Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

magic1.jpg2016.92: Magic In The Moonlight (Amazon VOD)

There was a time that I loved and devoured Woody Allen movies. I loved the zany comedies of the 1970s and the more mature, dramatic comedies of the 1980s, but somewhere over the years the thrill faded. For me, Allen hit his peak with the wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanors, a crushingly bleak  fable about living in a Godless universe without punishment or redemption. Allen’s films could be dramatic and they could be funny, but they always seemed to have a telling observation of the world and how we live in it, our place in it. Crimes and Misdemeanors was something of a masterpiece to me, and is one of my favourite films, a summary of everything Allen had been saying and mulling over in his films before. With that film, to me he’d reached the apex of everything he wanted to say, stunningly scripted, brilliantly acted, with some gorgeous cinematic moments. Allen could have retired there and then, his cinematic immortality assured.

He didn’t of course- he just carried on making movies, something like one a year. With an output s excessive as that, there’s sure to be a few misfires, and this Magic In The Moonlight is just that. Crushingly so. Maybe Allen should curtail his output, just do one film every few years- after all, Blue Jasmine was a damn fine film  and evidence that with the right material he’s capable of so much. Its a tragedy that a guy who can make films as damn fine as that can churn out such forgettable lightweight stuff as this.

The irony of Magic In The Moonlight is that, well,  there’s no actual magic- its quite lifeless and devoid of charm. The title seems to be from a different film entirely. The story is as lightweight as you might suspect, and you can always guess where its headed, one of those cosy stories you can telegraph well ahead. But its alarming how little you care, how little real warmth and involvement there is. The film is a romance without any real chemistry between its lead characters, a handicap the film cannot possibly recover from. It doesn’t help that it seems to all take place in some kind of idyllic Hollywood fairy-tale universe as far removed from our present realty as one could imagine.

A period piece set in 1920s Europe, it depicts a celebrated stage magician, Stanley (Colin Firth, hopelessly adrift here), who is a proud materialist and debunker of spiritualism and purveyors of the occult. He is summoned by an old friend from childhood to the South of France where a wealthy American family is being ‘charmed’ by a young spiritualist claiming to be in touch with the recently deceased elder of the family. This spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), is beautiful and the first-born heir of the family is utterly bewitched by her, intending marriage.

Stanley is supremely confident that he can uncover how Sophie is hoodwinking the family, and save the heir from being conned out of much of his fortune, but is utterly confounded by Sophie’s uncanny ability to ‘know’ things she should have no access to. Eventually he himself begins to fall for her and he announces that he has been wrong all along with his cynical materialism and that she is indeed the ‘real deal’. He sees the world in a different light, all his previous beliefs quite shattered, until a tragedy reaffirms his earlier bleak outlook on the universe and he realises that Sophie is not at all as innocent as she seems. But he still loves her. Whats a pompous irritating git to do?

That’s about it. The central problem is the casting and lack of chemistry between Firth and Stone (God only knows what the age difference is between them, but it shows). Without a romance to empathise with (indeed, all the characters seem fairly one-dimensional, from the dumb idle-rich American family to the irritating Stanley) its hard to get involved, and Allen doesn’t seem to have anything to really say either, which is the greatest sin of all in my book. Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘love conquers all’ kind of thing? Or some commentary on the fantasies we create around us to make life worth living?  I don’t know. I was left with the impression of a film shot with a script that was still in its first draft, quite empty and lacking of any genuine momentum or character. The actors have little to work with, and Allen seems to be just phoning it all in anyway.

A very sorry excuse of a movie really.  Crimes and Misdemeanors seems such a long time ago now, its almost tragic.



The Forest (2016)

forest12016.91: The Forest (Amazon VOD)

This is a strange one. It could have been quite good, and is quite competently shot and directed, with a reasonable cast, but somehow it just doesn’t hold together. I think the frankly preposterous plot is the chief culprit. And yet I’m led to believe (or am I just earnestly gullible?) that the Japanese forest and its infamy for being a place for suicides is quite real. So maybe its the execution, rather than the plot, that is to blame. I don’t know. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a horror film at all, but rather a human drama about tortured souls drawn to a frankly strange place notorious for human tragedy.

So anyway, for what its worth, here’s how you turn a Japanese area of cultural infamy into a mainstream Western horror movie: Sara (Natalie Dormer) senses her twin sister Jess, who lives half-way across the world in Japan, is in trouble, and soon learns from the police there that Jess has gone missing. Investigations reveal that Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara Forest alone, a place where people often go to commit suicide. Sara is confident that Jess is still alive (“I sense it!” she confidently states in full-on Jedi mode) and promptly drops everything in America (Including her hubby) and flies off to Japan to do the job that the Japanese police refuse to do (i.e. go have a look in the scary forest).

