A Trio of Oscar Contenders

1.  Wolf of Wall Street

In a word… overrated.  Nominated for a slew of awards but thankfully, Martin Scorsese’s influence apparently only extends so far and the film failed to win in any category.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown to appreciate Leonardo DiCaprio’s abilities after seeing “Catch Me if You Can.”  He has a unique talent for playing characters who are basically pond scum and somehow making them appear sympathetic.  However, where this movie could have been a cautionary tale of Wall Street excess, instead it sensationalizes in the most irresponsible manner the subject’s lifestyle of  rampant drug use, fraud, hookers, and workplace orgies. I can’t imagine what Scorsese could possibly have ruled out to get this film an R rating.  NC17 would have made more sense (but might have not resulted in the aforementioned Oscar nominations).  Oddly,  the constant excess of this sensationalism didn’t even make the film interesting, as I dozed off twice without missing anything.  There was some mild interest in the beginning with DiCaprio’s transition from fresh faced kid off the Wall Street bus (literally… a city bus that says “Wall Street”), to unethical, debauched stockbroker, but this was aided by the early limited and typically mesmerizing, appearance of Matthew McConaghey as his first employer.  After that there really isn’t any redeeming value and I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.  Three hours of this, Scorsese? Negative five million stars.

 

2. Nebraska

Bruce Dern’s nomination for Best Actor here is hands down well deserved.  Playing the aging alcoholic who thinks he won a million dollars in a familiar, garden-variety magazine sweepstakes, Dern’s character Woody drags his caring son along on a road trip to claim the prize.  Dern worked consistently within the confines of a character who spoke in measured, limited cadences. Reminded me of Peter Seller’s accomplishment as the lead in “Being There.” Without an actor’s natural tendency to aid the lines with inflections and other tools of their trade, Dern’s character draws in the audience who must then focus on the words and the portryal.  One example of this occurred in the scene where they are passing through Dern’s hometown and visiting his old childhood home.  In the empty run down house, Dern says three sentences:  “This was my parent’s room. (slight pause) They used to yell at me if I came in here. (slight pause) No one to yell at me now.”  Just incredible.   Shooting entirely in black and white also not only underscores the tone of the film, it allows for welcome and fresh creativity in cinematography and direction.   Montana landscape, at least in areas, is bleak and uninteresting, which lends itself perfectly to artful black and white representation.  It’s a well written, acted and directed film that inspires a viewer to look both inward and outward.  I couldn’t understand why “Wolf of Wall Street” was rated R instead of NC17, and i don’t understand the R instead of PG13 here, because I do recommend for all audiences.

 

3. Saving Mr. Banks

This excellent movie did not win any Oscars and it most certainly SHOULD HAVE.  There was one nomination, for Best Original Score, and of course a boatload of other nominations and awards.  I can’t fathom the Academy snub of Emma Thompson for Best Actress.  She had rather a difficult part to play and succeeded in imbuing a certain sympathy to the character of Mrs. Travers, author of the classic Mary Poppins,  who was dignified yet hostile and clearly unhappy.  The negotiations between Mrs, Travers and Walt Disney that led to the development of a Disney masterpiece create the basic conflict in Saving Mr. Banks.   Mrs. Travers was so difficult for Disney to work with, it is temptingly easy for the audience to conclude that she was just irate and unpleasant.  However, the sheer acting presence of Emma Thompson along with the movie’s overuse of flashbacks to her unhappy childhood, contrive to make darn sure the audience knows this is someone who simply never learned how to enjoy life or be happy.

In the flashback scenes, Colin Farrell plays her father, who alternates between his love of his family and his love of alcohol.  When there are joyous moments in the story, both in the past and present scenes, the joy is correspondingly all the more powerful. Some might conclude the film is blatantly manipulative.  I’m not sure that I can quite see it that way, and even if it is, it’s not the worst manipulation in the world.  For people who find the basic concepts to have value, it isn’t manipulation but more of an affirmation.  It also makes it possible for the viewer to live the experience of Mrs. Travers through her eyes: arriving by transatlantic flight in the early 1960s, to her suite at the Beverly Hills hotel.  The viewer won’t immediately understand why she takes the fruit bowl and flings the pears out of the window, just like the movie’s title doesn’t make sense until much later on.    Less detailed flashbacks would have been preferable in favor of more focus on the movie’s present, where she spends time at the Disney studios working with Walt and his employees.  The flashbacks might conceivably why some viewers might feel manipulated, and with actors like these, a director should let them do the heavy lifting they are capable of.   The scenes with Mrs. Travers and the creative team are golden; the talented songwriting Sherman brothers get a great tribute here and the supporting performances are all spot on.  The guarded friendship that develops between Mrs. Travers and the limo driver played by Paul Giamatti has an impact on the viewer that builds along with the relationship.

