Café Society (2016)

It’s become a clichéd phrase to say that even disappointing Woody Allen films are better than most other films. In this case, though, I don’t think it’s true.

In my opinion,  it’s not better than most other films. It’s just disappointing.

Café Society revolves around a genuinely decent premise. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) is trying to make it in Hollywood. His uncle, Phil (Steve Carell, The Big Short) is a talent agent, and he’s supposedly going to help Bobby out. Enter Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), Phil’s secretary, who is charged with helping Bobby out.

Phil and Vonnie are having an affair, and yet Bobby and Vonnie fall in love. This idea was my favorite part of the film, since it allows for a sort of slapstick tragedy that Allen willfully stirs up. Phil talks about his mistress at the same time Bobby is talking about Vonnie, and hearts are inevitably broken before moving on. That’s about where my interest faded.

There should be poignancy in this, and there isn’t. I don’t feel particularly bad for anyone, nor do I feel like they even care. Kristen Stewart just trades up for glitzier clothes and Jesse Eisenberg somehow marries a home-ready Blake Lively. Where’s the passion? Where’s the heartbreak? At times I felt like Woody Allen believed he could get away with these deficiencies, simply because he’s Woody Allen. If you don’t like this one, there’s always next year.

In certain sequences, the actors were clearly standing in front of a green screen, which was replaced by a ritzy mansion. The lighting on the house was white, but the light on the actors’ faces was absolutely golden. I don’t think Woody Allen has gotten weaker. I simply think he’s gotten lazy.

2.5 Yellow

Café Society is at the end of its theatrical run. I prefer Hannah and Her Sisters and Midnight in Paris.

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Southside with You (2016)

Ironically, this film can’t truly be criticized.

Yes, it’s about the arguably historic first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, but the film knows its audience. The people who like the Obamas will likely enjoy the film, and the people who don’t like the Obamas—the ones who might find ways to criticize it—won’t actually watch it. They’d have to right to be critical. Therefore, it’s kind of a win-win, I think.

The film does not need much of a description, as I’ve already laid it out. Barack and Michelle Obama had a first date, as couples do, and this is the film about it. Barack (Parker Sawyers) was a summer employee at a law firm, and Michelle (Tika Sumpter), was a second-year associate. She was not calling it a date, but he wanted to, and eventually it became one. It was only supposed to last a few hours, after all, but it lasted well past sundown.

The plot isn’t the star of this film, nor are the pretty accurate portrayals of its real-life characters. Since they’re married now, the world knows what happened. The real star of this film is the tenderness and the chemistry between Barack and Michelle, which can truly ignite the screen. Writer-director Richard Tanne made these lofty figures into real people, which is never easy, and he gave the structure a writer’s touch.

The film is short at 80-something minutes, but it’s slow enough to seem longer. I will admit that I was thrown off by the pacing, but that’s truly a personal problem. Southside with You is the cinematic equivalent of an afternoon stroll, a time when the only place you’d like to be is next to someone you love. I dare you to find that less than charming.

3 Green

Southside with You is in theaters now.

[Editor’s Note: The opening titles are neon pink like the ones in Drive. I was irrationally excited by that.]

Drive (2011)

I was the only person in Theater Three.

By some miracle, when this film came out, it showed in my small hometown. I had no idea what I was really getting into, but I was 17, and I knew I could see it legally. My life was absolutely and undeniably changed by seeing this film, and I was the only one there.

Drive is the cult classic film by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has managed to appear rather frequently on this blog. It has a truly magnificent cast, ranging from Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys) to Carey Mulligan (Far from the Madding Crowd) to Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens). I could have gone on, believe me.

Ryan Gosling is the titular driver. He’s a stuntman by day and a getaway driver by night. He meets and bonds with his neighbor (Mulligan) and her son, and they fall in love. Her husband (Isaac) soon returns from prison, though, and it turns out he owes a lot of protection money to some gangsters. The Driver offers to be his getaway driver when the husband robs a bank.

Without saying too much, things go horribly wrong, and The Driver is forced to protect himself and everyone he cares about. Director Nicolas Winding Refn imbues a retro feel to the entire picture, crafting a present-day love letter to 1980s Los Angeles. From the very first moments, you feel like you’re watching something that transcends our time.

