Film Producers – “What Don’t They Do?”

Christine-Vachon

(The title quote is from a book called Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter written by Christine Vachon – above).

Christine Vachon, a film producer who gave life to such stimulating independent films as Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol (plus many more), gives a fine insight into her working life and the countless scuffles of the filmmaking process. Ultimately, the book is a reflection of her practice as a film producer and a rousing discussion for aspiring filmmakers to get ahead of the game, which moves ever so fast.

Christine’s grounded and somewhat taxing approach is actually refreshing to hear and she offers predominant insights into personal experience of film havoc, despite her wonderful success. It is essentially real; diary interludes offer a further taste of Christine’s approach and the inevitable tasks of filmmaking. Though, the discourse can at times be overtly self-conscious, it doesn’t set out to be a clear and concise guide of A to B, it is a meditative medium after all.

Whilst running through the filmmaking process in chronological order, Christine is generous in her offering. She provides full-budget feature film write-ups, cost reports and production reports etc. Whenever something is clearly daunting for the reader, she lightens the mood with her witty thought on the subject – “Stay sane and embrace the madness.” Descriptions like, “No cut is painless; the trick is to avoid slicing a major artery” (on budgeting whilst Shooting to Kill) are memorable and entertaining for the reader. Frankly, there are a number of quotations one could pull from this book and use as stimulus or however else you like to use intuitive information.

I wish to note a few points in the book that struck me as areas for deeper thought (not relative to practical tuition, however). Christine briefly mentions (to paraphrase) that she is intrigued by how disparate the continuity between a movie itself and moviemaking process is. The parts that make up the constituents of a film have obsessed film theorists as far back as Eisenstein (such as the process of montage editing), so yes, technical aspects of filmmaking have been studied in regard to continuity. But, the aesthetic of actually being on set (actually making a movie) – the chaos – is absurd in its discontinuity. How can cinema appear so pure on the screen? This is, of course, the magic of filmmaking (and all the hard-work that goes into it!).

Furthermore, Christine notions a lot towards the personality a film producer should have towards their work. It varies, but she gives some valuable thought. Of course, respect and equality reigns on set, yet balancing this with authority and sixty egos is no easy feat. Of the finished film, it is understandable that the producer and their team will expect everyone to think it amazing, how couldn’t they after their concentrated long-hours? Christine says, “Not everyone is going to like it, nor should they be expected to.” If you want to produce controversial work, or work that is going to be seen for its difference (often the only way in a saturated independent market, like today) then you have to keep a level head and respect peoples opinions. Okay, if it’s your last chance at a distributor and they read it completely backwards, feel free to go out into the backyard and scream a little.

Find Christine on Twitter.

Her book can be bought on Amazon by clicking here.

The Limelight Index: Carlo Mirabella-Davis – Writer/Director

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I’m really excited to share this interview I did with Carlo Mirabella-Davis – a filmmaker from upstate New York. He’s a great guy with a heap of noteworthy advice to offer on the industry and the wonderful practice of filmmaking. So, here it is:

Hi Carlo, I’d like to begin by asking you what sparked off your first real interest in filmmaking?

I’ve always been interested in filmmaking.  My favorite toy was an old 1970’s portable tape recorder.  I’d spend endless hours constructing radio plays and casting my friends and family as voice actors.  I would also spend a lot of time drawing.  I initially wanted to be an underground cartoonist.  I was that weird kid off in the corner constructing vast, fictional worlds.

As a family we also had a movie night every Sunday.  We’d order Chinese food and then watch some old film from the golden age of cinema.

So your whole family has a passion for film?

Yeah, my sister Francesca Mirabella is also a filmmaker.  She’s just started her first year at NYU grad film school.  She’s making beautiful films over there.  It’s in the blood I guess.

Which movies and filmmakers influence you most?

That’s so hard to answer.  There are so many movies I cherish and obsess over.  I used to watch 4 films a day, which was insane.  Now I’ve cut it back to 2.  I love horror films, genre films.  I also love art films and experimental cinema.  David Lynch is obviously a huge influence.  Also Flannery O’Connor.  I love her. Terrence Malick.  Badlands is a massive influence.  I love classic horror films from the 70s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s The Thing or Possession by Zulawski.  Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films of all time.

