MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014/IN THEATERS) Moviegoers seem to be taking something of a pass on Woody Allen’s latest film–his 49th, depending on your counting method. Certainly the critics have given it mixed reviews, awarding the movie a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 48%. The story is relatively simple: Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a world-famous magician who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo. He is invited by his former classmate, friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to come to the Cote d’Azur to help debunk a young American mystic (Emma Stone ) who has captivated a wealthy family there. Stanley is quick to take up the offer, as he sees an opportunity to visit his favorite relative, Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), and to also add to his reputation as a “man of science” who will unmask this young pretender. Once in France, we the audience are treated to some spectacular sets and scenery—thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Darius Khondji who also shot “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love,” as well as many others. Filming took place in several fantastic venues, among them Villa Eilenroc, in Cap d’Antibes, and at the Villa la Renardière, in Mouans-Sartoux. The costumes are also to die for. Did I mention that this is a period piece? It’s set in the 1920′s and while that adds some charm, perhaps it’s also part of the problem. The movie feels a bit “stodgy”–with awkward dialogue, some jumpy cutting between scenes, and a really slow start. Nonetheless, the last third of the movie is really fun and you certainly will enjoy several wonderful performances throughout, not the least of which is Colin Firth’s, as he moves his character 180 degrees and back. My personal favorites in the film are Eileen Atkins as the worldly and wise Aunt Vanessa, and Jacki Weaver as the wealthy matriarch of the piece, who is happy to hear that her dead husband was “faithful” to her. But what about Emma Stone, you’re wondering….she’s always so good. Let’s just say that she plays her part quite well (as always) but you could wish for a little more “magic” on screen. Ultimately, I found the movie to be classical “mid-level” Woody Allen, bringing to mind something like “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” Maybe a great choice for your end of summer matinee treat!
P.S. Darius Khondji shot on 35-mm. film, with old CinemaScope lenses, to achieve a noticeably soft, lemon-tinted light that evokes “To Catch a Thief“…..and that’s not all……at one point Firth and Stone drive along the Riviera in a red Alfa Romeo, in essence repeating the exact drive Cary Grant and Grace Kelly made 60 years ago Now there’s a film with real magic!
BOYHOOD (IN THEATERS/2014) This film from Richard Linklater (Writer/Director) has been called “ground breaking” because he shot it over 12 continuous years (3-4 days at a time) with the same actors, showing us a real boy and all his changes, as well as his family’s, over those years. Mind you, this is not a documentary–it’s fiction. These people you come to know so well on screen are actors (although young Ellar Coltrane, who plays the main character Mason Jr., was only 6 when he started and an unknown) who remarkably didn’t sign contracts and agreed to show up every year for 12 years for this fabulous director. Even if you’ve read the reviews, it’s hard to know quite what to expect as you’re walking into the theater. What will this be like? How will it move over those 12 years? What’s going to happen? First off, let’s just say that my friend and fellow SML Reviewer Be and I were surprised to learn that the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes long. BUT, those minutes literally flew by as we were completely sucked into the story of Mason, and his well meaning parents (played so beautifully by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) as well as his sometimes incredibly overbearing sister Samantha (the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater). The time shifts are smooth and feel natural–the audience follows perfectly as life moves on and changes. Mason transforms right in front of our eyes from a dreamy kid into a geeky/slightly rebellious teenager and finally into a handsome young man heading off to college and surely a good future. I won’t write more about the film because I would want any SML reader to experience it directly. But my advice is this: run right out and see this movie. It couldn’t be better.
P.S. Didn’t realize it, but the 1968 GTO driven in the movie belongs to Linklater himself!
