Thursday, May 29, 2014

It! The Terror From Beyond Space

Were it not so often cited as the inspiration for the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic ALIEN, I wonder if 1958's IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE would not be even more obscure. This independently made cheapie, the sort of film that was best fitted for drive-in theaters where teens were more concerned with necking than paying attention to what was onscreen, is quite unfortunately not the expected giggle fest. In fact, stretches of it are flat out boring.  At least PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE are laugh riots, so deserving of their enduring reputations as camp classics.

Turner Classic Movies recently played IT! and it was just too tempting to pass up. The memory is hazy, but I think I originally saw it on a local VHF during my childhood. Part of the Saturday night "Creature Feature", which ran films with guys in ridiculous costumes attempting to be scary. I was riveted to most of these features, silly as they may have been. I may have even had a nightmare or two because of them.  IT! is far from riveting.

In the unimaginable future of 1973, a rescue ship arrives on Mars to find all but one member of an exploratory crew dead. Colonel Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is immediately suspected of murdering the other nine and carted back to face the tribunal on Earth. But soon several of the rescue team end up missing after responding to strange noises. When their corpses are discovered, it seems that every ounce of water has been extracted from them. Mars is a dry planet. The brain trusts eventually connect the dots. There is in fact a guy running around in a ridiculous costume. Watch out for those ventilation ducts!

As I watched IT!, I violated one of the cardinal rules of such films: attempting to apply logic to the scenario. Absolutely pointless with a near grade Z shocker like this. Perhaps with most films? I wondered how oxygen really figured into the big finale. How feasible it was for crew members to continue smoking around it. And is that artificial gravity inside the ship? Picking holes is (usually) part of the fun.

You can see the similarities to Dan O'Bannon's script for ALIEN, but they're nominal at best. Jerome Bixby's screenplay is generally serviceable, but Edward L. Cahn's direction is static, with little to no tension built. The cast is dull. IT! will very likely put viewers to sleep, though I doubt there will be nightmares.

But I almost felt sorry for the poor alien at the end......

Monday, May 26, 2014

In Praise of Basia

Basia Trzetrzelewska's music just does something. Something no amount of music theory learnedness can describe. And honestly, I don't think her body of work would hold up under such scrutiny. It's pure emotion, but it's not dumb music.  It's termed jazz-pop. There are drum machines and the sort of brass that one might hear in colorless smooth elevator jazz. But Basia, since her 1987 debut album Time and Tide, has expressed so many emotions simultaneously in her music, at least to this listener. It's a vibrant, eventful, but pleasant ride.

Her songs are mostly common tales of lost love, found love, new love. Songs about perfect mothers and joyous weddings. Familiar themes. There's an ode to Astrud Gilberto on Time, and the influence of Brazilian music is all over that album. I became aware of Basia in the late 80s via a longtime school chum who sung her praises. I did not investigate at that time. About 5 years later, a co-worker made me a tape of Time and its follow-up London Warsaw New York.  I fell in love.

With the Polish singer (whose name is pronounced BA-SHA) herself. And her vocal range, from contralto to soprano. I also found it endearing the way she sang certain lyrics,  revealing that English was not her primary tongue. I liked the European sound of everything. The tunes had genuine heart, and created an unexplainable peace. It is unsurprising that fans have written to Basia to thank her for helping them through tough physical and emotional recoveries, grief.

Some mellow artists rather inspire catatonia, but this music removes anything that may weigh upon you. I have drifted to Basia's tunes the way others may rely upon Valium. But this is a good thing. You know, with no side effects of zombification or erosion of brain or soul.

In the early 90s,  I tended to favor noisier music,  but something about Danny White's keyboards and Peter White's occasional accordion just blended so seamlessly in Basia's compositions. I later also grew to really appreciate 1994's The Sweetest Illusion, a counter-soundtrack to some pretty tumultuous times. It would be her last studio album until 2009's It's That Girl Again, sounding mostly like little time had passed.  That familiar warm voice announcing "She's back...." on the title track, a most welcome return.

