“AUSTENLAND” — but Mr Darcy, I couldn’t…

30539A  film parents can bring their teens to….after a discussion of unrealistic romantic expectations!  AUSTENLAND is a charming piece of fluff from first time director/co-writer, Jerusha Hess (she also co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite).  As if to make the anti-feminist message less offensive, the film is set in the late 70’s– a young woman pines for life in a Jane Austen novel.  Keri Russell brings such a sweetness to the role that it makes me want to see Waitress (2007) again and maybe check out the new television series, The Americans.

This film suffers from a serious case of waffling tone.  Is it a comedy poking fun at the frivolous, misguided women who believe that fantasy trumps reality?  Are we meant to feel that this young woman who dreams of romance and has memorized entire Jane Austen chapters, deserves to find true love after suffering at the whims of the cruel mistress of Austenland (played with relish by Jane Seymour)?  Sadly, the film tries to have it both ways: pretend to show the banal truth behind the fantasy while also serving up a large romantic bon bon.  But even on a lovely lace-dolly-lined plate with a good cup of proper tea; this bon bon is too sweet.

Rating: 1 cup of British tea

“Blue Jasmine” — Lovely scent but where’s the substance?

Woody Allen’s latest production was filmed in San Francisco, and what a joy it is, to see our fair city featured on the big screen!  Look, there’s the Mission!  Wow, look at that skyline!  To hear big-name actors referring to Marin and see them walking along the Marina Green is a thrill.  Now, if only the film itself were as thrilling…

Cate Blanchett wears her Chanel suit and pearls like a suit of armor as she strides through the film swilling vodka and Xanax trying to ward off panic attacks.  Just how much compassion you feel for this brittle, broken woman of means who’s lost everything, will color how you view this film.  Jasmine has been a pampered New York socialite who turned a blind eye to her husband’s philandering and nefarious money-making schemes.  More than Blue;  Jasmine is both desperate and damaged.  Forced to move in with her sister in San Francisco, it may as well have been New Orleans for all of the references to “Streetcar Named Desire”!

Jasmine swans about in her haute couture, all the while struggling to survive in a world that she’s had little or no experience of – -the world the rest of us inhabit.  Blanchett plays this “Blanche” character as a fragile bird, her fluttering hands grasping the walls as if to keep from falling and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  There are two “Stanley” characters in this film, both lovers of Jasmine’s sister, Ginger. Her current beau, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale, even has a shouty scene wearing a sweat-stained wife-beater t-shirt.

Sally Hawkins gives the  film’s only sympathetic performance as Jasmine’s adopted sister, Ginger.  A working class woman with a heart of gold, Ginger has forgiven her sister’s mean-spirited ways.  She tries to help Jasmine even as Jasmine continues to belittle her and her life.  While the majority of the characters seem like stereotypes with little depth, Ginger is a caring person who’s given substance through her connections with other people.  Like “Stella”, she’s made some poor choices but Sally Hawkins gives her a warmth that stands in strong contrast to the cold, self-centered Jasmine.

As much as I applaud Woody Allen for giving women complex central roles in his films (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/movies/woody-allens-distinctive-female-characters.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), some of his characters act so neurotic that it’s a challenge to spend cinematic time with them.

Interesting to note: Alec Baldwin played the “Stanley” role in a film version of “Streetcar” and now, here he is, playing another villain to the Blanche character.  He gives a great performance as the sophisticated swindler.  Baldwin and Blanchett have good chemistry as the married, jet-setting New Yorkers; their final scene is one of the best in the entire film.  Blanchett is mesmerizing in the role but by not giving her character a single positive trait, Woody Allen has created a woman to be scorned or pitied but not someone the audience can relate to or root for…

As much as it’s a delight to see San Francisco on the big screen;  Blue Jasmine is full of undeveloped characters and unbelievable premises.  It’s great to see so many stars in interesting roles but some of the performances take away from the narrative and the children are moved about like props on a stage.  In “Streetcar”, Blanche is carted off to a sanitarium while her sister returns to her rough-and-tumble Stanley.   Blue Jasmine repeats that scenario but doesn’t offer even that safety net for our night-blooming Jasmine.

And here’s a great article about the scary possibility of bag lady future: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/the-fear-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Rating: 2 shots of vodka–perhaps an expensive one on the rocks with a twist, followed by shot-gut vodka swigged directly from the bottle

“I’m So Excited” — Almodovar in a playful mood

1The latest Pedro Almodovar film has opened to mixed reviews.  Having crafted such master works as Talk To Her, All About My Mother, and Volver, some reviewers found it hard to embrace this bon-bon of a film that is closer in tone to his earlier, more playful films like, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown.  A sexy, soap opera set in a plane, I’m So Excited is a delightful romp celebrating sexual expression and acceptance.

All of the characters are stereotypes: campy flight attendant, corrupt businessman, kooky psychic, but with a twist — everyone has a secret or a passion that needs to be expressed.  There’s not much of a plot as the film is more concerned with letting each character tell his or her story by interacting with the other (often drunk and/or drugged and occasionally, hysterical) passengers.  The flight might be doomed so why not reveal your darkest secrets or act out your sexual fantasies?   And if you’re still uptight, have a cocktail laced with drugs!

Some audiences will miss the joy that’s intended by all of this reckless abandon.  And there’s certainly an uncomfortable moral pinch when multiple people are taken advantage of while in a drugged state of arousal!  Yet “I’m So Excited” has such a big heart and is staged in such a bright, colorful world of dreams that it’s not too difficult to forgive what would otherwise be deemed reprehensible in the real world.   If you’re savvy enough to pick it up, there’s even a political undertone that represents the state of affairs in Spain.

