Tagged bio-pic

Joy – David O. Russell (2015)

Joy might be as close as David O. Russell has come to making a women’s picture in the mold of the classics of the genre, such as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas. In many of those films, a plucky and persevering heroine, usually of working-class origin, pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made herself a success despite the odds against her, and usually at the cost of either her sanity, her reputation, or her lineage (the two previously mentioned films feature mothers who sacrifice themselves for their daughters in different ways, only to have the sacrifice result in a deterioration of the bond itself). There is a dark edge to most women’s pictures, which either is ultimately redeemed, or not, but which allies the genre to the film noir and the psychological thriller. (Indeed, Mildred Pierce was adapted from a novel by James M. Cain). Russell’s film shares the plucky heroine, and the blue-collar roots, but has little of the dark edge. Oh, there is plenty of seeming skulduggery in the tale, what with a jealous step-sister, a cut-throat mother-in-law to be, and a scheming Texas moneyman, all of whom want to claim what Joy has made for herself, but the difference is that in the earlier films, the darkness clung to the heroine, and contaminated her psyche. Although usually redeemed in the end, the heroines of those films went through moments of spiritual abandonment, self-questioning, and outright mental torment in the quest to achieve what had often been a status reserved for men. Not so Joy; she has moments of frustration, and discouragement, self-doubt like many of us do, but she always rises above and, by sheer force of will and self-confidence, steamrolls all opposition, always finding, as in another of Russell’s films, a page in her playbook that will lay claim to the silver lining. Unlike the character in Silver Linings Playbook, Joy is not an outsider in any way but circumstance, and the film chronicles, in a kind of soap opera meets Horatio Alger fashion, her continual ascent, with virtue and verve winning out in the end. It makes the tale rather straightforward, and although not uninteresting, gives it a strangely static quality. While some commentators have raised an eyebrow at an entire film being structured around a woman who invented a mop, that detail is one of the main links to the older films in this genre – like Mildred Pierce with her pancakes, Joy and her mop are humble symbols of female frustration taken up as talismans of power. All the same, Joy is not Mildred Pierce, and so it falls onto the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence to make us care about the fate of this woman’s endeavor, as the melodramatics fall short of the task.

Yes, this is the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Russell begins the tale with an intergenerational framing device, as grandma Mimi (the somehow expected Diane Ladd) narrates Joy’s childhood and signals to us that, from an early age, she was exceptional, always full of drive and entrepreneurial imagination. (Thanks be for another film with voice-over narration this year. When all else fails, tell us how it is, filmmakers). Joy’s ambitions are snuffed out by Mom (Virginia Madsen) and Dad (Robert De Niro), with Dad quite explicitly tearing her dreams to shreds in a moment of pique. Joy doesn’t go to college, but stays home to tend to Mom, who has suffered a nervous breakdown because of her disintegrated marriage, and stays in bed all day, addicted to a soap opera that the movie tries to draw into parallel with the drab everyday of the characters (with mixed results). By the time Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) takes center stage away from granny’s gabbing, she is living in her childhood home with her mother, her ex-husband, her children, and suddenly her father, trying to support them all with her quite average income. While stressed, she is, as Mimi tells us, the calm eye in the center of the hurricane of craziness that is her family. Dad meets a new love interest, the rich widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), and it is aboard Trudy’s yacht that inspiration strikes Joy. A wine bottle breaks, and in her attempt to clean the resulting mess off of Trudy’s precious teak deck, Joy cuts her hands on the shards as she tries to wring wine from the mop. While picking the broken glass from her palms later, she has a eureka moment, and immediately retreats to her daughter’s bedroom (and to the creative, free zone of her own childhood’s inspiration) and mocks up a mop that is self-wringing, eliminating the need for touching gross stuff. With the encouragement of Mimi, and of her steadfast best friend (Dascha Polanco) and supportive ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez), Joy builds a prototype and convinces Trudy to invest in her plans. Initially unsuccessful, with Trudy and schadenfreude hungry step-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) nipping at her heels, Joy manages to snag a meeting with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) thanks to her ex-husband’s connections. Initially unsuccessful again, due to a botched pitch by a clueless pitchman, Joy strong-arms Neil into letting her pitch the mop to millions herself, and despite (or perhaps because of) her inexperience in the realm of T.V. fakery, she makes the mop a success. Not all is well, however, because Peggy botches a crucial deal, and Trudy, having given bad legal advice early, has locked Joy into a losing business deal with her manufacturer. So in the climax of the film, Joy goes to California, confronts the manufacturer, and then the Texas heavy hitter behind the scenes, to claim her rightful patent, her molds, eventually walking away rich and righteous. In the denouement, we see a kind of Dickensian still life, with Dad, old, frail, and wearing a rather nasty eye patch, and Peggy, looking like a mourner at a wake, washed up, we are told by Mimi from beyond the grave, done in by greed after having attempted to claim Joy’s success as their own. Joy sits behind a big polished desk in her McMansion, attended to by her faithful friend and her ex, as she nobly ushers other young strivers along the road to success she had to roughly hoe out for herself. Yay!

The movie winds up feeling slight because it is so empty of the oddball complexity usually featured in Russell’s films. He keeps the camera moving, and the characters yapping, and throws in some extraneous, and often funny, bits of “meaning” (as in the aforementioned attempts at allegory with Mom’s soap opera), but compared to previous works of weirdness like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, it is quite pat. Without the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who is naturally winning, and who does make us root for Joy, and hiss at the villainous money-grubbers who dare step in her way, we would be rolling our eyes in many spots. We can instinctively understand the appeal of the material for Russell, as his great theme, at least since The Fighter, has been the downtrodden outsider who instinctively understands the system better than the insiders, and fights his or her way to the top. Russell enjoys digging through the rather more unseemly parts of our capitalist, aspirational society, a kind of poet of the glamour of mundane consumption and hoary striving (the chief theme of American Hustle). And since he has a good eye, and also good taste for lumpy, bumpy protagonists weird enough for us to identify with and be fascinated by, he usually, like his heroes, carries the day because of, rather than despite, his unevenness. But what does he have to say about any of his great themes? It is hard to tell. I Heart Huckabees succeeded as an absurd parody of our acquisitive imaginary (and nothing in his work has ever topped Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert trading mud-dunks over a log in the woods), but The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle are all, underneath the zippy camerawork, snappy dialogue, and weirdo charmers, very, very conventional films. His style makes Russell look like a loving critic of the culture he portrays, but is he critical, or just loving it? What is he actually saying about being an outsider, or about our breed of later-day capitalist desire? I can’t tell. Joy continues in this tradition of convincing us all that we, weirdos to the person, have a chance at success if we just go with our gut and believe, but, more so than his previous films, the entertainment quotient doesn’t quite carry us through. Would we consider him an auteur without Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents? These days, no. David O. Russell makes films that are considerably entertaining, but his films have also been, for the last 10 years, flaccid and easy in retrospect even as they seem sharp and incisive in the moment. What happened to the skeptical cynic who made Spanking the Monkey? I miss that guy.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper (2015)