Yes, there are a few cheesy moments and outright duds ("Take Him Back Rachel", "I Must") here and there, but resist your inner hipster and just let it flow. You may live longer.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pandemonium

During the early 1980s, cinemas suffered a spate of mad slasher films, many attempting to duplicate the eerie mastery of HALLOWEEN from 1978. Most were agonizingly bad and/or unintentionally hilarious (if you were lucky). The idea of creating send ups of these pieces of refuse was tricky for the latter reason; if the films were already funny, would a spoof be redundant? As Roger Ebert once asked, "Could you imagine a spoof of the National Lampoon?"

Nonetheless, several parodies were released in the wake of ashen faced shockers like FRIDAY THE 13th, THE BURNING, FINAL EXAM, THE UNSEEN, NIGHT SCHOOL, and the "DON'T..." pictures shortly thereafter. I've seen most of them, save WACKO, with B-movie stalwart Joe Don Baker playing a cop who goes after the "Lawnmower Killer." SATURDAY THE 14TH was lame. STUDENT BODIES was also lame but oddly endearing (Read). 1982's PANDEMONIUM may well be the best of this modest genre, a take-off that has more genuine laughs than expected, and certainly a game cast.

There's Tommy Smothers as a dedicated Royal Canadian Mountie, attempting to solve the murders of coeds at a cheerleading camp run by Candice Azzara, who was never popular enough to shake the pom poms during her own high school days (this of course automatically renders her a suspect). Carol Kane is the innocent, virginal lead heroine (Eileen Brennan has a cameo as her CARRIE-like mom).  Judge Reinhold, in one of his first parts, is goofily amusing as one of the cheerleaders, while future Pee-Wee Herman Paul Reubens is Smothers' eternally aggravated sidekick. There are other cameos by vets like Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, and Donald O'Connor. Also, an early bit from Phil Hartman. 

You might find PANDEMONIUM a dubious choice for your limited, precious viewing time. Unless you're a fan of cheesy '80s offerings and/or a fan of old slashers, you'd probably be right. Amidst the groan worthy gags/lines (and there are many) are some really choice bits of comedy wrapped in what is essentially, yes, a lame killer-on-the-loose spoof. An unexpected romantic duet between Smothers and Kane, the world's worst restaurant, and the sequence with a victim and "Mr. Shiny Tooth" are hysterical and belong in some kind of low grade Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gordon Willis (1931 - 2014)


"On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control — everything was printed on one light. In fact, much of the negative on the Godfather films will only work when printed that way. I lit and exposed things at the level I wanted to be perceived on the screen. If you don't do that, anyone can decide what your work is supposed to look like, and I never believed in giving the studios that kind of flexibility. So when making exposures, I based my exposures on the full curve of the film, shoulder to toe. The exposures are right where they should be to achieve a given look on the screen, as long as they're printed as designed. There's no room to move things around on the printer."
 
– Gordon Willis, quoted in Post Focus: Paramount Restores The Godfather, American Cinematographer, May 2008


 

On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control — everything was printed on one light. In fact, much of the negative on the Godfather films will only work when printed that way. I lit and exposed things at the level I wanted to be perceived on the screen. If you don't do that, anyone can decide what your work is supposed to look like, and I never believed in giving the studios that kind of flexibility. So when making exposures, I based my exposures on the full curve of the film, shoulder to toe. The exposures are right where they should be to achieve a given look on the screen, as long as they're printed as designed. There's no room to move things around on the printer."
 
– Gordon Willis, quoted in Post Focus: Paramount Restores The Godfather, American Cinematographer, May 2008
- See more at: http://www.studiodaily.com/2014/05/the-quotable-gordon-willis-asc-and-friends/#sthash.6EwWJTDe.dpuf
On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control — everything was printed on one light. In fact, much of the negative on the Godfather films will only work when printed that way. I lit and exposed things at the level I wanted to be perceived on the screen. If you don't do that, anyone can decide what your work is supposed to look like, and I never believed in giving the studios that kind of flexibility. So when making exposures, I based my exposures on the full curve of the film, shoulder to toe. The exposures are right where they should be to achieve a given look on the screen, as long as they're printed as designed. There's no room to move things around on the printer."
 
