Friday, August 22, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

*** out of ****

Whether you think you’re getting a Woody Allen film that has a philosophy of hard-bitten realism -or one of magical realism when you see his latest romantic-comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, you can definitely expect plenty of lush rose-tinted bittersweet charm.

The famous auteur has humbly stated before, that he enjoys the grand context, which esteemed actors bring to his work. It must have come with great delight for him that Colin Firth was there to carry this entire film. Firth plays a famous English illusionist, traveling around Europe in the nineteen-twenties, who is lured to the French Riviera by a lifetime friend (Simon McBurney) to debunk a clairvoyant played by Emma Stone.

Stone’s character is there to help an elderly American Aristocrat (Jacki Weaver) contact the spirit of her departed husband while being courted by the family’s shallow son (Hamish Linklater). Firth’s character is a snarky skeptic with absolute contempt for charlatans. He is even more troubled by the young lady’s charming company and his inability to find evidence that she’s a fake. His Aunt (Eileen Atkins) resides in the area of his stay and on visits, he confides in her his interest in the young medium and how she’s awakened a desire to believe that magic may exist.

For Allen fans, what is unique about the film is how it keeps us guessing what direction it will take. We’ve seen magic play a role in some of his stories, like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris. Most of his films, however, take a cynical viewpoint regarding the fantastic. The growing relationship, between Firth and Stone’s characters, is dependent on this revelation.

Regardless of the outcome, period films tend to be Allen’s favorite method of escapism. The costumes and locations allow him to embrace his nostalgia for Ragtime music, extinct forms of showmanship and the sensibilities of old films. His long takes always manage to capture a kind of acting that has an energy more often found in theater than the movies of today.

I’ve been curious what kind of reception Allen films might receive from now on, given the new serious allegations that have come to light about his personal life. Like Roman Polanski, I still choose to admire the body of work generated by a committed force of creativity. I will admit that my objectivity does feel challenged at times. If the accusations against Allen were to ever gather more concrete evidence, it may be more difficult to support his films.

For now, he remains one of my favorite artists living today for his ability to keep up a forty-eight-year reputation in delivering a new film just about every year. Some are weak, some are terrific, and some, like Magic in the Moonlight, are simply designed for a relaxed pleasant night at the movies.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

** out of ****

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a franchise that was stupid when I was a kid and now that I’ve seen the new movie reboot, I can assure you that it’s still stupid now. With that being said, I must exclaim that its makers still screwed it up!

Remakes and reboots are warranted when something - flawed or dated - is loved by an artist capable of expressing - to a new audience - what it was they saw in it. Batman is still with us today because of this. I don’t know any fan of that series who prefers its 1939 incarnation.  

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was awesome to me when I was a kid! As a cartoon, comic books, toys and a first-movie; I associated with it, Run-DMC-era rap music, grungy NYC and the sustenance of greasy pizza. A few of those things were remembered in the new movie but I didn’t get much evidence that there was any REAL passion behind the project. Like the animated movie a few years back, there’s no honorable attempt to make any remarkable improvements.

The only thing this movie does, is give the Turtles the expensive production standards of a Spider-Man movie. Their new CGI designs are decent, and probably got more love and attention by those who rendered them, than the lazy screenwriters who provided the characters with lame things to say and do. The voice-overs feel about as impersonal as the Turtles have ever come across but they are still the only likeable aspect of the movie. Shredder, however, is an unwelcome Transformer, with the design of someone who flunked fifth-grade art.

Its origin-story plot, like The Amazing Spider-Man, tells a story we already know in a different way. It reserves the appearance of the title characters for a good chunk of the beginning, focusing on April O’Neil as she investigates robberies by The Foot, which is a well-known terrorist group with high-tech weapons in this film and not mysterious ninjas alluding the eye of the police from previous versions. She’s finding evidence of these robberies being thwarted by unknown vigilantes, but needs the proof. That’s how she comes across the heroes.

I will admit that a bit of Turtles purism boiled up in me when certain plot elements were altered for this film. They aren’t as ludicrous as some early rumors suggested, but linking April O’Neil’s childhood to the Turtles’ origin story is as meaningless as Peter Parker’s parents being connected with Oscorp. De-linking Master Splinter from a proud martial arts legacy and having him learn how to be a ninja by reading a discarded book in the sewer is a change, which makes an already-silly story, sillier.

In A.A. Dowd's AV Club review, he points out that the "post-Guiliani era" New York is too cleaned up for the Turtles to be in the proper "grimy" Manhattan they protected in the original. What's disturbing about a lot of New York-set movies lately, is how they require terroristic or professional criminal activity to be the only imaginable threat to the Big Apple. Why not have the Turtles protect people from all the mean profiling cops paid to keep those streets so clean? Harvey Keitel could make a good villain. 

