Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Bad News Bros: THE INTERVIEW


For all the hullabaloo surrounding its release, from the hackers to the threats to the studio waffling and beyond, the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview has only minor pleasures to offer. With its high concept, dirty jokes, sporadic violence, casual insensitivity, and queasy morality, it’s the kind of movie that, were it made in the 1970s, would be a staple of exploitation pictures recommended by Tarantino. There’s a spirited absurdity to the whole endeavor that finds Franco and Rogen as a talk show host and his producer who land an interview with Kim Jong-un, ruler of North Korea, and are promptly asked by the CIA to help them carry out an assassination. It’s one part fish-out-of-water buddy comedy, one part spy spoof, and one part bloody satire. The whole thing’s deeply silly and omnidirectionally offensive.

Franco’s talk show is positioned as a vapid gossip peddler. He’s a force of personality who gets confessional interviews out of celebrities, a sort of super dumb Dick Cavett. He’s a total idiot, a self-absorbed nonsense man so totally lost in his own media stardom he’s convinced every thought he has is worth sharing. His producer, on the other hand, has aspirations of doing more important work. He’s the one who figures out how to land this monumental interview. Though, to be fair, he’s smarter than his boss, he’s only marginally less bumbling in practice. A CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan, excellent as always) gives them a scant briefing, some secret poison, and lets them on their way to meet with a dictator and take him down. It’s a dubious plan, but, despite utilizing a real country’s actual ruler as a character and target, this isn’t a movie big on sense.

Most of the movie plays out in Kim’s vast grey compound as the two guys stumble their way around, trying not to mess up the mission and utterly failing most of the time. There are real jabs at North Korean ills – famine, executions, propaganda, isolation – mixed into scenes of technical malfunctions, missed connections, and endless coarse banter between the leads. Rogen’s the straight man, while Franco delivers a weirdly artificial performance in which every gesture, every line is letting us know he’s in on the joke. It rarely works. Funniest, even lovable at times, is Kim himself, played with charisma and sly charm by Randall Park as an insecure guy who just wants his guests to like him.

Best is the relationship they develop, as the talk show host finally meets a man as egocentric and needy as he is. There’s something biting in there about an American celebrity, especially one in something like the news business, finding much in common with a dictator. But the film’s largely sloppy as satire, blending sharp commentary and free-range goofiness. There’s also a heaping helping of the typical R-rated bro comedy’s crutches of so-called ironic sexism, racism, and gay panic, masked with a thin veil of knowing wink-wink ain’t-this-awful posturing. It’s part of the film’s broad jumble of potent nihilistic cynicism and gross out gags.

The film was helmed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, writing partners whose directorial debut was last year’s funny-at-times, and even sloppier, This is the End. Here they wrangle their story, scripted by Dan Sterling, into a mix of bro hangout, male anxieties, and satiric jabs, until culminating in an absurdly violent third-act shootout. It’s a big, hard-edged, live action cartoon, at its best when it steers straight into the absurdity. I especially liked a recurring Katy Perry song used to undercut, and later amplify, tension, the right kind of dopily weird. Otherwise, it’s a mixture of easy geopolitical points, mild media teasing, and sex, drugs, and poop jokes.

The comedy is hit-and-miss, and it’s too goofy to offend as much as it wants. But in the end, the worldview on display through the parade of idiots and violence is more scathing than maybe it thinks. At one point a North Korean propagandist (Diana Bang) discovers their plan to enact a CIA-backed overthrow of a foreign dictator and asks, “How many times will America make the same mistake?” Franco shouts back, “As many times as we have to!” Here’s a movie that says the whole world’s supremely screwed up – with dumb Americans, cruel dictators, and the empty-headed media rhetoric of them both – and the only people who eke out a win are those whose buffoons control the message. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Know When to Fold 'Em: THE GAMBLER


The Gambler stars Mark Wahlberg as a gambling addict. He doesn’t know when to hold ‘em or fold ‘em. He’s chasing that next payout, sinking more and more money into his habit, unable or unwilling to quit. The movie starts in an underground casino where he’s stuck to the blackjack table. At one point he’s up tens of thousands, but quickly sinks back in the red. He now owes six-figures in debt to some shady characters, some of them lurking about this very establishment. He’s given an ultimatum: pay up in 7 days or he’ll risk, at best, certain death. This is the start of an addiction drama and character study crossed with a glum thriller about a man who’s dug himself a mighty deep hole and can’t help but keep digging, hoping against hope he’ll find a way out.

In this reworking of Karel Reisz’s James Caan-starring 1974 film of the same name, screenwriter William Monahan gives us a good understanding of the man’s life. He’s an English professor who resents his nonstarter novelist career. He bitterly tells a class his mantra: “If you’re not a genius, don’t even bother.” He comes from a wealthy family, but his recently deceased grandfather (George Kennedy) left him nothing in the will and his socialite mother (Jessica Lange) has cut him off. He’s a man born into privilege who has just about exhausted its supply. He’s smart, published, has a good job and makes decent money. He just so happens to be in over his head, owing more than he could possibly scrape together in a week. The movie tightens the grip of this scenario, counting down the days, watching as every lucky break leads him to relapse, gambling away much needed cash. Dangers creep closer.

This is one of Wahlberg’s best performances. He’s playing a tired, frustrated, unhappy person, a man of talent and intelligence who has long since given in to his worst habits and tendencies. Wahlberg is one of those actors easy to miscast because, though he has plenty of skill, it’s in a narrow range. He’s perfect with goofy charm or eager determination in his great roles – Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Other Guys, Pain & Gain – but easily goes wrong in a part that doesn’t ask for those attributes. Here he plays depression and addiction with stillness and hollowed out blank stares. Wahlberg constantly appears exhausted, a tad disheveled, a little out of breath. Addiction has taken its toll. Bad decisions beget bad decisions. He’s finally backed himself into a corner. He wears the burden of depression and anxiety heavily, compensating with sarcasm masked as truth telling and moping. It’s a glossy star vehicle with a deliberate pace, and his weary presence owns it, but for the moments he turns over to the supporting cast.

