Cafe Society

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Café Society  (B).  I know Woody Allen is a skeezy old moral nihilist who married his lover’s adopted daughter.  Still, I have to say I have enjoyed at least some of his recent movies.  (Irrational Man was a pretty glaring exception.)  I caught a private screening of Café Society the other night and enjoyed it pretty well.  (Okay, it just happened that I was the only person in the theater that night.  Still, I felt special.)

Jesse Eisenberg (To Rome With Love) plays “the Woody Allen character.”  His name is Bobby Dorfman, and he’s a young man at loose ends in 1930s New York.  So he moves to L.A. where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell, Crazy, Stupid, Love) is a hotshot agent to all the top movie stars.  Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), but she’s got a boyfriend.  Meanwhile, back in NYC, Bobby’s older brother Ben (Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris) is making a living as a thug and racketeer.  I can’t say more without committing spoilers, but I thought it was an entertaining picture.  Bobby is less loquacious and neurotic then most of the Woody-esque characters in Allen’s films, which is a nice change of pace.  I’m not sure Kristen Stewart is as pretty and interesting as the movie needs her to be, but I could suspend disbelief well enough.

Irrational Man

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

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.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2014, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s “Best of 2014” column.  I will look back over the 71 movies I saw in the theater last year and tell you which movies you need to see if you haven’t already done so.  As happens every year, some of the movies mentioned will be releases from the previous year (2013), just because I didn’t get around to seeing them until 2014.

Movie of the Year.  I gave out seven “A-“ grades this year, which seems like a pretty high number for a tough grader like me.  It’s tough to single one out, but I’m going to go with Fury, an intense WWII combat movie starring Brad Pitt as a seasoned tank commander in the vanguard of the final American charge to Berlin.  It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but it’s a great adventure if you have the stomach for it.

Runners-Up.  I’m going to pick two this year.  One is a sentimental little movie called St. Vincent, starring a decidedly unsentimental Bill Murray as a cantankerous and boozy geezer who just might have a heart of gold.  Maybe.  The other is Jersey Boys, a biopic about the rise of pop music sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I think it was considered a bit of an underperformer, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Hands down, my pick for this category is Edge of Tomorrow, a twisty time-travel/sci-fi story starring Tom Cruise and the delightful Emily Blunt.  This movie totally underperformed at the box office, and it deserved much better.  They’re trying to re-brand it on DVD by essentially renaming it “Live. Die. Repeat.,” so don’t be confused when you rush down to the Redbox to rent it.  As runner-up in this category, I’ll give a nod to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I thought was the best movie in the Hobbit trilogy.  For lack of anywhere else to put it, I will also recommend Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch himself.  As long as you don’t insist on a literal retelling of the Genesis story, you should like it fine.

Best Animated Movie.  I think it was a 2013 release, but Frozen was the best of the few animated features I saw in 2014.  Enough said; Elsa doesn’t need any promotion from me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category.  I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel quite a bit, but it is hardly a straight comedy.  The same goes for the Woody Allen flick Magic in the Moonlight, which is a bit of a romantic comedy but has a little philosophical steel to it.  As for the new movies I saw that were straight comedies (e.g., 22 Jump Street, Neighbors)—forget about them.  They were terrible.

Best Documentary.  For sci-fi geeks like me, it would be hard to beat Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a visionary science-fiction movie that never got made.  I also enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer, about an inventor who tries to figure out how Vermeer painted such awesome paintings, and Life Itself, a biopic about my late colleague Roger Ebert.  Particle Fever, about the superconducting supercollider in Europe, was also interesting and enjoyable.

Best Drama.  Well, the two best dramas I saw last year were foreign films, so I’ll save them for that category.  Instead, I’ll give this honor to a 2013 release, Philomena (which was apparently an American-British-French co-production).  It’s a sad movie, based on a true story about an Irish woman trying to find her son, who was taken away from her and adopted out decades earlier because she was an unwed mother.  Judi Dench is great in it, but then she’s always great, pretty much.  I also liked The Fault in Our Stars pretty well.

