The match that became a circus

When I was coming out and learning about the various LGBT people who came before me, one of the images I saw repeated the most was the last shot of the absurdist tennis match called the Battle of the Sexes, when then-closeted Billie Jean King backhanded the ball past chauvinist huckster Bobby Riggs’s right and then he jumped over the net to shake her hand. Even though the whole event was clearly a money-making publicity stunt for Riggs, the result was an iconic moment for the women’s liberation movement in general and for women’s tennis in specific, and after King became the most famous lesbian in the world, for the gay and lesbian movement, too. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ excellent, crowd-pleasing Battle of the Sexes explores the story’s historical importance, the players’ fraught emotional lives, and, yes, the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

The film starts in 1973, when Billie Jean King, played with typical depth and charisma by Emma Stone, is 29 and has already won literally more than two dozen Grand Slam events in singles and doubles. She is one of the most famous athletes in the United States of either gender. Her and other women’s matches are as well attended as any of the men’s, but women players on the tour were being paid a tiny percentage of what the men were. United States Lawn Tennis Association, represented by its wildly sexist head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), refuses to increase the winnings; she and several other players form the Women’s Tennis Association and start a new, much better paid, tour sponsored by Virginia Slims.

While this is all going on, Billie somewhat reluctantly falls in love with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who had done the WTA player’s hair for their first news conference. Of the many beautifully shot scenes is Barnett giving an agonizingly sensual haircut to King; it made me, a gay man, hot under the collar. But King is still married to Larry (Austin Stowell), and 44 years ago, lesbian athletes could not compete, let alone get endorsements. (King lost all of her endorsements when she was outed in 1981 by Barnett’s palimony lawsuit, though this is never mentioned.)

Steve Carell is perfectly cast as Bobby Riggs, one of the world’s top players of the 1940s now playing and winning on the seniors tour. A famous jokester and huckster, he has a gambling addiction, which is causing great strife in his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Watching King complain about pay and form the WTA, Riggs decides that he can make a lot of money by declaring himself a male chauvinist pig and challenging famous feminist Billie Jean King to a match. She refuses, and he challenges King’s closest competitor and noted homophobe Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Court chokes and loses terribly. Now feeling that she has no choice but to play him, King agrees to a match that becomes a circus and is eventually watched by 90 million people.

Dayton and Faris made Little Miss Sunshine, one of the great feel-good movies of the last 20 years, and they create a similar thrill with Battle of the Sexes. They are replacing a child’s beauty pageant with a sports spectacle, but they retain the humanity even on the massive canvas. With Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy’s script, they’ve crafted a film that mixes the tropes (sometimes clichés) of the standard sports movie (challenge, training, setback, thrilling conclusion) with those of a civil rights “issue” movie (injustice, fight, success) and a star-crossed love story (seduction, reluctance, resolution). We are so well trained by these tropes to love and support King that people in the audience I saw it with actually cheered during the recreation of the match – even though the result was a given. Even though Dayton, Faris and Beaufoy are working with obvious themes, they resist going too far. Riggs is not demonized; he is a struggling clown, not a supervillain. King knew this. They were close friends until he died in 1995.

Battles of the Sexes
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Andrea Riseborough
Rated PG-13
Opens at your local multiplex Sept. 29

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A musical love letter to a fairytale version of Los Angeles

I relatively recently became a Los Angeleno, and among the many lessons I have learned since arriving is that the movies that taught me about L.A. are mostly bold, beautiful lies. I have long known that Hollywood is in the business of pablum, artifice and mythmaking; I’m a film critic, after all. But the extent of the fiction has only become clear to me as I’ve sat in traffic long to understand why road rage murder seems justified; I’ve witnessed the suffering of the city’s garish, inhumane poverty; I’ve met the people who write and direct and enact the lies. We believe the lies because the truth is too much to bear, and we tell the lies out of self-preservation as well as masochism. It seems fitting that as the country slouches toward fascism with a man empowered by reality television that the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the next Academy Awards is La La Land, a not-that-great musical love letter to a fairytale version of Los Angeles.