– Gordon Willis, quoted in Post Focus: Paramount Restores The Godfather, American Cinematographer, May 2008
- See more at: http://www.studiodaily.com/2014/05/the-quotable-gordon-willis-asc-and-friends/#sthash.6EwWJTDe.dpuf
On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control — everything was printed on one light. In fact, much of the negative on the Godfather films will only work when printed that way. I lit and exposed things at the level I wanted to be perceived on the screen. If you don't do that, anyone can decide what your work is supposed to look like, and I never believed in giving the studios that kind of flexibility. So when making exposures, I based my exposures on the full curve of the film, shoulder to toe. The exposures are right where they should be to achieve a given look on the screen, as long as they're printed as designed. There's no room to move things around on the printer."
 
– Gordon Willis, quoted in Post Focus: Paramount Restores The Godfather, American Cinematographer, May 2008
- See more at: http://www.studiodaily.com/2014/05/the-quotable-gordon-willis-asc-and-friends/#sthash.6EwWJTDe.dpuf

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wattstax

The 1973 documentary WATTSTAX, while not exactly "lightning in a bottle", is still an important document of a particular era in a particular (but far from limited to such) environment. Namely, the essentially African-American section of Los Angeles called Watts, unfortunately best known for a series of riots in the mid-1960s. Television viewers may also recall that Watts was the setting for Sanford & Son. WATTSTAX is an effort not only to capture a daylong concert at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum - a festival to celebrate black artists and culture - but also provides interspersed glimpses of the namesake community. A series of candid interviews with locals as they hang out on the front steps or have a meal.

Their words ring with authenticity. They speak of the plight of the black man/woman in a society still adjusting to civil rights, of the awful segregationist history. They don't live in Mayberry, with its feel good moralism. And it isn't just "black versus white." Lengthy discussions of how men of color kill one of their own are explored, for example. Also, in an interesting batch of interviews, several women of differing ages do angrily denounce interracial pairings, how "white women don't understand the black man's games". Most of the speeches are serious, though Richard Pryor is also periodically featured reminiscing about his childhood in Peoria, Illinois, relaying tales in his compelling, uproarious, and inimitable style. It is actually from Pryor that I likely first learned of the reality of American racial relations. I covertly listened to his raw comedy albums, dubbed by my friends on unmarked cassettes. What a bad day, when I was about 13, when my father rifled my room and (randomly?) picked guess which tape to monitor?

Pryor isn't the only familiar face in WATTSTAX: Ted Lange, who would go on to play Isaac the bartender on The Love Boat, sits with the guys in a restaurant and gives his take on The Man and inequality. It's quite funny to see the angry young man, so far removed from his later benign TV persona.

Then, there's the music. Some heard during tours of neighborhood churches. Great gospel hymns. The Staple Singers are on the soundtrack.  The concert itself features good performances by, among others, the Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram, and for the finale, Isaac Hayes (whose climactic "Shaft" number was cut from WATTSTAX's original release due to some issues with a rival movie studio). Rufus Thomas sings about cheaters, then singles out a guy who ignores security and plops down on the field with his umbrella. With a series of funny rhymes ("Get off the fence; it don't make no sense!"), the singer effectively reverses the usual heckling seen at such events.

With the involvement of producer David L. Wolper and director Mel Stuart (WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), you might expect WATTSTAX to play like a clueless outsider's take on ghetto life, a "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Black Community!" bit of patronizing. Some critics feel that way. Aside from a few questionable editing choices, I disagree. I'm not bothered by lingering shots of wiggling thighs and asses in the stands or of artists chowing down on ribs in the back of a limousine.  While you may wonder how staged some of the "Man on the Street" segments are,  it all comes together not as a slick package, but a sober, intriguing piece of history.

