Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Review: Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine" commences with a simple device – Jasmine (Cate Blanchette) is relaying her backstory aloud, seemingly to the woman seated next to her on the airplane – though likelier, just to herself.  Jasmine, having recently suffered a breakdown, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.  It’s a clever way to serve the character and allow for efficiency of exposition.  We get a handle on Jasmine – a one-time anthropology student who chose to get involved with a professor rather than finish her degree – and her situation – financially swindled by her professor-turned-husband – before she reaches her destination.

When Jasmine does finally arrive, with multiple pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage in tow, it’s to the eclectic San Francisco apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Both adopted, Jasmine and Ginger are presented as a sort of odd couple.  If Jasmine’s style is Louis Vuitton, Ginger’s is Gucci knock-off, at best.  But Ginger is sweet, and seemingly forgiving, even if her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is not.

Through flashbacks we learn of the financial, and personal, crimes committed by Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), including the fraudulent investments he made with Augie and Ginger’s money.  And we learn about the Upper East Side lifestyle which Jasmine continually longs for.  Stuck in Ginger’s noisy apartment with her two kids and greasy boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) Jasmine teeters constantly on the brink of another breakdown – until she fibs her way into the life of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy Marin county widower.

As far as themes go, it doesn’t get much more classic than the longing for class and status – and that’s definitely near the heart of "Blue Jasmine," much as it was in "Match Point."  While in that previous film writer/director Woody Allen built a sexy thriller, here his story is a drama.  Jasmine may do all the longing she wants, but don’t expect any happy endings.   

It might be the final act that really disguises "Blue Jasmine" from being an Allen film.  There is an off-handed mention of “chance” by Dwight, but ultimately the characters are all held responsible for their own actions.  Serendipity, luck, and other recurring Allen themes are absent here.  If it weren’t for the iconic Windsor font at the film’s opening, it might be hard to recognize it as belonging to Woody Allen.  Not that that’s a bad thing – there’s a narrative voice here, but it seems to belong more to Blanchette.

Playing the title role, Jasmine is really a tour de force for Blanchette, who captures the ability to remain icy while fighting back hot tears.  Clad in chic fitted Chanel dresses, she constantly brings Jasmine to the edge of being too unlikable, and then pulls back, letting charm take over.  Does Jasmine have any sincerity to her?  Is she simply a lost soul?  Is she any better a person than her husband was?  Those are all questions we might not necessarily get the answers to.  For all of Jasmine’s public monologuing, she might not really know herself at all. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Songs I can’t get out of my head: Vol. 17

Lord Huron – “Time To Run”
L.A. band Lord Huron’s 2012 release, Lonesome Dreams is, appropriately, a terrifically dreamy album.  This second track on the band’s debut opens with the sound of wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, and then works up to quickening the pace, while still maintaining its indie-folk feel.

Chvrches – “Recover”
Though their first studio album isn’t due until September, Glasgow’s Chvrches has been receiving buzz all year – they were a hard-to-catch hot ticket at SXSW.  And for good reason – their brand of synthpop is accentuated by the fragile, gorgeous voice of Lauren Mayberry, who bears some vocal resemblance to Ellie Goulding.

Ra Ra Riot – “Dance With Me”
Since their first release in 2007, Ra Ra Riot has produced consistently good, complex indie-pop.  Utilizing cello and violin, the group gives variety to the breadth of their songs – producing the lulling “Can You Tell” as easily as they do the more raucous “Dance With Me.”

Cayucas – “Cayucos”
An indie pop quintet from Santa Monica, Cayucas released this track as a single, ahead of their full album “Bigfoot” release, which came out this spring.  It’s a simple fun-fueled track that summons the “shake”s from the classic “Jump In The Line.”

**Bonus Track** If you've been looking for a good "Blurred Lines" mash-up, THIS might just be it.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Review: I’m So Excited

In “I’m So Excited,” writer and director Pedro Almodovar delivers a farcical, sometimes uncomfortable, character-focused romp.  The plot is fairly simple – a flight on its way to Mexico City must continue to stay in the air when its landing gear gets stuck – which places the majority of the movie’s focus on its characters – their sordid personal lives and polarizing personalities.

After the first class cabin’s three flight attendants – the effeminate and newly religious Fajas (Carlos Areces, “Talk To Her”), the free-spirited Ulloa (Raul Arevalo), and the honest-to-a-fault Joserra (Javier Camara) – have lightly drugged the passengers and attendants in coach, they are free to do as they wish. 

More often than not what they wish to do is disrupt the plane’s captains, entering into the cockpit for some bits of business that result in curious revelations about the seemingly hetero and married captains.  Almodovar’s script is heavy on wordplay, but it doesn’t solely rely on innuendo; he wants to show you as well as tell you.

If it seems that the plane’s captains have their secrets, so too, do the first class passengers.  There’s the potentially-psychic Bruna (Lola Duenas), hoping to lose her virginity; the notorious madam, Norma Boss (Cecilia Roth), whose fame might not be as great as her ego; and the white collar criminal Sr. Mas (Jose Luis Torrijo), who might not only be guilty of financial crimes.  While the fate of the plane literally hangs in the air, we see what these characters are really made of.

It’s this concept – placing characters in situations where they are being held captive by something or someone (often Antonio Banderas) to see what they’re really about – that seems to have fascinated Almodovar through multiple films.  It’s a main component in Almodovar’s previous effort, “The Skin I Live In,” but it can be felt too in “Talk To Her,” where a nurse (again, Carlos Areces) acts as a sort of captor to a woman in a coma, and in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” where a madman takes an actress hostage.  It’s as if Almodovar sees himself as a scientist, placing characters in a constrained petri dish, only lightly applying agitation, and waiting to see how the characters will react and change with time.

“I’m So Excited” manages to feel lightweight despite the heaviness that probably ultimately lies at the heart of these characters’ stories.  Almodovar seems to be commenting on the fronts that people put up, the facades that mask their true natures – but he does so with his own brand of camp and peculiar sexual preoccupations.  “I’m So Excited” is not nearly as arresting as “Broken Embraces” or “Volver,” but it’s lighter and campier.

The most disappointing moment in “I’m So Excited” may come at the very beginning of the movie, as we’re introduced to characters played by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.  Almodovar lures us in with these famous faces, and begins to build a compelling story around them, and just when we’re most curious he moves us on to the main story and forgets them.  He arouses us and then doesn’t let us see things through to the finish.  It might be a playful tease, but alas, it’s only a tease.  Perhaps it’s an experiment he’s saving for later.