Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Café Society and Captain Fantastic

                                                     Decisions, Decisions

                                                    Reviews by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                     Café Society (Woody Allen)
Back in 1930s Hollywood and NYC we watch the life progression of an earnest young man who’s trying to find a home, a mate, and a career that all make sense to him despite the nagging of his East Coast family to make some decisions and the complications that his famous Hollywood uncle brings to his life in this (satisfyingly) typical Woody Allen comedic story.
What Happens: We begin in 1936 (characters pass a poster for a new release of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time [George Stevens, 1936]—they also note The Woman in Red [Robert Florey] but that came out in 1935 so Allen’s either playing a bit loose with cinematic history or Barbara Stanwyck’s movie’s still hanging around in less-than-1st-run-theaters but we won’t quibble about chronology, given how fast and loose many current directors are with their use of soundtrack songs that come out later than the settings of their stories as well as how The Woman in Red has resonances with Café Society in terms of the lead having to choose between 2 suitors, 1 wealthy but the other the man she truly loves) as voiceover-narration from Allen tells us about how high-powered-agent-to-the-stars Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is constantly in motion with pool-side-parties and phone calls, including from his sister back in the Bronx, Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin), asking him to help her son, Bobby (Jessie Eisenberg), find his way in L.A. after he’s grown tired of trying to fit into the family jewelry business run by his father, Marty (Ken Stott)—they’ve also got 2 older kids, Evelyn (Sari Lennick), a schoolteacher married to worrywart Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and Ben (Corey Stoll), making a solid career as a gangster whose modus operandi is to bury his opponents in wet cement.  Bobby arrives in southern California, finds a small motel apartment, then waits for weeks to see Uncle Phil who’s always too busy to work his nephew into his schedule until he finally relents, hires him as a personal assistant, then leaves the kid to his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around Hollywood.  Although a bit awkwardly-shy, he immediately falls for her, only to be kept at bay by her story that she already has a journalist boyfriend, Doug.

 “Doug” however, turns out to be Phil, although neither uncle nor nephew realize they both have strong interests in the same young woman, with Bobby even supporting Phil on how to break up his marriage in order to pursue this more-desired-mate, but Bobby admits his passion for Vonnie (a nickname for Veronica), hoping to marry her then return to NYC so Phil becomes even more serious about his mistress. Things get complicated, though, when Vonnie breaks a date with Bobby to clandestinely meet Phil for their romantic 1-year-anniversary, the “paper” one, giving him the gift of a letter written years ago by Rudolph Valentino which he accepts but with the abrupt news that he just can’t go through with the divorce; Vonnie's devastated, so she turns to Bobby, with their romance flourishing to the point that Phil finally decides he wants her as well, forcing a choice (after Bobby’s seen the framed Valentino letter in Phil’s office, now realizing the intra-familial-quandary).  Surprisingly, she takes Phil’s wealth and prestige over Bobby’s still-emerging-life, despite her previously-stated-disinterest in superficial Hollywood glamor, something Bobby thought they shared as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his move west.  Heartbroken, he returns to NYC where Ben’s now owner of a swanky nightclub which he allows Bobby to manage, greatly raising his younger brother’s self-confidence and prestige among East Coast “café society” (as our frequent narrator informs us, a tactic that allows the story to shift seamlessly from 1 side of the continent to the other, also keeping the plot moving as we zip through lots of scenes—and a few pre-WW II-years—in the film’s compact 96 minutes).

 One night at the club, through his close-fashion-agency-friend Rad (Parker Posey), Bobby’s introduced to recent-divorcee Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively)—with no coincidence in the mutual names of these notable women in Bobby’s world, as he later explains to her (maybe it’s a life-coincidence but certainly not a screenplay one)—who nevertheless soon becomes his wife and parenting-partner.  All’s going well for them until one day Phil and Vonnie purposely come to the club, but Bobby’s put off with how she’s become immersed in a culture she previously despised; still, they tour the town together, admit they still have feelings for each other, kiss in Central Park, leaving us in limbo as to how the plot will develop next.  For Ben, it’s a straight walk to the electric chair as he’s finally arrested for his many crimes (including having Evelyn’s obnoxious neighbor buried under the usual cement covering after he had several run-ins with Leonard, which just makes this already-tense-man even more guilt-consumed, although the neighbor’s disappearance remains in Jimmy Hoffa-like-limbo as that body’s never found).  Bobby inherits the nightclub (even more successful with Ben’s notoriety), travels to LA to consider opening one there but decides against it even as he meets with Vonnie for a mutual decision to avoid each other, then our story comes to a bittersweet end as Bobby and Vonnie celebrate New Year’s Eve on their respective coasts, both of them lost in wistful, distracted thoughts most likely of the “what might have been” variety as we fade out to the end credits.

