Their Finest


One of the things Great Britain was surely fighting for in World War II, aside from its own survival and the fate of Western Civilization, was the incomparable cultural tradition known as British humor. No country has been richer in humor—in comic novels, in whimsical nonsense of the Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and P.G. Wodehouse sort, or the Goon Show and Monty Python sort—while “German humor,” for instance, is not a phrase that leaps to mind. So it is fitting that Their Finest extracts engaging humor from a story with an intrusively somber background, the darkest days of the war in the winter of 1940-41, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis and the Blitz was reducing sections of London to rubble.


A young Welsh woman named Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) has moved to London to be with her lover, a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) who lives in a canvas-cluttered garret. Needing to pay their rent, she takes a job with a unit of the British Ministry of Information that is turning out inspiring war movies to keep British morale up. The job initially is to write “the slop,” as her cynical screenwriting colleague Tom (Sam Claflin) calls the sentimental dialogue aimed at women in the audiences. The unit’s boss, delectably played by Richard E. Grant, offers her two pounds a week, much less than her mainly male colleagues are getting.


The movie unit wants to make a film about civilian participation in the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. Catrin goes out to the coast and finds twin sisters who had gone out on their uncle’s boat as part of the motley flotilla. The problem is that they never got to Dunkirk. The engine quit, and they turned back. One major part of the film’s light-touch comedy is the way a satisfying fictional version is hammered out of the uncooperative facts at breakneck speed, in story conferences and late-night sessions with the typewriters. It’s as amusing and revealing an account of moviemaking inspiration and desperation as any Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie. And in the process Catrin becomes the writer that the whole project depends on.


The rest of the movie mixes the random tragedies of the bombs with the slowly developing office romance of Catrin and Tom. The cast is perfect in creating subsidiary characters that have their own memorable individuality. The best supporting role belongs to Bill Nighy as a touchy, aging movie star who is offered a role in the Dunkirk film that he thinks beneath him. His Polish-born agent (Eddie Marsan) is killed in the bombing and is replaced by his brisk sister (Helen McCrory), who pounds some sense into the actor’s swollen head and gets him into the role, which with Catrin’s help he gradually makes his own, meanwhile losing his standoffishness and becoming her ally and friend.


Jeremy Irons has a brief but brilliant cameo as a breezy upper-class Cabinet Minister who informs the movie crew that room must be made for an American character in the film, even though there were no Americans at Dunkirk. The point is to make the film popular in the United States, which has to be coaxed into entering the war. Naturally the only suitably blond and handsome military American immediately available (Jake Lacy) is, as an actor, stiff as a board. His dialogue is slowly extracted from the movie while he is still in it. Racheal Stirling plays the one other prominent woman in the unit, her masculine shirt and tie the only overt expression of her hinted-at lesbianism. 

The director, Lone Scherfig, is Danish, but she seems to have come down with an agreeably incurable case of understated British wit. She’s best known for her first English film, An Education (2009). This movie, based on a novel by Lissa Evans called (more wittily than the movie) Their Finest Hour and a Half, is about women making their way in a man’s world, or you could say man’s microcosm, because the subtext is that everywhere, not just in this one minor, beleaguered precinct of the war effort, a lot of class and gender barriers were breaking down, luckily leaving British resourcefulness and British humor intact. 




Elle


It’s not easy to dislike a movie with Isabelle Huppert in it. She’s a great actress, one of a breed—Garbo, Dietrich, Davis—whose usual persona has a note of detachment, disdain, or icy aloofness in it. And it must be easy for critics to like Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, released last year to near universal acclaim, and featuring Huppert in almost every shot. The Dutch-born Verhoeven is best known in America for the movies he made in the Hollywood phase of his career, like Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Robocop, and Total Recall. But they aren’t as good as some of his Dutch-language films, like Turkish Delight (1973) and two about the Dutch Resistance during World War II, Soldier of Orange (1977) and Black Book (2006).


