Tag Archives: Jude Law

Review: ‘Genius’

dfn-genius_300For any movie fan who also loves to read, Genius is intoxicating.

The film takes place in New York City over the course of several years in the heady literary period of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The central figure is Max Perkins (Colin Firth), an editor at Scribner who already counts F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) among his renowned authors.

Into his life strides Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a boisterous presence and a prolific writer. Perkins immediately recognizes his talent, and then must work with Wolfe to trim his ungainly and massively long manuscript into something he can publish. Once that’s done, and Wolfe wins the acclaim he deserves for his first novel, the writer eventually returns with his next book: even longer, even more ungainly, and even more in need of editing, in Perkins’ view.

Yet Wolfe resists, in part because he’s in love with every word he’s written, and in part because he resents the suggestions made by critics and others that he owes his success to Perkins. The exceedingly modest editor, for his part, is resistant to any such idea, and even wonders if his editing has affected Wolfe’s work to its detriment.

The very experienced screenwriter John Logan adapted the first book by A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, published in 1978 and winner of a National Book Award. As might be expected, Berg’s book covers far more ground than could be covered in a single feature film, and so Logan primarily focuses on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe.

That makes sense, in that their personalities are so markedly different. Perkins is quiet and supportive, while Wolfe is wildly effusive and selfish. Perkins is married to a loyal wife (Laura Linney) with a handful of children, while Perkins carries on with a married woman (Nicole Kidman).

Yet Law portrays Wolfe with such over the top abandon that he chews the scenery in every scene he’s in — and then spits it out with relish. It’s difficult to ever forget that Law is giving a performance, which makes it feel like a caricature. Kidman’s shrewish anger at her paramour also strikes a variety of false notes. She’s angry!, dang it, and she wants everyone to know she’s unhappy — and it’s not her fault.

Director Michael Grandage makes his feature debut here, bringing with him considerable experience with stage productions. Teamed with veteran, versatile performers, it’s easy to guess that the very uneven performances played far better in person. On screen, however, the tonal inconsistencies call attention to themselves, and even the best efforts of Academy Award-winning film editor Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire) cannot smooth them all out into a convincing narrative.

The consistent theme that emerges is that we’re only seeing a synopsis of the lives on display. Genius is perfectly enjoyable for what it is: a tasty appetizer, not entirely satisfying on its own, but, strangely enough, a movie that encourages reading, to find out more about Max Perkins and the authors whose talents he nourished.

The film opens in select theaters in Dallas on Friday, June 17.

Review: ‘Spy’

Spy movies don’t get much sillier than Spy, which nonetheless proves to be far more entertaining than its generic title might suggest.

Melissa McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a 10-year veteran of the CIA who is happy to work in an underground bunker feeding information to field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Mild-mannered and self-effacing, Susan nurses a crush on the dashing and highly-regarded Fine, but things go wrong on a mission and Fine ends up dead.

Susan is shattered, yet she doesn’t hesitate to volunteer herself to help track down Eastern European criminal Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who killed Fine, plans to sell a nuclear device, and also claims to know the secret identities of all the top CIA agents. Her crusty boss Crocker (Allison Janney) reluctantly agrees to send Susan to Europe because her identity has not been compromised, but hot-tempered field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is infuriated and quits in protest.

Once Susan is in Europe, her gangly friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) becomes the voice in her ear. But Ford shows up on the scene, redefining “loose cannon” and threatening to upset the agency’s plans, and Susan soon ignores Crocker’s orders to restrict herself to ‘tracking and reporting.’ Events quickly spiral out of control, leading to a series of escalating adventures across Europe that reveal Susan to be far more capable than even she might have imagined.

One of the great delights of Spy is that writer/director Paul Feig is well-aware of the conventions of espionage movies. The James Bond series is clearly a primary source for parody — especially in an early sequence when Susan finds that the the gadgets offered to her are quite limited — but Feig easily draws from a host of other spy thrillers in concocting his characters and plot twists.

The action sequences are nothing special, but this is the rare spy movie where the characters are far more entertaining to watch. McCarthy’s performance as Susan Cooper is superb; she navigates the agent’s blossoming personality with great precision and dexterity, and Feig has written the role with subtlety and grace.

Jason Statham stands out among the supporting players; he’s playing a stereotypical, swaggering stud who’s more than a bit dense, all traits that the actor nails, along with acing an early, very long speech that is blistering with profanities and dementedly funny. Miranda Hart supplies plenty of laughs with her comic timing as Susan’s best friend, while Peter Serafinowicz contributes a charming turn as a highly stereotypical Italian agent.

Because it begins with an extremely ridiculous setup, Spy establishes itself as a comedy that should not be taken seriously. Between the one-liners and the broad physical gags, however, the movie nicely articulates positive messages about empowerment for everyone and the rightful place of women in traditionally male working environments.

Beyond that, Spy is jam-packed with as much humor as can possibly fit within its running time, making this one of the more entertaining adventures of the year.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, June 5.

Review: ‘Black Sea’

Jude Law in 'Black Sea'
Jude Law in ‘Black Sea’

The submarine film, typically entrenched within the confines of a World War II drama, often magnifies claustrophobic pessimism (as in Wolfgang Peterson’s magnificent film Das Boot) or the violent clash of political skulduggery (i.e. The Hunt For The Red October or Rene Clement’s largely forgotten The Damned). When these films do their job, there’s no substitution for the dripping tension and rip roaring entertainment. In Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea, the submarine adventure is grafted onto the hard boiled framework of the heist film… and it works incredibly well.

