Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Woody Allen's latest, and sitcom's king

Woody Allen’s Café Society (at the Landmark Main Art) is a composite of several Allen themes – the jazz era, pre-World War II New York, the pre-war struggling American Jewish family, showbiz and, alas, romance – a subject that transcends eras. Set in the 1930’s the movie tells the story of nebbish Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who leaves his Bronx family to seek fame, or at least a job, in Hollywood. Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an uber talent agent and hosts luxurious parties at his swanky Los Angeles home. He eventually hires Bobby and has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show him around LA. Naturally Bobby falls for her. Trouble is, she’s having an affair with uncle and is torn between the two men. Woody Allen narrates the scenes and Eisenberg channels the typical Allen character, insecure and horny but ambitious in his own way. This movie has been getting generally positive but not outstanding reviews. One aggregated criticism is that Allen luxuriates in well worn store lines from previous films. I can see that. Yet I loved this movie nonetheless. The acting is terrific, the stereotypes are so sharply defined as to make you often guffaw. The costumes are impeccable and the sets knockouts that should get a nomination or win an Academy Award. Every interior scene – from Uncle Phil’s deeply veneered office to Bobby’s Hollywood hotel room, to Bobby’s crooked New York brother’s (Corey Stoll) nightclub, are sumptuously gorgeous.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (at the Detroit Film Theatre) is a well made doc cataloguing the great television sitcom creator and writer’s career. Norman Lear, of course, created All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. At 94 he’s still vigorous and engaged, often largely in politics. Politics and Lear are inseparable, at least from the 1970s (he wrote many film and TV scripts before that). His breakout of course was All in the Family. But I didn’t know it was largely based on a British sitcom, Til Death Us Do Part, featuring a father and son-in-law at each other’s political throats, just like Archie Bunker and Michael Stivic. Similar enough, at least from the one scene of the Brit show shown here, to make you wonder if it was a rip off. In any case, All in the Family begot Sandford and Son (also based on a Brit sitcom), begetting Maude, begetting The Jeffersons, etc. etc. The film’s centerpiece is the political conventions that Lear’s shows blew up – whether it be challenging bigotry, racism, portraying strong women (Maude) or suburban materialist angst (Mary Hartman). But Lear got blow back of his own, from black activists challenging his cardboard stereotypes in a show like Good Times. Ewing (from Detroit) and Grady also made Detropia (2012), a somewhat stereotyped and technically more pedestrian portrayal of Detroit’s decline and dystopic landscape (see posts Sept. 13 & 15, 2012). The directors have certainly grown in ability in those few short years. Norman Lear is a highly adept effort that intertwines present and historic film footage and interviews, providing a vivid and well-rounded depiction of its subject.  

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