The Danish Girl, the story of one of the world’s first sex reassignment surgeries, is obviously a timely one, as this past year has been a watershed for awareness of the plight of transgendered people. Within that context, the film is in one way what you might expect, in that it works hard (and tampers significantly with the biographical details of the account) to soften the tragedy of Lili Elbe’s story and paint it as a tale of heroic sacrifice and redemption. What is unexpected about the film is that it is much more interesting as an account of a relationship, not a singular identity, and that it is really the story of the unfolding of a marriage. Again, the film tampers with the historical facts in this case too, and simplifies what is a much more complex and painful reality of a relationship pushed to its breaking point; but even given that, it still emerges as one of the more interesting recent portrayals of a husband and wife, and this is due to the fact that the film eschews formulaic or stereotypical gender shorthand, instead providing a very realistic picture of how two people, who know each other so well, and are bonded very closely, exist outside of and beyond gender, and accommodate each other as spiritual beings first and foremost. That is to say, gender and sexuality are treated as being fluid a priori, and able to shift and reinvent themselves, because of the fact of marriage. While this gives the film its interest generally, it is also not enough to rescue our interest specifically, which wanes in the second half, as Einar Wegener definitively becomes Lili, and the fluidity that previously defined both the relationship and the portrayal becomes fixed and rigid, a mere retelling of (fudged) historical fact. And in this way, the film reveals itself to be unconsciously pessimistic – the fact of history, the context of the age we live in, ultimately defines the hard parameters of our rebellious attempts at reworking our identities.

The film begins with Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) a successful and respected painter of landscapes in 1920s Copenhagen. He is married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a less successful figure painter and illustrator, who he met in art school. Too shy to ask her out, Gerda had to get the ball rolling herself, thus setting the tone for the marriage – a back and forth, with neither partner “the man” nor “the woman,” but passing the roles back and forth. (Einer is the breadwinner, and the success, a support to his wife both materially and emotionally, but is also soft spoken, sensitive, and retiring, whereas Gerda is more worldly and forthright, but neither brash nor particularly outspoken). Asked by Gerda to stand-in for an absent female model (Amber Heard as ballerina Ulla), Einar is at first put-off, but then surprised to find he enjoys dressing up as a woman, and playing the role temporarily. Gerda, feeling both turned on by this and somewhat puckish by nature, suggests that Einar attend an artist’s ball with her as “Lili,” Einar’s “cousin,” partly, we get the feeling, for her own erotic pleasure, and partly to draw Einar out of his shell, and get him to attend a social event he normally would pass on. At the ball, Lili is intriguing to almost everyone, the men in particular, and by the end she is being kissed by Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man who has detected Einar’s ruse, but plays along with it. Upset, Einar gets a nosebleed and flees, and Gerda, having caught them in the act, is similarly upset. Einar enters a period of tempered euphoria, as he feels elated at having discovered his real identity, but is also confused by it, and upset at the implications it has for his marriage. Gerda is also upset and sad at the slow loss of her husband, but, perhaps as a way of coping, perhaps somewhat opportunistically, uses him as a model, and becomes a great success with the series of paintings featuring Lili. She is soon offered a show in Paris, and the couple moves there, with their life becoming more quickly inverted – Lili has no interest in painting, despite Gerda’s admonitions that Einar continue with it, and Gerda becomes the well-known, successful breadwinner. She is quickly lost in her own confusion, however, as she misses having a husband, and while supportive and protective of Lili, is perhaps not a match for her, even putting aside the unsurprising problems in the bedroom. She soon turns to an old friend of Einar’s, the art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), first as a confidant and friend to Lili, and then as a replacement husband and lover (although, it must be said, most reluctantly, and only after Lili has made it clear that Einar will not return). Hans is uniquely poised to be of help, as he shared a kiss with Einar when they were children, but is unabashed by it, and while heterosexual, is not put off by Einar’s new identity or the underlying fact of such fluidity. Einar, wanting to embrace Lili but not finding a through road that will allow him to exist in society as he would want (that is, fully as a woman) searches from doctor to doctor for answers, with naught but suffering and patronizing “help” that often is quite hurtful. Finally, with Hans’s intervention, Einar visits Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who does not think him insane, and indeed proposes a radical solution – gender reassignment surgery. Einar is elated that he will finally be Lili once and for all, and fully embodied, and so undergoes the process, which will require two surgeries. The first goes off well enough, given the medical limitations of the period, but Lili, in a quest to complete the process and catch her exterior up to her interior, pushes for the second surgery too quickly perhaps, against the wishes of Gerda, who remains by her side throughout. The second surgery is too much for Lili to bear, and she dies, with Gerda and Hans by her side. The movie ends with the new couple back in Denmark, Lili’s scarf borne aloft by the wind, a sign, we suppose, of her spirit taking flight and triumphing over the limitations of her body.

