Friday, January 9, 2015

Big Eyes, Into the Woods, The Gambler, Unbroken, and (last, maybe also least) Mr. Turner

                   An Early 2015 Review Cluster of Some Late 2014 Films
                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke
 In this, our first posting of 2015 and the 3rd one into our 4th year of operation (Pat Craig—on the left in the little photo to your right—and I debuted this venture on December 12, 2011) my goal is to catch up on some of the current holiday/awards contenders-fare after having taken a luxurious week off, so there’s no common theme among these chosen 5, they’re just what I’ve seen lately, presented in my (keen!) estimation of descending order of quality, delivered to you in somewhat shorter fashion for each one than my usual lengthy enunciations so as to not require you to still be reading this until 2016 (with the review flow compressing a bit as my interests in the particular subject matter wanes).  Also, 3 of these are based on real-life/biography-situations with the other 2 being adaptations of a play or an earlier movie; yet, I have the advantage (?) of not having seen any of this previous material so my judgments are only about what’s on the screen currently, although you may have to take that into account based on your knowledge of these various backstories as we navigate through the (insightful, of course) commentary. But first, the usual boilerplate stuff that you love so much …

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ superbly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the dazzling, radiant brilliance.

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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2014’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 22, 2015 I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2014 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2014.

 I realize that all of these opening statements may put you to sleep before you even get to the reviews, but I’ve found, via feedback, that I need to say them somewhere to avoid repetitious explanations, yet if I put it all at the end hardly anyone ever reads it before asking for those same answers so thanks for wading through all of this opening drivel and now on to what you came for.
                           Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)
Artists marry, supposedly in mutual support, but as her strange portraits start selling he takes credit until she’s had enough of the ruse and him; based on real events.

What Happens: We begin in 1958 San Francisco where recent-divorcée Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) had previously gathered up young daughter Jane (played at different ages by Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur) and a few belongings, then slipped away from “suffocating” ex-husband Frank, and is now trying to earn a living painting cutesy figures on baby cribs and dashing off quickie portraits at art fairs (with oversized eyes that represent for her the subject’s “windows to the soul,” but she was also deaf for awhile as a child, giving her more focus on the visual aspects of the body—Walter [he’s next up, be patient] later invents his own story of being impacted by destitute children in postwar Europe as the explanation for this peculiar style).  She meets, then marries charming realtor/supposed-painter Walter (I told you we’d get to him soon enough) Keane (Christoph Waltz), who claims to have studied art in Paris, which still inspires his quick-brushstroke-scenes of the City of Lights.  Rejected from contemporary galleries such as the one run by dismissive Ruben (Jason Schwartzman), Walter convinces North Beach Hungry i nightclub owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) to give the couple some wall space (right by the restrooms; Enrico says the location will encourage viewership), but when Margaret’s waifs start attracting attention (along with a brawl between Keane and Banducci which makes the papers) Walter says he's the artist (both are signed “Keane”), a scam he continues into great popular success (including selling scores of cheap prints of the originals), aided by promotions from gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) of the San Francisco Examiner (according to my viewing notes, some difficult Web search verification [but, if you look for yourself, don’t confuse him with the former SF 49’s Head Coach, 1968-1975, of the same name], and personal testimony from my long-lost-blogmate Pat Craig [See! He is still alive.]; however, I’ve seen erroneous attributions to the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times by writers who should know better).  Margaret hides the truth from everyone, including Jane, but the lies are wearing on her (as is the pace of her prodigious production, yet in this bygone era even when she confesses her lies to a priest he encourages her to “respect her husband’s judgment”), until the empire begins to fall apart after a scathing review (“appalling,” “grotesque”) from (another actual guy but easier to verify) New York Times critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) of what’s intended to be Walter’s masterpiece, a huge canvas of the children of the globe at the 1964 New York World’s Fair Hall of Education, removed after the review.

 In 1965 the Keanes move to Honolulu where Margaret gets a divorce after giving up all rights to her previous paintings and agreeing to do 100 more to keep Walter’s fame alive (turns out he didn’t do the Paris scenes either, but had them shipped to him from there so he could cover up the actual artist’s name with his signature; apparently, he never even visited Paris at all).  She finally goes public with the truth of their well-paying-scheme after finding religion by becoming involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (previously her solace came from a lot of gin), after which he fails in his bid to sue her for libel, but she’s still suing him for slander, culminating in a 1986 Hawaii trial in which she’s able to produce an original painting in an hour in the courtroom while he does nothing, claiming a shoulder injury, finally leaving her fully triumphant (except Walter continued in his lies until he died).

