Films reviewed: “Foxcatcher”, “Fury”, “The Imitation Game”, “Men, Women & Children”, “Mr. Turner”, “Testament of Youth” and “Whiplash” (pictured above).
London Film Festival 2014 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, First Feature, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. This final post ends my festival coverage with the gala films. I caught most of the big ones – the individual strand galas such as Mommy and Wild Tales have been covered in the Dare and Laugh posts, for instance – and only missed Wild because of scheduling conflicts. Here are the reviews…
Foxcatcher – 7/10
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller
Strand: American Express Gala
When Andy Kaufman took up wrestling (as seen in Man on the Moon), the intended shock value was from a TV celebrity subjecting himself to a brutal sport, as if trying to make the audience say, “Taxi, please.” There’s a similar appeal in seeing multimillionaire John du Pont (Carell) embroider himself with the daily mechanics of training the US Olympic wrestling team – one of the last things I dream about whenever I scratch my lottery cards.
But it’s little secret that the hype over Foxcatcher was in its star-studded trio, of whom you’ll only recognise two. Carell is transformed into a sinister gargoyle via a new nose and speech patterns befitting an incompetent Bond villain. Listening to every word and lengthy pause is wrestling protégée Mark Schultz (Tatum) – because when someone has cash to splash, you pay attention. Like the sport of wrestling itself, Miller presents America as a strange competition where everyone grapples to make it to the top. Du Pont recognises the similarities and attempts to purchase the loyalty of Mark’s brother Dave (Ruffalo), seeing as he is already an Olympic gold medal winner. In that sense, Dave is a more fashionable, retro model who will politely pretend to be managed. Skew your eyes, and it’s as if The Office hired a new writing staff.
The eerie atmosphere intensifies when the athletes moves and train in du Pont’s “Foxcatcher Farm”. Every antique and ill-chosen item of furniture is handpicked by perennially dissatisfied du Pont, and you half expect every painting to have eye-level holes for the megalomaniac to spy on his guests. Even a helicopter ride can’t seem to escape the millionaire’s creepy pull. The Schulz brothers already have concerns embedded inside their personalised uniforms, but find the blank cheques and parental praise too irresistible.
Through repetition, familial issues are hammered home: du Pont performs for his mother, Mark encounters two father figures. But soon there’s no fox left to catch when the extended mystery is actually just dramatic inertia. The film’s highs can probably be gleamed through the trailer. Still, the two hours haunt me now, as I write this review a few weeks later – so maybe it’s a Hollywood oddity that will bury itself in my mind and lead to me shooting whoever wins the Olympics in 2024.
Fury – 4/10
Director/Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal
Strand: Closing Night Gala
“Best job I ever had.”
The star role for Brad Pitt makes it tempting to admonish World War II drama Fury as simply Inglourious Bastereds without humour, wit or, well, inventiveness. That’s certainly true – director/writer David Ayer isn’t aiming to subvert or deliver Tarantino pop culture lessons – but the closer comparison lies with Pitt’s co-star Logan Lerman, seeing as Fury is quite unbelievably The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a tank instead of Emma Watson.
Set in April 1945, the war is nearly over. “Wardaddy” (Pitt) leads his tank (called “Fury”) and its crew across German land, barging through villages and shooting what looks like lasers but are actually tracer bullets. His team are a gang of dysfunctional, one-note men consisting of macho caricature “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal), religious insomniac “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf) and hat-enthusiast “Gordo” (Michael Peña). They communicate in barely intelligible words and insults – so much so that I often could barely work out the dialogue. I’m also going to assume they weren’t exchanging anything particularly illuminating, given how Fury is really a two-hander between Pitt’s “Wardaddy” and Lerman’s Norman Ellison. The latter is a typist with only eight weeks’ experience in the army who, for some reason, becomes the tank’s new assistant driver. He’s like the new boy at school, except it’s the worst school imaginable and the summer’s definitely going to end in some manner.
Ayer’s script establishes “Wardaddy” as a tutor for Norman in terms of how to execute Germans, how to sleep with terrified local women, and how to brainwash yourself into believing a tank is a home. Aside from the tank, Fury is an explosion of cliches that turns the horrors of war into an inconsistent mess (the ending, especially) with a disturbing use of “angelic” imagery regarding dead women as emotional props. One uncomfortable scene sees the pair invade a house with two cowering females inside; an unspoken threat of sexual violence lingers as “Wardaddy” barks instructions about omelettes at the women – they and Pitt are “Hollywood” beautiful with perfect hair and makeup – and eventually forces Norman to get some “action” in the bedroom. Yet somehow both men emerge as the moral signifiers in the film, especially when Fury enters a bewildering third act that’s the war equivalent of Bad News Bears in terms of implausibility.
The Imitation Game – 5/10
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Graham Moore, Andrew Hodges (book)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong
Strand: Opening Night Gala
“Oh Alan, we’re going to have such a wonderful war together.”
