Friday, December 26, 2014

THE IMITATION GAME: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house (and some multiplexes) near me:

(Dir. Morten Tyldum, 2014)

This historical biopic is the perfect storm of a holiday season prestige picture.

It’s got the ‘true story of a hero who triumphed against all odds’ scenario. It takes place during World War II. In Benedict Cumberbatch, it stars an A-list leading man that people haven’t gotten sick of yet. It’s got Keira Knightley. It’s got a distinguished supporting cast. It’s got a sweeping score by acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat. It’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company.

Yeah, it’s got Academy Award fodder written all over it.

But wait, for Morten Tyldum’s THE IMITATION GAME, which tells the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician and logician who cracked a German code helping to win WWII, is a much livelier, wittier, and all around more entertaining piece of Oscar bait than just about anything else in the current crop of contenders.

Especially when it’s compared to James Marsh’s bland Stephen Hawking biopic THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, or Bennett Miller’s unengaging FOXCATCHER.

Turing’s tale is told through flashbacks to the late ‘30s through the mid ‘40s from the vantage point of the early ‘50s when the police, in particular Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), are investigating a suspicious burglary of Turing’s home in Manchester, England.

This is where we first meet Cumberbatch’s Turing, who comes across like a blend of his own Sherlock Holmes, with Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory in his amusingly heightened arrogance about his superior intelligence. 

After Detective Nock sizes Turing up as an  “insufferable sod” who may be hiding something, the film flashbacks to 1939 London right as war is being declared on Germany. The 27 year old Turing, then a Cambridge undergraduate in mathematics, is recruited by Britain’s top secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park to be part of a team of the countrys top cryptographers to try to crack the Germans' Enigma code.

Turing considers the code the most difficult problem in the world” and is determined to solve it, not caring about alienating his colleagues, which include Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, and Matthew Beard, or pissing off his superiors, which include Charles Dance as a highly irritated British Commander and Mark Strong as the icy head of MI-6, with his methods. 

Through a newspaper crossword puzzle competition, a young woman named Joan Clarke, played pristinely by Keira Knightley  comes aboard the project, and goes on to have a close relationship with Turing, despite the fact that he's a homosexual.

The film skip seamlessly skips back and forth from wartime to the investigation of Turing in the '50s (even including some flashbacks within flashbacks of when our protagonist was a school boy), even making space for some WWII footage (maybe its most unnecessary element - I mean, we have the History Channel for that), with a very pleasing pace. 

Many have pointed out that this film, which is based on Andrew Hodges' 1992 biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” takes a lot of liberties with the facts concerning what really went down at Bletchley Park.

I.e. the real life Turing didn't singlehandedly invent and build the machine that broke the code, he didn't name the machine Christopher after his first lover, the police didn't uncover Turing's homosexuality while investigating him for being a possible Soviet spy, Turing didn't have any contact with the actual Soviet spy John Cairncross (played by Leech) who's depicted in the film as threatening to expose Turing's homosexuality if he blows his cover, and Turing wasn't a cold humorless robot who wouldn't understand an invitation to lunch.

But despite these fabrications, or possibly because of them, the film is a rousing experience with a compelling narrative drive. Graham Moore's elegantly written screenplay makes the biopic formula feel fresh again, and power and passion that Tyldum brings to telling Turing's noble story can be felt in every frame. So much so that its abundance of inaccuracies can be forgiven as conventions created for dramatic effect.

The fine performances by Cumberbatch, Knightley (this sure makes up for LAGGIES), and their fellow thespians are no small part of how well this machine of a movie works as well.

THE IMITATION GAME will undoubtedly and deservedly get major award season action, but don't dismiss it because it so blatantly looks like it was designed just for that. It's a thoroughy engrossing introduction for movie goers to the basics of why Turing is incredibly important to our modern world, but folks who see it should really do a little reading up on the man too.

More later...

Thursday, December 25, 2014

THE INTERVIEW Scores Some Big Laughs, But Is A Bit Of A Letdown

(Dirs. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2014)

You may have heard that after all of the hubbub surrounding Sony pulling the release of the new Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy THE INTERVIEW about assassinating Kim Jong-un, the studio reversed its decision to a degree.

