Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday at the Movies - February 23, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Joss Whedon is set to have the biggest movie of the summer with Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to his billion-dollar film The Avengers. To prepare, we’re going back to his first film from ten (Ten!) whole years ago.

Serenity (2005) – Here’s the thing about Serenity: it is barely a film, and I don’t mean that as the snarky insult it might initially seem.  Bear with me.  What Serenity is is a two-hour epilogue to the television show about whose cancellation much consternation has been made amongst its cult followers.  Indeed, it is for those followers that the film exists, and though I liked the show when I watched it a few years ago, I have the feeling that I would have enjoyed Serenity a bit more if Firefly were fresher in my mind.  And look, I don’t suspect Joss Whedon is out to make a proper film here; there is so much about Serenity, up to and including its overall refusal to (re)introduce the main characters, that suggests Whedon is catering to a crowd of diehards.  That said, as someone halfway on the outside looking in (someone certain that full devotees will love it), I enjoyed Serenity even without fully remembering all the nuances of the Firefly universe.  The element I liked the most, even more than Nathan Fillion’s swaggering space captain Malcolm Reynolds (think Han Solo by way of John Wayne), was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous turn as a nameless apostle of the crooked transgalactic regime; Ejiofor does a very entertaining heartless disciple, a nice spin on the scenery-chewing villain most cinematic science fiction brings us.  The script has Whedon’s trademark sense of humor and an impressively tight cast of characters, though it does lose points for simply revisiting and not reintroducing or developing those characters (beyond killing a few off).

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week! 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

I’m really quite surprised that the marketing for Kingsman: The Secret Service didn’t make more of the fact that its central antagonist is named Richmond Valentine, a tycoon with a sinister plot set to culminate on the self-styled “Valentine’s Day.”  It is, I suspect, infinitely more preferable than the other film opening this weekend, 50 Shades of Grey; though vastly more violent and surprisingly more chaste, Kingsman ends up being at once a highly palatable deconstruction and a heroically rousing genuine article.

Repaying the debt he owes the boy’s father, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) springs local hoodlum Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) from lockup and recruits him to be a member of Kingsman, an elite espionage unit in the heart of Britain.  While Eggsy trains to earn a seat at the table, Hart (codename: Galahad) tracks the malicious misdeeds of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a blue-chip billionaire with dastardly designs on the planet’s future.

As with Kick-Ass, the previous collaboration between director Matthew Vaughn and comics writer Mark Millar, Kingsman: The Secret Service bears a curious relationship with the eponymous comic book by Millar and Dave Gibbons.  The film is very loosely based on the comic, in  the way that I think all of Millar’s work ought to be; Vaughn has taken the broadest strokes from the source material and done his own riff unfettered by fidelity.  Millar’s work always has a darkly cynical edge to it, refusing to pander to the reader’s expectations and instead shocking him with truly grotesque violence and profanity.  As before, Vaughn’s adaptation is more earnest, more interested in deconstructing and rebuilding a film genre than in disparaging convention.

A point-by-point comparison would be somewhat facile (EW’s done a “top five” if you’re interested – beware spoilers in the comments), but case in point – the book unfolds the mystery of who’s been abducting science-fiction icons.  Sidebar for a fun fact: the book opens with the abduction of Mark Hamill; the film opens with the kidnapping of a climate change scientist played by Hamill.  The film, however, tells us fairly early on that Valentine is the villain, and where the book derided Valentine for being a simpering nerd, Sam Jackson’s antagonist is steeped in deliberate camp because he’s a self-conscious throwback to the James Bond villains of old.

