Tuesday, October 28, 2014

THE IMITATION GAME

Benedict Cumberbatch     Keira Knightley     Matthew Goode     Rory Kinnear
Allen Leech     Matthew Beard     Charles Dance     Mark Strong


       The highly anticipated Imitation Game delivers in both entertainment and educational value.  It tells the story of the breaking of the German Enigma Code during WWII.  Not only does this involve the intrigue of a spy story, it gives an account of all the frustration and roadblocks Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) had to endure to pull it off.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (The Headhunters) is gifted in assimilating related sub-plots into a beautifully crafted, reasoned whole.  Of course, in this respect the novelist Andrew Hodges and screenplay writer Graham Moore, deserve part of the credit. 
     They tell the story about shy, socially awkward Turing in Great Britain who was fascinated by puzzles, particularly crossword puzzles, from a young age, and became expert at making and deciphering codes.  He was an odd child (perhaps had Asperger Syndrome in the autism spectrum disorders, characterized by difficulties in social interactions and communication, along with compulsive interests and behaviors, but sometimes with brilliance of mind), and suffered from teasing and discrimination all his life.  To make matters worse for him, he was attracted to men.  Despite these drawbacks, he was supremely self-confident in his abilities, and never doubted his success in creating a machine (a prototype of the computer) that would translate Enigma into English.  Also despite his social difficulties, he managed to head up a team of scientists who ended up being loyal to him during critical times when the English government threatened to shut down his operation.
      The group included one woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who got the job by working a crossword puzzle in record time.  (This was the task Turing used to select his team.)  It also included Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), who was in charge of the team before Turing managed to wrest it from him by enlisting Churchill’s support, much to the frustration of not only Alexander, but two superiors, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) as well. 
       The threats to the operation were unbelievable, and included Joan’s parents thinking her job was inappropriate for a woman and calling her back home, Denniston’s lack of confidence in Turing and his accusations of Turing being a Soviet spy, the insertion of an actual double agent into the team, financial support, and homophobia, just to name some.  While the team was ultimately successful in breaking the Enigma code, it was at a dear cost to Turing personally. 
     All in all, The Imitation Game is an interesting, exciting, thriller with outstanding performances from Cumberbatch, Knightley, Goode, Dance, and Strong.  The music by Alexander Desplat and cinematography by Oscar Faura give it the boost necessary for a top-notch movie, along with Tyldum’s direction.

An interesting, exciting, thriller with outstanding performances, music, cinematography, and direction.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

CAMP X-RAY

Kristen Stewart    Peyman Moaadi     Lane Garrison     Joseph Julian Soria


     The purpose in making this film is not really clear to me.  It’s about a young female soldier Cole (Kristen Stewart) from a small town in the south suddenly thrown into guarding detainees in Guantanamo.  Hopefully, the real guards get more orientation and training than this recruit gets, because even though she is instructed not to engage with the detainees at all, one (Peyman Moaadi) named Ali hooks her in.  He has a record for being difficult and gives her an initiation (hazing) right away.  Clearly, he is an educated man and is desperate to have some human interaction.  (Is this film intended to show support for the detainees and point out what is bad at Guantanamo?)  Initially, they engage around Harry Potter books, although it’s obvious she has never read any of them, but Ali is an avid fan and eager to read the last of the series.
     Naturally, Cole being a woman in the military, it is necessary to show some sexual tension in the film, which takes place in the form of a superior, Ransdell (Lane Garrison), being attracted to her, and when she pushes him away, gets back at her.  She is then reprimanded and transferred to night duty, which, of course, gives much more opportunity for her and Ali to converse and bond.  (Is this film intended to show that women are too weak to be in the military?  The way Cole is portrayed, she does not follow orders for avoiding any engagement with a detainee; whereas her successor, a male, clearly follows the rules.) 
     What Camp X-Ray ends up showing is that the bond that develops between Cole and Ali ultimately has positive effects on both of them—more so on him than her.  At least, there is an indication that he becomes less rebellious.  (Is this film intended to show support for the FBI’s traditional method of getting information and cooperation from spies, which is superior to torture, which is what the CIA has been known to do?)
     This is Director Peter Sattler’s second film to direct; his background in film has usually been in the art department.  I perceive two weaknesses in Camp X-Ray; the first being that the purpose of the film is not made clear.  The second is that Kristen Stewart is miscast.  She does not comport herself as a woman in the military—particularly at a place like Guantanamo—she appears too fragile and ignores her superiors’ instructions.  She usually has a look of mystification on her face.  On the other hand, Peyman Moaadi (Ali), the actor in the Iranian film, The Separation, is perfect for his role as a detainee and he gives a plausible portrayal of someone in that facility. 
     It also appears to me that the film does a pretty good job in giving us a sense of what Guantanamo looks like on a day-to-day basis.  I was particularly struck by the guards’ duty of having to pace back and forth for a whole shift, peeking into the detainees’ cells mostly, although they do sometimes deliver food and books, and monitor exercise and hygiene.

