Battle of the British Biopics: Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game

Below is The Spin on three end of the year awards hopefuls…all British biopics about tortured geniuses that when viewed together represent the best and worst of classic Oscar-bait.

Mr. Turner

First up is the finely pedigreed Mr. Turner from Academy darling writer/director Mike Leigh detailing the waning years of famed eccentric proto-Impressionist maritime artist J. M. W. Turner.  The film contains a lot of what one comes to expect from a Leigh project: Timothy Spall superb in the lead role, gritty yet refined attention to realism, fantastic supporting turns from a sometimes improvising cast, and excellent dialogue (the dark, dry, British humor runs delightfully amuck here).  The film also contains some surprises, most notably the perfectly lit cinematography from Dick Pope who photographs the film like a moving painting, masterfully capturing the scenes and environments (the approach of a retired warship he would later paint coming into harbor while Turner and his friends row out to meet it is fantastically rendered) that inspired Turner’s art. Continue reading

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Bawdy Sophistication, In-Jokes and Cameos Galore in Chris Rock’s Top Five

Top Five

Chris Rock’s stand-up prowess and HBO boundary ripping hilarity never successfully translated to the big screen where, to be honest, his most memorable work was his voice-overs in the Madagascar series.  So here he is now, in the beginning of middle-age, trying to get his groove back by writing, directing and starring in Top Five.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who has decreed he wants to be taken seriously now after years of staring as a wise-cracking bear-suited cop in the idiotically successful Hammy the Bear series.  His first serious film, the Haitian slave-revolt biopic Uprising, is hitting theaters just as his marriage to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) is set to air on Bravo.  On the fateful day before his bachelor party, a NY Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) follows him around NYC for an in-depth interview.  Along the way the pair riff on life, love, politics and pop culture while making pit stops in Allen’s old hood to meet the family and friends he left behind as he climbed the ladder out of the ghetto and into Hollywood stardom.  The cast features great turns in small roles from some of my favorite comedians including Tracy Morgan and J.B. Smoove, as well as countless cameos –  some of which (DMX singing “Smile”) work, and some of which (Adam Sandler doling out marriage tips) don’t.  There’s also a “watch out, world, here she comes!” spin from Leslie Jones who proves she’s waaaay funnier than her strained bits on the current season of SNL.

Despite its obvious eschewing of the entertainment business and celebrities and its tenuous parallels to Rock’s own career, Top Five miraculously avoids becoming an insular cell of wall-to-wall in-jokes (though there are plenty).  For most of its cameo-laden run-time, it’s actually a sophisticated romantic comedy where Dawson’s character has her own ulterior motives that lead to enjoyable banter and palpable chemistry.  Both leads relish in bouncing off each other’s energy with Rock finally fulfilling the promise he has always shown and Dawson fulfilling the promise she showed over a decade ago in such films as Sidewalks of New York and 25th Hour.  As fabricated as their “all in the same day” whirlwind tour of the city becomes, you root for something real to take root because the two are so engaging and delightful to watch. Continue reading

Crazy Mothers, Scrappy Kids, Idiot Fathers and Humorless Dictatorships in The Babadook, St. Vincent, Wish I Was Here and Rosewater

It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.

All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter.  Here’s the rundown:

Babadook Poster 1

First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.  In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born.  Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored.   The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia.  The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future.  The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes.  The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading