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Films I Neglected To Review: Tom Hardy Goes Kray-Kray
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "James White," "Legend" and "The Letters."

The new indie drama "James White" has been winning extravagant praise in some quarters and unless there has been some groundswell of interest for a modern-day version of "Bright Lights, Big City" that I have not been privy to, I am at a loss to understand why. Essentially, it asks us to follow a few months in the life of its title character (Christopher Abbott), a twenty-something would-be writer who spends his days drinking, drugging, getting into fights with friends and total strangers alike, screwing around with a high school age girlfriend and wondering why no one is able to understand his deep existential angst. To be fair, we are to assume that some of his misbehavior is the result of unresolved issues regarding his recently deceased father, who left to start another family years earlier, and his mother (Cynthia Nixon), who alternately wants him to get off of her couch and make his own way in life and needs him to help care for her while she is battling cancer. However, as depicted by writer-director Josh Mond, James comes across as an insufferable boor who selfishly bounces through his life while going out of his way to alienate anyone who takes even the slightest interest in him and is shocked whenever someone calls him on his self-involved bullshit.

This might have still made for an intriguing film if Mond had managed to make his mammoth self-absorption somehow interesting but the screenplay is filled with trite observations and scenes that have been jerry-rigged to provide some kind of instant emotion regardless or whether or not they make even the slightest bit of sense from a dramatic standpoint. (If you were sitting shiva for a man at his first wife's apartment, how likely do you think it would be that visitors would be sitting around watching a video of his wedding to the woman that he left her for?) Throw in performances by Abbott and Nixon that are filled with so much "acting" that there is precious little room left for nuance or recognizable human behavior and you have a movie that isn't so much painful as it is painfully bad and long before it staggers to its would-be tear-jerker of an ending, you will be hoping that Krampus will arrive to put everyone out of their misery, both on the screen and in the audience.

The story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twin brothers from the East End of London who built up a notorious organized crime empire in the 1960's based on violence, intimidation and Ronnie's pronounced mental instability, is the kind of true crime saga that contains all the necessary ingredients to make a powerful and fascinating film. In fact, such a movie was already made in 1990 in the form of "The Krays," a nastily effective piece of work that contained surprisingly good performances from real-life brothers Gary and Martin Kemp (yes, the guys from Spandau Ballet) as the Krays and you would be far better off seeking it out rather than wasting your time on "Legend," a wildly misbegotten new take on the story. In a piece of stunt casting that must have sounded good at the time but which fails to yield any significant dividends, both brothers are played by Tom Hardy but while there is nothing wrong with his twin turns (aside from the fact that his trademark mumbly voice ensures that there are entire conversations in which it is difficult to understand anything that is said), most viewers will be too busy trying to spot the digital seams needed to put both his characters in the same scene to really notice.

Then again, that is hardly the least of the film's problems. Brian Helgeland's screenplay is a mess that utterly fails to let us get to know the Krays or understand what made them tick and the decision to tell the story through the eyes of Reggie's long-suffering wife (Emily Browning) puts viewers at an even greater distance since he has no real insight into her behavior or attitudes either. As for his direction, Helgeland simply borrows all of his moves from the Martin Scorsese playbook--including a constantly roaming camera and a jukebox full of hits songs blasting away in the background--but deploys them in the most trite manner imaginable, even going so far as to announce a wedding scene by needle-dropping "Chapel of Love." If you want to see double the Tom Hardy this holiday season, my suggestion is to go see "The Revenant" when it opens in a couple of weeks, fire up "Fury Road" on your phone while waiting for it to begin and let this "Legend"--one that not even a Tangerine Dream score could help--fade into the mists of time.

Despite the worldwide fame that she attracted for her works in bringing aid to people in some of the poorest regions of the world, Mother Teresa generally tried to steer people away from celebrating her as an individual in order to concentrate more on her cause. In other words, she probably would have hated "The Letters," a film that purports to be a biopic focusing on her and her work but which is little more than a thinly veiled infomercial designed to bolster the campaign to have her canonized as a saint, a process that has gotten somewhat trickier now that trick shots at billiards no longer count as official miracles. As it turns out, she wouldn't be the only one because this film is a lumbering bore that, much like "Legend," recounts the dry facts of a life without ever coming close to understanding anything about the actual person behind it. The normally excellent Juliet Stevenson has been wildly miscast as Theresa, who is supposed to age from 35 to about 70 over the course of the film but looks exactly the same throughout, and although she does about as good of a job as she can under the circumstances, she is stuck with a screenplay that never manages to illustrate any sort of genuine human connection between her and the underprivileged people of Calcutta that she has devoted herself to aiding--her encounters with them come across as more condescending than loving.

Even clunkier is the framing device set in 2003 in which the priest (Rutger Hauer) investigating her possible beatification interviews the elderly priest (Max von Sydow) who served as her mentor and who insists that she spent her entire life tortured with anxieties and doubts about her work and whether it was making a difference that she channelled into a series of letters. Great, except that while the film repeatedly insists upon this point, presumably to make her seem more profound and worthy of praise, it never demonstrates it by illustrating any of these dark moments of the soul or even by reading from any of these letters. Throw in a lot of bad writing (the scenes involving two British journalists commenting on what is going on from the sidelines are scribbled with such a heavy hand that they inspire bigger laughs than most recent comedies), a story that never builds to any dramatic point of note and a refusal to see the very people she dedicated her life to helping as little more than a faceless mob and you have a movie crummy enough that you don't have to be the reincarnation of Christopher Hitchens to hate.

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originally posted: 12/05/15 03:53:57
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