The film opens with a rewrite of the opening of Fellini’s 8 ½, in which Marcello Mastroianni’s anxious director is trapped in a haunting, terrifying black and white traffic jam. In La La Land, the traffic jam is in full, glorious color, and instead of writhing in agony as Mastroianni did, the drivers pop out of their cars and giddily perform “Another Day in the Sun,” a paean to up-from-your-bootstraps success in Los Angeles: “Behind these hills / I’m reaching for the heights / And chasing all the lights that shine / And when they let you down / You’ll get up off the ground / As morning rolls around / And it’s another day of sun.” It’s thrilling and funny and adorable, and, of course, a lie, since 99 percent of people who come to L.A. to be stars fail. But that’s not what La La Land is about. The movie is about wish fulfillment smothered in the gooey hooey that we sometimes call the American Dream.

At the end of the number, we zero in on two driver-dreamers, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). After growing up on old Hollywood films like Casablanca and Bringing Up Baby, she wants to become an actress, and she’s damn good. A gifted jazz pianist, he’s obsessed with the romance of old school jazz and wants to open a club to preserve that music. They are fueled by nostalgia and pluck, and their courtship is, considering that Stone and Gosling have legendary chemistry, as endearing as any classic romance that Mia watched as a child. As they fall in love, they support each other’s ambitions, and then there are obstacles and fights, and of course song and dance.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle (of Whiplash fame) clearly followed Stephen Sondheim’s advice to hire actors who can sing, rather than singers who can act. Gosling more or less speaks his songs, and Stone dumbs down her actually good voice to match his skill level – until one song toward the end when she’s allowed to rip loose. Neither of them can dance particularly well. Their tap number is cute, but mostly because it reminds you of better dancing from the old Hollywood musicals that La La Land is repeatedly referencing. Justin Hurwitz’s songs and score are cheerful and optimistic, like the film, and they fit perfectly within Chazelle’s sun-soaked, color-saturated postcard shots of Griffith Park, Santa Monica and the Hollywood Hills.

However, with all of Chazelle’s grand aspirations and inspirations – to make something like a cross between Singing in the Rain and LA Story, I think – it’s odd how his scope narrows quickly after “Another Day in the Sun.” The cast is underpopulated, with supporting characters existing only to get Mia and Sebastian to talk when they aren’t together, and Los Angeles becomes a backdrop to a rather standard romance. Chazelle only stages two truly big numbers, the opening and the beautifully bittersweet closing, with the vast majority of the film overly intimate and seemingly muted for such a massive canvas. The film tells two lies, then: Los Angeles is a paradise of opportunity, and the movie is about Los Angeles.

La La Land
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

Movies. 2014.

This year’s Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Movies starts with the list of my ten favorite movies of 2014 from LGBT Weekly and then goes into choices for excellences in various Oscar-ish categories as well as things like “prop chomping” and  “dystopian art direction.” It’s not quite as absurdly long and detailed as previous years, but I don’t have that kind of time anymore. And I’ve been sick. So there.

