REVIEW: “CafĂ© Society”

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With each year comes a few certainties – taxes, a new model iPhone, a Woody Allen movie. For decades now the 80 year-old Allen has maintained his ‘movie-a-year’ formula with varying degrees of success. His films have shown signs of evolving from tightly wound, exploratory character studies to more free-flowing, nostalgia-soaked wanderings. How it plays with audiences is always up for grabs.

“CafĂ© Society” is Allen’s 47th picture and you could say it’s about a lot of nothing. We nose in on the lives of a handful of people, listen to their conversations, witness their quirks, watch their unfolding relationships. That’s basically it. But there are things to glean from these seemingly insignificant interactions. Saying it’s about ‘nothing’ is a little strong, but no one will ever call it deep or profound.

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The story is set in the 1930’s and its centerpiece is a young man named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s the youngest son of a Jewish family from the Bronx who wants no part of his dad’s jewelry business. So he packs his bags and heads to the star-studded wonderland of Hollywood.  Once there he seeks out his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a pompous and powerful movie star agent. Phil gives him a menial job and introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby instantly falls for her.

Eisenberg and Stewart have a sparkling chemistry and Allen wisely milks it for much of the film’s first half. Their sprightly, youthful banter as they tour local movie palaces and quaint coffee shops is infectious. But it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie without some sort of weird relationship contortion which in this case leads to a pivot back to New York for the second half of the film.

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Sprinkled in among the chronicles of Bobby and Vonnie are short scenes highlighting his family. Some are dinner table conversations between his parents (wonderfully played by Jeanne Berlin and Ken Stott). There is a reoccurring neighbor issue with his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her high-strung intellectual husband (Stephen Kunken). And there are the antics of his gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll). The injections of the scenes can be a bit jarring, but I liked the characters and enjoyed their screen time.

Allen’s film wallows in nostalgia which is actually a strength. The set designs and costumes scream 1930’s authenticity. In the Hollywood segment we get numerous fun Golden Age name drops – Paul muni, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, just to name a few. And the New York social scene of the time bubbles with pomp and energy in the second half.

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And you can’t talk about “CafĂ© Society” without mentioning the cinematography. The film was exquisitely shot by the great Vittorio Storaro. Film buffs may remember his first American film being “Apocalypse Now”. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and Vittorio Utilizes every ounce of the technology. It’s filled with gorgeous framing and vibrant colors that burst from the screen. It falls right in line with Allen’s recent emphasis on visually capturing location and time.

Perhaps “CafĂ© Society” strolls at its own pace and perhaps Woody Allen is in cruise control with his latter films. Still I had a lot of fun with this one. He once again drew me into his time capsule, caught me up in the nostalgia of the era, and surrounded me with characters who I simply enjoyed following. I certainly can’t defend this as some deep, layered character study. But I can call it a well-made and well acted piece of entertainment that I would say easily falls into the ‘good’ category of Woody Allen pictures.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

Random Thoughts on the “Batman vs Superman” Comic-Con Trailer

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San Diego Comic-Con has evolved over the years. That can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. What started as a comic book convention has evolved into a full-blown entertainment extravaganza. Movie fans have grown accustomed to a host of new reveals from an assortment of superhero, horror, or sci-fi films. This year one of the big ones was from Warner Brothers and DC Comics. It was a new trailer for “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice”.

The sheer scope of this project was enough to excite me beyond measure while also concerning me that WB had bitten off more than it could chew. The first teaser certainly scratched my comic book superhero itch, but it also left tons of questions and worries. Well at Comic-Con we got a bigger, bolder, and more revealing trailer that shot my excitement levels through the atmosphere. So many nuggets of information was shared. It is impossible to process it all with one viewing. Here are a few random thoughts and observations about the new footage we were given:

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  • Finally context is given to the whole Batman vs Superman concept. The trailer unfolds the entire reasons for the impending superhero scuffle and it is pretty compelling. We still need to see how it plays out but it looks promising.
  • I love how this film will address one of the major gripes most people had with the last Superman movie – the seemingly careless disregard for Metropolis or human life in the finale. According to the trailer that subject plays a huge part in the BvS story. We see it early in the trailer through the people’s and government’s anger. We also see it later as a force behind Bruce Wayne’s drive to stop Superman.
  • WONDER WOMAN!!! I have to say Gal Gadot look fabulous and she could truly be a force in this film. The trailer shows her in the middle of an undisclosed fight unleashing a really cool move with her bracers. But we also see her in an evening gown which shows that her role is probably multidimensional. Gadot has me excited and I think Wonder Woman may prove to be a pivotal character among the warring alpha-males.

