Wednesday, 27 August 2014
Woody Allen makes a film every year. Every year. And without meaning to sound patronising, that's impressive for a 78-year-old. But there's a difference between keeping busy and producing good (or great) work, and the results are often evident in the New York auteur's post-2000 oeuvre.
For for every good film (Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)), Allen seems to follow-up with a less than stellar effort: Scoop (2006), and To Rome With Love (2012), for example. And so it is with Magic In The Moonlight, which, even if it didn't come so soon after the award-winning Blue Jasmine (and Cate Blanchett's towering tragi-comic performance) would suffer from unmet audience expectations.
For on paper, Magic in the Moonlight has the right ingredients to succeed, or at the very least entertain: two fine actors in the leads (Colin Firth and Emma Stone), a playful battle of wits between cynicism and open-mindedness, and period detail and picturesque locales in the south of France.
It's 1928, and professional magician Stanley Crawford (Firth), who works under the stage name (and yellow face) of Wei Ling Soo, is called upon by an old colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to travel to the Cote d'Azur where he believes a young American spiritualist is trying to swindle a visiting wealthy family. Stanley agrees, for if there is nothing he enjoys more than wowing an audience with his teleportation tricks -- elephants and himself -- it's debunking those who profess to claim actual powers of the occult.
Firth (the least Allen-esque avatar for some time) seems to be channeling his infamous Mr Darcy role, sans brooding silence. Stanley is never short of a word or two, and he's full of pride and extremely prejudiced. But his claws retract somewhat when he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), the big-eyed, red-haired American who claims to be in contact with the spirit world. And like Elizabeth Bennett, Sophie takes great delight in confounding her scowling opposite.
The age difference aside, there's not much chemistry to speak of between Firth and Stone: Stanley's dialogue seems to consist of Allen bits on the meaningless of life, and when he's not sharing them with everyone he's letting everyone know how intellectually superior he is to them. As for Stone, ostensibly an ideal actress for a Woody Allen film, she looks great in period dress but her comic ability is under-utilized. Maybe it's the summer sun in the south of France, but there's a lack of energy to their interplay and the film in general.
Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie's mother, and Jacki Weaver, as the wealthy widow in Sophie's sites (she plans to fund the young clairvoyant's research facility), aren't given a whole lot to do either, which is odd given that you can almost always rely on Woody to write great roles for women. But thankfully there's Eileen Atkins as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, the only person whose opinion he values and who is not afraid to challenge his 'logical' ways.
Perhaps this late 1920s tale comes too soon in the wake of Midnight In Paris, where Allen's protag and avatar (played by Owen Wilson) found a way to travel back through time to Paris in the 1920s and hob-knob with his literary and artistic heroes. Indeed, at one Gatsby-esque party scene in Magic in the Moonlight, one can't help but hope for Marion Cotillard's muse from 'Midnight' to wander in off the lawn and lead us off to another more fascinating soiree.
Alas, that's not to be and ultimately Magic in the Moonlight fades not too long after the end credits roll. This is not a summer -- nor a Woody Allen film -- to remember. But we'll always we have Midnight in Paris.
Monday, 25 August 2014
Predestination may begin simply enough -- a man walks into a bar -- but by the end of this taut little tale of time travel, you'll feel as though you've spent the evening in said bar, knocking back one too many stiff drinks. For to paraphrase the most famous of time travelers, the titular Doctor of long-running sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, Predestination is "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey"; a mind-bending, head-scratcher of a film.
The aforementioned man is a newspaper advice columnist, whose pen name is The Unmarried Mother, and he believes he has a story worthy of winning a free bottle of whisky from the bartender (Ethan Hawke). As the night unfolds, the writer tells his incredulous story which begins in an orphanage, proceeds to a cadetship with the space program, and eventually leads to his current employment.
His story also begins with him as a female. And as played by Sarah Snook (looking a little like Leo DiCaprio; a little like Dane DeHaan), that tale is never less than riveting and empathetic. It is also linked to that of the Fizzle Bomber, a domestic terrorist who has been terrorizing the city.
