Sunday, May 8, 2016

Café Society (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Anthony Lane for The New Yorker magazine, on July 11, 2016.

The new Woody Allen film, Café Society, is set in the nineteen-thirties - you know, that far-off land where movies were movies, cars were like boats, and a guy could wear a suit the color of peanut butter and still look good. Aside from a glance at things to come, in Sleeper (1973), Allen’s preference, as a time traveler, has been for an express ticket to the past. The trip hasn’t always worked out, and Allen has been sage enough, in Zelig (1983) and Midnight in Paris (2011), to remind us how frail and treacherous history can be; and yet, more often than not, the destination has been a haven. Just look at The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), or the melodious Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Allen was born in 1935, which is why a movie like Radio Days, though full of tall warm tales, feels less like a fantasy and more like a family scrapbook.

The hero of the new film is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in the Bronx with his father, Marty (Ken Stott), and his mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin). We first meet Bobby as he arrives in Los Angeles, hoping to try his luck with his Uncle Phil. This is not such a bad idea. Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood agent, and we first meet him in a tuxedo, beside his pool, encircled by the beau monde of his trade. I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he says. Phil is forever expecting, taking, or making calls, although we never see the stars to whom, or of whom, he chats - not because he’s a fraud but because the movie gods of that epoch were and remain, to anyone of Allen’s vintage, beyond human reckoning, and certainly beyond impersonation. Likewise, when Phil gives his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the task of showing his nephew the town, what she and Bobby do is stand outside the homes of stars and gaze. They might as well be staring at the night sky.

The one place we do see a celebrity is onscreen - at a movie theatre, where Bobby and Vonnie watch Barbara Stanwyck, in Lady in Red (1935). It’s a perfect choice by Allen: not a great film but the sort of entertainment that - so we like to tell ourselves - swept smoothly into view on a regular basis. (And Stanwyck, in close-up, makes you catch your breath. That’s not nostalgia; that’s awe.) By now, needless to say, Bobby and Vonnie have grown close. Bobby is a klutz of the heart; rather than simply falling in love, he tumbles and trips - nicely caught in Eisenberg’s voluble patter, dotted with hiccups of anxiety. But there is, as there always must be, a hitch. Vonnie is stepping out with someone else. Worse still, the stepping needs to be stealthy, because the someone else is Uncle Phil.

Love triangles, like other forms of romantic geometry, are nothing new in Allen’s films. What’s different about Café Society is how casually the telling of the tale proceeds. It’s not that Allen is going through the motions but that the motions no longer consume him. (That could imply the mellowing of the years, but consider Robert Bresson, who was Allen’s age, in his early eighties, when he made L’Argent (1983) - a narrative as taut as piano wire.) The Phil-shaped twist, for instance, is introduced early, without a scrap of suspense, and, when we tack back East, to a subplot about Bobby’s no-good brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a hoodlum whose idea of friendly persuasion involves a pit of wet concrete, the mood of the movie barely skips a beat. People get shot in front of us, yet we are left with the shrugging sense that no harm was done. Later, with Ben’s backing, Bobby returns to New York, and they open a night club. It thrives, attracting the same brand of tony folk who had once thronged around Phil’s pool. A resourceful clan, the Dorfmans.

None of this, you could claim, is remotely credible, but Café Society does not seem like a confection or a skit. There is a gravity to it, and a tug of sadness, that cannot be accounted for by the story. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), ostensibly a far more serious film, Allen says, of show business, that it’s worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls. In Café Society, the hero says, of Hollywood, It’s really a kind of boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry. No kicker, no laugh. The performances, too, shy away from the nutty and the broad, and Carell, a master of the brave face, does a fine job of suggesting the strain behind Uncle Phil’s bonhomie. Better still is Stewart, who, despite the girlish touches in her outfits (headband, white ankle socks with strappy sandals), reveals a woman veiled in ruefulness, and her final moments, in which Vonnie muses on paths both taken and spurned, are a lovely act of suspension, done without a word.

If this film has a secret, it dwells in the cinematography - by Vittorio Storaro, no less, who shot The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now. He worked with Allen on a segment of New York Stories (1989), but Café Society marks their first full-length collaboration, and the result is ravishing to behold - more so, I think, than any Allen picture since Gordon Willis filmed Manhattan in black-and-white. No one has delved more fruitfully than Storaro into the depths of color, exploring its contribution to political and physical extremes, and you could argue that Allen should have summoned him sooner, to chart Cate Blanchett’s prostration in Blue Jasmine (2013). Is Café Society too slight an occasion for Storaro’s inquiring art? Maybe so, yet there are scenes here - particularly the interiors, in Phil’s office, in the bar where Phil takes Vonnie on the sly, and in Bobby’s lowly apartment where Vonnie had promised to cook Bobby a dinner for which she doesn’t show - that burn almost painfully with Woody Allen’s yearning for the past. It lies there glowing, as recognizable as a movie star and as homely as a hearth, forever out of reach. [Lane’s rating: 70 out of 100]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance


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Steve Jobs (2015) [R] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on October 15, 2015.

