Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Theory of Everything


James Marsh's beautiful but occasionally overwrought The Theory of Everything is the biopic of renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his devoted wife, Jane. It is stirring and inspiring and will wrench tears nearly from start to finish. Cinephiles, however, might find Marsh's narrative choices a bit dusty despite having highly engaging dual protagonists played masterfully by Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) and Felicity Jones. We are introduced to young Hawking (Redmayne) in the '60s as an awkward though brilliant Cambridge doctoral student who takes a fancy to a lovely poetry student (Jones). The scenes of Hawking's courtship of Jane Wilde are utterly charming.  So much so that when ALS finally enters the frame -- presented in an artful passage just 30 minutes into the film -- the audience is as startled and despondent as Hawking. Most of the film, which is based on Jane Hawking's memoir of her life with the physicist, recounts the couple's early struggles to manage Hawking's disease, which his physicians said would kill him within two years. Redmayne's contorted figure as the wheelchair-bound Hawking is pure perfection, as he portrays genius locked inside a crippled body. ALS has not killed Hawking and the audience is left to wonder why or accept that, ironically, sometimes science simply gets it wrong. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bill Cosby



I recall interviewing a young woman from Irmo some years back who had recently started her modeling career. Soon she would be off to New York to take acting lessons, etc. I got a note from her a few months after the piece ran that she'd landed a non-speaking part on The Cosby Show. She would be a young pregnant woman in Cliff Huxtable's waiting room reading a magazine.  I tuned in and, sure enough, there she was.

I have no idea if Bill Cosby is guilty of what he's accused of. Maybe I would be less circumspect if I didn't appreciate him so much. I think he's contributed a great deal to how we think about the world and race and class. Positive contributions. He put a lot of young black faces on television and probably made a good many of them wealthy. Fat Albert is the creation of a funny, smart, intuitive and generous man, a doctor of education. He introduced much of the world to the beautiful art of Varnette Honeywood by displaying it on his shows.  I think the tremendous donation to the Smithsonian Institution from him and his wife is truly remarkable. It is so hard for me to fathom that the same man who did all of these things (and more) was also a demon. If it is somehow proven true, I will be terribly, terribly disappointed and sad.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Lights


Nina Simone's Blackbird (as different in tenor and affect from the Beatles' Blackbird as night is from day) is featured prominently in writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights.  We first hear it as a 10-year-old Noni Jean (India Jean-Jacques) takes wing in song at a talent show in London. We hear it again, near the end of the film, after hip-hop diva Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has nearly crashed and burned from the demands of stardom. Noni's earlier attempt to end her torment is prevented by L.A. cop and political hopeful Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), who sees a damaged soul under the street swagger. Noni hires Kaz as her bodyguard over the objections of his father (Danny Glover), her mother (Minnie Driver, where have you been?) and unbeknownst to her boyfriend, Kid Culprit (played by Cleveland rapper MGK). And, as the kids say, "shit go bad, for real for real." Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) doesn't avoid film cliches entirely (I would love to get through an urban melodrama without somebody on-screen getting slapped) but the freshness she does offer -- many insights on identity and contentment -- makes up for the more predictable passages. And besides, Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Parker (The Great Debaters) are sizzling hot. There are worse ways to spend your time than watching impossibly beautiful people romp in the surf in T.J. Recommended.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Book of Life, Big Hero 6



Jorge Gutierrez's The Book of Life and Don Hall's and Chris Williams' Big Hero 6 are mind-bogglingly complex animated treats that are also interesting studies in cultural diversity. 

The Book of Life (principal voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum and Ron Perlman) is the fanciful Mexican tale of the competition between two boyhood friends (Manolo the singer and reluctant bullfighter and Joaquin the town hero) for the affection of a third friend, the lovely and fiercely independent Maria. The story, written by Gutierrez, weaves the dark elements of deals between and pacts with underworld into an amazingly ornamental tapestry that celebrates and extols Latin culture but does make one wonder, as one of the characters in the film does, "What is it with Mexicans and death?" The film features several styles of animation but showcases dazzling, textured characters and backgrounds that have the grainy, wooden appearance of marionettes. It's a stunningly detailed piece of work, with a sophisticated view of adult themes, but whose darkness might be a little too upsetting for the youngest ones.

