Café Society and the Woody Allen Problem

My wife and I saw Café Society Saturday night. We both enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course, these days, whenever you watch a Woody Allen film, part of the problem is that it’s a Woody Allen film. More on that later.

Café Society is an entertaining but unsubstantial romantic (and unromantic) comedy set in the 1930s or ’40s (the exact years are never mentioned). In addition to romantic love, it milks gags about Hollywood, New York, gangsters, and high society. Jesse Eisenberg plays the traditional Woody Allen surrogate, and he’s the best one I’ve seen. Like Allen, he’s a skinny New York Jew. (Allen narrates the film, himself; thankfully, the narration is kept to a minimum). Eisenberg’s character (Bobby) finds professional success on both coasts, but can’t quite get over the girl who jilted him (Kristen Stewart).

Allen fills this simple story with his patented comic dialog (“Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but the examined life is no bargain”). There’s a hilarious scene early where Bobby has a “date” with the prostitute. Neither of them has any experience with this sex-for-money thing. They’re both nervous, they argue, and both keep changing their minds about whether or not they’re going to have sex.

This is the most Jewish film Allen has made in years; maybe decades. Bobby’s family is unquestionably Jewish. There’s a Passover Seder, and a discussion of the shortcomings of a religion that doesn’t include life after death.

I give it a B+.

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist) used Sony digital cameras to give Café Society the saturated color and slightly soft focus of three-strip Technicolor–appropriate for the film’s setting. When I saw Storaro’s name in the opening credits, I wondered if he was still hung up on the non-standard 2.00×1 aspect ratio. Once the movie proper began, I knew that he was. The standard 1.81×1 frame was slightly letterboxed to 2.00. I suspect I was the only person in the theater that noticed.

As the story unfolds, Bobby’s former lover becomes his aunt. It’s a funny situation, and somewhat autobiographical. After all, Allen’s lover of 12 years is now his mother-in-law.

I have a hard time believing Mia Farrow’s claim that Allen raped their young daughter. Perhaps I want to give some slack to an artist whom I’ve admired for most of my life. And there are good reasons to distrust Farrow. She never charged him with the crime. No one else has ever accused him of pedophilia. And Farrow made those claims when she was very, very angry at Allen.

She had a right to be. Allen probably didn’t rape a child, but he certainly slept with his girlfriend’s adult daughter–a young woman who knew Allen as her mother’s boyfriend throughout her entire adolescence.

Allen’s defense at the time still makes him out as a horrible human being. He insists he never had anything like a parental relationship with Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi; he barely spoke to her until she was grown. Remember that this is a man who had three children with Farrow (biological and adopted). He was, apparently, a father to his own kids. But by his own admission, he refused to have anything to do with their older half-sister. If he’s telling the truth, he was a pretty cold fixture in the family.

On the other hand, he and Soon-Yi have been together for a long time now. They’re married with kids, and appear to be good for each other.

Sometimes you have to separate the great artist from the horrible human being. Woody Allen has made many excellent films, including at least one absolute masterpiece (Annie Hall). He’s also, of course, made his share of stinkers. Café Society isn’t one of his very best, but it can provide an enjoyable evening at the movies.

What’s Screening: August 26 – September 1

Two relationship movies open this week–one of them about the Obamas. Also Preston Sturges, Ray Harryhausen, Alfred Hitchcock, and a Mexican film festival.

Festivals

  • The Hola Mexico Film Festival opens tonight and runs through Sunday, screening ten Mexican films over the weekend.

New films opening

B+ The Intervention, Roxie, opens Friday

Over a weekend getaway, a group of friends try to convince an unhappily-married couple to divorce. But they can’t manage that task without their own relationship problems bubbling up. What do you expect? The person who planned this “marriage intervention” is a supremely mess-up alcoholic. I’m not sure if I should call this a very serious comedy or a very funny drama. Either way, it’s entertaining and touching. Read my full review.

C Southside with You, Shattuck, opens Friday

Yet another variation on Before Sunrise. Two attractive people who barely know each other walk through a city, talking, doing fun and meaningful things, and getting to know each other. Only this time, the couple are a young Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson. He thinks it’s a date; she insists not. The movie is very upbeat (the opening made me think it was a commercial), kind of sweet, but unexceptional. Read my full review.

Recommended revivals

A Leaf Blower, Roxie, Saturday, 5:00
Finding a keychain in a huge pile of leaves is a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure which huge pile is the right one. The task is near impossible if you’re a teenage boy getting help from two other teenage boys, all struggling with ranging hormones and short attention spans. Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal and his collaborators turn this everyday annoyance into a touching and frequently hilarious comedy. The laughs become rare near the end, but the story holds up without them. Part of the Hola Mexico Film Festival.

