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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

During the Christmas season, we tend to see an uptick in New Testament movies, largely focused around the birth of Christ.  Early this year, we saw the Old Testament get a little representation with Noah, and now we’re turning to the second book with Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. But where I appreciated Noah’s steps away from the source material (odd though the rock monsters may have been), Exodus turns out to be too devoted to the text without taking advantage of the technical and narrative innovations the film teases.

Christian Bale stars as Moses on the eve of his step-brother Ramses’s (Joel Edgerton) ascension to the throne of Egypt.  After the revelation that Moses was born a Hebrew slave leads to his exile, a visitation from God (“I Am,” in the persona of a small boy) compels Moses to return to free his people, with ten plague-shaped assists from the heavens.

The first thing about Exodus is that it’s very competent. Scott’s direction of the action scenes recalls his good work on Gladiator, and the plague scenes are terrifying for their computer-generated precision.  And of course Bale is doing his usual top-quality work in a performance as Moses that sees him undergo at least two distinct physical changes, two major philosophical paradigm shifts, and frequent conversations with thin air that lack no conviction.

Edgerton is a great Ramses, as well, and the scenes leading up to the plague of the first-born are highly effective.  It’s a shame, though, that some of the editing in the film turns his public executions into punchlines, compromising a more nuanced performance by equating it with mustache-twirling villainy.  Exodus recovers with a strong supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and John Turturro as Seti I.

These are all great performers, but they’re not given terribly much to do.  Kingsley is basically shorthand for gravitas, meant to lend weight quickly to the Hebrew elders, and he manages to check off another ethnicity on his career’s bingo card without having much to do outside of two or three scenes.  Ditto for Paul, whose role as Joshua should have been the Robin to Bale’s Batman, so to speak, but he’s mostly set dressing with an unconvincing accent.  Weaver and Turturro are out of the movie in about twenty minutes; a subplot in which Weaver wants Moses dead peters out rather quickly.

The idea that Ramses’s mother is plotting behind his back to assassinate her stepson is a fascinating one, but the film doesn’t know what to do with it.  This is actually a major problem with Exodus because it has so many opportunities to make an original stamp on the Moses story, but it never commits to any of those.  The apparent emphasis on the brother relationship between Moses and Ramses seems like the centerpiece of the film, but it too fades away, never really delivering on even the basic comparison of the two men as leaders of opposing armies (teased by an opening shot of a priestesses reading offal).  Even the idea of God appearing as a small boy is a neat riff, but it’s never more than set dressing when it could have been the defining element of the film (similar to how Noah replaced God for a more sci-fi being called The Creator).

The most interesting subtext in the film is a broader allusion to the history of the Jewish people.  In one scene, assassinated Hebrew slaves are burned en masse, while elsewhere slaves are forced to hide under their homes to evade Egyptian search parties. In these moments, it seems Scott is building an analogy to the Holocaust, and the film’s conclusion, gesturing toward nation-building, seems to weigh heavily on the side of the Israelis in the contemporary conflict over the Holy Land.  A film more dedicated to this analogy would have been an amazing inflection of the story we all know so well, but three scenes in 150 minutes isn’t enough on which to hang a comprehensive interpretation.

Exodus: Gods and Kings isn’t a bad film (a tremendous improvement from the last Scott film I saw, the dismal Prometheus), but it is disappointing for how little it pushes the story beyond what we already know. For anyone who knows the story, even in its broadest strokes, the film won’t hold much suspense or even any emotion beyond a feeling of obligation as events proceed unremarkably.  For all the technical skill at work in rendering lifelike plague sequences, what’s missing is a sense of spectacle, something we saw quite successfully in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  Despite the dated Technicolor and the mild doses of camp, DeMille’s original epic had a scope and a pervading attitude of wonder that Exodus is sadly lacking. Exodus isn’t a big-budget remake of The Ten Commandments, just a more precise, condensed, and slightly better-acted version of the same story without the grandeur the narrative demands.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is rated PG-13 for “violence including battle sequences and intense images.”  The standard bevy of plagues is seen here, with boils and insects being particularly grotesque; some combat scenes feature violence without any blood.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birdman (2014)

