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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The Boss


A smile only a dentist could love.

A smile only a dentist could love.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons, Aleandra Newcomb, Annie Mumolo, Presley Coley, Ben Falcone, Margo Martindale, Michael McDonald, Robert Pralgo, Larry Dorf, Cedric Yarbrough, Mark Oliver, Rico Ball, Carla Fisher. Directed by Ben Falcone

Woman Power

The bigger they are, the harder they fall or so goes the old saying. These days, the super-wealthy are the biggest they are. It is rare for one of them to fall, but when they do it leaves a crater that could swallow a number of European nations.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the 47th richest woman in the world. Orphaned at a very young age and never able to latch onto a foster family (she would be taken by some but always returned shortly afterwards), she has grown up believing that family is more than a hindrance to success than a help. Her self-help empire is largely run by her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell). One of her longtime business rivals (and former lovers), the crafty Renault (Dinklage) has leaked information to law enforcement that Michelle has been indulging in insider trading. As a result she is jailed for six months and her assets seized.

When she gets out of jail she has nothing and nowhere to go, and despite Claire’s misgivings, she invites Michelle to stay with her at the behest of Claire’s daughter Rachel (Anderson). At first Michelle is morose, defeated but as she gets involved with Rachel’s Bluebird group (think Girl Scouts), she hits upon a scheme to make her fortune again using Claire’s delicious brownies.

This ignites a turf war with rival Bluebirds and attracts the attention of Renault who wants to squash Michelle like a bug. With the help of Claire, Rachel, the Bluebird troupe and Claire’s new boyfriend Mike (Labine), Renault and the competing Bluebirds don’t stand a chance as Michelle will stop at nothing to get back on top – but will it be at the cost of her new family?

There are many who believe that McCarthy is the most gifted comic actress working today and there is certainly good reason to support that. She is certainly the most popular. When McCarthy is at the top of her game, she can be devastatingly funny, but with the wrong script the laughs come at her rather than with her. This is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The script isn’t the best one McCarthy has had to work with and in this regard she has nobody to blame but herself since she co-wrote it along with her husband (and the film’s director Ben Falcone) and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory. The plot is wafer-thin and doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Darnell is supposed to be a cross between Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, but with a heart of gold deep down. Sadly, she just comes off as a bitter woman who largely deserves the indignities that come her way. I had almost zero sympathy for the character and that makes it really hard to root for her during the climactic scenes.

That’s not to say that elements didn’t work. McCarthy, as I’ve mentioned, is as talented as they come and her relationship with Bell works well. The two women make an excellent team. Some of the comic bits are extremely funny, although the best one involving a sofa bed is in the trailer. However, there are a lot of bits that fall flat including one involving Michelle and Claire comparing boobs, which an excerpt from also appears in the trailer. I guess that’s equal opportunity publicity.

There is kind of a mean tone to the movie that I found slightly disturbing. I get that the condescending attitude of the 1% for the rest of us is supposed to be getting grilled here, but McCarthy should have used a little less lighter fluid. The flame is burning the meat and there is quite enough meanness in the world without adding to it. Still, there are enough funny moments to make a look-see at the film worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Bell have some fine chemistry. Some fairly funny slapstick moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is dumb as a rock and is completely implausible throughout. The overall mean tone was really disconcerting at times.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is considerably salty, and there is plenty of sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: WWE wrestler Dave Bautista made a cameo in the film, but his part was eventually cut out. It appears in the trailer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Hard
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Love & Friendship

I’m Still Here


I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix prepares for his next role in the remake of Grizzly Adams.

(2010) Mockumentary (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, Ben Stiller, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Natalie Portman. Directed by Casey Affleck

 

We have an image of stars in our heads as self-absorbed divas who throw tantrums if they don’t get things EXACTLY the way they want it (“I told you, no BROWN M&M’s…why is that so hard?”) they throw legendary tantrums. We are fascinated by their behavior.

Which is what the makers of I’m Still Here are banking on. This is a chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who famously retired from acting after the 2008 indie romance Two Lovers to embark upon a rap career. He had a meltdown on the David Letterman show, one in which the host quipped “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight Joaquin” which is shown here.

He also has an assistant named Anton (Langdon) that he humiliates  and abuses mercilessly, so much so that Anton takes a dump into the actor’s face while he’s sleeping. Such is the abuse that you will not think the act unjustified, although be assured that he’s not really doing what he appears to be doing. In fact, Phoenix is abusive to nearly everybody here to the point where it’s amazing that anyone would be willingly employed by him. Which is ironic because in reality, there were sexual harrassment charges brought against the filmmakers which were settled out of court.

There was some debate as to whether this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. At the time people were unsure and many of the reviews of the film from its 2010 release reflect that the critics were unsure and confused.

Let me set the record straight – it’s a hoax. Of course it was. Would Joaquin Phoenix allow a movie that portrayed him as an tyrannical egomaniac that is borderline psychotic ever see the light of day? Think about the logic; if someone is as egotistical as Phoenix is made out to be here, he would never allow his image to be tarnished.

I mean, Phoenix’ rap music is borderline unlistenable – and everybody but Phoenix knows it. Affleck’s camera captures the reactions to the music; from polite disbelief to outright hostility. Nobody but Affleck and Phoenix are in on the joke (and maybe some of the actors, such as Langdon) so you get their genuine reactions to situations that are awkward.

