Café Society

(USA 2016)

“First a murderer, then he becomes a Christian! What did I do to deserve this?”

—Rose Dorfman

Those who aren’t fans of late-period Woody Allen are unlikely to change their mind with Café Society, a stylish period piece set in Depression Era Hollywood. It lacks the bite of his best work; in fact, it shows him in a far more nostalgic state of mind than ever. As a summer release, though, Café Society is a competent, engaging comedy with a lot of charm.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a bright, affable, ambitious, and angsty young New Yorker. The problem is, he hasn’t got a plan—which is probably the source of his angst. With little more than good manners, a strong work ethic, and hope, he leaves Brooklyn for ostensibly greener pastures in Los Angeles, where his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a big time agent to the stars. Bobby tracks down his uncle, who dodges him for a week before hiring him as his personal assistant.

Uncle Phil shows Bobby the ropes around Hollywood, promoting him to different, better positions in a short time. They kind of bond. While this is going on, Bobby gets friendly with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). They hang out. A lot. She has a beau, she tells Bobby, and they’re on the D.L. because he’s married. Bobby falls for her, anyway, but she keeps him at bay. Vonnie tells Bobby only that her beau works as a reporter, and is older than she is. She also mentions the gift she gives him for their first anniversary: a picture of Rudolph Valentino.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

L.A. is sunny, but not really Bobby’s thing. He longs for New York, and decides to go back. Meanwhile, we learn that Phil is having an affair—with Vonnie. Phil vascilates about leaving his wife, decides he can’t do it, and dumps Vonnie on their first anniversary. Vonnie quits her job and dates Bobby, seriously. They plan to move to Greenwich Village and get married. Phil changes his mind, and decides he can’t live without Vonnie. He wants her back. A turn of events reveals the triangle to Bobby, and the real story begins.

Café Society deals with fame, fortune, and fidelity. The plot is nicely layered: interesting but not overly complicated. It doesn’t even take long for the “Big Reveal.” Every character is likable but hardly innocent. The sets are gorgeous. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is crisp and glitzy—at times, the color palette and grade resemble Lawrence of Arabia. Odd, but cool.

The cast is excellent, which for a Woody Allen film is par for the course: Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Blake Lively, Paul Schneider, even Parker Posey. Eisenberg channels Allen really well—the way he speaks, his body language and hand gestures, even his facial ticks. A hilarious exchange between Bobby and a girl-for-hire named Candy (Anna Camp) who shows up late at his apartment is nothing short of genius. As good as Eisenberg is, though, Stewart is the star, and she steals every scene she’s in: she’s cool, mean, flip, vulnerable, and ultimately a sellout. She’s also beautiful. Berlin is another scene-stealer as Bobby’s Jewish mother, Rose.

Surprisingly, Steve Carell is the weak link. I don’t buy him as an agent, a ball-busting businessman, or even a Jew. Not for a second. He’s too soft. Harmless. Cuddly, even. He comes off as Michael Scott from The Office more than anything. I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in, even The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This one, however, doesn’t work.

96 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

The Infiltrator

(USA 2016)

Bryan Cranston has come a long way from his stint as Tim Whatley, Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist. He’s an excellent choice to play Robert “Bob” Mazur, a U.S. Customs agent who in 1985 went undercover as fictitious New Jersey money launderer Bob Musella to work his way into the trafficking network of Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar. With the assistance of fellow agents Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Mazur—to use his words—“followed the money” instead of the drugs. It led to one of the biggest drug busts in American history.

Based on Mazur’s memoir The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, director Brad Furman—whose mother, Ellen Brown Furman, wrote the script—lets Cranston go absolutely apeshit with his character. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Mazur and Breaking Bad’s Walter White; it’s glaringly obvious that both characters are essentially family guys who choose a dangerous double life that consumes them to the point of losing who they are—not to mention their lives. This plays out exquisitely in a scene where a cartel member (Simón Andreu) who knows Musella spots Mazur and his wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), having a quiet anniversary dinner at a restaurant.

The Infiltrator is a good movie. Despite occasionally feeling like an episode of Miami Vice, it nonetheless has an intensity that slowly comes to a boil, and when it finally does: BOOM! The moral dilemma of betraying the people not only who come to trust Musella but also welcome him into their lives adds a dramatic slant that movies like this tend to lack. I was riveted. Considering its subject matter, though, The Infiltrator doesn’t exactly move fast. It’s more of a low key character study fueled by what’s going on in Mazur’s head. Benjamin Bratt, Yul Vazquez, and even Olympia Dukakis turn in great performances. There are some dark, funny moments along with some really unsettling scenes—like a weird voodoo ritual, an out-of-nowhere drive-by, and murder on the dance floor. It remains to be seen how memorable The Infiltrator proves to be, though.

