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Monday, March 16, 2015

The Theory of Everything and Other Bits and Bobs

These are some pretty notable movies that I have neglected deserving of a quick look, but I've got to warn you. Not all of them in a good way.

The Theory of Everything (8/10) has already won a number of awards, not least of all for Eddie Redmayne's extraordinary lead performance, and though it certainly isn't an extraordinary piece of work - it never strays too far from the conventions of its genre - it deserves far more respect than the more sniffy critics out there have given it.

It tells the truly incredible story of Stephen Hawking, as largely viewed through the eyes of his former wife, Jane, and though some may quibble that it doesn't delve far enough into his actual work, as a populist portrait of a great man, in all his complexities, it largely succeeds admirably. Anthony McCarten's screenplay, based on Jane Hawking's own memoirs, is witty, big-hearted and is careful never to reduce any of the film's major characters into anything less than fully-drawn, three-dimensional human beings. It may be based on Jane's own accounts but she certainly doesn't come across as a faultless saint, but as a woman trying (and perhaps ultimately failing) to cope with a truly horrible situation. Hawking himself, meanwhile, is shown to be a true genius but also a flawed, often difficult man but one whose combination of resilience and good humour has allowed him to long outlive the two-year death sentence he received when he was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease some fifty years ago.

While James Marsh directs with great competency, rather than with great flair or particularly showy technical prowess (I'll let you decide if that's a bad thing or not), it is unquestionably the film's two leads who don't just do justice to but actually elevate McCarten's script. While portraying someone with Motor Neuron Disease might be an actor's Oscar-baiting dream, the real reason that Redmayne is so extraordinary here is that it's not just a mannered, showy performance. Yes, he's terrific at showing the ravaging effects of the disease but he's even better at losing himself completely in the role of Stephen Hawking. Even before the diagnosis, Redmayne makes you completely forget that you're watching an actor and not the man himself. Felicity Jones, on the other hand, has a far less flashy role but, in many respects its her subtle, quietly emotional portrayal of Jane Hawking that really centres the film.

The film does have its flaws, both large and small, especially in its refusal to really delve into some of the intriguing themes (his atheism verses her religion, as for example) that it brings up from time to time and its afore mentioned habit of succumbing to formula. It comes across just a bit shallow and just a bit ordinary, in other words, but the good stuff is so good that it easily outweighs the bad and makes it a must-see - for romantics and those interested in the exploits of extraordinary real-life people, especially.

From a career-best performance for two actors, lets move onto an embarrassing all time low for another. Mortdecai (2/10) is down there with the worst things that Johnny Depp has ever done and is easily the single worst performance that the man has ever turned in. The whimsical, capricious, uber-quirky "acting" that Johnny Depp has been indulging in for over a decade now may have started well enough with Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Carribean movie but already started to grate by the time the second film around. Since then, Depp has played only slight variations on the theme in everything from the Lone Ranger to Into the Woods and it has only gotten worse and worse with each passing picture.

I could mention the comedy-deaf direction, the awful script or the fact that this Jooves-and-Wooster-meets-Pink-Panther concoction is a disgrace to both of its biggest influences but why bother? Nothing in the film comes close to the gurning, unbearably mannered performance of its star. The rest of the cast look vaguely embarrassed as well but in comparison to Depp, they all turn in Oscar-worthy performances. Really, Johnny, it's enough. You used to be one of our finest actors and I, for one, would love to see you get back to doing what you actually do best - not what you think you do best. I only hope it's not too late, but considering that Pirates 5 (5!!!) is on the horizon, I'm not exactly holding my breath.

By comparison to Mortdecai, and for that matter most modern horror movies, The Woman in Black 2: Electric Boogalloo (not the real subtitle but it may as well be - also 4/10) isn't what anyone would call terrible. It isn't, however, what anyone would call good or, for that matter, even remotely necessary. While the first Woman in Black was a nicely moody, chilling Victorian horror flick, its sequel, this time set during the Blitz, relies far more on a constant barrage of jump "scares" in place of building tension and it suffers horribly for it. It's dull, predictably underwhelming nonsense without a decent scare in sight but, hey, at least it looks better than something like the Pyramid. Hooray for small miracles!

It's not all that news though. The Theory of Everything may be getting most of the attention but don't overlook the similarly good, if somewhat more "difficult" Wild (8/10). Picking up where all those other women-rediscovering-themselves films of the past few months have left off (again, I'm just pointing out a trend - most of these have been very worthwhile) Wild is one of those movies that sounds terrible on paper. After some very difficult life events. a woman goes off on a month-long hike across the desolate Pacific Crest trail to find herself. Sound wretched, right?

Well, not so much as it turns out. First, the central performance by Reese Witherspoon is one of this very fine actor's very best and she is supported, both in flashback and in chance encounters on her trek, by a terrific cast of lesser-known and well-known actors, with Laura Dern turning in another particularly excellent turn as our protagonists late mother. More importantly, Jean Marc-Valley's (Dallas Buyer's Club) direction brilliantly portrays the boring tedium and hardships of her journey without ever making the actual film feel anything less than utterly compelling. Finally, Nick Hornby's terrific script that flits between past and present has enough pathos and wit to keep audiences both entertained and emotionally invested in even the film's most trying moments. Oh, and then, of course, there's the awesome soundtrack that is used really inventively throughout.  

Keeping on the good side of things, Tim Burton's Big Eyes (8/10) is also worth a look. It's a huge departure for the director stylistically and none of his usual acting cohorts are to be found. Instead we get a compelling, unsettling and, at times, very funny biopic of Marget Keane whose haunting "big eye" pictures were claimed by her husband as his own work - especially  once they start selling by the boatload. Amy Adams is typically terrific and though Christoph Waltz seems entertainingly way over the top as Walter, the real-life person was apparently often even more out there. The whole thing ends with a court case straight out of Woody Allen's Bananas, though in this case it's apparently entirely true, though perhaps even toned-down somewhat. It's Burton's best film in years and though it's hardly free of flaws (pacing, tone) it's especially worth watching for fans of the once great director.

Also out over the last month is Kill the Messenger (4/10), which is a surprisingly dull telling of a riveting true-story about government conspiracies and the limits of America's freedom of the press. Jeremy Renner, who has always been hit and miss for me, is fine in the film's central role, though he is out-shone by a couple of very impressive performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie DeWitt as his editor and wife respectively. It's just a pity that with so much to work with, it landed up as such a dreary, lifeless misfire that never came close to doing true justice to the remarkable true story it tried to tell.    

Finally, bringing things mostly up to date (I hope to give Chappie his own review) The Gambler (3/10) is a fairly bad remake of a mostly forgotten seventies film. Mark Wahlberg is terribly cast as the titular gambler, who convinces neither as a depressive, self-destructive gambling addict, nor in his "day job" as an edgy literature professor. I usually really like Wahlberg and consider him to be one of the best comedic actors around, but he has no business playing this role - no matter how hard he clearly tried to make it work. Beyond the central performance things aren't much better though. It's gloomy without ever justifying its gloominess and it's both dull and silly, with a truly terrible ending that totally betrays everything (such as it is) that came before. There is one bright spot though: John Goodman is on the absolute top of his game here as a seriously menacing and darkly funny gangster. Too bad he's not in it to justify sitting through the whole thing.  

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