REVIEW: “Café 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.

“Café 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 “Café 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 “Café 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

REVIEW: “The Way, Way Back”

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I love it when a movie really surprises me. Such was the case with “The Way, Way Back”. This one-half comedy and one-half drama is a wonderful and entertaining stew that caught me off guard. Written and directed by the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is a warm and authentic coming-of-age picture. It’s a smart and funny film that at times dances close to cliché but then always turns and goes in a more smart and believable direction. It really worked for me.

Liam James plays Duncan, a sullen and awkward 14-year old who is trapped in a world of selfish, adolescent adults. He is forced to accompany his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) on a vacation to Trent’s summer home in a small New England beach town. Duncan’s life is full of complications. He is disconnected from his emotionally needy mother and at constant odds with the annoying and disingenuous Trent. Then there are the assortment of oddball characters from his new summer neighborhood none of which give him a feeling of belonging.

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But things change a bit when Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a laid back water park manager. Owen takes a liking to Duncan and actually connects with him on a level that the struggling teen desperately needs. Rockwell is fabulous here and he gives arguably the funniest performance of the year. He’s obviously a naturally funny guy and you’ll swear you’re watching improvisation as he delivers one quick-witted funny line after another. Faxon and Rash along with Maya Rudolph have small roles as fellow water park employees and they round out what becomes Duncan’s sanctuary. It’s where feels free. It’s where he feels he belongs.

One of the film’s great strengths is that the story is told almost entirely from Duncan’s perspective. We see his perception of dysfunctional adults, broken marriages, and juvenile behavior from those who should be anchors of support. It really is the adults who are the irresponsible and objectionable ones. As one equally frustrated young character describes it – “It’s spring break for adults” and not in a good way. But there are always cleverly injected bits of humor that keeps the tone a tad lighter than it may sound. Much like their previous Oscar-winning work on “The Descendants”, Rash and Faxon’s script takes on serious life situations and laces them with subtle bits of comedy. It’s great writing that will have you laughing one minute and feeling deep empathy the next.

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This is a character-driven movie and the performances don’t disappoint. The relatively unknown Liam James is just what the lead role needed. He’s restrained and grounded which allows for so much truth to flow from the character. I also really liked Steve Carell in a role that is drastically different from what we’re used to seeing him do. It’s interesting that the biggest comedian in the entire cast has the most serious role in the film. Allison Janney is a lot of fun as a spacey next door neighbor and Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are delightfully insufferable as two of Trent’s close friends.

The story of an insecure socially displaced youth isn’t new, but often times it’s told using the same overused formulas and contrivances. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t exactly carve a new path but it does stay out of the usual trappings. It’s refreshingly honest and surprisingly funny. There are also some fabulous characters brought to life through some good acting led by Rockwell. His performance was a real eye-opener for me. The soundtrack, the perfect pacing, etc. As I said, it’s a wonderful and entertaining stew and I was hooked from the first scene. What a nice surprise.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”

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The film “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth” has several interesting things going for it aside from its ridiculously long title. Writer and director Lorene Scafaria takes a very familiar movie subject but looks at through a very unique and compelling lens. She tosses some romance and some humor into her story and allows her two lead performers the room to bring it all to life. These cool nuances are what initially drew me to this picture. It’s such a shame that it didn’t work nearly as well as it should have.

The clever and funny opening scene really got my hopes up and it sets an interesting tone. Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (played in the film by his real life wife Nancy Carell) are sitting in their car listening to a news update on the radio. The DJ tells of a failed last-ditch effort to stop a 70 mile wide asteroid from crashing into Earth and ending the world. The two find out that the asteroid (strangely named Matilda) is expected collide with the planet in only three weeks. The DJ ends the report by saying “For your up to the minute coverage of the countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites, Q107.2”. A Beach Boys tune follows the devastating news and Nancy opens the car door and leaves Dodge on the spot.

From there Dodge is basically a rudderless ship. He’s a man who looks like he’ll spend the final few days of Earth’s existence alone, that is until he sees his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) crying outside his apartment window. She’s an eccentric girl who left her loser boyfriend Owen (Adam Brody) and has just realized she has missed the last of the flights to England where her family lives. Dodge brings her inside which begins a quirky but appealing little relationship. As the apocalypse nears these two lost souls set out together, each after for something different but neither able to see that what they want is right in front of them.

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The movie begins pretty strong, using its unique perspective in several funny and intriguing ways. Unfortunately the comedy flames out as the movie progresses and I couldn’t help but think that Scafaria played all of her cards in the first half. There are some interesting questions and subtle examinations wrapped up in the movie’s hit and miss humor. We see people’s reaction to the impending end of days range from shameless hedonism to rioting and violence. But the movie also tinkers with smaller questions and in many ways these were the better moments for me. There are also funny little mentions of End of the World awareness concert and opportunistic high premium Armageddon insurance packages. But there aren’t enough of these moments as the movie progresses.