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Psycho is another film I’m completely obsessed with.  The Night Porter is a brilliant film.  So is The Servant  by Joseph Losey and Night of the HunterKiller of Sheep is fantasticI love all sorts of flicks though.  I can go back to the classical era and watch silent films like Metropolis or The Passion of Joan of Arc . Of course there’s animated films that I love, Akira, and also science fiction.  To be honest, I pretty much just digest anything I can get my hands on.  But, I also love just a good solid drama, like The Verdict, City of God, or Oldboy.  I adore Chan-wook Park.  I got him to sign my hammer!

Do you find Asian movies a significant influence on your work?

Yeah, I love Asian film.  Takeshi Miike’s film Audition is incredible.  I also love Akira Kurosawa.  Seven Samurai is one of my favourite films.  I think Korean and Japanese films in particular have a tone to them and a pacing that I really admire.  There’s an economy and ruthlessness of vision that I think is really masterful.

What inclined you to set up your own production company, Elkcreek Cinema?

When I turned 13, Chris Dapkins, my life long cinematic collaborator, found an old super-8 camera at a yard sale in upstate New York.  That was, like, the moment of “ahah!”  We set out to make this black and white film about necrophilia in my parent’s basement, which was the start of many movies to come.  This led to us setting up Elkcreek Cinema as a collective to represent our brand of grass roots, by-the-skin-of-your-teeth filmmaking.  It also made sense, as the road that runs through our hometown is also called Elkcreek.  It was a natural fit.  My sister joined the collective as well.  It wasn’t until we met the brilliant Nick August-Perna, who co-directed The Swell Season, that we really decided to make Elkcreek Cinema into a viable production company.

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Your short film Knife Point comes from a very strong psychological standpoint and could be seen as quite controversial, what was your message here?

I wanted to make a film about how people who commit sinister acts of brutality often believe they are doing the right thing, the moral thing.  The most hideous deeds are often committed in the name of freedom and justice.  It’s very rare you find someone who consciously knows they are doing something wrong and does it anyway.  In reality, most extremists believe they are protecting something sacred and important.  I wanted to explore that psychological mentality.

I was also examining the “culture war” in the United States.  Today, literally, our government has been shut down by a group of tea party right-wingers who are threatening to destabilize the entire world economy unless they get their way.  I thought, what would it look like if the cultural war in America had reached an extreme, nightmare-world scenario?

I was also interested in religious extremism, which is really at the heart of the film.  I deeply respect all religions and feel strongly that everyone is entitled to believe what they want as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on other people.  Knife Point examines how extremists often take a peaceful religion, in this case Christianity, and twist it to justify their violent or hateful actions.  Like that preacher who stated after Hurricane Sandy that God was punishing the east coast because we support gay marriage.  It’s not religion that’s the problem, it’s those who misuse the religion for their own sinister agendas.

I love thought-provoking horror films.  One of the reasons Rosemary’s Baby is so evocative and brilliant is because it’s not a film about Satanism.  It’s a film about sexism, the pressures of conformity, and how women are often oppressed in traditional marriage.  I see the horror film as an interesting excuse to get into politics, sociology, and philosophy.

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How do you take to the online revolution, using social media as a form of distribution, rather than perhaps just taking a film to a festival?

I’m very intrigued by these new technological developments.  I think it’s very interesting and opens up a lot of new possibilities.  I did this music video, Cry For Judas by the Mountain Goats, and after the video had been put out, people who liked it took clips and reassembled collages and gifs and put them on Tumblr.  They made new art from my video, which I totally love.  What a great way to interact with cinema.  I think when you love a work of art, that’s what you do, you incorporate it into your identity, you cherish it.  It’s like saying, “This piece of art represents my inner essence”.

