Dec 17, 2014

Mr. Turner

Leave it to Mike Leigh to make a biopic that does not feel like one. Mr. Turner is a meditation on the mystery of talent, on the lack of a commensurate relationship between genius and virtue, on the solitary pursuit of art and creativity. It is not, like the two other biopics of British geniuses currently vying for awards, deliberately contrived to be inspiring. There are no forced moments of discovery or redemption, or triumph over adversity. Leigh knows life is adverse: get over it.
Mr. Turner is the portrait of the artist as a disgruntled, and grunting, man. The excellent Timothy Spall, a wonderful presence in many a Mike Leigh film, plays Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art, a visionary genius. The film devotes itself to the last 25 years of Turner's life, thankfully sparing us Freudian flashbacks into his childhood or the ridiculous compression of an entire life into two or three hours.
This is a much smarter way to make a biopic. But then again, this is Mike Leigh.
Spall's Turner seems to dislike the company of most humans and spends his days quietly and furiously working on his art. This may be the only biopic in which watching an artist paint is not like watching paint dry, and that is because Leigh shows the work of the painter as a process of preparation, experimentation, research, discovery, and as powerful action. It is work, rising before sunrise to capture the light. It is not divine inspiration.
Turner was a great artist, hence he spent most of his time wanting to paint. Sensitive to nature and to light, he was much less sensitive to some of his fellow human beings. He refused to recognize the daughters she had with his first mistress. He was abusive to a mentally challenged maid who adored him. He loved his dad, with whom he grew up, as his mother died (in an insane asylum) when he was a boy.  He didn't suffer critics, even champions of his work like John Ruskin, gladly. Leigh portrays Ruskin as a flamboyant pontificator, and this seems a bit unfair, but it confirmed for me Leigh's deeply felt identification with his subject, a fellow artist.
The movie takes a while to establish Turner's world, and the first half seems to ramble along without much incident.  But Leigh subtly and masterfully paints the portrait of this man and his time, the Victorian era, straight-laced and uncomprehending of mavericks like him.  He shows up at the Royal Academy of Painting, a fusty place, where other very good artists like Constable are painting by the book, whereas Turner has freed himself to push the limits of his art further and further, until some critics, the Queen herself and an obtuse public deride the abstraction of his later works. He could have painted portraits of aristocrats and their hunting dogs and retired to greater wealth and fame, but he chose to keep searching. Turner was ahead of his time. He was interested in the experience of nature, in transmuting it not as faithfully and realistically as his fellow members of the Academy, but impressionistically, from within. He fastens himself to a ship's mast in a storm to find out exactly how that looks and feels like.
As in all of Leigh's films, the supporting cast is a perfect ensemble of character actors, acting like a single organism in harmony with their period, while sharply etching their individual characters. In my mind, any and all awards for best supporting actress should go to Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth, a widow who rents Turner a room in Margate and with her sensible, natural wisdom becomes his companion at the end of his life. Dorothy Atkinson is also spectacular as the poor maid, beset with psoriasis, who loved Turner silently as he took advantage of her adoration.
There are a couple of wonderful moments where art meets science, as when Mary Somerville (the great Leslie Manville) pays Turner a visit, and a moment, elegiac, yet full of wonder, when Turner discovers the daguerrotype, which with one pouf of smoke and a blinding flash captures his image with far less exertion than any painting.
And that brings us to the other major character in the movie, which is light, gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Dick Pope, who wisely does not attempt to imitate Turner, but who gives the film the miraculous, multifaceted light that captured the painter's eye and his imagination.
Most commercial movies try too hard to anticipate our feelings, to get us in their corner, using well worn scenes and lines which heroic actors fight to make heartfelt and convincing. And then one sees a film like Mr. Turner and appreciates the quiet mastery and the exacting excellence of Mike Leigh. There is not one cheap, facile or crowd pleasing bone in his body, and yet his films are deeply emotional, and truly human.