So What? Based on the trailer (which you can view in the 2nd Related Link far below of those attached to this film), you’d think this might be another version of Hail, Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2016; review in our February 11, 2016 posting), again wackily-skewering the big-studio-era of legendary, old-time-Hollywood, which Café Society does accomplish in a manner you can easily appreciate for the broad humor whether you might have much specific knowledge of that era (or NYC gangsters’ society) or not but it also gets into matters of the heart which aren’t so easy to neatly present if the writing and delivery aren’t as honest as what Allen, Eisenberg, and Stewart provide to us here.  
(As an example of what kind of unexpected elements come up in non-mainstream-cinematic-offerings, such as what Allen leads us to in his latest film, I recently re-watched the marvelously-mysterious Swimming Pool [François Ozon, 2003—which served somewhat as a broad impetus for A Bigger Splash {Luca Guadagnino; review in our June 2, 2016 posting, one of the best of this year for me so far}, where there are common elements of a famous older woman in the arts, the location of a countryside villa, a sensuous younger woman, a swimming pool, a death {maybe in both?} but otherwise the stories diverge quite a bit, except for the inner {as well as the outer, competitive} passions they explore, much more typical of what you’d expect to find in these British-French, Italian-French productions {both with mostly English dialogue, though}].)  While Café Society makes no attempt to delve into the inner recesses of the soul like these foreign-produced-pool-based-plots of intense emotion do, Allen does take this film into love-triangle-territory that’s more quietly melancholy than the dramatic events of the water-centric-dramas I’ve just noted but his work still gives us reason to pause and contemplate "the road not taken", as we learn—hopefully not so late in life as to leave us tragically lost—how “that has made all the difference” for better or for worse.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: The critical consensus for Café Society has so far been reasonably positive during its past 3 weeks in release (with a tally of 71% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, 64% score at Metacritic [more details in the Related Links to this film located quite far below]), as most comments say something to the effect of this is an enjoyable offering from an old (no kidding; Woody’s almost 81 now) cinematic master but it’s not among his best.  For me to say that this film isn’t among Allen’s very best—which I do—is still a form of high praise when you consider that his finest include such 5-star (had I ever done reviews of them) masterpieces as Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980)—yes, I'd say this was his most powerful period within a long, successful career—Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which any filmmaker should be ecstatic about creating in just 1 lifetime.  However, even if you drop "down" to what would be my 4-star-level (normally, the highest I go, reserving the higher numbers for enduring classics) you find yourself in realm of such wonderful successes as Take the Money and Run (1969), Love and Death (1975), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), and Blue Jasmine (2013; review in our August 13, 2013 posting)—with these as just immediate choices of mine, which could easily be added to by various viewers as individual tastes dictate.  So, despite Café Society landing on my 3½ stars-list (along with some of his most recent others: To Rome with Love [review in our July 4, 2012 posting], Magic in the Moonlight [review in our July 25, 2014 posting], Irrational Man [review in our August 6, 2015 posting]) that still indicates a worthwhile cinema experience for you during its current theatrical run or later on video, with this latest adding a touch of melancholy at the end quite appropriate from an aging screenwriter-director who’s not willing to give us the kind of tied-with-a-bow-wrap-up that characterizes most Hollywood movies.

 Where Allen would have been advised to find another choice, though, is his decision to do the voiceover-narration.  In the 3rd Related Link noted below for this film, the Cannes Q & A session, he says he felt it was appropriate for him to do so because he wrote the screenplay, which, I'll say, allows us to directly hear the authentic voice of the author rather than just assume we understand what that writer’s intentions are from what we see on screen; however, his delivery is so flat, so removed from the quick-paced-energy of the rest of the film that it feels out of context, unless that context is either Bobby or someone he knew well in old age reliving for us what happened in those long-ago-years, about the time that Allen was actually born.  His narration provided an enhancing-impact in Manhattan, but in that film he took the role of lead protagonist so the implied self-reflections of Isaac Davis about his off-again, on-again affair with (as I see it) absurdly-too-young-Tracy (Mariel Hemingway [the depiction of which continues to plague Woody Allen as being assumed to be all too true regarding his private life regarding his marriage to semi-stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn plus charges of molestation by his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, which he denies with support from adopted son Moses Farrow {although son Ronan Farrow backs his sister; Ronan’s also implied that Frank Sinatra's his biological father, not Allen, as a result of his mother's affair with her ex-husband}, creating an internal-family-collision which I will offer no opinion about until some definitive evidence comes forth either way, given that various investigations have not found any credible evidence for the charges, despite Susan Sarandon's recent attacks on Allen because of this situation—but she was also outspoken against Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump so you can never accuse her of being reticent with her opinions]), which better fit, better supported the on-screen-material of that film.

