Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 100 minutes

A movie may show a character acting in an unpleasant manner without being unpleasant itself. It's a lesson you'd think Woody Allen would know by now, given that he's made nearly 50 features. Everyone has been twisting themselves into knots wondering if they can separate Mr. Allen's personal life from his art. This is an important conversation, but it's one that's been taking place for months now. It shouldn't be brushed aside; it's far too sensitive a matter to simply be ignored. Yet rather than continue wringing hands over the separation of art and artist, it's now time to look at how badly Mr. Allen has blurred the lines between character and tone in his latest offering, Magic in the Moonlight.

The character in question is Stanley (Colin Firth), an acclaimed stage magician (albeit one who performs in yellow face as Wei Ling Soo) who enjoys debunking mystics and mediums claiming to be the real deal. From the moment Stanley removes his disguise backstage, he is demanding and off-putting. He has just as little patience for psychics as he does for missed music cues, and he wastes no time in berating those who fall short of his standards. 

At the behest of his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney), however, Stanley decides to take some time off to debunk a new arrival on the psychic scene. Her name is Sophie (Emma Stone), and she's currently in the progress of trying to sneak her way into the vast fortunes of a rich family in the south of France. What follows is an expected series of developments, mostly built around Stanley's questioning of his faith in science and logic. 

Yet even at his lowest point, Stanley remains a thoroughly obnoxious figure, and the film around him starts to sour quite early as a result. Stanley seems to have been modeled - intentionally or not - on the personality of Richard Dawkins, which is so militant in its insistence on science that it manifests as condescending rudeness towards anyone not 100% on the same wavelength. Yes, he's right, but does he have to be such an ass about it?

Firth and the rest of the cast are, at the very least, not sleepwalking through their roles. No one's going to win awards for this one, but everyone seems like they're trying to put some actual magic into what is ultimately a blah story. Despite the almost 30 year age gap, Firth and Stone have a few nice moments together (which is helped by them being at odds almost the entire way through) and a few exchanges here and there are amusing. Eileen Atkins ultimately walks away with the movie as Stanley's aunt, even as she's mostly used as a wry sounding board for her nephew's ranting. 

Where Magic in the Moonlight finally sinks itself is when it refuses to give Stanley any legitimate comeuppance. There's a point in the third act where the movie seems ready to end with Stanley where he deserves to be, but then another 15 minutes roll along and the "charming" ending we're supposed to smile act comes (literally) knocking. Stanley's arrogant bluster is often too caustic to find humorous, and he changes so little that he (and the film) don't come close to earning what happens at the conclusion. 

Though I understand why some are now uncomfortable watching Allen's movies in light of the past few months, even the absence of such scandal would do little to help here. With Magic in the Moonlight, one can separate the art from the artist or bind them together warts and all. Neither position will change the curmudgeonly quality that pervades this lazily directed romp that lacks even an ounce of magic.

Grade: C-

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: "A Most Wanted Man"

Director: Anton Corbijn
Runtime: 121 minutes

Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) was, against the odds, an exemplary adaptation of the work of John Le Carre. That film took a dense novel that was better suited to a mini-series (as it was first adapted), and oriented the central drama away from the whodunnit question, and onto the inner lives of the characters. The film didn't provide much in the way of red herrings or chances to guess who the mole was. Ultimately, that answer was just the destination that capped off a slow-burning journey of secrecy and damaged masculinity. 

Somewhere on a different part of the spectrum (though thankfully not on the opposite end), is Anton Corbijn's (Control, The American) A Most Wanted Man, adapted from the Le Carre novel of the same name. All of the trademarks of Le Carre's espionage stories are present in Most Wanted, yet them come to life with less engrossing results this time around, largely due to some bloated pacing and an anemic screenplay. Alfredson's Tinker masterfully compressed something dense, whereas Corbijn and company wound up stretching something thin close to its breaking point. The sad irony is that Corbijn's barely decent film contains the last performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's an unfitting send off for someone of his stature. 

