The last couple weeks have been my time to catch up on DVD with all the movies I didn't see last year. Six out of eight are historical films, five of them set within the last century: I have a weakness for these as long as they're not too mechanically bio-pics. All of these were well-acted, most of them well-written. I liked most of them and I'm not sorry I saw any.
Unquestionably a great movie, but that doesn't mean it's very enjoyable. Tedious: no plot. Turner does one thing, then he does another thing, and so it goes, on and on for hours. Movies should have plots. I'd be bored to have to sit and watch even my own life presented this way. I began to enumerate reasons why I enjoyed Leigh's equally long and nearly as rambling Topsy-Turvy much more than this.
1. I'm just more interested in and knowledgeable about Gilbert and Sullivan than I am about early 19C English landscape painting, or indeed painting of any time or place.
2. Topsy-Turvy does have a plot of sorts - the creation and production of The Mikado - albeit one frequently diluted and digressed from.
3. It's more interesting to watch singers and actors sing and act than it is to watch painters paint.
4. Gilbert could be extremely funny. Turner, not so much.
Another historical movie about an artist, though putting Margaret Keane in the same class as J.M.W. Turner does cause a little seasick feeling. You know this is a Tim Burton film from frame one, as it starts with Amy Adams living in the same sun-bleached and matte-framed suburb that Dianne Weist lives in in Edward Scissorhands, except now it's somewhere in Northern California. The main question this movie has to answer is how and why Margaret let Walter take credit for the paintings. Script, director, and actors are all pretty deft in dealing with this. Yet much of the rest makes little sense at all (If "S. Cenic" is not, as Walter claims, his pseudonym, then who is it?) and I'm skeptical of its forensic accuracy on a number of points. Still, the court paint-off was real, and this wasn't the only time a trial about art climaxed with a painting made under court supervision.
The Imitation Game
First of the "British Eccentric Gawky Male Genius" diptych. Benedict Cumberbatch is bloody brilliant, but I didn't have to know all that much about Turing or Bletchley Park to know that the script is hacky and the plot is garbled to the point of nonsense. You don't have to do that, you know; a more accurate story won't interfere with your precious "what did it feel like?" and might even give a better answer to that question.
The Theory of Everything
"British Eccentric Gawky Male Genius" no. 2. Not quite so brilliantly acted, but more than adequate in that department. Less inaccurate and better-written, but also much more evasive on what its subject actually did that made him such a genius. Pretty good at wrapping up the the awkward trailing off of the real-life story into a satisfying cinematic package.
Story: moving. David Oyelowo: amazingly versatile actor. Artificial MLK speeches (they didn't have rights to the real things): as effective as the originals. Political context: Sorry, but Robert Schenkkan's play The Great Society does a much better job of portraying the conflicting pressures on LBJ and how he responded to them. The movie also treats King's aborting of the second march as an inexplicable enigma, but it was nothing of the sort.
Although the movie's not really about wrestling, it turns out that you do need to know something about wrestling in order to follow it. My complete lack of knowledge of the sport - I can't tell who's winning or losing until the ref holds someone's arm up - was a hindrance. So did the lack of explanation for the motivations of any of the characters. Mark's epic poutiness over one admittedly cruel dismissive insult seems disproportionate, and his passivity in response even more so. Why did Dave come, after he'd so definitively refused earlier? And, above all, why did John shoot Dave? In real life, the courts decided that John was just insane, but the movie doesn't hint towards that, instead implying various possible motives that don't hold up. The opposite of The Imitation Game, this is a movie too imprisoned by reality, and for the sake of filmic craft, it might be better if it hadn't been made.
A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac, an actor I knew only as Llewyn Davis, plays a totally different kind of character: a soft-spoken, well-groomed, repressed businessman who's trying (and not entirely succeeding) at being honest in a shady trade, heating-oil distribution. Everything's lining up against him, including David Oyelowo as the local DA, and his trucks are being hijacked at a rate rendered incredible by the eventual explanation of who's responsible for it.
An entry in the genre of "crusty bachelor makes friends with a boy and shows his true humanity" (see About a Boy and others). Bill Murray has inherited Jack Nicholson's old position as the go-to actor for annoying crusty old bastards who turn out to be lovable, and about time. Melissa McCarthy gets a solid starring role as the boy's mother, and about time for that, too.