LIFE ITSELF (2014/IN THEATERS) One thing I learned while watching Life Itself, Steve James’ beautiful and moving documentary about the life, career, and death of SML Hero #1 Roger Ebert, is that Roger didn’t believe in spending longer than 30 minutes to write a review. Inspired by this fact, I gave myself the same deadline. We’ll see if I end up with a piece of writing worthy of a Pulitzer. Life Itself (also the title of Roger’s 2011 memoir, a must-read) covers pieces of Rogers life, from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, through his beginnings as a newspaperman, his introduction to film criticism by happenstance (the paper’s other film critic quit, so they just moved Roger into the role), his industry-defining career reviewing movies on television, and his massive Web presence in the final years of his life. James interviewed Roger’s friends and colleagues, his fellow critics (those inspired by him and those in competition with him), film makers he championed and supported, and his family. I was most touched by the honest and emotional interviews given by Chaz Ebert, who married Roger later in his life and was his loving and fiercely devoted partner and who continues to expand his legacy. The film is narrated in part by a voice-imitator doing an eerily spot-on imitation of Roger’s voice; a lovely touch that was so subtle it didn’t immediately occur to me that Roger couldn’t have possibly narrated any part of the film, having lost his voice to cancer in 2006. James was chosen by Roger himself, due to the latter’s love of James’ Hoop Dreams documentary, and was given access to all areas of his subjects’ life. The unflinching footage of Roger’s physical condition and his death are handled with admirable honesty, a detail Roger insisted upon. Your SML correspondents have always felt like we knew Roger personally, having visited his film festival several years and following him nearly all of our movie-going lives. Fans of his will feel the weight of this tribute in your hearts, like we do. It is wonderful and so very sad, and it could have been 10 times longer and still not included everything Roger did or everyone he touched. It is always intimidating to write about Roger Ebert because he was such a prolific and intelligent writer. His was always the first review I read after seeing a movie, and I will always wonder, when I’ve seen something new, what he would have written about it. He would have liked this one, I think.
My 30 minutes are up so I’ll leave you with some links to more eloquent summaries:
BEGIN AGAIN (2013/IN THEATERS) Here’s a definite B movie that actually plays pretty well, especially if you happen to like Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley (which I do). The film is written and directed by John Carney, the Irishman whose first film, Once (2006), had a bit of magic in it—the story of two unlikely musicians who team up and fall in love, on screen and in real life, making great music together on the way by. “Once” has gone on to Broadway, you know—and the couple is no more. Ironically, Mr. Carney centers his new film on the whole topic of commercialism in the music world and an exploration of “true” music and musicians, basically telling the tale of two outcasts from the world of record labels who meet by chance in a bar and team up to “beat the system.” Ruffalo plays Dan, a former wunderkind of indie record labels, who is kicked out by his own partner (played by Mos Def) from the company he helped create. Knightley plays Gretta, the “true musician” of the piece who writes songs just to write them. Cast as the definite sell-out in this flick is none other than Adam Levine who plays Ms. Knightley’s boyfriend Dave, her lover and partner in music. Gretta writes many of the songs Dave sings and the two appear completely devoted to one another. As the movie opens, they are enroute to an apartment in NYC, part of a deal he has closed with a U.S. record label. Soon, of course, he is whisked off to LA for a series of recording sessions, and upon his return, promptly dumps Gretta for someone else. Luckily for our heroine, a good friend from the UK lives in the Big Apple and puts her up. This is Steve, played by an adorable James Corden. Steve just happens to also have a serious set-up for home-grown recording. And so the plot thickens. Dan hears the potential in Gretta’s music and sets up a series of street level recording sessions, all to produce something his former partner will want. There are other characters as well—Dan’s daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and his currently estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), as well as his long-time friend in the industry TroubleGum (CeeLo Green). I found the film to be engaging and fun, particularly during the street-level recording sessions. And the cast is great. But is the film memorable? Not at all. So, what is it exactly? I’d say a light-hearted movie that’s trying to make a big point. Enjoy it for what it is, if you go. Or wait for the RedBox. No problem.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014/IN THEATERS) True confession: I am not an X-Men geek. In fact, I had never seen a single X-Men movie until “First Class” hit screens three summers ago. But I absolutely fell in love with that movie–it was fun, the plot was clever, the costumes were perfect, and best of all, it starred James McAvoy (as the young Charles Xavier, i.e. Professor X) and Michael Fassbender (as Erik Lehnsherr, the future Magneto)—enough said! Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven who later becomes Mystique), at the time was a relative newcomer and she was great, no surprise to us now. Real fans of the complete series (and the comics) liked that movie too, though they considered it “light.” The originals are not light at all. In fact, they are pretty darn dark, as I understand it and many main characters died along the way. So, when Bryan Singer, the much beloved creator of the first two X-Men movies, returned to film this one, people were honestly excited. And, to his absolute credit, he has satisfied almost everyone. The plot of this film is clever also. It opens in a future “end of days” in which both mutants and the humans who support them (and might also give birth to them) have been targeted by unbeatable robots called Sentinels. The last of the mutants, including familiar faces from the earlier trilogy Storm (Halle Berry) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), meet up with Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) in the most remote spot imaginable to devise a desperate plan. They will send Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973, the year the Sentinels were invented, to change the course of the future. Now here’s where things get tricky—why send Wolverine? Because he is the only one who can survive the rigors of the trip back in time. What’s needed to change the future? He must find Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and ironically stop her from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the man who created the Sentinels. That’s enough to get you started–no more plot from this review. Let me just say that, same as three years ago, I found the combination of McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence to be mesmerizing onscreen. And even though the film is darker and has moments of real violence, it finds lightness in its characters— particularly in a young, bored teenager named Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who certainly steals every minute of screen time he has. Don’t miss it, even if, like me, you are a latecomer to this particular franchise.