A- The Palm Beach Story, Stanford, Saturday through Monday

No one else wrote and directed screwball comedies like Preston Sturges, and if this one doesn’t quite come up to the brilliant level of The Lady Eve, it’s still a great time at the movies. It’s not just the absurdity of casting singer Rudy Vallee as the millionaire rival ready to win Claudette Colbert from husband Joel McCrea, it’s also the Weenie King, the Ale and Quail Club, Toto, and the most ridiculous happy ending ever filmed. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story.

A Jason and the Argonauts, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

No other movie so successfully turns Greek mythology (or at least a family-friendly version of Greek mythology) into swashbuckling adventure, while remaining true to the original spirit of the tales. As the gods bicker and gamble on the fates of mortals, Jason and his crew fight magical monsters and scheming human villains. Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack are unbearably stiff in the lead roles, but Jason contains several wonderful supporting roles, including Nigel Green as cinema’s most articulate Hercules. But the real star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen’s hand-made special effects.

B- The Lodger, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 4:00

Alfred Hitchcock’s second film and first thriller, The Lodger feels like the master in embryo. The plot and the atmosphere set up themes he would use again and again, but this first time, he doesn’t quite get it right. For instance, the protagonist just might be the murderer–a piece of mystery that robs the film of much of its potential suspense. It’s all made worse by Ivor Novello’s anemic and bizarre performance. But if you love Hitchcock, you have to see The Lodger for its historical importance. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano. Part of the series Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Chimes at Midnight Blu-ray Review

Orson Welles boiled down five related Shakespeare plays, found the comic tragedy at their core, and created a masterpiece. Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, has been unavailable in anything like a complete version for decades. With the recent theatrical restoration, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray based on that restoration, it’s finally available in all of its troubled glory.

Chimes takes its story, inspirations, and most of its dialog from Henry IV Parts I and II, concentrating on Shakespeare’s ultimate loveable scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff (played, of course, by Welles, himself). Fat, drunken, and duplicitous, Falstaff embraces life and all the joys it provides. His self-serving yet occasionally wise philosophy provide much of the comedy. But age and rejection will turn him into a tragic figure. (A smattering of dialog comes from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor–a comedy Shakespeare wrote to exploit the popular Falstaff character.)

The plot: King Henry IV (John Gielgud) faces insurrections in his kingdom and his family. The family problem involves his son and heir, Hal (Keith Baxter). Prince Hal ignores his royal chores, preferring to spend his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with Falstaff and his friends. Hal is caught between two worlds and two father figures, and his inevitable decision to take on his responsibilities will break Falstaff’s heart.

Welles created a believable and effective medieval world on an extremely limited budget. Mistress Quickly’s inn (no one seems to believe her claim that it’s not a bawdy house) is large, specious, and filled with raunchy joy. And yet the king’s austere and forbidding castle looms over it.

A seemingly large battle, brilliantly edited to disguise the thin budget, makes up the film’s centerpiece. Close-ups of mud and dying soldiers, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes fast, plays against a haunting music score that avoids heroics.

And through that battle, Welles provides comic relief as a Falstaff in absurdly fat armor, trying to find the safest spot on the battlefield. And his words condemn the romantic view of war: ” What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.”

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey–although Rey’s voice was dubbed in by someone else. Keith Baxter, who never gained true movie star status despite his looks and talent, plays the second lead, Prince Hall.

Chimes at Midnight has been a difficult film to see, at least in a decent form, for decades. It’s good to have it back.

How It Looks

Edmond Richard beautifully shot Chimes at Midnight in black and white (Welles called black and white “the actor’s friend”). The short lenses, deep focus, and strong contrasts makes this very much an Orson Welles film.

Criterion’s 1080p transfer does it justice. This is a beautiful disc. The image is pillarboxed to 1.66×1–the standard European widescreen of the time.

How It Sounds

The film’s audio has always been its one big weakness. Like most of Welles’ European films, the dialog was recorded after the film was shot. The words and the actors’ lips don’t always match–especially near the beginning. Sometimes, a minor character talks in what is clearly Welles’ own voice. It’s distracting.

The restoration fixed the soundtrack about as well as it could be fixed. But for some strange reason, the uncompressed, 24-bit, mono LPCM soundtrack was transferred at a very low volume. You have to turn up the audio to hear it properly.

And the Extras

Criterion shot four new interviews for this release. All of them are shown in 1080p, with clips from the films and stills from Welles’ life.

