FRUITVALE STATION, THE WAY, WAY BACK and BLUE JASMINE



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The movie Fruitvale Station has a horrific finale, a fevered, shaking camera dramatization of a terrible, tragic incident.  It’s also the main reason to see the film.  It’s a disturbing, chaotic and frustrating set of scenes and makes you very angry.  So if nothing else, the movie has certainly achieved something here.  At the same time, as a whole, the movie never really connected with me.  The rest of the film is a chronicle of the events, a day in the life of type thing, of the central character, Oscar Grant, a young man with a difficult background spending his last day on earth without knowing his time is running out. 
How you feel about the film will probably depend upon how you feel about this character.  Oscar (played sincerely and solidly by Michael B. Jordan) is a petty drug dealer who has been in and out of prison.  He’s also a compulsive liar; a player; has anger management issues; and refuses to take any responsibility for how his life has turned out.  He’s the sort of guy who tells his girlfriend and mother of his child that that last affair he recently had, you know the one, well, hey, now, babe, that meant nothing and it’s over and I’m a new guy now; then in the next scene, he’s flirting with a young woman at the store he once worked at.  He’s also the kind of guy who threatens his ex-box with bodily harm if he won’t give him his job back, the job he lost from constantly showing up late (at another time, he threatens to urinate on a poor store owner’s entranceway if he won’t let some friends of his use the store bathroom—you see a pattern here). 
After all that, he should be fascinating.  He’s the sort of character that I go to movies to see.  But Oscar isn’t.  In fact, he’s sort of familiar and the kind of character we’ve seen many times in movies before.  There’s nothing that particularly unique or vibrant about him.  He’s even a bit bland, when all is said and done.  Hard to believe when one reads the description above, but that was pretty much it for me.
I think because of this, once the emotional effect of the horrific incident at Fruitvale Station wore off, I thought: okay, it was a terrible event, but I’m still not sure why the writer/director Ryan Cooglar made the movie.  The tragedy at the end is not presented in a way that is a commentary on Oscar’s life, though one gets the feeling that Cooglar wants it to be in some way.   Instead, it’s unclear Cooglar offers any real insight to the situation or has anything to say about it other than, well, than “shit happens”.   Which, actually, is a perfectly fine theme; it’s just unclear that this was Cooglar’s intention.
I do highly recommend a film with a similar situation, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, written and directed by Paul Greenglass, also a true story about a black teenager who was shot and killed by police officers for unclear reasons; this time in England.   It’s a tension filled story that grabs you from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Fruitvale Station felt a bit too leisurely to me.  
Over the past couple of years, two genres of film seem to have dominated the silver screen: the coming of age film (from Moonlight Kingdom to The Perks of Being a Wildflower to The Kings of Summer to The Bling Ring to The To Do List) and the film apocalypse (from It’s a Disaster to This is the End to The World’s End to World War Z to almost any movie based on a super hero).  I’m not sure what this means.  I can’t say that it’s a particularly optimistic view of the world to say that just when one takes the first steps toward being an adult you’re shit out of luck because the world’s about to bite you in the ass big time.
The latest foray into the coming of age category is The Way, Way Back, a story about a teen,  Duncan (played satisfactorily by Liam James), having to spend a couple of weeks at a beach house with his mother Pam and her new boyfriend Trent, who treats Duncan like a cockroach to be stomped on.  While The Kings of Summer is a more ambitious film, The Way, Way Back is actually more satisfying if for no other reason that while the kids in the former film are nothing but spoiled brats who don’t know when they are well off, the hero in the latter film is in a near nightmarish situation in which he is more sinned against that sinning.
But like many films in this popular genre, The Way, Way Back is fun and entertaining and even moving at times, while not really bringing anything new to the table and it all feels rather formulaic.  What it does have is some very nice acting, especially from Sam Rockwell in the Bill Murray role, as Owen, the manager of a swimming park who takes pity on the depressed Duncan and becomes the true father figure that Trent (Steve Carrell, giving it his all, while at the same time, never seeming comfortable in the roll and always looking miscast) could never be.  Giving more than able support is Toni Collette as  the scared and desperate Pam; Allison Janney, hysterical as Betty, the alcoholic in the making next door neighbor; and Maya Rudolph as Owen’s long suffering co-worker.
Perhaps the most original and intriguing aspect of the screenplay (by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also directed) is the character of Betty.  In many ways, she treats her kids in the same inexcusably awful manner as Trent treats the kids under his roof.  But while Trent leaves you with the feeling that he’s one degree off from becoming Ted Bundy, it’s obvious that Betty and her kids all love each other very much.  It’s a clever juxtaposition.
But in the end, does it really matter?  The way things are going in the movies these days, all the characters are going to die in a couple of years anyway.
Blue Jasmine is a character study of a faded Northern bell.  Any resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire is purely unintentional, I’m sure (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket).  But though written and directed by the great Woody Allen, it feels like a screenplay written by someone who had no emotional attachment to anyone in the film or anything that is going on in it as well.  And when it’s all over, you go: fair enough, but exactly why was it made?
It stars Cate Blanchette as Jasmine, a woman married to a Bernie Madoff type (Alec Baldwin) who loses all her upper class trappings when her husband is arrested and the IRS and the court take everything she owns.  She moves to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger, someone she feels too superior to to really want to have anything to do with (Sally Hawkins).  The story is told in a rather clunky manner with tons of expository dialog and some distracting side trips (mainly dealing with the Ginger’s love life) that just get in the way of Jasmine’s central through line. 
The plot is often not that believable; Jasmine takes a computer course for some reason that never made sense—she claims to be computer illiterate, but no one in her social background is this obtuse.  She also has a romance with a politician on the rise (Peter Sarsgaard), someone who works for the State Department yet still has enough money to buy a second home only Donald Trump could afford (okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get my drift).  This subplot is so questionable that one is expecting Sarsgaard’s character to turn out to be a con man of some sort with the intent of Jasmine getting a taste of her own medicine; but no, he is exactly what he seems.   And that’s without mentioning a surprise ending that only poses more questions than it answers.
On the plus side, this is a movie that is cast within an inch of its life.  Everyone is excellent and some, like Hawkins and Blanchett, are brilliant.  Perhaps most surprising Is Andrew Dice Clay who is spot on as Hawkins’ working class ex-husband (who knew that Clay could actually have had an acting career if he hadn’t been such a jerk).  But in many ways, that is almost all Blue Jasmine has.  Whether that is enough, is up to you.
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TO ROME WITH LOVE


