50 SHADES OF GREY
50 Shades of Beige
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, been cryopreserved or you’re a member of the lost indigenous tribe of the Mascho-Piro, you’ll have heard of the 50 Shades phenomenon. You’ll also have been spanked raw with the advertising knowledge that a big screen adaptation was on its saucy way.
Not that a film adaptation or the tied-in commercial blitzkrieg are surprising: “author” E.L. James has birthed a global kerfuffle that is quite incredible.
Having read all three books (’50 Shades of Grey’, ’50 Shades Darker’ and ’50 Shades Freed’), safely justifying the use of the previous adjective is easy:
‘Incredible’ in the sense that what started as Twilight fan fiction, penned under the moniker Snowqueen Icedragon, has become such an unavoidable worldwide sensation.
‘Incredible’ in the sense it beggars belief that such a narratively barren and deeply insulting attempt at an erotic saga has become the fastest selling book ever, surpassing even JK’s pubic wand-waver.
‘Incredible’ in the sense the poorly written and tediously repetitive novels have allowed the sorry excuse for a writer that is thesaurus-deprived E.L. James to benefit from what the endeavour was ever truly about, that is to say tie-in marketing. Whether it be thanks to the the 50 Shades sex toys, the 50 Shades nail varnish, the launch of her own 50 Shades wine label (seriously) and selling the film rights, James has indiscriminately raked in the pennies. She’s even been included on Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World”.
And that’s why, as a species, we can’t have nice things.
In fact, with hindsight, the only identifiable silver lining from the 50 Shades phenomenon is that it may spiced up stale sex lives… sadly at the expense of reading a literary abortion which insultingly affirmed that BDSM is a psychopathology and wrongly asserted that a sexual relationship involving bondage must be an abusive one.
(If you wish to read more about this and the book reviews, click on the following link which will direct you to my -fictional- interview with the author: Interview with E.L. James.)
It would be easy to blindly pan the adaptation solely based on the books. Caution is indeed warranted but there have been cases when film adaptations have surpassed their literary sources. To focus on one author and WITHOUT AT ANY POINT comparing him to the ludicrously talentless E.L. James, there’s no denying that most of Stephen King’s books and novellas have been trumped by their cinematic equivalents. For instance, Frank Darabont’s adaptations (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and his underrated The Mist) all broke their literary shackles and others such as Carrie, Stand By Me or even Kubrick’s The Shining all eclipsed King’s original novels.
Therefore, putting aside the novels, it was with open-minded curiosity that willing footsteps crossed the threshold of the closest multiplex to see whether Sam Taylor-Johnson’s take could surpass or even redeem E.L. James’ source material.
Without bothering to give you the skinny plot-wise, since most people are aware it’s a sexed-up and not-so-subtle rewrite of Cinderella, let’s get down to brass tax.
50 Shades of Grey doesn’t redeem the novel but does surpass it.
This is hardly a compliment, as the books are so utterly awful that it would have been an impressive feat for the film to outdo the book’s embarrassing record.
However, credit where it’s due. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction is assured and her screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, has excised many of the book’s most cloying moments. Some beats are still overly melodramatic and some dialogue is clunky but there is thankfully no mention of the “inner goddess”, no lady bits are referred to as “down there” and E.L. James’ beloved phrase “oh my” only makes one solitary appearance. Additionally, some sequences are actually very decently filmed, a few even creating sparks thanks to the inclusion of humour. The boardroom negotiation scene springs to mind as one of the film’s best.
Dakota Johnson is surprisingly good as Ana Steele, making the heroine quite believable and significantly less nose-bleedingly annoying. Again, Marcel’s script is to be lauded considering big-screen Ana now has a spine. This is a vast improvement compared to her constantly-flushing and utterly useless literary counterpart, one which genuinely cemented insulting gender stereotypes and set feminism back decades. Indeed, Ana 2.0 seems more three-dimensional and her weaker moments feel like they are expression of someone who is just hopelessly in love, as opposed to the expression of an invertebrate without a shred of personality.
Her co-star Jamie Dornan is adequate as billionaire Christian Grey but ultimately only gets to smoulderingly prowl about like Ryan Phillippe with a stronger jawline. He is less advantaged by the script, still coming off as nothing more than wank fodder. However, his predatory character does interestingly seem less creepy than in the novels and he does know that Hendrix gin is served with cucumber, so that’s not negligible.
Butt... sorry, but, 50 Shades of Grey still doesn’t work, chiefly because it is undeniably dull and very tame.
An audacious adaptation would have used the first novel in the literary trilogy as a springboard, thrown caution to the wind and understood that the only way up was going full-on. This is after all an erotic drama centred on BDSM. While there is no denying that the sex scenes and the time spent in the infamous Red Room of Pain are all very well shot, edited and musically accompanied, they are bafflingly bland.
Much in the same way a comedy needs to make the spectator laugh and a horror film needs to provoke some unease (if not downright fear), an erotic romance needs to titillate.
It boils down to the sad fact that if you’re going to make sex key selling point of your franchise, the wafer-thin MacGuffin better be damn good. As it is, Taylor-Johnson’s take is mild and doesn’t provoke the stir films like 9 ½ Weeks or even Steven Shainberg’s overlooked Secretary did.