We meet his black market creditors, a diverse but menacing bunch played by a fine collection of character actors. There’s a grandfatherly soft-spoken Korean (Alvin Ing), a chummy but deadly gangster (Michael K. Williams), and a scary deep-pockets moneyman (John Goodman as a bald, glowering mountain of intimidation). In between nervous one-on-one confrontations with the dark side of his life, he’s back in his respectable teaching career. We see him meet with students both troubled (Anthony Kelley) and promising (Brie Larson, making the most of the film’s worst aspect which makes her a clichéd object, pure feminine ideal symbolizing a light in the darkness). But mostly his students are bored as he prattles on, lecturing on literature as his troubles lurk in the back of his mind. This lurking infects the filmmaking, every catchy rock song on the soundtrack abruptly cut off by the next development.

A slick, steady, confident film, The Gambler is the third feature from Rupert Wyatt. His previous directorial effort resurrected the Planet of the Apes franchise (with Rise of the…). He’s used the clout earned there to make a muscular studio drama, a lean, tough, modest little self-contained character-driven thriller built out of crackling conversations and sharp, writerly dialogue. The screenplay is wordy and tense. No one talks like this, but isn’t that one of the pleasures of the movies? Characters here are always ready to hold forth on life philosophies and armchair psychiatric opinions of each other. Scenes of talky negotiation and high-stakes gamesmanship create a picture of a man who’s smart enough to know better, is well aware of that flaw, and gambles on his ability to get out of trouble anyway. It’s involving to watch the plot develop, humming along its downbeat groove until the last bets are made and the results are in.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Uses of Enchantment: INTO THE WOODS


After over a decade of box office success with revisionist fairy tales of one sort (Shrek) or another (Snow White and the Huntsman) or another (Maleficent), I suppose it was about time Hollywood got around to adapting Stephen Sondheim’s original Grimm mashup, Into the Woods. That musical, co-written with James Lapine, was first produced in 1986. It took long enough for something so cinematic and imaginative as this series of head-on collisions between a variety of classic tales made it to the screen. Perhaps the delay was simply how much further the material takes its revisionist impulses, to a place darker and more destabilizing to the very idea of fairy tales than those others dare.

Disney, no stranger to wonderful fairy tales, but rarely willing to overtly dig down dark, has brought the stage to the screen with director Rob Marshall, whose Chicago put a layer of dreamy glitz on a sordid murder musical. The resulting Into the Woods adaptation, scripted by Lapine with music supervision by Sondheim, gets at what’s most provocative about the story, stripping away layers of feel-good fantasy while attempting to still let some sentimental magic in around the edges. It’s a partial equivocation to crowd pleasing in a more conventional sense, pulling back from a few of the nastier moments, but remains admirably committed to being a big feel-bad musical, a bunch of great lyrics and melody with a bittersweet aftertaste.

The opening sets a collection of familiar characters – Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack who will have the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) – off on their recognizable stories. The first twist is placing them all in the same world, crossing paths, each story’s simple patterns trailing ripple effects through the others’. The second twist is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), childless because of a witch (Meryl Streep) and her curse, heading out into the woods to get the curse reversed. The ingredients they must collect: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold. This quest brings them into direct conflict with the other plotlines, further complicating simple tales.

By the midpoint, every story has reached its happy ending, everyone happily married off or with child or rich. The only people disfigured or blinded are wicked stepsisters. But then the real story begins, revealing happily ever after to be short lived. Their wishes have been granted, and yet their lives are no easier, and choices they made to get there have unintended consequences. The easy morality of fairy tales leaves these characters unprepared for dissatisfaction, revenge, abandonment, infidelity, and death. That’s the sour note of real life infecting giddy childhood fantasy. And so the movie follows suit, buzzing with clever Grimm knottiness for an hour before tipping over into sadness and upsetting developments. Sondheim’s play is about the limits of life lessons gleaned from these tales, and how destabilizing it can be to feel alone in the world without easy answers to guide you.

The movie version gets there, but it’s by its very nature flashier, cutting between storylines quickly and inelegantly, making an occasional jumble out of its various strands. Trims to the plot, especially in the back half, foreshorten motivations and rush the revelations. But there are smaller miscues of editing. Early on we’re told about a prince, singular, throwing a festival. Then a few cuts later, we meet a prince, a different one. In the last third, two characters die in different ways, presented so obliquely it may as well be off screen. Their fates aren’t clear until other characters tell us later. One literally falls out of frame, later revealed to have been a fatal plunge from a cliff, not a trip over a branch as one could reasonably assume.

Stumbles of staging aside, there’s a fine patina of fakery to it all. The woods never feel like a real place, just a soundstage. I didn’t mind it much.  The set has its charms and Marshall finds real emotional engagement between his actors that enlivens the glittering falsehoods around them. Corden and Blunt’s bakers are especially good, with breezy repartee and excellent timing. Kendrick’s charming as always, this time as a flustered indecisive young woman. These three are the heart of the picture, shouldering the burden of the tonal shifts while Streep hams it up howling and cackling in the background as the witch goads the stories forward. Elsewhere, there’s room for small but juicy comic parts played with aplomb by Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, and more. They’re welcome flavoring to this world.

Marshall steps out of his cast’s way and lets them spill forth with Sondheim’s delectable wordplay, rhyming, punning, and clattering with all manner of delightful alliterations that trip off the tongue and sweet simple poetic constructions that sit pleasantly on the ear. The big musical moments land because of the writing, and the skill with which the performers feel it. These little moments, aching with yearning and surprise, work wonders. But the big picture doesn’t cohere in the way it should. The story’s pacing’s off and the staging imprecise, but the hopeful bittersweet conclusion is affecting, even if the remaining pieces feel a tad forced to fit. Masterpieces of one medium rarely retain that status in the leap to another. That Into the Woods is a good movie, but not a great one, is only a minor disappointment.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Survivor of the Fittest: UNBROKEN


Unbroken tells a true story with bright, well-built, Hollywood epic storytelling. That’s fitting, since its subject, Louis Zamperini, lived a full and amazing life, built out of the stuff movies are made of. He’s a man for whom the adspeak “incredible true story” seems to have been made. He was born in 1917, became a juvenile delinquent, then a high school track star, an Olympic athlete, a World War II bombardier whose plane was lost at sea, a captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and a survivor of all the above. I’m sure he was one of the only people who could’ve seen Memphis Belle, Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, Chariots of Fire, and Life of Pi in their original theatrical runs and see something of his own life experience reflected back at him.

