Monday, January 5, 2015

December 2014


     Not often does a mainstream movie revolved around a character as aggressively amoral and convincingly repulsive as Lou Bloom.

     A slick, fast-talking common thief with a creepy smile, first seen selling stolen copper wire, Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) stubbles onto his true calling: freelancing car crash and crime footage to local news programs. His virtues are his persistence and patience, which help him get to the accident first and become the favorite cameraman of an equally sleazy news director (a fine comeback role for Rene Russo).

     The episodical film follows Lou and his goofy assistant Rick (an amusing Riz Ahmed) as they nightly cruise the city hoping to arrive at grizzly accidents before the cops and the other cameramen. They hit the jackpot—and more—when they stumble onto a murder scene.  
      Gyllenhaal, with his hair slicked back 80s style and his face hollowed out like a junkie’s, never even lets a sliver of goodness show as Lou uses his con man skills to find success at this uncomfortably heartless profession. Writer-director Dan Gilroy, making his directing debut after scripting “The Bourne Legacy,” clearly sees Lou as the nightmare TV audiences have created with their insatiable appetite for crime. 

      While the movie is shot and performed as thoroughly realistic, much of the content he shoots and the station airs would never appear on Los Angeles TV news. The film nails the long-held “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy of local news, but, in truth, that doesn’t translate into actually showing bloody or near death victims as depicted in “Nightcrawler.”

      What’s most interesting about the film is how quickly this low-life hustler manages to wrangle his way into the world of TV news, becoming an integral, legitimate player in a station’s operation. Just a bit frightening. 




      While not exactly what you’d expect from a bio-pic of acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking, this superb film is both a beautifully rendered coming of age story and a bittersweet chronicle of the realities of married life.

       Along the way, the movie offers a glimpse at his theories on time and space, his far-reaching intellectual curiosity and his stature in the scientific community, but this is a personal story and his disability takes center stage.

       The film introduces Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, the smitten lover in both “Les Misérables” and “My Week with Marilyn”) as an especially nerdy Oxford student pursuing his doctorate in cosmology. He meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and they immediately connect. There’s a transcendent moment when they first kiss while at a dance (though Stephen won’t dance) that is as romantic as any film moment you’ll see this year.

      But before long, Hawking starts having neurological problems; he struggles to hold a pen, his legs give way. Finally, he’s diagnosed with a form of ALS, and doctors give him two years to live. Of course, he survives, but loses most of his motor functions, including his ability to speak. Yet he’s gone on to be one of the great thinkers of his generation.

     Despite Hawking apprehension of putting Jane through what will surely be a difficult life, they married and quickly have two children (and a third later), but it’s far from a fairly book marriage and the difficulties faced by Jane, the caretaker of both children and wheelchair bound Stephen.

      Part of what makes this movie so compelling is the sharp, thoughtful direction of James Marsh (the Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire”) and romantic-comedy style of cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. There’s really not much of a story here, but Marsh maintains its realistic tone, never letting the film drift into hero worshipping. Anthony McCarten wrote the script, based on Jane Hawking’s book.

      Redmayne is simply astonishing as Hawking; it is no easy task to maintain a character’s three dimensional aspects but the actor does, even as he depicts the physical transformation that becomes central to Hawking’s existence. The obvious predecessor is Daniel Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” which earned the actor his first Oscar. Redmayne could end up with Oscar gold also as he equals Day-Lewis in creating a completely believable, multifaceted human being while making his physical limitations seem real.

      Jones, in the less demanding but equally important role of Jane, is also quite convincing, charming and tough-minded; she struggles with her love of Stephen while never letting go of her desire for a normal life.

     Maxine Peake gives a salty performance as Hawking nurse and therapist who becomes as important part of his life, while Simon McBurney (he played the other magician in “Magic in the Moonlight”) is quite effective as Stephen’s father.

     It’s a bit odd that two December movie releases tell the story of brilliant, mid-Twentieth Century Englishmen (see “The Imitation Game” below), yet even odder still is that the story of a theoretical scientist confided to a wheelchair is a more compelling picture than that of a persecuted hero of World War II.    




