Monday, June 22, 2015

New(ish) Releases: The Theory of Everything (2014); Mr. Turner (2014); Bad Words (2014)

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Director: James Marsh

A decent movie, but one that I found to be a bit over-hyped by the Oscar attention that it garnered.

As you likely know, the movie follows the life of Stephen Hawking, easily the most famous astrophysicist of the last half century. Almost everyone on the planet, if not exactly familiar with Hawking's scientific theories, is familiar with the iconic image of the genius who has been confined to a wheelchair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since he was in his early 20s. There have been more than a few books and documentary films which have covered the man's theories on time and space. The Theory of Everything, however, focuses on the relatively little-known ground of his personal relationship with his first wife.

Most of the film tells the story of Hawking's meeting and marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde. The two met while Hawking was a doctoral student at Cambridge, and they fell in love shortly before his diagnosis with ALS. The movie covers the roughly two decades that follow, focusing much on Jane's struggle to care for her brilliant but incapacitated husband through his growing fame and success. Theirs was an alternately touching, sad, and complex relationship, made no less difficult by the intelligent Jane's own trouble balancing her own ambitions and desires. There is certainly enough material for drama.

I must admit, though, that the film didn't capture me as much as it perhaps could have. There is nothing that I can say is "weak" about it. The acting is excellent, spearheaded by Eddie Redmayne's Oscar-winning performance as Hawking. The sets and costumes are brilliant, and the general direction is strong. However, I felt that the overall impact of Hawking's theories on humanitys' body of knowledge was not emphasized enough. We can see that he becomes a celebrity, but the gravity of his scientific contributions felt conspicuously absent. The love story also seemed to lack a bit of punch, to the point that I found myself only marginally engaged in the entire story.

If you're interested in Stephen Hawking, the better approach is probably just to read one of the biographies on him, read his A Brief History of Time, and then watch Terry Zwigoff's brilliant biopic/documentary of the same name. It will be far more fulfilling and informative.

Just one of the many, many beautiful shots which are worth taking in.
Mr. Turner (2014)

Director: Mike Leigh

When I checked this out from Viva Video!, the proprietor Miguel stated that this was a movie that he was a bit reluctant to watch, fearing that it might be "too British."

His fears were well-founded.

Mr. Turner is, indeed, one of the most "British" movies you are likely to see. There are stuffy old white guys, highly polished accents, and a several drawing room discussions. For much of it's running time, though, there is no real problem with this. By its end, though, it all felt rather long in the tooth and bloated.

If you've heard anyone talk about the movie, they have probably mentioned the visuals. They are, indeed, stunning. The colors of Turner's landscape paintings are dazzling, as are many of the shots of actual landscapes in England and Holland. Add in the meticulously designed and constructed costumes and sets, and you have a film that is visually entrancing.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the portrayal of Turner himself. For about half of the movie, it is interesting to watch this bulbous, grunting, artistic genius go about his life. It doesn't take terribly long to see that he is a hefty bag of contradictions wearing a stovepipe hat. He's a quietly profound and brilliant artist with a keen eye for rendering landscapes in novel and beautiful ways. At the same time, he has no idea how to communicate with people about his emotions towards them, including his wife and children, from whom he is estranged. He is also locked in a bizarre sexual relationship with his maid, whereby he treats her with the same consideration he offers a piece of furniture, despite their physical intimacy.

These things are interesting to learn about this enigmatic and supremely talented man. The problem is that we learn all of these things by the one-hour mark. After that, it takes another 70-plus minutes to watch him slowly become marginalized, artistically, and then die. Granted, the film is polished enough that it doesn't really feel like a chore until the final 20 to 30 minutes a clicking along. Up until that point, the visual skill and the performance of Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner are reason enough to watch. Still, it lost enough steam by its end that I would never feel the need to watch it again.

You can be sure that Trilby either just said, or is about to say, something that
no kid should hear. You can also be sure that it's pretty funny.
Bad Words (2014)

Director: Jason Bateman

Just what I expected - a decent comedy with some good, hearty laughs laid over the top of a very shaky premise that simply exists to set up the jokes.

Jason Bateman, in his directorial debut, plays Guy Trilby, a bitter 40-year old who, through a loophole, competes in a prominent national spelling bee meant for children. Already, I'm sure you can imagine the holes in this fragile premise. All the same, the movie marches on with just enough energy and humor to keep one from analyzing its flaws too closely.

Essentially, the story serves as an excuse to have Jason Bateman say a lot of foul things to and around young children. For my part, I think it's rather funny. Sometimes it's hilarious. It is very much in the vein of Bad Santa, that raunchy classic in which Billy Bob Thornton is a pitch-perfect degenerate with an unfiltered, X-rated mind and mouth. Bateman's Trilby character never approaches the grand levels of depravity that we got from Thornton, but the wry verbal filth which he unleashes has some solid, adult humor value. His interactions with the oh-so-cute little spelling whiz, Chaitanya, provide more than a few laughs.

The details of the plot are hardly worth remembering. It does involve the mystery of Trilby's odd vendetta against the spelling bee, which is mildly intriguing. The payoff offers little more than simple closure, though, rather than anything particularly creative.

It is certainly not a comedy classic, but Bad Words is worth the 90 minutes.