Blame it on Jaws. Forty-one years ago—how is that possible?—Steven Spielberg’s shark-attack shocker invented the summer-movie season, and the cinematic waters have not been fine for adults seeking thoughtful fare in the hot-weather months ever since. But if Ghostbusters made you gag, Independence Day: Resurgence made you regurgitate and Suicide Squad made you want to kill yourself, there is hope. Now that we’re in August, a handful of smart movies have thankfully sneaked into theaters.
The best of the lot by a country mile is Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western with a career-best performance by Jeff Bridges (and that’s saying something, considering his 65-year career — he made his debut at 2 as an uncredited “Infant at Train Station” in 1951’s The Company She Keeps). He plays a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement, and breathes such vivid life into the character that he skirts any hint of a cliché. He’s on the trail of a pair of brothers (the always-electric Ben Foster and Chris Pine, rising to his co-stars’ level) who go on a bank-robbery spree.
The screenplay, by Sicario‘s Taylor Sheridan, contains some sly social commentary about the mortgage crisis and right-to-carry laws, but Starred Up director David Mackenzie’s drama works best as a character study, and Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton stands as one of the most fascinating characters in recent film. He’s casually un-p.c., making offensive off-hand remarks to his half-Mexican, half-Native American deputy (Banshee‘s Gil Birmingham, in a breakout turn). But he’s also a deeply decent man. When Hamilton shoots a man in one scene, Bridges’ reaction is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen, literally laughing and crying at the same time. I felt the same way throughout Hell or High Water — at once elated and deeply moved.
I experienced similar emotions watching Captain Fantastic, at least until the end when the story goes off the rails. Viggo Mortensen, who made his film debut more than 30 years ago in Witness, brilliantly channels the spirit of Harrison Ford’s other cinematic collaboration with director Peter Weir, 1986’s The Mosquito Coast. (Both films fell in the brief period when Ford actually acted instead of just posing or growling.) Like Mosquito, Captain follows a father who takes his family away from civilization to live in the wilderness. Not surprisingly, given the fact that it was written and directed by an actor, Silicon Valley‘s Matt Ross, the film’s cast is uniformly remarkable. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn—hey, their names rhyme!—wisely underplay Mortensen’s bourgeois sister and brother-in-law, and Frank Langella and Ann Dowd deliver typically flawless portrayals as his materialistic father- and mother-in-law. All six kids are stellar, with George MacKay the standout as the eldest son. He’s reminiscent of River Phoenix, not just in Mosquito Coast but also in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (another family-on-the-lam drama), as well as Heath Ledger in his aching vulnerability.
Captain Fantastic raises fascinating questions about what makes a good parent, but they ultimately can’t be answered. Still, the film attempts to wrap itself up in a too-tidy package. The opposite holds true for Equity, a tightly wound feminist financial thriller that leaves a few too many loose ends dangling as you leave the theater. Yet the strong work of Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn as well as co-writers/co-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas cannot be denied, and director Meena Menon gives the film a seductively cool surface that makes it a palpable pleasure to watch.
That’s not where the worthy fare ends. I’ve previously sung the praises of Woody Allen’s Cafe Society and James Schamus’ Indignation, and I also enjoyed Florence Foster Jenkins, although it may have been as much for the air-conditioning—I saw it in the middle of a heatwave—as for the robust performances by Meryl Streep as a tone-deaf socialite and Hugh Grant as her lovingly unfaithful husband (and no, that’s not an oxymoron). The movie’s biggest surprise is Simon Helberg, who erases any trace of The Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz as Jenkins’ fluttery, formidable accompanist.
So there you have a half-dozen flicks currently in theaters that won’t cause your brain to melt. Maybe going to the cineplex in the summertime isn’t so hellish after all.
Bruce Fretts: I’m borderline illiterate, so I’ve never read any books by Philip Roth, but my friend Bret Watson is a learned individual and has read many of Roth’s novels, so I asked him to join me and review Indignation, based on his book of the same name.
