Sunday, August 4, 2013

Film Reviews - Blue Jasmine and The Spectacular Now

Spoiler warning for both films reviewed below.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is writer/director Woody Allen’s best film since his incredible Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this new film is closer to tragedy than comedy. Allen has made some extraordinary films in the past few years, including Midnight in Paris (for which he won an Academy Award), Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Blue Jasmine is the crowning achievement of his recent work.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, in one of the finest performances of the year) has lost everything – her husband (Alec Baldwin), an investment banker arrested for fraud; her wealth, including her Park Avenue mansion, taken by the government in the aftermath of the scandal; and her sanity. She arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, also amazing), telling a million lies to everyone in sight. The film hauntingly intercuts Jasmine in present-day San Francisco attempting to rebuild her life with scenes from her life as a wealthy New Yorker, almost as if we’re reliving her past with her.

Blue Jasmine has one of the most inspired ensemble casts of any recent movie. Some of the most underrated actors currently working are used here to perfection, including Peter Sarsgaard as an aspiring politician who genuinely loves Jasmine, Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s passionate boyfriend Chili (how our ideas about Chili shift throughout the movie is a testament to the genius of Allen’s writing), and Andrew Dice Clay, who gives the film an unexpected heart as Ginger’s ex-husband.

Jasmine may make mistakes and lie about her past, but the film isn’t afraid to acknowledge when she’s right, which makes her downfall even more tragic. What’s remarkable about Allen’s film is how it neither condemns nor endorses the moral failings of these complex characters. Blue Jasmine defies expectations at every turn, and my evaluation of every character was challenged with each new scene.

At the same time, Jasmine is responsible for nearly everything that ends up destroying her, and watching her lose her mind, muttering to herself and reenacting moments from her past, is pretty devastating – especially since Allen gives us such a vivid sense of the darkness that consumed her perfect life in Manhattan. In a film full of characters who delude themselves into happiness, Jasmine is the least successful of them all.

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now features two of the most complex teenage characters I've ever seen in a film, played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in two of the year's best and most natural performances. Filmed largely in unbroken two-shots, which allow for performances built by posture and body language as much as they are by close-ups, this is a film full of scene after scene that does everything right – there isn’t a moment in the film that rings false.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is a semi-alcoholic underachiever who is the life of every high school party. His longtime girlfriend, the beautiful and popular Cassidy (Brie Larson), breaks up with him near the beginning of the film, and, drinking his sorrows away, Sutter wakes up one morning on the front lawn of wallflower Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The two start spending time together, despite not being part of the same crowd.

There’s a scene early on in the film in which Sutter takes Aimee to an outdoor party, attended by what you might call the more popular crowd (when offered a beer, Aimee says she doesn’t drink, and it’s clear that she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with this crowd at first).

As soon as they arrive at the party, Sutter looks across the crowd and sees Cassidy talking to her friends. As he instigates a conversation between Aimee and a few other people, his attention is focused squarely on Cassidy, who he still hopes to win back. Once Aimee is comfortably engaged in a conversation with the others, Sutter has done his job, so to speak, and he heads over to Cassidy, knowing from their online chat the previous evening that she’s still interested in him. Sutter and Cassidy talk and flirt a little bit, as Sutter seems certain that he is the master of his domain – he has not one but two potential romantic conquests at the party, and, for the time being, he can leave Aimee aside and focus on Cassidy.

Suddenly, Cassidy’s new boyfriend walks up to them, and asks her to leave the party. As Cassidy leaves with this new guy, Sutter is devastated. But he thinks, okay, no worries – I’ll just go to my back-up girl. But when he finds Aimee, she’s hitting it off with another young man! Sutter interrupts their conversation and asks Aimee to walk away with him.

His assumption – that Aimee is a fish out-of-water and will be lost at this party without him as her guide – backfires quickly. There is such an amazing power shift that occurs so naturally in this scene. Sutter feels that he has the power to pick and choose between his multiple romantic conquests, only to realize that he was deluding himself with his first option. So, he scrambles to the “back-up” girl – only to see that she has become engaged with someone else in the interim. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen scenes that understand the whims and anxieties of young people in ordinary but often overwhelmingly painful social settings so well.

There are many scenes in The Spectacular Now that similarly moved me. At their high-school graduation, Sutter and Cassidy have a conversation in the bleachers that evokes an indescribable kind of sadness. She’s not mad at him after their break-up and subsequent almost-getting-back-together – in fact, she jokes that he will always be her favorite ex-boyfriend. For Sutter, though, you almost get the sense that it would be less painful and easier for him to move on from Cassidy if she simply never wanted to speak to him again, and that would be it. But instead, it’s something a little more melancholy. She’ll remember him as kind of a joke – Oh, Sutter, that guy I once dated, he’s funny ­– and move forward with her life. As she leaves him standing alone in the bleachers, his graduation robe open, I felt an immense amount of sadness for these characters.

The film defies every expectation, never once following the expected path. In a lesser film, for instance, Aimee would try to get Sutter to stop drinking and perfect his behavior, but here, she actually starts drinking, too. She develops a dependency on alcohol and gets “worse,” in a sense (and, ultimately, Sutter realizes this and wants her to stay away from him, knowing that he’s bad news for her). 

There’s also the expectation that Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will be tested by Sutter cheating on Aimee with Cassidy. Wrong again. The film instead presents a real impulse – at first, maybe Sutter does want to get back together with Cassidy, and Aimee is simply a temporary rebound relationship. We aren’t meant to judge Sutter because of that – the film presents this in an honest and understanding way. If he had his way in the beginning of the movie, he probably would forget about Aimee entirely and get back together with Cassidy. But the fact of the matter is, he can’t win her back. And, once he accepts that, he ends up falling in love with Aimee. You can think what you want about him, but, like an actual human being, Sutter is complex and has contradictory feelings about multiple people (The Spectacular Now allows every one of its characters to exist with these kinds of contradictions, just like this year’s Frances Ha and Before Midnight).

In perhaps the most powerful scene of the film, Sutter’s boss – who loves him as dearly as anyone else and turns a blind eye to his drinking habit – meets with Sutter in his office. The boss says he can only keep one employee at his store, and he wants Sutter to be his main employee. However, he asks Sutter to promise that he will not come to work under the influence of alcohol ever again. Sutter honestly tells him that he cannot make that promise, and you watch as the boss, who cares and loves Sutter deeply, wants to tell him to get it together, but he can’t – he’s not the young man’s father, and ultimately, he almost admires Sutter for his honesty. This is a tough scene. My heart breaks for both of these characters.

What works so well about all of these scenes is that we’re able to read the intentions and desires of each of these young people so clearly, as they try so hard to appear cool and act natural. The not-always-obvious social violence and exclusion that happens right before our eyes is articulated with such grace and complexity, and the oversimplification of social ostracization that occurs in even the best recent coming-of-age films (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is completely absent from this film.

I’m not mentioning the wonderful passages of the film that involve Sutter visiting his father (the great Kyle Chandler), but suffice to say that The Spectacular Now never missteps. The director is James Ponsoldt, and I'll be first in line for his next film. 

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