Most Wanted certainly has its strong points, but the most interesting thing about it is comparing the visualization of a Le Carre story set in the past, and one set relatively in the present. In Tinker, the conversations mostly took place in claustrophobic rooms and corridors. Some of that film's most visually striking sequences were set in a windowless, sound-proofed room. Espionage was allowed to truly take place in secret. 

Jump forward to the 21st century, especially the post 9/11 western world, and you have a much different scenario. Important meetings happen in conference rooms with massive windows looking out over cubicles and desks, and some of the most sensitive topics come up out in the open, in places as mundane as cafes or tacky bars. This is the the age of espionage that can hack and track everyone, yet is also under pressure to be uncomfortably open about its most uncomfortable facets. 

Distinguishing between historical context is certainly more compelling that the drawn out plot. It all begins when a young Chechen Muslim named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) illegally immigrates to Hamburg. Though he seems to have no plans to carry out any terrorist activity, it doesn't take long before Issa's struggle to seek asylum in Germany gets tangled in with an investigation regarding a prominent Muslim figure already in the country. For Gunther (Hoffman) and his small team of co-workers (their group doesn't exist on German intelligence records), Issa's struggle is a chance to, slowly but surely, set a trap for the Muslim figurehead, and possibly expose a money laundering scheme being used to fund Al Qaeda. 

While, Le Carre's novels don't tend to move quickly, but here Corbijn has indulged the author's sense of pacing to a fault. There are more than a few transitional scenes that are utterly pointless, and seem to have been left in under the delusion that these extra moments will add to the overall atmosphere. In The American, Corbijn was able to use gradual pacing to his advantage, despite having a considerably slimmer plot to work with. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to carry that talent over to this dense material. The layers of the plot don't exceed his grasp. Instead, there just seems to be too little thought given as to how those layers should intersect with each other. 

The performances are, at least, convincing, though no one has all that much to work with. The idea of damaged masculinity that was so beautifully inhabited by Gary Oldman in Tinker is also present in Hoffman's role, and the latter does a solid job. He simply doesn't have enough to work with, and so he's left to mostly mutter with a German accent. The conclusion, which sees Gunther pushed to his breaking point, should be a powerful finish to a tale of complicated ethics and ideas. Instead, the impact is minimized but the competently photographed (Corbijn remains a strong visual story teller) lump of story that led up to it. Thankfully, Robin Wright pops up for a few scenes as an icy American diplomat, and her scenes with Hoffman are among the film's best. Meanwhile, wonderful German talents like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl are mostly wasted.

A Most Wanted Man opens on a shot of sloshing brown water, which is only appropriate given the moral and political murkiness on display. It's too bad that the film as a whole never becomes any clearer on any level. A Most Wanted man looks the part as far as modern day Le Carre stories go. What it's missing is the richness of its present day setting, one that exists entirely in shades of grey with increasingly blurred barriers.

Grade: C+/C

Review: "Lucy"

Director: Luc Besson
Runtime: 90 minutes

Luc Besson's Lucy is dumb, but it is - in its own Besson-esque way - admirably dumb. It is better crafted than, say, the typical Michael Bay flick. It also avoids being just another action movie with nothing but violence. Lucy is a look at what happens when a person does what mankind has been trying to do for millennia: reach the absolute height of our capabilities. Does this make Lucy deep or insightful? Not even close. It is ludicrous, as is Besson's way, but ludicrous in a way that takes the idea of "mindless entertainment" to places it has not yet ventured. 

The silliness begins right at the start, with Lucy (Scarlett Johannson, having quite a stellar year) being egged on by her new boyfriend to make a delivery to a prominent member of a global drug ring (Choi Min-sik, AKA the original "Oldboy"). That delivery turns out to be a special new drug that, when ingested, boosts brain activity. After lots of pleading and crying, Lucy winds up with a bag of the blue drug lodged in her intestines. And then, after an unfortunate beating, the blue stuff starts leaking out of its container, and into Lucy's bloodstream, thus enabling her to push past the normal limits (10%) of human intellectual.