When considering Steve Jobs, the first thing to recognize is that this isn’t a bio-pic. Oh, the movie uses Jobs’ life as the basis of its story and cherry-picks facts and reminiscences to form the skeleton. But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle aren’t interested in offering another re-enactment of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. They have something more ambitious in mind. Their goal is to illustrate the tyranny of genius and how a great mind doesn’t always mean a great person.

Steve Jobs is structured as a three-act play and, like a stage-bound production, it features few sets and relies heavily on acting, pacing, and dialogue. By always putting the characters under the pressure of a ticking clock, Boyle creates a constant sense of urgency. With the restlessly moving camera preferring long, swooping takes to short, static ones, there’s a sense of movement and energy that belies the limits of the locales. It’s not unlike 2014’s Birdman, although the approach isn’t as fanciful or extreme.

At the center of the chaos is Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), the iconic co-creator of Apple whose wardrobe of a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers became his uniform. Jobs is undeniably brilliant with an arrogance to match his intelligence. He believes in his own infallibility, accepting it as a defining precept. He mellows with age but not so much that he is willing to concede anything to anyone.

Act one takes place in 1984 where Jobs is unveiling the Macintosh in front of an adoring audience. As the curtain prepares to go up, control-freak Jobs is stalking his underlings behind the scenes, browbeating Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlberg) to get the demo computer to say Hello, driving his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) nuts with his complaints and demands, and berating his ex-lover, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston). Chrisann has brought Jobs’ five year old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), with her. She wants him to know that his offspring is now living on welfare because his child support payments are insufficient. Jobs refuses to acknowledge paternity but nevertheless forms a fragile bond with Lisa. His relationship with his daughter comprises the movie’s emotional core as things change and evolve over the next 14 years.

Act two takes place in 1988 just before another product launch: NeXT Computer’s Cube. No longer with the company he founded, Jobs is plotting revenge against those who ousted him, especially Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels). We also see Jobs interacting with his daughter Lisa (Ripley Sobo), now nine years of age.

Act three takes place in 1998. Jobs is back at Apple and more at home in his own skin. He has mellowed, to the extent that anyone with his personality could be said to mellow. The event is the product launch of the iMac. For Apple, this is a turning point - the beginning of the company’s ascendancy. Before the presentation, he clashes with several people. One is his old buddy, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who wants Jobs to acknowledge the efforts of the Apple II team - something he refuses to do. Another is his daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) who, at age 19, has set aside some of her illusions about her father.

Michael Fassbender, who is a lock for the Best Leading Actor award nomination he should have gotten for Shame, doesn’t bear a strong physical resemblance to Jobs. In fact, Ashton Kutcher, who played the role in 2013’s lackluster Jobs, was more effective in capturing the character’s look. But Fassbender is a magnetic, compelling presence. We never once doubt that he is Steve Jobs. His force of personality, enhanced by Boyle’s shot selection, holds the audience in awe for two hours. The supporting cast, which includes such heavyweights as Kate Winslet (almost unrecognizable), Seth Rogen (perhaps the best dramatic performance he has given), and Jeff Daniels (in a role not dissimilar to the one he played in The Martian), provides an element of balance but no one steals a single scene from Fassbender.

As a psychological profile, Steve Jobs is probably shallow but the decision to focus on his personality rather than the events of his life make this a more interesting account than Jobs or the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. The dialogue crackles with wit, anger, and passion. By matching Sorkin’s words with Boyle’s style and Fassbender’s talent, Steve Jobs has hit the trifecta. Although based on Walter Isaacson’s book, it fudges history a little in the name of compelling cinema. The movie’s portrait of the title character is likely to leave viewers ambiguous as they struggle with the question of how much arrogance, boorishness, and incivility can be forgiven in the name of genius. Steve Jobs doesn’t so much tear down the myth of the man as reshape it into something more volatile. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars

[Blogger note: In one of the final scenes Jobs is talking with his daughter Lisa, who’s wearing a Walkman. He tells her he’s going to replace that “brick” she’s carrying around with something that will hold 500 to 1000 songs… a look into the future at the iPod.]

Labels: biography, drama