Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!

award

Top Ten Films of 2014 (With Incidental Oscar Predictions)

Living in the hinterlands of Arkansas rather than New York or Los Angeles, we don’t get to see many of the best films of one year until two months into the next, which is why a “Best of 2014” list can’t come out until today, the day of the Oscars, since it is only within the past few weeks that several films finally in wide release have been available for consumption by the vast majority of American viewers. But it seems appropriate now, after reviewing many of them, and before the orgy of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory binge known as the Academy Awards, that I put out my own list of the ten films that I consider the best of the lot for 2014. In rough order from tenth best to best of all, with interspersed commentary on who I believe will win the most coveted Oscars, here is that list:

10. The Theory of Everything

The story of the marriage of Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist, and his wife Jane Wilde, has received a good deal of attention for its lead actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne is almost certain to walk away with the Academy Award—his is the sort of role the Academy loves. Struck by Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21, and given two years to live, Hawking marries Jane, fathers children, gains a worldwide reputation as a scientific genius, while at the same time physically degenerating until he can move only some of his fingers and is only able to speak in a mechanical-sounding voice through a computer. Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking’s long battle against disintegration is the most memorable thing about the movie. But Jones’s portrayal of a wife who, believing she was in for two years of heartache, must bear it for decades, and her own emotional price that she pays for her marriage, is a subtle and impressive context for Redmayne’s performance. Jones is unlikely to claim the Oscar however—that may be sewn up by Julianne Moore for her parallel performance of a declining genius in Still Alice. But Redmayne is likely to lose only if Birdman is dominating the awards and sweeps Michael Keaton to an Oscar on its coattails. As a film, The Theory of Everything has a few flaws common in biopics—it is episodic and at times moves through too much too quickly, but director James Marsh should be commended for making an honest movie that looks at the legitimate problems real people face in extreme situations like this marriage.

9. The Immigrant

A brilliant film completely overlooked by the Academy is James Gray’s The Immigrant. Gray’s film opened pretty much everywhere in the world in 2013, but did not get into even limited release in the United States until May 16 of last year, at which time it played to small audiences. The aura of hopelessness that hangs over the film made it a good bet it was never going to be a mega-hit, but distributor Harvey Weinstein, who feuded with Gray and demanded cuts in the movie, certainly did not help matters and did not really push the film as Oscar-worthy until its star, Marion Cotillard , had already received several awards for her performance. The film is beautifully shot, a period piece set in 1921 New York, and filmed in a retro style that emulates old Hollywood melodramas. The film chronicles the story of Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda, who land at Ellis Island in pursuit of the American Dream, only to see Magda quarantined on the island because of a lung disease, and Ewa is left to her own devices on the streets of New York, hoping to find some way to stay in America and to reunite with her sister. She falls in with a burlesque producer and pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and has a chance to be rescued from the life by Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner). The performances are, as befits the film’s style, melodramatic, but the film is a scathing criticism of the American Dream and an historical look at a contemporary problem—the plight of immigrants. If you are one of the millions who did not see this movie, it is available on blu-ray and other sources now, so I urge you to see it.

8. Selma

The year’s most important “serious film,” Selma tells the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, a march that galvanized the country behind the Voting Rights Act and made the promise of the 15th amendment a reality for millions of African Americans. As a bio-pic, it does what Steven Spielberg did so effectively in Lincoln, showing the character of an individual through one crisis period, rather than attempting to trace the entire narrative arc of the person’s life. David Oyelowo, the classically trained British stage actor who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, gives a riveting performance as King, warts and all, successfully leading the march. While the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it was virtually shut out in other categories, nominated only for its original song, “Glory” by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, for which it will almost certainly win (sorry Lego). The lack of other nominations for a film that received a 98% positive rating from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes.com, may stem from two causes: First, the script had some flaws, in particular a tendency for characters to become preachy at times, with swelling music warning the audience that “I AM SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT NOW.” Second, the film took some heat from Joseph Califano, former presidential adviser for domestic affairs, who criticized what he called a distorted and inaccurate portrayal of LBJ’s part in the Selma march and the passing of the Voting Rights Act. But despite these flaws, the film made a huge political statement, coming out close to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Act of 1965—reminding us how much that law cost in human life and suffering, and by implication underscoring the ease by which the courts have allowed the law to expire. This is despite the fact that many new schemes to prevent voters from exercising their rights have sprung up recently in many states, not only in the South. In many ways the 50-year-old story of Selma is the most contemporary political statement of the 2014 film season.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

In a year that featured huge fantasy/adventure blockbusters including The Hunger Games, Transformers, X-Men, The Hobbit, the Planet of the Apes, Captain America and Spiderman, by far the best, the most engaging and entertaining was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Having the virtue of not taking itself or its genre too seriously, this film was irreverent and consistently funny and at the same time brimming with action and impressive visuals. The film featured oddball characters that you actually cared about, including a pistol-packing raccoon named Rocket, voiced by Oscar-nominated (not for this film) Bradley Cooper, an ent-like creature called Groot, the deadly Gamora, last of her species, and the frightening and powerful Drax. As the Han Solo-like adventurer Peter Quill, Chris Pratt leads this merry band against a fanatical megalomaniac bent on control of the entire galaxy. The film is a hoot, and if you haven’t seen it you need to rent or stream it ASAP. Sadly, it is nominated for only two Oscars, for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, and for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. It probably deserves both of these, and I would hope it gets the recognition those awards might bring it. Of course, as the second-highest grossing film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy won’t suffer too much if it fails to win those Oscars.

6. Grand Budapest Hotel

The year’s best comedy hands down (and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical to prove it), Wes Anderson’s latest quirky adventure was released rather early in the year but wasn’t forgotten by Academy voters, who nominated it for nine Oscars. It’s not likely to win any of the major ones, except perhaps one for Anderson for Best Original Screenplay, which it has a good shot at unless Birdman sweeps the awards (Birdman’s script is nearly as good, but Anderson’s is quirky, full of unexpected plot twists, and moving all at the same time). More likely at the Oscars are wins for Costuming and for Production Design, areas in which it has already been honored, and perhaps for Film Editing—unless Boyhood sweeps the awards. The story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge, and his faithful lobby boy and sidekick Zero Mourrtafa (Mathieu Amalric) and their adventures chasing a family fortune and a valuable Renaissance painting may be the most absorbing romp of the year.

