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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Woody Allen's MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT Unfortunately Doesn't Cast a Spell on Its Audience

I've never really liked the saying, "You're only as good as your last film." The fact that it disqualifies past great performances and films to solely determine all talent from one movie is, well, unfair. And, might I add, super lame. But it sprang to mine after I watched Woody Allen's latest, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. The prolific filmmaker follows up last year's fantastic Blue Jasmine with a lackluster movie that's unfortunately not as enchanting as it sounds.

After taking us on a whimsical trip through the City of Light three years ago in Midnight in Paris, Allen brings us back to France on a more pertinent mission--to determine whether the sixth sense is actually real and, if not, dismantle the notion once and for all. Well, we watch Colin Firth do it anyway. The actor plays Stanley, a renowned 1920s English magician who is brought to France by an old friend and colleague, Howard (Simon McBurney), to disprove a popular psychic (Emma Stone). Why? Because Houdini-like Stanley is ironically not a believer in actual magic or telekinesis, and if anyone could prove Sophie (Stone) to be a hack, it's him.

Already not a very interesting premise right from its start. But, like many Allen films, it's not so much the premise that draws you to the film but how engaging its character is written--down to each quirk. That's what's missing here in this film: there's just nothing very special about any of these characters. In fact, there's nothing throughout most the film to keep you invested it. It's pedestrian to the point of being bland (and I hate that I've become one of those writers that use the word "pedestrian," but it's the best way to describe it). Almost as if he realizes that the film has to be more than about a magician trying to out-trick a trickster, Allen folds MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT into a predictable, cringe-worthy romance that develops between Stanley and Sophie. What makes it uncomfortable to watch is the fact that Firth and Stone have zero chemistry together, especially for a romance. Their age differences (28 years, to be exact) aside, Firth and Stone are two very different styles of actors, neither of whom are particularly suitable for the roles they're playing here. (Casting directors continue to place Stone in roles that fall way outside her range, only utilizing her "It" girl appeal and not her actual strengths; Firth is just such a deliberate actor that to play a character that's so frivolous is an odd fit for him).

What may most attract moviegoers is MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT's portrait, albeit a sloppy one, of a man so consumed by his own desire to be clever that it is love that plays the ultimate trick on him: making him see that not everything comes down to what does and doesn't make sense to him. But does he believe in magic? Is Allen suggesting that love is magic? Perhaps, but this is not a particularly refreshing story for fans of Allen's work or even film fans at all. Frankly, it goes stale after the first twenty minutes, after you've realized exactly where it's going and how it will get there. Which makes it a chore to watch. It's far too amateur, especially from someone like Allen who's been making films for almost fifty years.

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT just seems more like notes on a scribble pad, not an actual film. Despite its decent cast (Marcia Gay Harden is in it for a moment, playing Sophie's stern mother, along with Jacki Weaver and Eileen Atkins, who's the film's true delight), charming score and cinematography, it just left me really hollow, scratching my head. Allen is better than this.

Rating: D+ (* out of *****)

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is in select theaters July 25th. Watch the trailer:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blog Tour: "My Writing Process"

I'm always saying how much I wish the blogging community was more tight-knit, so I am thrilled to join forces with several fellow bloggers for a more intimate blog tour that allows us to share with our readers what inspires us to write. So thank you, Toni at Splash of Tonic for throwing the baton over to me!

Here's how it works: "My Writing Process" asks us four simple questions that encourages us to think about why we write and elaborate more on our writing style. Check it out:

1) What are you working on?

I'm attending screenings, applying for festival press credentials as I prepare an informal content strategy for the fall and winter seasons. I'm always thinking of new commentary to write, as well as reviews. I'm pretty flexible in terms of content. My only ask of myself is that it's something I'm actually passionate about, or can at least put my own spin on. Additionally, I contribute blog posts for Black Girl Nerds and brainstorm topic discussions for my weekly podcast, "Cinema in Noir" (which also inspires many posts on my blog).