It’s no secret around here that superhero films are really my cup of tea, and I love a good bit of deconstruction as much as anyone.  And with the Oscar race nearing the starting line, I’m ready what the studios have left in the barrel for 2014 to see what they consider to have been the best saved for last.  Birdman is a combination of all three, familiar in some places but oddly unique in others – mostly mystifying but never anything less than riveting.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomas, a washed-up superhero actor who hung up his Birdman costume after three successful films twenty years ago.  In a bid for new relevance, Riggan is helming a Raymond Carver stage adaptation, a Broadway show with more obstacles before opening night – chief among them the interference of a thespian (Edward Norton) who takes himself far too seriously, the skepticism of his producer (Zach Galafianakis), and the backstage presence of his recently-rehabilitated daughter (Emma Stone).  All the while, Riggan seems to be haunted – or is that possessed? – by the voice of Birdman.

I’ll begin by echoing what nearly everyone has already said – the 87th Oscar for Best Actor is really Michael Keaton’s to lose.  The apparent self-reflexivity of the role – Keaton left Batman after two films, amid creative differences and concerns of typecasting – had lured me to the theater, but it is by far the least interesting thing about the role, which says something about the staggering amount of depth Keaton brings to the part.  It’s weird that the last time I “saw” him was as Ken in Toy Story 3, a part which had already seemed so perfectly cast.

More interesting than the modest overlap between Riggan and Keaton’s career is the similar approaches to relevance.  Where Riggan wants to be admired once more, his whole arc in the film a bid to be taken seriously, there is no scent of that desperation in Keaton’s work.  Instead, any renewed relevance comes ipso facto from the fine performance.  Keaton, like the best comic actors, is able to walk the line between pathos and punchline; he can turn it on or off as needed but often finds more versatility in the gray areas.  Especially remarkable are the scenes where he and the other actors are rehearsing the play, the rapid-fire conversation toggling between the playscript and their own actor’s notes on the script.  These are brilliantly done, showcasing the number of levels on which Keaton can work, and they raise one of the film’s most significant themes – the blur between truth and performance.

I’ve always been aware of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but I’d never seen one of his movies before Birdman.  As it stands, this interrogation of performativity is absolutely fascinating, inviting comparisons with Black Swan, which similarly dealt with a performer’s questionable grasp on sanity at the key moment of her career.  Unlike Black Swan, though, Iñárritu has so many themes on his plate that the balanced attention he gives to all of them is a superpower in and of itself.  In the film’s two-hour runtime, Iñárritu tackles performance, love, respect, blockbusters, reinvention, social media, critique, and a handful of others.

This deft balance of the film does, however, leave me a bit perplexed in the sense that Birdman is such a full-bodied satire that I don’t fully know where we stand by the end of it.  Iñárritu is obviously not a fan of superhero blockbusters (Riggan complains that all the good actors are wearing capes), nor does he have any patience for the pretensions of the arthouse crowd (Norton’s technique-obsessed Mike Shiner, a spot-on caricature, is only real on stage).  Iñárritu dismisses lawyers, loathes anyone with a cell phone in front of their face (“Can’t you just have a real experience for once in your life?”), and isn’t too fond of art critics, either.  Birdman targets all of these to expose their absurdity, but the ground on which we’re left is a little shaky.

Many critics are falling over themselves to talk about the film’s apparent long-take filming, and while Iñárritu has clearly disciplined his cast to handle these scenes, I’m not too impressed by the overall longness of the takes because I’m certain there’s some digital fakery afoot.  It does, after a while, start to feel like a gimmick – Hitchcock did the same thing in Rope, and it called attention to itself there, too.  Fortunately, however, it’s not a gimmick that takes away from the film, just another neat thing Birdman does.  (Just setting the record straight – it was impressive when Hitchcock faced the challenge on film, but in a digital world, it’s nothing we didn’t see in Children of Men.)

I mentioned the film’s shotgun-style approach to satire, but I do think that ultimately what you make of the film depends entirely on its ending.  The “ambiguous final shot” is so pervasive these days that it’s almost to the point of a cliché, so I would be interested to know what others make of the film.  For me?  Without spoiling anything, I’m a subscriber to the “happy ending” interpretation, for all the science-fictional/superheroic implications that come with that.  Your destination may vary, but your mileage won’t – Birdman is a fabulous thought-provoking crowdpleaser.  I didn’t always know what to make of it, but it managed to feel compelling all the way through.

