A Cynical Modern Day Fairytale- Cafe Society

For this review, I’m going to use the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

Warning: Spoilers!

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So… how was it?

Oh you know, typical Woody Allen movie. Depressing, melancholy, but still engaging.

Wait, so did you like it?

Yes?

That’s not helpful.

I know. I did enjoy watching it. I liked a lot of it. There are just a few things that didn’t click with me that make me hesitant on giving the film two thumbs up. Maybe just one thumb up.

First off, what is the film about? Then you can rant.

I’m not going to rant! Well, maybe. Anyway, the film is about Bobby, played by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a young Jewish man in the 1930s moving to Hollywood. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he just wants to get out of New York. He meets up with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) in Tinseltown, where Phil is a big shot producer. Phil gets him some work, and there Bobby meets Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart.) He falls, and she likes him, but there’s one problem. Vonnie is having an affair with Phil, who is married.

Did you see this film with your parents?

Hahaha, nope. I saw it with a woman whose children I babysit for. My employer. The irony was rich.

I am so sorry.

Thanks interviewer-me. But shout out to the person I saw it with. You’re awesome, and I had a great time, especially discussing it with you afterwards.

So what did you like about the film?

I really liked the performances. Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg both shine as the leads. I happen to like both of them as people and particularly Eisenberg as an actor. Some people say Eisenberg has little range, which may be true, but not many actors can do what he does. In the right role, he’s great. They have undeniable chemistry, which makes Kristen’s scenes with Steve Carell feel really awkward. He seems a little miscast in my opinion, but then again, I had my face in my hands during a lot of their scenes together, so I might be misjudging him.

I also appreciated the little touches in the film. There is a morbidly funny subplot that is quirky and clever in its own right. The stylized touches adding to the setting of the 1930s are enchanting. The visual aesthetic of the film is breathtaking. And there are some nice lines.

But…..

You got me. I just can’t get behind the message of this movie. Now I can appreciate other people’s worldviews, and I definitely don’t believe in censoring or ignoring things I don’t agree with. I know Allen’s atheistic worldview from his movies: most things will eventually fail you; the world goes on. It’s depressing, but at least Allen is honest. One of the messages in this film is that people you love and know probably aren’t the people you think they are and/or will become what you dislike. Even though I don’t go to the movies to escape reality, I wish there had been some kind of positive alternative presented. The movie would have worked as a cautionary tale if there had been a standard to compare people’s downfalls to, but there wasn’t.

While I was watching Cafe Society and seeing this older man/boss court this young woman, I was struck with the thought that Allen may be trying to defend himself. There is talk about the feeling of love being the same as loving someone.  Other characters validate the affair between Phil and Vonnie, and there is a somewhat happy ending for the couple in question.

Sophie Gilbert pointed out in Variety the connection to Allen’s personal life: “In 1996, at the age of 61, he (Woody Allen) successfully wooed the 29-year-old Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, the year after he had an affair with Mira Sorvino’s 20-something prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen’s 40-something character, Isaac, dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl played by Mariel Hemingway (the film is believed to be based on Allen’s real-life experiences dating 16-year-old Stacey Nelkin, whom he met on the set of Annie Hall and dated while she was attending Stuyvesant High School).”

With the whole Soon-Yi Previn situation and the allegations against Allen, it is hard not to consider that when watching one of his films. I’m not sure how to feel about a filmmaker who may be using his films to validate himself in some kind of self-insert (which is what Allen is actually famous for, but Cafe Society just seems to take it too far). An age difference is one thing, but when it veers into the territory of someone in a position of power with someone they could use their power against, it becomes tricky.

That’s great and all, but, um, do you want to, uh, stop talking about this? This is uncomfortable to talk about.

You’re probably right. I need to save the reputation of this site.

Okay good.

Yep.

(awkward pause.) Anyway….