As someone who spent the last two years tearing through the James Bond film franchise, seeing Kingsman’s loving critique of the gentleman spy brought a warmth to my heart, one that overrode my occasional frustration with the film’s more excessive laddish humor (cranked up more than in any of Vaughn’s other work, alas).  The film gives us a very suave Bond-esque figure, promptly dispenses with him, and then gives us something even better in the form of Harry Hart, the role that Colin Firth seems to have been waiting to play.  His entire performance exudes a sense of, “Look, I’ve won the Oscar for playing royalty, thanks very much.  But what I’d really like to do is be James Bond.”  He came close with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (with his costar Mark Strong turning up here as Merlin, the Kingsman agency’s tech guru).  But Kingsman is Firth’s moment to shine, and boy, is he dapper as ever.  Jackson brings plenty of charisma as the villain, though honestly he’s just playing himself with a lisp (“Do I look like I give a ----?” could be either Valentine’s quip or Jackson’s response to a dull interview); Firth, on the other hand, is all class, the kind of man that every male moviegoer ought to want to be.

Throughout it all, though, Vaughn never fails to keep it fun, never sacrificing entertainment value for self-consciousness.  In part, this is because the characters are themselves reveling in the act of nostalgia, fondly recalling the quirks and clichés of James Bond and his similarly initialed comrades (Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, et al).  But the greater strength is that Vaughn doesn’t lean too heavily on genre, instead giving us resplendently engaging action sequences for which the allusions to monologuing villains and underground lairs are mere (but in the latter case, literal) set decoration.

As I’ve said before, the film does overstep itself every once in a while; there are a few references to real-life figures, the Westboro Baptist Church and Barack Obama among them (though Vaughn is nonsensically backpedaling on the latter), where the satirical eye becomes downright mean.  The “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence, however – which some reviewers have, tsk tsk, spoiled in their write-ups – is perhaps the most lewdly absurd of these tonal digressions, and in these moments it seems Vaughn allows the reins to slip.  Millar’s pointed disdain works amid the overall attitude of his work, but in the film adaptations, Vaughn is at his best when he’s working in a sandbox populated by wry witticisms and gentle self-reflexivity.

At two points in the film, one character cites a spy genre chestnut, only to be met with the response, “This isn’t that kind of movie.”  Honestly, I’m very much okay with that.  This is the kind of film I felt was promised at the end of Skyfall.  The moment when Bond enters the new M’s office – only it’s the same office from Dr. No – felt like an emphatic “And we’re back, only better.”  Kingsman is that next step, celebrating the best of the genre while moving in a decidedly modern direction.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much excited for Spectre (the next Bond film), but a Kingsman 2 would get my ticket dollar just the same.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is rated R for “sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content.”  The violence is comprised of several very bloody fight sequences, some providing very unflinching detail with some creative methods of killing; gunshots, knives, slicing metallic limbs, and hand-to-hand combat is all included.  The F-word abounds, in excess of 100 times, and one reference to an unusual sexual act is delivered for comedic effect.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Monday at the Movies - February 9, 2015

Welcome to the first “Monday at the Movies” of the new year.  Just in time for Valentines Day, a movie about a love triangle, though I defy you to find anything romantic about it.

Never Let Me Go (2010) – I don’t know anything about the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so I was instead drawn in by the impressive cast list – Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as boarding school chums who fall in love and seek atonement for wronging each other as children. But Never Let Me Go is not Atonement, that lush and lusty heartbreaker; it is, on the one hand, absolutely heartbreaking, albeit with a relentlessness that Atonement (for all its hopefulness and aspirations for forgiveness) lacked.  I really can’t articulate thoroughly enough just how unceasingly bleak this film is, and if that’s the point, then well done.  The central trio are all very credible, as are the child performers who play them at age 10 or so.  If you want to go into the film completely unspoiled, stop reading now, because I need to talk about a few things. First, the central conceit of the film is that its protagonists, as revealed about thirty minutes in, are genetic clones being bred for their organs, and if that’s not uplifting enough for you the moral of the story is, “It doesn’t matter how much time you get with the people you love, because you’re all going to die anyway, and it wouldn’t have been enough time even if you had a hundred years.”  The film, though unindictably crafted in every way, leaves such a gaping void in the soul of the viewer without offering anything to fill said void. We can’t even take solace in the frankly gorgeous direction by Mark Romanek, because it’s in service of this desperately despondent narrative. It’s a punishing pace to get to a finish line at which point the narrator ruminates on how little she has left and reveals that that, too, shall pass.  I truly wanted to like this film – I wanted to weep with it when I heard the premise – but instead I found myself unable to feel anything other than a crushing, Werner Herzog-like nihilistic despair.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, almost certainly with a review of Kingsman! 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

