Café Society

'Cafe Society' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

I think I’ve cashed in the last of my goodwill towards all things Woody Allen by checking out Café Society, yet another movie about New York, being Jewish and being young, dumb and hopelessly lovesick. The weight of Allen’s neuroticism has become crushing in the present tense. The novelty of his vaguely pervy sentimentality wore off years ago, and while we may find ourselves surrounded by familiar scenery here, the days of Manhattan and Annie Hall have all but disappeared in the rearview.

It’s not that I have ignored that unwritten rule of avoiding a film you know you’re not going to like from the word ‘go;’ I have for the most part enjoyed spending time in Allen’s hyper-self-conscious little fantasies but it’s apparent now that fantasy is all the man is and will ever be about, be it his directorial touch or his shady real-life persona. Semantics, really. Some just leave it at ‘pervert’ or ‘creep’ and if I ended up feeling uncomfortable for Kristen Stewart that must mean I agree to some extent with those labels as well. I mean, it’s Kristen Stewart.

I am, however, disappointed I ignored a personal rule: Stay away from anything Woody Allen that looks suspect, regardless of whom he has talked into working with him. The problem with Café Society isn’t one of objective quality. The film is stunning to behold, set in two of America’s most famous cities and lensed with a certain verve you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Vittorio Storaro’s seductive soft focus and brilliant color palette perpetuate Allen’s love for The Big Apple and the effervescent glow makes Los Angeles look like a place we would all like to live someday. That’s an impressive feat.

The cast is equally effective in seducing: beyond the gimmick of casting Adventureland‘s stoned-in-love Jesse Eisenberg and the aforementioned Stewart, we get a stuffy Steve Carell as an obnoxious L.A. agent named Phil Stern. He so happens to be the uncle of Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who is looking to get his foot in the door in 1930s Hollywood. Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s brother Ben, a New York gangster with an affinity for burying his enemies in fresh concrete (that’s actually pretty funny). Blake Lively is lovely as Veronica, Bobby’s bride-to-be, while Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin revel in their roles as the quintessentially bickering, old-country Jewish couple. Oy vey, they’re so cliché.

There’s little to complain about when it comes to the film’s technical aspects. Instead Café Society‘s simple themes — finding a partner who will complement you in every aspect of life; being unable to escape your past — suffers from having lived a life thrice. There’s nothing to experience here that you haven’t in countless entries into Allen’s extensive filmography, which is to say that we have probably seen this movie in various incarnations no fewer than 20 times. No filmmaker can be that prolific and that consistently groundbreaking. Not even visionaries like Georges Méliès, who belongs to that oh-so-prestigious club of directors with 200+ titles to their name.

I know, I know. It’s a little extreme to be associating a pioneer like Méliès with someone like Allen but bear with me. The point is, his harping on budding romance has become passé and his creative funk continues in this latest excuse to pad a résumé. Eisenberg is a fresh-faced youngster in Hollywood who has taken up an off-the-cuff offer from his uncle to do odd jobs for him in exchange for the opportunity to make valuable connections. Along the way he falls for the cute secretary, Vonnie (Stewart) and is smitten by her lack of pretense. Trouble is, she’s currently seeing another, much older man and things are both serious and seriously complicated.

Heartbroken and disillusioned, he heads back to New York where he helps his older thug brother run a high-class nightclub that attracts many a wealthy douchebag politician and various nameless sycophants. It is here Bobby is introduced to Lively’s Veronica, with whom he casually jokes about having the same name as his ex. Well, joking is a strong word in a Woody Allen movie. It’s more like, he lusts after her because of the similarity. They soon marry and even have a child. But is life with Veronica (Vonnie 2.0) everything Bobby wants? The past comes back to haunt him when Vonnie 1.0 stumbles into his club one random evening. Of all the night clubs on all the city blocks in Manhattan, why did she have to choose this one?

