Thursday, August 22, 2013

Movie Review: Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine"

Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine is a disturbing, engaging, and finally dispassionate study of a woman buckling under the weight of social pressures. Jeanette "Jasmine" Francis (Cate Blanchett), the once privileged social matron reduced to a poorhouse state after her corrupt Wall Street executive husband (Alec Baldwin) is imprisoned, talks to herself.

When she indulges in her lonely diatribe, chatting with unseen friends at a party, on the street, or alone in a room, director Allen studies her with such cinematic scrutiny, we are forced to watch what we would all chose to ignore - the unfortunate soul talking to themselves. The public reaction to a person carrying on a conversation with themselves is treated here as if it's a disease one might catch. Strangers vacate her space and gawk as if viewing a leper.

Otherwise, for a pill popping, martini slugging woman whose adulterous husband's downfall forces her from the social elite to the dregs of society - from a posh New York City penthouse suite to a cramped low-rent San Francisco apartment - Jasmine is coping. She heads west and as if stepping off a trolley car named Desire, moves in with her sweet lower class sister who has a Stanley Kowalski-like boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). With vague unrealistic hopes of a professional career, she enrolls in a night class to learn how to use a computer and accepts a lowly position as a dentist's receptionist.

She walks a tightrope over this Tennessee Williams scenario while spilling little doses of sanity, mostly revealed in her lonely conversations. Her bubbles burst, her half-baked dreams dissipate, and like Streetcar's Blanche Du Bois, her plans for a future renewed are terrorized by her complete inability to adjust to a social order that is independent of a class system. Without luxury to define her, she is a shell of a human being overwhelmed by the substance abuse that threatens to consume her. Her luxurious presence draped in top of the line fashion wear in her sister's modest apartment seems forever on the verge of departure, as if she is only waiting on a cab to whisk her away to a higher income bracket.

Blue Jasmine is a completely watchable, cringe-inducing blackest of comedies with a powerhouse performance by Cate Blanchett who consumes every scene as if in a battle for dominance over the mundane images that threaten her. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent including shock comic Andrew Dice Clay as Jasmine's scorned ex-brother-in-law, and Sally Hawkins as her naïve Stella-like sister. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography has a small, postcard appeal.

But the film is lacking a groundwork of history that justifies Jasmine's mental unraveling. Is it her highly publicized social downfall that causes her to talk to herself (her only genuine social taboo), or has she always been flirting with schizophrenia? It's a question never answered, as if she is as anonymous as the stranger you see talking to themselves on the street.

In the end I think Woody Allen is doing little else here than handing over the 21st Century Blanche Du Bois on a silver platter and asking us to marvel at the delicacy and fragility of the human mind. His delving into Jasmine's naked mentality borders on luridness as his imposing camera probes deep into the act of talking to one's self, hoping to reveal anything left of sanity. It's a cold little film with a defiant warm glow that blurs the line between comedy and tragedy.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013


Frog Watch USA is a national conservation effort to determine the populations of the various species of frogs by monitoring their audible presence in given areas. The citizen science project - a joint effort of scientists and amateurs - began in 1998 in response to the alarming declining numbers of frog species on a global scale. Data submitted by volunteers is put into a national data bank which  collectively should offer an accurate account of frog species (including the American Toad) populations in the U.S.

This year I signed up to be a participant in FrogWatch at Reinstein Woods, a 292-acre wildlife sanctuary in Depew, NY, known for its active and plentiful populations of beaver and deer. On a wintry March night I attended the prerequisite frog "class" at the lodge at the sanctuary where I became an official Frog Watch steward. I had to learn the nine species of frogs residing in Western New York State and familiarize myself with their various calls and songs. I felt like a kid with a badge when they handed me my ID tags that would allow me into the sanctuary after hours (sunset to dawn).

Into the woods, I had to hear the frogs, not necessarily see them. My first spring night of frog watching taught me one important lesson: Don't forget the insect repellent! I was carved up for dinner by mosquitoes. The FrogWatch program equipped me with a backpack containing a thermometer, map, data sheets, flashlight, headlamp, clipboard, pen/pencil, and tape recorder (I felt like a fully prepared Ghostbuster) - but no insect repellent.

Remaining perfectly still and silent while waiting for the sound of frogs allowed me to observe other wildlife. Aside from the young couple I observed making love in yonder brush, the first wildlife I saw was a remarkably tame deer. She slowly stepped right up to me as if I had been a small tree she was going to nibble on. Probably the result of well-intentioned people feeding her.

Some nights when the moon was full, the woods became a midsummer night's firefly lit fantasy world of shadows and sounds, alive with the activity of the creatures who lived there.  At one frog watching post, bats swooped so low and close to me I was certain I would soon be Tippi Hendren running down the sanctuary path pulling bats out of my hair. At first I was amused at how close they would come to my head, but when I could actually hear the swish of their wings, (and imagine their beady little eyes), the whole rabies/Dracula vibe overwhelmed me.

Get a hold of yourself, I countered my ridiculous fear. What kind of a frog-watcher are you?

The beavers would smack their tails against the pond, signaling danger to other beavers, whenever I would come close to the water's edge. It's an aggressive and alarming sound, but not as aggressive and alarming as the land-loving beaver who stood in my path as if refusing to allow me to pass. Did I imagine that he was hissing at me? Do beavers hiss? I had just read on the internet how a beaver killed a guy in Russia who was photographing it. American beavers don't kill, do they? I ain't afraid of no beaver!

But then I was certain he hissed again, and I chose another path.

I am in danger of becoming a woods coward.

But that's part of the allure of the woods. That shot of adrenaline from something mysterious, something undefined lurking around the next bend. I'm not sure I would enjoy the woods as much without that sense of the unknown.  And there is no sense in being foolhardy when a maniacal rabies-infected hissing beaver is telling you to go another way.

But the strangest encounter I had was with man himself. Occasionally I would come across a fellow frog watcher and we would flash our flashlights at one another to identify ourselves as frog watchers. On one fog-shrouded night, after a flashlight communique, I met up with a frog watcher who told me to beware of a strange man lurking in the woods. She said she had just talked with him, that he had no authorization to be in the woods, and that he appeared irrational, odd, and mysterious. She said he was balancing on a log and throwing stones into the pond. After telling me this, she disappeared into the woods like a ghost. It was like a scene out of Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog.

So now I'm looking out for low-flying bats, rabid beavers, and homicidal maniacs.

While I heard every species of frogs residing in Western New York State at one time or another, the actual number of species I heard during the program's designated clocked and recorded 3-minutes of time was smaller. I recorded the "jug 'o rum" call of the Bullfrog, the banjo string "gunk" of the Green Frog, the trill of The American Toad, the "snore" of the Pickerel Frog, the "peep" of the Spring Peeper, and the tinny trill of the Western Chorus Frog.

But, as important, I got in touch with nature. Ah, wilderness! Aside from the spooky thrill of the woods, there were peaceful and contemplative moments. During one sunset I watched a Great Blue Heron circle the sanctuary like a paper airplane, settle down into a crop of brush, and then slowly escape into the canopy to its hidden nest. One night a coyote, looking very much its legend of "ghost dog", trotted off ahead of me on the path under a moonlit sky as if guiding my way.

Next year I'm all up for the bat-watching program. They say confronting your fears makes you stronger. Expect for rabid bats and angry beavers. Rabid bats and angry beavers will kill you.

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