2014 Favorites

We now return you to 2015, already in progress

blackberrysnack1The internet ate my writeup of Still Alice, but to sum up: if you’d told me that one of the year’s most emotionally evocative scenes would involve Kristen Stewart delivering a monologue from Angels in America, I’d have assumed you were talking about the SNL reunion.

Same rules as usual this year, only I’ve expanded each category to five joint “winners” plus the usual sleepers (because there were a lot of great performances and productions this time around, and of such varying style).  I’ve done away with the Body of Work category, because it’s too much to keep track of, and assumes that I see absolutely everything, which I can’t.  Note that “Favorite Characters” cannot be portrayals of real people. I’ve added “The Unseen” and “The Unsung,” which comprise, respectively, the movies I wanted to see but did not have a chance to, and the movies I saw but for whatever reason did not write about on the blog (these reasons range from losing a file to not having time to simple disinterest – I don’t make money on this [but you could change that if you really wanted to: paypal billyramoneFTW at gmail).  Use the left-hand navigation or the infinite down-scroll to check out my writeups of each film.

2014 Favorites

Picture

Only Lovers Left Alive

Selma

Tracks

Birdman

A Most Violent Year

Sleepers: Wild and The Imitation Game

Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe – Nymphomaniac

Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie – Miss Julie

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson – Tracks

Tilda Swinton as Eve – Only Lovers Left Alive

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland – Still Alice

Sleeper: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed – Wild

Actor

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. – Selma

Colin Farrell as John – Miss Julie

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachman – A Most Wanted Man

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke – Locke

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game

Sleeper: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Supporting Actress

Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter – A Most Wanted Man

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King - Selma

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland – Still Alice

Emma Stone as Sam Thomson – Birdman

Samantha Morton as Kathleen – Miss Julie

Sleeper: Stacy Martin as Young Joe – Nymphomaniac

Supporting Actor

Elyes Gabel as Julian – A Most Violent Year

LaKeith Lee Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson – Selma

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher – Whiplash

Edward Norton as Mike Shiner – Birdman

Tony Revolori as Zero Mustafa – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sleeper: Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander – The Imitation Game

Director

Ava DuVernay – Selma

Liv Ullmann – Miss Julie

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year

Screenplay

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

Ava DuVernay/Paul Webb - Selma

Jim Jarmusch – Only Lovers Left Alive

Favorite Characters

Eleanor Rigby (played by Jessica Chastain) – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Eve, Adam, and Ava (played by Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska) – Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Cameo

William Mapother as the Preacher – I Origins

Persona non Grata Forever

Clint Eastwood

Unseen

Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Camp X-Ray, Big Eyes, Two Days-One Night, Ida, Winter Sleep

Unsung

Ragnarok, Still Alice, Into the Woods, The Big Ask

Best use of “Chastaining”

Well, Jessica Chastain was in four films this year, and she “Chastained” in one of them (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), so I can’t in good conscience give this award to anyone else.  In a close second, however, are Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda in Rob the Mob.

That does it for 2014.  If we ever meet, let’s talk about movies.  See you this year!  -RH

Whiplash

I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle

Whiplash-4934.cr2Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, spends nearly a year (his time) and nearly two hours (our time) confronting that beast of a fact that we artists learn all too early yet never accept: his plebeian family, concerned with division-3 sports and the accomplishments of his jock cousins, are just never going to “get it.”  If we all accepted that, maybe we would get more work done.  Or maybe we would be drained of all the audacity that fuels our best work.  It’s hard to tell with Andrew, because he’s never actually portrayed as an “artist”: he doesn’t make anything of his own.  But damned if memorizing Juan Tizol and Hank Levy charts isn’t going to bring him respect.

