Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins

Director: Woody Allen

Genre: Romantic Comedy

In Woody Allen's Magic In The Moonlight, the age-old debate between rationalism and mysticism takes center stage (though I've oft observed that many who wish to poo-pooh mysticism aren't extremely rational in their approach, and some who take up the new-age banner don't strike me as being spiritual in truly significant ways.)

The year is 1928, and Colin Firth is Stanley Crawford, who performs in the persona of a Chinese magician, wowing audiences with his fantastic illusions. Fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) informs Stanley of his encounters with a young medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has been creating quite a stir with her seances, ostensibly communicating with the dead.  Stanley's favorite pastime is to debunk spiritualism, because to him, it's all illusory--just like his magic tricks. So he's off to the French Riviera to find the girl and expose her as a fraud. The stage is now set for some typical romantic comedy fare, where opposites attract.  
As in any Woody Allen effort, Magic in The Moonlight is transparent with the hand of the master pulling the strings behind his characters, and waxing philosophical about the human condition. That is the heart and soul of any Allen film, and this one won't disappoint his fans on that score. 

And though the film plods along for about the first half, you find yourself increasingly drawn to these characters--especially Firth's pompous and curmudgeonly Stanley, who is ripe to be taken in, not only by Sophie's persuasive powers of making you see what you want to see, but by her charms as well. The hunter gets captured by the game!   

Grade:  B


Because Tim and I are in different states during the summer months (Me, California; Tim, Arizona), it is often difficult to coordinate seeing the same film at the same time. I saw Magic In The Moonlight two weeks ago so my observations may be dulled by time—and having seen another really great film since. I hate to let my personal biases get in the way of enjoying any movie. But Woody Allen's "alleged" behaviors do make it difficult. And it sort of creeps me out that, in his septuagenarian years, Allen insists on creating romances between much older gents and barley legal nymphets.

Sweeping all this aside, I have to admit I really enjoyed this latest romantic romp. And I'd give the lion's share of credit to Colin Firth's performance. He has the ability to make audiences love him in spite of his foppish pig-headedness. The object of his ridicule -- and later infatuation -- is ably played by Emma Stone (a Scottsdale native, by the way!) Too bad Marcia Gay Hardin, as her ambitious, social-climbing mother, wasn't given more screen time. Magic is definitely a feel-good movie and, had I reviewed it before seeing The 100-Foot Journey, I would have given it a higher rating. But you can't award every film an A. So I'll follow my co-writer's lead.


Saturday, July 26, 2014


Rated : R

Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Director: Steve James
Genre: Documentary

Life Itself, the straight forward documentary about the life and times--and unfortunate death--of the world's most recognizable film critic, Roger Ebert, is difficult to watch. Well, about half of it is anyway. More on that in a moment.  

It's always good to learn something you didn't know before, and what we learn here, in most entertaining fashion, is the real skinny on the relationship between Ebert and his longtime partner in crime, Gene Siskel.  Siskel and Ebert was like an arranged marriage of two partners who initially seemed to hate each other, but later grew to respect, and yes, maybe even share a little love. 

The show, which introduced the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" into our common vernacular, had all the overtones of a sibling rivalry between two adolescents constantly sniping at each other. The funniest part of Life Itself is the outtakes of the two of them trying to get through the taping of a promo for the show, too raunchy to ever be broadcast on network television.     

But about half of the film, or so it seems-I wasn't counting minutes--shows Roger Ebert after his cancer surgeries. He was unable to speak, and there's no other way to honestly put this...he was grotesque looking. That he didn't mind being filmed in this condition showed that he wasn't going to let vanity get in the way of showing and telling his story exactly as it was, right up to the end. But after a while I just had to look away from the screen during the hospital segments.  

As we look back on the life of Roger Ebert, and his collaboration with Gene Siskel, it reinforces one undeniable truth about the movies--and that is that there are no good films, and there are no bad films.  It's all in the eye of the beholder. 

