Movie Reviews - 2014 postsTuesday December 30, 2014
Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of,” we’re told in this movie (three times), “who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Unfortunately, it’s the studios no one imagines anything of, who make the movies with no imagination.
I suspected as much going in but you hold out hope. I love Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought the story of Alan Turing (Enigma code? And computers? And gay?) was ripe for a great movie. Plus I liked the opening. It’s Turing’s voice talking to an unspecified you, which, under the circumstances, might as well be us. In fact, it’s partly us, but it’s mostly someone else:
Are you paying attention? Good. If you’re not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.
I sat up straighter after that, ready to hear important things. Then deflated for the next two hours.
Did the trailer give too much away? Were the conflicts too facile? Was everyone typecast? Were more interesting aspects of Turing’s life left out? All of the above?
All of the above.
159 million million million Turing fans can’t be wrong
The movie is split into three time periods.
It begins in Cambridge, 1951, where Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is investigating a burglary in the apartment of Prof. Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who abruptly dismisses him like a lesser life form. Nock gets curious and investigates the man, hoping to find one of those Cambridge Soviet spies he’s been reading about. Instead he finds, in the words of a fellow officer, a poofter. It’s actually Det. Nock that Turing is addressing during the opening monologue. In the interrogation room, Turing, for some reason, suggests a kind of Turing test—man or machine?—with Nock as judge.
The brunt of the movie takes place during the World War II years, when Turing, a math genius who has already invented the universal machine—a forerunner to the store computer program—is summoned, along with other math/chess geniuses, to break the German’s supposedly unbreakable cipher machine, Enigma, which is reset every day, and which, every day, has 159 million-million-million (or 159,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations.
For some reason, the others, including the dashing Hugh (Matthew Goode) and the diplomatic John Cairncross (Allen Leech, Tom of “Downton Abbey”), who should know the odds, actually try to break the code every day, and they actually get angry at Turing for spending all his time developing an infernal machine. They also get angry at him because he’s a bit of a machine himself. He’s uncommunicative and overly literal. Implications in human conversations are lost on him. He doesn’t realize, for example, that “Alan, we’re going to lunch,” is an invitation to come along.
Feeling pressure from colleagues and superiors, who object to costs, Alan writes Churchill, takes over from Hugh as head of the group, fires two men, hires two more. Well, one man and one woman. Enter Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke and the dullest of subplots. First, the men won’t let her test because she’s a woman. Then her parents won’t let her come because she’s a woman and would be surrounded by men. Then, even after she realizes the importance of the project, she’s about to return to them because she’s 25 and unmarried. So Turing proposes. He feigns love, which she believes.
Meanwhile, Turing makes enemies of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones,” who could play the role in his sleep), makes an ally of MI6’s Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, ditto), and more or less confesses his homosexuality out of the blue to John, who has his own agenda. (He’s a Soviet spy.) Meanwhile, Turing’s machine, nicknamed “Christopher,” sputters, works, but still can’t break the Enigma code. They’re a day from getting the plug pulled when he hits upon the obvious: Have it search for certain phrases, such as “Heil” and “Hitler.”
Fake fake fake
So the initial drama was to get the team to work together; then it became to make the machine work. Now? Now it’s how to use the information so the Germans won’t get suspicious that Enigma has been broken.
The movie makes it seem this was Turing’s call—he allows the brother of a codebreaker to die, for example, and is called a monster for it, even though we know it’s all horrible but logical—and I didn’t buy any of it. Surely it was someone else’s call. Churchill’s, most likely. But Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), and newbie screenwriter Graham Moore (not much), keep it insular, uninteresting, and unbelievable.
They keep doing this. Throughout the World War II years, we get flashbacks to 1928 and a young Alan at prep school, being bullied, and meeting the love of his life, named, of course, Christopher, who dies of TB in 1930. That’s the big secret. Alan isn’t just trying to win the war; he’s trying to resurrect his lost love. It’s supposed to be his Rosebud, but it has nowhere near the Wellesian impact. It not only feels untrue, it is untrue. Via Slate:
Additionally, Turing did not call any of the early computers he worked on “Christopher”—that is a dramatic flourish invented by screenwriter Graham Moore.