So What? With his own artistic background (dating back to his days as a Disney animator) which he’s been demonstrating in various manners with his long cinematic career (coincidentally, he was born in 1958, which may be why we begin our film in that year, although some reports say the Keanes met in 1954), Burton is an ideal director for this constantly intriguing look into the manipulation of aesthetic tastes (as one person’s kitsch can be another’s ticket to a mansion in the lush northern California countryside), where even celebrities such as Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, and Jerry Lewis sat for an original Keane portrait (with assumptions it was done by Walter).  This fact-based-story is too strange to be fiction, almost too absurd to be true—I actively encourage you to see it on the big screen, one of the very best of the current batch of holiday offerings!  (At least the ones I’ve seen so far, but as more of the year-end-heavyweights open here in the San Francisco area I’ll keep updating my opinions, finally producing a "Best of 2014" list.)

Bottom Line Final Comments: From 1966-1970 (when I finished my BFA) I was a studio art/art education major at the University of Texas at Austin; had I been fascinated by the Keane paintings prior to that time (I wasn’t; even to my yet-to-fully-discover-the-fascination-of-contemporary-art-eyes—Impressionism was about as “modern” as my tastes had evolved by that point, with most of my respect going to excellent illustrator Norman Rockwell—those big-eyed-portraits just seemed ridiculously-hideous [sorry, Margaret, but they still do]), but even if I had appreciated them I would have had such leanings flogged out of me by my no-nonsense studio faculty, so I dismissed the Keane phenomenon even during its heyday, with no awareness until recently of the scam Walter was foisting on the world at large, even though Margaret was broadcasting the truth since 1970, which her ex-hubby continued to deny until his 2000 demise).  While nothing that I learned in this “based on true events” film changes my mind in the least about the quality (or lack thereof) inherent in the big-eyed-paintings (although she has some other approaches that are a bit more interesting to me—you can see some of them here, although even these seem derivative of  the much-better Modigliani), I do now have a great deal of respect for what Margaret endured with Walter (which I learned about as well from interviews such as this one), and I certainly appreciate how Burton has brought her travails to a wider audience in such an engaging manner, along with the superb performances by Waltz and Adams (she’s in contention for Best Actress-Comedy or Musical film with Golden Globe voters; some say she deserves Oscar consideration as well, so we’ll soon see about that).  In wrapping this up with a Musical Metaphor I could easily offer Lana Del Ray’s “Big Eyes” (from the soundtrack, Big Eyes: Music from the Original Motion Picture and a Best Original Song Golden Globe nominee itself) at watch?v=gqoL5FA3Nzk, with its lyrical emphasis on “big lies,” but I just can’t resist going with Robert John’s big 1979 hit, “Sad Eyes,” at (from the Robert John album of that year, with its narrative about a guy breaking up with a woman because his true love is returning after an absence) because it makes me think of Walter and his short-term-fling of whatever romance he may have felt with Margaret before he emotionally abandoned her in favor of the fame her artistry brought to his public deceptions; he may have truly cared about her for herself at some point, but as depicted here she’s merely a means to the end of his real “true love,” the fame he could never achieve on his own as an artist or much of anything else except for his gifts as a salesman, where he was able to spin mildewed straw into gold.
                             Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)
Adaptation of the popular Sondheim Broadway musical in which famous fairytale characters encounter each other in an alternative story to the usual “happily ever after.”
What Happens: If, like me, you’ve never seen a production of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical (opened there November 5, 1987, with music and lyrics by Steven Sondheim, dialogue by James Lapine [also the screenwriter here]) then I can tell you there’s a lot of plot to keep up with as various famous fairytale characters all meet in the same haunted forest, with their separate stories somewhat adhering to the original plot lines but with a need now to intersect and intermingle as well (and well before such fantasy mashups became well-received by audiences from both the anti-Disney-outlook of DreamWorks Pictures’ co-founder [and Disney ex-honcho] Jeffrey Katzenberg with the Shrek franchise [beginning in 2001, when the Andrew Adamson-Vicky Jenson-directed original won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature] and the Disney-controlled ABC TV series, “Once Upon a Time,” which began in 2011 and continues to fold in famous icons to its Storybrooke, ME setting such as recent additions Princesses Elsa and Anna from the huge hit, Frozen [Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee; 2013], also a Best Animated Feature Oscar winner).  So, if you want more details than I’m offering here please check out this site (although if you really want details, go here for an extensive elaboration, filled with useful citations, about the original play, then watch this about the transition from stage to screen); however, I’ll try to keep it brief (no easy task for my rambling thoughts).  A Baker (James Corden)—who also serves as the narrator of this movie—and his Wife (Emily Blunt) long for a child but are told in a sudden appearance from their neighbor Witch (Meryl Streep) that he still carries a long-ago-curse put on his Father (Simon Russell Beale) for stealing food and some magic beans from her garden; in order to lift the curse, they must bring her “a cow as white as milk” (which Jack [Daniel Huttlestone] has but his Mother [Tracey Ullman] insists he sell because it no longer gives milk, white or otherwise), “a cape as red as blood” (which adorns Little Red Riding Hood [Lilla Crawford] on her way to Grandmother’s house until they’re both [temporarily] eaten by The Wolf [Johnny Depp]), “hair as yellow as corn” (which grows in abundance on the head of Rapunzel [MacKenzie Maurzy], the long-lost sister of The Baker, kept in a forest tower by The Witch), and a "golden slipper" (from a pair soon to grace the feet of Cinderella [Anna Kendrick], once her dead mother’s spirit properly dresses her for The Prince’s [Chris Pine] ball [to round out the main characters, his unnamed—these guys are such stereotypes they don't even rate differentiation—brother Prince (Billy Magnussen) is enamored with Rapunzel]).