Whiplash is a tough film to pin down, which is probably good, but let’s ignore for a minute the pedantic misreading of musical history that defines the entire personality of Andrew’s scrupulous conductor/teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and just look at this as a film.  The narrative follows Andrew as he shoots for greatness, albeit alone, sort of forgetting that successful musicians (especially in jazz, and including idol Charlie Parker) play with other people.  Andrew flaunts the fact that he has no friends.  He deplores his extended family, and even seems to resent his father (warm-faced Paul Reiser) for the fact that his mother (conveniently!) left the family when Andrew was a baby – not to mention the fact that he mixes popcorn with Raisinets, which is just undignified.  Andrew is put in Fletcher’s class as alternate to the core drummer, then promoted to core without anything close to a promise that he’ll keep that position.  It’s not just his opponents, Ryan (Austin Stowell) and Carl (Nate Lang); it’s Fletcher, known to abuse students and play mind games (and like any other coach/drill-sergeant villain, he’s not above hurling every sexist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive adjective at his proteges).  So it’s set up as a formula Student vs. Mean Teacher narrative in the Sports Underdog tradition, complete with the thought that, like Buddy Rich, the Mean Teacher is actually a big softie who is just being hard on his students so that they can achieve greatness – as Fletcher controversially puts it, the worst thing you can say to someone is “Good job.”

Thus, Whiplash‘s plot can be easily plugged into any pyramid graph you’ve ever seen, but the performances and the motivations of the characters are what allow it to be something of its own (or at least to try as hard as Andrew to be that).  What’s going on with Fletcher, exactly?  Well, “softie” doesn’t come to mind when dealing with a character who calls teenagers “retards,” harangues them so hard that they hang themselves, and instructs a student to “get the fuck out of my sight before I demolish you” (the latter is the film’s single deliberate gut-buster, which Simmons can make out of just about any line, and wisely reserves that talent when it comes to this character).

There’s one other character worth mentioning: Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a movie-theatre attendant/cashier whom Andrew is sweet on already (he frequents her theatre so often that he has a “usual” candy).  The development between them, beginning with Andrew asking her out “for pizza or something,” is as charmingly awkward as it is in real life at that age, yet more organic than a contrived Meet Cute because it doesn’t need to pretend to be anything more complicated than a teenage boy asking out a teenage girl for the first time.  Romance is indicated by a simple shot of a flat shoe sliding over a table leg to the other person’s side.  The issue with Nicole is that she’s introduced as an important character, and we like her, and then she is used as a plot device that exists mostly in the background, and eventually not at all: Andrew breaks it off with her after Fletcher becomes hard on him, assuming that having a girlfriend will distract him from his practice.  She reacts as she should: incredulous that he would just assume this about her without ever mentioning it before.  Later, when he gets a chance at what he thinks is his big break, he phones Nicole to invite her, but she blows him off, mentioning (whether true or not) that she has a boyfriend now.  At least she’s given the last atom of agency between them, but Benoist’s performance is so genuine (she is, in many ways, the most realistic character in the film) that her absence in the second half is sorely felt, especially considering the lack of women in the film anyway (why does there only seem to be one female student at Shaffer?).  Instead, Nicole is used as a convenient way of saying that warriors like Andrew need to be lone wolves in order to be successful, and that idea is never combated by anyone else.

Fletcher’s “revenge” scheme later is the most unexpected and ingenious device in the film, and leads up to a figurative battle, during which both blood and sweat fly. The cinematography throughout focuses on excruciatingly closeup details of minute movements – a trumpeter’s first breath before blowing, the lighting of a cigarette, blood spreading from injured hands into a bucket of ice-water, etc.  It’s not as calculated and thematic as the cinematography in, say, Birdman, but boy, does it make one pay attention (in a film that is, perhaps, not about details, but still lets its characters care about the things they care about simply because they care about them, in spite of the formula narrative they’re living).

Just as Inside Llewyn Davis was not a bad film simply because the ’60s folk scene was “friendlier” than depicted by the Coens, it doesn’t much matter that Charlie Parker’s exploits after getting a symbol frisbee’d at his head were different than what Fletcher tells Andrew.  As ostentatious as Whiplash‘s “message”(s) may be, it’s still a story about the people living within this world, not the lore.

Whiplash (2014); written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser.

Selma

And the occasional speaking engagement

SELMAAva DuVernay’s Selma is one of the most timely films in recent memory.  It’s not only an invigorating subversion of the flood of “white savior” films from the past few years, but it speaks to exactly what we as a country (an expression I deplore, but what can you do) have been facing in our recent history: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and myriad race-motivated violences going unreported or ignored.  It’s not just a biopic about Dr. King; it’s a reminder of how far we are from (but how close we could be to) realizing his dreams.

