Sunday, November 30, 2014

New movie review: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in the new biopic The Imitation Game.

Interested is interesting. It is an old line of advice parents give their children on how to make friends. The logic is sound for meeting people, but it is almost incorruptibly true when applied to storytelling. The problem with the new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game is that it just does not seem very interested in its characters or really even in the story it is telling. As a result, it is only intermittently interesting.

On its surface, there is little to dislike in director Morten Tyldum’s handsomely mounted World War II picture. It is charming, well acted, and suitably dramatic. It has the veneer of prestige, but beneath that, there is precious little substance, which is a shame. Turing’s life is rife with cinematic possibilities, stuffed with intrigue, sorrow, and inspiration. All the makings of a great old Hollywood picture are there, something akin to The Life of Emile Zola, if we want to reach back a ways.

Sadly, few of these possibilities are explored. Late in the film, an authority figure, remarking on the death of a character, says, “He faced it with a stiff upper lip” – that classic indicator of British austerity. One cannot help but feel the filmmakers approached the material in the same way. Tragedy lurks in every corner of the story, but the film remains posh and aloof, somehow floating above it.

To the film’s credit, it never gets bogged down in self-seriousness. First-time feature screenwriter Graham Moore infuses the script with humor and humanity, and what easily could become a history lesson is never less than entertaining. It is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order, but if you have not been to the movies in a while, there is something you should know: Crowd-pleasers are a dime a dozen. If you wish to be pleased – and I am not saying there is anything wrong with that – there are any number of suitable movies from which to choose, including this one. However, if you wish to be challenged, look elsewhere.

Coincidentally, there is another crowd-pleasing British film in theaters right now about a brilliant scientist and his difficult life – The Theory of Everything. One could be forgiven for walking into this feature and realizing, “Darn it! I wanted the one with Stephen Hawking.” The other, more troubling trait both films share is a distinct lack of interest in exploring the world-changing feats these men accomplished.

Throughout The Imitation Game, we are told the machine Turing is working on will win the war if he is successful. He is building the first computer with the goal of cracking the German Enigma machine, an encryption device the Germans used to pass coded messages. If the machine is cracked, it will give the Allies a clear advantage, but despite efforts by the Americans and Russians, no one had been able to solve the puzzle. Enter Turing.

Rather than show the process of his work, though, the film settles for constantly reminding the audience Turing is a genius. We see him scribble furiously, but instead of an exploration of his scribbles, we are treated to numerous exchanges in which the probably autistic Turing does not understand basic human interactions. These are fun to watch but are no substitute for understanding the man and his particular brilliance.

Benedict Cumberbatch, of TV’s Sherlock and thus well versed in playing prickly geniuses, is great as Turing. As an actor, Cumberbatch is capable of explosive bursts of energy and tremendous feats of physicality, but he uses none of that here. In fact, the most physical we ever see him is during his morning jog. Turing is a man whose mind does the heavy lifting, and Cumberbatch portrays this with little more than a shift in his eyes or a twitch in his mouth. It is a brave, emotionally complex portrayal of a difficult and complicated historical figure.

Matthew Goode and Keira Knightly perform admirably in the parts of Turing’s friends and co-conspirators, but neither is given enough to do. While it is always fun to see Charles Dance on screen – you may recognize him as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones – he has the thankless role of playing “the authority figure who stands in the hero’s way.”

Dance is good, but the character is a microcosm of what is wrong with this movie. The filmmakers seem to believe it is not enough to watch a smart man do important work. He needs obstacles and conflict, as though the war alone will not suffice. Turing faced myriad challenges in his life and overcame a great many of them, but a superior who does not understand his work is probably the least among them.

Strangely structured, to say the least, Turing narrates his war record while we are treated to other flashbacks of his life, as well as a police investigation into Turing’s post-war affairs. The three timelines are juggled to somewhat muted effect. The end goal seems to be to induce guilt for the treatment of war hero Turing, who was persecuted for his homosexuality, a crime in mid-20th century England. The shift to a kind of gay rights narrative is handled deftly and carries appropriate weight, but it comes so late in the story that it does not land with the impact it otherwise might, much like the rest of the proceedings.

I have no doubt of the filmmakers’ good intentions, but the storytelling often feels perfunctory, coasting on the cultural cache of Turing’s accomplishments and World War II. These are impressive figures doing a critical job at one of the most crucial moments in world history. Their story is inherently interesting – if only the film had been a little more interested.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fight the power: Do the Right Thing and the struggle between Hate and Love

A tremendous cast, including John Turturro and Michael B. Jordan, gathered for a reading of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing on Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York as part of #BlackoutBlackFriday, organized by Blackout for Human Rights.

The climax of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing features a number of the characters calling out the names of African-American victims of police brutality. In a live reading of one of Lee’s early drafts, performed Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York, only one name was called out: Eric Garner.

The name will be familiar to you if you read the news, and it will not be familiar if these are the things to which you prefer to turn a blind eye. What is certain is Lee could not have known the name when he wrote his masterful original screenplay. As a result, it may seem like an anachronism, but cleverly, Lee begins the script with the setting: Brooklyn, present. It was his world then, it is our world now, but little has changed.

Coogler (bottom right) with Turturro and Jordan.
Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of artists, activists, and citizens dedicated to exposing and correcting the myriad human rights violations that plague the U.S., organized the reading as part of its national #BlackoutBlackFriday campaign. Filmmakers Ryan Coogler and Shaka King brought together an impressive cast of actors to read the seminal civil rights film in front of a packed house on a day of protest and solidarity around the country.