Starring Jude Law as Robinson, the ringleader for a group of scabrous ex-cons, dissolute Navy men and salty unemployed divers, his intentions are made extremely clear when, in the opening scene, he’s summarily fired from his ship repairman job of 30 years and thrust into economic stress. To complicate matters, he’s lost his wife and child to a messy divorce and only sees his son on clandestine trips sitting outside his school.

While wallowing in this recess of self-pity and anger, old friend Kurston (Daniel Ryan) enters and spins an interesting tale of lost Nazi U-boats and sunken treasure. Seeing his opportunity to cash in and create a better life for himself, Robinson quickly seeks financial backing from powerful businessman Lewis (Tobias Menzies) and assembles an international crew of ‘has-beens’ and social dropouts to carry out the underwater endeavor.

Wasting little time on back story or further exposition, director MacDonald realizes the potency of his story lies in the fraught exploits of the treasure hunt and Black Sea quickly sets sail. Like the best heist films, the real danger lies not in apprehension, but in surviving the cannibalistic whims of human nature once wealth becomes tangible. Despite the possibility of surfacing with millions of dollars in gold bars, the crew devolves into various warring factions due to nationality and the belief that equal shares isn’t possible.

Leading the divisive impulses is Frasier, played by the current go-to-guy for slow burn malevolence Ben Mendelsohn. He has a major problem with the non English speaking Russian half of the crew and brandishes his knife with seething intent. Picked for the journey at the last minute by Robinson is eighteen year old Tobin (Bobby Schofield), wide eyed and surely not up to the gruff standards of his shipmates. As the businessman’s proxy sent to ensure his investment is safe, prodigious Scoot McNairy embodies Daniels, the other extremely ‘green’ person on board trying to maintain some semblance of sanity when things go haywire.

Though we eventually discern motivation in Jude Law’s Robinson, the rest of the characters are trace outlines of the type of guys we normally see in this type of film. They’re serviceable and blend into the rusty, steam punk fabric of the submarine interior, allowing for the focus to eventually rest on the conflict between a few. Written by Dennis Kelly, this isn’t a hindrance to the cumulative effect of the film, but rather an expected by-product of its well-tread genre.

Bathed in various red lighting, cramped quarters and tight metal passageways, Black Sea is an expertly crafted and taut thriller. In the long procession of similar films, it succeeds in maintaining tension and creating some terrific set-pieces. It also goes to show that all the complicated looking mechanical boards and heavy spigot doors are nothing more than physical fodder in a psychological battle between men unable to rectify their inflamed egos and basic lust for survival. It’s pretty terrifying, though, and it all happens at 300 meters below the water’s surface. And if one got nothing else from this review, go watch Das Boot now!

Black Sea opens today in wide release throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘Side Effects’ Sends Chills Down the Spine

Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' (Open Road Films)
Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ (Open Road Films)

Absolutely absorbing and diabolically clever, Side Effects serves as a fitting theatrical swan song for Steven Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement from directing feature films.

Soderbergh has developed a wonderful mastery of visual storytelling, consistently experimenting with the boundaries of commercial cinema so as to deliver distinctive films that tease any limited definitions of “mainstream” vs. “arthouse” works. Within his films, there is often a battle between the warmth of the colors and the coolness of the characters; sometimes that’s flipped, so that the colors cool off and the characters heat up.

His distinctive approach is entirely appropriate for Side Effects. Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) empathetically emobodies the troubled Emily, a 28-year-old woman who is suffering from depression. After a brief, ominous prologue, the story begins with the release from prison of Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who served four years behind bars for insider trading.

Martin is properly remorseful, yet determined to quickly regain the comfortable, prosperous lifestyle that he and Emily previously enjoyed. During his prison term, Emily moved to Manhattan and got a low-level job in an advertising agency, where her boss is sympathetic to her troubles. Still, Martin’s return does not cure Emily of her sadness, and an apparent suicide attempt brings her in contact with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a kind, sympathetic doctor.

Dr. Banks consults with Emily’s previous doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who treated Emily when she lived in Connecticut. Then Dr. Banks prescribes a series of drugs for Emily, none of which are effective. Finally, he presents her with the opportunity to try Ablixa, a drug available only on a trial basis to qualified patients.

Now, the complicating factor there is that Dr. Banks has accepted a healthy consultant’s fee from the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug. There’s nothing illegal about what he does; he discloses his financial interest to Emily aforehand, and the choice is hers. But, but, but … the drug is available without cost to Emily and is recommended by her trusted physician. What choice does she really have?

Up to this point, Side Effects has developed an uncomfortable degree of tension. It’s as though everyone is holding their breath, waiting for something bad to happen. That’s accomplished by the complex structure of the original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Soderbergh’s direction and photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), the pinpoint-strong editing, and Thomas Newman’s discordant music score.

Add to that the layered performances by Mara, Law, and Tatum, and the story feels like the tragic tale of good characters who are caught up in a very bad situation. There are no villains; instead, the movie feels like a good-faith effort to depict a mental affliction that affects a great many people across all social classes and ages.

And then, something happens, and then something else happens, and we have a very different movie altogether.

Mind, it’s still a vastly entertaining movie, one that seeks to tear up the carpet and expose the underpinnings of similar dramatic thrillers, as if to boldly proclaim, ‘No, this is how to tell this kind of story.’ And, of course, it highlights Soderbergh’s delight in tearing apart something built with solid genre construction and remaking it in his own, cool, intelligent, post-modern image.

In the end, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but by the point that “something else happens,” I was so caught up in the film’s narrative rhythms that I was happy to follow wherever Soderbergh and his collaborators wanted to take me. Side Effects deserves to be treasured, analyzed, and appreciated as a rare, fresh take on “mainstream” cinema.

Side Effects opens wide across the Metroplex today.