Best Foreign Film.  The Polish film Ida was one of my absolute favorite films of the year.  It’s a beautiful movie about a young woman—an aspiring nun—in 1960s Poland who must learn about her family’s mysterious and tragic past before she can decide how to move forward with her own life.  Close behind is The Past, a French/Iranian movie about some Iranians in Paris who are trying to sort out their very complicated domestic relations and move on with their lives.  And I’ll mention a third very good foreign film, the Swedish movie We Are the Best!, about a trio of teenaged girls who try to form a punk band in 1982.

Best Science-Fiction MovieEdge of Tomorrow is the clear winner here, but I already used it for Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Setting that film aside, I would pick Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as intrepid astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity as Earth gradually becomes uninhabitable.  I also recommend the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun romp through space.  With a talking raccoon.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s where I dump the best of the rest—movies that are worth your time and attention when you’re looking for something to “stream” on your fancy television.  In the drama category, consider The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  Based on the trailers for the recently released Unbroken, the two movies have a lot in common, but The Railway Man also has Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  I also recommend Heaven Is For Real, based on the true story of a little boy’s account of a near-death experience.  Begin Again is a nice little story about music and musicians, and it has Keira Knightley in it.  I also enjoyed the similar movies Tracks and Wild, based on true stories about women hiking alone through the wilderness.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant dramedy, while The Skeleton Twins is a rather darker look at family, and specifically sibling, dysfunction.  For your Amy Adams fix, watch the current Tim Burton release Big Eyes.  If action is more your cup of tea, check out Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the truly original Snowpiercer, or the more familiar comforts of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And if you can handle a truly cheesy B-movie, give Pompeii a try.  Kiefer Sutherland makes a truly ridiculous evil ancient Roman senator, let me tell you.

And a few more oldies.  Thanks to the Magnolia Theater, I enjoyed several other classic movies in re-release that I had never seen before.  Robert Altman’s Nashville is an interesting slice of 1970s Americana.  The French Connection is a cop movie starring Gene Hackman that stands the test of time.  For an old-fashioned nail-biter, see Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider.  I liked the old comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  I enjoyed Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston as a corrupt cop in a dystopian future America, and Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban crime lord.  Double Indemnity is a solid film noir, and Harold and Maude is . . . well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if you like quirky you should give it a try.

Happy New Year!

Magic in the Moonlight

A new movie review by The Movie Snob.

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.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

Blue Jasmine

New review from The Movie Snob.

Blue Jasmine  (B+).  Cate Blanchett (Hanna) shines in the title role of Woody Allen’s latest film.  Jasmine is a New York socialite whose world has been turned upside down.  Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, The Cooler) was a high-flying finance guy, but it turned out he was a crook and a philanderer, so now Jasmine is broke, husbandless, and heavily dependent on alcohol and prescription meds to stave off a complete breakdown.  So she flees to the blue-collar home of her blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky) in San Francisco.  To say that she clashes with Ginger and Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent) would be an understatement.  I haven’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire in a long time, but this movie seems very similar to that one.  Nevertheless, I thought this was a good movie.

To Rome With Love

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

To Rome With Love (C-).  Woody Allen continues his European odyssey with this entry from the Eternal City.  I love Rome, but I did not love this movie.  As best I can recall, four separate storylines play out and never really intersect.  A young architect (Jesse Eisenberg, Zombieland) is living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig, Damsels in Distress) and has his head turned by her visiting friend (Ellen Page, Juno) while a spectral Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice) looks on and offers advice.  A retired opera director (Woody Allen, Take the Money and Run) travels to Rome to meet his daughter’s fiance and discovers that the fiance’s father is a natural opera talent–to an extent.  In the most amusing story, an utterly ordinary Roman office drone (Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful) suddenly and inexplicably becomes a paparazzi-besieged celebrity. And finally a newlywed Italian couple from the sticks comes to Rome where the nervous husband is hoping to get a big-time job, but the couple gets separated, and he has an adventure involving a prostitute (Penelope Cruz, Volver) while she has one involving an Italian movie star.  I guess the movie is supposed to be whimsical, but it comes off as merely goofy, in my book.