Rarely is a film so poetic and pulsingly violent at once, inspiring its own legend before the film is even over. It has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, and the longing presented here is so tantalizing that I almost forget to breathe. I’m not even kidding.

To this day, I grip my fingers on the steering wheel like The Driver does, and I frankly want to be him. I would still buy his scorpion jacket if given the chance. Seeing this film was a formative experience for me, and it could very well be one for you too.

3.5 Green

Drive is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

My response to this film is an open mouth. Shock. Disbelief. Amazement.

You might not have heard of this film, especially if you’re closer to my age than my parents’, and that is a shame. I had to be coaxed into watching, as I was that unaware of its existence.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is a documentary narrated by and adapted from the book by Robert Evans, a legendary Hollywood producer. He tried his hand at acting (“The kid stays in the picture,” said Darryl Zanuck), but after that career imploded, Evans turned to producing. He had massive success, and I mean massive, releasing films like The GodfatherRosemary’s Baby, and Love Story, as well as catastrophic failures and debilitating scandals. And he’s telling us all about it, sharing private details like we’re the only ones to know—or the last. Making it infinitely better, he’s a bit pompous, so his version of his life is a true sensation.

You have little stories about Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, a tale about his good friend Jack Nicholson, and something insignificant regarding a nuanced gangster film with an Italian-American director. You really can’t get much closer to the world of movies as you can here, and who would’ve thought? Not from a director, but a producer, somebody who watches it all from the sidelines.

It wasn’t until I saw his name on the credits for Chinatown that I truly understood the magnitude of this man. Only then did I recognize his name, never to forget it again. Robert Evans knows that his name will be tied to great, immortal films, and nothing could leave him more satisfied. Nothing could leave me more satisfied.

This is the kind of story you get when The Most Interesting Man in the World made his living in the Hollywood hills, and then decided to tell it to you. He had his ups and downs—peaks and trenches, honestly—and his sharing them has proven to be one of the greatest gifts in the history of film. You might not have heard of this film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an essential one to see.

3.5 Green

The Kid Stays in the Picture is available on DVD and digital.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

You know, for a good portion of this movie, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then I heard the cynical wit of Woody Allen.

“I had a great evening; it was like the Nuremberg trials.”

His films have always been hit-or-miss with me, and I openly don’t really get Annie Hall, but there is something undeniable about his brilliance. The man is a genius, and thankfully, I can separate the art from the man.

Hannah and Her Sisters is reputed to be one of Allen’s best, and it is. It’s a story about a bunch of unhappy adults (surprise). Elliot is married to Hannah (Mia Farrow), but he begins an affair with her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey). Lee is dating an artist (Max Von Sydow), and it’s really not much of anything. Meanwhile, Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Allen), a TV writer and hypochondriac, swears that he’s sick with a brain tumor, and her sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), is floundering in life. Allen always saves the funniest material for himself, but I’m not complaining.

I miss comedies like these, ones that are really just dramas with funny bits in them. I feel like comedies now are so focused on cramming as many jokes into a page as they can, which ends up taking the real meat from the picture. All becomes a caricature, a folly. The characters in this film are just like real people, and Allen takes care to help us empathize with them (even if their voiceover monologues could not be farther from actual thoughts).

I think Woody Allen works off a simple conflict, and then goes from there. A man is in love with his wife’s sister—a man is in love with his ex-wife’s sister. A man goes back in time at midnight in Paris. Sure, some of the lines may be unrealistic—the type to be read, not spoken—but what Allen has created here is a pensive masterpiece. I truly pity Hannah and her sisters, but I love them like family.

3.5 Green

Hannah and Her Sisters is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Jason Bourne (2016)

Any series that attempts serialization should at least know where it’s going.

I do not believe the Bourne franchise has a direction at all, not anymore.

After The Bourne Legacy, a decent film, there seemed to be a desperate attempt to bring back star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who deserve credit for making the franchise so popular. Many people, myself included, were under the impression that they were the secret ingredient. They aren’t. The secret ingredient, whatever it may be, has been discontinued.

In this one, Jason Bourne is once again trying to find details of his past, and this time, a new set of agents are trying to stop him. You have Tommy Lee Jones as the CIA Director, Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Agent Heather Lee, and Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as a vengeful agent from Bourne’s past. Somehow, it all revolves around the government dealings with a tech company concerned with privacy.

