Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Café Society

"Independence Day: Resurgence" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Unrequited love is one of the saddest loves of all. The only type of love that might even be sadder than that—and is certainly just as sad, at least—is requited love unrealized. That is, two people love each other but fate, circumstances, or as Phil Stern (Steve Carell)--a high-powered agent in 1930s Hollywood--puts it, timing, keeps them apart.

The first half of Woody Allen’s uncharacteristically violent yet characteristically truthful--to the point of being bleak--new movie “Café Society” is about a love triangle in which timing plays a major part. Seeking a major change in his life, young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from Bronx, NY, to Los Angeles, CA. There he gets a job working at the agency run by his Uncle Phil. In order to show him the town, Phil asks his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around. Bobby falls in love with Vonnie. Vonnie falls in love with him, but for the past year has been secretly dating Phil, who is madly in love with her and wants to leave his wife to marry her.

What I appreciate about Allen’s writing in this first half is the control and intelligence. The plot revelations come at just the right intervals. His story for “Café Society” is like an onion, and each revelation peels back a layer. I also must praise his restraint in not falling back on the tired old device of the “idiot plot.” You know it. It’s the one where everything happening hinges on characters not saying certain things to each other because doing so would unravel the narrative and subvert dramatic tension. In idiot plots, it’s important for characters to not speak the obvious to each other. I will admit that I was worried that “Café Society” would succumb to this infuriating plot contrivance, but soon found myself relieved that it did not. Allen uses what is not immediately said to lead to a reveal, which leads to further plot complications. That’s called good drama, folks. Allen is a well-seasoned writer, and it shows here.

“Café Society” also has an impressively well-structured screenplay. There are multiple plot lines that involve the rest of the Dorfman family, including Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who is a gangster. Some of the blood and violence may be shocking to regular fans of Woody Allen. Having said that, there is nothing too gruesome and it happens quickly. Plus Allen is drawing on real life for the gangster activity portrayed in the movie. Just watch a documentary on the mob in the 1930s and you’ll see from where the imagery is pulled.

The strength of the screenplay is the foundation for what a great movie “Café Society” is, but it has more going for it than just that. Allen and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were smart with the lighting. Whether taking place outside on the sun-drenched streets or somewhere indoors, the sections of the movie that take place in LA have a warm, yellow hue to them. This is contrasted by any action that takes place in New York, which has a cooler, whiter tone. These visual cues help the audience determine where the action they’re watching takes place, which is increasingly important as the movie goes on.

Last but certainly not least are the performances. Allen’s greatest skill as a director has always been to elicit relaxed, natural performances out of his cast, and he does so here. He makes all the stutters, hems, haws, and overlapping dialogue of everyday folks into art. Only the late, great Robert Altman compares to Woody Allen in directing scenes in a naturalistic style with such aplomb.

Eisenberg is quite the find as a surrogate for Woody Allen—as all leading men in Woody Allen movies tend to be when Allen isn’t starring himself. In “Café Society,” Eisenberg pays respectful homage to his writer/director while at the same time making the performance his own. Eisenberg and Stewart have a sweet, charming chemistry together. Seeing them banter together makes me recall the great Woody Allen romantic comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s that he made with Diane Keaton. I can see Allen and Keaton in these roles if this movie was made forty years ago. For 2016, Eisenberg and Stewart do an amazing job. Their onscreen romance is one that we don’t just merely observe. We feel it too. Buy it on Amazon: Cafe Society [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD].

Also Out This Week

Independence Day: Resurgence

While by no means a masterpiece, the first “Independence Day” from 1996 was an entertaining, if at times unbearably cheesy, sci-fi actioner. Its greatest strength was in the fact that its story built up as it moved along. The movie opened with giant alien ships hovering over major landmarks around the world. Questions arose and characters were introduced. Questions then got answered as we got to know the characters. In other words, the character development happened in conjunction with the action of the aliens coordinating an attack on the Earth.

Its sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which takes place twenty years later, takes a different approach. Characters from the first movie, like David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), his dad Julius (Judd Hirsch), former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman), and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), don’t need much development except to show us where they are now. Others, like hot shot pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), skilled pilot Dylan Hiller (son of Will Smith’s character in the first movie, played by Jessie T. Usher), and the former president’s daughter Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), are new and need a bit more of an intro.

However, instead of taking its cue from the first movie and developing the characters as the main story progresses, the five writers involved in the script—including director Roland Emmerich and his usual collaborator Dean Devlin—decided to bog down the first act with way too much of having their characters sitting around and talking. Forget about stopping a movie’s momentum—a movie has to have momentum before its momentum can be stopped. Little plot details are given here and there, but nothing much of consequence actually happens for the first forty-five minutes of this two-hour movie.

The good news about “Independence Day: Resurgence” is that it’s redeemed in its last hour and fifteen minutes. Once this movie finally gets going, it really gets going. Sure, save for a sequence in which cars, people, and buildings are vacuumed up into the sky, this movie doesn’t have the awe, wonder, and spectacle of the first film. However, what is present are battles with aliens in the air and on foot while nerdy science types figure out how to bring them down once and for all. Also present are some cheesy moments that are a bit cringe-worthy, but at this point, it wouldn’t be an “Independence Day” movie without them. It’s best to try to see them as part of the charm.

The best advice I can give is to hold your nose and bear with the first forty-five kinda dull minutes of “Resurgence.” Once you do that, buckle in because this movie gets pretty exciting. Rent it.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

I think that “Alice Through the Looking Glass” stumbled on what drove the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) so mad. He was driven mad by trying to make sense of the plot of “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

Time travel movies present huge logistical challenges. The best ones at least try to have some rational explanations and make as much sense as they can. Then there are movies like “Alice Through the Looking Glass” that don’t care, clearly throw all attempts at even the slightest bit of a coherent explanation out the window, and as a result have huge plot holes. Actually, that’s too generous. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has humongous plot canyons that an entire convoy of eighteen-wheeler trucks, traveling side by side, could comfortably drive through. If you’re someone who insists on movies making sense—or at least attempting to—avoid this at all costs. You’ll go mad as a hatter.

Yet, there is a part of me that recommends this movie. While I can’t do so on the basis of story, I have to give it credit for imagination. Perhaps it’s nostalgia. It reminded me of some movies from my childhood, chiefly “Time Bandits,” which also involved time travel and going from place to place, and “Return to Oz,” in which the heroine from the first movie returns to a magical fantasy land to put things right. And don’t worry parents, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is okay for children ten and up, unlike “Return to Oz,” which I still regard as one of the freakiest movies of all time, 30 years later.

So, if you are willing to forget about a coherent story and just watch a movie for the visuals, this is a good one. Children, who are less discerning about such things, should enjoy it. It’s livelier than the darker and broodier Tim Burton predecessor, and Sacha Baron Cohen delivers some good laughs as Time. Yes, Time is a man. Just remember what I said about coherence and Rent it.

More New Releases: “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman’s masterpiece that intertwines several loosely-connected stories that take place in suburban Los Angeles; “The Return of Dracula,” 1958 movie in which the count goes to California; and “Gas-s-s-s,” Roger Corman-directed comedy about a toxic gas let loose upon the world that kills anyone over twenty-five years old.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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