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Blue Jasmine

THE crux of this Woody Allen film can be wrapped up in six words: Mrs. Bernie Madoff as Blanche DuBois.

From that bizarre notion, a compelling drama arises. It helps immeasurably that Allen cast dramatic powerhouse Cate Blanchett in that hybrid role.

Jasmine is a New York socialite brought low when her charming, Madoff-like husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for financial fraud on a massive scale. Destitute, abandoned by her circle of friends, and given to popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs, she flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a woman who already has her hands full as a single mom with two kids.

Ginger's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is suspicious. While residing in New York's upper crust, Jasmine either ignored her sister or treated her with a certain sneering repugnance. A flashback wherein Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) visit the Fifth Avenue abode of Hal and Jasmine proves Chili correct.

But Jasmine digs in and finds a job as a secretary for a dentist. Eventually, Ginger grows susceptible to Jasmine's assertion that she can do better than settle for the passionate blue-collar lunk Chili and she tumbles into a sad affair with a sound engineer (Louis C.K.).

Jasmine herself strikes dating gold when she entrances a widowed ambassador (Peter Sarsgaard) looking for a woman of elegance and social graces to stay by his side when he makes a run for political office.

Taken on the whole, Allen's film presents a piquant contrast between Jasmine's realm of power and privilege -- characterized by dishonesty, greed, and adultery -- and Ginger's blue-collar realm, characterized by care, honesty and rough-hewn love.

If you don't find yourself struck over the head by Allen's political proselytizing, it may have something to do with the particularly strong cast he has assembled. Allen's dialogue can be clunky and overly formal in the wrong hands, but old pros like Baldwin can make it seem supple. Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay (of all people) prove downright adept at making the words ring true.

But of course, this is ultimately Blanchett's movie and the Oscar nominee dazzlingly bears the load of a character so steeped in a world of deception, she risks having no one left to lie to, except herself.

As in other recent Allen releases, the director avoids having to participate in cumbersome DVD extras by including a filmed press conference for the film. *** 1/2

 

Carrie

DEVELOPMENTS in visual effects might have justified a second remake of Stephen King's telekinetic teen terror tale Carrie, but director Kimberly Peirce fails to make anyone forget Brian De Palma's superior 1976 version despite some interesting casting with Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) as the painfully shy social misfit Carrie White and Julianne Moore as her religious fanatic mother.

Peirce, best known for the drama Boys Don't Cry, eschews De Palma's stylist flourishes and goes for something more like a comic book origin story. (Screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wrote the script for the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.)

The plot remains more or less intact. After a horrific embarrassment in the girls' shower room of her high school, the ostracized, bullied Carrie comes to the fateful attention of Sue (Gabrielle Wilde), a guilt-ridden fellow student, no-nonsense gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) and the psychopathic bully Chris (Portia Doubleday). Sue tries to atone for her sin by asking her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to squire Carrie at the senior prom, but Chris and her hoodlum boyfriend use the occasion to plot the ultimate humiliation for Carrie, not realizing the girl has become newly aware that she possesses devastating telekinetic powers.

De Palma's version is still far superior. His approach -- a lush soundtrack, romantic visuals, scary religious imagery and sheer gothic horror -- beautifully reflected a teen's emotional intensity. Coupled with the originality of King's story, the movie was a horror classic.

This one, not so much. Peirce angles for a different approach, substituting the first film's menstrual imagery with pregnancy/birth references. But ultimately, one concludes Peirce had her eye on a franchise. In the midst of her telekinetic revenge at the prom, Carrie waves her arms around like a conductor and spares some of the kindlier characters killed in the original. Instead of acting like the tragic horror icon she is, Carrie appears to be lobbying for an opening slot in X-Men. **

 

Captain Phillips

'THIS is not a drill. This is real-world."

That is the warning given to the crew of the American cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama that, in 2009, sailed off the coast of Somalia only to be confronted with two skiffs carrying gun-toting pirates giving chase to their vessel.

Director Paul Greengrass hews closely to a real-world style in portraying this hijacking story. He has a bona fide Hollywood star in Tom Hanks as the ship's captain Rich Phillips, and Hanks plays the role with little dramatic embellishment. Based on Phillips' book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, the film focuses almost exclusively on Phillips as he contends with this extraordinary at-sea assault.

Instead of the usual diversions of hand-wringing wives or blustering brass, Greengrass gives screen time to Phillips's opposite, the Somali "captain" named Muse (the Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi), whose ruthlessness is clearly a product of desperate poverty. He is proud of the fact his past exploits have included a Greek ship that paid off a $6-million ransom, but he doesn't like to consider how that payoff likely went to a warlord who, in this particular movie, is as invisible as the captain's corporate bosses.

Abdi is deceptively good here, portraying blustery arrogance betrayed by signs of incrementally frayed nerves. In the film's intensely claustrophobic second act, the stakes are diminished, yet Greengrass still manages to ratchet up the tension as the action shifts to a Somalia-bound lifeboat that becomes the object of the outsize attention of the U.S. navy.

Hanks did not get an expected Oscar nomination, but he does excellent work, especially in the film's final scene, portraying not heroism, but the emotional cost of heroism. ****

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2014 C15

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