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Posts Tagged ‘Alec Baldwin’

It’s something of a remarkable week, as for the first time since March they have released two new movies which interested me enough to make the effort to see them (well, all right: a friend suggested seeing this second one, I’m not entirely sure I would have bothered otherwise). Both of them were partly financed by Ingenious Media – I’m not sure whether this was a coincidence or not – and, confirming my suspicion, both of them were preceded by virtually an identical set of trailers: Kenneth Branagh dusting off his moustache and Belgian accent, Colin Firth weepy, Blumhouse’s Craft remake and peculiar mash-up of Freaky Friday and Halloween, etc, etc. I forgot to mention – perhaps my subconscious was heroically trying to shield me – another movie on the way out, which looks like being a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy to do her usual schtick. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but it also seems to prominently feature James Corden as the voice of a super-computer. Friends, if we all get out of this year intact, one of the things I will take away from it is the sudden realisation that I don’t need to brutalise myself by going to see movies with James Corden in them, and I’m damned if I’ll watch another.

Not that I’m swearing off dodgy movies entirely, of course, or I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Barnaby Thompson’s Pixie. This is Thompson’s first movie as sole director, but as a producer he has a track record going all the way back to Wayne’s World, nearly thirty years ago. Since then he has had a hand in a bewildering variety of films, including Spice World, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fisherman’s Friends and a version of Lassie – of the few of these that I’ve seen, none particularly impressed me, if we’re honest, and some of them were honestly really poor. However, I knew none of that when actually going to see the new movie (which is probably just as well).

Pixie is set in Northern Ireland and mostly concerns the doings of the title character (played by Olivia Cooke) and the various men (young and old) who wind up in her orbit. One of these is her stepfather Dermot (Colm Meaney), who is the local gangster kingpin. The fact that this is going to be a knockabout crime thriller aspiring towards black comedy is established when two young men kill some drug dealers dressed as Catholic priests (despite the fact that two of them are supposedly Afghan) and steal a huge quantity of drugs from them.

After some rather convoluted plotting has unfurled itself, the drugs end up in the possession of two entirely different young men, Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack), who are not the sharpest or most self-aware tools in the shed. Luckily, they are acquaintances of Pixie, who blackmails them into cutting her in on the drug deal they are hoping to set up: her share will finance her going to art school in America, apparently.

However, the original owner of the drugs, one Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin, giving a textbook demonstration of a phoned-in performance from an imported American star), would like them back, and in addition Dermot has also sent one of his people in pursuit of the trio, not realising one of them is his own stepdaughter…

Well, when the lights came up at the end of Pixie and we were sitting there watching the closing credits, I turned to my companion, feeling compelled to share my gut reaction. ‘People have got to get over wanting to be Quentin Tarantino sooner or later.’ My friend is perhaps a little too young to have lived through that era where every aspiring film-maker and their dog was trying to do a knock-off of Pulp Fiction – things like Two Days in the Valley, The 51st State and Killing Zoe – so it took him a moment so see what I meant, but the odd thing about Pixie is that it does feel very much like a script from the mid-to-late nineties that it’s taken them twenty years to find the financing for.

If this were actually the case, I might even suggest they could have usefully spent the intervening time polishing the thing up, because while films about laid-back Irish chancers out for a bit of craic are all very well, they still need to have reasonably sharp and cohesive screenplays. This one has one of the most fumbled opening acts I can remember seeing, with what feels like a lot of needless faffing about – or at least poor exposition – and characters being introduced in the wrong order. It does all settle down eventually, but it’s still a needless demand on the audience’s goodwill.

Even then, the film constantly feels like it’s on the verge of unravelling completely, with jokes not really connecting, significant bits of storytelling just not there and inconsistent characterisation being used to keep the plot going: Pixie herself is a cool, smart, plans-ten-steps-ahead kind of girl, except when it’s necessary that she isn’t. After meandering about amiably for over an hour, the film suddenly seems to realise it needs to have some kind of climax, and so one is rapidly contrived: though just what the principal characters’ plan is never quite becomes clear – the director seems much more interested in a slo-mo shot of a screaming nun firing a pump-action shotgun.

As I say, it is kind of amiable, and it does have some very able actors in it like Colm Meaney and Dylan Moran (who gets a very funny cameo). Front and centre all the way through, though, is Olivia Cooke, whose career I have followed, not without interest, since she appeared in the Nu-Hammer movie The Quiet Ones in 2014. She does her usual fine job, but this is not one of the better films on her CV. ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’ wondered Julia Roberts’ character in Larry Crowne; well, it’s clearly still a live question, as the film is named after Cooke’s character for a reason, and we are all clearly supposed to fall in love with her. She’s an odd mixture of butt-kicking feminist and Holly Golightly – streetwise, ambitious and determined, but also caring and not without her vulnerable side (with the faintest suggestion of a slightly kinky sexual availability too). I have to say the character didn’t really seem plausible to me, despite Cooke’s best efforts – and even if she had been, I would probably have found it difficult to warm to someone whose repertoire includes dealing in drugs, swindling her so-called friends and the odd cold-blooded murder.

