Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747. At 29,000 feet, you body is literally dying. Lack of oxygen becomes a toxic, poisoning the brain and forcing your body to shut down non-vital organs. At such heights, it’s near impossible to breathe without a tank of O. Beholding Everest on a proper IMAX screen, I too found myself gasping for air. It’s literally breathtaking. Read More
At the onset of The Imitation Game, Alan Turing asks if we’re paying attention, not dissimilar from Hugh Jackman in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige.The Prestige played its B-movie twisty route with a kind of goofy, self-aware panache, knowingly stringing you along for a series of loony forks in the road. David Bowie played Nikola Tesla. We rightly paid attention. By point of comparison, The Imitation Game is dreadfully forthright. Almost unaware that the subtext that we’re supposed to be looking out for is already right there on the surface. There’s no code to track to understand the meaning of the film, it’s just all there. Plain and simple. And boring. That’s not to say the result isn’t an admittedly lovingly made historical piece destined for awards buzz. The thing has Oscar noms tramp stamped all over it. And yet with all its attention paid to the effect of the film, there’s no hiding the fact that it’s a contrived work of old-fashion non-fiction, one without much depth of intention. Believe me, there’s no need to pay close attention.
Benedict Cumberbatch again steps into the shoes of a man cripplingly bad at being normal (a la Sherlock and his turn as Julian Asange in The Fifth Estate.) He’s an unintentional misanthrope, a nerdy megalomaniac, a puzzle genius sans a lick of understanding for social graces. Back under the whip of imitating an existing figure, Cumberbatch offers his all but it’s a SSDD situation at best. We’ve seen the best of Cumbie struggling with crippling genius in the wingtip shoes of Sherlock. There’s simply no need to return to the well again, and again, and again. Seriously, this guy’s more typecast than Arnold.
Tasked with cracking the uncrackable German Enigma code, Turing must race against the clock (as American lives are lost by the second) all while withstanding political pressure from all sides. Add to that his secret homosexuality and you have a character who should be indefinitely rich in layers but winds up seemingly as complex as a Boston Creme Pie.
Morten Tyldum‘s old-fashion biopic finds an entry point into Turing by expounding upon three turning points in his life: his childhood, his secretive wartime activities and a post-war investigation into his private life. The three periods poke holes in a seemingly steely character but it’s most often only the meaty middle bits that are genuinely compelling. Young Al (Alex Lawther) develops a did-they-or-didn’t-they FWB situation with classmate Christopher and though the lil’ Lawther handles the material aptly, there’s nothing in those segments to propel the narrative forward without a dollop of clunky platitudes. The scenes exist to highlight the challenge of Turing’s latent gayness and suss out what makes him such an isolated being but it’s a hokey tactic that wrestles in even hokier speeches. “You know,” Christopher says to Alan, “it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do things that no one can imagine.” Thanks for the advice Lionel Logue.
Similar feel-good hokum can be found splattered throughout the bulk of Graham Moore’s tidy script, revealing The Imitation Game for the covetous awards hog it truly is. WWII? Check. Unsung but crucial historical figure? Check. Demons in closet? Check. “Wrap it up fellas, the Oscar’s in the bag.” Even the unwieldy CGI seems like an inside joke.
The idea of Keira Knightley as a era-smashing woman code-breaker threatens to upend the carefully formatted Oscar tedium but when she’s relegated to hiding her intelligence in the shadows, her character turns mostly moot. Knightley’s brainy Joan Clarke is certainly no Joan of Clarke, allowing the predominant belief that women can’t be nothing but seamstresses and baby-makers to shape her destiny. While Turing stuffs his unlawful preference in the closet (homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967) Clarke is his similarly secretive counterpart, solving puzzles by candlelight because the idea of a codebreaker with a vagina is just too much for those old snooty white guys to handle. Plus, cooties.
There’s an intriguing by-product to Clarke and Turing’s unorthodox union in which they both recognize and accept each other for who they are (Turing being gay and Clarke being…a smart woman?) but it’s mostly shadowed in an offscreen haze, only truly rearing its head for a late-stage Oscar moment scene. Clarke mostly becomes a fulcrum point around which Turing’s character evolves but is never substantial in herself, much like upper-decker officers Mark Strong and Charles Dance and inside team members Matthew Goode and Allen Leech. The pieces are all there but they’re as shaped and wooden as pawns, which Moore’s script plays them as.