127 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B


Vampire’s Kiss

(USA 1989)

“Alva, there is no one else in this entire office that I could possibly ask to share such a horrible job. You’re the lowest on the totem pole here, Alva. The lowest. Do you realize that? Every other secretary here has been here longer than you, Alva. Every one. And even if there was someone here who was here even one day longer than you, I still wouldn’t ask that person to partake in such a miserable job as long as you were around. That’s right, Alva. It’s a horrible, horrible job; sifting through old contract after old contract. I couldn’t think of a more horrible job if I wanted to. And you have to do it!”

—Peter Loew

Vampire’s Kiss is a strange one. Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) is a yuppie literary agent in Manhattan. He spends his days working on clients and berating his assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), who can’t locate a contract from 25 years ago. He spends his nights picking up one-night stands at bars and clubs. He also sees a psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley), who is getting concerned about him.

One night, Loew picks up a hot vixen named Rachel (Jennifer Beals) and brings her back to his apartment. During their romp, she bites him on the neck. Thus begins his descent as he gradually turns into a vampire. Eeek!

After getting past his affected accent—a curious not to mention annoying mix of British guy and Valley dude that comes and goes depending on where he is—it’s fun to watch Cage act more and more like a lunatic as his character unravels. Loew becomes increasingly weird, disheveled, and belligerent, especially toward Alva. He eats bugs and birds. He converts his apartment into a crypt complete with a makeshift coffin. He avoids daylight and keeps sunglasses on at all times. The bit with him running around all night one Saturday wearing fake plastic vampire teeth he bought at a magic shop is truly funny.

It doesn’t take long for the whole thing to get old, though. Robert Bierman’s directing isn’t bad, but it’s hard to tell what exactly is behind the decidedly misogynistic vibe. Aside from scenes of New York City in the late ’80s and laughable knock-offs of New Order and Dead or Alive songs playing in a few dance club scenes, Vampire’s Kiss doesn’t offer all that much.

103 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) C-

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

(UK/USA 2016)

Absolutely Fabulous, one of my fave TV shows, was fresh, edgy, and bloody hilarious in its day—the dog’s bollocks, if you will. Stateside, it’s proven to be too much for prime time network television: ABC and FOX both abandoned plans to adapt it, the latter as recently as 2009 ( As executive producer Jon Plowman noted, “[t]he trouble with doing Ab Fab in America is that it will have to end with Edina and Saffy hugging, Patsy giving up drink and drugs, and them all hugging mum. It won’t work. It’ll be too nice.” ( Hold that thought.

Since the end of its original BBC run in 1995, Ab Fab’s few revivals have consistently fallen short. I was skeptical about a full-length movie 25 years on. While not the disaster I feared it would be, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie still isn’t the knees up full Monty I wanted.

Eddy (Jennifer Saunders), Patsy (Joanna Lumley), Saffy (Julia Sawalha), even Mrs. Monsoon (June Whitfield) are the same, which is great—who doesn’t love them? They each have some good lines and some bright moments. Pats hasn’t lost her signature deadpan snarl, and the animosity between her and Saffy is still very much alive. The problem, however, is that the world has changed, which is partly why Ab Fab doesn’t have the same impact. For one thing, Eddy and Patsy’s irrelevance is really irrelevant today. They’ve become anachronisms; their antics ring more tired and pathetic than funny after awhile. Worse, everything about their fashionable world is passé. A prominent figure in the plot is supermodel…Kate Moss? The many celebrity cameos—Jerry Hall, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dame Edna, and Joan Collins to name a few—are fun, but none of them are setting any fires these days. Aside from Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson, the faded glory here is enough to book Hollywood Squares for a month solid.

The movie has as much substance as an episode, but it’s clearly stretched to fill the time; Ab Fab episodes were only 35 minutes for a good reason. Some of the character twists, particularly Bubble (Jane Horrocks) and Marshall (Christopher Ryan), don’t make sense. Eddy gets soft toward the end: she delivers a monologue about wanting to be loved all her life, telling Saffy she loves her. Ugh. Say that again, Mr. Plowman?

