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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

PRINCE AVALANCHE (2013)


I’m on board with any movie that takes two broad comedy characters, deposits them in a Terrence Malick movie and then asks me to take them as seriously as the lush beauty of the sometimes harsh natural world around them – and succeeds.  David Gordon Green fuses his two-headed career into one mind and creates a tone that greets the receptive viewer with what can best be called gentle broadness.  The film gets started on a questionable note, as we’ve yet to acclimate to Alvin’s (Paul Rudd) quasi-formal speech patterns toward his road crew employee, Lance (Emile Hirsch) – they work together to paint yellow lines on long stretches of newly-restored fire-ravaged roads in 1980s Texas.  Alvin feels like some of the same self-mocking characters we’ve seen from Rudd before, but made especially ironic by his thickly-groomed matte of a mustache, which has a power all its own to destroy our trust in the filmmaker.  But we soon learn that this is who he is – a not-so-pleasant loner attempting to cultivate an air of intelligence possibly beyond his grasp, even if it’s only to fool himself.  He’s cloaked himself in a kind of transcendental, self-reliant, self-indulgent Thoreau-lite, but we learn from his time in the woods that he’s mostly just avoiding his problems – namely his girlfriend, who also happens to be Lance’s sister.  His more-Walden-than-thou faƧade may have worked to give him a self-regard makeover, but it’s also worked on his charge, whose open-faced acceptance of Alvin’s wisdom is a sweet-souled, near-Lenny-esque take on the empty-headed, 20-something drifter with no plans beyond the next girl he’s going to bed.  Lance is the kind of guy who, while searching for his co-worker among the trees, cries "Alvin!" at the top of his lungs, but is completely unaware of the cultural reference. Together they form an act suitable for a particularly patient southern Vaudeville circuit.



These two are cut from the same cloth that normally gives us Step Brothers, or Year One, or any such not-so-novel vehicle for bodily function jokes and unconvincingly affected, stammering, faux-macho insecurity.  The blunt force of these kinds of movies and the characters that populate them is usually wielded to generate the easy laughter of superiority, if not, for some, genuine dunder-headed identification.   But Green is a smart filmmaker, and despite his recent penchant for pot-head empowerment, or perhaps even in that same vain, just from a different, less-fogged route, he shows here that he’s still as deeply connected to the earth as he was in his first three features (George WashingtonAll the Real Girls, and Undertow).  And as the plot, thin as it is, if not willfully non-existent, lolls forward along the un-yellow-lined road, these two 2-dimensional constructs are drawn out into their third dimension, depth, by sheer virtue of being slowly imbued by the magical force of their natural surroundings.  It’s far too much to say that what we end up with is a rich and compelling treatise on man in the universe, but it is at least an earnest and engaging revelation of what might make these kinds of guys tick.

The movie has its moments of internal illogic – why aren’t the guys fired for their moment of drunken, yellow-lined road doodles?  They survive that episode in the same way that Sylvester the cat survives dynamite exploding in his face, by a simple cut to the next scene.  But concerns like this are redeemed by the hopeless amount of charm that exudes from their basic nice-guy souls.  We like them, we like the quiet of their surroundings, and we have a latent envy of their relative freedom from supervision, heavy traffic, oppressive schedules, and, save for each other, human beings.  It’s an idyllic life with simple responsibilities and lots of time to think.  It’s nature.  And we miss it when we see it photographed so well.  In the film’s single best sequence, we’re treated to an extended musical montage of Alvin’s weekend alone, while Lance has gone into town, and we see over the course of a few minutes just what the director is up to – flowers, trees, Alvin, clouds, grass, Alvin, wildlife, flowing water, Alvin – the rhythm is calculated to make us view Alvin himself as part of nature, a human creature whose life, and all the complications therein, is just another manifestation of the unpredictable, elemental fabric of the earth.  These are high-falutin’ words, especially since the sequence is also funny: this comical little man in his baggy workman’s overalls, communing with God’s naked earth.  Funny until the sequence ends with Alvin intruding upon an old woman scavenging through the ashes of her home, which was destroyed by wildfire.  The woman’s slow, catatonic groping for lost items is a decidedly downbeat reminder that the bucolic scenery we’ve just been treated to could explode into fury whenever it pleases – and lives can be destroyed.  Later, Alvin finds another abandoned wreck of a home and does an impromptu pantomime of some luckier man’s life, opening invisible doors and talking to various members of an imaginary loving family – a weirdly comic, vaguely poignant interlude that feels at once like the found moment of an improvising film crew and the revelation of this man-child’s most inward need.
Some may say these sorts of detours spoil whatever fun we may be having watching the characters flail inside of their bruised egos, and that it pulls the movie into unnecessary pretension and unearned pathos.  Maybe.  But for me, interludes like this, and there are a few, give the movie the patchwork feel of a docudrama wrapped in a comic dream, and function as a dark parallel to the ultimate lesson these fellows learn, which is that our problems will always be ours, but our humanity is defined by our capacity to help mitigate each others pain – pain that can arrive and destroy so naturally.



