Café Society (Allen. 2016)

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Few people have amassed a creative portfolio the size of Woody Allen’s.  Now 80 years old, he has kept up a relentless pace, hammering out screenplays like a man who has a gun against his head. Laced with dry humour and romanticism, his films are easily recognisable as ambling tales of masculinity, love and the magic of city life. However, a director that churns out films one after another is bound to make a few stinkers. His new ode to the razzamatazz of 1930’s Hollywood and New York is relaxed, romantic and witty, but it’s not terribly memorable.

On a basic level, it’s a sort of screwball comedy harking back to films like Philadelphia with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. A light and fluffy ride, Café Society’s narrative centres on a young Jewish man (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood to find a job with his big-shot uncle (Steve Carell). Falling for a young secretary played by Kristen Stewart, Eisenberg’s cynical Allen-esque character finds himself thrust into a romance full of twists and turns.

But while there are twists and turns aplenty, the film is about as deep and meaningful as the movement and people the title references. A term for the group of wealthy, glamorous socialites that descended upon the metropolitan nightclubs and music halls of the 20th century, it is referencing vanity and indulgence. And that’s Allen’s problem here. He’s made a film about shallowness and superficiality that is, in itself, shallow and superficial. Full of pretty people talking romantically to each other in a detestably fake way, the result is a bland mesh of events with no particular sense of consequence at all. You have no real understanding about the motives of Eisenberg’s character, you have no idea of his faults and not much of what he does seems to make sense. The relationships don’t seem true and the characters are boring and unimaginative.

But the truly criminal aspect of this film is the way in which it treats its female characters. This is a film about men’s relationships with women, not relationships between men and women. What Allen seems to have done is take a boring, grey-like paintbrush to every one of his female romantic interests. For all the depth that Kristen Stewart can deliver, she’s simply made into a cardboard cut-out that Eisenberg bounces off soppy, selfish declarations of love. For a character that men keep falling in love with, she’s not very interesting. She’s kicked around emotionally as well, but isn’t given the faintest glimmer of a backbone.

Bland, easy to consume and all too lacking in intrigue, Café society is an unengaging exercise in mushy Hollywood nostalgia.

Deep End (Skolimowski. 1970)

 

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It is odd that a film shot in Germany by a Polish director should be considered a piece of cult British Cinema. Yet, this bizarre, dreamy and stylish creation is something of a national gem.

A darkly comic,  visceral tale, the story follows fifteen year old bathhouse worker Mike (John Moulder Brown), and the obsession he develops for his older colleague, Susan (Jane Asher). A figure of modernity and sexual freedom, Susan becomes an object of desire for the young boy. As he tries to take on responsibility with his job, his fixation with Susan inevitably takes over.

Only  recently restored by the BFI, the 1970 coming of age drama is something of a delicious oddity. Somewhere between kitchen sink drama and French New wave, it’s stylish and abstract. And the fact that it is so hard to place is its charm. A German/US co-production shot largely in Munich and written by a man with minimal English language skills, it is a film of no discernible national identity. the outcome then, is genuinely strange. Although it may be set in London, it doesn’t feel like London. It’s also immensely funny, but not in a traditional British way. There’s no such thing as a punchline. The humour comes from bold, outlandish moments that are punctuated by heavy sadness. Diana Dors’ cameo as a sexually frustrated customer is hilarious until her depression and loneliness is made clear. Skolimowski seems unwilling to label any particular moment as funny or sad. The unpredictability and strangeness of it all is tremendously fascinating.

Deep End‘s visual nature is also something to be marveled at. For a film about a crumbling swimming pool in London, the sense of colour and vibrancy is stunning. Susan, with her flowing yellow jacket bursts through the grey, and the vivid blue of the swimming pool really breathes life into the story. Although this is a film about bland, normal, working class Britain, the colour and sheer elegance of the piece suggests otherwise.

An odd film at heart, Deep End is a curious but enjoyable drama about adulthood, first love and sexuality. Full of flair, it’s a strange, rock and roll piece of European cinema.

Closely Observed Trains (Jiri Menzel. 1966)

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It’s a shame that the Czech new wave movement was such a brief moment in cinematic history. Closely Observed Trains is from that European art cinema mold of the 50s and 60s. It’s risque, sexy, political and altogether quite funny.

It’s also one of the best coming of age stories in cinema. The tale of Milos the train signalman is a wonderfully compact and lean document of a young man trying to understand the transition between boy and man. His position as an apprentice signalman also offers a sort of line up of (all fairly flawed) male bosses and role models, creating a question about whether there is even a change in maturity or whether it’s just an imaginary construct.

The dialogue is sharp and witty. However, amongst the hilarity and the youthful energy, there is a darker, more sobering quality to Menzel’s film. Milos’ involvement in the fight against nazi Germany’s forces leaves a bitter taste in the mouth about human mortality and how impressionable both adult and child can be.