Jesse Jackson takes the Wattstax Music Festival Stage early in the day and gives some good advice during his invocation:

Instead of 'burn baby burn', let's learn baby, learn!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alien

That shadowy egg always appeared as if to be smiling. It scared the you-know-what out of me when I was ten. The newspaper ads and posters for 1979's ALIEN burned themselves into my head and never left, leaving me to this day feeling uneasy when I see or even think of it. That's some shrewd marketing, 20th Century Fox. And very truthful. Such a simple image. The promise of something frightening. As you may know, it delivers in spades.

What is not so simple is the production design for ALIEN, Ridley Scott's second theatrical feature as director. So detailed are the sets and props that the microcosm within the spaceship Nostromo is as real as any manufactured space I've seen in a movie. It all seems possible. For many films, this sort of fastidiousness with set dressing would be considered icing on the cake. ALIEN creates a claustrophobia that yes, is as much mental as physical, but the locations themselves are so vividly evoked, so eerie in their cold stillness. It's as if the ship and the planet upon which the action occurs will release a stranglehold at any moment.

And Scott's classic sci-fi/horror film in fact does resemble a 2 hour vice grip, a tense odyssey with a diverse crew of officers, scientists, and mechanics as they trade curiosity for survival after an alien form invades their ship, a commercial vessel mainly built to transport mined ore. What was supposed to be an uneventful, straightforward mission. Then, a signal. Maybe it was a warning. To stay away. But Corporate orders an investigation of the planetoid from which the signal originates, to investigate possible alien life. The crew does in fact find it.

Dan O'Bannon's screenplay (with uncredited contributions by David Giler and Walter Hill) takes its basic cues from "who goes there" and "And then there were..." thrillers but evolves into something far more disturbing. Stories like this go back a ways, though many cite IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) as the inspiration for ALIEN. I recently watched that cheesy old movie (review to come) and can see the broad outlines. Scott and company transcend the B-movie premise not only with extravagant effects, but also some disquieting observation of societal (and gender) roles.

The sociology of ALIEN is sketched briefly, early in the proceedings but will remain a consideration to the very end. There is a pecking order amongst Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  There are also Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), often relegated to the bowels of the vessel, away from the others, griping of their duties and fretting of their wages. May as well be steerage. There are standard moments of who outranks who in the group, but the alien threat is an equalizer: while each crew member may have a different skill (and mind-) set as to how to handle this life-or-death scenario, it  may all come down to a form of Darwinism.

There is a fair amount of obvious sexual imagery in ALIEN. Even if you're not so inclined to find it (some people can find sexual and religious imagery in damn near anything). Observe the designs of the ship, the alien itself. The implications and fears of bodily violation, the process of incubation and birth. What's always struck me about ALIEN is how feminine its point of view seems. More than just Ripley as a warrior - most definitely not the usual tag along victim seen in most such films - or the ship's Artificial Intelligence known as "Mother" The men are the ones compromised. By a female alien as the rapist. Perhaps this can be seen as the filmmakers' commentary on the typical genre scenario. It's hard not to wonder what David Cronenberg could've done to flesh out these ideas.

Ridley Scott, unlike Cronenberg, does not treat us to any gynecological detail but does sport some celebrated, icky gore here and there, most notably the infamous chest bursting scene that caused a buzz among my classmates back when. In case you're not familiar, squeamish viewers best look away during that moment.

ALIEN would eventually spawn three sequels, each less impressive than the previous, though all worth at least a look. James Cameron's ALIENS was a relentless action film; David Fincher's ALIEN 3 considered more of the cerebral, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet's ALIEN RESURRECTION (which had a screenplay by Joss Whedon) just seemed pointless, though I did like seeing the alien underwater.