Dec 12, 2014

Inherent Vice

A mess, but P.T. Anderson gets brownie points for trying to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel into a movie. And this is a very ambitious, literary film, with plenty of voiceover narration provided by dulcet toned Joanna Newsom, and the expansive feeling of curling up with a loopy book that never seems to end.
I can understand why Anderson may think that this comic noir shaggy dog story set in 1970 Los Angeles is worth telling now. If anything sums up the spirit of the movie, is the picture above. We think we don't, but we live in a dark place. As the rest of his movies (with the exception of Punch Drunk Love), Inherent Vice takes a look at yet another side of the prismatic underside of American culture.
Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, munching the scenery), some sort of doctor stoner who moonlights as a P.I, gets dragged like Alice in Wonderland into a spiral of bizarre goings on under the placid LA skies, coming in contact with all kinds of quirky characters from all walks of life. There are tiny roles for the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short (who seems to have landed from another circus altogether), Owen Wilson, and the much missed (by me) Eric Roberts, who has two seconds of screen time and kills. We barely get to spend any time with them before Doc is hurled into some other crazy situation. I don't think it is worth trying to unravel the plot. The idea is what is below the surface, what fresh and vast conspiracies really run the show.
Doc reminded me of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, he is that laid back and unhurried, although he may be a little less serene. Phoenix is one of those great hams who can do no wrong. Even when he is reaching he is interesting to watch, and he can be funny. Josh Brolin plays his foil and opposite, Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, (bless Pynchon and his wacky names) a square headed policeman with none of the lazy savoir faire of Doc. He is hilarious. Their scenes together are the best thing in the movie. Unfortunately, Anderson doesn't have the wacky comic touch of the Coens and the humor feels labored.
At two hours and a half, Inherent Vice is hard to sit through. The scenes take forever, the wild goose chases don't seem to gather momentum, let alone go anywhere coherent, and though I completely get that this may be on purpose, to give us the density of time as experienced by a stoner, it drags.
Robert Elswit's washed out cinematography and sometimes deliberately ugly framing captures the era but bores the eye. And I found Jonny Greenwood's score underwhelming, though the pop songs on the soundtrack are great.
I have a nagging feeling that perhaps a second viewing may bring more pleasures, but Inherent Vice is, like The Master, an intellectual exercise that fails to live up to its ambitious promise. The Master is gorgeous, sharper, and more jarring. This one is just exhausting.
However, as a body of work, Anderson's films gain in stature because there is a very coherent thematic preoccupation running through them. He likes to find the cobwebs and the dirt under the American entrepreneurial soul. Hard Eight, his impressive and modest debut, takes place around gamblers, Boogie Nights is about a community of porn stars trying to make it, Magnolia is a dark, enigmatic piece about family, There Will Be Blood, about the drive for profit, The Master is about the American obsession with perfecting (and controlling) the individual and our cottage industry of charlatans, and Inherent Vice is about the rivers of rot that course through our enterprising American veins. Anderson looks at the fringes, and under the polished surfaces of our increasingly frayed collective delusion of democracy, freedom and high standards of living. He is not buying any of it and that makes him a very interesting, if somewhat exasperating artist.

Dec 11, 2014

That's Entertainment!

No read has been more fascinating and scrumptious and has inspired more Talmudic parsing from me this year than the leaked emails from the hacking of Sony Pictures, which you can find here.
Part of the mysterious delight they bring is the frisson of schadenfreude at seeing a culture of grandiose self-delusion and out of control egos nakedly exposed and brought down to size through their own astoundingly naive and arrogant disregard for discretion.
And don't tell me that these communiqués were never meant to be public. You'd have to be either a three year old or a moron, or a Hollywood macher with delusions of untouchability to think that you can express yourself in writing so rankly without there being the possibility of a leak, accidental or malicious. Memo from David O'Selznick, this isn't.
The hack is a terrible thing, which has jeopardized Sony's employees' sensitive personal information among other bad fallout. It is also out of the realm of gonzo fiction, if, as suspected, it is orchestrated by His Craziness Kim Jong Un and his displeasure with a Sony movie starring his country, Seth Rogen and James Franco.
I am not gleeful at Sony's misfortune, yet if the executives at Sony had behaved electronically in a way that befits their standing and their salaries, we would not have been so mightily entertained, but they would have less appalling things to hide.
Consider the Kevin Hart email: A simple business negotiation. The studio wants him to promote his new movie on social media, his agent claims that he needs to be remunerated, as this was not part of the original deal. They could have had a perfectly civilized in-house discussion without resorting to calling the star "a greedy whore". Or they could call him a greedy whore all they wanted, but not in writing.
When email started being a thing, the company I worked for furnished us with a very useful set of rules. Besides the obvious plea to use civilized language, and to remember that we were representing the company and using a tool that did not belong to us, my impressionable mind never forgot the part that said not to assume that our messages could not potentially be seen by all the wrong people, let alone escape the company's or someone else's scrutiny. Just don't assume privacy of any kind. Ever. Even so, people sent embarrassing companywide emails meant for just one person. They thought they could say horrible things and no one would ever find out. As Ari Emanuel has now famously said: "Whatever"*.

This happened to Sony, but do not for a moment think that the rest of Hollywood does not comport itself this way. One only had to skim through Nikki Finke's Hollywood Deadline to be swamped by a barrage of malicious, arrogant, petty vitriol. I can imagine the armies of cyber security experts now building virtual fortresses for the rest of the studios. I can imagine executives daunted by the sheer thought of cleaning up the messages in which they excoriate the people who work for them. I wonder if executives express themselves in such a fashion in any other industry (besides perhaps the fresh hell of immature alpha male-dominated startups). I doubt it. Correction: maybe sometimes in advertising, when people don't get the company memo.