Since the debut of the Thomas Pynchon book on which the film is based, Inherent Vice has invited the admittedly somewhat clever pun “Incoherent Vice.”  What this appellation suggests, however, is that incoherence itself is incapable of being a virtue, a distinction I don’t think is fair to a film like this.  While I can’t yet vouch for the rewatch value, I found myself more than spellbound for the ride, regardless of its coherence.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a drug-addled private detective out to thwart his ex-girlfriend’s lover’s wife’s lover’s kidnapping plot.  Only it might not be a kidnapping at all?  It might be a real estate scheme, a government brainwashing trip, a narcotics underworld power grab, or maybe – just maybe – all in Doc’s head.

For those who don’t know Pynchon, Inherent Vice feels very much like The Big Lebowski, which is quite a high compliment coming from someone who’s only a mouse-click away from ordaining himself in the Church of Dudeism.  Taking a page from the slacker noir gospel of the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us that same bewildering sense that grand mysterious proceedings are afoot, if only our narrative guide were sober enough to perceive them. Indeed, Doc Sportello spends significant moments in stoned unconsciousness or blunt trauma-induced comas, trudging through the case compelled more by genre than by duty.

Throughout, a stellar ensemble cast drifts in orbit around Doc.  Where Anderson had recently proven himself with small-cast character studies like the riveting The Master and the incomparable There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice demonstrates his dexterity with multiple moving parts.  A-listers like Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro are here, as are comparative newcomers like Katherine Waterston as Doc’s ex.  Brolin in particular, in a role somewhat analogous to John Goodman’s in Lebowski, plays the heck out of a blustering cop with aspirations to act amid his own crisis of masculinity – the “motto panukeiku” scene, eliciting laughs as it does, also layers on a deep understanding of the character when Brolin reveals he comes to that particular restaurant “for the respect.”

For those familiar with Pynchon, though, Anderson captures quintessentially the novelist’s depiction of the experience of incomprehensibility, the disorienting sensory overload in postmodern America and the struggle to find meaning therein.  Viewers who report themselves feeling alienated may, I feel, have missed the point.  Inherent Vice is not the sort of film in which you can find yourself in one of the characters; this is a film not to be experienced but to be perceived, to be (dare I say it?) overwhelmed by.

Inherent Vice is delightfully overwhelming, if a bit overlong near the end of the film, but Anderson is a filmmaker who’s proven himself well enough to earn my playing-along for 148 minutes.  It is not the kind of film that will be embraced by everyone, but those of us who enjoy a bit of quirky surrealism starring some top-notch performers are in for something of a treat.

Inherent Vice is rated R for “drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence.”  Nearly every scene involves at least one illegal substance being abused, as well as dialogue littered with obscene dialogue of one variety or the other.  In one extended scene, a woman is seen fully nude while delivering what might be important expository dialogue, while a few other sequences involve fistfights and gunfire.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

Had this review come out before this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, I would have begun this review with all the intonations of a futurist predicting a nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch (one I don’t expect he’ll win, but it’s an honor to be nominated, right?).  Safely ensconced in 2015, however, the best I can do is say, “I would have told you so.”

Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and a genius codebreaker who developed a sophisticated piece of machinery to break the Nazi “Enigma” code during World War II.  With the help of fellow scientific wunderkinds (Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode among them), Turing develops his machine, amid flash-forwards that reveal just how rankly abused he was after the war.