I loved To Rome With Love.  And before everyone goes all tweetery on me and starts ending me hate mail, I am fully aware that it has its faults.  I don’t care.  I loved it.   To Rome With Love is really a portmanteau film, merely an excuse for writer/director Woody Allen to string together four separate stories.   In this way, it’s more or less like his early film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.   But whereas in …Stranger only one story really worked (that of Josh Brolin plagiarizing a friend’s novel when the friend went into a coma), all four stories in To Rome… had merit.  Yes, there is a certain awkwardness to some of the plotting and parts of it could have used a bit more thinking through and may even feel rushed, but they all had their charm and a certain magic to them.  The one that pretty much succeeds on its own terms and feels the most fully realized over all is the one with Woody Allen and Judy Davis (who spouts Allen’s bitchy lines with an Eve Arden heat seeking missile of a delivery) in a tale that feels like a short story that Allen would have written for the New Yorker.  In it, he’s an ex-opera director who discovers a major tenor in the father of his future son-in-law.  The problem is that the man can only sing beautifully in the shower.  So Allen has to stage the singer’s performances in the style of Mary Martin performing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair in South Pacific, with the end result an hysterical staging of Rigoletto.  The second most successful story concerns two honeymooners, innocents from a small town, who find themselves not only seduced by Moma Roma itself, but the man by a prostitute (a very funny Penelope Cruz) and the woman first almost by a movie actor, but then all the way by a hotel thief (you had to be there) in a plot that feels a bit more than borrowed from Federico Fellini’s movie  The White Sheik.  The best performance is probably given by Roberto Benigni as an everyman who finds himself suddenly, out of nowhere, and for no explainable reason, famous for being famous.  The start is a bit clunky and the idea is obvious, but Benigni is a riot.  The least successful, but perhaps most interesting, is Alec Baldwin (somewhat type cast as a somewhat rueful architect) who once lived in Rome.  He meets a young man (Jessie Eisenberg), also an architect, who just happens to be going through the same romantic crisis that Baldwin went through at the same age.  The dialog and philosophical tete a tetes feel a bit dated and very Annie Hallish, and Baldwin’s integration into the story is not well thought out.  It should have been better, but it also has its moments.  The stories all seem unified not just by location, but by theme.  If feels as if Allen is saying that maybe it’s better to not achieve one’s goals, that perhaps in life one would be happier and more at peace if one settled for a simpler life.  In the end, only the Allen character really gets what he wants (staging the perfect opera), but it’s an illusion.  He doesn’t realize that he is actually being ridiculed by his peers.

WHATEVER WORKS AND WHATEVER DOESN’T: Reviews of Whatever Works and Surveillance


Whatever Works is the latest film (though it was written something like forty years ago) from the near legendary writer/director Woody Allen; i.e., screenwriters, never throw out your old scripts, you never know when they might come in handy. I went with a friend who pretty much summarized my feeling for the movie when she said, “I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it”. There’s probably no way I can improve on that. Though the movie doesn’t really work, by the time it’s all over, one actually is moved by the all these different people finding love and relationships that actually work for them. The central problem I had is Larry David who at first would seem the perfect person to cast as a misanthrope. But he tends to say all his lines on the same yelling, boisterous level that he becomes tiring and actually misses most of the comedy (it was originally written for Zero Mostel and you can almost hear these lines drip off his tart tongue). The rest of the cast are perfectly fine, but the story never really comes alive until Ed Begley, Jr. shows up and gives the bravura performance. Here Allen does something I never thought I’d see him do: give a sympathetic portrait of a gay man (though he’s still a bit too squeamish to actually have them kiss).