The film is an effective dramatization by turns unflinching – gaunt bodies caked in dirt and blood – and sentimental – wistful flashbacks and swelling score. It’s button pushing in that way. It coasts on the easily apparent drama of the story itself, which certainly has enough surface incident to fill a run time. It starts in the skies over the Pacific front in the middle of WWII, a tense dogfight shot completely inside Zamperini’s plane. We linger behind the various gunners and pilots, watching as small dots grow into enemy fighters, spraying bullets and getting return fire. It’s exciting stuff, brightly lit, displayed with convincing effects courtesy Industrial Light and Magic. We then cut back to our hero’s early life, following childhood scrapes through his Olympic competition, notable backstory swiftly filled in. Then we’re back to the war, where his dangers are just beginning.

Directed with smooth competence by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay with credited drafts by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, the film has clear admiration for Zamperini’s resilience. They’re most concerned with portraying his indomitable spirit, returning again and again to his face as Jack O’Connell plays the man staring purposefully past the problems at hand. He’s stranded on a lifeboat with the survivors of his plane’s crash (Finn Wittrock, Domhnall Glesson). They’re lucky enough to be rescued, but unlucky enough to find their rescuers are the enemy. He ends up at a POW camp where he’s beaten by a cruel Japanese sergeant (Miyavi), and falls in with the scarred and weary prisoners (Garrett Hedlund, Luke Treadaway). He looks purposefully into every obstacle, the punches, the backbreaking labor, the blood and bruises. He grits his teeth and lives to see another day. He’s unbreakable.

What gives Zamperini the strength to go on? How did he survive? Was it luck or happenstance? Determination or divine intervention? Optimism or sloganeering? I don’t know. The movie’s more enamored with the facts of his survival than investigating him as a character. It’s a surface level examination, which is fine when the plot’s hopping, but drags down the occasionally monotonous dark night of the soul in the POW camp. The film hits every big mark, but I was starving for small details to color in the time between. There’s never a sense of who the characters are, just what misery they’ve been through.

I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the people trapped in various conditions with Zamperini, or his family, or his captors. They’re simply facts of his life, the elements that make the miraculous extremes possible. There’s some great early details in the young man’s homelife, scenes of discipline, religion, and discovery of his talents. In some ways it plays like the opening moments of a superhero origin story. The film’s first hour is its best, time to follow an eventful life on its first, positive trajectory with energetic sequences of sports and war. But it seems to skip so quickly through these vital foundational moments that by the second hour it starts to feel like a catalogue of miserable incidents where I’d hoped to find a character study wrapped up in epic trappings. Instead, it’s all smaller.

But Unbroken is respectful, handsomely made, and technically proficient. Jolie has cinematographer Roger Deakins behind the camera and he does sharp, solid work. She has a fine cast, and they inhabit their roles convincingly. The editing is propulsive, the sound crackling, the score syrupy strong. In style and perspective – the square, proud, sturdy take – it could’ve been made more or less exactly like this ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago. It’s old-fashioned, made with professionalism and care, but it’s also anonymously produced and a bit bland. There’s plenty of craftsmanship put into a story interesting enough on its own the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to really dig into the details. They simply evoke the big moments and trust our interest will follow enough to excuse the all-surface approach.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pick Up Your Chin and Grin: ANNIE


If there has to be a new Annie, this is the way to do it. Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s familiar musical about a little red-haired orphan girl in Depression-era New York has been cleverly modernized, made cheerily diverse and relentlessly upbeat. It rescues her from the cornball dustbins of community theater and John Huston’s lumbering, intermittently charming, 1982 adaptation, making her relevant and fresh. It opens in a schoolroom with a close-up of a red-haired moppet giving a report in front of the class. She eagerly takes her seat as the teacher says, “Thanks, Annie. Now, Annie B? It’s your turn.” Up pops Quvenzhané Wallis, the captivating child actor Oscar-nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild a couple years ago. She’s beaming, ready to take the center of attention. It’s a new Annie for a new Annie, a welcome sight to start the remake.

This Annie’s an optimistic foster kid living with a group of girls with their foster mother Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). The woman’s a bitter drunk, collecting foster parent money to help her pay the bills. The kids are miserable but upbeat, singing, cleaning, and dreaming of adoption. Annie doesn't want to be adopted. She wants to find her parents. One day she lucks – well, literally bumps – into the good graces of Will Stacks, an antisocial billionaire cell phone mogul (Jamie Foxx). He’s running a floundering mayoral race, and his team (a fussy Rose Byrne and slimy Bobby Cannavale) thinks good deeds will help raise his poll numbers. He was caught saving this poor girl from an oncoming vehicle, and the public loved it. The video went viral. So he decides to take in Annie for a while, without realizing that such a bright light is bound to melt a grump’s heart.

That’s more or less Annie like you know it, but writer-director Will Gluck, with co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna, streamlines the plot, letting the precocious long-winded period piece of yore lose some stuffiness by trimming most of the bloat. Gluck keeps the core of sentimentality, but puts a contemporary gloss on top. Now the plot is fast-paced good-natured comedy and uplift, slickness and auto-tuned cheer, trading a mansion for a luxury penthouse apartment, and updated with tweets, cell towers, and selfies. That sounds like it should be only craven and commercial, but it’s wrapped up in the sweetness inherent in the source material. It works as a brightly lit fantasy New York City for a girl’s dreams to come true just because she’s nice, smart, and deserves it. It’s all high-energy good-spirited smiles and songs. And when I think of the girls around the world who will look at this Annie and see themselves, it makes me pick up my chin and grin.

It helps that Wallis is the most adorable and sympathetic Annie I’ve ever seen. This Annie sings well, has a great smile, and has greater agency over her own narrative. She’s not just hoping. She’s taking action. She sees the angles that get her into a rich situation, and in the climax engineers her own rescue with savvy exploitation of social media. You want her to do well, and the soft edges kept on the plot’s hard edges of abandonment, plus the cultural memory of the play’s songbook, have you knowing she will be okay. It’s bright, light, cheerful, and sweet, determined to see every character redeemed if possible, even when Hannigan gets up to her scheming ways. The movie cares about its characters, and reluctantly doles out a few comeuppances in the end on its way to a happy production number finale.