A look inside the Guantanamo detention facility

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, October 27, 2014

THE HOMESMAN

Tommy Lee Jones     Hilary Swank     Grace Gummer     Miranda Otto    
Sonja Richter     Meryl Streep     John Lithgow     James Spader


     The Homesman is not your typical western movie; it has more to do with human psychology and sociology, and what sometimes happens to those who are under stress and ill-equipped to manage.  Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is apparently not one of these; she farms a homestead on her own, maintains her house, goes to church, does her Christian duty, and plays the piano.  When she doesn’t have a physical piano, she fingers a cloth keyboard and sings.  When three women in the congregation lose their minds, she volunteers to take them east to Iowa so their families can take care of them.  When two women protest that as a woman she should not take on the task, the minister (John Lithgow) says she is “as good a man as any man hereabouts.”
     She is nervous about transporting them in a wagon across the prairie, however, and when she comes upon a man (Tommy Lee Jones) hanging from a tree, she agrees to cut him down if he will help her take the women east to their families.  He agrees only out of desperation; he is not ready to die.
     The women are indeed psychotic; one has to be tied down because she attacks whoever is in sight.  They seem to have been driven crazy for various reasons, such as losing children to disease, but the film does not always clarify their histories.  We’re introduced to them rapidly in the beginning without much explanation—which I see as a weakness in the exposition. 
     At any rate, the women are loaded onto a makeshift wagon that can be locked from the outside, and Mary Bee Cuddy and “George Briggs”—a name he decides to call himself—take the reins of the horses and head out.  You can imagine (I actually had a hard time of it) some of the issues they would encounter along the way (a runaway, Indians, snow), let alone hygiene (one of the woman has to be held and told to pee), food preparation, sleeping arrangements, etc.  As expected, Cuddy and Briggs will have major disagreements along the way to establish dominance.  The resolution of their conflicts and the outcome of their destination is one of the perhaps unique and surprising endings of a western genre film.
     The Homesman is well directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is exquisite.  The main actors (Jones, Swank, Lithgow, Spader, and Streep) are some of the best and shine in their roles.  Jones has a couple of song and dance routines that are totally out of his usual character presentations and are a hoot—although you may not be able to understand the lyrics; it’s enough to watch him dance and shout.    Swank easily conveys Cuddy’s strengths, and is able to elicit sympathy—maybe even pity—from the audience during her times of weakness.  Spader and Streep have only cameo roles, but are powerful in the brief time they are on screen.  The actresses portraying the psychotic women (Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, and Miranda Otto) capture their distresses perfectly.
     The Homesman is not likely to be a film for everyone; I had mixed feelings about it when I left the theater—presumably because of some of the more depressing, hopeless scenes, as well as a rather surprising ending.  In addition, I think one character in particular is not consistent across time with how she is presented initially—not that I’m saying people don’t change, only that how this character is presented in the beginning does not plausibly lead to what happens later.  Not so with Briggs or the psychotic women, all of whose personalities are entirely consistent with their characters throughout. 

Not a homespun tale.