When we look back on 2014 at the movies, we’re going to see a lot of things – the persistence of the superhero renaissance courtesy of Marvel’s best and a talking tree, the surprise revival of at least one career, glimmers of hope in the form of original, non-franchise films – but what stands out to me more than any of these is the abundance of science-oriented pictures.  Neil deGrasse Tyson ought to be proud; he’s on record lamenting the lack of scientific imagination in America these days, and I can’t help but feel 2014 has been an attempt to redress that wrong.  To recap:  Big Hero 6, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, now The Imitation Game.  Heck, I’ll even count Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

As for the historical accuracy of the piece, I’ve read that a fair bit of it takes creative liberties, all of which I think is in service of the dramatization and not at the expense of the truth.  The film conveys its message quite clearly and effectively, declaring what difficult work the codebreaking was and how ultimately immaterial Turing’s sexuality was in his work.  What matters to the film – and what should have mattered to his persecutors – was his genius and his service to his country, and the film’s sequences which depict the ill effects of Turing’s chemical castration are truly heartbreaking.

The heartbreak is entirely the fault of Mr. Cumberbatch, who rebrands his socially awkward Sherlock shtick in service of something less quirky and more earnest, the kind of performance which has been known to scream for awards but which smacks of none of the desperation so often found in such roles.  Cumberbatch’s Turing is quite natural, eager to get on with the job with none of the distractions along the way.  Because his performance is so totalizing, he does eclipse, unfortunately, his ostensible co-star Keira Knightley.  As Joan Clarke, an invaluable figure in the actual business of codebreaking, Knightley isn’t given as much to do, making her more ancillary than I might have liked.  Seeing the film from Clarke’s perspective might have been intriguing, though I understand The Imitation Game’s project is elsewhere.

Surprisingly, I will say that the film is very nearly stolen by Charles Dance and Mark Strong, who play two of Turing’s superiors during the war.  Dance plays the more standoffish military man, where Strong’s real life analogue was apparently also the inspiration for M in the James Bond novels.  While they’re clearly first and foremost foils for Turing, showing who he is by what they are not, Dance and Strong are consummate performers in the sense that they nail characterization within seconds of debuting on screen and continue to captivate.

I had lamented that The Theory of Everything was somewhat formulaic as a biopic, and in a sense the same is true of The Imitation Game, but I think it isn’t to the film’s detriment because The Imitation Game is a story that hasn’t been told (whereas Theory didn’t innovate as far beyond the “handicapped doing the remarkable” archetype as I would have liked, relying more as it did on the strength of Eddie Redmayne’s transformation).  On top of all that, it’s captivating in a way that manages to subvert the fact that the audience already knows the broad strokes of how the story will end.  I liked it, and I liked Cumberbatch; I’m glad to see him nominated, and though I’m sure the Oscar will go to Redmayne or to Michael Keaton, I hope to see more top-caliber work from him in the future.

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13 for “some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.”  There are oblique and passing allusions to Turing’s homosexuality, culminating in his prosecution for indecency.  The film addresses bullying and the cost of war, including one scene of bombing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

I had so desperately wanted to begin this review with the fabulous line given to Little Red Riding Hood:  “Nice is different than good.”  Unfortunately for the sake of the pun, Into the Woods is both nice and good, a fine close to what has been another good year for Disney and perhaps the more sober alternative to the relentless cheeriness of the nation’s current Frozen mania.

The film’s opener sets the stage best:  “Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom there lay a small village at the edge of the woods, and in this village lived a young maiden (Anna Kendrick as Cinderella), a carefree young lad (Daniel Huttlestone as the bean-stalked Jack), and a childless baker (James Corden) with his wife (Emily Blunt).”  The curse of a witch (Meryl Streep) sets these characters into a quest through the woods, where they cross paths with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a pair of narcissistic princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), and a Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp).

