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‘IF’ sweetly magical, but ‘Back to Black’ fails both star and subject

May 16, 2024 11:19AM ● By Jenniffer Wardell

IF (in theaters) 

Magic isn’t something you have to let go of, no matter how old you get. 

That’s one of the messages at the heart of “IF,” a lovely little fairy tale of a movie designed for kids and the kid inside all of us. It’s quieter than you’d expect from the trailers, not to mention Ryan Reynolds’ entire acting career, but it’s also warm, sweet, hopeful, and just the right amount of silly. It’s so light and soft that the ending kind of sneaks up on you, but by the time it’s done there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself getting teary. Whether it’s about your kids, your own childhood, or the imaginary friend you’ve never forgotten, they’ll be happy tears. 

In the movie, a young girl who lost her mom years ago briefly moves back in with her grandmother while her dad is sick. While she’s there, she runs into a strange man who can see imaginary friends and is trying to help them all find new homes. When she decides to help him out, she kicks off a magical adventure that will change her life forever.

Though the imaginary friends are a who’s who list of celebrity guest voices (including a surprising appearance by none other than Brad Pitt), the real crux of the movie is Cailey Fleming’s relationships with both John Krasinski and Ryan Reynolds. Though the three are connected in unexpected ways, you’ll feel the sweetness of the bonds between them early on. 

Grade: Three and a half stars

Back to Black (in theaters) 

Both Amy Winehouse and Marisa Abela deserve better than this movie. 

“Back to Black,” a fictionalized biopic of Amy Winehouse’s life, flattens and cheapens the complex, heartbreaking story of Winehouse’s life into simple romantic disappointment. This is a woman who struggled with bulimia, the stress of celebrity, and toxic relationships, whose most famous hit was about her abject refusal to go to rehab for her addictions, but “Back to Black” only touches on those points. The real source of Winehouse’s heartbreak, according to director Sam Taylor-Johnson, was a consuming desire to become a mother with her equally drug-addicted ex-husband. 

Not only is this deeply insulting to Winehouse’s memory, reducing her life to a rumor started by the aforementioned ex-husband, but it also leads to a desperately boring movie. The one saving grace is Marisa Abela, who captures Winehouse with all the charisma and power we remember from the singer’s performances. She does a wonderful job of bringing her ferocity and emotional complexity to life, to the point that it brings the failures of the rest of the movie into that much sharper a focus. It’s an excellent performance, and in a better movie it might have been award-winning. 

If you want a real look at everything Amy Winehouse was, go watch the excellent 2015 documentary “Amy” on Cinemax or rent it from Fandango at home. If you want to see what Marisa Abela is capable of with better writing, go watch the series “Industry” on HBO. Both of them deserve to be seen more clearly than anything “Back to Black” can offer. 

Grade: One and a half stars

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