All the things that feel untrue in the movie? Turing’s Sherlockian propensities? The battle for control among the scientists? The big blow-up with Clarke, where she calls him a monster? Invented dramas that feel invented.
Ditto the final scene between Turing and Det. Nock in the interrogation room. It’s supposed to play like the final scene between Salieri and the priest in “Amadeus” but, again, it’s flat. After telling his tale, Turing asks the Turing-test questions: Am I man? A machine? A hero? A criminal? Nock looks devastated, for reasons I can’t fathom, and croaks out, “I can’t judge you.” Because he’s realizes this poofter is a hero who shortened the war by two years? And saved millions of lives? And maybe all of Britain with its mountains green? So why not make Nock more homophobic at the outset? Or something? To give it meaning? Particularly if you’ve invented him in the first place?
It’s sad that “The Imitation Game” relies upon such weak-tea imitations as this. It’s sad that we feel the need to dumb down the stories of our most brilliant men.
Movie Review: Obvious Child (2014)
In the first three minutes of the movie, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), doing standup, lists off several things that can go wrong with the vagina. The rest of the movie is something she doesn’t mention: pregnancy and abortion. From the start, Donna and writer-director Gillian Robespierre want you to know it’s not all rose petals down there.
When did I fall in love with this movie? I think after Donna is dumped in the club’s unisex bathroom by her boyfriend, Ryan, then consoled by her gay friends (one male, one female), until she winds up at the apartment of her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), who makes “pasghetti” and talks her through her troubles. Kind usually plays the doofus Jew, the one who doesn’t get what’s going on, but here he keeps giving advice I wish I’d heard when I was 27. “You know, creative energy sometimes comes from the lowest point in your life,” he says. “Negativity will either be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he says. Then he suggests Donna go see her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper, still hot), and Donna objects:
Donna: You guys need to know there are some children out there who don’t talk to their parents for months.
Jacob: Really? Not ... my ... child.
He leans in to say this line. He says it with firmness and warmth. The world plays that way? Well, we don’t.
My god, isn’t that lovely?
For a shegetz, he’s a mensch
“Obvious Child” is a kind of reverse-gender “Annie Hall.” It’s about a Jewish comedienne who winds up with a nice gentile boy—a shegetz. But there’s a big difference between this shegetz and that shiksa. Besides the obvious one.
Along with nighttime standup, Donna works at a bookstore, “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books,” which turns out to be a real thing (I immediately thought of Woody in “Annie” reducing Allison Porchnik to a cultural stereotype: New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West ... ) Since it’s 2014, the store is going out of business. So everything’s falling apart for Donna. Even her standup is unfunny in the wake of her break-up.
Thankfully, the movie’s not. At one point, Donna and lesbian friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman of “Girls”) are sounding off on men in front of gay friend, and fellow standup, Joey (Gabe Liedman). “Everything you are saying is valid,” he says, “but you are scaring my dick off.” At another point, Donna visits her mother, a professor, who is as cold as her father is warm, and, closing the refrigerator door, she jumps seeing her mother, late 50s attractive, standing there. Hand over heart, she tells her mom, “You’re like an Eileen Fischer Ninja!”
What stops Donna’s downward cycle? A boy, of course: Max (Jake Lacy of the final seasons of “The Office”), who is polite, painfully WASPy, and who works in the gaming industry in a way that confuses and/or bores the comedians. That night, he and Donna get drunk, go back to his place, dance in their underwear, then sleep together. In the morning, she tiptoes out. Because she’s not ready for another relationship? Because he’s a computer programmer? Because he’s a shegetz? Because of the word shegetz?