 Just to make a bunch of long stories a bit shorter, The Baker and his Wife finally gather up all the needed items so not only is their curse lifted but also The Witch returns to the appearance of her younger self, both Princes get their respective honeys, and Jack brings riches from above after climbing the magic beanstalk, robbing the giant in the sky, then chopping down the stalk which kills his pursuer.  However, in the second half of this extended story, not much is “happily ever after” after all, as Cinderella tires of her preening, cheating Prince (“raised to be charming, not sincere”), The Witch has lost her powers then brings a curse upon herself to regain them and be swallowed up by the ground, Rapunzel leaves with her Prince rather than reconciling with her “stepmother” Witch, the Giant’s Wife (Frances de la Tour) comes down another hefty beanstalk (from another of the trove of magic legumes) to take revenge on Jack, while death claims many of the characters:  The Baker’s Wife, Red Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, Jack’s Mother.  The remaining major characters huddle together in an attempt to learn something useful from their various fears and mistakes as they press on into an unknown future where they'll need to work together to survive.

So What? For me, the greatest thing about this wild tale of wickedness in the woods (especially towards the end, as all of the characters start blaming each other for their various crises, until they finally learn that collective action is more useful than each trying to claim some moral high ground at the expense of all the others) is how it challenges the sunny resolutions of the original stories that these various folks have traditionally been linked with, not only helping children in the audience understand that life’s not always so magical, wondrous, fair, or resolved (nor does it just have to devolve into mean-spirited-parody of a former executive’s former empire—as we get a big dose of in the original Shrek movie—in order to question the candy-coated-cheeriness of these not-so-Grimm-as-the-original-stories mass-media-fairytales) but also leaving a more plausible, yet-still-uplifting message that even from tragedy can come resolve for the future, just as from cooperative action can come shared benefits rather than just one lucky wretch getting an uplift into a life of luxury while everyone else around her (Cinderella in this case) has to trudge on with their usual, dreary lives. I understand that fairy tales need to be kept somewhat simple in plot, conflict, and outcome so as to not overwhelm or confuse their young primary target audience, but given that this whole approach of Into the Woods is intended to appeal to more adult understandings I can only hope that its emerging-maturity-messages will also find some resonance with the children in the crowd or at least will spark some useful family discussions after the viewings (especially concerning the conflicting moral choices that emerge when The Baker’s Wife easily accepts the advances of Cinderella’s new husband, when The Baker momentarily decides to abandon his new baby because of the overwhelming responsibility of single parenthood, or when Red Riding Hood objects to killing the Giant’s Wife despite the threat she provides to the rest of this kingdom), all of which is already alluded to in the story’s last song, “Children Will Listen,” where we’re warned to be “careful [with] the things you say” because youngsters are aware of what they hear, needing answers for statements that confound or contradict easy explanations they’ve previously been given (just as long as no one tries to learn anything from “Agony,” the Prince brothers' silly song, I suppose to alert us to their ultimate shallowness but surely one of the least engaging numbers I’ve ever heard from Sondheim, although maybe I’m just not appreciating what's intended as sarcastic humor).