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  • Lex Luther appears in the trailer and he definitely has some devious plans at work. The trailer shows three key Luther images. First we see him with what appears to be Kryptonite. Second we see that he is in possession of Zod’s dead body. Third we see him talking to Superman from a rather dominant position and Superman doesn’t look too happy. Lex is clearly getting his hands dirty while the two heavyweights are duking it out.
  • Speaking of Lex Luther. We get our first look at Jesse Eisenberg as one of DC’s great villains. I have to say at first I wasn’t convinced with Eisenburg’s casting. Unfortunately his spots in the trailer did nothing to ease my concerns. I’m not sure what Eisenburg is channeling but it doesn’t resemble Lex Luther. From his terrible wig to his weird almost Joker-inspired line delivery. Hopefully better things lie ahead. The Luther character deserves greatness.
  • Jeremy Irons as Alfred. In the first Batman series Alfred was almost strictly a butler. In Nolan’s Batman Alfred was a butler, a sage, and occasionally a little more. In the trailer Irons’ Alfred is still dishing out wise advise but he looks as if he is ready to jump into the action. Not sure how I feel about that. But Irons is a great actor and I’m anxious to see what he brings to the character.
  • DC’s movies have generally been a bit darker than Marvel’s and we definitely see that in the trailer. It is something that may not work for some, but I love how it distinguishes the universe. And this is definitely a story that would call for a darker tone. Hopefully the movie sees it all the way through.

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  • Could we have gotten teasers of a possible Joker appearance? We see Bruce Wayne looking at a newspaper with a message written in red. We also see a suit of armor with another written message along with the familiar “HA HA HA”. Is this the Joker? We know he is set for “Suicide Squad”. How does he fit into this equation?
  • Speaking of that suit of armor, it doesn’t appear to be Batman’s. In fact, after a closer look it just may be Robin’s????
  • Batman in a trenchcoat? There is a brief shot of Batman in his batsuit but also sporting a trenchcoat. It is a very cool look but my bigger question is where is he? The next scene shows him fighting in this dusty ravaged almost otherworldly location. I’m curious.

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  • Speaking of that fight, the soldiers appear in several scenes. They are decked out in all black armor including face shields and helmets. Most intriguing are the Superman crests found on their shoulders. Who are these guys? Where are they from? Better yet, are they human? Why do I ask? In the scene with Batman we see him snapping one of their necks. We know Batman doesn’t kill, right? RIGHT???
  • That final shot! Superman rips off the top of a destroyed batmobile probably expecting to see a hurt and defeated Batman. Instead Batman slowly rises from the wreckage and we get a heart-pumping face-to-face. The absolute perfect way to end the trailer!

Those are just a few random thoughts about this exciting trailer. There are so many other potential nuggets of revelation. Have you seen it? Did you think it was as thrilling as I did? Whether you did or whether you didn’t, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

K&M Commentary : Questionable Casting

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Over the past few weeks several bits of big blockbuster casting news has made headlines and stirred up a great deal of discussion. One of the last commentaries I posted looked at movies and the books they are based on (you can find that post HERE). I talked about creative license and the space that should be given to a filmmaker when adapting a novel, comic series, etc. But I also talked about what I feel is the filmmaker’s responsibility to respect the source material and its spirit. These two particularly bits of casting news has me questioning just how much respect there is for the comic series’ they are based on.

Jesse Eisenburg as Lex Luthor

JESSEThe Superman/Batman film has ran the spectrum of fan reaction. I started off absolutely thrilled with the idea behind the project. I was also just fine with the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman. But since then there have been little comments here and there, especially from Zack Snyder, that has me a bit worried. Then came the news that the iconic villain Lex Luthor had been cast. He would be played by Jesse Eisenburg – a good actor who mainly excels in specific types of roles. While I can see him playing Lex in a Smallville type project, I have a hard time seeing him embodying what has made Lex Luthor such a classic DC Comics villain.

What is more worrisome are statements made by Snyder surrounding Eisenberg’s casting such as taking the character in “unexpected directions”. Then there were the rumors (and I do emphasis rumors) of the character being a streetwise young man. Lex Luthor is an accomplished corporate tyrant and was never the geeky neurotic type that Eisenburg is good at playing. Snyder has hinted at completely changing up the character and his origin which doesn’t seem a bit necessary. I’m still anxious to see this picture but a hint of skepticism has certainly surfaced.

