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Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

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Blue Jasmine is the portrait of a woman in her forties who has recently lost her social status – she was a rich Park Avenue socialite – she has lost it because it didn’t belong to her in the first place, she had no talent, success, family, means or whatever else to put her there, Jasmine was only the wife of a Madoff style crook who had married her when she was still in college, now the crook is dead and his assets have been confiscated by the F.B.I. so in the moment we meet Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) she is flying to California, the place where her only relative – her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) – lives. Though they are not sisters at all – they both have been adopted – it’s easy to realize that they have one thing in common: they are ordinary people destined to live ordinary lives but while Ginger accepts her condition with ease, Jasmine cannot accept her reality – she can’t even accept Jeannette, her real name, she prefers to be Jasmine. Blue Jasmine has nothing to do with Tennessee Williams, this is Cinderella the day after, the prince was not a prince but now Cinderella dislikes the menial chores she was used to, she doesn’t want to live covered in cinders anymore: the only solution coming to her mind is to find another prince.

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A natural born comedian Woody Allen has often tried his hand with drama, with Melinda and Melinda he tried to demonstrate that comedy and drama are two faces of the same coin, in the meantime he has directed some excellent dramas – Cassandra’s Dream is the most underrated film of his opus – but with Blue Jasmine it is hard to tell if he is serving fish or meat. The opening scene – Jasmine recounting her life to the unknown old lady on the next seat – has an innate comic feeling, it made me think of Airplane! but as the film proceeds it becomes less clear what Allen is feeding us. In the end Blue Jasmine intends to be a satire of social climbing and financial adventurism, alas celebrities/socialites and working people aren’t the kind of characters that can make a good Woody Allen movie: he dislikes and he has always mocked the first ones while not having nor an interest not a good ear for the seconds. It is a pity since the film is carefully constructed with flashbacks revealing Jasmine’s life in New York and her distaste for Ginger – as a matter of structure and rhythm Allen is in top form here – but too many characters never come to life (her husband played by Alec Baldwin) or – just like Jasmine’s only son – they seem to be there only to prove Allen’s point: accept your place in life and live with it otherwise you will become like our sad Jasmine/Jeannette. Jasmine is the sister of Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) from To Rome with Love, Leopoldo was by far the worst episode of that film, Jasmine has got a whole movie for her but not even Cate Blanchett’s acrobatics can save it.

Grand Central by Rebecca Zlotowski

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I was very curious to watch Grand Central – the second feature by Zlotowski – though in my opinion her first film Belle Épine (2010) was overrated my curiosity for her second effort was augmented reading that both Les Cahiers du Cinema and Positif had liked it: it is so unusual to see the two legendary magazines to share the same evaluation of a movie! The title of the film will make a lot of people think of trains but though its opening scene is set on a train Grand Central has nothing to do with railway stations, nonetheless from that train we will see Grand Central dominating the panorama – it is a huge centrale nucléaire (a nuclear power plant, France is the only country in the world getting most of his electricity – circa 80% – from them). On that same train we meet Gary (Tahar Rahim) who is going to this unspecified place in the Lyon area to get a job at the nuclear plant; what will follow is a blend of melodrama – with a cinephile touch linking the story of Karole (Léa Seydoux) and Gary to the French classic Casque d’Or: Gary’s surname is Manda just like Serge Reggiani’s character in  Jacques Becker’s film and at the same time in a way it is a remake of Raoul Walsh’s Manpower – and social cinema: does it work?

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My first problem with Grand Central was with its music: is it a lack of confidence in her cinematic abilities who has led Zlotowski to use this constant rumour? In the rare moments when the non-diegetic music stops here it comes some diegetic one! This is a film whose (not so secret star, it gets almost as much shots than Seydoux’s t&a) star is a nuclear power plant, its sounds would have enhanced this film, they would have been more than enough to create and sustain the tension of the film, or maybe Zlotowski in the editing room realized that the film was boring and thought the loud music would have at least kept the audience awake. Just like in her debut feature Zlotowski seems to have her attention caught by some social situation imbibed with danger and mystery – a motorcycle gang there, the centrale nucléaire here – but she doesn’t know what to do with it: there is no danger nor passion. Tahar Rahim, Léa Seydoux, Olivier Gourmet and Denis Ménochet: what a cast and what a waste of talent! Zlotowski concedes to the viewer a varied and continuous exposure of Seydoux’s body but mademoiselle Léa had never given before such an asexual performance, there is nothing stirring here, just ninety minutes of bore, the French critics loved Grand Central? Ils Sont Fous Ces Français!