But he keeps showing up—in ways either believable (at the comedy club) or not (at her mother’s place, since he’s her former student who’s returning a book he borrowed). Donna keeps pushing him away again. Partly because she’s confused. Mostly because she’s pregnant. She actually finds out too early, so she has to wait a few weeks until Valentine’s Day, of all days, for the abortion.
I assumed this would give her time to get together with Max and keep the baby and live happily ever after. I mean, for all the right-wing attacks on Hollywood, abortions aren’t the stuff of movies anymore. Certainly not rom-coms. But Robespierre is made of sterner stuff. Max comes through—for a shegetz, he’s a mensch—but Donna still goes through with the abortion. Jokes are even made before Donna goes onstage at the comedy club:
Nellie: You are going to kill it out there.
Donna: Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow.
My god, that’s ballsy.
Even better is the heart-to-heart with mom, who reveals her own abortion, illegal, in the 1960s. A little history lesson for the younger crowd.
He’s also without personality
“Obvious Child,” whose title is based upon the Paul Simon song for reasons I can’t fathom, is a short, sweet movie, but it differs from “Annie Hall” in this: the gentile there, Annie, had personality. She seemed a real person. Max? He’s not ... anything. He floats along in a sea of niceness, accompanies Donna to Planned Parenthood, sits with her on the couch afterward, suggests a movie. He warms butter for her with his hands. He shows up when necessary and cuddles when necessary.
You know how women complain about one-dimensional female characters in male-driven rom-coms? Max is the male version of that. But he’s invaluable in that. He gives every guy a glimpse into the secret heart of women everywhere. It’s kind of scary. More, please.
Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)
Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a great indictment of the American class system. It’s about the need we breed into the poor and dislocated, and how that need—that fury—can sometimes lead to excellence, and how that excellence can be bought by the idle rich. It’s a movie about the sadness of people with too few options, and the sadness of people with too many. It’s about these words, “No, Mark, stay,” which implies a dog you can control, and “No, John! Stop, John!” which implies a dog you can’t.
The dog you can’t control is the very rich, who are very different from you and me.
The pace of the film is slow and measured but with an angry intensity always ready to uncoil itself. It’s a movie that blasts you with quiet, and then—per George Stevens’ gunfire in “Shane”—blasts you with the final, sad, incomprehensible act. It ends with a lusty crowd chanting “USA! USA!,” which Miller cuts off mid-chant like a rebuke.
Buying friends and enemies
First off: Holy shit, Channing Tatum, where did that come from? The first third of the movie is his brooding intensity, his seething anger—not to mention his athleticism. He’s a big man who moves with sudden speed. He grabs, spins, you’re down. There’s beauty in it.
It’s March 1987. Mark Schultz is a freestyle wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics but lives by himself in a dingy, second-floor walk-up. He gives stuttering talks to uncomprehending elementary school kids in half-filled auditoriums, then trains for the ’87 world championships and the ’88 Olympics with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), at Wexler University.
They’re opposites. Mark understands little and forgives less, while Dave understands much and forgives more. Mark is bottled-up and resentful, Dave is outgoing and gentle. During their training session, Mark headbutts Dave in the nose, drawing blood. It seems intentional, his resentment getting the better of him; but Dave simply steps back, wipes the blood off, continues. No looks, no accusations. Dave has a wife and two kids, and he’s good with them; Mark is alone with his thoughts and ramen noodles.
Then the deus ex machina of Mark’s life arrives—a phone call from John Eleuthere Du Pont—and he’s spirited away, by helicopter, to the vast Du Pont estate, called Foxcatcher, outside Philadelphia. There, the heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune (Steve Carell) invites him to stay: to train for the Olympics as part of Team Foxcatcher. The Soviets have state-sponsored training, so why not, in the U.S., idle-rich-sponsored training?