The magnificent contours and mysterious blankness on the face of Benedict Cumberbatch are perhaps the key to unlocking the potential behind a biopic of Alan Turing – the codebreaker who recently received a royal pardon from the Queen half a century after his death. A film in Turing’s honour can explore a number of strands: how he solved the Nazis’ Enigma code and ended WWII two years early; how his mathematical genius led to the invention of Turing machines and eventually computers; how he was made a criminal during a period when homosexuality was still outlawed; how he committed suicide two years after his arrest at the age of 41. But Morten Tyldum, working from a script by Graham Moore, settles for making The Imitation Game an efficient, information-heavy prestige picture that assorts each achievement or struggle into overly familiar plot beats.
Set in the early days of WWII, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is among – and eventually leads – a team of cryptologists hired by Churchill to crack Germany’s “impossible” Enigma code in the hope of making use of intercepted Nazi messages. Turing is quickly established as an antisocial genius (someone asks if he’s a robot) with no friends – he isn’t quite a character from The Big Bang Theory, but more the lonely person watching at home with no one to talk to. The roots of his character are further unfurled all too readily with impatient flashbacks. His Commander (Charles Dance) sarcastically drones, “Popular at school were you?” and straightaway, he’s at school solving puzzles and falling in love with another boy.
To everyone’s surprise, Turing’s proposed method of decrypting the Enigma code is to construct an expensive machine that spins cogs and searches for solutions. Once running, there’s no telling if it’ll work how long it could take – and every second costs lives. Well, there’s one person with faith: Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), another maths expert who becomes Turing’s best friend and eventual wife. Does the machine work and thus make Turing enough of a hero to receive a film treatment in 50 years later? I won’t tell you. However, I will note that Knightley and Cumberbatch share a likeable chemistry that conveys warmth between two characters who love each other, even if there’s a certain obstacle in the way.
Despite a late attempt to pinpoint the horrors of homophobia by dropping statistics in the credits, The Imitation Game treats Turing’s homosexuality with a strange timidity and barely delves into a crucial area of his life, instead fixating on his relationship with Joan. Even after cracking the Enigma code (okay, I guess I’ve given it away), he wasn’t exempt from a criminal conviction caused by a relationship with another man. His two options? Prison or chemical castration. But he found a third choice by committing suicide two years later, with the final period of his life zipping past onscreen. Ultimately, the biopic tells an extraordinary story with impressive leads in the efficient, unimaginative manner we’ve come to expect from a major Harvey Weinstein production released around this time of year. It does at least somewhat honour someone who pulled off an irascible genius routine by eventually proving his genius.
Men, Women & Children – 3/10
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman, Erin Creddia Wilson
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner
Strand: Virgin Atlantic Gala
“You know I just do this to keep you safe.”
The title is Men, Women & Children but could easily be a written statement from director Jason Reitman confessing to being an alien from outer space who’s never seen how real human beings interact. That’s the inadvertent impression given by an introduction of a satellite orbiting the solar system while Emma Thompson clumsily narrates grand statements that ask every big question apart from: when will Reitman make a decent movie again?
It’s hard to know where to start with a story consisting of 12 character sketches, no human beings, and one of the worst Scrabble players ever in movie history. Perhaps the most memorable – I mean that in a negative way – relationship is young Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) whose every online move is tracked by a nosey mother (Jennifer Garner) who’s more of a human version of Norton Antivirus, given how she scans through her daughter’s computer, Facebook messages and internet history. It’s absurdly over-the-top, especially due to its rushed screen time that cements Garner with no other attributes, and is barely the start.
At least Brandy’s character serves another tickbox when she makes another connection via a messaging function of Tumblr with Tim (Ansel Elgort), who don’t seem to have anything in common other than they’re the only two people on the internet who use Tumblr primarily for messaging. (Twitter barely features, if you’re wondering.) Tim spends too much playing computer games, much to the ire of his divorced father (Dean Norris) who wishes his son would just concentrate on sports. Funnily enough, that’s how we’re linked to Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an overtly sexual cheerleader and classmate with a side-career being photographed semi-nude for an online portfolio set up by her mother (Judy Greer). But then there’s a whole other family consisting of porn-obsessed Chris (Travis Tope), and his parents (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who separately cheat on each other through web dating. Sandler’s character unbelievable does so by spotting an undressed woman in an internet popup, before reaching for a credit card.
These strands connect with each other, but never the audience. Despite a broad title, internet addiction is painted (via Paintshop Pro) as a problem for straight, white middle-class families. Reitman has often been accused – sometimes unfairly – of being a closeted reactionary, stemming from the pro-life undercurrent of Juno to the pie-roofing disaster of Labor Day. However, his latest is completely out of touch in its sensationalist treatment of mobile phones as one of the forefront enemies to the traditional family model. When DeWitt’s character wastes a “Z” tile in a singular word during a game of Scrabble, it’s apparent Reitman can’t do anything right at the moment.