In terms of online distribution, Vimeo is amazing.  I was just looking at the geographical spectrum of who in the world is watching my films.  It’s amazing.  People in Russia, India, Iraq and Poland are watching my films.  On Vimeo I can see what they’re doing and watch their movies too.  The only issue with the rise of the internet is that piracy is a huge problem for independent feature films.  When Chris, Nick and I made The Swell Season, our feature music documentary, we lost so much money from pirating.  We’d finally gotten a genuine distribution deal, it’s on iTunes and Netflix, but every day I’d get Google alerts about people ripping a Swell Season DVD and disseminating torrents.  This is bad for the entire industry, but big budget films can take the hit more because their returns are still so massive.  For independent movies, it’s a killer.  I think people should always pay for feature films.  I buy everything, because it supports the filmmakers who made it.  I’m that guy who spends loads of money on iTunes.

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This is a good attitude!  In terms of crowdfunding platforms, have you ever engaged with Kickstarter or Indiegogo at all?

I think websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are a wonderful miracle for filmmakers and other artists.  When I was younger we had no way to raise money except to go into credit card debt or have a bake sale.  These new platforms are definitely the wave of the future.  Kickstarter is an incredible resource for artists around the world.  Thumbs up.

What’s your attitude to these celebrity campaigns – do you think they will take away the independent audience or create more buzz around independent film?   

My feeling is, the more the merrier.  There are a number of profoundly talented filmmakers with an established name who just can’t get funding from the studios anymore.  I don’t think these people should be denied from raising money on Kickstarter.  I wish Kickstarter had been around when Orson Wells was banished from the studio system.  Look, I understand how people could feel these big names are hogging all the backers, I understand that.  I still feel it’s unfair to say people like Spike Lee can’t use these programs.  He’s a brilliant filmmaker and I love his work.  If Kickstarter is going to help him make another movie, then what’s the problem?  That’s my feeling.  It’s an interesting question though.

I’ve heard Elkcreek Cinema has potentially a couple of features in development.  How are you handling this?

My big advice to young filmmakers would be, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Have three scripts you’re working on, have three feature projects in development.  This industry is so unpredictable and you never know which project will take off.  If you spend ten years just working on one project and it doesn’t have what it takes then you have to start over from scratch.  In that spirit I have two projects that I’m working on.

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One is feature horror film called Bulldog, which I really can’t talk too much about right now.  It has a similar aesthetic to Knife Point and it’s a real horror film.  It’s a genre film.  It’s inspired by real events I witnessed as a kid in the 80’s in upstate New York.  I’m really excited to make it.  My agents are just about to send the script out to producers.

The other feature is called On Evil.  This is a project I went through the Sundance Labs with.  I got into the screenwriting and directing labs up at Sundance, which was a truly amazing experience.  You literally get to go out there and shoot scenes from your film for practice.  Robert Redford and other amazing industry professionals watch your scenes and give you incredible guidance, which was just mind-blowing.  On Evil is a drama with thriller overtones about a family of academics in upstate New York.  I also have a science fiction film I’ve just started writing.

People say screenwriters write about what they know, to what extent do you agree with this?

Personally, I need to write about what I know.  Within your unconscious mind lurks all these dark, beautiful creatures you must harvest and display in all their bizarre glory.  A film’s authenticity often comes from the screenwriter drawing upon real childhood experiences and emotions.

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Any noteworthy advice you’d like to give to young filmmakers?

There are a couple of main things I’d like to say.  You have to have thick skin as a filmmaker.  This is not an industry that is going to be kind to you.  You have to be able to protect the fire of your passion for cinema.  It’s like a little candle you have to build strong, thick metal around and keep alight.  People will attack you as soon as you start making your first film.  They’ll say, “What are you doing?   Making a film?  That’s insane!  You should be a doctor or a lawyer.”  You gotta have courage.  Have the faith of your convictions and say “You know what?  I wanna be a filmmaker and I’m going to stick with it no matter what.”

You have to be prepared to make mistakes, especially early on.  You can’t give up when you hit a wall.  Many people pack it in if they don’t acquire instant creative success.  Stick with it no matter what.  Remember, you’re not making films to make money or win awards, you’re in it because you love cinema!  You love telling stories.  You love to enter the world of your imagination.  Holding onto that fire is a hard thing to do, but you have to hold onto it forever.  That fire is the light of your soul, flickering in the vast, impenetrable darkness.