Here, Mark’s eyes light up for the first time in the movie. He sees the wealth, the purpose, the call to patriotism, but he doesn’t see what we see: Du Pont’s slow-motion creepiness. With head slightly raised, Du Pont, who wants to be called “Eagle” or “Double Eagle,” speaks with interminable pauses, as if he’s still learning the language; or as if he’s used to people waiting on him. There’s a trophy room filled mostly with the medals and ribbons of his mother’s prize horses. Mark is warned to steer clear of Mrs. Du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), and we expect her to be batty, or mean; but beyond the isolation of her class, and her view that wrestling is a “low sport,” she doesn’t seem too bad.
Does John go for the “low sport” to spite her? Because it’s macho? Homoerotic? All of the above? Is he interested in another trophy for the room? Is Mark that trophy? The questions mount and Miller doesn’t quite give us answers. We get why Du Pont comes between Dave and Mark—he wants greater control of, and greater credit for, the Olympic champion—but why offer Mark cocaine? Because he doesn’t understand what it takes to succeed? And why does Mark give up training? Why dye his hair blonde? Are he and John lovers? We also get why Du Pont finally brings in Dave to shape up Team Foxcatcher—they really need a trainer—but why does Dave accept? He was offered the gig before and turned it down.
Du Pont: How much does he want?
Mark: You can’t buy Dave.
Du Pont [long pause]: Huh.
There’s a moment in the movie when we actually feel for Du Pont. It’s when he tells Mark that he only had one friend growing up—the chauffer’s son—but later found out that his mother paid the boy to be his friend. And here Mark is unintentionally saying the same thing: You bought me, but you can’t buy Dave. But then Du Pont does buy Dave. Was the money better this time? Were the accommodations for his family? Was Dave worried about his brother? His country? USA, USA?
We all become our parents. As a child, Du Pont’s mother bought friends for him, and as an adult he does the same for himself. But he knows enough to not trust what he’s bought.
The relationship between John and Mark is awful and symbiotic. John needs to prove to his mother that he has value, and Mark needs to prove that he has value without his brother. Neither man succeeds. Mrs. Du Pont seems to see through her son’s charade—there’s a painful scene where, with his mother watching, he shows champion wrestlers basic moves—and Mark not only doesn’t succeed without Dave, he falls on his face. He loses his first match in the ’88 Olympic trials, and only makes the team because Dave nurtures him back to health. After that, Mark’s resentment shifts—from Dave, whom he felt overshadowed his success, to Du Pont, who undid it. He winds up leaving Foxcatcher; Dave stays.
We live here
It would be interesting to hear Bennett Miller talk about why he made the decisions he made in condensing the “Foxcatcher” story. In real life, Dave and Mark were never at Foxcatcher at the same time. In real life, more than seven years passed between Mark leaving and Du Pont killing Dave Schultz in cold blood, but Miller makes it seem a couple of months. Reports also indicate that Du Pont began to act crazier in the months preceding the shooting. In the movie, he starts out odd and doesn’t change much.
Indeed, for all of the film’s opaqueness, are the characters themselves too obvious? One-dimensional? Du Pont begins and ends odd, Mark begins and ends with an angry glower, Dave is thoughtful throughout. I got such a feeling of warmth around Dave. I don’t know how Ruffalo conveys that, but he does. Carell’s Du Pont? Icky. Even the gummy teeth was apparently real.
Was Miller warned away from Du Pont’s apparent homosexuality? Did he find it inconclusive? Irrelevant? I suppose I would’ve liked less ambiguity in terms of motivation and more ambiguity within the characters themselves.
Even so, what an indictment of our class system. Near the end, the Schultzes return from the’88 Games—which Mark apparently threw so Du Pont wouldn’t get credit—and they’re confronted at the gate by a suspicious security team, who ask them to state their business. “We ... live here?” Dave says. But he's no longer sure. Even if it wasn't an intentional message, a message was still sent. We are allowed this small space at the sufferance of our betters. We ... live here.
Movie Review: The Interview (2014)
Thanks for making me watch this crap, North Korea.