 Regardless of what dark secrets may underlie Allen’s private life (none of which would lessen the quality of what he creates for the cinema, just as I must honestly honor the filmic production values of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation [1915] and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will [1935], despite the grotesquely racist content of each as well as the chillingly-terrible-contributions made to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan by the former, the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in the latter; still, just like with these directors, if I ever learn that Allen did molest his daughter [age 7, in the time-frame of the accusations] it would make it more difficult for me to be objective about his past or future work, just as some former admirers have written him off now, seeing no reason not to believe Dylan’s testimony [another charged issue in our society, where neither all alleged-rape-victims nor their denying-alleged-assailants have consistently proved to be truthful, always muddying this horrible situation when there are no witnesses to the accusations, although circumstances more often than not tend to side with the accusers]), he’s never shied away from putting his neuroses on screen, inserting a host of complex lead characters into his films that become memorable because of their 
problems, hesitancies, at times their inabilities to overcome personal limitations that they know are undermining whatever chance they have for happiness or at least stability.  It’s often been assumed that the male leads in most of Allen’s films (now that he’s grown too old to take that role very often—a reality he admits in that Cannes Film Festival Q & A link below, concerning the character of Bobby in Café Society) are just essentially him, avatars of the nebbish-persona that populated most of the earlier decades of his output (except in the few “serious” pictures such as Interiors, Another Woman [1988], Shadows and Fog [1991]); with that idea in mind, I must say that Eisenberg is about as perfect a stand-in for that kind of Allen character that you could imagine, as he always radiates nervous-sincerity in everything he does, you always feel that he’s not nearly as resolved into his own decisions (even when he’s a most-successful nightclub personality) as are the others in his I-know-what-I’m-doing-here-so-don’t-contradict-me-clan (especially the parents, which Allen admits are based on what he grew up with, whereas he’s just speculating on the lives of a 1930s steamrolling Hollywood agent or a NYC gangster), and he’s never completely confident in the decisions he’s made, even the one to leave Vonnie alone for the sake of both of their families.

 I think there’s a lot to like in Café Society even though I’ll accept that it does overtly resemble a lot of what Allen’s films have presented to us previously (including the LA-NYC dichotomy, which was explored a bit in Annie Hall but is more balanced here, at least in terms of time devoted to the West Coast scenes whereas everything about southern California in the earlier film was simply dismissed as a cultural wasteland), which is the reason that I feel it fits comfortably into my 3½ stars (of 5) intentions.  I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since I saw him in a minor role in What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, Richard Talmadge; 1965—Allen’s 1st feature-screenplay), then have moved on to watching every feature film he’s directed (with the only one I’ve never completed—for some unknown reason [Hey, Netflix!]—being What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966] because at the college midnight screening I attended the 16mm projector broke down about halfway through) so after 46 of those (plus other TV work, scriptwriting, and acting) I realize that it’s difficult for him to rise above his previous triumphs or for me to not feel that some of what I’m getting from him is a retread (even Blue Jasmine, as much as it didn’t feel all that borrowed from previous Allen scripts—although some of the characters did—has a strong dose of an upscale-A Streetcar Named Desire [Elia Kazan, 1951]-quality about it, but then much of Allen’s work has channeled influences from other artists with Love and Death [Russian literature and film, Bergman], Interiors [Bergman], Stardust Memories [Fellini], Zelig [documentaries], Night and Fog [German Expressionism], Deconstructing Harry [French New Wave], Match Point [Hitchcock] being among the most obvious examples).  Still, what’s here in Café Society is an effective look back on periods that Allen knows from personal exposure or media saturation with a lot of insightful, well-crafted humor, capped by a conclusion intended to leave us hanging much as life so often does.

 Finally, I’ll note another reason to see Café Society, the beautiful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, Oscar-winner for Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981), and The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) with some marvelous compositions throughout the film, accented by color choices that at times mimic optical reality more so than filtered-filmic-adjustments (using orange- and yellow-tinted indoor or outdoor scenes in late afternoon light, capturing the natural warm tones as these longer lightwaves from the red end of the spectrum dominate at that time of day what our eyes actually see even though our brains are adjusting that color palette to what we know from experience that “normal” light should look like; at other times he simply uses such warm tonalities for more expressionistic purposes in some shots, reverting to the more-expected-white-light-tonalities in other shots within the same scene, all of which helps evoke this earlier period in both cinematic and temporal history).  When you add to this the well-crafted-script with its sophisticated dialogue (not always focused on humor) which also properly conjures up this almost-lost-time (even though it’s not gone for even a century yet) you find the resulting story’s always easy to watch, punctuated by some truly clever scenes including one where lonely Bobby calls for a prostitute only to get ditzy Candy (Anna Camp) who arrives late to his motel, with both of them ending up apologizing for everything (she’s never done it for pay before, he’s never paid), until he finds out that she’s also Jewish at which point he insists she leave.  There’s also some especially funny narration about Ben’s club when Bobby first gets back to NYC, along with hilarious arguments between Bobby’s parents and Ben’s decision to convert to Catholicism prior to his execution because Jews don’t believe in an afterlife.  Finally, the acting is uniformly excellent, especially Carell, Eisenberg, and Stewart who’s advanced light-years beyond her Twilight days (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008; Chris Weitz, 2009; David Slade, 2010; Bill Condon, 2011, 2012).