Like 2012’s Lincoln, Selma is focused on one particular effort in the timeline of the influential person in question: the film concerns Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) quest to grant African-American people their voting rights in the south.  But here’s the thing: they already legally have the vote, and are being bearded by the racist registrar and county authorities, who are seen forcing Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to jump through ridiculous hoops, such as naming sixty-seven obscure white politicians, to even be allowed to register.  Dr. King decides that Selma is the ideal place for a peaceful demonstration, and during a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), he organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery.  If you need plot details from here, you should be reading biographies and history texts, not movie reviews.

Oyelowo’s role as Dr. King has been plenty lauded, but should be highlighted as one of the most important in any recent film.  DuVernay, where lesser filmmakers may have focused simply on plot action (since most of us already have our own image, however blurry, of who Dr. King was), zeroes in on his personal life and motivations.  He’s not portrayed as an infallible superhero; long scenes are dedicated to the relationship between himself and Coretta, whether they’re discussing the motivations of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the potential violence that will result during the march (President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, insists that it will be “open season” if Dr. King parades African-Americans through the artery of Alabama), or their own personal future.  Infidelity is highlighted, and Dr. King’s actions are never blamed on the notoriously manipulative and paranoid FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker here; depicted in far more films and TV series in the last few years than he really deserves).  The speeches he gives, whether or not paraphrased or rewritten due to copyright issues, are truly moving, and not used to transparently echo today’s race relations: all of that is already there in front of us; it’s just a matter of being able to see it, and furthermore, to refuse to ignore it, however exhausting it may be.

The ensemble cast is expertly used by DuVernay, who never overwhelms scenes with star-power. Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. don’t show up until two-thirds of the way through, and they do what they need to do without lingering in needless shots, while John Doar (lesser-known Alessandro Nivola, who’s had a pretty good year on film) receives a heavier share of scenes.  Keith Stanfield, perhaps the possessor of the greatest ratio of Most Adept to Least Known, and who shone in last year’s Short Term 12, appears here, albeit briefly, as Jimmie Lee Jackson, the unfortunate deacon/family man/activist/martyr whose murder inspired the marches.  His portrayal in the film, as well as that of the actions of the state troopers who savagely attacked him, his mother, and his eighty-four-year-old grandfather, is so poignant because it isn’t sensationalized or opportunistically embellished: these things happened.  These things still happen.  These things could stop happening.

The film also contains, just before Common’s unbelievably heart-rending “Glory,” the most unapologetic “where are they now?” end-titles ever, highlighting the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), and retaining absolutely no sympathy for that hick George Wallace (Tim Roth), whose apathy enabled much of the brutality that occurred in his state (even Johnson, whose actually-quite-fair portrayal here has drawn complaints from white people who need every film to be about them, wants nothing to do with this guy).

For once, here’s a mature film with something to say, something real to show, but that doesn’t capitalize on the horrors of history in order to win a bunch of filmmaking awards: Selma is a true call to candid thought about what every one of us is willing to ignore, and to nonviolent action to make real change in a world where the racket of bullets and explosions are enough to make us forget that any such thing exists.

Selma (2014); written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay; directed by Ava DuVernay; starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Egojo, Tom Wilkinson, and Keith Stanfield.

Miss Julie

You should’ve been an actor

Miss JulieLiv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s perpetually-performed 1880s naturalist play (arguably the first successful stageplay of its type, and also one that, against the popular “rule,” decided that theatre characters could be real people with more to them than a single “motivation”) pulls open the wounds of its characters and allows the audience access to all of their layers.  Ullmann, winner of a Golden Globe, nominee for a handful of Academy Awards, and longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, continues her collection of brilliant adaptations, adding dialogue and sets to Strindberg’s minimalist narrative without diluting its original intention (of course, what we take that intention to be carries a slightly different context 120-something years later) – in fact, if anything, this film enhances its power.

