Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 15, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Big Eyes (PG-13, ***): The story of Margaret and Walter Keane is the stuff of a fascinating biography. She (played by Amy Adams) was a talented painter oppressed by her status as a single mother and divorcée in the late 1950s. Walter (Christoph Waltz) convinces her to marry him to keep custody of her daughter and form an artistic partnership, but when her portraits of wide-eyed children become a sensation, he becomes overwhelmed with his own showmanship and takes credit for the work. This is all interesting material, but it’s better suited to a documentary that can follow all the strange tangents and cultural connections— Joan Crawford! Andy Warhol! The 1964 World’s Fair!— rather than focus on the resolutely uncinematic drama of one person quietly painting while another person loudly does not paint. Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman add some spark as an anti-Keane art critic and gallery owner, respectively, but ultimately the reteaming of director Tim Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski lacks the zest of their first collaboration, the classic Ed Wood. Ed Wood was fueled by the outsized enthusiasm of its subject, who charmed because he made terrible art with pure glee, whereas Big Eyes suffers from how blowhard Walter keeps stealing scenes from hardworking heroine Margaret, undercutting the film’s very thesis.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (R, ***1/2): Director and cowriter Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s hallucinatory Hollywood satire is by turns wrenching, arch, meandering, self-congratulatory, and solipsistic as it follows Riggan (Michael Keaton), a fallen superhero blockbuster star trying to reinvent himself as a Broadway auteur. His stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a disaster even before he brings on enfant terrible of the theater scene Mike (Edward Norton), whose tempestuous offstage behavior threatens to sink the production before it opens. Riggan, meanwhile, is trying to reconnect with both his estranged daughter (Emma Stone) and perhaps his sanity as he secretly believes he possesses actual superpowers. The movie’s technical accomplishments are beyond reproach. Iñárritu stages each scene as a protracted take, each one transitioning smoothly into the next so the film takes on the quality of a surreal, neverending nightmare. The performances are dynamite, too, especially the immensely talented Keaton and a rarely funnier Norton. But the movie is also smugly satisfied with its own metafictional cleverness and relentlessly panders to audience members willing to pat themselves on the back for getting the jokes. What starts as a satire shifts into a self-aggrandizing ode to moviemakers, and Iñárritu is unable to tie together all the dangling plot threads and loose themes. A series of awkward, false endings finally gives way to a coy conclusion that proves ambiguity is not inherently profound. Featuring Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Amy Ryan.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (PG-13, ***): If any doubt lingered that the filmmakers split the final installment of The Hunger Games into two parts entirely for financial reasons, the final moments of this thumb-twiddling time-waster confirm it. When last we left Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), she, along with several fellow competitors, escaped the arena and the clutches of the Capitol to seek refuge in the underground hideout in District Thirteen, where insurgents are plotting a revolution. Then the story pauses for a full two hours while Katniss, under the guidance of rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Hunger Games architect Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), makes a series of propaganda videos intended to inspire revolt. It’s a flagrant distraction complete with a lot of pseudo-philosophical pontificating about the dehumanizing nature of advertising and agitprop, which does little to mask the series’ stalling. The movie regains its sense of urgency in the last scene or two, which would have made for an excellent and truly compelling first act, something both prior Hunger Games movies lacked. Both Lawrences— star Jennifer and returning director Francis, no relation— prove more than capable with the material, but the film flails for structure and some kind of internally coherent arc. Ultimately it plays like one girl’s heroic quest to film the DVD extras for Mockingjay Part II. Featuring a slew of great supporting players, including Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Elizabeth Banks, as well as returning hunks Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson
Imitation Game (R, ****): The astonishing wartime exploits of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) aren’t inherently cinematic, but director Morten Tyldum, working from a script by Andrew Hodges, turns a math problem into a layered mystery about codebreaking, espionage, and the psychic costs of secrecy. It’s a tightly focused biopic that works on its own merits as a historical thriller. Thorny British mathematician Turing is put in charge of a project to break the Nazis’ complex Enigma code. His invention led to the great innovation of the twentieth century and helped turn the tide of the war— although the movie slightly oversells the latter fact. His genius, however, couldn’t save him from a personal secret that would lead to his persecution. Cumberbatch, star of British TV’s Sherlock, is right at home as an emotionally distant genius struggling to master interpersonal communications to further his work. Turing’s story could be told from several different angles: a spy tale, an inventor’s biography, or a study of outrage for bigotries still lurking in the present. Tyldum deftly balances them all without turning the movie into a highlight reel. Costarring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, and Charles Dance.