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The other thing I would say, in terms of actually making movies, is that finding the right people is important. Find people who like the kind of films you like and want to make films too.  Make sure they share your passion and then, like Shakespeare wrote, “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to you with hoops of steel”.  A good director surrounds themselves with talented, interesting people.  If you meet somebody who is like you and has an unquenchable passion for creativity, become close with them.  It’s you and them versus the world.  It’s those collaborative bonds that ultimately lead to great movies.

Also, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re still learning.  Continue to teach yourself.  Once you say, “I’m done. I’ve figured it out.” you die.  Good filmmakers are always evolving.  Try new styles.  Try new technology.  Try everything.

Do you feel the same way about genre? Do you think that directors who stick to only a certain genre are limiting themselves and therefore can’t be a great director?

I’m a big Kubrick fan and I love the way he went from an amazing science fiction film to an amazing horror film to an amazing drama.  He did everything.  I do like the idea of mixing it up.  But at the same time, I’m also a big Hitchcock fan and he really understood genre and was into the idea of picking one and honing your skills in that arena.  He embraced being The Master of Suspense.  I think both are totally valid ways to do things.  Either way, filmmakers must do everything in their power to avoid stagnation and predictability.

Thanks Carlo, there’s some remarkable insight here. Good luck with your projects!

Thanks Charlie!  Good luck with your projects as well.

Watch Knife Point below:

Find Carlo on Facebook and for more information visit his website: http://www.elkcreekcinema.com

The Limelight Index: Jim Ojala – Writer/Director/FX Artist

jim_zombie

After searching around for interesting projects on Kickstarter, I recently came across Jim Ojala who is making his debut feature film, Strange Nature, behind the director’s wheel. However, he has vast credits of work in the industry and it was an absolute pleasure to catch up with him about his filmmaking career, special effects, the industry and the state of crowdfunding.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

I’ve been a fan of movies since I was a child. I was kind of a loner kid, so film acted as an outlet for me. After graduating from high school, I started experimenting with cameras and took a course at the local public access station. Once I realized that you could put whatever you create uncensored on the air, my friends and I start developing a show. That show was called My Three Scums, a horror/comedy about a family of misfits and monsters that try to get by in (and get back at) society. Sort of Munsters on crack!  Seeing the reaction (both very good and very bad) from the public told me that this is what I need to do. Episodes played in a couple different festivals also. When a film of yours plays for an audience of strangers and they love it… there’s no better feeling in the world. That show got me a crack at working with Troma, which launched my career.

Who are your influences in the industry?

Taxi Driver is my all time favorite film, so early Scorsese is a pretty big influence. Kubrick of course. Some of the lesser known influences are directors like Lloyd Kaufman, which is why working with him on Citizen Toxie was such a mind blowing deal for me at the time. Buddy Giovinazzo is another one. His gritty film, Combat Shock still blows my mind and somehow that guy still has not received his due. Someone who I just discovered over the last few years is Alejandro Jodorowsky. His films are so unique, beautiful and disturbing all at the same time. I really love how his films can be shocking without being mean spirited… in fact they are uplifting. I’m also a really big fan of Romero’s earlier films. Martin is such an honest, scary and heart breaking film, it’s such a shame more people haven’t seen it.

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What attracted you about specializing in FX make-up?

I had already done some experimenting with makeup FX as a kid and on My Three Scums. Every horror movie kid in the 80’s/90’s had either a book or VHS of Tom Savini’s horror FX makeup. On my second day interning for Troma on Citizen Toxie they said there was an opening in the Makeup FX dept. I jumped at the chance! Tim Considine of Direct FX took me under his wing and taught me the basics and I eagerly picked it up quickly and worked my ass off, many times averaging 20 hour work days. By the end of the film, Tim offered me a full time assisting position. I loved working on practical makeup/creature FX, so I thought that would be a great niche to be in while I pursued my filmmaking career.

You got to work with experimental film director Mike Kuchar. Did this open you up to new ways of thinking about the medium?

Mike was awesome. He was teaching at Millennium Film Workshop in Manhattan where I took a course. Mike actually taught me how to shoot on 16mm film. Mike didn’t seem to have any interest in the business side of it… he and his brother are pure filmmakers making films simply because they love to. He reminded me that it’s okay to film something simply because you find it interesting.