  • Poster and article: Inside the package, you’ll find a folded sheet of paper. One side has an expressionistic illustration of the characters from the film. The other contains an article by Michael Anderegg that places the film in the context of Welles as an interpreter of Shakespeare on the stage and on film.
  • Timeline: Like all Critierion discs, this one has a timeline where you can add shortcuts. It also has a bookmark feature, that lets you insert the disc and get back to where you left off.
  • Commentary track: By James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. Interesting. He talks about the characters, the stage version made before the movie, the camera work, and just about everything. But Naremore made one serious mistake, assigning a scene from one play to another.
  • Keith Baxter interview: 30 minutes. He discusses the making of the stage and film versions, and working with Welles and Gielgud.
  • Beatrice Welles interview: 15 minutes. Orson’s daughter was only nine when she played a role in the film. Here she discusses what it was like having Orson Welles as a father. Interesting at first, but it gets dull.
  • Simon Callow interview: 32 minutes. An actor and a Welles biographer, Callow played Falstaff in a 1998 production of the Chimes at Midnight stage play. Here he discusses Welles and his identification with Falstaff, as well as how the film was made and barely distributed. This is the best of the four new interviews.
  • Joseph McBride interview: 27 minutes. Yet another biographer. This interview covers a lot of what’s already in the Callow interview, but it has some original content, as well.
  • The Merv Griffin Show: 1080i (although it looks like standard definition), 11 minutes. This excerpt from a 1965 episode has Griffin interviewing Welles in his editing room while he adds finishing touches to the movie. It shows the editing tools of the day, and some footage of the battle scene. Welles discusses both this film and some career highlights.
  • Trailer: 1080p; 2 minutes. Clearly a new trailer for this restoration. Fun.

The disc goes on sale August 30.

Love, romance, and a whole lot of problems bubble up in The Intervention

B+ Comedy-drama, but mostly drama

Written and directed by Clea DuVall

All romantic relationships have problems, and those problems provide fodder for this very funny relationship drama (or maybe it’s a very serious comedy). But according to Annie (Melanie Lynskey), only one couple is supposed to have problems here, and everyone else is supposed to be on the same page about the only conceivable solution: divorce.

Annie knows with absolute certainty that her married friends, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza), need to go their separate ways. And when we first meet the unhappy couple, we understand her certainty. They treat each other with behavior so passive aggressive that it’s just one step away from aggressive aggressive. So Annie organized this big weekend shindig so that she and other friends of Ruby and Peter can help them see the light.

But Annie’s pretty messed up herself. Engaged to Matt (Jason Ritter), she keeps postponing their wedding. What’s more, she has a very serious drinking problem. (Actually, everyone drinks pretty heavily here, but Annie’s problem is considerably worse than the others.)

Also in attendance is Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall, who also wrote and directed) and her girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne). Sarah worries that Jessie is a little too interested in younger women.

And speaking of younger women, Jack (a friend of Peter’s played by Ben Schwartz) arrives with a new and barely legal girlfriend oozing sexuality in everyone’s direction (Alia Shawkat). Her name is Lola; no screenwriter gives a character that name without a good reason.

As everyone tries to solve Ruby and Peter’s relationship problems, their own complications bubble to the top. And people are soon getting angry with their partners and hitting on other members of the gang.

Almost the entire film is set in an extremely large and expensive mansion and estate in the south. Ruby and Jessie apparently came from a very wealthy family. For what it’s worth, everyone here is white, and everyone except Sarah has dark hair. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional.

Don’t expect a laugh fest, but don’t expect a tragedy, either. Most of the characters are likeable, and all ring true. The Intervention isn’t trying teach a lesson; or if it is, the lesson is to be tolerant of your lover’s faults.

Not sage advice, but worth knowing.

Before the White House: My review of Southside with You

C Romantic meander

Written and directed by Richard Tanne

The movie starts like a commercial. The camera moves smoothly over an impossibly clean residential street filled with smiling people. Upbeat, happy music plays over the opening credits. The message is clear: This is going to be a feel-good movie about two people falling in love.

Southside with You plays out as yet another variation on Before Sunrise. Two attractive people who barely know each other walk through a city, talking, doing fun and meaningful things, and getting to know each other, while the audience wonders whether they’re going to fall in love.

But there’s no romantic suspense. Everyone in the audience knows that this couple will eventually marry and create a family. Then they’ll become the first family.

The couple, of course, are Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson.

It’s the summer of 1989, and Barak (Parker Sawyers) is a law student at Harvard, back in his chosen home of Chicago doing a summer internship at a corporate law firm. Michelle is a low-level attorney at the same law firm. She is, in fact, Barak’s immediate superior. It’s her job to evaluate his work. He thinks otherwise.

According to what he said before the movie started, he’s to pick her up and take her to a community meeting that she might find interesting. But he has other plans. They go to a museum. They have lunch in the park. They go see the new movie that everyone is talking about–Do the Right Thing. And yes, they go to that meeting, where we get a glimpse of the great orator and pragmatic politician that Barak will become.

For Michelle, this isn’t a smooth ride to true love. He lied to her about the time of the meeting. He’s a bit too smooth. He smokes. He used to smoke marijuana (she pronounces the full, four-syllable word with distain). Tika Sumpter plays Michelle a bit stuck up. Proud of her no-nonsense work ethic, she feels superior to this laid-back dude from Hawaii.

