing the really brutal stuff behind a romantic comedy/midlife crisis mask, but we are never entirely sure how vicious this is going to get. Even though she is highly unlikeable and about as self-absorbed and pretentious as you can get, we still oddly root for Jasmine to get her life back together and find love. It’s hard to find a scene in Blue Jasmine that doesn’t have Jasmine herself a red-faced, withering mess fighting off the creepy advancements of a dentist and Chili’s buddies and throwing a pity party.
The true power of Blue Jasmine rests on the slender shoulders of Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of her career as the equally pathetic and detestable Jasmine. Watching her try to go from swanky socialite to receptionist with absolutely no skills to get by is gripping every step of the way. You hate her when Allen flashes back and shows her blowing off the beaming Ginger and Augie as they pop by New York for a visit and you stand behind her hope as she lingers by the telephone waiting for the dashing Dwight to call her up. There is something admirable in her attempt to finish school and learn how to use a computer, but this drive is done in by the shallow possibly of returning to the life of luxury with Dwight. Hawkins gives a big-hearted performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister who is constantly being berated by Jasmine over her job, living conditions, and choice of men. You really have to pat Ginger on the back for her kindness, especially when it is revealed that Jasmine barely acknowledged her existence when she was living high in New York. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Chili, Ginger’s rough-around-the-edges fiancé who tries to kid with Jasmine, but always ends up in a war of words with the fallen queen. Louis C.K. turns up as a lovable stereo installer who just can’t seem to get enough of the bubbly Ginger. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is a nice upper-class gentleman with big dreams, but even his soft personality isn’t immune to the lies that Jasmine is spinning. Explicit comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives a dramatic performance as Ginger’s ruined ex-husband, Augie, who fell into some money and was then taken for a ride by Hal. Recent Allen regular Alec Baldwin gives a soft-spoken performance as the crooked philistine businessman Hal who is seen running around on Jasmine mostly in flashbacks.
With such a serious story, Allen tries to lighten the mood early on with some of his trademark dry wit. But by the last fifteen minutes of Blue Jasmine, he drops any attempt to cushion his blows and dishes out a one-two punch that sends Jasmine to the brink of madness. I must say, Allen unleashes a series of plot twists that catapult Blue Jasmine to the forefront of Allen’s massive body of work. I was left speechless, paralyzed, and most of all, I was thrilled to see Allen shrewdly serve up an ice-cold plate of reality to a character that just kept trying to turn a blind eye to it. Allen is ever careful in the way he allows these prickly twists to reveal themselves, a testament to his skills as a writer. Overall, in years past, Allen has said that he loathes reality and that he prefers the fantasy realm. With Blue Jasmine, Allen seems to have hardened and embraced the idea that there are some seriously crushing realities in the world and they can have some serious consequences. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece from a man in the twilight of his career and one of the best films I have seen in 2013 so far.
by Steve Habrat
In a summer where the local movie theater has been besieged by tights–wearing superheroes who mostly found their allegiance to the Marvel camp, it was only a matter of time before one of them stumbled over their cape. This is not to say that we haven’t had a good summer movie season so far. Thor was an unexpected treasure and X-Men: First Class sits nicely at the top as one of the greatest to come out in quite a while. Now, we have DC Comic’s offering and his name is the Green Lantern. Perhaps you’ve seen a TV spot or two for this one? Or maybe a poster or three? Warner Bros. has launched a massively epic promotional campaign for Green Lantern in an attempt to lure crowds to the movie theater and I think I know why—because he is so excruciatingly un-extraordinary it becomes almost unfathomable. Green Lantern doesn’t really DO anything! He just spouts off one-liners, flies around in a green suit, and hits on Blake Lively. That pretty much sums up the experience of Green Lantern—it doesn’t particularly have much to do. It just thinks it does.
To be fair, I know basically nothing about the Green Lantern. I know he sports a green suit and has a magical ring that lets him create anything that he wants. That was as far as my knowledge went on the DC space cop. I didn’t know that the lore was alien-heavy and drenched in a vibrant day-glo ambiance. His first cinematic outing showed promise by a decently edited trailer and the presence of director Martin Campbell, who shocked the Bond franchise back to life with what I believe to be the best Bond film ever made, Casino Royale. But Green Lantern is a gigantic neon mess of a movie. The film boasts four writers and it’s painfully obvious. The film also inexplicably appears to be directed by three different directors, as it can’t decide on one specific tone. One moment it’s a light-hearted superhero flick for kiddies, the next second it’s a trippy sci-fi action film, then it shifts into dark and gritty territory, then a self-discovery drama, and finally taking the camp route all while drenching itself in endless clichés. It does manage to cough up a few bright moments every once in a while, which makes this jumble somewhat more endurable.