Very little of Café Society feels like it’s designed to burrow in the longterm memory.  This is particularly offensive when we’ve had stronger characters and more compelling plot lines to follow in Allen’s back catalogue alone. Modern Allen is a flaccid Allen. He seems to get off on repeating himself. ‘Café Society’ is both a term used to describe the crowds that gather at various trendy clubs as well as the name of a specific club started up by Barney Josephson in 1938 in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, today infamous for being one of the most expensive places to live in the States.

There’s one other theme apparent, an age-old lamenting over how people change over time. I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of that without ruining the movie for those still waiting to take this all in, but suffice it to say I find that talking point ironic. The more things change the more they stay the same. It’s certainly true of a director who mistakes quantity for quality. There’s very little romantic about doing the same things over and over again for decades.

Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell in 'Cafe Society'

Recommendation: Tedious fluff piece. Café Society represents more of the same from Woody Allen: annoying characters complaining about their love lives all while trying to find an inspiration for changing themselves for the better. I can’t say this movie is generic but it probably will be for those who have an appreciation for earlier Allen. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart prove they do have good chemistry together though, so at least there is that. And the movie is an absolute delight from a visual standpoint. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy director.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Begin Again

begin_again_xxlg

Release: Friday, June 27, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

A disgraced record label executive has a chance run-in with a down-on-her-luck musician at a bar and the two forge a friendship that inspires more than great music — it reinvigorates one another’s thirst for life.

The Hulk takes a chill pill as Mark Ruffalo fits himself back into a decidedly more human outfit in John Carney’s musical romantic-comedy Begin Again. Instead of wreaking havoc on everything around him in a physical manner, Dan’s going about the same by butting heads with top execs at the label he started up years ago. His idealistic approach to talent management and discovery is viewed as a product of a bygone era in this company and it puts him at odds with the future of the label. His life quickly unravels.

The film’s secondary focus is Keira Knightley’s emotionally fragile yet three-dimensional Gretta, a guitarist from England whose longtime boyfriend is finding massive popularity in America, particularly in Los Angeles. Begin Again spends much of its second act detailing the spiraling downward of this at-once mesmeric and repulsively stagnant relationship between two musicians struggling to find themselves. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine juggles being Knightley’s heart throb and heart ache impressively as Dave, a man whose artistic integrity as well as devotion to Gretta slowly disintegrates as his star brightens.

Gretta, on the other hand, refuses to bend in the wind. Her firm grasp on her own creative control rings more authentic than manipulative; the choice more a microcosm of an entire population of aspiring artists or even successful ones who have remained true to their roots. So it’s no surprise when she becomes embroiled in drunken conversation with a man who claims to be a formerly successful record producer (yeah, this Dan guy) that we can almost feel it as the stranger smacks straight into the brick wall that is Gretta’s defense mechanism in the face of this awkward business proposition. She claims she is no performer; rather, she creates music at will.

Despite her biting tone, her discomfort seems to stem less from Dan’s crash-landing in her life as it does from being in the present moment. Her very existence here in this spot is the problem. Owed mostly to the ingenuity of the way Carney has constructed this tale, her backstory is explained and introduced in a wholly satisfying way, one that provides the bar scene a greater depth that’s often missing in these ‘when boy-meets-girl’ encounters.

Along with a pair of wonderful lead performances (Ruffalo and Knightley share the kind of chemistry that’s seemingly only developed over many a season of working together) Begin Again also distinguishes itself by not settling for the typical rom-com story arc. It certainly follows structure, but whereas most tend to fail as far as providing surprises is concerned, this little slice of life as a musician in the big city has some wiggle room in terms of deviating from the norm. An unconventional dynamic between the musician and record producer is largely responsible for this. Sidelined for much of the running time is Dan’s estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) who work their way onto the fringe as Dan attempts to pull his life back together.

Indeed, Dan and Gretta may be down but not down for the count. Inspired by the sound Gretta was able to produce with an acoustic guitar and just her voice — yes, that bit from the previews is every bit as charming in the film, especially since it’s prolonged — Dan starts coming up with ideas about what to do next with his career. Will the chance run-in with this talent be enough to turn things around in his life or has he back-peddled too far?