      A great, important, even world-altering story doesn’t necessarily make for a satisfying motion picture. The breaking of the German’s infamous Engima code machine that changed the tide of World War II, giving the Allies the edge that ended in victory over Fascism, is hard to top for historical significance.

      Yet, by focusing on Alan Turing, the tragic hero of the operation, the film plays out so utterly predictable that its “based on a true story” fells disingenuous. The plot—arrogant, anti-social iconoclast, instantly despised by everyone, eventually wins the support of his team as they work together to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal—has been told so many times that it undercuts the gravity of the situation.  

     Surely, how it all happened was more intense and dramatic than Graham Moore’s lackluster script (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) conveys. Plus, the by-the-numbers direction of Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian filmmaker who made the excellent “Headhunters,” adds nothing to the dynamics of “Imitation Game”; even the “eureka” moment felt sluggish, lacking in the sweeping emotions that turn the ordinary into memorable moments.

    Nearly saving the film is Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, superbly capturing this off-putting, rude mathematical genius, who, as a gay man in a time when homosexuality was considering a sickness and a crime, remains an outsider no matter his brilliance. Also very believable is the always spot-on Mark Strong as a well-connected MI6 operative, but Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as Engima team members, and Rory Kinnear, as the police detective who, years later, investigates Turing, add little to the film. The screen is filled with way too many stock characters.

      For a better directed, more entertaining version of the same topic, rent “Enigma” (2001), featuring an excellent performance by Kate Winslet, It doesn’t strive to be as historically accurate as “Imitation Game,” but if its history you are looking for in a feature film, you will inevitably be disappointed.




     Great drama is timeless, but comedies that produce consistent laughter decades after they first hit screens are rare. A few Marx Brothers, three or four Preston Sturges’ gems, a Billy Wilder or two, and, of course, “Dr. Strangelove” stand up after a half century or more, but few others. Sure you can admire the word play, fine acting and deft storytelling, but not often does a movie make audiences laugh out loud generation after generation.

      You can add to that rarefied list the Howard Hawks’ twist on the classic stage hit, “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. I’ve watched “His Girl Friday” annually the past few years (screening it for my journalism class) and it just keeps getting funnier. The lightning fast dialogue, probably the most rapid-fire volley of words in film history, would be hilarious even without the beautifully crafted word play, the biting sarcastic and a multitude of sly punch lines.

     As a confirmation of its enduring humor, it is one of the few black and white films teenagers end up loving.

    Some of the funniest moments in the film are when Rosaline Russell, playing the reluctant reporter Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant, her conniving editor Walter Burns, are impatiently waiting for Ralph Bellamy or another cast member to finish their lines, figuratively tapping their feet as the others speak at a normal pace. You can see they are chafing at the bit to restart their verbal sparring, seemingly striving to clock in more words per minute than the other actors.

      Russell is nothing short of brilliant as the conflicted reporter who thinks she wants to move on to a simple, normal life in upstate New York with her gentle, somewhat clueless finance Bruce, but keeps getting drawn back by her love of the chase for an exciting news story. In this case, it’s the escape of convict Earl Williams on the eve of his execution and the incompetent sheriff who let him out of his grasp.

     Grant, as Burns, is both oddly stiff and verbally adroit; he’s like a live-action cartoon character, constantly tilting his head at strange angles and moving unlike a normal human. It’s not a typical Grant performance—he’s usually so casual, smooth, effortless—but it’s one of his best

     Of course Burns is completely unlikable as the deceitful manipulator without an ethical bone in his body. He’ll do or say anything to get what he wants—in this case tricking Hildy to write the Williams story and finding a way to get Bruce out of her life. Needless to say, despite his sarcastic barbs, he still loves her.

     The film captures the cutthroat competition and disregard for the facts that marked big city journalism of the early Twentieth Century. The film’s reporters and editors are unredeemable; manipulative, law-breaking, con men with little regard to the truth or objectively. But man, are they passionate—they will do or say nearly anything just to get the story.