2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

My writing has my voice. I try not to write obligatory posts just to get traffic or just because it's what everyone else is talking about. I add my own opinion and try to approach it in a way that is uniquely my own, so that readers aren't just coming to receive the same information they can get on any other site. I want them to come here because they want to know what I think about this information. I try to be engaging, fun, snarky, but also reflective and thought-provoking. As an avid reader of other blogs, it's important to me that I write in a way that would be interesting to me. I have to enjoy the process, and I can't do that if it feels mandated. I also try to keep the content diverse, and offer opinion pieces that aren't found on other sites (including sociopolitical themes in film and film criticism, TV analysis and foreign cinema).

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because I feel I can't not write about films. About five years ago, I had lost my job as a magazine editor and felt kind of lost. In order to take my mind off things, I went to see a movie that I couldn't stop discussing weeks after I had seen it. I bothered my friends--and everyone else who'd listen--with my theories and perspective on the film. Maybe it was the timing (divine intervention perhaps?), but at that point I realized how much of a film nerd I was (and still am). Then I thought, hey I should write about this--like on a blog or something. I was only going to write the one post and that was it. When I saw the response, and realized how liberated I felt to be able to share what was inside my head I had an a-ha! moment. I realized that I have something to say here, and (bonus points!) people want to actually read about it. I felt the need to get some of the thoughts that have been percolating in my head and expand on them, turn them into discussions with the readers. Writing is not only therapeutic for me, but it's also a way for me to reach people who may also be film nerds, bloggers/critics or casual movie lovers. I don't just write for one type of person, especially since I like a variety of films across many different genres, so I try to cast a wide net and see who identifies with it. Some things I write may resonate with certain people and not others, which I'm okay with. I rather write something and it not get as many hits than to keep it entangled in my brain in silence.This blog is a way for me to ensure that my voice and opinions are not stifled. I write because neither I nor my thoughts exist anywhere else. I have to create them here myself.

4) How does your writing process work?

Often it's as informal as conversations I have with people (either online or in person), or in response to trend pieces I read online. I could have a really great conversation with someone about a movie or a them in Hollywood that will inspire me to expand on the topic or counter the opinion here. Sometimes I react to a particular twitter conversation by bringing it over to the blog and expanding on it (I can better express my thoughts here than with a slim 140 characters. I like to stir conversation, not simply comply with it, and maybe start a new conversation here. Other times, I'll write a film review that is inspired by how the film made me feel, not solely how it is technically (that way it has my stamp on it). Some films make me think of larger stories on which I focus the review, and other films make me feel absolutely nothing--which also compels my opinion. I also receive a number of press releases and other publicity information that may help inspire trend pieces, or even simple matter-of-fact pieces about new releases, press images, etc. If something looks interesting to me, or if I  have something to say about it that I haven't seen anyone else say, or I think my readers might be interested in, I share it. It's very fluid.

That's it; short and sweet! I'm passing the baton over to Shala Thomas at Life Between Films and Angelica Jade Bastién at Madwomen and Muses. Shala is a huge supporter of independent film and film festivals, while Angelica is a screenwriter who's passionate about Old Hollywood. I can't wait to learn more about their writing process!

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts on GET ON UP (Plus 9 New Images from the Film)

I have to say, when I first saw the trailer for GET ON UP, the new biopic on late singer James Brown, I was unimpressed. It just seemed...predictable, and strikingly similar to a certain other movie about another icon, Ray. But, man, the cast is excellent. Of course director Tate Taylor, who I still have on probation for the abominable The Help, has always had a knack for securing some of the best talent in the industry (go figure). However, I am still concerned about the story Taylor, with screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (recently praised for their Edge of Tomorrow screenplay), has chosen to tell.

While according to the production notes, the film isn't your typical Wikipedia-like format as it "unfolds in a nonlinear style that allows James Brown to speak directly to us," I wonder why they chose to go with a title for the film that refers to one of Brown's popular songs in which he proclaims "I feel like being a sex machine." Doing this suggests that the story could end up focusing more on the music and less on the man (I mean, even something as simple as The Godfather of Soul would have made it seem more personal). The trailer, which you can watch here, doesn't do much else for it either--it just looks like a 2-minute music video fan montage sprinkled with obligatory James Brown affectations that give us a little detail about his background. But, hey, that's just a trailer, maybe the movie is much more.