Right. So another thing. Cafe Society acts less like a movie with a message and more like a memory. For someone who doesn’t like nostalgia, Allen doesn’t seem to cut back on any gloss. The movie doesn’t gel because it doesn’t seem like something meant to mean anything to someone other than Allen. He even narrates the film while still having his character stand-in, just emphasizing the fact that this is his Hollywood story. That narration feels like one more boundary keeping the film from connecting with the audience.

Should people see it?

If you like Woody Allen, see it. If you like the golden age of Hollywood, see it. If you like these actors, see it. Just consider wisely whom you see it with.

Hey, I went this whole review without ranting!

Congrats!

Thanks. Now the next movie I’ll be reviewing is Mr. Church.

Oh boy.

-Madeleine D

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It’s Just a First Date: Southside With You

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Michelle Robinson is about to not go on a date. It’s strictly a meeting with an associate at her work firm. Nobody believes her, but Michelle is resolute. She gets picked up, ready to go the meeting, and is thrown a curveball. “The meeting starts at 4,” her date, Barack, says. “We’ve got a few hours. Let’s go to a museum and get something to eat.”

And so begins the meet-cute for Michelle and Barack. They go to a museum, the park, lunch, the meeting, and the movies. “You’re a good speaker,” Michelle tells Barack as they walk after he speaks at the meeting. “Ever considered going into politics?”

“Maybe,” Barack Obama laughs. Southside With You is a respectful, romantic look at the President and First Lady’s first date. It is mostly true, with a few events that happened later in real life brought in. With a film that is mostly walking and talking, three things must be on-point to succeed: performances, dialogue, and atmosphere.

Tika Sumpter as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack both do a fantastic job playing the famous couple. It never feels like an imitation, but more of an organic interpretation of both of them. Their discussions about forgiveness, change, hopes, dreams, and the issues of their communities and lives are effortless and engaging. The script, while it has to repeat some things to stretch out the run time, is fluid.

While I have never been to the South side of Chicago, the film sets up the atmosphere of the area well. It feels worn-in and lived-in. Cultural references that are brought in just amplify the authenticity of the environment. Each setting serves a purpose.

After the film ended, I had decided I liked it. There were just a few things that bothered me. “The characters refer to issues, but they never speak too passionately about them,” I told my family as we discussed the movie afterwards. “It seemed like it had a lot of views, but played it safe. It was too tame.” I cited a part of the film where Barack and Michelle see Do the Right Thing and see their boss coming out of the theater. The (white) boss talks to them, and has an issue with the ending. Barack explains it to him, explaining the logic behind the ending. The boss is thankful and praises Barack. Afterwards, Barack tells Michelle he didn’t tell the boss that the real answer to the boss’s question was that the black characters acted in the movie because they were angry.

“Maybe it was tame so white audiences would be comfortable with it,” I suggested. “Besides, in the film, Barack gives a big speech to encourage members of his community. Yet when we see the city and community, it always looks great. The streets are clean, the children are laughing and playing. I don’t see the struggle that Barack talks about. If the film wanted to go for it, then it missed its chance. It also is an extremely flattering portrayal of the Obamas. The whole film is filmed with a rosy nostalgia.”

“But you always remember your first date with nostalgia,” my dad said. “It’s a first date.”

That’s when I understood the movie better. I was expecting the film to be edgy. It’s about a controversial president. It’s about him as a person. He has some unpopular policies. Why aren’t those explored, I thought as I watched the film. Why is this movie so… romantic? Where is the thing that made America attracted to Barack Obama? Where is the radicalism?

However, maybe the radical thing is that it is just a first date movie about a black couple. As a white movie-goer who doesn’t see many “black films,” I rarely see a positive portrayal of a black couple. It says something about our culture that I immediately thought that since it was a movie about black people, it had to be political. With so much of culture portraying blacks as always being angry, to see a movie where a couple is given a nostalgic, rose-colored date, is what is truly remarkable about the film. There is a quiet restraint, whether it be from not being 80’s-tastic, to not making too many references to the future of the Obamas, to not being too political, Southside With You is content with being a first-date movie. It doesn’t have an agenda.

