Love and Friendship

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Love and Friendship ever since hearing that Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny would be again teaming up with Whit Stillman.  Their last project together The Last Days of Disco from 1998 maintains its status as one of my favorite films, and I had hope that Stillman could bounce back from an uneven outing in Damsels in Distress in 2011 and his unfortunate, failed pilot “The Cosmopolitans” from 2014.  Beckinsale and Sevigny were both a great fit for the quick wit that is Stillman’s trademark and the prospects of all three of them working with Jane Austen was enough to put this film near the top of my most anticipated films list.  After my screening, it has moved from the top of my most anticipated list to the top of my favorites list for 2016 thus far.

Despite being named after one of Austen’s juvenilias, the film is based on her short story “Lady Susan.”  Beckinsale plays the titular character and the film follows her as she manipulates her way in and out of the lives of family and potential suitors.  Her almost every move is calculated such as to ensure her continued fortune and status either by marrying her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) or herself off to a man of wealth and name.  The only time that she lets her guard down is in her interactions with her only real friend Alicia, my much anticipated reunion between Beckinsale and Sevigny.

In all of these interactions, Beckinsale is a joy to watch.  She’s quick witted and expertly mixes Susan’s essential charisma with a hint of underlying manipulation.  In every scene her performance stands out almost to the detriment of the entire rest of the cast.  Beckinsale does detract from the rest of the cast; days later I still remember a little of Sevigne’s performance, but nothing from the rest of the supporting actors and actresses.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The film feels no worse for this disparity in acting talent though the few scenes she’s not in do drag some.

While Beckinsale stole the screen, her performance wasn’t the only standout of the film.  Whit Stillman’s style merged with Austen’s story leads to one of the funniest screenplays of the year.  Stillman’s prior works have all poked fun at traditional relationships, and the constant humor in Lady Susan’s insistence into the lives of others to play matchmaker is another perfect entry.  While it could be argued that Susan’s shallowness in these acts makes her a poor character, she instead is the perfect example of another common Stillman trope: focusing on rich, self-absorbed, somewhat awful human beings.

Like many of his other works, Love and Friendship is filled to the brim with short scenes and constant dialogue.  Characters speak extremely fast, and it can be disorienting if you are unfamiliar with his style.  Some viewers may never be able to accept the pace, but for other long time Stillman fans it will feel familiar.  The speed at which lines are delivered lends itself perfectly to rewatches as additional jokes are heard and understood for the first time with each subsequent viewing.

While Whit Stillman and Jane Austen both are not for everyone, I would recommend Love and Friendship to anyone unless I specifically knew that it wouldn’t be a great fit for her or him, and even then I’d probably still suggest that they see it anyway.  Kate Beckinsale’s best performance in years and Whit Stillman’s return to 1990s form lead to Love and Friendship being my first can’t miss film of the year.

Cafe Society 

It’s been awhile but I’m back with another film festival.  I saw the North American premier of Woody Allen’s new film “Cafe Society” Thursday night.  I know that Woody Allen has been under fire recently by the allegations of his daughter.  I personally believe that it needs to be investigated, but I also do my best to look at art without letting the shortcomings of the artist taint my views of their work.

The opening sequence of “Cafe Society” sums up the film: breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography with awkward voice-over narration.  The cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has already been praised by many, but it really can’t be said enough.  Unfortunately, The rest of the film lacked the same prowess and consistency.

The screenplay was distinctly Woody Allen existing in his own world somewhat removed from actual reality.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a New York native who moves to Los Angeles in hopes of finding a new life with the help of his executive uncle (Steve Carell).  While in Hollywood, he falls in love with a woman named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but when his fairy-tale future with her is destroyed, he returns home to New York.  There he finally finds the professional success he was hoping to find in California, just without Vonnie.  The film follows Bobby in the years that follow as he runs one of the most successful night clubs in New York with his criminal brother.  Despite settling down with a New York socialite Veronica (Blake Lively), he is never able to fully forget Vonnie, and the film lingers on their rendezvous whenever they are in the same city.

The melancholy love story, is inter-cut with the comedic interactions of Bobby’s family.  These moments are jarring to begin with, as they seem rather unconnected to the main story while Bobby is in Los Angeles.  While these comical moments eventually show their purpose with Bobby’s return to New York, they never quite mesh with the main story.  Whether or not they belong, they do bring quite a few laughs with them, and the film is better through their existence.  I only wish that Allen spent a little longer working on their cohesiveness.

The other outstanding issue with the story, is the treatment of Bobby’s wife Veronica.  Bobby meets her at his night club and then pursues her in a slightly predatory manner.  After their marriage, Veronica is thrown away as a character.  It’s as if her only purpose was to give birth so that Bobby could gain the responsibilities of fatherhood, and to give him reason to pause if only for a moment when expressing his lingering feelings for Vonnie on their reunions.  The role is a waste of Lively’s talents, and an unfortunate instance of using a woman as a prop instead of a person.

The performances in the film, similar to the screenplay, are uneven.  The supporting cast is enjoyable and fit their characters well, though none of there writing leads to much nuance.  Eisenberg and Carell played their standard characters which do seem to fit in Woody Allen’s universe, but seemed anachronistic at times.  Kristen Stewart on the other hand was the standout as she continues to prove that she is one of the greatest actresses working in the indie scene today.  The anguish that Sterwart portrays as she is forced to decide between two loves is heartbreaking and genuine.  I only with the film would have stayed with her for a little longer.

“Cafe Society” won’t go down as a top tier Woody Allen film, but is the best he’s put out since “Blue Jasmine”.  Storaro’s cinematography alone is enough to give the film a look, and the positives in the story and performances add enough to make it an enjoyable sit.