Bret Watson: I’ve read 19 of his works, but not this one.
Bruce: I have a vague idea of what Roth represents. I know he’s Jewish and from Newark and my impression, based solely on New York Times book reviews I’ve read, is that he started out writing more humorous novels like Portnoy’s Complaint but grew more serious in his later years, and this is based on one of his later books.
Bret: I would say one regret I have is that as he got older, he got darker, and I miss the playful Philip Roth. There were very few humorous elements in this movie.
Bruce: I thought there were some darkly funny moments. This is the story of a young Jewish man from Newark, Marcus (Logan Lerman), whose father is a butcher, and he goes to college in Ohio to get away from his family. I assume it’s autobiographical.
Bret: Philip Roth went to University of Chicago, so in the Midwest…
Bruce: See, I knew you were an expert. So this kid meets a girl (Sarah Gadot)…
Bret: A shiksa! And what a shiksa. A blonde! In a tight sweater!
Bruce: And she’s so crazy, I’m surprised I haven’t dated her yet.
Bret: But you will. You talk about red flags. This woman has a scar on her wrist. That’s a red flag.
Bruce: Don’t be a nut-shamer, Bret. Her character is judged on the basis of her mental health history, especially by Marcus’ mom (Linda Emond), and it ultimately turns into a tragedy as a result.
Bret: It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bruce: So I really enjoyed the film.
Bret: You did? I’m shocked. I was bored.
Bruce: I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Tracy Letts, who’s a great writer as well as an actor, as the Dean. He’s such an intellectual bully that the scenes between him and Marcus play like horror films.
Bret: He is the best thing in the movie. And those scenes are the heart of the movie. They’re where the indignation is.
Bruce: Is it? I thought the title might refer to Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein), who becomes angry after his son leaves for college.
Bret: I thought the movie was too long and could’ve been tightened, and one of the things that could’ve been completely gone was everything about the father.
Bruce: I disagree. I thought the father was an interesting character, and Danny Burstein was perfectly cast, and you’re wrong.
Bret: It wouldn’t be the first time. Marcus is constantly getting indignant—not just with the Dean and his parents but also with his roommates. And this is a hallmark of Philip Roth. You expect characters to get angry with each other, have furiously intense dialogue, and you get that in spades here.
Bruce: The way you’re describing Philip Roth makes him sound a lot like Larry David.
Bret: I kept sitting there thinking, “I wish Larry David had handled this material.” My enthusiasm was curbed.
Bruce: That brings met to Woody Allen. We just saw Indignation at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, the unofficial capital of the Woody Allen fan club. They even serve lox and cream cheese sandwiches.
Bret: And Cafe Society was packing them in there, too.
Bruce: People say they miss Woody’s early, funny films. Is there a parallel to Philip Roth? Aside from them both being Jewish…
Bret: A wry way of looking at the world…
Bruce: Or a rye way? Because that’s what they serve the sandwiches on.
Bret: Yes, that’s completely what I meant.
Bruce: Sorry, I interrupted you.
Bret: I have to think carefully about what I say here.
Bruce: Why, because you don’t want to offend the Jews?
Bret: For starters. “That dumb goy knows nothing about my work!”
Bruce: Well, I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here…
Bret: Philip Roth pushes the envelope much more than Woody Allen ever dared to.
Bruce: Except with his stepdaughter. So you wouldn’t recommend this film?
Bret: I just thought it was weak tea. It wasn’t a full meal. There was great acting and some wonderful scenes, but my mind drifted. That’s why I knew how many Philip Roth books I’ve read. I was passing the time counting them in my head.
Bruce: I thought the performances were great. Sarah Gadot definitely captured that crazy-beautiful quality I find so alluring.
Bret: Philip Roth has written before about male main characters who get into relationships with crazy women.
Bruce: And do feminists find him offensive as a result?
Bret: Often, yes.
Bruce: And do they have any grounds for that?
Bret: Read the books, Bruce. On the advice of counsel, I choose not to answer that question. But Philip Roth may have dated a crazy woman…
Bruce: Really? What’s that like?
Bret: So that may be autobiographical, too, I don’t know. A great biography of Roth has yet to be written.
Bruce: Maybe you should do that.
Bret: Yeah, I have plenty of time. I’ll call him up now. “Phil, Baby…”
Bruce: I believe he had nothing to do with this project.
Bret: I don’t think he has to do with any of the movies based on his work.
Bruce: Some critics say there’s never been a good one, possibly until now.
Bret: It’s hard to capture him on film. So much of it is his philosophizing in describing the plight of his characters. He’s very trenchant. There’s not a lot of action in some of his books, or in this movie.
Bruce: I found this movie riveting, despite the lack of action. You, on the other hand, bolted out of the theater as soon as it was over.
Bret: I was trying to beat the crowd to the men’s room.
Bruce: It was a very old crowd. I knew there would be a lot of men with enlarged prostates who’d have to use the men’s room after the movie. You made a bee-line—or should I say pee-line?—for it.
Bret: They did not move quickly and had no respect for full bladders. That made me indignant. So maybe this movie worked after all.
Bruce Fretts: I’m sitting in TGIFriday’s with David Rey Martinez, stand-up comedian extraordinaire, and his 9-year-old mini-me, Sebastian Rey Martinez, and we just saw Suicide Squad. But we saw it separately—father and son together, and me alone in Times Square—and I must confess I arrived late and fell asleep several times during the movie. I had a hard week, but I think the real reason I fell asleep was because it was a terrible movie! Every time I woke up, it had grown even more horrible.
David Rey Martinez: I don’t know what reviewers are expecting from comic-book movies. This is one of my issues. The DC Universe characters are way crazier than the Marvel characters. They’re very different. With Marvel, you can see a little bit of humanity in it, and when you look at DC, it’s very comic book. It’s very over-the-top.
Bruce: What about Deadpool? That was a Marvel movie that went way over the top, and it worked. This is like a watered-down, PG-13 version of Deadpool. They wanted to have it both ways—have super villains as the heroes but still make it safe for kids. They should’ve made this a hardcore R-rated movie. But instead, every time I woke up, Will Smith’s Deadshot was weeping about missing his little daughter.
David: I don’t think the tone was inconsistent. Deadpool and Deadshot are two different characters, even though both their names begin with the word “Dead.”
Bruce: I did not believe Will Smith as a villain. He just seemed like the Fresh Prince.
David: Yeah, but he’s an assassin.
Bruce: The only thing Will Smith ever killed was DJ Jazzy Jeff’s career.
David: That’s a shot in the dark, but it is kind of true. Was it a decent movie? Yes. Was it life-changing? No. But I enjoyed it from the beginning to the end.
Bruce: Okay, let’s ask Sebastian. Did you like the movie?
Bruce: What did you like best about it?
Sebastian: The heroes were villains.
Bruce: And you believed they were villains?
Sebastian: A few of them.
Bruce: Who was the most convincing villain?
Sebastian: The Joker.
Bruce: Let’s talk about the Joker. He’s barely in the movie! And Jared Leto brought nothing new to the character. He was just doing Heath Ledger.
David: I agree with you on that. I mean, I could’ve been a better Joker.
Bruce: You are a Joker. That’s your job!
David: I would’ve done it with a British accent.
Bruce: Speaking of accents, what was Margot Robbie’s accent as Harley Quinn? Half the time, she sounded like she was still doing the Noo Yawk accent from The Wolf of Wall Street and the other half, she used her native Aussie accent.
David: Well, Harley Quinn is crazy.
Bruce: But does she have a split personality, each with different accents?
David: She got shock therapy, so who knows?