BTW: If you have time to kill, logon to YouTube and catch some of the really funny interviews surrounding this fabulous cast. One of my favorites is here: James McAvoy doing his impression of Patrick Stewart on Jimmy Kimmel. More impressions can be found on Gawker.com here. And just to make it sweeter, that Gawker link will connect you to Steve Coogan’s epic Michael Caine impressions battle from The Trip—wonderful!!
CHEF (2014/IN THEATERS) If you’re looking for a little fun at the box office and you haven’t seen this lovely film yet, why not give Jon Favreau‘s “Chef” a go? It’s pretty straight forward story-telling with a great cast, plenty of mouth watering food, fabulous salsa-y music and even a cute kid, plus two hot chicks –Sofía Vergara and Scarlett Johansson—what more can you ask for? How about John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as sous-chefs? Or even Dustin Hoffman as the bad guy restaurant owner of the film? Add to that Oliver Platt as a snobby LA food critic and Robert Downey Jr. in a cameo and you’re now part of a true Favreau ensemble piece. What fun! The plot is simple—our hero, the Chef (Favreau), walks out of his fancy restaurant following a bad review and even worse argument with the owner (Hoffman). Inspired to start over in Miami, he inherits a beat-up food truck and thanks to the help of his young son (played beautifully by young Emjay Anthony) and his number two (Leguizamo), he works his way back—and I mean all the way back. There’s nothing like a feel-good summer movie to start your June off right! Be sure to catch it. And save room for dinner afterwards.
BTW: Be sure to check out Favreau’s wonderful 2001-2005 series on IFC called “Dinner for Five.” The idea was to gather five Hollywood types (many up and comers, and B-listers) over a nice dinner and just talk about anything and everything. Many episodes are online now via YouTube. The guest list is fabulous and so much fun.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013/IN THEATERS) Jim Jarmusch is something of an acquired taste, right? I remember seeing “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984) on the big screen when it first appeared and thinking it was in a league by itself. The latest effort from Jarmusch as writer/director brings us another “strange” bit of cinema, with humor, glamour, literature, art, music and…. vampires — what more can we ask? Visually striking, the movie features gorgeous performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Thor movies) as centuries old vampire lovers Adam and Eve. They could not be more beautiful to look at—Adam in all black, including his hair, and Eve in off-white, right down to her eye lashes. There is a bit of a plot: Adam is depressed, residing in his dilapidated Victorian mansion in some section of Detroit (a perfect setting), communicating electronically with his lover, Eve, who is in Tangier. Worried about him, she catches overnight flights via Paris and soon arrives in the motor city. From there the plot thickens a bit (as they say) when Eve’s little sister and trouble-maker Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and essentially disturbs the peace, even inspiring the group to head out to a jazz/pop/new music club. There are other supporting players in the movie: Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Watson (supplier of “the good stuff” to Adam), John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (who supplies Eve with her “good stuff” in Tangier), and a wonderful Anton Yelchin as Adam’s go-to “zombie” Ian. Mind you, Adam refers to all us humans as Zombies! The tour of Detroit in this movie brings to mind a night-time version of Anthony Bourdain’s popular CNN series “Parts Unknown.” But no food of course unless you’re into blood. My friend Be and I loved the movie, but we warn you that it’s not for everyone. Enjoy, if you go!
ALAN PARTRIDGE (2013/IN THEATERS) For those of us in the U.S. who have never really encountered Steve Coogan‘s alter-ego Alan Partridge (apart from the odd YouTube video) here’s our chance to see plenty of him. Partridge is the pompous and hilarious TV host invented by Coogan and Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep), as well as other show writers for the BBC Radio 4 programme On The Hour. This movie marks Partridge’s first feature length debut and it’s mostly funny with of course a distinctly British comedy style. To begin, the plot of the film finds Partridge as a radio DJ after he has lost his TV show, now part of North Norfolk Digital, a small-market station which is being taken over by conglomerate Gordale Media. Lots of funny gag lines flow from this set-up as Alan and his co-host preside over “Mid-Morning Matters,” posing various hilarious call-in topics for their listeners and introducing their favorite “oldies” and “hits.” Unfortunately fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) is promptly sacked by the new company, inspiring him to come back armed and dangerous and seeking revenge. Farrell takes many of the radio staff hostage and requests that his buddy Partridge be his negotiator to the police. From there, a serious of cringe worthy scenes occur—some of which will have you laughing out loud while others will leave you chuckling or possibly scratching your head. A bit long and totally silly, I do think the movie is just fine for anyone who loves Steve Coogan and of course, for those who enjoy this style of British comedy. Catch the film at local art house cinemas—but catch it soon as I’m fairly sure it won’t last long on this side of the pond.
