Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Abandon all thought, ye who enter here.  And squeamishness as well.  If you share any such distaste for bloodshed with the film's villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), best to check that at the door.  The body count is steep in Kingsman:  The Secret Service, although the violence is increasingly cartoonish as the film proceeds giddily through its 129 minutes of mayhem.  At the helm with a steady hand, an iron stomach and no qualms apparent is Englishman Matthew Vaughn.

Surprisingly, "Kingsman" is loosely based on a comic book.  Not on a Chekhov short story, as one might assume.  The comic series in question is The Secret Service, by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar.  Early in the graphic proceedings, an environmental scientist, Mark Hamill (yes, the same) is kidnapped.  The real Hamill, looking a bit like Eddie Izzard's ill-used older brother, is present in "Kingsman" too, as climate scientist James Arnold, held in Argentina by Valentine and his blade-footed minion, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella),  When Hamill makes his exit early in "Kingsman," he goes the way of many a scientist.  You know...via an exploding head.  The unfortunate Agent Galahad (Colin Firth), who had been confronting the scientist, is sprayed across face and glasses with something that looks more like an exploding blue die pack from a bag of stolen loot than projectile grey matter.  Eventually, countless other heads will explode in "Kingsman," skulls bursting like colorful fireworks while Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" is heard in stately irony.  Like all such forays into irony in "Kingsman," the spray is a mile wide and about an inch deep.

Harry Hart (Agent Galahad) is haunted by an incident in which his carelessness necessitated a fellow agent throwing himself on a suicide bomber.  This interrogation gone wrong follows a CGI-rich title sequence in which a Secret Service helicopter swoops over a couple of locals with rocket launchers. We told via a title card that it's "The Middle East, 1997."  No need to be more specific here, as opposed to the later title that tells us we're in Argentina seventeen years later.  You know...the Middle East.  The  locals are just like some pesky, aggressive native species.  You've seen one such country, you've seen 'em all, rocket launchers handed out to young extremists like baseball (or cricket) bats.

As with the later panoply of colorfully-bursting heads to Elgar, there's every potential for rich irony here, as with the lampoon of the OSS 117 film adaptations, Jean Dujardin playing a culturally (and in most ways) clueless French agent in the manner of James Bond.  Alas, "Kingsman's" main target of parody is itself, even though Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman don't seem to have suffered that realization.  There's a coursing energy that sweeps one through the film's two hours, but it's hardly an intelligent energy.  But this is a kind of punk rock, some reviewers have claimed on behalf of Kingsman:  The Secret Service.  Not so fast, gushing critics and bloggers.  The best punk songs meld sonic fury and intellectual focus into a truly formidable weapon.  "Kingsman," meanwhile, fires loud, if sometimes colorful blanks.

Colin Firth as Galahad/Harry Hart brings a gravity to his role that the film doesn't nearly call for.  But at least he's not winking his way to the bank to deposit the sizable check for services rendered in "Kingsman."  Cashing in a good bit himself these days (he's one of three Brits featured in those recent Jaguar television ads), Mark Strong is Merlin, another veteran Secret Service operative.  Strong too, works hard enough for the money in this case, adopting a Scottish burr and providing refreshing moments of drollery amid "Kingsman's" fireworks and monsoon of bullets.  The Knights of the Round Table conceit, apparently, not part of the nomenclature of the comic series, is the creation of Vaughn and Goldman.  As with much about their script, it lazily evokes some big thing for effect and doesn't bother to do much with the idea.

On the rare occasion when one of the Kingsman agent falls, as when the unfortunate Lancelot is sliced neatly top to bottom by the lethal Gazelle, the agents gather in corporeal or virtual form and toast their fallen comrade with a glass of Napoleon brandy (although it's actually referred to as "Napoleonic brandy," which gives you some idea Vaughn and Goldman's attention to detail, or their limited sense of humor).  The virtual agents are made visible when their comrades in bodily attendance sport special Kingsman spectacles, which makes them look rather like a 1960's Michael Caine, as in his far superior cloak and dagger film, The Ipcress File (1965).  And wouldn't you know it - Sir Michael himself presides over the unround table, quaffing the old Napoleonic as Agent Arthur.

Galahad has a chance to atone for his early career blunder by helping the son of the agent killed due to his mistake.  This Gary, "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), sunk into a kind of lower class purgatory with his mother (Samantha Womack), after his father's death some 17 years prior.  Mom's replacement husband is a brute, and poor Eggsy gets it coming and going, having to dodge the stepdad (Geoff Bell) at home and his young cronies at the local pub.  Eggsy ultimately is arrested for stealing the car of one of his tormenters.  When he calls in the favor owed to the family by the Secret Service, Galahad arranges Eggsy's release and offers the possibility of a very different life.

From here, the plotting in "Kingsman" proceeds, half Harry Potter, half seemingly every young adult novel published in the past decade.  Like the now immortal Harry, Eggsy is given the chance to flee a troubled home life and realize a potential he didn't know he had, reporting to Saville Row instead of Hogwarts.  As with the Hunger Games books and several other such warmed over series, young Eggsy gets to engage in a seemingly life and death struggle for the privilege of representing (very possibly dying for) the state.

The nimble Eggsy manages to better many of the other would-be Lancelots II, posh types who look down on the boy from the housing estate.  Ultimately, he loses out to friendly female candidate, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who's able to complete a last test at which the tender-hearted Eggsy balks - turning a gun upon the puppy that had been placed in his charge for the duration of his training. Don't worry - no fictional hounds are harmed in "Kingsman."  Intelligence, sure.  Irony, absolutely.  But not the dogs; they get out unscathed.

Eggsy's banishment from the Secret Service is short-lived, once he's pressed into duty to avenge the death of his mentor.  Galahad is unceremoniously dispatched by Valentine after what one might call "Kingsman's" signature scene.

The crazy billionaire Valentine offers the world a lifetime a free texting, yammering, gaming, what have you, if they simply queue for one of his SIM cards to be inserted in their cell phones.  Of course, the world responds enthusiastically.  But these are no ordinary SIM cards.  No.  When activated via satellite, the cards and phones render their bearers uncontrollably violent.  Valentine decides to test this in a rural American church whose parishioners are already rather inclined toward a bit of the ultra violence, riled as they are by a preacher who spews hate from the pulpit.  As with the earlier title card, we're simply told this is "Kentucky, USA," as if the state name alone tells us all we need to know.  What is not explained is why this foaming at the mouth congregation would have the cards in the first place, as they seem as likely to take something from a black entrepreneur as they are to subscribe to The Advocate. Apparently hateful folk love free stuff as much as anyone else.

As he probably learned at Psychopath Academy, Valentine believes humanity in need of a purge.  His particular angle is that we're ruining the planet, oblivious to climate change and have to be stopped.  All very true, but still....Even more than its gleeful comic violence, "Kingsman" should be held accountable for attaching climate change to fringe lunacy.  It's not bad enough that we have a dipshit legislator walking into the Senate chamber with a snowball in hand to prove global warming is a myth, now the menacing issue is the playground of brightly-clad super villains.  Mr. Jackson, like Messrs. Firth and Strong does add some unique energy to the proceedings.  His lisping, violence-averse madman is a welcome departure from his usual one-and-a-half note intensity.

So well do the SIM cards from hell work that even Agent Galahad, on the scene to stop Valentine, is swept into the orgy of violence.  And quite a brawl it is, played out to the uptempo chorus and guitar free-for-all of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird."  Yee-haw!  Say what you will about Vaughn and Goldman, they don't lack conviction; they do throw a lively hoedown.  And Vaughn the director choreographs this Appalachian danse macabre with about as much clarity as seems possible.  Colin Firth was apparently required to train six months to be ready for the physical demands of the extended scene in which his character manages to dispatch every crazed Kentuckian who comes at him.