Make no mistake: TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Californication and even ITV2’s The Secret Diary of a Call Girl all outrank this film in the risqué department. There are Lise Charmel lingerie street banners that are raunchier and when you sell yourself as sexually progressive product, you need to deliver a tremor at the very least. 50 Shades of Grey simply doesn’t manage to provoke a fluster.
(I invite you to type 'Lise Charmel' in your search engine of choice - the images are inspiring in ways the film can only dream of being.)
Many will argue that for the sake of box-office numbers, full frontal nudity had to be sacrificed and envelope-pushing was never going to be an option. Nevertheless, it remains a cowardly and creatively stale move that shows as much backbone as the literary Ana Steele.
(Again, congrats on the ironic choice of name, E.L. You understand irony, don't you? Author! Author!)
Instead of focusing on sex, the spotlight is instead placed on how stick-thin Dakota Johnson is, how Dornan looks great without a shirt on and how incontinently rich Christian Grey is.
While the first two elements were to be expected, the last one is more problematic.
Since the focal point is luxury and riches, the main message here is that the perfect man needs to be minted. The film promotes the idea that with enough expensive gifts and helicopter rides, all women can be emotionally bullied and are in fact merely putty in a wealthy man’s hands. It also continues to enforce - albeit in a more subtle manner compared to the book - the misconception that virgins feel no pain during the first time and that all those who partake in BDSM must necessarily be troubled individuals with tragic backstories.
Discerning spectators will see straight through the wearisome stereotypical fantasies and simplistic views; others will lap up these unrealistic standards and potentially harmful ideals with frightening verve and scarring gusto.
To be fair, the abrupt ending bizarrely works and shows Ana reclaiming some pride. This final beat is somewhat redemptive but can’t make up for how insulting the overall proceedings are.
Lastly, as if all of the above wasn’t enough, the film’s length is problematic to say the least.
There’s no arguing the fact that 50 Shades of Grey is a long film in which nothing really happens. Much in the same way everything in the three books could have been condensed into one novel, everything in this film adaptation could have easily been whittled down to below the 90 minute mark.
Instead, we are punished with over 2 hours of meandering, a length which genuinely feels more like 3 hours.
Whereas many films purposefully feel longer than they actually are, the dragging out of the action here only serves to highlight that these are ultimately rich people’s issues worthy of the hashtag #firstworldproblems. Even if you did care about Ana’s plight in the first place, the dull narrative is so drawn-out that only a shrug and a dismissive ‘who actually cares?’ seems to be the only appropriate reactions by the time the credits roll.
Almost predictably, this high-profile adaptation has surpassed the god-awful source material.
However, despite some redemptive factors, nothing stops 50 Shades of Grey from being a missed opportunity to push the envelope and prove naysayers wrong. Instead, it actively panders to the only audience members who will get hot and bothered: wide-eyed tweens and bored housewives who have filled the Edward Cullen-shaped void in their sex-starved lives.
If you don’t recognize yourself in either one of these categories, know that the film is painfully bland and hopelessly shallow. For a film about a man who “fucks hard”, that’s impressively troublesome.
So, while it could have been worse, you still won’t be glad you came…
Not that you will, mind you.
- D - 12/02/15
Not the ideal date film...
What lasting impact did Hitchcock’s The Birds have?
Chances are it changed the way you saw our flapping feathered friends.
When you saw Jaws, what was the last thing you wanted to do?
That’s right: go swimming.
What did The Blair Witch Project ruin forever?
Camping, I hear you cry!
What was the furthest thing from your mind when you saw Ringu (The Ring)?
Common sense dictates that it likely supressed the urge to pop in a VHS.
Crafty and intelligent filmmakers manage to take something out of everyday life, something considered quite mundane and then instil a hefty dose of fear, transforming the once-harmless into the stuff of nightmares. In some cases, entire generations feel the repercussions. (To this day, my mum has an aversion to crows and refuses to re-watch The Birds. Job well done, Hitch!)
It Follows isn’t up to the same standards as the aforementioned films and their long-lasting impacts but has nevertheless managed to ensure that the last thing you’ll want to do after seeing this lo-fi horror film is have sex.
Thems fightin’ words, many will boldly assert, courage gripped in one hand and throbbing machismo in the other… and as much as the thought of intimate physical contact is usually hugely enticing, director / screenwriter David Robert Mitchell’s film is creepy enough to dampen any smouldering sexual impulses for at least the duration of an evening or two.
Seeing is believing.
How does the director and screenwriter manage this impressive feat? Quite simply by crafting a clever out-there premise where the succubus is a shapeshifting force that is transferred via a sexual encounter. It’s a lot like an STD… except here, the ‘D’ stands for ‘Demon’.
The plot follows (ba-dum ching!) 19-year-old and Chloe Sevigny-lookalike Jay (Maika Monroe). She sleeps for the first time with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) and instead of a post-coital snuggle, he chloroforms her and ties her to a chair. Charming.
Her devious-but-apologetic fornicator begins to explain his actions: he had sex with her in order to essentially pass on a horrible STD that he got from a previous sexual encounter. As if that wasn’t awful enough, this sexually transmitted disease is actually a malignant spirit that can take any form it chooses and won’t cease its determined haunting until it manages to murder its host or is passed on.
Bet teen pregnancy doesn’t sound so scary now, hey?