Grade:  B --


I'm in complete agreement with Tim about the discomfort induced by seeing Roger Ebert minus his jawbone. As cheerfully as he and his wife Chaz soldiered on, acting as if nothing was really amiss, I was eventually repulsed by the dangling skin that once housed his chin. Ebert wanted us to witness this. I think part of his motivation was due to the fact that Gene Siskel, who died at age 53 of a brain tumor, didn't tell anyone other than his wife about his condition. Including his partner. This hurt Roger Ebert immeasurably—thus he vowed never to be secretive about his own failing health.

But enough about the down side of Life Itself. Kudos go out to director Steve James for keeping this 2-hour documentary engrossing from start to finish. I loved the various film clips, interviews with people like Martin Scorcese and Werner Herzog. It was also interesting to see how much power film critics have over a movie's success or failure. From the very beginning of his life, Ebert was first and foremost a writer. A beautiful and gifted writer at that. Deserving of his Pulitzer Prize, he shared his love of the movies with us— made us think about what we liked and didn't like. Unfortunately, so much of this film was shot after the thyroid cancer had destroyed a good portion of his face that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. I wonder if Roger Ebert would give it a "Thumbs Up" if he were reviewing it?

Grade: C

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Clive Owen,  Juliette Binoche,  Amy Brenneman,  Valerie Tian

Director: Fred Schepisi

Genre: Romantic Drama

Opposites attract. That's been the theme of many a romantic comedy since time immemorial. In Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) we have two sharply delineated characters as different as words and pictures. 

Marcus is a poet of some note who teaches at an elite New England prep school. He's passionate about  trying to instill an appreciation for literature in his students, many of whom are only familiar with the printed word in the form of text messages (smart phones in a dumbed-down America).

Delsanto is the aloof art teacher who snubs Jack's playful advances at every turn, but she is just as passionate in the classroom about trying to light a fire under the butts of her students. 

Will the passion that flames in their hearts for words and pictures eventually translate into the burning hots for each other? You wouldn't think so. Jack is a raging alcoholic. Plus he's clumsy when he's staggering around. Just when Delsanto is beginning to let her guard down, he crashes into her precious work-in-progress and ruins it. Talk about being on somebody's shit list!  Even more annoying to a woman, I would think, is that the guy never takes his glasses off--even in bed! 

Can such obstacles be overcome?  Will Obama and Putin ever get chummy again?  Getting there is half the fun. In Words And Pictures it's most of the fun, as their on-again off-again romance plays out against the backdrop of a spirited and often poignant competition between their students to prove which is more relevant--art or literature?

Grade:  B +


This film is a little gem. It panders to both the undying romantic in all of us, as well as those with intellectual aspirations. Which does hold more weight? Words? Or art. It's enough to make even the most bored preppy take more of an interest in his scruffy professor's thesis. But even if this movie had turned out to be a dud, I would've gone and seen it. Why? Long before Words And Pictures came out, a friend of mine in Vancouver, BC told me that her boyfriend's cabin was being rented by the production company filming this movie. (I believe she quoted $1500 per day?) She even got to meet Clive Owen who, she said, was quite charming and self-effacing. As I watched him tear the place apart in a drunken rage, breaking a table and destroying numerous book shelves, I winced, praying that the damage to my friend's boyfriend's cabin was minimal.

Back to the business of reviewing this film. If I wanted to be picky, I might take issue with the speed in which Owen's character, a serious alcoholic, sobered up. We see him attend one AA meeting and, voila, he's making amends all over the place. And then there's a subplot involving a snarky boy named Swint (played well by Adam diMarco) whose obsessive infatuation for a another student turns nasty. I felt it was totally unnecessary. But the final scene – where brilliant quotes are used to describe certain paintings – made me want to wind the film back so I could write them down. The point being that words enhance art and visa versa.

One last kudo for Bruce Davison. He has a small part but plays it to affable perfection. For me, Davison is an actor who deserves far more accolades than he's gotten. So far, anyway. (Anybody remember him in Longtime Companion for which he won a Golden Globe?)