Here, as with that other classic penned by the Vaughan and Goodman, Kick Ass, the director is like a poor man's Edgar Wright.  Wright's films, the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy - Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End - and Soctt Pilgrim vs. the World teem also with comic violence.  But the body count (be it human, zombie or robot) is hardly the point.  The "Cornetto" trilogy also pulses with wit and a sharp satire of twenty-first century England.  Wright injects that same wit (visual as much as verbal) into seemingly every frame of "Scott Pilgrim." elevating what is another otherwise flimsy story derived from a graphic series.  At least with "Kingsman," Vaughn and Goodman have progressed from the near kiddie porn of Kick Ass, but that's a rather dire accomplsihment.  The film falls well below the mark of the one good film the writer/director has produced for adults, Layer Cake.

The word subversive also generously appears in reviews for "Kingsman." but the film's only brief flirtation real irreverence occurs when Agent Galahad details some of his exploits, including the foiling of an assassination plot against Margaret Thatcher.  Not everyone would thank him for that, says Eggsy.  Ah, out of the mouth of babes.  Mainly, Kingsman:  The Secret Service plays like a Masterpiece Theater production of Grand Theft Auto, complete with its own small roster of British acting nobility.  Shame we couldn't work in Dames Maggie or Judy, although there's clearly no room here for women unattractive or over the age of 30.  As Eggsy says to the finally vanquished Valentine, "This is not that film, bro."  


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Most Violent Year

The camelhair coat worn by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) shines as brilliantly as anything seen in J.C. Chador's A Most Violent Year.  The coat is merely the golden tan of most such garments.  The New York of A Most Violent Year - interior and exterior - pales by comparison.  It's 1981, and a most violent year indeed in and around the great metropolis.  Almost none of  filth of Abel's world - the fuel oil of his business, the frowning elements, dirt kicked up by a vehicle chase - seem to adhere to the impeccable coat.  But as he tries to make a major expansion of his business while attempting to fend off the grip and violence of gangsterism one one side and encroaching law enforcment on the other, the poised, well dressed man is sorely pressed to keep himself clean in the most profound of respects.

A Most Violent Year is a sprawling American story told revealing small.  The canvas is certainly large, even if spread with muted color.  Much of the action of the film takes place in Brooklyn, the camera occasionally drawing back to include the East River and the towers of Manhattan beyond.

The social sweep is equally broad - all the people with whom Abel Morales works, lives and does business:  his wife and two children esconced in a large, modern house in Westchester; employees that he molds and directs with commanding charisma;  the Teamsters union eager to arm drivers increasingly hijacked of their Standard Heating Oil trucks; the Hasidic businessmen from whom he wants to purchase an adjoining property with its storage capability and river access.  And there are the figures directly menacing his future and livelihood:  an assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) threatening numerous criminal complaints against his enterprise; business competitors and the gangsters looming within arm's reach of them; whoever it is siphoning off truck after truck of his company's heating oil.

Stretching beyond a deliberate two hours, Mr. Chador's film has drawn comparisons to the dark-themed and New York placed work of Sidney Lumet.  For his part, Chador has said it was his desire to create something “ a good, old-fashioned gangster flick, with car chases and gunplay.”  Perhaps the writer and director is a more serious man than he realizes.  There are certainly echoes of The Godfather as well, both in theme and interior photography.  But if the Godfather is grand opera, A Most Violent Year plays out like the movements of a chamber piece.

For all its resounding structure and theme big enough to wrap the five boroughs, A Most Violent Year, from scene to scene, seems to go forth with a cast of...several.  Occasionally we see a pensive Abel Morales on his own.  Most often, it's the ambitious businessman in conference or confrontation with an interlocutor or small group; an employee he's eloquently bucking up, a gathering of competitors he warns to cease the hijacking of his fleet.  Occasionally, these conversations take place outdoors, but even then in oppressive industrial landscapes, beneath the weak, easily thwarted winter sun.  Most often, the speaking, the imploring and pleading is done indoors, that tentative light further refracted through lowered blinds, drawn sheers.

All the characters in A Most Violent Year could well be vampires for the lack threat from direct sunlight.  More significantly, this is a film whose look matches its theme.  The moribund industrial corridors, washed-out palette and hushed, conspiratorial interior settings are quite consistent with the world behind the world that Abel has to negotiate.  The decay and the darkness match the ethical corrosion he's trying to fend off, the corruption that's set in.

Old Julliard buddies Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play the would-be power couple Abel and Ann Morales.  He's a first generation citizen from Columbia and she' a Brooklyn gangster's daughter;  the husband a representation of immigrant ambition and idealism, while the wife is the embodiment of good old American reality.  Two kids and several years into their marriage, the fire has clearly not gone out in the marriage.  But that electricity increasingly jars them apart as Abel tries to negotiate all their troubles without recourse to violence and blatant criminality, while Ann reacts like a member of a chorus or riotous audience screaming for blood with growing insistency.  

Moving purposefully in double breasted suits and that camelhair coat, his role in A Most Violent Year is another demonstration that Oscar Isaac is all too ready to be a star, to carry films.  Just as A Most Violent Year manages to be distinct and of the present, despite the comparisons to, echoes of New York crime and gangster films of decades past, Mr. Isaacs work stands clear of the roles of Al Pacino and others to which it has been compared.   Here as well as his leading role in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has played challenged and exasperated men that would logically result in commonality of performance, at least in many of their particulars.  And yet the two men would seem to have been brought to life by two quite different actors.  As with Mr. Chador's still young career, it's exciting to contemplate what sort of work Mr. Issac might do in the future.  Hopefully he won't be drawn too deeply in the slipstream of thunderous Hollywood make believe.  He's already attached to X-Man:  Apocalypse and  Star Wars Episode VII:  The Force Awakens (It's high time someone squelch the infernal force).  

Jessica Chastain's Anna Morales is more or less an equal mix of steadfast partner, mafia princess and Lady Macbeth.  Alas, Ms. Chastain operates with a far less enviable wardrobe than her on-screen partner in A Most Violent Year.  Clearly, the malaise New York City in 1981 extended beyond crime to matters of clothing, eyewear and coiffure.  As with the character of the youngish mafioso of throwback style,  Peter Forente (Allesandro Nivoa, fluid and versatile as ever), Anna Morales, as written by J.C. Chandor and realized by Chastain, seems ever so slightly derived from what has come before them.  Her twirl of index finger to precede the line "This was very disrespectful" when speaking to the troublesome assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo), is like a recessive mafia gene manifesting itself.  It's hard to say if the trait springs from unique DNA created by Chandor and Chastain, or a characteristic spliced from elsewhere. 

It's at Anna Morales' fiercest extremes when such questions seem most relevant, as when the couple hit a deer while on driving on an expressway by night.  When they realize what has happened, Anna reminds her husband that he has to put the deer out if its misery.  While Abel hesitates over the head of the dying and audibly suffering animal, two shots explode from behind him.  Anna has done the dirty work her husband was reluctant to finish  The seeming disproportion of the act is matched by the fact that the discharge of the weapon sounds like the relative cannon of a .357 Magnum, while the revolver later fished distastefully out of his wife's purse by Abel looks like little more than a Derringer.     

For the most part, J.C. Chandor's writing and direction eschews high drama for smaller, well-paced scenes, a kind of pointillism in favor of broad strokes.  Such was the case in his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).  The stakes and scope couldn't be larger in Margin Call, the collapse or near-collapse of world economies, yet the film often plays out on a personal level, small tragedies with almost unfathomably large repercussions.  We're all aware of the larger disaster looming, but Mr. Chandor is a skilled and wise enough writer and director to allow an audience to provide the connection.  It's a kind of horror film in which the monster never need enter the frame.  He understand that the most unsettling drama breathes best when given space and is built upon the most personal and profoundly difficult decisions that people make, often the decision they don't make. 

The hushed visual arena  in which Mr. Chandor's chamber music plays and resounds is constructed by cinematographer Bradford Young.  Mr. Young's preference for natural illumination is apparent in both the tentative light of winter days and those interior scenes in which that light is further diluted by curtains, blinds, closed doors.  Inside and out, settings are frequently awash in the amber or yellowed glow of wistful winter afternoons.  Only few nighttime interiors, particularly that gathering of competitors attended by Abel and Anna, are lit dramatically, a strong contrast of shadow and focused light.  Only these seem of a piece with those old fashioned gangster flicks of which the director is obviously fond, as the interior photography of Gordon Willis in The Godfather. 

