Café Society, Woody Allen’s latest movie, comes wrapped in a double layer of nostalgia. Set in the 1930s, partly in Los Angeles, its script compulsively mentions Hollywood stars of the era. Joan Blondell! Robert Taylor! Barbara Stanwyck! Cagney and Crawford! Astaire and Rogers! Their names ring out like answers to trivia questions nobody had thought to ask.
When I saw this at a theater in Austin, one fellow a few rows behind me chuckled at every name. I don’t think because the allusions were especially funny — the sentence "Adolphe Menjou is threatening to walk off the set" is not exactly a gut-buster, even in context — but because they signified a cultural awareness that the laugher in the dark wanted the rest of us to know he shared. And also perhaps because the dropped names stood in for jokes that the modern audience is too ignorant to get and that Allen has grown too lazy to make. He can gaze back fondly at the fast-receding golden age of Depression-era popular culture, and the rest of us can wistfully recall a time when he was able to spin those memories into better films than this one.
There’s no point in growing misty-eyed. Café Society is not Radio Days or Bullets Over Broadway. We can live with that. I’m happy to report that it’s not The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Magic in the Moonlight, either. Which is to say that it’s neither another example of bad, late Woody Allen nor much in the way of a return to form. It is, overall, an amusing little picture, with some inspired moments and some sour notes, a handful of interesting performances and the hint, now and then, of an idea.
Like most of Allen’s recent work, this movie takes place within the hermetically enclosed universe of its maker’s long-established preoccupations. Rather than find fresh themes or problems, he likes to rearrange the old ones into a newish pattern, emphasizing some elements and letting others drift into the background. Here the dominant conceit is Allen’s well-documented ambivalence about California and the industry that has often seemed ambivalent about him. He loves movies, but Hollywood, with its shallowness and gossip, has always repelled him.
But with the help of his gifted collaborators, the production designer Santo Loquasto and the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, he bathes "the film colony" in golden light and swathes its denizens in lovely period clothes. He sends an ambitious Bronx boy, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), out West to seek his fortune. At first cold-shouldered by his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent, Bobby is eventually taken under Phil’s wing and plunged into a swirl of parties and power lunches. He’s suitably intoxicated by his new surroundings.
"I’ve never mixed Champagne with bagels and lox," he says.
"Welcome to Hollywood," someone replies.
That’s not a bad line, and there are some other pretty good ones sprinkled throughout the sprawling script. Bobby’s bickering parents, played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, supply a few Yiddish-inflected laughs, as well as the requisite touch of metaphysical fatalism. ("I accept death, but under protest," Dad says. "Protest to who?" Mom responds. Also not a bad line.) The ensemble is larger and the story looser than in Allen’s last few movies, making room for Corey Stoll’s relaxed turn as Bobby’s charismatic gangster brother and Parker Posey and Paul Schneider’s intriguing double act as a cynical and apparently happily married pair of bicoastal sophisticates.
The axis on which everything turns is an old-fashioned love triangle that includes, of course, the passion of an older man for a younger woman. It turns out that Bobby and Phil are both in love with a transplanted Nebraskan called Vonnie (short for Veronica), who is Phil’s secretary. Kristen Stewart’s performance in the role, which blends gravity and lightness, glamour and its opposite, is certainly the best part of Café Society, but it also exposes just how thin and tired the rest of the movie is.
Allen’s literal voice, which supplies narration, sounds unusually sluggish and weary. The same is true of his voice as a writer and director. For every snappy scene or exchange there are three or four that feel baggy and half-written. We are treated to one survey of the clientele at the swanky Manhattan nightclub that is Bobby’s post-Hollywood professional perch and then, a while later, to another. We wander into jazz clubs and dining rooms and seem unsure of why we’ve come. Blake Lively, wandering into the movie’s second half as a second Veronica, seems to feel the same way. The movie seems much longer than its 96 minutes.