And that’s about it. Natalie Dormer isn’t a bad actress, and can command some charisma and character in her roles, but her character is pretty one-note throughout and she struggles to make anything of her (actually two-character as Sara/Jess) role here. It might have helped if the story had been chronological (we had seen the sisters growing up together and Jess eventually leaving for Japan) but instead all that sister stuff is told in flashbacks as Sara’s own Journey into (Emerald) Darkness ensues. Its okay I guess, but as its a horror film any real drama is put to one side for frequent jump-shots/scares with noisy stingers on the soundtrack. Its a little unsettling but rather more irritating.

Somewhere in here there’s a story of two twins sharing a childhood tragedy that has scarred one of them in particular, and who is a definite suicide risk in possibly the worst place for such a person to be.  Does it have to be stuck in a horror b-movie like this? Of course not. There’s a dramatic, emotional core to this film that is just tossed away in favour of having creepy demons terrorising some woods. By the time the film ends, yes, there is a bit of a twist but you hardly care. Pretty poor stuff really.

The 33 (2015)

332016.90: The 33 (Amazon VOD)

It is impossible to watch this film without listening with some sadness to James Horner’s soundtrack. While it wasn’t the last score he recorded, it was I believe the last film to be released with an original Horner score. It makes the film experience bittersweet. It isn’t his greatest score by any means, and it suffers from that tendency of his to ‘self-plagiarise’ that so annoyed many fans, myself included, over the years. You can hear his music from Where The River Runs Black in this films main theme and music from Glory during the films moments of valediction and rescue, and the moments when disaster strikes is just so much standard James Horner action music from so many films. Back when he was alive, yes, this over-familiarity was very annoying. Now, its almost actually endearing and sad that its now something all of the past.There won’t be anymore new films with new Horner music, no matter how familiar it might sound.

I watched this film on Sunday afternoon. I mention that only because, for good or ill, this film is ideal Sunday matinee material. Perhaps I’m damning it with faint praise. To be sure, the story of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in which thirty-three miners were left buried alive beneath thousands of feet of rock under Chile’s Atacama Desert is an incredible one. If someone scripted something like this purely from fiction it would be laughingly dismissed, but I’m sure everyone reading this now will remember well how the international news networks riveted viewers for weeks with the nail-biting ordeal of the trapped miners and the against-all-odds efforts of engineers to save them. For once in this blighted world of bad-news stories, somehow everything turned out right and all 33 trapped men were returned to the surface and their families. The problem for this film, is how can it possibly measure up to such an incredible, dramatic true story?

Frankly, it can’t. In a way, this film suffers from a problem shared by In The Heart of the Sea and The Finest Hours, in that it is difficult to focus the narrative drama when it deals with a large ensemble. In Castaway, everything is focused on Tom Hank’s main character, he is the focus of everything, but in these other films it is difficult not to spread things too thin. Its inevitable that many of the characters slip into the background, and that the characters of those that are examined still only seem paper-thin. Part of the drama is lost with knowing how things turn out, but that never harmed Apollo 13– but at least that film had a smaller group of characters, and lead actors like Tom Hanks and Ed Harris with commanding and charismatic performances.

But it remains an entertaining film, even though it feels very formulaic (a miner expresses safety concerns prior to going down into the mine) and easy-going (there’s a surprising lack of conflict, or condemnation of those safety practices). We don’t really get under the skin of either the miners trapped down below or the politicians and engineers with so much at stake in rescuing them. The script is just trying to be fair to everyone and avoids any controversy, ultimately failing everyone in doing so.

Certainly as an afternoon matinee film its a fine way to spend a few hours, and its very life-affirming. I’m damning it with faint praise again, but I really quite liked it. The films final moments, when we see the real 33 meeting on a beach, is something joyous and humbling to witness, knowing what they went through, that somehow they survived against the odds. Each miner looks at the camera alongside their name in text. There is something revelatory in that sequence, I’m not certain what, but there is, and just those few minutes make everything beforehand worthwhile.

Arrival (2016)

arrival2016.89: Arrival (Cinema)

Film of the year.

Yes, its that good. Everything you may have heard from reviews/word of mouth since those September previews is true. Good grief this film is something special. I actually think it is also one of, perhaps the most intense emotional cinematic experiences of my life. I almost staggered out of the cinema, fighting back tears, feeling like my heart had been pulled out of my chest. Just thinking about it now, hours later, almost breaks me up. I feel like an emotional punchbag, a wreck. Its been such a long time since a film connected with me so profoundly.

To be fair, this film clearly can’t and won’t have this effect on everyone. Its just one of those rare cinematic experiences that came at just the right moment, just when I have been personally going through such a rough time these past few months, in order for it to connect with me in such a profound way. Its almost like Denis Villeneuve made this film just for me, as if it was speaking just to me, striking me right between the eyes. Its a beautiful film.

With it being a new release just out at the cinema, I won’t go into spoilers, I’ll leave that for the disc release next year. This is really a film that needs to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. I’m certain everyone knows the premise of alien ships arriving on Earth and the attempts at First Contact that follow. Its the story behind that story that is so profound and which I will not go into here. I’d read the short story Ted Chiang ‘Story of Your Life‘on which the film is based, so I knew it would be a heady brew of cerebral science fiction, but good lord, Villeneuve nailed the emotional heart of that story too. Its so rare for such an intelligent piece of serious, adult science fiction to be put on screen as it is, but to nail the emotional side, to make it so achingly sad and tragic and beautiful, its… well, words fail me. This film is everything Interstellar wanted to be.