Gluck, who, if you recall, included a terrific musical number for Emma Stone in his should-be-a-cult-classic teen comedy Easy A, shows a knack for feather-light family-friendly musical filmmaking. He keeps the proceedings bouncy and pleasant. Not all the comedy works – too many pop culture references and clumsy innuendos – but he has a sparkling fizz to the artificial sugar of it all. The game cast – Bryne and Foxx are especially likable, Cannavale’s Broadway-big, and Diaz tries hard – helps keep the good feelings flowing. It looks like they've having fun together. When it comes to the musical numbers, Gluck cuts around imprecise framing in rhythmic editing that matches the mood, skipping around the sequences in the usual modern style that gives off the impression of dancing instead of letting us take in the choreography. But the performers’ spirited charm sells the genial toe-tapping effort.

This remake retains the best of the original’s songs – “Maybe,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Easy Street,” and of course “Tomorrow” – spruces up a few dustier ones – “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” gets a new beat, “Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” gets a new style – drops some of the duller numbers and adds a few dull new ones. But it also gives Annie a new yearning number, “Opportunity,” she sings at a fundraiser she attends with her new temporary foster dad. Here she gives thanks for her bit of luck and promises to make the most of it. It reaffirms this new Annie’s focus on the girl herself, letting her do more than wait optimistically for another day. She’s smart and motivated enough to make the best of her luck to create her own tomorrow. She knows the world can be a mean place, that help doesn't always come to those in her situation, but chooses to face the day with a smile anyway. This movie, all heart, sugar, and uncomplicatedly slick music, has brought new life and new faces to an old-fashioned story, and can bring a smile if you let it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The End: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the weakest of its trilogy, and by far the worst of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies. It’s all climax, an endless battle that does nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished with an extra fifteen or twenty minutes in the last one. And yet, this is likely the last time we’ll get to visit Tolkien’s fantasy world through Jackson’s eyes. For those of us who’ve liked that feeling, it’s bittersweet to see it go. That it’s not as rousing and wistful as the first finale, eleven years ago with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is almost beside the point. It’s one more chance to go there and back again, to see these landscapes and creatures, marvel at the prodigious attention to detail, and hear the strains of Howard Shore’s melodies, a feat of film scoring nearing John Williams’ Star Wars work for its web of themes. In other words, it’s worth seeing for those who’ve already made it this far.

So maybe it’s helpful to think of Battle of the Five Armies less as a self-contained movie, more as a way for Jackson to create this place on the big screen for the last time. It’s a bestiary: Hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, horses, elk, giants, wizards, goblins, evil spirits, war bats, giant eagles, bears, a dragon, and more. It’s a map: CGI armies marched around a game board battlefield. It’s an armory: swords, shields, helmets, hammers, clubs, battering rams, bow and arrow. It’s a drawn out conclusion from a creator who doesn’t want to let this story go, who wants to linger in Middle Earth for just five more minutes, then five more, then more. Good thing, then, that Jackson’s skilled with whipping up blockbuster spectacle, splashing his vivid visuals across the wide screen in ceaseless fantastical imagery so big it betrays how small the thinking is of so many of our tentpole directors. Sure, he’s a filmmaker who errs on the side of too much of a good thing – endless stalemates, overdone comic relief – but so be it.

This last Hobbit picture picks up right where the last left off, with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerging from his mountain lair, flying angrily toward the nearest village and leaving his vast stockpiles of gold unattended. In the mountain are the dwarves (led by Richard Armitage), who have a historical claim to the site, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the Hobbit who helped them get there. Eventually, the riches are the target of attack by an army of men (led by Luke Evans) and an army of elves (Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, and Evangeline Lilly among them) who want their fair share. The army of orcs right behind them just wants to kill a bunch of people for some reason. I know that’s only three armies, four when you count the dwarves reinforcements, but I must confess I’m not exactly sure how the title’s math works out here.

For the first half of the movie, those computer-animated armies line up behind character actors as everyone argues about who gets the gold and how the fighting’s going to start. Then, the fighting starts, and the armies collide repeatedly in anonymous garbles of digital noise across rocks and fields, up and down the sides of cliffs, and across an icy lagoon. We dip into personal conflicts between recognizable orcs and our big heroes, follow the king of the dwarves and his battle with curse-induced greed, and check in with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who has important Lord of the Rings foreshadowing to take care of before joining the main battle. Some moments of combat are nicely done – the bit with ice is clever, as is a neat trick involving an elk – but it grows awfully repetitive. You can almost hear the small material as it’s stretched thin to fill time.

The film loses the emotional thread, and its central narrative momentum along with it, as it gets tangled up in the clanging swords, stabbing and bludgeoning. But when the camera comes to rest on Bilbo Baggins, with Freeman's performance as good as always, the film finds its center. He’s taken aback by the developments, is ready to help his friends even when they disagree with his strategy, and bravely stands in the thick of it even when danger is great. When it’s all over, he is happy to have had this experience and even happier to go home. And so Five Armies brings him there, eventually. It wraps up dangling plot threads, resolves its cliffhangers, and joins up with the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring quite nicely. Along the way we have to slog through some colossally uninvolving battle business, but Jackson brings it home, to the Shire and the Hobbits, the coziest corner of Middle Earth, safe and sound. He asks your indulgence, tries your patience, but eventually delivers some small rewards.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A King of Comedy: TOP FIVE


Sometimes a movie’s just a movie. That’s what Chris Rock has a character say in the opening seconds of Top Five. But it’s tempting to read the movie, which he wrote, directed, and gave himself the lead role in, as semi-autobiographical. The story follows a celebrity comedian who was a big hit on the standup circuit, went to Hollywood making dumb comedies, and now would rather be taken seriously, a difficult change to make mid-career. Is that reminiscent of Rock? Sure. But it’s also anyone who got a start in the public consciousness as a professional jokester and wants to grow as an artist, maybe in ways a fanbase isn’t willing to follow. Even though questions of showbiz’s gilded cage are the trappings of Top Five’s scenario, Rock’s opening statement is essentially a reassurance to the movie audience. Relax. Enjoy. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. Don’t read into it. Of course, the statement is immediately challenged back by another character in the scene, setting up the push and pull of the experience that wants its bite and lightness, too. The movie’s pleasant enough to make that work.