 Now, as for a Musical Metaphor to sum up in another manner the essence of Café Society I’ll just go directly to one of the last tunes used under the action in the soundtrack, “Manhattan” (by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for the 1925 Broadway review Garrick Gaieties), a song also known as “We’ll Have Manhattan” based on a lyric, although I’ve also heard it as “I’ll Take Manhattan” (which you can find as lyrics for a Frank Sinatra version although it’s reported that Sinatra never recorded it, just sang it live, which matches my so-far-futile attempts to find any evidence on a Sinatra album, although there’s a great variety from other singers).  I’ve chosen Tony Bennett’s version at watch?v=e8_sXnPwWqs (from his 1973 album Tony Bennett Sings 10 Rogers & Hart Songs)—for the benefit of my marvelous wife, Nina, who’s been his great fan since her high school days in the late 1960s when she was either way behind or ahead of her time (although she was also much into Motown, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones so she was a contemporary girl as well)—but he leaves out some of the lyrics so I’ll take you back to 1929 for this filmic version of the song, sung by Ruth Tester and Allan Gould from a short called Makers of Melody, but even there a little bit’s missing so here’s the full original version spelled out for your pleasure (you may have to scroll down a bit to find it).  I’m aware that half of this film occurs in LA, but, regarding the previous notation about Bobby (and Eisenberg) standing in for writer-director Allen, I thing it’s clear where their collective hearts lie, with this song’s praise for even the simplest joys of the Big Apple from subways to pushcarts as the various singers of this song "turn Manhattan Into an isle of joy," with urban charms that you might want to recall as we venture into the deep forest for our next review.
                                             Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross)
A father who hates the shallow commercialism of his society has taken to the woods to raise his 6 children while his wife’s in the hospital with bipolar disease, but when she commits suicide he hits the road with the kids to crash her funeral even though it’s clear that his father-in-law doesn’t want him there; deep questions arise about childrearing motives and results.

What Happens: At some point close to 20 years ago, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), decided to go off the grid in concern for their future children (she was a lawyer, I didn’t catch what he did) so they eventually settled on some wild forest land in the Pacific Northwest where they could live out their opposition to the materialistic society that they’d rejected (we learn later that she’s bipolar, so the excursion into the woods was also intended to help with her massive mood swings)By now there are 6 kids—in order of age with the eldest now 18: Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), each named uniquely so as to be the only one in the world with that particular, peculiar moniker—living with loving-but-demanding-Dad while Mom’s been in a hospital near her parents (at their expense) in New Mexico for the last 3 months.  Ben wants his children to be well-informed (he’s got a strict reading schedule for all of them, with regular tests), self-sufficient (they do daily strength-training, along with such survival skills as sheer-cliff-face-climbing [even the youngest ones, although they do use ropes to protect themselves, yet rugged individualism is still the order of the day as seen when Rellian slips, bangs his wrist against the unforgiving rock, yet still has to grasp his way to safety with no help from the family]), and thoroughly-disdainful of the society their parents left behind (later in the story, Ben shares their annual celebration of “Noam Chomsky Day” [instead of Christmas] where the eldest gets a sophisticated-hunting-bow, the middle 4 get hunting-knives, the youngest gets a copy of The Joy of Sex even as he’s about 6 years away from being able to put it into practice).  As a quick look at how this clan lives off the land—as brutal as that may be at any moment of any day—Ross begins with majestic tracking shots of the forest primeval, cuts to closeups of a deer, followed by camouflaged Bo killing this animal with a surprise knife attack which earns him his father’s pride of becoming a man complete with a ritual anointment with deer blood and a taste of the dead animal’s heart.

 Their forest-home is a combination of tents and makeshift-structures (reminding me a bit of the treehouse attraction at Disneyland, originally to evoke Swiss Family Robinson [Ken Annakin, 1960], later Tarzan [Kevin Lima, Chris Buck; 1999]) where they endure Ben’s survivalist training and ideology by day (but from a leftist rather a rightist perspective; I suspect that if voting mattered to them they’d have been activist Bernie Sanders delegates, would still be in the streets protesting how Hilary Clinton won the nomination, but would have nothing but disgust for Donald Trump as the embodiment of everything they’ve rejected), do their reading by firelight, and participate in family music sessions (both Ben and Bo are good on guitar, everyone else contributes something from tambourine to harmonica to board-pounding by Rellian).  Their harmony is disrupted, though, when Ben takes their full-sized-bus (named “Steve,” for no discernable reason) to the nearest hint of civilization to call Leslie’s parents for an update, only to find out from distraught Mom Abigail (Ann Dowd) that their daughter has killed herself (slit wrists) while angry Dad Jack (Frank Langelia) threatens to have Ben arrested if he shows up for the funeral.  After breaking the tragic news to the grieving kids, Ben at first seems to show a Bernie-state of reconciliation, noting that there are some things they simply cannot change so “We have to shut up and accept it,” then quickly reverts to uncompromising-delegate-mode with a sharp “Well, fuck that!” so off they go to the Southwest.