As someone unfamiliar with the stage play – and deliberately so, in order to take the film on its own terms – I can’t help but see Into the Woods as another fabulous step forward for Disney in its current phase of self-reflexive reinvention.  Those who don’t know the play might be surprised, as I was, by the film’s clever fake-out climax which delivers the “happily ever after” about forty minutes too early and then dissects just how untenable that ending would have been – warts, discontents, and unfinished business.  It’s smart stuff, the kind of revisionist fairy tale that we’re seeing played out in stuff like the Fables comics and, more closely to Into the Woods, the true-love fallacies of Frozen and Brave.

As for the lyrical elephant in the room, Stephen Sondheim’s trademark syncopated style of “talk singing” isn’t for everyone, and even folks who liked Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd adaptation from a few years back will find Into the Woods somewhat less melodic, governed more by motifs than catchy tunes.  For me, I liked the music enough to go out in search of the soundtrack, if only for the tour de force “Prologue,” a fifteen-minute introduction to all the characters and major plots that also gives us the whimsical eponymous chorus “Into the woods / It’s time to go...”

I like the music, but I’m sure it’s because the performers are all quite charismatic.  I can’t think of many actresses who could sell a line like “I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night!” – but, as the oft-quoted line from Modern Family goes, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.”  Streep, who did Mamma Mia! with more class than anyone expected, lends the Witch an equal dose of class, and she does wonders with the maternal scenes with Rapunzel as well as absolutely killing it in the witchier bits.  I honestly don’t have a bad word about any of the aforementioned cast, although I’ll throw in the two-cents that I really could have used more Johnny Depp.  Touted as a centerpiece of the ensemble cast, Depp only appears for about five minutes – which are captivating, don’t get me wrong, with his vaguely pedophilic Wolf devouring scenery and children in one fell gulp.

I think the reason I fell so fast in love with Into the Woods, aside from the equally captive audience sharing the theater with me, is that the characters are very well-crafted and – tragically, a rarity these days – eminently likeable.  Everyone, from the Baker and his wife to Red Riding Hood, has a story arc, compelling motivations, and at least one ingenious turn of phrase (either by smart rhyme or admirable manipulation of rhythm).  When things don’t go well for them, the audience feels it; when the characters triumph, we feel it even more.  This is a musical adaptation that remembers those of us who don’t already love the story, so director Rob Marshall works extra hard to get all of us swept away by the once-upon-a-times.

Ad while I’m on the subject of the captive audience, Into the Woods is an effortless crowd pleaser, even amid a somewhat gloomy ending.  There’s something for everyone in here, plenty of year-end spectacle and spectacular performances:  “It Takes Two” is a catchy and slyly romantic duet, where “Agony” is the musical number that’ll elicit the most laughs as the Princes compare male-privilege sorrows.  Into the Woods manages to be self-reflexive without being overtly cynical – “Careful the tale you tell” seems to be the moral of this story, and it’s evident that the filmmakers have been very careful indeed.  What more can I say?  I had an infectiously good time, escapism layered with enough narrative criticality not to feel like a brain-drain.  I’d happily go back into the woods once more.

Into the Woods is rated PG for “thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”  There’s fairy-tale discussion of curses and creatures, though the film darkens considerably in the second half when a giantess walks the earth and several characters die in emotionally-charged sequences.  The Wolf is played as a metaphor for sexual awakening with pedophilic overtones, while the Prince’s philandering ways lead to serious questions about seduction and fidelity.  All told, though, this is no less appropriate than most of, say, Disney’s late-90s offerings.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Taken 3 (2015)

If I were the kind of reviewer who did video or audio reviews, my write-up of Taken 3 would begin with a very clear and audible sigh of disappointment.  I’m not sure with whom or what I’m most disappointed – the film itself, the people who created it without much regard for it actually being a proper Taken film, or myself for possessing expectations some would consider to be unreasonable for a film bearing the alternative title Tak3n.

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), he of the “particular set of skills,” is framed for the murder of his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen).  Pursued by a police inspector (Forest Whitaker) who doesn’t take his skills for granted, Bryan works to clear his name, identify those responsible, and protect his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).