What made you finally decide on the move to Hollywood in 2001?

I had a really good run in New York getting to work on Saturday Night Live, Broadway shows and even with horror film auteur Larry Fessenden on his film Wendigo. However, after 9/11, everything stopped. I couldn’t even get a temporary job. It was a really bad scene. I had run out of money and was getting desperate. My girlfriend and I decided to visit friends in Los Angeles for a week and see what it was like. Lloyd Kaufman referred me to Rob Hall at Almost Human FX. I visited them while in LA and Rob had just got the TV show, Angel, he hired me on the spot. I stayed and worked whilst my girlfriend went back to New York to pack up our life there and move out to LA.

You set up your film production company Ojala films in 2005, what is your direction for the business?

My direction is to keep it half film production and half makeup/creature FX with a digital FX person as well.  I’ve directed several shorts and music videos and now it’s time for my first feature, Strange Nature. The film will hopefully lead to more features, which we will create all the FX for in-house.

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Your debut feature film Strange Nature is currently in production. Tell us more about this project.

In 1995 news of deformed frog outbreaks started being reported in my home state of Minnesota. The deformities were hideous; extra misshapen limbs, missing limbs, misplaced eyes, etc. It was something in the water but no definite cause was found.

When it came time to make my first feature film I looked into those cases again as it is a great catalyst for a story. I was shocked to find that to this day the deformities are still being found with no definite cause yet. In fact the deformities have spread across the country. This year a research team found a population of frogs in Oregon 100% deformed… a first.

When I discovered no one has made a film about this phenomenon I knew I needed to. Strange Nature is an Eco Thriller that shows the dangerous places this may lead. All of this is seen through the eyes of a single mother and her 11-year-old son. I also knew I needed to bring my FX talents to the table to help the project stand out. That way I’m not just another guy with a script.

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The film is currently raising funds on Kickstarter, was this always the intended route for funding?

No, but a bigger film studio won’t touch a project like this. In fact if you aren’t making a film that is a sequel, remake or based on some type of existing franchise you are probably not going to be financed anywhere. It’s pretty sad really, filmmakers are actually discouraged today from original material. I’ve had interest from independent producers to shoot the film in Louisiana and even Bulgaria for the tax breaks/cheap labor, but I’m sticking to my gun that the film is a Minnesota story and that’s where it needs to be shot. Crowdfunding is a way that will allow me to keep complete creative control of the project.

What is your opinion on the recent surge of celebrities using the independent crowdfunding platform?

Honestly, I think it will be part of the downfall of crowdfunding. Little guys like me kill ourselves to get any kind of media attention while celebrities can simply announce their project and they instantly get the front page of every entertainment site and are pretty much guaranteed to make their goal regardless of how big it is. Indie filmmakers simply cannot compete with that, so we have to take to social networking to get our word out and it’s becoming saturated.

The unfortunate fact is that most people are just not interested in your project unless there’s an A-list celebrity attached. I believe within 2 years tops, crowdfunding will change dramatically. My prediction is that film studios will start using crowdfunding to get their films made. Why risk their money if they can just charge the fans to pay for it? That way they win twice.

You recently got a chance to do special effects on Pacific Rim, what exactly did your role entail?

I was working for Legacy FX Studio. I mainly worked on molding the robot suits and running their parts. I also worked on Thor and The Watch at Legacy.

Any big dates planned for Strange Nature, or any other projects we should know about?

The Strange Nature Kickstarter campaign ends on October 10th, 2013. We have 30 hours to go and we are 74% funded! Please take a look at the campaign here and consider pledging. Rewards range from your name in the credits to actually getting one of the deformed animal puppets from the film.

There’s also a very cool horror/comedy themed TV show that I’m directing a pilot for and will be shopping around in January. Unfortunately, I can’t talk more about that, but when I can you’ll be the first to know.

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Any parting advice for young filmmakers out there?

Independent film investors have dried up. Don’t wait. If you have a good unique project and you have a solid social network then try getting your film crowdfunded. However, if you don’t have any big celebrities you should try to keep your goal as close to $10,000 as possible. Very few ever make it above that. If you’re just starting out wanting to get in the film industry I highly suggest interning on a film. You’ll make valuable contacts and if you work hard and learn fast then those contacts will come in handy very soon.

