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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Oct 7, 2016

Cafe Society Movie Review: Another Gem From Master Filmmaker Woody Allen Set In Hollywood & New York Of 1930

WOODY ALLEN is now 80 years old and still very active as a prolific filmmaker, just like Clint Eastwood, another octogenarian. He started as a stand up comic in a career that now spans six decades. He then branched out to writing and directing, starting with slapstick comedies like “Take the Money and Run” before doing more serious drama comedies like “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, “Hannah and Her Sisters”, and “Blue Jasmine” for which Cate Blanchett won her best actress Oscar. Allen himself has won four Oscars, three for best screenplay and one for best director.

His latest work, “Cafe Society”, was shown without any promotion so it’s not surprising that there were only four of us inside the moviehouse when watched it at SM North Edsa on its opening day. If you’re an Allen fan, you’ll enjoy it as it’s Woody Allen through and through. Jesse Eisenberg (whose performance as Mark Zuckerberg in “Social Network” we enjoyed so much) gets to redeem himself in “Cafe Society” after his pathetic oafish performance as the Joker in “Batman v Superman”.

Set in the 1930, the film starts (with Allen himself doing the voiceover narration) in a Hollywood pool party with hotshot talent agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) getting a call from his older sister, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), telling him that her youngest child, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse), is going to Hollywood to try his luck and would Phil please help him find a job. Bobby belongs to a Jewish family based in The Bronx, New York City.

We are also introduced to Bobby’s siblings. His sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to a wimpy academician, Leonard (Stephen Kunken). An older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll, usually bald in the TV series he did like “House of Cards” and “Homeland”, but is shown here having a becoming full head of hair), grew up to be a criminal and gangster. Jesse as Bobby seems to be Allen’s alter ego.

It took three weeks before his uncle finally found the time see him in person. He becomes an errand boy and, during weekends, Phil asks his pretty secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), nicknamed Vonnie, to tour Bobby around Hollywood and they visit the palatial homes of movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in what seems to be a homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the process, Bobby is smitten with Vonnie but she tells him that she already has a boyfriend.

There’s a twist in this which, of course, we cannot give away so as not to spoil your viewing pleasure. Suffice it to say that Bobby returns to New York and becomes the manager of a nightclub owned by his gangster brother. Under him, the club becomes very popular and draws businessmen, artists and politicians.

Bobby then finds romance with a beautiful divorced socialite, also named Veronica (Blake Lively, looking so fresh and chic after she defeated the shark), and they have a child. Everything seems to have fallen into its right place, until one night, the first Veronica suddenly returns into Bobby’s life and they both realize that they haven’t really gotten over each other.

Allen is obviously so fascinated about the past as can be seen in many of his films that wallow in nostalgia: “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (set in New Jersey also in the 1930s), “Midnight in Paris” (partly set in the 1920s), “A Midsummer Night’s Sexy Comedy” (set in the 1900s), “Radio Days” (set in 1930s and 40s), “Sweet and Lowdown” (set in the 1930s), “Magic in the Moonlight” (set in the 1920s).

What’s nice about Allen’s films, aside from its smart and witty dialogue, is that they usually run for only an hour and a half, and yet so many things happen in the course of the fast-paced storytelling. And yet, there is always that undertone of cynicism about life and human beings, suggesting that life has not cogent meaning and people are never truly satisfied, as exemplified by Bobby and Vonnie in “Cafe Society”, and by the other characters introduced in the nightclub. As we often hear his characters say in his movies, life is written by “a sadistic comedy writer”.

“Cafe Society” is handsomely mounted, mainly because of the elegant production design by Santo Loquasto (who has won both the Tony and Oscar Awards for his works) and the amazing cinematography of the legendary Vittorio Storaro (who won Oscars for “Apocalypse Now”, “Reds”, “The Last Emperor”). The opening party scene alone is breathtaking, showing the blue waters of a swimming pool and the blue sky as the sun is about to set, reflecting a golden hue on the faces of the formally clad guests. All throughout, they paint a wonderful portrait of Hollywood and New York in the 1930s.

Allen’s work with his actors is always effective, which is why a number of actors have been nominated or have won awards for appearing in his films. Here, the whole ensemble does a fine job, with Eisenberg, Stewart and Lively all excelling in their respective roles. This is the third film together of Eisenberg and Stewart, after “Adventureland” and “American Ultra”, and this is their best so far. Also excelling are Steve Carell as Uncle Phil and Corey Stoll as the crime lord brother, which is reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix’s somewhat similar role in Allen’s last film before this, “Irrational Man”.

We particularly like the film’s final scene, which is as beautifully compelling as the pool party opening scene. It’s New Year’s eve and as they greet the coming of the new year with great merriment, we see the two leads with a wistful look of yearning on their faces, clearly pining for the what if’s, the what might have beens and the one that got away instead of being happy for what they already have. As a prostitute character in the film prophetically states: “The only love that lasts is unrequited love”.