The traumatized Jay has a hard time believing a word of this until Hugh shows her a figure slowly walking towards her… Let the never-yielding cat-and-mouse game begin…
From its startling and quite brilliant opening (one of the most mouth-watering openers in recent years) to its mildly disappointing third act, It Follows knowingly toys with a well-worn trope of the horror genre, one which boils down to this: sex = death.
Indeed, the slasher convention dating from the 70s clearly states that if it’s coitus you seek, it’s a stabbing you reap.
It’s a fascinating concept to tinker with and Mitchell does it well. The usual suspects are there (the heroine, the sister, the best friend, the lovelorn former flame and the moody heartthrob) but it takes itself seriously without falling into parody. The director cleverly doesn’t make the proceedings overtly and cheaply sexual or gory, instead choosing to focus on the aforementioned premise and on style.
The layered and moody atmosphere is dream-like, buoyed by the haunting suburban setting of Detroit and the idea to firmly set the ongoings in the 80s. This time setting insures that it is easier to recreate a retro-feel similar to certain older horror classics: the feel of It Follows is often reminiscent of Nightmare on Elm Street or even Halloween. The latter is an important touchstone for the director, as Mitchell nods to John Carpenter’s genre classic on more than one occasion, specifically with the choice of having Rich Vreeland (under the name Disasterpiece) score the film. The synth-heavy and domineering soundtrack is key for the film’s impact, effectively creating a sense of otherworldliness and dirge-like dread.
However, the film’s strongest and most impressive asset is the collaboration between Mitchell, his director of photography Michael Gioulakis and his editor Julio Perez. The three contribute to the oneiric atmosphere by using long panoramic takes, ones which scan the surroundings, movement or no. These extended camera movements include 360-degree turns, stylistic pans and few cuts. This refreshingly contrasts with current epileptic editing and shaky cameras and the effect is gripping and rather artful.
There are several possible readings of It Follows. Many will see it as a cautionary tale about the importance of safe sex. Some will recognize a throwback to the AIDS anxieties of the 80s. Others will interprate it as a puritan metaphor about the dangers of teenage sex and the virtues of abstinence. The truth is it’s none of those things, especially not the last one, since sex is not only here the catalyst for terror but also the cure… Mitchell is not judgemental about sex or interested in creating a morality tale; he is more attentive to the anxieties faced by adolescents on the cusp of adulthood and more implicated in the telling of an effective horror story.
In this respect, he succeeds but it’s a real shame that unlike the sensitively executed portrayal of teenage life, the disappointing final act falls flat. Indeed, the denouement doesn’t do justice to the ingenuity of the previous hour and one wishes Mitchell could have concocted a more daring finale, a pool-free and less abstract final beat. As it stands, the third act is not worthy of the haunting premise.
So, while It Follows is not a revolutionary entry in the genre, unlike recent efforts such as Let The Right One In, Kill List or The Babadook, it remains a memorable and very stylish piece, one which firmly puts David Robert Mitchell on the map. It won’t haunt your thoughts eternally or create a generation of traumatized virgins, but it will make you want to ask your next sexual partner if they get the impression they’re being followed… Job well done, Mitchell.
- D - 06/02/15
For his first film since 2012’s The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson reteams with Joaquin Phoenix for an offbeat stoner noir that would make a terrific viewing companion with The Big Lebowski and LA Confidential… if LA Confidential was on a hefty drugs comedown.
The labyrinthine plot, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, begins quite simply, as most film noirs do, with an intimate one-on-one punctuated with those four little words: “I need your help”. This encounter sets our main protagonist on a path littered with intrigue and deception, all the way to discovering a usually unpleasant but cathartic truth.
Inherent Vice follows many of the genre’s coda (an alienated gumshoe, an ambiguously-motivated femme fatale, a convoluted crime investigation complete with voiceover narration), but expertly leads the viewer not on a path of intrigue and deception but more on a hallucinatory and haphazard trip into 1970’s LA. Then and there we meet Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pothead private eye whose ex-girlfriend Shasta (the ethereal Katherine Waterston) comes to him with a case. It seems her current lover, property tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, has gone missing and she suspects the latter’s wife and lover of orchestrating the disappearance.
What starts with one case soon turns into three, the hippy PI progressively trying to make sense of all the interweaving ins and outs of the knotty mess he’s tangled in. This shambles includes Neo-Nazi bikers, missing saxophonists, angry LAPD cops, oral sex-obsessed masseuses, coke-addled dentists (featuring a hilariously funny cameo from Martin Short) and a drug cartel called The Golden Fang…all with a chilled narration from songstress Joanna Newsom, who may or may not be a figment of Doc’s imagination.
As you can already guess, it’s not so much a traditional whodunit but rather a whodunwhattowhomandwhatonearthisgoingon…it.
To describe this deliberately surreal and densely chaotic odyssey any further would be an exercise in futility, much like trying to delineate a drug buzz; nothing can say can fully encapsulate one. So, much like the copious amounts of narcotics the characters score, Inherent Vice is a film that has to be experienced. The director even seems to speak to the audience through Doc in the first five minutes of the film: “Don’t worry; thinking comes later.” This is the best advice in order to enjoy Inherent Vice: let go and give in to this delirious ride.