The exploration of the soul through the prism of music is not particularly inventive, but when done right it is rewarding. Doubly so when the music and the story against which its set as a backdrop are both high in quality. Now and again Begin Again contains a few music video-esque sequences (look to the songs ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home’) that seem to heighten both the visual and audio senses. It’s a unique sensory experience that seems to verify Carney’s talents as a genre director. Many will say his 2006 production Once is the superior film to this, considering the thematic and tonal similarities each share. It may be a lesser film but there is no denying the feel-good vibes. These are the kinds of films we can’t really tire of.

At least, not quite as quickly.

huliminuacoupedelitaedro

3-5

Recommendation: Featuring a plethora of good songs and talented performers to back up these songs, Begin Again offers an interesting cinematic experience that succeeds in pleasing genre fans, Ruffalo fans, Knightley fans and fans of rich acoustic melodies. Though not always the most original tale, Carney’s drama often overcomes through sheer likability.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not a performer, I just write songs from time to time.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

Release: Friday, May 17, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Oh, Greta Gerwig — where have you been all my life? I’m sure many guys have asked you this, and even though you’re going to let my forthcoming flattery roll off you and your leather jacket like water off a duck, I’m going to ask this anyway: Can I go out with you? Please?

No?

Well, that was to be expected. Gerwig’s character in Frances Ha (I think you might guess her name relatively quickly) is at once committed to something, and then not so much. That’s either by choice or by the forceful hand of reality. That’s actually not entirely accurate. Her character is bound by circumstance. Sometimes she’s doing something strange (like, really strange — to the point of seeming delusional) and other times she’s making moves we all likely would make in these particular moments. Whatever she’s doing though, she’s doing what a girl has to do to get along in this life, even though she doesn’t know quite exactly what to do or how to do it.

She’s a New Yorker with no high-rise apartment. Actually, make that really no apartment at all. Frances is caught in the beginning of the movie in an awkward transition between a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s small loft and, well, the next. . . . place. She ends up rooming with a few new friends — two guys who seem to be on tracks of their own relative success. But this also does not work out for much longer, as she finds herself struggling to make even the minimum rent payment. It seems that nothing is going to work out for our giddy protagonist for too long.

The movie is paced as such. It’s like flipping through a photo album, each photo on the page telling a brief yet intimate and complete story. The majority of scenes that make up Frances Ha last only but a few minutes, but are such great snapshots of life it is impossible to argue they are too brief. Director Noah Baumbach pieces each snapshot together with utmost skill, forming a unique cinematic experience that plays out more like a relic of the 1940s or 50s. Maybe a lot of that  is impressed upon me thanks to the exquisite locations (Manhattan, Paris, etc.). Maybe it’s because it’s shot totally in black-and-white. Maybe I was taken away because of my hopelessly misplaced sense of romanticism.

Frances is an aspiring dancer whose apprenticeship with a New York dance company is really taking her nowhere. Her best friend Sophie is moving out to chase dreams of her own, leaving Frances in some kind of a daze. Her parents are unable to help out financially, though they wish they could. Frances is “un-datable.” Indeed, this film is very much steeped in real world issues and sentiment, and if you don’t mind a narrative that takes its time in finding just where the sweet spots in life are, this is the film for you. At points it’s easy to be thrown off as to where we are really going with it all, and the ending certainly can sneak up on you.

But it’s imperative with a film like this to enjoy all the simple things as well as the complex; Frances’s walks about town are as integral to the story as her idealistic conversations with Sophie; with her parents; with her peers at the dance company.

frances-ha

4-0Recommendation: There’s no denying this film’s awkwardness. There’s a lot of charm to that awkwardness, though and it was very enjoyable to see a previously unknown actress (to me at least) blossom into a soon-to-be star with this role. Greta Gerwig is fantastic and is worth paying to see this movie even if you know little to nothing about it. I highly recommend this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.comhttp://www.imdb.com