Enough Said by Nicole Holofcener

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Enough Said is the fifth feature film by Nicole Holofcener – a director who has worked mainly for a number of TV series: very different stuff going from Sex and the City to Enlightened – and the themes she explores here and the way she conducts her investigation would surely fit a TV show: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) meet at a party, she is a tiny little thing, he is a bear but they are both middle age persons who have been emotionally scarred by marriages which ended with divorces, they both have daughters who are about leaving for college, they both are willing but at the same time wary about the chance to start a new relationship, their first steps seem to go in the right direction but at that party Eva before meeting Albert has made another acquaintance – a poet – who will play an unexpected role in her relationship with Albert.

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The TV product feeling is augmented by Holofcener’s casting choices, but while Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t manage to come out of the characters we have seen her play on the TV screen, James Gandolfini gives a majestic and nuanced performance, probably this is the best role he got in films and it is a pity to think he will get no more, he was really an actor with an amazing range, there is not even a Tony Soprano blink of an eye in his acting here. Gandolfini is the highlight of the film but Enough Said is a better film than the shortcomings I have described above, the story is able to deliver in a believable way the paradoxical situation its main characters are living: the human desire to be in a relationship and the even more human fear to suffer again. The film would have benefited if Eva and Albert relationships with their daughters had not been so heavy on the Eva side and so evanescent on the Albert one, it seems Holofcener was glad to glide over a lot of issues and thematic elements without the will to make them part of the story she was telling, Enough Said is an easy to like/easy to forget film.

12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen

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I guess 12 Years a Slave – the book, the memoir – constituted a powerful punch when it was published in 1854 and I am sure that Solomon Northup – ¨thanks to his misadventure¨ – became a powerful voice for the abolitionist movement at the time, but I can’t help but wonder what is the relevance of this story now: slavery is over and Northup’s tale has little to do with the many subtle ways the racial issue is being declined today. McQueen’s directing choices – and John Ridley’s screenplay of course – have made even more explicit this lack of relevance to our times: history is never relevant per se, in order to be relevant it needs to be connected with the times we are living. McQueen and Ridley have given a lot of attention to the emotional part of the tale, to the torture, to the violence and the killings, the dehumanization and the disappearance of time – we know it’s twelve years but the film avoids to keep track of the passing of time, maybe implying time had no relevance in the life of the slaves – but as true as it is the experience of slavery represented here it is not the history of slavery and the film is not helped by the white owners and overseers: do we really need to believe than an institution that went on – in the Americas – for three centuries was managed by mentally disturbed persons like the ones we see in films like 12 Years a Slave? Would it be too harsh to show them as regular human beings not much different than the managers of our time who have killed eleven thousand persons in Bangladesh? or is it comforting to present the ”nigger” as an educated and civilized man while our white ancestors look like guys belonging into a mental institution?

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Steve McQueen confirms his cinematic talent here, just take the scene of the ¨hanging¨ pictured above these lines: a long and beautiful take illustrating only with images and sounds how the people living in the plantation seem to be resigned to violence, alas at the same time McQueen has managed to diminish its power with the ¨good Samaritan ¨ girl who offers something to drink to the exhausted Solomon; McQueen confirms he can work with actors: Chiwetel Ejofor exhibits his range as never before, and the English director has managed even to get almost unobtrusive performances by Paul Dano and Hans ¨the thundering¨ Zimmer. There is one film which was constantly coming to my mind when I was watching 12 Years a Slave: Mel Gibson’s The Passion and I dont’mean it as a compliment, these two films share the same obsession in showing the brutal experience suffered by their heroes while completely forgetting its meaning. What does it mean to be kidnapped? What does it mean to live in a country where the boundary between freedom and slavery is so thin? What are the needs and beliefs leading some men to create such an abomination and some other men to accept it? The story of Solomon Nurthup could have been a fertile terrain to explore a lot of issues like these, McQueen and Ridley have gone for the emotionally shocking value of Northup’s story and so they have missed a chance to make a film about slavery that could go alongside Roots as a TV series or The Known World as a novel.