Mr. Young has said that he didn't watch a lot of period films in preparation for shooting A Most Violent Year.  Instead, he was more influenced by the work of photographer Jamel Shabazz, particularly his images of what most would consider urban blight in New York.  In the cohesion of his photography, Bradford Young has managed to evoke a particular period of the city without resort to obvious reference to the films of that time.  A Most Violent Year begins with a sleek series of shots of New York - mainly in and around the river - in the deep blue of twilight, to the accompaniment of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)."  This relatively conventional, if elegant framing, places A Most Violent Year as big New York and (inevitably) American story.  But from that point, J.C. Chandor and Bradford Young fill the frame in their own, distinct manner.  After that opening, the juke box is rarely heard again.

The score of Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros fame) is occasionally heard with prominence as the action progresses.  This mainly when a lone trumpet is sounded at crucial points in the story, a departure from Ebert's otherwise subtle music for the film.  The clarion horn is the flourish of a poor man's Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone, highlighting a drama which is apparent enough without the musical cue.  It's the one, minor way in which A Most Violent Year overplays its hand.

The themes and symbols present in A Most Violent Year are large and many.  As with the relatively brief, computer-generated glimpses (blurred, ghostly) of The World Trade Center we're afforded in the film, they loom in the distance, reminders of the folly and futility that ever takes place in the human foreground.

After a climactic shot of a pistol, a body lies in the snow before a storage tank, the head in a telling stain of its own blood.  The bullet did its fatal work and then pierced the tank.  Abel Morales knows there's nothing to be done with the body, but removes a handkerchief from that impeccable coat and plugs the hole,  No standoff, no gunfight, the violence is self-inflicted. Then the small, almost dainty act to stop the bleeding of petroleum.  There is blood, and then there is the stuff of life.


Monday, January 26, 2015


More a matter of motion sickness, I'm afraid.  Miles Teller thrashes his drum kit till he's a sweaty, bloody mess.  J.K.  Simmons gesticulates, glowers and spews vitriol in a near scat.  All the while, writer and director Damien Chazelle observes all this like an over-excited spectator at a tennis match.  So it goes in Whiplash, from the first to last frenetic touch of drum sticks upon snare.

Young Andrew Neiman (Teller)  is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City.  First we hear then eventually espy the solitary drummer down a hallway, before the camera proceeds into the rehearsal room in which he is working a drum kit in determined fashion.  In steps the imposing figure of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), causing Andrew to stop abruptly and stand.  "You know what I do?," the older man asks.  Yes, the young man desperate for greatness and fame (if not necessarily in that order), is quite aware that Fletcher conducts the conservatory's elite studio band, just a step or two from the big time, whether Lincoln Center or elsewhere.  Fletcher asks Andrew why he stopped playing.  When the drummer resumes and finally finishes, the conductor says, "Did I say to start playing again?.... I asked you why you stopped playing.  Your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up drummer monkey."  And that's just a puckish kiss on the check compared to what follows between teacher and student.

Asked and answered:  J.K. Simmons, heeding the
 direction to make Terence Fletcher "a monster, a gargoyle, an animal"
in Whiplash.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle starts, in a sense, with quite a lot in Whiplash.   There is jazz itself, after all. Notions about ambition and its fine border with obsession.  What it takes to realize the greatest achievement from raw talent.  And the director has the talents of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  All of these things, sadly, reduced and consumed within a feverish story which only occasionally lapses into lucidity.  It's certainly a fever with which audiences and critics alike have been happily afflicted.  Unfortunately, all that enthusiasm makes the overheated action of Whiplash no less ridiculous.        

Mr. Chazelle was apparently an aspiring jazz drummer himself in high school.  The character of Terenece Fletcher, in turn, finds some basis in a conductor with whom Chazelle had to deal while a student.  The director says that he realized early on that professional music wasn't for him.  As for the real conductor, now dead, Chazelle owns that he wasn't nearly so difficult.  And heaven knows there's little potential for cheap drama to be found in that prosaic circumstance.  So, we turn the young drummer into a near-automaton.  J.K. Simmons, meanwhile, was instructed to "...take it past what you think the normal limit would be."  The actor was further told by his director that "I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal."  Clearly, Mr. Simmons is good at taking direction, however dubious.

Nice guns, dude.  J.K. Simmons as the man in black in Whiplash.
Thus, Terence Fletcher:  a kind of Bobby Knight of jazz; bullying, sanctimonious, self-justified. Although Knight at his most expressive would be hard pressed to match the stream of invective that pours forth from the frequently angry and agape mouth of Terence Fletcher.  This verbal abuse often takes the form of gay slurs, as when the conductor torments one of Neiman's competitors, Carl:  "Well what do we have here? Gay Pride himself.  This is not a Sinead O’Connor concert, Tanner.  I am sorry to inform you we will not be serving Baked Alaska and Cosmopolitans tonight. Now why don’t you try playing faster than you give fucking hand jobs?? One! One! One! One!  OFF THE FUCKING KIT!!!"  Andrew Neiman and his rhythm section brethren are the recipients of most of their conductor's fury, the woeful trailer park to the unavoidable tornado of his vituperation.  Whether this is due to the importance of the tempo-setting position in his band, or a past torment doled out to young Fletcher by some drummer or another, the audience leaves none the wiser.  

In the halls and practice rooms of Shaffer, Fletcher operates with impunity, students and faculty alike cowed into downcast obedience before the intimidating man.  Some time after their first meeting, Andrew is part of a group practice, merely turning the pages for the drummer in first chair, when Fletcher bursts into the room, slamming the door and usurping the teacher, who meekly withdraws.  Like a sultan procuring fresh bodies for his harem, the studio band conductor allows all of the students about a nanosecond of playing time before dismissing them with contempt.   Despite his apparent rejection, Andrew is selected.

J.K. Simmons appears to be having a grand time playing furiously against his usual gruff but amiable type.  And he may well walk off the stage at the Dolby (nee Kodak) Theater in a few weeks with one of those gold statuettes.  Good for him.  But let's not confuse what it takes to embody a cartoon character and the subtlety required to animate a complex human being.  Simmons plays all the notes he asked to play, blaring and occasionally hushed, but it's a mighty narrow chromatic range within which he's asked to work.

Similarly confined is Miles Teller, one of our more promising young film actors.  There's little to be seen of the appealing, responsive talent so apparent in the coming of age film, The Incredible Now (2013), or even his relatively few scenes in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010).  Damien Chazelle has spoken in interview of the difficulty of getting Hollywood types interested in a film that might have unsympathetic characters at its center.  What he doesn't seem to realize is that Terenece Fletcher and Andrew Neiman are not characters, they're a couple of traits flung at actors who are asked to create whole beings.  If you've seen The Incredible Now, you know the complexity of which Miles Teller is capable.  He certainly commits to the role of Andrew Neiman, body as much as soul.   But like men in the gym who throw a lot of weight around with little sense of technique or direction... there's a lot of yelling, a lot of sweat, but little accomplished in the end.  

This snare drum has seconds to live.
Miles Teller in Whiplash.
Damien Chazelle's story does slow down just enough on a couple of occasions to approach insight.  A first date scene between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a young woman he meets at the movie theater frequented by him and his father (Paul Reiser), captures the staccato progress of their (or any such) conversation.  There's also the natural prick of defensiveness on the part of Nicole when the two compare schools and plans, the intensely-focused Andrew attending "the best music school in the country," while Nicole is without major at Fordham.

