If you want the gravy…

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“The best film of 2050”

Got a slate to clear. Got the 2015 films to tackle (well, aside from Chappie). Let’s see how quickly I can get through these.

I’d like to take this moment to tell you to check out my friend Ness’ new WordPress blog, The Ness Empire. He rants in grandiose fashion about the best (and worst) fast food has to offer.

Possible spoilers for all films; TW sexual assault, violence, homophobia, S&M (if additional warnings are required, just let me know).

Goodbye to Language 3D, as those who followed my recent Film Awards may remember, was a contender for no less than 5 awards–Picture – Musical/Comedy, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Effects. It won none, and was in fact the lowest-rated film I nominated for a Best Picture award, but that doesn’t change what a strange, singularly fascinating experience it was. I was lucky enough to see it in 3D, twice, no less, and both times I took copious notes.

That doesn’t make writing about the film any easier. I honestly find giving an accurate synopsis of the film virtually impossible, other to say that it begins with a philosophical discussion of the nature of language and communication (“La Nature”), then proceeds to show scenes from a love affair, intercut with scenes of a dog amidst nature, a dog which seemingly belongs to these lovers, and ends with the birth of their child (“Le Métaphore”). During this there is a great deal of experimental 3D, deliberately distorted images and sound, stock footage, repeated scenes of a tourist boat coming to dock, scatalogical humor, nudity (female and male), a vignette depicting Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, repeated musical motifs, and further philosophical dictums. All in 70 minutes.

An example of Godard's experimental use of 3D.

An example of Godard’s experimental use of 3D. “(Source)

How does one break down such a film? It’s a philosophical treatise with the barest plot, and even paying close attention, I doubt I came anywhere to fully cracking it. It doesn’t help that I’m not terribly savvy in regards to 20th-century philosophy (I’ve been told Derrida is a major influence), so I’ll just recap some of the notes I took whilst watching, including a few favorite quotes:

  • “Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality”;
  • Typical Godardian deadpan (“The thumb–what does it do?”)
  • “Hitler’s second victory” – a reference, as I recall, to the modern state’s control of society
  • “Is it possible to produce a concept about Africa?”
  • Mysterious violent man symbolizing the state?
  • Equality–everyone farts and poops
  • Animals as more perceptive than people
  • ∞ + 0 (“Mankind’s greatest inventions”)
  • “You disgust me with your happiness”
  • Boat imagery/motif
  • The river is trying to speak to us (a quote?)
  • “Do something so I can speak”
  • Scene of Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein
    • Nails-on-chalkboard quill sounds (like the cries of babies?)
  • (of the dog) “He seems depressed.” “He’s dreaming of the Marquesas Islands.” “Like in the Jack London novel.”
  • (the dog runs off) “Marlborough’s left for war! Don’t know when he’ll be back!”
  • (an intertitle) AH dieux OH langage (a pun on the French title, Adieu au langage)
  • “A woman can do no harm. She can annoy, she can kill–no more!”
  • “Everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming out of their own mouths”
  • “Thought regains its place in poop”
    • ‘The Thinker’ – the image of equality
  • “I am here to tell you no and to die”
  • “The law that denies its own violence, cheats”

What to make of all this? Is it simply Godard’s reflection on human folly, the folly of the state, the folly of communication and philosophy? The failure of communication is not an uncommon theme, though I’ve never seen it treated quite this way. Godard’s formal experimentation is a much a reason to see the film as its philosophical content, and I consider myself quite lucky to have seen it in 3D, which Godard seems to have quite a bit of fun playing with–at a couple of points separating the “eyes” of the 3D camera so two images lie on top of one another. Add to that the manipulations of color, the use of video effects and editing to create a veritable collage of technique, and you have a film that is stylistically quite unique.

The vital ingredients: Godard, his camera, and his cigar. (Source)

The vital ingredients: Godard, his camera, and his cigar. (Source)

The use of sound is excellent too; the wonderfully over-the-top sounds of bowel movements, the harsh fragments of score, the grating quill-pen, etc., all adding to the unsettling atmosphere. Whether one responds to the film on an intellectual or visceral level, the attentive viewer will likely feel rewarded–even if they aren’t quite sure what they’ve just seen.