As you can likely tell from the description, the movie is standard liberal-humanist “triumph of the soul over all adversity” sentimentalism. The historical facts of Einar’s transition to Lili were much messier. Lili died alone, having divorced Gerda before the surgery, and the surgeries were not as similar to the reassignment surgeries of today as the film portrays; Lili died of a womb transplant which didn’t take (as it couldn’t, since the drugs to fight rejection of the organs weren’t introduced until half a century later). Gerda also did not end her life married happily to an art dealer, as the movie suggests, but instead died penniless, bankrupted by an Italian officer. While this whitewashing is a problem, it is a lesser one – although it undercuts the motives of the film by devaluing Lili’s sacrifice and true heroism at taking on a far more radical surgery, alone, and significantly leavens the sadness and tragedy of her hopes of becoming a “real woman” (that is, one able to bear a child). The larger issue for the film is that, once Einar “solves” his problem and fixes his identity as definitively female, much of our interest dissipates, and it becomes a fairly dry, predictable succession of “facts.” The first third of the film is alive because both characters are not one thing or another – the relationship between Einar and Gerda is continually shifting and developing, and the allegiance they feel to one another, and the angst, and excitement, caused by the introduction of this new element, always latent, is fascinating and powerful. As a portrait of a marriage, it is refreshing in its realism; it only becomes an “unconventional” relationship in the second half, when it also becomes an impossible one. Eddie Redmayne does a decent enough job with his role, but he is better as Einar – as Lili, he relies a bit much on mannerisms (in an attempt, perhaps, to capture Lili’s nascence and her biographically correct stereotypical “womanliness”), and as he takes center stage more and more, we like him less and less. This is not because we can’t identify with his transformation (that is for each audience member to experience for themselves), but because, as viewers, we have identified, and feel allegiance to, the couple, and the marriage. His abandonment of that makes it difficult for us to follow him, or to follow Gerda either, although to a lesser extent. The fact is that Alicia Vikander as Gerda has our sympathy throughout simply because she reveals herself to be a remarkable actress. I had only seen her in Ex Machina, where she was quite good, but essentially playing a pseudo-human, so I didn’t know what to expect. Her Gerda, especially early in the film, where she is frightened of Einar’s transformation, yet also turned on by it, supportive of it, curious about it, and wounded by it, is incredible. The film feels more about her experience than it does Einar/Lili’s. For most of us, she is the point of identification, as we also feel, in turn, the same about Redmayne’s Einar. We are excited, aroused, and worried for him as his new identity begins to flower, but as with most bio-pics, we already know how this story ends, and so once he moves beyond Gerda, the film takes on a closed, deterministic air. If only Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon had allowed the film’s conclusion to follow the historical reality more faithfully, we would have a different set of feelings to transition to – sadness, melancholy, perhaps horror, all mixed with hope. The full weight of the pressure of the this new identity would have been brought to bear on us. Instead, by trying to lighten the impact, we feel the film, like Lili’s scarf, becomes insubstantial – the theme of the film, after all, is the inability of someone to feel that they are properly embodied, so downplaying the bodily suffering is a strange choice. Perversely, by trying to keep a “positive” tone for the sake of people working through such issues, then and now, the film winds up selling them out, getting the nature of their struggle exactly wrong.

Two and a half stars out of five

Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick (2015)

I normally espouse going into a film almost randomly, not knowing what I am getting into – keeps the experience fresh, you know. So it was with Pawn Sacrifice. I knew it was about chess, rather than having to hock your wedding ring to pay off your bookie, and I was right on that count. I did not know that it was about Fischer and Spassky, or that it was, horror of horrors, a biopic. Naive dunderhead I may be, I only knew it had gotten generally positive buzz, had something to do with the Cold War, and was fictional. Were that it were so! How will they (those phantom filmmakers, as I had not yet discovered it was directed by Ed Zwick) make chess interesting on the big screen? Short answer – they won’t. Instead of the cooler, more serene sequel to Pi I was hoping for, we have instead a rehashing of the life of Bobby Fischer, with the narrative edifice built around his legendary series in Iceland against Spassky in 1972. Does anyone not know this story? I feel like I’ve seen it on PBS, on the History Channel, read about it in Games magazine… so this is hardly freshly trodden ground (except that those were small screen exertions). For those who don’t know, and would remotely care (although I don’t know why), Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy born in Chicago, son of a German biophysicist (although the paternity is controversial) and physician mother Regina (played by Robin Weigert). Mom, although a consummate leftist, must leave Dad in Moscow during the onset of World War II. Our film finds Regina, now a single Mom, rearing older daughter Joan (Lily Rabe) and Bobby (Tobey Maguire) in a Brooklyn brownstone that also serves as a pressure cooker of paranoia. You see, the Feds are interested in Mom due to her politics and foreign service, so they often park out front and take photos, and Bobby is schooled from a young age in the proper etiquette of putting off impolite inquiries from G-Men. Somehow taking an early interest in chess, Bobby is quickly referred to the Brooklyn Chess Club by his psychiatrist, and is taken under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), its president. From there, we are only a series of montage sequences away from Fischer’s early, still relatively sane triumphs, and from there onward again through another series of montage sequences to the heavyweight match against the man most likely to wear sunglasses at the chess board, Mr. Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Of course, as anyone who knows the story of Bobby Fischer will understand, the montage sequences are just the skeleton over which the sinews of insanity will be draped. Bobby starts out paranoid (not unjustifiably, thanks to Mom), and gets more so exponentially. Obsessed with Spassky, yet also seemingly afraid to take him on, Fischer continually plays matches, gets to a high level of competition, then explodes, affronted by perceived slights and inequalities which grow more and more absurd and egotistical; he then makes demands, claims that he is the single most important factor in the chess equation, and pushes until, absurdly, his demands are always met. Thus reinforced, he then usually loses the match, but is now confident that he should wash, rinse, and repeat, albeit at an even more fevered and intense pitch. (You can always tell when Fischer is about to snap because Maguire gets a certain set to his jaw, looks up and to the right, into the distance, hands on hips, as if he were about to reveal himself to be Superparanoiaman). Accompanying Fischer in his endeavor to rise to the peak (and then retreat, over and over again) are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), Fischer’s fixer and personal Iago, who is driven by jingoistic Cold War “patriotism,” and the not cynical Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who sticks with Fischer (most of the time) due to a mix of compassion and deep love for the game. Eventually, we reach Reykjavik, and the movie slows to a more sluggish mix of montage sequences and hazily portrayed chess games. Yes, eventually Fischer wins, although we are spared having to see all 21 individual matches. Fischer gets a standing ovation from Spassky, which of course does nothing but arouse his suspicions (he starts going Superparanoiaman, but then realizes he has nothing to bitch about, since he is now World Champ). We then get yet another closing montage sequence detailing Fischer’s slow slide into ignominy and at least partial insanity. T h e  e n d.

