Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

What Gertrude Stein is reputed to have said about Oakland--"There is no there there"--unfortunately might also be applied to Allen's most recent film, Blue Jasmine.  Cate Blanchett gives a superb portrayal of Jasmine, a woman who has married up and lives a life of leisure, consuming only vodka and tranquilizers.  Completely self-centered, she goes to pieces when her charming husband (Alec Baldwin) gets nabbed for investor fraud and all their worldly goods are confiscated (which you would think would be bad enough, but  no:  Allen has to include scenes in which she finally learns of her husband's long-standing infidelities and his desire for a divorce).  Her solution is to leave the East and go to San Francisco to live with her sister, well played by Sally Hawkins, who has remained in the blue collar world Jasmine somehow managed to escape.  It's improbable on the face of it that this physically attractive but mindless Jasmine could have managed to reach the top 1% on her own, but never mind.

At its core, this purports to be a comedy based on class differences, with Jasmine struggling to survive in a working class environment.  Blanchett is wonderful, but her role is inadequately conceived.  There may well be a nod on Woody Allen's part to Streetcar Named Desire,  but the difference is that we care about Blanche DuBois. With one exception, which I'll return to in a moment, we don't care about Jasmine.  Allen puts Jasmine in unfamiliar situations, having to make conversation with her sister's complacently male friends, for example, or writhing away from a dentist's embraces after she finally lands a job as his receptionist, but Allen doesn't shape the scenes.  Any controlling point of view is noteworthy by its absence.  Jasmine can not learn how to use a computer, for example.  This is not amusing, it's inane.  She gratuitously lies about herself and her past to an attractive man (Peter Sarsgaard) she meets at a party.  He falls for it.  Inane again.  Window shopping for an engagement ring, the two of them are unexpectedely confronted by Jasmine's former brother-in-law (Andrew Dice Clay).  The engagement is off.  Quelle surprise! Do we care?  No.  The machinery of the plot all but creaks.  Are we amused?  No.  Do we gain any self-knowledge, seeing some portion of ourselves mirrored, if only darkly?  No.

I mentioned earlier that Jasmine is completely self-centered.  Throughout the film, she continually talks about herself.  By the end, hopeless, she goes to a park and begins muttering.  She's become the kind of person on a park bench the rest of us edge away from.  At this point, paradoxically, we care about her.  Yes, she's brought this upon herself, but now she's mentally ill.  What Allen apparently doesn't realize is that she deserves our compassion, not our contempt.  Puck might see her plight as an example of what fools we mortals are.  But Allen is no Puck, and this is no comedy, not even a satiric one.  There's no there there.  It's simply cruel.

A miss, an utter miss.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Melissa Milgrom's Still Life: Aventures in Taxidermy

Milgrom's Still Life:  Adventures in Taxidermy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) is a lively book on a subject few of us, I imagine, think about at all.  At once an informal history of taxidermy, an engaging profile of several taxidermists, English, American, and Canadian, and a candid account of her own attempt to mount a Brooklyn squirrel running along a wire, Still Life deftly engages the reader and keeps that reader turning pages.  As if all that weren't enough, Milgrom gives a wonderful account of how taxidermists compete with each other and how the judges, in turn, evaluate their work (I'll say only that the genitals turn out to be very important).  Is taxidermy a craft?  An art?  Or something that on occasion inhabits the vague boundary between the two?  Reading Still Life won't give you the answers, but Milgrom will get you thinking about the question. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Whedon's Much Ado is Really Something!

Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing has never been a favorite comedy of mine--not, that is, until last night, when I had the pleasure of seeing Joss Whedon's recent film.  The verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick had always struck me as tiresome, while the malapropisms of the constable Dogberry had always seemed to me more contrived than amusing. 

But Whedon has forced me to change my mind.  He has directed and produced a film of Much Ado that is truly a festive comedy.  Not only does the film end with a dance, but it makes the audience want to get up and dance with the characters.  And somehow he managed to make this movie in a mere twelve days while keeping within a miniscule budget.

Is it a perfect film?  Well, no.  It's set in our time in what looks like Santa Monica.  For a duke to pull up to a house in a procession of limos doesn't quite equal the pageantry of an entrance on stage, while the discrepancy of men in suits and ties speaking Shakespeare to each other is initially off-putting.  And pulling back your suit jacket to point towards an automatic in a belt holster doesn't work as well as a hand on your sword when challenging somebody to a duel.  Having Beatrice slosh down so much wine seems rather too much of a good thing.

What bothered me the most is the enforced split in the characterization of Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Beatrice (Amy Acker).  Whedon motivated the putdowns between Beatrice and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) by opening with a scene of Benedick leaving Beatrice's bed:  she is feigning sleep, he is trying to decide whether to say anything before he leaves.  He remains silent.  In the narrow sense of motivating their professed distaste for each other, the scene works.  In terms of the film as a whole, however, it's questionable.  Hero, Beatrice's beloved cousin, is the model of chastity who is (falsely) accused of being a wanton.  Beatrice is staunch in her support.  But the polarizing language of Shakespeare's virgin/whore dichotomy to me cast a shadow over Beatrice's character--as it wouldn't have done if Whedon had not interpolated that scene.

Nevertheless, I'll still give Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing an A.  The casting is right on, every actor performs admirably, the slapstick farce is funny, and the movie joyful.  See it if you possibly can.  A hit, a palpable hit!