L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake) by Alain Guiraudie

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Every afternoon Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) parks by the lake and goes to the beach where he will remain until night will fall, he dedicates his time to sunbathing, swimming and gay sex. The lake is the film’s only location and every scene begins with Franck parking his old Renault 19 – the cars (along with the absence of cellphones) are one of the many puzzles presented by Guiraudie,  the only explicit moments come from the sex scenes. Franck has a peculiar friendship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), Henri isn’t into gay sex, we gather he has separated from his wife and family, therefore he feels uneasy to go to the side of the lake where non-gay people go – he may not share the sexual inclination of the community but he fully embraces its need of anonymity and feeling of exclusion – Henri is the only character who is open to meeting for a drink Franck and the other guys in real life, far from the lake. A title like Stranger by the Lake – and a film with a hint of thriller and mystery – seem to require the viewer to understand who is the stranger, in the end we will realize that everybody by the lake is a stranger – with the exception of Henri (who is not a full member of the community) at the end of the film every character will remain a stranger to us as he was in the beginning: but what is the point of a story when identity and motivations of its characters are left out of it?

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Guiraudie’s intentions seem quite clear: to depict the isolation and fear lived by these people, living in isolation and fear seems natural to Franck, he finds refuge in places (the beach by the lake) and persons (his lover Michel) which would make other people flee, at the same time it’s easy to imagine this same story filmed with straight characters, with the exception of their sexual act there is nothing gay here: was this Guiraudie’s point? I ignore it, what I know is that while the structure of the film has its charm, its ninety minutes seemed much longer to me, someone might appreciate Guiraudie’s nerve to avoid a true climax, but at the end of the film – considering the explicit sex scenes and the double ending – I got the impression that the French director’s main scope was shocking/surprising the viewer, alas I was left cold by the lifeless characters and the overall weirdness, just think of the police officer, was he a police officer for real or just another gay visitor posing as one? One of too many questions I don’t care to get an answer. Best film of 2013 according to Les Cahiers du Cinema, I’m glad to be a Positif subscriber.

Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful) by François Ozon

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François Ozon – thirteen years after Water Drops on Burning Rocks – returns to explore sexual awakening and its consequences, it is a familiar theme all along his oeuvre, nonetheless the story of Isabelle (Marine Vacth) will make many viewers think of Pialat (À Nos Amours) or Buñuel (Belle de Jour): in a way Jeune & Jolie blends the teenager restfulness of the first with the enigmatic personality of the second; then just like in Gouttes d’Eau sur Pierres brûlantes Ozon recurs here to Françoise Hardy: four songs punctuate Isabelle’s story and getting the sense of the lyrics is quite essential (Spotify link to the soundtrack). The film opens echoing Ozon’s own Dans la Maison when we see Isabelle alone on the beach going topless through the voyeuristic binoculars of a boy, one scene later another typical Ozon trait emerges when we discover that the young spy is Isabelle’s brother: ambiguous situations where you don’t grasp if the scene is serious or funny, safe or scary, it is not a game (not only at least) Ozon is playing with the audience, real life is ambiguous, if you want to tell a resonant story its ambiguity can’t be left out of it.