Bruce: And why does Batman show up? I didn’t see Batman vs. Superman because I can’t stomach Ben Affleck as the Dark Knight, then he crashes this movie. He already ruined a Marvel movie, Daredevil, and now he’s messing up DC movies. He’s just doing Christian Bale’s voice, and he’s middle-aged. He’s got a receding hairline!
David: I wish my hairline was receding like that, because he looked great. Sebastian and I liked Batman vs. Superman. There’s nothing wrong with these movies. If you think you’re going to see an Oscar-winning performance, you’ll be disappointed.
Bruce: Heath Ledger won an Oscar as the Joker!
David: He won it because he died.
Bruce: No, he was amazing.
David: And he was dead. Dead people win awards. Dead people sell albums. It’s a known fact. Dead people sell tickets.
Sebastian: The Joker died?
David: Heath Ledger did.
Bruce: And why did the Flash show up? I don’t watch his TV show—I didn’t want to see him in this movie. Get the Flash out of there!
David: He showed up because Captain Boomerang is one of his villains from his rogues gallery.
Bruce: You have your own villains? Can’t any superhero catch any bad guy?
David: Depends on if they’re in your city. Like, Killer Croc is Batman’s villain.
Bruce: He just seemed like a ripoff of Groot to me, and I didn’t even see Guardians of the Galaxy.
David: Killer Croc was horrible. His head was so much bigger than his body. His arms were like Sebastian’s.
Sebastian: At least I have arms. Be grateful. If I didn’t have any, I’d be fighting armless.
Bruce: And what was with the witch? She was floating and speaking in some foreign tongue. I didn’t want to have to read subtitles.
David: She was a witch from the B.C. times, so I didn’t expect her to speak English. This is why they shouldn’t let white people go to the movies. You guys want too much.
Bruce: I just wanted to see a movie didn’t make me consider suicide.
Bruce Fretts: I’m here with David Rey Martinez, stand-up comedian and fellow single dad, and we just saw Bad Moms. We’re a couple of bad dads…
David Rey Martinez: No, let’s correct that—we’re great dads. And we’re not featured in this movie. At all.
Bruce: There was one good dad.
David: And he banged Mila Kunis.
Bruce: His wife was dead, so he had to be a good dad. He had no choice.
David: That was his job.
Bruce: And he was a non-threatening Latino.
David: Super non-threatening Latino. Tight-sweatered Latino. Nipple-piercing-through-his-shirt Latino. The kind of Latino where he bangs a couple of chicks at the club every night, just because he looks like that. Not like me where I have to pray that she falls down on me while I fall down.
Bruce: Speaking of falling down, in this movie, if they don’t have a joke, somebody just falls down.
David: This movie was made by Tang Productions, which made me laugh because I thought the juice drink was making movies, in which case the entire hood should’ve shown up.
Bruce: See, I thought it was Pooty Tang Productions. But as our friend who saw it with us, funny person and superfeminist Liv Lansdale, pointed out, this movie was written and directed by two men, the guys who co-wrote the Hangover movies. But they were just like, let’s have the characters drink and fall down, and it’ll be funny because they’re women.
David: I’m going to disagree with that. In most movies, they think it’s funny if men drink and fall down. That was The Hangover, until they woke up.
Bruce: That was just the beginning of The Hangover. Here it was the whole movie—let’s watch women get drunk and do everything in slo-mo. If it’s not funny, we’ll show it in slow-mo and it’ll feel funny! If they showed this movie at normal speed, it would be 45 minutes long.
Bruce: Basically, this movie is saying men are not capable of taking care of children. That was considered funny in 1983 when they made Mr. Mom, but the men in this movie are so ridiculously hapless. Kristen Bell leaves her husband with the kids for an hour, and he calls her in a panic because he can’t handle it. What century is this taking place in?
David: And it’s all white men.
Bruce: Well, Jada Pinkett Smith is in it, but we never see her husband.
David: Because he’s Will Smith.
Bruce: And they couldn’t afford him. But they give her nothing to do but say things like “Damn!” and “My husband Fifty-Shaded me this morning.” What does that mean?
