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Café Society (2016)
Directed by Woody Allen • Written by Woody Allen
With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll and Blake Lively
Woody Allen’s 47th film (his first shot on digital) is a dreamy trip back to grand old Hollywood, which centres on a love triangle between Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell. Taking place between competing L.A and New York, Café Society is the sort of experience that can remind us why we love the enduring mythical glamour of the silver screen.
While Allen pokes fun at the kiss-ass business that circles movie star culture, he’s also keen to amplify its larger-than-life appeal. More than most, he can be kicked around in critic circles – often for not living up to his former glories or repeating them. But here, he gets a good balance, as his actors slip effectively into their roles as the story gains traction.
Working with Allen for the first time, the legendary Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, evoking a sumptuous, luxurious feel in capturing the dreamlike nature of Hollywood high-life in the 1930’s. Indeed, there at least a dozen shot compositions worthy of framing and hanging.
As the film’s lead character, it’s as if Jesse Eisenberg’s body is being used as a host to channel Woody Allen in his prime, which is established early, in a funny scene he shares with Anna Camp – the latter playing an inexperienced prostitute on her first day. As it occurs, Eisenberg is an excellent fit for Allen’s wittering rhetoric – his sweet-natured nervousness and intelligence giving way to the occasional neurotic outburst. The symbiosis between actor and director is reinforced by Allen’s admittedly wobbly narration.
In their third onscreen pairing, Kristen Stewart’s unorthodox charm continues to lock well with Jesse Eisenberg’s. Add to that another fine performance by Steve Carrel and the film achieves a rounded sense of what it wants to be, as toe-tapping jazz music is piped through almost every scene.
Rather than saying Café Society isn’t Woody Allen’s best work, it’s fairer to point out that it finds him on form and with purpose. There’s a half-baked mafia subplot fizzling away in the background, but the central love triangle keeps our interest while the dipped-in-elegance photography makes it easily worth the ticket.
Directed by Antonio Campos • Written by Craig Shilowich
With Rebecca Hall, Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall
The true story of 1970’s TV reporter, Christine Chubbuck, Antonio Campos’s biopic chronicles her life in the days leading up to her shocking suicide, which she carried out in front of a live television audience.
There’s an interesting blend of tones and textures, as a battleground of two warring mentalities between Christine’s idealistic optimism and suffocating anxiety is played out through soundtrack choices and an affectionate eye for the period.
In the title role, Rebecca Hall’s performance is utterly fascinating in its complexity – Christine’s inner torment giving way to frantic outbursts in the competitive world of TV news, where appearances come first and weakness is disease. Indeed, it’s a stark reminder of the change in general awareness toward depression. As the story unfolds, Christine’s demeanor fluctuates with increasing regularity, revving into a cycle of fatal inconsistency. Hall is astonishingly good, capturing endless amounts nuance as her downward spiral accelerates. It’s one of those performances that has you questioning how ‘Oscar‘ never came calling.
Hall is supported by a good cast, most notably Michael C. Hall as a supportive colleague and Tracy Letts as the frustrated station chief desperately scouting for the next big story as the Watergate scandal subliminally unfolds in the background. There’s a good sense of irony to that aspect of the narrative, which lends a duality to the layers on which the film operates. In no small sense, as much as Christine is about the tragedy of one woman’s personal demise, it’s also a glance at the dawn of modern media reporting, and the way in which reality television emerged and gained relevance.
Solitary Man (2010)
Directed by Brian Koppelman & David Levien • Written by Brian Koppelman
With Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jenna Fischer and Danny DeVito
Halfway into his sixth decade, the sight of Michael Douglas returning to the role of a lothario feels like some kind of comeback. In his most prominent parts, he’s played self-consumed characters in love with money and sex; Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Wall Street – all strongly flavoured films centering on themes of addiction to danger and excess. Indeed, Douglas’s real life woes of sex addiction add a dark credence to this role of Ben Kalmen, a man who when we meet him, is battling to be his younger self in a world that refuses to accommodate his ways.
Co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Koppelman wrote the script) – the film provokes dividing thoughts on our outlook on ageing and maturity. It is an intimate story that questions our idea of how a man in his 60’s should behave – on one hand, we’re willing Douglas’s character to defy age and live his life to the fullest, yet his selfish ways have distracted him to the point of damaging his most meaningful relationships… not to mention his career.
The framing of his character is established in a six years earlier scene, as Douglas consults with a doctor about a health irregularity. It’s this event that flicks a switch in his attitude, sparking an anxiety that births both denial and excess. Douglas is excellent, playing the conflict of his character with a degree of understanding worn across his famous face. In crucial scenes, a simmering Imogen Poots is a tantalising bait for Douglas’s ill-discipline, while Jenna Fischer emits warmth through a curtain of tough love in the role of his disappointed daughter.
Despite strong writing by Brian Koppelman and a notable supporting cast, Solitary Man is largely considered as incidental. It can’t help but meander, at times, yet it remains a solid drama with some real world connotations and Douglas is perfectly placed in a role that evokes ghosts of his past.
Directed by Pablo Larraín • Written by Noah Oppenheim
With Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt
Told largely from the perspective of the person closest to one of the most shocking events in post-war American history, Chilean director Pablo Larraín directs Natalie Portman in the title role of Jackie Kennedy, covering occurrences directly before, during and after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Texas.
In taking the challenge of depicting a world-famous public figure, Portman demonstrates what a gusty actress she is. Undeterred by the inevitable scrutiny, she captures a combination of vulnerability and strength in the way she movingly expresses the mood and essence of a woman whose entire world is violently uprooted. While Portman’s face is more sculpted than that of the real Jackie, the style, elegance, bravery and soul of a woman surrounded by extremities are laid bare for us to see.
The reactions of those immediately surrounding her are often surprising – the political scurrying to realign office teeters precariously on the brink of disrespect. With Jackie Kennedy present, shocked to her core and still covered in the blood of her assassinated husband, hands shake and half-smiles of congratulation are exchanged, as aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as the new President of the United States. It makes for a surreal scene, demonstrating the unparalleled nature of high political life – for a brief moment, an unfeeling peek behind the curtain at a position where human sentiment is a secondary priority to the imperatives of the political system.
The non-linear approach to the storytelling takes its foundations from the first interview Jackie did with a ‘Life’ magazine journalist (Billy Crudup), mere days after the assassination. The tragedy is juxtaposed with a TV broadcast of Jackie’s famous White House tour – the privilidge of her glamorous surroundings, so empty in the face of personal loss, highlighting the meaninglessness of possesions.
In Mica Levi’s hypnotic musical accompaniment, we feel the sound of a mournful awakening – something almost alien as the turmoil of Jackie is emphasised by a grey cloud of sadness etched on the face of each person she encounters.
Supported by accurate production and art design, Pablo Larraín’s film captures the essential flavour of the time, with Portman’s striking performance given further credence by Peter Sarsgaard’s fine portral of Bobby Kennedy and a warm-hearted Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, a senior figure in the Kennedy administration.
A study on raw grief and a reflection on one’s purpose in the world in the aftermath of tragedy, the film seeks to show hope in shared scenes between Portman and John Hurt, whose own recent passing imbues a feeling of poignancy which deepens the meaning and resonance of their screen time – glimmers of light through a thick encompassing fog of despair.