It is a ride that benefits from hilarious moments of goofy slapstick, terrific dialogue (which justifies the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at this year’s Oscars on its own merit), cinematographer Robert Elswit’s hazy 70s lighting, a great score (overseen by the director’s frequent collaborator, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood) and two utterly brilliant performances from leading man Phoenix and the frequently underrated Josh Brolin.
Phoenix shows once more, following his outstanding performance in The Master, that his pairing with director PT Anderson creates sparks. He brings to life the stoned sleuth in a measured way, boasting spot-on comic timing. Looking like Neil Young’s bewildered bastard child, the actor avoids turning Doc into a by-the-numbers Hollywood hippy by making him a cheeky, sporadically inspired and lovesick figure, one that is also burdened with a palpable melancholia. You sense this is a nostalgic man stuck between two eras: California’s peace-promoting 60s and Nixon’s 70s, a new decade which threatens the counterculture Doc belongs to.
As for Brolin, his portrayal of hippie-hating Detective Christian “Bigfoot’ Bjornsen stands out. He plays an imposing, all ‘Murrican lawman who sports a “flat-top of Flintstone proportions” and suspects his on-off colleague Doc of being implicated in one of the many cases in play. When he’s not shouting for more pancakes (“MOTO PANAKEKU!”) or deep-throating chocolate-coated bananas (much to Doc’s bafflement), he’s repeatedly bullying the scrawnier Doc as a form of self-prescribed therapy.
The relationship between the two frienemies provokes some of the biggest laughs as they both function as each other’s (co-dependently homoerotic?) foils. The freewheeling Doc tries to structurally investigate while Bigfoot follows the opposite path, moonlighting as an extra in cop shows and showing bored contempt for his office duties. It’s a yin yang pairing made in hashish heaven.
Inherent Vice will polarize.
The film’s pace shifts from languorous to often frenzied at the drop of a hat, it is undeniably overlong (clocking in at a bladder-punishing 148 minutes) and many won’t buy into the intentionally convoluted plot. It is, for better or worse, an acquired taste that will leave some viewers frustrated by a film that seems as stoned as its main character.
‘Seems’, mind you, because Inherent Vice is actually PT Anderson impressively peacocking: there is method to the madness. The anarchic and marijuana-stinking fog that appears to smog the proceedings does in fact hide a trippy but tight-leashed puppy. Even if logic isn’t the film’s primary concern, you’ll want to come back for a second viewing in order to truly appreciate the way the interlocking narrative strands actually do click together... if you can identify all of them! Again, it’s an experience, a whimsically baffling trip that will enchant as much as it will infuriate.
While it is not PT Anderson’s best and the second half’s comedown requires some perseverance, you won’t have seen a film this understatedly funny and oddly entertaining in a wee while. So sit back, spark up and rest assured: like the aforementioned The Big Lebowski, this playful noir gem will achieve cult status in no time.
- D - 04/02/15
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
The Time Traveller's Wife
Having recently seen The Imitation Game (scroll down for review), it was time to catch up with the other main award-friendly biopic, one that seems to be going head-to-head with the aforementioned Alan Turing story: The Theory of Everything.
While a great many similarities can be drawn between both films, the central focal point of both being on an eminent British scientist, The Theory of Everything does stand out due to the fact director James Marsh has firmly chosen to explore one specific side of Stephen Hawking’s life. As opposed to cramming in as much as physically possible into two hours, the focus is of course on Hawking and his physical affliction, but also on the relationship he had with his first wife, Jane, on whose memoir, ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen’, the film is based.
Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a young physics student at Cambridge. One evening, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a church-going humanities student who immediately singles out the slightly awkward boy genius in a crowded room. The mismatched couple begin their courtship, only for it to be quickly interrupted by the devastating diagnosis of motor neuron disease, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. While Hawking withdraws himself from Jane in order to fully embark on his doctorate, she confronts him, professes her love and affirms she’s prepared to face whatever comes their way.
The story goes from their meeting in 1963 and moves from their marriage, the birth of their children, through the physical transformations (including the now-famous computerized voice), all the way to the release of Hawking’s seminal 'A Brief History of Time'.
The film’s opening act is charming and teeters on the brink of twee. This familiar segment includes Hawking’s carefree Cambridge days, the boy-meets-girl bit and even when the diagnosis is announced, the pleasantly brisk pace doesn’t stray too far from standard biopic conventions. It is filmed with undeniable and understated moments of beauty, courtesy of some quirkily stylish camera angles and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s use of warm light. This gives the Cambridge university scenes an idyllically lush texture.
Thankfully, the linear construction and borderline Austen-esque tone never crosses the line into patronization and abandons any signs of melodrama when the narrative unfolds into what is essentially a marital drama. The film becomes less interested about Hawking’s scientific accomplishments and more engrossed in the life of a couple whose marriage is strained by a debilitating illness. Although many will regret the lack of attention given to the science, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten believably explore Stephen and Jane’s dependent relationship and the shifting roles within their marriage. One battles his own body while the other bravely struggles with unique pressures: Jane tries to maintain the barrier between being both a wife and a carer to her husband, while desperately trying to sustain her identity as both a mother and a woman with aspirations of her own.