Grade:  B-                        By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, October 26, 2014

WILD

Reese Witherspoon     Laura Dern     Thomas Sadoski     Michiel Huisman
Gaby Hoffmann     Kevin Rankin     W. Earl Brown


     A young woman makes a soul-cleansing journey (1100 miles) to make amends and work through a painful grief by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the southern border of California up to the Oregon-Washington border.  Reese Witherspoon is enchanting in playing the role of Cheryl Strayed, who ventures out with little preparation or training, only a set jaw and little, albeit some, trepidation.  In her favor besides her heroic determination are good looks and a winning personality. 
     Her first challenge is simply loading her gigantic pack and struggling to put it on her back and stand up, which takes several tries.  After she has walked several days, one helpful person helps her go through it and throw out all unnecessary items, and things go better after that.  She has to climb over large rock formations, wade through waist-deep water, and trudge through snow, so lightening it is essential.
     What makes the story so engaging are not only her personal struggles, but the many kinds of people Cheryl meets along the trail, some initially threatening, some clearly threatening, many who are clearly helpful, and even a rosy-cheeked curly-headed cherubic boy who wins her heart by being interested in her and eventually singing her a song.  This occurs toward the end of the trail and precipitates an emotional break-through for her.  Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) also hooks the viewer in with his artful way of inserting scenes of Cheryl’s past, which informs about who she is, what she has experienced, and why she is on this journey.  It seems to be a bit of a fad for filmmakers to avoid chronology and jump around in time, which to me is not always successful, but Vallee knows just how to do it so that it adds to the viewer’s experience and keeps the drama moving smoothly.  
     The film is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild:  From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trailway, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay is a finely crafted adaptation of the book to film.  High drama, beautiful scenes of the Trail, and sprinkles of clever humor add up to a very good movie.  Witherspoon’s performance is one of her best, and the addition of Laura Dern as her mother, Thomas Sadoski as her ex-husband, and colorful characters along the trail make for a well-synchronized enactment of the fine script and direction.  Wild is likely to be mentioned more than once during awards season for 2014 films.

Take a hike.  You’ll enjoy it!

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, October 25, 2014

MISS JULIE

Jessica Chastain     Samantha Morton     Colin Farrell


Miss Julie, based on a Strindberg play set in 1890, is meant to be “naturalistic” (realistic, with meaningful conflicts and a minimum of sub-plots), an approach that Strindberg felt strongly about, and which demonstrates his belief in the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest; here it takes place in the form of a class struggle between the two main characters:  Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a wealthy baron, and John (Colin Farrell), her father’s valet, who is from a poor background.  Sheltered Julie is curious about, but has no knowledge of, those beneath her station.  On the other hand, John has studied the upper classes all his life and educated himself through books and travel.  Both have lost someone dear early on; his brother died in the same bed as he, and Julie’s mother died when she was young.  She left her daughter a legacy for conflict however; she was taught to hate men; but, on the other hand, be more like a man herself, e.g., wears boots, flirts, barks out commands to her servants, and vies for control in any situation.  Moreover, her mother didn’t particularly like the child, which Julie says left her with a “black hole” inside.  Unbeknownst to Julie, John has loved her from afar since childhood when he would climb the estate fence and gaze upon her as she played in the garden.  She has noticed him now, though, as a young adult, and is attracted to him.  Na├»ve about social class in some respects, she begs him to dance with her and marvels that he “speaks like what I find in my books.”
John has always been a “ladies man”, so one evening after a day of taunting and flirting, he easily seduces her.  In the 1890’s, that means she is now a fallen woman.  Strindberg now uses her as an example of how the upper classes have become weak and vulnerable, whereas life struggles have strengthened those in John’s circumstances.  The two are very conflicted about perhaps running away together, and each vacillates back and forth about this possibility while wrestling for the power position.  Eventually, he realizes that she cannot “step down” to his level as she suggests at one point.  “No, he counters, “don’t step down; they will say you fell.”  Miss Julie has been very indiscreet about her flirtations with him, and the townspeople are keenly aware of what is going on.  So he comes up with a bitter, harsh solution, and she submits willingly.
There is a third character played by the talented Samantha Morton, who is informally engaged to John; Kathleen provides the Christian religious perspective, which serves as a counter to Darwinism.  She suggests to the two that John should come to Sunday morning services and confess his sins.  She doesn’t concern herself with Miss Julie’s predicament for a number of reasons, and unlike John, she has never aspired to Julie’s station, so doesn’t “see” her, in a sense.  To Kathleen, “Class is class”; one shouldn’t tamper with the existing social order.
The well-known actress in Swedish director Ingmar Bermann films, Liv Ullman, both wrote and directed Miss Julie.  I believe her work brilliantly captures Strindberg’s intent with his play, and she has created a beautiful synthesis of all the elements of filmmaking, specifically in the cast and characters, the music, and cinematography. 
The actors, Chastain, Farrell, and Morton have achieved career highs in their performances in Miss Julie.  Each one could be watched simply to see them mold their characters and capture their conflicts in their bodies, movements, and vocal expression.  Chastain and Farrell particularly must show huge vacillations that show the range of their capabilities.
The music by Mike Figgis—perhaps drawn from his own earlier production of Miss Julie—is beautifully rendered and perfectly captures the setting in time.

