I took a little time off from blogging over the recently-concluded holidays so my latest detailed review attempts to catch up a bit with many of the films released recently as a couple of them might be up for major awards (although there are much stronger contenders still to come in my postings intended for the next two weeks). In fact, one of them, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, already snagged a nice trophy, the Golden Globe for a film’s Lead Actress-Comedy or Musical to Amy Adams for her role as Margaret Keane, the actual painter of those ubiquitous waifs that proved to be so popular in the late 1950s, then into the 1960s and beyond (yet, for the life of me I never could understand why), even though her former husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) claimed himself as the artist, despite having lost a court case that determined Margaret as the true “Keane” in that very familiar signature. The acting is superb here, as is the evocation of the era, along with the insights on how easily a trend can be turned into a cultural tidal wave even when there’s little of substance involved in such obsessions.
What the folks at Disney were hoping would be an award contender—Into the Woods, adapted from the well-received Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical (with the screenplay here by James Lapine, who provided the on-stage dialogue for the original)—doesn’t seem to be shaping up that way so much yet, although the box-office revenues are providing a very nice consolation prize (over $105 million in the domestic market for its current 3-week run, nicely offsetting the $50 million budget). Despite combining the past successes of an Oscar-nominated director, Rob Marshall (for Chicago, 2002), and last year’s year-end musical blockbuster (Frozen, Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, plus over $1.2 billion in worldwide revenues making it #5 on that All-Time list), Into the Woods has been getting decent critical attention (and a Golden Globe nomination for Meryl Streep as Best Supporting Actress in a film—although she lost to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood; here’s a complete list of the current Golden Globe winners if you like) but unless the Academy quickly creates a category for Best Adapted Film Score I don’t think you’ll see much else for Into the Woods in red-carpet mode, although it’s a fascinating revision of the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, taking them into darker places than fairytales usually go now that they been sanitized from their original “Grimm” attitudes that Disney’s had to brighten up over the years.
However, I doubt anyone will be making awards chatter about The Gambler (another adaptation, this one from the 1974 version starring James Caan and Lauren Hutton), but it’s still a very entertaining—if expendable right after the show’s over—look at gambling addiction, not a fun subject in itself but made more that way by Mark Wahlberg’s very watchable presence on screen as he tries to extricate himself from perilous dilemmas of his own making. Just in the first minutes of the movie we see his character, Jim Bennett, turn an initial $10,000 investment into a $260,000 loss not only by trusting his luck once too often but also by borrowing money from a dangerous loan shark with little tolerance for a slow repayment (Jim’s got only a week to reimburse the full amount). Just in case he doesn’t have enough to worry about already, he also finds it within his interests to begin a hot affair with one of his students (he teaches English lit at Columbia) and to consider coercing another student—a hot basketball player—to do some point shaving at the behest (at best) of Mr. Shark. The pace is active, the tension is constant, and the drive toward the finish will keep you engaged, even if there’s not much take-away from this this beyond the obvious warning to keep your wallet in your pants whenever the bright lights and enticing sounds of those “today’s my chosen day” casinos begin to look too tempting.
Louis “Louie” Zamperini (played marvelously by Jack O’Connell), like the Keanes an actual historical figure, also had to learn some life lessons early on. However, as the bullied child of Italian immigrants in Depression-era California he finally took his brother’s advice to shun the antisocial directions he was headed for at a fast pace, replacing them instead with fast turns around a track leading to a world record for a high-schooler running the mile, a place on the 1936 U.S.A. Olympic track team, and great admiration for his athletic abilities. That came back to haunt him a few years later, though, as he’s a bombardier during WW II in a plane that crashes into the Pacific. After surviving for 47 days barely afloat, his next challenge was to endure vicious treatment in a Japanese POW camp where he was constantly tormented because of his former fame as a means of trying to break his will and morale along with that of his fellow prisoners. A quick look at a history site (as well as the film’s title) tells you the outcome of this grim but inspiring situation (with a great sense of directorial control by Angelina Jolie), but the beatings do get grotesquely repetitious when there were many decades of Zamperini’s admirable postwar life that could have reasonably been approached as well but weren’t.
Finally, we have another biography, this one of the celebrated early-mid 19th century painter of energized seascapes, J.M.W. Turner (played marvelously by Timothy Spall, a reasonable possibility for a Best Actor Oscar although there may be just too much worthy competition this year for him to rise above the other well-respected contenders). What we see of Turner, though, is the opposite of inspiring except for what he puts on a canvas, as his stimulations seem to come mainly from sex, drinking, snorting like a pig at most everything said to him given his overall distain of practically everyone else in the film, and watching his reputation vacillate as his images get increasingly more abstract. Mr. Turner’s gotten great press from the overall critical community, although I’ll have to say that watching his antisocial antics got rather boring for me when I’d have preferred to get better insights into his work from those who understood and appreciated it (just as I’d have preferred more depth on Stephen Hawking’s physics in The Theory of Everything rather than the constant focus on his physical and personal struggles), but you may well find this “portrait” of Turner to be more effectively structured than I do.
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