 Along the way, Ben gives anti-shopping-lectures as they pass endless examples of American-capitalist-acquisition-opportunities (when they stopped at a bank to withdraw cash [we’re never sure the source of their income but it was enough all those years ago to buy the land they live on, so they’re not squatters] Zaja [usually wearing an animal-head-hat from some previous kill or a gas mask, making her a more-dangerous-looking-version of FOX TV’s Bob’s Burgers young daughter, Louise, with her constant bunny-ears-hat] wants to know if the people she sees are sick because they’re all so fat) and berates the daughter (the older Kielyr maybe, but it could have been Vespyr; I forget) for calling Nabokov’s Lolita merely “interesting” (a non-word where Dad’s concerned) rather than critiquing it more explicitly (but he’s supportive of her when she does, simply yet eloquently).

 Before getting to the funeral they stop for a short while at Ben’s sister’s (Harper {Kathryn Hahn}) home where she and husband Dave (Steve Zahn) try their best to tolerate what they see as Ben’s Lord of the Flies-attitudes about child-raising (including things they forbid to their roughly-teenage-sons, Justin [Elijah Stevenson] and Jackson [Teddy Van Ee] such as drinking wine and cursing at the dinner table), but when they insist that their nieces and nephews deserve a formal education Ben calls on 8-year-old Zaja to embarrass the city cousins with her in-depth-understanding of the Bill of Rights which one of Harper’s sons thinks is some sort of check-out-receipt.  On the other hand, Ben’s tactics aren’t always so progressive—depending, I guess, on your definition of that term—as we see when he refuses to let his brood eat at a restaurant after getting a look at their menu, going instead to a grocery store but instead of paying for the food he fakes a heart attack while some of the kids slip out with stolen items.  Once they arrive at the funeral (late, then entering dressed in bright, decidedly-unconventional-mourning-attire), though, Ben’s individualism hits the wall of conformity as he interrupts the eulogy to read Leslie’s Last Will and Testament in which she proclaims herself a Buddhist (which she understands as a philosophy, not a theology), despises organized religion (I would imagine especially this Catholic ceremony where she’s now become the centerpiece), and requests cremation rather than burial (in a “golf course,” as Ben puts it), so he’s thrown out of the service but still intends to bus his kids to the cemetery to prevent the burial.  They talk him out of it, though, as they know that would lead to his arrest, their removal to a foster home.

 Actually, Rellian’s ready for that, choosing to stay with his grandparents rather than return to the woods as his smoldering rebellion against Ben becomes overt (Bo’s getting close to that as well because he secretly took SAT tests [with Mom’s help], has been accepted to several colleges [Harvard, Yale, etc.], yet gets no support from Dad to follow that path).  At night outside Jack and Abigail’s huge home, Vespyr climbs onto the roof with a plan to “liberate” her “captive” brother, but an almost-deadly-fall leads to a hospital trip, with Ben then agreeing to leave all of the kids in New Mexico, willing to relinquish custody for their own well-being from his odd parenting approach.

 However, after he pulls into a truck stop, buys some barber clippers to shave off his beard, then prepares to head on to wherever, all 6 kids come climbing out of a secret compartment in the bus, then tell him they want to stay with him but only after they get Mom’s coffin in order to give her the final rest that she requested.  So, dig they must in the dark of night, after which they’re off again (giving Miller one of her rare appearances in this film as a corpse on the bus, along with a couple of short fantasy reunion scenes with Ben) to a lake somewhere where the funeral pyre is lit, followed at some point thereafter with a scene at an airport where Bo’s off to a place he arbitrarily pointed to on a map (a decision relieving Ben of his acknowledged inability to pay for any of the schools that accepted Bo, with our clear understanding that Jack’s one-time-offer to do such must surely have been rescinded when the kids all slipped away), after cutting off his long hair and having a quick conversation with Dad about respecting women as they come into his life (previously, they’d clashed when Bo angrily admits he’s learned no social skills, demonstrated clumsily at a trailer park one night on their journey where sultry teenage Karin [Erin Moriarty] first gets into a misguided conversation with Bo as she’s talking about Star Trek’s Spock while he’s replying about baby-guru Dr. Spock, then she gives him some kissing lessons which turn into a momentary-marriage-proposal, laughed off by both her and her mother, Ellen [Missi Pyle]—I had one of those “leaving home” talks with my father as well, consisting of just “I guess you know what happens with sex” [I did, but not from anything he'd told me] and “Don’t pay for it” being his invaluable pieces of advice).  Our story ends with Ben and the 5 remaining kids on a farm somewhere ("Steve" has been converted to a chicken coop so I don’t know if they have any form of transportation except by foot) with all that matters is that the school bus will soon arrive so we understand that they’ve now accepted at least some aspect of their surrounding society.