Which is fine, but the audience ends up being caught in the awkwardness, much like watching a friend who’s had too much to drink soil themselves. You want to get up, make your excuses and get as far away from the train wreck as possible which is not how you want your audience to feel. The truth is, this is really an exercise in ego – you’re not let in on the joke (which is a cardinal sin) and expected not to feel the fool when you figure it out – because if you don’t you wind up completely repulsed. Part of my distaste is the portrayal of Phoenix as a borderline drug addict – which considering the way his brother River passed away really stretches the line as far as I’m concerned.

There are a lot of celebrity cameos (as you can see from the credits above) and I believe none of them are in on the joke either. So you get the sense that the hoaxers did their jobs too well – they’ve really put one over on all of us to the point that there are plenty of people who think that it wasn’t a hoax. For me, seeing is believing.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally amusing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A crude exercise in ego. Not nearly as funny or engrossing as they think it is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and drug use, a plethora of swear words, plenty of anti-social behavior and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The person in the film that is playing Joaquin Phoenix’ father is actually Casey Affleck’s dad.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some conversations in which Affleck, Phoenix and various critics and academics discuss the film, the hoax and the aftermath.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $568,963 on an unreported production budget; this might have just made some money

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Spinal Tap

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix

Funny People


Funny People

Jason Schwartzmann, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are all funny people.

(Universal) Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzmann, RZA, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari. Directed by Judd Apatow

We love to laugh. Those who can make us laugh with amazing regularity own a special place in our hearts. However, the cost of that laughter can often be unbearable.

George Simmons (Sandler) is one of the planet’s top comedians. His movies have grossed hundreds of millions, and his stand-up act is legendary. He is also undeniably alone; his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mann) left him because George cheated on her. Now, George has just received some devastating news – he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctors want to try an experimental treatment, but the prognosis is grim.

Ira Wright (Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up who, as his co-worker Chuck (RZA) at the deli he works at opines, isn’t very funny. Ira sleeps on the couch in an apartment shared by Ira’s friend Leo (Hill) who is also a stand-up comedian (only much better and more successful) and Mark (Schwartzmann) who has hit the jackpot – he’s the lead on an NBC sitcom that, while not very good, at least pays Mark exceedingly well.

George decides to excise his demons through standup and goes to an open-mike competition at his old stomping grounds where Ira and Leo are also performing, along with Randy (Ansari), a rival comic with a biting sense of humor. George is somewhat impressed with Ira and Leo and offers them jobs as writers but Ira, in an uncharacteristic move, cuts Leo out of the equation.

The two form an odd relationship as George hires Ira to be his assistant but there’s definitely a bond between them. Ira is one of the few people…okay the only person…that George can confide in. Otherwise, George is somewhat insufferable, often treating Ira like dirt, so isolated by his own celebrity that he can’t reach out in his hour of need.

Despite the title, this isn’t a movie about comedy or even really about comedians, and despite the plot it’s not a movie about dealing with mortality either. That’s more or less a side issue. What the movie is about is isolation and what it does to us. This is a movie about human beings who happen to work as comedians, but it isn’t about being a comedian.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t be. It works as a matter of fact, particularly the first two-thirds of the movie. Where it falls flat is in the last third wherein George tries to win Laura back from her obnoxiously macho Aussie husband (Bana). Even though Mann gives a thoroughly satisfying performance in her role as George’s muse, the sad fact of the matter is that the situation here is painful in many ways and when Ira pleads “Can’t we just go now” I can empathize.

On the plus side, Sandler and Rogen both give their best performances ever. Sandler shows the kind of depth he displayed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me and takes it to new levels. This is far from the lovable kinds of characters he’s played in movies like Happy Gilmore or Bedtime Stories; in fact, George Simmons is a bit of a prick. It takes some courage to go as far out of his comfort zone as Sandler appears to here.

Rogen has mostly played lovable stoners throughout his career. Here, he is a bit more driven, a bit more ambitious and a little less lovable. He’s basically a decent guy and yet he screws over a friend. He is kind of sweet on fellow comedian Daisy (Plaza) but can’t bring himself to ask her out on a date and gets furious with her when she sleeps with Mark. Yes, he’s a bit of a loser but one senses he isn’t going to remain that way for long.

I liked the movie enough to overlook that final reel which doesn’t work as well. The crux of the movie seems to belong more in the relationship between George and Ira than it does to George and Laura; certainly that whole sequence could and should have been cut down significantly.

What works here works really well. The standup sequences are incredible in places, and I did laugh a lot throughout. While there is a good deal of emphasis on penis humor, it isn’t enough to be off-putting. Sadly, the movie was mis-marketed by Universal who portrayed the movie as a straight comedy and it really isn’t that, so the film didn’t do the box office it probably deserved. However, it is worth taking a peek, particularly if you like your movies to run the gamut of emotions.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely funny moments as well as some genuine pathos. Sandler and Rogen are at the top of their games.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole winning back of his wife thing is often awkward and uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a tremendous amount of blue language and some crude sexual references; it’s R-rated stand-up comedy for sure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George and Ira are named after the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the famous composer and lyricist who among other things, composed Rhapsody in Blue.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a lot going on, both on the 2-disc Collectors DVD edition and the Blu-Ray.  There is a video diary from Apatow that gives extensive insight into the making of the movie. Archival footage shows Sandler and Apatow appearances on Letterman, Dennis Miller’s talk show and “The Midnight Hour with Bill Maher.” There’s also a faux documentary on Randy, the Ansari character who will be getting a feature film of his own shortly and a “highlight reel” of George’s film career. There are also the full versions of the songs James Taylor performs at the MySpace Party, as well as full jams between Sandler and Jon Brion, and some rapping by RZA. The Blu-Ray version also contains an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show by Sandler and Apatow promoting the film. All in all one of the more impressive packages for any recent release.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Eat, Pray, Love