Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blu Ray/DVD Review: Woody Allen's Not So Great Latest, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

Out today on Blu ray and DVD:

(Dir. Woody Allen, 2014)

There's a strong case to be made that in the last decade or so of Woody Allen's nearly half-century filmmaking career, every other film is worthwhile. That's certainly holding true. Last year's Oscar-winning BLUE JASMINE was one of the 78-year-old writer/director's very finest, while Allen's current feature, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, is one of his all-time weakest.

A fluffy period piece rom-com that joins A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT SEX COMEDY, HOLLYWOOD ENDING and CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (just to name a few) in the annals of Allen's forgettable throwaways, it at least begins promisingly enough with Colin Firth in Oriental garb, playing an arrogant illusionist named Stanley Crawford in the guise of a Chinese conjurer in 1928 Berlin.

Stanley delights his audience with such classic tricks as sawing a woman in half and making an elephant disappear, then berates the crew backstage so we get a sense of his pomposity.

A fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), tells Stanley about a woman who claims to be clairvoyant and who may be swindling a rich family.

Howard asks Stanley to accompany him to the French Riviera to debunk the phony psychic, a prospect that appeals to Stanley and his lack of spiritual belief. Of course, shortly after meeting the young lady, Sophie Baker, fetchingly portrayed by Emma Stone, he finds himself more and more charmed, and starting to believe that Sophie may actually possess supernatural powers. Disappointingly, Stanley's enchantment with Sophie is unconvincing, with many scenes consisting of variations of the same dialogue. For instance, Sophie talks repeatedly about how she can see into the future, but all her proclamations have to do with the past.

The wealthy marks - Sophie's dorky ukulele-playing suitor (Hamish Linklater of The Newsroom and The Crazy Ones) and his mother (Jackie Weaver) - are very taken with her, possibly to the tune of their fortune. There's also Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie's business-minded mother, who is nearly forgettable because she isn't given a single significant line or moment.

Allen has toyed with these themes before - science vs. spirituality, the redemption of true love. But this narrative has nothing new to say about the mysteries of existence; it just serves as a thread through another May-December romance. A romance, that much like Stanley's transformation, isn't very believable.

It's not that the 53-year-old Stanley courting the 25-year-old Sophie is creepy, it's that the relationship feels forced and lacks chemistry. This is apparent when Stanley's car breaks down and the couple takes shelter in an observatory (at least moonlight makes an appearance, because magic surely doesn't).

Worst of all, the script's many one-liners fall flat throughout.

At least the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who shot Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, is gorgeous. Perhaps the glow given to all those pretty people strolling on beautiful beaches, driving down winding mountain roads and walking on paths through rural France may fool the audience into thinking they're seeing a more charming movie.

And at least Stone's wide smile, alluring eyes and adorable '20s wardrobe give the movie a little zing. Here's hoping her second film with Allen, an untitled project now in production, will be a weightier work. The odds are in her favor.*

Special Features: Woody Allen films have never offered much in the way of bonus material and MAGIC is no exception. Only 15 minutes of supplements are included: an over 10 minute making-of featurette: “Behind the Magic,” a less than 3 minute segment: “On the Red Carpet: Los Angeles Film Premiere,” and the theatrical trailer.

* This review originally appeared in the Nov. 15th, 2012 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/14/4069639/review-a-little-moonlight-but.html?sp=/99/107/153/#storylink=cpy

Friday, December 12, 2014

TOP FIVE: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

TOP FIVE (Dir. Chris Rock, 2014)

Finally, a good Chris Rock movie!

Yes, the third time is definitely the charm in the actor/comedian’s latest directorial effort after the critical and commercial flops that were HEAD OF STATE (2003) and I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE (2007).

In the semi-autobiographical TOP FIVE, Rock portrays movie star funnyman Andre Allen, who just like Rock’s idol Woody Allen in STARDUST MEMORIES, repeatedly says “I don’t want to make funny movies anymore.”

Rock’s Allen wants to hang up the bear costume he wore in the “Hammy the Bear” comedy buddy-cop franchise and be taken seriously in a historical drama about Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman called “Uprize,” which looks like a boring piece of Oscar bait.

Shades of TROPIC THUNDER, shades of Entourage, shades of every movie satirizing celebrity, but that’s so not a bad thing in these capable hands.

The film centers around Rock doing publicity for “Uprize” on its opening day, which is on the eve of his much hyped wedding to Gabrielle Union as socialite/reality TV star Erica Long.

In one of her most appealing performances, Rosario Dawson plays a New York Times reporter doing a profile on Rock, which he has mixed feelings about because the Times film critic, the fictitious James Nielson, has panned all his previous output.

With Rock and Dawson tooling around New York conversing about everything from PLANET OF THE APES to appraising favorite comic icons (Rock calls Charlie Chaplin “the KRS-One of comedy”), TOP FIVE can been seen as a “hangout movie.” Especially in a scene in which they visit Rock’s childhood home and chill with his family and childhood friends, mostly made up of SNL alumni including Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, and most hilariously, yet also sadly, a pre-accident Tracy Morgan, in which they discuss their individual top five rappers of all-time.

The laughs are consistent throughout, though some of the less successful bits concern relationship stuff. When Dawson catches her boyfriend cheating with another man and recounts via flashbacks how she should’ve known he was gay because of his anal fixation, it comes across like a throwaway joke sequence on the sitcom The Mindy Project, and not just because Dawson’s boyfriend is played by Anders Holm, who had an arc as one of Mindy Kaling’s suitors.

Otherwise, Rock, who unlike on his other films as director wrote this without a co-writer, has constructed a solid, thoughtful comedy that gives a bunch of his talented friends a chance to shine. 

An extended strip club scene, another of the many points in which the movie earns its hard R-rating, has funny turns by Jerry Seinfeld (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Seinfeld make it rain at a strip club), Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler (funnier than he's been in a while on the big screen) playing themselves, and in another laugh out loud bit set in a jail cellblock, DMX sings and somehow nails Chaplin’s “Smile” in an unironic manner. J.B. Smoove and Cedric the Entertainer also amuse in their sideline roles. If you're a comedy fan at all, you won't want to miss this movie.

Resembling a hip (or hip hop) take on prime period Woody Allen, TOP FIVE is a bit uneven, and it won’t make my actual top 5 (or top 10) of movies of the year, but it’s an immensely enjoyable and heartfelt project that’s a big leap forward for Rock. Here’s hoping he builds on it – i.e. makes more ambitious and worthwhile work – instead of going back to the same ole crap.

In other words, I hope he makes like his character turning down another Hammy movie, and doesn’t take the call asking him to appear in GROWN UPS 3.

While movies like GROWN UPS and the assorted rom coms and animated films that have dominated his career of late have made me forget how crucial Rock can be, TOP FIVE really reminded me big time.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Blu Ray/DVD Review: Michael Fassbender Under The Mask As FRANK

Out today on Blu ray and DVD:

(Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

For a movie about a front man for an underground indie rock band who wears a large papier-mâché head at all times, Lenny Abrahamson’s fourth feature FRANK is actually pretty grounded.

Michael Fassbender plays the title role loosely based on British singer/comedian Chris Sievey, who wore a similar fake head for his stage character, Frank Sidebottom.

Now, I won’t say whether or not the film’s Frank ever takes off the head, but I will venture that this wouldn’t be Mindy Kaling’s favorite Fassbender movie.

The real protagonist of the piece is Domhnall Gleeson as a somewhat awkward aspiring songwriter/keyboardist who joins “the Soronprfbs,” the unpronounceable name of Frank’s avant garde band project. Gleeson was recruited by the band’s manager (Scoot McNairy) after the previous keyboard player attempted suicide by drowning, so he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Especially when Gleeson finds himself travelling with the band, that includes a deliciously surly Maggie Gyllenhaal on theremin, to a cabin out in the Irish countryside to record a album – a process that may take years. When Gleeson asks about the head, McNairy tells him that he’s “just gonna have to go with this.”

The experimental quintet, which also consists of Autolux/Jack White drummer Carla Azar, and French actor François Civil, spends their days finding inspiration in odd ways, designing new instruments out of household items, and adhering to a “strict regime of physical exercise” while Gleeson documents their activity via Twitter and YouTube videos.

This, of course, like in so many films from THE ROCKER to CHEF, leads to the band becoming an internet sensation and garnering an invite to play South By Southwest. Sure, the social media marketing angle may be in danger of becoming a cliché, but it still works well enough here.

Unfortunately it loses some of its steam in the aftermath of their disastrous appearance at the popular music festival in Austin, Texas, in which Fassbender’s Frank goes missing, but the film’s thematic arc about whether mental illness can equate creative genius brings itself back home satisfyingly.

It’s weird to say that this may be the Fassbender role that appeals to me the most, you know, because he’s wearing that weird big head with the creepy painted-on fake face. Yet when he, speaking in a sharp American accent, states his facial expressions (“flattered grin, followed by a bashful half smile”), and performs his music, which sounds like a mixture of Daniel Johnston and Magnetic Fields, with a bit of the Flaming Lips thrown in, his surprisingly punchy presence is something I can relate to more than, well, SHAME for one. 

Gleeson, best known for playing Bill Weasley in the last couple of Harry Potter movies, isn’t as strong as Fassbender or Gyllenhaal, but is a likable enough bloke who does a decent job carrying us through the thread of the film. McNairy also puts in good work, but, you know, when Frank's around, everybody else just fade into the background.

FRANK was written by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson, who had played keyboards with the film’s main inspiration (the aforementioned Chris Sievey, who you can see in this 1985 clip doing his thing), and it’s a much stronger collaboration than their previous work, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS.

I was surprised by several things about FRANK. Surprised by Fassbender’s performance, surprised by how thoughtful and thought-out its screenplay is, surprised by its likably catchy soundtrack, and, most of all, surprised that it’s become one of my favorite films of 2014.

Special Features: Feature commentary with Lenny Abrahamson, Domhnall Gleeson and composer Stephen Rennicks (composer), Feature commentary with writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, Behind the Scenes featurette, Sound promo. Deleted scenes, and theatrical trailer.

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