One of the few exchanges between Andrew Neiman and Terrence Fletcher that isn't patently ridiculous occurs relatively late in Whiplash, when the fortunes of both characters have suffered a major reversal.  Andrew wanders into a jazz club and is transfixed at the sight of "special guest" Terrence Fletcher at the keyboard.  The two have what seems to be a surprisingly frank, almost warm conversation, albeit one that focuses mainly on the older man.  Fletcher, with relativel calm, explains and justifies his philosophy of teaching.  This rationalization boils down to - with apologies to the late Barry Goldwater - extremism in the pursuit of the next Charlie Parker is no vice.  It's not a great scene, but in a film that expends so much hot air, manufactures so much empty drama on the subject of tempo, it's a reminder that action is defined as much by relatively stillness as speed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chazelle urges along his plot like some empty-headed beatnik who thought Bebop was about nothing more than breakneck speed.  Uh, sorry daddy-o.  The fire breathing and even chair tossing tyrant of a teacher is absurd enough.  But Chazelle conducts his ensemble faster and faster into laughable cacophony.  Andrew speeds in a rental car to make a recording date for the studio band.  One certainly expects an accident to ensue, and so it does - a nasty t-bone of a crash (and for once, one of Mr. Chazelle's intense close-ups actually conveys something meaningful).   This would be enough to temporarily slow the Terminator, but the determined drummer stumbles bloody and dazed to the nearby studio and takes his place on the drum kit, only giving up when his left hand can no longer hold its stick.  Not to mention the likely matter of concussion.  Poor Andrew is a bit like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who keeps fighting, keeps urging on his fellow combatant even as his limbs are lopped off one by one.

Though more physically credible, the film's final and climactic scenes in Carnegie Hall manage to surpass all that have preceded them in utter implausibility.  No small feat, that.  The contrivances, reversals and ultimate resolution that take place couldn't be more absurd unless Terrence Fletcher and Andrew Neiman ended up in bed together.  At which point the conductor would probably still be fulminating, as he did to his student during their initial day in studio band rehearsal:  "Now are you a rusher, are you a dragger, or are you going to be ON MY FUCKING TIME?!"

Amid the almost universal acclaim, at least a couple of critics have pointed out that Whiplash is not really a good jazz film, not really a jazz film at all.  The Chicago Reader seems especially proud of this revelation.  And true enough, there is little feeling of any depth for jazz in the film.  Typical of the superficial treatment of the music and its history is an anecdote twice shared by Terence Fletcher about Charlie Parker.  He tells young Neiman that the drummer Jo Jones once hurled a cymbal at Parker's head due to his out of sync tempo.  Young Parker then went off, practiced for a year and returned to stun the world with a solo that helped immortalize him.  It's relatively common knowledge among jazz afficionados that this didn't really happen.  Jo Jones merely dropped a cymbal to the floor to embarrass Parker off the bandstand.  And the year between the the cymbal episode and Parker's historic solo at a 1937 jam session probably involved more than the saxophonist learning to play as fast as he could.

For a man with a background in jazz, a friend of numerous musicians, Damaien Chazelle demonstrates not the least notion how to film the music in performance.  The camera doesn't move quite so randomly as was the case in his feature debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009; another film that manages to despoil multiple art forms), but rarely have close-ups and rapid editing revealed so little about their subject.

Dwelling too much on the jazz reduction in Whiplash is to miss the larger point.  Whiplash is not so much as bad jazz film as a bad film, period.  The film is simply ludicrous.

There are, of course, good jazz films to be seen.  Betrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, starring the great Dexter Gordon, is not a bad place to start.  But as it happens, there was an American film doing its modest rounds in the past few months, just as Whiplash was whipping  audiences into a frenzy. This Jeff Preiss' Low Down, about the late jazz pianist Joe Albany.  Low Down stars the ever-excellent John Hawkes as Albany and Elle Fanning as his daughter Amy-Jo.  Based on Ms. Albany's memoir about the ups and downs of life with her father, Low Down is not a great film, but one whose feeling for character, place and especially its music far, far surpasses anything seen and heard in Whiplash.  By all means, check it out in addition to Whiplash.  Better yet, check it out instead.  

Sorry Mr. Chazelle, not my tempo.  


Monday, January 19, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

A girl does frequently walk home alone at night in Ana Lily Amirpour's debut feature.  Sometimes she glides, on a comandeered skateboard, down urban thoroughfares blasted solitary, through ghostly suburban streets.  All of these nocturnal movements taking place in the Iranian nether world called Bad City.   But like so much about Ms. Amirpour's original and assured narrative twisting, the last person whose safety we need worry about in Bad City is the young woman in the striped shirt and flowing chador.

The writer and director has apparently described her film as an "Iranian vampire spaghetti western." Such are the cultural mash-ups that emerge from the speech and upbringing of Ana Lily Amirpour.  Her description might sound like a bizarre story pitch, but it's fairly apt.  More unlikely than the concept is how well she makes it work.

Like the westerns of Sergio Leone and others, Amirpour has taken an American genre, shaken it up and let it settle on unfamiliar ground. One of the surprises, the ironies of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the unfamiliar ground is actually American, the streets of Taft, California standing in for Bad City. So, we have an Iranian vampire film, starring Iranian actors, spoken in Farsi - all of this transpiring in a  landscape eerily familiar, believably different.  Most of all, we have a young filmmaker who has created a world of her own, in which the influences, the place and particular language uttered are all subordinate to her vision, to a story a universally human.

One of those possible influences is the French New Wave.  Conscious or not, "A Girl Walks Home" does share the French movement's filtering of Americana through it's own cultural prism.  Ms. Amirpour has gone about a first feature with all the confidence of early of an Godard or Truffaut, although she seems less eager to impress than the men of La Nouvelle Vague through their early films.  As with the French, there is (was) genuine affection for American films, music, automobiles, etc.; for American culture, pop or otherwise, insidious though it may be.  Ms. Amirpour grew up in California after her parents emigrated from Iran.  She's more likely to reference Back to the Future in interviews than A bout de souffle.


The presence of some of American culture's more seductive tokens begin from the first scene of "A Girl Walks Home."  So too does Ms. Amirpour's thwarting of expecations that such objects might arouse. We see Arash (Arash Marandi), clad in white t-shirt and black Levi's, somewhere between James Dean and Brando perhaps.  First seen leaning against a wooden fence, smoking a cigarette, an immemorial pose for young turks on film and off, Arash climbs into the wooden enclosure and pulls out a cat.  Hardly the most badass of gestures, but the cool is temporarily restored when he drives off in his 1957 Thunderbird Convertible.

Much as he might look and drive the part, Arash is really not much of a  rebel after all, causeless or otherwise.  The handsome young man is a generally passive character in the action of the film.  He can offer little resistance when drug dealer and pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), takes his car keys and drives off in that sleek Thunderbird for which he saved 2191 days.  Arash is equally feckless with the cause of the repossession:  his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), in debt to Saeed.  Hossein languishes about the pen-like enclosure of their cramped home's living room, shooting up between his toes, lolling in post-fix stupor, or blatantly freaking out.  Only after Arash crosses paths and capes, as it were, with The Girl (so credited), does he begin to show any initiative in dealing with his life in Bad City.

It is the seemingly meek "Girl" (Sheila Vand) who asserts herself at will on the scant population of the city.  She glides about the lonely streets, occasionally sinks her fangs into an unsuspecting neck, or scares straight The Street Urchin (Milad Eghbali).  "Are you a good boy," her menacing question to the boy as she looms before him before letting him go unscathed (albeit without his skateboard).

Typical of its mix of worlds, this film's young vampire is part East, part West.  She dons her chador in public, but wears beneath it a striped shirt reminiscent of that worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless.  When she returns home, the chador is usually discarded, revealing a head of short black hair; not Seberg-short, but distinctly cropped. The Girl's bedroom wall is plastered with the likes of Madonna and the Bee Gees.

As one might expect, it's not an iPod that our young vampire plugs in for a solitary dance party. Rather a stereo of perhaps 60's or 70's vintage, on whose turntable The Girl lowers the stylus on her vinyl LPs.  Once again, the film surprises expectations with its nimble soundtrack, blaring neither some predictably moody R & B from yesteryear, nor the the lighter dance stylings of those pop stars featured on her bedroom wall. Instead, the film's music draws from contemporary Iran (Radio Tehran, Kiosk), the Middle East (Bei Ru), the post-punk (or pop, depending on your point of view) stylings of the English band White Lies, and the ghost of Ennio Morricone by way of Portland's Federale.

