Wrapping Up the Year in Film

From 'American Sniper' to 'Mr. Turner,' Rex Reed takes a stab at a slew of year-end movies—and finds some keepers in the mix

So many movies, so little time. In the year-end glut of holiday films, a lot of new ones will be around to keep you entertained, but The New York Observer won’t. I’m off to wrap some gifts, ring some bells and get some sleep. We’ll return with our first issue of a brand new year on January 7. Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of what’s coming in the weeks ahead.

UNBROKEN

Put this one at the top of your must-see list. Angelina Jolie might not, in my opinion, have yet reached the heights of the acting profession, but with this passionate, inspired, technically awesome and profoundly exciting chronicle of the life of Louie Zamperini, the American Olympic athlete who survived 47 days in a lifeboat and two years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, she rises to the top rank of first-class film directors in a male-dominated field overcrowded with hacks.

Beginning with a troubled childhood as the son of Italian immigrants in California, Louie was an outsider who seemed destined for a life of crime, but it was the guidance of an older brother that gave him a talisman to live by: “If I can take it, I can make it.” Played with enormous charisma and extraordinary physical endurance by rising U.K. newcomer and inevitable future star Jack O’Connell, Louie moves from the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin to the rank of pilot, shot down with two comrades and left wounded and bleeding in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific. Then, the capture by the Japanese Navy—plunged into an underground hole where he listened to his best friend being tortured, and finally found himself the personal victim of a sadistic commandant (played unflinchingly by the Japanese singer-composer Miyavi) who subjected him to years of unflagging brutality.

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken tells the story of P.O.W. Louie Zamperini.

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken tells the story of P.O.W. Louie Zamperini.

It’s hard to believe anyone could survive inhumanities this severe and still live, but Louie earned a Purple Heart, realized his dream of attending one last Olympics (in Japan, of all places!) and went on to tell his story in the critically acclaimed biography Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, which spent 180 weeks on the best-seller list before becoming the source material for this remarkable screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.

Ms. Jolie’s obsession with Louie, who died in July at age 97, informs every scene. The air strikes and raft and camp sequences hold equal weight, the camerawork by Roger Deakins is magnificent, and the vast supporting cast of unknowns including Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Luke Treadaway, is exemplary. Although it eschews the usual P.O.W. camp clichés, Unbroken is probably too grim, brutal and depressing for most viewers, and the decision to open it on Christmas Day is questionable. But as a tribute to one hero’s fortitude in refusing to give in to evil, it gives off its own admirable feeling of positive spiritual energy that left me feeling good about the best qualities of mankind. One of the finest achievements of the 2014 film year.

AMERICAN SNIPER

Another war biopic opening on Christmas day, with tight, two-fisted direction by Clint Eastwood, and a compelling centerpiece performance by Bradley Cooper as a Texas rodeo cowboy full of anger and rage who channels his natural-born killer instincts into a life of positive aggression fighting terrorists as Chris Kyle, America’s most decorated Navy SEAL. On his first day of duty, he’s assigned to protect the Marines from enemy snipers, killing a woman and a child carrying a grenade in the bargain. From there on, his constant raids on Muslim homes grow more repetitive as the man’s civilian problems lead to panic and impotence. After four tours of duty, 1,000 days on the battlefield, and 163 kills, Chris comes home for good, but the psychological damage has been severe.

Clint Eastwood directs American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper.

Clint Eastwood directs American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper. Courtesy of WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

With this film, Mr. Eastwood seems to dedicate his hawk’s eye vision of “supporting the troops” to an unpopular continuation of the ongoing war in Iraq, but his direction has none of the vigor of either of his previous war efforts, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Bradley Cooper imbues Chris Kyle with the sensitivity, charm and adrenalin lacking elsewhere in Jason Hall’s screenplay, and Sienna Miller is very good as his long-suffering wife Taya. But there’s no freshness in either the domestic scenes or the combat sequences that all look like outtakes from The Hurt Locker. The locales do at least look authentic, though Iraq is played by Morocco.

