Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Theory of Everything

To most people, Stephen Hawking is either an inscrutable genius or Lisa Simpson's robot buddy. The Theory of Everything (2014) reminds us that even scientists are human beings. Director James Marsh succeeds telling a human story, even if he simplifies Hawking's life and work.

In 1963, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a Cambridge grad student working on a physics thesis. He falls for Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an outgoing lit major. Shortly afterwards, Hawking's diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease. Confined to a wheelchair, Hawking becomes an acclaimed physicist, leaning on Jane for support. But Hawking's fame and worsening condition takes an emotional toll on him and Jane - especially when Jonathan (Charlie Cox) enters the picture.

The Theory of Everything works as a unique relationship drama. Stephen and Jane make an adorable young couple, attending UV light dances and playing croquet. Jane declares her undying allegiance to Stephen, spurring him from depression to accomplishment. As Stephen's body deteriorates his mind achieves greatness: Theory becomes breathtakingly inspirational. At the same time, their relationship comes under unbearable strain. Sadly, love can't withstand everything.

Here, Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten avoid regrettable cliche. How many films show an inspirational hero ditched by his uncomprehending wife? Theory feels more organic: Jane has the strength to ballast her husband, but only at her own expense. Their playful banter over religion becomes serious argument; Jane seeks her own life, attending church where she meets Jonathan. Jonathan is a lonely widower seeking to fill his own void; they're made for each other. Theory handles this with commendable tact, leading to a bittersweet ending.

When biopics "humanize" their heroes, they invariably simplify their achievements - especially Lucasian mathematics and black holes. Thus Theory reduces Hawking's theories to half-comprehended buzzwords. This is fine for dummies like me who don't know a quark from a kumquat, but I can imagine experts and science nerds resenting the simplification. Either way, scenes like Hawking's buddy explaining space-time singularity with beer foam seem unduly patronizing.

For all that, it's hard to resist Theory. Marsh's direction is straightforward, elegant, unfussy. For every weak scene, there's an affecting moment: the halcyon college days, Stephen's pneumonia episode juxtaposed with Wagner. Everything feels restrained and well-judged, rarely going for the obvious or overwrought. Well, Stephen standing up from his chair in a dream sequence is rather ridiculous.

Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for his performance. He's sweetly awkward as a young man, then tragically depressed, forcefully infused with Jane's energy. Redmayne shows Hawking's struggle to remain both brilliant and normal, success making him arrogant and testy. Redmayn gets the surface right but also the mannerisms, the right glance and inflections to suggest Hawking's growing desperation. His brilliance and resolution shines through, transcending mere contorted impersonation.

Felicity Jones provides an excellent contrast. Sweet, vivacious and devoutly religious, she bolsters her husband while resenting her lack of freedom. Jones matches Redmayne, molding her personality from perky undergrad to exasperated woman. Charlie Cox makes Jonathan likeable rather than sleazy, a lost soul himself. David Thewlis plays Hawking's amiable adviser; Emma Watson, Simon McBurney and Maxine Peake feature in supporting roles.

I enjoyed The Theory of Everything despite its award-bait pedigree. Where The Imitation Game and Selma want to make deep statements on well-covered topics, Theory settles for intimate drama. This straightforwardness serves Theory well: let the script and actors work, not its self-proclaimed importance.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (2014) was one of the Academy's notable exclusions last night (though let's face it, the right movie won). Dan Gilroy's thriller succeeds in its eerie aesthetic and Jake Gyllenhaal's  performance. Too bad Nightcrawler's ponderings aren't as deep or interesting as it imagines.

Petty criminal Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes a "nightcrawler," shooting footage of crime and accident scenes for sales to news organizations. Lou's utter dedication (or ruthlessness) impresses news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who makes Lou her go-to stringer. Lou enlists a naive intern (Riz Ahmed) and fends off an embittered rival (Bill Paxton). But Lou's obsessive dedication pushes far beyond acceptable boundaries.

It's astonishing that Nightcrawler got only an Original Screenplay nod. Gilroy's direction is impeccable, set almost entirely at night: Robert Elswit's photography relishes headlights, neon, half-lit restaurants, even Lou's laptop. This creates absorptive dread, punctuated by inevitable death and mayhem. Fire, accident or shooting, Los Angeles becomes an abattoir where life has little value, death obsessing even the well-off.