I didn’t hate Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie; I got some laughs out of it. I didn’t love it, though. I could have overlooked its shortcomings had it been funnier. As it stands, I prefer Ab Fab where it fits best: in the ’90s.

91 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C

Burn After Reading

(USA 2008)

The Coen Brothers have made a lot of movies—just like Madonna has made a lot of albums. Burn After Reading is a light, wacky espionage spoof that’s fun to watch. It falls somewhere in the lower middle of their oeuvre—about where Hard Candy, another star-studded affair released the same year, falls for Madonna: good but not great, more fluffy than provocative, and interesting enough to pull out every now and then but certainly not the first thing I reach for when I’m in the mood for the artist.

The cast is stellar: Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt. The characters are amusing—everyone is, in a word, stupid. Malkovich as Osborne Cox is easily the standout: he’s an angry, misanthropic, drunk loose cannon. The plot, which involves a total misunderstanding about the contents of a CD left behind at a health club (Hardbodies), is typically intricate and well-executed Coen stuff. McDormand’s character, Linda—who she plays with a winning dippy positivism—has a hilariously brilliant motive: to extort money so she can buy the plastic surgery her insurance company won’t cover. Working Washington bigshots and Russian bad guys into the mix is a very nice touch.

All that said, Burn After Reading has its problems. The characters are cartoonish. The plot drags at points, especially the subplot with Clooney’s character, Harry, and his womanizing. The action chugs along and generates momentum, but somehow we don’t end up anywhere when all is said and done.

Burn After Reading isn’t perfect, but its highs overcome its flaws. It might rate higher in the hands of another team; but being the Coen Brothers, expectations are higher than average. That may not be fair to them, but it’s a fair statement nonetheless.

96 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes) C+


(USA 2016)

For someone whose best-known films have words like “welcome” and “happiness” in their titles, Todd Solondz doesn’t come across as a particularly cheery guy. His stories are never sentimental or uplifting. His characters are a motley crew of hopeless geeks, unattractive lurps, and outright assholes. He exposes the worst of humanity—pettiness, cruelty, disappointment, indifference—and makes a deranged joke out of it. To some (like me), his bleak, misanthropic perspective is wildly amusing, refreshing, and compelling. Those who dig his twisted brand of cynicism should relish Wiener-Dog, his first film in five years.

Wiener-Dog follows the life of a dachshund as she passes through a succession of masters in four vignettes: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a child cancer survivor; Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a flummoxed vet assistant who runs into a former classmate, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), at a convenience store; Schmertz (Danny DeVito), a film writing professor on the verge of a meltdown over a screenplay he can’t get his agent to read; and a dying old sourpuss (Ellen Burstyn) whose cracky granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), pays her an unexpected visit.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Side note: the aforementioned Dawn is Dawn Wiener—whose classmates’ mean nickname for her provides the title here—from Welcome to the Dollhouse. I was apprehensive about the idea of resurrecting her and Brandon, but it works on its own without coming off as a desperate attempt at piggybacking a successful past project or playing on nostalgia.

Wiener-Dog is all Solondz, and he’s focused on mortality: sickness and death color each sketch. He starts at childhood and moves through adulthood, getting progressively glum as he leads us to a grave of sorts. Even Weiner-Dog’s name, which changes with each master, hints at where this is all going: Wiener-Dog, Doodie (as in poop), and Cancer—if DeVito’s character named her, I missed it. With just a few exceptions, everyone is terrible. This film is loaded with wonderfully sad, absurd dialogue. Remi’s father (Tracy Lett) explains the importance of breaking a dog’s will, ending the discussion on a bizarre contradictory note. In a hilarious philosophical colloquy, Remi’s mother (Julia Delphy) explains why Wiener-Dog needs to be spayed, inadvertently bringing him to the conclusion that “death is a good thing.” Brandon tells his brother (Connor Long), who has Down’s Syndrome, that their father just died from drinking, even though he said he quit a long time ago. An admissions committee interviews an applicant (Devin Druid) about why he wants to go to film school, and he can’t answer a single question. A school administrator (Sharon Washington) confronts DeVito about his negativity. Zoe explains how rare the ostrich egg she just gave her grandmother is while her grandmother’s unimpressed nurse, Yvette (Marcella Lowery), takes it away to dispose of it. In a dream sequence, Ellen Burstyn’s character has a weird conversation with multiple alternate versions of herself (Melo Ludwig) that chose to be nicer during life.