Grade: A – 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Rated : R

Stars: Seth Macfarlane,  Charlize Theron,  Neil Patrick Harris,  Amanda Seyfried,  Liam Neeson,  Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Genre: Comedy/Western

If the image of Neil Patrick Harris developing sudden gastrointestinal problems, grabbing a stranger's hat and taking a dump in it right in the middle of the street doesn't tickle your funny bone, then you probably are not cut out for this rootin' tootin' tale of the west that comes from the  flipped-out imagination of Seth MacFarlane, creator of South Park, Family Guy, and the movie Ted.

It's like watching an episode of Family Guy in an old west setting with a potpourri (poopourri?) of similarly outlandish sight gags and politically incorrect stuff that wouldn't fly on TV, but it's all brilliantly done--and whether or not this type of effrontery to the let's pretend "sensitivity" of modern times is your cup of tea, you have to admire the creativity and the pure adolescent joy with which MacFarlane and company have gone about their business in A Million Ways To Die In The West. 

There is so much to like about this movie. From the opening theme, which evokes a Bonanza kind of nostalgia for the old westerns, to a really trippy mushroom induced CGI sequence, to the surprising sweetness of a boy-girl romance that's interwoven between all the gags. 

With a big name ensemble cast, who were all good sports to have signed onto such a project, undoubtedly knowing that A Million Ways To Die In The West was going to take a lot of hits from sourpuss reviewers.



(I guess Tim liked it.) And so did I. In a big way! It's this generation's answer to Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Of course, I've already encountered some negative flak from certain film buffs I know. But I say, "Suck it up and enjoy!" Okay. Maybe there's a bit of overkill with the bean-farting jokes and the pratfalls. But this is a film that I challenge anyone feeling in a bad mood to go and see. You won't feel in a bad mood afterwards, I guarantee it.

What is most endearing is Seth MacFarlane's character. He really nails guys' insecurities in a very original way. (Remember Ted and how real the relationship was between Mark Whalberg's character and his teddy bear?) This guy, whose name Albert is klutzy-sounding to begin with, can't do anything right. Which is a clever way to entice viewers' sympathy. In fact, nobody can do anything right in this film which is why it's so much fun.

Tim has already mentioned the musical score (by Joel McNeely). But I'd like to add that it sets the perfect tone for A Million Ways To Die... before the first undoing is undone.
You can tell that the actors really enjoyed themselves: Liam Neeson as Clinch, the fastest gun in the west; Giovanni Ribisi as Edward, a lovesick puppy, trying desperately not to consummate his relationship with the town whore until they are officially wed; big-eyed Amanda Seyfried as Louise, who dumps Farmer Albert in favor of mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris. The biggest compliment I can pay this film is that I definitely want to see it again. And again. And again...

Grade: A +

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Rated: R

Stars: Colin Firth,  Nicole Kidman,  Hiroyuki Sanada,  Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida,  Stellen Skarsgard

Director: Jonathan Teplitzki

Genre: Drama

So if you are really screwed up with PTSD and nightmare flashbacks to your war experiences that are severely affecting the quality of your life, you should probably tell your fiancee about it so she can make an informed decision about whether or not to go ahead and cohabitate with you.  Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) doesn't, and there we have the crux of The Railway Man. 

Lomax is a seemingly mild mannered middle-aged guy who has a fondness for trains. What his wife, Patti, (Nicole Kidman) doesn't get the whole scoop on until later is that he was a POW in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, where he was subjected to heinously cruel torture, including water boarding.  Lomax discovers that one of the guards at the camp who assisted in putting him through this hell on earth is still alive and living a pretty good life in Thailand. The story question becomes whether Lomax should find the guy and give him a taste of his own medicine.  

The Railway Man is based on the real Eric Lomax's autobiography of the same title. I haven't read the book, but I already knew going in how the film was going to turn out.  There was only one way that it COULD conclude in order for Lomax to maintain the connection to his own humanity and end up writing a bang-up story that would touch its readers. Despite that, there is still plenty of suspense in the climactic scenes as to how the human drama between these two men will play out.

