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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Texas Killing Fields


Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

(2011) True Crime (Anchor Bay) Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Corie Berkemeyer, Becky Fly, James Hebert, Joe Chrest, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann

Some places are just bad. You can feel the malevolence when you walk into them. They seem to attract tragedy and trouble. The fields outside Texas City are like that. Half-swamp, they have periodically been a dumping place for bodies, particularly those of young females, over the years. The place has attracted a myriad of serial killers – and yes, this isn’t the movie. This is real.

In the movie however, we’re focusing on one killer but more to the point, to the cops chasing him. Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan) is a transplant from New York City. He’s a tough guy sure, but he has a tender side and the sight of a murdered girl on the pavement near the killing fields is enough to make him pray for her soul over her body.

His partner Mike Souder (Worthington) is a bit more cynical. A native of the Texas City area, he’s a fine detective but his personal life is all messed up. His ex-wife Pam (Chastain) works for a different law enforcement agency; it is in her purview that the fields fall whereas Mike and Brian are Texas City policemen. Mike is somewhat bitter about the break-up and wants nothing to do with Pam, even when it becomes clear that their investigation would benefit from working together.

Into this mix comes Little Ann Sliger (Moretz) – and yes, that’s her name, Little Ann. She’s a teen whose mother Lucie (Lee) is a drug addict whose parenting skills could use some work. Little Ann is the poster child for “at-risk.” Lucie is more interested in getting laid and getting high than getting Little Ann seen to, and consequently she’s getting into some increasingly serious trouble. Naturally Brian becomes protective of the young girl who is tough on the outside but tender on the inside – just like him. Brian’s wife Gwen (Gish) is less enchanted with the idea but keeps her peace.

As bodies begin to mount up, the suspicion begins to point to a local pimp, a malevolent thug and a kind of simple moron who can’t get away from trouble. All three are moving towards different conclusions but the one at the center of the murders is not one to let a cop get too close – and the collision course between pursued and pursuer is drawing near.

While this is said to be based on fact, there really is little more true here than that the killing fields near Texas City have become a notorious dumping ground for bodies of people from all over the I-45 corridor between Houston and Galveston. The script was written by a former DEA agent and has the kind of authenticity that can only come from someone who has lived the life and not just written about it.

If the directorial style looks familiar, it should. Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann who has made a career of some really good police procedurals including the Miami Vice series and movie as well as Collateral and Thief among others. She emulates her father’s style quite nicely, carrying a nice visual sense with a penchant for darkness and neon. Danny Boyle was once attached to this project but turned it down, saying that the script was so dark it would never get made. He went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire instead so I guess he made the right call seeing as he won the Oscar for it and all.

Morgan pulls out all the stops and delivers an impressive performance. His character is contradictory but not outside the realm of reason. He actually makes a pretty satisfactory partner for Worthington who does his best work here since The Debt. Mike’s got some issues of his own and certainly his scenes with his ex are some of the most incendiary of the movie.

What doesn’t work here is that the movie is so damn predictable. It starts out with the police procedural thing going on and any veteran watchers of Law and Order: SVU and CSI are going to have no trouble predicting what’s going to happen next. The last third is more or less a TV mystery movie with slightly rougher language and just as predictable.

There is a good movie here, although disappointingly enough, it’s not this one. In fact, this one’s just decent, memorable for Morgan and Worthington but little else. Chastain, who went on to greater heights, is also worth admiring here and Moretz acquits herself honorably as well (and ten points to anyone who can recognize Lee by face as the most famous corpse on TV nearly 20 years ago). However, you’ve seen this movie before unless of course you don’t watch a lot of these sorts of movies. Then and only then will it all seem new to you.

WHY RENT THIS: Morgan and Worthington make a good team, with Morgan particularly effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little anti-climactic. Relies too much on police procedural cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would imagine there’s some violence, some sexual innuendo and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Worthington and Chastain previously teamed up in The Debt.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $957,240 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was not a money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Onion Field

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Holy Motors