There are a few (and I mean damn few) bright points. Sarsgaard is likable enough as chess priest. Liev Schreiber speaks passable Russian. Time can be spent pondering if Fischer is insane, or if he is indeed playing the greatest (meta)game of all time. (This is the film’s strongest suit). Otherwise, the film really is the poster child for everything that is horrible about biopics. It is deeply boring, as it tells us a story we already know without anything but the most superficial insights into the psychology of the tale’s actors. Spassky is a Soviet tank, lumbering ever onward, crushing all opposition, while Fischer is that most charming combination, an insecure egomaniac. Having to watch scene after scene where he builds himself up as the most indispensable man in the world, and having to watch Marshall kowtow to him, does begin to achieve some degree of impact at least, as Fischer’s arrogance, no matter what the cause, becomes totally intolerable. The film tries to provide some compassion in the form of Father Lombardy (“he’s not afraid to lose… he’s afraid to win”), but Fischer, as in real life, is bulletproof. Our sympathies cannot penetrate his force field of tooth grinding jerkiness. There are more montage sequences than in an NBC Olympics broadcast, and they are of about the same quality – reductive, and telegraphing exactly which one emotion we are supposed to feel. (Admiration during young Fischer’s speed chess wins, gritty nostalgia during the oh-lord-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-watch-a-’60s-greatest-social-unrest-hits-set-to-White-Rabbit sequence, patriotism during the canned reactions to Fischer’s defeat of the Soviet menace, etc etc). And the montage sequences are cheaply done. I mean, some are crappy beyond belief. (One features a street interview, supposedly referencing the early ’70s, although looking like an ersatz ’90s music video, with three contemporary looking tween girls stuffed into tie-dyes, a lame After Effects video separation filter slapped on top). We are forced to look at idiots waving flags in slow motion celebration of an egomaniac for far longer than anyone who is not George W. Bush should have to. Having to watch every character in the film – from Mom and Sis to the guy at the front desk of a motel Fischer once stayed at – sit in front of a TV, waiting with baited breath for Fischer’s triumph, and then having to watch their feeble celebrations of that triumph (“yippee, a guy who once paid me to screw him just won a board game!”), will make you yearn for a seven hour analytic viewing of the Zapruder film with Oliver Stone sitting in your lap. But I digress. Even if we put aside the fact that Fischer’s Wikipedia entry is more compelling (and accurate), there is the fact of the portrayal of chess. It is absolutely pitiful. Chess in this film is reduced to a bunch of Rain Man style autistics shooting rapid fire notation at each other, playing games in their heads. If you don’t know how to play chess, you are patronizingly asked to sit in slack-jawed admiration of dem damn smert peeple. If you do know how to play chess, you can only sit there in slack-jawed disgust at the shallowness of the game’s representation. It is reduced to semi-mystical mumbo jumbo, emptied of any content or interest except as a site for vacant veneration. Yes, anyone watching the Spassky-Fischer match live in ’72 might have known little about chess, but at least they would have learned something by the end of the process. This film does not even attempt to achieve the pedagogical level of Wide World of Sports. Too much work, I suppose, or too much imagination required to conceive of a way to portray the abstractions of chess on a screen. What is a pawn sacrifice? You’ll never learn, nitwit. You obviously lack the IQ to drool on Fischer’s Cliff’s Notes. The only sacrifice required of you is the two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

Half a star out of five

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Brett Morgan (2015)

Who is Kurt Cobain in the year 2015? Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which boasts access to a trove of new material, some of which includes interviews with those closest to the musician, supposes to answer the question of who Kurt Cobain “really” was. Instead, the film winds up answering the question just posed: who is he now, who has he become in the minds of those who knew him, and those who didn’t, some 20 years after his death? The cachet of this new appraisal comes from the exclusive access the filmmaker had to Kurt’s personal archive, as well as from the cooperation of many formerly combative or elusive friends and family, including Kurt’s Mom and Dad, Krist Novoselic, and, of course, Courtney Love. In order to measure the distance between who Kurt Cobain is to us now, and who he was when he died, back in 1994, it is instructive to compare the current film, so very authorized by Kurt’s family, with Nick Broomfield’s muckraking account of the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death, 1998’s Kurt and Courtney. Rewatching that film recalls the Kurt who was tabloid fodder, often portrayed as an equal victim of his own success and of Courtney Love’s supposedly predatory nature; unlike the Cobain of 2015, who is granted posthumous status as creative genius and social renegade, the Cobain of 1998 was yet another promising rock musician who tragically died young, done in by drugs, seedy hangers-on, and the pressures of success. While Kurt and Courtney is not a hatchet job, it does portray Courtney Love (honestly, in many ways) as the mover in the relationship, with Kurt as a kind of mute enigma, the voodoo doll on which the voluble Love practiced her dark magic. Montage of Heck serves as an important corrective to this vision; it reveals, through the archival materials, a more complex portrait of Cobain, and also a more nuanced, human one of Love. It is important to keep in mind while watching the current film that it is Love’s authorized version of events, and it is interesting to note that Love does take some responsibility for Cobain’s demise within. While Kurt and Courtney spends much of its time dealing with the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death, and Love’s possible role in it, it is also true that the earlier film has a larger cast of characters testifying to Cobain’s inherent depressive nature. That film becomes much more a whodunit, coming down eventually on the side of “Kurt, possibly with some pushing.” The pushing, in this earlier account, came from Love’s purported infidelity (with Billy Corgan, yuck) after which Cobain attempted suicide in Rome, and then succeeded in the States a few months later. Montage of Heck does not deal with conspiracies, and everyone treats Cobain in a more removed, psychiatric fashion, as a depressed, unhappy person for much of his life, who unsurprisingly killed himself. Interestingly, it is Love who raises the “pushing” theory in the current film, as she takes “responsibility” for Cobain’s death. (She claims she only thought of cheating on him, and Cobain intuited it, which was enough to send him into a profound depression. The context in which she wanted to cheat on him, and the actual details of the aftermath of the suicide attempt in Rome, up through his death in Washington, are never addressed by the filmmaker or Love). Why am I prattling on about this? Well, Kurt and Courtney were, at the time of Cobain’s death, wedded, both in fact and in the public’s mind, whereas now they are much less so, and there was a sense that when one spoke about who Kurt Cobain was, it was impossible to do so without Courtney Love. It feels much less the case in 2015, but if one is interested in the dynamics of the relationship, the two films, side by side, provide some opportunity for a comparative analysis (more of Love than Cobain, perhaps, as she is alive to bear forward her story).