Eddie Redmayne gives an Oscar-baiting performance… but what a performance it is. It’s hard not to think of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Mathieu Almaric’s underrated turn in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, even if the strength of Redmayne’s turn shouldn’t limit itself to such comparisons. He does not portray or even make an impression of Hawking so much as he utterly inhabits the role. The actor impressively alters his physicality as the physical deterioration occurs, authentically conveying a wide palette of emotions via wordless lip movements, sensitive tics and the expressive use of his eyes. It is an emotional, precise and unexpectedly humorous portrayal, as Redmayne subtly manages to capture Hawking’s dry wit and mischievous spark. If he doesn’t go home with the golden statuette come this year’s Academy Awards, the snub will be remembered as a notable Oscar injustice.
As for Felicity Jones, she is quite brilliant as Jane Hawking. Considering the film itself is based on her memoir, it is no surprise that her character is not only seen in a favourable light but also given centre stage on many occasions. However, the actress more than rises to the challenge and doesn’t make Jane a victim or tireless martyr. You feel the layered tribulations she goes through, from tirelessly standing by the man she loves to showing her frustration and depression when she yearns for another life. Her chemistry with Redmayne is palpable and the scene where she introduces her husband to a spelling board for the first time is heartbreakingly accurate, showing Jones’ full range. It is a strong performance and even if Redmayne will (and already has started to) rack up the awards for his intelligent performance, it would not have been so moving without the dramatic foil Jones provides.
It’s not all tickety-boo, as several moments do come off as clunky, including the insertion of Super 8-shot videos, a well-worn way of showing the passing of time. The linear construction is somewhat unadventurous, unlike The Imitation Game’s time ellipses, and certain narrative aspects do come off as frustrating.
For instance, a major plot point is Stephen and Jane’s growing affections for other people. Jane’s ambiguous relationship with choirmaster Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) sees the latter becoming a recurring presence in the Hawking household. Even if there is no doubt as to the nature of their bond, one feels more could have been done with regards to Jane’s state of mind; this is a pivotal figure in her life and Mrs Hawking does frustratingly come off as somewhat devotedly saint-like here, as if nothing should be shown on screen to tarnish her reputation. Things are equally glossed over when it comes to Stephen’s feelings for his new helper, Elaine (Maxine Peake). Much is implied, but the film could have benefitted from seeing more flawed characteristics in this married couple who gradually drift away from one another.
It’s a shame that McCarten’s script does not cut deeper and denies both Redmayne and Jones the opportunity stretch their already stellar turns to even more complex and thought-provoking heights.
Marsh’s film is a traditional biopic in many ways, one that celebrates the inspiring life and accomplishments of a great person. However, it is also one which importantly goes beyond the genre limitations of putting the central figure on a pedestal and simply marvelling at how wonderful he/she is/was.
Despite some missed opportunities and a script that could have benefitted from some bolder choices with regards to the Hawkings’ extra-marital relationships, The Theory of Everything movingly and elegantly captures the complex dynamics of a rather unique relationship. It is an engagingly intimate drama which surpasses many of its more conventional biopic peers, chiefly thanks to the accuracy of two stunning performances and due to its universal musings on love. Well worth your time.
- D - 30/01/15
THE IMITATION GAME
Alan Turing finally gets the big screen treatment
The Iron Lady. The King’s Speech. Argo. Dallas Buyers Club. 12 Years A Slave.
The Academy loves a good 'based on real life events' biopic.
Year after year, tales of underdogs or untold stories of historical figures are Oscar bread and butter. Only this year, the Best Picture nominees contain not just one, not just two, not even just three, but four whole biopics.
Don’t believe me?
Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper; Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a historical drama based on voting right marches and Martin Luther King Jr.; James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, which adapts Jane Hawking’s memoir 'Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen'; and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.
It could have been more if Foxcatcher and Mr Turner had nabbed Best Picture nominations and if Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-baiting Unbroken had been less ham-fistedly draining.
This well-worn blockbuster biopic (and slightly alarming) trend aside, how does The Imitation Game fare?
Based on Andrew Hodges’ book ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’, Morten Tyldum’s film centres on the life of Alan Turing, an “odd duck” whose life story only properly emerged decades after his death.
During WWII, the mathematician led a Bletchley Park-based codebreaking crew to victory in cracking the German Enigma Code, thereby allowing the Allies to get the upper hand for the first time, shortening the war and effectively saving millions of lives.
This narrative is split into three periods in Turing’s life: his schooldays, his wartime effort and his arrest in the 1950s for “gross indecency”. We jump from decade to decade, with particular focus given to the creation of an “electrical brain” in Turing’s wartime effort.
The film’s constant is its performances.
Leading man Butterscotch Crinklebaps… sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch, is superb as Turing, specifically in the film’s final act where a poignant breakdown scene fully justifies his Oscar nomination in the Best Acting category.
The first encounter with the character is almost disappointingly Sherlockian: Cumberbatch seems to be rehashing the tactless genius bit, only this time in period garments and a T.E. Lawrence-reminiscent voice. The onscreen characterization implies Turing had Aspergers and had the social skills of most typical Hollywoodized geniuses, ie: none. It’s a predictable depiction but one which is made significantly more complex by Cumberbatch, who progressively and intelligently injects repressed emotion, awkward vulnerability and fragile desperation in the character.