     Hawks fills “His Girl Friday” with sparkling supporting players—some so comical that Grant, trying hard to play this outrageous character straight, has a hard time from breaking character and laughing with the audience. Both he and Russell lose it as Billy Gilbert, playing the very confused Joe Pettibone, who carries the governor’s reprieve for Earl Williams, tries to explain the series of events that resulted in him getting drunk.

     Ralph Bellamy had a virtual patent on the good sport who inevitably loses the girl, but this is his masterpiece. Also memorable are Gene Lockhart as Sheriff Hartwell (better known as Pinky), Clarence Kolb as the corrupt mayor and John Qualen as the naively pitiful Williams.

     Legendary screenwriter Charles Lederer, who went on the write “Kiss of Death” and “Ocean’s Eleven” among many others, adapted the Hecht-MacArthur play with help from the playwrights and Morris Ryskind (“My Man Godfred,” “A Night at the Opera”), proving that many hands in the writing process doesn’t always result in a dud. But then how many films have the benefit of the guiding hand of Hawks, who consistently produced superbly written, sharply acted films that have stood the test of time (“Only Angels Have Wings,” “The Big Sleep,” “Red River,” among them).

      The manic chaos of “His Girl Friday,” a rich stew of outrageous physical comedy and verbal wit, has rarely been matched and never bettered.



UNBROKEN  (2014)

     I’ll resist the temptation to criticize this film for what it isn’t, only to say that there was a better film to be made about Louis Zamperini, the legendary Olympian distance runner and World War II prisoner of war.

     The slow-moving, repetitive film, directed by Angelina Jolie—whose debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” was a powerful look at the Bosnian conflict, among the best films of 2011—focuses on Zamperini and two other soldiers after their plane crashes into the South Pacific and everyone else is killed. The trio floats across the ocean in lifeboats, fighting off sharks and trying to keep each other sane. Jolie lets this sequence go on and on and on, clearly to give audience a taste of what these soldiers endured during their 47 days adrift. Yet people understand movie conventions; audiences don’t need to see what amounts to the same scene over and over to grasp the concept.

      The same argument goes for the rest of the movie, set in a Japanese POW camp, where a sadistic commander (is there any other kind?) picks on Zamperini because of his fame. We witness the brutal (in an old-fashioned way) treatment, but never see the results of this experience on Zamperini, as the story ends when the war does.

     His running career, at Torrance High School and at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, doesn’t merit more than perfunctory flashbacks. These scenes, and even the more realistic ones of his numerous beating in the camp, are too stagy, too predictable and ultimately lack the spontaneity crucial to making this “true story” believable.

      Jack O’Connell, a British actor best known for his role in the well-received 2013 English prison picture “Starred Up,” doesn’t have the screen charisma to carry a movie of this magnitude; he never makes Zamperini more interesting than any of the other prisoners. But equally at fault is the high-profile collection of screenwriters—the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson (eight Oscar screenplay nominations between them)—whose adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book brings little life to the film. Despite all this talent, there isn’t a single scene in this 2 hour and 17 minute movie that rises above cliché.

      Maybe the most interesting aspect of the film is the depiction of torture, circa 1943. The cruelty administered by the Japanese, as seen in this film, seems like something out of an Old West tavern brawl compared to horrors inflicted today. While I am not, in any way, diminishing the intense brutality suffered by WW II prisoners, seeing it recreated in “Unbroken,” just weeks after details of current war interrogation methods were released, I couldn’t help but be sadden by what war turns civilized man into.




      If you are going to make a film based on a true story—one that was a major news event 25 years ago—you had better offer some insight, some perspective beyond the basic facts (which are also in question). That’s where “Foxcatcher” fails.

      Dramatizing the bizarre tale from the late 1980s of chemical heir John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic wrestling stars Mark and David Schultz, this film keeps edging closer to revealing some deeper truth about the situation and de Pont’s odd behavior, but never does.