Godard, now well into his 80s, has not stopped evolving as a filmmaker and is not resting on his laurels (that the National Society of Film Critics added to those laurels shows his continued importance as a filmmaker), and God bless him for it. I am not his biggest fan by any means, and I don’t know how long it’ll be before I fully grasp just what he was up to here, but I’m so glad he made it.

Godard or go home. (83/100 – ****)

I didn't list the entire cast below, so here they are. (Source)

I didn’t list the entire cast below, so here they are. (Source)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, requires very little of me. It’s already been widely seen, admired, discussed, and after securing Wes Anderson his first Best Director and Best Picture nominations, made off with four Oscars–although it did not win Original Screenplay as it had widely been expected to do. I didn’t review the film when I first saw it in theaters, largely because I got caught up in a rather vague debate over its aesthetic choices (and a few of its war-related themes). It wasn’t until I gave it a second viewing on DVD that I finally coalesced my thoughts satisfactorily.

I remain less than an ardent fan of Wes Anderson. I respect his works quite deeply and have enjoyed them, but his affectations and penchant for deadpan whimsy still don’t tickle me like they do others. I’ll admit he’s gotten better about it–I found The Royal Tenenbaums rather insufferable outside of Gene Hackman–but something about his work just doesn’t quite connect with me. Here, I felt the film reached for an emotional impact at the end which it didn’t quite achieve; without giving too much away, the relationship between Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) wasn’t given nearly enough screentime, and so what should have been a truly poignant story thread (especially given how well Anderson handled adolescent romance in Moonrise Kingdom) felt just a bit…hollow.

But by and large, GBH never intends to be anything other than a breezy lark, and on that score, it’s a winner. I wanted to see more of Gustave the master concierge in action–in fact, given the rich potential of the film’s world, I wished it had taken more time simply to explore that world–but once the main caper plot got cooking, it’s quite delightful. Even if Anderson overrelies on certain comic motifs, there are ample little moments to relish: “Did he throw my cat out of the window?”; the Society of the Crossed Keys montage; “Holy shit, you got him!”; “Nobody move–everyone’s under arrest.” Anderson’s script, though not quite as deep as some have claimed, rarely lacks for wit.

The Grand Budapest in its glory days and its later years. Easily the best production design I've seen in years. (Source)

The Grand Budapest in its glory days and its later years. Easily the best production design I’ve seen in years. (Source)

And if the script is good, the technical aspects of the film are virtually unimpeachable. The stunning production design by Adam Stockhausen, along with Anna Pinnock’s painstaking set decoration, create a world that never was in the lush Hotel of the 30s, yet their evocation of Soviet Bloc drudgery as reflected by the hotel in the 60s is arguably even more impressive. The Ruritanian charm of Zubrowka, the dingy prison where Gustave is sent, the monastery he and Zero flee to–all brilliantly realized. And Milena Canonero’s costumes are just as accomplished. Both won well-deserved Oscars–and my awards besides. So did Alexandre Desplat’s bright, lively score, which adds a melancholy strain near the end which does add considerably to the poignancy of the ending. (The makeup also won; it’s a fine makeup job, but Guardians of the Galaxy really should’ve won.)

The large, starry cast was wholly overlooked by the Academy, but all did well; I remain a bit baffled by the degree to which Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Gustave was praised, but he’s always fun to watch and handles the rapid-fire patter superbly. Tony Revolori takes what in Anderson’s other films might have been a tiresomely one-note performance and gives it just the right amount of wit; he and Fiennes make a fine pairing. I won’t go into detail about the rest of the cast, but I do want to give special mention to Adrien Brody’s performance as the devious Dmitri; Brody’s post-Oscar career has been shaky to say the least (though his work in Predators suggested he might actually do all right in action roles), but here he gets a role to sink his teeth into. He’s simply perfect as the spoiled brat grown up, given to profane outbursts and scheming scowls. Let us hope his career rebounds from here.