This movie was originally written in English, intended for an American cast, but Verhoeven decided that no American actress would fit (or even accept) the starring role like Huppert, so it became his first film shot in French. The notes of black comedy come through well enough, but it’s basically a suspense film, and for a suspense film to work, there has to be someone with something close to normal psychology at the center of it. Hitchcock usually got his suspense out of ordinary people put in sudden peril. Even Janet Leigh, in Psycho, was just an average office girl gone wrong. Almost everyone in this movie is, openly or secretly, weird.


Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the divorced, middle-aged boss of a company that makes violent video games. In the first scene of the movie she is raped and beaten up in her comfortable home by a masked intruder, as her cat, like the movie audience, impassively watches. After the rapist leaves, she calmly cleans up the broken glass and other debris, takes a bath, and orders some takeout Asian food. Later she joins friends at a restaurant and nonchalantly tells them of the rape. She doesn’t call the police.


A backstory gradually emerges. She’s wary of not only the police but her own feelings, because when she was ten, her father was arrested for a horrific crime, and even four decades later, she still (implausibly) gets strangers recognizing her and harassing her about it.


She eventually buys some pepper spray and a small hatchet-like weapon, and she takes shooting lessons from a colleague at work, as if to prepare herself for the return of the rapist, who leaves menacing notes for her at home and her office and seems to know where she is and what she’s doing at every moment. Otherwise, she goes on with her coolly calculated life, which includes an affair with the husband of her best friend, muddled encounters with her muddled ex-husband, visits with her elderly mother, who is addicted to botox and sex with a muscular young gigolo, and arguments with her ineffectual son, who needs her financial support and is about to marry his pregnant girlfriend, a bitch who constantly nags and berates him.


Verhoeven will never be mistaken for a sentimentalist. He likes to disturb and shock. He offers hard characters and twisty plots that pull the rug out from under you. But sometimes plots twist to the point of perversity, and repeated shocks turn into Grand Guignol sensationalism. By the time the mysterious rapist is unmasked, I had lost all interest in the mystery, in the icy and invulnerable Michèle, and in the grotesque ménage surrounding her. I have enjoyed watching Huppert in most of her movies since her 1977 debut, The Lacemaker, including her memorable collaborations with Claude Chabrol, such as Story of Women, La Cérémonie, and Merci pour le Chocolat, where she plays unsympathetic characters, and (unlike some friends of mine) I even got through her performance in Michael Haneke’s study in masochism, The Piano Teacher, without flinching or retching. But even she couldn’t induce me to take much pleasure or interest in this one.



Lion


The first 45 minutes of Lion are riveting. If you ever got lost as a small child—and who didn’t?—you know how utterly terrifying it can be, even if it’s only half an hour in your own neighborhood. Imagine then being a 5-year-old kid from a dirt-poor Indian family who wanders into an empty train that takes him a thousand miles from his home to a vast city where a different dialect is spoken and no one understands him. It means living for months in the teeming streets, foraging for food, and dodging dangers around every corner, including kidnappers who sell homeless children into the sex trade.


Not many 5-year-olds would have the cool-headed resourcefulness and heroic resilience to survive all this. If the rest of the movie loses some of that suspense and fairy-tale enchantment, it does finally take up another archetypal theme, the quest for origins. The result is a tearily joyful film that’s full of the beguiling improbability that only reality can have (it’s all based on a true story).


When we first see Saroo (Sunny Pewar), he’s with his older brother Guddu on top of a moving train, stealing coal to be later exchanged for milk, thus helping out their single mother. One night, Guddu takes Saroo along to search empty trains for dropped coins or luggage left behind. Saroo gets sleepy, and Guddu leaves him on a bench, telling him to stay there until he gets back. But Saroo wakes up early in the morning and searches for his brother, eventually getting on one of the empty trains and falling asleep again. Suddenly the train is pulling out and moving fast. It takes him all the way across India to Calcutta, where everyone speaks Bengali, not Saroo’s Hindi. He sleeps in the station there, eats the fruit left at religious shrines, and barely escapes while other homeless kids are being snatched by sinister strangers.


