Sunday, January 26, 2014

American Hustle – Blue Jasmine - Philomena

American Hustle succeeds by virtue of razzle-dazzle and acting chutzpah. The tone is set even before the opening scene with the brief advisory: Some of These Things Really Happened. It’s a gleeful hint of the dynamic narrative to follow, which consists of scams and counter-scams, romances real and feigned, friendships formed and destroyed, as a young FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) sets out to grease his career path by exploiting the gifts of two small-time con artists (Amy Adams and Christian Bale) to ensnare some local politicians. Add Jennifer Lawrence to the mix as Bale’s manic-depressive wife and Jeremy Renner as the populist mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and you’ve got a feast of grade-A character acting. Robert de Niro’s cameo as a mob boss adds an element of gravity to the story at just the right time.

The film is cleverly edited, so that the viewer seldom knows as much as do the characters themselves about what’s going on. Brief flashbacks occasionally fill in the blanks, but during the first twenty minutes, we really have no idea who is on who’s side or what’s going down. Viewers may leave the theater wondering if they really care for any of these people—but it would be hard to deny that it was fun following the twists and turns of the plot.

Blue Jasmine, in contrast, is thin on character. Woody Allen seldom elevates his screenplays above the level of cliché, and this film is no different. Two woman, adopted sisters, have followed different paths. One is beautiful and (until recently) wealthy. The other is a plain, working-class woman, divorced, who bags groceries at the local supermarket. They have nothing in common, but when the golden girl (Cate Blanchett) loses everything, she has no other alternative but to move in with her sister (Sally Hawkins).

We follow the lives of this odd couple for a few weeks, but it’s rough sledding. Their arguments are tiresome and repetitive, their amours predicable. And there are very few jokes to enliven the journey. Hawkins’s ex-husband isn’t very interesting and her new boyfriend is worse. Alec Baldwin, as Blanchett’s husband, is, well, Alec Baldwin. 

In the end, Blanchett’s portrayal of a woman in steep decline, though carefully nuanced, is hardly more than a series of reflexive lunges for the Xanax bottle followed by the vodka bottle. I suppose she’s doing her best, but as I mentioned earlier, the script is paper-thin. The best parts of the movie are the lavish parties in Long Island and San Francisco, during which we get to admire the décor and the real estate.

There is something to be said for a film that depicts how a human life can crumble. It elicits our compassion. Unfortunately, due to its lack of convincing detail, Blue Jasmine barely scratches the surface of this theme. (For a far better treatment of it, try Susan Seidelman’s film, Smithereens).

Philomena is a gem. Here, once again, we have class juxtapositions, with Judy Dench as a small-town Catholic woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption a half-century ago, and Steve Coogan as the sophisticated (but recently-canned) BBC journalist who agrees to write a “human interest” story about her, almost as an act of personal desperation. Coogan is looking for something, too—a meaningful life. And although the quest to find Dench’s son serves as the focus of the film, much more of it is devoted to how this odd duo learn to communicate with one another during their search. Dench’s naiveté and religious faith mask some serious truths that Coogan is sensitive enough to pick up on. And Coogan’s wry irony is sometimes even funnier as we watch it sail right over Dench’s head.  

Here’s a sample exchange: the two are in Washington, D.C. standing in the Lincoln memorial in front of the far-larger-than-life statue of the president. Coogan says, as a means of making conversation. “You know, Lincoln was the tallest American president.” Dench replies, “Oh, you can see that even when he’s sitting down.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Snowy Owl Hunting

Though snowy owls seldom wander as far south as Minnesota—except to a few grain elevators in Duluth Harbor and the Sax-Zim Bog near Meadowlands—this winter they’ve been sighted in many places across the state and even down into Iowa and Illinois.

Why? Several explanations have been offered, but to me it seems obvious they like the cold. We’ve been having a frigid winter, with daily highs often below freezing and wind-chills sometimes 50 or 60 degrees below zero. Our governor, in his wisdom and compassion, has closed all the schools in the state three times already.

Even in average winters, birders arrive from Florida, Texas, and California and hire a birding guide in hope of adding the snowy owl to their life lists. I ought to have the gumption to spend at least a little time hunting one down now that they’ve been sighted in the immediate vicinity. And I do.

It was a gray morning, but the temperature had risen 35 degrees overnight to a relatively balmy 18 above zero. The house was no longer emitting large thumps as if the paper carrier had missed his mark by forty feet. 