  1. [expand title=”Grand Budapest Hotel”]The-Grand-Budapest-HotelIn Wes Anderson’s greatest film so far, it is 1932 and the Grand Budapest Hotel is in its heyday. A treasure of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, it is packed with suited dignitaries and their bejeweled wives, and the regimented staff is legion; over all of it presides the hotel’s slightly foppish and nearly over-competent concierge M. Gustave, played by a miraculous, David Niven-inspired Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is not only devoted to his hotel, but also to the numerous lonely older women who frequent it, and his favorite is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), an 84-year-old countess who adores Gustave. When the countess dies, Gustave and his favorite bellboy Zero (Tony Revolori) go to the reading of the will. The countess’ dastardly son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) is livid that Gustave is given a priceless painting called Boy With Apple and demands that this never happen, but with Zero’s encouragement and help, Gustave steals the painting and returns to the hotel. The caper that ensues is thrilling and hilarious and full of idiosyncratic supporting figures played by the likes of Willem Defoe, Saoirse Ronan and Harvey Keitel. The actors are directed to such mannered behaviors as to be almost abstracted; they archly speak as if they have hopped out of a Roald Dahl or JD Salinger story, and they move like gorgeously drawn cartoon characters, sharply and exaggerated, influenced by slapstick and mime. The result is the opposite of natural or subtle, but Anderson’s direction, of actors and art and photography, communicates the themes and emotions – the sadness of nostalgia and growing up, the power of loyalty and courage – with something that achieves grace. On DVD.[/expand]
  2. [expand title=”Boyhood”]BoyhoodIn 2002, Richard Linklater cast a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke), and he filmed them as a growing, living, changing family over 12 years. Linklater deserves a slew of awards simply for overcoming such a film’s logistical difficulties – flighty children, lengthy contracts, the ravages of time and history – but he and his actors also managed to create a film as true to the emotional journey of childhood and modern American family life as any other movie in a generation. Like the life that Linklater is depicting, Boyhood does not have a plot as much as it has a series of vignettes focused around key moments in Mason’s childhood. The film feels like cinéma vérité, but the emotional power of the editing, the acting Linklater elicited from his actors both young and old (particularly Arquette, doing the best work of her career), and in the beauty of his landscapes and light is something we usually only see in finely crafted narrative films. Boyhood is not perfect – it’s long and rough in places and the plotting seems a bit forced at times – but it is nonetheless an extraordinary monument to the power of art, film and family. On DVD.[/expand]
  3. [expand title=”Under the Skin”]Under-the-SkinJonathan Glazer’s hypnotic masterpiece follows a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives around Edinburgh, stalking men, seducing them and then enveloping them in a gooey blackness. After an encounter with a disfigured man, she seems to develop introspection. She wanders into the Scottish countryside, pursued by mysterious men on motorcycles and less mysterious men with dirty minds. We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is. The audience needs to do a lot of work to piece things together, and this is often the hallmark of what we call “art films.” This kind of abstraction can become pretentious, but in Under the Skin, the abstraction is what makes the art. Glazer’s sublime use of the foggy Scottish landscapes, Mica Levi’s truly haunting string-heavy score, Scarlett Johansson’s brave and subtle performance and our own expectations of science fiction combine to create one of the most original and indelible films of the year. Streaming and on DVD.
  4. [expand title=”Only Lovers Left Alive”]Only-Lovers-Left-AliveA luminous, sublime, and brilliant Tilda Swinton plays Eve, an achingly-sweet, centuries-old aesthete who happens to be a vampire. Her similarly afflicted husband Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, is a glum musical genius who hides from the world, composing from afar, talking to no one but a clueless hired hand (Anton Yelchin) and his wife, but to her only over Skype. She lives in Tangiers, along with her friend Kit Marlowe (yes, that one, played by John Hurt), and Adam lives in a particularly dilapidated section of Detroit. She decides to come to him after he expresses more suicidally depressive thoughts about the weight of the world. During her visit, as they discuss history and art and their love, Eve’s crass and silly sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and creates situations that force this short story in the lives of Adam and Eve to climax in hunger and, of course, blood. Funny, haunting, weird and sad, Jarmusch’s movie is the rare one about the undead that is actually about the living. On DVD.
  5. [expand title=”Nightcrawler”]NightcrawlerLewis Bloom, played by a balls-out brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, is a nightcrawler, a freelance reporter who spends the nights wandering the city, waiting for a police scanner to announce a car crash or a murder that can be filmed and turned into the bloody local TV news. Lewis is pathologically ambitious, solicitous and aggressive, and he speaks almost entirely in the aphorisms of self-help books and online business classes, always with a broad smile and wide eyes, all the more creepy on his tightly gaunt body. He unnerves Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of a low-rated Los Angeles morning show, but he also brings in great footage, which she craves. How he does it, and how he plays Nina is what makes Nightcrawler thrilling and more than a little bonkers. This is the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, who pulls out Gyllenhaal’s greatest performance and gives us the best thriller of the year. The two are inextricably connected, because it is Gyllenhaal’s unexpected actions and off-kilter affect that kept me on the edge of my seat and muttering “wow” over and over. Gilroy also handles the car chases and random violence on Los Angeles’s iconic streets with skill, evoking the L.A. noir of Drive and Heat. The film is disquieting and, even at its most fantastical, somewhat believable. Lewis may not exist, but the stories that he records for Nina’s broadcasts do. We’ve all seen them. In theaters.