Wes Anderson’s career, on the other hand, is in unquestionably good shape. And I can’t complain too much; he made a damned fun film, and given the Academy’s infamous tendency to snub comedy, the success of this film should be a cause for celebration. And if you’re an Anderson fan, well, so is the film itself. (85/100 – ****½)

So that happened.

So that happened.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, I grew quite intrigued by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan after it bowed at Cannes, receiving rave reviews and winning Best Screenplay. The reviews suggested something truly epic–at one point I think was under the impression there were science-fiction elements to it–and as it continued to get raves and award nominations, ultimately winning the Golden Globe and getting an Oscar nomination, my desire to see it grew ever more intense.

And then I saw it.

Now, expectations are a beast–this we all know. But Leviathan fell short of my expectations in a very strange way. Maybe my knowledge of the problems of modern-day Russia (I was a Slavic Studies minor in college) meant that the film’s seeming message–“Russia is a mess and the powers-that-be are corrupt and evade punishment”–was rather old-hat to me. But even then, the film’s portrait of official corruption cannot be news to anyone likely to sit down and watch the film, and it does not bring enough new to the table to justify 140 minutes of dour tragedy.

A quick recap of the plot¹ (spoilers): Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) has lost a lawsuit² against Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the mayor of his small town in northern Russia, to save his house from being torn down for the sake of some civic development. Kolya’s attorney, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), has assembled a file on Vadim detailing his malfeasances, and threatens to go public with them if Vadim doesn’t back down. Of course, things don’t work out for Kolya–Dmitri and Kolya’s wife, Lilia (Elena Lyadova), are having an affair; Dmitri is beaten by Vadim’s thugs and leaves town; Lilia commits suicide out of guilt; Kolya is accused of murdering her, is found guilty and is sentenced to 15 years; and after his house is torn down, a brand new church is built on the site, since the church is complicit in the state’s corruption.

On an objective level, it’s a fairly well done film. Zvyagintsev’s direction is solid (if not especially memorable), the technical aspects are satisfactory, and the acting is fine–Madyanov in particular (who resembles latter-day William Shatner to me) evokes the bull-headed arrogance of frustrated corruption. Arguably the most memorable aspect of the film is its use of Philip Glass’ score from Koyaanisqatsi, namely the haunting “Pruitt Igoe” theme, which fits the crushingly bleak mood quite well.

But it all feels a bit like sound and fury signifying nothing. The system is corrupt–no shit. Those who challenge the system tend to get crushed–some revelation. Making matters more difficult is the characters themselves; Kolya, for all the shit that gets thrown at him, is a rather tiresome hothead who causes as many of his own problems as are caused by the system. Dmitri and Lilia’s affair feels pretty arbitrary, but given Kolya’s difficult nature, one can understand Lilia’s motives. That doesn’t make her suicide less melodramatic; it’s handled subtly, but when suicide is so obviously used as a dramatic device, I find it off-putting–see Dead Poets Society for another egregious example.

There are some excellent moments–one bit where portraits of former Soviet leaders are trotted out for drunken target practice comes to mind–but there’s just not enough here, for me, to justify the experience. It’s good enough to make it to 75, which is the bottom end of my new **** range, and if I were to ever see it again, I might be more favorably disposed towards it. But really, do I ever need to see this film again? (75/100 – ****)

¹Thanks, Wikipedia!

²During the trial sequences, one of the judges reads off the court’s rulings in what seems to be the fastest voice possible. I don’t know if this is standard practice in Russian law, but it was very strange.

If all you know of ISIS/ISIL is what you've seen on the news...watch this.

If all you know of ISIS/ISIL is what you’ve seen on the news…watch this.