Scott would, for his next film, create another iconic science fiction classic, BLADE RUNNER. It did a fraction of ALIEN's box office but has likewise acquired a very devoted fan base. I love both, some of the reasons for which overlap. BLADE RUNNER has more philosophical meat on its bones, to my eyes. Its effects are also beyond that of its predecessor, quite revolutionary.  But ALIEN is no mere warm-up. It is the ne plus ultra of its kind, a must even if you hate these sorts of films. Scott deserves a spot in the Pantheon for ALIEN alone. Shame about PROMETHEUS, though.

P.S. - H.R. Geiger, the Swiss artist who designed the alien creature (and a vast body of surrealist pieces), passed away earlier this week.  He was 74.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunset Boulevard

Spoilers

By the finale of SUNSET BOULEVARD, as Norma Desmond descends the staircase and utters one of the most famous lines in the history of the movies, we've in turn witnessed one of the most shattering indictments of the medium, seen before or since its 1950 release. You could discuss how director Billy Wilder's undisputed classic is all about mental illness, how Gloria Swanson so urgently (yet delicately) creates a convincing portrait of a simmering madness. Is it medical? Neurological? Jettisoning that, I think it's closer to the disease of Hollywood itself - a complete immersal in the land of make-believe. A lifetime spent building a fantasy fed by the creative types and sycophantic assistants around her. To say nothing of an adoring (and ultimately fickle) public. Deification, perhaps?

Is there room for reality in such a life?  Any real estate left in the brain to consider anything besides show business? Recall that great moment in THE PLAYER, when Tim Robbins' Hollywood honcho asks his co-horts: "We're educated people. Can't we talk about anything besides movies?" They all laugh.

Self-worth in celebrity infested Los Angeles is so often defined by fame. But they'll forget you, just you wait. You're left with memories that become your present day. You conveniently ignore the change of season. In a seeming aside, Bob Woodward wrote of an observant woman in his biography of the late John Belushi, Wired. Someone who happened upon the fading actor/comedian in public as he was watching himself on a screen, four years after his pinnacle of fame.  She remarked that she was witnessing a contemporary, true-life Norma Desmond, in the flesh. While I'm trotting out pop culture icons, I can also remember an interview with Henry Winkler in which he described Hollywood as a town filled with so many has-beens, "bruised bananas". 

Joe Gillis (William Holden) isn't around long enough to become such, but is one of that even larger group, the "would-" or "wanna-be"s. He is a struggling screenwriter, failing in his meetings with studio execs and outrunning those hired to repossess his automobile. But one day he seals his fate by turning into the driveway of an old mansion, owned by former starlet of the silents, Norma Desmond. He recognizes her, alright, and soon finds himself in her employ, editing a screenplay called Salome that she has fashioned to be her big comeback. He finds it an unruly mess, no doubt a reflection of its author.

Gillis, hardly in a position to refuse, begins living in the great mansion, and lavished by his hostess with expensive clothes. Ever self-aware, he grows comfortable with the arrangement, but soon learns of the depth of the seams in the facade. Norma is deeply depressed, suicidal. She will think nothing of slitting her wrists for attention. Norma's butler Max (played by director Erich von Stroheim) reveals large, telling secrets about his relationship with her. Joe later attends a New Year's Eve party she throws, discovering he is the only guest, his suspicions of her intentions confirmed.

But Joe is meanwhile falling for Betty (Nancy Olson), a script girl at Paramount who at the beginning of SUNSET BOULEVARD is observed criticizing one of his efforts. Later, she sees promise in his work and desires collaboration. Joe takes to secret late night meetings at the studio with her. Despite Betty's engagement with Joe's friend, Artie (Jack Webb, in a very entertaining performance), she becomes involved with the fledgling writer.