5. Calvary

A small movie completely ignored by the Academy is John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the devastating story of an Irish priest in Sligo facing murder by one of his parishioners who was sexually abused by his priest as a child. The parishioner knows that Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, and plans to kill him because no one would pay attention to the murder of a bad priest. The film, which follows Father James through his week, shows him visiting his parish full of people who no longer see the Church as an institution with any moral authority, but continuing to faithfully perform his duties. “Do not despair,” the film’s headnote proclaims. “One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: One of the thieves was not.” All of Father James’s parishioners fall into one of these categories, but Father James forgives all of them—like his role-model on the original Calvary—even forgiving the one who kills him, as he dies for the sins of others. McDonagh said he made the film deliberately in the wake of worldwide condemnation of clergy abuse, to be a story concerned with forgiveness and not condemnation. It is a small, quiet film that packs a huge wallop. Gleeson is fabulous in the lead role, and the film devastating but in the end, somehow uplifting. More people should have seen it in the theater. But I would strongly urge you to rent or stream his film.

4. Imitation Game

The biography of Alan Turing, Imitation Game is the story of a pioneer in computing and artificial intelligence, focusing on his work with British MI-6 during the Second World War, and his group’s cracking of the previously unbreakable German Enigma code. This was an accomplishment that saved what is estimated to be millions of lives and shortened the war by two years. The film is well written, and the one Oscar it seems destined to win is for Adapted Screenplay for Graham Moore. But what is most engaging about the film is the brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing—arrogant and socially inept, machine-like but harboring gut-wrenching emotions, and the equally impressive job turned in by Keira Knightley as Turing’s colleague and fellow genius Joan Clarke. Neither is likely to win the award in their category, but together they help make The Imitation Game one of the most powerful films of the year, and the issue of Turing’s sexuality makes this film another politically timely one.

3. The Lego Movie

By far the best and the most creative animated film of 2014, and one that also made almost everybody else’s list of top 10 films of the year, one of the top reviewed films of the year, and one of the top grossing movies of 2014, I’m still completely flabbergasted that The Lego Movie was not even nominated for an Oscar as best animated film (that will probably go to How to Train Your Dragon 2), when in fact it should have been one of the movies nominated for best film of the year. Seriously, everything about this movie was awesome. It had beautiful animation, a great cast of voices, and brilliant satire softened by its gently ironic tone and hilarious jokes (I’ll never look at Batman the same way again). Rumor has it that Academy voters who had not seen the movie thought of it as just a movie length “toy advertisement” and so defeated its nomination. Get a clue, Academy. At least watch the movies so you have a legitimate reason to disregard them. The only award the film is nominated for is original song, for the infectious “Everything is Awesome.” It’s possible, but not likely, that voters will take out their frustration at the film’s snub by giving the Oscar to its song, but that’s a pretty long shot.

2. Boyhood

If there is one certainty in his year’s Academy Awards, it is Richard Linklater’s Oscar for Best Director for his twelve-year project Boyhood. Filmed with the same actors over a period from 2002 through 2013, the film follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through his college orientation. The fact that Linklater was able to complete such a project, that he was able to keep a cast together to film them off and on for twelve years, and that he could edit such material into a movie with a narrative arc is a feat unrivaled in the history of feature films. Ethan Hawke as Mason’s sometimes absent father, and Patricia Arquette as his often ineffectual mother, are impressive in their roles and have been nominated for Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Arquette is actually favored to win, though she does have competition from the always formidable Meryl Streep from Into the Woods and from my own favorite in this category, Laura Dern from Wild. But I suspect Arquette will win. If she does not, it is a clear indication that Boyhood will lose the Best Picture Oscar, probably to Birdman. Hawke is less likely to win: The favorite in his category is veteran character actor J.K. Simmons for his unforgettable performance in Whiplash. And never count out the sentimental vote for the always brilliant Robert Duvall in The Judge. If Hawke wins this category, look for a Boyhood sweep, and expect Boyhood to win Best Picture as well. In my own opinion, though admirable for its hyperrealism and for its sensitive portrayal of an archetypal coming-of-age story, Boyhood is overlong and somewhat rambling in terms of plot. It is a remarkable technical achievement judged intellectually, but for me, it is not a film that generates a lot of affection. I don’t think it is 2014’s best film.

1.Birdman

My pick for the number one movie of 2014, and the film I believe should and will win the Oscar for Best Picture, is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the quirky, brilliantly post-modern, self-referential and magical-realist psychological drama about Riggan Thomson, former blockbuster movie star as “Birdman,” attempting to make a comeback and re-launch his career as a serious actor despite the voices in his head that try to convince him he will never succeed. The film raises huge questions about its own art form: What are the purposes of art? Should art please the crowd or be aimed at the elite? The film, of course, does both, impressing the critics while entertaining the masses with hilarious scenes like the one of Riggan running through Times Square in his underwear, having locked himself out of the theater in the middle of a performance. It has moving dramatic conflicts between Riggan and his daughter (Emma Stone) and his co-star (Edward Norton). And it has brilliant cinematography—Emmanuel Lubezki shot a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long, continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Lubezki should certainly win the Oscar for cinematography. And the screenplay could give Grand Budapest Hotel a run for the Oscar. Norton and Stone give performances that elevate the film, though it is unlikely they will go home with the Oscars, nor are Keaton or Iñárritu likely to do so. But Birdman is a tour de force, technically brilliant, well-acted, entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s the best movie of 2014.

Honorable mention: Still Alice, Two Days One Night, Wild, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Foxcatcher

Alice

Movie Review: Still Alice by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

Ruud Rating

STILL ALICE
Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Julianne Moore is nominated for an academy award this year for the fifth time in her distinguished career: She lost in the leading actress category for The End of the Affair and Far from Heaven, in in the supporting actress category for Boogie Nights and The Hours. It may be that this is her year, since she has already won the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Golden Globe for her riveting performance in Still Alice, and the odds are good she will be taking home some hardware from the Oscar ceremony, as well. If you have a chance to see the film, finally in wide release, you should take it, but don’t go expecting the feel-good movie of the year.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. She has had a long and happy marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), apparently a member of the faculty of Columbia’s medical school, and she has three grown children—her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), a lawyer, is married herself and planning to start a family, while her son (Hunter Parrish) is in medical school. As the film opens, the family is sitting around a table at an upscale restaurant, celebrating Alice’s 50th birthday. It is a comfortable upper-middle class family celebrating the position and comfort they have achieved. Missing from the celebration, however, is Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the black sheep of the family who has forgone a college degree to try to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress. With her father’s help (and without Alice’s knowing), Lydia has invested in an equity-sharing theater group. At the beginning of the film, this first-world problem is the only cloud on Alice’s crystal-blue horizon.