Thanks Jim and good luck with the campaign! 

Link to Jim’s Kickstarter campaign here.

Find Strange Nature on Facebook and Twitter.

Visit http://www.strangenaturemovie.com for even more info.
I think it’s really interesting what Jim mentioned about the Kuchar brothers telling him that it’s okay to film something just because you find it interesting. I think, this is the notion that you should make art to be happy with it yourself, don’t worry if others don’t buy into it. Also, shoot lots of stuff, don’t limit yourself to specific shooting schedules. This is the documentary approach I guess, but can nevertheless always be entwined into narratives.

Also, the opinion that studios will dominate the crowdfunding platforms is becoming more widely acknowledged. It’s a scary thought what Jim picks up on, but I have hope that it may swing the other way and bring more people to the limelight of independent filmmakers. Surely, more traffic can be good traffic? Lets hope so.

Jim has obviously worked hard to get to where he’s got, so give him a couple of dollars towards this invigorating project. It’s only a bit of pocket change!

Blue Jasmine – Talent Never Dies

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MOVIE REVIEW

Blue Jasmine
Perdido Productions, US
98 Min
2.35:1
UK Release: 27th September, 2013

DIR Woody Allen
EXEC Leroy Schecter, Adam B. Stern, Jack Rollins
PROD Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
SCR Woody Allen
DP Javier Aguirresarobe
CAST Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay,Michael Stuhlbarg, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich, Tammy Blanchard

Woody Allen is at his finest with Blue Jasmine. Many were disappointed with To Rome with Love last year, as they expected big things from a follow up of the runaway success Midnight in Paris. Blue Jasmine might just be what fans were expecting. It reminds us of Allen’s seemingly infinite capabilities to make great films – 49 so far!

Allen may be on form as a director, he plays the narrative back and forth to great effect, but it is Cate Blanchet’s sterling performance as Jasmine – the socialite fugitive – that blew my mind. She is a character fuelled by excessive amounts of vodka and Xanax, horrified to be stuck inside her body and corrupting life; she is a train-wreck on legs. Of course, this may all sound drastically over the top and exhausting, but Blanchet pulls it together with immanent perfection and knocks me for six.

After being married to a bourgeois lifestyle through her slimy husband, Hal (played adequately by Alec Baldwin), a crook powered by investment, Jasmine embarks on a new life residing with her sister, Ginger, in the pits of San Francisco. Sally Hawkins gives a marvelous performance as Ginger, who works at a grocery store and lives a second-rate life, getting ramshackled by shady men; this is how Jasmine views it at least, hence the divergence between the two ‘sisters’.

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Allen’s script is impeccably sharp, weaving in an array of pessimistic thoughts and people around Jasmine; nothing is left unaccounted for. Jasmine struggles to deal with Ginger’s current boyfriend and the thought of going near his ‘mate’, who is eager to get friendly (wink, wink). It is painful to watch her attempt to come to terms with working-class life, having to work as a receptionist for a dentist who, to say the least, has some troubles of his own. Then, a rich, voguish man who falls acutely in love with Jasmine lures her in. His high hopes are to be devastated by consequences of Jasmine’s instabilities and lies. Meanwhile, Ginger is off on her own adventures, once again leading to misfortune. It’s a glamorous series of dismay for nearly all Allen’s characters in this melancholy script.

The film has less humor than Allen’s previous. Indeed, some may find the film too abrasive, and consequently may struggle to find empathy in any of the characters. However, Jasmine is so harrowingly tangible, you’d have to be inhuman not to find any compassion hidden away. This said, Bobby Cannavale, as Chili, Ginger’s apprehensive boyfriend, is occasionally apathetic and brings some form of levity to scenes that would otherwise be screaming with domestic perplexity.

Blue Jasmine is full of characters making the wrong decisions. It’s Streetcar Named Desire terrain as the domestics pile up. It is flawless, in a catastrophic and unforgiving way. Maybe these aren’t the themes people were expecting but that’s just unfortunate. Nevertheless, this is still a very entertaining film, and a beautiful one at that.

5 stars!