So What? Upon first hearing the title of this film you might think it’s a documentary about some psychedelic rock star or the name of an album from such a musician (especially given that Elton John’s put out a 1975 album that's called Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy [with the best-known-cut likely being “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”]), but there’s nothing in this script or soundtrack that has any connection with Elton so I’ll just have to leave the answer to that trivia question to some interview with Ross that I haven’t come across yet.  Still, what we have with this movie’s extremely-unconventional, anti-establishment parent clearly evokes the hippie-organic-communal-society-advocates of the social-divide-era of the 1960s (and later, although in dwindling numbers after the reality-check of the 1972 Nixon landslide in the Presidential race) who were withdrawing from the dictates of their surrounding nation not anticipating a violent showdown with the government (as many survivalist groups do today, arming themselves to the teeth in preparation for declaring some sort of Free State of Jones [Gary Ross; review in our July 7, 2016 posting] independence) but rather just to disengage themselves from the mores, restrictions, attitudes they found to be antithetical to successful growth of their individual selves.  Ben maintains that fierce determination not to be ruled by conventions (as evidenced by the colorful entrance he and his kids make at Leslie’s funeral, there to celebrate her life rather than grieve her death), demanding that his children learn strategies for self-maintenance (as well as self-defense against personal attacks; commendable where drunken frat boys or muggers with knives are concerned but limited in a country where guns are so readily available) for a society unaccepting of their beliefs at best (Bo informs Ben that he’s no longer a Trotskyite but is now a Maoist; either way, I doubt such a self-definition would get him many job interviews, despite the votes in our recent Presidential primaries for Sander’s self-declared “democratic socialist” stance), openly hostile toward them at worst.

 What we’re left to ponder here, both during the film’s running time and in contemplation afterward, is whether Ben’s version of a protective attitude that manifests itself in tough-love best suited for recluses is a reasonable choice in a world where even retreat to the forest is a difficult lifestyle given that you need to own the land you’re living off of because if you don’t somebody else does—either the government trying to preserve it so that your year-round-hunting becomes a crime or a more commercially/ privacy-minded-neighbor who won’t tolerate your presence as another form of criminal intrusion—so while Ben’s intention is to “arm” his children with a means of survival as well as a bank of knowledge that will allow them later to further develop their well-tuned-minds he doesn’t begin to acknowledge any counter-opinions to the ones he fervently holds, producing minds that are whip-smart but narrowly-focused, probably limiting their ability to intellectually grapple with those who might disagree, especially verbal combatants more prone to emotional retorts than those crafted on a trove of deterministic “facts.”  (Don’t get me wrong, while I’m no Maoist I agree with most everything Ben is preaching to his kids about the evils of a greed-based, consumer society; however, I don’t think that healthy understandings about disputes and their resolutions come from demagogue-derived-positions, which Ben’s drilling into his kids, even to the point of expecting them to wander onto someone’s farm land to kill a sheep for their dinner, even though the daughter involved refused to shoot her arrow because the “prey” was “just standing there,” not offering any sort of self-preservation-counter-attitude to the hunter, thereby undermining whatever noble understanding of the hunt that Ben had previously taught his children.)

 However, I must admire Ben (which I do, on a number of levels, just as I also feel uncomfortable with his strict, absolutist attitudes that take a long time to mellow) for the strategy that he’s taught the kids about how to deal with state highway patrolmen so that when such a cop boards their bus, clearly suspicious with concerns about why these 6 kids aren’t in school, they respond with a faux-Christian-“reverie” that quickly chases him back on his way.  I realize this is no strategy to deal with a possible speeding ticket that might befall me someday, but it did help clear the way for Ben not to be arrested for failing to have proper licenses for bus-driving or home-schooling, despite the reality that no harm’s coming to anyone for these particular lacks of bureaucratic-procedure.  Another thing I truly respect about Ben is his uncompromising honesty so that no matter what the question is—from what sexual intercourse means to the reality that his wife committed suicide—he doesn’t sugarcoat the answer.  Finally, I like him for following his wife’s requests for how her body should be treated after her death (not necessarily the process by which it’s reclaimed, but then Ben would never be able to overcome Jack’s wealth and lawyers to do it any other way), with the ashes flushed down the toilet at the airport Bo’s departing from.  (She wanted it done at some anonymous public place, showing she had no reverence for her own remains, that they’re simply inert material to be discarded in a nonchalant—even un-ecological—manner, not scattered in the woods of her late-life-home to be one with the soil, as she seems to have grown away from spiritual practices as well as religious ones, caring only about the love she shared with her husband and children, as the torments of her depressive state must have kept her mind focused only on immediate matters.)