But shortly after her birthday, Alice is giving a guest lecture at UCLA and cannot think of the word she wants. It’s a very small glitch, but soon after she is home and out for a morning run, ending in the middle of Columbia’s campus, where she stops, suddenly confused, as nothing looks familiar. At Christmas dinner, she forgets how to make her special bread-pudding recipe, and chases her children out of the kitchen so that she can look up the recipe on her iPhone. But she still makes a serious error at Christmas dinner, forgetting that she has already met her son’s girlfriend once that night and introducing herself again.

After these incidents, fearing she may have a brain tumor, Alice visits a neurologist and, after a number of tests, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As it turns out, the disease in her case is caused by a genetic disorder, and the odds are 50-50 that any one of her children may have the same disorder, and face the same future when they reach their fifties.

And that is that. The rest of the film chronicles Alice’s steady, inexorable decline one devastating incident at a time. Despite her memory exercises, her daily questions that she has her phone ask her, we see her fairly rapidly lose her ability to remember. Some scenes are excruciating—the scene where she cannot remember where the bathroom is in her house; the scene where she praises an actress’s performance in a play, forgetting that it is in fact her own daughter.

The film could easily be maudlin or sentimental or melodramatic. It is none of these things. It doesn’t need to be. Based on a novel by Lisa Genova and adapted for the screen by directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (Quinceañera), the story merely needs to show the reality of Alzheimer’s, the inevitable loss of the person that Alice was, to be heartbreaking. And Moore, as she always is, is perfect in her restrained, understated portrayal of a woman refusing to panic, determined to fight off the darkness as long as possible, and making plans to take matters into her own hands when things become too difficult and she loses herself completely.

But the film goes further. It also explores ways that the disease affects family members and how they relate to the patient as the patient continues to lose touch. One of the film’s best performances comes from Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband John, who begins as a caring and understanding partner through the first part of the illness, but clearly draws away from Alice—understandably—as her condition worsens, and she becomes essentially something that must be dealt with. We forget, in the wake of Baldwin’s brilliant comic turn in 30 Rock, that he can also be very effective in a serious role (think The Departed or Glengarry Glen Ross).

More surprising is Kristen Stewart (Twilight) as Lydia. She is given a role that allows her a complex range of emotions—she has the typical young woman’s problems with her demanding mother who consistently nags her about her life choices, but has the deepest empathy of any of Alice’s family (maybe that’s why she is an actress). She is the only one who can really talk to her mother about her illness, and will listen and understand how her mother feels about what is happening to her. She is the only one who is brave enough to form a new relationship with the different person her mother is becoming.

Of course, the script has made Lydia the most sympathetic role, and Stewart makes the best of it. One of the film’s flaws is the lack of development of the other two children. Anna is one dimensional, self-centered and unsympathetic. The son Tom is barely there—he has little to do other than escort new girlfriends around.

Something seems to be missing in Alec Baldwin’s part as well. His withdrawal from Alice seems too sudden, and we do not get inside his head at all to understand his final decisions in the film. There is a moment late in the film when he asks Alice if she “wants to be here.” It isn’t clear whether he is asking whether she wants to stay in New York, or whether she wants to die. And it may be that the ambiguity is intended. But as the film winds down, we move from one scene of Alice’s degeneration to another, and the narrative arc of the film seems to degenerate as Alice’s mental faculties do. But we also lose focus on the other characters—as, in fact Alice does, until in the end she has all but lost her ability to speak. The very end of the film is a little too precious, a little too tidy for the mess that Alice’s life has become. Overall, however, the film makes its audience feel profoundly the wrenching effects of the loss of self that the fading of a lifetime’s memories brings.

I’ll give this movie three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare, based on Moore’s Oscar-worthy performance and an excellent supporting cast.

twomoviestars

Movie Review: The Grudge Match 2014 – Jennifer Aniston & Marion Cotillard

One of the great controversies of this year’s Oscar race is the perceived “snub” of Jennifer Aniston for her performance in the film Cake (which garnered her a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best actress) in favor of the surprise nomination for the Academy Awards’ favorite Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard for her performance in Two Days, One Night, a film that barely squeezed into eligibility by appearing on five screens in the United States before the December 31 deadline for nominations. On the off chance that somebody may care what I think about it, let me devote this column to an exploration of the two performances with an eye toward either lamenting Anniston’s snub or applauding Cotillard’s nomination.

Both actresses play women suffering from depression. In Aniston’ case, it is a depression that continues throughout the movie without much hope. In Cotillard’s, it is a depression she has recovered from though the circumstances of the film threaten to drag her down once more. It ought to be said at the outset that both actresses are convincing in their pain and evoke from the viewer both sympathy and frustration, much as they do to those closest to them in their respective films.

But there are few other similarities in the characters. Anniston plays Claire Bennett, a wealthy Los Angeles attorney whose bitterness over a car accident that killed her young son and left her scarred and in severe pain has driven her husband away, and has kept her from returning to work after more than a year. Her only support is her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who stays devoted to her when anyone else would have been long gone. Cotillard plays Sandra, a working-class woman who, trying to return to her job at a solar panel factory after missing time with emotional problems, finds herself laid off as a result of a vote forced on her coworkers by the company’s management. Sandra’s loyal husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) stays with her and consistently encourages her to keep fighting for her job.

Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland), presents Claire as an angry, resentful woman who is kicked out of her support group for her caustic remarks about others’ pain, is about to be dropped by her physical therapist for failing to make an effort to improve, engages in casual sex with people like the pool boy in order to have some form of human contact, and is addicted to painkillers to such an extent that she convinces her housekeeper to drive her to Tijuana to pick some up illegally. When it appears that there is little or nothing that she can do to win our sympathy, Claire steps in to save Silvana from an embarrassing encounter with a few patronizing “old friends” they run into while lunching in Mexico. And there are other occasional flashes of the old Claire that surface, underscoring what a loss it is that she has become what she has.