The Theory of Everything (PG-13, ***1/2): This biopic about legendary cosmologist Stephen Hawking is structured around his relationship with his first wife, whose memoir served as the inspiration. At its best, the film does an exceptional job of humanizing Hawking, a man so smart he seems almost unknowable. Played wonderfully here by Eddie Redmayne, Hawking is presented as an awkward but slyly funny student sometimes unable to focus his off-the-charts intelligence quotient. A diagnosis of lateral sclerosis seems to be the end of his academic success and, sooner rather than later, his life, but his steadfast girlfriend Jane (Felicity Jones) refuses to accept the pessimistic prognosis and helps Stephen struggle to not just cope with his illness, but persevere in spite of it. Director James Marsh, working from a script by Anthony McCarten, wants to recontextualize Hawking’s achievements through a humanist lens, which he does quite deftly for the first hour. But the impulse to make a more traditional biopic proves too strong, and the back half of the film lapses into a jarringly fragmented, unfocused litany of greatest hits— he gets the computer voice! He writes A Brief History of Time!— and Marsh fails to trust his audience to connect the young, hopeful intellectual in love with the titan of math and science as we know him. Flawed as it is, the film is still illuminating, and wonderfully acted, especially by Redmayne, but also Jones and supporting players David Thewlis and Charlie Cox.
> Whiplash (R, *****): The best movie of 2014 is a tightly focused, breathtakingly intense study of ambition run amok. Andrew (Miles Teller) is an aspiring jazz drummer studying at New York’s most prestigious music college. He falls under the spell of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical teacher whose abrasive tactics lead to perfection or implosion. Writer/director Damien Chazelle sets his story within the cloistered subculture of jazz obsessives, and it confidently keeps its drama within the confines of its chosen arena. For a movie that doesn’t resort to gunplay, courtroom theater, or (much) violence, this is as intense as it gets. Chazelle’s story is as laser-focused as his protagonist, perfectly played by the talented young Teller. It’s a high compliment to him that he’s never fully eclipsed by Simmons, who conjures the fanaticism of a drill sergeant in his memorable portrayal of a character driven to the verge of madness is his pursuit of perfection. The final ten minutes are as darkly fitting and nerve-wracking as any movie you’ll ever see without a body count.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> American Sniper (R): Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Chris Kyle’s memoir chronicles his overseas exploits as a highly decorated Navy SEAL sniper. Back home from the war, he finds an entirely different struggle. Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.
Annie (PG): New version of the stage musical about the little orphan girl with the hard-knock life, here played by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis. Jamie Foxx is her Daddy Warbucks, here renamed Will Stacks, a mayoral candidate who takes in the little tyke. Singing and more singing ensue. Featuring Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Cannavale.
> Blackhat (R): Michael Mann directs this technothriller about a hacker (Chris Hemsworth, trading the hammer for a keyboard) recruited by the government to help catch a cyberterrorist. Featuring Viola Davis.
> Foxcatcher (R): The true-crime story of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), whose obsession with the wrestling team he sponsors leads to his ultimately tragic partnership with brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (PG-13): In the final installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company must stave off a slew of opposing forces as well as the dragon Smaug. Featuring Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, and the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Into the Woods (PG): Rob Marshall (Chicago) adapts Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale mashup musical costarring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, and Tracey Ullman.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG): In the second Night at the Museum sequel, Ben Stiller and his menagerie of revived historical figures travel to London to uncover the source of their reawakening. Featuring Ben Kingsley, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, Steve Coogan, the late Robin Williams, and a monkey.
> Paddington (PG): This adaptation of Michael Bond’s popular children’s stories mixes live action and animation to tell the story of a talking bear from Peru who comes to live with a British family. Costarring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, and Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington.
Selma (PG-13): David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr. in this historical drama about the pivotal role of his 1965 march in Alabama that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Featuring Tim Roth, Cuba Gooding Jr., Common, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson.
Taken III (PG-13): Take me once, shame on you. Take me twice, shame on me. Taken a third time? You just need to be more careful. This time avenger-of-taking Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) must clear his own name when he’s accused of murdering his wife (Famke Janssen). Featuring Forest Whitaker and Maggie Grace.
Unbroken (PG-13): Angelina Jolie directs this biopic about the remarkable Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete who became a source of inspiration after he was shot down while fighting in World War II and found himself in a Japanese prison camp. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent book and adapted by the Coen brothers.
Wedding Ringer (R): A soon-to-be-married loner (Josh Gad) hires a professionally charismatic party guest (Kevin Hart) to be his best man in this buddy comedy.