Big Hero 6 is set in an Amerasian metropolis called San Fransokyo and stars a Amerasian genius named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) whose brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) attends the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hiro finished high school at 13 but rather than go to college he builds robots and enters them in bot fights. Tadashi turns his younger brother onto the possibilities of serious robotics by introducing him to his invention -- an outsized, huggable mass of TLC called Baymax, who diagnoses and treats human injuries and ailments. (Another truly inspired character from the folks at Disney.) When a tragic accident delivers a huge dose of reality, young Hiro springs into action with the aid of his robotically modified, inflatable buddy and a colorful crew of students from the institute. The film has some weaknesses, narratively, but I can't imagine anyone not loving the relationship between this boy and his battle-ready nurse. Splendid.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Birdman


Mexican film auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a festival of emotional and physical kinetics that will exhaust even as it delights. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose celebrity was earned as a motion picture superhero called Birdman. The intervening years have not been kind to Riggan (thickening waist, thinning hair), and he hopes to turn himself around by directing and starring in a play he's adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. His venture is complicated by his slow descent into madness, his mercurial co-star Mike (Edward Norton) and the show's two leading ladies, his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and Mike's lover (Emily Watson). Shot almost exclusively in the interior of the St. James Theatre on Broadway, the movie has the feel of an unbroken reel as it follows the players down the narrow corridors to the dressing rooms, into the wings, onto the stage, up on the roof for battles royal. Iñárritu borrows heavily from the magical realism literary tradition to depict Riggan's unraveling but telekinetic mind. Keaton is marvelous as are all of the supporting actors, especially Zack Galifianakis as Jake, the show's frazzled producer, Amy Ryan as Riggan's ex-wife, and Emma Stone as his insouciant daughter. The film will likely resonate more with theater folks but Keaton's identify crisis will surely connect with anyone who is haunted by the spectres of their youth.

Interstellar


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar has substantial amounts of wit and wisdom but a windy ending that will tax the patience of all but the most stalwart of fans. The film, written by Nolan's brother Jonathan, tells the near future tale of a widower farmer and father of two named Cooper, who is also a grounded NASA pilot (Matthew McConaughey).He's grounded because the nation's resources are needed for the raising of crops and not for space exploration. Some natural scourge called "blight" has devastated most food sources and enormous dust storms threaten to choke the rest of life on the planet. Cooper and his adoring daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy) stumble across a scientific anomaly in the child's bedroom and discover, rather miraculously, that lines in the dust are geographic coordinates. Off they go, tossing caution to the wind, following the coordinates and discover the dusty remains of NASA, headed by a physicist named Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). After the brothers Nolan scatter the requisite Stephen Hawking / black hole folderol about for a bit, Cooper, the daughter Brand, two other space explorers (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) are off on an expedition to another galaxy via a wormhole. They're in search of a planet that could be colonized (Plan A) or serve as an incubator for human life (Plan B). The space travel set pieces are marvelous and the planet visits supply sufficient thrills but for some reason the many narrative tendrils don't come together completely. It's not that questions are left unanswered. It's that the answers aren't especially deep. A parallel storyline that involves an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her brother, played by Casey Affleck, as they wait for either a sign from heaven or a dusty death feels peculiarly uninvolving. Even so, the movie is imaginative and at times quite provocative. What's out there? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

John Wick


Keanu Reeves  has kept his amazingly inscrutable face. While it was once a distraction -- and a point of derision -- it perfectly suits the character John Wick, a former gangland assassin who retired to marry and take a stab at a normal life in the New Jersey suburbs. Unfortunately, the son a Russian mobster steals Wick's prized vintage Mustang and kills his dog, just weeks after Wick's wife dies of cancer. So, Wick gets pulled back in, which means the bodies pile up pretty quickly in cleverly choreographed gunplay scenes courtesy of directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. The Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist) and Wick have history, which makes all of this even more personal, and so begins a game of cat and mouse played out in a number of crowded upscale venues in Manhattan. The bloody violence is nearly unchartable and pushes the film, undoubtedly a franchise for Reeves, into the realm of the cartoonish. Most definitely not fit for young ones.