There’s a particularly chilling scene in which a seemingly friendly young woman takes him in, but then has a male friend in to look him over appraisingly. The man says, “This is just what they’re looking for.” Saroo can’t understand the words but knows the guy is trouble, and he runs off. He does a lot of running. Eventually a more benevolent stranger turns him over to the cops, who can’t figure out where he’s from (Saroo doesn’t even know the right name of his village, not that anyone in Calcutta would know where it is). They deposit him in a miserable state-run orphanage.  A kind woman who works there has been contacted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley, who want to adopt an Indian child. Saroo’s eventual arrival into their comfortable and loving home in Tasmania is the reassuring climax of the first part of the film.


The rest takes place about 20 years later, around 2006. While another Indian boy adopted at about the same time has been a more troubled addition to the family, Saroo (Dev Patel) seems well-adjusted, happy, and headed for conventional success, studying hotel management and acquiring an American girlfriend (Rooney Mara).


At a party, however, he encounters a plate of the Indian sweets he had long ago loved, and it has the same effect as Proust’s madeleine—it brings his lost childhood flooding back. He becomes obsessed with finding his original home and family in India. He quits a job and distances himself from his girlfriend and his adoptive parents to devote himself to searching for his home village on the then new Google Earth, marking up a large map of India on the wall of his apartment. He’s reluctant to tell his worried mother what’s wrong, and this leads to a crucial scene in which he, and we, find out why the Brierleys had adopted two Indian children in the first place.


The problem is that the movie’s abrupt transition makes it hard to rediscover the immediate sympathy you have for Saroo the plucky 5-year-old in Saroo the confident but conflicted 25-year-old, despite another excellent performance by Dev Patel (best known for his starring role in Slumdog Millionaire). His relationship to his girlfriend and adoptive family seems sketchy. And essential as Google may have been for finding his way, cloistered in his apartment, back to his Indian origins, you can’t help wishing, if only for the sake of getting more of the film’s beautiful landscape photography, that he had done it the old-fashioned way, with tenacious, adventurous detective work, province to province, village to village, on the ground in India. Still, a (mostly) happy ending is convincingly delivered in a climactic reunion, and the movie ends as it begins—an intensely affecting, compelling experience.



Manchester by the Sea


All three of the acutely observant and deeply engaging movies written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, You Can Count On Me (1999), Margaret (2011), and his new film, Manchester by the Sea, have tragic loss in their background and moral confusion in their foreground. Characters do impulsive, irrational things. They intersect at odd, incommunicative angles. Their urgent or mundane or half-finished sentences get nowhere, and so, often enough, do they. 


Yet despite the impasses and dark undercurrents, these films don’t offer depressing tours of unrelieved damage and defeat, or (what would be even more depressing) patented inspiring, heartwarming resolutions. They’re resolutely unresolved.


The result is the opposite of melodrama. There are no cinematic italics or exclamation points, no conspicuous arcs or crescendos. Lonergan’s characters don’t fall into categories like good and evil, hero and villain. Some are more decent or reliable or responsible than others, but all are complex and all are in the throes of muddling through.

His movies are about the irreducible complexity of the human condition, a complexity that includes plenty of oblique comedy as well as muted tragedy, since both are woven into the tangle of ordinary life that he makes his touchstone. Lonergan could use, as epigraph for any of his films, Kant’s aphorism: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight can be made.”


At the beginning of Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, in an appropriately subdued performance) is seen working as a janitor in a Boston apartment house, shoveling snow and fixing people’s toilets, fielding impatient complaints and accepting an occasional tip, living in a dismal little basement room. We sense that this life is a kind of resigned self-punishment before we find out, almost halfway through the film, the reason for it.

We see through flashbacks glimpses of his earlier life in Manchester, a small seaside town north of Boston, spending time and joking around with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their young daughters, or out fishing with his solid, steady older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his son Patrick on Joe’s boat. But Joe has a chronic heart condition, and Lee, in Boston, gets an emergency call and hurriedly drives to the hospital near Manchester, arriving just too late to say good-bye to him. Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), with drinking and anger problems, has virtually disappeared. Lee is stunned to learn that Joe, in his will, has made him the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is now 16.


