Movie: "Blue Jasmine"

To get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Cate Blanchett clocks an amazing performance as Woody Allen’s Blanche DuBois in this utterly unsurprising and tiresome movie. Oh, and there’s a great soundtrack – I’m definitely buying the soundtrack. As with Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the soundtrack is more entertaining than the wretched movie from which it is hellspawned.

Frame by tooth-grinding frame, “Blue Jasmine” demonstrates nearly every tic of Allen’s that infuriate me:

  • The way his characters talk in exposition: “Of course, since my husband is a high-flying financier and businessman, I simply couldn’t finish my anthropology degree so we adopted his son from a previous marriage and now I’m simply so busy managing our homes in New York and the Hamptons that I barely have time to breathe!” I’m exaggerating, of course, but see how his characters talk in the first 10 minutes or how they introduce themselves later. Real people – and well-drawn characters – don’t talk like this.
  • The way his characters’ lines are so single-entendre; there’s no attempt at layering, no attempt at giving the actors any subtext to play. Every line of dialogue is on-the-nose and has zero replay value (unlike the soundtrack!). Count how many times the rough-talking blue-collar characters tell off Jasmine by summing up everything we already know and saying it in the flattest way possible. And also just what a god-awful homage to “Streetcar Named Desire” this movie is. Where’s the poetry? Where’s the sympathy? Sally Hawkins’ (another good performance in a thankless role – where did her English accent go?) former boyfriend gets his “Stella!” breakdown but it’s the B storyline and – so what, really? Meanwhile, Jasmine retreats to her dreamworld and begins actively making bad decisions that, of course, ensures she’ll end badly.
  • Allen’s lazy approach to writing and research. Jasmine takes a class to learn basic computer skills. Meanwhile, she’s working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office – a dentist’s office, in San Francisco, that does not use computers. I mean – what?? Allen must be remembering how dentist offices worked 30 years ago – has he never noticed how they look and operate today? (OK, the guy who cuts my hair – he still uses a big paper appointment book. But not my dentist!)
  • His ongoing obsession with and romanticized contrast of high and low culture. Jasmine and her husband Hal live in rich, palatial homes and apartments with rooms that are tastefully curated, all parallel and perpendicular lines. When she’s shown her new beau’s empty house, it’s a huge empty room that could field a hockey match and sports an I-want-it view of San Francisco Bay. My first thought was, “House porn.” Allen’s movies dwell on these classier-than-thou settings. (There’s a similar scene in “Match Point,” except that apartment – also with floor-to-ceiling windows – overlooks the Thames.)

    By contrast, Sally Hawkins’ small apartment that she shares with her two sons is small, cramped, cluttered, and plays host to her boyfriend’s crew as they watch boxing. Jasmine is suffocated by the cage-like atmosphere – though, golly, it looks a lot more homey than the places where she used to live. The lower-class men all talk like Andrew Dice Clay (or like bad imitations of Brando’s Stanley). Every character is either refined or tawdry, and their intellectual speeds barely register on the dial – they all seemed to finish at the place where they started.

    Of course, of the upper- and lower-crust characters, who do you think will end up happy?

The folks I saw the movie with were surprised by the downbeat ending. I was surprised that they were surprised. To my eyes, absolutely nothing I saw unfold was unexpected.

Cate Blanchett sells her part with conviction, courage, and desperate energy – her final scene is unglamorous and riveting. But I think she’s the one who sells the ending, rather than the thin, insubstantial, and lazy script. Allen’s movies more and more seem removed from real life, which is OK, if the world you’re creating is involving or the characters you’re creating are interesting people I’ve never seen before. But his movies seem  to be recycling characters and tropes from previous Woody Allen movies, which I think yields little real emotional or artistic value.

I want to tell him to please take off a year or two, spend time with his kids, read some new books, soak up some new experiences, and let his ideas germinate longer before he starts up another production. Please.

The last good movie of Allen’s I enjoyed was “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I think is probably the high-water mark of his dramatic films. The recent documentary on Allen by Robert Wiede is also quite good, especially on his early career, his influences, and his enviable work ethic. And check out Cate Blanchett’s turn – or turns – in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” – it’s a lark, and she has fun sending up her image.

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“Fuckin’ endings, man,” Get Shorty concludes. “They weren’t as easy as they looked.” When Elmore Leonard died this week, the Mozart of profanity, the Cole Porter of the word “motherfucker”, he left the world as easily secure of a lasting reputation as any novelist in history. What makes a novelist last is the music they make – not their social concern, not the importance of their subjects, not the utterances they make. PG Wodehouse has lasted where AJ Cronin faded. Silliness, absurdity and the utmost triviality are no barriers; novels about nothing more than the squire’s daughter marrying the squire’s neighbour last forever, if they sing.

The word “salute” reminds me of a startling essay-starter that Claire Hahn of Fordham University shared with our class one day: “Chaucer stood with one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages, and with the other he saluted the dawn of the Renaissance.” She loved it.