Then again, none of the film really feels like it has any connection to the real world, even the real world we were expecting at the start of the year. It’s not the worst film of its genre that I’ve ever seen, but it has nothing like the genuine warmth and texture and really good jokes of a film like The Guard (another black comedy thriller set on the island of Ireland). Olivia Cooke, possibly not for the first time, passes the movie star test by being very watchable in a not very good movie, but this is still really a waste of potential in most ways that count.

 

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It has become a bit of an annual ritual of late: every year Woody Allen releases a new film, as he has for about four decades now, and every year the critics declare that this one shows the great man is back on form (well, they didn’t say that about To Rome With Love, admittedly, possibly because it was just a little bit too broad a comedy). Implicit in this is an acknowledgement that for quite a long time Allen went off the boil as a film-maker, and to be perfectly honest I’ve found his last few films as variable as much of the rest of his later work.

But anyway: his new movie is Blue Jasmine, which has been hailed as ‘a work of brilliance’ and ‘better than anything you might imagine’ by grown-up professional film critics. Crikey. It has also been hailed as a bit of a stealth adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, but as the sum total of my experience of 20th century American theatre consists of working as a stagehand on a production of The Glass Menagerie, I don’t really feel competent to comment. Those who like Blue Jasmine have claimed this is Allen’s first openly political film, but once again I would say people are perhaps getting a bit carried away with their own enthusiasm.

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See what you think. This is much less of an ensemble piece than most recent Allen movies, with the lead role going to Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine, the title character, and the film is something of a riches-to-rags tale. The narrative structure is complex, but the film opens with her arriving in San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is used to an extremely affluent lifestyle amongst the smart set of New York City’s Park Avenue, but the exposure of her husband as a financial fraudster on a colossal scale has left her with virtually nothing, and reliant on the goodwill of her sister.

Ginger, on the other hand, operates on a much lower social strata – rather than big moneymen, her boyfriends tend to be mechanics and builders. (It is a bit of a stretch to believe that two such totally different characters are really sisters, but Allen has a valiant stab at selling this idea to the audience.) So the scene is set for some comedy of embarrassment as Jasmine has to come to terms with working as a dental receptionist and being hit on by blue-collar joes.

Throughout this the film frequently flashes back to Jasmine’s privileged life with her former husband (Alec Baldwin), filling in some of the history of the various characters and their relationships. This could be a slightly hokey device but Allen handles it quite deftly, using it to deliver a final plot revelation in a rather satisfying manner.

Blue Jasmine sits very comfortably within the Allen canon – it has the same tone and style, the same sort of soundtrack, even the same graphic design, as the vast majority of his work. There’s an ensemble cast and a number of parallel plot threads, mostly concerned with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. What makes it distinctive is its focus on one particular character over all the others, and it’s central to the success of the film that Cate Blanchett is in the title role. Blanchett gives the kind of performance that people love to throw awards at; I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination. I’m not going to bother about mentioning Blanchett’s lack of vanity (there’s always a sort of implied sexism there I’m never comfortable with), she’s just simply very good in a role which had the potential to be an overblown grotesque.

Jasmine is, in addition to being a monstrous snob, a borderline alcoholic, an incessant fantasist, and psychologically extremely fragile, and yet Blanchett manages to keep her not only credible as a human being but actually sympathetic throughout – or at least not totally unsympathetic. Given that Woody Allen often seems to regard his own characters as specimens under a microscope one wonders if this was his actual intention, but it serves to make the film much more rounded and interesting than might otherwise have been the case.

This sort of ties in to the issue of Blue Jasmine as a political film – it’s been suggested that Jasmine’s tribulations, and her generally corrosive impact on the lives of her less-affluent family and acquaintances, constitute Allen’s comment on the financial crisis which continues to shape the modern world. One of the central questions of the film is whether Jasmine was just plain ignorant of her husband’s various misdeeds, or simply chose to look the other way (and this question is answered, not that Allen makes a big thing out of it as such). Allen doesn’t seem especially interested in issues of personal culpability, though, and the film operates in more general terms.

Chief amongst these is the way that Jasmine is, quite simply, bad news for those around her, especially her good-natured sister: in the course of the film she causes her sister to lose a small fortune of her own (leading, it’s implied, to her divorce), and then the near-collapse of a second relationship. The implication may be that Jasmine’s fortune has made her careless when it comes to other people – or possibly it’s that wealth is a shield against many of the vicissitudes of life. It’s not just an issue of money, though – the film is about the various characters trying to move on from the downfall of Jasmine’s husband and the fallout from this, and it’s notable that Jasmine seems to find this easier, in many ways, than some of the others. It’s implied that this is because she maintains a fraudulent air of refinement and sophistication even when she’s practically broke, while her sister, who is honest about her lack of taste and breeding, is held back as a result.

