Tag Archives: Cate Blanchett

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

In 1986 film maker Jim Jarmusch gave up coffee, presumably why he started obsessing over in it a series of short black-and-white vignettes spanning seventeen years, all collected under the title Coffee and Cigarettes (2003, 93 mins). The premise of the eleven pieces is basically that people sit down at a table and chat. Those involved are drawn from the worlds of music, film, and art; while the subjects they cover leap around, sometimes cross-pollinating across sketches, revolve around dreams, Tesla coils, and of course coffee and cigarettes.

The first, Strange To Meet You, a skit featuring alternative comedian Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, was originally shot for Saturday Night Live back in 1986. Mismatched in the sense that one is laidback while the other is hyperactive, they are perfectly matched here as two men (with five cups of coffee!) who meet, chat a little about coffee, cigarettes, and exchange a dentist appointment. As a standalone piece — the second, Twins, wouldn’t be shot until 1989 — not much actually happens and nothing is explained. They meet, seemingly arranged, and then go their separate ways. The moment between contrasts the way that coffee affects them. Benigni’s hands shake, he asks non-sequiteurs; Wright is relaxed, if bewildered, throughout.

How can such different reactions come from the same source? Contrasts, therefore, are at the heart of these sequences. Each table shows a chessboard pattern, and the cinematography beautifully captures every instance of black and white, be it the black coffee in white mugs or the black spots on the white dice in No Problem, an intentionally drawn out scene where Isaach De Bankolé‘s repeated questioning of Alex Descas‘s situation gets rebuffed by the assurance that there’s no problem. The chessboard perhaps implies a level of competition between the people involved; the lack of pieces a permanent stalemate.

While some pieces riff on the same themes (Joseph Rigano berates Vinny Vella for his lunch consisting only of cigarettes and coffee, as does Taylor Mead to Bill Rice in the poignant closing story) and perhaps contain subtle points, there are those that are more blatant in their delivery. In Cousins, Cate Blanchett takes on two roles, a version of herself and a fictional cousin. While Cate has all the trappings of celebrity — of which her cousin will never know — she seems eager to please while feigning interest. When we see her hand over a gift of expensive perfumes, we see the irony of a world where the rich can afford everything but are instead gifted it while the poor can only hope to one day afford it.

Attitudes also play a role as the no-smoking hotel lobby where Cousins takes place delivers an unmistakeable case of double standards. These rear their ugly head again in the similarly titled Cousins?, where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, over cups of tea, discuss their shared heritage, thanks to the former’s genealogical research. Coogan barely wants to know until Molina gets a phone call that could lead to work. It’s a wonderful scene, nicely played, and the humour comes mostly from Coogan’s disrespectful take on himself, blatantly dismissing Molina’s career while his own is in the ascendance.

Humour comes again in Delirium, with the appearance of Bill Murray, (playing Bill Murray, who else?) working in some cafeteria and not wanting anyone to know. As he swigs coffee from the cafetière the conversation with the Wu Tang Clan‘s GZA and RZA touches on the dangers of both nicotine and caffeine. On learning that nicotine is used in insecticide Bill Murray asks “It’s good if it kills bugs, right?”, his typical deadpan inspiring more laughter than it really should. Notably here the scene recalls both Strange To Meet You and the short Palme d’Or winning, Somewhere In California, where Iggy Pop and Tom Waits cover the topic of quitting one’s addictions, when a refrain about medicine and music is played again.

In Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, we see musician Jack White do jus that and the phrase “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” makes its first appearance. Some degree of its meaning is perhaps in the echoes that appear throughout the tales of coffee and cigarettes, bringing some form of unity. To this end the first few shorts do seem separate from the rest, no doubt because the wider picture had not yet been conceived, but the later episodes make up for this and ensure interconnectedness. The effect is one of wondering where one scene, while having no physical relation to any other, will lead.

The scenes may tackle different areas of conversation, but they all, in some way, cover how coffee and cigarettes are everyday obsessions that people seem unable to function without. In focusing on these, Jarmusch perhaps opens the world up to other obsessions hidden away — gambling, fame, and conspiracy theory, for example. We see Alex Descas confident in his dice, Steve Coogan kick himself at a missed opportunity, and Jack White note how “they” tried to discredit Tesla. These are perhaps bigger, more difficult topics that can play with the psyche and require discussion, but we ignore these as, like the conversations herein, the banal is easier to digest and it enthrals us more.

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Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Now into six decades of making films, Woody Allen is showing no signs of slowing down. Some recent films have name checked and featured European cities — Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), and To Rome With Love (2012) — but Blue Jasmine (2013, mins) sees Allen return Stateside and delivering a story spanning both coasts.

Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Jasmine (real name Jeanette Francis), a New York socialite who has never had to want for anything in life thanks to Hal (Alec Baldwin), her high-flying husband, more in the Bernie Madoff mould than genuine businessman. However, as the film opens we see her land in San Francisco, moving in with her sister (they were both adopted, although from different biological parents) in order to get her life in order. What has happened between this extravagant lifestyle, funded by the dreams of others, and an almost desperate need to start over is what gradually unravels throughout Blue Jasmine.

Jumping between two timelines (the New York backstory and the west coast present) Allen aligns them not just with Jasmine as uniting thread but through looking at the women’s relationships. While Jasmine had Hal, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), has Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a loose-tempered mechanic who, were it not for Jasmine’s visit, would be moving in. As if this doesn’t cause tension enough, Jasmine’s class snobbiness comes to the fore, berating her sister for her choice in men, somewhat rich coming from a woman who’s own husband was a crook.

If money corrupted Hal, it has also corrupted Jasmine, albeit in a different way. As someone living a life of parties, designer brands, and never having to worry about anything the descent to Ginger’s level — of poor neighbourhood, hyperactive kids, and actually having a job — is difficult to comprehend and adjust to. Deep in debt, thanks to Hal’s fake companies in her name, she still flies first class without quite knowing how.

Regardless of adaptability to her new situation, she does try — a job as a dentist’s receptionist, with the dentist heavy handed in his amorous after-hours approach; a computer class at college to learn how to study interior design from home (rather than just study interior design at college). Life, when you have concerns, is difficult and, rather than be strong she opts instead to jump on the first chance she gets back into her old life when she meets diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party who thinks her the ideal trophy wife for his senatorial aspirations.

Almost every scene in Blue Jasmine sees Blanchett’s anti-heroine play some part, and the superlative performance dominates the movie. She flits easily between her superficially smiling socialite, her claws-out disdain of the lower classes, and the broken, fragile woman whose world has spun out of control. Whether it has spun out of her control is one of the many ambiguities Allen provides throughout the movie as much is made of Jasmine’s ability to see only what she wants. Was she, therefore, complicit in Hal’s Ponzi schemes or, like so many others, an innocent victim?

What one can read, if anything, into the eastern-flavoured names of our San Francisco trio — Jasmine, Ginger, Chili — is perhaps open to debate, but what’s certain is that the result is a fragrant broth of light-hearted comedy with darker moments. Interestingly, the comedy comes not from the two stand-ups Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay that take supporting roles, but from its mocking of the superficial elite thrust into the real world and its alien nature. What this new world holds for Jasmine is uncertain, but it’s that way for us all.

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