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Ben’s uncompromising attitudes could easily make him come off as a despicable character at times, so that he might be seen as hopelessly living in some wished-for-past (shown in one scene where he’s wearing a faded "Jessie Jackson ’88" t-shirt, implying unrequited-commitments to long-gone-ideals, such as that referenced-failed-Presidential-campaign) where his isolationist, hunter-gather stance could easily have been understood as either misguided nostalgia for those long-ago-frontier-Americans fleeing the structured civilization of the East or just stubborn-ideological-purity (as in the scene on the bus where his kids are spouting disagreements with him which turn from English to other tongues [all of them are multi-lingual] which he furiously insists not include Esperanto simply because they’re not to demonstrate some form of privilege with their lives [in this case, using a language that not everyone understands—although I’m not clear if that means that some of the kids haven’t picked up that exotic lingo yet so that they’d be excluded from the diatribes being hurled at Dad or whether Esperanto is a unique means of expression that most people in the wider world couldn’t comprehend so he’s possibly regretful that they’ve ever learned it; either way, he comes across as an over-principled-eccentric not trying to counter the criticisms coming at him from his children as he’s more concerned about what form of attack they use]).  

 Thus, he’s an interesting character—even though he’d hate my use of that word (just like Nina doesn’t care for “fine,” which she’s sees as a bland attempt at a compliment so that saying something is “fine,” as in “This dinner tastes fine” is countered by her remark of “Just fine?” implying “acceptable” or “tolerable” rather than truly commendable [Similar to how 1930s-‘50s media comic Fred Allen snidely said that “Television is […] called a medium because nothing is well done.” {Early TV pioneering comedian Ernie Kovaks often has this saying also attributed to him, stated as: “Television is a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well-done.”}])—because he gives you reasons to respect him for his determined independence as well as rightfully worry about the limited perspectives that his offspring are being taught, plus the concerns we might have about the physical dangers he constantly exposes them to in his endless “training” sessions.

 Critical response to Captain Fantastic has been solidly-positive—a proper response in my opinion—with the Rotten Tomatoes collective at 79% supportive reviews, Metacritic at 72% (as usual, more details in the links below)—as Ross gets credit for concocting an interesting provocative tale that forces us to ponder whether Ben’s head is in as proper a place as is his heart; Mortensen also gets a lot of overwhelming praise—which I also agree withfor delivering a worthy performance that gives substance and plausibility to a character that could easily have deteriorated into a 1-dimensional-hippie-idiot (although any viewer totally opposed to either his worldview or his extreme response to it might still evaluate him thusly); while the collective of young actors—even the youngest ones—draw kudos all around (from me too) as a believable collection of siblings whose indoctrinated-ideological-remarks don’t come off as tortured talk from an overwritten script but instead feel organically-implanted by their intense Dad (the very definition of a patriarch, at least in his own private world yet one who’s learned to survive on creative cunning in the larger society he’s forced to venture into) as jargon-rich-statements that likely reflect the sort of academic perspectives and presentations that they’ve been constantly fed by their parents with no alternatives for counter-influences (although Rellian quickly becomes fascinated by the violent video games of his cousins, something that his bow-adept-grandfather, but not his hunter-father, nonchalantly condones).  However, both Nina and I have a major squabble with Captain Fantastic, an objection—or at least a big question—that holds back its star-rating in my evaluation.  Given the sort of character that Grandpa Jack is, ready to use the full force of law to take guardianship of all of his grandchildren, I just can’t imagine that Ben and the kids were able to not only steal Leslie’s body getting off scot-free from that heist but also that they simply settled on a farm somewhere (with the kids’ names now entered in local school records) without Jack using his extensive resources to track them down, then enforce the legal challenge so often threatened against Ben.