It may be that Allen is trying to make a point about the superficiality of the world and the resulting unfairness: phonies finish first. The ending of the film doesn’t quite support this interpretation, though, but it’s unclear whether this is Allen simply being ambiguous on purpose in an attempt to avoid too clean-cut a conclusion, or the director fumbling the ball again and inadvertantly muddying the waters.

If you consider Blue Jasmine as a piece of socio-political commentary, then it’s a complex film and possibly not an entirely consistent one. I’m not saying there isn’t a political element to it, but I think it emerges en passant from the story of the central character. I would say this was a film about characters rather than ideas, and as such it is lifted considerably by the talents of the performers involved, primarily Cate Blanchett. The premise is engaging and the story involving, but it’s the performances that bring the film to life. This is certainly one of Woody Allen’s better recent movies, but a lot of the credit must go to his leading lady.

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It’s nice to see older folk developing a taste for travel far from their usual stamping grounds, although this usually takes the form of extended holidays. What’s slightly unusual about the ongoing Tour Grande du Woody Allen is that the celebrated director appears to be working all the way: having already made a number of films in London, Paris and Barcelona, Allen has now pitched up in Rome.

He claims this is simply due to the fact that he can only get funding for his films in Europe now, his American box office just not being strong enough – to be perfectly honest, I’m prepared to believe this, given the rather ropey quality of the recent Allen films I’ve seen. That said, I’m aware that Midnight in Paris was apparently something of a return to form – unfortunately I skipped seeing it in favour of Real Steel, which was probably a mistake. Nevertheless, the considerable success of Midnight has at least ensured that To Rome with Love (a lousy title apparently imposed on Allen) has secured a UK release beyond the confines of the arthouse. But does it warrant it?

Well, this film is a distinctly mixed bag, in tone if not in quality. The tendency towards multiple parallel plotlines which has distinguished many recent Allen movies has reached its logical conclusion, as this is a portmanteau film composed of four different stories which don’t intersect (and the intercutting between them seems a little disingenuous given they clearly occur in vastly different timeframes).

Most similar to recent Allen films is the story of Jesse Eisenberg’s character, who’s an architect living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). When they are visited by Gerwig’s best friend, an implausible free spirit played by Ellen Page, Eisenberg finds himself contending with an intense attraction to Page despite his existing relationship with Gerwig (this would have struck more of a chord with me had the roles of the two women been reversed – i.e. I’m developing a tendresse for Greta Gerwig – but there’s no accounting for taste). The story is coloured by a peculiar conceit where Alec Baldwin appears as a Greek chorus-like character who comments sourly on scenes and debates characters’ actions with them – but it’s made clear he’s not just a dramatic device but a character in his own right. What is clear is that, perhaps self-evidently, Jesse Eisenberg is uniquely well-placed amongst young performers to channel the spirit of Allen himself.

Elsewhere, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play young newlyweds in Rome for their honeymoon. Through a series of quirks, Tiberi finds himself having to pass off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride in front of his snooty family, while Mastronardi ends up being romanced by a famous movie star. This section is basically played as gentle farce, quite charmingly sexy in places, and also rather improbable – but engaging and funny all the same.

In perhaps the weakest segment, Roberto Benigni plays a middle-aged clerk who wakes up one day to discover he has inexplicably become a massive celebrity, his every doing now the subject of intense public and media interest. (This bit and the one with the newlyweds is actually performed in subtitled Italian, by the way.) Once again, it’s quite funny, but utterly insubstantial, and it quite clearly couldn’t support a whole movie on its own. Unlike the rest of the film, this part clearly has a message in mind, about the nature of celebrity: it’s not an especially profound one, but neither is it the one most mainstream films might choose to deliver.

However, best of all is a story starring Allen himself as the world’s least visionary avante-garde opera director, in the city to meet his daughters’ future in-laws. To his surprise he discovers that her future father-in-law (Fabio Armilliato) has an astounding singing voice – but only while he’s singing in the shower. The preposterous tale of how Allen sets about exploiting his fabulous discovery despite this trifling inconvenience is told deadpan: it’s utterly silly, but made irresistible by the presence of Allen himself, in his first appearance in one of his own films for ages. He’s as twitchy and neurotic and miserable as ever, and the talent for endless, off-hand one-liners is still there, such as when he frets about his son-in-law’s socialist politics: ‘I could never be a Communist – I can’t even share a bathroom!’ And many, many more. This is the strand of the film you’re always eager to get back to, almost solely due to Allen’s presence in it, and one wonders how much of the weakness in his recent movies is due to his decision to stay behind the camera.

As a whole the film is very entertaining and consistently funny, much moreso than any other recent Allen movie I’ve seen. It’s also flimsy, incredibly whimsical and frothy, with its origins as a marketing ploy for the Rome Tourist Board quite obvious. If you’re not a fan of Woody Allen already, then this is probably not the film to convert you to the cause: but if you’ve been waiting for him to produce another properly funny film, or indeed give another great comic performance himself, then To Rome with Love may be what you’ve been waiting for.

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