As repetitive it was, though not as offensively so as the brutally unnecessary The Hangover 2, Taken 2 established a formula for this sort of thing – someone goes to Europe, said someone gets “taken,” and Liam Neeson has to save them, usually with some artificial time constraint, and dismantle an unprecedented amount of foreigners to do so.  As patently silly as that premise sounds on paper, there’s something alchemical about the first Taken which made it solidly one of my favorite action movies of all time.

What we have here is a film that doesn’t do any of those things.  Instead, Taken 3 is formulaic in another direction, aligning it more closely with a very generic action film premise, the wrongfully accused protagonist against all the odds.  Aside from the fact that Bryan buys his daughter a large and not-age-appropriate gift at the beginning, there’s little in this character that resembles the man we met in the first film.  Even his special skills are supplanted by an overemphasis on technological research and a “secret hideout” in which Bryan’s friends do most of the skilled labor.

Taken 3 swaps out all of what made the franchise distinct with a script that could be substituted for any action hero at all.  Even the architecture of the film – man being framed – doesn’t fit with the Taken persona.  Forest Whitaker’s cop character seems out of place, too; he walks around reminding us how good Bryan was in the first two films, but he’s still two steps behind while running what appears to be his own parallel investigation into Lenore’s murder which revolves around, bizarrely of all, eating bagels found as evidence at the crime scene.

The film also does a dismal job of stepping all over the character of Kim.  Where Taken 2 had done a nice bit of character development by having Kim more actively involved in the action sequences and rescue mission, Taken 3 reduces her to bystander and then, as the film draws to a close, a sort of obligatory hostage.  To top it all off, she’s pregnant, a plot point which has nothing to do other than invoke paternalistic feelings of protectiveness, a very retrograde approach to female characters.  Much of the film feels dated, including its soundtrack and action editing, but the inability to do something at least a little creative/progressive with Kim is discouraging.

Taken 3 steps away from its immediate predecessor in another dispiriting way when it completely fails to follow up on what I felt was the best part of Taken 2, the beat in which Bryan wearily admitted, “I am tired of it all.”  I loved the idea of a man drawn begrudgingly into an endless cycle of violence and bloodshed, a man who just wanted to settle down with what was left of his family.  Instead, when the plot of Taken 3 really ramps up, Bryan doesn’t show any of that fatigue.  His revenge-o-meter goes from zero to sixty without hesitation, an inconsistency all the more surprising since Olivier Megaton directed both Taken 2 and 3 yet seems to have overlooked what could have made this film stand apart from all the other generic action outings. 

Then there’s the litany of actual film offenses, those moments of flawed logic and absurdities that stretch the boundaries of even the most suspended of beliefs.  The film includes, among other scenes that got me to laugh but not in a good way, a corpse whose wounds do not bleed and indeed which manage to heal postmortem, the collection of evidence that has no material value for the plot, and a Porsche which can outrun a small aircraft on takeoff.  Granted, the first film gave Bryan Mills near-superheroic abilities, but that’s something intrinsic to the character and, I’d argue, somewhat essential in the genre.  Don’t even get me started on the headscratcher of the plot, which is unnecessarily complex in a way that manages to be both predictable and borderline incomprehensible.

Taken 3 isn’t actually bad – it’s engaging enough and Neeson is still enjoyably gruff – but it is preposterous and, I think, ultimately unnecessary.  The real joy of Taken was that it felt fresh and brisk, and stretching it out over the course of two more films just doesn’t add enough to the equation to justify more movies.  My final analysis is that I want to run into the arms of the original Taken and hope that it hasn’t been sullied in the stretching.

Taken 3 is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language.”  The same standard of bloodless but very physical violence continues here, with gunshots, stabbings, and visceral punches.  Taken 3 has more car chases than the other films, as well as one F-word.