I’d seen the trailer. A shallow talk-show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), who is good at getting celebs make the big reveal (Rob Lowe removes his toupee, Eminem admits he’s gay), turns out to be a favorite of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park of “VEEP”); so Skylark and producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) jump at the chance to interview him. Then the CIA, in the form of “honeypot” agent Lacy (Lizzy Caplan of “Masters of Sex”), asks the two doofuses to “take out” the dictator. Yes, kill him. It’s a comedy.
To be honest, I didn’t plan on seeing it. I mean, the trailer wasn’t bad (I liked Rogen’s line reading, “That is not an actual thing people say”), and the plot seemed pretty outré (actually assassinating a dictator?). But the scatological stuff? Doofus Hollywood? Rogen and Franco? I’d seen it before. I wasn’t a big fan of “This Is The End,” for example. Maybe eventually I’d watch it on Netflix, I thought. Maybe. Eventually.
Then the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony, spilling its embarrassing emails into the world, then threatened any theater showing “The Interview.” This caused theater chains to pull out, which caused Sony to suspend release, which caused Pres. Obama to suggest Sony made a mistake in doing so, and ... Here we are. Instead of maybe eventually watching it on Netflix, Patricia and I watched it Christmas Day on YouTube. It almost felt like our patriotic duty to do so.
Thanks for nothing, North Korea. Assholes.
Banging the hot Korean general
Here’s the big question that the trailer doesn’t answer: What happens when Skylark and Rapaport get to North Korea?
Well, they prove surprisingly adept at the spy game and have plenty of opportunities for assassinating Kim Jong-un. But after several deep “My Dinner with Andre”-type conversations, they realize that what they prize about America is not its global-policemen capabilities but its adherence to democratic principle; and that they, as citizens of this democracy, have no right to assassinate the leader of another country, no matter how megalomaniacal. So they return home, chastened but wiser, determined to turn “Skylark Tonight” into a source of legitimate rather than celebrity news.
Instead, Skylark gets suckered into liking Kim, who lies to him about Korean prosperity but is truthful about his inner heart. (He likes Katy Perry’s music.) Meanwhile, Rapaport, after an encounter with a tiger, and forcing a CIA-delivered projectile up his anus, becomes involved with a hot Korean general, Sook (Diana Bang), who secretly hates Kim. The three resin strips the CIA provides to assassinate Kim? One is swallowed by a Kim lieutenant, who dies a horrible, convulsing death; a second is thrown on the ground by Skylark to protect his buddy Kim; a third winds up on Rapaport’s hand while he’s trying to make love to Sook.
The titular interview, being broadcast live around the world, hedges on whether Skylark has been taken in by Kim. (He hasn’t.) Then it hedges on whether Skylark can outdebate Kim. (He can’t.) “You have failed,” Kim tells him triumphantly. “You made a long journey just to show the world they were right about you: You are incapable of conducting a real interview. You are a joke.” Which is idiotic several times over. How is the whole thing suddenly about Skylark? Besides, doesn’t Kim want the world to think he’s outdebated a Mike Wallace rather than a Ryan Seacrest? So why would he ... ?
Anyway, at the 11th hour, while Rapaport and Sook fight technicians in a bloody, over-the-top battle in the broadcast booth (during which Rapaport has two fingers bitten off), Skylark asks Kim about his father, and about margaritas, then sings from Katy Perry’s “Firework,” all of which causes Kim to break down and cry on international television. Then Kim lets out a long fart. A shart. Which he denies and blames on a cameraman. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Skylark announces. “Kim Jong-un has just pooed in his pants.” Since he’s supposed to be a God with no bodily functions, this comes as news to the North Koreans.
After that, there’s a chase, Kim is killed by a missile, our heroes escape, and Sook leads a revolution toward a democratic North Korea.
Funny or die
Actually, there’s a bigger question that the trailer doesn’t answer: Is the movie funny?
Not enough. I had a few laugh-out-loud moments. I loved the cute Korean girl singing in the beginning about death to America. I liked Dave’s tone-deaf speech upon landing in Pyongyang, which he ends with “Konichiwa.” I liked this exchange between Dave and Kim as they look over a tank:
Kim: It was a gift to my grandfather from Stalin.