I also loved Tom Hanks’ interpretations of Walt Disney and a Best Actor nomination would not have been out of place either.  See this movie if you believe that sacrifice brings about rewards, that joy is greater in contrast with unhappiness, and please know that after you do see it, you’ll be singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” out loud for days.

Blue Jasmine

RB score:  10/10

In a field of very compelling Oscar contenders this year, Cate Blanchett is in the running for Best Actress for her performance in “Blue Jasmine.”  I dearly hope she wins.  If Woody Allen is undeniably a gifted writer and director, which he demonstrates without qualification in this movie, then Cate Blanchett is the parallel force of talent as the lead actress.   Actually, Allen assembled a very strong cast with at least one major surprise, Andrew Dice Clay…. and oh how it works!

The story of Jasmine unfolds as she arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, nominated for Supporting Actress), as she has no money and no where to go.  Her husband, Hal, a smooth Wall Street criminal, played by Alec Baldwin, was disgraced, imprisoned, and finally committed suicide in prison.  All the trappings of wealth that Jasmine enjoyed were sold or confiscated, although she evidently kept some clothes.  Blanchett, with her finely drawn features and lithe figure, does an excellent job of conveying the look of elegance from someone so accustomed to a perfect wardrobe, they don’t have to think twice about it.  Even though she is now technically homeless.  This is the crux of the Allen genius in this movie:  He manages to portray the segment of American society termed “the 1%” and the opposite end of the spectrum, poverty, using the same musical score, and the same actress.  The level of artistry keeps the movie from ever even venturing near cliche.

Not surprisingly, Jasmine isn’t exactly adjusting well to having lost everything.  Substance abuse and signs of mental instability are balanced with a fierce yet quiet courage of the type that is often overlooked.  Courage can only be measured by the individual’s difficulty of overcoming their unique demons.   When she arrives at Ginger’s modest home and casually mentions that she had flown in first class,  Ginger is aghast and asks the question that is on the audience’s mind: “If you have no money, how did you fly first class?”  The question is not answered, and she asks it twice for good measure.  Allen knows what he is doing.  Does it matter how she did it?  Not really.  It gets you thinking about other things.

Ginger is a single mom who works in a grocery store, having divorced her husband (Clay) who had lost everything to one of Hal’s fraudulent investments, and is now dating another working-class character, (Bobby Cannavale) disdained by Jasmine.  Ginger is almost surprisingly free of resentment and does not blame Jasmine for what happened,  comprehending as she does the innocence of her supposedly worldly sister.  Jasmine herself is casting about trying to decide what to do,  frozen in her world of depression and reaching the only conclusions she can:  Find a job and go back to school.  On the surface, perfectly logical but uncomfortably, she has become disassociated from reality.  There is a subtle jab by Allen at liberal arts degrees, (which used to be called MRS degrees back in the day, maybe still are) when Jasmine is asked, “What would you have been if you finished school?”  and she replied, “An anthropologist.”

In that moment the audience realizes what Jasmine doesn’t, that she has no tools and no skills to make a living in a job market that silently discriminates against middle aged women.  To illustrate further, Jasmine does get a job, through a connection (also very realistic, bravo Allen).  The connection was a blind date, Eddie, (played by the very charming Max Casella) arranged by Ginger’s boyfriend.   The impromptu double date was not a success which although amusing, was not surprising either.   Eddie does know someone, who knows someone who works in a dentist’s office that needs a receptionist.  The dentist turns out to be a jerk who harasses Jasmine, in a subtle way at first, and then becomes full-on, overt textbook actionable harassment when he tries to force himself on her and she fights him off, lovely and vulnerable,  leaving the office with dignity intact and announcing she has quit.  More genius from Allen here.  There were no nuances present, he does not mean to leave a single vestige of doubt that this was lawsuit material.  Lawsuit!  Why is Jasmine. broke and now unemployed again, not running to the nearest attorney office? Because she is not functioning well enough to be able to look out for her own interests.  I can’t judge someone in this much pain.

There is much more development but to describe further ventures into spoiler territory and everyone should see this film.  It all looks so easy to the moviegoer’s eye, when you see the final creation and perfect balance of script, acting, music, lighting, color and camera work.  Like Jasmine’s wardrobe, something that appears effortless on the surface.  And it’s not just about the artistry.   There is a certain social commentary captured by Allen here and its nuances may be interpreted differently by different viewers. Middle aged women in America today, whose lives were supposed to go a certain way, and then didn’t, is a real life tragedy being played out every day and in different ways.