The smug, zeitgeist-y premise proposes that the internet is the latest threat to the nuclear family, but actually it’ll cause more lasting damage via social media upon Reitman’s credibility. Panicked by modern trends, he’s left to exclaim: won’t somebody think of the children? The internet: enter a Wi-Fi password; see your life ruined.
Mr. Turner – 7/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey
Strand: Time Out Gala
“The universe is chaotic and you make us understand it.”
From the very first few seconds, it’s apparent how closely Mr. Turner lives in a world of resplendent watercolours, with each frame worthy of inspiring a painting. As it happens, in the corner is J.M.W. Turner, staring into the distance with a pensive stare, either questioning the meaning of life or what to eat for supper. If it’s the latter, it’s probably a pig’s head. Set during the final few decades of Turner’s life in the early 19th century, Mike Leigh delights in period details in a rather fitting matchup considering how his modern characters behave as if they’re aliens sent from a different era.
Timothy Spall is unquestionably the film’s star and turns in an exquisitely rounded performance: he physically transforms into the gruff artist, while grunting as if he’s communicating in a secret language. Leigh is famed for workshopping his actors months in advance; Spall, one of the director’s regular collaborators, even took painting lessons, and the commitment comes across in each rich interaction. The painter confounds critics and contemporaries alike, whether quarrelling with Constable or alienating the community with how he attacks the canvas. Spitting, for example, turns out to be a rather effective way of providing texture, provided the saliva is as thick as Turner’s.
The artist formerly known as Turner encounters numerous mistresses, notably played with solemn poignancy by Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey. However, it’s still very much a one-person show that lacks the richness of Leigh’s past ensembles. The biopic is still hauntingly beautiful, and delivers easily the most eye-catching cinematography of Leigh’s filmography. While the running time might be excessive, it’s full of worthwhile nuggets: a telling glimpse into a distant man’s soul – or lack of – comes from an everyday encounter at a brothel in which Turner learns the prostitute’s young age; he bursts into tears, keeping his reasons a secret.
Testament of Youth – 6/10
Director: James Kent
Writer: Juliette Towhidi
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominc West, Emily Watson
“Oxford is everything we dreamed of.”
There are two major lessons from the BBC’s adaptation of Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir: war is bad, but Alice Vikander is very good. In the role of Brittain, Vikander hangs about on-screen to convey every measure of pain, anguish and passion – especially when delivering a (then) radical argument that everyone on both sides is human. But if period dramas aren’t for you, this probably won’t be a conversion.
Whiplash – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Strand: Accenture Gala
Blood on the drum tracks: Whiplash sets a stunning tempo for films about obsession, sacrifice, and the vicious streak required for chasing down life goals. Already with a reputation from Sundance as a toe-tapping crowdpleaser, director Damien Chazelle fashions a script with an enriching, vibrant pulse that is, for obvious reasons, kept alive with the constant presence of drumming. But in the lead role of Andrew Neyman, it’s clear Miles Teller has more of the sympathetic, hidden darkness that could be glimpsed in The Spectacular Now, and fashions something rather quite spectacular.
One recurring image is of 19-year-old Andrew practising on his kit. Get used to it. One of my favourite pieces of advice comes from famed workaholic David Fincher, who claimed he’s always exhausted and takes comfort from knowing his body is fully exerted. Andrew has elements of Fincher’s perfectionism in his daily routine, although that drive comes from menacing outsider figure Terence Fletcher, played to psychopathic perfection by JK Simmons. When Andrew makes it to a prodigious music school, his jazz ensemble is taught by Terence, the culmination of every frightening PE staff member with the added savage wordplay of Malcolm Tucker. Simmons chucks a chair at Andrew’s face before repeatedly slapping his face – a memorable first day at school that leads to nightmares, but also a few extra hours’ practice before bedtime.
The two-hander forms a battle of wits that, while not entirely breaking new ground, is entirely riveting for the darker areas visited by the script. When Terence learns of a former student’s suicide and sheds a tear – perhaps the only sign of humanity – the startling twist is that the death was a suicide possibly stemming from the stress of being taught jazz standards by a violent maniac with bulging eyes. Perhaps the masterstroke of Whiplash is how Simmons’ towering performance overshadows everything else in Andrew’s life. There’s his protective, chummy father (Paul Reiser), and a girlfriend (Melissa Beonoist) who is swiftly demoted below band practice in terms of priorities. Sure, they’re both charming, friendly people, but it’s Terence that haunts Andrew’s every thought, whether tapping his fingers on the bus, or running through swing rhythms until his palms bleed.
I foresee Whiplash picking up praise for what might possibly be the wrong reason – like Inside Llewyn Davis, Chazelle’s script is a comfort blanket for creative types with too many excuses for why the big break hasn’t arrived. With Llewyn Davis, it was critics. Now Whiplash proposes all that separates our artistic superstardom is our social lives or reluctance to physically damage our bodies. I suspect there’s an out-of-tune note in how the film massages our hidden egos, but the effect is undeniable – and now I’m going to spend the night writing until there’s blood on the keyboards.
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