The Broken and the Unbroken

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Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.



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To Praise or to Push?

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“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



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Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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The Worm that Walked

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A nightcrawler is the news media’s version of an ambulance chaser. Armed with a video camera and a police scanner, these freelance pseudo-photojournalists rush to the scene of horrific crimes or accidents with the hope of being the first to film the most sensational stories and send them off to the highest bidding newsroom. On a good night they can make a few hundred bucks. On a great night, they can make a few thousand.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is down on his luck and looking for a job when he happens on an accident scene where he watches a nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) film a story and then negotiate a deal. Soon he has a camera and a police scanner of his own. He hires Rick, a homeless young man (Riz Ahmed), to ride shotgun, call out directions from the GPS and then stay with the car so Bloom doesn’t have to waste time parking it when he gets to the scene. He develops a knack not only for getting to the scene first, but for framing the shots and even, occasionally, staging the scene for more dramatic effect. The line between news and art soon becomes blurred as Bloom becomes more and more driven to “get the shot.”

With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the late night news director for the early morning show on the lowest-rated news show in town. She is desperate for crime exclusives that will bring more viewers to her network. When Bloom brings her some particularly salacious footage and negotiates for a price, she reacts to the breaking story in the way an addict reacts when she’s in need of a hit. She will do anything to get Bloom’s footage on her show. Anything.

While this inside look at the seedy underworld of freelance videography is fascinating, the real draw of this film is Bloom himself. With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy. He’s a nightcrawler of a baser sort — the kind that might be lurking under a rock. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but it’s his own sense of what is right — and you’d better not wrong him. At one point Rick observes, “You don’t understand people.” Bloom responds with his polite smile, “It isn’t that I don’t understand people. I don’t like them.” This detachment prevents Bloom from feeling the squeamishness normal people feel at the sight of blood, gore, and tragedy, and drives him to get better and better shots — the kind of shots normal people feel repelled by and drawn to at the same time.

In last year’s Prisoners, when he played Detective Loki, a policeman helping a father (Hugh Jackman) find two kidnapped girls,Gyllenhaal gave us a hint of the kind of work he is capable of producing. Through subtle means — excessive blinking, unexplained tattoos, sideways glances — he suggested that his character might have a past that made him unbalanced. With Lou Bloom Gyllenhaal has created a character devoid of compassion yet oh-so-polite and driven by his own sense of correctness. Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role, not just because he thought his character should look gaunt, but because he wanted his character to look hungry. It worked.

This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film, and it’s a winner. His car chases are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially one thrilling shot that begins on the back license plate, pans around the side of the car, and ends up on the front license plate, all at race-car speeds. Gilroy’s brother Tony is known for his own spectacular car chases in the Bourne films, but Dan brings something so much stronger to the screen than just action and thrill rides. His characters are deep, dark, and dangerous in ways that have nothing to do with weapons or fists. Lou Bloom is a character you will remember for a long time. He might even remind you of someone you know — uber calm, uber polite, and uber creepy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nightcrawler," directed by Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014, 117 minutes.



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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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You Be the Judge

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I like a character-driven film even more than a film with a good plot. Happily for viewers, The Judge offers both: it's a satisfying courtroom whodunit encased in a family drama portrayed by two powerhouse actors who convey the complex, competitive, and often painful relationship between a father and a son.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is one of those clever, conniving, cutthroat attorneys who put lawyers at the bottom of the list of most-trusted occupations. When he asks for a continuation on a difficult case because his mother has died, the prosecutor asks cynically, "How many times has your mother died this year?"

The truth is, only once. Hank's mother has indeed died, and he leaves immediately, alone, to attend her funeral. He has not visited his family since leaving home after high school.

Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the film’s title judge. He approaches the law in a way opposite to his son’s — not as a game to be manipulated but as a protective force to be honored and upheld.

Hank's first stop when he arrives in town is his father's courtroom, where he sits in the gallery unnoticed to watch his father at work adjudicating a case. Clearly he admires and has been shaped by his father. He even followed in his father's career path.

Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips.

Nevertheless, when Hank shows up for the funeral, Joseph can barely contain his disdain, and Hank can barely control his eagerness to get away. We learn that Hank hasn't been home in 20 years, yet he had stayed in contact with his mother (by phone) and was close enough to confide in her the most intimate part of his life — his failing marriage. Why? What happened? Of course we blame the harsh, domineering father. But when Joseph is arrested for a hit-and-run that occurs on the night after the funeral, Hank jumps from the first-class seat in which he is preparing to fly out of town and rushes to oversee the judge's defense.

