“The Art of Self-Defense”

“The Art Of Self-Defense” opens with Jesse Eisenberg sitting on his hands. As Casey, a thirty-five-year-old auditor, Eisenberg does his outlander-thing in a one-seater coffee booth. He listens to a couple talking about sex in French-which just happens to be his new language of choice. He returns to work to hear his colleagues talking about sex, and he photocopies images of female breasts from his boss’ porno magazine, and staples the pack for later use in the privacy of his home.

His dachshund greets him from a gramma-crocheted throw on the couch. Director Riley Stearns knows how to contrast Casey’s pet choice with an article of a man with a wolf as his companion.

The set-up has Casey walking alone at night to get dog food. A motorcycle gang of three stop and ask if he has a gun. When he says “no”, he is kicked to a pulp. We next see Casey in a hospital bed with one week of paid leave. The critical care ward means that he will have to use all his vacation time to recuperate. We have a loser in our midst. Eisenberg is good at playing wimps. As in “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004), Eisenberg has a plan to toughen up. Casey purchases a hand gun and enrolls in karate class.

Alessandro Nivola may be the reason to see this dark and violent comedy. Nivola is terrific as Sensei, the suave psycho who tells Casey that “macho” is the way. He is to become what he fears. It is here that the script turns very dark. One earns a red stripe for taking a life.

Animals and humans are killed, a disenfranchised blue-belt takes his own life, and henchmen still roam the streets to slaughter undercover policemen and unsuspecting bicyclists. A German Shepherd is trained to attack the face. Bodies are secretly cremated. Nivola is cult-like, yet dead-pan funny. He would rather be a black-mailer and a killer than a guy named Leslie, his given name. My favorite part may be the end, where we see the dachshund’s picture framed next to the grand master’s. A bow to the bow-wow if ever there was one.

This may become a cult-classic, but not for my age group. We know what it means to be a man. Men can eat quiche and cry, and still be manly.

“Cafe Society”

“Cafe Society” was actually a legendary New York venue in the ’30’s. The first integrated club where jazz bloomed and Billy Holliday introduced the sobering “Strange Fruit”. Director and writer Woody Allen takes the name with its history and tries this time to mesh socio-economic classes. Sophisticates gather and network and glow. In this, his most recent film, he shows us that their longings are a lot like the rest of ours.  Now, acting on those yearnings may be what separates us again.

The film is about family, romance and one’s constant search for fulfillment. It is beautifully filmed in amber light by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and terrifically acted. The story is narrated, “There was this Jewish family.”  Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, our young Woody doppelgänger. His shoulders stoop like his , his fists clench like his, and his speech pattern mimics his. He is a romantic, doggedly so. Once smitten, the feelings last a lifetime. Moral ambiguity aside, viewers get it. ” In walked the past..”

Kristen Stewart does some of the best acting I have seen her do to date.  Her character, the first Vonnie, is open, practical, and still a tad unlikeable in her overt self-interest. Blake Lively, as the second Veronica and Ben’s first wife, lights up every scene she is in. I loved her in “The Age Of Adaline” ( reviewed  May 9th, 2015 ) , but here she has the most youthful sparkle and intuitive naïveté that I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.

Parker Posey in a blonde wig plays Rad Taylor, a older confidant to Bobby. Her role adds a Jane Austen mystique to the film and the era of white walls and cigarette holders. In sexual galavanting, things have not changed much.  Anna Camp is the “would be Jewish hooker” named Candy. Allen gets his “Woman In Red” old Barbara Stanwyck  movie clip in, too.

Bobby’s uncle is  a Hollywood magnate and his competitor for Vonnie # 1.  Steve Carell  affords Uncle Phil with just the right amount of narcissism and foiled longing to underscore the Woody persona that is always present. His sisters Evelyn (  Sari Lennick)  and Rose ( Jeanne Berlin) and mobster brother Ben (Corey Stoll ) fill out the family cast. Phil’s brother-in-law, the intellectual Leonard, ( Stephen Kunken ) has some of the best lines. ” You fall in love….you FALL.”

Allen assuredly is not the voice of moral clarity, but this film makes us believe he is trying. Families are messy. Rodgers and Hart’s songs say it all: think ” I’ll Take Manhattan”, ” You Took Advantage Of Me”, and ” I Wish I Was In Love Again”.

Enjoy the denouement which features a signed love letter fron Rudoph Valentino”. ( First year paper anniversaries may never be overlooked again. And unexpected flowers hold their warnings. )  Enjoy the Bronx chenille robes and period furniture, as well as, the cocktails and cream linen suits and the satin underwear of the Hollywood set. ( Can one  still find dotted Swiss?  ) The mob violence and cheap euphemisms ( cranial ventilation) get as tiresome as the egos, but “larger than life” has us all happier with just being ” life-sized.”

Poking fun at Jewish angst is best coming from Bobby’s mother’s mouth. When bemoaning her gangster brother Ben, ” a murderer and a Christian ( he converts in Sing-Sing) , what did I do to deserve this!” My favorite line leads us right back to Woody. When Leonard spouts that the “unexamined life is not worth living”, we get ” the examined one is no bargain”. This may be the only apology we get from Woody.

I enjoyed the film immensely, and think it adds much to the Allen oeuvre.