December 30th, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014) ****

I have to say that Magic in the Moonlight was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2014. After the critically acclaimed, but essentially cold and turgid Blue Jasmine, I went into Woody Allen’s latest with next to no expectations. What I got was not only one of the best films of the year, but it’s also Allen’s all-time best. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, and sure, I’ve only seen about half of Woody’s output, but I enjoyed this much more than many of his better-known works.

Colin Firth stars as a renowned magician in the Roaring ‘20s who is out to debunk a mystic (Emma Stone) expose her as a phony. As he spends more time in her company, he slowly becomes more and more enchanted with her beauty. Pretty soon, Firth comes to believe she might be the real McCoy, which throws his uptight world into a tailspin, and eventually he falls in love with her.

I loved how Allen perfectly captured the time and place. Firth’s stage act was extremely well done and Stone nicely embodied the flapper girl mentality of the era. The banter between the two is some of the funniest stuff Allen ever wrote, and Stone and Firth’s chemistry was really something to behold. The last third of the flick is where it really gets you. Allen throws in a bevy of plot twists (some expected, others less so) that in lesser hands would’ve seemed cheesy.

The reason it all works as well as it does is Firth. He is the man in this movie. Firth manages to do something rather tricky: He is extremely likeable, even when doing and saying increasingly dickish things. Even when he finally overcomes his own ego and professes his love to Stone, he still sounds like a pompous jerk, but a rather hilarious one at that. There’s a terrific sequence when the self-professed “man of reason and science” actually turns to prayer that is equal parts hilarious and heartfelt that ranks as some of the best acting you’ll see all year. Firth also perfectly takes the cadences of Allen’s dialogue and gives them a deft English twist, which makes for a match made in Heaven. Woody, Firth needs to be your go-to leading man for now on, if you want my two cents.

BIG EYES (2014) *** ½

Big Eyes is the least Tim Burton-y movie that Tim Burton has made. However, it’s a quite entertaining film that has a lot to say about an artist’s honesty and integrity. As one of the world’s leading eccentric filmmakers, I’m sure this subject touched a nerve with Burton.

Written by Burton’s Ed Wood screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes tells the real-life story of artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who paints pictures of big-eyed children. Her egomaniacal and overbearing husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), a failed artist himself, passes the painting off as his own in order to make a sale. In the beginning, Margaret goes along with the lie to sell the paintings, but soon she becomes dominated by her husband’s demands for more product. While Walter becomes a sensation, going on television and coming up with increasingly successful promotions, Margaret is locked away in a little room cranking out painting after painting. Finally, she has enough, leaves her husband, takes him to court, and exposes one of the biggest hoaxes the art world has ever seen.

What makes Big Eyes more than just a domestic squabble/courtroom drama movie is that it doesn’t shy away from Margaret’s part in the hoax. At first she is quite culpable, as she allows her husband to take credit for the work. Once she sees his true money-hungry nature, she finally defies him, and the film is at its best when it shows the emotional and spiritual toll the hoax takes on Margaret.

Waltz is excellent as Keane. He does a great job at manipulating Margaret while seeming charming and seductive. Adams is also quite good, especially when illustrating her character’s moral dilemma.

There’s only one real scene that feels like a Tim Burton movie though. That comes when a guilt-ridden Margaret goes to the grocery store and is stalked by big-eyed customers. This sequence is pretty cool, and you wish there were more of these Burton touches throughout. On the other hand, I think it was nice to finally see some restraint coming from Burton. I don’t know how many Alice and Wonderlands we could stomach.

HELLCATS OF THE NAVY (1957) ** ½

As a fan of director Nathan (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) Juran, I owed it to myself to finally check this out. Due to Juran’s schlocky, but fun resume (he also directed 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Deadly Mantis, and The Brain from Planet Arous the same year this was released) I was expecting this flick to be kinda hokey. I mean, it stars Ronald and Nancy Reagan for God’s sakes. Trust me, parts of this movie are hokey, but Hellcats of the Navy is actually a pretty decent submarine film.

Ron stars as a WWII submarine captain who has just broken things off with Nancy. While in the ocean fighting the Japanese fleet, he makes a tough decision that causes the death of one of his crew, who just so happens to be dating Nancy. Ron’s second in command (Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’s Arthur Franz) thinks the decision was a personal one, and the two butt heads at almost every juncture. Eventually, Ron and Nancy get back together and when it’s Ron’s turn to be left high and dry, Franz soon learns how to make tough decisions at sea.

The thing I liked about Hellcats of the Navy was that Ron isn’t a clear cut good guy. He’s made some bad choices and puts his men in mortal danger more often than he should. However, he does feel guilty about it, which shows he’s a man who is aware of his own moral shortcomings.

I also dug Ronnie’s crew, who spend an awful lot of time fawning over pin-up girls and shooting craps. Seeing a young Joe (The Shining) Turkel aboard the sub was pretty cool too. I also love how that in every ‘50s Navy/Army/space movie, there’s always that one guy from Brooklyn who wears his hat with the brim flipped up.

A lot Hellcats of the Navy is dull. Juran’s handling of the sub battles is pretty chintzy too (there are a couple of obvious toy boat shots) and the excessive use of stock footage gets to be too much at times. Still, just seeing the future President and First Lady together on screen is cool enough for most people to want to check it out.