A classical piece well worth your time.

Grade:  A                                By Donna R. Copeland


DAWN PATROL

Scott Eastwood     Rita Wilson     Kim Matula     Chris Brochu     Julie Carmen     Jeff Fahey


     This film directed by Daniel Petrie, Jr., is disturbing in its portrayal of a bigoted, minimally educated family.  The parents have not conveyed a hint of moral grounding to their two boys, John and Ben, whose lives center mostly around surfing, drugs, parties, and alcohol.  (The parents also participate in the last three categories.)  John (Scott Eastwood) does seem to have a better sense of social responsibility, but he doesn’t have a chance having the parents he has.  I do sympathize with them that in the midst of the recession, their jobs are at stake and they are in danger of losing their house.  But, unfortunately, they’re living right next to Latinos, and fuel the fire of hatred, rather than attempt to negotiate a better life for their kids.  They buy into the myth that the Latinos are beneath them and don’t deserve what they have.
     When the favorite of the two sons—Ben—is killed, the parents in their drunken state urge John “to do what’s right”—and not in a good sense.  John finally succumbs, but it does not turn out well, and John joins the military to avoid being apprehended by the law.  Not surprisingly, he ends up with PTSD.   
     The script by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman of Dawn Patrol is truly irredeemable.  I see no purpose in showing attitudes that will only serve to reinforce the same attitudes in our society and prolong the antagonism among groups that many of us strive to overcome.
     Another negative aspect of the script is in its portrayal of women, who are shown to be spineless, capricious, seductive without loyalty or purpose, hateful, and emasculating.
     The only possible redeeming quality of this film to me is the ending, where there is some accountability for bad behavior, and the plan for revenge at least has some thought behind it.  This resolution does show some creativity.  At last.

Dawn Patrol is disturbing in its portrayal of a bigoted, minimally educated family.

Grade:  D                        By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, October 20, 2014

ALL RELATIVE

Jonathan Sadowski     Al Thompson     Sara Paxton     Connie Nielsen     David Aaron Baker

            All Relative brings up a very important question about truth.  Is it always best to tell the truth, even when you haven’t been asked a question?  I think the film, directed by J. C. Khoury, deals with this issue reasonably well in the most difficult of circumstances.  The protagonist Harry (Jonathan Sadowski) is recovering from a failed relationship and meets a woman, only at the urging of his buddy Jared (Al Thompson) at the bowling alley and is immediately entranced by Grace (Sara Paxton).  However, it seems that she has quasi-committed to someone else, so he must adjust to their just being friends.  When he is feeling some remorse about it and confiding to a bartender at a bar later, an older woman (Connie Nielsen) offers to buy him a drink and they begin a conversation that ends up being more than that.
            Time passes though, and soon he is meeting up with Grace again, thrilled that her commitment with the other man didn’t pan out.  Soon, the two are in the car to visit her parents in Westchester.  He is hoping for an offer from an architectural firm, one of which is one her father Phil (David Aaron Baker) is associated with.  They arrive, and there is a major surprise; however, Phil is very cordial, and seems to take to Harry instantly.  As the weekend progresses, things get more and more uncomfortable, and finally dissembles.
            That’s because all the main characters have to deal with something extremely uncomfortable.  The filmmakers do a good job in working things out, nevertheless, although there may be disagreements about how they resolved it.  J. C. Khoury, writer/director, can be praised for bringing this issue up in a film, because I think it is extremely relevant.  We all generally want to adhere to truth, and think that is the best ideal position; but I personally think there are times when it is best not to volunteer the truth.  Is this film an instance of one?
            At any rate, the actors (Sadowski, Nielsen, Paxton, Thompson, Baker) perform beautifully, and we can relate to each one of them in turn.

Is it always best to tell the truth, even when you Haven’t been asked a question about it?