Birdman is rated R for “language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.”  The film is littered with F-bombs and other adult language.  A man is seen nude from behind, and in another scene his costume reveals an (exaggerated) outline of his genitals.  There are about three bloody scenes (many involving fake blood for the stage) and a few hamfisted fistfights played for laughs.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The James Bond Countdown

Welcome back to the ostensible finale of the two-year Double-Oh-Seventh celebration of the James Bond franchise.

What a time for it, too, with Thursday’s announcement that “Bond 24” will be entitled Spectre (release date October 23, 2015 – so expect our review on October 26).  The title has such delightfully ominous associations in the world of 007.  The official plot synopsis:

A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

With Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci as the Bond girls, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw returning as M and Q, and Christoph Waltz and Andrew Scott rumored to be playing the villains, perhaps the most exciting news is that Sam Mendes is back after a franchise high-point with Skyfall.  It seems like he’ll be picking up on plot points from the Craig era – secret organizations, political pressure against MI6, further exploration of Bond’s heretofore unseen past.  All good news, especially for someone who loved Skyfall the way I did.

But just how much did I love Skyfall?  At the end of two years’ worth of reviews, what do I make of the entire James Bond film series?   You’ve come to the right place; after the jump, you can read my James Bond Countdown, ranking all twenty-four 007 movies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Equalizer (2014)

I honestly don’t know how I missed this one on its initial release back in September, because it has all the hallmarks of a Cinema King must-see:  Denzel Washington, man-against-the-odds plot, Antoine Fuqua in the director’s chair, and smaller/more personal action.  It is, essentially, Taken starring Denzel Washington, and while there’s nothing groundbreaking about that equation it is a surefire way to entertain me for two hours.

Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet man seeking peace who finds himself the unlikely avenger of young Alina (Chloe Moretz) after she falls in with the Russian Pushkin mob.  Robert’s violent actions draw the attention of a mob fixer (Marton Csokas), who’s been sent to stop Robert at all costs.

Taken was a strange picture in the sense that it wasn’t poised to be as culturally profuse as it ended up being; I’d argue that Liam Neeson’s recent renaissance has much to do with Taken, and I’ve seen impressions of the famous “certain set of skills” phone call from people that I’m relatively certain have no idea where that line comes from.  Yet here we are, a post-Taken cinematic landscape where A-list stars are leading action films that are, frankly speaking, elevated by their very presence.

Not that Fuqua has directed a bad film here.  As always, he’s directed a compelling flick better than his Olympus Has Fallen – though not, I think, better than Training Day, at which he and Denzel were at arguable peaks (and for which Denzel won a much-deserved Oscar).  Knowing nothing about the television show from which the film takes inspiration, I have to take the film on its own merits, and what we have is a very competently told straightforward vigilante narrative that delivers on all the viscera of the R-rating while developing interesting side plotlines for Robert to show off both his calm and his fury.

It is, however, somewhat by-the-numbers, with numerous Chekhov’s guns littered around the film.  When a reference is made to a security guard needing to be able to carry a person, there’s no doubt that the selfsame guard will be called upon to do just that; when we see that Robert works in a hardware store, you can only imagine what sort of garish death-traps are rigged up in one of the more memorable closed-location setpieces since the Guggenheim shootout in The International. 

Having said that, I’m not particularly upset by the fact that The Equalizer doesn’t do much in the way of innovation because the film is carried ably by Denzel himself, one of only a few actors who, it seems, can do no wrong.  He’s also that rare performer who doesn’t need to disappear into a character because his persona itself is engaging enough.  (Compare to Gary Oldman, who’s never the same person twice.)  So Robert McCall is really just another variation on the quintessential Denzel Washington character – affable man of peace, induced to violence, with a pragmatic optimism about humanity – and he continues to do it well.  As I write this, though, I’m remembering how vastly different Malcolm X is from Alonzo Harris (Training Day), John Q from Flight’s Whip Whitaker.  At their core, though, is a certain Denzel-ness, a screen presence which most performers are all too lacking.

The Equalizer ends with – no surprise, in this day and age – a wink towards future films about the character, and so long as Denzel is involved I’ll be in attendance.

The Equalizer is rated R for “strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.”  A smattering of F-bombs and the presence of prostitution as a plot element comprise the sexual content.  The violence is somewhat bloody – not the most graphic action film by far, but there are some very creative kills with strikes and blows that you can almost feel.