SELMA

This somber, by-the-numbers movie about Martin Luther King, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, is not just about the man, the speech or the holiday—but also the ideals and fight for dignity that led to the Nobel Prize. Race relations are still a dangerous and sensitive subject after all these years, especially in light of recent headlines about racial profiling and the riots in Ferguson and other cities. But as vital as it is, racial strife is a subject that cries out for a more volatile treatment than this. The Alabama marching sequences and resulting violence, filmed in Selma, where they actually happened, are too understated for my taste. And the home life of King and his vacillating wife Coretta are muted.

While he rallied for federal legislation guaranteeing every person in America the right to vote regardless of color, he was opposed by the White House and denounced by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. as a political and moral degenerate. Yet he turned the other cheek until his own people challenged his sincerity. Words from the Bible still don’t carry any more weight  today than they did against the whips, Remingtons and helicopters that captivated and polarized a nation in the 1960s. Everyone is just too damn polite! Still, director Ava DuVernay has done a commendable job of enlightening American school kids about a chapter in history they’ve both ignored and forgotten. And there’s a powerfully nuanced and award-worthy performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.

THE GAMBLER

Another wet battery about a week in the life of a gambling addict with a jaundiced-looking Mark Wahlberg as a Los Angeles loser who owes $240,000 to various and sundry mobsters, illegal gambling rings and bail bondsmen who beat him to bloody hamburger and give him seven days to pay—or end up in the La Brea tar pits. By day, he’s a failed novelist-turned-associate professor of English Literature, by night a hopeless loser who even wipes out his own mother (a hard, venomous, wasted Jessica Lange) to stake him to another roll of the roulette wheel. This is a remake of a 1974 bomb with James Caan, based on a book by James Toback, with overtones of Dostoevsy director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is too inert and nuance-free to detect. Richard Brooks made a tougher and much better film about the tragedy of compulsive gambling in his 1985 film Fever Pitch, and in 1949’s The Lady Gambles, even Barbara Stanwyck made a more convincing fall from respectability into casino hell than Mark Wahlberg does here.

BIG EYES

Tim Burton’s penchant for the bizarre well serves this odd investigation of the scandal behind the marriage of artist Margaret Keane, who created a kitschy world of popular but widely reviled paintings of bereft waifs with huge, myopic eyes that sold like proverbial hotcakes (but were far less appetizing), and her ambitious, money-hungry and manipulative husband Walter Keane, who claimed to be the actual artist, using his wife’s success to steal the fame and fortune for himself. She was putty in his hands, a pushover who went along with his schemes, even allowing him to sign his own name to her work, until she finally spilled the beans and sued him for slander.

Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes.

Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes.

After years of bickering and a fair amount of illegitimate larceny, the marriage came to a screeching public halt in a courtroom battle where the judge forced the estranged parties to stand before two blank canvases and prove the legitimacy of their claims. (It’s the best scene in the picture.) Walter (gregarious Christoph Waltz, delightfully oozing insincere charm) died in 2000, broke but still insisting he was no phony. Margaret (Amy Adams, unrecognizable in a bottle-blond wig) fled to Hawaii (a perfect place for bad art), opened a new gallery, and still paints every day. More subdued than usual, Tim Burton presents both a creepy view of a disastrous marriage and an indictment of the tasteless commercial 1950s art scene where goofy fads seduced ignorant collectors into clamoring for ugly ornaments to match their living room walls. Nimble, off the beaten track and very entertaining, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp.

MR. TURNER

This film focuses on a different kind of artist—the Victorian radical J.M.W. Turner, whose vast spreads of landscapes and sailing ships vanishing into muted mists were largely dismissed in 1845 as a big waste of oil. Queen Victoria thought they were ugly. I agree with Vicky. But this prosaic and vapid bore by long-winded, critically overpraised director Mike Leigh is even worse—a vacuous endurance test about an abstract loser struggling for recognition among the Impressionists of his time, although we are told he is now considered an Old Master who hangs in museums (the Met owns a few), who influenced Monet and was once defended by Thackeray. He is now defended by movie critics, although the reasons are specious—mainly because he is played in this droning yawn by bulbous, double-chinned character actor Timothy Spall.

