Cafe Society

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Woody Allen has always had a particularly deft touch directing women.

Over the course of his career, an astounding twelve actresses have been nominated for thirteen Oscars for appearing in Woody Allen films, and six times they have walked away as winners. Diane Keaton started the streak at the 1978 Academy Awards, where she won Best Actress for Annie Hall. The next year, Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—for Interiors; and Mariel Hemingway was nominated the following year for her supporting turn in Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan. At the 1987 Oscars, Dianne Wiest won Best Supporting Actress for Hannah and Her Sisters; and Judy Davis gave a volcanic performance, earning a Supporting Actress nomination, in 1992’s Husbands and Wives. Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly both garnered nominations for Supporting Actress, with Wiest earning her second win, for Bullets Over Broadway in 1995. Mira Sorvino took home an improbable Supporting Actress Oscar the next year for Mighty Aphrodite. Samantha Morton earned a Supporting Actress nomination for 1999’s Sweet and Low Down. Penelope Cruz smoldered and erupted her way to a Supporting Actress win in 2009 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And then Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—with Blanchett the runaway winner for 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

There won’t be any Oscar nominations for Allen’s latest film, Café Society, but once again it is the women who make the film worthwhile, mostly notably Kristen Stewart, who here crackles with intelligence, warmth, and charisma.

Café Society is set in the Hollywood and New York of the 1930’s, a bygone era of glamor, romance, and excitement that has been an obsession of Allen’s for decades. Bobby, a naïve young Bronx boy (Jesse Eisenberg), moves to the West Coast and falls in love with the secretary (Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie) of his uncle, a mogul-ish agent to the stars played by Steve Carell. The relationship gets complicated when Bobby discovers that he is the short leg in an isosceles love triangle, and—heart broken—he packs up and moves back to Manhattan to run a ritzy nightclub with his gangster brother (Corey Stoll).

In recent years, Allen’s movies have taken on the aspect of wistful novellas, often with omniscient, detached narrators doing the heavy lifting not only in terms of moving the plot forward but even in expressing and explaining the emotional state of his characters. In some instances—Vicky Cristina Barcelona and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger—the device works to varying degrees. In others, like Café Society, it does not. Here, Allen’s voice over recitation of the plot—voiced by Allen himself—strips all the urgency out of the conflicts and interactions of the characters, literally telling us the story while relegating the scenes that the actors are left to play as random vignettes that merely serve to illustrate or punctuate his narration.

But while that narrative device slows and undermines the story, it is Jesse Eisenberg’s limp, tedious performance that ultimately deadens the proceedings entirely.

Eisenberg has given some interesting, effective performances in his career, including his Academy Award nominated turn in The Social Network, but after a solid effort last year in the underrated The End of the Tour, he is having a bad, bad 2016. From his desperately embarrassing Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the why-in-God’s-name-did-it-get-a-sequel Now You See Me 2, Eisenberg’s effort in Café Society makes it a trifecta of futility.

One common thread that weaves its way through Eisenberg’s 2016 travails is simply that the actor doesn’t fit the role. Eisenberg made his bones playing nerdy, awkward kids in movies like The Squid and the Whale, Roger Dodger, and Adventureland, and so turning in a career-best performance as those characters grown-up and embittered, as he did in The Social Network, made perfect sense. In Café Society, however, while Eisenberg fits as the shy, naïve Bronx kid who opens the story, he is not nearly up to the task of transforming into the confident, charismatic success that he is supposed to be by the end of the film. And willful suspension of disbelief may be the stock-and-trade of the Hollywood dream factory, but asking us to buy that Eisenberg can make both Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively fall in love with him over the course 96 minutes is simply a bridge too far.

Which brings us back to Stewart.

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For a young actress, Stewart has had an awfully prolific career so far, including ten films just since 2014 alone. All that experience has helped her tap and tame her natural, raw talent, and the magnetic charm and youthful maturity she puts on display in Café Society suggests an actress ready to come into her own.

While Stewart steals the show as the irresistible Vonnie, Parker Posey in a supporting role and Blake Lively in what is essentially an extended cameo both shine, as well. Posey, especially, gives more personality to what is basically just the sketch outline of a human being than most actors do to fully fleshed out characters, proving once again that one of Allen’s greatest assets as a director is his ability to take a great actress, point her in the right direction, and then just get out of her way.

As for Allen himself, his central preoccupations have changed little over the years, and Café Society reflects his passion for Hollywood of yesteryear, his love of all things New York, and his infatuation with gangsters and other streetwise character who—as he rhapsodized in Manhattan—“know all the angles”. And, of course, even in a trifling work like Café Society, Allen cannot help but ponder the core philosophical quandaries that he returns to time and time and time again in his oeuvre.

As one character opines in Café Society: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. But…the examined one is no bargain.”

The Shallows

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The shark may well be the ultimate screen villain.

Deadly. Relentless. Without mercy. A killing machine with no pity, remorse, or shame. As someone said in the most famous shark movie of them all, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”

And when it kills–whoa!—it kills in spectacular fashion.

In time, The Shallows—the new thriller from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra—will be remembered, if at all, as just another shark movie. But in the moment, The Shallows is a taught, suspenseful survival tale that pits a game Blake Lively against Mother Nature’s perfect engine.

Lively’s grief-stricken surfer girl, Nancy, has lost her mother to cancer, left medical school, and retreated to a secluded Mexican beach to forget her troubles and ride the spectacular southern swells. Had she headed back to town after lunch, it truly would have been the perfect day. But, alas, she stays out a bit longer than she should, and before you can say “girl in peril”, she finds herself laying on an isolated rock two hundred yards from shore, blood gushing from a savage shark bite in her leg, and the rising tide threatening to wash her off of her safe place and into the jaws (no pun intended) of the great white shark lurking in the dark water. Facing near-impossible odds, the determined and resourceful Nancy rediscovers her lost will to live and sets about trying to find a way to get herself to safety before it’s too late.

Like many shark movies that take themselves seriously (no, I’m not talking to you, Sharknado), The Shallows must be judged against Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece. That said, is it fair to say that The Shallows is better than one or more movies that has Jaws in its title followed by a number? Yes, absolutely. Does it even come close to the original Jaws? No way.

Then again, what does?

Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre in the history of film. Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, the rich characters—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is. Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

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On its own terms, The Shallows provides its fair share of scares, as well, though its killer shark occasionally seems to be a bit too obsessed with  Nancy when, as the saying goes, there are plenty of other fish (and mammals, for that matter) in the sea. The great white of The Shallows seems to have been inspired by the masked killers of the 80’s slasher cycle in its single-minded drive to kill this one specific victim, but considering the tasty way in which the film presents Blake Lively, perhaps it’s hard to blame the precocious fish.

Especially in the film’s early scenes, director Collet-Serra leers at Lively. His gaze lingers on her every curve, from front to back, like a creepy neighbor in an upstairs window with a pair of binoculars.  He cuts from the magnificence of the secluded beach to the gorgeous tree line to Lively peeling off her clothes like she’s just another part of the scenery.

Lively, though, rises above it and proves to be much more than a pretty face. As the movie’s sole actor for probably 90% of its running time, Lively anchors the film effectively and does well to create a real character out of what essentially is a one-line scenario:  What would happen if a girl got caught alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere and had to match wills against a great white shark? There isn’t much room there for character development, but Lively does her level best.

In the end, though, The Shallows has little to do with character, plot, story, or any other element of traditional narrative. It’s about tension, suspense, and a massive, angry, lunging shark. In retrospect, that’s probably not enough. But in the dark of the theater, it makes for good, engaging summer entertainment.