Patrick has what he considers a good life in Manchester—high school hockey team, a couple of girlfriends, a rock band. The last thing he wants to do is to move to Boston and into his uncle’s dead-end life. Lee in turn is baffled by Patrick, with whom he had a close, good-humored relationship earlier. He’s reluctant to judge him, but he’s uncomfortable with Patrick’s juggling of girlfriends and the surface breeziness and sarcasm that conceal his feelings about losing his father and, in effect, his mother, too (despite a final, futile attempt to reconnect with her).  

The film is really about two things, the pervasive effects of the tragedy that cost Lee his previous life, turning him into a sullen and sometimes violent loner (he gets into unprovoked bar fights), and the slow understanding that develops between him and Patrick. But it’s all subtle and understated. In fact, several of the most crucial scenes are silent. You see people talking at a distance, but you don’t hear them. The flashback that finally conveys what happened to Lee, and to his family, after a night of drunken carelessness, is mostly without dialogue, played out with Albinoni’s elegiac Adagio on the soundtrack.


The movie is therefore as subdued in tone as Affleck’s outstanding performance, but this is the source of its beauty, its low-key comedy, and its cumulative emotional power. You Can Count On Me, set in a small upstate New York town, with career-launching performances by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, did well enough as an indie release, but Margaret, a masterpiece that runs just over three hours, with Anna Paquin playing a troubled college student in Manhattan who has inadvertently caused a fatal accident, got caught up in delays and lawsuits when Lonergan refused to make cuts demanded by investors and distributors. I was lucky enough to be one of the few people to see it, slightly cut, during its deliberately obscure and brief 2011 theatrical run. (It’s now available at its original length on dvd.) But Manchester by the Sea is getting the attention and wide distribution it deserves. It’s one of the best films since, well, Lonergan’s two other films.




Allied


Allied, set in French Morocco and in London during World War II, begins as an homage to the most famous Warner Brothers movie ever made, Casablanca, and is, in general, a tribute to the stylish surfaces and intricate plots of Hollywood movies of the period. 


It even shares some of the historical fiction of Casablanca, such as uniformed German officers exercising direct authority in Vichy-controlled Morocco. It lacks, on the other hand, Casablanca’s imaginary “letters of transit.” Unfortunately, it also lacks the pithy, cynical dialogue of the most quoted movie in American cinema, not to mention its archetypal, ambiguous characters.


Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian working for British intelligence, and the brilliant French actress Marion Cotillard is Marianne Beausejour, a French Resistance agent working undercover in Casablanca, posing as a Vichy sympathizer. They have been ordered to assassinate a German officer, and to do this they have to pretend to be man and wife. This means Pitt, mumbling some French dialogue, convinces everyone, including Marianne’s Vichyite friends, that he’s a native French speaker, a stretch as wide as the Sahara—which is where, alone in a car during a sandstorm, Max and Marianne, no longer faking affection for each other, first make love.


Shortly afterward, they pull off the planned assassination in spectacular fashion and implausibly make a clean escape to London, where they get married, this time for real, and where Marianne, during a Blitz bombing raid, gives birth to a baby girl. They settle into happy domesticity in North London, but then Max is informed by a top-secret unit in British intelligence that Marianne might be a double agent. The real Marianne Beausejour may have been killed early in the war. And they have intercepted messages that someone is sending to the Germans from North London.


Max doesn’t believe it, but he is ordered to leave some fake intelligence where his wife can find it, and if that turns up in the intercepted messages, they will know that Marianne is working for the Nazis. In that case, Max will have to kill her, and if he refuses, or warns her, he himself will be killed. This is unlikely, of course, since British authorities, if they found they had a Nazi spy on their hands, would want to arrest and interrogate her, not abruptly execute her. But at least Max’s superiors are played by Jared Harris and Simon McBurney, two wonderful British character actors, and the scene is effective. Over the next few days, Max, against orders, goes to great lengths to find out who Marianne really is before they do.