Although Ms. Amirpour has said she structured entire sequences in "A Girl Walks Home" around certain tracks, the music utilized is impressive not only in its selection, but the manner in which it is usually heard in the film.  There's not much in the way of musical montage here, that most common of stylistic shortcuts (Martin Scorcese has often renedered himself little more than an accomplished director of  music videos).  Usually, the songs emerge more organically, whether in the The Girl's playing of records at home, a dance club scene, or a memorable sequence when Saeed grinds in front of The Girl in his raffish flat, just prior to receiving his just deserts.

Dominic Rains as the highly-tattoed Saeed, is one of a collection of Persian actors and artists that Ana Lily Amirpour gathered for "A Girl Walks Home."  Like Rains, most are striking and have real presence before the camera, regardless of their acting experience.   The virtual lack of a false note across all the film's performances attests not only to the talent of all these performers, but the degree to which they clearly bought in to Ms. Amirpour's concept.  The film frequently belies the relative inexperience of its first time the writer and director, particularly in her ability to establish comfort and cohesion, to elicit such natural work.  Perhaps part of that cohesion derives from the fact that the film, like its imaginary Bad City, apparently served as a kind of alternate Iran for most of its participants.

There is a love story that ultimately propels the action of "A Girl Walks Home," but like everything else about the film, it proceeds in all but expected ways.  Arash leaves a dance club clearly incapacitated by a pill that has been slipped into his mouth.  He's also in costume, trudging about in high-collared cape and cumbersome plastic fangs.  Arash meets The Girl, who points out that he's actually lost in his own city as she sizes up her potential next victim.  But she's disarmed by the kind and straightforward manner of the dazed young man, the culmination of which occurs when he envelopes her in his cape for a hug, a profound moment of vampire on vampire non-violence.  Once again,  Ana Lily Amirpour takes the most familiar of situations - the halting encounter when boy first meets girl - and manages to create something unique.  So proceeds this unlikely courtship, with few words and very little physical contact.

It's the look of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that impresses even more than the committed work of its cast.  A first feature shot in black and night is hardly unprecedented, but the black and white photography here defies any expectations that might naturally enough arise from the filmmaker's inexperience, modest budget and the limits of digital film.  Lyle Vincent's digital photography reveals a knowledge that's often lost with the abandonment of "real," analog film:  darkness has its rich gradations, as with light.  Such subtlety we often see in the nighttime shots about Bad City, whether in wide screen compositions or close-ups (even the cat, Masuka, gets the star treatment), which harken to Hollywood glamour shots of the 30's or 40's.  In addition to its more oblique pleasures, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a gorgeous films to behold.      
Whether it's the peripatetic cat, the solitary young vampire or some of the strange particulars of Bad City (a dry riverbed that serves as an unquestioned human landfill), Ana Lily Amirpour establishes from the start a kind of authority in her storytelling that invites not only attention, but trust.  So it is with the character of Rockabilly (Reza Sixo Safai), who exists in Bad City like a presiding spirit.  We see this transgender figure early in "A Girl Walks Home," the camera sweeping by the heavily made up face on which there is a knowing, devilish smile.  Almost at random, Rockabilly appears much later, in a head scarf and a kind of Western shirt, performing a mysterious dance with a mylar balloon.  Does the character and the dance symbolize all that is inverse, even perverse about Bad City and the film?  Perhaps just a minor addition to the atmosphere of the place?  However significant or truly fleeting, Rockabilly is perhaps the most conspicuous example of a narrative so gracefully strung that its disparate elements all seem part of an enchanting whole.   

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has drawn frequent comparison to the work of Jim Jarmusch.  Understandable enough perhaps, even if most such comparisons - A.O. Scott of The New York Times praising the film's "Jim Jarmusch-like cool" - come off as rather facile.  Of course, there is the black and white photography, the excellent use of music obscure to a mainstream audience.  Both Jim Jarmusch and Ana Lily Amirpour happen to have directed features released in 2014 which are vampire movies in almost no conventional sense.  And there is that slippery matter of cool. 

For all the undeniable cool that permeates many of the films of Jim Jarmusch, it is sometimes worn rather too conspicuously on the vintage sleeve.  His second film, Down By Law is patched together with its cool and little else.  Even the vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Jarmsuch's most recent, excellent, Only Lovers Left Alive, is almost insufferable in his world-weariness and the pretense of his discrimination - he looks upon a vintage guitar acquired for him by his man Friday and proclaims, "I shall call him William Dawes."  Uh, yeah.  Fortunately, Jarmusch was wise enough to balance the high style and grouchiness of Adam with the equally stylish but more optimistic Eve (Tilda Swinton).  No such counterpoint is necessary in the almost serene assurance with which Ms. Amirpour has created the story and characters for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Apparently, Ana Lily Amirpour happened upon the idea for The Girl, her vampiric protagonist, by putting on a chador one day. She said it made her look like "a creature," an Iranian vampire, and "...she was probably someone you would underestimate." The chador was not something that had any daily reality in her life, but merely a film prop. As with her creation, The Girl, Amirpour 
seems to have the confidence and worldview to take or leave the tokens of the various cultures of which she partakes, to operate on her own terms. 

Ms. Amirpour's next film will apparently bear the title, The Bad Batch. She's described it as "...a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story set in a Texas."  That sounds ridiculous, all flashy conceit and no enduring content.  But so does "Iranian vampire spaghetti western."  Will this young writer and director go to the genre-blending well once too often?  Can she pull of something as original and satisfying as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night?  Who knows.  But like the unimposing figure of The Girl who quietly owns the night of Bad City, it seems unwise to underestimate Ana Lily Amirpour at this point.


Sunday, January 4, 2015


After a less than rousing speaking engagement at a local elementary school, Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz returns to his compact car and heads home, first stopping at a fast food restaurant, one of whose greasy offerings we seem him greedily scarf.  Home is a second floor apartment in one those mock Tudor apartment buildings whose fooling nobody pretense of exposed timbers against whitewashed walls herald the flimsy construction and dreary rooms to be found within.  Mark Schultz occupies one such ill-lit dwelling, a wall of which is dominated by a shelving unit devoted to the wrestler's many ribbons, medals and trophies.  The most prized, of course, being that Olympic gold that he returns to a central place of honor in its box, almost petting the memento as if to apologize for the affront it faced at school.  

Despite his lofty position in the sport of wrestling, Mark Schultz's life could hardly involve less fanfare, less luxury, as seen early on in Foxcatcher.  It seems a threadbare student's life that the 27-year-old is living, consistent with which is his evening meal of ramen noodles that he attempts to enliven with hot sauce.  Director Bennett Miller gives us several such peeks into the relative squalor of Schultz's life,  as if to make more stark the contrast to come.  Aside from his poor man's trophy case, there's little decoration to be found on those thin walls, aside from a crude rendering of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It seems like something that might have been left by a former tenant, or somehow come with the apartment, like the building's exterior, another faint evocation of grandeur that was probably not so grand in the first place.  This Mark Schultz, after all, does not seem like much of a decorator.  And yet, this is also man who began his speech to the indifferent if not bewildered young audience by saying, "My name is Mark Schultz, and I want to talk about America."  

Schultz is very much an aggrieved child moving about awkwardly in his strong man's body.  As much as he does with the wrestler's often uncertain and laconic utterances, Chaning Tatum expresses this character largely as a feat of body language, bowed with self-doubt and yet bristling with complaint at slights real and imagined.  Tatum's strong features seem condensed on the face of his battering ram of a head, eyes in semi-permanent squint and jaw defiantly thrust.  All this forming a stern mask, a bravado about as sturdy as those apartment walls.  It's a face on which Schultz sometimes expresses his loathing, as he does relatively early in Foxcatcher, staring into a mirror with disgust and pounding his right cheek with the rigid tips of his fingers until the skin is red.   