Along the way Claire has become obsessed with one of her former support group patients (Anna Kendrick), who has committed suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. The scenes where Kendrick appears are an interesting break from the nearly unrelenting misery of the film, though in the end it’s hard to tell whether they are dreams or hallucinations, and exactly what they are telling Claire. But her interest in Kendrick, while it seems to put the idea of suicide into her mind, also strangely compels Claire to seek out Kendrick’s former home, meet her husband (Sam Worthington) and son, and gives her some interest in forming tentative new human connections.

The plot of the latest film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike), Two Days, One Night, is simpler and in many ways more realistic: Sandra (Cotillard) has just returned to her job after a bout with depression, but the management of the Belgian solar panel factory has put her fate into the hands of her 16 fellow workers: they can either allow Sandra to return to work, or they can receive a bonus of 1,000 euros and Sandra will be laid off. The company cannot afford both.

The vote turns out 14 to 2 in favor of the bonus, and Sandra appears doomed to lose her job—a job she and her husband and two children need in order to stay in their home. Word is, however, that the foreman has influenced the vote by hinting to some workers that if Sandra is not laid off, they very may well be. Sandra and her friend Juliette speak to the manager and get him to agree to another vote that will take place on Monday morning. After speaking to one of the other workers by phone, Sandra is faced with the task of spending the weekend tracking down the remaining 13 co-workers and trying to convince them to change their votes.

What could have been an exercise in redundancy—one confrontation after another—turns instead into a series of tiny individual mini-dramas in which we see thirteen different characters, each confronted with the choice of taking the thousand euros—a sum which each of them needs to some extent—or sacrificing that sum to allow Sandra to keep her job, her entire income. It is a moral and ethical dilemma that plays out for each character in a different way, and we see layer upon layer of internal struggle in each character that Sandra approaches.

The fact is that both performances are excellent. If I had to choose, I would say that Cotillard’s shows more range. It is subtle and quiet, and from her tearing eyes to her need for her Xanax to her optimistic rallying to her despair and desire to just go to bed, she is perfectly convincing as a woman truly suffering from depression. Aniston physically gets into her role, moving gingerly throughout as if in perpetual agony, and pays a bitter suffering woman with occasional glimpses of the humor that used to be there. But in a direct comparison of the two performances, it is Aniston’s that I came away from thinking “That was pretty good acting,” and it was from Cotillard’s that I came away thinking, “That was real.”

In the end, Two Days, One Night is a much better movie than Cake. Aniston acted as executive producer for the film, clearly because she wanted a serious dramatic role at this stage in her career, playing a role that she normally would not have been considered for, with her history chiefly in romantic comedy. Her performance here will certainly make her a viable candidate for other more serious roles in the future. But the film itself follows a very familiar arc of healing and doesn’t really give us anything new—other than the strange scenes with Kendrick. But for many Academy voters Cake may have simply been too obviously a vehicle by which Jennifer Aniston was trying to win herself an Oscar nod.

Two Days, One Night, on the other hand, is the first film that the Dardenne brothers have made with a major star, and Cotillard’s appearance in the film will no doubt give it a greater circulation than it would otherwise have attained. But the film itself is well-made, with or without its star. It has a simple but clever premise that allows for a great range of dramatic encounters within its limited scope. There is no question that a good performance in an excellent movie is going to be more remarkable to an audience than a good performance in a mediocre movie. And Cotillard’s performance is better than good. The academy made the right call. If you have to choose, see the French film with its subtitles, and skip the star-making vehicle.

The Verdict:

Ruud Rating

Jennifer Aniston in
CAKE
Two Susanns/Half Tenneyson

Ruud Rating

Marion Cotillard in
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

VoilentYear

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year by J.C. Chandor

Ruud Rating

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

If, as Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived,” then Abel Morales, protagonist of writer/director, J.C. Chandor’s new film (finally in wide release) A Most Violent Year, is quite happy at the end of the movie. But Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) has given us a film so complex in its moral ambiguity that by the end we are not sure ourselves whether we should celebrate virtue triumphant or lament the irresistible flood of corruption that seems to engulf the five burroughs of New York in the winter of 1981—as the film’s title proclaims, one of the most violent in the city’s history.

Previews make Chandor’s work look like a gangster film, when it is anything but: It might be better called an anti-gangster film. Morales, played by an impressively understated Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is a Latino businessman chasing the American Dream: the CEO of the highly profitable Standard Heating Oil Company, he is about to lose the biggest deal of his career, a deal that will secure a large waterfront property that will give him vast storage capabilities, allowing him to buy oil when it is cheap and store it until its price goes up in winter. It will also give him the ability to bring his product directly to his tanks by sea, cutting his costs and increasing his profits. He will become king of his industry. He put his life savings into the down payment on the property, and has a month to secure the $1.5 million loan he needs to complete the deal. If he fails to come up with the remaining money, he will lose everything.

But things begin to unravel in Morales’ business. His drivers are being regulary hijacked at gunpoint and his oil stolen from him, thousands of gallons at a time. His salesmen are attacked by thugs working for his competitors when they make sales calls. Not only is he unable to get the assistant district attorney Lawrence (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo) to take any interest in these hijackings, he learns that Lawrence, who has been investigating the heating-oil industry, is about to bring charges against him for corruption, tax-evasion, and fraud, charges that he strongly, but politely, denies. To make matters worse, the bank that was to finance the remainder of Morales’s business deal becomes hesitates in the wake of the indictments.

There is a panicked, almost claustrophobic feel to the film as time passes, and Morales must fight off pressures from a teamster boss who insists on arming all of Morales’s drivers (with somewhat questionable permits) to prevent the hijackings—a step Morales feels will only escalate the violence; he must go hat in hand to rivals in his own industry to secure short-term loans with outrageous conditions attached, while at the same time trying to figure out which of three rivals is actually behind the harassment of his drivers, he has to prove his innocence of the criminal charges against him while his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) and lawyer (Albert Brooks) assure him that they have followed “standard industry practice” in all business dealings, with the unspoken implication that there probably are some not-completely-honest transactions that have gone on without his knowledge; and through it all he must strive not to succumb to Chastain’s goading him to “do something” to protect his business and family from those who do not scruple to use violence against him. Anna, the daughter of a Brooklyn mob boss, does not have Morales’s scrupulously honest instincts or his abhorrence of violence. She wants something done, and she wants it done now. “You’re not going to like what’ll happen if I get involved,” she warns.

