R.I.P. Gordon Willis

It is a great misfortune to report that Gordon Willis, one of the true titans of American cinematography, passed away on Sunday in Falmouth, Massachusetts. I haven’t seen any cause listed, but he was 82.

Willis will generally be defined by his prominent collaborations with three major directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Alan J. Pakula and Woody Allen. Willis essentially set the aesthetic for an entire generation in masterpieces like “The Godfather” and its sequel, “All the President’s Men,” “Annie Hall,” “Stardust Memories,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and, of course, his luminous, transcendent work in Allen’s “Manhattan.”

His most famous images undoubtedly come from the latter, and rightly so: Allen and Diane Keaton sitting in the shadows under a sparkling, almost spectral Queensboro Bridge is a dream of a dream, all of pop culture’s impressions of New York City distilled in one shot. But at the end of the day, I have to say my personal favorite of Willis’ films might be another Allen collaboration, “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” The silver screen lost its literal silver many years ago, but I think Willis’ stunning work on Allen’s Depression-era fable evokes the shimmer and sheen of early film better than a 1980 color film has any business doing. If you needed someone to visualize the beautiful, terrible power of cinema, you couldn’t ask for any better than Willis.

Review: Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett dominates a strong ensemble in Woody Allen’s sterling “Blue Jasmine,” the famed writer/director’s best effort in years.

Cool, severe, imposing: Cate Blanchett never so much inhabits the screen as she does command it. She belongs to a certain class of thespian (Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh) that I would call less an actress than a presence – they’re never entirely convincing as anyone but themselves, but that’s often sort of the point. Seeing a film about Elizabeth I and seeing a film with Blanchett as Elizabeth I aren’t quite the same thing.

With “Blue Jasmine,” her first lead role in several years, Blanchett has opted to take on an equally iconic role, although this one is not historical but archetypical. After she played Blanche DuBois in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s acclaimed 2009 stage revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I suppose it was inevitable that Blanchett would bring her characterization to the art-house in one way or another. The surprise of “Blue Jasmine,” a sharp-witted tragedy of a fallen socialite, is not that Blanchett would star (and shine) in it, but that Modern Woody Allen would make it.

See, back in the day Classic Woody Allen made movies that were not only funny and charming but carried an edge. Films like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Alice,” “September;” there is a humanism in these works that made room for tragedy and emotional turmoil as well as Allen’s observational humor. Modern Woody (defined roughly as post-“Sweet and Lowdown”) hasn’t seemed as interested in crises of faith or the perils of modern romance – “Match Point” is about the only film from the past ten years that nods in that direction, and it’s more something that belongs in a cabinet of curiosities than among the crown jewels – leading to a thematic stagnation that’s led to the auteur’s films looking increasingly backwards. “Midnight in Paris” was the apex of this trend, both in terms of literal time travel and, thankfully, actually creatively addressing Allen’s increasing nostalgia and floundering attempts to stay relevant in a contemporary, 21st-century setting. But last year’s slight and forgettable “To Rome With Love” seemed to put the writer/director back at square one.

Instead, it seems he was just saving his energy and ire for “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s most well-honed, germane work in at least a decade. This is not the kind of self-indulgent, obligatory sort of film that emerges out of just pumping out a film per year – it has something legitimate to say about ambition and wealth in the Madoff era, channeled through the biting personal drama of Tennessee Williams. If that sounds overly dour, it’s because you’re forgetting that we’re still dealing with Woody Allen, and there is still plenty of fun to be had. It’s just that there’s more bite behind the laughter than usual.

The film’s delicate balance between comedy and tragedy is well defined in its protagonist, one of Woody’s most fully-fleshed out creations. Jasmine is a great jumble of humanity: entitled, haughty, critical and delusional, but also a sympathetic, beleaguered nervous wreck. When she shows up at her sister’s apartment in San Francisco, destitute and lost after the discovery of her husband’s white-collar crimes, she seems nothing but a vapid socialite, incapable of taking care of herself. She fills the air with a constant barrage of inane conversation and embellished memories of parties and people that her sister never has been nor ever will be privy to, motoring along as if a moment of self-reflection would kill her.

But it might do. Though she seems flighty and impractical, Jasmine actually pursues her dreams of rising back up the social stratosphere with remarkable determination, a sign that she has never been the pushover that everyone assumes her to be. When it comes to her life before her husband’s scandal or after it, Jasmine is purposeful and resolute – but there’s a gray patch in the middle, somewhere around her husband’s arrest and the nervous breakdown that followed, that eats away at Jasmine. Allen bounces back and forth in time, flashing back to Jasmine’s Upper East Side life with Hal, dancing around the moment everything fell apart just as Jasmine does. To her great frustration (and the detriment of her mental health), it’s all anyone else can focus on.