Krishnamurti went on to give countless talks at which he frequently implied that his audience shouldn’t be wasting their time listening to spiritual talks.

But perhaps the most striking was a 1977 lecture in California. “Part-way through this particular talk,” writes Jim Dreaver, who was present, “Krishnamurti suddenly paused, leaned forward and said, almost conspiratorially, ‘Do you want to know what my secret is?' ” (There are several accounts of this event; details vary.) Krishnamurti rarely spoke in such personal terms, and the audience was electrified, Dreaver recalls. “Almost as though we were one body we sat up… I could see people all around me lean forward, their ears straining and their mouths slowly opening in hushed anticipation.” Then Krishnamurti, “in a soft, almost shy voice”, said: “You see, I don’t mind what happens.”

Movie: "20 Feet From Stardom"

When Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, “We all love music and we want music to love us, too.” It’s a thought that haunted me after watching the glorious documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

The movie starts on a sunny note as a trio of backup singers reunite after not having seen each other for decades. The tracks of songs they sang are played underneath, and you notice the names of different girl groups appear for each song. Their voices were everywhere, it seems, but they remained anonymous.tumblr_mm6mcw3TR61sn7wjto1_1280

“20 Feet” tracks the fortunes of several singers from the first generation of girl backup singers. The first half of the film is fun, vibrant, and star-studded: the girls sing backup for the big names of rock and roll, with occasional solo duties on the records or duets with the stars. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Sting contribute both raves for the singers who work with them and grounded, thoughtful perspectives on the life of a backup singer and why stardom sometimes eludes them.

Because, make no mistake, these singers gave everything they had to music and – not without reason – they’d like something back. As the girls grow into women, and the ‘60s become the ‘70s and the ‘80s, their attempts to crack the mainstream become more and more futile and their feelings about music turn bitter. The movie becomes heartbreaking by slow degrees. There’s a particularly disquieting moment when the camera pans down a stack of solo albums by backup singers who saw these records as their ticket to mainstream success – none of which were successful.

Did they not work hard enough? If you love something enough that you give up your life and youth for it, isn’t it supposed to pay off? Where’s the line between persistence and banging your head against a wall? Or is it also, as Sting and Springsteen say, a matter of luck, circumstance, and a thousand other variables that no one can control? The up-and-coming singer Judith Hill, who was all set to break out into superstardom, suffers with a tragic setback that she could not have planned for or even imagined. The movie follows her as she continues trying to execute her solo career, while also accepting backup jobs when she has to or wants to.

One of the profiled singers, Lisa Fischer, is at peace with her life as a backup singer. She knows the price big stars pay for their stardom, and she’s happy that she never paid it. The occasional moments of her singing solo showcase a deep, jazzy voice; the respect that the other artists in the movie have for her and her voice are strong and stirring. She may not be out front, but she’s never taken for granted.

The movie, however, belongs to two women: Merry Clayton, a powerhouse singer with a “kill spirit” who worked single-mindedly to become a star and who still feels the frustration that her dream eluded her, and Darlene Love, whose voice was used in dozens of hits produced by Phil Spector, who cruelly exploited her talent. Darlene’s story has a happy ending, of sorts, but I could not shake the story of her years away from music and how narrowly she missed the chance to be welcomed back into its arms.

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Book: "Slowing Down to the Speed of Life"

I picked up this book in Kenosha on my vacation, and it jibes well with Michael Neill’s The Inside Out Revolution. This is not surprising as both describe the 3 Principles, which was conceived of and taught by Sydney Banks. But Slowing, written by Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey, was originally published in 1997, long before the Web and podcasts made it easier to disseminate Banks’ spiritual and psychological teaching. Carlson and Bailey focus on a rather narrow piece of the 3 Principles philosophy, without ever mentioning the principles by name, and citing Banks only once. Neill’s book, by contrast, was published in 2013; he discusses all the principles and frequently cites Banks’ words and teaching stories. That sounds like I’m sniffing at the book, and I don’t mean to. Slowing Down to the Speed of Life is quite good at emphasizing a few key points and then reiterating them, ringing changes on them, showing how they can apply in many different areas of life. The section on Work and Office is terribly skimpy, though the chapter on Family Relationships is terrific. It’s quite readable and I sped through it on the train to Chicago and in my spare moments.

Instead of writing an exhaustive and exhausting review, here are the key things that got my attention.

