By Cain Cawthon
Even without a wide release of The Interview, the outlandish comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the Christmas movie schedule is still a cluster as studios try to deliver something for everyone. You can pick and choose between a big-budget musical (Into the Woods), a heady period piece (The Imitation Game), a kitschy family flick (Big Eyes) and a crime drama (The Gambler). Hell, there’s even a war drama about a man who was tortured and nearly died while in a prison camp during World War II (Unbroken). How’s that for a Christmas treat? Here are our reviews of the Christmas day releases.
You could do far better, on your long Christmas weekend, than this kitschy ’50s-era art flick from Tim Burton. (And by “art flick,” I mean “movie about art,” not “artistic flick.”) The Beetlejuice and Batman whack job has abandoned his trademark color palette (a sort of soggy, but still psychedelic, gray) and his trademark duo (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter) for Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in a lipstick-and-margarine-tinged San Francisco. Adams is Margaret Keane, a meek housewife who breaks free from a troubled marriage to set out on her own as an artiste! Her unusual portraits, featuring impoverished children with enormous eyes, become national pop-art sensations, except her new husband, the distractingly homosexual — or at best asexual —Waltz is the better salesman of the two and claims the paintings as his own. Burton might be an optimal chief for depicting the throbbing, saturated art scene in the film’s background, but his penchant for flamboyance doesn’t compute with the miserable marriage and subsequent courtroom drama at the story’s heart.
If there were an Oscar for casting, The Gambler’s casting director would come nowhere near a nomination. Suiting up Mark Wahlberg, Boston’s finest blue-collar impresario, as a lit professor prone to existential rambling, makes for some extremely long and uncomfortable scenes. This is, without much contention, the least credible college English class you’ll ever see immortalized on the silver screen. The Gamblers is a remake and, as in the original, Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett moonlights as a high-stakes gambler, betting $10,000, then $20,000, then $40,000, and then $80,000 on single hands of blackjack, riding his winning streaks until he loses everything, which he does repeatedly. The debt collectors come knocking, and Bennett, who isn’t particularly affectionate toward (or desirous of) anything, must “risk everything” to pay the piper. The guy who directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the guy who wrote The Departed team up for this dud, which clearly aspires to importance, but adds nothing new or interesting to the rich cinematic history of debtors in dire straits. Thank god for the brief moments with John Goodman, who here resembles nothing so much as Jabba the Hutt.
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an excellent performance as British mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing, famous as the guy who helped crack the Nazi Engima code, used to send secret messages during World War II. Incredibly intelligent, Alan is also a bit of a bastard who has no trouble telling others that they are stupid. Despite his lack of tact, he gets hired to join a team of code breakers who’re desperately trying to break the code so that the Allies can anticipate Germany’s next moves. He quickly becomes the head of the team and brings Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a bright young mathematician, into the fold. Given his abrasive personality, Alan has trouble keeping the team together; it doesn’t help that he starts spending excessively to build a machine he thinks will be the solution. Directed by Moten Tyldum (Headhunters), the film finds a way to make code cracking dramatic and doesn’t shy from the details of Alan’s personal life; the man was criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality.
Into the Woods
A musical mash-up that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical Into the Woods was a smash hit on Broadway and is bound to be a big success at the box office too. While this adaptation falters in its second half with its protracted ending, the ensemble cast sets it apart. Meryl Streep is terrific as a wicked witch and Emily Blunt and James Corden are terrific as the couple (the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, respectively) at the center of the storyline. While he’s relegated to a minor role, Chris Pine hams it up as Cinderella’s Prince, a guy who’ll do just about anything to track down the beautiful woman (Anna Kendrick) who showed up one night at his ball. The songs here aren’t terribly memorable but the cast does a credible job of singing them, and the set design is spectacular.
Based on an incredible but true story, Unbroken, the latest film from director Angelina Jolie, has plenty going for it. While many moviegoers will undoubtedly know the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, the Olympic runner who enlisted in the Air Force and became a B-24 bombardier, that won’t take away from the suspense at the film’s heart. When Louis (Jack O’Connell) and his crew crash in the middle of the ocean, they need to come up with creative ways to get food and water while floating on a makeshift raft. Eventually, a Japanese patrol picks them up and sends them to a war camp where Louis immediately becomes the target of Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, the camp leader who picks up on the fact the Louis doesn’t respect him. He really lets Louis have it, brutally beating him with a cane and subjecting him to incredible abuse. Through it all, Louis never lets his spirit break. While the film doesn’t break any new ground here in terms of portraying the horrors of war, it still provides a nice tribute to a story of remarkable bravery.