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Out in Theaters: ‘LA LA LAND’

Infectiously affable La La Land injects new life into a tried and true Hollywood tradition: the musical. A toe-tapping throwback to the tenure of Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire, Damien Chazelle’s Dom Pérignon-bubbly follow-up to excellent Whiplash is a joyous and bittersweet ode to a time when Hollywood peddled contagious cheer and catchy carols, pretty performers and movie magic. All that and more. Complete with lively choreography and an instantly antiseptic soundtrack, La La Land is an upbeat cure-all to the depressive onslaught of 2016 . And I don’t even like musicals. Read More

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Out in Theaters: IRRATIONAL MAN

To “get into character,” many actors have taken it upon themselves to devastate their money-making temples. History credits Robert De Niro with starting the trend; his packing on pounds for Raging Bull set a record, as well as the stage for silver screen physical transformations. Today, Christian Bale is a particularly looney example of someone willing to batter himself with physically implausible weight-gain and loss but, to his credit, it informs his performance in oft tremendous ways. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ALOHA

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Cameron Crowe
‘s Aloha is one hot saccharine sweet mess; a jumbled collage of love connections, island spirituality and fluffy, flawed emotional beauty that gave me all the feels, despite its occasionally glaring issues. It’s one of those features where one could curmudgeonly sit around and pick apart at its thatch of problems like a hot-breathed seamstress but you’d ultimately be missing the point. Aloha isn’t guided by substantive reality so much as by a dramaturgical sense of magical realism. Mixed in with the hopeful lyricism of the greatest rom-com ballads and imbued with a dulled barb of cynicism, Aloha is a visceral, passionate triumph even in the bright light of its freewheeling, sometimes nonsensical spirit. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BIRDMAN

Unlike quite anything else, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman is a surrealist commentary on 21st century franchise culture, absolutely pumped full of energy, wit and scintillating satire. A massively relevant take on modernity, Iñárritu’s restless film comes dressed up as black comedy but resonates wholeheartedly with the slobbish zeitgeist du jour. Truth, it seems, can come masked in all sorts of outfits. Read More

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Out in Theaters: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

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First of all, one must excuse that Colin Firth is almost 30 years older than Emma Stone (28 years, 1 month and 27 days to be exact) in order to feel the least bit comfortable watching Magic in the Moonlight. After all, a romance with a man twice your age is creepy in all world’s but Woody Allen‘s. If we can forgive him this gross miscalculation of acceptable age gaps – allowing that it’s not some dolled-up plea bargain appealing to our more arcane, patriarchal notions of male-female relationships – then there’s much to love about Magic in the Moonlight; Colin Firth, pithy dialogue thrown away like used handkerchiefs, a prevailing sense of misanthropic disillusionment with the world. Ahhhh, all the Woody standards are carved aptly and well displayed. Well, all but one.

In his celebrated past, Woody Allen has been the harbinger of great female roles. With Annie Hall, he introduced us to a wise-cracking, no-nonsense, nouveau flapper-type that may as well have been beamed in from the roaring 20s. In Manhattan, Woody’s bittersweet, troglodyte edge was a perfect cocktail when mixed with Mary Wilkie’s vibrant, larger-than-life pomposity. Diane Keaton‘s star has never shined so bright.

To this day, that helplessly neurotic, New York, near-messianic Jewish comedian turned filmmaker is still hailed as one of the original feminist filmmakers. Set on a diabolical heading to disprove Hollywood standards that women are but window dressings in a Bechdel Test-less world, Woody introduced the world to the chick with attitude. With Moonlight though, it’s as if he’s forgotten his roots, offering a female character, a la the lovely Emma Stone, who is but a circumstance to the masculine manipulation storming around her. If Woody has neglected one thing here, to the chagrin of his story and film, it’s to round out his leading lady; a charge rarely brought against the man. After all, without Woody’s squally writing to back her up, Cate Blanchett wouldn’t be an Academy Award winner as of this year.

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His latest yarn falls into place when a world renown magician, Stanley (Firth), catches wind of a youthful psychic, Sophie (Stone), who’s taken up with a wealthy clan of manicured socialite oafs, predicting future dalliances and offering tranquilizing reassurances on events past. A dear friend of Stanley’s – close colleague and rival magician, Howard (Simon McBurney) – has already been up to visit the bewitching mystic but can’t figure out any of her parlor tricks. Howard insists that she looks like the real deal.

In keeping with past practices, Stanley sets out to debunk her, as he has with many palm readers, seanse-seers and prophets and prophetesses past. Sophie’s the coquettish type but beneath her fawn-worthy veneer, she’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or so Stanley is intent to prove. When he lays eyes on her though, he’s just as likely to fall under her spell as he is to reveal her gambit for what it is.

That spell she so casually casts is as much misdirection as erection. Certainly not hard to look at, she’s a soothsayer that soothes his sai of a personality. She may be an oracle but it looks like he just wants to cull some oral from her (Heyo!) And though it’s kinda icky having a 53-year old man ogle the 25-year old Stone, it sets the scene for some rib-tickling comedic beats, particularly when Firth’s firing off in sardonic, breathy outbursts.

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As the more carnal elements of unforeseeable affection takes the forefront in the later minutes, Woody’s film turns from a terse zing-fest into a cloying bout of love tennis; a ball-less Match Point, if you will. For it’s not Stanley’s courtship but his crustiness that churns out the chuckles. In truth, the deeper he falls for Sophie, the less compelling his character and the film as a whole.  

And then there’s Stone. For all Sophie’s underwritten flatness, Stone gives her all, grasping at straws to give depth to a plateau of a character. It’s unfortunate that Woody of all people would settle on characterization a la strawberry hair and sweet ta-ta’s but Stone’s natural hippy chic aura matches up nicely with Sophie’s blander elements.

Throwaway character though Stone’s may be, Firth’s is an absolute delight. The berserk pragmatist may be far preferable to the man suffering oleaginous love fits, but Firth plays both brilliantly, offering up one of the finest, and certainly most gut-busting, performances of 2014. Manic looks devilishly good on him.

Dissecting Woody’s latest is easier than scalpelling apart a frog. The three acts are built on loose seams, as easily identifiable as cheap Indonesian jeans. And though they might fit together awkwardly, like said pair of Indonesian jeans, you can’t but admire the brilliant recklessness of those first two acts. The result is further entrancing when backed by Darius Khondji‘s delightfully dated cinematography – characterized by a preternatural sense of natural lighting – and Allen’s delicately crafted old-timey but sultry musical score. Though Woody slips towards something far more muted and monochromatic in the third act, the beginning is so full of magic that you can almost let it slide. Almost.

B

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Out in Theaters: THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2

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Even with a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.2 on IMDB, and a 66 on Metacritic, it’s almost universally agreed that The Amazing Spider-Man was mostly garbage. Despite electric chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the story bowed to the whim of the bizarre and childish, painting a doltish picture that recycled much of Sam Raimi‘s 2002 original. That is when it wasn’t involved with a villain’s pea-brained attempts to turn the residents of NYC into lizards. It was so inexplicably dumb that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds Harry Osborn – as a penitent mouthpiece for director Marc Webb – pointing out the absurdity of the reboot’s web-footed plotting. Thankfully this latest iteration will leave children and adults stupefied for a (mostly) different reason.

Since the events of the first film, Spider-Man has become a symbol of hope, a harbinger of otherwise overlooked justice, a vestige of good. Hell there’s even a scene where he interrupts a gang of bullies picking on a schoolyard nerd. Topical with potential real world impact? Double check.

As the weight of his promise to “keep Gwen out of it” weighs heavily upon him, his most meaningful relationship is in a constant state of “Whosawhatsis?” Even in the midst of his own high school graduation, he blows off Gwen and his awaiting diploma to put down Aleksei Sytsevich – Paul Giamatti sporting a deliciously xenophobic Russian accent. It’s clear that Spider-Man is his priority numero uno.

During that riotous downtown spectacle, Spidey saves Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who goes on to court an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man that eventually evolves into electric-charged malice. More on this later. Between reacquainting with old pal Harry (Dane DeHaan), piecing together the clues of his parent’s mysterious past, getting it on with Gwen, beating down Electro, making skrilla with freelance photography, keeping hordes of bullies at bay, and you know, just being f*cking Spider-Man, there’s a spider lot on his spider plate. Little does he spider know that his little spider world is about to get totally spider rocked. End plot summary. 

Webb and his team of vix effects gurus have upped the ante by a significant margin, making Spider-Man’s in-air acrobatics simply stunning when not entirely nerdtastically jaw-dropping. Webb manages to offer a taste of variety in Spidey’s web slinging action, slowing things Synder-style or occasionally stopping time (it’s the web time to The Matrix‘s bullet time) and zipping around what blocking this way comes to fulfill a sense of Parker’s preternatural senses.

In doing so, his peppy camerawork mostly draws dumbstruck excitement but even manages to milk some dramatic gravitas, that is until Spidey’s web shooters go dry – or short-circuit. Webb’s direction sings when he stops the clock but its his knack for staging the big set pieces with rich, tactile aplomb that make him so perfectly suited for the job. Though Spider-Man will likely never be the best of the supers, what Webb is doing with his actions scenes (which are surprisingly sparse throughout the film) is certainly next level.

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But like Webb’s direction, Garfield and his cast of cohorts have also matured a bit, to the many thanks of this audience member. Without a noxious Denis Leary (though he does appear in ghost form) and a wasted Rhys Ifans cluttering up the stage, this installment makes way for a crew of all around better characters and welcomes the continued adoration of those cheering for the Gwen Stacy/Peter Parker (is that abbreviated to Pewen or Gweener?) romance. It results in a Spider-Man movie that’s notably darker, more confident and markedly better than its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its faults.

Thanks to Sony’s heinous marketing blitz that knew no bounds, I fully expected to be guffawing at Jamie Foxx’s transbluescent Electro and thoroughly put off by yet another iteration of The Green Goblin (the third in 12 years) but they were unexpected easy highlights of the film. What I did not expect was to be face-palming over the repetitive nature of Gweener’s intimate scenes. Their on-again-off-again love fumble harkens to Raimi’s annoying Mary Jane/Peter Parker ‘will they or won’t they’ saga but I guess I should just expect Parker to be as inconsistent about his girlfriends as he is about his attitude. Seriously, this guy is pretty much full-blown bipolar.

Oscillating between nice guy with face-breaking grin to prissy grumbler flinging things across the room like he’s Honey Boo-Boo three slices of Dark Forest cake deep, Peter Parker would benefit greatly from a chill pill. Since much of the film is dedicated to his wavering attachment to Gwen, Peter’s pretty much stuck on “mope” setting. Yet as Spiderman, he’s got more whip to his wisecracks than Mr. Epps in a cotton field. We see the seams between Webb’s (500) Days of Summer ways colliding with the action figure slinging studio heads.

Everything is cherries and cream inside that spandex onesie and yet whenever he peeks his head out of his costume, his real world problems weigh him down tremendously. Threading together Spider-Man’s iconic quip-heavy persona with a decidedly angsty Peter creates some tonal inconstancy that the film never manages to resolve.

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A similar complaint can be directed at the villain department. With two full villain arcs to charge through, neither Max Dillon/Electro or Harry Osburn/The Green Goblin are given ample time to settle before they’re shaken up and thrown ravenous at NYC.

For a man whose powers come from bathing in a pack of radioactive electric eels, Dillon/Electro’s initial hesitation about his role was actually surprisingly potent. Rather than immediately turn to evil (here’s looking at you Mr. Osburn) he’s like a man transported into the body of a bear, unaware of his true potential and yet armed to defend himself against hostile enemies. His puppy dog introduction wins over our sympathy even if his whole “destroy everything” mantra that later comes into play seems inorganic and cheap. As Dillon/Electro, Foxx embraces the ridiculous elements of a big blue dude made of electricity but never embarrasses his Academy Award trophy in the process.

And though Harry Osborn’s transition would have been much better and carried more gravity had he been introduced earlier in this iteration of Spider-Man, Dane DeHaan does magnificent work in his glider-bound shoes. Seriously, this guy is a revelation, smugly arriving on the scene to show up the smattering of veteran talent surrounding him. I’ve always loved DeHaan’s dramatic work but really appreciate something so campy and unhinged from him. He’s soulful but deeply maniacal, a Joker-lite. Is it too early to call him a menacing, young version of Leo? Time will tell.

Even set to the background noise of Webb and Garfield pondering leaving the series sooner rather than later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does move the puck forward a significant amount, setting up future installments that look to deviate further and further from Raimi’s beloved trilogy (ok first two are beloved, third is deservedly reviled.) With certain characters still in play and others notably missing from the picture, I have to admit that I’m actually looking forward to what’s next (especially the unorthodox sounding Sinister Six movie) rather than simply awaiting another mandatory installment…or four.  

C+

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Spiderman Dons a Fighterfighter Helmet and Hose in…Wait What?

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Ok, where to begin on this one? Deep breath. So it appears that spidey sense, web-shooters, and wall climbing abilities just aren’t cutting it these days as Spidey has taken up a new mantle as an amateur firefighter… helmet and all. It’s not really clear where this will fit into the events of the next film or if it’s maybe just a joke intended to stir the internet into a WTF frenzy but the high quality of the photo and the apparent effects erupting all around Mr. Fireman seem to indicate that this is actually an event that takes place within the film. Because there’s nothing that Spiderman can’t and won’t do. Just you wait until stripper firefighter Spiderman. I don’t know about you but I can’t help but laugh at this photo while simultaneously dreading how terrible the film will likely be. I humbly apologize though because you’re now undoubtedly dumber for having seen this photo.

While the first film in this controversially rebooted franchise saw the events of Sam Raimi‘s Spiderman and his origins mimicked to the nth degree and a very poorly realize baddie in Doctor Connors – a man/lizard intent on turning the rest of Manhattan into man/lizards – this followup will feature Jaime Foxx as a very, very blue Electro. Because why would you cast a black man and leave him with black skin? Also, Paul Giamatti will step in as a small role as the Rhino with speculation pointing towards an eventual gang of super villains in the form of the canon classics, The Sinister Six. Finally Spiderman 3 and it’s three villains will seem like a respite once these six start rolling along.

In a typical move of putting the cart before the horse, it seems that Fox cares more about the future of the franchise than the present, dumping villain names as if they’re movie gold. I, for one, am very over this property and am already waiting for it to default back over to Marvel. Go ahead and look at these photos of Electro, Peter, and Gwen with the knowledge that you’ll probably just end up complaining about this flick after it comes out anyways.

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Jaime Foxx as Electro

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Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker

The Amazing Spiderman 2 will see the return of director Marc Webb and stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone but also features a whole cast of new actors including Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul GiamattiFelicity Jones, Chris Cooper, and Sally Field. The Amazing Spiderman 2 opens May 2, 2014.