Café Society

Perhaps the most prolific director of all (45 features thus far), Woody Allen is a frustrating filmmaker in that the quality of his output fluctuates wildly; from the delightful to the dire. To be fair, most of his recent output has been pretty decent (Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris), but there is always a sense of trepidation whenever a new Allen film arrives in cinemas because, whilst there is a great deal of predictability in the types of characters that inhabit the stories, you just never know whether Allen is going to deliver something great or god awful. In fact, within each individual movie there are often great disparities in the quality of what plays out, with wonderful moments of wry wit often followed by something so insipid that it only serves to undermine those moments that soar. With Café Society, Allen sticks to this template, creating a (s)light 1930’s-set romantic comedy in which a young man relocates from New York to Los Angeles in search of opportunity, only to find himself smitten by his uncle’s secretary.


The central character is, seemingly, yet another incarnation of Allen himself, with Jesse Eisenberg perfectly suited to the role as the confident but uptight Bobby Dorfman. Having moved to LA to escape a future working in his father’s jewellery business, Bobby finds himself employed by his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood agent whose incessant name-dropping is a running joke though the film.  When Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), romance blossoms despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend “Doug” (whose real identity we learn soon enough) and, whilst it easy to see why both men have fallen for her, you find yourself questioning the likelihood of a situation in which this beautiful, easy going young woman would find herself romantically entangled with these two men when neither of them are particularly gregarious. Of course, such dichotomies are the hallmark of all Allen films; a beautiful woman falls for the charms of somebody who would, in all reality, never stand a chance. For a long time, Allen cast himself as the man punching above his weight, but in recent years he has turned to the likes of Owen Wilson, Joaquin Phoenix and now Eisenberg to fill such roles. These characters are essentially the same each time, the only difference being the woman over whom they fawn.


In that regard, Stewart is an inspired casting decision as she is absolutely luminous here. Often maligned as an actress, Stewart has proven time and again that she is a terrific talent and it is her presence alone that keeps you interested. Sure, you can’t help but ask yourself why Vonnie is involved with either of her suitors, but it is easy to understand why they would be pursuing her because whenever Stewart is on screen, Café Society soars. Sure, there are some aspects of the film that are infuriating (such as the voice-over narration from Allen himself) but Stewart’s performance and her easy rapport with Eisenberg (with whom she has worked twice before) helps to alleviate the anger that builds every time Allen’s voice launches into another infuriatingly unnecessary commentary on the course of events. When the romance between Bobby and Vonnie seems to have run its course, Bobby returns to New York to run a nightclub owned by his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and it is here that he finds himself a new love in Veronica (Blake Lively). Of course, love never runs smoothly and when Vonnie ventures back into his periphery, complications ensue.


Whilst there are several scenes (such as those in New York that endlessly remind us about what a bad guy Ben has become) that could have easily been excised without having any impact on the main characters and their relationships, there is one superfluous scene early in the piece featuring Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect) as a hapless hooker that, despite having no relevance to anything that follows, is actually the funniest moment in the film. The rest of the movie is amusing rather than uproarious, with Parker Posey the standout amongst the supporting cast as Rad, a straight-talking socialite who runs a modelling agency. Dripping in 1930’s glamour, Café Society juxtaposes the glitzy seduction of Hollywood with the dour world of working class New York. It all looks fabulous and, with Stewart possessing a screen presence to rival any of the Golden Age actresses whose names pop up in Phil’s numerous bouts of braggadocio, this is one of Allen’s better efforts.

The Girl on the Train

Described as delivering a ‘Hitchcock-style punch’ and possessing ‘Hitchcockian inspirations’, it is hard to imagine Mr Hitchcock being particularly pleased with such comparisons given that The Girl on the Train is a disjointed, somewhat bland thriller that struggles to overcome its fundamental flaw; a cast of characters who are neither likeable nor interesting enough to illicit much sympathy for their plight. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that there is nothing about the book on which the film is based that stands it apart as something particularly special in what is perhaps the most congested literary genre of all, other than the fact that it was a huge seller. There seems little doubt that that the popularity of Paula Hawkins’ novel, coupled with the success of the screen adaptation of (the far superior) Gone Girl in 2014, have been the catalyst for the development of this project, rather than any opportunity to present something particularly unique.