This isn’t a film about what attracted America to the Obamas. It’s about what attracted the Obamas to each other.

-Madeleine D

Going Gansta In Middle Earth- Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Welcome Taika Waititi, to a place in my heart. It’s a space you’ll have to share with my family, chocolate, the Lord of the Rings, and soft blankets, but I’m sure you’ll find room.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the native New Zealander’s fourth feature film after Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, and What We Do In The Shadows. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is based on a book by Barry Crump. The film is about a young foster boy named Ricky Baker (a fantastic Julian Dennison) whose last chance at a foster-home before being thrown in Juvie is an older couple, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Bella is excited and inviting, full of positivity and charm. Hector is, well, not as excited, but doesn’t bother Bella or Ricky, so everyone is happy. Ricky begins to love his home, until tragedy strikes, and he and Hector find themselves in the bush, running for their lives as a massive manhunt tries to find them.

Wilderpeople takes cliches (fat city kid, grumpy old geezer, road trip that leads to bonding) and twists them just enough that they work. The city kid, Ricky, is a lovable protagonist, who is a bit off-putting, but wants a family, and will fiercely protect the one he gets. The grumpy old geezer is a man with heart, who is tough but not unwilling to learn, and in the end, makes the right decisions.

None of the characters are a complete subversion of the trope (characters like the social worker and incompetent police officer don’t get the above treatment at all), but there is still thoughtfulness to all of them that should be appreciated. All the performances are great, with Neill and Dennison as standouts with good chemistry.

Maybe the best thing about this film is the humor. My family and I laughed out loud several times. Not just chuckles, but belly laughs. The film is completely secure in its ability. It doesn’t turn its head and look at you for approval or acknowledgment, it keeps on trucking along in a mix of deadpan, slapstick, and exaggeration, with complete confidence. The scene with a cameo by Waititi is worth the ticket price alone.

It must be really nice to work in New Zealand. You get actors with amazing accents, breathtaking settings, Weta Workshop is nearby, and it’s full of Middle Earth goodness. Waititi makes good use of all of these things. The film is sprinkled with screensaver-worthy shots, a sense of magic grounded in a real world, and lovely accents. There aren’t many special effects, but one sequence in particular makes good use of a CGI wildebeest. The film also makes incredible use of its score. From indigenous music in a sweeping opening shot to more modern fare, I was moved to look up the soundtrack after seeing the film.

It’s worth mentioning that the film stumbles near the end. It has to make the decision to be realistic or to go in a more whimsical direction. It decides to go halfway, which leaves the audience with a content, yet not completely satisfying, ending. It makes the journey feel more important than the destination. However, since the journey is so wonderful, I’ll give it a pass.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about to be out of theaters (you might still have time to catch it at Circle Cinema!) but from me to you, please look out for it on streaming and DVD. It is a gem of a film. It mixes a tried-and-true story with new blood, a fresh perspective, and a sweet look at family and what it takes to be a family in a modern day world. It mixes sentimentality with raw emotion. The performances are great, and it is truly funny in a moving way. It is an ode not only to New Zealand, but to children still finding their homes, and to people who have one.

Now, who else is stoked for Waititi’s next film- Thor: Ragnarok?

-Madeleine D

Pete’s Dragon: A Rewatch

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I’m not reviewing the newest Pete’s Dragon remake.

Sorry. Here instead is a rewatch of the original!

I must confess, before anything else, that I am quite partial to this film. It’s been an important film to the Dorst family for a while. When my dad was a kid, he watched it with his family. When my sister and I were little, we watched it, too. We’re very defensive about it, and it gets quoted a lot in our household.

However, I’m going to do my best to put that aside and review the film for what it is- a heartwarming, wholesome and sweet film that, while it is no Citizen Kane, is too much fun to pass up.

The film begins with easily one of the darkest Disney scenes ever. The Gogans, a nasty family, have adopted Pete (Sean Marshall,) a young orphan, and are trying to find him after he runs away. They sing a lovely song about how they’re going to brutally murder him. You thought Bambi was bad.