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Jeune & Jolie is not a film about teenager prostitution – her parents own a beautiful summer house and she is a pupil at the most prestigious lycée in Paris – but it is a film about the mystery and the consequences of a transforming body, the way such transformation changes the person inhabiting it, the persons around her and the rules of their relationship.  What does it mean to be seventeen? Ozon gives us a beautiful scene where Isabelle and her classmates comment a poem by RimbaudNo One’s Serious at Seventeen – but the times have changed from Rimbaud’s time and so have the teenagers, while Isabelle walks to catch the subway she passes by an ad with a woman’s mouth with lipstick which takes an entire wall: you have to be serious when you are seventeen nowadays, because the world is looking at you, you are a customer, a client and a sexual being, disturbing times nurture disturbed people? In her first major role Marine Vacth is quite effective playing Isabelle, she is distant and her motivations are difficult to understand – returning to the two films mentioned above Vacth is more Deneuve than Bonnaire – Fantin Ravat is quite impressive playing Isabelle’s brother, but every casting choice looks inspired here and Ozon plays even a very cinephile trick with the memorable appearance of Stefano Cassetti/Roberto Succo, because let’s face it: Ozon is an a**h***, but his visual and intellectual provocations arise from the needs of the story, that’s why I love his cinema.

Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love) by Ulrich Seidl

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It is  a known tale, Paradies was not born to be a trilogy, it was only after the end of the shooting that Ulrich Seidl realized that there was too much good material to cut if he was going to blend the three stories into a single film, so he went for the trilogy: once you watch the three films you will suddenly realize that the above mentioned tale tells the truth only about the Love chapter, nonetheless I believe getting a single film would have conferred more power to each one of the stories, blending multiple stories had been the trademark of Seidl’s career until now and I consider it an excellent format for his films so full of analytical study of European society and the condition of the humans who live in it but at the same time they are so full of irony and compassion, exploring and exposing the contradictions of our time. Blending multiple stories had expanded the scope – had given room to breath – of Dog Days and Import/Export, Paradies – split into three films – has left most of the irony to Love, most of the desperation to Faith and most of the claustrophobia to Hope: the emotional and thematic balance Seidl had achieved with his previous feature works is lacking here, but at the same time I have liked Paradies: Liebe a lot and here is why.

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Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) leaves her daughter to the cares of an obesity clinic (it will be the story of Hope) and her cat to her friend Anna Maria (who will be the protagonist of Faith) and goes to Kenya on vacation: searching for love. Sexual tourism was at the center of Vers le Sud (Heading South) by Laurent Cantet and the different way the two directors have approached the theme is made clear when we consider the choice of their lead actresses: eight years ago Cantet went with Charlotte Rampling (star power and still a desirable woman even in her fifties) Seidl has chosen an obese and unknown Austrian actress. Seidl’s choice is more realistic – let’s face it: the looks of most Western women are more similar to Tiesel’s than Rampling’s – but Seidl is the winner not because of realism: though the situation allowed a caricature effect the Austrian director has managed to give a lot of sense to Teresa, sooner or later during the viewing you will realize that no matter if she is fat or ridiculous she is just a lonely person who doesn’t know how to ¨Love¨ anymore or what ”Love” is – we realize that in our interaction with a Kenyan we would encounter her same troubles, different cultures unable to communicate and alleviate each other’s pain through broken English and goods exchange.

The Butler by Lee Daniels

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The fourth feature by Lee Daniels can be quickly summarized watching its opening and closing scenes: in 1926 life in the US for black people was not much different than before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in 2008 a black man was elected to be the next President of the US, the scope of the film is to narrate what were the forces that provoked such a total change of scenery, Daniels has strung together the broad historical period transforming the real life Eugene Allen into the fictional character of Cecil Gaines, a butler at the White House during eight presidencies. I guess Daniels imagines that a narrative architecture like this should deliver a film about the life, struggles and fights of the African-American community while at the same time providing snippets of the race politics of eight US Presidents: is it really necessary to illustrate its superficiality?

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Last year I was not a fan of Lincoln, but one thing Spielberg did the right way and in my opinion it is a lesson every director willing to treat a historical subject should learn: you can create the big historical picture focusing on a single episode in a short period of time, this way the film will achieve historical, cinematic and emotional depth. Ignoring this lesson – as Lee Daniels does with The Butler – condemns the film to superficiality and stereotypes: the complexity of the civil rights movement alone would constitute a mighty subject to film, and so would be the politics of race by each one of the eight presidents depicted in the movie. Daniels´ misconception is not helped by his casting choices, while Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines) and Oprah Winfrey (Cecil´s wife) are quite good and convincing, James Marsden´s JFK and Alan Rickman´s Ronald Reagan are ridiculous in their incapacity to deliver a believable image of these well-know figures. The film is dedicated ¨to the brave men and women who fought in the civil rights movement¨ but if you want to learn something about them while being emotionally devastated forget about The Butler and read a great book like Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter.