Every once in a while we hear or see something that makes us cringe a little: a harsh, unfunny encounter between Bobby and a prostitute shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles; an anecdote about Errol Flynn’s sexual interest in underage girls. It’s hard to say if Allen is testing the audience’s tolerance or trolling our sensitivities, or for that matter if he’s just blithely carrying on as he always has, oblivious to changing mores or the vicissitudes of his own reputation.. It doesn’t really matter because Café Society ultimately poses no interesting questions about its maker or its characters. The movie most closely resembles the kind of Hollywood product for which its deepest nostalgia is reserved. It’s a pop-culture throwaway, a charming bit of trivia, the punch line to a half-forgotten joke.
Our Kind of Traitor **
And why not — if you overlook his Russian mafia tattoos and a career of corruption, extortion, and murder, Dima (an overly bearish Stellan Skarsgård) is just a family guy at heart. As a kid he witnessed his mother being raped by a KGB agent. He took the guy’s gun and shot him. "It was my mother," he explains to Perry (Ewan McGregor), the mild British literature professor he buttonholes at a party. "I’m sentimental."
The party is a decadent oligarchical bash in Marrakech where Perry, like the reluctant heroes in Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, is an unwitting vacationer who finds himself the bearer of a life or death message. Dima is the odd man out in a mob power shift. To save his skin — and, more importantly, to save his big, spoiled family — he is trying to arrange a deal with British intelligence using Perry as a go-between.
Despite the fact that Perry is at odds with his wife (Naomie Harris) for sleeping with a student, Dima sees him as a "gentleman," loyal to family and willing to take foolhardy risks for the sake of honor. Eventually, that’s how Perry sees himself also.
Perhaps Perry’s self discovery occurs while he lectures to a class about T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, explaining how that poem’s description of a world that has lost its values is now more valid than ever. Whatever the turning point, his transformation from feckless academic to stalwart knight occurs too easily. It should be the heart of the story, but instead is just a troublesome detail in a hollow movie.
Alice Through the Looking Glass *
In Disney’s crass, pointless sequel to its similarly crass, pointless Alice in Wonderland (2010), our heroine doesn’t just tumble down a rabbit hole or step through a magic mirror. Availing herself of an early DeLorean prototype called the Chronosphere, Alice (played again by Mia Wasikowska) goes careening back and forth through time, embarking on a frenzied quest to save her friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) by plumbing his messy family history and correcting the mistakes of the past.
It’s a pity she doesn’t set the device for 2007: Perhaps she might have retroactively persuaded the director Tim Burton and the decision-makers at Disney to spare us the further desecration of a literary classic. Their live-action Alice in Wonderland was less an adaptation of its source material — which included both Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) — than an exercise in what the Mock Turtle memorably termed "Uglification." A gloppy-looking 3-D eyesore weighed down by noisy action sequences and other soul-deadening focus-group notions of what kids want from their fantasy entertainment, the movie reproduced none of Carroll’s cleverness, imagination or mastery of language, or even the easygoing charm of Disney’s 1951 animated version.
Still, it was enough of a box-office hit to garner a follow-up, this time under the direction of James Bobin (who directed the two most recent Muppets movies). Burton's devotees will be relieved to learn that, even in his absence, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast of garishly overwrought, effects-encrusted production design. Meanwhile, the returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton (best remembered for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) has again plundered elements from Carroll’s books and reshuffled them into a pedestrian narrative, replacing his sui generis nonsense with her own strenuously unimaginative and literal-minded storytelling.
Picking up more or less where its predecessor left off — and no, I couldn’t remember where, either — the film begins with Alice on the high seas, captaining her late father’s ship, the Wonder, through perilous waters in search of trade routes to China (reintroducing a perhaps unintended metaphor for the global challenges presently facing the movie industry). As played by Wasikowska with grown-up, no-nonsense seriousness, Alice is a trailblazing explorer and a Victorian-era role model: Decked out in the latest in 19th century Sino chic, she is beset on all sides by sneering men who want to either marry her or see her fail.
From there, the story quickly whisks Alice through the proverbial looking glass and back to Wonderland — or Underland, as it is inconsistently referred to here. Before long she is reunited with the ethereally ditzy White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the imperious butterfly Absolem (occasioning a few poignant final line readings from Alan Rickman). Her old friends are happy to see her, as it seems only Alice can cure the Mad Hatter of his recent descent into catatonic depression.
