Café Society

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Woody Allen’s latest is a breezy, familiar tale of love found, love lost and lost love pondered with bittersweet regret. Set in the 30’s and spanning a few years in 90 minutes, Café Society (2016) charts the course of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he heads from New York to Los Angeles to find favour with his famous star agent bigshot uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Offered a bottom-feeder job and an attractive underling Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him the ropes around town, Bobby finds himself content to mingle on the fringes of fame at parties, roving the sidelines and making himself known. Meanwhile he daydreams of courting the vivacious Vonnie with whom he has obvious chemistry and would like to spirit back to the Big Apple, the place he still yearns to be. A nasty twist is in store for Bobby however when he discovers that the love of his life is actually the young lover his influential uncle is working up the courage to leave his wife for. So who will ultimately win Vonnie’s attention?

Back in New York, flickering attention is paid to Bobby’s nefarious older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) who is mixed up in all manner of illegality and headed for an inevitable fall. Their sibling Evelyn (Sari Lennick) also gets a look in, her quiet domesticity with intellectual husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) disrupted by a potentially criminal element as well in the shape of a threatening neighbour who may require tempering by Ben or his henchmen. Bobby’s return to New York sees him buying into one of his brother’s clubs where he puts his own stamp on the venue, leading to an attractive, enviable place of social mingling for the city’s high-set. But just what is that hollow spot settled deep inside him still, despite the gain of commercial success, financial solidity, a beautiful wife and a newborn child?

In a role that doesn’t stretch him, Eisenberg is very solid here, a recommendation I rarely offer considering how profoundly irritating he can be). His onscreen pairing with Stewart is becoming an almost weirdly regular event. She’s fine too, exerting an easy magnetism as Vonnie and in so doing, sustaining what has been a fine, revelatory year of performances after Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016) and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). Carell is surprisingly well cast as the obnoxiously self-obsessed Phil whilst Lennick, Stoller and Jeannie Berlin, emitting a perfect pitch Jewish whine as the Phil’s poor sister Rose, round out a strong ensemble.

Café Society is enjoyable fluff, but strictly minor league Woody Allen in every respect. Low-definition characterisations, clichéd dialogue, the director’s predilection for samey jazz and his own annoying voiceover narration prove to be other downgrading aspects of the production. But despite these failings and a paucity of ambition, Café Society is amiable, neat and quintessentially Woody. Woody aiming far lower than he did with his recent masterful duo, Midnight in Paris (2011) or Blue Jasmine (2013) without doubt, but Woody nonetheless. Though it should invoke apathy and discontent, there’s a strangely lamentable comfort in that.

 

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters

 

Nostalgia can only carry a reinvented concept so far without genuine substance to support it. A third Ghostbusters film was rumoured for years before the advancing age of the original cast members seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of a much anticipated regeneration. But Hollywood, now approaching critical mass in its search for a new creative nadir, has too often shown disdain for even the most beloved touchstone films of generations past.

With nothing off limits, the re-tooled inversion of Ivan Reitman’s original Ghostbusters (1984) has arrived. Comedy central’s flavours of the months, Melissa McCarthy as paranormal investigator Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig as disgraced academic Erin Gilbert, take the lead roles. They’re joined by Leslie Jones’s ballsy transit worker Patty Tolan and Kate McKinnon’s slightly kooky science boffin Jillian Holtzmann in director Paul Feig’s reconfiguration of the original quartet, unwittingly called into action to solve New York’s outbreak of ghostly pranksters.

The cameos from original cast members are mercifully brief. A bust of the late Harold Ramis means that without dialogue he fares best. Dan Ackroyd’s few rushed lines as a harried cab driver apathetically negotiating his way through the finale’s ghoulish hell storm are passable, whilst Ernie Hudson as Patty’s uncle and Sigourney Weaver as Holtzman’s mentor are inoffensively ticked off. However Bill Murray’s couple of scenes as a psychic debunker are awful and borderline embarrassing, his last fleeting moment – ejected through a window by the crew’s first captured ghost – provides a fitting final indignity of sorts.

The blatant padding in Feig and Katie Dippold’s overstretched screenplay becomes more obviously damaging as the film progresses. For a while the sheer novelty of this new incarnation and the solid chemistry created between Bridesmaids alumni McCarthy and Wiig and, especially, the quirky McKinnon carries it along without too many dead spots. But as the plot gets lazy and loses all focus and, naturally, the CGI quotient expands, the pitfalls that taint every single over-blown, over-budgeted Hollywood event film become issues.

