August 1, 2014
Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Dir. Woody Allen
Score: 3.5

It’s no secret that a lot of critics feel Woody lost his fastball a long time ago. The director, whose work began in the late ’60s as ribald (and hilarious) comedy, before morphing into something far deeper and more satisfying by the late ’70s — certainly his most critically acclaimed work with the back-to-back release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall in ‘77 and Manhattan in ‘79 — has, over the last two decades produced some 22 features, many of which utterly forgettable. For every minor hit he’s had — 2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2013’s Blue Jasmine — he’s had eight duds.

It has long been my contention that his single biggest issue has been the insane pace of his production. Allen has said he writes his next screenplay in six weeks and starts shooting shortly thereafter, allowing the near-octogenarian to average better than a film-a-year. Many of his films, even the total failures have at least a glimmer of something salvageable in them, something a seasoned writer with his ear for dialogue could take and reshape to a more accomplished sort of level, but it appears in his haste to finish the script and get a move on with the production, he eschews further drafts in favor of just loading the camera with film and calling out “action.” The only thing that has changed in recent years is Allen eschewing his beloved New York to shoot in some of the finest cities and regions in West Europe.

His latest film is set primarily in the South of France in 1928, but it begins in Berlin, in the middle of fantastic magic act. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician whose act requires him to dress in Asian costume and fake long moustache as his illusionist alter-ego, Wei Ling Soo. One night after a rousing performance, the caustic and highly skeptical Stanley is approached by one of his few old and dear friends, Howard (Simon McBurney), who convinces him to come away with him to the French Rivera in order to help debunk a young, comely self-proclaimed mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has apparently completely fooled several members of a prominent, fabulously wealthy family into believing what Howard is certain is total bunk, only he hasn’t been able to solve the manner in which she is pulling her tricks.

With a burr in his saddle (the officious and highly pompous Stanley is greatly fond of seeking out these fakes and calling them out in public), Stanley agrees to accompany Howard and the two make their way to the fabulous estate, where they meet Brice (Hamish Linklater, always a joy), the young sire of the family, entirely smitten by Sophie and hoping she’ll agree to marry him, and Grace (Jacki Weaver), the elderly widowed matriarch of the clan, desperate to make “contact” with her long-dead husband. At first, Stanley can’t fathom Sophie’s tricks — she seems, by all accounts, entirely sincere and unflappable, leading séances and quick “impression” readings that are eerily prescient — though he remains utterly convinced of his skeptical world view. That is, until the unctuous lout takes young Sophie with him to visit a dear aunt of his living nearby (played by the winsome Eileen Atkins), and is forced to admit her knowledge of well-hidden family secrets is absolutely inexplicable.

The film goes on in this manner — rude, arrogant Stanley being forced to conceive a world in which his long and deeply held skepticism might well have been utterly misplaced — while the two completely mismatched characters are meant to be falling in love. But it is but one of Allen’s colossal misfires in this film that his two leads — being nearly 30 years apart in age, and further yet in terms of personality — share precious little chemistry. At first, Stanley is too critical and scathing to even consider such a thing, but then when he deigns to believe in her otherworldly powers, other glimmers of things start entering the picture.

But none of it makes terribly much sense — Stanley’s mood swings on the subject of Sophie are easily the most unbelievable aspect of the film and forces poor Colin Firth into twisting himself up in fully unsupported gyrations, character-wise — least of all why such an enchanting and beautiful young creature as Sophie would ever consider taking a pompous curmudgeon (whom, we are told, would much rather spend his day at home alone working on card tricks than engaging the outside world) over a dedicated and fabulously wealthy young man such as Brice, who seems hopelessly devoted to her. Allen would have it that the magic in the title refers to the blinding authority of our hearts, which overrule our rational notions and desires despite our best efforts to curb its hedonistic impulses, but nothing save a hypnotic trance or powerful narcotic would be able to make sense of this gushing mess. What is most shocking about the film is how little fun Allen seems to be having with its conceit — a winsome vehicle by which he should have been able to mine Stanley’s crisis of faith and confidence for maximum laughs and impact. Instead, billed as a “romantic comedy” the film hardly bothers with the latter and fails horrendously with the former. Perhaps if he’d run it several more times through the aging comedic genius of his brain, he would have created something more satisfying: As it is, like its pompous protagonist, it’s a painful bore that overstays its welcome far beyond its relatively benign running time.