The plot of Casablanca was hard to follow, let alone swallow. Yet it worked, and this one, despite some intriguing scenes and turns, doesn’t, because it finally leads the movie into off-key and overwrought territory, with none of the sly irony and humor of the 1942 film. The director, Robert Zemeckis, has done outstanding work, including Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and Back to the Future, and the screenwriter, Steven Knight, wrote Eastern Promises, a dark and devious film about Russian gangsters in London that I thoroughly enjoyed. But I wanted to like this movie far more than I did like it.


Still, it might at least have the virtue of sending you out looking for other, better World War II Resistance movies. The first and greatest, made before the war was over, is Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (co-written by Federico Fellini). And Army of Shadows (1969), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, who served with De Gaulle’s Free French forces, is, in its hard, confrontational moral ambiguities, as compelling as it is disturbing. Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1974) and Black Book (2007) are superb, twisty films about the Dutch Resistance. The Polish Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the Danish Flame and Citron (2008), and the German Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) are also all well worth tracking down. And then there’s Casablanca.  




Sully


Clint Eastwood’s Sully tells the story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who became a national hero in January 2009 when, a few minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport, his plane ran into a flock of birds, both engines failed, and, with great sangfroid and skill, he managed to bring it precariously down on the icy waters of the Hudson River just off the West Side of Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and the crew.

The movie takes its time getting there, but it finally does a good job of re-creating those tense moments. Its problem is that the tense moments take ten minutes. So to fill the rest of its running time, it relies on flashbacks and aftermaths and tries hard to extract drama out of the grilling that Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) are subjected to afterward by officials of the National Transportation Safety Board. The premise behind their relentless questions is that he should have followed proper procedures and tried to return to La Guardia, or divert to Newark, instead of risking a river landing. The imperturbable Sully has little trouble demonstrating that it couldn’t have been done. We now know that the actual NTSB officials weren’t nearly as inquisitorial as they’re portrayed here, and that the inquiry took place months, not days, after the incident. But movies need villains, and the federal functionaries function as one.


It does allow the film to raise some interesting questions about what happens to an authentic (and modest) hero in our legalistic-bureaucratic society. While being celebrated by ordinary people—New York pedestrians who greet him on the street, bartenders who name drinks after him—Sully is put through a wringer of regulations and protocols. Hanks, who, equipped with short white hair and clipped moustache, looks a lot like the real Sully, is in effect reprising his role in last year’s Bridge of Spies—the unassuming, resilient American good guy surrounded by carping obstructionists.


Eastwood’s career both as actor and director has repeatedly and provocatively expressed his devotion to individual autonomy and bold, rule-bending, risk-taking improvisation—heroism, in short—in a nitpicking culture that not only demands that everything be done by the book, but the book is 4,623 pages long. Sully and everyone on board would have perished that day if he had parsed every subclause in the pilot’s manual instead of going by gut instinct—an instinct born of decades of hard-won experience. In this light, the movie, despite its jumbled time sequences and stage-managed confrontations, is a fitting tribute not just to one man but to an inspiring version of common sense.





The Girl on the Train



There are thrillers that go deep, plumbing complex moral and psychological depths, like The Third Man, The Night of the Hunter, or some of Hitchcock’s best films—Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho. And then there are the thrillers that just efficiently draw you in and keep you riveted, like Sudden Fear (1952), Cape Fear (1962 and 1991), Fatal Attraction, Panic Room, A History of Violence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prisoners, etc.


Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train seems for a moment headed for the first category, plunging you into the somber psyche of a wounded woman, then aims for the second, and finally lands in a third category, the thriller that’s just a neat package of smoke and mirrors. It’s intriguing at first, extracting several varieties of feminine discontent from its immaculate suburban landscape and keeping you engaged with its jigsaw puzzle of a plot. It’s at least better than the never for a moment believable Gone Girl. But like that movie, this one, based on a best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, succumbs to its contrivances and thinly conceived characters.


The dark-haired, dark-minded girl, or rather youngish woman, on the train, Rachel (Emily Blunt), has hit rock bottom as the movie begins. And then things really start to go bad. She’s a divorced, lonely alcoholic who is (as she says in an initial voiceover) “not the girl I used to be.” She still lives in the upscale Westchester County suburb of New York where she had been married, but instead of having a comfortable house she now rents a room. And she still rides the commuter train along the Hudson River into the city every day, but she has long since lost her job there, and now she just sits in bars before returning home on the train thoroughly drunk.