Nonsensical battles, possessions and a slimed-up flood of extraneous scenes are soon the order of the day. There’s virtually zero wit on display, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – Hollywood has provided a multitude of offerings with concepts of ‘witlessness’ and ‘entertaining’ crowding the same space – but a slew of rank, cringeworthy scenes are definitely an issue. Case-in-point, the gang’s meeting with NYC’s mayor (Andy Garcia) to discuss their unofficial status which is riddled with one clunky line after another. Chris Hensworth as a moronic beefcake hired to be the women’s secretary is simply too stupid to be funny for anyone with even fifty percept cerebral capacity, whilst bug-eyed Neil Casey is appropriately cast if utterly unmemorable in the Rick Moranis mould as a beaten-down loser vengefully unleashing an apocalyptic battery of ghosts in an effort to achieve immortality.

Very few iconic moments from the original are recreated, which wouldn’t be a problem if Feig and Dippold were able to conceive equally memorable scenarios. At the end of the day, this updated Ghostbusters (2016), whilst conceptually fresh and imbued with, initially, with a genuine liveliness and sense of fun, simply runs out of legs. It’s entertaining enough, certainly, but you simply reach a point where you just want it to end. The final half hour is tediously anti-climactic, a wearying feeling only enhanced by subsequent news of the certain sequels to come.

 

 

Sing Street

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At the dawn of the pop video era, Dublin teenager Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is riddled with typical teenage angst. A bully, Barry (Ian Kenny), has honed in on him at his new school, whilst at home the marriage of his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) is sitting on a knife’s edge amidst constant bickering. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) possesses a peerless knowledge of popular music but rarely leaves the house, wallowing in self-pity and the agony of musical dreams that he refused to chase down.

Then Conor spots a mysterious girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), in a building across the road from school. Looking far older than her years, with the poise and demeanour of a model waiting for discovery, he’s instantly smitten and attempting to impress his new mate Darren (Ben Carolan) he crosses the social divide and begins an awkward conversation. He invites her to be the star of his band’s next video clip. Only trouble is Conor doesn’t have a band. And so a rapid-fire recruitment kicks off, with rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) to first to be consulted; soon a makeshift bunch has been rounded up with Darren assigned cameraman duties.

Sing Street (2016), John Carney’s third straight musical feature is almost as good as his earlier two, the Oscar-winning Once (2007) and his American-set follow-up, the wholly underrated Begin Again (2013) which featured inspired, uninhibited performances from Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Sing Street fits comfortably into Carney’s CV but it’s a welcome, feel-good variation on a theme. The fondness for the era shines through, especially in constant references to the music of the mid-80’s like the explosion of British glam rock and the influential medium of the freshly utilised video clip.

Walsh-Peelo, in his first feature role, is incredibly assured and his naturalness on screen is a reflection of the young performer’s background in stage and television performances. His bandmates have all been cannily cast; each is given brilliant one-liners or physical gags that enhance their endearing, outsider status – the kind of status that many might reluctantly admit to feeling a recognisable affinity with. The glamourous Boynton has a genuine on-screen magnetism too. Raphina is a fascinating character, part ingénue, part tragic, revealing beauty mixed with a credibly deglamourized vulnerability as her emotional core is exposed by life’s bitter failings.

Carney’s themes are unoriginal ones but, attached to the lives of appealingly real characters, they’re not without resonance: ardently chase down your dreams, believe in a right time to take your chance in life or be condemned to carry the burden of regret forever. Stacked with hilarious asides, visual gags – the final footage of the band’s first, alley-shot clip is a side-splitting classic – and even some raw, 80’s inspired pop songs that believably bring this band’s spirit to life, Sing Street is wonderful entertainment of the purest sort, an uplifting tribute to heedless young love, rebelliousness, revelling in new experiences, and the music that matters to its generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lady in the Van

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Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his own memoir is a bittersweet tale of how curiousness and mild affection transform a passing interaction with a stranger into a strangely evolving, burdensome 15 year relationship. In London’s Camden district, home to artists of all sorts, the cantankerous Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) becomes a familiar sight, usually seen ensconced in her easily identifiable van which seems to hone in a location in the street and then remain dormant for months at a time. The locals are chagrined, naturally, though they’re an admirably tolerant lot; they moan and complain half-heartedly but, more compelled by the pitiful human element of Miss Shepherd’s plight, they simply put up with her moaning, insolence and crotchety demeanor.

Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) tolerates her with more conviction, even allowing the lady in the van to take refuge in his driveway when new parking regulations put an end to her hopes of eternally revolving through the streets. Bennett is torn of course and one of the film’s cleverest conceits – skillfully handed by director Nicolas Hytner – is its physical portrayal of his creative divide, in which he’s represented by both sides of the instincts within. First, there’s the version of himself who appraises from afar, the writer, the fictionalist, searching for potent material to expand upon for his own purposes. Then there’s the ‘real’ Alan Bennett, doggedly passing through his own life alongside the tiresome, mundane realities of dealing with his creative flaws, the expectations and judgment of his friends, neighbours and peers and, most confrontingly, the grim reality of Miss Shepherd’s relentless permanency in his life.

