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Into the Woods is pleasant, forgettable fluff

January 29, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Movies, Music No Comments →

Even Sondheim fans suspect that in the Sondheim oeuvre, Into The Woods is a charming bit of fluff with a couple of good songs—No One Is Alone became a kind of anthem in the campaign against AIDS. Nonetheless we recall it with great affection as a funny musical riff on Bruno Bettelheim’s analysis of classic fairy tales. Other than famous stars, the Disney film by Rob Marshall doesn’t add anything to the material: with all the special effects at its disposal the movie actually looks smaller than the stage version.

It is entertaining enough, Emily Blunt is lovely, and Johnny Depp is creepy—who knew he’d be in two Sondheim movies? Chris Pine is hysterical—is he doing an impression of the original James Tiberius Kirk, William Shatner? And of course your Mother Meryl is in it (Our mother is Sigourney). We know the Princes are a joke, but was it really necessary to make them look like Siegfried and Roy? And how come listening to the soundtrack makes us feel things, but watching the movie makes us yearn to scoot outside for more popcorn?

P.S. We thought something was missing, so we checked. It turns out Disney has Disneyfied the musical that was the very opposite of Disney. The deaths are not so distressing, and most of the sex has been taken out, including the Princes Charmings’s affairs with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Neutered!

Feast on your life: Tom Hiddleston reads Derek Walcott’s Love After Love

January 27, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 1 Comment →

Every movie we see #10-13: Whiplash is thrilling and Selma should be Best Picture

January 24, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: History, Movies No Comments →

10. Blackhat by Michael Mann. Many filmmakers have taken a crack at making the writing and execution of computer code look thrilling. A bunch of people typing does not make for compelling cinema, unless you Matrix it. Michael Mann tries to liven up proceedings by showing a visual representation of information flowing, which doesn’t work for us, and by casting People’s Sexiest Man Alive as a genius hacker and surrounding him with hot Chinese actors (Leehom Wang from Lust, Caution, Andy On, Archie Kao of CSI), which does. Whenever we heard ourself thinking, “Chris Hemsworth as a computer genius??” Hemsworth would take off his shirt or something and we would forget our reservations. Yeah, parts of the movie are slow—they’re meant to be slow. Michael Mann will not change his pace to suit your attention span.

Blackhat is terrific, a moody thriller set in the new Wild West: the digital frontier, which laughs at national borders. With Viola Davis and Tang Wei, star of Lust, Caution.

If you liked Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, which we find woefully misunderstood, you’ll love Blackhat. By the way, every Michael Mann movie is about manhood. Deal with it.

11. Selma by Ava DuVernay. In truth we expected to sleep through it. Movies about important historical moments usually feel like a duty, with their tendency to canonize their subjects. (Confession: We haven’t seen Gandhi and Lincoln in their entirety.) But from the first scene, in which Martin Luther King (the commanding David Oyelowo) is dressing up for the Nobel Prize ceremony, we were riveted. Ava DuVernay has made a powerful film that puts you right there on that bridge with the people marching for Civil Rights in 1964 and the policemen waiting to crack their skulls. It makes us ashamed of our ignorance of recent history.

Critics have torn into Selma for portraying President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson—why are the major roles played by Brits?) as the villain. We don’t know what movie they saw, but Johnson wasn’t the bad guy in Selma. He was being what he was: a politician.

Which brings us to the Oscars, which many say have been whitewashed. How many times has the Academy’s Best Picture been unquestionably the best picture? It doesn’t have to be. “Best Picture” is a political message: it’s the Academy saying, “This is how we see ourselves, this is what we aspire to.” Boyhood is a worthy contender, and Birdman, and Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice and Whiplash, but in the year of Ferguson and “I Can’t Breathe”, Selma is both worthy and timely. It captures a moment that continues to impact on today’s America. Just because Barack Obama is African-American doesn’t mean it’s over.

12. The Imitation Game by Morten Tyldum. We are the target audience for this one: Benedict Cumberbatch fans who know how Alan Turing was maltreated by his country and take an interest in the cracking of Enigma. (Polish mathematicians laid the groundwork. They started working on it in the early 30s because they knew the Nazis were coming. Turing built on their work.) And we liked Tyldum’s art crime movie, Headhunters.

We fell asleep at the Merchant-Ivoriness of the first 30 minutes. We’ll take another crack at it next week.

13. Whiplash by Damien Chazelle. Whoa! This is thrilling filmmaking. You know the oft-told story of the teacher who is tough and cranky because he wants his student to be the best he can be, but is really a kind old geezer? J.K. Simmons as the mentor is a monster on the outside, and when you get to know him he’s even more monstrous. Miles Teller is excellent as the aspiring drummer, and their final face-off is so tense we kept forgetting to breathe.

And yet we detect, in the film and in ourselves, a yearning for a mentor who will push us beyond our limits, resulting in either irrepairable breakage or greatness. “But what’s at stake?” some may ask. “No one even listens to jazz anymore. He endures all that torment, and what’s the point?” That IS the point. Greatness is not measured in fame, fortune, or the approbation of award-giving bodies. The public doesn’t care, but you will know.

That said, you do not have the right to be that mentor and condemn mediocrity if you yourself are mediocre. Also, practice is for developing discipline, it’s not a substitute for talent. Without talent, that kind of brutal training will only produce assholes.

Every movie we see #8: We love Inherent Vice. Motto panekeiku!

January 22, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

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If you require linear narrative and clear resolution
If you have to know what’s going on at all times
If you want people to behave “normally”
If you are annoyed by ambiguity
If you think there’s no excuse for indulgence
If you demand that the world make sense
If you don’t like voice-overs
If you hate stoner comedies
If you expect stoner comedies to be surrealist
If you don’t particularly care that someone had the chutzpah to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for film
If you find Joaquin Phoenix distressing and wonder why Josh Brolin can’t just stick to being a hot guy
If you require that a movie be something you can recount in detail to your friends

Do not watch Inherent Vice because you’ll just kill our buzz.

You might enjoy (#9) American Sniper, which is stylistically, thematically, politically its opposite.

Every movie we see # 7: Birdman, or Finally, someone remembered that Michael Keaton is brilliant.

January 19, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Movies No Comments →

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Usually we find the work of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu irritating, self-important and gimmicky. It thinks it’s really deep. We like his Oscar-nominated movie Birdman, which is a gimmick—the whole film is made to look like one long take, accompanied by a single drummer whom we occasionally glimpse in the theatre hallway—that works. It is deeper than it looks. The subtitle The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance reminds us why we were irritated at his previous films, but that’s a minor quibble at a movie that is entertaining on so many levels. Maybe the director’s decision to shorten his credit to “Alejandro G. Iñarritu” signals a change in direction?

It’s the meta level that probably appeals to Academy viewers: Michael Keaton, who played Batman in the Tim Burton movies, plays Riggan Thompson, an actor verging on washed-up who had played a superhero in a blockbuster series called Birdman. Now Thompson is trying to regain his artistic credibility by starring and directing his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. After Thompson, who has eliminated the ham in the cast with a little telekinesis-induced accident (apparently playing a superhero has given him powers, one of the surreal aspects the director wisely does not explain), the cast is joined by Mike Shiner, a Method actor jerk played by Edward Norton. Who also has that reputation, and is himself a superhero alumnus, having played Bruce Banner/The Hulk in a movie the Marvel cinematic universe has wisely wiped from our memories.

The resulting movie is, among many things, an examination of the creative process, a critique of how superhero franchises have eaten the film industry, and a resurrection of the career of Michael Keaton, a brilliant actor who seems to have disappeared post-Batman (He didn’t, it just feels that way).

Here’s the movie that announced Michael Keaton: Night Shift, where he played a morgue attendant who comes up with a money-making scheme.

Every movie we see #6: The Babadook is a Bring Your Own Monsters horror feast.

January 08, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Childhood, Movies 2 Comments →

3. Torn Curtain. In one of the Hitchcocks we’d never seen, Paul Newman plays an American nuclear scientist who is apparently defecting to East Germany. His plan is nearly foiled when his sniveling secretary/fiancee Julie Andrews thinks he really is defecting and follows him to East Berlin.

“Somehow we couldn’t believe Paul Newman was a nuclear scientist,” we told Noel. “Hitchcock must’ve known it, too, because when Newman writes equations on the blackboard he doesn’t show them.”

“But if Paul Newman circa 1965 looked at you, would you believe it?” Noel said.

“We’d nominate him for a Nobel Prize. May tao palang walang chemistry with Paul Newman: si Julie Andrews. He had more chemistry with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy.”

“And Marlon Brando!” Noel reminded us. Look it up.

4. The Shop Around The Corner. This jewel by Ernst Lubitsch, the template for every single romantic comedy in which the lovers hate each other at first sight, has never been surpassed.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our sister was flummoxed when our 8-year-old niece told her, “Mommy, Frozen is sooo last year.”

“Why?” we asked. “What is It this year?”

“My point is, she said ‘sooo last year’.

“Then show her the Indiana Jones movies and tell her they’re sooo 30 years ago.”

“I’m afraid she won’t enjoy them and I’ll weep.”

6. The Babadook

There’s a monster in The Babadook, a creature out of a children’s storybook that looks like a coat and hat hanging on a rack. It’s not that scary, but after the Australian director Jennifer Kent has had a half-hour to mess with your head, you’ll be primed to jump at every knock on the door. Like the most effective horror movies, The Babadook provides the plot and atmosphere and lets the viewers scare themselves. Bring Your Own Monsters! The result is a clever and visceral horror feast, a compendium of terrors beginning with the one that cannot be named: the fear of not loving your child.

If anyone knows when The Babadook will open in local theatres, give us a holler and we’ll do a full review.