In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency due to the investigation that bookends the film. In trying to prove that Turing was a spy, the local law reveled a romantic relationship with a 19-year-old boy. In a moment of Oscar glory, a discredited Turing admits he’s chosen to take “straight” pills rather than a prison sentence. Tears are had and I was reminded that this was the first time in the film that I actually felt much. For a film that tries to tackle so much within such a limited spectrum, The Imitation Game is as dated about its politics as it is about its filmmaking. Where it should have been brave, bold and pioneering, it’s clunky, squeamish and ultimately forgettable.
Take thematic elements of Joe Swanberg‘s Happy Christmas, distill it down, add paint-by-numbers rom-com structure, weed out the elements that distinguish mumblecore as such and replace the winning Anna Kendrick with the accent-jostling Keira Knightley and you have Laggies, a competently told but widely borrowed tale of arrested adolescence.
Knightley is Megan, a wanderer of the pathetic breed. In the years since her high school prom – which the movie unexplainably opens on – her besties have become more mannered, her boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) more tame. With her sign-spinning job, dependence on others, total lack of direction and joyless “drifting through life” attitude, Megan is the short end of the stick.
On the night of her best friend’s wedding, she discovers her father (Jeff Garlin) cheating on her mother and flees from the scene of the crime to encounter Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants teen-rager who asks if she’ll buy her and her underaged posse some brewskis. Shortly thereafter, Anthony proposes to Megan, sending her into an existential spiral that lands her back in the company of the teenaged Annika and her suave, divorcee father Craig (Sam Rockwell).
As a film rummaging through underdeveloped ethos and aimless reckonings, Laggies seems like a freshman effort rather than the work of a seasoned pro. A marked improvement over director Lynn Shelton‘s last project, the wholeheartedly flat Touchy Feely, Laggies can’t help but feel like a director moving in the wrong director. After all, when everything is finally unpacked, there are no revelations we couldn’t see coming from minute 35, no statement that needed to explode out from the film.
All the asinine elements with which Shelton plays with have been done before and to greater effect. Look no further than the work of contemporary and mumblecore comrade Joe Swanberg to get not just one but many examples of this exact story done, quite frankly, far better. Both this year’s Happy Christmas and last year’s Drinking Buddies are perfect diagrams of how to make this brand of indie film. If Swanberg is dishing up fillets, Shelton seems content serving beef chuck. It’s the difference between medium rare and well done. Often less is more.
Having said that, one of the things that most annoys me about the film is how tidy everything is. In a film about chaos and confusion, characters on the brink of breaking down and frozen with fear of commitment, by the end of the film, have recovered miraculously. Shelton has put a nice little bow on everything as if to deem it appropriate viewing for a mom and her teenage daughter. It’s a scramble of odds and ends that shouldn’t fit so neatly together but ultimately do. The storybook ending is boring. Life is a mess. Real humans don’t get resolution. These are the platitudes that the mumblecore movement were founded on. To revert back to the stepping stones of the uninspired linear dramedy is to miss the point of the genre. It sounds harsh but I hate to see the potential squandered.
In the acting department, most of the crew is doing fine work. Knightley scrubs some of the char off her namesake that she’s earned with her most recent effort, offering a loafer of a character who, at the very least, comes with a few extra layers attached. Even if her perpetual indecisiveness is more noxious than pitiable, it’s nice to see Knightley changing up her game and bringing something wholly new to the table. Her accent coach must have retired though as her on-again-off-again accent flubs are nearly as noticeable here as they were in grizzly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Standing aside her, Sam Rockwell, as always, is a gift. And yet, again, his character seemed like a bit of a wasted opportunity on all fronts. I would have liked to see more to him; more comedy, more tragedy, more everything. If Laggies were from Sam Rockwell’s character’s perspective, it would have been twice as good. And not-so-little Chloe Grace Moretz holds her own as well, showcasing a skill for understatement that was sorely missing in her last endeavor, If I Stay.
From a purely narcissistic angle, I appreciated the drizzly Seattle setting, which opened the doors to some of the finer establishments in the Emerald City, establishments that I have otherwise not stepped within. Steeped in the nonchalance of a Pacific Northwest rain shower, Laggies has a throbbing sense of place to it, one of the finer components in a film that really needs that kind of specificity. Though Benjamin Gibbard‘s musical score is entirely forgettable, other resident Benjamin, Bejamin Kasulke‘s subtle cinematography accomplishes its goal of keeping the characters in the forefront and the atmosphere appropriately Seattle. And though there are bits to like here and there, Laggies is a movie sorely missing a point.