And then there’s the ending—abrupt and jarring, I literally jumped in my seat and sat there frozen for a few moments. True to form, Solondz makes it clear that no one is important in life’s grand scheme.

Solondz called Wiener-Dog one of his “sunnier” films, and it actually is. To expect a schlocky tale highlighting the joy a pet brings is stupid considering the man behind it. Nonetheless, Solondz gets as sweet as I’ve ever seen him, especially with Dawn and Brandon. The scene where Zoe confides to her grandmother that she suspects her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), is running around behind her back is also touching. The “intermission” is dumb but cute, and the songs are fun. Wiener-Dog has a good life unlike those around her—she isn’t mistreated, and she achieves something none of the other characters do: immortality.

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Todd Solondz.

93 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+


Director’s Cut

(USA 2016)

Yeah…this. Hmmm. Herbert Blount (Penn Jillette) is a weird crowdfunding stalker obsessed with actress Missi Pyle, playing herself, who costars in a low budget crime-gore “movie” with Harry Hamlin and a guy named Reed (Hayes MacArthur). Blount, who is given behind-the-scenes access because he used his PayPal account to donate a large sum of money to the project, is seduced by the artistic process and secretly hijacks the film to make his own version: he wants Pyle front and center. He undermines the director (Adam Rifken), steals footage, and kidnaps Pyle to shoot new scenes with her in his basement.

A movie within a fake movie (Knocked Off), Director’s Cut is a satire of the film industry, celebrity, and the changing role of the audience. Directed for real by Rifken, it exhibits some competent technical handiwork: Knocked Off, little more than a CSI episode, looks professional right down to its angles, cuts, and color grade. A slew of cameos—some, like Jillette, former contestants of Celebrity Apprentice (Gilbert Godfrey, Lisa Rinna)—adds a smart lighthearted touch. Jillette’s longtime partner in magic, Raymond Joseph Teller, makes a fun though not exactly unexpected appearance. Pyle’s diva tantrums “off screen” are amusing. The film makes interesting and timely points about the dangers of giving artistic input and access to the general public and obsessed fans: even in an era where the tools of the trade are readily available to virtually anyone, not everyone can (or should attempt to) make a movie.

Director’s Cut just doesn’t cut it. Sadly, Jillette himself is the most disappointing thing about it. He doesn’t pull off creepy; his gentle, dulcet voice bantering lame “commentary”—like in a bonus feature of a DVD (get it?)—undermines that. Worse, his terrible “acting,” the oddly tame scenes he stages with Pyle, and his crude homemade edits of his version of the film paint him as a harmless grandfatherly dolt more than anything. The gimmick here wears out before the movie is even half over. Director’s Cut has good ideas, but it’s just not funny.

83 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D-

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

(USA 1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore defies classification: it’s a road movie, a coming-of-age film, a romance, and arguably a feminist statement.

On one hand, it’s a dark study of Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), a neglected Soccoro housewife thrust into an awful situation: her husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush), is killed in a truck accident, leaving her with nothing. Forced to fend for herself and her 12-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), she turns to the only thing she knows: singing. In dark piano bars. Um, in New Mexico and Arizona. It doesn’t pan out, so she takes a job as a waitress in Tuscon, which, we are informed, is the “weird capitol of the world.” Fucking dismal. On the other hand, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a marvelously sublime but uncomfortable comedy that exploits for all it’s worth Alice’s cluelessness in her search for the American Dream. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell throw out so much to laugh at, and I do—it’s just not clear that I’m supposed to. Hence the genius of this film, one my absolute favorites.

Like most films you watch over and over, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is loaded with great lines—far too many to even begin repeating here; this is what keeps me coming back. Early career performances by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson, Valerie Curtin, Diane Ladd, and yes, Jodie Foster are a treat! The acting is superb; in fact, Burstyn won an Oscar and Ladd was nominated for one (as was Getchell). Audrey (Foster), clearly a precursor to Taxi Driver‘s Doris, is the smartass trouble girl I always wanted to hang out with: she drinks Ripple, steals guitar cords, and refers to her mother as “Ramada Rose.” Fuck yeah! And how cool to witness the birth of Alice, the TV series? Mel (Vic Tayback) is the exact same character, and Ladd, the original Flo—she doesn’t say “Kiss my grits” but she does say “Mel, you can kiss me where the sun don’t shine!”—was reanimated as Belle after Polly Holliday left.