David: Did her character even have a name?
Bruce: She might as well have just been called “Bad Black Mom.” If you drank every time they say the phrase “bad mom” in the movie, you’d be passed out by the end. And it made no sense at all. Mila Kunis’ daughter yells at her because she slept with the widowed dad, but how did she know that? She wasn’t there. There must’ve been a scene cut out.
David: The windows were wide open, and they were doing it on the kitchen counter—or the island, as people call it…
Bruce: As white people call it.
David: I call it a goddamn kitchen table. I was thinking maybe Christina Applegate’s character was taking video of them.
Bruce: Because she’s the evil PTA mom who rules the school. But then they have to make her sympathetic in the end, so they probably cut it out. And they left in the jokes about punching someone in the tit and punching someone in the vagina.
David: I didn’t know men wrote it until I saw the end credits, but it didn’t feel natural at all. This is not how any of the women I know talk.
Bruce: They kept using these weird phrases like “booty text” and “get your tits up.” Do people really say that?
David: Not that I know of. I think they were trying to start catchphrases.
Bruce: It wasn’t working. They want to have it both ways—they want it to be an outrageous R-rated comedy, but they have all these sappy scenes where the moms talk about how much they love their kids. Then they call the kids “motherfuckers,” because it’s funny when women say that?
David: It’s just so predictable. Martha Stewart shows up and says the word “shit.”
Bruce: When Mila Kunis tells her daughter that she’s getting divorced, her reaction is, “I don’t want to be weird.” What kid in this century would think having divorced parents makes them weird? Most kids’ parents are divorced!
David: I cringed at a lot of the kids’ behavior in the movie. Mila Kunis’ son pours cereal all over the table because she won’t cook for him anymore? I would’ve grabbed him by the ear and been like, “You better pick up every one of those Cheerios and put it in a bowl.” It’s hard to bruise kids’ ears. They stay red for a while, but that’s it. Ask my son. I don’t even pull the ear. I just grab that meat. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t admit this. I don’t want to go to jail for ear abuse. But my son is not going to be in the street robbing or killing people.
Bruce: As Liv pointed out, Mila Kunis is supposed to be this harried mom who goes on a bender, yet she never has a hair out of place. Even after she and the non-threatening Latino have what they say is the best sex of their lives, they’re not sweating. He says, “Can I go down on you again?” And his face is perfectly dry. How good could it have been?
David: It depends. Everyone’s definition of the greatest sex ever is different.
Bruce: But come on. Something should’ve been glistening.
David: It was just a bad movie. Like the principal’s role…
Bruce: Wendell Pierce was totally wasted. When he finds the marijuana Christina Applegate plants in Mila Kunis’ daughter’s locker, it’s like, “The Black guy knows all about weed!”
David: Very stereotypical. He talked about how Snoop has been smoking since he was 5. That would’ve been funnier coming from a white person. The funniest part of the movie is at the end, when all the actresses’ real moms show up and tell stories about raising them.
Bruce: That’s funnier and more believable than anything that happens before.
David: I would’ve watched that for an hour and a half.
Bruce: The writers should’ve interviewed them first, and then written the script. They were trying to pander to women so obviously, it was insulting to everyone.
David: Women should not go see this movie.
Bruce: Now you’re man-splaining!
David: I’m not finished. Men should not go see this movie either. No one should ever see this movie. I’m probably blackballing myself from ever getting a part in a Tang Production.
Bruce: Why’s it gotta be blackballing? Why can’t it be whiteballing?
David: Even if you see it for free, your time is valuable. I could’ve used my time better today. I could’ve washed my clothes. I could’ve walked down the street and cat-called myself. “Hey David, you’re looking good in those shorts!” People would’ve thought I was weird, but it still would’ve been a better use of my time than seeing Bad Moms.
Bruce: We saw it in a full theater, and almost nobody was laughing.
David: Just me laughing at how bad it was.