This scene of the Gogans hunting down Pete and singing about working him to death is disguised with slapstick and mud-pits, so everybody wins. They eventually leave, and Pete comes out of hiding. We discover he has a dragon with him- an animated dragon named Elliot- who can turn invisible at will. He’s big, green, pink, friendly, and best of all, doesn’t act like a dog. That’s something I like. The filmmakers decided to take the time to decide what a dragon would be like, and didn’t just give it the personality of a dog, unlike more modern Disney fare where all the animals act like dogs (Maximus the horse from Tangled, Sven the reindeer from Frozen, etc…).

Pete and Elliot rhapsodize their love for one another in a song, then Pete decides to head to the nearest town, Passamaquoddy. There, Elliot causes mischief and scares the local drunk Lampie. Pete gets upset with Elliot, but later in a cave they make up. Meanwhile, Lampie (Mickey Rooney) goes around to the local bar, yelling about the dragon. His daughter Nora (Helen Reddy) comes and gets him. They go back to their lighthouse, where Nora finds Pete. She invites him inside, and she learns about his abuse.  Nora doesn’t believe in Elliot, but she wants to take care of Pete, so she humors him about his ‘dragon.’ About the same time, Dr. Terminus and his “intern” Hoagie, con artists pretending to sell miracle cures, arrive in Passamaquoddy. When they hear about a dragon, they get interested and team up with the Gogans to snatch Pete and Elliot.

Dr. Terminus’ first scene (and really, let’s be honest, every one of his scenes) is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematic history. Jim Dale kills it as a whimsical, memorable, yet still subtly menacing villain. All the characters in the film shine, because they’re allowed to be big and bold. The film is a musical, and it has all the sensibilities of one.

Another standout in the cast is Nora, one of the most underrated film role models I have ever seen. Films today are so focused on making their female characters strong physically that rarely do they give these characters mental strength, and more importantly, acknowledge and appreciate that type of strength. Nora is kind, wise, compassionate, while at the same time also being brave, determined, and smart. She works hard and never lets people take advantage of her or the people she loves. Helen Reddy, who was mainly known as a singer at the time, is fabulous in the role, and her singing shines.

Pete’s Dragon is a movie all about love. The love between Pete and Elliot. The love between Nora and Pete, Nora and Paul, and Nora and Lampie. The film ends happily because all the characters find a home with love in it, and it succeeds, not in a Pollyanna way, but because it earns its happy ending. The characters go through hardships, but endure. The optimistic outlook on life is a nice reminder in an age that is obsessed with darkness and gritty realism, and it’s only accentuated with the bright settings, jokes, and of course, Elliot. The animation for Elliot holds up surprisingly well, and even if some effects are outdated, the timeless setting of Passamaquoddy makes up for it.

The film, however, isn’t without its flaws. The plot sometimes drags. The slapstick can get old. The musical numbers can feel long when the actors are just standing and singing them. In case you need to take a break during the film, I’ve helpfully listed the soundtrack below and what purpose each song serves, so you know what you can miss.

The thing is, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t need a remake. It doesn’t need a reality check because it uses its fantasy-reality mix perfectly, not only on the animation but the story. Real life magic is around us, and while in this story it takes the form of Elliot, in our world it takes the form of love. How can it get any better than that?

Soundtrack:

“Happiest Home in These Hills” – Child-labor laws song

“Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too)” – Actors attempting to interact with animation

“I Saw A Dragon”- The waste of good beer ft. Nora

“Passamaquoddy” – Before we had the FDA….

“It’s Not Easy”- Emotional bonding

“Candle on the Water”- Oscar please!

“There’s Room for Everyone”- Strangely timely song about how we should all just care for one another

“”Every Little Piece”- The PETA song

“Brazzle Dazzle Day”- This seems like a rather informal adoption, but okay

“Bill of Sale”- Don’t peeve off Nora

“Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)”- Mary Poppins ending song

-Madeleine D