 Maybe some events transpire that put those generational-conflicts to rest between the ashes-flushing and school-bus-waiting scenes at the end, but if so their absence sows plot-confusion, undermines the credibility of the previous intra-familial-struggle, and provides a too-quickly-resolved-conclusion as Bo and Rellian need only a short time after their direct conflicts with Ben to then find unmitigated harmony with him once again.  I know that at roughly 2 hours of screen time already there wasn’t much option to give even brief details about why Jack chose to call off his bloodhounds (or why it is that the New Mexico authorities didn’t pursue a charge of grave-robbing against this group of easily-identifiable-suspects [whose getaway “car” is even more obvious than the gals’ convertible {that they never bother to put the top on} in Thelma and Louise {Ridley Scott, 1991}]), but maybe we could have benefitted from a bit more on these issues, a bit less of the life-lessons early on in the forest.  However, because we must accept what’s actually on screen in exploring any film, the plot as presented—incomplete or not—is what we must base judgments on, which I’ve done, so all that remains for this analysis of Captain Fantastic is the choice of an appropriate Musical Metaphor.  A strong possibility would be “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (from the Guns N’ Roses 1987 debut album Appetite for Destruction, that band’s only #1 single, a much more frantic version than the one used in this film, but if you really want to hear it here you go), given that Ben and the kids sing it at Leslie’s funeral pyre because it was her favorite song and likely also had special meaning for them with lyrics such as “Now and then when I see her face [as Ben does sometimes] She takes me away to that special place And if I
stared too long I’d probably break down and cry.”  Still, what seems much more appropriate to me here is Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children” (from the 1970 album Déjà Vu) at https://, a live
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performance held at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1991, as part of a tribute to recently-deceased rock promoter Bill Graham (this is a rather ragged version of the song but it's in keeping with the jagged-mood of the film; however, if you’d prefer the original studio recording, here it is with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar—the Dead also performed at that 1991 tribute concert; Nash was inspired to write the song by Diane Arbus’ 1962 photo Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park [shown here] in concern for the values we pass on to our kids, often with no regard for how unintentionally-destructive they may be).  I started thinking about it even as the credits were rolling, with words such as “You, who are on the road Must have a code that you can live by And so become yourself Because the past is just a good-bye. Teach your children well, Their father’s hell did slowly go by. And feed them on your dreams, The one they pick, the one you’ll know by,” as well as “so please help them with your youth, They seek the truth before they can die” all being exactly what this film is about, especially with its quiet ending where Ben can “just look at [his children …] and know they love [him].”  May we all someday, somehow find that peace.

 Maybe peace comes at least partially through interconnectedness, which seems to be happening a bit more recently with this blog so I’ll keep bragging as long as I have reason to: My latest Google tally of unique hits over the past month has reached a new all-time high of 22,790 (considerably up from the standard 5,000 or so just a few months ago) with the most recent (last week, I think) by-country-tally showing the top 5 as Russia 5,341, U.S. 651, United Arab Emirates 467, France 413, Mauritius 396.  Thanks to all of you—in these countries and all others—for your increased support.
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Here’s more information about Café Society: (trailer with French subtitles, including about 30 seconds of video black at the end so you can cut off at 1:50 unless you’d just like to briefly meditate) (41:07 press conference from 2016 Cannes Film Festival with director-screenwriter Woody Allen; actors Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll; cinematographer Vittorio Storarothe bulk of the commentary comes from Allen although Storaro says quite a bit in the first few minutes of this clip)

Here’s more information about Captain Fantastic: (this is another one of those trailers that shows you most all of the film’s essentials, so it and my spoiler-filled-review may be all you need for now on Captain Fantastic because so far it’s playing in only 550 U.S./Canadian theaters even after a month in release) (22:51 Q & A session from 2016 Sundance Film Festival with screenwriter-director Matt Ross; producers Lynette Howell Taylor, Shivani Rawat, Jamie Patricof, Monica Levinson; actors Trin Miller, Ted Van Ee, Missi Pyle, Kathryn Hahn, Erin Moriarty, Charlie Shotwell, Shree Crooks, Nicholas Hamilton, Annalise Basso, Samantha Isler, George MacKay, Viggo Mortensen, and someone whose name sounds to me like Louise Thompson but I find nothing similar in the cast list—Ross and Mortensen do most of the talking with a little input from the other cast members)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Both films are excellent although Woody Allen's stylistically successful formula works better for me than the smart off grid hippy themes and conflicts of the second offering. Kristen Stewart is better than expected in Cafe Society and Jessie Eisenberg's slightly neurotic "Woody Allen" characterization was superb. Both actors were a pleasure to watch, with skills clearly enhanced by Allen's writing and direction. Hopefully Eisenberg works in more of these in the future. And I must admit I have learned something new about "filtered-filmic-adjustments" from Professor Burke.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your input.

    As the eye-brain discrepancy regarding the light-based colors we see in our environment, that came as a long-needed understanding for me when I began to do some research about optics when I started teaching Visual Communication years ago. Seems that our eyes are like camera lenses (as well as film stock, video recording systems, etc.) in that they see the actual coloration of the environment (bluish under outdoor light, yellowish under indoor light, redish in early morning or late afternoon because the red waves have fewer frequencies per second but longer wavelengths than the green and blue ones so they travel along the curvature of the Earth more directly to our eyes at these times of day), yet the brain knows what a "white-light balanced" environment should look like so it adjusts the optical information for us overall except when we're looking at the direct result of the rising/setting sun because that light source is just too intense to completely alter (just like the brain adjusts the total incoming images which would seem upside down and backward were it not for the corrections). That's why we have to use filters or readjust video color balance under every lighting condition unless you want to get those blue, yellow, or red tonalities for emotional effects.

    Sorry if I rambled on too long with that, but it's always fascinated me what the brain does to our perceptions of stimuli from various parts of the body (with the reality of "phantom" pain from missing limbs being the strangest of all). I probably do miss giving lectures after retiring a few years ago, but given my exhaustion with grading tests, papers, and final exams it was still the right choice. Ken