Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.

Oh, what hath J.K. Rowling wrought? Beautiful Creatures

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Oh, what hath Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling wrought? The thudding, relentless march of young adult fantasy novels featuring wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, orcs and angst has consumed bookshelves and movie screens for over a decade now.

And for every cinematic blockbuster adaptation – Twilight (blech) or Hunger Games (groan) – the Netflix superhighway is littered with non-starters like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, I Am Number Fourand Percy Jackson.

Where does Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt to create a pubescent tentpole franchise sprinkled with pixie dust and Stridex, fit in that continuum? Well, artistically, it’s a lot of fun with a full wink and a smirk at its self-important teenage-targeted forebears…which, commercially, of course, means it will be a big ol’ flop.

Director Richard LaGravenese, who showed such promise with his directorial debut Living Out Loud, does a credible job here, though his pacing is more workmanlike than inspired. Wisely, however, he has stocked his film with a host of Oscar winners/nominees, including Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons as well as talented Emmy Rossum (of Phantom of the Opera-fame) and delightful character actors Margot Martindale and Eileen Atkins.

The cast has a ball with their plummy roles as witches and warlocks debating some incomprehensible nonsense about whether or not young “caster” Lena (played with minimal pretense and maximum warmth by newcomer Alice Englert) will usher in a dark or light age. Doesn’t really matter because the cast is so engaging.

Most noteworthy is Lena’s young “mortal” boyfriend Ethan, portrayed by another newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a perfectly postmodern blend (perhaps too self-consciously at times) of Anthony Perkins and James Dean if channeled through the face and voice of Leonardo DiCaprio (with bits of Dougray Scott and James Franco thrown in for good measure). Weird, I know. But true. And he is transfixing. I suspect his career will be one to watch.

I think what I enjoyed most is the fact that the film is sending up its young adult fiction conventions and cliches all while reveling in them. LaGravenese, doing double duty as screenwriter (other credits include my personal favorites The Ref, A Little Princess, and Unstrung Heroes), weaves in smart and fun allusions (and plenty of overt references as well) to some more substantial literary contributors like Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Charles Bukowski,  William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Set in a small South Carolina backwoods town, Beautiful Creatures uses its corn-pone, crispy-fried, Dixie-goth setting to send up “Red State” religious and intellectual ignorance and fear. Some of it is a bit too “on the nose,” even for my broad and cynical tastes, but I liked that the filmmakers were willing to bite their thumbs at the very audiences who may be flocking to see this film. My favorite line? When young Ethan relates about the local library, “This is my church, this is where my family comes to worship what’s holy: ideas.” Good for him.