Michael B. Jordan & Kate Mara as Johnny & Sue Storm

Michael B. JordanThe other casting news surrounded 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise. Let me be honest, none of the four who were announced excite me at all. But there is one glaring problem that seems to stand out beyond the others. It’s the casting of Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara as Johnny and Sue Storm. Now some will automatically assume that any criticism over this will either be normal fanboy rage or it will be because of race. To no surprise I’ve already read countless defenders of the casting pointing racially judgmental fingers at those of us who think the casting is bad.

maraSo what are my problems with the casting? First off I’ve never fully understood changing the race of a known character who is being borrowed from the original creator. That being said, if there is a better actor or actress who can strengthen the role on screen then race doesn’t matter at all. But in the Fantastic Four its quite different. Johnny and Sue are brother and sister with a rich background. By casting Jordan and Mara together the filmmakers are tossing that history aside to create their own. It’s a pointless and unnecessary change.

Between the two, Jordan intrigues me a lot more than Mara. So why not cast one of several talented black actresses to play Sue Storm and keep that defined brother/sister connection as a key part of their story? Look, I know there is adoption and biracial families which can explain away the differences. But frankly, I won’t be watching the Fantastic Four reboot for its deep and intellectual social and family commentary. This seems like a silly and unneeded move as well as a missed opportunity.

Obviously these are just first impressions. The filmmakers do know the story they are telling and maybe it will work out fine. But both of these castings look to be taking mammoth-sized creative liberties that really seem unnecessary. Are there attention-getting motivations behind them or are the filmmakers throwing aside the source material that made these characters worthy of big screen treatment. Time will certainly tell and regardless of my hesitation maybe these choices will work out.

THE END

REVIEW: “Now You See Me”

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I have to admit, the idea behind “Now You See Me” is pretty intriguing. As silly as it may sound, a group of magicians working together in huge elaborate bank heists is loaded with potential. The movie also puts together a pretty impressive cast featuring some fresh young talent, fun and reliable veterans, and a French actress that I’ve become a big fan of. So the ingredients are there for a fun an entertaining little thriller. That’s why it’s so sad that the movie stumbles all over itself and ends up being an unfortunate disappointment.

The story goes something like this – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are small-time magicians working the streets and house shows. They’re all brought together after being slipped a mysterious tarot card and address by a hooded stranger. We then leap forward to find that they have a fancy new stage show and perform under the name The Four Horsemen. After their first big show in Las Vegas rains down stolen money on the jubilant crowd, the FBI immediately get involved. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with a French Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (MĂ©lanie Laurent) to head the case. Their initial interrogation with The Four Horsemen leaves a sour taste in Agent Rhodes’ mouth and he makes in his goal to stop them before their next big show.

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Michael Caine shows up as a wealthy insurance man who sponsors The Four Horsemen’s act but who may not be the ultimate brain behind their operation. We also get Morgan Freeman as a former magician who now makes his money debunking and discrediting magic acts. Both are tossed into the mix of what becomes the movie’s big question – who is the person that’s really behind The Four Horseman? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that twists and misdirections are a big part of this film. When the story stays focused on that it can be entertaining. Unfortunately this thing goes all over the place and by the time the twists do finally come, their effects on the convoluted story pack little punch.

There are numerous structural and narrative problems with “Now You See Me”. First, there are so many enormous plot holes many of which you could drive a truck through. There are also hugs gaps in logic that no amount of magic can explain. The pacing is good enough that you can overlook some of these things while watching the film. But if you take even a second to think about some of the things they completely fall apart. The story has holes. The characters have holes. The explanations and revelations have holes. We also get bits of mumbo-jumbo about some mystical magical force called The Eye which honestly I still don’t understand nor do I even care to.

Then there is the magic. With the exception of Eisenburg’s cool card trick during his first scene (a trick which got me), most of the magic and illusions were underwhelming. Most of the time they felt more like movie trickery than actual magic tricks. Also I can’t say I ever fully bought into any of the Horsemen as serious magicians. Some may blame the actors or it may be because we hardly spend any time with them. Most of our time are spent with the FBI trying to piece together what’s going on. That leaves The Four Horsemen feeling pretty flimsy.

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Personally I felt the performances were decent enough. Some where able to overcome the lackluster writing while others were smothered by it. Caine and Freeman were rock solid as always and Eisenberg was also quite good. But it was Laurent, the fine French actress I mentioned above, who gave my favorite performance. Like every other character, she has to deal with some occasionally clunky dialogue but she handles it very well. Not so with Ruffalo. He has his good moments but he also has a few stumbles. But once again, the script does him no favors.

