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For Christmas time: Meryl Streep as a witch, three films about painters, plus war and gambling

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Margaret Keane’s paintings of children with big eyes and a soulful expression became famous and big sellers in the early 1960s. But she wasn’t famous. Her husband claimed he was the painter and she was too timid to stand up to him. And, the film makes clear, she enjoyed the benefits of the market he created. When the original oils didn’t sell, he struck prints and they were a huge hit. Amy Adams conveys the changing awareness in her from a mousey naïf to a woman asking questions and eventually battling in court. She’s endearing.  Christoph Waltz is a bit over the top, first as a smiling charmer and hustler, spouting advice like “Don’t sell yourself short. Grab opportunities” and eventually as aggressive and scary.  Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp show up as experts who deride the art and the craze around it. (International Village and suburban theaters)  3 ½ out of 5

NATIONAL GALLERY: It’s in London, it houses one of the greatest art collections anywhere on earth and two years ago master documentary maker Frederick Wiseman was allowed access to all of it. Here are three hours of what he caught with his camera.

 

He shows us paintings, of course, and short discourses by experts about their meaning.  He often lingers on a picture to really let us see it. There’s also much to see behind the scenes: the work of restoration, budget making, show organizing and more. We’ve seen before how brilliantly his “fly on the wall” technique illuminates the mission of a famous institution, most recently the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris and Berkeley University. I haven’t seen this new one yet but it’s been called a “great film” and an “inspiring piece of work.”  (VanCity Theatre starting Boxing Day, Friday) 

Also at the VanCity …

THE BEST OF 2014: Every critic and organization has one. The VanCity Theatre too. They’ve made a list of the best films of the year and are showing them, one time each, starting Boxing Day. Many of these will be on my list too when I get around to finalizing it.

Look at the titles:

The Grand Budapest Hotel starts it off on Boxing Day and is followed by Under The Skin, We Are the Best!, Force Majeure, The Immigrant, Ida, The Overnighters, The Tale of Princess Kayuga, Boyhood and Mommy.

Check the website http://www.viff.org for dates and times and notice the special deal. You can see three films for $24 or all 10 for $50.

UNBROKEN: No I don’t think Angelina Jolie is a "minimally talented spoiled brat" as that infamous leaked e-mail from inside Sony would have it. Watch the opening of this, her second film as a director. There’s a plane on a bombing mission as flak is fired at it from below. The crew is scared and struggling through it. There’s another scene later when a supposedly new plane loses two engines and the crew has to ditch it into the ocean. Those two are as exciting as anything in the movies this season and show that Jolie knows how to construct sequences that are tense and vibrant. Yes, she has problems too.

 

The film tells the story of Louie Zamperini, who was picked on as a “wop” as a kid, was an Olympic athlete in 1936 and joined the U.S. Army to fly planes in World War II. He was captured after that crash and 47 days at sea in a life raft, held in a P.O.W. camp and mistreated by a Japanese commander armed with a bamboo stick. Lots of material there and parts of the film are compelling but the centre drags and ultimately the film is too long and we’re not much emotionally involved. Worse, there’s a postscript that tells us more, some of it dramatic enough that it should have been the climax of the film. As it is, the ending is weak but that’s the fault of the screenwriter. Jolie gets good performances out of Jack O'Connell as Zamperini and a Japanese composer and actor, Takamasa Ishihara, under the name Miyavi, as the sadistic commander. (International Village) 3 out of 5

THE GAMBLER: This remake of a lesser-known but celebrated film from the 1970s, is both more cynical than the original and happier. To tell you more would be to give away too much of the plot. But it is curious.  

 

The film is about a double life lived publicly: a university literature prof who has a gambling addiction. Mark Wahlberg plays the guy, not quite believably on the one side, but all too real as the gambler. He is adept at losing; maybe enjoys it and has to bear insults and quite a few bruises from his creditors. They include John Goodman as a bloated slug of a man who is quick with a snappy speech full of invective and funny lines. That makes the film sound more entertaining than it is. Actually it’s got style and lively dialogue to spare, but not much else to engage you. What drives his gambling compulsion? Who knows? Is there any joy in it, winning or losing, or is he just self-destructive?  Can’t  tell. What is it that just happened at the blackjack table? Not always clear. Why is the brightest student in his class (played by Brie Larson) also a server at the casino and so intent on inviting herself into his bed? Even his mother (Jessica Lange) hates him, because he messes up so much of his life. The film explains so little it isn’t really about much at all and the unlikely resolution is not deserved. (International Village and suburban theaters) 2 ½ out of 5

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