The film starts off with a complex back-story that I wont dive into in my review. I will however tell you this—the movie follows Hal Jordan (played by the wise-cracking Ryan Reynolds) who is an irresponsible hotshot pilot for the Air Force. One night, dying purple skinned alien Abin Sur, who has crash-landed on earth after narrowly escaping a menacing encounter with the hair-raising Parallax, rips Jordan away from his nephew’s birthday party. Abin Sur proceeds to tell Jordan that his Green Lantern ring has chosen him as his replacement in the Green Lantern Corps. Thus begins Jordan’s journey as the Green Lantern, the first human chosen as one of the protectors of the galaxy. Soon the same force that killed Abin Sur threatens Earth and it’s up to Jordan to defend mankind. Green Lantern of course has a love interest. She’s fellow pilot Carrol Ferris (played by The Town’s Blake Lively), who criticizes Jordan for his reckless behavior and has apparently been burned by Jordan in the past. She naturally still houses feelings for him and vice versa. Jordan finds himself envied by the eccentric and timid scientist Hector Hammond (played by the superb Peter Sarsgaard), who accidentally contracts the powers of Parallax in an autopsy on Abin Sur.
Somewhere in Green Lantern, there is a good movie trying to get out. Instead it settles for mediocrity. The Green Lantern’s ring provides him with the ability to create anything his imagination conjures up in a battle with a baddie. At one point, he creates a Gatling gun and in another moment, he creates a racetrack and turns a crashing helicopter into a dragster. In a back alley brawl, he dreams up a giant fist and knocks three thugs on their asses. It’s a neat gimmick that is rarely utilized by the film. It simply never makes a big deal about this ability and instead it subtly shows up from time to time. Further troubling is Reynolds himself, he at times looks like he is so bored in this role and that he’s secretly dreaming he’s on the set of a different movie. He shows absolutely no commitment in Hal Jordan and gives him about as much depth as a kiddie pool. He plays Jordan like a bad imitation combination of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. I was troubled from the get-go over his casting and the film only solidifies my concern. Just like his superpower power, he is exceedingly lackluster.
Given all the talent that signed on to the movie (Tim Robbins!?), there is one shining star among the group and that is Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond. If they are to do a sequel to this, and I’m quite sure that they will, they should make a prequel about Hammond. He’s the only character that isn’t a walking cliché from another superhero movie. He’s an intriguing antagonist and his descent into homicidal madness is the films high point partly because it is basically the only part of the film that provides some real emotion. He slithers through the role as if he’s the only one aware of how bad everyone else is in it. He’s the only one who shows any effort. The most thrilling part of the movie is the climatic showdown between him and the Green Lantern. Unfortunately, it’s all too brief.
Green Lantern further blinds the audience to its mediocre story with heaping globs of neon CGI. It’s non-stop eye candy that is agonizingly artificial. The people behind this thing poured so much into the visuals that they completely forgot to give the thing a human heart. Nothing seems genuine about it and it’s a tailor-made franchise flick. It does offer up a couple intriguing sequences, which are mostly the ones consisting of Hammond and Green Lantern duking it out. The rest are dazzling trips to Oa, the planet that the Green Lantern Corps finds its headquarters. It’s teeming with peculiar aliens that babble on with nonsensical mumbo-jumbo about fear but it’s a place that you won’t mind visiting.
Putting it bluntly, Green Lantern is a pretty lousy movie. Before the film came out, several Warner Bros. heads ranted and raved about how superb the script was for this movie. After seeing the finished product, it must have sounded better on paper because the film is a blatant cash cow franchise flick with absolutely no build-up, a limp hero, and weighed down with too much CGI. The film is impersonal, lacking any trace of spirit. It seems like they were desperate to have another superhero hit outside of Batman, given the tanking of Superman Returns. It’s too bad that the Green Lantern can’t use his ring and imagine a better movie, one that is not all over the place and with a back-story that is not quickly brushed over in a senseless action scene.
Green Lantern is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.