Things seem to brighten for Ms. Desmond after Salome is delivered to the studio. She'll even score a meeting Mr. Cecil B. DeMille. But things aren't as they seem.  Comebacks are only imagined.  Norma owns a gun.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is as cold and brilliant a Hollywood portrait as I've ever seen. Grim, but often grimly funny.  There have been many other task taking Tinseltown sagas, most satirical, but none quite achieving the devastating coda of Wilder's film. The director, co-authoring with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., utilizes the familiar device of having yet another actor of silent films failing to make the transition to talkies. Convenient enough, but Norma's story is timeless, and still playing out, right at this moment, I'll bet.  Someone is sitting in his or her rotting Bel Air mansion (or perhaps dumpy walk up in Echo Park) surrounded by head shots and/or watching their old work, just like Norma does (in one of  the film's numerous haunting images), dreaming. Dying.

The film is narrated by a character who is murdered, one who became a victim of celebrity. But Norma is left to suffer, even as she is led down that staircase, believing that she is filming a movie, at long last! She lets Mr. DeMille know she is indeed ready for her close up.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Berry Fresh Cafe

Berry Fresh Cafe has become my favorite spot for Sunday brunch. If you are near Port St. Lucie or Jupiter, FL, you owe yourself the experience. A menu with made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch choices that really knocked me out of my seat. Many places offer serviceable brunches but this one is something special.

During both visits I tried their hash dishes: crispy homefries covered with two eggs your way and a host of ingredients. I had avocado, black bean, and chorizo ("Mexicali") the first time. This past Sunday my hash was covered with artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, sprouts, and gorgonzola cheese ("California"). The Rainforest Alliance coffee is fabulous. If I lived closer, I would've tried everything by now.

Whatever you end up ordering, you should begin with the blueberry fritters, brought in a paper bag filled with cinnamon and sugar; your server shakes up the sack at the table. It is served with strawberry yogurt.

Trust me. Go.


Berry Fresh Cafe

2 Locations:

1718 SW St. Lucie West Blvd.
Port St. Lucie, FL 34986
(772) 336-5291


3755 Military Trail
Jupiter, FL  33458
(561) 401-5693                                                             
                                           





Berry Fresh Cafe

Monday, May 5, 2014

Hot Fuzz

Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, Chapter Two

Nicholas is the most dedicated cop in the London Metropolitan Police Service. He's so good at apprehending bad guys he makes the others on the force look like mere slackers. In the hilarious opening montage of 2007's HOT FUZZ, the second feature in the Cornetto series, Nick is showcased by ceaseless heroics and a steely-eyed, rulebook determination that, as no good deeds go unpunished, leads him to lose his girlfriend/fellow officer (who breaks up with him at a crime scene) and be reassigned to a rural nowhere called Sanford. A town where there's been nary a whiff of crime for years.

Life in this Gloucester hamlet is so laid back that Nicholas (Simon Pegg) finds only an old man with a shed full of unlicensed guns and a group of underage ale swillers to bust. During Nick's first night in town, he picks up a drunk driver who turns out to be his new partner, Danny (Nick Frost), who also happens to be the chief inspector's son. The two form something of a friendship (bonding over a night of watching POINT BREAK and BAD BOYS II), but Nicholas again finds himself mocked and shunned by the other cops (who really are slackers), and practically everyone in town.

Then a series of really grisly murders rocks the idyll. Nicholas becomes increasingly suspicious of lip smacking Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, clearly enjoying himself), the arrogant manager of the local supermarket. And what is the self-important, strangely secretive NWA (Neighbourhood Watch Alliance) doing about these unfortunate turns of events? They seem like kindly townfolk, but....

As with THE WORLD'S END and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ casts squinted eyes at collectives, mob mentalities. Tribalism, if you will. Even nationalism gets a ribbing in the grand scheme of it.  I can't go into too much detail without ruining the crux of the plot and its surprises, but the writers' aims are unmistakable. These recurring themes inform the plotlines, amidst (sometimes beneath) the vulgarity and carnage, a bit of deft handling rarely seen in American cinema anymore.

In fact, I feel that the modern American comedy film is all but dead. The spirit of anarchic fun that had an edge, even a bit of intelligence in comedies of decades past has long since drained away in the relentlessly idiotic offerings by Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and many others.  A pity, because these guys have proven that on the small screen they have the chops, are able to pull off skilled impersonations and a real understanding of the art form. I even believe the spirits of old greats like Sid Casear and Jack Benny are sometimes evoked in their shtick. But on the big screen, it's as if their talents have gone on holiday.  Maybe Jerry Seinfeld was right when asked why he hasn't transitioned to film - "I'm not sure comedy wants to be a movie."

