Wednesday 30 October 2013


(Woody Allen, 2013)

Still formally adventurous and thematically ambitious, still capable of moments of sublime comedy, the main element of Woody Allen's late work which is substantially different from his classic era is the strong dose of pure bitterness laced through much of the material. Blue Jasmine may just be the best example of this.
A twisted character study of a New York socialite, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) after her world is destroyed and she finds herself living with her semi-estranged sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, here Allen balances comedy and drama very effectively. Pitching Jasmine in at the deep end of a new life surrounded by her sister's children and boyfriend, Allen then pitches the audience into Jasmine's own mess of a past, depicting flashbacks to a privileged Park Avenue life alongside her ex Hal (Alec Baldwin), who ruined it all by getting arrested for stealing and spending millions of the other peoples money.
As the story progresses Allen and Blanchett illustrate Jasmine's degree of complicity via a series of short, telling scenes depicting her in her natural Manhattan environment where she shops, hosts dinner parties, and relaxes in the Hamptons, then contrast it with her new Bay Area life, working as a receptionist for a lecherous dentist, going to adult computer courses, drinking incessantly and rowing with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), her sister's mechanic boyfriend.
Allen is brilliant at winding his themes around his characters and story, but Blue Jasmine throws up a more problematic area: his discomfort with working class characters. His San Francisco seems populated mainly by New York Italians in vests who like to drink beer and have inarticulate conversations, and though this patronising tone is addressed - these characters are often seen as morally and sensually superior to Jasmine and her tribe, and her undisguised snobbery is never validated - it still feels an awkward misstep for the film.
For so much else is clever and stylish here. Allen casts his films beautifully and everyone in this is superb, the photography by Javier Aguirreasarobe is subtly textured throughout, and the direction is as measured as ever, the storytelling nuanced and mature. But Blanchett holds the film together, delivering an immensely powerful performance lacking in any vanity. Her Jasmine is a monster, a sympathetic victim, a mess and inimitably human throughout. She is magnificent, in what is one of Allen's most interesting and darkest films.

Monday 7 October 2013


(Ron Howard, 2013)

Peter Morgan's screenplay for Rush is painfully, unbelievably obvious. It starts with a dual voiceover from lead characters Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and Peter Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), both of them attempting to define what makes a Formula One driver tick in the way only somebody announcing a bad movie voiceover ever would. Then, tired of having his leads actually tell us who they are, he puts them in dramatic scenes and has them basically tell everyone else what they are thinking. But that's alright, because everyone else is telling them what they're thinking back; this is how coversations work in Peter Morgan-world. When all this gets a little too subtle for the audience, he wheels the voiceovers back in to explain it all over again.
Hunt and Lauda were rivals and opposites in late '70s F1. Hunt the beautiful, reckless playboy, Lauda the driven perfectionist - in real life they were close friends (they  even shared a flat) but Rush reduces them to co-dependent enemies, defining themselves against one another.
Leads Brühl and Hemsworth almost salvage Rush. They are basically playing two different types of asshole, but they make these men sympathetic and human, despite the on-the-nose script (which reaches a nadir during their first extended conversation, where they basically lay out their conflicting philosophies for each other) and Howard's direction, which tries far too hard and adopts far too many modern approaches in order to make the numbingly repetitive races more visually interesting.
Anthony Dod Mantle, a cinematographer of exceptional talent, falls prey to the cheap trick of using filters to portray period (the '70s are a bit yellow, a bit flat in their lighting) while Howard loves montages to portray Hunt's endless shagatons and Lauda's obsessive need to get everything right.
It's never quite boring, no. There are a few fine sequences, and some gripping race action.
But it never quite feels like it has much of a point, either.

Saturday 5 October 2013


(Kevin MacDonald, 2013)

How I Live Now presents WWIII from a single viewpoint. That viewpoint belongs to Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an annoying American teen spending a summer in rural England with her cousins. Daisy has issues - ignored by her father who has remarried and is enjoying a new baby, she mourns the mother who died giving birth to her, and we overhear the white noise of her thoughts, a stream of unfocused anger and self-help tips. But her cousins are joyously unsupervised (their mother is tellingly absent working on some "peace process") and Daisy is soon won over by their chaotic, fun lifestyle. She also falls in love with the eldest, the intense, moony Edmund (George MacKay), as the world appears to open up to her. MacDonald shoots all this to best emphasise the picturesque beauty of rural England; sunlight through trees, streams twisting alongside fields, children skipping across meadow. These scenes of rural idyll are scored to the likes of the Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and the beauty of it all makes it unsurprising - unavoidable, perhaps - that Edmund and Daisy should fall so hard for each other.
And then the bomb falls. One scene is interrupted by a sudden rush of wind, a distant whomp, and then a rain of ash. The children freeze, the quiet horror of what has happened evident even to them. London has been bombed, the war begun.  Soon the power will be gone, the food run out.
After that the army will come, separating girls and boys. Daisy and her young cousin Piper wind up on a work farm, but Daisy has told Edmund she will return to the house, and driven by her love for him,   she and Piper desperately attempt to gain their freedom.
The last act of the film is harrowing and unbelievably dark for what is otherwise a teenage coming of age romance. The scenes of war, when they do come, are beautifully effective for being limited to one viewpoint. Daisy barely has any idea of what is going on - tv and radio speak of terrorists, poisoned water supplies, and the countryside is transformed into a sinister landscape like something from a 1970s UK television show (Survivors, most obviously) - grimly pretty, filled with threatening strangers, burning houses, eerily abandoned towns and clapped out land rovers. The glimpses we get of the enemy are frightening but vague; we don't know who they are or where they're from, but they kill young men, rape women and burn villages down.
Through this world Daisy and Piper trek; driven remorselessly by Daisy's need to see Edmond again. The all-consuming nature of her passion for him is skillfully evoked by MacDonald and his trio of screenwriters, but more specifically by Ronan and MacKay, whose mute physical chemistry is aided by her charisma and his introspective charm. The link they forge early on carries the emotional load through the ordeal of the third act, making the climax surprisingly emotionally charged and moving.
Daisy's character arc feels hard-won and true, not mandated by screenwriting rules, a rarity in a film based on a young adult novel.
Ronan's commitment plays a big part in that, but it is MacDonald's direction that makes the film feel so gritty, its textures so vivid and distinctive. He includes one too many montages, but How I Live Now is beautiful, tough, and strange. He has had an odd, schizophrenic career, from his many high-quality documentaries (Touching the Void, most impressively) to his somewhat anonymous but generally decent feature films, which makes him seem like an exceptionally capable craftsman without much of an individual voice. There are worse things for a director to be.