  6. [expand title=”The Lego Movie”]The-Lego-MovieThe Lego Movie is the greatest advertisement for a toy ever made, but it’s also a great movie in and of itself and easily the best animated film of the year. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in a city that runs with clockwork precision: Everyone is perfectly regimented, efficient, and properly tasked. Everyone loves the same song “Everything is Awesome!” and the same TV show “Where’s My Pants?” and their leader President Business (Will Ferrell). But the president is actually a dictator with a massive army of evil robots and nasty cops (the leader of which is voiced by Liam Neeson) at his command, and he is planning to destroy the Lego universe using a weapon called the Kragle. Is Emmet their prophesized savior? Some rebels (voiced by Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and others) think he may be, and hilarity and action ensue. Writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, in addition to mixing witty and sly adult-oriented jokes with kid-pleasing slapstick, work on multiple thematic levels, creating a morally and ethically complex film out of what could have been a cynical advertisement. The film sets up a battle between mindless, automated corporate capitalism on one side and creativity, freedom, and, in a way, mysticism on the other. It culminates in a surprising moving third act that left me in tears. And wanting Legos. Streaming and on DVD.
  7. [expand title=”Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”]BirdmanInnovative, hilarious, and moving, Birdman is film about theater, film, and actors, as well as regret, love, family, and, in a way, the meaning of life, and it soars. Michael Keaton is blockbuster star Riggan Thomas, who wants to earn respect by appearing on Broadway, so he writes, directs, and stars in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. His recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and his costar is lauded, but unhinged, method-actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). The film veers from slapstick comedy to melodrama, but the depiction of Riggan’s interior life makes the film wholly original. He has conversations with and sometimes becomes Birdman, the superhero he once played, and whether or not Riggan is crazy or actually super powered is never really made clear. But his depression and frustration and desire for relevance, to the world, to his daughter, and to his ex-wife, are all real. This is by far Keaton’s greatest performance, a true tour de force of versatility, believability, and emotional honesty. Keaton has never had material like Birdman, and he’s never had a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who elicited an epic performance from Keaton and an equally brilliant performance from Norton, whose Mike is a caustic, hilarious, nutty Lothario of surprising depth. In theaters.
  8. [expand title=”Stranger by the Lake”]Stranger-by-the-LakeThe power of lust is at the heart of this quiet, erotic, disturbing and very French film. Lithe and beautiful Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) comes to a lakeside beach every day to swim and cruise men. He is infatuated with Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed man with a particularly skillful freestyle stroke and a clingy boyfriend. One evening, Franck watches Michel drowning his boyfriend before calmly swimming to the shore, dressing and driving away. Franck does nothing, and the next day, Michel starts flirting with Franck. Despite some apprehension, Franck returns the affection and they begin to have trysts every afternoon. Still, Franck clearly worries that Michel will do to him what he did to his previous lover. The strange and almost cynical morality of the characters and the ever increasing tension about Michel’s potential make what at first seems like a bland sex comedy into something much more complex, metaphorical and even epic. It’s hard to know exactly what writer-directed Alain Guiraudie is doing, whether it is an existentialist homage to Camus’s The Outsider or just the story of how far lust and connection can warp a man’s moral compass. The lack of clarity in the Guiraudie’s message makes the film’s sex more disconcerting, but also more powerful. Streaming and on DVD.
  9. [expand title=”Wild”]WildReese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild is based on. Like the book, the film is partly autobiography and partly the story of her six month trek of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. This experience is powerfully cathartic to Cheryl; she has just extracted herself from a failed marriage, an addiction to heroin and some extravagantly self-destructive habits that seem to have been a failed coping mechanism to deal with the grief over losing her mother. While Cheryl walks and hikes and gets blisters and nearly starves and narrowly escapes rape and hypothermia, her earlier life is shown in flashbacks, many of which feature a luminous Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose direction made Dallas Buyer’s Club vastly better than its screenplay, took Nick Hornby’s script and crafted a visual and emotional experience that goes far beyond the words, either Hornby’s or Strayed’s. Vallée dwells on the beauty of the landscapes without sentimentalizing, shows Cheryl’s bad habits without being prurient, and guides Witherspoon and Dern to flawless and naturalistic performances. In theaters.
  10. [expand title=”Snowpiercer”]SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho’s first English-language film is astonishing, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films. The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train. In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, the film takes you on a shocking, weird and wonderful journey unlike anything offered in American films in years. Streaming and on DVD.