     As directed by Bennett Miller—who made the mesmerizing “Capote,” one of the best films of 2005 and “Moneyball” (2011)—and scripted by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the film quickly establishes the brothers’ relationship as these 1984 Gold medalists prepare for the world championships.  David is the business-savvy family man who, beyond competitive wrestling, is working to create a stable future for himself. Not as sharp or forward looking, younger brother Mark, who was raised by David, lives a monk-like existence centered on his intense training. Then, out of the blue, he receives a phone call from a representative of du Pont, requesting he visit the millionaire’s sprawling Eastern Pennsylvania estate.

     There, the determined, spoiled du Pont tells the baffled, overwhelmed Mark that he’s a lifelong wrestling fan and wants the famous brothers to lead a training center at his home. Essentially, du Pont would sponsor the wrestlers as they prepare for contents, including the 1988 Olympics, providing housing, living expenses and training facilities. He would be “coach.”

     While Mark is unable to convince his brother to join him (something that deeply troubles du Pont), he moves in and quickly becomes devoted to the seemingly friendless rich man. While it’s not surprising that Mark isn’t bright enough to recognize that there is something deeply wrong with this guy, I didn’t buy that David couldn’t see it. I guess money can cloud what seems obvious.

     Channing Tatum perfect captures the low self-esteem and naivety of Mark, especially when he thinks he’s cool and living the high life. A bulked up Mark Ruffalo plays David as a devoted brother, who, in his happy life, can’t see Mark’s deep discontent.

Comic actor Steve Carell, for reasons I don’t really understand, has been cast as du Pont, wearing gobs of makeup making his nose large and his face older. There’s really not much of a performance here, not necessarily because of Carell but because the script doesn’t attempt to understand the character, other than to pin his strangeness on his obsession with pleasing his mother (an underused Vanessa Redgrave). The characters in “Foxcatcher” meander through this film and, by the end, we know little about any of them.

      Though it has nothing to do with my opinion of Miller’s film, a little research reveals that the movie has a tentative connection with what actually happen. The time frame of events in the picture is deceptively telescoped and, according to some sources, including Mark Schultz, the wrestler never even trained with du Pont. The film is built around du Pont working with Mark at his training facility, yet that might not have ever happened.

     As I’ve written on numerous occasions, I never expect historical accuracy in fiction films. But when a film depicts real people (and uses real names), the outline of what really happen shouldn’t be ignored.



THE JUDGE  (2014)

      The plot is right out of the TV screenwriting 101 handbook: heartless lawyer working in the big city returns to his rural home for the funeral of his mother when circumstances force him to stay and make peace with his hard-hearted father. And, of course, the visiting son meets an old flame, still living in the hometown, rekindling romance.

      This storyline airs every night on Hallmark and Lifetime channels except the protagonist is usually a thirtysomething woman, who just needs the right kind of man to straighten out her life.

      “The Judge” upgrades the formula only in its casting, featuring Robert Downey Jr., one of the biggest stars on the planet, as the smartass son, and Robert Duvall, one of the most respected actors of the past 40 years, as the stern father and title character. They also provide the only reason to watch this cliché-riddled picture.

    The script has a bit more meat than your typical Hallmark tearjerker as Judge Palmer is accused of vehicular homicide of a lowlife he made a bad decision on years ago. But the point of the melodrama, directed by David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) is to force egotistical Hank and the stubborn judge to confront their issues. 

      Duvall gives what may be his best performance in decades; he drops all his actorish mannerisms to bring an authentic human to the screen. Despite his tough exterior, this is very much an elderly man role and he isn’t afraid to expose all of his 83 years.

     Downey matches the acting legend punch for punch; once you look beyond the winking cuteness of “Sherlock Holmes” and “Ironman,” he’s a good actor, capable of much more than superhero theatrics.

     As his old girlfriend, played by Vera Farmiga (who deserves a first-rate starring role in a film), epitomizes the girl left behind, revealing a mixture of anger and love, toughness and vulnerability.

     This film represents reality in the same measure that an Astaire-Rogers musical did, but it’s always a pleasure to watch two good actors (in Duvall’s case, great) go head to head, scene after scene, no matter the quality of dialogue.