Timbuktu, on the other hand, wholly justifies its Oscar nomination. A despairing portrait of life under the thumb of ISIL, it inveighs against it by showing how humanity is slowly crushed by extremism. Music is banned; a group of friends playing music secretly are caught and punished (one of them is given 40 lashes; she is depicted on the poster). Soccer is banned; in a haunting sequence, a game is played without a ball. A young girl is forced to marry an ISIL militant, against her and her mother’s wishes, because the young man is considered “righteous” and deserving of a bride.

Another storyline, which occupies the most screentime, deals with a herdsman (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) who accidentally kills a fisherman in a dispute, and is ordered to pay the fisherman’s family a blood debt of 40 cattle; he only owns seven. The herdsman is ultimately imprisoned and sentenced to death; at his execution his wife (Toulou Kiki) appears, and as they rush together they are both shot, leaving their daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed) to flee into the desert, tears streaming, as the film ends.

While a certain lack of cohesion keeps Timbuktu just within the **** range, it has more than enough strengths to recommend. Abderrahmane Sissako’s direction skillfully balances the moments of tragedy with those of joy–the herdsman and his family enjoying a quiet moment together, for example. And Sofian El Fani’s cinematography is absolutely marvelous, contrasting human horrors with the forbidding expanse of the desert. One shot, wherein the herdsman crosses a lake after accidentally killing the fisherman, is a great long shot in a year deprived of them. The acting is uniformly strong; the Tamashek language, which the herdsman and his family speak, is quite a beautiful one.

Where Leviathan felt like it told me nothing I didn’t know, Timbuktu shed light on a world I’d heard no dispatch from–only our own frightened perspective. Whatever faults its has, it’s relevant enough–and powerful enough–to command your time. (84/100 – ****)

We need more kids' films like this. (Source)

We need more kids’ films like this. (Source)

The Lego Movie being snubbed for Best Animated Feature was one of the more controversial omissions on January 15, but Song of the Sea, which might well have been the beneficiary of this decision, might actually be the stronger film (it’s unquestionably stronger than Big Hero 6, but that’s another matter entirely). By the makers of The Secret of Kells (a surprise nominee in 2009 which I still haven’t seen), it’s a thoroughly delightful Irish fairy tale, which was rather screwed out of a proper release in theaters (I was lucky enough to catch it) but which should get its due on DVD.

Ben (David Rawle) lives in a lighthouse off the coast of western Ireland with his father (Brendan Gleeson) and mute little sister Saoirse. His mother (Lisa Hannigan) disappeared years earlier, at the moment of Saoirse’s birth. We learn that this was because she was a selkie–a seal who has emerged from the sea and taken a human form, but who is ultimately drawn back to the sea and their old identity. Saoirse is a selkie as well, and when she discovers her seal skin–which a selkie must use to return to the sea–and goes for a frolic in the ocean, their father is horrified at the thought of losing her and acquiesces when their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) demands they move with her to the city.

Shortly afterwards, Ben decides to return home, and Saoirse follows, but magical forces come into play, causing Ben to realize the truth about Saoirse: she must return to the ocean and sing the “song of the sea” in order to save the fairy creatures of Ireland from their demise at the hands of Macha (Flanagan), a kind of magical superbeing who seeks to control the fairy realm by turning its subjects into stone. Saoirse is rescued from her clutches, but has taken ill, and a race against time ensues to save her and the fairies.

For whatever reason, I assumed Song of the Sea would be a pretty but relatively empty experience, but it’s a tight little fable, gorgeously animated (in a kind of stylized, storybook style) and quite charming. Sometimes it gets a little cutesy (the musical fairy trio comes to mind), and sometimes a little bizarre (a magical storyteller whose long, long hair contains all the stories of the world, and who is probably naked), but the film truly embraces the magical, making it all the more convincing. The characters are by turns likable and amusingly awful (Granny/Macha), with the real show-stealer being the sheepdog Cú, a lovable big lug of a dog who would do anything for Ben and Saoirse, and does.