As a rule, unless you’re Spike Jonze adapting Maurice Sendak, it’s not a great idea to turn your fantasy-world characters into moody therapy cases. Alice Through the Looking Glass is rarely more tiresome than when it’s probing the Hatter’s deep-seated daddy issues, which can’t help but feel like a tired holdover from familiar Burtonian territory (see, if you must: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Depp, again sporting multihued makeup and a Carrot Top wig, isn't playing Mad so much as Morose as he tries — with simpering, sometimes nauseating results — to unlock the tragic clown within.
The Hatter isn’t the only one suffering the effects of some distant family trauma. There’s also the head-hungry Red Queen, played once more by Helena Bonham Carter with a witchy cackle and a severe case of computer-generated macrocephaly. We learn exactly how she and her younger sister, the White Queen, became lifelong enemies, in flashbacks to their checkered past that play like outtakes from What Ever Happened to Baby Queen? Of all the ways to bring Carroll’s characters to life on screen, is there anything more tedious one could do than try to explain them — to subject them to the tenets of modern-day psychoanalysis? What’s next? Humpty-Dumpty’s secret history of sexual deviance? Tweedledum and Tweedledee: A Study in Codependency?
The inconvenient truth of the original books is that they have never been particularly well suited to cinematic adaptation. As anyone who has spent hours poring over Martin Gardner’s marvelous The Annotated Alice knows, the two-part Alice narrative is less a traditional story than a brainy free-associative labyrinth — densely packed with puns, poems, parodies, allusions and riddles, and assembled with an almost architectural rigor and complexity (Carroll was, among other things, an accomplished mathematician).
Understandably, filmmakers have tended to seize on the fabulous images offered up by the author’s work, but the truest version of Alice would be a verbal achievement first and foremost, not a visual one. But even allowing for a less faithful, more free-form adaptation, Alice Through the Looking Glass, like Alice in Wonderland before it, represents a profound failure of imagination and a betrayal of the material’s spirit.
At every turn the filmmakers have simplified, banalized and sentimentalized Alice and her psychological landscape in ways that reek of ignorance at best and cynicism at worst. Watching these movies, you would never guess the Jabberwocky was the subject of one of the most linguistically inventive poems ever written; he’s just another forgettable, fire-breathing CGI beastie. And while it’s never unpleasant to spend time in Wasikowska’s company, the actress doesn’t seem to be playing a strong fantasy heroine so much as some vague, derivative concept of what a strong fantasy heroine should be.
As Alice flies between past and present, her chief nemesis — and eventually, her ally — is Time itself, played here as a sort of tyrannical, Teutonic-accented man-clock by Sacha Baron Cohen (who previously worked with Bobin on Da Ali G Show). The jab at German efficiency elicits a small chuckle, and your jaw might drop at the sight of Time’s castle — a massive mechanical enclave that brings the gears and pulleys of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo to mind and serves as a nicely gothic contrast to the film’s bright, gaudy colors. For a brief moment, time really does seem to stand still, and you may stop begrudging this misbegotten movie for wasting yours.
Independence Day: Resurgence *
Not that it matters, really. Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel you probably didn’t want or need to the 1996 smash-hit blockbuster Independence Day, is all about the spectacle. And yes, all massive seasonal disaster pictures are like that — especially when they come from director Roland Emmerich, returning from the original Independence Day. Shock and awe are his bread and butter.
But Resurgence — which, surprisingly, isn’t the title of a fourth Divergent movie — feels even more shiny and empty than most of these kinds of films. It’s not completely terrible. It’s just dull and hollow — a massive waste of time and money. The characters are flimsy, the dialogue is stilted and the amount of destruction is ridiculous, even if that’s all pretty typical for the brand of blockbusters inspired by Emmerich's 1996 hit.