The other performances solidly complement the central one: Kiera Knightly turns what could have been yet another pale English rose into something significantly more watchable, Matthew Goode is spot-on as chess prodigy Hugh Alexander, Rory Kinnear is criminally underused and both Mark Strong and Charles Dance create sizeable sparks with relatively small pieces of flint (don’t you just love a tortured image?). Special mention must go to the young Alex Crowther who, with relatively short screentime, manages to tug on the heartstrings in an astonishingly accurate performance. He plays the young Turing at school and the extended take focusing on his face as he is told heartbreaking news is enough to make grown men turn their faces away as they wipe “something out of their eye”.
As for the film itself, it moves along at a decent pace and is buoyed by beautifully crafted set designs and a solid score, courtesy of Alexandre Desplat.
Sadly, there are some clunky moments which undermine the proceedings. These include the jarring, thrice repeated “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”, the Christopher christening, the glossed over inclusion of Soviet spying and the cryptography bug simplistically explained through a let’s-sit-under-a-tree childhood event.
These heavy-handed elements do serve a purpose (all point to the fact that the titular enigma is Turing himself and his life of forced secrecy) but these could have easily been achieved with a tad more subtlety and less schmaltz.
It’s also a pity that so much time is dedicated to the creation of Turing’s machine and less on the post-Eureka moment and the moral dilemmas which stemmed from Nazi code decryption. Following a solid yet foreseeable twist where one of the codebreakers realizes his brother will perish at sea because of the secrecy that derives from victory, the moral predicaments of their “blood-soaked calculus” could have been further addressed.
Incidentally, the term “blood-soaked calculus” is brilliantly encompassing and the script’s crowning jewel.
While there are many historical inaccuracies (it’s worth mentioning that it Turing did not singlehandedly build the machine, that it was actually Polish cryptanalysts who designed the original apparatus and Turing added to their pre-conceived design to make it work faster and that it was called the Bombe and NOT Christopher), these are inherent to the biopic genre. Creative flourishes have to be taken and omissions are inevitable. Graham Moore’s script isn’t airtight and the film’s performances outshine its screenplay; however, and rather crucially, it still works.
What makes this doubly gratifying is that Turing’s story, due to the classified nature of his war effort and his untimely demise, was largely unknown for decades. Thankfully, the biopic focuses on his achievements but also importantly doesn’t shy away from showing that no matter how great the man, the British government of the time hounded Turing and drove one of the greatest minds of the 20th century to committing suicide. The film knows when to triumphantly wave the flag and when national shame needs to be addressed.
Additionally, due to the overall quality of the film and the pivotal cinematic pull of its leading man (read: the adoration of masses of Sherlock fans whom for the most part would have never heard of Alan Turing if their favourite actor wasn’t playing him on screen), audiences will flock to see The Imitation Game… and rightly so. It is a fitting tribute to a fascinating and complex figure whose multifaceted legacy deserves attention.
In 2009, then-PM Gordon Brown read a posthumous public apology to Turing, 55 years after the codebreaker took his life: “On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan Turing’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”
The Imitation Game could have been a better biopic but it is the dramatization that Turing deserved, chiefly because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s nuanced turn.
Not a perfect film, but a necessary one.
- D - 26/01/15
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
There Will Be Ethical Conundrums
J.C. Chandor is only going from strength to strength.
With three films released in the space of four years, the director has succeeded in creating a star-studded financial debut (Margin Call), a gripping one-man survivalist drama (All Is Lost) and now this crime epic with Shakespearian undertones.
A Most Violent Year sees Latin-American immigrant and self-made oilman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) face thieves, cut-throat competition and the temptation of gangster-like tactics in 1981 New York. Morales believes in running a business that is above board and refuses to be dragged down by ethically-dubious choices. Amidst an ongoing turf war for heating oil supremacy and the hijacking of many of his company’s fuel trucks, he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) embark on a business deal to expand the company, an opportunity which includes a non-refundable deposit… Can he continue to secure the backers’ support when a mysterious competitor is behind the attacks on his merchandise? Can Morales maintain his morals (see what they did there?) and resist fighting fire with fire?
This slow burn of a crime drama has a lot going for it, chiefly the fact that it feels credible. It is not a showy gangster saga, ambitiously preferring an authentic feel to portray the quest of legitimately achieving the American Dream. Chandor sidesteps typical gangster film tropes (in the same way he avoided certain Wall Street clichés in Margin Call) and focuses on the pressures facing the main protagonist, all in a magnetic yet subtly stylish manner.
The film’s other strength is its cast, who are, much like the film itself, quietly intense.
Like the director, Oscar Isaac isn’t putting a foot wrong as of late: Inside Llewyn Davis and Two Faces of January have recently shown to what extent he is a formidable presence. However, this turn as Morales, a man who believes his hands are possibly cleaner than they are, firmly puts him on the awards map. “I have always taken the path that is most right”, he tells the ambitious assistant district attorney, brilliantly played by David Oyelowo (yet another actor who currently walks on water).
As for Jessica Chastain, she is terrific as the Armani-clad Lady Macbeth with a plunging neckline. Morales’ wife is a quietly threatening, sometimes frightening, woman who fears for her family. Chastain never once takes it into cartoonish territory and the scene where you see the rift that exists between husband and wife, as both are faced with a wounded animal, is understatedly powerful, due in large part to her measured acting.
The chemistry between the two leads is spot-on and complemented by Albert Brooks, who makes his mark as Morales’ lawyer, a politely efficient man who subtlety lets show that his younger self would have reached for the guns a long time ago. Sadly, his performance will go largely unnoticed and that might be the biggest crime of all here.
