Cafe Society


On the Boardwalk.

On the Boardwalk.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnoy, Stephen Kunken, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Kat Edmonson, Tony Sirico, Paul Schneider, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’Lyn, Taylor Carr. Directed by Woody Allen

 

Finding love and a life you can live with are never easy propositions, even in Hollywood during the Golden Age. There are all sorts of detours and obstacles, not to mention the comfortable ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. There is also a question of timing – being in the right place at the right time. No, finding a place where you fit in and a person you fit in with is no easy task, no matter what the era.

Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) is a good Jewish boy from the Bronx. It is shortly after the war and America is in its ascendancy and Hollywood defines America. His uncle Phil (Carell) is a high-powered agent with such clients as Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou and studio chiefs kiss his butt to curry favor. Bobby heads out for Southern California to see if he can make a career out there; Phil isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but after some dithering finally gives his nephews a job.

He also enlists his personal assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show him around town. The two hit it off but when Bobby is eager to take things further, Vonnie gently rebuffs him. However, his sweet charm wears her down and eventually she gives in and the two become something of an item. However, Vonnie has a secret that she’s been keeping from everybody and when it surfaces, it effectively ends their romance. Disheartened, Bobby returns to New York.

There he is given a job by his brother Ben (Stoll), a gangster, to run his tres chi chi nightclub known as Les Tropique. It becomes the place to be seen in Manhattan, with politicians, Broadway stars, sports heroes and gangsters all rubbing elbows. Bobby also meets Veronica (Lively) who charms him and eventually the two get married and have a child. Everything is going exactly the way Bobby envisioned it – until one night Vonnie walks into his joint…

Woody Allen is in many ways the embodiment of a niche filmmaker. His area of interests is fairly narrow compared to some, and he tends to stick with those subjects pretty much without exception. When he is at his best, there are few better. However in the last couple of decades, it has become evident that his best work is likely behind him and some of his worst much closer to 2016 than his best stuff, much of which was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has had flashes of brilliance since then but perhaps his torrid pace – he generally churns out a new film every year – might well have hurt him quality-wise.

Still, Woody Allen’s worst is far better than most people’s best and this is far from his worst. While I found one of the romances a bit disingenuous, there is also one relationship that you almost root for. The problem I have with the movie is that I really ended up not caring about either Bobby or Vonnie. Bobby’s sweetness could get cloying and after awhile he reminded me of a slingshot that had been pulled back just a hair too far back and I was just waiting for him to snap. On the other hand, Vonnie is crazy shallow and despite all of her apparent aspirations towards depth, at the end of the day she chooses the easy path every time. Bobby and Vonnie are a couple far better together than they are individually so this is really a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Allen has always known how to make his movies look their best and that starts with hiring the best cinematographers in the business, from Gordon Willis to Darius Khondji to now Vittorio Storaro here. Storaro is one of the most gifted cinematographers in the business and he makes the Golden Age look golden, both in Los Angeles and New York. Like all Woody Allen movies, it is beautiful to look at in ways you wouldn’t think of for a film that is mostly set in a big city of one coast or another.

Mostly you’ll want to see this for the supporting cast, who are wonderful, from the luminescent Lively to Carell in one of his meatier roles, to Stoll as the good-natured gangster but especially Stott and Berlin as Bobby and Ben’s long-suffering parents. They are quite the hoot and supply a lot of the best comedic moments here.

The movie ends up being a little bit bittersweet and doesn’t really end the way you’d expect it to, but then again Woody Allen has never been in making the movies people expect him to make. He’s always been a bit of a maverick and done things the way he wanted to rather than the way the studios wanted him to do it. He doesn’t make blockbusters and I don’t think he’s ever really been interested in breaking the bank from that perspective, but he makes movies that as a body of work will be long-remembered when some of the box office hits of the last fifty years are long forgotten.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Woody Allen and you don’t miss an opportunity to see a master. Beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic leads are two people you end up not caring about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexually suggestive content, a little bit of violence and a drug reference or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Allen has shot digitally. It’s also the first time in 29 years that Allen has narrated a film without appearing onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hail, Caesar!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ghost Team

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Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Grown Ups


Grown Ups

Kevin James hangs on for dear life.

(Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek Pinault, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Joyce van Patten, Ebony Jo-Ann, Di Quon, Colin Quinn, Steve Buscemi, Tim Meadows. Directed by Dennis Dugan

The problem with life is that we grow up, we move on. We never have the kind of friends we had as children (I learned that as a child, but was reminded of it some years ago when I first saw Stand By Me) and even when we reconnect, we find that our childhood friends aren’t the same people they were when we were young.

The coach of a championship middles school basketball team has died. A gruff, genial sort, he had a major effect on the lives of the starting five, who gather for his funeral; Eric Lamonsoff (James), a beefy guy who is married to Sally (Bello) who still breastfeeds their four-year-old; Kurt McKenzie (Rock) who is now a somewhat whipped househusband with a dismissive wife Deanne (Rudolph) and the mother-in-law from Hell, Madea…I mean, Mama Ronzoni (Jo-Ann); Rob Hilliard (Schneider) who is on his third marriage, this time to Gloria (van Patten), a woman 30 years his senior and who along with him have embraced a New Age vegan lifestyle; Marcus Higgins (Spade), a womanizer whose women are getting younger as he gets older and finally Lenny Feder (Sandler), the star of the team who has gone on to be a super-rich Hollywood agent married to a hot (in every sense of the word) fashion designer Roxanne (Hayek Pinault).

Lenny decides to rent the same lake house the five were taken to by the coach to celebrate their championship back in 1978. All of them are bringing a good deal of baggage with them, much of it residing in their relationships with their wives and children. Maybe all it takes is a weekend recapturing the magic of youth when a summer day seemed endless, the Fourth of July was a reason to celebrate and the possibilities were unlimited.

That’s basically all you need to know about the plot. The good news is that this is a pleasant movie that really isn’t offensive, despite some of its attempts to be as in Sally’s milk-spray into Deanne’s face, or Marcus taking a header into a pile of dog poo. The bad news is that the movie tends to settle into a rut of pleasantness, taking the bite out of comics who ten years ago would have made fun of efforts like this.

The movie is somewhat uneven; there were places where I was laughing out loud and others where I was rolling my eyes. The comics seem to be going for a juvenile kind of humor where calling each other fat in some imaginative way is the height of wit. Not that I have anything against that sort of thing – that’s what guys do after all – but it runs through the whole movie.

Nearly all of the movie’s best moments come at the hands of the five leads, which makes a bit of sense – after all, that’s who people are paying to see. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of lesser characters vying for screen time and making the movie feel a little bit crowded. One of the better moments was a speech that perennial TV guest star Joyce van Patten makes near the end of the movie during the obligatory confessional revelatory scene; it might well be the best moment in her distinguished career. Unfortunately, it feels like it should be in another movie.

If you like all these guys individually or collectively, you’re going to see this regardless of what I say. Fortunately, you won’t be disappointed. It’s not the best work of any one of them by any means, but it certainly won’t leave you feeling like you didn’t get your money’s worth. I saw this over the Fourth of July weekend which is the ideal time to see this; what can be more American than a bunch of friends getting together in a bucolic location to relive the glory days and fix what is broken in their lives?

 REASONS TO GO: Five of the best comedians of the 90s all together in the same film. Hayek and Bello are a couple of hotties. There are some pretty funny moments here.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wildly uneven and relies a little bit overly much on juvenile humor and pratfalls.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scatological and sexual humor as well as a few male rear ends on display; while nothing I wouldn’t flinch at, you might want to think twice about letting the younger kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dugan has a cameo as the referee in the opening basketball sequence; Sandler’s real-life wife and daughters also make an appearance as the wife and daughters of Tardio, the cannoli guy. “Amoskeag Lake” doesn’t exist, incidentally; the movie was filmed at Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts; Amoskeag refers to a dam on the Merrimack River in New Hampshire near where Adam Sandler grew up; a number of businesses in Manchester were named after it.

HOME OR THEATER: This will work just as well at home as it will in a big theater; however, this is the type of comedy meant to be enjoyed with a crowd so keep that in mind.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Igor