Nicole Kidman as the concerned wife, Patti, isn't called upon to display all the fiery brilliance she is capable of (if you want to see that, go rent 

Eyes Wide Shut), but she does a fine job here in a rather subdued role.   

And I don't know how anybody can watch the water boarding scenes in this film and not harken back to Dick Cheney and the White House gang that permitted this practice to be performed on our own war captives without feeling a twinge of guilt, or at least a question forming in one's mind as to whether any type of torture can be justified--no matter whose side you are on or how strongly you may be convinced that "God" is on your side. I don't think it's a coincidence that the filmmakers chose to include it. 

In summation, The Railway Man is well worth the fare.  Tickets, please.

Grade: B + 


Hey, I'd cohabit with Colin Firth under any circumstances! But it is, I feel, quite misleading that the character he plays in THE RAILWAY MAN doesn't reveal any of his madness—other than obsessing on railway routes—before he and his love-at-first-sight lady get married. They move to an idyllic setting by the ocean and almost overnight he becomes a different, almost scary individual.

The movie keeps switching from present to past, back to present again, using different actors. In Colin Firth's case, his younger self (played ably by Jeremy Irvine) is immediately recognizable since both actors wear glasses. However, when it comes to the Japanese guard (he's a translator not a torturer which makes the idea of redemption and forgiveness easier to believe), I found it harder to accept the two actors who looked nothing alike playing the same role. The younger Takeshi Nagase, played by Tanroh Ashida, was suitably fierce. But the older version of the guard/translator is what still haunts me. The shadings Hiroyuki Sanada gave his character were indeed memorable. I won't go into more detail but suffice it to say war makes victims of us all.

Haunting, too, is David Hirshfelder's score. (His musical skill earned this Aussie composer a Best Musical Score nomination back in 1999 for Elizabeth.) One final piece of advice: when you go see this movie—and I implore you to do so—take plenty of Kleenex.

Grade: B+

Monday, April 28, 2014

DRAFT DAY (2014)

Rated: PG-13

Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner,  Dennis Leary, Frank Langella,  Ellen Burstyn,  Chadwick Boseman

Director: Ivan Reitman

Genre: Drama

I generally don't watch sports movies--not because I'm not a fan, but because fake, recreated sports scenes don't cut it for me like the real live action does. In Draft Day, there aren't a lot of fake sports plays, but there are a lot of stock, cardboard cut-out characters.  

There's the intrepid general manager of the Cleveland Browns  (Kevin Costner) who is going to wheel and deal his way through the maze--flying by the seat of his pants and going against conventional wisdom to get the best draft picks, rescue his bottom-feeding team, and make him a hero on draft day.

The coach (Dennis Leary) who naturally doesn't agree with the GM's methods, cuz you gotta have conflict.

The team owner (Frank Langella), who may be one wrong move away from cleaning house, which makes the chances the GM is taking all the more precarious to his future.

And, of course, the love interest (Jennifer Garner), who works for the team and knows more about football than most of the guys. (Hollywood loves to patronize women in this manner.) She and the GM have a thing going, and now she's going to drop a little bundle of joy upon him. But all he wants to do is make it through draft day, dammit.  WILL EVERYBODY JUST QUIT DISTRACTING ME?.  

The most annoying thing about Draft Day is that it violates that old saw of good storytelling: show, don't tell. The characters are always explaining stuff to each other that they obviously should already know. It's a device to fill in background information for the audience, but it's just too obvious and awkwardly done here. 

Director Ivan Reitman does a good job of  ratcheting up the dramatic tension and building momentum toward the feel-good climax. That's the strong point of the film. Along with the pulsating score from John Debney.