Sex, Drugs & Taxation (Spies & Glistrup) by Christoffer Boe

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Nobody knows Simon Spies (a millionaire) and Mogens Glistrup (his lawyer) outside of Denmark, so I guess the original title needed to go for the film’s international release, nonetheless Sex, Drugs & Taxation is as bad as international titles can be, they should have found something echoing the title of another recent Danish film – A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel: both of them are anchored by an unusual relationship (hot Queen and revolutionary Doctor on one side, hot millionaire and crazy lawyer on the other one) but while Arcel deals with a Denmark still reeking of Middle Age, Boe depicts the socially – and sexually – advanced country that we know in our time and Glistrup’s visceral hatred for it. Simon Spies runs the show, he has the kind of money and personality who make him fit the role – and the most memorable scene of the film, maybe the most memorable scene of 2013 – belongs to him, but Spies & Glistrup evolves and revolves around Mogens’s tireless crusade against the social state and the heavy taxation necessary to sustain it: this is how a very Danish story becomes relevant touching issues at the core of today’s public discourse on the international scene.

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Christoffer Boe has given cinematic life to these real life characters with a lot of rhythm and an amazing team work to reconstruct the look and feel of Denmark in the 70s – in a sense Spies & Glistrup is a carefully realized historical film for Denmark in 70s as much as A Royal Affair was  in the 18th century – but the main merit of the Danish director is the casting of Johan Philip Asbæk as Spies and Nicolas Bro as Gilstrup, we see them together only in a few scenes, most of them at the beginning of the film where they have made such a powerful acting work, they have created such a strong connection that for the rest of the film they are always together because we realize that Spies wouldn’t have been Spies without Glistrup and vice versa: two eccentric characters living in a time when a lot of things happened that are still relevant today filmed with verve and vision.

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

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Behind the Candelabra represents a new chapter of the infinite relationship between cinema and television, here we have a famous director – and former author of blockbusters – who finds himself in economic distress, no one in the film industry wanted to finance this film and if we have an happy end – meaning: we have the film – we need to thank HBO, the pay television channel mainly known for its production of highly cinematic TV series. Soderbergh says Behind the Candelabra will be his last film – because there is no interest anymore in films like the ones he makes – and I am sorry to say that to me he sounds like an American brat who has been spoiled by too much money and success during the first part of his career, just think of a well-known and respected French filmmaker like Jean-Claude Brisseau who had so little money to shoot The Girl from Nowhere that he used his own apartment as its main set, come on mister Soderbergh: show us what you can do shooting your next movie in your villa (or just ask your friends Pitt/Douglas/Damon to borrow one of theirs).

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In a way Soderbergh’s story echoes an aspect of Liberace‘s life: a gifted virtuoso who could have made a career as a concert pianist (lot of work, not much glory, even less money) but preferred to dedicate his life and talent to the show business becoming one of the highest-paid entertainers of his time, but this subject does not represent the main focus of Behind the Candelabra. Behind the Candelabra is a Soderbergh film, so the focus – the homosexual love story between Liberace (an extraordinary Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (kudos to the makeup department, but Matt Damon is too old to play a sixteen years old) – of the film is only one of the issues explored here, Soiderbergh has always been a multifaceted director: of course the fear of being exposed as a homosexual dominates the film but then we have difference of age between lovers, difference of economic status and the ways they influence and shift the power in a relationship, plastic surgery, in the end Behind the Candelabra brings to the plate everything we can expect from a love story – the passion, the scheming, the betrayal – plus the widespread and very contemporary obsession with perennial youth and the medical ways to obtain it. Soderbergh delivers it all in a spectacular and gorgeous imagery, he gets great performances from every actor (Rob Lowe as Dr. Startz the plastic surgeon deserves a special mention) and – as usual with Soderbergh – the pacing is effective, not even a single boring shot!

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