Thursday, August 15, 2013

BLUE JASMINE (2013)


We love watching people crack up.  Stewart in Vertigo, Deneuve in Repulsion, Nicholson in The Shining, Portman in Black Swan.  There’s something perversely entertaining about seeing someone succumb to the level of frustration or fury or paranoia that results in a total mental disconnect.  But Woody Allen goes further in his new movie – or anyway, allows his lead actress, Cate Blanchett, to take his movie beyond what could have been just a simple entertainment.  His storied distance from actors whom he’s hired, typically avoiding any meaningful communication with them, gives them as much latitude as they can handle, and it’s mostly up to them to deliver the character.  Some fail to connect (often in a cringe-worthy way: Kenneth Branagh, Jason Biggs), while others grab hold, pull themselves up and make themselves indelible (Keaton, Caine, Weist, Davis).  But none do quite what Cate Blanchett does as Jasmine French in Blue Jasmine.  Blanchett takes what is essentially a standard comic premise – the city mouse and the country mouse, or the fish out of water; following a high society woman, sent low by a crooked husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), and now cobbling together a new life in the sticks – and by the naked truth of her manically radiating despair bends the comedy into a tragedy.  This is the two halves of Melinda & Melinda rolled into one.

The basic riches to rags story is decorated with lightly comic moments that get wrenched into drama with the piercing gaze of Blanchett’s thousand-yard stare.  The script has her correct someone by saying that another character didn’t die from choking to death when he hung himself, he died of a snapped neck.  The darkness in the heart of the blankly delivered correction makes the audience chuckle, but the stare, the insistent, bleak fact of the death that’s written into her countenance, makes us stifle the smiles, refocus our attention, and acknowledge her pain.  Later, recounting her memory of taking a job in New York, post-downfall, and having to wait on her old socialite friends, the chutzpah of her belittling a “menial” retail job in front of her minimum wage sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), is funny – until she sits up, looks off and begins shouting bitterly to one of the friends, who is obviously not there (“I saw you, Erica!”), and we recoil at the undiluted psychosis. Again, later, Jasmine receives a phone call from a prospective new date, and it comes on the heels of a frantically funny search for her ringing cell phone.  She takes a deep breath, regains her poise, and we’re content to enjoy watching her desperate effort, until, after hanging up, she suddenly weeps with such a deep brokenness that we want to reach out and comfort her.  These shifts put the tone and intent of the movie on a see-saw.  It’s difficult to discern how Allen feels about her.  While the director busies himself with nurturing the comic wallpaper around her (why is Michael Stuhlbarg’s dentist character named Dr. Flicker, immediately evoking young Alvy’s “universe is expanding” scene from Annie Hall?), Blanchett’s fully-engaged, raging, bewildered performance draws our admiration even as we’re turned off by her character’s super selfish, condescending attitude.  It’s a mixed bag, but you don’t quite notice, or at least don’t mind at first, the strange friction of loose comedy and tight drama because you can’t look away from Blanchett writhing behind her red-rimmed, steel blue eyes.  It’s a diamond performance in a slapdash setting.

