Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

* * *

Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Looks can be deceiving. Going by advertising, James Marsh's The Theory of Everything would appear to be a film about Stephen Hawking's groundbreaking work as a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, accomplished even as a motor neuron disease began to ravage his body; a story, in other words, of a "great man" overcoming adversity. In actuality, Hawking's work is there to provide some context and color, but it's not really the story. This isn't a film about the science, or really the scientist. It's a film about a marriage, told with no small degree of conventionality, but also told with sensitivity and grace. While most films about important men in history relegate their female leads to the thankless position of "woman behind the man," Theory is as much (if not actually more) about Jane Wilde Hawking as it is about Stephen Hawking, and does more than just give glancing attention to the struggles, sacrifices, and private agonies of being the supportive spouse. It's sad that in 2014 that should seem so refreshing, but that should take nothing away from the film which, while flawed, is nevertheless a moving portrait of a man, a woman, and their union.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Thanks for Sharing (2013)

* * *

Director: Stuart Blumberg
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, Gwyneth Paltrow

This Netflix recommendation came as a bit of a surprise to me. For one thing, I'd never heard of Thanks for Sharing previously (it premiered at TIFF in 2012 and then had a super limited release last fall), for another the recommendation is apparently entirely random on Netflix's part, and then finally, on reading a description of the plot (which is about sex addicts), I couldn't help but be reminded of Steve McQueen's Shame, which was a fine film but unrelentingly depressing, clinical, and joyless. Thanks for Sharing is sort of the opposite of that film, free of the burden of being a serious art film, yet capable of telling a serious, character-based story, and centering on the ongoing struggle of addiction and recovery, but always aware that there is happiness to be found in life. Thanks for Sharing isn't a "great" film by any stretch, but it's a good one and features really good turns by Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ten Years Later... Alexander (2004)

On this day in 2004

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson

Oliver Stone's Alexander may very well still be a work in progress. Earlier this year Stone released the 206 minute "Ultimate Cut" of the film, which makes for the fourth cut after the 175 minute theatrical version in 2004, the 167 minute "Director's Cut" in 2005, and the 214 minute "The Final: Unrated Cut" in 2007. How all versions stack up against each other is a question I cannot answer, but I can say this: the Director's Cut is a hulking behemoth of a film begging for a solid sense of purpose and repeatedly falling victim to the most typical problems with biopics, namely, telling the audience that a legendary figure is great instead of showing what made him so, and using its time to tick off historical events and names instead of forming a cogent narrative. Alexander is an ambitious film without question but, then again, most cinematic boondoggles are.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: Whiplash (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

When do the ends stop justifying the means? If you shape a young talent into a star, but crush his spirit in the process, is his ascension to that next plateau still a win? Damien Chezelle's Whiplash is the story of an abusive relationship, but it's also a story about the atmosphere and attitudes that foster that kind of abuse and enshrine the abuser in a position of institutional power. The result is a brutal duet played out between actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and a story with madness at its core, the madness of men so driven towards the highest level of achievement that they're willing to destroy themselves and others to get there. It is a film of sometimes unbearable emotional intensity and so tightly coiled for so much of its running time that when it finally and fully explodes in its finale, it leaves you breathless.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Blue Valentine (2010)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling
Country: USA

Where does love go? Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine does not attempt to answer that question, but instead offers a frank, sometimes brutal, meditation on the vacuum created once affection spends itself. This is a portrait of a relationship on the precipice, of two people torn apart by their personal disappointments and struggling to keep their heads above water, to keep things together, to find some scrap of happiness that would make it all worthwhile. That description probably makes the film sound harsh and depressing, but while Blue Valentine is definitely a very serious piece, it’s also one that can be surprisingly funny, and one which contains two stellar performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Beautifully crafted and executed, Blue Valentine is an affecting and dramatically rich film that resonates.