Much of what there is to say about Mark Schultz, or at least this film version of the man, is eloquently demonstrated by Tatum and director Bennett Miller in an early scene almost free of dialog.  Mark Schultz arrives in the wrestling room of Wexler University to work out with the agreeable, bearded man who seems to be in charge.  Only later do we find out that this is Marks's older brother (and fellow gold medalist), David.  This relationship is an arena for most all of the younger brother's conflicted emotions.  There is the desperate need for love and approval which practically renders the two father and child (their parents were divorced when Mark was but two).  At the same time time, there is the younger brother chafing at the authority and perceived shadow of his always first on the scene sibling.  As Dave begins to Mark work out, first shaking his muscled arms, there is something almost homoerotic as the warm-up movements play out, particularly as each man in turn slips around the other and applies the embrace of a bear hug from behind.  Of course, for these two men, there's nothing erotic in these rituals, but it does seem to offer Mark Schultz, this particular man, a safe place and time where he can gain some attention, find some warmth in physical contact.  Eventually, as the two begin to wrestle in earnest, the physical contact turns hostile, as Mark eventually head butts Dave, drawing blood. 

Dave Schultz does not respond to the aggression of his brother in kind.  He calmly wipes the blood from his nose on to the white t-shirt beneath his black singlet, looks soberly at Mark, and they continue.  Among the largely unspoken but prominent themes in Foxcatcher is a consideration of masculinity.  The Schultz brothers occupy nearly opposite ends of a continuum (With the introduction of John du Pont, another manchild, there is a pyramid of sorts).

Mark Ruffalo mutes both his physical appeal and charisma to play the elder Schultz, the sort of man who's settled from within to the point that he can tend to those around him, someone of almost unassailable equanimity.  This a further reminder of Mr. Ruffalo's abilities.  He's certainly created characters on a kind of low simmer before, as with his memorable work in You Can Count on Me (2000).  But playing the fuckup brother to Laura Linney in that film, the shade in which he moved was all self-abnegating darkness.  As Dave Schultz, Ruffalo assuredly portrays a man whose ego resides in comfortable eclipse.

At his own extreme of manhood, Channing Tatum does indeed stalk around like a wounded child.  When he accepts the physical embrace or approval he so craves (as from his brother, and later, du Pont), Tatum's Mark Schultz does so with head lowered, a little boy who craves that unconditional expression of love, but can't meet the eyes of these surrogate fathers, lest he find out that he's as unworthy as he feels.  Channing Tatum may slightly overplay this tortured body language at times, but all his actions would seem to emanate from a sense character with which he is nearly possessed.  

  Mark Schultz's life changes dramatically when he is summoned to the Pennsylvania estate of the du Pont family, there to meet its scion, John Eleuthere du Pont - ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast.   Quite a mouthful that, as Mark Schultz will find out when his patron later drills him like a bizarre update of Eliza Doolittle so his protege can repeat the description as part of a public introduction.  The wrestler had not heard of John du Pont nor his extremely privileged family prior to his initial visit.  No matter, he's given a videotape about the "du Pont Dynasty," as part of his move-in package when he gladly accepts John's offer to take up residence on the estate and lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team.

In a film full of memorable scenes, the first meeting of these two men, apparently so different, is a standout.  Tatum first enters as the young athlete radically out of his element.  This is one of several such indicating mini-scenes, as when the wrestler later takes up residence at "The Chalet" on the du Pont estate.  We see him place a lone possession amidst the space and luxury of the room, the plugging in of his humble toaster like the tossing of a child's flotation device into an ocean of private wealth.

Ill at ease on a very plaid sofa, Mark Schultz is joined by his eventual patron and (later) nemesis, the aforementioned John du Pont.  This a transformed Steve Carell.  Mr. Carell's almost unrecognizable appearance is partially a matter of a prosthetic nose and complexion-altering makeup, the preparation of which apparently required two hours per day, getting the actor in character well before his colleagues arrived on set.  More profoundly, there is the actor behind that skin which looks to have been burned on, behind that prow of a nose.

Even fairly genial at the first meeting in which he queries young Schultz and strokes his ego ("...and I'm talking to the great Mark Schultz), Carell's du Pont, head tilted back, seems to address his eventual protege from a far greater distance than the few feet between them.  Du Pont regards Mark Schultz (and most everything else) dimly, as through an enveloping cataract, developed over years by privilege and remove from common care, behind which weaknesses of personality, perhaps even pathology have been allowed to fester.

Like many an ostensible funny person with whom a darkness appears to lurk behind the easy laugh, Steve Carell has done some of his best acting in serious roles.  As John du Pont, in the first scene with Channing Tatum and throughout Foxcatcher, Carell's performance is something of a revelation. After Mark Schultz shares a painful anecdote about his upbringing to empathize with du Pont's admission that his only childhood friend was one his mother paid to play the role, the older man laughs and regards the eager attendant through his personal fog with an admixture of affection, contempt and heaven know's what else, so abstruse are his motivations.  There is more interesting acting in that laugh by Carell, in that haughty if slightly bewildered glance, than in many a complete film performance.

 An early period of amity unfolds between Mark Schultz and du Pont - if not of honeymoon, at least an adoption that might take.  This culminates with the wrestler winning a world championship, Schultz running off the mat for one those embraces with du Pont, head down and muscular arms up.  After their return to America there is a photo shoot with wrestler and nominal coach, Schultz in his revealing singlet oiled up, du Pont eventually in the foreground, proprietary in his Foxcatcher sweatshirt.

As Schultz is drawn more deeply into du Pont's orbit, he undergoes a kind of degradation.  Aboard du Pont's personal jet, Schultz takes cocaine at the other's behest.  Before long, we see him lolling at the estate, the fuzz of longer and frosted hair as much of a telling deviation from his normal buzz cut as the empty beer bottles about him indicate a lapse in his typical athlete's discipline.  It is at this point that Mark Schultz exists somewhere between kept boy and pet for du Pont, much as the wrestler is still eager to please.

The downward spiral on the part of Schultz might occur abruptly in the script of Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, but Mark Schultz the character would hardly be the first person to go quickly to seed when strengthening adversity gives way to cajoling plenty.  Just after we see Schultz so changed in appearance and habits, he is summoned to a late night wrestling session with du Pont in "the gallery," portraits of stern ancestors (presumably) observing the young man ostensibly pinned beneath this latest du Pont, the former's expression like someone submitting to unwanted sex.  Then straight to a scene in which Schultz is cutting the hair of his would-be friend and father figure, clad only in shorts.  After taking some cocaine, he sits before du Pont like a pet.  The contrast in the two mens' state of dress and relative power echoes an earlier scene in which director Bennett Miller places his camera at chest level on Tatum, Schultz getting out of bed to answer the knock of du Pont, the wrestler nearly naked and his patron adorned in formal evening wear.

The real Mark Schultz has understandably and vociferously objected to the depiction of the relationship between the two men and how far it might stray from actuality (much as the tenor of some his outbursts on Twitter would seem to indicate the the essence of the characterization might hit a little too close to home for comfort), but in this work of fiction merely based on real events, writers Futterman and Frye seem concerned, as with issues of masculinity and patriotism, with a larger consideration of degradation.  Not simply the wrestler's loss of self in the pursuit of wealth, glory and approval, but the degrading effect of the privilege and the pursuit of such wealth that the character of Mark Schultz, like most Americans, finds so alluring.

The du Ponts might be "the wealthiest family in America," as that videotape given to Mark Schultz exclaims at its conclusion to an accompaniment fireworks, but there's little enviable in the people themselves, stripped from the trappings of that wealth.  Their detachment from the material reality of most people has left them stunted, curdled human beings, the son pining for the mother's love, the mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), disapproving of her son and his affinity for the "low" sport of wrestling, saving what scant bit of affection she has for her beloved horses, beautiful animals we see her regard joyously.

Foxcatcher would also seem to ruminate on the degradation of sport itself.  Wrestling and wrestlers become yet more - like a tank he purchases directly from the army - acquisitions for du Pont toward some idea of manhood, or merely to fill his days.  He takes to the mats himself, prevailing in masters wrestling competition after which we see his assistant pay off the opponent willing to throw the match.  There is also a brief scene in which Mark Schultz and his fellow Foxcatcher teammates watch a televised MMA bout and debate the virtue of the former wrestler pursuing glory in that arena.  Foxcatcher ends with Mark Schultz entering an MMA octagon himself after his retirement from wrestling.  