Megan Fox is simultaneously, the hottest and least credible April O'Neil so far. William Fichtner delivers his dependable sociopathic coldness as a villain in cahoots with The Foot and Will Arnett phones in a typical delusional single guy performance for more lame comic relief. Whoopi Goldberg... never mind.

The tone brought to the film by director Jonathan Liebesman is a little scattered. Michael Bay’s (one of the movie’s producers) influence is there but not to the same obnoxious level one should expect from a film he's directed. The action borders on fun but has the level of CGI excess, which gives most of its sequences the look of a cool videogame level that you don’t have the privilege of playing. I’ve had this problem with a lot of effects-driven action films, especially when the rest of the movie is aiming for a certain level of realism –like this one. Yanking me out of a movie’s believable atmosphere with an entire sequence that looks and feels animated creates a jarring experience.

Finally, the biggest failure of this movie is in its score by Brian Tyler, which is not bad sounding music, but it’s WRONG for a Ninja Turtles movie. John Du Prez’s score for the 1990 movie had a much better thing going. I don’t want standard orchestral movie music with an overused choir to emphasize epic drama. I want a score with traces of hip-hop, rock-and-roll or electronic. A few years back, Daft Punk did an unforgettable score for Tron: Legacy, which should have been an inspiration for film composers to stop being so damned ordinary!

I don’t recommend this movie but I can’t claim to have hated it either. It did little for me. That sigh of boredom that comes out of me during a movie’s final act is becoming all-too familiar.

Friday, August 15, 2014


***1/2 out of ****

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is one daring movie project. This really is unlike anything you’ve seen or will see for a very long time. I’m surprised something like this hasn’t already been tried by other career-directors with similar work stability. To interpret Linklater’s ambitions from previous films might prepare you for this movie’s narrative, which isn’t very interested in plot or storytelling. It’s about the aspects of life that we live but don’t often see in the movies.

His interests are existential. Scenes feel as though they may be a prelude to some moment of truth, tragedy or an affirmation of some kind. These things don’t happen –at least not for us to see. Life is happening to this film’s characters, whether they can find a defining moment or not. We are talking about a filmmaker with a very relaxed attitude, as an artist. Making a movie for twelve years may sound like a big deal (and it is) but the final result is, more often than not, an easy-going experience.

He started the project in 2002, probably around the time he was beginning work on Before Sunset –a sequel to his earlier romantic drama, Before Sunrise, which explored a similar idea: What do we get from revisiting fictional characters, especially when you allow the actors who play them to bring their own life experience to the roles as inspiration? While it may be staged, you’re capturing something that feels true. Boyhood is about a boy and his family, plain and simple. It may be about made-up characters but it has the same power as Michael Apted’s Seven-Up documentary series. Within this one movie, you watch a kid age from age seven to eighteen without having to suspend your disbelief. That’s good enough for me.

There will be a lot of arguments, as to whether the film’s lead, Ellar Coltrane, has given us a praise-worthy performance. He does manage to hold the movie together. It was an unquestionable gamble but I think he did what Linklater tries to get out of most of his players, which is to relax and be natural. Some of his best films don’t feature very skilled acting. Dazedand Confused comes to mind. I don’t need or expect realistic acting from his movies, just realistic situations.

The movie has a visually consistent look while showing us music and fashion trends, which come and go, among other things that make me feel old. We get to see Coltrane and his on-screen sister played by Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter), attend a Harry Potter book release, in costume for the occasion. We also get hints of Star Wars fandom, of the prequel-based videogame generation. Yes, I’ve seen kids in my own life enjoying these things, but my point is that most of them are grown-up now. I’m reminded of what has fallen into the realm of common nostalgia. Maybe it’s time for me to take interest in World War II.

It is also amazing to see the parents in the film, portrayed by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, start off in their prime as sexy movie stars who will slowly age into what look like someone’s parents. It’s threatening.

Are you, whoever you are, going to like Boyhood? Among a few phony sounding exchanges in the lead character’s later years and the standard overused element found in a lot of Linklater philosophical dialogue “I was reading this article where…,” I would say that the movie does feel longer than it needs to be. I think that editor Sandra Adair had a big job that required a few more decisions to condense this project into a standard movie length. The goal was to take eleven years of footage and spend the last year making it into something that felt like a movie. The 165-minute cut I saw could have waited for blu-ray. My only warning, aside from the film’s deep artistic ambition which may alienate those who want to be entertained, is that it may bore some. On the other hand, it will fascinate too many others –myself included.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

*** out of ****

Guardians of the Galaxy is another reminder that I don't know the Marvel Universe but I want to. Being surrounded by the excited reactions of an audience made up of people who actually read comic books as children, gave me an appreciation for how much satisfaction Marvel Studios and Disney are bringing to all kids -big and small.

It follows a group of interstellar outlaws who meet in prison and realize a common goal of obtaining an orb (this film's MacGuffin) and beating a common enemy, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), to getting it first. 