August 1, 2014
Film Review Link: Wish I Was Here

August 1, 2014
Film Review Link: Guardians of the Galaxy

July 25, 2014
Movie-O-Meter: Lucy, A Man Most Wanted | Ticket

July 25, 2014
INTERVIEW: Richard Linklater | Ticket

July 25, 2014
Film Review: Lucy

Dir. Luc Besson
Score: 5.4

Something there is in us that wants the most beautiful and accomplished members of our race to be somehow more than human. As if a person’s physical beauty and charisma — like the royals of ages gone past — suggests an altogether superior being, one of light and dazzle and super-heightened senses (probably). In this vein, it makes perfect sense that we continually peg Scarlett Johansson as an uber-human demi goddess. In the last couple of years, we’ve watched her as a Russian super-spy, able to dispatch an army of thugs while tied to a chair; a malevolent alien, luring unwise Scotsmen from Edinburgh streets and taking them to a shimmering black oil strip of death; and, now, in Luc Besson’s absurd comic-book-like action fable, as a woman suddenly able to access all of her brain’s capacity, allowing her to control matter, read minds, and manipulate waves of energy to appear on a TV screen a continent away.

She doesn’t start out like this of course. At first, we briefly see her as a flighty young college student studying and hard-partying in Taipei. She has evidently reproachable taste in men, because she allows her shady new boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk) to convince her to deliver a mysterious metal attaché case to the super luxe hotel of Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), a heavy-hitter in the Chinese underworld, whose posse of bodyguards promptly absconds with her. Before she knows it, she’s forced to be a courier for a new, powerful synthetic drug. True to Jang’s brutal style, his method of transport is particularly savage: He rounds her up with several other sad-sacks, has bags of the drug surgically implanted in their intestines and has them fly to international destinations all over the globe upon threat of great bodily harm coming to their families.

Things don’t go as planned however, after Lucy gets worked over by one of Jang’s low-level thugs, the bag ruptures in her stomach, sending a wicked amount of the drug coursing through her veins. Before she knows it, she’s able to learn languages, read light impulses and shoot a high-powered gun with flawless aim. On a path to both revenge and a sudden higher calling, she makes contact with Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman), a scientist and professor in Paris, whose theories on the untapped potential of the human brain she finds “on the right track.”

Pursued by Jang and his men, she gets locked in a race against time trying to amass the rest of the drug taken by couriers in an attempt to go all the way and access 100 percent of her capacity before the drug ends up killing her, an event she figures to take no more than 24 hours.

Besson, whose films often sacrifice narrative logic and believable emotions for cartoon-like sparks and flashes, is absolutely in his element here, though, essentially, he has something of a philosophical treatise hidden not so cleverly in the intestines of an action thriller. Seemingly aware of the rather inert quality of his premise, he returns again and again to cut-away footage, with stock visual tropes (a mouse approaching a trap; a leopard stalking its prey; a primitive human building a fire) in order to bolster the visual punch, but none of it covers up the thinness of his plot, nor the film’s curious lack of fun or style.

Part of the issue is the lead-in gives us so little to work with as far as Lucy’s character, pre-genius. We know nothing about her or her life in Taiwan, and her transformation — which involves her suddenly rolling up and around the walls of a prison cell like something out of The Exorcist — doesn’t seem to particularly faze her. Part of this could be because her heightened intelligence allows her to see exactly what has happened and why, but part also is that, as she says, she feels “no pain, no fear, no sadness,” which, if you think about it, pretty much takes out the narrative drive and gives Johansson, ever the willing conduit, very little with which to work.

Curiously, for a film about someone exceeding normal human intelligence, it appears as if Besson was distracted from his own premise, stuck on the idea that achieving full consciousness would result, 2001-like, in a regression to the singular event that began our universe’s trajectory. If that sounds a bit heavy for an otherwise dopey shoot-em-up with a hot Hollywood actress, I can’t blame you. It’s possible, of course, that Besson is, like his fetching protagonist, somehow working so far above my primitive brain that I simply can’t follow his brilliance, but somehow I sort of doubt it.

