Seemingly everybody goes to a film this time of year. As the guy who knows about movies amongst my friends, family and co-workers, I’ve been asked about what to see more in the past week than, well, this time last year. There are certainly films to recommend. I am giving more howevers though.
So many of 2014’s holiday and prestige pictures, at least the ones available outside of New York and Los Angeles, are interesting, occasionally great and ultimately a bit frustrating by not living up to their potential. Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, The Imitation Game and Unbroken all feature filmmaking that excels before ultimately underwhelming to varying degrees.
Foxcatcher comes the closest to being great. Based on the true story of the Olympic wrestling Schultz brothers and John du Pont, the eccentric millionaire who sponsored them, the movie is also the latest by Bennett Miller. If that name isn’t immediately familiar, it ought to be. Miller has a knack for turning history into a compelling narrative, having made Capote and Moneyball. Foxcatcher bares the chilliness of the former. The brothers, played exceptionally by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, have a loving relationship that comes with a bit of jealousy. Ruffalo’s elder sibling has a family and a knack for life outside the wrestling circle that Tatum’s character struggles with. The ferocity is displayed perfectly in an early scene where the pair wordlessly practice takedowns on one another, the competitive spirit amping up and the physical tension bursting forth.
Then there is everything with Steve Carrell/du Pont. From the writing to the acting, everything about him is too affected. It’s all breathy gestures and posturing, creating a distance for the viewer. Miller and his writing team provide motivation for du Pont’s obsessions, but they are all pitched at the same tenor, making each rendition less powerful than the last. As his role in the picture grows, the film fumbles along. It’s an often engaging, occasionally magnificent picture, with a gaping wound in it that drowns the whole.
Into the Woods features no such easy excuse for why it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It too has a mostly game cast, with Emily Blunt stealing the show as woman longing for something more, be it a child or anything else fresh in life. This adaptation of the legendary Stephen Sondheim musical had an especially fresh view on things itself once upon a time. Though not the first to envision a world where all fairytale characters live amongst one another, Sondheim’s stage-show did it well before the likes of Shrek or “Fables.” In the process of moving to the big screen the rich comedy of the musical and the darker shades it wrestled with are largely lost.
Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), Into the Woods isn’t honed properly. It shaves off major story elements revolving some of its central figures, though not enough to make a tight screenplay. Instead, we are left with dangling, uninteresting narratives with characters that now seem superfluous (the second Prince, Rapunzel) and not enough time with the primaries (Cinderella, The Baker) to hit the dramatic beats profoundly.
The songs – mostly – remain the same though; still triumphant when even moderately cobbled together. The opening is a crackling number that introduces a massive ensemble, their problems and a lot of clever lyrics. The macho lament of “Agony” is a hoot, with Chris Pine regaining so much lost goodwill as an arrogant and foolish prince pining for what he can’t have. Too much is lost elsewhere unfortunately. It’s best exemplified by the use of the narrator; restructured to such a degree that it’s point is lost.
In regards to missing the point, The Imitation Game hits that rather hard. This gamely concocted drama about English mathematician Alan Turing’s work during World War II dusts its narrative with a notable element of the man’s life so lightly it’s nearly insulting. The film features a framing device that jumps around several decades to reveal that Turing was a gay man at a time when that was literally illegal, keeping this part of his life in the shadows as he tinkered with and perfected machines, including one that, as the story goes, helped end WWII. The film is split on what to focus on for its entire running time. The finer day-to-day living of Turing is barely touched upon as he is presented as an introvert and someone with possible Asperger’s syndrome. What’s peculiar is how drastically Turing’s life is fictionalized. Massaging a true story to accent its horrifically accurate outcomes isn’t anything new. It does usually come with more insight.
This is done at the expense of any understanding of Turing’s top-secret work on a machine used to help decode Enigma; Germany’s secret messaging system. We see Turing plug in devices and turn switches, while never articulating what he is doing. This would be understandable if more time was spent on Turing’s personal life, but again, that isn’t the case.
Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Turing, surrounded by also notable work by Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode. Morten Tyldum’s direction is sufficient, cranking the real-life drama of England’s struggling state in the 1940s effectively. There is a potent rush of hoping that Turing and company can do what they seek to do, whatever that is beyond plugging an occasional letter into slot a or b. It hums along at a suitable pace that rides on the back of a solid cast, before crashing in an absurdly presented conclusion.
Then we have Unbroken, a mess of a movie that fails via consistently minor miscalculations. It too is a non-fiction yarn featuring the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian, man-lost-at-sea and prisoner-of-war. One can see why a life so full of momentous occasions would be ripe for the movies. Yet, it’s the old biopic problem; too much for one sitting. The film, which is the second by Angelina Jolie, only excels when covering its briefest window where Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is struggling to survive on a life-raft with two other soldiers who crashed into the Pacific. Said crash is cacophony of frightening images as water rushes past the men with fierce power, tossing them about like rag-dolls. Soon after, they have to choose whether or not to avoid the bullets of an enemy plane or dive into the ocean with the sharks. It’s a harrowing bit of filmmaking.
The rest begs, as is the story of the day, for more or less. Jolie’s picture hops back to Zamperini’s slightly mischievous youth, what led him to be a runner and eventual athlete. It’s meant to give an insight into the man’s willpower, playing instead like a lengthy montage of pans, dollies and hero-shots. So little of the context of the man’s existence is displayed to signify what each step means to him. When he is eventually captured, the harshest of horrors are shown and those only. Zamperini is thrown to the ground, punched by contemporaries and threatened at gunpoint; reacting to it all stoically. He feels less a man than a myth because we fail to witness how the man feels when the highs or lows aren’t happening.