On the way back and forth, she gets glimpses of other people’s lives—women in houses visible from the train who seem to have everything she had, or almost had. One of those women, a pretty blonde named Megan (Haley Bennett), turns out to be both neighbor and nanny to another blonde, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is the new wife, with new baby, of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Megan becomes the focus of Rachel’s envious train spying. 


Rachel’s drinking habit sometimes results in blackouts. One morning she wakes up with blood-soaked clothes. And Megan has gone missing. Could Rachel’s voyeuristic obsession with her (despite not really knowing her) have resulted in murder? Rachel’s fragmented memories of the night include a possible encounter with Megan in a park, and the suspicious police detective (Allison Janney) knows she was drunk and she was there. But Rachel has her own suspicions, and she tracks down both Megan’s husband and her therapist, trying to fit the pieces together. When all the pieces do fall into place, the result is both logical and lame. Still, Blunt’s performance in the central role is subtle enough in to make Rachel’s desperation (if not all her notions and actions) plausible. At the end, when she repeats that opening voiceover line about not being the girl she used to be, she has earned its transformed meaning. The trouble is that thrillers, on the evidence here, are not the movies they used to be.




The Light Between Oceans


Isolation is a good way to generate drama, which is why so many film directors (and dramatists—see The Tempest) have been interested in islands, or boats cast adrift, cabins deep in the woods, lonely motels far off the main highway, and so forth. Strand someone or a couple or an odd mix of people somewhere, step back, and see what happens. It’s a formula Hitchcock used in Lifeboat and Psycho. You can find it in the early Joan Crawford film Rain, in Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, in Lord of the Flies, and all the other island films you care to list. 


Derek Cianfrance’s moving drama of choice and stark consequences, The Light Between Oceans, set in Australia just after the First World War, belongs among the memorable island movies. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran left numb and nearly silent by the horrors of trench warfare in France. Wanting to be alone, he takes a temporary three-month job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, rugged, windswept island off the western coast of Australia (the desolate beauty of the landscape in the film, which was actually shot in New Zealand, intensifies everything).


Before Tom leaves for the island, at a dinner in the house of his supervisor on the mainland, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the supervisor’s beautiful daughter, makes no effort at all to conceal her immediate attraction to him. Once he is alone on the island, they exchange tender love letters. When Tom is offered a permanent job at the lighthouse, she wants to go with him, and they get married.


In their island solitude, all is idyllic at first, but after Isabel gets pregnant, she suffers, in a harrowing scene during a fierce storm, a miscarriage, and eventually has another. Just then a boat drifts ashore, with a dead young man and a newborn baby, still alive, in it. Tom is ready to report it, but Isabel is desperate to claim the baby girl as her own, and since no one else knows about the stray boat or her second miscarriage, he finally, if reluctantly, agrees. He buries the man’s body on the island, Isabel devotedly and happily raises the girl, called Lucy, and he comes alive as a gentle, good-humored father.


But just as Lucy, now 4, is being christened at a church in the mainland town, Tom notices a woman (Rachel Weisz) weeping by a stone in the churchyard. He sees that it’s a memorial to her husband and newborn baby, presumed drowned at sea four years earlier, and realizes Lucy must be her child. Conscience-stricken, he leaves an anonymous note for the woman assuring her that her daughter is still alive. Eventually the local authorities figure out what happened, but Tom, wanting to protect Isabel, says it was all his idea. He is accused of murder as well as child theft, and Lucy, terrified and crying, is torn from the arms of Isabel and handed over to her real mother (who had named her Grace).


Two loving mothers, one distraught child. The resulting plot complications, in the hands of a less intelligent director, might have turned it into melodrama. But Cianfrance, who wrote and directed Blue Valentine (2010), one of the best troubled-marriage dramas in recent years, keeps it on a level where questions of love, loyalty, and sacrifice are given subtle and convincing dramatic form. The film reminds us that even an understandable and heartfelt choice can suddenly plunge a person into a strange, dangerous moral universe. A gently sloping, inviting path can end in a precipice.