For even though they seem to find her judgmental and nosy, everyone around Jasmine sure seems content to pay her back in kind. Her sister (the perpetually haggard Sally Hawkins) clearly harbors resentment over the siblings’ divergent paths; her sister’s short-tempered boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, in best Stanley Kowalski form) considers Jasmine a threat to his family plans; and her sister’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), who lost his life’s savings in Hal’s Ponzi scheme, accuses Jasmine of being an ignorant enabler. Among all these shattered perceptions, who Jasmine might actually be is lost, even to herself.

This is perhaps the first film in the Modern Woody era that feels like it was actually cast according to character, rather than just according to the sort of people who might like to be in a Woody Allen movie this month (plus Scarlett Johannson). Alec Baldwin is perfect as Hal, all shiny exterior and no soul, while Hawkins, Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard and even Dice Clay are totally appropriate in their respective roles. The real windfall though is Blanchett, and we can only hope that Allen is looking for a new blonde muse. Her mannered style dovetails with Jasmine’s false airs, making it all the more believable and affecting when the great dame’s carefully constructed exterior comes crashing down.

“Blue Jasmine” lacks the kind of iconic imagery of Tennessee Williams – like many of even Classic Woody’s films, this movie doesn’t ever really shoot for moments of transcendent truth or clarity, but is content to deliver at a consistent highbrow pitch. In terms of where the characters end up, the film ends not all that far from where it begins – but there’s an infinite sadness that emerges from that inertia. For someone like Jasmine, there is nowhere to go but down.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Inner Dialogue: Outside the Box

Check out last week’s introduction to Inner Dialogue for an explanation of this new feature here at The Best Films of Our Lives!

Lefty: Hello and welcome again to another edition of Inner Dialogue. Before you get your hopes up that this will be a weekly feature –

Righty: Consistent posting? On this web site? Psssh.

Lefty: – we’ll remind you that, for one thing, our author is starting grad school in about a week, so logic demands that a lot more of his time will be taken up with schoolwork.

Righty: To be clear, the free time that remains will probably be spent catching up on Buffy reruns rather than updating this blog.

Lefty: And for another, today’s topic very much seemed to be a companion piece to last week’s discussion of the Hollywood studio system. Namely, this summer’s particularly strong indie slate and the possible advantages of counter-programming. Even as the year’s blockbuster offerings have been met with both popular and critical indifference, films produced by non-major-studios (or indie branches like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.) are booming – at least by critical metrics. Just in the past few months, here at the Best Films of Our Lives, we’ve handed out 3 1/2 to 4 star reviews to “Stories We Tell,” “Before Midnight,” “The Bling Ring” and “Frances Ha – ” and expect another one for “Blue Jasmine” any day now. Add on “The Spectacular Now” (something we weren’t as enthused about as most critics) and “The Way, Way Back,” besides all the films we haven’t caught up to yet – “Fruitvale Station,” “In a World,” “The East,” “A Hijacking,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Prince Avalanche,” “Short Term 12,” “The Act of Killing,” “Computer Chess,” “This Is Martin Bonner” – and that’s a pretty fantastic season according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.

Righty: Yes, because those sites are soooo reliable.

Lefty: I mean, any attempt to put an objective score on subjective opinions is going to be flawed, of course, but looking at a Metacritic score can at least give us a pretty accurate impression of the overall reaction to a film.

Righty: Accurate, shmaccurate. I don’t need an aggregate site to tell me that people are responding to “The Butler” and can’t care less about “Jobs.” Both, by the way, “indie” films having completely opposite levels of success at the moment. Having a host of Sundance favorites at your disposal might be nice, but who cares if the studios and distributors can’t even get them to an audience?

Lefty: But “The Butler” is, by all accounts, a better film than “Jobs,” and is therefore making money hand over fist! Isn’t that the kind of direct correlation we like to see in the film industry? The better films being sought out and rewarded? “Fruitvale Station” has made about $15 million so far, a great number for a sober art-house drama; “The Way, Way Back” is creeping towards $20 million, a benchmark that “Mud” and “The Place Beyond The Pines,” two daring, ambitious indie films, already crossed earlier this year. Isn’t that encouraging?

Righty: And meanwhile “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s biggest critical smash in decades, is starting to stall at $11 million despite a big expansion this past weekend, and is going to be lucky to get to even half of what “Midnight in Paris” did. You’re throwing around numbers that don’t actually reflect at all what the general public is responding to – which, in overwhelming numbers, is still the bland studio stuff we were talking about last week.