The voice acting is excellent, the music (Bruno Coulais and the group Kíla) haunting, and the whole experience an excellent one for children. Some might find the element of involuntary child abandonment troubling (it has never sat well with me), but the film handles it with the appropriate sensitivity. Seriously, show this to your kids rather than Big Hero 6. It’s much more satisfying. (86/100 – ****½)

Much better than you've heard--though far from perfect.

Much better than you’ve heard–though far from perfect.

Way behind the times on this one, but I have to get out my thoughts on The Interview, which became both a cause celebré and a victim of controversy; some argued that it was wrong to make light of a regime that was responsible for so much death and suffering, and some felt the film was hardly good enough to be worth the fuss.

There may be something to the former–though I err on the side of free speech–but the latter I refute, in no small part because I expected very little of the film. I assumed Dave Skylark (James Franco) would be insufferably stupid, and the jokes would be too weak, and too dependent on pop culture references, to justify the trouble. If anything, it’s Seth Rogen (as Dave’s producer) who proves the weak link, in the first act of the film seeming too ironically detached from the goings-on, as if he’s letting the audience know he’s slumming it. When the action shifts to North Korea, though, he gets into the spirit of things and does a solid job.

The film itself is fine. But their performances are incredible. (Source)

The film itself is fine. But their performances are incredible. (Source)

But Franco, with his childlike giddiness and abandon, really makes the film. Dave could, and should, have been an unfunny jackass, but Franco’s blithe insanity proves infectious; a line like “haters gonna hate, and ain’ters gonna ain’t” works solely because he doesn’t realize how silly it is. And as good as Franco is, Randall Park’s work as Kim Jong-un is quite incredible–I even nominated him for Best Supporting Actor – Musical/Comedy (in an absurdly stacked category). He too invests fully in the absurdity of the material, without becoming a caricature; his Kim may love Katy Perry and have daddy issues, and may form a genuine bond with Dave, who urges him to be his own man and reject society’s guidelines for masculinity (a good message, regardless of the context), but then he’ll turn right around and vow death to his enemies, or when challenged on human rights abuses by Dave, turn the tables on him by pointing out America’s shortcomings in that regard (the film doesn’t let us off the hook). The greatness of Park’s performance is that he is as convincing as the good-natured puppy-gifter as he is the hard-hearted tyrant. Whatever arguments you can make against the rest of the film, Park’s performance is damned hard to fault.

There are issues with the rest of the film, to be sure. The whole “honeypotting/dicking” subplot is quite tiresome, and it’s unfortunate that Lizzy Caplan, a great comic actress in her own right (a prime example being the underseen Bachelorette) is given little to do other than chide Franco and Rogen and shepherd them through their mission. And while the mixture of farce and bloody dark humor works better here than in, say, Pineapple Express, the proper mixture of tones is not always nailed. It’s not quite good enough to escape the onus of its controversy and be a future classic. But it is good enough, I think, to be a pleasant surprise to curiosity seekers in the years to come.

‘Cause baby, you’re a firework. (78/100 – ****)

History, Harvey-style.

History, Harvey-style.

The Imitation Game is the kind of film which dismays me in a weird way. Not because it’s bad or because it doesn’t tell a worthy story, but because it smacks of the watered-down, the safe, the prestigiously neutered. It’s Harvey Weinstein Oscar-bait par excellence, a film which betrays little organic passion, which touches on thorny subjects as mildly as possible, which takes dramatic license to the nth degree, dramatizing its story to the point of fiction. To see such a film earn the praise it so cravenly seeks is a bit saddening to me.

The story, of course, deals with mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his work at Bletchley Park, trying to break the Nazi’s Enigma code, which he does with an early computer (nicknamed Christopher after his first love), some luck, and the help of an alternately devoted and alienated team. To conceal his homosexuality, he becomes engaged to team member Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), but breaks it off, pretending that he does not care about her.

The World War II scenes are intercut with scenes from Turing’s youth (played by Alex Lawther) and his friendship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who introduces him to cryptography and inspires his unspoken affection, but who dies young, leaving Turing heartbroken, and from the 50s, when a police investigation uncovers Turing’s sexuality, which leads to his prosecution and chemical castration, and ultimately to his suicide in 1954.