Bottom Line Final Comments: While I’ve read several reviews bemoaning the dreaded Disneyfication of this story, making it less grim and brutal than the stage version (of course this could just be coming from the usual “the book was so much better” template), my novice experience with it found little of that sort of complaint, especially with something intended as a PG-rated-family-viewing-experience (although that more detailed summary site I noted above also explores changes from play to movie for those who’d like more focus on the cherished omissions); still, I’ll have to say that without any kids in my family to experience it with (my cats won’t even stay awake for the birds/fish/bugs video we got for their Christmas stockings, although they perk up quite quickly to a freshly-opened can of tuna) I found the whole encounter to be a pleasant surprise but not one that would compel me toward a second screening.  For those more jazzed up about this movie than me, I think an appropriate Musical Metaphor would be this “Prologue” section of the soundtrack at, running 14:35 with many major character and situational introductions contained in this extended “Into the Woods” song (if you haven’t seen the play or movie yet, though, this video may be a bit difficult to keep everyone straight in, just based on their singing voices), but in truth I prefer Ricky Nelson’s version of “Fools Rush In” (originally written in 1940 with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Rube Bloom; this version is the 1963 single, also found on the 1964 album Ricky Nelson Sings “For You”) at because these characters all rushed into these spooky old woods not fully comprehending what they’d encounter or learn in the process, although from our safe seats in the theater we can vicariously benefit from their growth (the ones who survived, that is), leaving them and us not so foolish after the facts of unanticipated challenges.
                                 The Gambler (Rupert Wyatt, 2014)
This is a remake of a 1974 movie about a gambling-addicted-academic in great debt and danger who can hardly control self-destructive-urges in order to salvage himself.
What Happens: English Literature Associate Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), at NYC’s prestigious Columbia University, has a horrible problem with his gambling addiction that even an elite school’s faculty salary can’t cover, so that when we first see him he’s at an estate-turned-into-a-private-casino where his rash decisions soon turn his initial $10,000 entry cash into a $260,000 loss, most of it owned to harsh casino owner Lee (Alvin Ing) and the rest to an equally-dangerous loan shark, Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), neither of whom have much patience where this sap is concerned, demanding repayment in a mere week even though they doubt he has the wherewithal to make good on his markers.  Back in the classroom Bennett berates most of his students—especially hotshot basketballer Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) whose mind is more on the court than on Shakespeare—although he’s quite effusive in his praise for Amy Phillips’ (Brie Larson) writing ability (as well as noting her knowledge of his off-campus habits, as she’s also a waitress at that elite casino).  He finally convinces his rich, exasperated mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), to give him one last large loan, but while pursuing extracurricular activities with Amy he manages to blow all of it as he keeps expecting his luck to change.  Baraka then makes the situation worse by demanding that Bennett convince Allen to point-shave a big game, which the kid does for a fat bribe from Jim (money borrowed from yet-another-no-nonsense thug, Frank [John Goodman], the rest of which Jim puts on the game’s outcome through a Las Vegas bet, winning enough to get Baraka off of his back).  All of this climaxes when he manages to get Frank and Lee to another gambling joint where Jim wagers what he has left on black at the roulette table, finally scoring enough to clear accounts with both of his dangerous acquaintances (a dramatic but expected finish in that he lost everything at the beginning of this movie with the same all-or-nothing-spin).