Yesterday the film started streaming on a bunch of on demand services - YouTube Movies, Google Play, Microsoft's Xbox Video and via (The cost is $5.99 to rent, and $14.99 to purchase) – and today, Christmas Day, it will be released in over 200 select theaters across the country.

Last night I rented the film and watched it on YouTube, and for better or worse it’s pretty much what I expected: a silly, raunchy farce that doesn’t care about having any political bite. It’s only concerned about getting big laughs, and it does achieve that albeit somewhat intermittently.

There are lots of amusing moments in the film’s set-up involving Franco as Dave Skylark, a Ryan Seacrest-style talk show host of a popular celebrity tabloid talk show (“Skylark Tonight”), whose producer Aaron Rapoport (Rogen) is constantly embarrassed by.

But even early on it’s pretty hit or miss material: a cameo by Eminem as himself casually coming out as gay to Franco on air is funny (“I’m more shocked more people haven’t figured it out yet; I mean it’s kind of like I’ve been playing gay peek-a-boo”), less so is Rob Lowe, also as himself, revealing that he’s been wearing a toupee since the ‘80s (a lame gag spoiled by TV spots and trailers).

Anyway, in an attempt to be taken more seriously, Franco and Rogen pursue and obtain an exclusive interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un after hearing he’s a fan of their show. After a night of partying on ecstasy (a thankfully brief scene), they are approached by CIA agents (Lizzy Caplan and Reese Alexander) who wish to turn their once-in-lifetime interview opportunity into an assassination mission.

So Franco and Rogen travel to Pyongyang, North Korea with the plan of poisoning the evil leader with a delayed action ricin-strip that Franco will apply via shaking hands.

As you will probably guess, their first attempt goes screwy (a guard chews the strip thinking it’s a stick of gum), so Franco and Rogen get their CIA contacts to have a drone drop-ship them more deadly strips. Rogen has to slip out in the middle of the night to retrieve the package and is almost killed by a Bengal Tiger, then is captured by a team of guards. Luckily he is able to conceal the metal mini missile they dropped by hiding it, uh, up his butt (Franco: “You got fucked by Robocop, dude!”).

While Rogen is still committed to the plan, Franco goes off track by beginning a full throttle bromance with Kim (comedy veteran Randall Park, who appeared with Rogen in last summers’ NEIGHBORS) that has them spending a fun-filled day together playing basketball, smoking joints, jamming to Katy Perry, partying with scantily-clad ladies, blowing stuff up with one of Kim’s tanks, and bonding over how harshly their fathers treated them.

The chaotic climax apes PINEAPPLE EXPRESS it its bloated and surreal action movie hysterics, plus its use of shock value gore, but, try as it might, it can't quite match the hilarity of that far superior film.

THE INTERVIEW is more in the league of Greg Mottola’s PAUL, which featured Rogen voicing an alien who befriends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. That 2011 film wasn’t up to the par of the Edgar Wright Pegg/Frost films that preceded it, nor the Apatow projects that helped break Franco and Rogen, but it delivered a steady stream of laughs, even if most of them were only mild chuckles.

I like that Franco put so much gusto into his part – his eyes light up with almost every line, and he actually pulls off some convincing drama in his and Park’s interview scene, but throughout it seemed like he was really trying too hard.

Rogen’s affably schlubby persona seems to be set in stone. Remember that opening bit in THIS IS THE END when somebody at the airport said to him “So, like you always play like the same guy in every movie! When you gonna do some acting?”

Seems more and more like that’s less a very self aware joke than a statement of intent.

Rogen and writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg’s work here never gets anywhere near the satirical heights of real politically charged comedy classics like THE DICTATOR or DR. STRANGELOVE, and with how purposely, and surreally, stupid it is, one will wonder if North Korea or the Sony hacks would really be offended, let alone consider it an 
“act of war” if they actually watched it.

I found that I enjoyed the parts of THE INTERVIEW that were somewhat grounded; it started to lose me whenever it got more outlandish. As a fan of Franco and Rogen and their stoner-toned schtick, I can’t help but feel let down by it a bit, since I felt it never fully launched itself into the zone of total hilarity. But as I got plenty of yuck yucks for my six bucks I'd say that it’s funny enough to recommend.

That is, for Franco and Rogen fans. Folks who are on the fence about them, but are curious because of the current controversy it sparked, may want to think twice about plunking down their money.

More later...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Taking A Heartfelt Hike With Reese Witherspoon In WILD

WILD (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)

In this new addition to the “becoming one with nature” genre that includes INTO THE WILD, 127 HOURS, and THE WALK, Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a writer who in 1995 alone hiked the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed, who chronicled the journey in her 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” was looking to wipe her spiritual slate clean after her mother's passing, and her divorce caused by her adultery and drug abuse.

The role marks a strong comeback for Witherspoon after appearing in a string of forgettable films (with the exception of MUD, that one was good) since winning the Oscar for her lovely performance as June Carter in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic WALK THE LINE.

After an opening flash forward involving an almost beaten down Witherspoon at the top of a mountain screaming in frustration, we go back to “Day 1” as a title tells us. The inexperienced hiker sets off on the trail through the Mojave Desert with a ginormous overstuffed backpack, boots that are the wrong size, and the wrong cooking gas for her portable stove. Yes, our former heroin addict heroine has a lot to learn.

Throughout Witherspoon's trip, she has many flashbacks in which we get a sense of her messy marriage (her husband is played by Thomas Sadoski who you might know as Don on the thankfully concluded HBO series The Newsroom), and get to spend some time with her mother played by Laura Dern in one of her most vital, and real feeling pieces of acting.

Being a young, pretty woman on her own, Witherspoon's Cheryl is as fearful of male strangers she encounters as she is of the treacherous elements of the wilderness. Luckily she meets mostly friendly folks such as an older couple (W. Earl Brown and Jan Hoag) who fix her up with a hot meal and a shower one night, Kevin Rankin as a helpful fellow hiker that she happens upon skinny dipping, and Michiel Huisman (Treme, Game of Thrones) who invites her to a Jerry Garcia tribute show (she winds up in the hippy-saturated town of Ashland, Oregon the day after Garcia's death in '95).

But then there are the two creepy hunters who give off an undeniable rape vibe deep in the woods in California, and the Park Ranger (Brian Van Holt) who makes something of an attempt to pick up Witherspoon, so it's not all smooth sailing (or happy hiking).

Working from a sharp, layered screenplay by Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY, ABOUT A BOY, AN EDUCATION), director Vallée (DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB) gives Strayed's story immense emotional momentum. It engrossingly gets more powerful as it gets deeper into its protagonist's back story, particularly in dealing with her free spirited mother's deterioration and death from cancer.

It's not without humor either. A title that announces that it's “Day fucking 36” of the 95 day trek made me laugh out laugh, as did Mo McRae as a reporter from the Hobo Times who mistakes Witherspoon for, well, a hobo.

I've never been more affected by Witherspoon as an actress. She remoulds her squeaky clean image into an authentic feeling human being that you want to root for. I'm not sure if she deserves another Oscar for it, but it's quite an impressive performance that I bet will surprise a lot of people.

But without a doubt Dern's turn has Best Supporting Actress written all over it. Since it's been over 2 decades since she's gotten any notice from the Academy (she was nominated in '92 for RAMBLING ROSE), here's hoping her wonderful work here won't be ignored. That goes for Hornby's excellent screenwriting too.

With its vast terrain beautifully shot by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, its abundance of heartfelt acting, and its gripping portrayal of sheer determination, WILD is an heartfelt hike worth taking.

More later...

Sunday, December 21, 2014

ANNIE: A Sickening Experience That Gets Worse Everytime Someone Sings

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

ANNIE (Dir. Will Gluck, 2014)

This new re-imagined adaptation of the 1977 musical “Annie” really made me see red. It’s a crassly commercial, hard-to-stomach, shameless spectacle that reduces the story points of the original into annoying contrivances, while it covers every actor and actress involved in unbearable ickiness.