The cast, which I mentioned above, is pretty spectacular--Chadwick Boseman, most known for playing another legend in 42, plays Brown, Viola Davis (Doubt, The Help) portrays Susie, Brown's mother, Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) is Bobby Byrd, then there's Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station, The Help), Dan Akroyd, Jill Scott (Baggage ClaimThe No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), Tika Sumpter (Sparkle) and Craig Robinson (The Office, This Is The End). That's a mouthful.

GET ON UP will hit theaters August 1st. Check out a few more images from the film:



Thursday, July 17, 2014

THE PURGE: ANARCHY Doesn't Quite Live Up To Its Name

In the first few minutes of THE PURGE: ANARCHY, the sequel to last year's equally contumacious horror, The Purge, a message materializes on the screen that describes the dystopian events we are about to see: the nation's annual night of mayhem is about to commence, in which there will be no lawful interference. People are encouraged to exercise their legal right given to them by "The Founding Fathers" and "purge" the undesirables--specifically "the poor." Right away this incites an unsettling feeling that begs the following questions: Who decides who's poor? What level of destitution marks someone who should be eliminated? How do you locate the targets?

It's these nagging questions that pester this second installment which at its best is a hauntingly plausible look at an apocalyptic future, but at its worst never quite embraces the issues it promises to explore. Instead, the film swings between both pendulums without ever landing on a secure foot. We learn early on in the film that a rebel group, strikingly consisting mostly of African-American men, has formed to reclaim their place in society, and retaliate against the so-called elitist group of individuals who most benefit from the purge. Which is interesting since, while the first film touched on these sociopolitical issues, it never explored them. There was no armed party to stand up against the gang purgers, so everyone was at the mercy of those who purged (a more controlled concept). Now we have this opportunity to show an actual war, where everyone has taken the law into their own hands, and in which two distinct sides actively fight to survive. Even better, the action takes place outside in the streets where there is limited refuge and the stakes are higher. But all that potential goes to waste because writer/director Jason DeMonaco again chooses to focus on the helpless victims of the night, to the disadvantage of far more interesting characters and a more advanced story that could have built off the last film and personified its title.

So THE PURGE: ANARCHY isn't actually any more anarchic than the last film. By centering on these tedious individuals that get caught out in the night, we get a very similar story from the first except that the action takes place outside which makes the story more erratic (though the new setting effectively enhances the suspense, creating an overwhelming sense of vulnerability). Additionally, some of these target victims are mind-numbingly annoying. While Frank Grillo's insurgent hero is an intriguing character to watch (and Grillo does a good job with it), the film's two main female characters are unforgivably weak. Carmen Ejogo's Eva is a the epitome of a damsel in distress: she cowers at every rap on her apartment door, and for some inexplicable reason she never asserts any authority around her annoyingly loquacious daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul). So much so that I didn't even realize she was her daughter at first. Eva is always jittery, has fright in her eyes, and barely speaks above a whisper. So you can just imagine how she reacted when she and her daughter were pulled out of their homes after their (you guessed it) security system falls apart within minutes. Eva whimpers the entire time, while Cali tries to talk everyone to death (apparently that is her purge power).

It's a strange dynamic, especially when it's lined up against Grillo's more self-aware character, and that of Liz and Shane (Kiele Sanchez and Zach Gilford) who play a couple on the brink of separation. But actually, all of these characters could have used more development. Grillo's Sergeant has a back story we never learn until the end of the film, in a series of hyper chaotic events. We learn that Eva and Cali are specifically targeted, but that fact is not ever revisited again. But the biggest display of randomness is when the group of protagonists seek refuge in a friend's home, which becomes an incestuous war zone. Why? Because the film told us at its very beginning that the purge is about the rich getting rid of the poor, the elite human race getting rid of the weaker one. So how does a domestic squabble enforce these objectives? Why when one of the gang purgers captures the group, he sends them to a more disastrous situation where they have to fend for themselves (and therefore does not act on his "God-given" right)? There are several times throughout the film where we are led to believe that the main group of characters are specifically targeted, but we never learn why. Eva and Cali live in a rundown apartment building, so we can assume it's their economical status that makes them vulnerable. But what about Liz and Shane--why are they targeted?

These questions all lead back to my main point that the film should have focused on the rebel uprising instead. To push this group into the background is a major flaw that is emphasized in the film's penultimate act that features a pivotal and terrifically executed scene with the rebels, reminding the audience that it is they who should have been the main characters all along. DeMonaco's knack for creating anxiety and tension is excellent and provides genuine horror (the idea of actual anarchy with no legal repercussions is still terrifying), but he could have used some help in the writing. I'm completely on board with the horror action, but this sequel really points out the glaring thematic flaws. Hopefully that is tightened up in the inevitable third installment (approximately 364 days away).

Rating: C (**1/2 out of *****)

THE PURGE: ANARCHY is in theaters Friday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Filmmaker Ernest Dickerson: "Television Right Now is Doing What Film Wishes It Can Do"

Ernest Dickerson
I really love when filmmakers are so candid in interviews. On Sunday's episode of Cinema in Noir we got a chance to chat with Ernest Dickerson, notable cinematographer and director of some of your favorite movies and TV shows (including The Walking Dead, Treme, Dexter, The Wire, Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing to name a few). He discussed his transition to the small screen, the new Golden Age of TV and reveals that he's now directed eleven episodes of The Walking Dead (but can't give away any details about the new season *insert sad face here*).

Dickerson was nice also enough to dish some advice for filmmakers just starting out, what it's like to work with Spike Lee (they've known each other since film school students) and how "television right now is doing what film wishes it can do." The latter is a particularly intriguing comment as the debate about TV versus film Tyrant, Extant, I'm looking at you. Pick it up).
continues to roar on. He explains that character development in films is too often the first thing to be edited out for length; on the other hand, TV has broader space to develop both characters and plotlines, which yields a more fleshed out story. As a filmmaker who's worked in both mediums, he says, "Every show I do I try to approach like a mini movie." I wish more filmmakers understood this. Although, while they have more space to tell the story, as a viewer I think it's important that small screen filmmakers grab the audience right at the first episode of a series and not wait to until a few episodes in to get into the story. That's how you lose an audience, and also how you get canceled. (

Also on the show we shared our reactions to the 2014 Emmy nominees (Spoiler: We're psyched about Orange is the New Black!), and our reviews of Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Life Itself. Missed the show? Listen to a recap here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wait...There's Going To Be a New Power Rangers Movie?

Image from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie

This is the first question I asked myself when I received an email announcing two new writers that have joined the upcoming movie. But wait, this was just hours after I heard about a Rainbow Brite reboot! A RAINBOW BRITE REBOOT! And now...a new POWER RANGERS MOVIE! I guess I can't be surprised, what with Scooby Doo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jem and the Holograms in the works. All we need now is a new My Little Pony movie and we can all just pretend it's 1989 again and go roller skating or something.

According to the press release, X-Men: First Class and Thor screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz have just signed on to pen the new Power Rangers film for Lionsgate. Star Trek producer Roberto Orci has also been added as executive producer. Orci will develop the movie’s story along with Miller and Stentz, with the latter two handling screenwriting duties. Those of you who watched the original 90s TV series may remember that the show, formerly titled The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, centered on teams of young heroes and took much of its footage from the Japanese live-action show, Super Sentai.

This isn't the first time the franchise hit the big screen. The previous film, appropriately titled Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie came out in 1995, which in Hollywood time is about a hundred years ago. Here's what to expect from the upcoming movie:

The new movie promises to completely re-envision the Rangers, a group of high school kids who are infused with unique and cool super powers but must harness and use those powers as a team if they have any hope of saving the world.

On the bright side, for those of you who are skeptical of the reboot, the original franchise creator Haim Saban is one of the producers of the film, along with Allison Sheamur (The Hunger Games), so hopefully that means the essence of the original series will be retained. We'll have to wait and see once everything comes together. Of course, the biggest question will be: who will play the new version of the characters? Any thoughts on who you'd like cast in the film?

Leave your thoughts below.

Review: Spirituality and Science Collide in the Mildly Interesting Yet Tedious 'I ORIGINS'

You've got to hand it to Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. The writer/director and his muse actress (and sometimes writing partner) are always thinking outside the box when it comes to their projects. Each film they've done (separately or together) has been quirky and dealt with familiar concepts in new and fascinating ways. But their newest film, I ORIGINS, presents an interesting idea but completely mishandles it, so much so that takes the audience out of the film. Which is a shame because one of the best things about this team is that they've taken abstract subjects and made them accessible.

For what it's worth, I ORIGINS starts off intriguing enough: Eight prior to the central story, PhD student Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) meets and falls for an unidentified woman decked in head to toe leather and a ski mask who seduces him at a party. Fascinated with the human eye, he asks if he can take a picture of her eyes. After things get a little hot and heavy, he questions aloud whether they are moving too fast. To which she responds by pulling away from him as a single tear drops down his face. She disappears out of the picture much to his bewilderment.

At this point in the film there are already so many questions that this single encounter inspires: Why is she in disguise? What--besides her eyes--intrigues him so much (they barely share enough information about themselves to possibly attract one another)? At its strongest, the films plays with the idea that two souls can be destined to be together, defying all logic. But it muddles that notion with a messy scientific subplot that just gets in the way. Ian later reconnects with the mystery woman by chance on a subway, learns her name is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and they embark on a whimsical affair and even talk about marriage. Trouble is, she's a spiritual being who believes in things she can feel but cannot see, and he strictly believes in things that he can see and prove through science. They're two opposite sides of the coin who can still engage in compelling conversation without having really anything in common at all.

Their dialogue, though not particularly fleshed out, could have made for a great premise on its own (but possibly would have looked dangerously similar to what Terrence Malick tried to capture in To the Wonder). But the lovebirds' romance is interrupted, jolting the film seven years ahead to Ian as a molecular biologist with a new woman in his life who complies with his logical sensibilities--his lab partner Karen (Marling), a romance that despite its convenience and more cogent appeal still manages to seem random and out of place given the fact that they had a strictly professional relationship that catapulted into something much more. What's even more puzzling is when Ian admits to Karen that he never really saw a future with Sofi (Seriously, despite the fact that he proposed marriage to her?). This comment just made him sound like the "child" he accused Sofi of being.

It's this kind of contradictory writing that often frustrates the film, and takes away from what we can only presume it's trying to ask: Can logical people believe in souls and higher powers? If you go by this film, scientists, the very epitome of logical people, can be in love without having any belief in something as intangible as love, proven by Ian's somewhat cold and dutiful relationship with Karen as opposed to Sofi. The idea of love, souls and afterlives are in direct conflict with their ideals. But then again, Ian is clearly emotionally crippled by his stunted relationship with Sofi that it might be that that is propelling him further away from Karen. Which is to ask, are logical people better known as the more common phrase "emotionally unavailable?"  

Again, there are concepts in I ORIGINS that are generally interesting, but the execution is so messy that half the time you don't really know what it's trying to say. This is hampered by the scientific themes that become subplots by the end of the film. They're not fully explored. Ian is fascinated by the eyes and what they can tell us. But for someone who only trusts logic, why is he so focused on finding the soul through the eyes? Why would someone like him even care? What role does his scientific research play? It just doesn't make much sense (especially for those of us who aren't fluent in science of this nature) and is never fully explained, even when Ian travels across the world to reconnect with a soul he had long lost through a pair of anonymous eyes.

The film is nearly two hours and quite loopy given its length. There are far too many times when the story simply looses its footing and falls into another tedious direction, leaving some angles completely dangling. Though Pitt, Marling and Bergès-Frisbey's performances are all engaging (along with Steven Yeung and Archie Panjabi, in thankless roles), I ORIGINS is a misstep for Cahill.

Rating: C- (** out of *****)

I ORIGINS is in select theaters July 18th.

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