And in a literal sense, she is superior. She’s his boss. For her to get romantically involved with him would be a significant conflict of interest.

And yet she can’t help feeling attracted to him.

We know that that attraction will lead to the White House. But as a movie, Southside with You feels just a little bit too sweet for its own good. My vote for this film is pretty much on the fence.

What’s Screening: August 19 – 25

I’m back from the longest vacation I’ve had in years, and there are still no film festivals in the Bay Area. But we do have great comedy, great dancing, and pods turning into real people.

New films opening

B Lo and Behold, Reveries of The Connected World, Clay, Rafael, opens Friday

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in giving us an overview of the Internet and all that it means. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, his latest documentary starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future. In between, he celebrates what’s wonderful about technology and warns us about its horrors. Read my full review.

Promising events

Snatchers Body the of Invasion, Roxie, Thursday, 7:00

Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has received a very different type of remake. Anne McGuire re-edited the film, so that starts at the end and ends at the beginning. On a double bill with–you guessed it– Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Laurel and Hardy Newly Restored, Volume 2, Rafael, Sunday

Another collection of shorts by Hollywood’s greatest comic duo. I’ve only seen one of the four movies on this program, Busy Bodies, and it’s as good as they come. I suspect the others will be fun, as well.

Recommended revivals

A The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

If Singin’ in the Rain is the best musical Hollywood ever created, The Bad Wagon is a very close second. A satire on the clash between serious art and frivolous entertainment, held together by great songs, masterful choreography, and comedy that never feels forced. Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to Broadway, is clearly based on Astaire himself. On a double bill with Meet Me in St. Louis.

A To Be or Not To Be (original, 1942 version), Stanford, Friday

The Nazis conquered Poland with frightening speed. But they prove no match for Carol Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II comic masterpiece. As a married pair of egotistical stars of the Warsaw stage, Lombard and Benny lead a theatrical troupe of slightly lesser egos as they outwit the gestapo. The rare screwball comedy that’s willing to get serious when the story demands it. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet, which I saw way back in 1981 and thought it was awful.

B Burn After Reading, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

The Coen brothers are back to their old tricks, mining the dark comic prospects of a crime gone wrong. While Burn After Reading lacks the humanity of Fargo, the Zen-slacker philosophy of The Big Lebowski, and the blazing, non-stop lunacy of Intolerable Cruelty, it still provides 95 very entertaining minutes. Read my review.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Lo and Behold! Werner Herzog brings us the Internet

Documentary

Directed by Werner Herzog

Even those of us who grew up, married, and had kids before dial-up modems were common now take the Internet for granted. We socialize, work, play, read, find restaurants, and enjoy movies and music through this decentralized network.

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in providing an overview of the technical and sociological entity that has pretty much taken over civilization. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, Lo and Behold starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future.

For the first half hour or so, Lo and Behold feels like a puff piece. Everything about the Internet seems wonderful. In the most upbeat moment, a medical researcher describes how the behavior of certain molecules–needed to be understood for medical purposes–were cracked by thousands of gamers.

But then we come to a chapter called “The Dark Side.” We meet a family that lost a daughter in a traffic accident. Photos of the beheaded girl went viral, and people of the worst sort emailed them to her parents with insulting messages. When the mother calls the Internet “the Anti-Christ,” you may not agree, but you’ll certainly understand her feelings.

Herzog rightfully spares us the gory pictures in that sequence, but in other scenes I wished he used more pictorial aids. Visually, Lo and Behold relies heavily on people talking. Many of the concepts they discuss would have been easier to understand with simple animation.

And sometimes I wished he would dig deeper into the research. One sequence involves people living away from the Internet–and not always by choice. These folks explain to Herzog’s camera that they’re sensitive to the electro-magnetic waves emitted from all of our technology. Their suffering is clearly real, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was psychosomatic. An interview with a doctor or two would have helped.

Of course Herzog covers security concerns, centering on hacking the big fish–government and corporations. He covers the very real threat of cyber warfare (which strikes me as less scary than the real thing). He points out that the weak point in any system will almost certainly be a human, not a piece of technology. In one amazing sequence, a hacker explains how a few phone calls got him some very important corporate code.

Oddly, he barely scrapes into issues of personal privacy. He doesn’t seem worried that corporations and governments know a frightening amount of information about us. One person he never interviews, or even mentions, is Edward Snowden.

Yet he examines some technologies that are only vaguely involved with the Internet, but are still fascinating. These include robots, Elon Musk‘s plans for Martian colonies, and driverless cars (which really need their own feature-length documentary).

There’s very little in Lo and Behold that I didn’t already know. But then, I’ve been writing about the Internet since it first became a thing. People who merely use it may find the movie much more informative.

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