Quvenzhané Wallis, who I liked so much better when she was Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in the Bathtub, is our new updated African American Annie, now a foster child instead of an orphan. Wallis lives with other foster children with the mean alcoholic Miss Hannigan (an obnoxiously over-the-top Cameron Diaz) in Harlem, where she dreams that her real parents will come back to retrieve some day. Tomorrow, maybe?

Daddy Warbucks is now William “Will” Stacks played by Jamie Foxx, who seems fairly uncomfortable in the role. Wallis’ Annie and Foxx’s Stacks cross paths when he saves her from an oncoming car, an event that, of course, goes viral. As he’s in the middle of a campaign for Mayor of New York City, it’s decided by Foxx’s handlers (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale), that Annie should come live with him in his bling heavy smart apartment (a smartment?).

What part of that plot description doesn’t make you want to vomit?

Wallis may or not be a decent singer, but I couldn’t tell with how auto-tuned every vocal is in every over-produced musical number. I’m pretty certain that Diaz, Cannavale, and especially Byrne shouldn’t be allowed to sing though. Foxx, is without a doubt the most talented vocalist here but he sure doesn’t seem like he’s giving it his all – his song “The City’s Yours” delivered in a helicopter hovering over the Big Apple really falls flat. It’s a performance that might as well be Skyped in.

I was not a fan of the 1982 ANNIE, directed by John Huston no less, but this plastic atrocity makes it look like THE GODFATHER. In that now elevated film, Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) takes Annie (Aidan Quinn, now residing in the where are they now file) to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes and the 1936 classic CAMILLE.

In this awful update, Foxx takes Wallis to a movie premiere of a fictitious TWILIGHT-type production entitled “MoonQuake Lake,” featuring cameos by Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and Rihanna. This is only notable because it’s the rare example of an awful film within an awful film.

While suffering through this new fangled ANNIE, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. My first major girlfriend had played “Annie” in a long run at the Governor’s Inn in the Research Triangle Park here in NC in the ‘80s. Her dog was even named “Sandy.” I think she told me she had also auditioned for the movie, which I’m not sure about as I probably wasn’t listening (I was a bad boyfriend) but she was the same age as Quinn who won the role so it surely seems plausible.

Anyway, as this was a long ass relationship that ended badly, I admit that this might make me biased against the whole Annie thing, but I doubt even without that factor, that I’d take to this new crappy retooling in any way shape or form.

More later...

Friday, December 19, 2014

FOXCATCHER: Effectively Moody But Unengaging

FOXCATCHER (Dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

Channing Tatum’s performance as real life wrestler Mark Schultz in FOXCATCHER, opening today at an indie art theater near me, is so stoical and withdrawn that it made me forget how funny he was in the 21 JUMP STREET movies or how charming he was in MAGIC MIKE. It’s that intense.

So is the film, based on the events leading up to the murder of Mark’s older brother the gold medal winning Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by the very eccentric, or just plain odd, multimillionaire John du Pont, roles respectively portrayed by Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell.

Ruffalo, with his close-cropped beard and receding hairline, and Carell, sporting gray hair (also receding) and a large beak-like nose prosthetic are both almost unrecognizable, and their mannerisms sure won’t be familiar to Marvel or Michael Scott fans either.

But it’s Tatum who carries the film, as he walks us through the motions of a wrestler, who despite having won a gold medal himself, is wrestling (sorry) with the inner torment of being in his brother’s shadow and not knowing what his next move should be.

Out of the blue, Tatum’s Mark gets a call from an assistant (Anthony Michael Hall, who I also didn’t recognize at first) to John du Pont, inviting him to Foxcatcher Farm, the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania.

At a beyond creepy first meeting, du Pont invites Mark to live and train for the World Championships and 1988 Olympics at a facility he's built on his family’s estate and Mark accepts. Du Pont also wants his brother to join them, but Dave declines the offer as he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

With his snobby, disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and obsessions with birds and Civil War guns, we get a sense of how du Pont’s isolated strangeness came to be, but there’s little depth in the drawn-out scenes illustrating the strained relationship between he and Mark.