locke-poster1-404x600Honorable Mentions: Locke, Foxcatcher, Begin Again, The Homesman, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Love is Strange, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Way He Looks, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pride, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash.





Moore in MapsMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Lead Role: Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as she vanishes into Alzheimer’s in Still Alice and hilariously frail as an aging starlet in Maps to the Stars; Tilda Swinton is an incandescent vampire aesthete in Only Lovers Left Alive; Tom Hardy is heroically ethical in the monologic Locke and heroically criminal in The Drop; and Jake Gyllenhaal is the best sociopath since American Psycho in Nightcrawler.

birdman-keaton-nortonMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Supporting Role: Ed Norton is hilarious as the maniacal narcissist in Birdman; Emma Stone has insight and charm for days as the Birdman’s daughter in Birdman; Ethan Hawke is a haphazardly responsible dad in Boyhood; Laura Dern glows in Wild; Tilda Swinton is a toothy and hilarious postmodern Eichmann in Snowpiercer.

still-of-steve-carell-in-foxcatcher-(2014)-large-pictureMost Excellence in Prop Chomping and Scenery Munching: Steve Carell’s prosthetic makeup and WASPy speech impediment are intermittently hilarious and pedophile-creepy in Foxcatcher; Meryl Streep is witch-tastic as the Witch in Into the Woods; Bryan Cranston is CRAZY! as the MAD! scientistic who is actually SANE! in Godzilla; the crazy ladies of The Homesman screech their psychopathologies, play with dirty dolls, and stare off into space.

Snowpiercer movie2Most Excellence in Dystopian Art Direction: Since not one of the many scifi dystopias this year depicted a particularly original world, no one wins. Snowpiercer wins an Honorable Mention for the gorgeous, Fauvist, idiosyncratic train, which was brilliant but looked more like a Terry Gilliam film from 1980s than a vision of the future. Tied for Dishonorably Cliched: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Interstellar, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.

domMost Excellence in Unbelievable Homosexual Hair: Dominic West in Pride. It’s cute movie but only truly interesting because the queer activists helping the striking miners in Thatcher’s early 1980s plot is true. Otherwise, it’s just Harvey Milk joins the cats of the The Full Monty, and not in a good way. West plays Jonathan Blake, one of the Britain’s longest surviving people with HIV, and he’s not remotely convincing as disco queen, partly because of his affect, mostly because of his hair, which is just ew.

rocket-raccoon-guardians-of-the-galaxy-2Most Excellence in Superheroics: Rocket Raccoon. Because he’s a fucking raccoon space pirate. Chris Pratt is awesome in so many ways except for being a raccoon, which he’s not. And Rocket Raccoon is.

Most Excellence in Making Things Difficult for Movie Reviewing: The Los Angeles publicists who make it so very difficult for me to review movies. You don’t know who you are because you don’t even read my emails.

Ew. Just ew.

One of the problems Woody Allen faces when he is trying to defend himself against charges of pedophilia is how often the male protagonists in his films, usually well into middle age, pursue and win the affections of much, much younger women. Most notoriously, he cast himself, at age 42, as a man dating 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in 1979’s Manhattan; this year, he revealed this story was based on his relationship with a high school student he met on the set of Annie Hall. In 1991, Allen left his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow for her 19-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-yi Previn, who Allen has been married to since 1997. Dating women just above the age of consent is not pedophilia, of course, just very often icky, but Allen also been accused of molesting his and Farrow’s daughter Dylan when she was seven. Allen vehemently denied the charges, but that scandal was omnipresent in the early 1990s, even after the police decided they did not believe Dylan and a judge found the charges inconclusive. However, the charges reappeared last winter, when Dylan, now named Malone and an adult, repeated them in detail to Vanity Fair and then in an open letter in The New York Times. This set loose a deluge of blog posts, tweets, and status updates taking either Malone or Allen’s side, with everyone claiming to know a truth that time and emotion have made impossible to determine.

Rarely does Woody Allen use his films to comment on politics, let alone on his personal life. Neither his break up with Mia Farrow nor his relationships with Soon-yi seem to have been fictionalized in any concrete way. He often focuses on issues of love, shame, class, and beauty, but finding the connections in Allen’s plots and character to his actual life has been folly. That said, in his latest film, the slight romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight, the connection and the commentary seem rather clear, making obligatory romance between the middle-aged man and much younger women much ickier than ever.

In the 1920s, Colin Firth plays Stanley, a stiff British rationalist who does not suffer fools gladly yet happily makes money fooling them as a stage magician named Wei Ling Soo. After a show one night in Berlin, an old friend and fellow magician named Simon (Simon McBurney) visits and asks Stanley if he’d be willing to come to the French Riviera and help unmask a woman pretending to be a psychic whose act is particularly skillful. Exposing fakers is one of Stanley’s favorite hobbies and his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) lives nearby, so he agrees. Upon meeting Sophie (Emma Stone), the mystic in question, Stanley pokes and prods the beautiful, young American, but he is increasingly unnerved as she seems to be able to read his mind and know things only a psychic could. Within days, he is as taken in by her as the rich family she and her mother is staying with who has been hanging on her every word. The son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is in love with Sophie, who is coyly weighing his marriage proposal. But now Stanley is in love with her, too.