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland


WILDLIKE

Ella Purnell     Bruce Greenwood


      Wildlike is a beautifully filmed first-time feature with an engaging story by writer/director Frank Hall Green.  Set in Alaska among breath-taking wilderness scenes and ice-capped mountains either close up or in the distance, nature becomes an important player in this story, quietly captured by cinematographer Hillary Spera. 
       I especially like the story, which develops slowly, as the main character Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is rather mysterious, partly by seldom answering questions put to her.  She is greeted by “Uncle” (Brian Geraghty) at the airport, and taken to his house.  He is friendly and welcoming, and we learn he is the brother of her father who has died.  Only gradually do we learn why she has been sent from Seattle to stay with him.  For a very good reason, after a short time, she instinctively runs away and finds herself in the Alaskan wild.  The story then heightens the viewer’s interest by having unexpected twists and turns.
     At one point, Mackenzie’s path crosses that of Rene Bartlett (the oh-so-fine Bruce Greenwood), then follows what I think is one of the more comical aspects of the film, when Mackenzie begins to follow “Bart” as he prefers to be called, almost tropistically.  He tries every way he can think of to shake her, but she inevitably turns up.  He doesn’t talk much more than she does, although we do learn that he is working through a grief reaction, and wants to hike in this part of Alaska for a particular reason.
     A touching, highly symbolic sequence occurs when the two hikers encounter people flying kites; these people are very warm and welcoming, and invite them to stay overnight and take a short flight in the morning.  This event and something that occurs a short time later marks a turning point in Bart’s and Mackenzie’s relationship, although the journey is still far from over.  At least now, they have a sense of the possibility of flying and becoming free of their burdens.
      The resolution of the story is another aspect that makes it a cut above most; it’s highly intelligent, sensible, and leaves just enough up in the air for the viewer to depart the film feeling inspired.
     In addition to the quality of storytelling, Greenwood’s and Purnell’s rendition of their characters and the journey they go on contributes mightily to the quality of Wildlike.  Purnell’s facial expressions are highly controlled, such as the graduated smiles she makes that go from just slight to broad.  Greenwood creates a certain degree of mysteriousness as well, and often conveys much of what he is thinking and feeling just with his eyes or mouth.

A film sure to keep you engaged.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, October 19, 2014

7 MINUTES

Luke Mitchell     Zane Holtz     Jason Ritter     Kevin Gage     Leven Rambin     Kris Kristofferson


       7 Minutes is about a group of high school friends trying to pull off a bank robbery in their small town.  One has just gotten out of prison, but basically they’ve had no experience in pulling off such a job.  Sam (Luke Mitchell) has a pregnant wife and has just been laid off at his work.  He’s trying to make ends meet by selling drugs, which his older brother Mike (Jason Ritter) has gotten him into.  Their friend Owen (Zane Holtz) is the one just released from prison, and his father (Kris Kristofferson), who calls him “Numbnuts” (he clearly has little respect for him) has two bits of advice:  “Don’t go in with anyone who has more to lose than you do” and “Don’t get caught.” 
       The three friends pick up a drug order from a cold-hearted drug dealer, but get spooked on the way home when they think they’re being spotted by some policemen.  Owen, desperately not wanting to have to go back to prison, dumps the drug down the toilet, and things only go from bad to worse from there.  They are now in debt to the dealer who wouldn’t think twice about killing them, so they cook up the idea of robbing the bank owned by Sam and Mike’s uncle.   Well, their ineptitude is apparent right away when they buy three plain white masks that only hide their faces, leaving their hair and the outline of their heads obvious to those who know them, and it being a small town, the bank owner immediately recognizes Sam and calls him by name.
       As happens with small-time operators who are less than discreet, others want a piece of the action, so things go from bad to worse, and there is a bloodbath. 
     The script by the director Jay Martin contains suspense and fairly well developed characters.  A really unnecessary gimmick (often used by filmmakers nowadays) is to show fragments of the story in jumbled time.  I’m not sure why filmmakers choose this format—perhaps to increase suspense—but I find it annoying.  The viewer has to work that much harder to figure things out.  The actors are well cast, and a clever sub-plot shows Sam’s pregnant wife (Leven Rambin) cleverly outwitting one of the bad guys.

A suspenseful crime drama weak on story.

Grade:  C-                                                By Donna R. Copeland