Our sociopath protagonist reflects this bleakness. Lou exudes surface charm while murdering people for scrap metal: his job gives him the same satisfaction without legal repercussions. Utterly heartless, his sole virtue is observation: asking questions, following stories,measuring what he can get away with. He disarms people with well-timed smiles, professional knowledge and ruthlessness, manipulating Nina into running his footage and then, into his bedroom. This reaches apotheosis when he spouts corporate jargon to a dying colleague.

Nightcrawler's main failing comes in the script, a sloppy patchwork of violent episodes and sledgehammer commentary. We're reminded again and again of media ruthlessness, putting ratings over decency, in scenes less shocking than grotesquely overplayed. The worst is Nina showing Lou's gory home invasion video unedited, straining credulity while earning audience groans. So soon after Gone Girl's scalding satire, Nightcrawler's dead-serious sermonizing feels positively trite.

Jake Gyllenhaal subverts an entire career of troubled nice guys. His doe eyes and lanky frame usually suggest awkward, outcast charm. Here they mark Lou a gangly, shambling vampire with a camcorder. Gyllenhaal handles Lou's derangement with finesse, every cheery greeting ringing slightly false, every demand cuttingly savage, eyes always measuring, calculating. Gyllenhaal's Lou becomes a combination of Travis Bickle and Chad from In the Company of Men, a monster who finds meaning destroying people.

Gyllenhaal's so good that Nightcrawler becomes a one-man show. Rene Russo's character is a one-dimensional shrew, without Lou's compelling psychoses. Bill Paxton goes from jerk to criminal without credible development, while Riz Ahmed makes a bland foil.

For most of its length, Nightcrawler is absorptive: bleak, well-directed, with an antihero who relishes kicking his peers (and viewers) in the guts. Yet it ultimately seems cold, because its weak story and overstated don't connect on the same visceral level. We're left with a thriller that wants to be a think piece, yet has nothing original to say.

Monday, February 16, 2015

New Column: The Battle for Lawrence of Arabia

Apologies for my absence! I just started writing for another film site, Sound on Sight, which published my inaugural piece today: The Battle for Lawrence of Arabia. This piece examines a familiar topic from a new angle: how did T.E. Lawrence's family and friends react to Lawrence of Arabia? Short answer: not very well.

Will regular blogging resume? We'll see.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The King of Marvin Gardens

Bob Rafelson followed Five Easy Pieces (1970) with this high-toned oddity. The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is a fascinating miscalculation, its overbaked flourishes more annoying than artful.

Radio host David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) receives a phone call from his estranged brother Jason (Bruce Dern). Jason invites David to Atlantic City, where he's attracting investors for a Hawaiian resort. Jason runs afoul of cops, crime boss Lewis (Scatman Crothers) and his catty assistants (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson). Fighting his own depression and distrust, David nonethless gets drawn into Jason's scheming.

Rafelson crams Marvin Gardens with vivid imagery, using Atlantic City's decaying boardwalk to great effect. We're given surreal scenes like David and Jason on horseback, a Miss American pageant in an abandoned amphitheater or David's epigrammatic chat with a gangster. These images are too self-contained to amount to anything. When the symbolism isn't obtuse it's crushingly obvious, like David finding a pistol in a drawer full of dildos. It's like a film student copying Luis Bunuel while missing the point.

Rafelson and cowriter Jacob Brackman hinge their drama on the leads' relationship: David the repressed brooder, Jason the uninhibited troublemaker. Their earnest scenes of brotherly bonding and squabbling work marvelously. Too often however, they talk past each other in overripe monologues: indeed, David frequently speaks into a tape recorder, then playing it back endlessly. Sally and Jessica are mother and stepdaughter yet both talk like spoiled six year olds, babbling nonsense while competing for Jason's love.

Presumably Marvin Gardens wants to be a wry commentary on the American Dream, its images of decay and neurotic monologues exposing modern hollowness. But these strands don't connect so much as crash into each other. Distancing yourself from viewers works if you're Brecht or Godard, willing to commit wholeheartedly to the exercise. But Rafelson seems torn between alienating viewers and investing them in his characters, and the mix just doesn't work.

Jack Nicholson seems curiously distant: for all his meaty monologues and heartfelt pinings he's too detached, from costars and viewers alike. Bruce Dern's manic greasiness proves more compelling: this ranks among his best performances. Ellen Burstyn channels energy into her misbegotten role, while Julia Anne Robinson is hopelessly stiff. Scatman Crothers's charming kingpin nearly steals the show: he's straightforward in a way his weirdo costars can't match.