Like a lot of big-budget adventure movies, Guardians is trying to overcome its boringly simple plot with convoluted story details. It is really the awesome cast and the irreverent tone set by the film's writer-director, James Gunn (who was responsible for the trashy-fun comic-horror, Slither) that create a fun-filled experience.

The general aesthetic pleasure of this movie is also part of its charm. It's occurring to me that there are certain colors, which hold more prominence in digital cinematography and I feel as though this movie really tries to emphasize them in all its eye-candy.

It is very appropriate that after a slew of films about the Marvel Universe -in relation to Earth, we get a whole new movie that takes a detour to the far reaches of space and its whimsically strange possibilities. Those who watched the TV series, Farscape, should be very prepared for the zany adventure that this film is.

It is also a breath of fresh air that this movie isn't nearly as dependent on star-power as the other Marvel movies. The most well-known of the cast members are either cameo appearances or supply voices for animated characters.

Rising star, Chris Pratt takes the lead as kidnapped-earthling-raised-in-space, Peter Quill; aka Star-Lord. Zoe Saldana, well known as the mo-cap subject for a blue alien in Avatar, plays the green alien, Gamora, in this film. Pro-wrestler, Dave Bautista, who turned in a memorable appearance in the troubled The Man with the Iron Fists, goes to great new heights in his acting career as Drax the Destroyer, reminding me of the eighties obsession with musclebound heroes.

Bradley Cooper provides the smart-ass voice of Rocket, the genetically enhanced raccoon bounty hunter, whose partner, Groot, is a walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel doing a callback to his work on The Iron Giant.   

The movie also feels influenced by Heavy Metal, Cowboy Beebob, Firefly and classic Star Trek (for its simple humanoid aliens). Guardians isn't perfect, but it isn't aiming high (despite its enormous budget) and as a result feels looser and more carefree than its annoyingly serious counterparts. I've enjoyed other movies this summer a little more, but this is the one that is the answer to the terribly joyless feeling left by The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  

Saturday, August 2, 2014


**1/2 out of ****

Like most Luc Besson movies, Lucy is violent, pretentious and stupid. However, like the best of his films, it is also imaginative and thrilling. I was insulted by its bad taste and moronic foundation, but I won’t deny that it often triggered the section of my brain, which entertains guilty pleasures.

The story centers on a mid-twenties American student named Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson. She is studying abroad in Taiwan and unfortunate circumstances lead her to be forced against her will into a drug-smuggling operation for a new dangerous synthetic substance. The drug packages are concealed through surgical implantation but Lucy’s package is punctured. The drug leaks into her system revealing its effects to be of such a dramatic enhancement of the mind and nervous system, that she becomes a super-being.

So, why did Lucy’s unexpected accident create the first super human, when it could have happened to any test subject in the lab where it was invented? This is a pretty basic curiosity but the movie doesn’t seem interested in addressing it.

Sadly, it doesn’t take long for Lucy to become laugh-worthy as its science-fiction plot is aided by none-other than the go-to story exposition man himself, Morgan Freeman, who is seen delivering a lecture on the human brain -filled with the most hilarious pseudo-science one could imagine.

I’m almost tempted to praise this film for being a return to form for an artist who hasn’t directed a fun movie since his amazing, The Fifth Element. While responsible for writing and producing a few successful action films, including The Transporter and Taken, Besson only sits in the director’s chair occasionally. Until Lucy, I felt as though he’d lost touch with a signature tone, which made his earlier films like La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional so beautiful. After watching his embarrassingly unfunny dark comedy, The Family, last year, I felt like he was washed-up.

The film’s strength is undeniably at its beginning, which contains contains everything I’ve missed about his work. A beautiful young woman is at the mercy of powerful men who are unprepared for the monster they will unleash. Johansson’s work is in the tradition of Anne Parillaud, Natalie Portman and Milla Jovovich -all females who brought emotional weight to Besson’s films. The film’s mobster villain, played by Min Sik Choi (star of the original Oldboy) brings an intimidating level of sadism through his screen presence alone.

Eric Serra’s score of ambient orchestral and electronic sounds seduces us into the film’s dark trippy fantasy. Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography follows the action and stages the effects delicately while capturing his signature symmetrical shots.

I am congratulating Besson and his collaborators for achieving a style, which has been long-desired on my part. It is the film’s substance that puts the whole project to shame. The movie has some very cool sequences, but the further it moves along, the more its ideas seem like half-baked rip-offs from other films.

As it got close to the end, I started to hypothesize that Besson’s script was achieved by watching Limitless, Altered States, Crank, The Tree of Life, The Matrix, Scanners, Akira and the very recent but too-similar Transcendence. After this eighteen-hour movie binge, he fell asleep, had a Scarlett Johansson wet dream and started writing Lucy when he awoke.

This movie proposes through a vague understanding, that the average human being uses only ten-percent of their brain’s capacity. I think it takes even less brain power to know that Lucy is ridiculous.