I’m not Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, or Joyce Kulhawik, and I don’t pretend to be. But this is a heavy season for movie going, with the industry trying to distribute its best in anticipation of the next round of Oscars. My husband, sister and I have joined the legions of those willing to suspend video renting, plunk down the ticket prices and be part of the process. Here are some of my thoughts so far.
The Imitation Game is definitely the best movie we’ve seen. Very powerful, brilliantly written, amazingly acted and directed with a suspenseful story line and emotional sub-text. Run, do not walk, to see it. Perfectly cast Benedict Cumberbatch is pioneering cryptoanalyst, professor and mathematician Alan Turing, whose efforts led to cracking Nazi Germany’s so-called Enigma code. Despite the importance of what he accomplished in helping the Allies win World War II, saving millions of lives, he was later persecuted and criminally prosecuted under Great Britain’s punitive laws banning homosexuality. The result, revealed in the epilogue, was tragic.
Foxcatcher, the story of mega-wealthy du Pont scion John du Pont and his obsession with the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, is a tense, powerful story with amazing acting by (otherwise) comedian Steve Carell as du Pont and Tatum Channing as wrestler Mark Schultz. At Cannes, Bennett Miller won best director for the film, which is based on a true crime. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will confide that I didn’t see it coming. It would have been an edge-of-the-seat thriller except for some slowness in revealing the psychopathology that drove the story. Still, mark it definitely worth seeing.
Birdman – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s expressionist film about an over-the-hill movie actor whose movie role as Birdman made him a celebrity but who still seeks credibility by writing and directing a Broadway play. Michael Keaton’s acting may well win him an Oscar nomination (it’s one of the only movies to get a four-star rating from others), but this is more a film about acting, about life as an artist and what the apparently required narcissism does to relationships. The result is a cerebral exploration of ideas, art and life in the theater. Critics may have raved about the movie, but I felt a total lack of emotional connection with the characters. The movie was nowhere as good as the director’s earlier works, and I walked out of the theater with a big “so what?”
Unbroken. I loved Lauren Hillenbrand’s book about Louie Zampereni, the Olympic runner shot down over the Pacific in World War II, surviving nearly seven weeks adrift only to be captured by a Japanese ship and kept for years in a POW camp, where he suffered more than his fair share at the hands of a sadistic Japanese camp guard. His will to live and his endurance were rooted in his young life as a thieving child of Italian immigrants, always running afoul of the law. (He did survive his torture and, after years of PTSD and alcoholism, ended up at the age of 80 as a torch carrier in the Olympics in Japan.) I had heard that the movie, which focuses on the war years and just touches on his Olympic feats, ignoring other pivotal parts of his story, fell far short of the book. I didn’t want to see it but acquiesced to my husband. While indeed the movie falls short of the book, it exceeded my low expectation and, in the final analysis, am not sorry to have seen it.
Citizenfour –documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden about the American computer professional who leaked classified information about National Security Agency surveillance of private individuals without probable cause. Snowden is not a bomb-thrower like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assange was so intent on publicizing classified documents that he wouldn’t stop at jeopardizing the lives of sources. Snowden, by contrast, is thoughtful, dedicated to informing the public about the extent of government intrusion into our private lives, the gathering of information indiscriminately, without regard to any reason to believe the subjects are in any way a security risk.
Working with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, Poitras starts interviewing Snowden in Hong Kong just before the story went public a year ago June. Snowden had been working with Booz Hamilton at the time, under contract to the NSA. Previously he had worked with the CIA. An unassuming and sincere man, Snowden tried to bring to the attention of his superiors his concerns that sweeping intrusive NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens was unconstitutional. When the story went public, he was charged with violating The Espionage Act, of World War I vintage. The U.S. cancelled his passport, limiting countries where he could seek asylum. He ended up for more than a month in a transit zone at the Moscow Airport but has now been given a three-year residency permit in Russia.
Poitras, born in Sudbury and living in Berlin, is a McArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winning documentary film maker, is reportedly on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list for her work on government surveillance and is being sued for her collaboration with Snowden. Her narration is in soundless white font on black screen. The overall effect of the documentary – and the government privacy intrusions revealed – is chilling.
The Theory of Everything is the remarkable story of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, whose battle with with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) fails to deter his scientific prowess. It’s told from the perspective of his first wife, who met him when he was a doctoral student, supported him physically and emotionally through his disease, setting aside her own academic career to do so. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, turned in a truly Oscar-worthy performance, and is topping nearly every list of nominees for best actor. This romantic bio-pic is based on Jane Hawking’s book about their relationship, which eventually ended in divorce. It is weak on Hawking’s scientific accomplishments, and doesn’t get into questions about his destructive personality. The audience is left with a sense of enduring amazement that Hawking has lived all these years. Along with The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything leaves us contemplating the cost of genius and the price that must be paid by those around singular individuals who are truly game changers.
I have intentionally chosen not to see The Interview, either in theatre or by downloading it. Life is too short.
Lots to think about, and I’d welcome your recommendations as there’s still time left in the next week to cram in more cinematic offerings.