So What? In this remake of a 1974 thriller of the same name (directed by Karel Reisz; starring James Caan and Lauren Hutton—I’ve put a couple of clips from it in the suggested links far below), Wahlberg as Jim Bennett is a dangerously-flawed-but-attractive-character despite his inability to resist the lure of the (seemingly rare) big payoff, his complete lack of integrity in belittling his students (unless he’s just projecting his own inner frustrations onto the reality that few of them have the talent and/or motivation to make something of themselves as either analysts or producers of quality literature, attempting to goad them into more meaningful work or at least another career path if most of those butts-in-the-seats actually have intentions of pursuing a life with the written arts), his absolute lack of ethics in getting physical with an undergraduate student (although there’s not much seduction on his part compared to her encouragement/willingness to couple up), and his limited wardrobe which seems to consist of the same black suit throughout the entire movie.   Bottom Line Final Comments: There’s some interesting playing around with the soundtrack in The Gambler in that what we’re conditioned to hear as simply mood-setting-music for our benefit turns out to often be part of the characters’ environments which we learn by their acts, such as abruptly turning off a radio.  Further, there’s plenty of effective tension as Jim just gets further into debt and situations of seeming hopelessness yet still draws our sympathy as he keeps pushing his luck at the blackjack table, refusing to just stop when he’s ahead rather than grasping for “the card That is so high and wild He’ll never need to deal another He was just some Joseph looking for a manger” (from Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song’ [on his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen]; I can’t resist a diversion here to listen to it at, where it could easily be my Musical Metaphor for this movie except I hate to use music in that capacity that far overwhelms the artistic value of the image-cluster that I’m paring it with, which would be the case here) in order to fulfill his goal of being a “dramatic victor.”  While there’s nothing about Jim to recommend him as a role model for anything, as he keeps digging the same putrid holes for himself, it’s hard to not admire him for finding ladders to climb out of those holes (at least until he starts digging again).  By the end of this cinematic ordeal he seems to have finally learned Kenny Rogers’ advice about knowing “when to hold ‘em Know when to fold ‘em Know when to walk away And know when to run,” but in case you need a refresher on that sage wisdom take a trip to for the megahit of “The Gambler” (from the 1978 album of the same name) to see if it offers you any needed insights.
                                       Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
Another fact-based-film, about 1936 Olympian Louis Zamperini’s ordeals in WW II, first being lost at sea and then enduring horrible torture for years in a Japanese POW camp.
What Happens: Louis “Louie” Zamperini (January 26, 1917-July 2, 2014; played here by Jack O’Connell) was born to Italian immigrant parents in New York state, moved at a very young age to Torrance, CA, was bullied as a child (played by C.J. Valleroy) because of his ethnicity and near-poverty family status, retaliated by beating up the bullies and sneaking liquor in a bottle painted to look like it held milk, constantly got into trouble at school until older brother Pete (Alex Russell) convinced him to take up track where he trained so well that he established a world high-school record in 1934 for running the mile, then earned a place on the American 5,000 meters team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  While he won no medal (he was really just trying to get himself in shape for the 1940 Games scheduled for Tokyo, as those destinations ironically went from bad to worse), his final lap, done in 56 seconds, drew astounded attention, even from Hitler.  Later, he was a bombardier in WW II action in the Pacific theater, where he and his crew crashed into the ocean in April, 1943, as the result of being forced to fly in a defective plane (tragically, approved by their commanding officers as being fly-worthy), leaving only him, pilot “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock) alive, drifting in 2 rafts for 47 days through the struggles of limited supplies (eating a seagull proved to be calamitous but they did survive on raw fish and rainwater), sharks, rough seas, and strafing from Japanese war planes.  Louie and Phil were finally rescued (Mac died), only to be confined to a series of enemy POW camps, where Louie was the one classified as an “enemy,” allowing him to be repeatedly beaten and tortured by sadistic corporal-then-sergeant Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by musician Miyavi, real name Takamasa Ishihara), who took delight in humiliating this prize athlete until Allied liberation finally arrived at the final camp in 1945.  While I’ve streamlined this plot summary chronologically, the film frequently uses flashback structures to effectively weave Louie’s earlier life in with his wartime travails.

