Two Minute Review: Blue Jasmine

Over on Twitter, I gave my quick and dirty assessment of Woody Allen's latest film:

Permit me to elaborate. As I've mentioned before in these pages, I'm a committed admirer of Allen's work. His films over the last fifteen years have been uneven, at best, but there are some beauties sprinkled in there. Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are fabulous, and 2011's Midnight in Paris compares favorably to anything you'll see from his peers.

The flip side of that coin is that Allen has written and directed some stinkers -- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, anyone? -- but the best thing about Woody is that you only have to wait a year, and he'll have another movie for you to pick over.

Which brings us to Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett as the title character. Jasmine is a Manhattan socialite who has her world tossed asunder when her husband (ably played by Alec Baldwin) is sent to prison for his role in various financial shenanigans. Broke, and broken, Jasmine moves to San Francisco to live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Allen moves the narrative forward in very focused fashion, skilfully weaving flashbacks of Jasmine's previous life (relaxing in the Hamptons, for example) with her struggles to adjust to her new life. It is well-written, with all the hallmarks of an Allen comedy, including very strong performances by an ensemble cast. No performance is stronger than Cate Blanchett's.

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Blanchett were to win her second Academy Award next month. (No, I'm not really stepping out on a limb there. Blanchett just won the Golden Globe for this role.) She is engaging from the time she makes her first appearance on screen, seated on an inbound flight to San Francisco, as she bores the woman next to her with a barely-uninterrupted commentary on everything that has gone wrong with her life. Blanchett's Jasmine is never particularly likable, but somehow, she becomes eminently sympathetic throughout the course of the movie. If not a direct homage, the film was clearly inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire. More than once, I saw Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois in Jasmine.

The most surprising performance, as you may have heard, came from Andrew Dice Clay, as Ginger's ex-husband. Clay is legitimately good here, even if he didn't utter a single nursery rhyme in the entire film. Also good was Louis CK, as a seemingly-sweet guy who woos Ginger.

My only quibble is that some of the working-class dialogue didn't seem to ring particularly true, but that's a small criticism. Blue Jasmine is well-executed, and is a worthy addition to the Woody Allen filmography. By almost any measure, Allen remains near the top of his game, a formidable filmmaker still, after nearly five decades in the game.

Two Minute Review: "Orange Is the New Black"

I'm not a TV critic (yet), and I don't even play one on, well, TV. But this is my site, so indulge me, please. I don't think it's spoiler-y, but if you are worried about that sort of thing, you may want to stop now. The Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black" was released last July, and I finally got around to watching the 13-episode first season over the last couple of weeks. I do have some criticisms, but let's make one thing clear from the outset: "Orange Is the New Black" is an outstanding show, nearly as good as anything else on television. I just wish it were on HBO.

There is much to love about "Orange." It's the story of a privileged woman -- Piper, played by Taylor Schilling -- who is engaged to be married and starting her own company, when she is charged with crimes committed when she was young and in love with a drug runner. Ultimately, she accepts a plea, and the story begins as she is incarcerated.

It's a brilliant idea for a series, based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name. In most respects, it is well-executed. The ensemble cast is filled with great characters, most of whom are nuanced and interesting. Series creator Jenji Kohan displays a deft touch in slowly revealing each character's backstory, and our view of several of the characters (notably Crazy Eyes and Mr. Healy) changes completely within the arc of one season.

There are notable exceptions, however. Two characters -- Natalie Figueroa, a prison administrator, and Mendez, a correctional officer -- are ludicrously over-the-top. "Orange" is a dramedy, so sometimes these characters are played for laughs, but their behavior is so exaggerated that it can be distracting. Often, it's like these two characters were pulled straight out of an Adam Sandler movie. I'm love Billy Madison as much as the next guy, but that's not a compliment.

Jenji Kohan probably should have toned that down, but subtlety doesn't seem to be in her arsenal. To wit: listen to the music that plays whenever Daya (an inmate) and Bennett (a C.O.) are together. It's ridiculous, and worthy of a 1980s Afterschool Special. And they play it Every. Single. Time. Before "Orange," Kohan was known primarily for the Showtime series "Weeds." I've never seen a single episode of "Weeds," so I can't compare, but I have real questions about some of the creative decisions on this show. (Also, I could do without the Jason Biggs-inspired American Pie inside jokes.) That's why I mentioned HBO above; in the best HBO original dramas, these little wrinkles have all been ironed out. (Then again, it's still the first season for "Orange" so there is time.)

