Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Magic in the Moonlight



At 78, Woody Allen is still churning out a new film every year, and I continue to enjoy just about everything he makes. Magic in the Moonlight is no exception, despite unfavourable reviews from most critics.

Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a famous magician in the 1920’s who is frequently called upon to expose fraudulent spiritualists. That’s what happens here as Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) invites Stanley to southern France to expose a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone). Stanley, who is engaged to be married, finds himself strangely drawn to Sophie. Various complications and twists ensue in this rather lighthearted romantic drama.

It’s all quite predictable and the characters and plot are not at all believable (thus the unfavourable reviews), but Magic in the Moonlight is still a lot of fun to watch. That’s because Firth and Stone do an excellent job with their poorly-developed characters, the score is wonderful, the cinematography gorgeous and, always a draw for me, the dialogue is very intelligent in that witty Allen way (and there’s lots of dialogue, as one would expect in an Allen film).

So Magic in the Moonlight gets a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey



Putting Guardians behind me as quickly as possible, let’s look at something completely different: The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The critics actually liked Guardians a lot more than Journey, which just leaves me utterly dumfounded. The Hundred-Foot Journey is no masterpiece, or even one of Hallstrom’s better films (e.g. Chocolat, My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Nor is the screenplay one of Steven Knight’s better efforts (e.g. Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises). But compared to Guardians, Journey is a priceless work of art. I’m left wondering whether what I look for in a film is not only very different from what the masses are looking for – it’s also very different from what the critics are looking for.

However, an interesting thing to note is that I watched The Hundred-Foot Journey at a theatre in Winnipeg a month after its release and the theatre was almost sold-out on a Tuesday evening. I suspect Journey will still be playing here long after Guardians has disappeared. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (admittedly a better film than Journey) played in Winnipeg for more than six months. There’s a core group of Winnipeg film fans with a deep appreciation for these kinds of films (and films like The Way, which also played here for a number of months).

But I digress. The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the tale of Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal), a young cook whose mother was killed during an act of political violence in India. Fleeing to Europe, Hassan’s father (played by Om Puri) decides to open an Indian restaurant in a small French village, right across the street from a high-class French restaurant owned and operated by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Madame Mallory is not impressed. While she goes to war with Hassan’s father, Hassan falls in love with her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon), who teaches him how to cook French-style. The war heats up, the romance cools down, and Hassan’s life takes some predictable, and also unbelievable, turns.

The Hundred-Foot Journey moves at a slow quiet pace, inviting viewers to digest the meal properly and enjoy the stunning cinematography, the beautiful score and the acting of Mirren and Puri. Even so, the romance feels rushed (with the acting of the young actors not matching that of the veterans) and the story doesn’t always seem to know which pieces of the drama it should focus on (I preferred the story of Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, and the village dynamics, more than the story of Hassan, which seemed to be the focus). Nevertheless, I found the scattering of profound observations about conflict, loneliness and life’s priorities more than sufficient to provide, in combination with the film’s other attributes, a thoroughly entertaining film-watching experience.

The Hundred-Foot Journey gets ***+. My mug is up.

Guardians of the Galaxy



If you are a friend or relative who enjoyed watching Guardians of the Galaxy, please read no further; I value my relationship with you too much to upset you with my rant.

When I watched the trailer for Guardians, I said to myself: “This looks like one incredibly stupid movie, which I will be happy to miss.” But the critics really liked it and the masses downright loved it, making it easily the biggest blockbuster of the year so far. So I figured I’d better watch it before I condemned it. Big mistake! I went in with low expectations, but they were nowhere near low enough for this unbelievably stupid mess of a film.

Let me be clear that while the abundant amount of action and redemptive violence alone would be enough to limit my appreciation of the film, these are not at issue here. What is at issue is the critical acclaim for the film’s humour, acting and characters. I do believe I have a sense of humour (I think Airplane is hilarious), but apparently my sense of humour is immune to most comedies made this century. Not only did I not laugh even once during Guardians, I never even smiled. And I thought Zoe Saldana’s acting was okay, making her the best actor in the film. 

But I have rarely in my life seen such an inept screenplay get such acclaim (I guess The Hangover films would come close). The dialogue was awful from word one until almost the very end of the film. Did the slightly redeeming dialogue and character development at the very end of the film cause viewers/critics to forget the inane mess that had gone before? I guess it’s possible. But the story of five enemies who become friends and are willing to sacrifice their lives to save the universe, while promising in principle, didn’t work for me even a little bit (I’d go into details about how the bad acting, dialogue and characters insulted me in scene after scene, but I have wasted enough time on this film already). 