So What? There’s no hesitation on my part to call this an inspiring story, given that it’s based in fact (in fact, it begins with the graphic intertitle “A True Story,” implying that everything we see is historical rather than originating in reality but then being somewhat fictionalized in the final product as with Big Eyes; I can’t speak about Unbroken assured of such absolute accuracy, but I do know that Jolie worked actively with Zamperini in her filmmaking process—as well as basing her narrative on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption—so I have to assume that it takes fewer liberties than do many docudramas), plus I honor anyone who endured what Zamperini did and survived, let alone (as we learn from the final intertitles) pushing past his PTSS issues to become someone who later went back to Japan for healing purposes with his former captors, all except “The Bird,” a war criminal who remained in hiding long after the conflict then refused to meet with Louie.  Yet, beyond this magnificent depiction of an “unbroken” spirit (although graphically brutal about his body, from the ordeal on the ocean to the inhuman treatment in the camps—especially when Watanabe punishes Zamperini for not making the demanded anti-American radio broadcasts by having all of the other POWs line up and punch him in the face—we’re talking The Passion of the Christ [Mel Gibson, 2004] levels of torture here) I learn little beyond Pete’s advice to his sibling that “If I can take it I can make it,” so if under some parallel situation of duress (even psychological or emotional, rather than viciously physical) I can’t “take it,” does that mean I’m a failure?  I find great admiration for the specific subject here but hesitate to think of this as a direct life lesson for the rest of us mere mortals. Bottom Line Final Comments: As briefly implied by those final intertitles, Louie Zamperini’s postwar life (nearly 70 years) was largely about finding a new type of strength, that of forgiveness of his enemies as an expression of his new-found-devotion to Christianity, but we get none of that in this film (if you want some, visit his website), just scene after scene of his atrocious beatings in the various prisoner camps.  Maybe that’s because of the limits of what’s covered in Hillenbrand’s book (my usual full confession: I haven’t read it), maybe it seemed right to Jolie to focus on the amazing endurance that Louie demonstrated in refusing to be beaten (just beaten up, constantly) rather than get into even one extended scene of his later reconciliations, but I’ll just have to say that The Railway Man (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2013; 4-star-review in our April 30, 2014 posting)—also based on real events of an Allied POW in a brutal Japanese camp but with much more focus on the healing that Eric Lomax also encountered—worked better for me overall in dealing with this complex, brutal topic (although my response wasn’t typical, as Rotten Tomatoes offered only 66% positive reviews of this earlier film, Metacritic 59%, while I’m a bit more in league with the consensus regarding Unbroken as the Tomatoers gave it only 49%, the Metacritics 59%).  

 Not to be too flippant with my Musical Metaphor here, but even though the narrative circumstances are very different I can’t help but be attracted to the similar dynamic-defiance found in Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” (from the 1983 album Too Low for Zero) at, especially given that dramatic crucifixion-like-scene in Unbroken where Zamperini is forced to stand for hours holding a wooden beam above his head, refusing to crumble until he’s beaten into unconsciousness.  Elton’s song is certainly a lot more joyfully upbeat than this (as well as being about surviving a heartache rather than a bodily assault), but if you consider the lyrics (noted here) as the metaphors that I intended, I think you'll find that the sentiment is the same.
                                            Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)
History sets the story, with a look at the behind-the-canvas-life of famed 19th century English seascape painter J.M.W. Turner, whose work transcended his personality.
What Happens:      I began this cluster of reviews with the focus on one artist so I'll close it out with the film about another from a century earlier.  Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a renowned English painter of the first half of the 19th century (played here in effectively admirable fashion—regarding the acting command by Timothy Spall, not the personality of Turner), especially concerning seascapes and textural studies of atmospheric light.  This biographical movie focuses on roughly the last 25 years of his life, from about 1825, showing us a few of his most famous works but concentrating on his daily routines which consisted (as depicted here) of: painting; offering pig-like-grunts as forms of verbal responses to most anything that was said to him; ignoring the 2 daughters (and their mother, Sarah Danby [Ruth Sheen]) he had out of wedlock, Evalina (Sandy Foster) and Georgiana (Amy Dawson), even when the latter dies; seeking the company of his father, William (Paul Jesson), whom he still lives with despite his fame and steady income until the old man dies (perhaps they cohabitated for the needs of his father’s financial situation; I didn’t really catch much about that, but William the younger did have need for an assistant with his father being one of the few people who could consistently tolerate this obnoxious son); having whenever-he-felt-like-it-sex with his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson)—niece of bitter Sarah—who assumes he cares for her much more than he really does; visiting brothels for occasional sex, where he’d also use the women as models; having more focused sex under an assumed name with a landlady, Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey), in coastal Margate where he’d often slip off to be with her as well as get inspiration for his many seascapes; accepting the constant admiration of famed art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), although as his work got more abstracted it was loathed by Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews) and ridiculed by much of the general public, even though Turner turned down an offer of £100,000 from a potential patron, who wanted to purchase his entire output, because our patriotic painter had already decided to leave any unsold works to his (much-later-appreciative) nation; shows his contempt for fellow artist and freeloader Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), as well as most of his contemporaries; and grunting some more just to be sure that we’re clear on his distain for most anything around him.  Essentially, except for his father and Sophie he merely tolerates most others around him at best, putting his energies into his canvases for which he was mostly admired for much of his lifetime, unlike many generations of now-famous-artists who came after him but had to struggle mightily for acceptance in their own eras.  What else … oh, yeah, he dies, leaving all those women in his life with nothing much of him at all.