I’m getting far afield of the film itself, though, as anything more than a vehicle for reminiscing, hero worship, or gossipy armchair psychoanalyzing. In tone and style, Montage of Heck is nothing new, or special. It sticks pretty close to the style of gently investigative documentary popular these days, and is also reminiscent of Jessica Yu’s seemingly influential 2004 doc about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. While the authorial voice is sometimes conspicuous in Montage of Heck, most of the story is told through interviews and archival footage. The film is comprised of four modes, or types of material: the “talking heads” (family and friends); archival video of concert performances, media reportage, and Kurt’s privately shot footage; animated reworkings of Kurt’s drawings, paintings, and objects; and longer, more “realistic” sequences of animation set to Kurt’s spoken autobiography. Of the four modes, the archival footage is the most powerful, and, indeed, comprises the most powerful section of the film, the middle in which the director builds the emotional power of the story to its peak by cutting back and forth between the private video footage of Cobain and Love’s home life with footage of their public one (sometimes music performances, sometimes interviews from the period). This part of the film not only reveals Cobain in close to full detail, warts and all, but also rehabilitates Love as the harpy hanger-on she is often seen as. Bearing in mind the material is selected, Love comes off as intelligent, witty, creative (if destructively so) and in love. Given the amount of archival footage one might guess exists based on hints within the film, if Morgan had stuck just with it, and crafted a documentary almost purely based around montage, he would likely have had extraordinary results. (For a blueprint of how to make this type of film, see Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack). Unfortunately, the rest of the modes are self-indulgent, border on the parasitic, and make you question the director’s taste (for instance, the deadly lame title sequence which juxtaposes Seattle punk with educational film footage from the 1950s and atomic bomb blasts). The worst offender in this regard are the animated sequences that feature Cobain’s drawings and other art animated and montaged to his music. Most of this stuff is fairly stupid and cliched, the kind of work you might find in any halfway thoughtful and disturbed teenager’s private notebooks. Perhaps the animations are cliched because Cobain’s drawings and art are cliched (many fetuses/broken dolls with staring eyes and holes in their heads, or Ed Roth style characters with exploding guts), but we the audience wouldn’t know, because in this mode, we cannot distinguish what is the artist’s original contribution, and what is the director’s. Yu’s work on Darger’s art in In the Realms of the Unreal is the first instance I know of where a fine artist’s work is animated for the screen, but it is a hideous trend. This way of dealing with material exists, one supposes, because the director is too insecure or timid to allow the art to speak for itself, the way it was intended – as a static image. By “jazzing up” the imagery to prevent boredom on our parts while simultaneously devaluing our intelligence, the director destroys the integrity of the original work, turning it into something that is far beyond the artist’s original intentions, while perverting the meaning. (Such stuff also smacks of the director trying to steal some of the artist’s thunder, parasitically repurposing the work into their own while also making it commercially appealing). When practiced on Darger, it is tone-deaf and idiotic, reducing the depravity and beauty of his world to twee weirdness. I would think, however, that Cobain would be appalled, as the film transforms his art from exercises in defiance, ugliness, and protest of a reductive culture into the kind of blitz spectacle, ready made for television, that our culture excels at. (Many of the sequences just repeat fragments of text written by Cobain in notebooks over and over again while the music blasts). It seriously leads me to question if the director understands Cobain’s viewpoint. Perhaps he is merely dim, but it comes off as though he is picking over Cobain’s corpse to masturbatory ends. Kurt and Courtney, by way of contrast, barely features any of Cobain’s art, but when it does, we see it in the right way: in the context of his ex Tracey Marander’s home, where it hangs on the wall, and we can take it in quietly. The other animated portions, which were parceled out to a variety of animators and set to Cobain’s spoken word reminiscences, are not as bad, but are far too literal. This overlong film (145 minutes) could have been edited down while enriching the end result by collapsing these two modes and eliminating the animated aspect all together. Why not use still images from Cobain’s archive of art with his spoken word material laid over the top? It would allow us to really see the work, to really hear his words, and further, it would tie the two together by way of chronology – the art would become the expression of the contemporaneous experiences Cobain is speaking of. Even if the director then chose to keep the film at two and a half hours, it would have allowed him much more time for further dipping into the archive, which we obviously barely get to sample. Instead, the director becomes stingy with the material while hitting us over the head with crass, loud displays of his “interpretive” prowess. (The talking heads are a mixed bag; Kurt’s mother, for instance, comes off as self-serving and revisionist, while his father seems anguished. Novoselic and Marander, who is also in Kurt and Courtney, seem to have the inside track on reality. As for Courtney Love, I will leave it for viewers to decide how sincere she is. Overall, there are far fewer interviews, and time devoted to interviews, than the promotional materials for the film suggest). While the ending is abrupt, almost purposefully so, the details of Cobain’s demise are fully chronicled elsewhere (notably in Broomfield’s film). It is a testament to Cobain (and to Courtney Love, it must be said) that despite the director’s meddling and simplification, there is still much of interest here, and much that feels fresh and new, as if we are finally seeing Kurt, for the first time, as himself. Even though we are left with a flawed portrait, it remains a compelling, if ultimately condescending, one.

Two and a half stars out of five

Love and Mercy – Bill Pohlad (2015)

Our year has thus far provided an embarrassment of riches for fans of the biopic. And good for them! Me as well, as normally I would skip most biopics, but this year, soldiering on in the name of variety rather than cherry-picking, I have been exposed to many a chronicle of lived reality. Thankfully, they have been worthy of consideration, not a mediocrity among them. At first glance, Love and Mercy seems an oddity, as it scopes out a life that, while worthy of consideration, has not pressed itself upon us of late with its necessity. I hope we can all agree that Brian Wilson is a musical genius, and not in need of rehabilitation or, as the credits to this film suggest, publicity. The film does not labor extensively to prove his mettle, nor does it serve as a hit parade except in the most minor of ways. Indeed, the film feels slight in scope; really, though, it is simply a focused, fairly quiet and gentle film, which, like Mr. Wilson, might have its humility mistaken for lightness. The movie focuses on two Brian Wilsons, without feeling the need to tie the two together, or make any heavy causative moves connecting one to the other. The majority of the film is dedicated to portraying a particularly unglamorous, and perhaps even undramatic, time in Wilson’s life, during which he was under the control, mentally and, it seems, legally, of one Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a squat, paunchy Svengali with a temper and a weird haircut. This Brian (John Cusack) is far beyond his heyday, and while still creative, spends much of his time battling his demons with no particular help from the doc, whose therapeutic techniques were developed at the school of fighting fire with gasoline. We have a feeling the good doctor is shady, but we are unsure, as we don’t know Wilson enough to tell if he’s as bad off as the doctor says he is. Wilson certainly doesn’t disagree with him, so how would we know? Enter one Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswomen and soon to be girlfriend of Mr. Wilson, who is our cinematic avatar within the weird world of So-Cal post-fame. She meets Wilson while he is shopping for a car, and despite the ever-looming presence of Dr. Feelbad, manages some alone time with him while they proceed to date. The tale of how she manages to liberate him from the constraints of not only the doctor, but of his own inner demons, comprises the main narrative thread. The film often cuts back in time, portraying a younger Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the period of his ascendancy, slightly before Pet Sounds until slightly after Good Vibrations and the aborted release of Smile. The film smartly does not attempt to explain the more recent Wilson with reference to the past one; even better, it does not use the past Wilson as a vehicle for mindless genius worship or the petty psychology we often get in such films. Instead, this past tale serves as a primer on Wilson, not just for the uninitiated (although for them too) but by way of showing where his particular problems began as counterpoint to where he winds up. This past thread also has the purpose of explicating his particular type of creativity, showing it in full force and also portraying the kinds of problems, social and not just mental, that resulted from his unique talents. There is not much suspense involved – really, the only question the film asks, narratively, is whether old Wilson will get the girl, be free of the evil doctor, and live happily ever after.

What is refreshing about the film, aside from its lack of pretensions, is that it places Melinda Ledbetter front and center, not only as our way into this world, but as the reason for, and star of, this film. Just as much as this is a portrait of Brian Wilson, it is a picture of romantic love that we don’t get much in popular culture these days. Melinda is not a particular fan of Brian’s work, nor the handmaiden dedicated to renewing his genius; we get the feeling that she cares about his abilities only insofar as they are part of who he is. She is not his foil, nor his steadfast, loyal support (although she is that as well); she is partly his savior, but only insofar as anyone who cared about him deeply might be. She is, in fact, not extraordinary in any way (okay, she does look like Elizabeth Banks), but simply a woman who, although in love, is mature enough to realize it might not work out. At the same time, what she cannot abide is leaving someone in a bad place when she has the power to help them out. And she does help him out, aiding him not just because she loves him, but because Landy is a blot that needs to be wiped out. Thus, she is a powerful woman who is also an everyday person, and by the end, we feel like this film is Wilson’s love letter to her. The great thing is that her power is not represented as a contrast to Wilson’s “weakness.” A strong aspect of the film is its suggestion that what made Wilson a sonic innovator also made him inclined to social maladaptation. Indeed, the sonic landscape of this film is its strongest suit; the sound design is subtle and incisive, with great secondary music as well as sculpted collages of Wilson’s output that provide portraiture of his interiority. The scene where Wilson loses it at a dinner party, unable to stop himself from obsessively focusing on the continual clatter of cutlery against china, is a great example of the melding of genius and madness. In most films, the clatter would build increasingly, perhaps underscored by the menacing thrumb of some ascending bass strings; here, however, we share in Wilson’s vision, as the clatter is musical, fascinating and unnerving. It gives us insight into Wilson’s musical interior, and also humanizes him, all by performing his reality for us. Partly due to Cusack’s strong performance (his best in ages), partly due to Banks, and partly to the script, we never feel that Wilson’s weirdness is particularly weird; there are no rote sequences of Melinda being shocked by Brian, of having to get over his quirks, or being put off by his manner in any way. This is a film about real people, not stereotypes, and while the ending is typically happy, it feels earned. Sometimes the universe does send the person you need at just the time you need them. Sometimes it helps to be a one-of-a-kind genius, too.

Three and a half stars out of five

Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello (2015)

I have not so much to say about Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. It is nominally a biopic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; I say nominally, because Bonello eschews most of the trappings of the biographical film. There is little in the way of exposition or explanation – we are thrown into YSL’s life in 1967, and jump around, chronologically, through the year 1976 (with a few detours to 1989). There is generally little dialogue. What we learn, we learn through observation. So, this should be a slam-dunk for me, right? I generally despise biopics, and this one works against the conventions of the genre I most dislike. Call me agnostic. I found the film interesting without connecting to it much emotionally. Like its subject, Saint Laurent attempts to convey something substantial through the accumulation of surfaces; like the human form in fashion, the person at the center of this film emerges as the negative space to which substances cling, the bones around which an edifice is built, an edifice that both transforms the subject as well as obscures his “reality.”

The film begins with a confession, as YSL (Gaspard Ulliel) gives a phone interview in which he reveals some of the sordid, and potentially formative, experiences of his childhood (like much in the film, this sequence returns later to play out in full). This, along with a few flashbacks later in the film, is all that we have of YSL to “explain” him. Rather, the film focuses in on the years 1967 and 1976 because they are the years of his major collections, with the interim being the height of YSL’s influence and originality. Not that we, the audience, would know, except that the periphery of YSL’s existence makes us dimly aware of how the outside world is responding to him. There is little to none of the expected “outside” viewpoints on his work, no dramatic catwalk montages with the press and/or celebrities giving us a hint as to what is original or exciting in his work and/or why. Most of what we understand about YSL’s relationship to the outside world comes through his partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier). Instead, we stick with YSL almost exclusively throughout the film. In the beginning, we see him at work in the atelier, a kind of back-office god who calls forth outfits, touches them, and then sends them back, while we mostly stay with the workers, going about their tasks wordlessly (this part of the film is quite fascinating). As time goes on, and YSL rises, he spends less and less time in the office, and more and more time doing drugs, having sex, and going out and about. Yes, be prepared to admire manifold people “looking cool” in this film, as this activity (I can’t even call it cruising), mostly perpetrated in nightclubs, provides a good deal of the meat of YSL’s existence. It is while clubbing that YSL meets his muses and inspirations, Loulou and Betty (Léa Seydoux and Aymeline Valade, respectively), as well as one of his lifelong loves and figures of fascination, the libertine Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). We begin to get the general sense that YSL is sliding into non-productivity and addiction, but then he returns in force with the 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection. There are a few flash-forwards to 1989, with an elderly YSL, played by Helmut Berger, isolated, seemingly doddering, trapped in memories and surrounded by the (now empty) surface features of fame and style. However, the film does not propose a reading of YSL’s life, and so we don’t get a theory or summation of what his body of work “meant.” In fact, if the film has a thesis, it would be exactly that – YSL was tormented during his lifetime over what his work meant, and grew to view fashion as transitory (and potentially empty). He is portrayed as resenting the work’s inclusion in museums, which marks it as passe, but also transforms his home into a virtual museum, and speaks of painting with admiration, as it is a form that “lasts.” So, the film presents the artist as he who is left bereft by his art, trying to accomplish something, the gist of which largely eludes him. The film ends with false reports of YSL’s demise in the ’70s (as he was given to periods of elusiveness) – a team of glib and insipid reporters (lead by director Bonello) finally track him down, at work in his atelier, and we conclude with YSL simply smiling at reports of his own demise.

