Midnight in Paris (2011)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.

For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.

Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.

Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.

Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.

The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).

Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.

Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard

Upon its release Blue Jasmine received rave reviews from viewers and, after a few months hovering around cinema screens and iffy online streams, is variably considered a return to form from the eccentric Woody Allen. I’m not extensively versed in Allen-lore, not nearly as much as i ought to be considering his lofty status in Hollywood and abroad. That being said, whilst his newest offering brims with scintillating performances (two Oscar nominated deliveries stand out in particular) the content, narrative and direction all add up to something a bit… bland. It’s a difficult story to consume and a tricky one tell, a story that shouldn’t insist on generating humour as often as it tries, particularly when there’s non to be shared. It’s possible that I just don’t get it; that the quirky, erudite versus blue-collar joust is something not entirely compatible with this 20-year-old. More than that though, Allen seems to be trying overly hard as he attempts to deliver on one too many fronts, leaving the intended humour absent and the compulsory drama simmering. But only just simmering.

Jasmine (that’s Jasmine, not Jeannette) Francis is an upper-class socialite from New York who finds herself mentally, physically and financially drained following separation from her unashamed husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). She isn’t used to earning, to maintaining herself and her life outwith superficial externals such as high-brow struts and an aristocratic ambience. Only it’s not an ambience, it’s an annoyance. An annoyance that has haunted her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) ever since childhood, when their foster parents favoured Jasmine’s superior “genes”. In her time of need, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live and survive by Ginger who remains frustrated over a misshaped business deal proposed by Hal, amongst a number of other issues related to her now spiralling sister.

Evidently there’s a lot going on, yet too often the happenings are overly trivial — discussions reigned in on antiques for example — and therefore aren’t substantial enough to fully engage the viewer. Perhaps that’s the point, that Jasmine is such a one-dimensional and flawed character, therefore the film should be too. This approach doesn’t catch on though as Jasmine and many of the other people on screen are very difficult to relate to. At one point Ginger points out the obvious: “When Jasmine don’t wanna know something, she gotta habit of looking the other way.” In a sense the narrative follows this mantra too — just when there’s a glimmer of something intriguing on the horizon the road suddenly detours back to stagnant repetitiveness.

And it certainly is repetitive. As their lives together progress and various agents enter and exit (boyfriends mainly), Jasmine constantly scalds Ginger for her poor taste in unworthy men. First it’s Augie, a working-class and slightly optimistic guy held down by the harsh realities of life. Chili follows, a mechanic who unlike Augie treats Ginger with respect even if at times his exuberance gets the better of him. Jasmine relentlessly disapproves, neglecting her own prior misdemeanours when it comes to settling with the right partner. In fact, her wrongful rejection of Chili is probably the only time Jasmine is not thinking about herself: she often reminisces about sailing around San Tropez in front of her less fortunate sister who has hardly travelled America never mind the world; she flies first class on her way to Ginger, even though she has no money, which is the main reason for her relocation; in fact Jasmine removes herself from all tasks unbecoming of her (“I never pay attention to house business affairs”). Combined, this makes it incredibly difficult for the viewer to like or even sympathise with Jasmine, which is essentially the downfall of the film as the camera stalks her every move and not much else.

Allen juxtaposes the past and present as life events interchange; from detailing the breakdown of Jasmine and Hal’s marriage to the breakdown of Jasmine herself. Occasionally happenings on screen are tough to watch, but it is often the case that these demanding moments are followed by attempts at humour thrown in as the embodiment of a panicky life-jacket, almost as if the film is fearful of advancing that extra step into Jasmine’s oblivion (which would’ve worked better than the half black comedy, half drama on show). For example, after a tortuous altercation pitting Ginger and Jasmine against an enraged Chili, Jasmine is seen quickly shaking off any resultant cobwebs as she searches for her ringing phone in a nonchalant manner. This woman has recently lost the love of her life in onerous circumstances — wouldn’t she be affected more by this attack with potentially mirroring connotations on her sister?

There is success emitted from Allen’s alternating timeline approach though, as the method distinctly displays the degree of culture clash between Jasmine and Ginger. Jasmine has had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Now that life has crumbled, her anxiety over what’s next conveys exactly how behind she is in the experience of every day normality: she wants to return to school (to study what?); will study fashion or interior design (can’t use a computer); takes computer classes (has no money to afford); accepts the “medial” job that she never wanted, the job that the vast majority of those around her do on a daily basis.

As average as the film is, there’s absolutely no denying the power and sheer struggle evoked by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s not even a case of the film’s downfalls making her performance glow even brighter, no, Blanchett’s display would stand out in any offering. Even though you don’t really like the character, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Blanchett’s depiction of painful demise as Jasmine slowly loses all sense of wherewithal and dignity. The portrayal is uncomfortable to watch at times and it should be that way. Without Blanchett at the helm, the film might have teetered worryingly close to Diana territory.

Sally Hawkins also deserves plaudits for her starkly contrasting role as the less fortuitous sister; likeable and empathetic as she establishes and maintains a strong sense of empowerment throughout the film’s progression. In an abnormal role from his usual work, Peter Sarsgaard is astute and pompously slick as the yin to Jasmine’s yang. Their first meeting is actually one of the film’s better moments, where the pair enter a self-congratulatory word-off as they divulge many an “I” and “my husband and myself”. It’s arrogant and self-absorbed nonsense, and it completely works because these characters come across as utterly undesirable just as they are supposed to in that moment.

Blue Jasmine is a film where nobody really seems to be listening to each other (“Pay attention Augie”), where characters are solely focused on getting their two — or 20 — cents in, meaning proceedings feel too feeble. The darkly comic moments don’t really fit in, and the emotionally wrought sections seldom have the desired effect. It’s no surprise that that actors are receiving awards nominations left right and centre as opposed to the film itself. While it is far from terrible, there’s a lot of onus on Cate Blanchett to make the picture worthwhile. Thankfully, in doing her worst, she does her absolute best.