The Imitation Game (2014)

Reading the biography that is the source for this movie, my main complaint was that it was too expansive, especially around technical areas. This left it feeling quite dry and drowning out on the more personal or emotional aspects. What hope I had that this film adaptation would actually exceed the source was shaken in the early revelation that it would use a fractured narrative. We jump around from Turing as a child, during his work cracking the Enigma, and as he faces legal sanction near the end of his life. The contrasts are not particularly meaningful and only the scenes during the war are of particular strength. Lost is any sense of progression of his mind and his contributions outside of Enigma are reduced to footnotes. More jarring is the end intertitles making a big point of the tragedy of British repression of homosexuality, but the film doesn’t earn the activism because it fails to even really dive into Turing’s experience of homosexuality. It is just a plot point.

The scenes around the war should probably be considered more fiction than reality as the process here is so muddled and abridged as to feel completely unlike the one detailed in the book. One thing that stood out to me is the centering, in rather dramatic fashion, of the need to not overly exploit the intel lest the Germans catch on. No mention is made of the reality that the Germans were so sure of their code that they repeatedly assumed they were being bested by spies. But some of this license does contribute to the rather more enjoyable sequences, highlighting the strength of some of the central performances. My particular favorite is when they go out to a club to celebrate Alan’s engagement. I was generally amused, due to recognition, by Alan’s reactions to other people reading social cues. The analogy of cryptography in language to how “normal” social cues are to a non-neurotypical person is rather brilliant. Of course, there were a few moments where they pushed the autistic behaviors a little too far. Cumberbatch is certainly solid in the role, but I ultimately was more taken with Knightley here, who continues to prove one of the best (and undervalued in spite a handful of nominations) actresses of the past decade. I just wish these moments added up to a bit more.

C+

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

SPOILERS THROUGHOUT

The Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a symbolic patriarchal construct that stands in for much of the history of power. Leveraging control of precious resources (water, making him chief even to rivals in control of fuel and weapons), he exerts control over the population as a sort of god-king. The women are reduced to reproductive capacity and as producers of milk while the men broadly are reduced to warrior, egged on by religious myth that convinces them this manner of life is anything but a colossal waste. Joe metes out just enough of his resources to control the population (what academics of authoritarian regimes would call a rent).Turns out he didn’t underestimated or undervalued the women around him as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, or a spell from Harry Potter, not sure which), a woman who has risen in the ranks of his attack squads, breaks from him, helping his harem escape. Max (Tom Hardy), sympathetic based on his own history of failing to save his wife and child and many other losses along the way, joins along in their quest after early tensions.

With significant world building managed rather efficiently, that mostly steps aside for a mostly non-stop thrill ride of action as their escape vessel is besieged by wave after wave of enemies. The vehicular choreography is definitely imaginative, to match the design of costumes/make-up and of vehicles. It may not seem practical to have a vehicle in the chase, using up precious fuel, just as a platform for drums and a flame-throwing guitar, but there you have it. Even amid the action the film finds time for meaningful character bits. There is one moment when one of the wives is readying to throw out one particularly avid member of the raiding party, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), has a brief interchange that highlights a certain tragedy of patriarchy. Nux is part of the patriarchy that “destroyed the world” but he is also a victim of it. His character arc ultimately is one of the most interesting as he goes from eager to martyr himself for the empty cause of patriarchy to wanting to live but willing to sacrifice himself for the nobler future that these women and their rebellion represent.

The turning point that sparks the third act is particularly meaningful. Furiosa’s mission had been to escape from the patriarchal society. Ultimately Max dispels her illusion that it can be run for, instead insisting that it needs to be fought head on and changed from within. But this is a mission led by Furiosa, Max and Nux are simply allies in the fight. Fight they do, but it isn’t they who seek the glory. Citadel is ultimately reborn in an egalitarian model. We don’t see exactly how it will run and how it will work out, but we have hope that it will succeed offering a fairer distribution of resources and providing its people greater freedom to meaningful achievement and not simply used to others’ ends. This isn’t the deepest parable, but for a film that puts action front and center, it is a valuable grounding. This easily allows it to become the best in the Mad Max series thus far, though I ponder if a making of documentary might be even better because damn, those stunts.