In Coogler’s own words: “In the last few months or so the network has been working together, we came up with the idea of making Black Friday – which is a day that comes right after everybody is spending time with their families and it’s this huge day of consumerism and all these other ideas – we thought about making it a day of activism, where people can put their energy toward something else.”

Coogler is the director of the excellent, critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, which tackles the shooting death of Oscar Grant and is a kind of Do the Right Thing for the new millennium. In fact, the whole evening felt like a passing of the torch as one generation of activist filmmakers led the next into the struggle. In addition to Coogler and King taking the reins behind the scenes, a number of younger and older actors were handed the film’s iconic characters and given the chance to breathe new life into Lee’s script.

Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan handled the leading role of Mookie, originally played by Lee, while John Turturro returned to the material in the part of Sal, the pizzeria owner whose son Turturro portrayed 25 years ago. Frankie Faison was among the returning cast members, reprising his role as Coconut Sid, one of the men on the corner, but no actor returned to greater effect than Lee’s sister, Joie Lee. Joie Lee took over the character of Mother Sister from the recently departed Ruby Dee, providing an emotionally satisfying experience that came full circle from its original portrayal.

Also joining the cast were the excellent Mtume Gant as Buggin’ Out, Gbenga Akinnagbe as Radio Raheem, Melonie Diaz as Tina, Morgan Spector as Pino, Roger Robinson as Da Mayor, and comedian Godfrey as the disc jockey Mister Senor Love Daddy, among others. For what King described as “a cold read,” the actors did an admirable job of bringing out the beauty, poignancy, and life of Spike Lee’s words.

What stands out even now is how evocative Lee’s script is and just how well wrought the world of the story becomes. He creates a fully realized portrait of a city dealing with the demons of its past, present, and likely future. That it was nominated only for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars is a travesty, but the film exists beyond awards and box office. It is a cultural touchstone, bringing to harsh light the brutality of the world in which we live. It never shies away from the truth; it never flinches at what it finds; and it never fails to explore the pain of honesty.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) tells us about Love and Hate.
Late in the script, Mookie runs into Radio Raheem on the street, and Radio Raheem tells him the story of Love and Hate:

“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: It was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: These five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand – the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right, and Hate is hurt. He's down. Left Hand, Hate, KO’ed by Love.”

One need only look in the newspapers, on TV, or even out in the streets to tell what part of the story we are living right now. Hate dominates, but Love is always in the picture. It is thanks to organizations such as Blackout for Human Rights, among many others, that Love still has a chance, but it is up to each and every one of us to fight the power that is Hate.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spirit Awards: The nominees and what ‘independent film’ means

Obvious Child star Jenny Slate is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best actress.

The nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards – the West Coast cousin to the GothamFilm Independent Awards – were released Tuesday, and among them, you will find the usual suspects. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman leads the list with six nominations and is joined in the Best Feature lineup by Boyhood, Love Is Strange, Selma, and Whiplash.

The winners this decade have been Black Swan, The Artist, Silver Linings Playbook, and 12 Years a Slave. You perhaps will notice that list is comprised solely of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, including two winners. This year, Birdman, Boyhood, and Selma are all likely Best Picture nominees, and it is possible the winner will come from among those.

The Spirit Awards began in 1985 with a mission to honor the best in independent filmmaking, and up until about 2000, the worlds of the Spirits and the Oscars remained relatively separate – with the odd Platoon and Pulp Fiction thrown in there. Now, however, if you find yourself wondering what the difference is between these awards, you are not the only one. Since 2003, the only Best Feature winner at the Spirits not to garner a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards has been Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in 2008.

I would suggest there are a few overlapping reasons for this shift. First, over the last decade, the number of Academy Awards precursors has increased 10-fold as every little critics organization across the country throws its picks in the hat. Much as they claim to honor the best in film for a given year, many just want to predict the Oscar winners and claim the glory of saying they got it right first. Unfortunately, the Independent Spirit Awards have fallen into this trap as well.

Second, as the big movie studios such as Warner Brothers, Sony, and others have focused on major blockbusters, they have spun off their own “independent” studios to buy or develop awards-caliber fare. Sony Pictures Classic and Focus Features are among the best in the business at this, and they produce many great films, but these mid-size prestige studios contribute to blurring the line between independent and studio filmmaking.

Related to this is the fact that the blockbuster prestige film is a dying breed. From 1994 to 2004, all but two Best Picture winners earned more than $100 million at the box office with films such as Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King qualifying as mega-blockbuster hits. Since 2004, five of the nine best picture winners have failed to crack $100 million – including the lowest grossing ever, The Hurt Locker – and none has achieved the blockbuster success of the aforementioned movies.

None of this is to say the Spirit Awards lack identity or purpose, and the organization still finds places to nominate and award lesser-known, lesser-hyped, and under-the-radar fare, as one might hope from such a voting body. Sam Fleischner’s micro-budget indie Stand Clear of the Closing Doors pulled a supporting actress nomination for Andrea Suarez Paz, and the four nominations for Ira Sachs beautiful and sad Love Is Strange, including in the top category, are a tremendous showing for the little modern love story.

My favorite notice among the nominations is a best actress nod for Jenny Slate in the acerbic romantic comedy Obvious Child, a film I just caught up with on DVD and loved. The nomination is unlikely to vault the comedienne into the conversation for an Oscar, but the Spirit Award nomination is well deserved recognition for an honest, raw, and down-to-earth portrayal of a woman who is not quite ready to reach a turning point in her life.

So, while big names may dominate the list, we can still be thankful that there is room for people such as Slate and Sachs and for the smaller films that launch vital new voices into the industry. What "independent film" means anymore with regard to budget or prestige or box office prospects is up for debate, but in the hearts and minds of the artists, the spirit of independent filmmaking will always remain alive and well.