What is Bonello up to in this film? The most interesting aspect of the production, probably, is the unlikely and undramatic rendition of the creative life it provides. As a portrait of the creative process, it is honest, in that portraying such things is very difficult, the process being mostly interior, and usually furtive, even to the artist. Bonello does not try to “get around” this difficulty, and this is why long sections of the film are a bit dull (at least in terms of the narrative, if not visually). We do begin to understand the creative process with the inclusion of other people – for instance, the most fascinating part of the film (and one of the briefest) is watching a room of professionals grapple with how to transform what are basically sketches with some colored ink on them into fully realized commodities that a person will not only successfully wear, but covet. The majority of the film, however, deals with YSL off the job, in the realm of “inspiration,” one supposes. And I must congratulate Bonello, as the more YSL slides into drugs and booze, the more we too, as viewers, begin to feel the effects. Time slows down, dilates, and drags, but not in the stereotypical ways. One great, and emblematic, shot, in which de Bascher and YSL see, and cruise each other, for the first time, feels like it takes place underneath an opium-laced pillow. The camera slowly tracks from de Bascher’s side of the club, across the dance floor, dense with slowly thrashing bodies and replete with mirrored surfaces, until it finally reaches YSL’s side, and his returned glance, and then the camera slowly tracks back to de Bascher again. We fully feel the “heroic” aspect of this movement, as a great struggle against torpor and drugginess – desire in this situation being that which can keep its purpose in mind long enough to arrive, against such inertia, at its original destination. The film has many such shots, and the chronology keeps us interested, if only by mixing things up. All the same, sequences are difficult to determine. Is there a method to Bonello’s montage? The film has an orchestral feel, in that one remembers glitzy parts, and slow parts, ups, and downs, but only in a gestalt. From moment to moment, we begin to wonder “why are we here?” (And this amplifies the feeling of being drugged). There are bravura moments. At one point, Bonello splits the screen, one half showing newsreel footage from the eras of YSL’s collections, the other side presenting, one at a time, emblems of those collections on models who continually descend a spiral stair. The shot hints at didacticism without being didactic, as there are no pat points of confluence; what could have been a cheesy or lame device turns out to be quite compelling (partly because Bonello lets it run for a good while). The flash-forward to YSL in his old age, which occurs during the Ballet Russes section, is also very well done. At first, it is structured to make us feel that YSL is remembering back to this triumph, his last great contribution (his moment of timelessness, and hence art). However, we are soon back in 1976, and we discover the flash-back was actually a flash-forward; it is as if the YSL of 1976 intuits where he will wind up, how “other” he will be compared to this contemporary self, how old and strange he will one day be. It feels very similar to the sequence in 2001 in which Dave Bowman witnesses his aged self sequestered in an ornate and antique room, only to suddenly find himself occupying that room as subject, time bridged in the span of an eye’s blink. Thus we get one of many small chills up our spine. The film delivers more than a few of these, but almost always in retrospect. (Another is a sequence in which we accompany Jacques de Bascher as he awaits his death from AIDS – he is alone, in an almost white room, smiling ruefully, afflicted, and sewing an eye back onto his teddy bear, which will be buried with him). So while the film is strangely affecting, and intriguing, it is more so in hindsight; during the film, things feel unresolved and somewhat empty. Bonello is a director who has no problem being provocative – his first film, The Pornographer, features unsimulated sex in the tale of a former porn director (disturbingly played, too convincingly, by a raggedy Jean-Pierre Léaud) trying to get back into the game and rediscover his “inspiration.” What carries over from one film to the other is an unironic style and an interest in the convergence of the everyday and its exception, the obscene. Saint Laurent asks, without asking, if art that is not timeless can exist, as it tries to portray what a life dedicated, at the highest level, to ephemera as art and the different repetitions of style required for such an endless renewal, looks and feels like. Living through it might be a nightmare, or an opium dream, but by the time one has enough distance to gain clarity and reflect – does anyone remember what we were talking about?

Three stars out of five

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh (2014)

Perhaps my faithful readers might guess, based on my previously expressed feelings about bio-pics, what my feelings might be toward Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s recent film which illustrates the life of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Or perhaps such readers, faithful or faithless though they be, would rather not guess, and having tired of rhetorical gambits (of which I admittedly might be seen, albeit through a glass darkly, as the demented Erno Rubik), and on the verge of clicking off to less verbose pastures (of which there are admittedly plenty to choose from), might be heard, in a flourish of agitation similar to Mr. Turner’s own, to give a loud grunt and mutter gruffly, “Get on with it Goodrich!” I will admit that this dallying, in a patchy 19th century style, harbors not so much a lack of commentary on the film, but a feeling that such commentary will be, ultimately, banal. Not so the film, as it more than any recent effort makes the past live in a way that is fresh without being revisionist or even very unusual. In fact, aside from the performances, which are distinctive in the way that most of Mr. Leigh’s films tend to be, this could pass for a more burnished than average BBC production. No, it is just that the film does not inspire any radical reaction; indeed, my greatest encomium would be, simply, “go see it.” Some films say something, others simply are. Mr. Turner falls into the latter category in the way that (may God forgive me for the trite comparison) Mr. Dickens novels do. Analysis can be practiced on such works, but what is the point? The reading, or in the this case, the seeing and hearing of them, is the totality of the experience, as there is little to debate or to reinscribe with the stylus of our own intellects (considerable, naturally).