The scenes between Anna and Morales are the most intense in the film. The tension between the two sometimes erupts into what can only be called abusive language on her part, though Morales maintains his controlled demeanor and projects, as he does in his public life, the demeanor of the reasonable, honest man. It is difficult to know whether this is all a front or whether he is in fact as honest as he purports to be. Chandor uses visual clues to make it difficult for us: Throughout the film, Morales is impeccably dressed in well-tailored suits, putting into practice what he tells his employees: “Have some pride in what you do.” But more significantly through most of the film he wears a long camel coat, identical to the one famously worn by Al Pacino in the Godfather II. Much in Isaac’s performance seems to channel Michael Corleone, but a Michael Corleone whose calm is not that of the unfeeling, calculating fratricide, but a Michael who resists the call of evil and preserves his own innocence. Or does he? A one point or other in the film, the Teamster boss (Peter Gerety), the Hassidic rabbi who sells him the waterfront property (Jerry Adler), and Morales’s own lawyer (Brooks) ask whether he fully understands what he is doing. The viewer must ask the same thing.

Morales tells the assistant D.A. late in the film that in all his business dealings, his chasing of the American dream, he has taken the way that is “most right.” But at another point, Anna laughs at him with bitter irony when he talks like this, implying that there have been plenty of times that underhanded things have been done that have got him to this place of power and influence. Some clearly have been done by her without his knowledge—though when he asks if his lawyer knew about one of these things, Brooks answers “Of course.” If Morales did not know, it seems clear he should have. Given some of the choices that he does make in the course of the film, when he says that he always did what was “most right,” he clearly means that he chose to do what was least wrong: he says in the film that it is failure he fears the most, and while his goal is not success at any cost, it is success at the least possible cost to his integrity. In the end, this film does not present us a clear and naïve depiction of good and evil. It demonstrates what happens to an essentially moral man driven to succeed in a business in which violence and corruption are the rule and he is the exception. The film is ambiguous, and we never know everything that perhaps we would like to about Morales and his business. But there is the feeling as the final credits role, that Morales’s contentment with his own integrity may simply be, as Swift might say, the product of his own self-deception.

For fine performances and a truly intelligent story, give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

Whiplash

Movie Review: Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

Ruud Rating

WHIPLASH
Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, though critically admired, did not reach a huge audience upon its release last November, but since its five Oscar nominations it is making the rounds again, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in music, first-rate acting, and the art of film. Chazelle, not yet 30, wrote and directed this movie, based loosely on his own experiences as a student drummer studying under a harsh and rigorous mentor. He originally filmed an 18-minute short with the same title—the name of a Hank Levy jazz composition—which won the Sundance short film jury award in 2013. For that original short, produced by Jason Reitman among others, Chazelle was able to cast J.K. Simmons (who had worked on Reitman’s film Juno) in the pivotal role of the band director. In Chazelle’s full-length expansion of that original film, Simmons reprises his role in a memorable and sometimes shocking performance that has already garnered him a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Supporting Actor, and has made him the man to beat in the Oscar competition for that category. What kind of a music teacher is he? Let’s just say this is not exactly Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Indeed Simmons, more sadistic drill-instructor than teacher, has viewers jokingly calling the film “Full-Metal Julliard.” Essentially the plot of the film is this: Andrew Neyman, played convincingly by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is an aspiring 19-year-old drummer studying at a prestigious New York conservatory (based, presumably, on Julliard). His obsession with jazz and his single-minded ambition to become the next Buddy Rich bring him into the sphere of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), the most talented and feared instructor at the school, who conducts the conservatory’s top jazz ensemble. Once accepted into Fletcher’s band, Andrew witnesses the instructor’s over-the-top cruelty that involves mind-games as well as verbal and occasional physical abuse in a ruthless push for perfection. After his initial revulsion at Fletcher’s methods, Andrew succumbs to the obsession to become one of the greats: we are told, several times—by Fletcher—that Charlie Parker did not become Charlie Parker until drummer Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at his head, inspiring Parker to work fanatically harder and achieve immortality. In the course of the film, Andrew practices with zealous fervor, pushing himself until his hands bleed, after which he plunges them into cold water, bandages them, and pushes himself even harder.

The rest of Andrew’s life is treated almost as a subplot in the film, which in fact it is for Andrew. He has no friends, and manages to alienate most of the people he does know, including his fellow band members. He goes to movies with his father, a high school English teacher who was once an aspiring writer, played by Paul Reiser. He very nearly has a girlfriend—the concessions worker at the movie house, a perky Fordham freshman named Nicole (Melissa Benoist, of TV’s Glee), with an undecided major who has no clear goals of her own but to whom Andrew seems to relate on a human level far better than he relates to anyone else in the film. But it is a relationship that seems to get in the way of his monomaniacal obsession with his art, and which he cuts off while sitting in a booth at a restaurant with no show of emotion. Most of the audience must agree with Nicole’s last word to him as she leaves the restaurant: “What is wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with Andrew is that he’s buying what Fletcher is selling: He wants to be the next Charlie Parker and is willing to let Fletcher keep throwing metaphorical cymbals at his head to push him to that level. By the midway point of the film it seems clear that Andrew has begun to equate pleasing the impossibly demanding Fletcher with achieving his dream. He is led to more and more improbable lengths to remain in Fletcher’s good graces, and—even though he clearly hates the instructor at the same time—cannot be brought to completely abandon his worship of him even after it appears (little bit of a spoiler alert coming up) that Fletcher’s bullying has caused serious harm to past students, as well. The audience is invited to participate—albeit grudgingly—in Andrew’s admiration when late in the film Fletcher feels compelled to justify his methods: The enemy of greatness is “good enough,” he implies, asserting that his bullying methods drive students to achieve the absolute pinnacle of their abilities— “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, ‘Good job,’ ” he tells Andrew.

