The Quick Spin on Woody, Blue, Blood and Lucy

Here’s a quick rundown on 2 flicks still in theaters (Magic in the Moonlight and Lucy) and 2 on Netflix (Blood Ties and Blue Ruin):

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight – Woody Allen’s latest is a postcard pretty period-piece set on the sun-splashed French coast and countryside.  Here a renowned magician (Colin Firth) travels to France at the behest of his friend to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone).  The whole film, like Emma Stone (luminously photographed in classic Allen fashion to play up her best features – that red hair, those blue eyes, that mischievous smile) is ridiculously good-looking and light on its feet.  Stone soaks up the sun and Allen’s directorial affections, plumbing her plucky personality to its most glorious depths.  Her performance, which takes on the allure of a subtle silent film starlet, is almost transcendent.  The film, far from Allen’s greatest, is sill a pleasure to watch, and would’ve been forgettable if not for Stone’s classically styled star turn.  Word on the street is she’s signed up for another Allen flick.  Like her character, clever girl.

Bottom Line:  Spin once.  Watch out for Emma Stone’s next Woody.

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A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

Boyhood

There have been those who have proclaimed Boyhood the greatest film of the 21st century.  And there’s a huge faction that believe it’s Richard Linklater’s magnum opus.  Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.   I suspect there’s been a bit of the old Group Think at work in delivering this hyperbolic praise.

But Boyhood is still a uniquely constructed film full of winning moments, performances…and flaws.

Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same four leads (two adults – Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and two children – Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) meeting with the writer/director to riff for a few weeks at a time in his sprawling Texas homeland, Boyhood is wholly original in its depiction of the passage of time and aging in the context of a singular work of cinema.

The early years of Mason’s life are depicted with an easy flow and are full of humor and charm.  The kids are naturally cute and precocious, and the director obviously had a blast letting his own daughter cut loose, gifting her classic sassy little girl lines and mannerisms that seemed organic.  I’ve heard him joke in interviews that Lorelei cast herself as soon as she found out her dad had written the role, and based on what is seen on screen in these early scenes, I reckon it’s a true story.  Meanwhile, Mom and Dad aren’t together from the onset, and while they have their own sets of problems, both Hawke and Arquette are so effortlessly likable, you instantly root for them to get their shit together…not so much for the kids’ sake, but for their own.

As the film moves into middle childhood and the teen years, it starts to plod a bit, and some of the clichéd and overwrought plot mechanics Linklater uses (Doh! Mom marries not one, but two alcoholics!) take away from the film’s realism.  It seems to get stuck there in middle school, but before we know it, Mason is a moody, mumbling high schooler…until he starts to drink and try soft drugs where Linklater attempts to recapture some of the old rambling magic that made the aimless philosophy of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life so enjoyable.  There are times, though, Mason comes across as so lackadaisical you want to shake him to wake him up.  He never really stands up for anything, though he does lash out eventually at stepdad number two to get off his back, and he does take a shining to the art of photography.  Linklater comically channels this feeling of wanting to shake (perhaps shape?) his protagonist through pep talks from his photography teacher and first boss (at least the kid gets a job much like I did at that age as a busboy/dishwasher with fry-cook aspirations). Continue reading

Your Spin: Uber Wagner

Wagner Quote

It’s that time again to put The Spin your hands!  The topic this round: The Greatest Piece of Richard Wagner Music.

As Sam Juliano from Wonders in the Dark so eloquently mused, “Richard Wagner was a racist, an anti-Semite and a bigamist, yet he wrote some of the most extraordinarily beautiful music in the history of Western civilization.”  And it was Sam’s chatter on the facebook that spurred this post.

It got me wondering, not only about all that great music (that lends itself so eerily well to cinema) but also, “What the hell was going on in Wagner’s head?”  His music has spawned men like Adolph Hitler to score their epic and vile plans for world domination, while it left others rapt and spellbound with fevered dreams of those pearly gates.  What did Wagner see when he composed?  What inspired him?  And what lead him to spew hate while also birthing so much aural beauty, bequeathing to us an unrivaled output of operatic art that will last as long as human beings have ears to listen to his work.  There’s something both ominous and serene about his best pieces, moods that swoon to an emotional climax before bringing the listener back down from heaven (or up from hell) to solid ground where the world lays itself out before us in all its mysterious glory.  His is the stuff of both the calm and the storm, the worldly and otherworldly.

But back to the music.  I’ve left out his most recognizable pieces to the layman…The Lohengrin Bridal March  – yes, the wedding march used at almost every wedding – and Ride of the Valkyries – used so devilishly in D. W. Griffin’s hate mongering Birth of a Nation and overused since then to death.  And, yes, I’m trying to bias the vote by putting my pick at the top.  But without further adieu…the nominees: Continue reading

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These damn apes outsmarted me again!  When Rise of the Planet of the Apes burst onto the scene three summers ago, I had grave misgivings. The concept was always inherently silly, and it was hard to imagine any kind of re-imagining of the cult/camp classics from the 1960’s and 1970’s making any kind of sense.  But, lo and behold, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a finely crafted piece of entertainment with amazing effects, an emotionally involving story, a stupendous lead performance from Andy Serkis as super ape Caesar, and confident direction from maestro Rupert Wyatt.  When the film’s surprise success guaranteed sequels, I was crushed to learn Wyatt would not be returning in the director’s chair.  In whose hands could a sequel make any kind of sense?  This thing would be a debacle or at the very least have a bad case of sequel-itis, right?