July 25, 2014
Film Review: Boyhood

Dir. Richard Linklater
Score: 8.0

We first meet young Mason Jr. (Eller Coltrane) lying on the grass, staring up at the clouds shifting in the sky, a six-year-old, given to staring out the window in his classroom with a strange early sense of self-possession. It is a significant snapshot — beyond the fact that is the very image used for the film’s promotional materials — because this fleeting moment of seeing him, young, unadorned, curious but as yet mostly unlived, is subject to massive — oft harrowing — change over the course of the next 12 years. And this remarkable film from Richard Linklater purports to actually show Mason’s life unfolding over those years in snippets of activity as the actors all grow old with their characters.

Linklater has always been fascinated by the passage of time, and those moments we hold onto later on as significant memories. Think back to his brilliant Before series: The first film ends with the camera lovingly retracing the various locations through Vienna the loquacious young couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) took on their endless stroll the night before. The settings are the same, yet, without the couple or any one else in the frame, we are given to understand what has passed has become the past, and the significance of those specific spots in the city have been wiped clean with the new day’s dawn.

Here, following the course of Mason’s life — from dreamy child to video game-loving 10-year-old, to beer-swilling pre-teen, to thoughtful, articulate young artist — Linklater’s methodology involves us deeply in the film’s process (the first couple of time jumps, which come without warning or placard, I audibly groaned, sorry to have left the previous time period on time’s relentless march forward), but it does so in a way that never feels short of organic.

Masons’ mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, and father, Mason Sr. (Hawke, again, who will have Linklater to thank for documenting his life so thoroughly over the course of his long career) also go through significant change and re-appraisal. Olivia re-marries two more times, in both cases to hard-drinking, dictatorial men who make for lousy husbands and even worse father figures, while Mason Sr. stops cavorting around Alaska and trying to be a musician and instead becomes a steady husband and father with a new wife and a new baby boy with which to contend.

But, by definition, it’s not a film that relies heavily on plot to carry you through its narrative. The time-jumps are too jarring and inconclusive for that sort of cohesion: In one scene, Mason Jr. is eight or nine, starting yet another new school and enjoying a flirtatious encounter with a cute female classmate; the next, he’s several years older, in an entirely different city, experiencing something else entirely.

It’s the kind of seemingly structureless chronicle that Linklater so excels in producing: His films don’t build into swelling wave-like crescendos of narrative thrust, they meander around like a series of small, noteworthy tide pools. His best films — think the Before series, Slacker, even Dazed & Confused — don’t so much pull you through a story as set you down in an unadorned series of moments in the lives of the characters, letting you swim through their lives as they slip and undulate around you.

Meanwhile, Mason’s parents and sister also evolve: His father goes from being a slightly shiftless, irresponsible (though loving) rogue to a mustachioed middle-manager, his romantic dreams dampened by the yoke of his responsibilities to his current and old family. His mother moves from being an undereducated single parent who makes questionable choices in men to a PhD. professor of psychology — who still makes curiously horrible choices in men, especially in those of whom she chooses to marry.

Emotionally, she becomes the film’s fulcrum. Mason Jr. is forced to swallow various disappointments — everything from his parents’ divorce to a bad break-up with his high school sweetheart — but does so with a smooth calmness, somehow already adept at navigating these tricky waters. Olivia, by contrast, makes “poor life decisions” left and right, never sticking to one plan before moving on to something different. It is her plaintive sobbing as her son, now a preternaturally calm and sweet young adult, leaves home for college, that sticks the film’s most painful pushpin: His life is just beginning, the people he will meet, the adventures he will share, while hers already feels near over “My life is just going to go like that,” she says, in anguish, “a series of milestones. I just thought there would be more.”

And just like that, he’s on the road, heading to college on an art scholarship, everything essential he’s accumulated over the years we’ve known him reduced to a couple of boxes and a suitcase. His mom wants him to take a framed copy of his first photo with him, something to remind him of his beginnings as an artist, but Mason takes it out of the box where she placed it and puts it back into her apartment, no longer interested in documenting his past so much as sailing off into his own remarkably unbridled future.

