The Favourite movie of the year is…

…not The Favourite. However, the period aspect of it is well done, and it engages from start to finish: its greatest accomplishment.  I also very much liked the use of super-wide angle lenses.  The story stumbled in the home stretch, and the end left me dissatisfied.  In other words, there could have been more, but it wasn’t bad.  I suppose you could say that about any movie in the 3 to 8 range.

How’s that for cogent analysis.  7/10

PS To clarify, The Favourite may well be “the” favorite film this year, in the sense that it is sure to rack up many awards including very possibly the big one.  It’s just a couple pegs south of my favorite.

Comparison Notes: Dangerous Liaisons / Valmont / Cruel Intentions, Mother, Requiem for a Dream, Ridicule (1996), The Little Hours

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Film Brief: Battle of the Sexes

If you’re looking for a respite from all the Friday the 13th movies this season, I’ve got just the ticket.  There’s something very vanilla about Battle of the Sexes, with direction — by two people — that adds up to a perfect cross of competent and after-school amateur hour.  But the movie does a decent job showing how prevalent and readily accepted sexism was in the early 70’s, to the point that it almost seems contrived.  And these well-played characters were fairly endearing, so 6/10.

Note for period filmmakers out there: don’t show skyscrapers in your movie that won’t be built for 10 years.  NG (not good).

Comparison Notes (recommended): Frost/Nixon, Foxcatcher, Best of Enemies

Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

la-la-land-poster

I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

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Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

The Great Expectations of an Irrational Man

Irrational Man - poster med

Sometimes critics just don’t get fun films.  With a lame title — that I’ve now warmed to, equally lame poster art, and a Tomatometer score of 39%, I was expecting to be bored or annoyed with Irrational Man.  But Joaquin Phoenix intrigues me, and so does Woody Allen, and Emma Stone doesn’t hurt the cause — so I decided to give it a shot.

The Rotten Tomatoes consensus could not be more wrong:

Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply

Malarkey!  Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best effort, but this is a delightful, fun film.  A little clunkiness hampers the early going, and throughout there is a light air of contrivance that encumbers even his better films of late, such as Blue Jasmine.  That didn’t prevent Blue Jasmine from being one of the best films of 2013; Irrational Man is not up to Blue Jasmine’s level, but it is still quite entertaining, and Woody Allen deserves credit for making a very different movie here.  He may not knock it out of the park every time, but his pictures prove fresh and inventive from one to the next.  7/10  Irrational Man - text block

Bravo, Epix!

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS that a concerted effort is being made to dissuade consumers from paying for conventional TV services, e.g. cable and satellite.  The first shot across the bow was the NBC Hollywood Sessions - text blockpurchase of Bravo, and NBC’s subsequent dismantling of Bravo.  At one time Bravo was an excellent channel, providing film and performing arts programming that bested PBS.

Inside the Actors Studio was born of this period, and I remember a fantastic profile of Björk (tag-lined “People We Like”) which was done while she was recording Homogenic.  Apparently Inside the Actors Studio remains on Bravo, though I hardly see the point.  First of all it is broadcast so rarely that I haven’t seen it in years, and secondly it’s so discordant with the dreck that occupies the entire Bravo lineup that it can do nothing but suffocate.  That various “real housewives” are now considered celebrities is a sad commentary about our society.

The next shot hit square-on when IFC and then Sundance renounced commercial-free indie movie programming and replaced it with decidedly inferior programming filled voluminously with advertisements which completely ruin any worthwhile movie that finds passage.  That was a sad devolution, as quite a number of great little indies I discovered on those channels.

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Nothing has arrived that can fully take the place of IFC, Sundance, and pre-NBC Bravo, but as with any vacuum new options have popped up.  The biggest is streaming media.  Browsing for films using iTunes movies via Apple TV is fun.  My watch list has grown to hundreds of films, I reckon — I just wish I could commit to watching one every now and then.

And there are new movie channels, though as more of us become cord-cutters the longevity of said channels may be in doubt.  One of the best is EPIX, which I posted on a while back regarding their showing of Nebraska and the Altman biopic.  Well I was a little surprised when I ran across a show late last night called Hollywood Sessions, a very dignified interview program featuring Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton, Laura DerEpix - Hollywood Sessions capturen and Patricia Arquette — a round-up of best supporting actress nominees for 2014.  All were seated about a coffee table and asked questions in turn by two journalists.

Well the spirit of early Bravo was swept right back to me!  I was only able to watch a few minutes before heady-to-beddy, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  Hollywood Sessions include four other programs, with 2014 candidates for best actor, actress, supporting actor and director.  EPIX has made each program available online in a friendly, commercial-free format, or check your listings.

Birdman, in the Flesh

Birdman - posterI liked Birdman, but not the way critics did.  It features a tour de force both in its performances and production, a film executed in whirlwind non-stop frenetic fashion that will hold you from start to finish.  It deserves high accolades for its successes.  But I found the story too monotone, or put another way Birdman has trouble breaking free of its self-imposed Alcatraz.  So for all its virtues, my mantra is: story matters.  It matters more than anything else, and when it is constricted so is the end result.

Part of my problem with this movie also lies in its marketing and primary trailer, which I think misrepresent the film as more of a superhero tale, and less one of the mad scramble of a man on the edge, fighting for survival while exorcising his demons.  Both Crazy Heart and The Wrestler better illustrated this dynamic.

But the movie-making virtuosity of Birdman is astonishing.  It’s one of those rare films I wouldn’t mind watching again someday, just to study the technique.  And one last note: I recommend Birdman, but it’s not for everybody — a good number of people will be flatly turned off.  7/10

Comparison Notes: Synecdoche, New YorkBoyhood

Birdman - text blockIf you watch the trailer, you’ll want to see Birdman.  Below is a more representative sampling.