Well, here I am, dear readers, admitting I was wrong…again.  Apparently Matt Reeves (who for far too long, lived under the thumb of the overrated Hollywood demigod J.J. Abrams) can direct the heck out of an Apes flick.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes capitalizes with expert precision on the goodwill from the first film, once again putting Serkis as Caesar and the other apes front and center, ups the emotional ante, ups the action, and mines the very best elements from uber-popular TV shows to be massively appealing to a broad audience without ever seeming to kowtow to the masses.

Ten years following the events of the first film, the human race has been nearly wiped out by the simian flu, and Caesar and pals have set up a peaceful little society in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco.  But behold, there are some humans still struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic community downtown, and they come up into Caesar’s territory to get a dam running again that will bring power back to the city.  The film opens from the apes’ point of view, and for nearly twenty minutes they are the only characters on-screen.  It’s a big gamble to start the film this way, but the amazing effects make the apes seem more human and relatable than ever, with Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Koba giving Oscar-worthy performances.  The humans contain a sympathetic makeshift family (made up of Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Reeves’ very own Felicity alum and muse Keri Russell) and a questionable leader played by Gary Oldman.  Quickly we learn the apes, like the humans, are divided into two factions: those hoping for peaceful coexistence, and those who are far too trigger-happy and untrustworthy. Continue reading

Movies are Life Itself

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Throughout the touching and surprisingly heavier than expected bio-doc of Roger Ebert, the editors intersplice narrated snippets from some of his most potent reviews along with the inevitable scenes of arguments with Gene Siskel from their classic TV show I grew up watching.  One great sparring was from an episode where they reviewed Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted.  Siskel was appalled that Ebert was giving the Kubrick film a thumbs down while recommending the Benji flick.  Ebert expertly argued (and even went as far as shaming Siskel) that you can’t compare the two.  They have to be reviewed in their own context…Benji the Hunted as a kid’s film and Full Metal Jacket as a KUBRICK (for crying out loud, one that he thought wasn’t up to snuff with the master’s best output).  I remember going to see Benji the Hunted in the theaters as a kid, and you know what…Ebert was right about the context.  I liked the Benji movie back then.  And later in life when I watched Full Metal Jacket, I loved it, but I will admit…it might be a lesser Kubrick, and I respect those who may not have connected it with it as a work of art.

And that’s what was great about Ebert and Siskel – they could argue and disagree, and it was okay…in fact, it was hoped for.  The point of going to the movies was not just to be entertained, but to get a glimpse into another person’s point of view (a director’s, a character’s, a place and moment in time alien to your own) and to find those moments of empathy…and hopefully give you something to talk about with other people.  Whether through blogging or in person with the people I experience the films with in the movie theater, talking about films (and sometimes passionately disagreeing about them) is a favorite pastime.  It’s a way to connect…to get to know yourself and hopefully someone else. Continue reading

#ChefIsSoMoney

Celebrity Sightings - Bauer-Griffin - 2013

You could draw a long, clean line from the 1996 film Swingers to the 2014 film Chef.  On the surface they couldn’t be more disparate – one a generational touch-point about proto-hipsters creating their own culture during the swing revival of the mid 1990’s, the other a film about an artist chef getting back to his roots and reigniting his passions.  But they both have at their center a sad man (Jon Favreau) at a crossroads in his life.  In Swingers he was a young guy who couldn’t get over the heartbreak of his first love lost while struggling to break into acting.  Then in Chef he’s a middle-aged guy stuck in a rut after a divorce and struggling to fuel his passion for cooking.  Both films show the prototypical artistic man at different stages in his life struggling to find balance and deal with feelings of loss.  As it turns out, Favreau, when not directing perfectly serviceable blockbusters for the Hollywood machine, is capable of tapping into the male psyche with great sensitivity and humor through really good indie screenplays.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a formerly renowned chef who’s lost his zest for life while working at a successful Los Angeles restaurant run by a man (Dustin Hoffman) who stifles his creativity and forces him to stick to the same old menu even when a top critic (Oliver Platt) stops by for a visit.  He has a loyal crew (Bobby Cannavale and a shockingly likable John Leguizamo) and a sassy sexy hostess/waitress (Scarlett Johansson) who urge him to reignite those fires, but it takes a public blow-up with the critic who pans the tired menu that goes viral through Twitter to force him to take stock of his life after losing his job.  When his ex-wife (the saucy and smoking hot Sofia Vergara) suggests he come with her to Miami (where he originally got his groove on for cooking), he reluctantly takes the opportunity under the guise of bonding with his smart, tech-savvy ten year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, one of the most unaffected and casually natural child actors to come down the pike in a while).  Still, it takes his ex’s ex (Robert Downey Jr.) gifting him a food truck before he truly seizes the moment to find his passion again and reconnect with the ones he most loves.