There are two particular problems that audiences and critics have had in interpreting the film. The first is this: a large number of its viewers come away feeling that Chazelle’s intent in the film is to validate Fletcher’s methods. If ultimately they drive Andrew to become the next Buddy Rich, aren’t they successful? One critic who disliked the film complained that “We’re supposed to think that Terence’s tough love is more ‘honest’ than the usual pussyfooting tutelage.” In fact, though, Chazelle makes no such claim about what the viewers are “supposed to think.” If Andrew chooses to follow Fletcher, it does not mean the audience is supposed to see that as a good thing. It may well be—we see the results in Andrew’s drive and in his playing. But we also see the results in his relationships, or lack of them, with others. Chazelle makes no comments. The viewers are left to decide for themselves what the moral of the story is.

Secondly, even many of the critics who admire the film have commented that a number of scenes stretch an audience’s credulity. There is no denying the truth of this charge. First, no teacher at any level would be permitted to abuse, insult, and hector students as Fletcher does. Furthermore, the length to which Andrew goes to perform in Fletcher’s band become so over the top that they tax our willing suspension of disbelief, and the final scene in particular seems more nightmare than reality. As one critic put it, “several turns of the plot past the halfway point seem more than contrived.”

This is quite true. But I would contend that this is not a flaw in the movie: The story is set in a moral landscape, not a realistic one. That is because it is, quite literally, a modern morality play. As in every morality play, the action really takes place within the main character’s psyche. In the medieval tradition of the morality play, an everyman figure must choose between salvation an sin, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, usually represented by an angelic figure on the one hand and a demonic one on the other, each of whom attempts to entice or convince the protagonist to his side. In Whiplash, it is no accident that Fletcher dresses in black, that he lurks outside of doors in the shadows, that, like Satan in the wilderness, he promises a wealth of kingdoms if Andrew will bow down and worship him.

On the other side is Reiser as the angelic force, Andrew’s father, trying to humanize his son and to counteract the antisocial influence Fletcher is having on him. A key scene underscoring this occurs at a family dinner Andrew attends with his father, aunt and cousins. Piqued by their lack of interest in his own achievements, he insults his cousins’ own accomplishments (playing football for only an NCAA level three college!), and arguing with his father that it is better to die (like Charlie Parker) a friendless addict at 34 and be remembered for a great achievement, than to die at 90 content and happy, surrounded by friends and family. It becomes obvious at this point that Andrew has internalized Fletcher’s philosophy, and that he has adopted as well his mentor’s disdain for anyone who might be content to live a balanced life rather than strive frantically for perfection and achievement. His father, the failed writer, has found contentment in his life as a teacher, and models for Andrew the importance of human relationships. In a scene toward the end of the film, Andrew has a choice to go off with his father or to take the path of Fletcher, and his choice, like Everyman’s in the morality play, will determine his whole future.

I don’t mean to suggest that the characters in the film are merely abstractions. There is no doubt that Fletcher and Andrew are complex and complicated characters, given real existence by the considerable talent of the two principle actors. We can see that Andrew suffers some remorse at losing Nicole, with whom he tries to reconnect later in the film. And there are layers of motivation behind Simmons’ brilliant tour de force with the character of Fletcher: Does he feel remorse at the death of a former student? Does he truly want to help students or is it all a power trip? Is he a sociopath or a sincere but overzealous teacher? Or is he taking out his own frustrations at not being a great performer himself on those who still have a chance to be? Part of the skill of Simmons’ portrayal is that all of these possibilities remain open, and many are probably true simultaneously, as with any real human being.

Chazelle has created a marvelous film, shooting most of it in close-up in confined spaces, increasing a feeling of claustrophobic tension, with quick cuts that seem to follow the beat of a metronome, or a drum, so that you will find it hard not to feel as if you are yourself under the pressure Andrew endures. You may end up nauseous from nervous tension, as my wife did. This is not a movie to go to for relaxation. But it is one of the more impressive movies of the year. I award it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

AmericanSniper

Movie Review – American Sniper by Clint Eastwood

RUUD RATING

American Sniper
3 TENNYSONS

Clint Eastwood’s best movies have examined the intricacies of violence and machismo, from the thin line between gunfighter and lawman in the old west in Unforgiven, to the sport of boxing in Million Dollar Baby, to the moral complexities of war in what I consider his greatest film, Letters from Iwo Jima. In his most recent effort, American Sniper, finally in wide release this weekend, Eastwood attempts (ultimately unsuccessfully) to focus on those same kinds of issues in retelling the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” as he subtitled his best-selling 2012 autobiography. Kyle is known to have killed some 160 targets in four tours of duty in the most recent Iraq war, though there may be up to a hundred more unconfirmed killings that could be added to that total. Kyle’s book was the main source for Jason Hall’s screenplay, though Hall also consulted with Kyle’s wife, Taya, in composing the script.

Bradley Cooper has earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kyle. In a nuanced and understated performance, Cooper depicts a Texas ranch hand and rodeo competitor who finds meaning in service to his country through the notoriously rigorous SEALS program, but whose psyche, battered by watching his fellow soldiers die, but more deeply disturbed by acting as executioner of so many human lives, including women and children, becomes unraveled and engages in a dangerous inner battle with post-traumatic stress. It is Cooper’s special gift to be able to depict this kind of inner turmoil while maintaining a stoic exterior and a staunch refusal to admit that anything could possibly be wrong.

It may be that Cooper’s performance is so subtle that he succeeds in convincing a good portion of the audience that he is just fine as well. I say this because, since the film was out for a number of weeks before its wide release, there are already a large number of reviews available, and in reading some of these reviews, I scratch my head and wonder whether some of these reviewers were watching the same movie I saw—or indeed, whether they were watching the same film as the other critics. One reviewer says that the film “offers a saintly portrait of Chris Kyle.” Really? In one scene Kyle nearly kills his family’s pet dog because the dog is roughhousing with a child. Not exactly Francis of Assisi. Another reviewer asserts that the film “bleeds red, white and blue in the worst ways.” There is no doubt that Cooper’s character does this. But with his seething emotions surging tumultuously beneath his placid exterior, Cooper’s Kyle is a radically unreliable source. The patriotism is a major element in the chewing gum and rubber bands he is using to hold his crumbling psyche together through most of the movie. Part of the confusion in the critical response is probably due to Eastwood’s lack of overt moralizing in the film. He simply presents the events and Kyle’s actions, and allows them to speak for themselves.