I also found nothing to like in the cinematography, special effects and score. Guardians of the Galaxy was, for me, an incredible infuriating bore. Time and again I almost walked out, wondering how much of this nonsense I could take. I’m glad I stayed, because there were a few almost-worthwhile moments at the end, but they were much too little much too late. I might have given Guardians a star for those moments if it wasn’t for the acclaim and popularity, which deserve to be redressed. The big zero for one of the worst films I have watched in a very long time. My mug is down!

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Giver



The Giver is another dystopian future film, this one set in an isolated community where emotions/passions are forbidden because they may lead to violence and where conformity is required for the same reason. Knowledge of the past has been erased, except in the case of one man: The Giver (played by Jeff Bridges). The young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has just been assigned to his official role as The Receiver of Memory (to learn from The Giver), but the very qualities which got him the assignment make him a dangerous choice and unforeseen consequences for the community are the inevitable result.

Unlike previous dystopian future films aimed at a young audience, The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, has not become a blockbuster. Indeed, it is doing only a small fraction of the box office of its predecessors. The Giver has also been generally panned by the major critics.

Some of this failure is unfair, because The Giver is being punished for waiting too long to be made into a film. Written in 1993, long before the boom in young adult dystopian fiction (which is highlighted by The Hunger Games and Divergent series), The Giver only got filmed after the success of similar films. Unfortunately, viewers now see The Giver as just copying the others instead being an original story.

Some of The Giver’s failure is, however, deserved, especially because the ending gets completely out of hand, highlighting the implausibility and inconsistencies which can be found throughout the film. Examples abound, but I will mention just a few: 1) The role of the community elder (played by Meryl Streep) is very confusing, because she knows some things that no one else does, but not others, and because she orders a violent act but then allows the victim of that violence inexplicable and dangerous freedoms. 2) Every part of the community is monitored, but no one is watching. It is only afterwards that the tapes are consulted. These are signs, for me, of a poorly-written screenplay.

Nevertheless, I found many things to like in The Giver. While the acting is never exceptional, it is quite solid, with Bridges as the stand-out. The score, while often overwhelming and manipulative, is very good and sometimes well-used. The cinematography is excellent. Most importantly, The Giver, despite being nowhere near as fleshed out as the novel (so I’m told), gives us lots to think about (e.g. the role of differences and emotions in a society, the role of war and starvation, the horrors of legalism, quotes like: “People cannot be allowed to make choices, because they are weak and greedy and so every choice they make is wrong.”). I also appreciated the similarities to one of my favourite films, Pleasantville.

The bottom line is that I am a sucker for entertaining dystopian films and I found enough to like to give The Giver a solid ***. My mug is up.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Calvary



For a longer and more theological review of Calvary, see my review at Third Way Cafe (but be warned that there are more minor spoilers in that review): http://www.thirdway.com/mm/?Page=8054_Calvary

After a slow start, 2014 is turning into the best year of the century for independent-filmmaking, with film after film leaving me saying Wow! Calvary is a brilliant little Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (whose only other film is 2011‘s The Guard). I’ve seen Calvary advertised as a thriller and as a dark comedy (similar to The Guard), but, like Locke, which was also falsely advertised, Calvary is pure drama at its finest (though, like Locke, it is certainly a dark film, and, unlike Locke, it does have many funny moments and a scene of extreme violence). 

Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson, in a flawless Oscar-worthy performance, as Father James, a small-town priest who seems to be losing the respect of his parishioners on an almost daily basis. Not that this is his doing. He is a good priest, trying to do his best to help those around him. But he is the face of a church that no longer seems relevant and, indeed, is viewed as corrupt and possibly evil. Shouldering the blame for all that’s wrong with the church is not easy, especially when Father James is told he has only eight days to live before one of his parishioners kills him for crimes committed by his predecessors.

Calvary is the story of those eight days in the life of Father James, eight days which are made more intense by the visit of his adult daughter, Fiona (from before he went into the priesthood), who has recently attempted suicide. Fiona is played very well by Kelly Reilly, who stands out among a great ensemble of co-stars playing the parishioners Father James interacts with during those eight days (including Chris O’Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh, Isaach De Bankole, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Marie-Josee Croze, David Wilmot, Gary Lydon and Orla O’Rourke).