But this film isn’t a total write-off mainly due to the unlikely and offbeat chemistry of the two leads. Carell is in familiar territory and his nerdy, square peg Dodge seems right up his alley. But his performance is more subdued which I found to be more effective. The bigger surprise was Knightley who showed a nice comedic side. These two are asked to move back and forth between comedy and deeper drama which they handle beautifully. The drastic shifts in tone don’t always help the film but the performers nail it. Many have criticized the ending which is soaked in sentimentality. For some it’s popular to treat sentiment in movies like a curse word. I don’t agree with that and while it is a little heavy here, I think it does work in the end.

So what do I make of a movie with tone issues, a draggy middle, and inconsistent humor but that still manages to entertain? “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth” has its share if flaws but its also has several things that really sold me on what Scafaria was going for. So this was a mixed bag for me. It’s a film worth checking out but you just may leave with the feeling it could have been so much more. I know I did.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” – 2.5 STARS

ANCHORMAN posterThere are a lot of people who absolutely love “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. I’ve heard so many people talk about its hilarity and give it rave reviews. Yet I have stayed away from it for several reasons, mainly Will Ferrell. I know most people love the guy and find him hysterical, but I can only handle his brand of humor in small doses. Another turnoff for me was seeing that “Anchorman” is a Judd Apatow production. Again, I know Apatow’s movies have a big audience but I’m not into his insistent crass and raunchy style. So the question becomes why would I watch this film? Simply put, I’ve been asked about this movie so many times that I felt I should give it an objective look.

Let me get this out of the way first. “Anchorman” isn’t as bad as I feared. In fact it has several clever gags and some laugh-out-loud funny moments. But it also has the same flat and unfunny “humor” that plagues most of Ferrell’s movies. And of course Apatow’s dull raunchy influence is found at different points throughout the film. It’s really a shame because I like good absurdist comedy and “Anchorman” has a lot of that. But there are also several moments where the movie thinks it’s a lot funnier than it actually is. This roller coaster ride between funny and unfunny scenes can be a little taxing.

Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a beloved and legendary anchorman for San Diego’s #1 ranked Channel 4 News. His popularity is citywide and he’s considered the big fish in the San Diego news reporting community. He rolls with his news team consisting of his loud and obnoxious sportscaster “Champ” Kind (David Koechner), his fashion-conscience field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and team weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) who is basically the village idiot and that’s saying something considering the company of clowns he keeps. The four are given a pretty long leash by their boss Ed Harken (Fred Willard) and they spend it partying with newsroom groupies.

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The film is set in the 1975 and it spends a lot of time spoofing the male-dominated society of the time. Burgundy and company view women as a lesser species whose main purpose is to serve them and their “needs”. Of course their sexism is so insanely over the top that it’s often times quite funny. That sets up quite a clash when these moronic Neanderthals learn that, in the interest of diversity, the station has hired a beautiful news reporter named Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Ron thinks it’s a ridiculous idea and that there’s no room for women in the news room. But he underestimates Veronica’s tenacity and ambition. He also underestimates her irresistible beauty and charm, and his attraction to her jeopardizes his role as a chauvinistic icon.

Ferrell co-wrote the script and I assume he tried to cater his role to his style of comedy. He has his moments where he’s very funny but there are also several times where his character’s gags land with a thud. Some of his jokes are so shallow and poorly written that they resemble material you would hear during a subpar comedy club’s amateur hour. But Ferrell does provide some good laughs especially when he’s swapping lines with his team. But overall I don’t think he’s the funniest character in the film. For me it was Steve Carell. He’s a complete space cadet and he had me laughing nearly every time he spoke. I also thought Applegate was very good as the straight person in the midst of a ton of lunacy. There’s also some really fun scenes with Willard. He’s a guy that can be very funny if given the right material.

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There are several cool touches that make the movie fun. I loved Bill Curtis’ pitch-perfect narration. The hyper-70’s wardrobes and hairstyles are a blast and the whole parody of the 70’s network news scene worked for me. Ferrell and gang play within this period sandbox and they’re clearly having a ton of fun. There are also a host of interesting cameos that pop up along the way. Some work while others are pretty pointless. I also have to tip my hat to Ferrell’s willingness to humiliate himself to get a laugh. It doesn’t always work but more often it does.

“Anchorman” actually attempts to provide some social commentary within its outlandish humor but I don’t think it pulls it off. For me it’s a film better appreciated as an insanely silly and preposterous comedy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately it’s a terribly uneven film and you have to wade through numerous flat and unfunny jokes to get to the good stuff. It seems that for every hilarious gag “Anchorman” gives you two boring and lazy ones. And of course there’s the Apatow signature toilet humor that’s just as cheap and annoying as in Judd’s other pictures. And it’s really a shame. “Anchorman” has a number of great scenes and I found myself laughing out loud numerous times. Unfortunately I found myself rolling my eyes just as much.