B+

Songcatcher (2000)

This film starts with a pretty strong statement of feminist intent. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) is denied advancement at the university where she is a music professor, in spite being more qualified, because they prefer to recruit a renowned (male) professor instead. The early years of the 20th Century have an extremely solid glass ceiling. Frustrated, she takes a sabbatical to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams) who is a teacher at a rural Appalachian school. There she meets teenaged student Deladis (Emmy Rossum) who enchants her with traditional folk songs. As a music professor, she suddenly sets to recording (on sound and paper) these songs so that they can be preserved and studied.

Moreso than a feminist tale, what develops is a consideration of rural/traditional culture versus modern/urban culture. The music (think a less polished version of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) is the purest representation of the positive aspects of the culture, with its beauty, skill and occasionally wisdom. However, this culture also holds demons, from misogyny and homophobia to high levels of mortality that might be prevented with better technology or training. The outside world might fix some of these things but the threat is also present, that of exploitation, most present in the form of a snaky representative of the coal company, but extends to concerns about Lily exploiting their music. The ending king of goes for a happy medium way forward.

It is generally a well done film, though never really feels special. There are definitely some moments that stand out as rather strange or abrupt. As a film that revolves around music, the main actress in many respects is Rossum, who sings the bulk of the songs. Her operatic background was touted when she rose to stardom in Phantom of the Opera a few years later and her voice is one of the purer ones on offer here. Though I suppose there is a certain fitting aspect for this genre about some of the older contributors whose voices don’t have the same melodic quality. The strange thing with Rossum is her accent, both singing and talking, which seems far more exaggerated to the hillbilly style than anyone else on screen. It is a bit of a knock on what is otherwise an engaging performance.

B-

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

The theme of age and insecurity, especially as it relates to actresses, has been a common one in cinema. From All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard to something like Maps To The Stars more recently, the fact that youth and beauty is put at such a premium for women in the industry (and the world) makes this an active and powerful subject. In a way not unlike Havana’s quest to play her mother in a film in Maps, here Maria (Juliette Binoche) contemplates taking on the elder role in a play that made her famous decades previously in the role of the younger woman. Aside from witnessing the emotional impact that this has on her symbolically, we see the way time changes us, and how those changes influence our approach to art. Much as we as viewers may see an entirely different film as teens than we do in middle-age, perhaps with a family, so Maria battles with her interpretation of the play.

Tagging along in her journey is her young personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who exerts herself into the story presenting contrasting interpretations of the play and helping Maria run lines. Valentine has the odd (I would think) habit of vocalizing stage directions, but it plays kind of brilliantly to remind you when they are performance, because without those cues it could be difficult to know what is the play and what is the complex nature of their relationship. In this way, with its psychological battle of two female co-leads, it plays a lot closer to Persona. The other primary player here is Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), the young actress filling the other main part in the play. Constructed as a Lindsay Lohan-esque tabloid-fodder wild child, I actually think there are intentional shades of Stewart in the character as well, with a defense of Jo-Ann’s cheesy sci-fi/superhero film standing in perhaps for Twilight.

With this outstanding trinity of actresses, combined with a very evocative cinematography, the title’s clouds playing a haunting role marking the natural passing of time and mortality, this film stands out above the other thematic examples I’ve mentioned. If I have any concern, it is that the epilogue, while serving a useful purpose, breaks the natural flow or perhaps unsettles what felt like a fitting ending.

A-

Unfriended (2014)

Premise is often central to horror films. This film starts with a horrific bang, as the then unidentified main character Blaire (Shelley Hennig), watches a clip online of a girl’s suicide, a girl we discover was a classmate of hers that was relentlessly cyberbullied after video of a drunken incident goes viral. After an introduction of the other handful of characters that appear in the film via Skype (or stay in touch via Facebook and the like), the real tension is set when Blaire receives a message on Facebook from the deceased. With a hat tip to The Ring, we see a website that talks of a pattern of people who have responded to online messages from the dead coming to a sticky end, but the real thrust of the terror is a karmic morality tale about bad deeds in the digital age. Considering the very real nature of cyberbullying and teenage suicide, this is a ripe target.