Rock plays Andre Allen, a man suffering through a confluence of anxiety-provoking events. After three wildly successful terrible comedies in which he played a grizzly bear police officer, his first attempt at a serious drama, a film about a Haitian slave uprising, is in the process of flopping. Reviews are terrible and audience awareness is low. His wedding to a reality show star (Gabrielle Union), micromanaged by her handler (Romany Malco), is days away. It’s enough to drive the four-years-sober comedian to eye booze with a needy look. In New York City for a whirlwind press tour before his bachelor party, a reporter for the Times (Rosario Dawson, making the most of a rare chance to shine) wants to follow him around all day for a profile. That’s certainly not bringing his stress level down. Rock’s screenplay successfully builds a feeling of overwhelmed irritation as Allen races through his day, trading one full plate for another, trying to keep them spinning.

But perhaps the real trick of the movie is how loose and casual it feels despite the character’s pressure cooker day. Allen can’t wander down the street without people shouting his name. Career demands are crashing in around him. He’s on edge, but that’s what’s so nice about having a fun person to talk to. Rock and Dawson have charming chemistry as they wander from limos and press junkets to nightclubs and dive bars. It’s a flirtatious bounce that drives the movie, a mixture of real attraction and professional interest. Sure, they’re both seeing other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to hang out. Anyway, the movie stacks the deck against their current relationships, making their others standard, thinly drawn romantic comedy Bad Matches.

The movie starts as a self-critical artistic struggle story a la Stardust Memories, and then slowly turns into a sugary rom-com, or rather reveals that those were its intentions all along. The result is shaggy and unhurried, often pleasant, sometimes honest, usually charming. An episodic collection of moments from a day in the life heading towards a sly rom-com conclusion, Rock’s the focus of every moment. But he’s generous enough to turn over whole scenes to the talented ensemble he’s assembled. We meet Andre Allen’s bodyguard (J.B. Smoove), his agent (Kevin Hart), a group of old friends who knew him before fame (Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Hassan Johnson), a gross pimp (Cedric the Entertainer), and a handful of cameos too good to spoil.

Top Five is almost sharp and thoughtful about the ways showbiz boxes entertainers into one skill set, how difficult it is to assert individuality when the public refuses to see the real you inside. But the movie decides it’d rather be warm, gooey, and pleasant. The result is a likably modest hangout movie, loose, talky, largely sweet but for a few staggeringly dirty moments. Big on personality, short on insight, the movie’s content to suggest larger topics and then goof around just outside them. And I enjoyed it while it did.
  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Let My People Go: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS


Only a third of the way into Ridley Scott’s 150-minute Exodus: Gods and Kings, I was already feeling like Mort Sahl who, legend has it, impatiently stood up in the middle of the 1960 premiere of Otto Preminger’s 208-minute Exodus and shouted, “Let my people go!” Gods and Kings takes one of the most vital enduring stories in all of world history and literature and tells it in a manner that’s dull beyond belief. It hits familiar beats – Moses’ secret identity, exile, encounter with a burning bush, plagues of Egypt, and parting the Red Sea. But the telling is drained of passion, wonder, or intrigue. The flavorless screenplay is depressingly literal minded, and the characters are flat and thin. Nothing makes an impact, or follows an inner drive. It’s simply one boring sequence after another, not even rising to the level of kitsch DeMille’s Ten Commandments musters at its worst.

Scott is often associated with period epics, but he’s rarely made good ones. When you get right down to it, his best films are either sci-fi pictures (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus) or thrillers (American Gangster, Matchstick Men, The Counselor). For some reason, the canvas of historical sweep makes his usually striking set design go flat, even ugly. Worse, he often takes our interest in the main character for granted, as if content with the knowledge most will arrive well aware of who he is and what he did. Scott’s Christopher Columbus and Robin Hood movies suffer the same problem, and Gods and Kings follows suit. It provides cold shots of CGI crowds and crane shots devoid of personality, filling in ancient Egypt without stopping to make us care about what’s happening in it. Every bit of this film is perfunctory, almost apologetically shrugging about its source material’s familiarity.

Playing dress up amidst this boredom is a cast that’s to a person ill suited for what’s asked of them. As Moses we have Christian Bale, who behaves constipated throughout, gritting his teeth and staring in mock awe at the enormity of his situation. Pharaoh Ramses, the man raised with Moses and is now the stubborn ruler who won’t free the slaves at his former brother’s request, is played by a shaved, heavily made-up Joel Edgerton, who appears visibly uncomfortable most of the time. The supporting players are familiar faces (John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Sigourney Weaver) who pose in Egyptian dress and speak maybe two or three dozen lines combined. Funniest is Ben Mendelsohn, whose look here appears vaguely inspired by Michael Palin in Life of Brian. I just felt bad for everyone involved as I felt the pull of sleep tug me lower in my seat.

The screenplay, credited to four writers who’ve done good work in the past, clunks along with dismaying thuds where the drama, the emotion, the excitement, and rooting interest should be. Dialogue is painfully surface level exposition. There’s no “let my people go!” But its equivalent is met by Ramses saying, “From an economic standpoint what you’re asking is problematic.” See what I mean about the boredom? The film attempts to put new spins on old moments and iconography. Instead of talking to a burning bush, Moses gets knocked on the head in an avalanche, and then sits in the mud hallucinating a little boy speaking on the bush’s behalf. It’s certainly different, but I hesitate to call it an improvement. Also reimagined are the gross plagues, now presented in a moderately more realistic manner. Crocodiles attack, filling the Nile with blood, which drives out the frogs, who die and attract flies, which draw the locusts, and so on and so forth.