Our first stop was the Mississippi River near the Franklin Avenue Bridge, where friends had seen two whitish owls flying overhead a few days ago. We clomped through the snow along the Mitchell Trail on the west side of the river, then descended to river’s edge on the east side and walked downstream to the railroad bridge. 

Blue jays, crows, and a single downy woodpecker.

From there we drove south on Highway 55 past Fort Snelling and Mendota, following the bend of the highway east at the oil refinery. A few miles later  we took a right turn (south again) onto Goodwill Avenue, past snow-covered fields and a large horse farm, to a bridge across the tiny Vermillion River. Quite a few snowy owls have been spotted near here according to online sources.

We saw nothing. We drove east on 180th street, crossing the river again, and probably spent thirty minutes overall combing the trees on both sides of the road. No owls. No hawks, even.

Then we paid the nearby village of Vermillion a visit. We’d never been there. It has a Catholic Church with an Austrian-looking spire, a prosperous farm implement dealership spread out across both sides of the road, and a German café called The Stein House.

Heading north again, we made a brief stop at Schaar’s Bluff, where the view out across the bend in the distant Mississippi is fantastic, then made our descent into Hastings to eat lunch at the Onion Grille.

It took us an hour to get back home, during which time we listened to a Duke Ellington CD with songs such as “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.”

I don’t have the blues, however. I didn’t really expect to see an owl. After all, Peter Matthiessen wrote a whole book about snow leopards, and he never saw one.

But what did get me down was when I took a closer look at the ebird map of where snowy owls have been sighted near Vermillion. It wasn’t on Goodwill Avenue but on Hogan Avenue, the next highway over. We were 500 yards from the hotspot when we turned back.

Of course, it’s possible to see the owls anywhere. And clicking on the observation records later, I didn’t see any sightings more recent than January 12. That’s two weeks ago.

It's snowing right now. And you never know. I might see a snowy owl in the backyard tonight.

In fact, any owl would do.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing - the film

Seeking to escape to Southern California, if only for an evening, we rented Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. (I didn’t know it was in black and white, but little matter.) Whedon is best known for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers, and Roseanne, and I half-expected the film would be a sort of “I’ve got a nice house in Santa Monica and some swell young acting friends…but no script!” sort of deal.

In fact, the comedy is well-acted and the cinematography is lush. The dumb parts of Shakespeare’s play—the mistaken-identity element especially—are streamlined, while all the romantic banter between Beatrice, Benedict, and the others characters is given a low-key spin that conveys more emotion and less of the playwright’s over-cleverness than is usually the case. There’s something odd, but also nice, about an Americanized Shakespeare. The “flat” accents give individual words a new thrust. We notice the archaisms and think about what they mean and how they fit.    
I didn’t recognize any of the actors except Clark Gregg (from The Avengers—even him I didn’t know by name) but they seem to be guided uniformly by a desire to speak their lines without undue emphasis, as if they were actually conversing. Amy Acker is especially good as Beatrice, sharp-tongued but also a little weary and lost.

The film rolls along at a steady clip, with well-choreographed movement inside, outside, in the kitchen, down in the surveillance room, and so on. The mellow pop soundtrack goes well with the suits and ties. A lot of wine gets drunk, cart-loads of courtesy and wit are exchanged, and the economical production ends up being genuinely romantic and also sweet.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Caesar Must Die or Frances Ha

The two films mentioned above have several things in common. They’re both black-and-white films with superb cinematography, they’re both “about” art and life, they’re both very good…and I saw them both on the same night.

The contrasts are no less striking, of course. Caesar Must Die takes place in an Italian prison. Frances Ha takes place in Manhattan. Caesar is about middle-aged men suffering the confines of long-term incarceration. Frances is about young women who aren’t always sure where they’re going to spend the night.

But enough of such silliness.

In Caesar Must Die, a group of convicts mount a production of Julius Caesar. They  aren’t professional actors, but their faces are full of emotion and they’re fascinating to watch. The idea of killing someone is not entirely foreign to many of them; they can relate to Caesar’s megalomania and swagger, to Marc Antony’s dissimulation, and to the loyalties and suspicions of conspirators, in ways that many actors perhaps cannot.
The production underscores how good Shakespeare sounds in Italian and how helpful subtitles are when watching any play by the Bard. We see only a highly abbreviated version of the play, which might also be considered a blessing. The film’s brilliant lighting and mis en scene also add  interest.