It's the best shit show on Earth.

As for the saga of Scott Rudin vs. Amy Pascal, and the Steve Jobs movie debacle, to me, this is a thing of beauty. A marvel in the annals of epistolary literature.
To this day, I do not understand what exactly created the conflict, but, and correct me if I'm wrong, it seems that Scott Rudin, an independent producer whose unpleasant reputation precedes him, was partnering with Sony to make a movie about Steve Jobs, starring Christian Bale (great), directed by David Fincher (great) and written by Aaron Sorkin (great). A golden trifecta of possible awards, a la The Social Network.
At the same time, Angelina Jolie wanted Fincher to direct her version of Cleopatra**, hence Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, did something to mollify the star at the expense of the Jobs movie, which had found financing and was ready to go. No small feat, considering all the giant egos and their schedules involved.
Thanks to Scott Rudin's extremely articulate, coherent and wonderfully descriptive emails I am now firmly on Team Rudin.  I wish I were on team Amy, but her writing style is very disappointing.
Now, let's be fair. Scott Rudin has little to worry about (he ruffled the massive feathers of the entire Jolie-Pitt clan, and of producer Megan Ellison, whom he labeled as bipolar, and who took it in stride on Twitter, calling herself merely eccentric). So what? He represents only himself.
Amy Pascal, however, is beholden to her bosses, to shareholders and to the company she leads. Perhaps she writes abysmally to protect herself.
Imagine her weighing the options. On the one hand, a prestige, niche project with a bunch of expensive alpha males, which may win awards and maybe make some money; on the other, Cleopatra, an epic extravaganza with Jolie, one of the biggest stars on the planet, which could potentially make gazillions because such monstrosities play well in Guangdong and Karachi, let alone Peoria.  From what we can glean, Pascal didn't handle all those competing projects and their respective egos well.
There are other gems, like an ass-kissing email from a Sony marketing guy and a ridiculous email from an agent begging Leonardo Di Caprio to consider playing Jobs, comparing the script to Citizen Kane, and Aaron Sorkin to Paddy Chayefsky. AS IF.
Leaks of the worst powerpoints on Earth will give you a glimpse about the paralyzing, generic idiocy of marketing. Executives claiming that Michael Fassbender is not yet a star add to the picture of a "creative" industry that only correlates success with money and seems to be out of touch with reality. 
You will learn interesting facts. For instance, that David Fincher asks $45 million dollars to direct a movie. He is very gifted, but isn't this insane? Or that stars like Tom Cruise, whom Sorkin originally wanted to play Jobs, bring their own writers to rewrite projects. Why are they allowed such a thing? (This is a rhetorical question: because they make the money). From these valuable exchanges, one comes to the conclusion that movie stars have become an unmanageable "clusterduck†" of entitlement.
The most damaging leak, in terms of public opinion, is the inane, pathetic conversation between Pascal and Rudin about a list of movies that Barack Obama might like, which turn out to be all for Black people. As a joke, it is painfully unfunny, and if it's for real, what disastrous poverty of imagination, to say the least. Still, even if this is the most scandalous leak, it also happens to be the most personal. It's not about business, and it puts sharply in relief how damaging and unfair it would be if any of us were not aware that the entire world is listening to our outrageous comments uttered in private. Which is why their apologies on this one sound forced and hollow. In particular when Pascal, who started the conversation, then claims that this does not represent who she is. If your private banter does not show who you really are, what does?
Sony needs some urgent spin control. I also don't know how this woman is not on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 
It is unfortunate that this leak is causing real distress to countless people, but this doesn't make it any less fascinating as an inside look at the movie industry.

* I just love that this word is what he chooses for a greeting. 
** Why would she think that David Fincher would want to do such a thing is beyond me. 
† As Amy Pascal dixit. 