The girl of the title is Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an aimless young divorcee who spends her days sipping vodka from a water bottle, riding the train and obsessing over her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). During her daily commute, Rachel becomes fixated on Megan and Scott Hipwell (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), a young couple whose house sits adjacent to the railway line and also happens to be only a few doors down from the home Tom shares with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Catching glimpses of Megan and Scott each morning and afternoon, Rachel fills her mind with romanticised notions of their life together, a fantasy somewhat removed from reality as we discover soon enough. When Megan vanishes, Rachel sets out to investigate, only to find herself implicated when it is revealed that she was in the area on the night of Megan’s disappearance. The problem is that an alcohol-induced blackout has left Rachel with no memory of the night in question. From this point, the course of events is revealed to the audience as Rachel herself slowly begins to recall what transpired.


The story shifts back and forward in time, offering some insight into the events from the past that have shaped the course of events that unfold, but it is so hard to care much about Rachel and the predicament in which she finds herself. In fact, nobody here emerges as a particularly pleasant person as secrets and lies are revealed. The changes made in the transition from page to screen – such as the relocation of the story from London to the suburbs of New York – seem more to do with placating those studio suits who simply cannot imagine that there is a world beyond America. In the book, Rachel is presented as a slovenly mess whose alcoholism has left her in physical and psychological disarray, whereas the movie has her seeming decidedly less pitiful. In fact, she looks pretty good for somebody who has supposedly spent two years drinking all day every day. Blunt does her best with a character devoid of any common sense, lurching from one bad decision to another and only learning the truth about what transpired through the return of her memory rather than any investigative effort on her part.


Perhaps because I am familiar with the book, and therefore aware of what happens to whom, I never found anything that takes place to be particularly suspenseful even though director Tate Taylor does keep the circumstances of Megan’s disappearance under wraps much longer than Hawkins does in the book. Whilst Taylor – working from a script penned by Hawkins and Erin Cressida Wilson – doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and he certainly under-utilises the considerable talents of Allison Janney as the detective investigating Megan’s disappearance, some may find the ending a surprise enough to make the journey worth their while. Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is very much like the book on which it is derived; uninspired and lacking the narrative chutzpah to make it stand out as something special.

Caxton Music Schedule

The set times for the live music performances at the Caxton Street Festival this Sunday (October 2) have been released and there is  delicious collection of artists on the menu across two stages.

The music program kicks off at 12.00pm and wraps up with Urthboy headlining the main stage from 9.00pm. There will be 18 artists performing on the two stages, including Stonefield, Last Dinosaurs, Cub Sport and The Creases.


For more information about the 2016 Caxton Street Festival, including ticketing details and the full music line-up, head to the festival website or follow Caxton Street Festival on Facebook.

Don’t Breathe

Marketed ostensibly as a horror film, Don’t Breathe is tense rather than terrifying and sits much more comfortably within the thriller genre (if we must insist on such labels). A home invasion gone wrong is the premise of this latest offering from Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, whose only other feature production thus far is the 2013 Evil Dead remake. Whilst the film follows a fairly typical trajectory in many ways (you can predict the order in which the characters will meet their demise the moment you meet them and that is exactly how it plays out) and the idea of the victims turning the tables on their attackers in such a situation is certainly nothing new (Home Alone, You’re Next), Alvarez has tossed in a few narrative surprises that do make Don’t Breathe stand apart.


Mired in the misery of depression-ravaged Detroit, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) undertake a series of break-ins, using information from the security company for whom Alex’s father works to gain access to properties. Having consciously avoided any large scale operations that would bring severe consequences should they be caught, the group change tack when they learn about a man who supposedly has a large quantity of cash stored in his house. Their target is a former soldier who received a large compensation payout following the death of his daughter. He lives alone in an otherwise abandoned suburb and also happens to be blind, a fact that instils a false sense of security amongst the intrepid trio. Alvarez, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues, needs us to like at least one of the three crooks so that we care enough about what happens to them to go the distance. This is done with a distinct lack of subtlety mind you; a solitary scene in which Rocky’s mother is presented as such an utterly heinous construct that we are expected to forgive anything that Rocky might do to secure the money needed to relocate herself and her young sister to California.