It’s a strange attachment, and one he should, for all intents and purposes, be able to sever with ease, even if with a backward glance or two of remorse. But somehow, with the burden of his aged, ailing mother to contend with and lukewarm feedback from his recent plays weighing him down, he’s simply unable to take what would be increasingly drastic measures to legally move Miss Shepherd on. And on some level, he yearns to both dignify her and understand more about her past and the validity of her ‘story’ which, through conversational snippets, is as strewn about as the remaining detritus accumulated inside the stationary vessel that is her home.

Jennings embodies Bennett with a transformative role accompanied by a befitting accent and physically attuned nuances. Smith, too, is remarkable; hers is a brave performance as the ambiguous Miss Shepherd who makes every attempt to alienate every person or child who enters her periphery. Consequently she’s almost impossible to love but a yearning to make sense of her story means there’s a lingering intrigue as to how her unique journey unfolds and the role Bennett will play in generate moments of genuine human truth from sifting through what seems like a willfully arranged barrier to ensure self-preservation.

With Hytner’s regular composer George Fenton liberally borrowing from a classical catalogue to accentuate the drama’s droll, tender and absurd ebbs and flows, The Lady in the Van (2015) comes full circle, placing the film’s very first scene in context; we’re rewarded with a more levelly framed humanising of Miss Shepherd too whilst simultaneously being spared the usual, shallow appeal to a sentimental reflex.

 

The Bélier Family

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Sadly we’ve become accustomed to the bulk of the French film industry’s output bypassing our shores. Thankfully, a yearly two week festival dedicated to a diverse sampling of recent work continues to make inroads. Other than that, however, the trickle of French films granted general release here has mostly thinned down to a handful of quaint, whimsical, unchallenging crowd-pleasers and ones usually prefaced with dazzling one-line summation from unheard critics proclaiming each film’s heart-warming, life-affirming qualities.

The Belier Family (2014) is no exception; championed by the common folk in France who flocked to it in droves, the film arrives with an impressive range of rave reviews attached. Surely, then, it must have something special going for it? In fact, other than the winning lead performance of big-screen debutant Louane Emera, a former contestant of a French reality tv talent show, the only noteworthy aspects of The Belier Family concern how boring, clichéd and utterly stupid it is. And probably highly offensive to people with hearing impairments I’d imagine.

Depicted in the truly awful The Belier Family are the lives of a deaf husband, Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and wife Gigi (Karen Viard); their teenage son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) is also deaf. Only 16 year old daughter Paula (Emera) is able to hear and she shoulders much of the work connected to the running of the family’s farm, liaising with the locals with the buying of stock and selling of their dairy products at the local market. When she almost inadvertently reveals a wonderful singing voice in music class, she’s encouraged to develop her talent by flamboyant teacher Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino). However Paula is ashamed of her ability, fearing that to pursue it further would mean neglecting from her domestic duties, thus putting their livelihood in jeopardy.

Apparently all deaf people are idiots with restrictive world-views and resentful of anyone – including their daughter – who can hear. So does The Belier Family inform us – time and time again. The film’s relentless, one-note, dumbed-down provincial comedy is so pedestrian and mindless you’d think it was concocted by sparring 14 year olds trying to outdo one another with crudity and obviousness, the concepts of subtlety and wit as alien to their consciousness as the intricate technicalities of brain-surgery. Rodolphe’s attempts to become Mayor are especially laughable, though the dim-witted nature of the narrative struck a nerve, it seems, with the French who obviously split their sides at such laugh-riot scenes as Rodolphe’s interview with local press and his simple plea before a congregation of locals to vote for him despite displaying nothing but idiocy as a platform for his election campaign.

Karen Viard is actually one of my favourite French actresses of the last 20 years. Here, however, she achieves the truly unimaginable in lowering the notion of ‘overacting’ to excruciatingly awful new depths – and without ever uttering a single word in the film. Her absurd gamut of facial expressions and reactions, her overuse of physical gestures are so inappropriate, unbelievable and phony that I was actually cringing with acute embarrassment nearly every time she was on screen. Damiens, another otherwise talented performer, is also left to wither in the margins as director Eric Lartigau’s film takes the road most obviously travelled at every crossroads.

One fine, genuinely moving scene, as the film reaches its inevitable crescendo, partly redeems – though doesn’t come close – to saving it. In the wind up, Paula, you won’t be surprised to learn, gets to sing before judges and her parents at a serious competition and it’s a wonderful showcase for Emera who’s allowed to flaunt her vocal talent. Everything else about this trite and offensive film however, a film painfully lacking aspirations that might allow it to rise above the realm of generic cliché, is utterly irredeemable. Its themes of obligation to family and ties that bind versus following your true path in life have been handled in far more interesting and complex ways in so many other films. Here, simplicity is the only means Lartigau and his screenwriters have at their disposal to sketch their paltry notions of comedy and drama – notions thwarted at every turn by insensitivity towards and cluelessness about the very subject that should have been closest to their hearts when depicting the Belier family.

