True Story

Brilliant opening shot: A teddy bear falls slowly, landing softly next to a little girl who is, inexplicably, curled up in a suitcase. It is quickly revealed why.

Meanwhile, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter, goes to Africa for a story that makes the cover of the Times Sunday magazine. The story is written while Finkel plays poker with colleagues in the newsroom. He wins the hand but it turns out his story is not quite accurate. He is fired.

Finkel goes to his cabin in Montana with his lady Jill (Felicity Jones) and pitches freelance writing pieces. A call comes from a reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee), informing Finkel that accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) claimed he (Longo) was Finkel when he was arrested in Mexico.

When Finkel goes to Oregon to visit Longo, the fun begins. In a series of jailhouse one-to-ones, Franco and Hill each show off their acting talents. Finkel is flattered when Longo mentions how much he likes Finkel’s writing. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter and Finkel offers to use its content to co-write a book, once the case is cleared.

Jill has doubts about the whole scenario, but Finkel is totally seduced by Longo’s apparent intelligence and his cool demeanor (despite being charged with four murders).

After this enticing setup, the film bogs down. But… here comes another memorable sequence: Director Rupert Goold juxtaposes Jill’s piano playing with Finkel’s writing on his laptop. Keyboard on keyboard action. Nice.

True Story has a bit of suspense: What is the true story? Did Longo kill his family? What will happen at trial? Will Finkel and Longo co-author a book? Will Finkel be redeemed after his journalistic faux pas?

But the payoff is weak. Oh, there’s resolution, but it doesn’t quite deliver what the first few chapters of the film indicated might lay ahead.

Nonetheless, Franco and Hill are a delight to watch. Someone told me when she heard those two were in a movie together, she presumed it was a comedy. Nope. True Story is serious stuff. It takes a shot, but ultimately misses out on greatness.

The Theory Of Everything

 

In a star-making role, Eddie Redmayne brings a brilliant performance to the screen as nerdy genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His portrayal is the reason to see this film.

The film has three plot elements: Hawking’s romance with Jane (Felicity Jones), his challenge due to physical issues and his work as a cosmologist. Because the brainy stuff is way over the heads of most of us, it gets less play. Because Hawking’s deteriorating condition is so heartbreaking and sad, even in brief scenes, it’s the love story that provides the real essence of the movie.

Hawking’s dogged pursuit of Jane starts the movie. It climaxes with an evening at a spring dance that provides one of the more truly romantic sequences seen in movies this year.

Following marriage, Hawking outlives initial prognosis that gave him just two more years of life. He and Jane try to maintain what normalcy they can. They have kids. His work leads him to teaching along with assembling his thoughts on the physical nature of being.

Jane’s fatigue leads her to join a church choir to relieve the stress of caring for her husband. (She is a religious woman; he cannot accept the possibility of God.) When she meets the choir director, Jonathon (Charlie Cox) it is obvious that they are going to hook up. But that comes after several years of a platonic friendship that includes Stephen.

When Hawking’s condition becomes more than Jane can handle, she brings in Elaine (Maxine Peake). Hawking’s affection grows for the new caretaker and he invites her to take care of him on his trip to America to promote his book A Brief History of Time.

Regarding Time and History, the film begins in summer 1963 (with Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave playing), but director James Marsh does not provide good indicators of time passage along the way. I had to consult Wikipedia to find out that it was 1988 when the book was published.

Marsh makes up for it with a end sequence that recaps the story of Stephen and Jane, reminding the audience that despite his debilitating condition, he lived life to the fullest and managed to accomplish more that most of us able bodied folks. (At age 72, the real-life Hawking is still alive.) It’s an upbeat end that adds a good vibe to that established by Redmayne’s acting.