The bomber is also the number one target of the bartender who happens to be a Temporal Agent i.e. time travelling cop, who has been in pursuit of the Fizzle Bomber for years. That the writer walked into this bar on this night is no accident either. That's about as much plot detail for Predestination as one can give before moving into spoiler territory. It's a riddle, wrapped in an enigma and paradoxical would be putting it mildly.
Adapted from a short story (All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein) by the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter (2009's Daybreakers), it's not unlike something the Wachowskis would enjoy sinking their teeth into; Predestination playing with theories of time and gender, and defying audience expectations to dizzying if not entirely logical effect. For be warned: your head will hurt by the time the end credits roll.
That's by no means a bad thing. Too few films today require a mental workout from its audience, and even if you guess at how the writer, the bartender and the bomber are linked, you're still likely to develop a migraine doing the 'chicken or the egg' calculations.
Wednesday, 13 August 2014
Walt Disney Studios Films
Food, glorious food. Cinema is no stranger to the culinary arts and long before MasterChef -- and social media -- made food porn a phenom, food has been lovingly, and lustily captured on film. Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, and even this year's Chef have all boasted menus as enticing and memorable as the characters and stories themselves.
Lasse Hallstrom, no stranger to food films (see 2000's Chocolat), directs The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation by Steven Knight of the Robert C. Morais bestseller. Best described as a fairy tale, it tells the story of the Kadam family, restaurateurs in Mumbai who, following a personal tragedy, uproot to Europe and quite by accident -- literally -- decide to open an Indian restaurant in the south of France.
As fate or luck (or mere story contrivance) would have it, the Kadams' new kitchen is directly opposite the one-hat Michelin restaurant operated by Madame Mallory. As played by Helen Mirren, she's an imperious woman who objects as much to another restaurant opening on her doorstep (the two venues are a hundred feet apart, separated by a road) as she is to these loud, colourful foreigners bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.
Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam (veteran Indian actor, Om Puri) immediately lock horns but Hassan (Manish Dayal), the natural chef of the family (there are four other siblings), is determined to make a go of the new restaurant as well as win the Madame over with his culinary skills, not to mention the heart of her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).
The French locales are idyllic and the food is appetite-inducing. And while Mirren is a solid presence, it is the charming and wily Puri who steals their scenes together. American Dayal also makes for a handsome if a little wet protagonist but there's nothing remotely challenging or, indeed, original about The Hundred-Foot Journey. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's the movie equivalent of comfort food, more a French pastry than a spicy Indian dish and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you're in the mood for.
Thursday, 7 August 2014
Can a song save your life? Perhaps, at the right time and place. It certainly provides a lifebuoy for flailing record producer and A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who is having a very bad day when he stumbles into a New York bar and into the audience of an impromptu performance by Gretta (Keira Knightley). Her sugary/folksy vocals on a self-penned song about suicide-by-subway has Dan seeing a star -- not to mention player-less instruments springing to life -- in the making.
But Gretta's not looking to be discovered. She's actually booked a return flight to London the next day, heartbroken after the collapse of her relationship with boyfriend and songwriting partner, Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), whose career has skyrocketed following the inclusion of one of his compositions on a hit film's soundtrack.
That may be a sly nod to writer-director John Carney's most famous film Once, the glorious little Irish indie which won hearts and an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007. Begin Again (originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?) is no Once (my favourite film of 2007), but like his more famous film, Carney has produced a charming, sweet and unaffected tale of two souls brought together by, and healed and redeemed through the power of music.
Replacing actual musicians (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) with Hollywood A-listers may lose some of the authenticity of the Dublin-set musical, but Begin Again is no less winning as Gretta and Dan, and a bunch of fellow musicians, including Gretta's fellow ex-pat, Steve (James Corden), record an album of original tracks (Knightley performs all her own singing with the songs penned by Gregg Alexander) on the streets of New York over the course of a week or so during the summer; Yaron Orbach's camera capturing a picture-perfect if not-so touristy Big Apple.
