REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 14, 2016)

14 07 2016

It’s practically inevitable that the culture and thinking I absorb eventually seeps into my writing. But this week offered one of the best chances for application ever.

I’m about halfway through Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” This collection of cultural criticism applies a futuristic lens to the present day, removing our contemporary moorings from the equation and attempting to predict how later generations will see us. One big thesis is fairly depressing: most culture gets forgotten, and often what lasts cannot be appreciated in its own time. A group of people must find something in the work that its original audience was not able to see or fully grasp.

Not even thinking about the potential connection to the book, I watched 2001’s “Josie and the Pussycats” this week. For whatever reason, I have been on a bit of a late ’90s-early ’00s culture kick recently, so this felt like a natural thing to finally see. And wow, was I in for a surprise. This choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” has an additional sense of urgency thanks to Klosterman’s writing. 15 years after its release, we need to start reappraising the movie and appreciating it as an eerily prescient and wickedly smart comedy.

I was eight years old when the film was released, so I can do only the most basic reconstruction of the 2001 moviegoer. But I can imagine just how easy it would be to mistake “Josie and the Pussycats” for the kind of mindless schlock it mercilessly mocks. Just read the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, presumptively from the theatrical release: “This live-action update of ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ offers up bubbly, fluffy fun, but the constant appearance of product placements seems rather hypocritical.”

Even in the decade or so since this film hit screens, Americans are seemingly more aware of the consumerism in which our culture is so heavily steeped. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face nowadays that “Josie and the Pussycats” is an endorsement of this relentless corporate bludgeoning; after all, we have endured the rise of Kardashianism as well as the reality show non-commercial product spotlights that surged as traditional advertising fell. And need any further proof of how insidious this ideology is? Don’t forget what George W. Bush told Americans to do in the wake of 9/11, just six months after the film was released – go shopping.

Writer/director duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan wisely chose to steep their modern Josie and the Pussycats story in this culture because, after all, rock has become more an empty signifier than a vital musical movement. It is dominated and controlled more by elites and executives than the people from whom it traditionally arose. This acknowledgement of a sad reality makes the traditional “behind the music” tale more than rote repetition of a cliché; it exposes the corporate logic behind that narrative becoming a cliché. When record companies can pre-package starlets into familiar stories, it dumbs down their consumers and allows them to slip in some more subliminal messages to purchase other goods.

This kind of cynical, conspiratorial thinking might have seemed far-fetched in 2001. Sadly – or perhaps encouragingly, depending on your vantage point – it feels oddly plausible in 2016. And if you have any doubt, pay attention to the record executive Wyatt Frame, played by Alan Cumming, and his frequent fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience. It’s a look that says, “you hate this, but you know you’ll be buying Starbucks later today because of this.” There are signs for hope that our society has latched onto some of the thinking espoused by “Josie and the Pussycats.” But is it too late to reverse the cultural direction that relegated this film to the sidelines of discussion for so long?

REVIEW: Irrational Man

27 07 2015

Irrational ManThe summer of 2015 will likely go down in the record books as one that saw long overdue leaps and bounds for women in cinema.  They fought back against the patriarchy in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” ruled the roost in comedy with the one-two punch of “Spy” and “Trainwreck,” and the girl power in front of (as well as behind) the camera in “Pitch Perfect 2” made for the most overperforming sequel of the summer.  Even the two highest-grossers, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World,” could not escape harsh scrutiny for the way they treated their leading ladies.

Apparently, Woody Allen did not get the memo.  The legendary writer and director deposits ideas as they come in a shoebox, often returning there for inspiration at a later date. His annual feature for 2015, “Irrational Man,” could not be a more inopportune grab from the pile.  Coming at a time where people finally expect female characters to resemble fully-fleshed people, his writing feels hopelessly retrograde and outdated.

The dynamic between his two leads feels quite familiar to anyone even slightly versed in Allen’s work.  At the center lies a man of conventional looks yet unconventional smarts, a role played here by Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas.  His performance thankfully resists the easy temptation to resemble a Woody Allen caricature; Phoenix appears as if he is still emerging from the haze of “I’m Still Here.”  His depressive, alcoholic philosophy professor also looks about seven months pregnant, to boot.

In the universe according to Woody Allen, such a brilliant intellect should naturally draw the interest of women – young, attractive, nubile ones in particular.  Emma Stone assumes this part in “Irrational Man,” and no amount of her charm or grace can effectively mask just how one-dimensional her character Jill really is.  Allen makes it so her mind singularly focuses on Abe and only provides her the range of good-natured academic interest in Abe to full romantic pursuit.  Reconciling the fact that this character comes from the same writer who gifted us “Annie Hall” and “Blue Jasmine” proves a tough task.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 26, 2014)

26 09 2014

Kicking & ScreamingIn a few weeks, I will turn 22, the same age as the characters in Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking & Screaming.”  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was getting a glimpse of my very own future.  Hopefully I’ll get my life in a bit more order than these washed-up college grads struggling to find direction after their paths are no longer pre-ordained…

Though the movie is nearing its second decade, it does not appear to have aged at all.  “Kicking & Screaming” provides a portrait of prolonged adolescence and delayed adulthood that is both entertaining and enlightening.  It takes the cake as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because my identification with the film went beyond just recognizing the characters.  I think I may be these characters.

Baumbach effortlessly captures the seemingly timeless sensation of emerging from college and knowing all the ideas that changed the world yet having very few ideas of one’s own.  (Or perhaps he was just one of the first people to observe what A.O. Scott recently lamented as “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”)  His film is less concerned with forward plot progression as a kind of stewing yet spirited stasis, aligning rather nicely with the disposition of the characters.

“Kicking & Screaming” presents the lives of four male pals from their graduation night onward, letting us watch as they bicker pithily at each other to delude themselves of their own importance while doing relatively little with their newly printed degrees.  Sure, the sniping is quite pretentious, but at least they are educated and self-aware enough to realize that.

As they continue to interact with the milieu of their university from the perspective of a lingerer, pathetic hilarity ensues with every remark.  So long as you can find their musings palatable, “Kicking & Screaming” will have you hooting and hollering.  And perhaps you might not; it’s entirely possible that I will no longer find the film amusing if once I move beyond the current stage in my life.  But I get the sense I’ll always enjoy this movie given its sharp understanding of a very specific condition.

(And just to clear the air, this is NOT the same “Kicking and Screaming” that stars Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Mike Ditka, and Josh Hutcherson.  Classic mixup.)