Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Dir. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Just under a decade ago Robert Rodriguez changed comic book movies. With Sin City, he literally translated the art and style of Frank Miller's graphic novels onto the big screen, with a ton of beautifully crafted shots that felt peeled right from the pages. The neo-noir brought us a world of hard boiled detectives, hulk-sized thugs, leather-and-lace prostitutes, and one weird ugly yellow guy in a way that felt totally fresh and original. But that was a decade ago. Since then we've had a trove of previously "unfilmable" mature comic books brought to life like Zack Snyder's Watchmen, the 300 films, and countless others, and the novelty has worn off. The sequel, A Dame to Kill For, released way past its expiration date, feels like an outdated exercise in pointless pulp.
Dir. Phillip Noyce
For nearly twenty years Lois Lowry's Young Adult novel The Giver has been a bestseller around the globe. It tells the story of Jonas, a twelve-year-old who lives in a supposed utopia where there is no pain, suffering, needs, or wants and everyone is exactly the same. But when the community's mysterious Receiver of Memories summons Jonas to take his place, his world is thrown upside down as he learns what it was like to be human before the Sameness, complete with pain, suffering, and getting to know what a wet rope feels like. The film, coming on the coattails of other successful YA adaptations like The Hunger Games and Divergent, definitely feels "Hollywood-ized" in its execution, but does function as a serviceable sci-fi flick.
The book is very much about Jonas's struggle to keep all of what makes us human bottled inside himself, while the rest of his friends and family go about their extremely regimented lives. The problem with adapting the book is that most of this occurs to Jonas alone, inside his own head, which doesn't make for a good movie - you need action, adventure, romance, etc! The struggle for that "four quadrant" mega-success shines through here; the obvious one is changing Jonas's age from a pubescent pre-teen to a hunk that looks like he stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad (catering to the Twilight crowd, no doubt). The only actor given anything juicy to work with is Jeff Bridges, playing the titular Giver, and it comes as no surprise as this was his passion project for years (he serves as an executive producer). Meryl Streep plays a beefed-up version of a throwaway character from the book and doesn't have much spark (as opposed to a similarly villainous Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer), and much of the supporting cast, including Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, and, of all people, Taylor Swift, provide little more than a pretty face to the mix.
I did think that the style choices were spot-on however, and I give the filmmakers credit for actually making a good chunk of the film in black and white (which is integral to the story but easily could have been changed with the red pen of a studio exec). Jonas's perception of the memories was also well-handled, if simply done. The effort is clearly there, but ultimately, the film pales in comparison to the well-loved novel, and doesn't reach the heights of other recent entries to the genre, feeling more like an opportunity to cash in on a fad than making a real statement.
Magic in the Moonlight
Dir. Woody Allen
At age 78 I just hope to retain control of my sphincter muscles; Woody Allen is not only doing that, but is still crafting carefully-crafted pieces of cinema. Following Allen's workman-like approach to filmmaking (directing about a movie a year), Magic in the Moonlight is his annual film for 2014, suitably told with many witticisms, identity crises, beautiful cinematography, a great cast, and a warm nostalgia for the past. The story is about an arrogant magician, Stanley Crawford (C-C-Colin F-F-irth), who is sent to the countryside in an effort to debunk a supposed psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). But things get complicated, and despite him being married and her about to be married, the two start to find romance in the unlikeliest of relationships. This film may be slight, and does tend to drag a bit, but overall I found this to be a lovely little movie with enough life in its leads, script, and gorgeous visuals (including the sets, costumes, lighting, and Emma Stone, who practically pops off the screen) to make the somewhat predictable story worth sticking through for.
I give a lot of credit to cinematographer Darius Khondji on this one; the 1920's feel of the film is captured with such beauty, and the way the entire film was photographed is simply luscious (a word I rarely get to use outside of a Krispy Kreme). And I really hope this film is at least nominated for Best Costume Design come February, because every piece of wardrobe felt authentic and cinematic at the same time. I thought the leads were very charming, and without such a posh British gentleman like Colin Firth in the role, I think his character very easily could have been completely annoying and unsympathetic, but he knows exactly how to play someone like this and runs with it.
The worst part about the film, unfortunately, is the humor, which more often than not falls flat (one running gag involving a ukelele was nausea-inducing). The story is also incredibly predictable, and I would imagine some people might grow weary of the fact that Firth and Stone have a large age difference, especially in relation to Allen's personal history, but nonetheless, I had a pleasant time watching this film. On a pure sight-and-sound level I enjoyed this movie - it felt like taking a light summer stroll through a garden with an old friend - the old friend being Woody Allen.