Bruce: And me laughing at you laughing.
David: I’ve also got to say, you and Liv were two of the Blackest people I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. You guys talked so much during the movie.
Bruce: We were just trying to combat the stereotype. But we were talking to each other, not back to the screen.
David: It doesn’t matter. It was horrible. I was like, “Are they just going to continue to talk through the whole movie?”
Bruce: Liv was live-tweeting it. That’s why she was on her phone the whole time. It was so bad, she couldn’t help herself.
David: Don’t see this movie. Read Liv’s tweets instead. I can’t believe I paid $15.99 for a ticket! I would tell people if they’re thinking of seeing Bad Moms to stay home.
Bruce: And be a bad parent to your children.
True film-critic’s confession: I’ve never been able to sit through an entire John Cassavetes movie. For years, I’ve heard fellow cineastes as well as screenwriters, directors and actors — mostly actors, now that I think of it — singing Cassavetes’ praises for his emotionally raw, rough, real dramas that blazed a trail for a generation of independent filmmakers who followed. But every time I’ve tried to watch, say, Minnie and Moskowitz or A Woman Under the Influence (admittedly, in edited versions on TV), I quickly grew tired of enduring scenes of men and women drinking, crying and yelling at each other. If I wanted to see that, I wouldn’t have gotten divorced. (Personal note to my ex-wife’s lawyer: That’s a joke.)
But I had a first date with a filmmaker/professor this week who mentioned in her online profile that she’s a huge fan of ’70s cinema (as am I), so I thought I’d impress her by taking her to see Cassavetes’ 1976 crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. And I loved it. And she hated it. She admitted to me afterwards that she shared my previously held view that Cassavetes was overrated. Here’s true critical heresy: I enjoyed son Nick Cassavetes’ tearjerker The Notebook, in large part because of the performances by his mother (and John’s muse) Gena Rowlands and James Garner, more than anything I’d seen by his dad.
Until now. Maybe Bookie‘s gangster trappings captivated me more than any of Cassavetes’ domestic dramas, but I was absolutely riveted. Ben Gazzara, who’s such a perfect stand-in for Cassavetes that I momentarily forgot he wasn’t the filmmaker himself, stars as a seedy L.A. strip-club owner who gets himself deep in gambling debts to a group of mobsters, including the great character actor Timothy Carey (from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory), a proto-Nicolas Cage before he went off the rails, as well as Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel.
To reduce what he owes, Gazzara reluctantly agrees to, yes, kill a Chinese bookie, and the sequence in which he tracks down his target and escapes the crime scene is thrillingly shot and edited, while still allowing the story to breathe in a way that today’s cut-within-an-inch-of-their-lives action flicks like Jason Bourne never do.
The original version of Bookie ran two and a quarter hours, but Cassavetes wisely recut it to a tight 108 minutes (or at least I thought it was tight; my date’s first words as we walked out was, “I never thought it would end!”). Much of the lost footage came from scenes of the performers at Gazzara’s Crazy Horse West nightclub, a troupe of frequently naked women and a bizarro singer named Mr. Sophistication, played by Meade Roberts. Fun fact: Back in the late ’80s, I tried to take a New School screenwriting course taught by Mr. Roberts, who had cowritten two failed films with Tennessee Williams in the ’50s, The Fugitive Kind and Summer and Smoke, but dropped it after only one session because I found him to be nearly as pretentious as my classmates (who inexplicably almost all named Platoon as their favorite film).
Maybe I should’ve given Roberts another chance. I’m ready to give Cassavetes one.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Matt Damon’s Bourne franchise, yet I’ve seen all four of the previous films, including 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, when he was not-too-ably replaced by Jeremy Renner. So I went into Jason Bourne — which marks Damon’s return to the series, along with Paul Greengrass, who directed the superior second and third installments —with modest expectations. And they were met… eventually.