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner.

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner.

The real Turner, we are told, was a cruel, doleful and irritating heel who frittered away his time in seedy brothels, insulted the cherished artists of the day and deserted his family, leaving them penniless and neglected while he occasionally indulged in bad sex with his pickle-faced, hunchback housekeeper. Later, he took up with a widowed landlady who rented rooms in the remote port village of Margate, where he went to paint whales. With this slow-moving film as evidence—the weirdly overrated equivalent to watching a mud puddle dry—there was nothing remotely interesting about anything he did in life that is worth making a two-hour-plus movie about. Mr. Spall, winner of the Cannes and New York Film Critics Circle best-actor awards, does his best to bring an unpleasant character to life—grunting and snorting like a boar ready to charge, spitting on his canvases and dragging around with a constant wince like a fat baby with colic. With all due respect, he’s too repulsive to watch for 150 minutes.

INTO THE WOODS

The new Disney extravaganza Rob Marshall (Chicago) has made of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical is another example of concept over coherence, but the entertainment value is considerable. Mr. Sondheim explores the only terrain left to us in which optimism and magic are still possible in a world gone psychotically sour—the landscape of fairy tales. And then he turns enchanted dreams into terrifying nightmares only Freud could understand. Don’t take the children.

Mr. Marshall uses several interlocking tales to plunge us into the woods of our imagination—three Grimm classics about Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk—plus a newly invented one about a childless baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who can lift an evil witch’s curse if they can deliver to the old crone Cinderella’s slipper, Red’s red cape and Jack’s cow. The witch throws in Rapunzel’s golden hair, too, just to make the task more difficult. This first act, long but engaging, is nothing more than a merry scavenger hunt, which also introduces a corny Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), two handsome, mixed-up princes (Chris Pine for Cinderella, Billy Magnussen for Rapunzel), Cinderella’s wicked stepmother (a hilarious Christine Baranski) and Meryl Streep, acting all over the place as the flaky, sentimental and always exhausted witch. Their stories intertwine as they trip through an enchanted forest that looks like a thicket of marzipan pretzels.

Chris Pine stars as Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods.

Chris Pine stars as Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods.

Then, in Act Two, the characters get what the Sondheim-Lapine team thinks they deserve—and nobody lives happily ever after. So it’s back “into the woods” again, to confront such jet-age traumas as moral disintegration, deception, lies, betrayal, disillusionment, fear, cowardice, regrets, doomed relationships, failed marriages and death. The woods become such a jumble of gnarled ideas and convoluted metaphors that we quickly lose our way—and our interest. The witch loses her powers, Cinderella’s prince turns out to be a heel (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”) and the wife of the giant Jack returns to wreak havoc.

The point of all this pseudo-intellectual gardening, I suppose, is to prove that fairy tales do not have happy endings and be careful what you wish for because it might make you miserable. The book is a maze in which there is no door marked “EXIT,” the best songs like “Children Will Listen” and “You Are Not Alone” are scattered, like bits of dialogue, and sound derivative of songs from other Sondheim scores. Still, there is much to admire here, from the candyfloss costumes to the tricky special effects and the thrill of hearing everyone sing surprisingly well. (Anna Kendrick has a gorgeous soprano, and Chris Pine displays wit and a musical range I never thought possible.) I left disenchanted and irritated by so many missed opportunities. Fairy tales do have happy endings, despite what Mr. Sondheim might say to the contrary. And there is something wrong with any dramatized fairy tale set to music if, when you go away, the score is so forgettable that there’s nothing to hum but the beanstalk. See you in January.

Wrapping Up the Year in Film