July 18, 2014
Movie-O-Meter: 'Boyhood' Shines; 'Sex Tape' Fizzles | Ticket

July 18, 2014
Film Review Link: The Purge: Anarchy

July 18, 2014
Rapid-Fire Questions With a Grumpy Zach Braff | Ticket

July 14, 2014
Film Review Link: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 14, 2014
On Roman Polanski and the Psychosexual Power in 'Venus in Fur'

July 4, 2014
Film Review: Life Itself

Dir. Steve James
Score: 7.4

Over the last few years of his life, his body ravaged by cancer to the point where he couldn’t eat, drink or speak, Roger Ebert went from porcine, preening TV icon to the beloved patron saint of all film critics. Some of this was due to the courage and conviction with which he faced his most terrible health predicament — in the course of things, he lost his lower jaw, his tongue and all of the lower part of his face to the point where, near the end, there was only a loose lower mouth flap dangling like a swing under the roof of his mouth — but a lot of it was the way in which, with the launching of his blog, he finally opened up to the world at large. In this way, despite the fact that he still kept a pretty murderous schedule of screenings, reviews, and other movie-related writings, he also added much in the way of personal revelation and politics (he was an avowed liberal) to his output.

It was a particularly cruel way to go, the man whose smooth, sonorous voice had become absolutely synonymous with film commentary — apart from the various incarnations of his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, Ebert was a popular figure on the lecture/conference circuit, displaying, scene-by-scene, some of his favorite films such as Citizen Kane — suddenly without a voice to contribute. But in the aftermath of his loss, he re-doubled his efforts to be heard, even if he had no way of speaking them (later on, he got a proprietary computer program to ‘speak’ for him, a la Stephen Hawking, only in some facsimile of his own voice). And so he went from being a slightly resented, if not rich and powerful, popular critic to a true populist.

Steve James’ remarkable film, documenting the last few months of Ebert’s life as well as celebrating all that had come before his sickness and demise, from his early roots as an arrogant kid in Urbana, Illinois, to his stint as a decidedly talented but conceited editor at the Daily Illini, his college paper where he was an iron-fisted Editor-in-Chief, to his early days with the Chicago Sun Times, where he was handed the film critic job shortly after joining the ranks of the ink-stained wretches, to his long nights drinking and raconteuring with his fellow daily scribes in dilapidated Chicago watering holes, to his eventual sobriety and world-wide fame along with Siskel, as the only film criticism TV show to have made it big.

Ebert lived a life of regal splendor in many ways, at least by the standards of this occupation, jet-setting to major festivals, interviewing whomever he wanted and for as long as he so desired, but it wasn’t until he quit drinking and finally met and married a woman named Chaz, whom he knew from his AA meetings, that he really settled into being a more three-dimensional human being (Siskel’s widow recounts a story, pre-Chaz, where eight months pregnant, Ebert cut in front of her to grab a cab in New York).

His relationship with his TV spouse was so famously contentious, they often wouldn’t speak to each other outside of the confines of the show. Siskel, who worked for the far more upscale Tribune across the street, was as smooth and garrulous as Ebert was heavy and prickly. When they were first contacted about doing a film review TV show, they would have preferred working with anyone else, but over the course of time, as the film demonstrates, the two became inexorably linked, both financially and professionally, and grudgingly came to appreciate each other. Siskel died of brain cancer back in 1999, and though he wasn’t destined to be as venerated or beloved as his partner, Ebert himself was never quite the same.

If Siskel were more the blue-blooded Ivy-league man (graduating from Yale), Ebert was the anti-elitist: the too-smart kid from a small town who had made it in the big city on the strength and guile of his conviction in himself. Ironically, it was a story fit for the movies, a Preston Sturges rags-to-riches sort of affair, complete with unlikely love story and ravaging disease that somehow makes the protagonist more popular and beloved than ever. It is an irony, one can imagine, far from lost on Ebert, who died just last year, as the film was being completed. Fortunately, the veritable mountain of writing he left in his wake will forever stand as a testament to his talent — and his courage.

July 4, 2014
Film Review Link: Tammy

June 13, 2014
Film Review Link: 22 Jump Street

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »