From the desk of The Movie Snob.
La La Land (B+). To me, musicals are like Westerns—it’s such a novelty when a new one gets made, you just have to go see it. But when I set out to see this new musical from the director of Whiplash, I had no idea it was getting so much love from the critics. Apparently it has lots of Oscar buzz, especially for star Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight). It’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It hearkens back to the glory days of the movie musical, with a few big, show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, and with the simplest of plots. Aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love) meet in Los Angeles, sing some songs, fall in love, sing some more songs, and hit complications in their relationship and their careers. Stone and Gosling aren’t natural-born singers, but they have charisma and chemistry to burn, and they really make the show work. If Rogue One is sold out, why not give La La Land a try?
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Irrational Man (D+). News flash! Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is an atheistic nihilist! So he continually reminds us in this unpleasant updating of Crime & Punishment. A beer-bellied Joaquin Phoenix (her) stars as a superstar philosophy professor (yeah, right) who gets a teaching gig at some snooty liberal-arts college. He’s a depressed, alcoholic, nihilistic atheist, so of course he’s catnip to female colleagues (Parker Posey, A Mighty Wind) and students (Emma Stone, Magic in the Moonlight) alike. Then he and Emma overhear a sob story told by a woman—a complete stranger—who’s getting tooled around in family court by a bad, if not actually crooked, judge. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, Joaquin muses to Emma, if this judge died? If Emma had ever seen Strangers on a Train, she might have taken this idle chatter as a big hint to RUN AWAY as fast as she could. But hey, if Joaquin’s flabbiness, boozing, depression, and general weirdness aren’t enough to scare her away, I guess a little philosophical small talk about murder isn’t gonna do the trick either. I have liked many of Woody Allen’s recent films (although I always sort of hate myself for going to watch them, since he’s so skeezy), but I did not like this one.
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Birdman (B-), The latest film from director Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel) seems to be getting some award buzz, so I figured I should check it out. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan Thomas, a once-successful actor who walked away from a popular superhero movie franchise to pursue . . . well, I’m not sure what, but something different. Now, many years later, he is struggling to open a Broadway play that he has written, is directing, and plans to star in. Everything is going wrong, of course; money is short, critics are sharpening their knives, and to top it off Thomas is starting to hear a scornful voice in his head—the deep voice of Birdman, the superhero role he left behind. It’s a pretty entertaining movie with lots of star power. Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) plays Thomas’s in-and-out-of-rehab daughter. Edward Norton (Fight Club) plays the temperamental actor who just might save the play. Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover) is Thomas’s over-stressed lawyer, and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) are the actresses in Thomas’s play. I’d have to say the film’s weakness is its length; at 119 minutes, it just started to feel a little long to me. Cut out about 15 or 20 minutes towards the end, and I’d probably give it a solid B.
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Magic in the Moonlight (B). Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) returns to a favorite preoccupation of his—the practical consequences of atheistic materialism. (See, e.g., Vicky Cristina Barcelona.) But he does it with a reasonably light touch, and this slab of hip nihilism is sprinkled with enough confectioner’s sugar to make it go down easy. The year is 1928, and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth, The Railway Man) is our Woody Allen stand-in. He’s a traveling magician by trade, an evangelical ultra-rationalist by philosophy, and an avid debunker of spiritualists and mediums in his free time. A buddy of Stanley’s persuades him to visit the south of France, where a lovely young American seer named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, Crazy, Stupid, Love) is beguiling her way into a wealthy family’s good graces. Will Sophie challenge Stanley to re-examine his rationalist prejudices? Will Stanley unmask Sophie as a fraud? And will skeezy old Woody, against all good taste, try to conjure some romantic sparks between the 53-year-old Firth and the 25-year-old Stone? The superficial stuff is entertaining enough, but I also enjoyed Stanley’s clear-eyed admissions that atheistic materialism is not the sort of philosophy that is going to make you very happy; if anything, it’s pretty depressing.
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The Help (A). Movie Man Mike beat me to the punch on this one, but let me add a few words of praise of my own. Like Mike, I grew up in the South, but unlike him I did not experience anything in my youth like the culture depicted in this movie. I understand the movie and the book (which I haven’t read) had gotten a lot of pushback from people who resent The Help as yet another tale of the early civil-rights movement that puts a white person (in this case a spunky young female journalist) at the center of the action. I can appreciate the criticism, but I could not help being blown away by this movie. Skeeter (Emma Stone, Zombieland) is the journalist who returns home to Jackson, Mississippi in 1963 after graduating from Ole Miss. Somehow, and seemingly alone among her family and friends, she has acquired a glimmer of awareness of the injustice (and bizarreness) of the relationships between well-to-do whites and their black maids. She decides to write a book about that relationship from the point of view of “the help,” and she needs some of the maids to tell her their perspective. Two maids step forward, knowing it may cost them their jobs or much worse. The older of the two is Aibileen (Viola Davis, Doubt), who carries a lifetime of hurt behind her controlled demeanor. The younger is Minnie (Octavia Spencer, Drag Me to Hell), whose high-spiritedness is bound to get her into trouble. Al the actors do a fine job, including Bryce Dallas Howard (Spider-Man 3), who is fearless as the hatefully racist queen-bee Hilly Holbrook, and Cicely Tyson (Because of Winn-Dixie) in a small part as the maid who raised Skeeter. I found it an immensely powerful movie.
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Crazy, Stupid, Love. (B+)
This romantic comedy is clever and fun–more complicated than the previews would suggest. The screenplay (Dan Fogelman) is well written. Admittedly, I like Steve Carell and Julianne Moore who play leads Cal and Emily. Carell delivers that cringeworthy humor we love from The Office and more. One of the strengths of the movie is the cast. Marisa Tomei (Kate) demonstrates that maybe that Oscar wan’t a fluke after all. Ryan Gosling (Jacob), Kevin Bacon (David Lindhagen), Emma Stone (Hanna), Analeigh Tipton (Jessica), and young Jonah Bobo (Robbie) all contribute solid performances.
The movie opens with zinger; Cal asks Emily what she wants for dessert, “A divorce” is the reply. She admits to a fling with a co-worker (Bacon as Lindhagen) and boredom in the marriage. Jilted Cal retreats to a popular bar where he watches the young, hip, ladykiller Jacob (Gosling) operate night after night. Jacob takes pity on Cal–gives him a new look, new clothes and teaches him how to pick up women. Cal finally succeeds with Tomei about the time Jacob meets a woman he actually cares about–the adorable Hannah. Multiple generations all seeking love (even 13 year old Robbie has a crush on the babysitter Jessica) weave an unexpected tapestry. Tenderness and hilarity in equal parts make for a very enjoyable movie.
From the desk of The Movie Snob
Easy A (D). I thought this movie had possibilities. First, it stars Emma Stone, who was likable in The House Bunny and Zombieland. Second, the trailers made it seem like an update of a literary classic (The Scarlet Letter), like Clueless was for Emma. Plus, it has a good supporting cast, including Amanda Bynes (Hairspray), Patricia Clarkson (Cairo Time), and Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia). But it just wasn’t very good. The idea is that Stone is a bright but anonymous high-school student in small-town California. She lies to her best friend about having a date with a college guy, and then she lies more and says that she slept with him. A brainless Christian fundamentalist (played by a strangely puffy-looking Bynes) overhears the lie, and Stone is instantly branded a floozy. Eventually she plays up to her new role, scarlet A on her tarted-up clothes and all. It’s not very funny or otherwise entertaining, and it left me feeling vaguely annoyed. Skip it.