Surveillance was written by Keith Harper and co-written by director Jennifer Chambers Lynch (who is David Lynch’s daughter—there, I said it, now we don’t have to refer to it again, because it really should be irrelevant). It’s about two FBI agents called to a small town that is the victim of a serial killer. It’s a first script by Harper, who also plays a policeman in the movie. The movie has one incredible sequence when two sadistic cops, who tend to stop miscellaneous out of town drivers and psychologically fuck with them, target two cars, one with a family and one with two hopped up druggies, and then everyone is attacked by two serial killers. This sequence shows what the movie could have been, but wasn’t. Bill Pullman, one of the agents, has his partner Julia Ormond set up three rooms with three video cameras so three witnesses can be interrogated at once. One would think that such a set up would cut the time in telling the story by a third—one would be wrong. Everything slows to a crawl and it takes forever to get the full plot. The big twist, though it makes enough acceptable sense, is silly. The climax isn’t helped by a poor performance by Bill Pullman and an evil lesbian straight out of the 1970’s (note to Harper and Lynch, even Woody Allen isn’t this stuck in the past and his script is 40 years old).

FADE IN Fades OUT, HARVE PRESNEL R.I.P., A DIVA RETURNS, WOODY ALLEN REDUX, REDUX


A fascinating and wonderfully catty article that calls into question the validity or honesty of the Fade In screenwriting competition was in the blog The Wrap. Fade In demands a retraction while many of their contest winners just want their prizes.

http://www.thewrap.com/article/1812?page=4

Harve Preznel is now the latest celebrity to pass on. I remember him from singing They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon which made one wonder why, if they had this singer available, they actually wanted to use those wonderful warblers Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood (hey, I try never to miss a Clint Eastwood musical) and Jean Seberg. Where is Simon Callow when one needs him. He was also making a nice comeback ever since Fargo. It would be great to know what made the Coen brothers do that Quentin Tarrentino/David Lynch routine and cast someone from the past like that.

Tuesday night I did some movie catch up and saw The Seven Ups. Directed by Philip D’Antoni who also produced this as well as Bullitt and The French Connection, suggesting an interesting trilogy for American Cinemateque some time. It had a good idea, but the story never made sense and it reminded me of an Italian Gaillo film in which everything sounds dubbed and often has stories that never make sense. But it was still kind of entertaining in the “I wouldn’t have liked it when it first came out, but now in a look back at the 1970’s sort of way, it’s kind of fun”.

Tonight starts a retrospective of French director Jean Jacques Beineix at the American Cinematheque. I’ve only seen his film Diva for some reason, but can’t wait to see others. I remember the excitement in the movie world when Diva premiered. It was so exhilarating. Nuart is also showing the director’s cut of Betty Blue. Tonight is the Moon in the Gutter.

I have a friend who hates directors cuts because he thinks they’re a rip off way of trying to make more money off a film. I find them interesting, so interesting I may even go see the director’s cut of 1776 on Saturday.

http://www.americancinematheque.com/archive1999/2009/Egyptian/Jean-Jacques_Bieneix_ET2009.htm

I’m still thinking about the Woody Allen interview I saw on TCM. One thing that came to mind was some statements on the Purple Rose of Cairo. Allen’s films usually made money, but never a lot of money, though just enough to make it possible for him to make his next one. People viewing said they loved Purpose Rose…, but that if he gave it a happy ending, it would be a huge hit. But Allen said that the only reason he wrote Purple Rose… was because it was a tragedy and he wouldn’t have even made the movie if it had a happy ending.
This made me think of the movie Garden State, which was so enjoyable until the end when the resolution, the actor character decided not to return to L.A., was so ridiculous it spoiled everything that came before it for me. At the same time, I had to admit: It’s very doubtful the movie would have been nearly as successful without the happy ending.

WOODY ALLEN, ACADEMY AWARDS REDUX, THE HANGOVER


So I’m still kind of rambling here because I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this blog thing. I’d ask for suggestions, but since I know no one’s reading it, that probably won’t help. I would really like to post stories and news about screenwriters, but I don’t run across them very much, which is either my fault or a sign that the auteur theory has really won the day in film criticism (or both).
Last night, I finished watching a profile on Woody Allen on TMC On Demand. It was absolutely fascinating and way too short. He had a habit of never looking at the camera and always looking down or to the side which probably suggests he probably is being honest when he says that he doesn’t think he’s nearly as talented as people say he is and that his career is probably a combination of luck and conning enough people. He comes across as more down to earth here, like someone you could actually talk to. The most surprising commentary is on Stardust Memories, which he loves (and I like very much), where he says he just doesn’t understand why people think the central character was him (though he does blame himself for that). He also says that everything is suppose to be a fantasy after a certain point, but I’m not sure this is clearly communicated in the movie. But it’s a fascinating profile and I would highly recommend it.
In following up on the Academy Award decision to have ten nominations, I ran across this site that suggests what might have happened if this had started ten years ago. The selections are quite clever and insightful:
And there’s controversy over who’s not getting credit for The Hangover script (which I still haven’t reviewed on my site):
That’s enough ranting today, I got to get back to work.