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I Will See You Tomorrow As Advertised

Edge of Tomorrow

In a cinematic world overrun by rehashed ideas, sequels, prequels and reboots…it’s both ironic and a minor miracle that a film about resetting time over and over and over would be such a solid piece of entertainment.

There’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s polished adaptation of the Japanese book All You Need is Kill (a much snarkier title that fits the themes very well), yet it all works.  Here’s Tom Cruise as another smug character unwittingly thrust into saving the world…yet he manages to imbue his performance with a dark sense of humor that allows you to forgive the tropes of this quasi-messianic overcooked tripe.  Here’s yet another “grunts vs. aliens” invasion/war set-up…yet when handled in a competent way, the cliché can still be fun to watch.  And here are the hive-like aliens…called mimics (for what reason???)…who can meld time (naturally) to anticipate enemy moves…that look something like a Lord of the Rings reject monster wrapped in Matrix machinery and move like octopi…that, hey, as silly and derivative as they are, when brought to life by slick effects and well-orchestrated battle madness can still seem special and cool.  Oh, and the coup de grace…let’s add a Groundhog Day element (remember the mimics can reset time) that leads to inevitable scenes of Cruise dying over and over and over again while he tries to get others to believe him and locate the Omega mimic (essentially the queen)…and in one humorous montage repeatedly is shot by Emily Blunt (his trainer and cohort in this time tripping madness) like an injured horse. Continue reading

Ode to a Grecian Hitchcock in The Two Faces of January

TTFOJ_1103_03411.DNG

In 1960’s Greece, a dapper middle-aged American chap named Chester (a groggy but dashing Viggo Mortensen) on holiday with his trophy bride Colette (an effortlessly alluring Kirsten Dunst) spot a charming but suspicious young fellow (a cool Oscar Isaac) eyeing them at various locales.  Daringly, Collette confronts him while in line at a rest room and finds out he’s an American, too, and a freelance tour guide named Rydel.  Much to her husband’s chagrin, she’s invited Rydel to show them around the markets.  The audience already knows Rydel is a bit of a scam artist, pretending to haggle in Greek with the merchants for his clients and pocketing the difference in price or flim-flamming them during monetary exchanges.  After a night on the town for dinner and drinks, Chester has Rydel all figured out, though he and his wife have been thoroughly charmed by the con man’s company.  Later at their hotel, a private investigator comes searching for Chester and sets off a series of unfortunate events that leave the couple in deep trouble and turning to Rydel for help.

The Two Faces of January deals with the duplicity of human beings and the fragility of their relationships.  It’s adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel (the author best known for creating the character of Tom Ripley) and is competently scripted and directed by first time helmer Hossein Amini (best known for his sparse and effective Drive screenplay).  With its beautiful travelogue vistas and breezy charm, it echoes the highbrow classiness of a bygone era of filmmaking…suspenseful without being salacious, intriguing without a whiff of trashiness.

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I Can’t Live in a World of Dressed Up Dogs

The Dance of Reality

“I can’t live in a world of dressed up dogs!  It makes me sick!”

Famous last words.  A would-be assassin somehow ends up at a dog costume contest where his “kangaroo dog” wins worst costume.  It gives him the opportunity to be on stage as his target…the tyrannical Chilean president…makes an appearance at the canine debacle.  He pulls a gun on the man, gets wrestled to the ground by a competing would-be assassin and then turns the gun on himself when he realizes the absurdity of it all.

This is just one of many moments of hilarious lucidity amidst emotionally bombastic absurdity in Alejandro J0dorowsky’s carnivalesque nostalgic coming-of-age crackpot epic, The Dance of Reality.  It’s one of my favorite moments – the others being the comically melodramatic demise of a beloved horse scene and the signing in the church full of freshly sanded chairs sequence – and these moments prove the old adage that you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water, even if that bath water is filthy and the baby is deformed.  Jodorowsky is in a bit of renaissance period as this first feature film in over twenty years comes on the heals of the documentary detailing his failed attempt at a Dune film back in the 1970’s.  I’ve never seen a film of his all the way through before this (I’ve sampled bits of El Topo and have been too scared to taste Santa Sangre), though he’s the stuff of midnight movie legend and I’ve read plenty about him.  I’ve always howled out loud at one of his more infamous quotes – “Most directors make films with their eyes.  I make films with my balls.”  Well, okay then.  He proves that again here.

Clearly sampling from his own childhood growing up in Tocopilla, Chile, the near ancient Jodorowsky has turned his Oedipal issues and desire for his Communist father’s approval and warped it into a psychedelic freakscape with a paradoxical sweet undercurrent amidst reverent, uplifting music and bright colors.  It’s a minor miracle that once you get through the weird circus-centric opening moments, the weirdness just is and the episodic narrative following the boy (as he struggles with his fears) and then later his father (on some kind of botched assassination turned vision quest to get back home) is shockingly coherent in the way “that really crazy dream I had last night” is.  Continue reading