Like the striking image of a blood splatter on an oil tank, the black gold funnelling out onto the white snow, A Most Violent Year sticks in the mind. It is a sophisticated film about compromise, ethics and the workings of capitalism, a film championed by its performances and one which proudly adds itself to Chandor’s thus far flawless filmography.
- D - 13/01/15
Not for arachnophobes
(SPOILER FREE REVIEW)
(SPOILER FREE REVIEW)
Lecturer Adam watches a film one night and catches the glimpse of an actor who looks scarily like him. With a bit of research, he discovers his lookalike is Anthony, an actor living in the same city. Curious to understand the uncanny similarity, he seeks to meet his apparent doppelgänger…
The double, as a narrative construct in literature or film, is a worn out and overdone device. It’s a very first-year-of-film-school gimmick that is an all-too-familiar gateway to plot beats such as lost twins, cloning and alter egos.
So, when a good doppelgänger film comes about, it’s worth mentioning.
This adaptation of José Saramago’s novel 'O Homem Duplicado: The Duplicated Man' is a disquietingly effective and puzzling film, one which takes the double trope and refreshingly uses it.
Director Denis Villeneuve does this by channelling a certain level of Lynchian surrealism and injecting a surprisingly solid dose of suspense, culminating in an adrenaline-kick of a final shot. Throughout this bewildering and unnerving film, themes of chaos, control, masculinity and identity are woven with strangely enticing and disconcerting images of spiders (one of which bears a striking resemblance to a Louise Bourgeois piece).
It is all pregnant with layers of meaning, showing that Villeneuve is not only a formidable director, but also one that treats his audience as intelligent viewers.
Beyond the musings on the human condition, Villeneuve’s film is built around another wonderful performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
While Enemy is chronologically their first collaboration (it was filmed before the grimly excellent Prisoners), it shows once again that this is a director-actor pairing that creates sparks.
Gyllenhaal is terrific in this dual performance, nailing the contrasting duality of the two characters: the twitchy and timid corduroy-wearing professor vs the leather jacket-clad and sexually charged actor.
While 2014 was all about the McCoughnaissance, Enemy shows once more that Gyllenhaal doesn’t need a renaissance; he has steadily proven that he is one of the most exciting talents around. For the past 10 years - bar the dire Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - Gyllenhaal has not put a foot wrong: Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Zodiac, Source Code, Villeneuve’s aforementioned Prisoners and his award-worthy turn in last year’s stellar Nightcrawler. His performance in Enemy may be a less showy but doesn’t lack subtlety.
Enemy is a cyclical and darkly nightmarish film that isn’t for everyone but that deserves repeated viewings. The cryptic elements do give way to answers and unlike David Lynch’s wonderful Lost Highway, Enemy isn’t surrealism and enigmatic obscurity for the sake of it. The answers are there; they’re just hard to find. However, once you find them, prepare to spend several hours dissecting the puzzle…
(A spoiler-free clue: one of the opening speeches in the lecture hall citing Hegel and Marx is all important… Also feel free to focus on the words chalked on the black board in the same scene…)
Enemy is by no means perfect but it benefits from its central performance and is certainly one of the most richly complex and unsettling thrillers in a wee while.
- D - 12/01/15
Sadistic Drummers Society
We’re only a few days into the New Year and Damien Chazelle has delivered a note-perfect film that is not only a worthy Oscar contender but also one that’ll be hard to trump come 2015’s end of year list…
Whiplash, named after Hank Levy’s song which features predominately in the film, tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. He dreams of becoming the next greatest jazz drummer and is given a chance by Shaffer’s head honcho Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to integrate the latter’s band, made up of the top students in the conservatory. However, what seems to be Andrew’s golden ticket quickly turns into a cat and mouse game between the ambitious drummer and the perfectionist conductor, a ruthless man whose standards for excellency have no boundaries.
The quest for perfection comes at a price and as Andrew pushes himself harder and further than ever before, it becomes unclear whether Fletcher emotionally (and even physically) torments his students in order for them to achieve their full potential or whether he is simply the sadistic drill-instructor from music hell.
This tense thrill-ride of a film is about the cost of greatness, much in the same way Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan also examined what it takes for perfectionist artists to achieve their dreams and the levels they set themselves. The comparison ends there, as Whiplash takes the psychological-thriller approach, as opposed to Aronofsky’s horror-infused tone and Dostoyevsky-inspired narrative.
At the heart of the mind games and this battle of wills between teacher and student are two stunning performances. The young Miles Teller is spot-on as the fiercely talented Andrew, an introverted and burgeoning prodigy who progressively bulldozes through any obstacle in his way, announcing that he wants to be “one of the greats”. It’s refreshing to see the actor blessed with a more nuanced script, as opposed to the roles he has been burdened with in recent times, like Project X and Divergent.
The other performance is J.K. Simmons’, who has compellingly created a character that is not only terrifying but one that will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come. It is an Oscar-worthy turn that shows the actor physically and psychologically impose himself and the ferocious tutelage he inflicts in a mesmerizing manner. You’re never quite sure what the character is going to do next: will it be another anecdote about Charlie Parker and Jo Jones (a tale which he recreates and applies to himself and his young student, thereby creating his own legendary music footnote) or will he choose another Full Metal Jacket meltdown, littered with colourful language and enough quotable insults to make R. Lee Ermey proud? It’s a brilliant and surprisingly nuanced turn that will spark debate (Do the methods justify the means and is this how true greatness is achieved?) and will make it hard to believe that this is the man who played the loveable father figure in Juno…
J.K. Simmons’ character says that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Fair enough and how fortunate that these two words would be useless to describe Whiplash. Instead, words like ‘immersive’, ‘visceral’, 'bracing' and ‘mind-blowing’ seem wholly appropriate.