Cianfrance co-wrote the script with M.L. Stedman, the author of the novel the film is based on, and it’s perfectly realized by the outstanding performances of Fassbender, a superb actor playing a man whose feelings are tightly wrapped in a restraint imposed by bitter experience, and the Swedish-born Vikander (A Royal Affair, The Danish Girl), who fully emerges here as a mature and entrancing star. Having met on location for the film, they are now a couple off-screen as well, so there’s no question about their visible onscreen chemistry. And Weisz and the rest of the cast are excellent as well. It’s one of the best, most affecting films of the past few years.




Café Society


The signature theme in what has become Woody Allen’s signature form, the rueful or wistful comedy, is that life never lives up to our expectations and ideals, and we often trip ourselves up pursuing them, but then if we didn’t pursue them, life would be so redundant and dull that it would hardly be worth living. In other words, we need our illusions, but we also need to choose them carefully.


His latest movie, Café Society, revisits the 1930s, the decade he was born in the middle of and keeps returning to, as if in search of something lost. And in fact we have lost all the elegance and half the wit of the period, both of which clearly appeal to Allen. And by setting it amid the glittering surfaces of Thirties Hollywood and Manhattan, he makes sure there are plenty of pursuable illusions available.


The result is something less than his best work, even his best recent work like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, but it’s still a lightly engaging, very watchable mix of nostalgia and irony. As usual in his recent films, he gets his laughs more through schematically contrasted characters bordering on stereotypes than through the jokes and wisecracks of his earlier work—though there are still some good, epigrammatic one-liners.


Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a quiet, awkward 20-something, flees Brooklyn and his raucous parents (played with perfect Jewish-comic timing by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) for Hollywood, where his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a cynical, high-powered agent who lives his life in the brief intervals between urgent phone calls from studio executives and stars.


Bobby finally gets Phil’s reluctant attention, but by then he’s giving his own attention mainly to Phil’s beautiful secretary, Veronica, or Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who came to L.A. from the Midwest with acting ambitions but has grown tired of all the ego and money and name-dropping. She seems to see in Bobby’s naïve earnestness some echo of her own original innocence, and they start spending time together. Bobby talks about taking her back to New York, getting married, finding an apartment in Greenwich Village.


But she is slowly being reeled in by one of Hollywood’s big fish. So after the plot takes its predictable sharp ironic turn, a disillusioned Bobby slinks back to New York, where he joins forces with another opposite he’s related to, his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who has just opened a nightclub called Les Tropiques. Bobby manages it for him as it catches on with the boldface names of Café Society, and he eventually meets and marries another pretty Veronica from the Midwest (Blake Lively). 


But he’s still thinking of Vonnie, who, now married herself and immersed in the shallowest depths of Hollywood, is still thinking of him. Circumstances conspire for their meeting in New York, complete with romantic, nostalgic walks in Central Park, but that’s about all the circumstances can manage. They live, the ending implies, wistfully ever after.


There are some off-notes in both the plot and the dialogue. The neat, symmetrical ironies can leave you wondering about the motivations of the characters. And Woody Allen has to be aware that “know where you’re coming from” is a phrase that came to plague our language long after the Thirties. But despite a few such anachronisms, Eisenberg, Stewart, and Carell turn in convincing performances, and the movie works for what it is: not a tender or touching star-crossed romance, but a comic allegory of the way ambition and success can get in the way of what we really want.

 




 


SCREENplay


Lawrence Klepp


SCREENplay is a column devoted to films and occasionally plays. It includes reviews of selected new films and reflections on older ones, whether classics or lesser known movies worth seeking out.  

Lawrence Klepp moved to Vermont last year from Manhattan, where he lived for more than 30 years, working as an editor and writing  about books, history, philosophy, and film for numerous publications including

The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly,

the New York Times,

the New York Daily News,

Newsday,

New York Magazine,

and Esquire


to contact the columnist write to


newnusquam@hotmail.com