Though Strindberg thoroughly examines the psychology of his characters, Miss Julie still revolves around a Big Idea: the title character (played here by prolific-as-ever Jessica Chastain) represents a doomed class of pompous aristocrats who invent hardships for themselves, whilst Jean (called “John” in the film and played by Colin Farrell, once again using his natural voice, which tends to bring out his best characters), manservant to the Count (“Baron” here), represents the working class, who are better-suited to adaptability as far as the roles they can play in life.  It all works because the whole messy conflict is born of very basic, very natural desires.  Miss Julie is impulsive.  And think about this: in 1888, it was okay to write an impulsive character, i.e. a person who does things just because she feels like it.  So there’s a wildcard right away, but she also has issues concerning her upbringing and her parents, whose toxic (to put it lightly) relationship caused her to hate all men, whom she still can’t seem to get away from, and during the short timeline of the story, she shifts erratically between chastising and flirting with John, who has technically promised to marry Kristin (“Kathleen” here, played by Samantha Morton).  Kathleen, who “represents” nothing, is free to be a fully-realized human being who takes no lip from anyone of any gender.

The film version could be referred to as a character study, especially given its performances and additional dialogue (written by Ullmann herself).  The imagery is beautiful and truly poignant, and although going for something that feels heightened and very old, achieves something that feels like we haven’t seen it before, even those of us familiar with Strindberg’s work.  It comes together this way because neither Julie nor John is solely responsible for their midnight tryst, nor is either of them “good” or “evil” or one-hundred-percent “correct” despite the story’s battle-of-wits structure.  These are complicated people working to get out of a momentous predicament in a rigid world.  And boy, did Ullman find the actors who could pull this off: Jessica Chastain’s version of Miss Julie spends two hours fluctuating between soft, stagy monologues about the beauty of the moon and lilacs; and prolonged fits of hysterics, during which she sheds genuine tears, minces her vocal cords, and goes red-faced before our eyes (and this all actually happens; it’s not a movie-magic trick).  Colin Farrell, in a steamrolling performance as a character who is not extremely likeable in the play, manages to make John a soft, sympathetic workman trying to reconcile one kind of love with another kind of love with self-respect.  Morton’s Kathleen, the only other character in the film, is depicted as a person who knows her station in life, but who has complex ideas about what it means to consider the ruling class “betters,” knows what should be expected of folks in Julie’s and John’s places, and reacts exactly how you’d expect someone to react to the behavior she witnesses.

Ullmann directs the film as a stage version might be directed (aside from the cuts, of course), and the minimal sets, particularly the infamous kitchen, are so realistic that the echo of the characters’ voices is heard with every line (no studio manicuring here).  The added scene of Miss Julie as a child, sending a batch of young lilacs floating down a stream, bookends the story with a similar original scene that involves Julie’s same gesture as an adult – it’s a gorgeous piece of imagery, and leaves no question as to whether the eponymous character goes through with her implied suicide in Strindberg’s original.  Consider the final images of each character: John, dressed in his servant uniform again, ascends the stairs to wait on the Baron.  Julie lies in a red pool, her lilacs clotting against a rock in the middle of the stream, unable to go forward.

If you think that’s boring, I don’t want to know you.

Miss Julie (2014); written and directed by Liv Ullmann; starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton.

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.

Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

The Imitation Game

The Big Bang Theory, ca. 1941

People love underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are eccentric loners, so I don’t begrudge screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum for embellishing details of Alan Turing’s personal life – you have to do some invention when it comes to his relationship with Joan Clarke, because we need Keira Knightley to be in it a lot, and the film needs to “say something” about her situation.  You need to trim the Bletchley Park cryptographers down to a ragtag band of misunderstood do-gooders, because it makes people think of Star Wars and El Dorado and everything else they like.  You need to create conflict amongst this group, because a bunch of coworkers getting along for two full hours is 1) boring; 2) not analogous to the real-life experiences of the current working class.  But portraying Turing as being somewhere on the autism spectrum (when by all accounts he was not) does something interesting: because of series like The Big Bang Theory and other popular media that employ the cutesy, popcorny method of depicting people with Asperger’s as asexual geeks who happen to be geniuses, and whose personal struggles (common TV/movie ones include inabilities to understand jokes and sarcasm, lack of interest in socializing, and complete immunity to romance) make them adorable and endearing, plenty of laypeople think they know everything about an extremely varied mental condition that affects people differently depending upon myriad factors, including personality.  On the way out of the theatre, one of the chatty people in the row behind me made this comment: “I think he was just confused about what he was.”  Mind you, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) utters the line “I am a homosexual” several times to several different people, says “I prefer men, not women” and “I have had affairs with men,” is shown in an almost-romance with a boy during adolescence, and does not deny his sexuality when he is criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency” (i.e. happening to love the company of the same gender).  So it’s partly a basic comprehension problem, but it’s also media damage: how many Emmys has Jim Parsons won for playing the lovable nerd upon whom so many now base their “knowledge” of Asperger’s?  True, the people in the row behind me are not a very large sample size, but these micro-cases illustrate the larger problem: passive, casual media being taken as fact, and dangerous ignorance about serious subjects as a product of a popular TV show.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team’s attempt to break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II and saving millions of lives.  The story movement involves slightly-higher-than-garden-variety mystery stuff, and is buffered by a very personable cast: Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s main foil in the group, which includes Peter (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and most importantly, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who shows up to Turing’s all-but-impossible mass interview for a new cryptographer, resists sexist comments, and aces the test more efficiently than even its creator can.  All the while, the group combats antagonism from their commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance doing what he does), whose motivation is to have the last word, no matter what, even if it allows the Nazis to destroy the world, apparently.  Soon, Turing and Joan become engaged so that she can stay and continue her invaluable work on the Enigma project – her overbearing parents are concerned about her being a single career-woman – and despite reservations on both sides, they care for each other and have each other’s backs in every way.  From there, as Turing puts together a machine named after his childhood almost-boyfriend Christopher, who died of tuberculosis, the team grows closer.

Despite the minor female presence in the film, interestingly enough, Turing’s biggest epiphanies occur as a result of female influence.  Joan’s ideas fuel much of the anti-Enigma project’s success, and it’s a passing comment from Helen (Tuppence Middleton), a friend of Joan’s who flirts with Hugh, that causes a major turning point in Turing’s thinking (which allows Cumberbatch to do the always-fun “Epiphany causes main character to rush out of room, crashing into as many people and breakable things as possible in the process”).  Knightley controls all of her scenes, and one of the toughest things about watching the film is that her Joan Clarke could be the protagonist of her own film (and she’s layered enough that we get the sense that she’s leading an offscreen film we never get to see).  The scene wherein she obliterates all thought that a woman can’t do this job is triumphant, but these scenes can be problematic in period pieces, and I’m not talking about her victory as much as the language used (and this was also a big issue in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire): filmmakers create these spectacles with the intention of looking smugly upon the awful ways the patriarchal/Christian power structures treated certain people in the past, without thinking about the ways in which these are still issues for us in the present.  Add to that the fact that the target audience for many of these narratives (adolescent boys) are still feeling things out (i.e. largely clueless to the struggles of women and people of other cultural backgrounds), and when they’re being constantly fed this stuff, this type of language becomes normalized now.  It isn’t enough to just show things “how they were” when you’re attempting to illustrate how far we’ve come, or how certain revolutionaries and hero(ine)s were crushing the status quo: in art, in order to say something, you have to actually say it.

The crown jewel of The Imitation Game, unsurprisingly, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which all at once honestly portrays the struggles of a gay government employee in the ’40s (and respects the real-life Turing by not showing sex scenes or taking sharp turns into conjecture/invention) and the difficulties of being that fish out of water, taken to the extreme with the personality prescribed to him by the filmmakers.  His last scene with Knightley, highlighting the development of their friendship and trust over the years of (and following) the war, is amongst the most emotional of the year.  It’s incredible that a story like this can be buried for fifty years, while borderline propaganda like American Sniper gets greenlit to glorify violence and accessorize women within a few years of its supposed real-life events.  With The Imitation Game, we have a rarity: a war drama that does not suggest that a sainted soldier – rugged, white, heterosexual, male, American – was responsible for the greatest heroics.  It’s responsibly told, well-characterized, and has the only end-title “where are they now” sequence at which I’ve ever teared up.

The Imitation Game (2014); based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; screenplay by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong.

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