While the premise is solid, the execution frequently leaves much to be desired. The film relies way too heavily on buffering and visual glitching. It’s a bad sign when I forget I’m watching a movie and start thinking I’m watching a cable internet ad about the horrors of DSL. It just feels like a cheap tactic to generate suspense. More problematic to the emotional heft, the supernatural presence is too powerful in taking its inevitable revenge. Demonic possession isn’t interesting, though it does allow for more inventive and brutal kills. What would be interesting is having the damage being done through guilt and shame. Plenty of this exists, but the film doesn’t let it do its work, overplaying its hand and ultimately weakening its effect. A touch more forgivable is a cast that never really opens up the characters as more than types. Altogether, a great idea but a bit of a disappointment.

C

For a better use of the “all on a computer screen” technique, I recommend the short film

Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan, at present, is a master of moments. Whether it is crafting an incredible aesthetic visual sequence or portraying an emotionally rich/true dilemma, all four of his films are dotted with really great moments. His promise with both technical aspects and in evoking strong emotional performances out of his actors (or himself when he steps in front of the camera) suggests so much potential. Mommy represents another film with a lot to offer that doesn’t quite keep control of things to deliver a fully realized finished product.

Here we get a tense dynamic between Die (Anne Dorval) and her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) left in the emotional and economic wake of her husband’s death. At the start Steve has been expelled from some sort of residential educational facility, I think for those with behavioral problems and so suddenly Die is left with responsibility of dealing with his unpredictable temper. Pilon gives a strong performance in capturing both the charisma the character is capable of when he’s up and the terrifying loss of control when he is overcome by stress. He wins your sympathy, even through his bad behavior. Similarly, one understand’s Die’s plight. The opening intertitles posit a hypothetical law allowing mothers to basically disown their behaviorally troubled children, and this note acts as a shadow over all the drama.

There are some interesting stylistic touches here, especially as it relates to aspect ratios. There are just so many positive elements that if it seems like I am a touch negative, it is mostly because I feel like Dolan is capable of delivering something great and so far I’ve only seen good.

B

Perfect Sense (2011)

I have to confess that one of my primary reactions to watching Perfect Sense is epidemiological skepticism, likely a violation of suspension of disbelief that might be expected in a science fiction film. Early on there is reason to suspect that it isn’t specifically a contagion, because it wasn’t behaving like one, but given the extent and some specific instances we see, it definitely has to be, right? Weird. Also, there is one statement that suggests that this is not a singular outbreak but rather a series of unique outbreaks, each managing worldwide contagion (even after society has started to break down, thus making global spread unlikely). And that’s a bit weird too. But I guess I’ll suspend my disbelief. At the end of the day, I feel most lost about the pairings of emotion and sense. There is mention that the sadness is connected to smell because smell is strongly tied to memory, okay. And paranoia is tied to taste? Rage to hearing? It doesn’t add up really and the emotional component distracts from the mass loss of sense aspect that is legitimately fascinating.

It is important, of course, that they start with smell, not sight. Blindness already depicts that possibility and it is bleak. But smell, smell is a sense I can imagine society working beyond. Seeing the way each successive loss is accommodated for says a lot about the capacity of humanity to adapt and still find beauty and meaning. If you can’t taste, focus more on textures and temperatures, focus on elegant platings. If you can’t hear, feel the vibrations. These moments in the film are really wonderful. And as we see the world bounce back after each, one starts to be hopeful (though surely at some point we run out of ability to adapt, right? At least if not given tons of time to prepare?). But why put a finger on the scale with the rage outbreak. It’s hard enough handling the loss of senses but ultimately it is the rage, not any of the sensory loss that causes the biggest disruption. Again, these emotion aspects feel like they are from another movie altogether and hold it back from greatness for me.

B

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 336 other followers