Really, it should tell you something that these big figures from his past, Jones and Cassel, were never in the other films.

Make no mistake, I really did want to like this film. It just made me anxious. Not only could I not really map out the actions scenes, which were cut seemingly faster than I could blink, but a great deal of the shots were nauseatingly claustrophobic. Oh, and I think the camera operator might have been having chronic seizures, judging by the shakiness of even the calmest of shots. (Don’t try to read the text messages.)

The film only began to make sense two-thirds of the way through, and while the final act was genuinely riveting, I couldn’t help but wonder why the other two weren’t. In theory, this was set to be another classic Bourne film, what with the killer cast and crew. Like its protagonist, I think it just kept running hoping to find somewhere to go.

2.5 Yellow

Jason Bourne is in theaters now.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Sigh.

Before you read on, know this: Suicide Squad is not as bad as the critics have said. But it’s certainly not much better.

Like Ghostbusters, which was also about a ragtag group of eccentric misfits who try to save New York City from ghosts, Suicide Squad was profoundly disappointing. Like Ghostbusters, it was supposed to be different, the one film that was going to save the pathetic money-waster that has been this summer at the cinema. Maybe the stakes were too high, or maybe Zack Snyder was given too much power.

The concept is that Amanda Waller (the always brilliant Viola Davis) wants to assemble the worst villains in custody to form a task force. The first Superman was decent, but the next one might not be. Enter the following: Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, El Diablo, Captain Boomerang, and Slipknot. If that sounds like too many, it is.

This is the type of film Marvel is making now, 13 films into their cinematic universe. Each of the Avengers has had one or more films to themselves so we could get to know them. David Ayer, who can be a great director (End of Watch), was in over his head from the very beginning. There was no possible way to get more than ankle-deep impressions of so many characters in one film, and I feel bad that he had to try.

Robbie’s Quinn is magnificent, and Smith’s Deadshot is great as well. I’d pay to see them in another film together (one slightly better than Focus). Even El Diablo was fascinating, if not my favorite character in the film. Why couldn’t we have started with these three, instead of tossing everyone in the mix at once?

There are true moments of greatness here, but there’s not enough room for more. The first act is full of flair and fan-service, and for a five-minute span near the end of the second act—the pause-and-reflect scene—I was totally sold. All the flaws had been forgiven, and this film was going to get green stars. It’s just that my interest faded once again, since I was never given reason to invest in most of the characters.

The main villain of this film is Enchantress, played with corny mysticism by Cara Delevingne, and her spiritual brother. They transform people into bubbly-faced aliens, which makes no sense, and they want to take over the world for no good reason. And then there’s the Joker, who acts more weird than psychotic. Seriously, even the craziest psychopath still acts like a human being. I don’t think I care how he got those scars. Jared Leto just growls at everyone like he’s auditioning for The Lion King.

I’ve been rambling. I apologize. It’s just that Suicide Squad was supposed to be the one. It was supposed to be great. Instead, it’s the proof that the DC Universe will never succeed. I almost wish it were terrible, or at least worse than it is. Maybe then I could pity it. Right now, it’s just a dreadful nothing of a movie.

2 Yellow

Suicide Squad is in theaters now.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Laika Studios, the new Pixar. I’m serious.

Laika, the company behind the stop-motion CoralineParanorman, and The Boxtrolls, has done it again. Their films are as original and expertly-crafted as Pixar’s, but with human leads, and it should come as no surprise that Kubo and the Two Strings is another Laika masterpiece.

It revolves around young Kubo, whose eye was taken a time ago by the Moon King. Kubo’s mother protected him, hiding him away from the world at night. But one evening, Kubo doesn’t come home in time, and his mother’s evil sisters descend upon him. Just as he thinks he’s done for, his mother finds him and uses the last bits of her magic to whisk him away from harm.

When Kubo wakes, he finds himself in the company of Monkey (Charlize Theron), formerly a wooden token of his. They stumble upon Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), and it’s then their real adventure begins. You see, Kubo’s father was searching for the Deathly Hallows a mystical set of armor, and Kubo knows that finding it is the key to defeating the Moon King. Twists abound, and the film comes off as a classic fairy tale.