What could have been a darker Dead Poets Society for music students is taken to further heights by the director. He sidesteps obvious narrative beats and traditional ‘the teacher inspires the student’ bit, brilliantly films the music competitions with frenetic movements and some expertly judged hand-held moments and allows the film to have several surprises up its sleeve. For instance, the rug pull in the final stretch will have you gasping with shock, forgetting to breathe and finally fist-punching the air or breaking into a round of applause (like in the first showing I had the pleasure of going to). Rarely have escalating final acts been this tense and this cathartic.
Whatever 2015 has in store for us, Whiplash is assured to be one of the year’s greatest. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s hope the others are in tempo…
- D - 04/01/15
Putting the ‘dic(k)’ in ‘dictator’
Everyone has now heard about The Interview.
It has been at the heart of a massive diplomatic incident which has seen the film’s release get canned by its studio and then miraculously brought back to life in the wake of a public backlash and a pants down spanking from President Obama.
For a while, it almost seemed like a massive hoax orchestrated so that everyone’s interest would pique and ensure that audiences would want to see what all the fuss was about.
Of course, it wasn’t a hoax. The email accounts of Sony Pictures studio executives were truly hacked late November 2014, meaning that other juicy details emerged: the Spider Man franchise is, as if we hadn’t guessed already, circling the drain, 23 Jump Street could end up being a Men In Black reboot (while you can’t make this stuff up, this news is actually a potential stroke of genius), the budget for the new James Bond film is spiralling out of control and some high-ranking Sony officials enjoy casual racism…
The whole debacle showed that the terrorists had basically won this one and showed Sony Pictures not only crumbled under the pressure but also lacked a spine, considering they lacked the conviction of their beliefs. Ironic, considering the word ‘spine’ can actually be found in ‘Sony Pictures’. True, threats are to be taken seriously, but considering the harm was already done, what more could the hackers have done? Posted armed sentinels outside every American theatre showing The Interview, targeting each and every paying customer having watched the film? This was a game of chicken that Sony lost and even if they have flip flopped and now “bravely” released it, both online and in selected theatres, the precedent that has been set is a dangerous one to say the least.
For the record, the release of the film remains something to celebrate. Artistic expression was being threatened and freedom of speech has (just about) prevailed. However, the records will show that the handling of the whole situation was a clusterfuck that has not only dented reputations but also shown to what extent film releases are at the mercy of the overarching and foreboding threat of online piracy. Artistic expression, good or bad, lives or dies on financing (we knew that already) but also tech-savvy scallywags who can do as they please, including bringing a major studio to their knees (something we hadn’t witnessed the scale of until now).
That’s all very depressing and everything but what about the film itself? Now that anyone can stream it or pay for it, how does The Interview fair? This is, after all, supposed to be a film review…
To say The Interview is not worth the hype is an understatement of Homeric proportions. It is barely worth dwelling on, because ultimately, the controversy around the film is more interesting than the film itself.
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan, this tale about two unlikely spies going to covertly assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un resumes itself to lowest common denominator gags which include painful rectal insertion, dick jokes and despots soiling themselves.
While these obvious comedy beats can be funny within the context of a solidly crafted film, they fail to provoke any kind of amusement when the end result is so disjointed, so pitifully desperate for laughs and when the overall product feels like a bunch of sketches meshed together for the sake of a feature length film.
The Interview also showcases to what degree Seth Rogan’s loveable schlub routine has completely run its course and how James Franco can’t act. He simply cannot.
What about The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I hear you cry?
A happy accident. Andy Serkis was doing such a great job, we simply forgot to watch anyone else.
Consider 127 Hours?
Granted, he was solid in that, but when rewatching this then Oscar contender, it’s plain to see that all the heavy lifting was done by Danny Boyle. The self-congratulating and mind-bogglingly annoying Franco had nothing to do with it; he was just fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of some class-A directing.
Everything from the lack of decent jokes to the performances of the two main stars sink the film and it’s a real shame that considering the decent premise (which is very reminiscent of John Landis’ 80s espionage comedy Spies Like Us) and after such press frenzy, The Interview falls this flat. It is a third-rate comedy which wildly benefitted from a gift-wrapped publicity coup that it simply didn’t deserve.
Many will argue that The Interview is disappointing because of the hype and that people will go in expecting too much.
Not so, dear reader. Not so.
This isn’t the first time controversy has struck a comedy. Examples range from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Chris Morris’ 2010 Four Lions… The difference is that these films, taken out of context and scandal, were funny and remain so to this day. They were controversial but crucially, satirical, witty and very funny.
Even when focusing purely on the film and backburning the scandal around it, the biggest laugh you’ll get from The Interview is the moment you realize that this exasperating and immensely forgettable dud managed to be at the heart of such a global diplomatic mess.
Make no mistake, nothing in all of this has been a laughing matter.
- D - 03/01/15