P.S. My personal favorite Coogan character is as himself in 2010′s “The Trip,” which was created as a film for the U.S. based on the BBC series of the same name. And there’s good news as “The Trip to Italy” is running on BBC right now with Rob Brydon back in the passenger seat. Here’s hoping a version of that one will come our way as well relatively soon!
LE WEEK-END (2013/IN THEATERS) Don’t be fooled by the poster or the trailers for this little film, now playing in art houses. It’s one of those movies that divides the audience—love it or hate it? Funny or appalling? A bit of a critical darling, with a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes from that group vs. an audience rating of 58%. I think the answer to which camp you will choose depends on just how much you like the main characters—a married British couple “of a certain age” who are celebrating their 30th anniversary in Paris, where they spent their honeymoon. We meet them on the train heading through the chunnel from London and they look reasonable enough. He’s Nick Burrows, a philosophy professor at a 2nd rate institution (played by the wonderful Jim Broadbent ) and she’s Meg, a teacher as well, with a bit of the devil in her (an equally strong Lindsay Duncan). Things quickly deteriorate, however, when they arrive in Paris. Meg rejects totally Nick’s choice of hotel (a sentimental choice which is now a seedy and drab place) and spends their precious Euros driving by cab around the city until they reach one its most expensive and elegant establishments. Here they decide to throw all caution to the wind and take the suite that was once occupied by Tony Blair. How are they affording this? Time will tell. Meanwhile, we join the couple in lovely walks around the city and even lovelier dinners, some of which they clearly cannot afford. Midway through the film, they bump into Nick’s old chum from Cambridge, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum in full mode), who has “made it” as a writer/philosopher and now lives with his new, young wife on the Rue de Rivoli. This all sounds nice, doesn’t it? But the movie and these two characters are actually not nice at all. In fact, they’re rather selfish, foolish and boring—at least in my view—which makes for a long and puzzling picture. Mind you, many in the theater where my friend and I viewed the movie last night were laughing out loud at parts we found appalling. So I guess it’s a matter of taste. Check it out if you’re curious and let us know what you think in the comments below.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014/IN THEATERS) Wow! What can we say about this fabulous new feature from Wes Anderson (his 8th) after only a single viewing….I feel at least 3 more will be needed just to take in all of its fabulous-ness. Anderson describes the movie as “Lubitsch-esque” with a hint of “a 30s type of Hitchcock.” Got that? The story begins with one narrator (Tom Wilkinson) but moves swiftly to another (F. Murray Abraham speaking to Jude Law) and finally to the story itself which is set between the two world wars in a fictitious Austro/Hungarian locale and centers on Gustave H., the legendary concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, played to a “T” by Ralph Fiennes—a newcomer to Anderson’s entourage. As the story unfolds, familiar faces from earlier Anderson films–the inner circle, as it were (Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban) – are joined by many others, including some personal favorites like Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux and even Harvey Keitel, all of whom serve to advance the plot in their various chapters and scenes. A plot, which I hasten to add, is more than somewhat complicated and involves the untimely death of a longtime hotel guest and the reading of her will which leads M. Gustave to steal a valuable painting (cleverly titled “Boy with Apple”).
Joining Fiennes is Tony Revolori as his understudy Zero, the new Lobby Boy, whose sad past has brought him to this exciting present and who shows himself to be fully worthy of M. Gustave’s trust. No doubt both Ralph Fiennes and Mr. Revolori will soon be joining the “inner circle” for future Wes Anderson films.
Quick Note: One of the many hotels which served as a model for The Grand Budapest is the Gellert Spa and Bath which is actually located in Budapest and is still up and running. I am happy to say that I once stayed there long ago. The pool and spa on the lower level of that hotel look exactly like the ones portrayed in this film. Be sure to check it out if you ever get the chance.