But director/writer Edgar Wright and his cronies have bucked this Yankee trend, creating riotous, cheerfully profane sagas that revel in their savvy without being smug (or just plain stupid). With HOT FUZZ, the patented action vehicle provides a very workable foundation in which to infuse the humourous, with distinctively British touches (an intense car chase is interrupted by our heroes' necessity to rescue a runaway goose) that are refreshing in this era where bodily function gags and endless profanity for its own sake tend to be the highlights of your average stateside comedy. I absolutely love these guys' efforts to find the lighter sides in genres that tend to wear glum faces:  sci-fi (THE WORLD'S END, previously reviewed) and horror (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, up next month). But with their winks they also push the narratives full tilt, with plenty of the sort of thrills you would expect in each genre. With these guys, you really get to have your Cornetto and eat it too.



Postscript: As HOT FUZZ features a team of mismatched crime fighters, you might also include it as an entry in another film anthology here at Lamplight Drivel, the "Cinematic Wiseacre Duos." As in the other flicks, there are the aforementioned wisecracks, chases, serial killings, blood, the old "fish out of water" story, and pointed social barbs.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blue Jasmine

SPOILERS!

The variability of Woody Allen's recent resume has taken his once-a-year films off my "Must Automatically See" list for some time. I've bemoaned his seeming phoning in of a lot of his pictures in the past 14 years, though every once in a while there is a MATCH POINT to remind us of his capabilities. 2013's BLUE JASMINE is another Allen film that stands out at this late date, that is worth the effort, one that travels very worn territory in the Woody oeuvre, but is skillfully produced and features a dead-on turn by Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for her work) that is as good as any performance in the director's previous.

Blanchett is in fact the reason to see BLUE JASMINE, to watch her so thoroughly own the title role, a profoundly troubled middle-aged woman who finds herself living with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a modest San Francisco flat after her high life in the Hamptons crashes and burns. It is quite a comedown for a woman accustomed to the finer things, once afforded by her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), shown in flashback. We learn of Jasmine's denial in the fallout early on, when despite her being flat broke arrives in California and announces that she just flew first class.

Jasmine is never quite able to accept her downward spiral, her lost affluence, even as life hands her one cold reality after another. An unskilled woman trying to eke a living, to take what she considers menial tasks. Such as her lowly position as a receptionist in a dentist's office.  Insult added to injury when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes a pass at her.

Allen's screenplay treads the predictable; its set-ups often so clear to predict certain disaster. Jasmine finally begins to find happiness with an affluent widower named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who she meets at a party. She immediately paints a fantasy of herself, setting up a house a cards that will inevitably topple. But how else can it be for such a tragic character?

The cast of BLUE JASMINE is well selected. This includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's crude ex-husband, who surprises with a disciplined portrayal; a controlled, toned down sort-of version of his old stand-up persona. Hawkins entirely holds her own against Blanchett and the other actors offer strong support.  Some have felt that Blanchett is over the top, a bit too much. I disagree. I've met women like Jasmine, some still in their guilded cages, oblivious to the mundanities of life. Then those who've lost it all, clueless as to how to function, still living in a pampered dream. A bit like Norma Desmond, flatly refusing to face change, retreating to some happy place, perhaps even sitting and singing to make it all go away. Perhaps like Jasmine.

Another drama might offer, at story's end, a ray of hope for Jasmine, at least a hint of reconciliation with the other characters. But Woody Allen is a realist, perhaps even a fatalist, and his conclusion is as realistic as it is bleak. By the last scene, there are no hugs, no lessons learned, to quote the m.o. of the Seinfeld sitcom. I felt pity and sadness for Jasmine. But I did also hope for her.