The King of Marvin Gardens reeks of self-conscious pretension. Rafelson pitches plot, imagery and characters at such an abstract level they never connect, an alienation exercise without a worthwhile endgame.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014) is this season's Gone Girl, an unassuming genre flick generating a thousand think pieces on its cultural significance. Eastwood's movie has more cause, drawing on a real person whose life and actions remain controversial. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining war movie with an excellent lead performance.

Spinning his wheels in 1990s Texas, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) joins the Navy SEALS after witnessing al-Qaeda's 1998 African Embassy bombings. When the US invades Iraq, Kyle becomes a front-line sniper, gaining a reputation as "The Legend" for his impossible marksmanship. Kyle's colleagues die around him, and Kyle grows wary of the seemingly-endless conflict. His home life also suffers, with wife Taya (Sienna Miller) chafing at his long absences and inability to connect. Kyle tries coming home, yet whether through duty, habit or post-traumatic stress he repeatedly returns to Iraq.

American Sniper starts from the Sergeant York vein before turning darker. Its hero is a bumbling, none-too-bright Everyman who washes out of school and bull-riding until finding the Navy. His simple, right-and-wrong worldview meshes well with the military: he's a hero protecting America from its enemies. He relishes camaraderie with SEALS and Marines alike, finding military brotherhood simpler than family complications. Yet he becomes increasingly defined by killing people: at one point, a personal vendetta overtakes tactical considerations.

Eastwood packs Sniper with graphic battle scenes, exciting individually but cumulatively exhausting. Iraq is an anarchic wasteland where everyone's a potential enemy, with even children toting grenade launchers. This is less demonizing Arabs is than a product of limited perspective: Kyle's patriotism doesn't question the war's righteousness, measuring its human cost in lost colleagues rather than Iraqi lives. Kyle himself isn't above stupid mistakes that endanger his colleagues. Like Sniper's hero, we soon grow exhausted with the endless carnage.

Sniper intersperses combat with Kyle's spells at home. These scenes are problematic. On the one hand, Eastwood handles Kyle's PTSD with sensitivity: he can't adjust to civilian life, wracked by guilt and painful memories. His instincts kick in at the worst time, when a neighborhood dog plays too rough with his kid. His scenes with Taya, however, provide another wife who can't understand the hero's suffering. A shame, as Taya's early scenes suggest a more complex spousal figure than war movies usually provide. Fortunately, Kyle finds solace helping other veterans adjust.
Unsurprisingly, Eastwood takes liberties with the truth. There's Kyle's ongoing rivalry with Mustafa, an al-Qaeda marksman mentioned only in passing in Kyle's book. Worst is a melodramatic scene where Kyle chats with Taya during a ferocious firefight, which never happened and plays incredibly false. And Kyle was hardly as disillusioned as Sniper's later scenes depict. Then again, Kyle himself was prone to brazen exaggeration, whether cold-cocking Jesse Ventura or shooting looters after Hurricane Katrina. Eastwood's dramatic fictions seem less egregious than Kyle's own.

Really, liberal criticism of American Sniper centers around it not loudly condemning the Iraq War and Kyle himself as a war criminal. Criticizing a movie's politics is fair game, but Sniper isn't more odious than 1,000 other war movies you'd care to name. Perhaps these commentators are just upset that it's better than all the ponderous anti-Iraq War flicks which have come and gone without notice. Five years after it won Best Picture, who even remembers The Hurt Locker?

Bradley Cooper helps with a complex turn. Beefed up and sporting a passable Texas accent, he catches Kyle's redneck homeliness without denigrating the character. Cooper doesn't get the powerhouse moments that Oscar voters love, conveying Kyle's torment instead through muttered lines, avoided glances and facial resolution. Kyle isn't a character given to angry outbursts, channeling his pent-up rage into combat. Cooper makes Kyle complex and sympathetic, a believable hero with rough edges and credible failings. 


American Sniper is an old-fashioned combat picture that's provoked an unexpectedly fierce debate. It's fair to question whether the genre's flag-waving hero worship isn't hopelessly anachronistic in 2015 - especially for a war as messy as Iraq, and a man like Chris Kyle. Comparing Sniper to Leni Riefenstahl is dense and provocative.