Lefty: Well back to “The Butler” then. It’s about to top the box office for the second week in a row – a Weinstein Company film that needed FORTY ONE producers and executive producers just to get a $30 million budget!

Righty: If they told me Robin Williams was going to play Eisenhower, I probably wouldn’t cough up more than a million either.

Lefty: But seriously though.

Righty: But seriously, Oprah.

Lefty: Well, that was almost certainly a significant factor. But I think that part of the success of “The Butler” can be chalked up to effective counter-programming: right at the end of another bloated, explosion-laden summer, someone had the smarts to drop a prestige title with a ton of recognizable names attached to it. And despite our mutual dislike for the sweeping inspirational historical drama, it’s a genre that’s been a favorite with audiences in the past – see Gump, Forrest. That’s the kind of film that, in the past, a major studio would’ve made and released themselves – so why didn’t any of them make “The Butler?”

Righty: Remember “Bobby?”

Lefty: No.

Righty: Neither do I.

Lefty: …I see what you did there.

Righty: No, really, I don’t remember that movie. What is this “Parkland” thing that everyone’s going on about all of a sudden?

Lefty: Look, no, there’s another example! An ensemble drama about the Kennedy assassination? A young, sort-of marketable star surrounded by great character actors? Tom Hanks producing? Why wasn’t that a major studio pickup at the screenplay phase? What is it doing playing at Venice and Toronto and getting distributed by Open Road rather than Fox??

Righty: Perhaps someone was scared Warner Bros. would sue and we’d end up having to refer to “Oliver Stone’s JFK” and “Peter Landesman’s Parkland.”

Lefty: BUT SERIOUSLY.

Righty: But seriously you need to chill out and not expect that indie films are magically going to start making bank just because Superman is back and he’s British! I’ll give you the fact that counter-programming has worked well for “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler,” but have you thought about another reason why those films might be having “outside the box” success?

Lefty: I don’t follow.

Righty: Who are you, Stephen Colbert?

Lefty: Oh. OH. Well that is a point, Hollywood in general still seems incapable of realizing that black people exist in America and might be willing to pay for portrayals of themselves on film.

Righty: Despite Tyler Perry’s career dancing pant-less in front of them like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.”

Lefty: But that’s really still just feeding into what I mean by counter-programming: it’s about giving people something other than the status quo, not just in terms of budget but subject matter, themes, stars, stories. Hollywood’s two most bankable black stars – Will Smith and Denzel Washington – both had big action films this summer in “After Earth” and “2 Guns,” but both underperformed.

Righty: Because they were the SAME THING as every other sci-fi apocalypse survival/buddy-cop action movie out there – you could’ve swapped them out for generic white actors and who would know? Also, M. Night Shyamalan.

Lefty: So is it really just as simple as, show the people something they haven’t seen before?

Righty: Hell no. Haven’t you heard about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter? Or were you alive and on the Internet when Arrested Development Season 4 came out? Or did you watch the reaction to Avengers: Age of Ultron at Comic-Con? People act all shocked that Hollywood can’t come up with original ideas, but given the choice, the collective majority of people will just ask for more of what they know. Plus, you pointed out, “The Butler” isn’t so different from “Forrest Gump” or “Driving Miss Daisy” or a bunch of other pop-culture clichés. What’s so stunningly new about that, even if it at least decides to let black people be at the center of attention for a change?

Lefty: You’ve somehow turned what seemed like a positive year for indie film into something depressing.

Righty: Just trying to keep things in perspective. Yeah, there’s been a lot of great movies this summer, if you know where to look. But that’s always true. I’m just saying here, boring blockbusters don’t lead to popular indies. That’s wishful thinking. And besides, what would all the hipsters do? Start putting up Michael Bay posters in their Williamsburg studios?

Lefty: Perish the thought. I guess if anything I’m just trying… as always… to bring attention to things going on in the film world just outside the mainstream eye. If you’re tired of superheroes and robots, you can still find comedies (that aren’t about guys smoking pot), romances (that don’t have Katherine Heigl in them), and Emma Watson (not in a Harry Potter movie). Think outside the multiplex, I guess? n other words, if you’re interested in any of those movies we mentioned earlier – please ask and we’ll tell more about them.

Righty: Because I’m betting, even despite this blog’s efforts, that most of you have no damn clue what “Short Term 12” and “Computer Chess” are. We can’t catch EVERYTHING in the Trailers of the Week posts, you know.

Lefty: What’s your verdict on the summer’s indie offerings? Anything to get really excited about, or is under-appreciated, above-average cinema just business as usual? And will someone please tell us if we actually have to go see “The Butler” or not? Let us know, and join us next time on Inner Dialogue.