The first hour of Jason Bourne (which runs just over two hours) is slow. There’s a lot of running, and people typing on computers. Run a little, type a little, run a little, type a little, run a lot, type a little more. Damon’s titular rogue CIA agent has rediscovered his true identity before he was brainwashed and turned into a professional killer, but he’s trying to figure out who murdered his father long ago during an alleged terrorist attack in Beirut. The CIA, via evil director Tommy Lee Jones and his seemingly sympathetic-to-Bourne protegee, played by Alicia Vikander, are trying to track him down and bring him in from the proverbial cold (or maybe just put him on ice)
The action jumps around a lot between countries—England, Iceland, the Balkans (where Jason is inexplicably earning his living as a bare-knuckle boxer as the film opens)—before it finally settles in Las Vegas, of all places. And that’s where the fun begins. It’s the site of a tech convention where Jones (who looks more like a Shar-Pei with each passing year) is set to share a panel with a social-media magnate (Riz Ahmed from HBO’s excellent The Night Of) who might blow the lid off a secret CIA surveillance program.
Much mayhem ensues as Damon’s Bourne is pursued by the CIA’s top assassin (Vincent Cassel), and there’s an unfortunate echo of recent real-life events in Nice as the French actor wreaks havoc in an armored truck among crowds on the Strip, plowing into the Riviera casino. But Greengrass knows how to direct action—his hand-to-hand combat scenes are cut so quickly, the editing feels like its own act of violence. There’s relatively little gunplay, which may be no surprise considering Damon’s controversial remarks in favor of gun control.
There’s also relatively little character development, but one doesn’t go to a Bourne movie for the dialogue. And in a summer when females’ suitability as action heroes (or at least Ghostbusters) has been heatedly debated, Vikander’s character is a refreshing revelation. She’s not a sex object—she never even lets her hair down from the clip that holds it—and she’s just as much of a badass as the boys. The Bourne series has always been like a stripped-down version of 007, and she fits right in. She’s no Bond girl. She’s a Bourne woman.
For 25 years, I’ve had a tradition of seeing Woody Allen movies on opening day at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — the heart of Woody Allen country. It’s the only theater I’ve ever seen that sells smoked salmon sandwiches on rye, and lets you spread your own shmear. Sometimes (To Rome with Love, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the sandwich is the highlight of the occasion. Other times (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sweet and Lowdown), it’s the ideal combination of movie and snack. At least the lox never disappoints.
Neither does Woody’s latest movie, Cafe Society, I’m pleased to report. It’s more Blue Jasmine than Irrational Man. Jesse Eisenberg, who makes a much better Woody stand-in here than he did in Rome, stars as a straight-outta-the-Bronx 1930s boy who heads to Hollywood looking for work. He hits up his uncle (a stellar Steve Carell), a powerful agent, and promptly falls for his secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart, who grew on me). A romantic triangle ensues, and the film plays out as a sophisticated dramedy of manners.
Classic Woody themes — some might say obsessions — emerge: the superiority of New York City over Los Angeles, May-December romances, Judaism vs. Christianity, the emptiness of showbiz. But they’re given a new sheen thanks to Vittorio Storaro’s sleek cinematography and Santo Loquasto’s lavish production design, and Woody’s use of Swing Era jazz has rarely been so well-suited to his story.
The damn-near-flawless ensemble includes Jeannie Berlin (who’s also outstanding on HBO’s new limited series The Night Of) as Eisenberg’s lovably kvetching mother, Corey Stoll (whose Hemingway was the best thing about the overrated Midnight in Paris) as his gangster brother, and great Scot Ken Stott as his long-suffering dad. Even Blake Lively acquits herself well in a relatively minor role late in the film.
Is Cafe Society one of Woody Allen’s all-time greatest films? Nope, it’s second-tier, but it’s still a refreshingly civilized and solid movie for grownups in a summer laden with letdowns like Ghostbusters and The Infiltrator. As Woody says, the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes mine just wants a good old-fashioned movie movie and a smoked salmon sammie.