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Review: Café Society

It potently clarifies how our lives are spent distracted from matters of the closest personal significance.

3.0

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Café Society
Photo: Gravier Productions, Inc.

More than any of his numerous recent films, Woody Allen’s Café Society conveys the enormity of life’s experience, and it does so using the most direct means possible: by simply piling up incidents. While the 80-year-old filmmaker’s speedy rate of production continues to be laudable, the velocity of his recent work is equally notable. These days, Allen’s screenplays carom from one plot point to the next with a highly selective regard for what to bother picking through the implications of, and Café Society bears that tendency out in the extreme. Here’s a film in which the protagonist’s mafia-involved brother is put to death at one point and all that’s allocated to the passing is a curt establishing shot of ash-spreading before a cut to a wailing nightclub crooner jars the film back into its jazzy swing.

Café Society’s Depression-era sprawl concerns several years in the life of Bronx-bred Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), for whom a single brightly burning romance defines an otherwise turbulent epoch. The object of his affection is Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), an assistant-level employee at a showbiz firm in Los Angeles, where Bobby decamps after identifying the dwindling options—basically criminal activity and/or small business operation—presented by his Jewish working-class family back in New York. Bobby’s West Coast connection is his uncle, Paul Stern (Steve Carell), a hotshot talent agent working above Vonnie with a packed schedule of galas at seaside mansions and a Rolodex of the era’s most celebrated names, so the untrained newcomer is quickly indoctrinated into a world far removed from anything resembling the hardship of the period.

Bobby is by turns transfixed by and suspicious of the glamorous locale, and his ambivalence toward L.A. marks a disposition that’s rare among Allen’s many surrogate neurotics, which gives the director a chance to indulge a mildly more affectionate vision of Tinseltown than he’s allowed in the past. Working in digital for the first time alongside cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to summon up the deep-focus lucidity of the period’s studio style, Allen has invested great care in garnishing this embryonic and idealized Hollywood, a milieu aglow in sunburnt yellow and palm-tree green. Paul’s cavernous Beverly Hills office is a spiffy oak-walled repository of gold-crested décor and Art Deco adornments; the site of Bobby and Vonnie’s first date is an impossibly charming Spanish-style café with a mural of old Mexican street life prominently covering a wall; and even Bobby’s temp apartment, which is hampered by bad electricity merely to justify one dramatically timed lighting modification, has the look of a place only an exec could afford today.

Vonnie’s draw for Bobby is that she’s rather unfazed by all this decadence—this in spite of the fact that, upon first meeting her, she’s involved in a fling with the married Paul. Naturally, that’s not made privy to Bobby right off the bat, but when Paul cuts off his dalliance in the name of domestic duty and Bobby begins to woo the forlorn Vonnie, the elephant in the room closes in on Allen’s ill-fated hero. Bobby’s offer of marriage, which comes attached with a plea to move back to New York, collides with Vonnie’s evaluation of her options and her eventual decision to remain in California to wed Paul, who, in a fit of self-reckoning, has gone from cheater to family man to divorcee.

This whirlwind of events spurs Bobby’s return to the Big Apple alone and unfulfilled, though the fleeting scenes of courtship between him and Vonnie constitute the film’s emotional core. Eisenberg and Stewart displayed their chemistry before in Adventureland, but it’s impressive that they’ve retained that spark while also shouldering long-cemented Allen archetypes—specifically the intellectually ambitious neurotic and his more socially accomplished love interest. With that said, as narrated by Allen himself in a laconic deadpan that emanates a weariness of time’s passage, the film casts a jaundiced eye on the lighthearted events it dramatizes; even Bobby and Vonnie’s early blossomings of attraction are shaded by an awareness of eventual collapse and disappointment. In his most delicate touch, Allen lingers on a lengthy close-up of Vonnie as Bobby playfully inquires off screen about her detached mood, with Stewart’s face flickering a storm of uncertainty and guilt upon learning of Paul’s separation.

Café Society gets its title from the nightclub Bobby heads up with his brother (Corey Stoll) upon returning to New York, and it’s in this passage that Allen’s fondness for the mythology of the era can’t be disguised by the front of a narrative; one Steadicam tour around the club that introduces us to the city’s social and financial elite functions solely to indulge the director’s nostalgic imaginary. The film’s emotional momentum, if not its plotty swiftness, burns out a bit as Allen elaborates on Bobby’s new life as an aristocratic liaison and a married man, but it regains its footing when Vonnie spontaneously re-enters the story with an overhauled identity as a gossiping socialite. The reunion, initially tentative and then bittersweet, hits with a wallop, at which point the somewhat messy accumulation of life events starts to feel retroactively like a structural maneuver. As clarified potently by Café Society, much of our lives are spent distracted from matters of the closest personal significance.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Paul Schneider, Parker Posey, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Paul Schackman, Sheryl Lee Director: Woody Allen Screenwriter: Woody Allen Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.

3

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The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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