I could understand the title change to Arrival making the film an easier sell, but its clear that ‘Story of Your Life’ would indeed have been a more fitting title. Its the story of all our lives, of how we live them, experience the joy and pain. Its powerful film-making, its a work of art. This guy is making Blade Runner 2049 even as I type this. My God my expectations for that film are going to be going through the roof now.

And Amy Adams? If this film doesn’t reward her with an Oscar nomination, there is no justice. She manages such a powerful, understated performance it will likely be under the Oscar radar (Oscar loves the big loud and melodramatic ‘Look At Me I’m Acting’stuff). There is so much going on in just her eyes, its breathtaking really. The rest of the cast is sublime, the cinematography is beautiful while also rather subtle, and the music score is such an alien-sounding, other-worldly and intense experience its like another character in the film, quite extraordinary.

I’m afraid I may be hyping this film too much, that it can never hope to live up to this praise for most other people. It just connected with me, I won’t apologise for that. Sadly the cinema screening I attended had only a dozen people in there other than my wife and I. I do hope this manages to find its audience. I urge anyone reading this to go see it big and loud on the big screen.

Maybe come back and talk about it in the comments. We can do spoilers in the comments, yes? Cool.



The Guest (2014)

guest12016.88: The Guest (FIlmFour HD)

Dan Stevens’ transformation from Downton Abbey’s noble commoner Matthew Crawley to maniac American killer David Collins is something of a disorientating revelation. To be honest the disorientation was partly down to me not knowing what to expect from what I thought would be a serious thriller. I admit I must be some sort of idiot- I hadn’t seen any hint of it being a dark comedy, coming into the film ‘blind’. From the start there was something distinctly ‘off’ by the tone of the film and its performances and it took a good half-hour for me to realise what was actually going on: I was actually missing the joke. The Guest isn’t the serious thriller I expected it to be- instead it is a dark comic homage to slasher genre films of the 1980s, films like Halloween and Friday the 13th with plenty of First Blood thrown into the mix.

Grieving family the Petersons are visited by all-American, gentle-spoken David Collins, freshly discharged from the Army and visiting the family to give them parting messages from their deceased son who he had served with in combat.Invited to stay with them for a few days he becomes part of the family- for grieving mother Laura, he’s almost a surrogate son, helping out with chores etc, but it eventually begins to unfold that he’s helping out in other, less wholesome ways. The workplace rival of husband Spencer is suddenly found dead by police, easing the path of Spencer’s promotion. Youngster Luke who is bullied at school has his bullies taken care of and given some practical advice re:standing up for himself (and once he does so, his ensuing school suspension is quickly rescinded once Collins visits the Principal). The dead-end junkie holding back daughter Anna from getting on with her life suddenly winds up in jail on a murder charge.

As the number of deaths and violent events ramp up in the otherwise quiet and unremarkable town, it becomes clear that the kindly Collins is more than he appears. He’s actually a mix of Rambo/Michael Myers, a cold killer trained by the military as some kind of psychopathic weapon, a time-bomb on the run from the authorities just waiting to go off. When he finally does go totally berserk, no-one is safe, not even the Petersons, and even the military task-force sent in to stop him might not be enough.

Had this film been made in 1986, it would have been huge. It feels like it was made to be played/watched on a VHS tape. Part of this is the cinematography and a reliance on 1980s-sounding music on the soundtrack (which sounds also very much in the style of the soundtrack of Drive). Its smart and witty and dark and funny, and all its nods to First Blood and Halloween and The Terminator are all part of the delicious fun. The only problem is that it also feels like a film out of its time. It isn’t completely convincing, but maybe that’s just because it feels so less than a film of 2014 and more one from 1986.

No small part of the success of the film though is the performance of Dan Stevens, which is frankly astonishing. He looks and sounds like an homegrown, all-American hero, but behind his charm there is evidently something ‘off’ about him. There are early moments when his smile is revealed to be a mask, with a cold Terminator-like expression underneath it. On initial viewing, they felt awkward and forced but in hindsight, its all part of that 1980’s video-nasty conceit that runs slyly through the film. Its a trickier, and more impressive, performance than it initially looks and deserves some high praise- the film wouldn’t work as well as it does without Stevens in the role and its really light-years from Downton Abbey. I dread to think what the old dears giving this film a rental on the strength of Stevens name on the credits would think of it.

This film really is the kind of film that thoroughly deserves the term ‘cult’ and I’m sure will gather quite a following over the years and re-viewings. Indeed, my own partial misgivings are likely down to not getting the film I originally expected, so will likely be changed when I re-watch it knowing what it really is.

I wonder if a sequel is in the works. There deserves to be, if only to reinforce the conceit of all those serial-killer franchises that seemed to run forever.