Hank hates his father bitterly, yet he clearly admires him, loves him, and can't stand the thought of him going to prison. As other details about Hank's childhood emerge we realize that something has happened between them that was so deeply scarring that neither of them has been able to address it directly. It holds them together even as it drives them apart.

Director David Dobkin reveals all of this to us in flashes and snippets — not all at once, because the characters themselves can't face it all at once, and he wants us to feel their aversion. He wants us to feel how hard it is for them to talk about it or even to remember it.

A film like this could easily devolve into sentimental drivel, but it does not, largely because of the skills of its actors. Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips. Jeremy Strong as the mentally disabled brother Dale and Vincent D'Onofrio as the older brother Glen who remained in the small hometown to hold the family together while Hank went on to defense attorney glory also deliver powerful performances.

At almost 2 1/2 hours, The Judge is a bit long, but if you have father-child issues of your own that deal with judging and being judged (and who doesn't?), you will find this film an absorbing and compelling opportunity for reflection and catharsis.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Judge," directed by David Dobkin. Team Downey, 2014, 141 minutes.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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From Books to Film

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Liam Neeson has made a name for himself in the last few years as the Old Geezer of action heroes in movies known for their simple plots, video-game action, and one-word titles such as Taken, Unknown,and Non-Stop. . . . Regular readers of Liberty know that I’m rather taken with the Taken films, regardless of their simplicity.

But Neeson is more than just a rugged face with a powerful punch; he’s a classically trained actor with more than a dozen major awards and two dozen major nominations, so it’s nice to see him back in a role that allows him to flex his acting muscles again. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a cool, atmospheric crime drama based on a series of novels written by Lawrence Block that feature former-cop-turned-private-investigator Matt Scudder. Scudder is also a former-drunk-turned-recovering-alcoholic.

In Walk, Scudder (Neeson) is the privatest of private eyes; he doesn’t have a license and operates outside the law. He is driven by a mixture of justice and revenge, garnished with a twist of guilt over a tragedy that occurred while he was a cop. This combination can become a dangerous cocktail. Like Mel Gibson’s character in the Lethal Weapon series, Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways, in fact, he sees death as a welcome escape — and this adds to the tension in the film. Contributing to the tension are the unexpected and jarring juxtapositions of beauty and horror that lift the quality of the filmmaking and enhance the viewers’ expectations. Especially effective is the way the AA 12-Step affirmations are used at a significant point in the film.

Initially Scudder rejects the job of tracking down the ruthless pervs who have kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered the wife of wealthy drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). He knows Kenny just wants the pleasure of killing them slowly — and gruesomely — and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. But he is drawn into the case when he realizes that the men might be serial killers who will strike again. The film then becomes a race to find the killers and stop them.

Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways he sees death as a welcome escape.

In the books Scudder works closely with police detective Joe Durkin, and the movie role of Durkin was originally cast with Ruth Wilson as a female Joe. But director Scott Frank decided that Scudder’s character is more realistic as a brooding loner, so Joe Durkin was cut from the story line — after Wilson had already been filmed in many of the scenes! (That these scenes aren’t even missed is a tribute to the film’s editor.) Elaine, Scudder’s call-girl girlfriend in the novels, is conspicuously absent as well. Instead, Scudder interacts with a homeless, tech savvy, African-American teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who serves to soften Scudder in the eyes of the audience while emphasizing the lack of family connection in Scudder’s life. Cutting the two once-prominent characters was a smart move for the movie, despite their integral part in the novel series.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a throwback to the heyday of gritty crime movies. I almost expected to see Popeye Doyle show up for a car chase under the elevated train. The acting is superb at every level. Dan Stevens is especially good as Kenny Kristo, the grieving and vengeful husband; his intense, icy eyes glare up under heavy brows in every scene, convincing us that he is capable of anything. Astro (who was discovered as a young rapper on The X Factor a couple of years ago) is also effective as the homeless kid with the optimistic outlook and poignant determination. And it’s always good to see Liam Neeson step out of his one-word, one-tone, one-dimensional action romps to remind us that he’s still an A-list actor.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Walk Among the Tombstones," directed by Scott Frank (2014). Cross Creek Pictures, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Listen Up, Groupmates

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The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.

To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”

The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.

No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.

In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.

The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)

Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside worlda reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.

Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Giver," directed by Phillip Noyce. As Is Productions, 2014, 97 minutes.



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