The cinematography is stunning, the screenplay is intelligent and subtle, the direction is  perfectly-paced and the quiet score is there when needed. There are beautiful touching moments, light moments, funny moments and many very dark moments during the eight days presented in Calvary. Along the way, there are also many profound scenes about the current state of the Catholic church and about the future of the church in general. Most important to me, however, are the the ups and downs of Father James’s thoughts as he contemplates his response to the threat he has received. This, once again, is filmmaking at its finest. A very easy **** for yet another guaranteed member of my top ten films of 2014 (that’s my sixth four-star film of the year, which may be a record, and we are only two-thirds of the way through the year). My mug is up! 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Boyhood



Wow! 

My most-anticipated film of the year! Richard Linklater already has five films in my top 150, so when he makes a film that gets virtually-unanimous four-star reviews, my expectations could not be higher. Not that I was worried. I knew Boyhood would get four stars from me before I watched a second of it – it just had to be. So while Boyhood did not exceed my expectations (almost impossible to do), it easily met them. Boyhood gets the predicted **** and will certainly be among my top ten films of the year (it’s even possible that Linklater will get number one two years in a row - again, Wow!).

Boyhood is an amazing film. Shot over a period of twelve years, using the same cast throughout, it follows the life of a typical boy in Texas from the age of six through eighteen as if it’s a documentary, aided by the incredibly natural acting and dialogue. But it’s not a documentary, and it has the gorgeous cinematography, perfect pacing, great acting, marvellous direction and helpful soundtrack to prove it.

Hollywood treats such epic stories as a series of melodramas. But while Linklater also carefully chooses (creates) the moments of Mason’s life which he wishes to reveal, and while they also represent the highs and lows of a sometimes stressful boyhood, there is little melodrama here (just a couple of scenes in a 163-minute film). It’s just day-to-day (or year-to-year, in this case) life. 

What makes Boyhood special, however, is the way those chosen moments give us profound insights into the four main characters (Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane; his sister Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater, who is Richard’s daughter; and Mason’s parents, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette; and Mason Sr., played by Ethan Hawke)  and how each of them views the life he or she is living. Because we spend twelve years with these characters, watching them grow and change, we care about them as if they are real. It’s an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. 

At the risk of giving too much away (minor spoiler alert), one example of the above is the way Olivia spends Mason’s boyhood trying to improve her situation and use the skills with which she has been gifted in a way that will give her life meaning. Despite some obvious successes with this, she seems unable to look back on her life in a positive way. Instead of embracing the precious moments her life has provided, she thinks primarily about the sacrifices and the drudgery. Others in her family see life differently.

Filming Boyhood over twelve years was an incredible risk on Linklater’s part, but it worked. The result is a masterpiece from a filmmaking genius who now has six films in my top 150. My mug is held high in salute. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Lucy



My expectations were low on this one. Luc Besson has made some interesting films (and some good ones) and this was a sci-fi film with an interesting premise, so I could not resist, but it’s a good thing my expectations were low.

I will start by saying this was a fun film to watch (apart from the graphic violence throughout, of course). At less than 90 minutes, Lucy zooms along, with lots of short scenes and lots of action. You hardly have time to catch your breath and think before it’s over. That’s a good thing and allows one to enjoy the silliness. But make no mistake: this is one extremely silly film.

Lucy, a rather ditzy blond (played by Scarlett Johansson in the fifth film I have seen her in during the past seven months – wow) gets caught up in a drug mule scheme that, following an injury, results in the release of a powerful new drug into her system, in mega-quantities. Instead of killing Lucy, it gives her the ability to use more than the 10% of her brain capacity that we humans are able to use (supposedly). This means she can learn languages in an instant, defy the laws of gravity and eventually travel in time. What utter nonsense!

When you go into a sci-fi film, as opposed to a typical action film, you hope for at least a minimal level of intelligence. There are some intelligent things in Lucy, but come on, no one still believes we only use 10% of our brains. And no scientist would expect someone using more brain power than others to be able to defy the laws of gravity.

All of this nonsense could be forgiven (especially since most of the acting is passable and the music has its moments) if it were not for one gigantic flaw, namely that the smarter Lucy gets, the less attached she is to her emotions and to compassion in general. In other words, Lucy assumes that if we get smarter (like Mr. Spock), we will cease to bother with emotions and we will cease to care about the lowly lives of human beings. At one point, Lucy says something like: “People never really die” to excuse her cavalier slaughter of bad guys and the occasional collateral damage. This is unconscionable, suggesting that becoming fully human means becoming inhuman. Why wouldn’t someone whose abilities are suddenly limitless (yeah, there’s a similarity to that film) think more about how she could make the world a better place than how she could become immortal while killing baddies? 

Anyway, I’m not sorry I watched it, but can’t imagine being willing to watch it again, so, for the second time in a month, I will leave my mug uncommitted for this **++ film.