If I give The Imitation Game a strong rating overall, it’s because my disdain for overt awards-baiting is balanced by an objective acknowledgement of the film’s essentially solid craftsmanship and the strength of individual scenes and performances. Easily the best thing about it is Alexandre Desplat’s score, a lushly haunting piece of work which was widely expected to win him the Oscar; he won for The Grand Budapest Hotel instead, but either score would have been a worthy winner. The final cue in particular, “Alan Turing’s Legacy”, stirs one even more than the film itself.

Morten Tyldum impressed me with his Norwegian thriller Headhunters in 2012, which gave me additional hope for this film–but despite his getting an Oscar nomination, his direction here is mostly quite unmemorable. The only scenes which really display any style are those of Turing’s youth, which have of a golden, faintly detached glow–a feeling of long ago and far away. Beyond that, it’s quite anonymous. The film is technically polished, but hardly worth special mention in that regard; there are a few glimpses of battle to make the film seem less stagey, but they really don’t add much.

Two performances that were nominated for most major awards, won very few of them, and ultimately didn't deserve to. (Source)

Two performances that were nominated for most major awards, won very few of them, and ultimately didn’t deserve to. (Source)

Graham Moore’s script represents the film’s sole Oscar, but really didn’t deserve to. Here’s a breakdown of the film’s historical accuracy; it’s a pretty damning article, but L.V. Anderson sums it up by saying

The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park.

Now, I understand that no historical film is going to be absolutely accurate. Some come very close, but there’s always going to be some compression of events, some heightening of emotions–some measure of invention. But the degree to which Moore reshapes history and distorts character damages the film’s value as either history or biography. This isn’t a matter of a few tweaks for dramatic effect; much of the emotional and dramatic structure of the film is fabrication.

Of course, this could be forgiven somewhat if the script itself were more memorable. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s never really more than adequate. The dialogue tends to be a bit heavy and “inspirational”–the line “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” pops up at least twice, the characterizations, owing to Moore’s inventions, are all too tidy and obvious–the smug, weaselly Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) in particular smacks of artifice (shock of shocks, he’s an entirely invented character). Were I to go back to the film, separate from the pressures of awards season, I might be more forgiving, but to think that this script won the Oscar while Gone Girl failed to earn even a nomination is dispiriting, to say the least.

I also have to mention the film’s approach to Turing’s sexuality, which is extremely tame–he’s never seen so much as propositioning another man. I’m not saying the film needed to be graphic in its depiction, not by any means, but to me it’s just another example of how watered-down it is.

Benedict Cumberbatch has about as a big a cult as I’ve ever seen for an actor who’s yet to headline a blockbuster (though this did healthy business), and his Oscar nomination was a foregone conclusion–for a time, it was assumed he would actually win. Now, while I like Cumberbatch, I’ve never quite understood the level of hype he commands, and perhaps because of that, on top of my frustrations with the film, I’m not entirely certain what I think of his performance. I’ve seen praise for it, I’ve seen critiques of it, and somewhere in between my true feelings lie. Does Cumberbatch do well? Yes–although knowing that his performance is based on a distorted view of Turing’s character, it’s harder to applaud his work. When I added him to my informal rankings of the lead actor performances I’d seen in 2014, he came in 9th (probably 10th when you factor in Oscar Isaac’s great work in A Most Violent Year), but his work didn’t stick with me enough to where I felt him worthy of a nomination for my own awards.

For my money, the most memorable character and performance. (Source)

For my money, the most memorable character and performance (and suit). (Source)

And I suppose that says something. I won’t deny that he crafts a consistent, well thought-out character, or that he over- or underplays, even in a climactic scene showing him at the end of his tether because of his chemical castration. He does a good job, but something about the performance didn’t connect with me. While The Theory of Everything was a lesser film, I found Eddie Redmayne’s performance to be more actively impressive. Cumberbatch earned plaudits far and wide for his work, and good for him; until I have seen the film again I cannot accurately say what I think of his work.