So What? Here’s a situation where I’m really out of sync with that national critical consensus, in that my 2½-of-5-stars-rating (roughly 50%) is pitifully low compared to the Rotten Tomatoes 97% and Metacritic 95% positive scores, along with my inability to include Spall in my ongoing considerations for the 5 best leading male performances for 2014 film releases also going against the grain of his 2014 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor.  Maybe in Europe they’re better accustomed to thick British accents, which I’m sure are appropriate for historical purposes here but at times (especially in the earlier stages of the film) they’re almost too dense for me to make out.  Truly, beyond seeing some sense of some masterpieces being created, there’s just not much here that’s very intriguing to me, certainly not as interesting as Turner finds himself to be.  Bottom Line Final Comments: As noted before, I’ve studied studio art, art history, and art criticism so I’m quite familiar with the work of Turner, whose paintings I’ve seen up close in London’s National Gallery and whom I admire greatly for his influence on the later 19th century Impressionists in their common love of depictions of the radiance of light as well as his less-noted-impact (at least in my opinion, although I also find the idea in H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson’s History of Art [6th ed., Harry N. Abrams, 2001, p. 679]) on what came to be known as Color Field Paining in the mid-20th century (see this site and this one for more information).  However, I just don’t find nearly enough of interest going on here, maybe because there weren’t enough art analysts in Turner’s time besides Ruskin who could articulate the impact that his rich, atmospheric work (such as the one reproduced a bit below) was having during its time of creation nor was there any real opportunity to expand the scope of this narrative to show how his images continue to manifest themselves in other movements long after his time; still, if all this film has to say for itself is “Here’s a biography of an important painter that you probably don’t know much about beyond his canvases, so gather ‘round and watch it,” then all I can say is: noble effort from an esteemed director, useful opportunity to go behind the easel a bit (if that’s really necessary) regarding a notable painter, and likely excellent historical research, but I barely cared how this story would resolve itself as long as I got to see a selection of Turner’s astounding paintings.

(Just for curiosity, though, I’m giving just a little more attention to Turner—the artist more so than this current film about him—first, by offering after this paragraph an image of what I consider to be his most intriguing work, Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway [1844; you can see a lot more variety if you want at this "totally Turner" site]—second, by offering the image to the right, which isn’t by Turner but instead the French Neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Louis-François Bertin [1832], because to me it ironically looks much like Spall in his depiction of Mr. Turner, despite the latter’s constant moves away from the photo-like precision of his French contemporaries.)  In deliberating on a final Musical Metaphor for this posting, I decided on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (from her 1972 No Secrets album), in reference to how Mr. Turner was viewed by many of his contemporaries and acquaintances (even if he just saw himself as furiously-focused on his art).  This extremely-well-known (and debated, as to who’s being referred to in the lyrics)-tune has many video versions, but I decided to go with this one at https://, an interesting variation (including a mysterious guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix in his "retired-from-acting-performance-art"-days) that plays around a bit with the original recording (although Mick Jagger still comes on strong in the chorus [if you want even more of that concept, try this one at with vocals by Ameritz Tribute Club—plus subtitles in Portuguese to help with your bilinguality—also accompanied by endless photos of Mick; or if you want some sense that I might actually have any idea of what’s happening in music since about 1980 here’s one more shortened version of the song, with 2 generations of “breakup-queen-divas” in duet, Simon and Taylor Swift at from a Swift concert at Foxborough, MA on July 27, 2013—shot from the audience but one of the best versions, relative to image and audio quality, I found of many that you can explore on your own if you like from that singular, celebrated performance]).

And in Other Cinematic News …

 This won’t be a regular feature of my postings, but given that I noted some news stories from in my last comments of 2014 (December 23) about the infamous situation surrounding The Interview (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen; 2014), I just wanted to follow up here with a few additional relevant continuances on that topic: distribution expansion, FBI continues to blame North Korea for the Sony hacking so President Obama orders further sanctions, even though sales of the film are still growing. But enough of that on something that I haven’t even seen and probably won’t, given the reports I’ve gotten about its (unsurprising) sophomoric content.  One last semi-connected item about hacking, though, is that actual award-winning amateur wrestler Mark Schultz has now made disparaging remarks about Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014; review in our November 19, 2014 posting), the docudrama about him and his late brother, Dave, even though he’d previously been supportive of this film, so there’s speculation that his accounts have been hacked and the posting aren’t really from him at all.  Maybe you should consider checking on your own cybersecurity systems, in case any of this bothers you about access to your critical personal information (so far we’re not too worried about that here at Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark because no one has yet found anything valuable enough to hack into here).