Alice and Tommy might be pitiful, but they’re not pitiable. For all its tragedy, the film’s ending is a positive if not happy one: Alice and Tommy make peace with where they end up. Who knows whether it ultimately works out? They’re good for now. They can always start over—in Monterey or anywhere else. If there were such a thing as American neorealism, this film qualifies (except maybe for the fact that these are professional actors).

I’ve seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore hundreds of times, usually edited for late night TV. I can see it a hundred times more. It never gets old. I recommend the unedited original version.

112 minutes
Rated PG

(Home via iTunes) A

Blood Simple.

(USA 1985)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him. And if you shoot him, you’d better make sure he’s dead. Because if he isn’t, then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.”



“I ain’t done nothing funny.”



“Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

—Loren Visser

I snagged tickets for the first screening when a theater near me announced a brief summer run of the Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple. A sharp 4K digital restoration, I’m not sure whether this is the original version—a few minor edits and cuts have been made over the years, and a song (The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” appropriately enough) was taken out and put back in. It doesn’t matter, though, because whatever changes were made are imperceptible, as least to me. This version is exactly as sordid, labyrinthine, and suspenseful as I remember.

Written by both brothers with Ethan as producer and Joel as director, everything about Blood Simple. is unique and masterful. The story starts out simple: set in rural Texas, bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), is having an affair and hires a private investigator, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to find out whether he’s right. He is: Visser follows Abby and one of Marty’s employees, Ray (John Getz)—a bartender, of course—to a motel and takes photos of them in flagrante delicto. Soon after, Ray quits his job, provoking Marty to reveal that he’s onto Ray and Abby. Marty asks Visser to kill them, and that’s when things get complicated.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Visser, you see, is a con man: he takes Marty’s money but doesn’t really kill Ray or Abby—instead, he doctors one of the photos he took at the hotel to look like they’re both dead; he paints on bullet wounds and gives the finished photo to Marty. A brilliant series of events all stemming from misunderstandings—like an episode of a demented Three’s Company—ensues, dragging all four characters into a murderous downward spiral.

Initially shown on the film festival circuit during autumn 1984 before a wide release in January 1985, the Coens’ clever mix of psychology, film noir, and seriously dark humor is unparalleled by anything else from its day—the top three films of 1984 were Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, if that says anything ( Blood Simple. exhibits the Coens’ distinctive penchant for ridiculously well developed and eccentric characters, perfect dialogue, flawless plot layering and pacing, fierce tension that makes you squirm, misanthropy, and an innovative use of clichés—all hallmarks of their work. This film, which launched not just their careers but also those of McDormand (it’s her first gig in a movie) and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, is done so well it succeeds without a big budget. It’s a solid debut that serves as a blueprint of what was to come from these guys.

95 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A+


(USA 2016)

Former child star David Zara (David Giuntoli) just got dumped—days before his wedding, apparently. His ex-fiancée, Frankie (Jeanne Syquia), left him an empty apartment with nothing but a lifetime supply of rosé for the reception and a bunch of hiking gear for what would have been their honeymoon in the Oregon wilderness. Enter best bud and best man Flula (Flula Borg) to pull David out of his depression: he suggests—no, insists—that the two of them take the honeymoon. What are friends for? The honeymoon didn’t sound all that romantic, anyway.

Giuntoli gives a solid performance; he plays a wounded bird forging a brave face quite well, even turning on the waterworks a couple times. It doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes. YouTube personality Borg plays his character, a “human puzzle” as David calls him, with a simple, childlike innocence and excitement (“Focus your face on this, nature!”). Like a German Einar Orn in the background of a Sugarcubes song, he banters on dramatically about mundane things while he walks around the forest recording sounds for what he says will be “the greatest song of all time, ever.”

As the title makes clear, this is a buddy movie. Director Alex Simmons, who cowrote the script with Giuntoli and Borg, keeps the mood light, focusing on the guys while they walk, talk, prank, and inevitably annoy each other. There’s a good bit of funny dialogue (Borg’s confusion with American history and culture provides much of the humor) and some bright scenes—like an encounter with a survivalist hiker (Brian T. Finney), an overnight with a group of campers led by a total babe (Claire Coffee), and a run-in with a wolf while doing mushrooms. The parallel to Lewis and Clark is mildly interesting, and the story is cute. However, Buddymoon doesn’t really soar: it’s ultimately a chick flick with guys.

80 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) C