Scott and his writers get too tangled up in wanting to make gritty origin story detail out of broad archetypes and oft told legend, a blend of modern 3D pyrotechnics and reverent Bible Movie earnestness. What they end up with is neither here nor there, a big waste of time with no sense of character, pace, or atmosphere. There’s just no sense of perspective. They didn’t find a great new angle with which to tell the old story, or have a good handle on some point of view or clear throughline. Character relationships remain half-formed, setpieces are on auto-pilot, and the plot develops for no clear reason other than that’s the way it’s supposed to go. The Bible told them so, except for the parts where the swords and arrows come out and goose the action elements. It’s one big, phony faux-gravitas machine whirring away at one droning pitch for so long it simply sounds like white (very white) noise after awhile. I struggled to pay attention, stay awake, and keep my eyes from glazing over. It doesn’t work as drama. It doesn’t work as spectacle. It just doesn’t work.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Walkabout: WILD


Wild is a movie about a troubled woman who sets off by herself and walks over 1,000 miles in three months. It’s a literal journey of self-discovery. The most admirable aspect of the film made out of this trip is its willingness to downplay the discovery in favor of the experience of the isolation. We see her trudge across the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail reflecting on her life, cataloging her mistakes, confronting her regrets, and emerging on the other end with a greater understanding of herself. She’s not an immediately better person, but we see the seeds of awareness that will hopefully be flowering in her future. Because the movie’s based on author Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of the same name, we know she’s about to see better days. The movie doesn’t linger overmuch on her change, giving center stage to the steps along the way.

We meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she begins her long hike, struggling to stand up after overloading her backpack, a rookie mistake. In other words, she’s dealing with some heavy baggage. Get it? We don’t know why she feels the need to attempt this walk, but there’s a real unease in Witherspoon’s demeanor, a hollowed out rawness that’s about to be bruised and blistered by her chosen ordeal. She’s always been a smart performer, even in movies so breezy or junky (like Legally Blonde or Fear) that it was easy to take her for granted. There’s intelligence behind her bubbliness, her charm, her bright eyes and petite stature. Here, she’s tapping into a shrewd wounded intelligence that’s flatter and glummer than we’ve seen her in quite some time. Her character is in a mental space that slowly reveals itself as coming from a place of addiction and grief.

It’s a terrific performance that anchors what is essentially a character study with a mystery at the center. Who is she? What brought her to this place? That was enough to keep me at least mildly interested. As we follow Cheryl’s walkabout, her backstory is filled in with non-chronological flashes of past. It becomes clear she’s a person whose life hasn’t gone the way she’d hoped, hitting a rough patch of unwanted pregnancy, divorce, substance abuse, and infidelity. We see her relationship with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), and her free spirit mother (Laura Dern). Other figures from her past (like Gaby Hoffmann) come to her mind. Meanwhile, in the present, she encounters all sorts of characters on the trail, fellow hikers, farmers, hippies, college kids, and a guy who says he’s a reporter for The Hobo Times. It’s uneven by its very nature. When it works, fine, but when it doesn’t, I was wishing it would hurry up and move on to the next stop.

Whatever small restraint screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) show in refusing to find easy lessons in a real life’s complications is partly undone by their stumbling approach caught halfway between sentimental uplift and artful impressionism. It’s a wobbly mix of earnest self-help sparkle and collage of memory and pain. It neither solves the problem of the episodic repetition of depicting the long, mostly lonely, walk, nor uses the grinding monotony of her journey as experiential aesthetic. It gives her moments of insight, danger, despair, and connection, but seems to be trudging along, hitting its emotional mile markers more than it is evoking her mental and physical state.

She’s broken down spiritually, and has to break down bodily to begin to build back up again. That’s moving. Witherspoon’s performance sells it. But the movie itself is at a loss as to how best maximize that asset. Hornby’s script makes fine connections and moving juxtapositions, but Vallée’s direction is so self-consciously loose and scruffy, slipping from past to present with a flat-footed sense of obviousness. He’s simply pointing his camera at ideas of womanhood, literature, illness, and wilderness without actually engaging with the content. It’s representation, not interpretation. Perhaps that’s why he’s so good at capturing great performances and then diluting their potential impact by entombing them in glossy but flavorless movies, like McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club or Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria. Wild is the best of the three, especially worth seeing for Witherspoon successfully stretching her acting muscles. But I wished it could’ve been a wilder, more adventurous movie to better match the material and be worthy of its lead’s good work.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Take a Look, It's in a Book: THE BABADOOK


The Australian horror film The Babadook features one of the scariest picture books I’ve ever seen. But you don’t have to take my word for it. One reading and the characters in the film spiral down a series of increasingly destabilizing freak-outs. The book seems to haunt them, conjuring dark figures that lurk about the house going bump in the night. They were already emotional fragile before the book. The kid, whose eighth birthday is fast approaching, was born on the day his father died in a car accident on his way to the delivery room. Mother and child feel this loss. The kid believes in monsters, spends his time scaring classmates and building weapons to protect the home from invading creatures. His mother is at a loss to help him, dealing with strong depression, a mix of lingering postpartum concern and mourning the loss of her husband. And now The Babadook is here.

What makes the book so scary? For one, it just shows up on the boy’s shelf one day. His mother, a harried single mom juggling a stressful health care job and caring for her son, doesn’t recognize or remember buying or receiving it. The thing is just there. She shrugs it off and starts to read, the pages covered in thick black and gray drawings dripping with ominous lines and inky edges. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of…the Babadook.” A tall dark figure with hands like claws haunts a bedroom in the pictures as the rhyming lines become taunting, threatening. By the time the book is prematurely shut and bedtime declared, the rattled mother hides it and shudders. Now both mother and child harbor back-of-the-mind concerns that the Babadook will come to get them.

Here in her debut feature, writer-director Jennifer Kent builds suspense out of the time-honored horror tradition of linking a character’s psychological state with the paranormal freakiness exploding around her. Here the Babadook is less a ghoul from another dimension, more an expression of depression as a constant presence, threatening to make itself known in times of high stress. Once you get a handle on its metaphoric force, the film grows very predictable, but remains effective where it counts. There's an ill feeling in the pit of the movie for the pain it puts its characters through. Mother and child (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a pair of intense, committed performances) are strained, with teachers complaining about his behavior and child protective services sniffing around. Chores are piling up, the house looking cluttered, dusty, and in disrepair. The skies seem constantly overcast, as Kent makes stark gray images out of methodically simple cinematography from Radek Ladczuk. Daily stresses are closing in.