As any number of articles have pointed out, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains is a myth. To those using this issue as an actual criticism of the film I offer this response: it's a Luc Besson movie, not a documentary. This is not to suggest that everyone is obligated to enjoy the film based on this single fact. Rather, the idea that its conceptual inaccuracy (which was also used in the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless) is hardly something that should be wielded against the film as an unpardonable sin.  Lucy is not meant to be taken seriously, though everyone involved commits themselves enough to make the whole thing enjoyable. 

Besson, to his credit, actually does a fair job of bouncing between Lucy's wildly opposed narrative threads. On one hand, it's a revenge thriller, while on the other side it's a story of scientific enlightenment and the quest for knowledge. The latter part is, surprisingly, more fun to watch. From quite early on, it's clear that Lucy's ever increasing powers remove the idea of an actual threat. There is little suspense or tension. Instead, there are relentless visual flourishes and propulsive narrative energy. Besson has taken some ideas about life and the universe from The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and applied them to the emptiest sort of sci-fi adventure. I don't know if that makes the film good, but it sure as hell makes it entertaining.

It's also a fun showcase for Johansson as a action star, which is always a plus. Lucy is, in some ways, the halfway point between two other releases from this year featuring Johansson: Captain America 2 and Under the Skin. Johansson gets to show off her star power, yet does it in a role that mostly requires her to be as emotionally rigid as a statue. Thankfully, Besson gives the actress a little time at the start to do some actual emoting before her inner demi-god emerges. Lucy is a reminder that Johansson can be a star, but simply not in the ways that Hollywood initially wanted her to be. 

Of course, even the allure of watching Scarlett Johansson strut around and play with time and space won't be enough for some, and that's understandable. As I said before, Lucy is one hell of a dumb movie. When it comes to movies that require switching off the brain, there's a limit to how far some are willing to go. Lucy is one of those movies that will push many way past their tolerance for this sort of flashy trifle. With a film like Lucy, it's not about whether or not you get something substantial out of it. No sane person will. All that matters is whether or not you happen to like how it tastes. 

Grade: C+

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: "Life Itself"

Director: Steve James
Runtime: 120 minutes

One of the annoying stereotypes about film critics is that we're out to get everyone. We hold a grudge of some sort, because none of us wanted to write and discuss films as an art form, as a commercial product, and/or as entertainment. Though I'm sure such types exist out there, this concept of critics as bitter, talent-less failures needs to be put to rest. As Steve James' wonderfully moving new documentary Life Itself shows, many critics are among the most passionate and informed movie-goers out there. 

However, it's very true that critics are hardly celebrities, even in an era where one can become a celebrity simply by activity on social media. If you were to ask someone to name a movie critic, it's a safe bet that they would default to one name, and one name only: Roger Ebert. Whatever your feelings on his opinions or his writing, it's hard to deny his status as the closest thing to a "star" film critic. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris helped make film criticism something of weight and value. Ebert, especially in his work opposite Gene Siskel, brought criticism out of its ivory tower and down to the masses. Life Itself about Roger Ebert, yet the man's ties to film criticism are so essential that the documentary is also about an important shift in one of the youngest fields of modern letters.

And though Mr. James, the director of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams, has fashioned Life Itself as a tribute to Mr. Ebert, he steers quite clear of hagiography. As one of the many interview subjects points out, Ebert was "nice, but not that nice." Though hardly a character assassination piece, Life Itself isn't afraid to delve into Ebert's difficulties in life (alcoholism) or his occasionally over-competitive personality. It's the sort of fair, yet still genuinely emotional, treatment that Ebert himself did his best to bring to his reviews. 