Skylark: In my country, it’s pronounced Stallone.
It’s just not funny enough. Patricia, who tends to like dopey comedies, was bored a third of the way in.
But “The Interview” is, in its way, prophetic. It’s a nothing comedy that actually made the real Kim Jong-un, a totalitarian dictator, shit his pants. That’s worth something. Right?
Movie Review: Hercules (2014)
Hercules Hercules Hercules!
We hear this chant several times in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and I laughed every time. Because Eddie Murphy. He’s completely ruined this word for me—for the better—as Steve Martin did with the word Oklahoma ... Oklahoma Oklahoma!
Or did “Hercules” come to us ruined?
He’s never exactly been an A-list character, has he? He gets played by musclemen who don’t have a wide range of talent: Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo. We like our 20th century updates of Hercules—Superman, Conan, Hulk—better than the ancient Greek myth, which, after all, is ancient, and Greek, and mythy.
Ratner’s version doesn’t begin badly because it takes apart the myth. “You think you know the truth about him?” a voiceover asks. “You know nothing.” We think the voice is addressing us, but it’s actually the voice of Ioalus (Reece Ritchie), Herc’s nephew and chief storyteller, who is being held captive by some scummy pirate or something. And the story Ioalus tells? Of Hercules’ 12 labors? Of being a demi-God and the son of Zeus? It’s bullshit. The myth is the myth, and Ioalus is the first P.R. man in history. Sure, Herc is big and strong, and each of the 12 labors is based on something, but they’ve been greatly exaggerated to instill fear in tyrants.
Who is Hercules really? He’s a former orphan and a former general who’s now a mercenary—a man who leads a team of experts:
- Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the right-hand man
- Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the seer
- Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the crazy mute
- Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the tough chick/archer
We see them in action once, and then in repose; and then they’re hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of the embattled Lord Cotys (John Hurt), whose kingdom is being threatened by the rebel demon Rhesus (Tobias Satelmann), who ravages villages and leaves a stream of refugees in his wake. Herc takes the gig. He trains Cotys’ men into a strong army. And off they go—too early, in Hercules’ mind—to fight.
In the first battle they’re ambushed by bald men, painted green, who come out of the ground and attack with fury. They’re like the zombies in “World War Z,” and Herc and everyone win in the end ... but just barely. So, more training. Who were these green men? The villagers themselves that they were supposed to save? Did Rhesus do something to them to make them bald? Or green? I never quite got it.
At this point, and even earlier, we have two options as to where the movie’s going to go:
- Herc and his team will lose badly to Rhesus, be forced to regroup, and come back and win in the last act.
- It’s a trap. Cotys is a tyrant, and Herc is training the men he will have to fight in the end.
I suspected No. 2. Mostly because Cotys’ right-hand man, Sitacles, is played by Peter Mullan, who’s played villains in “Red Riding” and “Top of the Lake” and pretty much everything. You’d have to be a fool to trust that guy.
Which turns out to be the case. In the second battle, against Rhesus himself, who is simply a tall, blond, handsome dude, the battle ends quickly in Herc’s favor. But in the aftermath at Cotys’ castle, it’s all quickly revealed: Cotys, Sitacles, they’re dicks. The refugees? Cotys’ fault. Ergenia? Forced to fool Herc because Cotys threatened the life of her son—the true king. But Cotys isn’t a fool. He offers Herc a generalship, and, when this is declined, he simply pays him and lets him leave. But Herc can’t. He has to do what’s right. And in doing so—after being captured, chained, yadda yadda, and after Autolycus does the Han Solo thing by abandoning him but returning for the decisive blow—Herc becomes more than a man. He becomes more than his P.R. He lives up to the whatever.
Ratner, in other words, takes apart the myth in order to redeliver the myth. We’re too smart for the wish-fulfillment fantasy but we’re too weak to not want it.
Even so, beats hell out of “300.”