Friends, 2015 is not off to a good start.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Gambler (2014)

Wherefore art thou, William Monahan?  Whither went the man who won an Oscar for the screenplay to my single favorite movie of all time, The Departed?  Well, it seems we know; he had a hand in the dismal Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and now this.  The Gambler isn’t on par with the disappointing and ultimately unnecessary Sin City sequel, largely on the strength of the performances, but it is a tragically unengaging affair.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a literature professor and novelist with a gambling addiction and a laundry list of sharks (Michael K. Williams and John Goodman among them) to whom he owes money.  While he wrestles with his debts, he borrows money from his mother (Jessica Lange) and enters into a semi-illicit romance with one of his top students (Brie Larson).

As someone who has taught literature at the college level for some time now, I must begin by saying that the classroom scenes in The Gambler are halfhearted at best and, at worst, horribly ill-conceived.  They seem to serve only to introduce the character of Lamar so that he can be in place for the climax of the film, because top student Amy (more about whom, later) doesn’t contribute much.  It’s evident that Monahan hasn’t set foot in a classroom in a very long time, even setting aside the utter absurdity of placing Camus next to Shakespeare on a survey course syllabus.  Bennett’s class sessions, which oscillate between a packed lecture hall and a group of barely ten students, are longwinded, unfocused, with little to no actual literary content; instead, Bennett insufferably berates his students and himself until dismissing them early because one is sick of the other.

Maybe that’s the point, you suggest, to which I’m willing to listen – at which point, however, I respond that the very characterization of Jim Bennett is a colossal misstep.  Either he’s deliberately unlikeable, or Monahan’s script has failed the character.  I’m inclined to think the latter based on the film’s conclusion.  Without spoiling anything, the character pulls off an eleventh-hour personality change and becomes really quite clever – this after two hours of the gambling equivalent of Leaving Las Vegas.  I’m sorry, Gambler, you can’t be both an unflinching look at the woes of addiction and then go for the Hollywood ending.

Then there’s the whole problem with Larson’s character.  As near as I can tell, the sum purpose of her character is that Amy is someone with whom Mark Wahlberg’s character can have sex.  I’d forgive the script the intensely problematic aspect that Bennett has a relationship with a student if the script didn’t explicitly point out how inappropriate this is and then proceed to do nothing with that detail.  The worse crime is that the character is virtually devoid of personality and could be removed from the film entirely without any impact on the plot whatsoever.

None of this, incidentally, is the cast’s fault.  Wahlberg, Williams, and especially Goodman all turn in grand performances, and if the production starred rank amateurs I’d have walked out.  This holy trinity, however, does the best they can with the material, and my faith in them maybe even elevates the material.  There are a few really snappily-written monologues in the film, mostly leading up to scenes in which Bennett borrows money, monologues that make me long for the William Monahan with whom I fell in screenplay love.

If you’ll indulge the concluding pun, I think The Gambler is something of a gamble for moviegoers.  Either you’ll have the patience for the uneven screenplay or you won’t, but the game is rigged in favor of an unearned Hollywood ending amid a host of master showmen brandishing their hands.

The Gambler is rated R for “language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity.”  The language is as salty as the popcorn, rife with the F-word, and a brief scene in a strip club shows topless women.  Wahlberg gets roughed up a bit by the folks to whom he owes money.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

With the advent of awards season comes the inevitable onslaught of true story biopics, often shoo-ins for acting, costuming, and set design trophies.  The Theory of Everything is precisely that kind of film, exceptional in some regards but rather boilerplate in others – the result being a film that ends up being anchored more by its performances than what it does with them.

Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in a film that follows Hawking’s career as a graduate student and his inspirational success as a cosmologist in the face of a debilitating motor neuron disease.  Felicity Jones costars as Hawking’s wife Jane, torn between her love for her husband and the strain his physical limitations place on her.

I’ll begin by revisiting my claim that the Best Actor award is Michael Keaton’s to lose this year, thanks to his riveting turn in Birdman.  Let’s amend that and say that at the very least he’s going to be facing some very stiff competition from Redmayne, who in this role undergoes the kind of physical transformation the Academy Awards love so very much.  It’s a performance reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, with the exception that Redmayne plays a man in transition and so has the perhaps more difficult task of balancing the two (he’s remarked in interviews that the film was shot out of sequence; contrast this to Day-Lewis remaining in-character off-camera).