Begin Again is the type of movie that comes with a set of instructions: Pre-heat oven to 400°. Mix divorce, heartbreak, success, failure and teen angst in a bowl while stirring in heavy doses of music. Cook for 104 minutes or until golden brown. Your film is now done and ready to enjoy!
What you see is what you get. Alcoholism is communicated via bottle: whiskey on the table and a beer in the fridge. You don’t get to witness any of the debilitation or struggle that comes with it. An empty drink is supposed to fill the gap. This is like journeying through South America and filming the mosquito bites. Or, you know, casting Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine as a pop star and covering all the tattoos.
Director/Writer John Carney is a good enough cook to blend his ingredients just right without getting into the complicated stuff. He knows when to flip the dish and what to stuff it with, and sometimes he’ll throw in a dash of spice to give it a kick. It may not turn out perfect, but he’s put enough love and time into it to make a good meal out of it.
Luckily for Carney, it’s hard to screw anything up when your main dish is a 5« serving of Mark Ruffalo. No, he’s not doing any detective work in Begin Again, save maybe gumshoeing his way into our hearts. Ruffalo is simply ‘Dan,’ a music producer who started his own record label from scratch alongside Saul (Mos Def)—Carney doesn’t bother to give any of his characters a last name. As good music gave way to pop and a divorce with his wife took its toll, Dan found the bottle and never took his lips from it. After an outburst in front of some high-profile customers, Saul cans Dan, who tries to take some paintings and employees with him. “This isn’t Jerry McGuire!” Saul says.
Actually, it kind of is. A beleaguered and stressed agent gets fired and starts over with a new philosophy and a new client. This time it’s Greta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter whose boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) gets caught up in his newfound fame and cheats on her, leaving her alone in New York City. She’s got a meek voice and some strong lyrics, but it takes a drunken Ruffalo to notice her talents. He tells her he’ll use his connections to get her a record deal. Soon they’re recording an entire album on New York streets with a full band provided by Cee Lo Green, Julliard and some random kids Ruffalo finds in an alleyway.
Ruffalo sets the beat. He’s endearing, keenly funny and he’s got one of those smiles that make you smile back. Carney’s given him something to do with his hands as he’s always got some booze tightly grasped. Mark’s drunk is a jolly one, more tipsy than dizzy. He’s the type who’ll wake up in a dumpster and giggle about it then start drinking again. It makes you wonder if he’s even acting. Ruffalo toes the line and he’s having fun with it. He’s the main source of comedy. You can’t help but want to grab a beer with him. But, his sober side shows a hidden tenderness, a latent passion. Hailee Steinfeld is strong as Ruffalo’s neglected daughter, and their father-daughter relationship makes for good moments.
Knightley’s the kick. She’s got a shy voice but a strong personality: she’s always wearing a confusing amount of fabric, which seems to fit the layers of depth she’s getting at in her role. Ruffalo and Knightley spend a night together in New York, dancing and sharing music on a CD player like old friends. Their relationship is so fun that you hope Carney doesn’t ruin it with romance. Her smart performance and Carney’s shrewd writing keep you guessing. Surprisingly, she’s even able to bring out the best from first-time film actor Adam Levine. In a fantastic break-up scene, Levine plays a song he’s written on the road. Knightley can tell it’s not for her; she slaps him across the face. When he smashes his glass of wine, Knightley’s the one that’s shattering.
Maroon 5’s head man is a strange case as he isn’t really acting so much as pretending. A pop star in real life, it’s difficult to look past Adam and see the ‘Dave.’ Carney gives him enough that he isn’t reaching: he’s calling upon real experience. Though he keeps up with the cast, it’s hard not to wonder why he was chosen for the role. You wouldn’t cast Peyton Manning in a football movie and call him Jim. Carney’s pushing suspension of belief too far.
Overall, it’s hard not to like what Carney’s cooked up here, though at times it gets uppity. There’s a lot of “it’s all about the music man!” thrown around, when the music is nothing you haven’t heard before. Instead of the songs, it’s the quirks—touches of comedy, theg dynamic between Ruffalo and Knightley, genuine performances from the whole cast—that get you tapping your feet right along with it.
With music and New York serving as backdrops, Begin Again is touching, funny and lively enough to merit a taste. Imaginative and different, it challenges what you would normally expect from a rom-com. Carney doesn’t overcook it, and there’s spice enough to defy expectations. I left the theater full. Maybe even a little too full.