Even when touching on Ebert's health troubles that began around 2002, James avoids laying on the schmaltz. Despite the warts and all approach to Ebert's past, James' film is the sincere work of a true friend. Whether the film is touching on his testy relationship with Siskel, or the cancer that claimed his jaw, it remains, above all else, a tribute to one man's endless love for movies, and the ways in which they opened people up to the lives of others.  This even includes some of the people whose work Ebert wrote about. Directors Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese are among the big names who appear in the film (the latter helped produce), while Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay testify to Ebert's willingness to stick up for promising young filmmakers. And of course, his relationship with his wife Chaz is eye-opening for the vulnerability it brings to a figure who started his career as a good ole' boy, hard drinking journalist in Chicago. The man's tremendous spirit and elegance (not to mention his willingness to participate in James' film) couldn't be more apparent. In Mr. Ebert, James has captured the life of an individual, but also a perfect microcosm of an art form and a profession, and their relationships with the public.

So, the next time someone tries to tell you that critics are all bitter, washed up losers who want to do nothing but criticize, direct them to Life Itself. It is a look not just at a man's passion for his work, but his passion for living well (for himself, and also to enrich the lives of those around him). People's lives have their share of detours, disappointments, and tragedies, yet there are those rare figures able to push on through and still turn it into something beautiful. Multiple times, we hear interviewees mention Ebert's idea of "the movie that is [his] life." Fittingly, for such a dedicated critic, the movie that is Ebert's life turned out to be a damn good one. For all of the emotional and physical struggles, the finished product is a thing of beauty. 

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Director: Matt Reeves
Runtime: 130 Minutes

The bar set by 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't terribly high. Despite a few standout sequences (and one jaw-dropping moment), Rise suffered from lackluster human characters that dragged down the more compelling ape-oriented scenes. So to say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a superior sequel isn't a guarantee of greatness. But Dawn isn't just any other sequel. Though the humans still pale in comparison to the apes this time around, Dawn bests its predecessor in every conceivable way. This is a smart, full-bodied sequel that delivers its blockbuster moments only once they've been earned by the plot. 

Set roughly a decade after Rise, Dawn finds the advanced apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), making a life for themselves up in the Muir Woods. When we first see Caesar and company, it's been two years since they've had any contact with humans. At one point, Caesar and others ponder if there are even any humans left in the overrun remains of San Francisco. Yet, soon enough, a band of humans stumbles along into ape territory, threatening to reignite man/ape conflicts. 

These humans are led by Malcolm (Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke), who is on a mission to restart a dormant dam in ape territory that could give some power back to the human colony hiding in San Francisco. After a rocky start, humans and apes form a temporary alliance of sorts to assist Malcolm and his team with their plan. Of course, not everyone is happy about this cross species effort. Among the apes, the fearsome Koba (Toby Kebbell) feels that Caesar is too trusting of humans. Meanwhile, human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more than ready to simply gun the apes down if it means getting to the dam faster.

Both sides have peaceful and bloodthirsty factions. Yet rather than simplify motivations, Dawn gives its various points of view some airing time before eventually picking a side. Dreyfus is still haunted by the loss of his wife and children after the outbreak of the Simian Flu (a man-made virus that got to the public at the end of Rise). Koba, meanwhile, is wary of humans after years of painful experiments performed in secret laboratories. 

In giving the humans and the apes diverse angles, Dawn achieves a bit of nuance not often found in big budget summer fare. However, that's hardly surprising when one considers the franchise's history. The original Planet of the Apes was rife with socio-political allegory, and this latest installment is more than up to the task of continuing the tradition. 

Director Matt Reeves, who rose to fame with the found footage sci-fi/disaster flick Cloverfield, deserves quite a bit of credit for the success here. Moving effortlessly from gimmicky techniques to more classical blockbuster filmmaking, the director brings a much more assured hand to this bigger, richer sequel. Reeves understands how to shoot even the mundane visual effects shots so as to maximize impact. And when it comes to the action, he proves himself more than up to the task of capturing the carnage with clarity. Without even making a huge deal of it, Reeves throws in a superb tracking shot that follows Malcolm running through a series of hallways as machine gun-toting apes tear through the surrounding rooms. 