It is Kyle’s psychological deterioration that holds the story together. The film’s plot suffers from a kind of formlessness typical of a biopic, since people’s real lives tend not to fit into a neat story arc, but there is a clear progression toward a promised climax in Kyle’s mental state. The movie opens with Kyle perched on a rooftop, his rifle aimed at a woman handing a young boy a grenade that he can hurl at a convoy of American soldiers approaching through the streets of Fallujah in Iraq. Through a series of flashbacks we are shown how Kyle arrived at this place. We get a scene where the child Chris is lectured by a stern and humorless father about how there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep (the innocent, unsuspecting and essentially clueless masses), wolves (predators who take advantage of the sheep) and sheepdogs (whose duty it is to protect the sheep). The upshot of it is that Chris had better be a sheepdog if he knows what’s good for him.

We also see how Kyle, as a relatively aimless grown man who has just discovered his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, in the midst of an alcoholic binge with his brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), sees a televised report of the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Africa, and decides to enlist, to defend the honor of his homeland. We see him go through the SEALS training, and meet his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) sitting in a bar. It is the only scene where we see his easy charm and essential kindness coming out in his relationship with Taya. We can understand in this scene why she marries him, and it also gives us a starting point for the state of Kyle’s soul before he is deployed.

Kyle does kill both the woman and the child from that rooftop when we return to his sniper’s position after all the film’s exposition scenes. As the scene makes clear, the grenade would have taken out a good number of American soldiers, and so the kills were necessary given the parameters of Kyle’s assignment. Still, they trouble him, and as an audience we cannot help but feel with him, just as we do later in the film when, having shot an enemy combatant holding a grenade launcher, another very young boy picks up the weapon and tries to aim it at American troops. Kyle begs the child under his breath not to pick up the grenade launcher so he does not have to kill him, and with Kyle we breathe a sigh of relief when the boy drops the weapon and runs off.

From that first kill through the end of his fourth tour, the plot of the film is essentially one episode after another of Kyle’s marksmanship and increasing stoicism in the wake of kill after kill. A number of episodes revolve around a brutal Al-Qaeda operative nicknamed the “butcher,” who tortures prisoners with a drill and whom Kyle witnesses killing a sheik who has helped the Americans, along with the sheik’s young son. The butcher is assisted by his own sniper, an Olympic shooting medalist named Mustafa who hunts for Kyle just as Kyle hunts for him. Scenes in Iraq alternate with scenes at home, where Taya bears two children and keeps waiting for Chris to return, always disappointed when he does come home since he spends all of his time thinking about being back in Iraq, wracked by the fact that his comrades are still dying over there. His excuse is that he needs to be there to do his part, while Taya insists that he has done that and that he has a duty to his family as well.

One question after another is raised as the film progresses. Is Kyle always the sheepdog, or are there times when he becomes the wolf? In his hunt for Mustafa, there is definitely something wolf-like, and this is one difficulty of the elder Kyle’s analogy: in his protection of his sheep, can the dog forget his training and feel the feral call of the wolf’s bloodlust? Or alternatively, does the sniper, dealing out death from a thousand yards away, develop the ability to disengage completely from the act, as if playing a video game, as some of Kyle’s kills seem to suggest in the movie? Are Kyle’s family not really the sheep in his father’s equation, and don’t they need him at least as much as his fellows in Iraq? Where does his ultimate duty reside?

There is some evidence that the real-life Chris Kyle was not particularly disturbed by these questions. In his book, he says of the Iraqi enemy that he “hated the damn savages.” As portrayed in the film, Cooper’s Kyle, asked by a VA psychologist whether he felt any of his 160 reported kills might have been questionable, responds “I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took.” Some viewers of the film take this answer at face value, as if it is Eastwood’s, or as if it is unambiguously the character’s true feelings. But whether reading between the lines of Kyle’s book, or through interviews with Taya, or perhaps through simple human empathy, either Eastwood or Hall or Cooper himself has created a more complex Kyle. Anyone who sees Eastwood’s film as simple flag-waving is ignoring many of the film’s most disturbing elements: scenes where Taya, trying to maintain a connection with Kyle by phone, is interrupted by the sounds of battle and never knows whether Kyle is alive or dead on the other end of the connection; the scene where Chris meets his brother Jeff, shipping home after a stint in the war with the marines, and finds his brother resentful, bitter, and eager to leave his own sordid experience of the war in the dust; and most of all the scenes of the PTSD Kyle at home, an automaton whose feelings have all been buried somewhere deep within or, perhaps most disturbing, the scene in which Kyle pulls a gun on his wife, ordering her to “drop her drawers” in what to some extent is a “playful” romp through which Kyle may finally be able to let off some steam, but which for the audience is incredibly uncomfortable, especially since they have seen the Kyle who seems ready to blow at any moment. There is definitely a subtext in this scene that tells us to remember the fate of the family dog.

And this is where the wheels fall off the bus. Having set up a situation where the returning soldier must face his inner demons and deal with the moral ambiguity of his acts, Eastwood has prepared us for a significant exploration of the struggles of returning veterans, doing for the Iraq war what The Best Years of Our Lives did for the Second World War, or Coming Home for Vietnam, perhaps under the direct influence of the more recent and more complete story of The Hurt Locker. Instead, we are shown five minutes of Kyle working with patients at a VA hospital, and essentially told “And so he turned out fine.” It is far more than a simple wasted opportunity. It is essentially a betrayal of Eastwood’s own vision for the film. What on earth made him abandon his film’s focus to end with some actual flag waving and no real resolution to the problems the film had been raising all along is impossible to say. Perhaps it was a fear that the mass audience the film was aiming for just didn’t want to see the touchy feely kind of therapy that might be necessary in the end. Perhaps there was a decision by producers of the film to dial back anything that could be perceived as questioning America’s ill-advised adventure in Iraq, though Kyle’s PTSD could have happened after any conflict in the past hundred years. For whatever reason, the film proves in the end to be a dud, despite its promising development up to the very last scenes. For those reasons, I don’t think Eastwood’s film has any business being a “best picture” nominee. I will give it three Tennysons, but only on the basis of Cooper’s brilliant performance.