When Dave finally relents – presumably because du Pont makes him an offer he can’t refuse – and moves his family to Foxcatcher, he becomes reasonably concerned about the sway the wealthy sponsor has over his brother.

The film is impeccably made and effectively moody with compellingly edited wrestling scenes, Grieg Fraser’s moody cinematography, and production designer Jess Gonchor and set designer Kathy Lucas’ impressive recreation of the Foxcatcher estate, yet I could never fully engage with the material.

The viewpoints of each character can be summed up in their spare lines such as when Redgrave as du Pont’s mother says that wrestling is a “low sport,” and du Pont later says of her show ponies: “horses are stupid.” There’s really not much insight beyond that.

Tatum does an admirable job inhabiting the skin of a real person who appears to never stop beating himself up inside, and Carell's work here is certainly on another level than his customary turns in broad comedies, but I doubt they'll really connect with audiences - i.e. I'm not seeing a lot award season action in their future, especially with this year's competition.

Miller’s previous work, from the feisty 1998 documentary THE CRUISE through his justly acclaimed dramas CAPOTE and MONEYBALL, have successfully told layered true stories, and on the surface FOXCATCHER joins them as a handsome prestige picture with strong performances, but I really was hoping for more of a storytelling oomph. 

There’s an icy distance to this depiction, which was scripted by Dan Futterman (CAPOTE) and E. Max Frye, that made me feel like I was watching these people through a window; I never felt like I was in the room or in the moment with them.

Not that I’d really want to be in the room with either of these versions of Carell or Tatum, and even Ruffalo doesn’t seem here like much of a fun guy, but there’s a spark needed to ignite this sad story into something vital and necessary. As it stands, I’m really not sure why Miller thought this was a tale that cinematically had to be told.

More later...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Notes On The Hubbub Surrounding THE INTERVIEW

All day yesterday I was anticipating an email. It concerned an advance screening scheduled for tonight, Thursday, December 18, of a little comedy movie I was looking forward to seeing since I heard about it last summer.

I finally received it sometime last evening, and it said:

“As you may know, a number of theaters have made the decision not to show THE INTERVIEW, and as a result we are cancelling the advanced screening.

A statement from Sony Pictures Entertainment is below:

‘In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

I’m disappointed too. I really wanted to see Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s THE INTERVIEW since I’m a fan of their work, particularly SUPERBAD, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and THIS IS THE END, and though I was skeptical of the killing Kim Jong-un angle, it looked like it had comedy potential.

I really can’t speak about the so called “Sony hacks,” although speculation that North Korea sponsored the attacks is definitely not as far-fetched as it once seemed (just read while writing this that the U.S. is indeed officially blaming them), but when reading this statement from the hackers who call themselves “the Guardians of Peace” it’s hard not to agree with the many folks who are posting to the effect that this means the terrorists have won:

“We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to… The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.”

However, let’s not jump to conclusions. In a piece published yesterday on, “Reaction to the Sony Hack Is 'Beyond the Realm of Stupid,” Jason Koebler spoke with Peter W. Singer, one of the nation's foremost experts on cybersecurity and cyber war. Singer said that the “Guardians of Peace” group “threatened yesterday 9/11-style incidents at any movie theatre that chose to show the movie.

Here, we need to distinguish between threat and capability—the ability to steal gossipy emails from a not-so-great protected computer network is not the same thing as being able to carry out physical, 9/11-style attacks in 18,000 locations simultaneously. I can't believe I'm saying this. I can't believe I have to say this.

This group has not shown the capability to do that. Sony is rueing any association it has with the movie right now. We are not in the realm of 9/11. Did movie chains look at the reality of the threat? Or did the movie theater chains utterly cave in? This is beyond the wildest dreams of these attackers.”

But, as we all know, the theater chains all pulled out, Sony caved and cancelled the movie’s Christmas day release, and now Rogen and co-star James Franco have armed bodyguards accompanying them everywhere.

So, are we ever going to see THE INTERVIEW? A Sony Pictures spokesperson said yesterday that the studio “has no further release plans for the film,” but a lot can change quickly in this crazy age so I’m still clinging to hope that I can see the film soon.