 OK, film fiends, that’s all from me this time, but as the awards-contenders continue to elbow their way into our theaters I’ll be back soon with more essential commentary.  (A final update for you: I was able to successfully upgrade my Mac to the latest OS X version [Yosemite] which has improved the posting process a bit for me [I don't find myself staring at the colorful "wheel of death" so often now, yet there are still inherent formatting problems caused by the Google BlogSpot software but that will likely never improve], although it's created a slightly fatter version of single-space-layout so the graphic flow here is a bit longer than what I've been posting over the last year or so; one way for me to compensate would be to actually write less in each paragraph so we'll see if that further improvement might find its way to your eyes in 2015, but don't get your hopes up just yet.)
If you’d like to know more about Big Eyes here are some suggested links: (clumsy video but marginally-acceptable audio in an overall-informative 20:13 interview with Margaret Keane, actor Amy Adams, and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—a bit too much verbiage from the narrator, though, compared to what we get from the interviewees)

If you’d like to know more about Into the Woods here are some suggested links: (20:48 interview with actors Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, director Rob Marshall, and screenwriter James Lapine [also wrote the dialogue for the original play]; I experienced some initial problems in playing this so be mildly forewarned just in case)

If you’d like to know more about The Gambler here are some suggested links: (this is one of those Red Band trailers where the language reflects the movie’s R rating; if you’d prefer something a little milder here’s this one at—a bit longer too) (just for comparison here’s a clip from the original 1974 movie starring James Caan and Lauren Hutton; it claims to be the trailer but it’s just part of a single scene; here’s another one with a bit more diversity of footage at as a promo for the Criterion Collection DVD)

If you’d like to know more about Unbroken here are some suggested links: (not a bad summary of the film in 2:41) (13:23 featurette on the making of the film, with lots of testimony from the real “Louie” Zamperini and director Angelina Jolie)

If you’d like to know more about Mr. Turner here are some suggested links: (not much on this official website; because this is from Sony Pictures maybe you have to go to North Korea to get any further details) (16:17 featurette on Turner’s actual Queen Anne Street Gallery, with clips from the film and testimony from director Mike Leigh and actor Timothy Spall among others)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Big Eyes is a worthwhile if not a heavyweight film. Certainly a good vehicle for Amy Adams and especially Christoph Waltz. Without them the film would likely be a History Channel special.

    Noticed Boyhood was re-released this week in time to capture additional audience from the Golden Globes Sunday. Just wish the producers would give their actors something different to show on the talk show circuit.

  2. Hi rj, Good to hear from you (Happy New Year also, a bit late). I was very glad to see Amy Adams get her Golden Globe for Big Eyes last night, although I doubt that will help her against Julianne Moore (the other lead movie actress with a Globe win) when the Oscars showdown comes next month (assuming Adams even makes it past the nominations hurdle when the Oscar contenders are announced this week). While I prefer Birdman at this point (haven't seen all of the likely contenders yet) for Best Picture I do highly support Linklater as Best Director for Boyhood. Ken

  3. I too like Birdman and also Gone Girl in addition to Boyhood for Best Picture. All excellent and unique films.

    Waiting with baited breath for your Inherent Vice review. While it has received mixed reviews (probably due to questionable production values), I liked it. Certainly not a Master piece, but somehow it resonates.

  4. Hi rj, Given what did get nominated for Oscar's Best Picture this year, I'm inclined toward Birdman, but I still need to see American Sniper this weekend to add it to my next posting, along with Still Alice and Inherent Vice. My Top 10 (still to be finalized after I've seen a couple of other new releases over the next couple of weeks) only coincides with Oscar's Top 8 in half of the cases but I do have solid respect for everything they picked, I just wish they'd added a couple more such as Calvary and Ida (but it's the only one of the Foreign Language nominees I've seen so there may be other offshore options that I don't even know about). Ken

  5. I watched the Big Eyes. Christoph Waltz does give another... Christoph Waltz performance.