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

VOD Log: Bridesmaids

I caught the dress shop scene in Bridesmaids a couple times on TV, and laughed enough to add the movie to my queue.  I had been led to believe — by that scene and all the film’s marketing — that this was going to be an ensemble comedy, but it’s not.  It’s the Kristen Wiig story.  And it’s not very funny, as it attempts to balance its humor with a more serious romantic story in the vein of Enough Said, Trainwreck, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  Ms. Wiig also co-wrote the movie, which is part of the problem.    When it comes to comedy writing — at least of the feature-length variety, Kristen Wigg is no Judd Apatow, and she’s not even half-way to Amy Schumer.

As far as Ms. Wiig’s performance: I like her in supporting roles — her tiny stint in Knocked Up was hilarious.  But she can’t carry a film by herself.  More ensemble work on screen was desperately needed here.  A little more Melissa McCarthy and a lot more Rebel Wilson would have improved the end product immensely.

As we learned from The Other Woman, comedy is tough.  I didn’t hate Bridesmaids, but it is a broken film.  My initial reaction was a marginal thumbs-down, but after a few days my thoughts have soured.  4/10

The Great Expectations of an Irrational Man

Irrational Man - poster med

Sometimes critics just don’t get fun films.  With a lame title — that I’ve now warmed to, equally lame poster art, and a Tomatometer score of 39%, I was expecting to be bored or annoyed with Irrational Man.  But Joaquin Phoenix intrigues me, and so does Woody Allen, and Emma Stone doesn’t hurt the cause — so I decided to give it a shot.

The Rotten Tomatoes consensus could not be more wrong:

Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply

Malarkey!  Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best effort, but this is a delightful, fun film.  A little clunkiness hampers the early going, and throughout there is a light air of contrivance that encumbers even his better films of late, such as Blue Jasmine.  That didn’t prevent Blue Jasmine from being one of the best films of 2013; Irrational Man is not up to Blue Jasmine’s level, but it is still quite entertaining, and Woody Allen deserves credit for making a very different movie here.  He may not knock it out of the park every time, but his pictures prove fresh and inventive from one to the next.  7/10  Irrational Man - text block

Cinematic Greats: Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love - poster

Every once in a while the Academy gets it right: Shakespeare in Love is one of the most beautiful and lovely pictures ever made.  It’s also one of the most thoroughly vetted, so there’s little I can add to existing comment.  Joe Morgenstern of the WSJ nails it:

As “Shakespeare in Love” unfolds, though, we see beyond the performances to how ambitious the whole undertaking really is, and how marvelously well the writers and director have pulled it off. Through the medium of movies they’ve reconnected us to the magic of theater. Scene after scene engages us as cheerful groundlings, tosses us jokes, toys with our expectations, then sweeps away the boundaries between film and stage, comedy and tragedy — a death scene, for instance, played almost simultaneously for laughs and tears — so we’re open to the power of language and the feelings behind it. I wasn’t just open, I was swept off my seat.

The only thing I’ll add is that the ending is among the greatest, most beautiful and emotionally urgent endings in the history of cinema.

Availability: iTunes, Netflix

Netflix link

Film Brief: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl - poster

There is a tremendous amount I liked about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but it left me wanting more.  It was like a train ride — or more appropriately a passage on BART — with 14 stops.  But it takes 16 stops to get me home.

Early in the film, her mother tells Minnie that she has a power she doesn’t realize.  My biggest problem was that this promise is left unfulfilled.  Still, Diary is very fresh, and very good — I just wasn’t over the moon with the product as a whole.  A solid recommendation; 7/10.

Comparison Notes: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Nymphomaniac, Ghost World

UPDATE on MI V: I think I was a little too harsh.  Upon reflection, there were enough good things thrown in to yield a 4/10.  Still thumbs-down, but I didn’t hate it or anything.

She Uses Tangerine [Updated]

Tangerine - poster

Yes, that’s a play on the Flaming Lips.

Tangerine is the most talked-about indie of the year, and for good reason.  It splashes vibrant, ruddy, glowing color all over the gritty urban streetscape of Hollywood.  Then, as night falls on Christmas Eve, that patina is washed away, leaving only the ugly naked truth — and a few more laughs.

I’m going to draw an unlikely comparison to Boyhood, because movies are ultimately about the story.  And the story of Tangerine wasn’t bad, but neither was it great.  The same story with more bland, milquetoast characters would probably get a thumbs down — not just from me but most critics.  The audacious characters of Tangerine drive the narrative.

Tangerine - text blockYou can talk about how different, and how novel, a movie is — and I loved the novelty of Tangerine — but ultimately the story must be there.  So probably the best comparison of all: Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It’s like this whole new world you’ve never seen before.  This is what movies are supposed to do!  So how can you not be over the moon?  How can you not be wildly enthusiastic with your recommendation?  Because story matters.

Every once in a while I wish that some truly profound David Lynch – Inland Empire moment might burst forth to offer true, glowing transcendence — but it was not to be.  Still though, there is something endearing about Tangerine.  Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, my opinion has been raised upon reflection.  But also like Beasts, a more developed story would launch Tangerine into the stratosphere.  7/10

Update: A note I forgot to include: the film was shot almost entirely with three iPhones.  Inspiration to low-budget filmmakers everywhere.