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Recent Movies: The Theory of Everything; Still Alice; Timbuktu; Old Movies: Double Indemnity

March 8, 2015

Recent Movies

The Theory of Everything

This film is based on the book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” by Jane Wilde Hawking.  It begins at the time Jane meets her future husband Stephen while they’re both students at Cambridge University.  Stephen would eventually become a renowned theoretical physicist and author while also having to adjust to living with the motor neuron disease ALS.

The film has a fine balance of the love story, the easily anticipated challenges in the marriage due to Stephen’s disease, and Stephen’s career highs despite the odds.  James Marsh’s directing has a sweet and compassionate attitude toward all of the characters.  This sweetness is enhanced by a touching musical score by Johann Johannsson.

“The Theory of Everything” holds well as a romantic story but also has some unexpected yet fulfilling twists on where the romance goes.

In the role of Stephen, Eddie Redmayne is superb and worthy of his various awards and other recognition.  He is more than convincing in the various stages of physical and vocal decline.  Even in silence and limited movement, his eyes tell so much emotion in just a few seconds.

The story might have felt more complete if it exposed more about Jane and her family background of which very little is exposed.  There is much curiosity as to why she would have made the decision to marry Stephen despite the many challenges and burdens yet to come.

The film can be given credit (like “The Imitation Game”, also a recent film) for telling a fine story of a genius whose line of work would be incomprehensible to most viewers.   There are also reminders of the great French film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) whose protagonist also had to find alternative ways of communicating after a massive stroke.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *

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Still Alice

The title character (played by Julianne Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia University who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  This not only affects her career but also her family life;  she is married with three young adult children.

It is tempting to compare this movie with other films of the same subject.  The best is “Away From Her” (2006) while “Iris” (2001) was also quite good.  While “Still Alice” has some good qualities, it doesn’t compare as well to those other two films.

There are some good scenes particularly one near the end that has a pot-boiler twist.  But many other scenes are sanitized and distant to the point that this this film feels like a TV movie-of-the-week.  Also, there are moments of mushy music that seem intended to unnecessarily manipulate emotions.  The final scene seemed intent to be moving but it didn’t quite meet the mark.  It would also be nice to see such stories based on the lives of average Americans rather than those rare ones who can afford to live in Manhattan condos and seaside cottages (a frequent premise in many domestic dramas).

On the other hand, there is Moore who usually raises all of her films to a higher level (especially “Safe” (1995), “The End of the Affair” (1999) and “The Hours” (2002)) as she does in this film.  Her deterioration and panic are very believable and touching.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Timbuktu

In the region of the titular city of Mail in western Africa , this film is based on true events: the jihadist group Ansar Dine takes over the lives of rural people, forcing Islamist Sharia law upon them.  This causes unexpected trouble for the villagers.

This movie is very relevant especially considering news frequently making international headlines.  It also provides the audience more than a few powerful moments:  local women speaking brashly and defiantly against what is being imposed on them; various methods of “punishment” including the death penalty;  arguments the local imam makes against the jihadists and their misusing the Q’ran; and various unusual village characters.  There is also a touch of realism as some of the jihadists seem awkward in their roles as law enforcers.  They seem like average teenage boys and young men unsure of their emerging adulthood.

While these are fine elements of the film, there are some weaknesses that sadly dilute the effect.  The actors are okay but lacking passion in their speech, occasionally speaking in monotone.  There are also many scenes of language translations.  Although this is praiseworthy for being realistic, its frequency causes occasional loss of interest.  Director Abderrahmane Sissako might have added more spice throughout the film as there are glimpses of many characters with a rare chance to get further inside them.  He can be praised, though, for a superb pivotal scene that takes place on a river.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Great Old Films Seen Again

Double Indemnity (1944 – US)

In southern California , Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to a rich man.  She seduces and enlists the help of insurance salesman Walter (Fred MacMurray) to kill her husband and cash in on a lucrative life insurance policy.  The film is directed by Billy Wilder who co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novella by James M. Cain) with Raymond Chandler.

There are many film experts who rightly refer to this film as one of the earliest examples of “film noir”.  The lighting and tone enhance the dark mood of the story where the two main characters are criminals.  The audience is also tricked at various tense moments in sympathizing with the scheming couple when they seem to be in trouble, then realizing that the sympathies are probably misplaced.

The screenplay has a few moments that are melodramatic but only a few.  It also uses a story-telling device (also used in another Wilder classic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)) that unnecessarily uses narration and flashback.  But overall, the story is very sharp and one of the best of this great era.  The various plot twists in the second half are genuinely surprising and best of all, believable.

The acting of this film is truly praiseworthy as is Wilder’s directing.  MacMurray is sharp and quick with the witty remarks; Stanwyck passionately delivers lines that would probably have fallen flat if delivered by most other actresses.  But this great twosome are upstaged by the superb Edward G. Robinson who plays an insurance claims adjuster/inspector and is one of Walter’s colleagues.  His character, Barton Keyes, has a brilliant mind and a heart to match.  His best scene is one in which he and Walter are called into a boss’s office.  He spews out logic and intelligence like it’s part of his DNA and finishes with a good zinger against the pompous boss who had criticized his appearance earlier.

“Double Indemnity” falls on many best-of-all-time lists.  No disagreements here.  Along with “Sunset Boulevard”, it belongs on that great list of Wilder classics that would also include “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Stalag 17” (1953), “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Some Like it Hot” (1959), and “The Apartment” (1960).  What a magnificent list!

RATING:   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Acting by Edward G. Robinson (in a supporting role)

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Dennis Bowman

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