Friday, July 29, 2016

Woody Allen's Cafe Society Spoiler Review

Radio Days: The film Cafe Society most resembles on the surface is Radio Days (1987). Both films are period comedies narrated by Woody. Both films include scenes of middle class life next to scenes of people who have really made it. Some of the most amusing stuff in both films are asides about moneyed individuals and their interesting lives. The best characters in both films are supporting characters. Society is not quite as episodic or as creative.

Sweet and Lowdown: Unrequited love is a theme running through Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and Cafe Society. In Lowdown, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is a jazz musician who makes his best music after he does not get the girl because the music is sadder with more feeling. Bobby, (Jesse Eisenberg) in Cafe Society, begins the film as a under-confident creep with odd mannerisms (His nervous scene with a part-time hooker might be the worst scene in a Woody Allen movie). Once he falls in love in Von (Kristen Stewart), he becomes the best version of himself. He becomes super confident and goes from Hollywood assistant (thanks to his uncle) to New York nightclub owner (thanks to his brother) mostly on the strength of his self-confidence. In both films, the lead character is in love with someone (Emmet Ray with Hattie) then suddenly married to someone else. Veronica (Blake Lively) is such a wonderful character, and Bobby is so smooth when he picks her up. (Unlike Emmet Ray ending up with Uma Thurman's character which seems at best a chemistry free plot device) that one is confused when Bobby still pines for Von. I grant you that Von helped make Bobby who he becomes, and Stewart is very warm. But Eisenberg and Lively have such easy chemistry that the movie might have been better if Lively and Stewart's roles were reversed. Emmet is left devastated without Hattie. Bobby is left...wistful. It is a slighter response in a slighter movie.

Manhattan: Like Cafe Society, Manhattan (1979) is concerned with  maintaining personal integrity in a world that has a lot of phonies (I would bet that Woody got a lot out of Catcher in the Rye as a young adult.). Von and Bobby, as they are courting, make fun of the pretensions of self-involved Hollywood. Von ends up marrying an executive and telling the kind of stories she used to abhor. Is she a phony? I don't think so. She changed; she fell in love with executive Phil (Bobby's uncle overplayed by Steve Carrell), and took up some of his interests. At least she is more authentic than Bobby, a depressive who works as an effusive club owner. She knows she loves Phil and would not stray (outside of a kiss or two) while Bobby thinks he loves Veronica, but would leave in a minute if Von asked him too. The true authentic characters in the film are the other members of Bobby's family. Rose and Marty are the parents. Leonard (Stephen Krunken) is Bobby's brother in law. He is a moral man who loves his wife and wants to always do the right thing. To contrast, Ben (Corey Stoll), Bobby's brother, is a gangster. He lives by his own moral code. He is as right as any of us, though for the first time Allen does not glamourize gangsters and the violence here is bloody and hard hitting. He is eventually arrested and put to death. He is Jewish, and seeing no heavenly future in that, converts to Christianity. He does it so sincerely, bravely and matter of factly; I wish Allen would have spent more time on this this conversion. It is worth noting that Bobby's parents (played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) have a discussion about this conversion that is possibly the funniest and most honest conversation ever depicted in a Woody Allen film (which is really saying something). It is worth the price of admission by itself. Also worth noting, Krunken and Stoll deserving supporting actor nominations.

Woody Allen has such an impressive body of work and so many recurring themes that it is hard to see one film without comparing it to another in some way. I think of Judah (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors and his passive acceptance, as time passes, of the murder he was involved in and hope that there is no similar acceptance of Bobby and his marriage, as one stays married, they have another baby and eventually warm feelings take over for the hot impulses, the character of Veronica deserves much better than that.

If I were to take the film completely on its own merits, I would say it needs an editor and could probably lose twenty minutes. Howard Hawks once wrote that a good movie is two or three good scenes and no bad ones. Cafe Society has two or three great scenes, two or three great supporting characters and a few bad scenes.  It would call that a good movie.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Garry Marshall RIP

Garry Marshall is gone, and I have the blues. He was so likable as a personality that he could make one be effusive about his good films and willing to sit through his bad films.

He was an artist. And one of the last to come out of a writer's room. He wrote for the fantastic Joey Bishop Show and created a number of fine shows himself including Mork and Mindy and Happy Days. A few of his films as director were a bit sitcomish in nature (Raising Helen, Dear God, Princess Diaries 1 and 2), but that is forgivable as he got his start there and nearly all his films were at least pleasant.

His first film Young Doctors in Love was an easy film for a writer comedian, a parody on par with Woody Allen's debut, What's Up Tiger Lilly.

His second film had a bit to do with his own life, The Flamingo Kid. It was about a kid working a Summer job and from this simple scenario, Marshall made his warmest, truest and best film. He was simple and true in his next film Nothing in Common with nice results as well.

Sometimes his sitcom nature betrayed the story a bit, as with Pretty Woman and its sanitized prostitute. Sometimes, he was able to overcome that nature and make something with a bit of uneasy heft like Georgia Rule.

I have a strange fondness for Runaway Bride. He was able to make Richard Gere funny, and the breakfast question in that film is something to think about. New Year's Day was the low point for me, so low that I avoided Mother's Day in the theaters. But Valentine's Day is another matter. A lot of it works. And I will never forget the romantic date film screening in the graveyard that Ms. MacLaine and Mr. Elizondo attend.

I will never forget the way Garry Marshall used Hector Elizondo in general. He was in all his films and ever reliable. I will miss Garry Marshall.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Fits, The Most Moving of Sports Films

Tomboy Toni (Royal Hightower) works out ever day, with precise discipline but doesn't seem to enjoy it. She, at 12, is without an once of fat. Her brother, while working at a rec center, trains to be a boxer, and she trains with him.

Adjacent to the boxing gym is a dance studio. One day, Toni takes note of the enthusiasm of the girls in the dance studio. Her brother notices this and does the opposite of what most movie brothers would do. He encourages her to join without demeaning it or saying "But you're a boxer like me." So she joins.

She is nervous, every moment of great nervousness is scored by what I would call horror film music. Trepidation is just as scary as fright.  And this will turn out to be a film more about the trepidation of joining than the triumph of succeeding.

She tries to put the same level of focus into her dancing as she used to in her boxing, but something is holding her back. Then there are the fits.

The leads of the class begin having seizure-like fits in the middle of the dance.
The first thought is that the water is contaminated. The class is scared until it keeps happening and then people began to wonder, "Why hasn't it happened to me."

I remember being in track in junior high. We used to practice and run until he threw up. And the people who had not reached that level felt like losers.

Toni makes a few friends, tries on temporary tattoos and even dresses and nail polish. The fits scare her though, and she begins to back away until she has to make a choice one way or another.

The fits is about fitting in. This is a diverse and interesting group, not something like The Stepford Wives. The small (in scope) problem of rather you want to give more of yourself or not is explored with great depth and skil.