Both the comedy and drama are constructed atop class contrast: we only see how far Park Avenue Jasmine’s fallen by the boxing match playing on the TV of her new temporary home and we only know the humble conditions of her new bunkmates by the stoli martini she’s ordering another one of.  The way Allen makes us think about wealth by showing us how it looks against relative poverty is similar to, of all things, Small Time Crooks – which is getting slightly better with time – wherein the streetwise rabble turn their bank robbing front into an accidental springboard to untold wealth only to lose it again.  In both films, Allen’s noblesse oblige deigns that the poor get the last word on what has value in the grander scheme – in Small Time Crooks, Allen’s character rejects the loot he’s stumbled into in favor of the simple life of beer and cheeseburgers; in Blue Jasmine, sister Ginger’s brief grope toward upward mobility, by her standards, is dashed by a harsh reality that drives her back to her rough-necked but loyal boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). There’s a constant reshuffling of our allegiances between the haves and the have nots.  When Jasmine orders another stoli as a spite to Chili (and most of the people in the audience), we root for the man as he throws insults at her – but later, as we watch her make a slow but earnest effort to get her footing in her new, un-gilded world, we find a real sympathy for her.  It’s as if Allen enjoys giving us a berth to judge both, but to ultimately come down on the side we’d least expect – the one that doesn’t have an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.
This is a story about a fable-in-progress that comes to a grinding, life-changing stop.  Like most people, Jasmine sees herself as the author of her own story, in complete control of the next sentence, the next chapter, until, abruptly, violently – she isn’t.  And just like her, we all sweep the less tidy truths of life under our own narrative rug, with a “habit for looking the other way” – but in her case, the swirling storm of criminal deception and marital infidelity was so obvious, any ignorance of it must have been willful, and it finally spills back out and destroys her.  As she flails toward her new life in San Francisco and proceeds to go about the business of recreating something from nothing, she depends on new personal facts spun from whole cloth, sometimes on the spot, and trusts only the new lies she tells to provide the platform for mounting her new push to the penthouse.  She’s in top form as she tells her potential new lover, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a couple of whoppers to avoid him knowing the truth, and he falls for the elegant widow she wants him to see.  Following this coup of deception, she provides what is perhaps the key line of the entire movie, “It’s all better… I met someone.  I’m a new person.”

But it’s a testament to Allen’s attention to his entire canvas of characters that, while we’re wagging our finger at Jasmine, we get a fuller sense of Dwight’s shallow motives, too.  A man with an eye on a political future, it’s clear he’s willing to marry for less than love in order to present himself to the state of California as the perfect (married) candidate.  Later, when he happens upon the truth of her past, he seems less furious at the lie than at the fact that the lie means he has to fish for a new trophy wife. And Dwight’s not alone in his soft misogyny.  In fact, for the amount of criticism Allen might receive for creating a female character who completely crumbles at the mere loss of her man and his money, none of the men are blameless, either: Hal is a dead-eyed financial sociopath, Chili is prone to fits of property-damaging rage, Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is her ex-husband because he beat her, Dwight is a hollow status seeker, Ginger’s potential new-and-improved boyfriend Al (Louis CK) is hurtfully deceptive, and Jasmine’s son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), perhaps rightfully so, heartlessly crushes Jasmine with a final face-to-face rejection.  Many of these faults are left hovering upstage, sometimes only back story, but they create an implicit world of cruelty and selfishness that at once forces Jasmine’s edge toward total meltdown and justifies the film’s final bleak note – one that, despite the shambling comedy that fills out the edges of Jasmine’s tragedy, fits in perfectly with Allen’s own perennial worldview.  Boiling evenly the primary elements of his latest slew of movies – the tragic morality tales of Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, the broad and breezy characterizations of Scoop and Midnight in Paris, the “short story collection” vibe of Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome With Love, as well as a healthy dollop of 1990s, Judy Davis-brand hysteria in Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry – Blue Jasmine is a familiar kind of fun for the fair-weather Woody Allen fan, but retains the familiar bite for his most foul-weather admirers.