Film reviews: Blue Jasmine, Prisoners, Greedy Lying Bastards, Hannah Arendt and Runner Runner

Woody Allen in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) had a scene of madcap dementia in which he “became” Blanche DuBois. Once bitten by Tennessee Williams’ greatest character, never shy of being re-bitten. Nor of biting someone else. Cate Blanchett now has tooth marks all over her, inflicted by a film-maker’s amour fou with drama’s most ornately delusional heroine. In Blue Jasmine, already hailed by American critics as Allen’s best film in years, Blanchett follows recent stage gigs in A Streetcar Named Desire with a Woody protagonist virulently, lethally infected with DuBois Syndrome.

I had better confess before I am engulfed by others’ enthusiasm. Blue Jasmine combines everything we want from Woody (theoretically at least) with everything we don’t want. Yes, it looks gorgeous, shot in a nectar haze by Javier Aguirresarobe. Yes, it has a few scintillating performances: lovely Sally Hawkins, baring her Grand National teeth while making her dialogue sparkle, Peter Sarsgaard silkily creepy as a political riser, Blanchett giving her formidable all. Yes, it has a clever structure, tripping across time-zones as today’s Jeanette/“Jasmine” (Blanchett), crashing her Bohemian sister’s (Hawkins) San Francisco pad, is intercut with yesterday’s, a society swan queening it at her Hamptons home – read Streetcar’s “Belle Reve” – with high-flying late hubby Hal (Alec Baldwin). Baldwin, we learn, has fallen in flames, leaving Jasmine no money, only a legacy of loony airs, graces and delusions. She has also experienced a brief, destabilising spell of the “Edison medicine” (electroconvulsive therapy).

So. Streetcar with modern knobs on. But in Woody World even “modern” has diminishing meaning. We don’t really recognise this world at all. Item: one crazy blonde arriving from the early-middle 20th century out of Tennessee Williams via screwball (tragi)comedy. Item: one start-up-pack Stella and Stanley, with Bobby Cannavale doing the Kowalski muscles and mumbles to Hawkins’ sweet-hearted homebody. Item: Alec Baldwin doing Jay Gatsby with middle-age spread. And out in Marin, where Washington princes-in-waiting have their west coast mansions (apparently), Sarsgaard woos Blanchett with a fairytale artifice that almost screams “too good to be true”.

If you don’t buy this stuff you don’t buy it, though millions do and perhaps millions will. The worst offence of Blue Jasmine, apart from its greasepaint confectedness, its hand-me-down dramatis personae and its besetting Allen sin of social Manichaeism, dividing white-collar from blue-collar America as if it were still the two-class nation fabled by Damon Runyon, is the lack of a single funny line. For veteran Woody lovers like me that constitutes a tragedy of Racinian proportions. But don’t mention Racine, or he may be Allen’s next heist target.

The plagiarism police are busy this week. “Calling all patrols. Case of Zodiac theft. Thriller called Prisoners. Backup needed.” “Roger, Rip-Off Squad.” A blare and dazzle of cop cars converge on the Georgia location. Handcuffs click on wrists. Miranda rights are read to director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Melissa Leo. “You have the right to remain silent. But anything you say will be taken down as an attempt to explain why you are making this mazy, epic-length, Gyllenhaal-starring thriller about an elusive sociopath when the same film has been made, to all purposes, under the title Zodiac.”

The cast and creators are released early for good behaviour. Prisoners is medium-watchable after all, even with some am-dram acting, some what-happened-to-Roger-Deakins cinematography (dour work from the former Coens lens master) and some clumsy moments, late on, of very un-Zodiac plot contrivance.

In a film on contemporary issues I like a neutral title that lets viewers make up their own minds. Greedy Lying Bastards: how about that for Craig Scott Rosebraughs’s documentary about climate change deniers? He stands the villains up and hands us the rotten tomatoes.

Villains such as the English lord, the Republican lobbyist, and all those who spit in the face of fact. Rosebraugh is a persuasive crusader. He attaches every enemy of truth to his or her damning special interest, from yesterday’s Bush-Cheney-Halliburton axis to today’s energy tycoons saying “Warming? What warming?” because they have their own cosy heat source in oil, gas or other CO2 delivery systems. This film is an awful warning and awful fun at one and the same time.

Hannah Arendt
should have some of its vitality. Film-maker Margarethe Von Trotta tells the story of the Manhattan-based German-Jewish philosopher and her days of reckoning during and after the Eichmann trial. An event that shook the world of ideas in 1961 – Arendt, reporting on the trial for The New Yorker, accused former Jewish leaders of passive complicity in the Holocaust – barely shakes a tea table here.

Barbara Sukowa, swapping bons mots with Janet McTeer’s Mary McCarthy and political-philosophical bromides with everyone else, deploys a stage-German accent, all “ziss, zat and ze uzzer”. (Why? Sukowa is German.) The phrase “the banality of evil” finally pings out on the soundtrack, like the winning ring-a-ding on a pin-table. But Hannah Arendt’s problem is the evil of banality: the gnawing away of drama by platitude and pedestrian mise-en-scène. A director who once combined thought with passion (The German Sisters) seems to have lost her command of both.

Runner Runner
is a crime-and-gambling thriller with Ben Affleck going head to head with Justin Timberlake. Result: they knock each other out like football players rising to head the same ball. Timberlake plays the Princeton graduate student and campus bookie who charges off to Costa Rica to charge his losses off, with menaces if needed, to crooked internet-casino king Affleck. Britain’s Gemma Arterton contributes a cockney accent and come-hither looks to the witless script and dim clash of competing charismas.

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