Ruffalo, looking homeless but exuding charm, and Knightley, refreshingly corset-free and as lovely as she's ever been, have an easy chemistry and there's a constant 'will they, won't they' tension between the two throughout the film; their attraction kept at bay by the work at hand and their emotional realities: Dan wants to make amends with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and his adolescent daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), while Gretta debates herself about reconciliatory gestures from Dave.
The ending may not be as bitter-sweet and note-perfect as Once but John Carney ensures Begin Again ends on the right note. Like the most effective pop music, it works its way in and leaves you with a smile on your face and a skip in your step.
Wednesday, 6 August 2014
Adapting Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy for the big screen was seen as the riskiest venture yet for Marvel Studios/Disney who, with The Avengers -- assembled, and individually -- had a better known property and thus a more solid ($6.3 billion and counting, though not all Disney; Paramount launched the first five) financial investment with Iron-man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk.
That trepidation may also have had something to do with the Guardians, who are not superheroes, boasting a trigger-happy raccoon and a vocab-challenged tree among its group of rag tag misfits who, like The Avengers, come together to defeat world-destroying evil. (The risk certainly isn't in the plotting, which, penned by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, follows a proven Marvel template.)
Or maybe it was that these adventures took place in space, in galaxies far, far away? For while Disney may have every confidence in the success of the next Star Wars film, there's always the spectre of John Carter in the back of their minds (and accounts department). That somewhat unfairly maligned 2011 martian adventure -- and subsequent flop -- couldn't garner much audience interest even after dropping the 'Of Mars' from its title: "Hey, look guys, no more space!"
Guardians begins on Earth, and in 1988, where a young Peter Quill bids a teary farewell to his sickly mother in her hospital bed before being whisked away by a spaceship before he's even had the chance for a good cry. Cut to 26 years later and Quill (played by Chris Pratt; slimmed down, buffed up and relishing his new found leading man status) is a scavenger-for-hire, travelling across the galaxy to retrieve artifacts for a price.
That's how Quill comes into possession of the orb, an energy source which is also able to level entire planets. As such, it is a highly desired object by all but especially Ronan (Lee Pace), a survivor of a once proud now subjugated race who, with the backing of Thanos (yes, the villain glimpsed at the end of The Avengers), is out to wreak revenge.
It's in his bid to evade capture by all and sundry that Quill comes into contact with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick ass lieutenant of Ronan's who has her own agenda, and Rocket and Groot, the aforementioned raccoon and tree who are an odd couple, bounty hunting duo who recall Han Solo and Chewbacca but operate on a whole other level of dysfunction.
Imprisoned together they meet the final member of their eventual quintet, Drax the Destroyer (former WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who takes everything literally and who wants in with the others for the chance to avenge the death of his family at the hands of Ronan.
And as good as Pratt and Saldana (seemingly the sci-fi blockbuster go-to girl after Avatar and Star Trek) are, it is the CGI duo and Bautista who steal the show. Who knew a former pro-wrestler, let alone a tree and psycho rodent, could provide most of the film's thrills, laughs and, yes, some heart.
It's not a motion-capture performance like that of Andy Serkis' Caesar in the Apes films, but Cooper brings a depth to the life-like CGI of the bitter critter, Rocket. By turns comic and cynical, with a barely contained rage, it's a voice performance to rival the best -- Eddie Murphy (Shrek), Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo) -- of the best. Groot, too, is an impressive achievement given the tree-like being's limited vocabulary. Having said that, Vin Diesel's voice work is a little less integral to the success of the character's achieving its unlikely humanity.
Of course, they owe a great debt to the screenplay which boasts a lively sense of humour, tossing off quips and one-liners, pop culture references and a little blue work at a steady pace. Perlamn and Gunn (and no doubt with Avengers maestro Joss Whedon's once-over) ensuring that zero gravity need not mean zero laughs. Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun.
At the time of writing, Guardians had debuted to an impressive $166 million worldwide opening weekend, including an August record of $94m in the U.S., so that risk (perhaps in letting Gunn, a writer-director with minor successes and not-so mainstream appeal?) seems to have paid off. Maybe Marvel honcho Kevin Feige will rethink his recent statement that Marvel Studios will not be doing a female superhero film in the foreseeable future?