Also heavily praised for their work was Keira Knightley, and the relative weakness of the year for supporting actresses might have helped, but on the whole I really didn’t see what the fuss was all about (the fact that she’d gone 9 years without an Oscar nomination might have helped). In one scene, she impressed me: the scene near the end where Joan visits the ailing, broken Turing, and tries to help him do a crossword puzzle (once a favorite pastime), was moving, and her empathy and concern for him was quite palpable. Elsewhere, Knightley is just fine, but if I hadn’t known she was a consistent awards contender for her work here, I’d never have guessed it.

On the other hand, Mark Strong got little if any awards attention for his performance as MI6 head Stewart Menzies, but I quite liked his work; he convinced one that Menzies was a man of the shadows, a man who knew a lot of dirty secrets and knew what to do to those whose spilled them, but who also felt a great deal of sympathy for Turing. Strong arguably gives the most honest performance in the film, and it further underscores how underrated he is. Plus, his pinstriped suit is pretty badass. The rest of the cast is quite solid–even Kinnear does well enough, given how false his character rings.

Setting aside my more personal objections, I can see that The Imitation Game is a well-made film in the Weinstein biopic tradition, perfectly solid in most departments but, save Desplat’s brilliant score, exemplary in none. I can’t see anyone remembering this film down the line for being a good film, so much as a showcase for Cumberbatch and a major awards-player of a past era. My score feels a bit high, but I think it fairly represents a balance between its actual quality and my dubious opinion of it. (79/100 – ****)

It's certainly trippy, I'll give it that. (Source)

It’s certainly trippy, I’ll give it that. (Source)

A Field in England captured my attention when I saw the trailer, and while I didn’t catch it in theaters (not helped by the fact that it had a very limited release here), I got ahold of the DVD and, trying to catch up on 2014 films before I did my awards, popped it in one night. I’m not sure what I really expected–I hadn’t seen any of Ben Wheatley’s other films–but while there was some definite imagination on display, especially in the cinematography, I was less dazzled than baffled.

Set in 17th-century England, during the English Civil War, it deals with a group of men who are led away from a battlefield and come under the thrall of O’Neill (Michael Smiley), a conjurer who induces them to search for hidden treasure and feeds them hallucinogenic mushrooms. Bizarre things happen, blood is shed, and it ends obscurely. The heavy accents don’t help (and damn Drafthouse for not including subtitles on the DVD).

On the plus side, Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose make a rather good-looking film here, shot in B&W with the stark grotesquerie of the men, their era, and their circumstances looking as photogenic as it possibly can. For a film shot in 12 days on a budget of £300,000, it’s pretty technically accomplished–the editing and sound design also add greatly to the warped atmosphere. And the acting isn’t bad either–Smiley is a witty menace, and no one seems to be taking the whacked-out material in the wrong spirit.

The problem is Amy Jump’s script, which doesn’t really seem to be anything but a series of surreal events adding up to an inscrutable attempted mind-fuck of a finale. It’s the kind of film which would be cool at 30 minutes, or even 45, but at 90 just feels like too much. It stretches itself too thin and ends up being rather unmemorable. It’s well enough made to sneak just into the bottom end of the **** range, but I can’t really recommend it except for Wheatley completists. (Score: 75/100 – ****)

I'm not disputing these claims. (Source)

I’m not disputing these claims. (Source)

Wetlands is another film I eagerly awaited, one which didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but which has an outstanding asset in Carla Juri’s performance–she came quite close to winning my Actress – Musical/Comedy award and would have in many other years (2012? By a fucking mile.) It’s also pretty well-made, being a nice antidote to the surfeit of gross-out comedies aimed at men.

Teenaged Helen (Juri) is blithely indifferent to any notion of bodily hygiene, exposing herself to any and all sources of contamination for the sake of stimulating her “flora”, and espousing a free-spirited approach to sexuality. Despite this, she broods over her parents’ divorce and is constantly scheming to reunite them. She enlists her friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse) to join in her misadventures, but even she cannot quite throw over custom to the degree Helen does.