The film is, as all of Allen’s are, full of dialogue as witty, wise, and funny as the best written in English, and it is directed with the bounce and effervescence expected of his light comedies. Firth, who rarely plays anyone other than a witty fuddy-duddy does this particularly wonderfully, and Stone, the only young American actress who can compete with Jennifer Lawrence in a charm contest, is also delightful. They are cute together, but Firth is more than twice Stone’s age, and when they kiss, it’s truly creepy. But it is not as creepy as the connection between the plot and Allen’s life. Stanley is determined to expose the lie of a very young woman, a lie central to her and her mother’s survival. The lie, and the desire to expose and be taken in by it, seems to me to represent Malone’s claim of abuse and the ease by which people believed it. By the end of the film, Allen makes a pretty clear statement about magical thinking, but the resolution is not comforting for those discomfited by Allen’s predilections.

Magic in the Moonlight
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, and Eileen Atkins
Rated PG-13

Born to die


My biggest peeve with many comic book movies is how much they divert from their source materials (the worst is culprit being the X-Men films.) However, Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies, whatever liberties taken with plot points, did not change the essence of Peter Parker and his alter ego: He was a teen-aged orphan who was bitten by a radioactive spider and turned into an angsty, wise-cracking do-gooder superhero who could stick to walls, lift a hell of a lot of weight, and swing on webs shot from his wrists. He was torn by his commitment to the great responsibility that came with his great power and his love for both his Aunt May and the woman he loved, Mary Jane Watson. When Marc Webb rebooted the franchise two years ago, he kept most of these key elements, this time casting the wonderful Andrew Garfield as Peter, but instead of having a new Mary Jane, he cast the even more wonderful Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Peter’s girlfriend from the 1960s and 1970s comic book. While this decision definitely makes the reboot more similar to comic book, Webb has yet to achieve either the emotional power or the adrenalin rush of Raimi’s excellent first two films. (Raimi’s third is was awful.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts shortly after the events in the previous film. Spider-Man is a superhero-about-town, trying to balance his heroics with his relationships with Gwen and Aunt May (Sally Field). Peter promised Gwen’s dying father that he would stay away from Gwen to protect her from his dangerous life, and he breaks up with her for that reason. Of course, that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile, Peter’s childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, doing the exact same creepy whiney thing he does in every movie) inherits his father’s massive biotech company, which employs both Gwen and Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an electrical engineer with something like Asperger’s Syndrome. Harry’s dying father Norman tells Harry that the disease killing him will also kill his son. Harry is determined to find a cure and discovers that old experiments conducted by Peter’s deceased father (Campbell Scott) created the spiders that gave Peter his powers and may also save Harry. Around the same time, Max gets shot with a zillion bolts of electricity and falls into a tank of electric eels and is turned into Electro, a mentally unstable human lightning bolt. Somehow all of this swirls together into a typically overstuffed – though mostly coherent, in this case – comic book movie plot.

While Foxx and DeHaan munch on a good amount of CGI scenery being crazy and dastardly, the scenes between Garfield and Stone and Field are lovely. Garfield is a more relaxed and much funnier Peter than Toby Maguire was in Raimi’s films, and his dialogue with Stone is so sweet, wry, and believable that I wished Webb had directed them in a romantic comedy instead of a superhero film. Garfield’s scenes with Field are similarly affecting. Unfortunately, half of the film is focused on clichéd superhero action that may have might as well been animated.

Spoiler alert: Halfway through The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I remembered the whole point of Gwen Stacy: She is there to die. Most Spider-Man fans probably only think of Peter Parker being with Mary Jane Watson, but in for the first decade of his character’s existence, he is with Gwen, a character and a relationship then beloved to fans. In 1973, just as in this latest film, she is killed during a battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. The reverberations of Gwen’s death was expansive in the Marvel Universe, and to comic books in general, as it marked the end of the optimistic innocence of superheroes and a turn to darker stories. It is clear from the last ten minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, her death has profoundly changed Webb’s version of Peter Parker and, assumedly, this change will be central to the plot of the next movie. Whether this will lead Webb to create a more interesting and compelling film is debatable.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Dane DeHaan
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex
Unnecessarily in 3-D