The film takes up Mr. Turner later in life, near upon the death of his own father (and studio assistant) and follows his life, in fairly straightforward fashion, until his own death. We see Turner at work, but unlike many overly-flowery films that focus on the lives of artists, he is neither tormented overmuch, nor is he portrayed as the mere inspired prism through which his experience of the world is refracted. We see Mr. Turner within the landscapes that he translates, and they are digitally created to be ravishing, but rather than communicating a ravishment that serves to inspire, they focus us instead on the singular love Turner had for seeing, for observing closely, and for staking out points of view. There is little that separates such sequences from many conventional films about artists, except that Mr. Turner is not typical, and does not communicate his love for many things conventionally. Neither is he a blackguard, a rogue, or a scoundrel, though – in fact, he is often very cute and lovable, precisely because he is not so in any conventional sense. His love of the world, and the things within, only unfolds gradually, through our observation of Mr. Spall’s keen performance, which discloses psychology without psychologizing, and makes Mr. Turner an enigma without posing any questions to be answered or problems to be debated. He is a man unlike others in his time, place, and profession, and the film gives us enough detail to perhaps posit why this may be, without really caring why it is so. Why does he deny the existence of his children? Why does he travel incognito? What drives him to adopt an unusual style that, while avant-garde, is not openly oppositional? How does he manage to seem both uneducated and taciturn while also being held in esteem as a wit and as a man with opinions both worthy and respectable? What lies in his heart? What does he truly care about? He is portrayed as both a workman-like professional and as someone capable of being transported by visions; as a sharp critic of his contemporaries and also a defender of tradition. He is, in short, like many outsiders, a man who can both inhabit his specific time and place in history and also see outside of it, and himself, to the absurd nature of this habitation. Timothy Spall, giving a tour de force that is of the quiet, incremental variety, must be given full credit here; rarely has an artist been portrayed with such depth and humanity.

The film itself, as I previously mentioned, and like most of Mr. Leigh’s output, is well observed. (Indeed, although I hate to use such an overused phrase, the early part of the film is sumptuous in the level of its period detail). I have tended to like Mr. Leigh’s films when they are of the darker, more modern variety, but it is often hit-or-miss. Sometimes, as in his early TV features (such as Spall’s first collaboration with Leigh, 1982’s Home Sweet Home) or in Naked (from 1993), the verisimilitude provided by Leigh’s famous working methods provide realities and truths that are harrowing and heartbreaking; other times (as in 1996’s Secrets and Lies), the films feel like huge agglomerations of mannerisms, tics, and characterizations that can veer toward the patronizing or stereotyped. Mr. Turner follows neither path; indeed, it is gentle and self-effacing. It does feel a little long, especially in the last third, which is mostly devoted to Turner getting old and traveling back and forth to his common-law wife (Mrs. Booth, whose name he takes) in declining health. There is little reason that we must stick with the artist until death simply because death makes for a natural ending point to the “story.” All the same, the final shots of the film are penetrating, and sad. Here, we see the man in full, not in the sense of warts and all, or in the sense of good and bad, but instead as a star, a light-bringer who, despite his gruff style and sometimes irresponsible interpersonal behavior, brought meaning and purpose to others. To the one he shone upon, the gift brought happiness and the purpose of life was reinforced; to the one he turned away from, he bequeathed sorrow and loneliness. The artist, more than any other figure, is tasked with the burden of being “true” to him or her self. We begin, by the end of the film, to see that perhaps for Turner this is the key to his behavior, both the positive and the negative. The coda of the film is deep in the best possible way – again, it simply shows that the gift was also a curse, and that knowing such a man was both a pleasure and deeply painful. The sun shines, that is its task; it makes visible and does not judge what it illuminates. It is objective – not impartial, or fair, or balanced. It is prior to such categories. “The sun is god” – but it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum (2014)

Ugg, if there is one genre I tend to detest, it is the bio-pic. Why so, you life loving types might ask? Well, settle onto my knee, sonny, and grump along with me for a moment. First of all, most of the time we are being told a story we already know, so there are rarely any surprises involved. This might be tolerable if the subject were portrayed in an interesting fashion. As it is, most often the subjects of such films are slavishly worshiped, great golden men (and rarely women) held aloft for us to cheaply revel in the glow they reflect, all of us puny crudmuffins now suddenly reawakened to our shared “humanity.” Ah yes, who doesn’t want to shave a piece of self-esteem off the ol’ block of the less than flinty Mahatma, or perhaps even J.C. himself? I dare you, my friends, to look back through biographical films made even in just the last twenty years. Will you find a critical viewpoint? Will you find anything that not only makes you reconsider what you knew, but even keeps you awake? I think not. Tedium and self-righteousness do not a happy pairing (nor a happy viewer) make.

Here endeth the preamble-by-way-of-explanation-hinting-at-an-apologia for seeing, and thus commenting on, The Imitation Game. I was convinced to see it by someone who shall remain nameless. But, lo, good news – it is not bad! Yes, I already knew the story of Alan Turing (spelling his name like a proper Alan should). And yes, there is more than a little basking and past-patronizing in the mix. What makes this good, then? Well, it is very well directed. The structure of the film is more sophisticated than most, moving around the chronology in a way that makes emotional impact, and the overall design of the film (the sets, the costuming, the mise-en-scene and camerawork) evokes the era without italicizing or winking. The performances are also good, and Cumberbatch does make a very sympathetic Turing, even when at his prickliest. Perhaps it is Turing’s outsider nature, and his tragic end, that made me more sympathetic than normal. There is plenty to dislike, but more in the mode of “oh, must you, really?” (disappointment) rather than “cripes!” (sigh, eyes rolling). The film often slips into Hollywood heart-string contrivances – as in the cryptographer who, at the first message successfully decoded, discovers his brother is on the ship they are about to let sink (rather than tip their English hands to the Germans). Punches are thrown, yells are exchanged, “Who are you/we to play God?!?” etc. Such things feel like the screenwriter trying to gin up some teacup tempest dramatics in stiff-upper-lipsville. A poor score mars the film as well – then again, ninety percent of scores are poor and unnecessary. Oh well. Yes, this is a positive review.

Three stars out of five