You go see a movie like Independence Day for the visceral thrills, but here, they’re in woefully short supply. Because so many movies have come along in the past two decades featuring this kind of high-tech annihilation, Resurgence feels like a glossy copy of the sort of blockbuster we’ve watched countless times before. Entire cities get sucked up into the sky and dropped back down again. Fighter jets engage in dizzying dogfights with speedy alien aircraft. Major global landmarks get blowed up real good. There is exactly one scene toward the end, featuring a big reveal of the real enemy, that offers the sort of excitement and stakes you’re hoping to see. But man, is it a slog to get there.
Will Smith wisely opted out of the sequel, although the original Independence Day is the movie that made him a superstar. Several actors do return, however, to establish some vague sense of continuity. They include Bill Pullman as the former President of the United States, Jeff Goldblum as the voice-of-reason alien defense expert and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father, who ostensibly exists to provide comic relief but merely functions once again as a lame stereotype of an elderly Jewish man from Brooklyn. (The screenplay, which bafflingly took five people to write, allows him to say the words "schmuck" AND "putz.")
Added to the mix this time is a multicultural array of young actors who do little more than run, look pretty and exchange green laser fire with aliens. Liam Hemsworth, who apparently was told that he’s starring in a Top Gun remake, plays Jake, a hotshot fighter pilot who swaggers, preens and exchanges wisecracking banter with his partner/Goose figure, Charlie (Travis Tope). He’s engaged to Patricia (Maika Monroe), who’s the daughter of Pullman’s former President Whitmore and a speechwriter for the current president (Sela Ward). And Jake’s best-friend-turned-enemy just happens to be Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Smith’s heroic character. (Handsome as he is, Usher doesn’t have a smidgen of the screen presence Smith did; then again, who does? Even Hemsworth doesn’t get much of a chance to show any real charisma here.)
There’s also William Fichtner who, surprisingly, doesn’t turn out to be a secret villain for once as the commanding general; model/actress Angelababy, who basically exists to serve as eye candy and appeal to coveted Chinese moviegoers; and, in the strangest bit of casting of all, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a psychiatrist studying people who’ve come into contact with aliens.
And — what are the odds? — the aliens have come back, exactly 20 years later in a flair for the dramatic, to make contact again. Only this time, they’re in a spaceship that’s 3,000 miles wide. ("How the hell did we miss this?," Goldblum’s David Levinson wonders aloud.) They use it to latch onto Earth in order to drill into its core and steal our resources. Or something. Only a giant, talking orb — smooth, shiny, white and full of crucial intergalactic information, like the latest must-have device to roll off the Apple assembly line — can stop the obliteration of humanity.
You could look at it as a satirical metaphor for the growing sense of xenophobia and isolation that plagues places throughout the globe: "These invaders are coming here illegally to take from us and wreak havoc. We have to keep them out. We have to make Earth great again." But that would require thinking.
Emmerich crosscuts between all these various characters and storylines with little sense of pacing or coherence. Just as something "important" is happening, he’ll jump over to something else, mixing suspense, seriousness and silliness in a way that’s jarring. Whereas the attempts at humor in the midst of great peril often worked in the original Independence Day — because it was a movie that was self-aware without teetering into parody — here, they’re consistently clunky.
And because so much of the action takes place in various bunkers full of enormous monitors and anxious, uniformed people barking orders, it’s hard to tell who’s where. Washington D.C.? Area 51? The moon? They all look exactly the same.
They will all look exactly the same again — at least to the aliens — when the inevitable third Independence Day movie comes out, as it’s suggested in the film’s final moments. This time, you’ve been warned.
Other new DVD releases this week:
What We Become **½ It’s the same low-budget horror flick you’ve seen many times before, but it’s nice to see some local variants on a familiar theme.
Front Cover ** A movie weighed down by heavy-handed dialogue and a melodramatic score.
Spaceman * Throughout the film, the wrong characters are in focus, inexplicable close-ups abound, and director Brett Rapkin’s got the camera on rails, moving and panning for seemingly no reason.
The Good Neighbor * A film that — from its basic set-up to its dearth of tension — plays like the tedious inverse of Don't Breathe.
Ghost Team ½* Neither scary nor funny.
God’s Not Dead 2 ½* This is a much better movie than God’s Not Dead, but that’s a bit like saying a glass of milk left on the table hasn’t curdled and is merely sour.
No stars Abysmal