It’s not about the story, though, not entirely. The real magic of this film comes from the animation. Using state-of-the-art CG and stop-motion, Laika has improved on itself yet again. The visuals in this film are some of the most striking in all of cinema, divinely beautiful in a way that only animated films can be. And not only that; the character models are so detailed and so realistically animated that you genuinely believe you can touch them.

Just watching it, I could not help but marvel at the film’s undeniable majesty, its unprecedented scope and intimacy. It takes a great deal more effort to make a stop-motion film than any other cinematic experience, so to think that these filmmakers still craft a film frame-by-frame using models on a set… it’s beyond my concept of dedication.

This is the kind of art that you should support unconditionally. I’d say a film like this comes along every decade, but Laika Studios churns one out almost every year. It’s amazing, all of it. This film is the year’s best example of movie magic.

3.5 Green

Kubo and the Two Strings is in theaters now.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Full disclosure: I was going to write this review in iambic pentameter, but the Bard isn’t with me today.

I first watched this film in tenth grade drama class, one of many shown, and I remember it fondly. It’s no coincidence that Kenneth Branagh, the film’s director and star, played Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn—they are truly peerless when it comes to Shakespeare, both onstage and on the screen.

Here, Branagh has assembled one of the best casts put to film, and at one of the sunniest locations. You have Emma Thompson at her sharpest, Denzel Washington at his most dashing, Brian Blessed as his most boisterous, and Keanu Reeves at his most… okay, I’m still not sure why Keanu is in this film. He acts stoned on the regular. But you also have Kate Beckinsale in one of her youngest roles, proof that she actually does age (I was skeptical).

A quick overview of the story: Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard, Dead Poets Society) has fallen head over heels for young, innocent Hero (Beckinsale). Don John (Reeves) comes in, determined to ruin everything, and he indirectly convinces Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful. Claudio scolds Hero at their own wedding, and everyone pretends that Hero died of shame (she didn’t). But she has a cousin, they tell him, who looks exactly like her, and she might be willing to marry him (it’s just Hero). As this has been happening, Benedick and Beatrice (Branagh and Thompson) have sworn off love, even if their chemistry is undeniable. Naturally, the others plot to get them together. And it works. They set things right together. The unloved have fallen in love with each other, made all the more adorable when you realize Thompson and Branagh were married at the time.

If that was confusing for you, Michael Keaton plays a nearly pointless fool, and I myself am confused as to why the (fine) actor had to be included at all. As with any odd parts of the film, you just kind of go with it. A great deal can be excused in a comedy.

In the end, this film is a true delight. It has everything the mind desires. If you’re ever down, just needing a smart and sunny pick-me-up, as Mumford & Sons repeated, “Sigh no more.”

3 Green

Much Ado About Nothing is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Sleeping with Other People (2015)

What a gem. Really.

Following in the same vein of charmingly dirty romantic comedies as No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, Sleeping with Other People stars Jason Sudeikis (SNL) and Alison Brie (Community) as Jake and Laney. They lost their virginity to each other one night in college, and then they went their separate ways, both sort of becoming sex addicts.

Bear with me. This is no Rogen raunch fest. Laney’s crush got married, and Jake just drifted from girl to girl as he grew his company—then they run into each other at an Addicts Anonymous meeting. Naturally, the sparks fly, and Jake and Laney grow closer. But they know better than to give in since they know it wouldn’t end well. They develop a sort of system, saying “Mousetrap” anytime the feelings come to the surface. The friendship is so important to them, they couldn’t bear to ruin it.

Yes, they get together at the end, but that’s almost guaranteed. As I’ve said before, the trick is to make the audience believe otherwise. The trick is to make you want it before they give it to you. Sudeikis and Brie have such phenomenal chemistry, it’s almost painful to watch them reject their affections for the sake of their friendship. No, not almost—it’s agonizing.

Sleeping with Other People is the kind of film you just don’t see coming, even if you can generally predict what will happen. It has emotion and laughs. I watched it on a plane, and I’ve brought it up in almost every conversation since. Decent romantic comedies are a dime-a-dozen, but it’s rare to find one this well-done. I view my life differently having seen it, and you might too.

3.5 Green

Sleeping with Other People is availably on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.