Best in Show

(USA 2000)

“We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.”

— Meg Swan

I’m an enthusiastic fan of sharp, quirky humor; the more biting, the better. I love stuff like Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Strangers with Candy, The Office, Little Britain, and of course Christopher Guest’s This is Spinal Tap, one of my favorite not to mention most quoted films.

Best in Show, another “mockumentary” like the ones Guest has become known for, is right up my alley. It pokes fun at a culture many no doubt find strange: dog shows. Woof!

Best in Show follows five canines and their owners as they prepare for and travel to a dog competition, the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show — that title is perfect! — in Philadelphia. The characters are awesome and the situations they get into are fun. The cast, which includes then-minor stars like Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge who would go on to bigger things, is stellar. Guest and Eugene Levy’s screenplay is deliciously mean. This is all good.

Unfortunately, I didn’t love it. I saw Best in Show a long while back, but this time it just didn’t strike me as funny as I remember it. I don’t know what it was — I had a long week and I had to travel the next morning, so maybe that explains why I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it was the martinis. One of these days, I’ll give Best in Show another chance to redeem itself.

With Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Jay Brazeau, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Christopher Guest, Ed Begley Jr., Beatrice the Weimaraner, Winky the Norwich Terrier, Hubert the Bloodhound, Miss Agnes the Shih Tzu, Tyrone the Shih Tzu, Rhapsody in White the Standard Poodle

Production: Castle Rock Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C-

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

Band of Robbers

(USA 2015)

Ever wonder what became of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Adam and Aaron Nee come up with an answer—in an updated setting—in Band of Robbers, a fresh, inspired, and downright cool take on Mark Twain’s classic characters.

After another stint in jail, Finn (Kyle Gallner) reunites with Sawyer (Adam Nee)—now a small town cop with questionable ethics, a distaste for his brother Sid (Eric Christian Olsen), and a serious Peter Pan complex—and their gang of odd ducks: Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler), Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), and Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton). Egged on by Muff Porter (Cooper Huckabee), a tragic old coot who sits in a nasty chair in a nasty motel room, Sawyer hatches a half-baked plan to snaffle a local treasure from Injun Joe (Stephen Lang), who they suspect stashes it in a pawn shop run by Dobbins (Creed Bratton, who most will recognize from The Office). Things don’t pan out according to plan, of course, sending Sawyer and Finn on one more adventure.

Band of Robbers is a light and entertaining adventure movie. I detest the word ‘cute’ to describe a movie, but that’s exactly what it is—and that’s a good thing. The film is nicely shot and effectively uses color and quick action to keep the mood light even when what’s unfolding is the opposite. The references to Twain’s characters are a bonus, and transplanting them to the current millennium works really well without watering them down; the characters in the film are true to the originals. Sure, liberties are taken—the exact location is never disclosed. A treasure map shows an unidentified winding river, and the scenery vaguely suggests Missouri. However, license plates only say “Drive Safely” and shots of what appear to be California hills in the background (not to mention desert terrain) belie any whiff of the Midwest. I understand the film borrows heavily from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket; having never seen it, though, I can’t comment. Regardless, I was so interested in the story that none of this stuff bothered me.

There’s no profound statement here; in fact, a warning in Twain’s own words appears at the outset of the film: “persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished.” If there’s a moral, it’s simply that everyone must eventually grow up—a sentiment apparent throughout the film. In the end, Band of Robbers is not the same story as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; but if nothing else, it’s a testament to the timelessness and durability of Twain’s characters. That’s enough for me.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B