“Now You See Me” is a real toughie for me. I was never bored. I never checked my watch. I enjoyed some of the performances, particularly from Laurent. But there are just too many stinking flaws to give the movie a recommendation. The story is riddled with plot holes. Some characters are so poorly written. The magic, which should be a strong point, won’t blow anyone’s socks off. In the end all of these problems sink the movie and keep it from being the film it should be. That’s a shame because the parts were in place. There just wasn’t a good enough story to work with.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

“TO ROME WITH LOVE” – 2 STARS

I’ve never been a big Woody Allen fan. But my appreciation for his filmmaking grew with last year’s amazing “Midnight in Paris”, a fantastic film that was wonderfully written, genuinely funny, and purely magical. Allen’s European tour continue’s with “To Rome With Love” yet another romantic comedy taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. “To Rome With Love” is a collage of individual stories about a number of different people and their relationships, their predicaments, and their quirks. It starts by capturing some of that same magic that made “Midnight in Paris” such a strong film but the second half of the movie runs off the rails and the result is an uneven and ultimately disappointing result.

The different unconnected stories battle for screen time and all start on the right track. In one, Haley (Allison Pill), an American tourist visiting Rome meets, falls in love with, and is soon engaged to a local hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). After her parents fly over to meet his parents, her father (Woody Allen), who compares his recent retirement to a premature death, thinks his career is rejuvenated after discovering Michelangelo’s shower singing father (Fabio Armiliato). In another story, Roberto Benigni plays a mundane and predictable husband and father who suddenly becomes the object of immense fame and notoriety over nothing more than what type of underwear he wears and how he likes his toast.

In yet another story Alec Baldwin plays John, a middle-aged architect back in Rome visiting the neighborhood where he once lived as a young man. He bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Their relationship is strained when her best friend Monica (Ellen Paige) flies in to visit from the states. John follows Jack around everywhere sounding off warnings about his budding relationship with the flakey Monica. And then there are the reserved small-town newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome where the husband hopes to get a job from his wealthy family. Through several off-the-wall events, the two are separated in the city and each find their love for the other challenged by the people they meet including a  prostitute played by Penelope Cruz. This was easily the weakest story of the four.

These four storylines stay within their own individual walls and they never intersect with each other. As I mentioned they each start strong and Allen packs a lot of good laughs particularly the first half of the movie. At first I really thought Allen was doing something clever and crafty with the four stories. The film addresses an interesting array of issues and the characters are actually quite intriguing up to a point. But things begin to slowly turn sour and not only does Allen’s story fly wildly out of control but many of his characters become pretty pathetic individuals who depict the movie’s warped and cynical view of love, devotion, and relationships. Several of the characters are faced with sexual temptations and ultimately fall prey to them, some with almost no meaningful struggle of conscience. Other storylines become preposterous which is ok if you’re going somewhere with it. And while I definitely laughed at some of the over-the-top gags, keeping my loosely attached interest intact  hinged on the idea that Woody was doing more with these self-indulgent characters and outlandish situations than what we were seeing. As it turns out he really wasn’t.

As I’m sure you noticed, Allen still has a knack for attaching great talent to his productions. There’s not a bad performance in the entire film and the actors almost pull it off even when the material goes south. Woody Allen himself delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs while portraying the same neurotic and pessimistic character as in his other roles. Speaking of neurotic, but on a much smaller scale, I also really enjoyed Eisenberg’s performance as well. But the biggest star of the film may be the city of Rome itself. Allen truly has an affection for Rome and he goes to great lengths to show its history, beauty, and romantic charm. While Rome certainly doesn’t take on main character status as Paris did in “Midnight in Paris”, it’s still a key ingredient in giving the movie the romantic vibe its shooting for. In fact, for me the movie loses most of its sense of romance with the exception of the charming city that’s present in almost every scene. Even when I was growing detached from the stories, Allen’s camera would capture a location in Paris that sucked me back in.

“To Rome With Love” is truly a story of two halves. The first half of the movie was an absolute blast even though some of the four stories were more interesting than others. But in the second half of the movie I sat in the theater noticing that I hadn’t laughed in some time. As I slowly lost interest in the characters I began noticing that Allen really wasn’t going anywhere with the film. There’s no clever or memorable twist. It spits and sputters to its finale and by the end I was asking myself how Allen could have made two halves so totally different. I also wasn’t all that interested in Allen’s seemingly loose ideas of love, fidelity, and trustworthiness and in this case it hollowed out his characters with the exception of those in Haley and Michelangelo’s story. For some, the spectacular location and the number of funny moments will be enough to carry the picture. But for me it was terribly uneven and it ends up tearing down everything it itself creates. In fact, “To Rome With Love” feels like a film that needed another year of writing and production. The rushed results were nothing short of disappointing.