Foxcatcher, among its many virtues, is a reminder of what wonderfully collaborative thing film can be, not merely the playground of auteurs.  It hardly seems fair to say this film is by director Bennett Miller, any more than it is by actors Channing Tatum or Steve Carrell, or writers Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye.  The film truly is by them all, as it is the product of ace cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, Bright Star).  Like his director, Mr. Fraser does not make flashy gestures for effect.  However, in several scenes his skill manifests itself in full relief.  This is particularly the case in exterior shots in which Fraser makes full use of the spectral light of fogged countrysides.  So begins one of the most striking interludes in Foxcatcher, when a distraught John du Pont stalks into the horse barn after the death of his mother and releases the animals.  As he drives the horses out the broad opening of the barn, Carell is shot from behind, silhouetted against the gently-lit paddock and animals beyond him, a haunting, eloquent image of a man lost.  Not a word necessary.  As du Pont moves dumbly forward, his silhouette briefly takes on the surreal look of a figure about to assail a movie screen on which those horses are projected.    

Foxcatcher is based in its bold particulars on true events. Mark and later Dave Schultz had a fateful association with John du Pont, reaching its nadir in 1996, when the the heir to the elite family pulled up in his Lincoln Town Car and fired three shots into the elder Schultz (who had long been living on the estate), killing him some seven years after the departure of the younger brother. 

Like any effective allegory, Foxcatcher works perfectly well on its surface, the Schultz's perhaps the prey in this particular fox hunt, a perverse update on that pointless and destructive exercise of privilege. Bennett Miller opens the film with images of fox hunts and munitions, one a traditional past time of families such as the du Ponts, the other the means by which they made their fortune. Take Foxcatcher as a simple story of victims and villain and its 130 minutes will give you far more substance than you'll usually find at the movie theater these days.  However, director Bennett Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman would seem to have something far more deeply resonant in mind with Foxcatcher than a ripped from the headlines story brought to the screen.  

The apparent dichotomy of Mark Schultz and John du Pont is not nearly so clear after the events of the film play out.  These men so very different in their physical being and standing in the world are like two children raised on opposite sides of town.  As Mark Schultz tries in vain to talk to that uninterested elementary school audience about America, so does John du Pont fly in his private jet to Washington D.C., there to dispense platitudes to an assembled Washington D.C. elite, whose attention, if not interest, has no doubt been purchased in advance.  The brief moment Bennett Miller has the camera rest upon the starving artist version of Washington Crossing the Delaware in the dreary apartment of Mark Schultz is every bit as significant as the shot of du Pont attempting soulfulness at Valley Forge, apparently a short distance from his home.  When troubled, both men tend to default to that defiant thrust of the jaw, a common little boy's gesture.

Which is not to equate self loathing with murder.  Quirks of personality may have ultimately run to pathology with Du Pont.  The Mark Schultz portrayed in Foxcatcher turns his anger inward, as with the furious pecking at the face, or the hotel room meltdown when he slams his considerable head into a mirror.  John du Pont ultimately addresses his void by lashing out and taking another life, no doubt spurred blindly by his massive sense of entitlement in addition to whatever else that drove him.  

Foxcatcher ends with Mark Schultz, shaved of head, entering an MMA ring to chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"  As this occurs Rob Simonsen's score with its sweet, melodic line of piano and warming strings would seem to indicate a homecoming, reconciliation.  But the soothing music is as dissembling as any simple juxtaposition of the film's principal characters.  The chants that greet Mark Schultz at film's end find no more substance in the indifferent air than the "JOHN! JOHN! JOHN!" that earlier rang out ironically when John du Pont indulged in a bit of horseplay with his Foxcatcher team, those grabbed by their rich patron for a wrestling match on the floor smart enough to let him win.

The world is full of little boys moving about in the bodies of men, some quite harmless, others lethal.  Perhaps nationalism and its attendant myths runs to its own pathology. The need of such men in lofty places to dominate, to keep their insecurities, their most fundamental fears at bay.  All of these ideas that may or may not have been consciously expressed by director Bennett Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, realized so well by the acting of Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in the collaborative whole which is Foxcatcher.  But theirs is a work rich and stout enough to bear the weight of such projections.


Monday, December 29, 2014

The Imitation Game

World War II has proven to be a great, perhaps THE great source for all manner of literature and film since 1945.  Death and destruction on a previously unimaginable scale, sure.  But a gold mine for writers and filmmakers.  Almost seven decades on, despite existing mountains of scholarship and art, new narratives or wrinkles seem to emerge yearly, while those stories long-established provide their ongoing variations.  So it is with one of history's great thrillers, the breaking of the Nazi's seemingly unbreakable Enigma code.

In the last dozen or so years alone, there have been several productions based on the long-secret effort.  Enigma (2001), written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Winterbottom, is a highly-fictionalized story set in the actual English code-breaking center at Bletchley Park.  More recently, the English series Bletchley Park (2012-14) followed a group of women who worked at the Milton Keynes complex during the war, relegated to more traditional female roles in the Britain of the early 50's until they reunite to use their skills to solve criminal mysteries (It's generally better than it sounds).

The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, focuses on a real person involved in the herculean effort, the man whom many believe was the most significant figure in the cracking of the Enigma Code and limiting the duration of World War II.  Based on the book, Alan Turing:  The Enigma, The Imitation Game simplistically, if handsomely, distills the vast multi-national attempt to decrypt Nazi communication down to one Blentchly Park hut and the brilliant and troubled central figure of Alan Turing.

It seems a matter of fact that England attempted to recruit some its greatest minds to assail the 159,00,000 of coded possibilities produced by the Enigma machine.  Despite some strong acting at its core, The Imitation Game has drawn, alas, rather less accomplished practitioners to lead its effort.  Like the bombe - the electromagnetic code-breaking machine that is essentially a character in the film - labored over by Alan Turing in its early, frustrating iterations, The Imitation Game is like a pretty machine that spins and spins, producing almost nothing original or useful.  And it goes about its work with a rather loud and self-important thrum.

In the great tradition of war making strange bedfellows - the Manhattan Project was nothing if not a group of people who couldn't have normally gotten a government security clearance to construct an elaborate outhouse, much less an unfathomably destructive bomb - the English government and military recruited all sorts of dubious characters to work at code-breaking, among them chess players, academics, even women.  Desperate times.  Turing is one such oddball, summoned by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), representative of the Royal Navy and the old guard.

Denniston clearly does not like the cut of Turing's jib, and is quick to remind him that he and his manly type won the last war.  Far more glory, apparently, for young men to be dispatched as cannon fodder than to sit about playing at puzzles all day.  For his part, Turing puts on a clinic in how not to interview for a job

     All right, Mr. Turing, I’ll bite. Why do you want to work for His Majesty’s government?

     Oh, I don’t, really.

     Are you a bleeding pacifist, Turing?

     I’m agnostic about violence.

     I believe you’ve just set a record for the shortest job interview in British military history.

     Mother says that I can be offputting sometimes. On account of being the best mathematician in the world.

But just as the splenetic Denniston is about to send him back to Cambridge, Turing surprises him by mentioning Enigma.  The mathematician knows what the government is trying to do at Bletchley and would like to put his puzzle-solving skills to work.  But, "Everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable," says Denniston.  "Let me try and we'll know for sure," answers Turing. Such pith being the stuff of easily digestible biopics and their tidy trailers.

As drawn by screenwriter Graham Moore, this Turing seems a cobbled together genius, an English Beautiful Mind, detached from humanity, yet haunted by memories of a first love turned tragic, his homosexuality a secret he dare not reveal at a time and place when it was considered criminal behavior.  Under duress this Turing stammers, yet enunciates sonorously at other times, as with the voiceover that opens the film in which he would seem to be addressing both a police interrogator and the film's audience.  Not a completely unrealistic dichotomy, but Moore's main character runs too much to dramatic extremes.

