Claim You Were Never Really Here. I wish I could.

You Were Never Really Here reminds me of Good Time from last year: a little indie that, with the first scenes and through the intro title, I thought: YES!  This is GOOD… often you know immediately when a movie is going to be good.   But with one punch then another and another, a left hook and a right jab, you realize how bad it’s going to be.

Not showing every last detail and letting the imagination fill in the gaps can be a very effective means of storytelling.  The best examples are Fargo and American Psycho.  But when that’s the whole film — random dead people left and right, real and imagined, it just goes to show how little an idea the filmmaker has.  Of how little a story there is.  Of trying to substitute style for substance.

It all goes back to a theme I keep pounding away at: the power of linear storytelling.  More often than not, when a filmmaker goes highly non-linear, they are compensating for the lack of a good story.   Not that You Were… is all that nonlinear.  It’s just bad.  I blame it on Amazon.  3/10

Comparison Notes: The infinitely better Thelma comes to mind.  When the movie resorts to bodies floating in water for no good reason whatsoever, you realize you’ve hit bottom.

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Film Brief: Wonder Wheel

Wonder Wheel has some nice attributes, but probably skip it unless you’re a die-hard Woody Allen fan.  The rhythm and cadence familiar to WA moviewatchers is there, but the story is not particularly original or deep.  The “Mapping” I wrote of earlier is definitely employed again here.

I blame Amazon Studios for the the shortcomings of this film, not WA.  Marginal thumbs-down with the standard caveats.  5/10

Film Brief: Last Flag Flying

I liked these very good veteran actors, especially Steve Carell.  But the story was way too thin, without enough of anything else to make up the difference.  Good intentions only go so far.

Titles MIA for no good reason drag on the first 30 minutes of a movie that needs all the help it can get.  For this I blame Amazon.  So… Another fail by Linklater, but the endearing performances keep Last Flag Flying afloat at 5/10.

From Iran: The Salesman

If you cross House of Sand and Fog with Prisoners and watching paint dry in Tehran, you might end up with something like The Salesman.  This movie won the best foreign film Oscar, which completes the Academy’s trifecta of totally blowing it for the 2016 season.

Critics adored this film and the director’s last U.S. release, About Elly.  The Salesman was marginally more interesting than About Elly, but both offer more proof of critical praise based on political correctness.  And movies from Iran, I suppose, are still such a novelty that anything must be good in the critics’ eyes.

If one took this exact same movie, set in Chicago or Tallahassee and in English, critics would be screaming about how bad it is.  An oddity I noticed on this one: careless errors in the subtitling.  Amazon Studios really phoned it in on that.

The Tomatometer is so wide of the mark on foreign films generally, and especially thosethe-salesman-text-block of this director, that I’m done with these type of recommendations, at least until such time that a trailer really grabs the hell out of me.  I found The Salesman to be gutless and uninspired.  Beyond that, obvious implausibilities weigh on the story.  A bit of effective drama toward the end raises it to 4/10.

Film Brief: Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea — especially in the early going — is as clunky as its title.  Poorly executed flashbacks, a bane of cinema, and a general lack of mastery behind the lens greatly hinder the picture.  Yet from these inauspicious roots a strong story, held together by solid performances, pans out.

No doubt this will be one of the dozen or so pictures nominated as best of the year; for me: good but not great.  7/10

Comparison Notes (recommended): My Name Is Joe, Crazy Heart

Café Society: A Modern Shakespearean Rom-Com

Cafe Society - poster

I had a number of observations watching Café Society, a few of which apply to a wide swath of the latter-era Woody Allen oeuvre:

1)  Mapping as a Woody Allen thought experiment.  You can think of any WA movie as any other WA movie mapped onto a [fill in the blank] setting.  That is to say, it’s as if WA is thinking, “I want to make a movie with this setting, and that thematic element, how do I do it?  Is this new movie going to be with cyborgs?  CIA spies?  No.  This is going to be a Woody Allen picture, just set differently.”

As with Irrational Man, in the early going especially it can seem contrived.   But then — quickly — it all begins to gel.  I look forward to WA’s annual offering because of that special feeling you get with his films, but more broadly, it doesn’t matter if his latest film seems like a bit of a re-tread, a mapping of some other of his movies onto this year’s dinner table.  With a WA film, you’re automatically guaranteed to be transported to a whole different ballpark, one that so many lesser filmmakers can only dream of entering.  And that’s why he always attracts the biggest A-list stars.

2) Café Society, and so many of his films, are modern Shakespeare comedy.  Were Shakespeare around today, I don’t think he would find a WA picture alien in the least.  To my admittedly limited knowledge, Shakespeare did not engage in plots any more complicated than those of Woody Allen.  And it’s a delight when things are kept just complicated enough.  There’s no beating around the bush in Shakespeare, nor WA.

3) Jesse Eisenberg’s role seems like WA was writing a more confident version of himself.  Eisenberg has got the WA mannerisms and way of speaking down pat.

4) I guessed that Harvey Keitel was the narrator — boy was I wrong.  It’s Woody Allen himself!  His voice was much deeper than I usually think of it.

I am often annoyed by narration in film, as with WA’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.  But it works here.

5) There may be glitches here and there in WA’s mapping.  For instance, “Thanks for the heads up” I believe to be an anachronism.  Also, WA’s Jewish jokes seem a little out of place to me, which luckily doesn’t make them any less funny or effective.  Just classic WA humor, no matter where it’s mapped.

6) Amazon Studios.  An idea was posited that if Apple really wants to get serious about content creation, she should buy Netflix.  I’m not sure about that idea, nor about the idea of Apple creating content.  The Pixar lineage is there, though.  Any case, I have mixed feelings.  I suppose content creation is important, so if it makes sense, then as a stockholder I say go for it.

7) It all works.  In the end, Woody Allen is quite brilliant, and that shines through even his lesser offerings.  Café Society is fun and engaging, despite any glitches.  7/10