Nightcrawler


Screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, is a scalding treatment of the "bleeds and leads" dictum in big city broadcast news that will be an Oscar-contender because of the wonder of Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. In a role that raises his game substantially, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a cunning and resourceful shyster who is as oily as his hair. Gyllenhaal is all method acting and immersion as a textbook sociopath who turns away from theft when he discovers a more lucrative game, that of a night owl freelance videographer who feeds ratings-hungry stations with grimy footage from roadway accidents, house fires and assaults. Bloom finds a willing mark in fourth-place KWLA news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, who is married to Gilroy), whose response to the query "what is news" is "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."
Bloom is an amazingly quick study, which is typical of arch manipulators, and admits to having had little formal education. He learns from the Internet and from aping others and his speech and manner befit one so detached from real human interaction. The genius of Gyllenhaal's portrayal -- and it is genius -- is the paradoxical "rational madness" behind Bloom's forced sociableness. He does what he must to get what he wants at the time. He's a liar and, as we discover in the final reel, is completely lacking in empathy and compassion.
The brilliance of Gilroy's writing and directing is in the gradualness of this reveal. The pacing is superb and the tension is unrelenting. A pivotal scene midway through the film has Lou and Nina meeting over drinks and dinner and Lou laying out -- coldly, without a hint of the empathy that keeps "normal" people from imposing on others -- what Nina will deliver to him without question -- opportunity, money and sexual favors. It's a jaw-droppingly forward move brought to life by two actors who are perfectly pitched. The gambit -- and the scene -- work so well because Nina (and the audience) is convinced Lou is not your garden variety loony. His is a very special kind of madness -- the kind that will undoubtedly make him rich and famous. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

St. Vincent


Theodore Melfi's St. Vincent is a less introspective Alexander Payne film that features high-caliber performances from A-listers (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) in a story about miserable people behaving badly. And as is true of Payne's movies (Nebraska, Sideways, About Schmidt) what is delivered, though serious, is often quite funny. Murray plays a lonesome Brooklyn crank who has a fondness for slow racing ponies, his white Persian cat and a pregnant Russian hooker and pole dancer (Watts). Into his life comes new neighbors young Oliver (the totally winning child actor Jaeden Lieberher) and his divorced mom Maggie (the reliable McCarthy). Oliver is a runty but perspicacious lad who takes to grumpy old Vincent, despite the man's protests, after Mom hires the old guy to babysit Oliver while she's at work. Vincent's idea of babysitting is hauling the kid to the track, giving him pointers on fighting dirty and, oddly, taking him on visits to a nursing home in the city. In many ways, the story's arc is pretty conventional and the last 10 minutes are calculated to wring the tears but that can be forgiven because Murray is marvelous as a pugnacious mess of man who simply wants this bitch called life to cut him some slack. Highly recommended.

Fury


In most ways, David Ayer's Fury is like other latter-day war movies. It's a story of men and machines that celebrates brotherhood and sacrifice. Fury, starring and exec-produced by Brad Pitt, is no jingoistic rave. In fact, it's a grim tale of a well-bonded tank crew led by Pitt's Sgt. Don Collier, who is hell-bent on eradicating the Nazis and all that comes between him and that mission. Because the humanitarian Pitt is attached to the film, one can be sure the picture will  be peddling much more than blood and body count heroics. To my mind and eye, it goes deeper than Band of Brothers bromides and invites audiences to reflect on how much is lost when battling evil. The film, which was also written by Ayer, opens with Collier and his crew members (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal) having just lost their driver in a skirmish. They are regrouping with what remains of their company in Germany. Collier and the other American tank commanders are out-gunned but must press on, recover stranded infantrymen and stall, capture or destroy what's left of the German forces, including the barbaric Waffen-SS. An untrained young clerk (Logan Lerman) is assigned to Collier's crew, and it is immediately clear there will be many kinds of battles waged in the film. Ayer has a sure and expressive style; his most powerful scenes take place in the close quarters of the tank where the visceral horrors of military engagement are viewed through scopes and where crew members barely maintain control of their fear and their despair. Ayer's vision of war is grisly but not gross and is often layered with nuance, as in a brilliant set piece toward the middle of the picture that features Collier, his crew, and two German women. I feel all of this is in service to  the film's larger goal of examining how conflict too often interweaves valor and debasement, the innumerable ways men lose their souls in battle. Highly recommended but not for the squeamish.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...