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi was obsessed. Winning isn't's the only thing. He set the tone for the modern day emphasis on winning at all costs. It's an unhealthy mindset.  Because giving it all you've got and falling short is nothing to be ashamed of. It builds character. But that's not what modern day sports is about, and Draft Day--if nothing else--drives that point home.

Grade:  C +


If Tim hadn't been sitting next to me, answering my questions about how players get drafted and team managers trade picks, I would've been totally lost. As it is, I was totally bored. To borrow one of my favorite quotes by Dorothy Parker (originally describing Katharine Hepburn's acting), Kevin Costner's acting "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Unlike the highly volatile Vince Lombardi, Costner plays it cool under pressure. A good foil for Dennis Leary's overdone pugnaciousness. But it's all so ho-hum. And the secondary plots, i.e. his secret girlfriend, his inability to commit, his bossy mom are...well....not exactly original.

Just for the hell of it, I typed in "Top Sports Movies." Opinions abound. According to an ESPN poll, #1 is BULL DURHAM. (Costner was much better in that one.) Another link breaks it down into individual sports. According to their pick (and mine, as well) is BRIAN'S SONG. And the New York Times poll gives ROCKY the number one slot. What these sports movies all have that DRAFT DAY doesn't is character development—and real characters to develop!

With these mini-reviews, I always try to point out something positive. This time—because I can't come up with one—I'll end with another favorite quote meant to leave you smiling: "The reason women don't play football is because eleven of them would never wear the same outfit in public." - Phyllis Diller

Grade: D –

Tuesday, April 15, 2014



Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LeBouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman

Director:  Lars von Trier

Genre: Art House

Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol.1 isn't about magic (you wouldn't call it magical in any way) but there is lots of sleight-of-hand going on. What appears to be actual oral sex is accomplished with the use of a prosthesis. A brief shot involving penetration turns out not to be the "name" actors in the film, but rather some porn star body doubles. That said, there's still enough provocative stuff here to push the limits of anything you'll ever see at a "regular" theater. (That's one where you're not likely to be sitting next to Pee Wee Herman, who's signing an autograph for you with his free hand.)  

But Nymphomaniac: Vol.1 wants to take itself seriously, so we must decide whether to do the same. That's a bit difficult to do, though, because there's lots of dark humor here.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, who will do or say basically anything in front of the camera (catch her in von Trier's Antichrist for validation of this), takes on the more genteel role of story teller--recounting her sexual escapades to an older man (Stellan Skarsgard) who found her beaten and bloody in the gutter. The real action (should we call this an "action" film?) falls to young Stacy Martin 
playing "Joe," the younger version of Gainsbourg's character. Joe and an equally free-spirited friend have a contest to see how many men each of them can seduce on a train. 

There is one brilliant scene where Uma Thurman plays a woman scorned who shows up at Joe's apartment with her young sons in tow. Her husband has abandoned her for the nympho nymphet, thinking she's in love with him. Thurman spreads it on thick with the melodrama, laying a guilt trip on the guy that's one for the ages. When another suitor knocks on the door, the real fun begins.  

Don't know if I'd spend the money to see the conclusion of this two-parter, though the explanation for how Joe ended up in the battered condition we found her in at the beginning of the film is likely to be curiously kinky. May just wait for the DVD, as it's the kind of fare perhaps better enjoyed at home when you've slipped into something more comfortable and have all the shades drawn.

Grade: B


"Short and sweaty." That's how I'd describe this flick. Only it wasn't short by any means... Like NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. 1, a film that's presented in five chapters, I will chop up this review accordingly.
  1. If you think penises are all pretty much the same, go see this movie.
  2. If you want to see Christian Slater's ass crack, go see this movie. (He plays the nympho's caring, tree-fixated dad; a man whose struggles with alcohol are never even hinted at before he winds up in a straight jacket shitting himself.)
  3. If you want to be the only female in the audience, go see this movie.
  4. If you want to see every nook and cranny of Stacy Martin's rail thin, prepubescent-looking body, go see this movie.
  5. .If you want to get turned on? Read Fifty Shades of Grey
Grade: C