Hawking, who lends his signature voice for the role, has commented that he found the resemblance uncanny, and indeed Redmayne is very compelling as Hawking.  Mistaking the actor for the man is an easy misstep to make, so complete is Redmayne’s self-paralysis and his surprising ability to emote with only the movement of his eyes.  There’s a scene very near the end of the film (no spoilers) in which Hawking tells his wife he’s going to America, and the depth Redmayne is able to communicate with his eyes in that moment is frankly astonishing.

Jones is quite good as well, but her performance understandably takes a backseat to how riveting Redmayne’s work is.  What Jones adds to the film is a wonderfully emotional weight, the pain of the disease etched on Hawking’s body but fully depicted on Jane’s very existence.  Jones carries the romantic plot of the film too, as Jane’s love for Stephen is tested against his illness.  It’s the kind of film that makes you want to grab the hand the person sitting next to you and hold on until the end of time.  The Theory of Everything isn’t a “grab your fella” kind of film, but a call for a more profoundly spiritual kind of love, one that survives even (spoilers for real life?) divorce.

Speaking of real life, the problem with The Theory of Everything, secured by strong performances such as it is, is that the film is unfortunately very paint-by-numbers when it comes to the true-story biopic formula.  The film opens with the obligatory party sequence in which Stephen and Jane lock eyes; their courtship is engaging but somewhat preordained; the film ebbs and flows between successes and setbacks; the film ends with Hawking receiving the CBE and declining his knighthood.  Where the film focuses on Stephen and Jane’s personal life, I would have much preferred more on Hawking’s insightful scientific contributions, which were much more unprecedented than the familiar romance we’re given.

Surprisingly, the film does a very capable job of presenting thirty-second versions of some of Hawking’s more weighty contributions to science, but the bulk of its attention is on the love story, which is gracefully told.  The Theory of Everything rests on two very strong performances who tell a version of the story we’ve all heard a million times, but fortunately they tell it quite well.

The Theory of Everything is rated PG-13 for “some thematic elements and suggestive material.”  This film is really a light PG-13, almost a PG.  Some might find the depiction of Hawking’s illness (and the accompanying medical tests and procedures) distressing, while a few fleeting references to sexuality are mentioned.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday at the Movies - December 22, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Just in time for Christmas, The Cinema King gets to one he’s never actually seen before!

Elf (2003) – If I were to redo my “Top 10 Christmas Season Movies” list from two years ago, I imagine Elf would make the cut.  As the film began, between Bob Newhart’s nonpareil delivery and the credit “directed by Jon Favreau,” I knew I was in for a good time.  In the film that everyone else had seen but me, Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, an elf by adoption who discovers he’s a human being and sets out from the North Pole in search of his real father (James Caan).  Along the way, he falls in love with department store elf Jovie (a distractingly blonde Zooey Deschanel) and helps Santa (Ed Asner) recapture the Christmas spirit.  Elf utilizes the “fish out of water” plotline very well, juxtaposing Buddy’s wide-eyed enthusiasm with the cynicism of New York City but without going for either a laugh at Buddy’s expense or the moral equivalent of treacle.  What makes it a wonderful Christmas feature, aside from the music and the set dressing, is the way the film participates in the basic premise of most of the classic Christmas specials, that of the misfit who saves the day.  It helps that the cast, comprised of people who wouldn’t jump immediately to mind for the holiday season, is in top form, especially Caan who miraculously isn’t playing another version of Sonny Corleone.  Favreau, who makes a cameo, keeps the laughs coming, though, without ever resorting to the heavyhanded moralizing one might have come to expect from a Christmas classic.  No, the word of the day is “fun,” youthful and fresh, and I think I’ve found myself a new holiday tradition.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!  Have a holly jolly Christmas, all.