Frances Ha comes at us from a dreamier and more casual place. Two young women share an apartment. They’re zany, they love to smoke cigarettes and talk, and we might wonder if they're lesbians…except they’re both straight. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice at a dance company; Sophie has a plum job at Random House. Frances would prefer to renew the apartment lease she and Sophie share rather than move in with her boyfriend. But Sophie throws her a curve by announcing that she’s moving out because another girlfriend has invited her to share an apartment in a “cooler” neighborhood.

Frances’s downward spin accelerates when she learns that she’s been passed over for her dance troupe’s lucrative Christmas performances. For the rest of the film, we watch Frances floating through the melancholy holiday season, crashing for a few days with some entertaining guys she knows, visiting her parents in Sacramento, taking a spontaneous trip to Paris to visit a friend who isn’t there, and pouring wine at the dining room of her alma mater to earn some cash.

At one point an erstwhile friend tells Frances, “You have an old face...yet you seem very immature.” And Frances’s obliviousness and irresponsibility are a little annoying. But beneath the goofy, klutzy exterior of this “undateable” young woman, we begin to see a harmless buoyancy that’s rather appealing. The film is full of energy supplied by a host of minor characters and also by the vigor of New York City itself, while both the tone and the pacing of the film are near-perfect.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

There is never a dull moment in the Coen brother’s new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Nor is there an exciting one. 

The film chronicles roughly a week in the life of a Greenwich Village folk singer, though the focus is far less on his music than on his social life—or lack thereof. Llewyn “divides his time” between his erstwhile girlfriend, who happens to be his best friend’s wife; a professional couple who teach at Columbia and live in middle class comfort on the Upper West Side; his childhood home in a working-class borough where his sister lives with her son, now that their father has been put in a home; and a coffeehouse where he occasionally performs. He pays a visit to his agent and to a posh recording studio, where he’s been hired to do a session; he takes a trip to Chicago with two strangers to try to set up a gig with an influential club owner.

In the course of watching scenes from this peripatetic life unfold, like the pages of a film storyboard,  an image of Llewyn forms in our mind, but there isn’t much of an “inside” to it. He’s irascible and hot-headed but never actually devious or manipulative. He takes his art very seriously but has weathered so many defeats that what might once have been an inflated ego has long since become a modest chip on his shoulder. But unlike Job, Llewyn Davis never asks why. When things go wrong, he just picks himself up and starts in again. 

All the same, an aura of suffering and futility hang over the film, and Oscar Isaac does an admirable job of sustaining Llewyn’s weird mix of artistic integrity, fatalistic resignation, and raw spleen. Along with most of Llewyn’s friends, we like him…but we don’t like him much. Can he sleep on the couch tonight? Well…OK.      
The Coen’s are past masters of the individual, self-contained scene, in which a character we’ve never met appears vividly before us (often from behind a desk), plays his or her bit part in the protagonist’s life, and exits the stage. There are plenty of such characters and scenes in Inside Llewyn Davis, through which we get to know the circumstances and events of his life piece by piece—the death of his former singing partner, his former girlfriend’s abortion, how much he owes in back dues at the seaman’s institute. Part of the fascination in watching the film is observing how deftly the bit characters play their roles without quite stepping over the line into caricature.

The Coen brother’s films have always carried a stylized element—some call in “mythic,” other call it “comic book.” In recent films such as A Serious Man and True Grit, the excesses have been more muted, the artistry more pronounced. (Remember The Hudsucker Proxy? Sheesh!) Inside Llewyn Davis seems solid enough, scene by scene, that comparisons to Flaubert may be in order. Also like Flaubert (I’m thinking of the novella Julian the Hospitaller) the most exciting event happens off-stage, after the film is largely over. But that’s as much as to say that Inside Llewyn Davis may be a masterpiece…but that doesn’t mean it’s wildly entertaining.

Postscript: I don’t mind admitting that I’m old enough to remember those days of early commercial folk, when Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio were wildly popular. Very white, very clean, somewhat bland. But also spirited.  I bought a few copies of Sing Out! Magazine, learned a few chords on the guitar, bought some Hohner harmonicas, and watched Hootenanny on TV. But I never liked the genre much. When the Yardbirds and the Kinks came along, things got better.

Now, forty years later, I’m glad I know all the verses to “Three Jolly Coachman.” Then again, when was the last time they sang that at a party?