Approaching the anniversary of a tragic death, the loss is in mind. “Will you die?” the son asks his mother. “Not for a long time,” she replies. His follow-up question: “Did you think that about dad?” There’s no good way to answer that. Later, when the two of them are cowering under the covers, the long, black shadowy being lurking through the door, across the ceiling, is the manifestation of all unanswerable questions, the deep quandaries that can keep one up at night. That’s where The Babadook succeeds, not merely in the skin-crawling book with its haunting rhymes and creepy pictures, and certainly not in its solid but standard (sometimes painfully ordinary) jump scares and creeping shots of slow burn terror, but in the anxious, depressive mood from which the darkest parts of the characters’ psychological wounds emerge.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Too Many Crooks: HORRIBLE BOSSES 2


To say Horrible Bosses 2 represents everything wrong with America today is a bit of an overstatement, but more for what it implies about the mercifully forgettable movie’s importance than the actual repugnant experience of watching it unspool. Sure, it is a crassly commercial calculation pointlessly extending the plot of Horrible Bosses, a box office success that tidily concluded. There was no need to revisit the three dudes (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) who hated their bosses so much they ended up causing the death of one, jail time for another, and blackmailed the third into silence. But the mere fact that we are is only unfortunate. What’s worst is the resulting R-rated comedy sequel’s ceaselessly miscalculated edginess. It takes the underlying selfish smugness that permeated its predecessor and amps it up while dialing down the sense of effort. It’s lazy and dumb, offensive mostly for what it assumes an audience will settle for.

The plot’s a shambles, a dull repetition of similar moments stupidly drug along by flat scenes that sit on the screen without building momentum or energy. It’s flat, barely feeling like a movie at all most of the time. The main guys have invented a new product that looked to me like any old showerhead, but they call it the Shower Buddy and claim inspiration from a car wash, so what do I know? Their product catches the attention of a big shot mail order magnate (Christoph Waltz) who orders thousands of units, then refuses payment, sending their fledgling business into bankruptcy. Then he laughs, saying he’ll buy their company from the bank for pennies on the dollar.

Too stupid to learn their lesson from the last film, as per comedy sequel dictates, they decide to kidnap the rich guy’s jerk son (Chris Pine) and demand their company as ransom. Once they do, the son tries to negotiate a cut of the ransom as his dad calls a detective (Jonathan Banks) and our main characters flail about in-over-their-heads panicking. Now that I type that out, it doesn’t sound so bad. And indeed, the core is fine, a sort of Ransom of Red Chief meets heist movie plot that could’ve worked well with a tight pace, good sense of character, and funny jokes. There’s none of that here.

Director Sean Anders, coming off the funniest Adam Sandler comedy of the past decade, having apparently made a wrong turn somewhere, deploys ugly, garishly bright digital cinematography that looks cheap and smudged. It’s hard to look at, though at least it matches the general sense of slapdash carelessness that permeates the whole project. The plot features few real surprises. The closest it gets involves a character literally shouting, “What a twist!” It spends its time weakly moving through a painfully stupid series of events, limply trotting out characters from the first film (Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey) with little reason for their reappearances beyond their prior appearances. The screenplay (credited to the director and three others) heightens their original quirks to mean-spirited parodies of what were already those to begin with.

But where the script most turns wrong is its unrelenting vileness. No character can go more than three lines without becoming problematic or gratingly tone-deaf. It’s an attempt to be edgy, filthily R, through nothing more than endlessly, wearingly, willingly offensive dialogue of the cheapest, meanest, lowest variety. It starts to pile up instantly: ethnic slurs, casual objectification of women, fear and appropriation of black culture, gay panic. With the flimsiest patina of ironic distance, the sleaziest of half-hearted excuses for such bottom-feeding comedy, the movie becomes shamelessly putrid: sexist, racist, and homophobic, a gross pit of worst impulses, a comments section come to life, dripping self-regard and overflowing with horrible worldviews.

Most anything can be funny approached from the right angles, but Horrible Bosses 2 finds only wrong ones. There are tasteless punchlines about molestation, mental illness, and abuse, ill-timed gags about henpecked men and police misconduct. And every scene includes at least one attempted comic riff about sexual assault, resulting in a movie that seems to exist mostly to catalog all possible variations of rape joke. The only laughs are in the bloopers that play over the end credits, but even then they’re mostly on screen, not off. In a year that brought us largely funny, cheerily dirty, broad R-rated comedies like Neighbors and 22 Jump Street (problematic prison scene aside) managing to be somewhat progressive in their approaches to race, gender, sexuality, and class, the Horrible Bosses weltanschauung feels all the more stunted and backwards. Yuck.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fly Another Day: PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR


Penguins of Madagascar successfully chucks everything stupid, boring, and routine about the Madagascar movies for a spinoff focusing on the best part: the penguins. In those earlier films about escaped zoo animals having a variety of wilderness adventures, the center stage went to dull neurotic creatures not cut out for jungle life. The fun happened in whatever a quartet of oblivious and absurdly confident penguins was getting up to. Scheming like a troop of superspies, complete with exaggerated karate poses and chopped Army Man voices, they bungled their way from one calamity to the next with an outsized sense of accomplishment and superiority. Of course, putting fun side characters in a movie all their own runs the risk of collapsing the charm with too much of a good thing. After a trial run in a cartoon series on Nick, here they’re in a movie that matches their loony goofiness and gives them room to stretch out. It’s a fast, often funny, very cute slapstick adventure.

In one of the first scenes, the four penguins literally rocket away from the end of Madagascar 3 into their own story. (“I was getting pretty tired of that song!” one shouts over the sounds of the previous series’ recurring “I Like to Move It” fading into the distance.) Leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), enthusiastic young Private (Christopher Knights), serious Kowalski (Chris Miller), and mute Rico (Conrad Vernon) just want to break into Fort Knox and steal one of the few remaining stockpiles of banned snack food Cheesy Dibbles. In the process, they’re pulled into a diabolical octopus’ evil plot to kidnap penguins from zoos around the world. The crazy cephalopod (John Malkovich, sounding a chummily megalomaniacal sort) is jealous that penguins get all the attention, distracting from the less adorable aquatic creatures. Fair enough, I suppose, but he’s overreacting in gleefully cartoony villainy.