As is to be expected, things don’t go according to plan and all manner of mayhem is unleashed when the intended victim (Stephen Lang) – who is known only as The Blind Man – proves to be much more of a threat than they could have imagined. Our hapless home invaders soon find themselves under assault, battling to escape with their lives and it goes without saying that not everybody will. As more of the house is revealed, we also learn more about the blind man and how his determination to eliminate the intruders is about much more than simply trying to protect any money that he may have stashed away. It is these narrative flourishes – some of which I certainly didn’t see coming – that push the film into territory that is a cut above so many others of this ilk.

Stephen Lang

There are certainly plenty of moments of high tension and, on more than one occasion, the events seem to have run their course only for the story to kick back into life, but the scariest part of it all is the utter desolation of suburban Detroit. Houses abandoned and entire suburbs devoid of any human habitation; a city ravaged by recession. Levy (TV’s Suburgatory) is the key to making it work and she is impressive in presenting Rocky as much more than the typical one-dimensional doomed damsels that too often populate such stories, while Lang’s blind antagonist is perhaps a little too effective in dealing with the intruders to engender our sympathies as the victim of the piece. Definitely not a horror movie, Don’t Breathe delivers plenty of gruesome goings-on but is unlikely to leave you with any lasting nightmares.

Captain Fantastic

The idea of Viggo Mortenson as a father raising a tribe of kids in an off-the-grid self-sufficient lifestyle hints at something really interesting and, whilst there are some really enjoyable moments in Captian Fantastic, ultimately the film fails to fully realise the potential of the premise. That is not to say this is a bad movie because there is much to like, but it just seems as though writer/director Matt Ross has taken the easy option in the interests of trying to mould an unconventional story about unconventional characters into something that will still satisfy those viewers who like their film narratives to follow a somewhat predictable and, dare I say, happy trajectory.


Deep in the forests of Washington State, Ben Cash (Mortenson) is a devoted father, committed to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education. The children do not go to school, but they are very intelligent, albeit without any understanding of how the world works beyond the regimented routine that Ben has instilled in them; hunting, physical training (in various forms from gruelling runs, to mountain climbing to hand-to-hand combat) and reading (philosophy, literature) are the staples of each day. They do not celebrate Christmas, instead choosing to celebrate events such as Noam Chomsky’s birthday because, unlike Jesus or Santa Claus, Chomsky is real and important. Ben’s wife Leslie (Trin Miller) has been hospitalised, forcing the family to embark on a road trip aboard the Partridge Family-style bus that is their only means of transportation. The tension of the story lies in the conflict between Ben and his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) about the way in which the children are being raised. Much argy-bargy ensues as the arrogant, wealthy Jack threatens to have the children removed from Franks care. It’s hard to delve into much more detail without giving away key plot developments, but in Ben and Frank, Ross has constructed two alpha male characters that could not be any more different.


Even though we only ever see Leslie in flashbacks/dream sequences, she is very much at the core of the tensions as Frank holds Ben responsible for the circumstances that have led to her hospitalisation. In that regard, the film fails as an exploration of mental illness as it descends into nothing more than two men at loggerheads about what is best for a woman who is never really given any voice of her own. Frank is a reprehensible construct whose superciliousness is too extreme to be taken seriously and Langella’s considerable talents are wasted on a character whose every action is driven by jealousy and an overwhelming sense of superiority. He wants to take the kids from Ben as revenge for what has happened to Leslie. To be fair, Ben is also a somewhat extreme character, but at least he is driven by a genuine desire to protect his family from a world that he sees as toxic; socially, politically and environmentally. Much like Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast, in his efforts to protect his children, Ben might actually be putting them at risk.


Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine presents the north-west landscape as both menacing and majestic, while Ross’s music choices are unconventional, mostly diagetic and absolutely inspired. A funeral scene that might typically play out as a moment of sombre reflection is actually a moment of uplift and inspiration through the use of Guns n Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine. Mortenson is perfectly cast in the lead role and delivers another typically solid performance, while the six young performers – George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell –  are universally impressive as the Cash children, whose ages range from 8 to 18. As the oldest, Mackay’s Bodevan has the biggest narrative arc as his desire to attend college is in conflict with Ben’s views on formalised education, but all of them enjoy moments in the spotlight. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn also feature as the sister and brother-in-law who represent the exact type of banal, vacuous existence that Ben is so desperate to avoid. Amusing, emotional and thought provoking at times, Captain Fantastic is an entertaining romp that is let down by the compromise of the ending, seemingly with an eye to the mainstream of which Ben would want no part.