Dec 1, 2014

The Theory Of Everything

Well, my theory of everything is that most biopics feel like one continuum of time and space. It's hard to tell them apart, these tales of human ingenuity and survival against all odds. They are decorous, and lovingly crafted, splendidly acted, excellent candidates for awards, but they all feel like they come from the same singularity, if you get my drift.
Biographies, the written kind, seem to have a little more inclination to explore the more complex humanity of their subjects (when they're not puff pieces). But biopics tend to be the filmic equivalent of a puff piece. Apparently, in movies our cultural heroes need to be wholesome and aspirational, and utterly admirable. Because who wants to deal with the fact that someone who overcame the most incredible obstacles also had a shady side to them? We much prefer rousing edification.
So having seen two biopics about British mathematical geniuses back to back, I find it a little hard to tell them apart. Of course Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are very different. One was treated like a pariah and the other one like a rock star, but the texture of the movies is very similar. They are feel good movies about amazing heroes.
The Theory Of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), however, has an edge because Marsh has a more intimate, probing sensibility.  His film concerns the life of young Stephen Hawking, promising genius, as he discovers almost all at once that time may have a beginning, that he has Lou Gehrig's Disease and as he meets his first wife, Jane, upon whose memoirs the movie is based.
Nobody understands how Hawking has been able to survive and thrive through a diagnosis that gave him two years to live over fifty years ago. The movie is not overtly saying that it is because of the love and ministrations of his wife, but it does have her make a compelling case to him not to give up. And then it shows us what that meant.
Eddie Redmayne, one of the most adorable beings that ever walked the Earth, is probably going to win an Oscar for his incredible work as Stephen Hawking (if the inclination for the infirm in the acting category prevails). He is charming and full of vim even when the illness has gnarled his limbs and his speech. He doesn't force the genius. His intentions come through clearly from within, although I was left wanting more of him somehow. Was he ever angry, petulant, ungrateful, afraid?
Felicity Jones is equally amazing as his fierce wife, who decides to stick with him through thick and thin with determination and focus. You see her change from a timid young girl to a woman who is taking charge and whose care of her husband takes a toll. Together, they have chemistry. There should be a joint award for that; it almost never happens.
For those who want a closer look at Hawking's influential contributions to our understanding of the universe I recommend Errol Morris' entertaining documentary A Brief History of Time, starring Hawking himself, in an adaptation of his book, which you could also read. In this movie, we get excited at Hawking's ideas by proxy (If David Thewlis gets excited, so do I), and I don't blame Marsh for not going more into them - this is not an astrophysics class.
The Theory Of Everything is a look at the private life of a handicapped genius, and it is mostly well calibrated, moving, beautifully shot and not overly schmaltzy, although it does succumb several times to ghastly cliches, the worst of which is a scene at the end of an audience applauding Hawking. As if he needs the applause and as if we need it to confirm he is worth cheering for. These kinds of cheesy scenes (I counted several) underestimate the audience and undermine the lovely work Marsh does with the characters and their shifts of feeling: extraordinary people dealing with the extraordinary day in and day out.

Nov 30, 2014

The Imitation Game

Sure, it is a conventional biopic about a most unconventional man: Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who broke the code for the German Enigma machine which helped the allies win World War II, and he basically created the world's first computer, only to be humiliated and driven to suicide by the British government for being a homosexual. The Queen only gave him a posthumous pardon last year. A man who should have been hailed as a national hero but instead had to choose between incarceration or chemical castration because of his sexuality. Tragic.
It is a fascinating story, given a toothless. crowd pleasing treatment by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore (based on a biography by Andrew Hodges), under the recognizable imprimatur of The Weinstein Company. And yes, some of the one liners are painfully obvious, especially when repeated three times, but it is to the credit of the splendid cast, led by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, that they do their best, which is very good, to make them sound better than they are.
As heartwarming Weinstein Company biopics go, this one, with all its flaws, somehow works. It helps that the cast is uniformly excellent. It helps that my beloved Mark Strong plays the role of an MI-6 agent. He does so much with a shrug or a risen eyebrow; he nails his every line with elegant precision and a sense of humor. He is divine. So is Matthew Goode, as Turing's hostile colleague, so is Keira Knightley, as the sole woman to be hired to try to break the code, and of course so is Cumberbatch, who makes Turing into a rather adorable, socially awkward curmudgeon. Of course, I would have preferred a much darker, cerebral movie. After all, all the British pictures of the Weinstein Company (The King's Speech, My Week With Marilyn, etc) seem to be made by cookie cutter, but let's face it, they are a bit of a guilty pleasure. If you, like me, are an unrepentant anglophile and fan of British thespians who loves nothing better than to hear Mark Strong or Colin Firth or Benny Cumberbatch, or Judi Dench serenade you with their most mellifluous elocution, well then, it is heaven.
Alexandre Desplat, who is perilously close to falling into a vat of schmaltz and never coming back, provides the music, which at times is very effective (although I miss his formerly edgier work, as in Birth or Syriana). The production design makes London at war look like a beautiful, color coordinated diorama, there's plenty of tweed to go around, and the story has Turing solve Enigma by overhearing a girl gossiping at a bar. I have no idea if this was true or not, but it is hokey and extremely entertaining at the same time. Alan Turing deserves a smarter movie, but this one is very enjoyable, as long as you forgive the clichés.