Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s 2013 film was Blue Jasmine, the story of the financial, social and emotional fall of Jasmine, the wife of a wealthy wheeler dealer. I saw Blue Jasmine on a flight and am glad I didn’t fork out the money to see it in the theater. It’s not one of Allen’s finest, though the actors do a good enough job given the script.

After her Madoff-like husband, who we only see in flashbacks when all was well, loses everything, Jasmine moves in with her working class sister in San Francisco. Shell-shocked from the fall, Jasmine hopes to rebuild her life and regain her status. She is ill at ease in her sister’s world and looks down on her sister’s boyfriend, who’s something of a working class caricature. In fact, that’s the problem I had with the film – it’s full of stock characters and although Jasmine spends a lot of time looking back at what went wrong and pondering what she should do next, it’s all so superficial. When the film started, I’d hoped for more, for a more serious version of the heights Allen attained with Midnight in Paris. It’s hard to summon much sympathy for Jasmine as she is delusional and the world she lost was so empty anyway.

The dialog is typical of Allen’s style, but that’s hardly enough to make watching Blue Jasmine worth the time. All in all, I found the film annoying and disappointing. I wish Allen didn’t feel compelled to direct a film a year. Better to spend more time getting the story right, than to offer us substandard fare.

Kings of Pastry

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The epitome of achievement in the world of French pastry is the M.O.F., a pastry chef who’s merited the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France). The documentary The Kings of Pastry takes viewers into the world of the intense competition. MOF chefs receive a red, white and blue collar and a medal from the president of France.

The film follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, as he vies for the supreme honor. We see Pfeiffer and two other chefs preparing and competing. They must create a wedding cake, sugar sculpture, buffet of pastries under strict rules in three days.

The film is engrossing as it goes deeper than the average TV cooking competition and really examines the passion and craftsmanship of the pastry world. It did make me crave some delectable, sophisticated treats so you’ve been warned.

You Will Be My Son

I watched this on my flight home. You Will Be My Son is a drama about an obnoxious, overbearing father, who owns a successful winery. He sees no value in his son, who can’t do anything right in his father’s eyes. When the wine estate manager is too sick to oversee the harvest, rather than have his son take on responsibility, the father turns to the manager’s son, who’s done well in the American wine world. This young man is a natural and has a far more engaging, strong personality, but it’s painful to watch the real son get insulted and slighted time and again.

The winery owner/father just gushes over the estate manager’s son, showering him with expensive gifts and taking him to Paris when he’s to receive an award.

I did learn a lot about modern wine making from this intense family drama. The ending was quite a surprise. Because the father was so offensive and clueless regarding his son, whose weaknesses must have been partly due to having a father so biased against him, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see You Will Be My Son. It’s a fine movie, but nothing great.

Fill the Void

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The most intriguing film I’ve seen in a while is Fill the  Void, an Isreali film made in 2012, which kept me fascinated on my flight back home. Fill the Void is a quiet, dramatic film that focuses on a Hassidic (some reviewers refer to the community as Haredi, but the distributor calls it Hassidic) community in Tel Aviv.

In this very traditional world, we meet Shira, an 18 year old woman who visits a grocery store with her aunt to get a glimpse of a young man she may marry. Courtship is very much a communal activity within this society. She’s pleased with this earnest young man and eager to marry as her sister Esther has. Esther is older and stunningly beautiful, clearly the center of Yorchay,  her husband’s life. However, life takes a cruel turn when Esther dies in childbirth. The Shira’s parents often care for the baby and when Yorchay’s mother announces that he’s considering remarrying and moving to Belgium, Shira’s mother hopes to convince him to marry Shira instead so the baby will always be nearby.

What unfolds is a careful, respectful story about characters whose traditions may seem archaic, but truly still work for them. Shira’s torn between what to do. She envisioned a  different life and she’s little experience making such decisions. It’s not a family that disregards her wishes or forces Shira to bend to theirs. In fact, it’s interesting how thoughtfully this community works to see that wisdom and justice prevail in all matters brought before the rabbis.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, an orthodox female director, the power of the film lies in its silent moments and thoughtful characters. It’s a world where people consider other’s happiness and tradition as much if not more than their own. There’s no such thing as a snap judgement in this society which manages to continue in the midst of a world that moves at breakneck pace. I found the acting superb and the view into this rarely seen world fascinating. If you watch it, you’ll realize the beauty of a traditional community that’s easy for us to dismiss.

The film is hard to find. It’s not on Netflix, but I see that my library has the DVD. Perhaps yours does too.

The Miracle of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

This 15 minute documentary tells how the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas came to be. Each element seems so perfect. It’s hard to believe how jumbled and rushed the creation process was.

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Since the second film in The Hunger Games series is out in China, I thought I’d check out the first film and possibly go to the theater for the second. The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, a strong, brave young woman living in a bleak dystopia. In her country every year two young people are chosen to compete in a brutal competition for survival. Years ago there was an uprising and after it’s put down, the government starts these intimidating games to keep citizens in fear.

When Katniss’ 8 year old sister is chosen, she volunteers to take her place. It’s a rare occurrence that generates a lot of notice. The boy from the district is Peeta, a baker’s son who’s watched Katniss from afar for some time. Their relationship is icy and complex. Katiss and Peeta are taken to the capital city, which reminded me of a high octane Oz. Very sleek and modern in a colorful, yet cold way.

After some training, a make over and opening ceremonies the games begin. Mentors help Katniss and the others but it’s unclear whom to trust. Katniss is a strong woman and expert archer, but her opponents are tough and mostly brutal.

The city folk dress in vibrant colors, while the villagers are in drab grays and blues

The city folk dress in vibrant colors, while the villagers are in drab grays and blues

While Lawrence did a fine job with the role, the story itself left me cold. Many scenes are brutal as characters, who weren’t well drawn to begin with get slaughtered. While I understand the concept of dystopian sci fi and realize that these stories are allegories, I felt there wasn’t a strong message here. Also, the characters lacked development. I never knew as much as I wanted to know about Katniss. I felt I was teased so I would watch the next film. If I’m going to be exposed to people brutally killing each other, I insist on getting more of a reason. My guess is the pay off comes in the final book and that the answer would only satisfy younger viewers and readers, who haven’t seen as much history or as many Orwellian tales.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was a much better film in this genre. Watch that (again). The book might be better as Katniss is often on her own in the film. Perhaps the book has a lot of her thoughts.