Saturday, November 22, 2014

*NEW* The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh

Films dealing with physical disabilities are not new.  Going back to dramas like "The Winning Team" (1952, about baseball star Grover Cleveland Alexander who had epilepsy) and "The Elephant Man" (1980, about Joseph, but called John, Merrick who may have suffered from a deformity known as neurofibromatosis type 1). These, and countless other films through the years, attempt to show how such illnesses have tested the will of talented or decent people.  Often these are derided as Oscar-bait and overly sentimental heart-tuggers.  Stephen Hawking's story is no different in this regard.  No doubt plenty of observers will have similar complaints about the new James Marsh drama "The Theory of Everything," which begins expanding from its limited release this week.

The film tells the story of Hawking's courtship and relationship with Jane Wilde, whom he meets at Cambridge University in the 1960's.  Based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, we see how the brilliant cosmologist Hawking suffers his fate by slowly succumbing to the physical degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.  Focusing on how the couple finds ways to maintain a sense of normalcy in their life together while battling this debilitating illness, Jane and Stephen share a loving home, have children and continue to encourage Hawkings' scientific studies.

As with all such situations, the burden is high for Jane.  She takes on the difficult task of caring for her husband while he eventually cannot move at all.  Her mother Beryl (played by Emily Watson, in a brief appearance) suggests she join the local church choir.  When she does so she meets the handsome widower Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), who becomes part of the family as a friend who helps Jane with Stephen's care.  There is an instant connection between Jonathan and Jane, which leads to speculation that something more is going on.  Eventually the talk sends Jonathan away. though the stage has been set for the Hawking marriage to dissolve, despite the love shared by the couple.  Understanding this dynamic, Stephen early on tells Jane he would not blame her if she were to stray, but her Christian background seems to have held her back from acting on this idea.  She later would marry Jonathan.  So, too, would Stephen marry his caretaker in later years.  Yet the two remained great friends.

The decision to focus on the marriage, rather than solely on Stephen Hawking's scientific theories may prompt some to criticize the structure as old-fashioned romanticism.  The theories about time and man's place among the stars is not ignored in the film.  In fact, it is given its due throughout the film, but the heart of the film is in the unyielding love that allows that mind to thrive.  Indeed, it is perhaps cliche to note that "love conquers all."  After all, though, Hawking was given only two years to live by doctors, and he is still with us at age 72. 

I suspect critics who hated Ron Howard's unabashedly sentimental "A Beautiful Mind" are bound to dislike "The Theory of Everything," but the acting in this film is impressive.  Eddie Redmayne, who broke out two years ago with a strong interpretation of Marius in the musical "Les Miserables," not only conveys the physical hardships but also the formidably disarming twinkle in Hawking's eye, the sense that this is a special man.  Felicity Jones, whose star rose with the film "Like Crazy" a few years ago, is tender and determined as Jane.  She projects Jane's love for Stephen with a sparkle, and is affecting as she attempts to grapple with the reality that she may not be in love with him anymore.  Their performances, and chemistry, is what you'll remember long after seeing the film.

Monday, November 17, 2014

*NEW* Birdman

BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) * * * *
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

 A former movie star from a popular superhero franchise wants to make a comeback through the legitimate theater, but he is haunted by the decision to leave that lucrative career. The star's name is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), and for this task he has chosen to adapt Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a tribute to the author who once encouraged him.  As each day progresses closer to opening night, Riggan becomes more insecure about his ability to realize his goal and descends into a kind of madness where he battles his alter ego Birdman.

Meanwhile, the world around Riggan is also a wreck.  An injured co-star is replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a respected stage actor who appears intent on sabotaging the show.  Every time they have a preview, Shiner causes mischief by breaking character and questioning the direction of the production.  Shiner got the part due to his connection to the show's leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts), and eventually trains his eye on Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is a recovering drug addict.  Riggan considers firing Mike, but his producer-lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) persuades him that this would be a terrible idea.

 Another area of discontent for Riggan is the growing realization that he hasn't been a particularly good father.  We come to suspect that one reason for Sam being part of the crew is to try to re-connect.  But he is still consumed by his need to prove himself as a true artist, a notion that is raised in a conversation he has with a theater critic at a bar one night.  She assures him that he is a mere celebrity, not an actor, and that nothing he says will persuade her to give his play a fair shake.  All of this distracts him from prioritizing, leading him further into a depressive state of wondering if his existence matters anymore.  To him, this play is his last chance at redemption for his mistakes.

Despite its downbeat themes, "Birdman" has an energetic style.  Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera swoops around corners and over buildings, helping to give the illusion, along with Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione's editing, of a long continuous shot.  This gives the film a feeling of freedom that more noticeable cutting wouldn't, creating an intimacy with the events unfolding.

The cast is uniformly impressive.  Emma Stone has a scene where she assesses her father's situation quite accurately, but seems to regret saying it immediately after.  Then another where she invites Norton to play an intensified game of "Truth or Dare" while perched on the roof of the theater above the city streets.  Edward Norton shows us a fairly complex character, outwardly mean-spirited but internally uncertain.  His interactions with both Keaton and Stone are compelling.

Then there is Michael Keaton himself.  The character he plays is fascinating, as it plays with our knowledge of Keaton's own career, but it also allows the actor to explore a range of emotions.  Riggan Thomson wants to prove he is more than what people expect of him, but is not sure if he can be.  Part of the reason the film works so well is that we actually care whether he succeeds or whether he succumbs to his demons.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

*NEW* Nightcrawler Review

Directed by Dan Gilroy.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis "Lou" Bloom, who has a great ambition to be a success, but is first seen pushing stolen construction merchandise.  He doesn't get much traction when looking for a job, until one day he discovers the world of freelance video journalism while stopped at the scene of a car accident.  So he gets himself a camcorder and a police radio scanner.

Lou learns that this works a bit like storm chasing.  In order to get the best footage of a crime scene, you have to race against not only police, but also rival freelancers.  A fast learner, Lou advances in this medium by selling his videos to a local news station director named Nina (Rene Russo).  Despite the more cautious attitudes of her crew, Nina senses a ratings opportunity in Lou's increasingly aggressive tactics, which include attempting to get the most graphic close-up images of crime and accident victims.  
Hiring an assistant, naive and money-desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed), Lou is in business.  As Lou and Nina enter into a dangerous pact, he profiting from her eagerness for better ratings, we begin to wonder just how far Lou is willing to go with his scheme.

Sensationalism in news has long been a topic of concern for people.  "Nightcrawler" uses this to its advantage by giving us a scenario where amoral people are willing to cross certain lines to get the most attention-grabbing headlines, no matter the consequence.  Gyllenhaal is superb at presenting Lou as a borderline psychotic without ever seeming to have evil motives.  It's quite a trick.  Rene Russo has her best role in years, playing a woman who is nearly as amoral as Lou but for different reasons.  They need each other to survive this seedy underworld of nightcrawling journalism.  This is one of the best films of the year.