And even though the human characters remain secondary to the apes, Dawn represents an obvious step in the right direction. Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee have the most screen time, with each getting at least one significant moment that strengths some aspect of the human/ape dynamic. 

The star, however, is still Mr. Serkis. Though Caesar has no singular 'wow' moment like he did in Rise, Serkis' motion-capture work is as commanding as ever. The truly astounding visual effects work beautifully gives detail to the physically demanding ape performances. Toby Kebbell is quite terrifying as the human-hating Koba, and Karin Konoval provides a lovely simian supporting turn as a wise orangutan with a penchant for reading.

The film's success on an emotional and visual front is so impressive that it mostly overshadows the occasional flaws in the script. Some of the human dialogue can be a bit stiff, and a few plot developments happen a bit too suddenly, yet overall Reeves' command of the story holds the entire thing together quite brilliantly. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an ideal summer sequel. It's story is bigger and its stakes are higher, yet it also registers more deeply on an emotional level due to the care taken with the plot and (most of) the characters. 

Grade: B+

Review: "Boyhood"

Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 166 minutes

The late Roger Ebert once remarked that "No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough." Richard Linklater's long-gestating Boyhood is stunning evidence in favor of this idea. The story is limited (a boy and his family grow and change), yet Linklater's three hour opus is so vibrant that it could have gone on for much longer. Boyhood is epic in the time it covers, yet still incomplete in the best sense. Mr. Linklater isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the table in regards to what his latest film says. Instead, he has opted to capture it all with astounding thoroughness. Boyhood started as an experiment. Now, after over a decade, it has emerged as a triumph.

What's truly staggering is how much Linklater managed to accomplish. Though production ran on and off for 12 years, there were only 39 days of actual shooting. For all of the advances in filmmaking technology that took place, it's remarkable how cohesive the whole effort turned out. Rather than constantly call attention to the experimental nature of the production, Linklater masterfully refrains from showing off. As young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) ages from six to 18, the changes feel appropriately gradual. Jumps forward in time aren't handled as major events or shifts. They exist side by side with other moments, just as life outside of the silver screen does. 

And, despite the title's emphasis on a young boy, Boyhood gives stunning attention to all of its major characters. Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), are all as richly realized. Though the film concludes with its emphasis firmly on Mason Jr.'s path, the various ups and downs of those around him remain equally vivid. This is Mason's story, but it's also the story of an American family living a messy and modern American life. There are marriages and divorces, first loves and first heartbreaks, and they're all masterfully woven together as part of a wild, ever-expanding tapestry, and scenes as ordinary as brothers and sisters bickering absolutely crackle with life. 

Even when characters are at their lowest points, Linklater maintains a distant, almost academic sort of optimism about the progression of life. Boyhood is ultimately a study of time, which makes the unusual production schedule such an inspired gamble. Small moments stir up feelings of happiness or regret, yet they aren't meant to knock one over with their intensity. Boyhood doesn't build to grand moments. It lets the lives of its characters unfold with a beautiful command of time - cinematic and real - to capture childhood as a simultaneously mundane and epic series of experiences. 

When a movie spends over a decade in production, it's hard not to keep that in mind while watching. And even though Linklater doesn't ram the conceit in the viewer's face, he deserves praise for not trying to completely separate narrative and technique. Each has informed the other, and Linklater's gifts as a writer and director are what enable them to feel so seamless. And, in turn, it's what enables Boyhood to function as such an effortlessly compelling merger of art and life. The visual simplicity is wholly deceptive. This is an epic of both the biggest and smallest nature, one that is both a fully realized journey as well as but the first section of the complexity of life as a whole. Boyhood contains multitudes, and yet in Linklater's hands, feels like it's also just the first chapter in a masterful novel just waiting to be written.

Grade: A