When looking at the big picture, however, those are very small quibbles. In most respects, Kohan has put together a captivating portrait of life inside a women's prison. Piper is a fascinating character study, but she is arguably the least compelling personality on the show. Taystee Jefferson may be my favorite character, but the entire group of inmates -- Alex, Yoga Jones, track star Janae Watson, Sister Ingalls, Big Boo, and especially the Bible-toting meth-head Pennsatucky -- are each engaging in their own way. I'm not sure how Kohan was able to make each of them a fully-formed character in only 13 episodes (the flashbacks to life before prison helped), but it works.

I was happy to be able to watch the entire season over two weeks, one episode a night, thanks to the Netflix model of distribution, but "Orange" is a series that would have benefited from the traditional model. At the end of each episode, I didn't like the idea of waiting until the following night to see what would happen next (alas, my wife goes to sleep early, and she was just as engaged with the series as I). Imagine waiting a full week to see how Piper was going to resolve whatever issues were still lingering from the episode before. It's a series that could have built even more buzz than it actually did by giving each episode some water cooler time.

Either way, I am definitely looking forward to the second season, especially after the eye-popping cliffhanger at the end of season one's final episode. "Orange" isn't as good as "Mad Men" or "Sherlock," but it's just a cut below. Which means that it's better than most everything else on television (or whatever delivery device you prefer).

Ten Second Movie Review: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)Director: Billy Wilder Writers: Wilder and Raymond Chandler Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

In the late 1990s, the American Film Institute released a list they called "100 Years...100 Movies." Ostensibly, it ranked the top 100 feature-length American movies, and at the time, I thought it would be a fun project to watch all 100.

Here we are, fifteen years later, and I'm still working on that. (At some point, I'll figure out how many I have remaining, but it can't be very many.) Recently, I was able to mark Double Indemnity -- AFI #38* -- off my personal checklist. In one word: masterful.

The plotline actually seems pedestrian: "An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions." Fred MacMurray (of My Three Sons fame) stars as Walter Neff, a successful insurance agent who runs into Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in an Oscar-nominated performance) in the ordinary course of business. Dietrichson is married to a less-than-successful oil executive, one thing leads to another and -- this always happens, doesn't it? -- murder and insurance fraud are committed. Dietrichson and Neff conspire to murder her husband and cover up their deed.

The actual criminal act occurs somewhat early in the film, and most of the film consists of the tension created when Neff's boss, an insurance analyst played by the always-entertaining Edward G. Robinson, becomes suspicious and launches an investigation. No, that doesn't sound high-concept, does it? You'll be surprised. For instance, the viewer can never really be sure why these two team up to commit this act. Passion? I don't know; at times, we aren't even sure Dietrichson and Neff like each other (and, in fact, Dietrichson admits as much later in the movie). For the money? They don't show much interest in it.

I have some theories, but I've already exceeded my allotted ten seconds. Suffice to say that many questions remain unanswered after my first viewing, but the film still worked brilliantly.

Double Indemnity is classic film noir, from the stylish cinematography, the superb use of black and white, and the snappy dialogue penned mostly by detective novelist Raymond Chandler. Oh, the dialogue. Chandler had me with the opening line of the film:

I killed him for money -- and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.

I love it.

Billy Wilder has always been one of my favorite directors. (I love Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch, and Sabrina, in particular.) Double Indemnity, one of his earliest works, is unlike anything he did after. Add it to the pantheon. It's good.

I'm really kicking myself for not making time to watch Double Indemnity before now. Rest assured, however: I will watch this one again. Five stars out of five.

*In 2007, AFI released an updated list. Double Indemnity must have aged well; a decade after the original list, AFI ranked it nine spots higher at #29.

Ten Second Book Review: Paterno

So I just finished "Paterno," the latest from Joe Posnanski. Posnanski is the best sportswriter in America, so it's obviously well-written, but no one is judging this book by the quality of the writing. Poz was really in a no-win situation. He went to Happy Valley expecting to write a certain type of book -- a celebration of the career of Penn State football coach and anointed saint Joe Paterno -- and it turned into a completely different book after the revelation of the unimaginable horrors perpetrated by Paterno's long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky.

I liked the book, and I thought it was even-handed. If you are looking for a slash and burn attack on Paterno, you aren't going to get it here. Posnanski was very critical of Paterno's actions in relation to Sandusky, but he also spent a lot of words talking about all the good things Paterno did in his lifetime. The contrast between the moral authority that Paterno spent his life building, and the way he went out -- accused of ignoring, and enabling, contemptible crimes against the most innocent of victims -- is stark. He helped hundreds of kids during his lifetime, but it's the handful of kids that he did not help that has stained what had been a remarkable career.

It's a terribly sad story, but I do recommend the book.