So our hero birds race around the world trying to save penguins from certain doom. Every step of the way, they cross paths with The North Wind, an elite commando unit of snow-white arctic animals, a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of his best performances, no joke), a seal (Ken Jeong), an owl (Annet Mahendru), and a polar bear (Peter Stormare). These critters are better equipped to fight supervillains. They have a plane, jet packs, tracking devices, tranquillizer darts, and a secret base in the center of an iceberg. It’s not hard to see why they’d be upset to find four bumbling amateur spy penguins doing about as well in the pursuit of stopping the octopus. The pros make perfect uptight foils for the weirdly effective nonsense the birds bring. Even better, there’s no way these penguins are learning a lesson or going through some pat character arcs. They remain blissfully themselves.

Stuffed with visual gags, rapid puns, and antic action, the movie has plenty of brisk, colorful cartoony pleasures. The scattershot globetrotting effectively collapses all sense of geography, going from New York to Venice to Madagascar to Shanghai and back again in no time at all. That’s part of the fun, high-energy whirlwind mock spy movie stuff done with waddling dim wits. Every stop is home to a manic action sequence involving a variety of animals and weapons deployed to mostly humorous effect. I liked when octopi swarmed a gondola driver and made him their puppet. That’s something you don’t see every day. Nor do you often watch a penguin punch an octopus in the face, or perform a slaphappy dance dressed in lederhosen. Sometimes, you just appreciate the novelty.

This is one of DreamWorks Animation’s most effective animal comedies, even though it arrives at a time when they’ve pivoted away from them towards animated adventures like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Directors Eric Darnell (Madagascar) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) make a tight and uncomplicated feature that’s over in 90 minutes and lots of fun along the way. Added strange asides include: a documentary filmmaker voiced by Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World mode, a shouting man-on-the-street reporter voiced by Billy Eichner, penguins in mermaid costumes (“You mermaid my day!”), and a villain’s habit of shouting for henchmen in ways that accidentally sound like celebrity names (“Drew! Barry! More power!”). It’s an enjoyable time at the movies, quick, pleasant, energetic, funny, and modest. I’m not complaining.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Brief History of Hawking: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING


Stephen Hawking, the great theoretical physicist, has contributed mightily to our understanding of the universe. Through his academic work on black holes, the Big Bang Theory and the history of time, and his bestselling books on the subjects, his name has become shorthand for scientific progress and the power of the human mind. Surely, he belongs on the public imagination’s shortlist of notable scientists with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. That he’s done all this from the confines of a wheelchair, a form of ALS having left him able to write and speak only with the assistance of a custom computer that digitizes his thoughts one click at a time, is nothing short of extraordinary. His theories are important, his life impressive.

But when it comes to making a movie out of his life, director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have made his story into the same fawning biopic we’d see about any Great Man. It shows his early promise in brisk, energetic moments, falls into his tragic setbacks, then watches in sentimental pride his eventual standing-ovation worthy triumphs. All the while, his supportive wife is by his side, even though understandable difficulties cause their marriage to drift apart. The Theory of Everything is any and every biopic, sturdy and uncomplicated, even in its subjects’ darkest moments. It’s not interested in pushing too hard. It’s all about playing it safe and glossy, comfortable.

The film’s a straightforward retelling of Hawking’s life and work, complete with recreations of several key anecdotes that’ll be recognizable to anyone familiar with A Brief History of Time, either his book or Errol Morris’ documentary based on it. Our story begins in the 1960s, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a smart student hard at work on his PhD at Cambridge. He was on the rowing team, rode his bike across campus, and generally had a good time while impressing everyone with his intimidating intellect. What startled his peers most was how easily his work came to him. At an off-campus party he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who will become the most important person in his life. They’re a fine pair, he, a man of science and math, and she, a woman of art and religion.

Marsh and McCarten draw out these opposites as Redmayne and Jones fill in the charm that brought the couple together. The film makes the most out of this central relationship, making it far more about the Hawkings’ relationship than about his work. We’re left knowing only that he’s brilliant and popular, but with a more in-depth understanding of the compassion he was shown that enabled him to continue his work. He’s diagnosed with ALS before he’s finished with his Doctorate, before he and Jane get married. It’s a slow decline, losing feeling and muscle in all his limbs bit by bit. First he’s limping, then leaning on canes. Eventually, he can only move his lips and eyes, barely making a sound but for the computer that arrives in his life when his thoughts threaten to remain trapped in his mind.

It is through the vibrant young man’s slow arrival as the Hawking we’ve long known that Redmayne’s acting shines. If a biopic is going to get just one variable exactly right, it might as well be the lead performance. Here, the charming redhead you might remember from Les Miserables delivers an uncanny inhabitation, somewhere beyond imitation, of an intelligent man wrestling with the pain and fear of losing physical abilities. By the time he sits in the wheelchair, crumpled and limp, he does more with his curled upper lip and bright eyes than some actors manage with their whole bodies. He’s everything the movie should be, precise in his charting of the disease’s progression, moving in the resilience of Hawking’s intellect in the face of a diagnosis that even a decade earlier would’ve left him forever locked in.

Marsh, whose other biopic (of sorts) Man on Wire played around with form as much as Theory of Everything plays it safe, populates the film with some of the finest character actors in England, from David Thewlis and Emily Watson to Charlie Cox and Simon McBurney. There’s period flavor in every corner with convincing production design. Bruno Delhomme’s cinematography is handsome and gauzy. The problem is that it’s all in service of a film so rote, going through the biopic motions instead of digging into what makes Hawking’s life so compelling. There’s little care taken to flesh out his theories or personality beyond surface level anecdotal evidence. And then it expects us to cry on command with one of its treacly music cues or misty-eyed crane shots. Instead of matching the level of technical command and unsentimental pathos of Redmayne’s performance, it’s loaded up with the dullest gloss. It’s well made, but conventional and, acting aside, feels awfully hollow.
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