The Mafia Only Kills in Summer

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A bittersweet coming-of-age, romantic comedy, Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s debut The Mafia Only Kills in Shadow (2014), reveals a far deeper and more serious love for the Sicilian city of Palermo as it progresses. Taking the lead of the grown-up Arturo under his ridiculous shortened moniker ‘Pif’, Diliberto’s role is a continuation of his earlier incarnation’s hapless youthful endeavours to attract the attention of his classroom crush Flora (played with little charisma as an adult by Cristiano Capatondi), who is unduly influenced by Arturo’s more charming best friend.

Much of the film is overlaid with Arturo’s narration which lends a welcome personal perspective of a life lived in the long shadow cast by the nefarious crime organisation, whilst wallowing in some overly sentimental reminiscences tinged with amusing self-deprecation. However Arturo coming-of-age is necessarily related alongside that of the turmoil of living in a city ruled with a bloody ruthlessness by the Mafia. Sporadically, and to discomfiting effect, Diliberto injects moments of serene seriousness in signposting his character’s youth with horribly memorable news footage of esteemed members of society, like policemen and judges, being caught in the crossfire of the Mafia wars.

Strange contradictions abound in Diliberto’s meandering, sometimes annoyingly trite film. He remains determined to play the nostalgic angle from duel perspectives and though it doesn’t always work, the ultimate payoff is an admittedly eerily moving tribute to Palermo’s character, resoluteness and a memorial for its fallen innocents. That Diliberto can wring such a genuine emotional response using the film’s blatantly trivial romantic story – one that never feels credibly established – as the framework for those final 15 minutes is quite a feat considering the variable quality of his semi-autobiographical film to that point.

Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed)

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David Trueba’s feel-good drama casts a warm nostalgic glow in its observance of altruism, decency and a tender, all-encompassing musical passion. Set in Spain, 1966, we first encounter Antonio (Javier Cámara), an impassioned, much-loved, middle-aged teacher whose devotion to The Beatles even involves a meticulous breakdown of their lyrics for his students. When he hears that John Lennon is cross-country acting in a film, he decides, optimistically, to use an entire weekend to drive to the set in Almeria and hopefully make contact with his hero.

Interspersing these early scenes, two further important characters are shown at moments of crisis, with a sense of disconnectedness forming the basis of their growing pains. Belen (Natalia de Molina), a pregnant young woman, is desperate to flee a nunnery and return home to her mother. Meanwhile, teenager Juanjo (Francesc Colomer) is finding life tough as just another sibling attempting to forge his own identity under the strict family life imposed by a policeman father (Jorge Sanz). For him, refusing to get his Beatles-like mop-top cut is an act of defiance, and enough to inspire him to hit the road.

Soon the lives of these three strangers converge as Antonio encounters both and for a while Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed) (2014) becomes a road movie. Then the trio arrive in the seaside town closest to where Lennon is filming. All are nursing various hurts, and Antonio expects Belen and Juanjo to simply go their own way. But Belen, having warmed to Antonio, sticks close by and Juanjo gets a job at the local, sparsely-populated tavern of owner Ramon (Ramon Fontsere).

It’s impossible to dislike this film; at the heart of the light drama is the ridiculously likable Antonio. He’s a kind of lovable loser, having never found true love. In a moment of honesty he admits, without the slightest tinge of bitterness, that he’s “all heart” but with nothing to show for it. Yet he’s devoted to his causes and passions in a way that every like-minded person can relate to.

Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed) is not trying to re-invent the wheel; to be critical you might say it lacks real substance but its underlying messages and congeniality are what make it a memorable treat. It often made me laugh out loud or smile whilst simultaneously provoking a reflection on the harshness of fate, as in the burden placed on Ramon with his handicapped son Bruno (Rogelio Fernandez) – a sub-plot that never once allows sentimental manipulation to colour a series of brief, but genuinely affecting scenes.

So much hangs on Cámara, and he breathes magnificent life into Antonio; we believe every word and gesture from this gentle, generous man who is able to put his young passengers at ease and draw them out of their shells by infecting them with his love of life, experience and, of course, music. Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed) never shies away from darker contexts in the way it approaches the coming-of-age aspects of the narrative, yet at its soulful core – in the journey of Antonio – Treuba’s screenplay is built upon a rare and precious kind of positivity. Perhaps it gazes at life through mildly rose-tinted glasses, but every once in a while, what’s the harm in that?

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Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed) is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.