Key Takeaways

  1. It’s not what you think, it’s that you think. A lot of self-help books, methods, and training – such as cognitive behavior therapy – teach you to dispute the contents of your thinking and disprove them. However, what’s most relevant is that your mind is kicking up a thoughtstorm of beliefs, feelings, expectations, etc. When an event happens, the feeling you experience is not about the event; rather, what you’re experiencing is your feeling about the event. It’s as true for internal moods as it is for any external event. When the water in a pond is agitated, you can’t see to the bottom – it’s doesn’t matter why it’s agitated. When the water in the pond is still, it’s easier to see to the bottom.
  2. We have two primary thinking modes: analytic and free-flowing. The analytic mode is our typical Western habit of thinking it through, figuring it out, and so on. It works great when the problem is well-defined and logistical. But it’s a tool we use to solve most every problem we see (if we think that what we see is a problem – it’s all thought, remember). The free-flowing mode is the slower, deeper, not-much-on-your-mind thinking that is where you should stay as much as possible. This is where all of your good ideas come from when you’re in the shower, while driving, etc. When you put things on the back burner, the free-flowing mode is where they’re processed until you pull them out to examine them again in analytic mode. Know which mode you’re in; you’ll feel better in free-flowing mode. Trust it.
  3. Thinking=feelings. As Neill says often, we don’t live in the feeling of the world, we live in the feeling of our thinking. If we’re feeling anxious, we’re thinking anxious thoughts. If we’re feeling stressed, we’re feeling stressed thoughts. Using analytical thinking to figure out why you’re feeling crappy will only make you feel more crappy. You’re stirring up an already agitated system. Realize that your feelings are like the weather – wait a while, let your mind and thoughts calm down, and your feelings will also settle down. With those distracting feelings settled, your free-flowing thinking has a better chance of offering you a solution to your problem.

Key Action Steps

  1. There are no action steps except to stay in the moment, notice your thinking, and calm down. Isn’t it frustrating to read a book only to find that there’s really not much you can do? Neill’s book avoids any prescriptive advice. Slowing provides a few bits of simple advice, but the message is consistent in both books: the key is in recognizing when you’re caught up in a thoughtstorm. When you recognize that you’re thinking, Carlson and Bailey repeatedly say, you’ll almost instantly feel better; the storm will subside and your internal system will reset. I’ve not found that to be consistently true in my case. I can recognize that I’m in a low mood, I can know my thinking is causing it, but it will still take a week for the cloud to pass before I  feel better.
  2. Practice gratitude. They don’t mention this one, but it’s one I use to interrupt my low moods. I used to write a daily gratitudes list and tried avoiding the easy ones like “my loving wife” and “I have a job.” The lower the mood I’m in, sometimes the deeper I have to dig. It turns my attention outward and interrupts the thought spiral.
  3. Set aside time to just sit, with no input. Feel your breathing. Listen to what you can hear in your house, in your backyard, in the world. Feel where the weight of your body is pressing against the chair and the ground. This is like meditation, but maybe a little more natural. When I feel my thoughts about the past or the future, I know I’m not present in the moment. Calming down and being present in the moment can mean simply focusing on doing one thing at a time rather than multitasking.  I’m trying to get out to the back porch more to just sit and look at the yard, the birds, the garden. I leave the iPod and Kindle inside and let my brain and mind relax from all the input I stream into it.I find this can extend time for me, and life slows down, in addition to my thinking.

 

 

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Movie: "The Way Way Back"

Jim Rash, Charlotte NC-native and UNC-CH alum – best known to the world as Dean Pelton on Community – has been exercising other talents the last few years. He and his co-writer Nat Faxon won an Oscar for their screenplay of The Descendants (with Alexander Payne) and the pair have created a great, light, summertime coming-of-age comedy, The Way, Way Back.

An interesting nugget from this article about the film is that the opening scene was drawn from a conversation the 14-year-old Rash had with his own step-father. Which is pretty appalling all on its own. Another appalling fact is that this pleasant, funny,  innocuous screenplay sat on a desk for years because, though it was admired, no one wanted to invest the money to film it.The_Way,_Way_Back_Poster

The movie follows the adventures of the sullen Duncan as his mother, her boyfriend, and his daughter occupy a summer cottage near a Massachusetts beach area, in an attempt to foster a “family holiday” vibe. The boy’s awakening to his own potential is charmingly done, and I liked that the almost-romance with the girl next door was part of the story but not the whole story.

The all-star cast members – Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph – show relatively little of what they’re capable of (except for Jim Rash, who gives himself a colorful cameo). The movie is largely driven by the other characters’ reactions to Liam James’ brooding Duncan or they’re behaving in those baffling ways lost adults do when they want to torture their sensitive offspring. James walks around like a slumping caveman; his knuckles would drag the ground if his arms were long enough. So when he starts to look around and participate in the world around him, his delight and excitement is warming to watch.

That said, two performances really got my attention: Allison Janney’s brash and boozy next-door neighbor and Sam Rockwell as the fast-talking, mouthy owner of the Water Wizz amusement park where Duncan finds a haven. Rockwell’s character is a lazy slacker, but he’s accepting of all the misfits who drift through the water park. His needling, cajoling, and ribbing of Duncan bring the boy out of his shell; his loyalty and support of Duncan are quietly done and deliver exactly what I want in a feel-good summertime movie.

Article: Oscar-winning Charlotte native plunges into directing with ‘The Way Way Back’ | Movie News & Reviews | NewsObserver.com.

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