That sonorous voice, of course, belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch.  He of the just now white-hot career, owing both to his much in demand film presence and the extremely popular and ongoing Sherlock, in which he is the 21st-century incarnation of Conan's Doyle's immortal detective (paired with another enviably busy actor, Martin Freeman, who plays Watson).  Chief among his fellow players, Cumberbatch is quite good, keeping the character and film grounded when writer and director are losing their heads about him.  The actor's sculpted visage seems to roll and toss from within, like a storm-troubled sea during the most stressful moments of The Imitation Game, without running (and director Tyldum certainly does have him run) to the ridiculous.  Cumberbatch keeps the film to a human and watchable scale even as Moore and Tyldum busy themselves with one pretty rhetorical flourish or another.

Frustrated with a lack of progress, Turing importunes Winston Churchill himself for additional funding and independence, to which the British prime minister favorably responds, making the unlikely Turing leader of Hut 14 at Bletchley.  His first order of business?  Sacking two of his colleagues whom he deems highly expendable:  "Keith and Charles.  You're both fired....You're mediocre linguists and positively poor code breakers."  "Popular at school, were you," the dry observation from Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, cool and charismatic) of MI-6, a branch of British intelligence so secret that virtually no one is aware of its existence.

Even Turing is made to realize that he can't do all the work of solving Enigma on his brilliant own, so he solicits recruits via a newspaper advertisement in the form of a puzzle.  This brings into the handsome production design the even more attractive figure of Keira Knightley.  Ms. Knightley brings a typically fierce sort of humanity to her role as Joan Clarke, the reluctant code-breaker (Is this amy sort of work for a decent, single girl?  And how will she find a husband?), as well as an in the moment intelligence, the warm focus of which is consistent with the best of her work.  Slightly altered for her role in The Imitation Game is Knightley's English accent, truncated to such a degree at times that words would seem to be issued sideways from her in no way inadequate mouth.  When Turing explains to Joan that they are "...going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war," her understated "Oh" of a response is a crisp, little wafer of a word.

The code-breaking proceeds fairly torturously, while director Tyldum occasionally cuts to shots of CGI destruction -  the war raging without, English lads dying, the continuous track of Nazi tanks ruthlessly crushing everything in their path, etc.  So slow is the progress, Turing's great machine, "Christopher," spinning, spinning to no effect, that the impatient Denniston finally bursts in with a few soldiers, determined to destroy the blasted waste of money and time.  It is at this critical juncture that Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and the rest of Turing's team back him, threatening to walk out if their leader is sacked.  

Quite a crowd pleasing turn of events, the team standing together, Denniston a great balloon of antiquated English pomposity, blown up with self regard so that he can be popped at the appropriate moment.  We had seen Turing nearly autistic (or at least in the realm of Asperger) in his misapprehension and lack of engagement with the people about him early on.  Alexander and the others are then brought slowly round by their leader's intelligence and determination, as well as his faltering attempts and comradery.  Those sometimes comical overtures are prompted by Joan's urging that "...they are not going to help you if they do not like you," every word of the admonishment carefully enunciated so that poor Turing might break the code of simple human communication.  

The Bletchley team pulling together, that satisfying arc of story, is easily telegraphed in a matter of seconds in the trailer for The Imitation Game.  And that's a good part of the problem here.  Turing's story and the larger narrative of the Enigma code and war are obviously rich with complexity.  While there is perhaps a need to boil all of those teeming narratives down to a lucid central story with a subplot or two, Graham Moore's screenplay seems warmed over from countless other thrillers and war films, badly spiced with implausibilities which make the whole even more difficult to swallow.  

Moore bookends his story with the 1952 arrest and prosecution of Turing for gross indecency.  Police first arrive to investigate a break in at his Manchester flat, later discovering that the burglar was a man that Turing had solicited for sex.  Alan Turing's unusual confession - beginning with that voiceover at the outset of the film - to the arresting officer, all of the wartime intrigue we see, is a flashback.

It seems extremely unlikely that Turing would have revealed everything about his work during the war, even to the police.  Those who worked at Bletchley were sworn to secrecy, prohibited from divulging the nature of the war-time work even to family members.  Even if we grant Moore his shaky framing device, so much of what follows is equally implausible or shrilly trumpeted to overly-eager audiences and award season voters.  

Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum moves in heavy lockstep with his screenwriter.  Typical of this overheated union is a scene toward film's end, when news arrives that the war in Europe is at last over.  Menzies, the canny head of MI-6, informs the code-breaking team that every aspect of their work must be destroyed.  This quite consistent with an intelligence culture in Britain that didn't allow details of Ultra (their overall effort to decrypt enemy communications) to be made public until the 1970's.  However, the important work of destruction is left to the very people of whom the military establishment was so distrustful in the first place.  So Turing and the rest of his team are made to toss documentation and all else into kind of bonfire, which Tyldum films as a kind of wistful last night at camp.         

They've reduced my character to a dimwit?  Oh.  Keira Knightly
in The Imitation Game.
The Imitation Game seems rather pleased with its politics, both in terms of gender equality and discrimination based upon sexual orientation.  When Joan Clarke shows up late for her written examination, an MI-6 flunky informs her that "the secretaries are to head upstairs."  Only Turing's intercession allows his eventual friend to take a seat amongst the men.  Alan and Joan actually proceed beyond colleagues and friends to a couple briefly engaged to be married.  But when Turing learns that Menzies holds information that could send them both to prison (or worse), he urges Joan to leave Bletchley.  He first tries to break their engagement by revealing that he's gay, to which Joan responds almost nobly:  "I had my suspicions. I always did. But we’re not like other people. We love each other in our own way, and we can still live the life together that we want. You won’t be the perfect husband? I can promise you I harboured no intention of being the perfect wife." The bombshell having failed to produce the desired effect, Turing then tells her that he never cared about her and was simply stringing her along so they he could break Enigma.  Joan takes this flypaper-thin lie at face value.  The writer and director stretch this wispy material even farther for maximum effect, having Joan slap Alan and then exit dramatically, exclaiming, "They were right. John. Hugh. Peter. You really are a monster."  Intelligent, perceptive Joan thus rendered dense when it serves the dubious story.  

Moore's screenplay makes no secret of Alan Turing's homosexuality, much as the writer and director treat it almost hermetically.  The film spends virtually no time with any expression of Turing's sexual orientation, aside from chaste flashbacks of lonely school days brightened by a friendship and first love cut short by the death of Turing's beloved schoolmate.  Nonetheless, considerable space is given in closing titles that detail not only Alan Turing's unconscionable fate at the hands of British authorities (he had to choose chemical castration to avoid prison and died two years later of cyanide poisoning, which may or may not have been an act of suicide) but listing the number of men persecuted for homosexuality while it remained a crime in Great Britain.  Despite the fact that The Imitation Game has been lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for "...bringing the captivating yet tragic story of Alan Turing to the big screen," this is a film whose high-mindedness arrives late and largely in rhetorical form.  This allows filmmakers and audience alike to feel good about their moral outrage without having to deal the simplest expressions of that love they might find less palatable than most any act of violence on screen.  
Distributed in the United States by the Weinstein Company, the studio headed by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the former directors of Miramax Films, The Imitation Game is very much in the tradition of films financed and/or distributed by the two companies. Which is to say, a veneer of high culture, the marketing of film as art, but without any of the originality and daring that is inherent in real, vital art.  An act of dubious historical reduction and righteousness never quite earned, The Imitation Game is a carefully curated experience that can be all too neatly be reduced to its two and half minute trailer.

That coming attraction is also long enough to contain Mr. Moore's attempt at a signature line, "Sometime's it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine"  Lest anyone miss that bit profundity delivered in a package of shoddy grammar, the line is uttered no less than three times in The Imitation Game, a film whose title is rather more apt than Morten Tyldum and Graham Moore probably intended.  Like the hapless code-breakers Keith and Charles, this writer and director should have been jettisoned early on in the very worthwhile effort to give Alan Turing's story a cinematic treatment worthy of its subject.  Instead, at a time when the lack of film with conviction and originality is growing quite dire, we get more pretty, self-satisfied complacency.  Or as Menzies says early The Imitation Game, "This war...we're not winning it."