But I won’t be trying to download it on torrent sites because I hear that many files that are labeled as it are really copies of THE ENGLISH PATIENT with heavy malware embedded - isn’t that adding insult to injury?

So in conclusion all I can say is that this is a sad, ridiculous situation which sets a horrible precedent and I think our President, Barack Obama, should be listened to when he says:

“For now, my recommendation would be people go to the movies.”

Otherwise then, the terrorists really would win – just not the terrorists we’re thinking of.

More later…

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.

More later...

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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.

More later...

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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Friday, December 05, 2014

DVD Review: T.S. Slaughter's THE GAYS

THE GAYS (Dir.T.S. Slaughter, 2014)

“You’re going to grow up to be a little faggot, oh yes, oh yes you are…” This is how a baby is welcomed to the world by his transsexual mother at the beginning of T.S. Slaughter’s second feature THE GAYS, out now on DVD.

But the baby wasn’t adopted, no, the comic conceit here is that a gay couple with the last name of Gay actually gave ass-birth (that’s right) to two boys. The film is about how they were raised – “The family that gays together stays together” is the movie’s tagline – as told by Mike Russnak as oldest son Alex to a guy he just met in at a gay bar (Nicholas Wilder).

This provides a clothes-line to hang a series of raunchy skits about lessons learned living in the Gay household. A bespectacled always newspaper-reading Frank Holiday and Chris Tanner decked out in vintage drag, play the parents, who have tons of advice to dole out all dealing with the literal ins and outs of gay sex.

Scores of gags about sex toys of every kind imaginable, bathhouse and public restroom hook-ups, gay ageism (gay-geism?), date rape, and even suicide litter the screen, all delivered with the same smarmy “nothing is taboo” mindset. And I’ve never seen this much phallic imagery, in the form of everything from plastic penis pacifiers to Christmas cookies adorned with dicks, well, ever.

I have to say at this point that I am so not in the target audience for this movie. I don’t believe it’s because I’m homophobic as a film full of crude jokes about heterosexual fetishes wouldn’t be my cup of tea either. A lot of the humor just didn't appeal to me especially in an extended Christmas scene full of “pornaments” and gay-themed gifts such as a “G.I. Joe with Rim-Job Butt” that made me cringe so hard that I couldn’t cringe again for days.

I also could’ve done without the disgusting flashback birthing scene that boiled down to yet another done-to-death EXORCIST spoof.

Yet, I still appreciate what T.S. Slaughter was going for in his follow-up to his 2007 debut SKULL & BONES. Often recalling the cheap, sleazy charm of John Waters’ early work, THE GAYS is a dirty joke-book of a movie in which the characters are delivery devices for as many gross-out punch-lines that one could fit into a 68-minute feature. With its catchy theme song and house in suburbia setting, it could very well be a prototype for a gay Married With Children-type series, one that parodies gay panic by pushing the envelope as far as it can go.

The acting is no great shakes, but as the mother, Tanner stands out in a way that recalls Nathan Lane’s turn in THE BIRDCAGE. As the lead/narrator, Russnak could use a bit of training as he has a tendency to laugh in an obnoxious way at his own lines, and Wilder as the only character that resembles an actual human being is a good audience surrogate. His reactions at Russnak’s stories about his flaming family often mirrored mine.

It would be futile to say that THE GAYS is a tasteless trashy exercise because it has no goal of being tasteful or classy at all. It just wants to have fun with its over-the-top stereotypes, by putting them in pornographic scenarios (there’s lots of full frontal male nudity) and riffing on it in the guise of a helpful guide. As I said, it so wasn’t my thing, but folks who dig endlessly rude, crude, and extremely inappropriate scatological comedy may get a rise out of it.

Maybe you can deduce if THE GAYS is your thing by checking out theseYouTube clips of T.S.’s first “3 Gays” of the “12 Gays of Xmas”: Gay 1, Gay 2, & Gay 3.

If that gets you going, then you can order your own copy of THE GAYS at the film's official website

After that, you’re on your own.

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