“We were in an awful crisis in Spain and I came up with the idea of having people up in the clouds.  It’s very unreal but very metaphoric about the Spanish situation.  We’re traveling around without knowing where we’re going to land.  We need an emergency landing, but that implies risk and danger, and we don’t know who will be in command.  And also this idea of being on both sides: in heaven or in earth, death or life.” Pedro Almodovar (http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/welcome-to-the-party-pedro-almodovar-on-his-new-film-im-so-excited)

The kitchy opening credits will put you in a happy frame of mind and you’ll be delighted to see Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz camping it up for their favorite director.  The silliness of the scene sets the tone for the film, but how their actions lead to the airplane’s malfunction is a little sketchy.  There are wonderful performances by some Almodovar regulars, Cecilia Roth and Lola Dueñas and a hilariously over-the-top lead flight attendant, masterfully played by Javier Cámara.  Camara’s character cannot tell a lie — yet he manages to hide a delightful secret from his married bisexual lover.   A crash scene is wonderfully (and economically) crafted to utilize a simple film production trick that allows the audience to use their own imagination.  One extended scene with a Casanova using the airplane’s phone, should have been omitted as it distracts from the scene unfolding in the air.

I’m So Excited has a freshness and quirkiness that makes it an unpolished gem — as if it had been produced by a community theater troupe that just happened to be run by one of the world’s greatest directors.  American audiences may not be ready for the outrageous sexual abandon on display here, not the least because it involves both gay and bisexual men but the sex scenes are fairly tame.  It’s the concepts of sexual freedom that are graphic!

So if you’re going to take this flight, check your sexual inhibitions at the gate!

Rating: 4 glasses of Valencia (no pharmaceuticals needed, please!)

S & M with the Wizard of Oz

James Franco is a Renaissance Man.  Actor, poet, artist;  Franco has recently added film producer and co-director to his long list of credits.  He is using his celebrity clout to pursue projects that he wants to see come to life…

James Franco as the Wizard of Oz

James Franco as the Wizard of Oz

And what does this Renaissance Man want to see?  Why, gay porn of course!

Of the 11 films James Franco either acted in, produced and/or co-directed THIS YEAR, at least three feature pornography: Lovelace, Interior. Leather Bar. and kink.

As the producer of the film, kink, James Franco conceived the project while visiting the porn film castle, The San Francisco Armory, during last year’s filming of  About Cherry (about a young woman who gets involved in the porn industry).  He persuaded a fellow filmmaker, Christina Voros, to make the documentary.


kink is–dare I say it?–an almost sweet film about BDSM.  It  portrays this world of bondage and submission as well-mannered, and as concerned with the bottom line and well-crafted product as any other small business.  The film-making is straight-forward “talking head” documentary style with only one creative camera move in the film.  There’s little need for it with such a titillating subject but there’s one interview that takes place outside the Armory where the subject is framed in medium shot.  As a professional dominatrix reveals her emotional dilemma about when to tell her children about her job; she seems stranded in the sea of grey concrete surrounding her.  It’s such an intimate scene, but it’s told in an almost informal style that does nothing to bring the audience in.

An interesting element of the film is how many of the directors, videographers and models in the film are queer.  The scenes that are being filmed may not be queer-oriented, but there are many scenes of same-sex BDSM with gay directors telling their same sex models and dominatrix how to interact.  What is also clear in kink is how everyone takes their craft seriously and how many of them feel it’s not just a way to make some serious cash.  By showing a discussion of web “hits” and the directors gathered to discuss what is working in their area of expertise, kink demystifies this erotic business.  Not for the faint of heart, or for viewers with no exposure to pornography, the film is sexually graphic, but goes out of it’s way to be accessible with a focus on the people making the content.  kink is more about the dynamics of the whole team rather than the mechanics of what’s being done for the video.  An insider’s view of a world most will never see, kink is a very interesting film.

Not only did James Franco star as the Wizard in Oz, The Great and Powerful, he also found time to co-direct a short film.  And, like visiting the Land of Oz;  Interior. Leather Bar. is also a visit to a different world.  This “queer docu-fiction” –as Travis Matthews, the co-director, labels it– is based on an explicit scene cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising, the 1980’s crime thriller starring Al Pacino.  Conceived by Franco as a study in how gay pornography is sensationalized by straight audiences, this 60-minute film is an odd mix.  It’s a re-enactment of a film scene few have ever seen and a behind the scenes look at how a straight actor might feel encountering and/or participating in such a scene.

Drawn to the project by Franco’s participation, the actors in the film are shown discussing how they’re really only there because of the star.  One actor seems to be a long-time friend of Franco’s and worked with him in a theater company.  Val Lauren plays the lead but he’s also clearly conflicted about doing a scene where there may be gay sex involved. All veracity is called into question when he’s coached on camera in what is initially presented as a behind-the-scenes discussion.  Franco appears in the film as “himself” but again, it’s not clear if he’s playing the role of director or star or friend and though he states his reason for making this film, he’s also shown leaving the set before the shoot is complete.

An interesting vanity piece, Interior. Leather Bar. is well-paired on the film festival circuit with another Travis Matthews short film, In Their Room: London (33 min).   There doesn’t seem to be a distribution plan for the film and though interesting as a social experiment; it doesn’t seem created with a general audience in mind.  It feels more like a thesis film.

James Franco is not waiting for Hollywood to create interesting roles in big-budget films for him to star in–he’s creating his own films and using his considerable celebrity clout to explore and create interesting work.