ImitationGame

Movie Review – The Imitation Game by Morten Tildum

RUUD RATING

The Imitation Game
4 SHAKESPEARES

If you are not a mathematician or computer scientist, it is quite possible that you have never heard of Alan Turing. That is unfortunate, since Turing is generally regarded as the father of computer science and of artificial intelligence, and thus more than anyone else in history is responsible for today’s cyberworld. Princeton University, from which Turing obtained his Ph.D., named Turing their second most important graduate ever—the first being President James Madison.

Turing’s other claim to fame is as a cryptanalyst, or breaker of codes. Working for the British MI-6 Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing and his team were responsible for building an electromechanical machine—the world’s first true computer—which was able to crack the “unbreakable” German Enigma machine code. The decoding of German messages enabled the Allied powers to defeat the Nazis in such conflicts as the Battle of the Atlantic. Turing’s work is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years, and to have saved millions of lives.

It is this dramatic war story that is the focal point of Norwegian director Morten Tildum’s new film, The Imitation Game. In his first full-length screenplay, writer Graham Moore has based his story on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: the Enigma. Moore’s script opens in 1952, when police are called to Turing’s home to investigate a burglary. One of the investigating police officers, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), becomes convinced that Turing has something to hide, and, curious that he can find so little information about Turing, begins to investigate his life. Finding Turing’s war record has been expunged, the investigation turns up, instead, evidence of turning’s homosexual activity, and he is arrested under Britain’s 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act and charged with “gross indecency.”

It is Turing’s statement to Detective Nock that forms the narrative of the war years, which are the chief focus of the film. Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing captures the genius mathematician’s arrogance as well as his social awkwardness: He nearly blows the job interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of Game of Thrones) because he makes it clear his motive is not patriotism but rather his interest in solving a difficult puzzle—and because he does not understand jokes. He doesn’t want to work with the assembled team because they won’t be able to keep up with him, and he doesn’t want to waste time explaining things to them. At the same time, his fellow cryptanalysts resent him for not being a “team player,” though they ultimately stand by him when Denniston wants to fire him and they recognize that his machine is their only chance to break the Nazis’ code.

Despite his very unattractive qualities, Turing is able to keep the audience’s sympathy for two reasons: first, he goes out of his way to bring a brilliant mathematician, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) onto the team, despite the official stance of the government toward women in such positions, despite the social mores of the time, and despite her parents’ objections—he even proposes to Joan so that she can reassure her parents about her situation. Turing’s advocacy of Clarke, valuing her potential intellectual contribution above any social constraints, demonstrates his essential humanity beneath his machine-like personality. Of course, his championship of Clarke foreshadows his own ultimately more devastating defiance of social mores.

The other means by which the film keeps our sympathies with Turing is through a series of flashbacks to Turing’s days at public school where, bullied and misunderstood by fellow students and tutors, the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by classmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who encourages Turing through his difficult times, telling him “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” advice that he uses later in the film to encourage Joan Clarke. But Turing’s memory of Christopher, the memory that reveals that he does indeed have a heart beneath his machine-like veneer, is embodied in his naming his life’s work, the computer itself, Christopher.

Like most biopics, the movie really does rise or fall with the performance of its lead actor. In this case, Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as the mathematical genius whose emotions were stunted in adolescence. Of course, Cumberbatch has made a career of playing arrogant but socially inept geniuses, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek’s Khan to the Hobbit’s dragon Smaug. Here, his Turing is brilliant and aloof, arrogant but stammering and clumsy in his relations to others, perhaps located somewhere on the autism spectrum. His machine-like restraint through most of the film makes his tragic breakdown in the film’s last scene all the more powerful.

Through most of the film, Cumberbatch is ably supported by Knightley, whose Joan Clarke is another mathematical prodigy but one much more able to conform to society’s expectations of her, and thus in one sense serves as a foil to Turing. She helps Turing gain the good will of his colleagues while at the same time solving puzzles more quickly than Turing can solve them himself. She is completely convincing when Turing comes out to her, thinking to break off their engagement, and without missing a beat she indicates she was already aware of his sexuality, and proposes a marriage of minds. Her heartfelt sympathy when she meets him again after his arrest is honest and moving as well. The only problem with Knightley’s performance is that she is not onscreen enough. It would have been nice if her part had been more substantial.

Two difficult questions are raised by the film’s last half hour or so. The first involves the decision of how to use the information the group gains from decoding the Nazi messages: They have the opportunity to stop a German attack on a British convoy before it happens, but in doing so would reveal to the Germans that the code has been broken, thereby giving up the advantage gained by their secret knowledge, and forcing the Nazis to create a new code that might take years to decipher. The decision to use the decoded messages selectively, and to allow certain allied lives to be lost in individual battles for the sake of ultimate victory, is a controversial and complex one, and perhaps deserved more development than the film gives it.

The other questionable aspect of the film’s final minutes is the depiction of Turing’s own end. As the film accurately portrays (spoiler alert!), Turing, convicted of gross indecency, was given a choice between a prison sentence and hormone therapy—what was essentially a kind of “chemical castration.” He is on the hormones when Clarke visits him, and seems a physical and emotional wreck. Closing credits roll over a scene of a triumphant decryption team burning their records on VE-Day, but indicate that Turing comitted suicide at the age of 41, two years after the last scene with Knightley. What the film does not say is that Turing died of cyanide poisoning after eating an apple laced with the poison. Turing’s mother, however, always insisted that the death was accidental—a theory believed by many others. The film sidesteps this controversy, and avoids the grimness of Turing’s death, perhaps because Turing is a more sympathetic martyr to the cause of gay rights if he was driven to take his own life by the injustice of the system, rather than dying accidentally because of his own careless handling of a lethal substance.

Such quibbles do not deter from the overall brilliant execution of this movie. This is only Tildum’s second film—his first, Headhunters (2011), was also critically acclaimed but not widely seen. The Imitation Game should insure him of significant future opportunities. I’m going to give this one four Shakespeares—Cumberbatch and Knightley particularly make this one of the best movies of 2014.

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.