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 to 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

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

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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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Scarlett Fever Gets Under the Skin

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In Her, all we heard was Scarlett Johansson’s voice – that husky, alluring, beautiful voice – as she played Samantha, an Operating System that fell not only in love with its owner, but in what it means to be human.  In Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin, it’s Ms. Johansson’s body that is on display (her voice used sparingly, awkward and British when she picks up her victims on the street) as she portrays a nameless alien come to earth to lure men into an inky goo (for what purpose we can only imagine from director Glazer’s fantastically bleak and otherworldly images).  She is an alien that eventually succumbs to that same Samantha trap – she can’t help but become fascinated by what it means to be human.  What egotistical creatures we humans are that we constantly have to fantasize about the “other” – be it artificial intelligence, gods or aliens – going completely gaga over us – as if we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread…or chocolate cake, as in one heartbreaking scene that probably has made every female audience member gasp, poor Scarlett is a cursed creature that can’t even enjoy THAT…a piece of chocolate cake.  Oh, if only she could be human and enjoy that damn slice of cake!

Yet Mr. Glazer and Ms. Johansson lured me into the trap with master precision.  The film is directed with a doctor’s scalpel with every image, every dissolve and overlay, every light, every tone, every musical note (from Mica Levi’s extraordinary score that sets a new bar for the discordant musician turned film scorer, Jonny Greenwood and his ilk) perfectly composed.  The packaging of this boring ages-old-tale and self-obsessed human fantasy is so disarming…so transfixing…I didn’t care what it was about. Continue reading

Joe Knows Nothing New

Joe Nicolas Cage Tye Sheridan

Well, son, I reckon we oughta look for a better film.

A welcome return of Nicolas Cage Actor (as opposed to Nicolas Cage Lunatic Who Will Do Anything for a Paycheck) and another solid performance from Tye Sheridan (quick, get this kid in the Star Wars sequels…or something…so he can become the male Jennifer Lawrence and not keep getting typecast in Southern Fried Gothic Dramas) unfortunately don’t add up to much in David Gordon Green’s grim piece of poverty porn, Joe.  Cage plays a partially reformed loner who takes a shining to Sheridan’s hard-working drifter kid with an abusive alcoholic father – but both characters struggle to put their pasts (and tempers) behind them leading to inevitable anti-hero tragedy.

Poor Joe, it had a lot going for it.  Based on a fairly well-regarded novel of the same name by Larry Brown, it was to be a return to form for David Gordon Green – the former indie darling who had a nice (albeit unspectacular) streak going with George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow before selling out with mainstream stoner comedies.  Green recaptures some of that old magic in certain scenes (the film’s opening is especially effective, as are many of the Cage – Sheridan interactions) while populating the film with Malickian cinematography of some nameless (and tirelessly decrepit) Southern town and non-actors in supporting roles riffing in aimless scenes that lead nowhere.  There’s a fitting music score but also some poorly written and confusing voice-overs.  There’s chilling layered irony (the man who played Sheridan’s revolting father, Gary Poulter, was a homeless man who died shortly after filming from drowning in shallow waters while drunk) juxtaposed with senseless wallowing in the muck (did we really need to see that Lee Daniels-esque and dimwitted scene in the brothel that ended with a dog eating another dog?)  For all the naturalism Green tries to create, everything ends up feeling oddly forced and off-putting, even the “killing and planting trees as a metaphor for life” bit.  The characters remain undercooked in their overripe setting, and many of the interactions and subplots make little sense and only seem to exist to set-up the violence of the final act. Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb -

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

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Oh Noah He Didn’t

What out for that rock!

Watch out for that rock!

Umm…like spoilers ahead and stuff so read with caution.  Like not spoilers about how the movie ends, because, duh, we all know the Bible, but more of spoilers about how STUPID the movie is.

The following are word for word utterances from inside the movie theater whilst my brother and I watched Noah.

Behold, the literal word of The Schleicher Brothers:

  • About 3 minutes into the movie, I thus pondered, “What planet does this take place on?”
  • About 60 minutes into the movie, my brother sayeth unto me, “Oh Noah he didn’t!”
  • About 90 minutes into the movie, I spaketh, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa?”
  • About 110 minutes into the movie (upon the sight of the ark running into a rock), I cried to the heavenly ceiling fans, “Oh, gawd, it’s the Titanic now?!”

I have no idea who on earth would enjoy this movie.  Spare for the great music score from Clint Mansell and some trippy dream/vision sequences of the impending flood, there’s nothing in this movie worth applauding unless you enjoy watching Oscar winners delivering laughably bad performances where everyone is growling or whisper-screaming in misplaced accents and half of the dialogue is unintelligible.  Continue reading

The Art of Style as Substance in Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 300: Rise of an Empire

Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy

Enemy Spider over Toronto Skyline Poster

Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce.  The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double.  It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.

Enemy Location Shot

The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film.  Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film).  For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises.  Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera).  I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film.  I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers.  When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater! Continue reading

The 8th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2013:

It angers me when people complain about the state of film today.  Yes, there’s an orgiastic onslaught of celluloid and digital excrement shoveled into multiplexes every year…but if 2013 proved anything, it’s that art finds a way to survive and quite often thrives in the manure laid across the silver screen.  This past year saw both one of the most accessible art films (12 Years a Slave) and one of the most artistic blockbusters (Gravity) of the decade blossom in the verdant soil of cinema.  I mean hell, Gravity proved that a money gouging gimmick (3D) utilized in so much of that dross that strangles viewers every year can actually be used in the correct artistic context to add…fancy that…new dimensions to film.

And survival and blossoming in the midst of a shit storm – thematically that’s what the year in film was about.  Witness surviving: being kidnapped into slavery (12 Years a Slave), outer space calamities (Gravity), adolescence (Mud), young adulthood (Frances Ha), marriage (Before Midnight), the sins of the father (The Place Beyond the Pines), the lonely high seas (All is Lost), Somali pirates (Captain Phillips), and false persecution (The Hunt).  Hmmm…they do say that all great stories are essentially the same story, don’t they?

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