Ten Second Movie Review: Cyrus

"Cyrus" is a film that I had intended to watch last year, but never seemed to get around to it. Wish I hadn't waited. Here's a bold statement: John C. Reilly is one of the best actors around. There, I said it; he's superb in every film in which he appears. Of course, he's joined by Jonah Hill here, and I continue to wait desperately for Hill's fifteen minutes of fame to expire.

Surprisingly, however, he isn't bad as the son of Reilly's love interest (Marisa Tomei). The relationship between mother and son, which is unique, is thrown for a loop with the introduction of this new guy. Reilly doesn't seem like he has much going for him (and, well, he doesn't) and things take a strange turn very quickly. The film turns into a bizarre love triangle, for lack of a better term.

It isn't really funny, and it isn't really heart-warming, but it is a compelling story from beginning to end.

Four stars out of five.

Ten Second Movie Review: Midnight In Paris

Midnight in ParisDirector: Woody Allen Writer: Woody Allen Stars:Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates

I saw this film one week ago today, in Richmond, VA, and perhaps the best way to describe Midnight in Paris is to say that I haven't been able to quit thinking about it since.

I'm a confessed Woody Allen-phile (to coin a term), but his recent efforts have certainly been mixed. Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point stand up to anyone's best work, but while I enjoyed films such as Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, and Whatever Works, no one is comparing any of those to Annie Hall.

I won't compare Midnight in Paris to Annie Hall, because that's not fair -- Annie Hall is the best romantic comedy that has ever been made -- but Allen's latest is a brilliant film in its own right. Owen Wilson stars and, while I may have made a different casting choice here, he is better than you would expect as the hack screenwriter who dreams of literary success and becomes intoxicated by Paris. Rachel McAdams is lovely, as always, as Wilson's fiance, and Marion Cotillard is perfect as...well, she plays Adriana, and I won't reveal too much about her character.

The most memorable performances are by Alison Pill, as Zelda Fitzgerald, and Corey Stoll, as Ernest Hemingway. That should give you an idea of the direction this movie takes, and it absolutely works. It's a reflection upon nostalgia versus living for the present. That certainly isn't a unique theme, but Allen has put together one of the best films I've seen in a while. It's proof that Woody Allen remains capable of moving work.

Five stars out of five. Must see.

Ten second movie (p)review

I mentioned a while back that I was going to review the best documentary film I’ve ever seen. The time is now. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Netflix. For the first time, I have a huge library of films available to me, movies that I wouldn’t get to see otherwise (since most good films don’t come to the theaters, and many don’t make it to video). In particular, I’ve gotten to see some fantastic documentary features through Netflix: Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Grey Gardens, Word Wars, Grizzly Man, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Born Into Brothels, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

At the top of my Netflix queue is “49 Up,” the seventh installment of the “Up” series, which Roger Ebert says is on his “list of the ten greatest films of all time.” I agree. It’s to be released on DVD next week, and my wife and I cannot wait to watch it. I can’t do a better job of describing the series than this:

49 UP is the seventh film in a series of landmark documentaries that began 42 years ago when UK-based Granada’s WORLD IN ACTION team, inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” interviewed a diverse group of seven-year-old children from all over England, asking them about their lives and their dreams for the future. Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, has returned to interview the “children” every seven years since, at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and now again at age 49.

In this latest chapter, more life-changing decisions are revealed, more shocking announcements made, and more of the original group take part than ever before, speaking out on a variety of subjects including love, marriage, career, class and prejudice.

Before last winter, I had never heard of the documentary series. One day last winter, I stumbled upon a review of the first film, “Seven Up!” Intrigued, I had Netflix send it.

My wife and I enjoyed it, and watched the other installments. We were absolutely mesmerized. It’s just a groundbreaking idea, executed perfectly by Apted, who has become quite the feature director himself (including a James Bond movie). I can’t reveal too much of the films without ruining the experience for you, but if you have a chance to watch the series, don’t hesitate. You’ll be astounded at how much you look forward to seeing what each of these children have become over the next seven year period. It’s spell-binding.

Once 49 Up is released on DVD and we watch it (here’s Ebert’s glowing review), I’ll report back. I’m expecting great things, though. The Up Series is, by far, the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen, and one of the best movies I’ve had the pleasure to watch, period.

Ten second movie review

The wife and I watched “Click” tonight, with Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, and Christopher Walken. Hey, this movie was actually pretty entertaining. Yeah, it was predictable at times, but it’s an Adam Sandler movie, so you just have to look over stuff like that. There were some typical Sandler belly-laughs, but it was also a good story. Good film for you to get a bowl of popcorn and watch on a weekend (or a Monday night).

Plus, you know, Kate Beckinsale was in it.

And Christopher Walken.

Three and a half stars out of five. Not bad.