One day, Helen cuts her anus while shaving, and after infection sets in, must go to the hospital, where her continued provocations and reminiscences mix with her attempts to woo nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), and she delays her release in order to do this, and to bring her mother and father back together at last.

It's a daring performance, but it's also a very likable one. (Source)

It’s a daring performance, but more importantly, it’s a very likable one. (Source)

Again, the film really lives and dies with Juri’s performance. As potentially tiresome as Helen could have been, Juri is ceaselessly lovable, and her provocations seem honest–Helen is not at all malicious, but sincere in her desire to defy convention. Juri embodies the freedom of youth as well as the emotional turbulence of it, and she’s a constant delight to watch. The Golden Globes never so much as sniffed at her work here, and it’s their loss. Juri is just about perfect, and if it weren’t for Tessa Thompson’s incredible work in Dear White People, she’d have won my award.

The rest of the cast is generally solid, though no one comes up to Juri’s level. Meret Becker, as her high-strung, capricious mother comes fairly close, however–she’s very funny, and a suitable foil to Juri’s uninhibited ideals–while being ignorant of her own absurdity. Kruse is not so good, however, and Juri constantly overshadows her–though this issue apparently goes back to the source novel, where Corinna does not measure up to Helen’s vivacity.

Charlotte Roche wrote the novel, which is adapted by director David Wnendt and Claus Falkenberg. I nominated their script for my Adapted Screenplay – Musical/Comedy award, and it’s a funny script with a great character at its center. In a stronger year it wouldn’t have made it on, but it’s a solid piece of work, if a little sprawling (the film runs 109 minutes, a bit long for its own good). Wnendt’s direction is lively and clever, with a fun little Invasion of the Body Snatchers homage and Helen skateboarding through the hospital to “Going Up the Country” standing out my memory. It’s a film which captures a very particular kind of free-spiritedness, which almost seems to blow away in a summer breeze, being wistfully ephemeral.

If I remember Wetlands in the future, it will be for Juri, who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much in the pipeline. Based on her work here, she has a great future as a comic actress, and I hope sincerely it’s not wasted. The film itself is an agreeable comedy, a must for her, and recommended as a singular gross-out comedy–though I warn you, it is quite gross indeed. (83/100 – ****)

A poster which puts the best part of the film--Eun-woo Lee--front and center. (Source)

A poster which puts the best part of the film–Eun-woo Lee–front and center. (Source)

Moebius, on one hand, is one of the most problematic films I’ve seen in a long time, at least taken at face value. Meditated on, it’s still quite flawed, but it has admirable elements.

In a Korean family, the father (Jae-hyeon Jo) is having an affair, which greatly distresses the mother (Eun-woo Lee), who responds by castrating the son (Young-ju Seo), before disappearing into the night. The son, after being harassed for his emasculated state, falls in with a gang who sexually assault a shopkeeper (also Lee), which results in the son being sent to jail. The father discovers that intense pain (in the film, caused by rubbing the skin with a stone until it bleeds) can lead to an orgasm for those who cannot achieve them otherwise, and passes this information to the son.

On the son’s release, he goes to the shopkeeper (whom he did not assault), and they form a relationship, with her stimulating him by various graphic means–including stabbing him and manipulating the knife until he climaxes. The relationship ultimately falls apart, however, and the father ultimately has his own manhood transplanted onto his son. The mother then returns, and further bloodshed ensues, although the final note is a somberly peaceful one.

I should add, aside from a couple of background conversations and assorted grunts, screams, and cries, there’s no dialogue whatsoever. This does not make the time pass more quickly; even at 88 minutes, it feels quite long, and the lack of dialogue does not add much–though I suppose it leaves the film more open to interpretation.

I initially found Moebius to be hugely misogynistic, and even on further reflection find its depiction of women problematic; almost all the nudity on display is female (and by Lee–I don’t think there are other female characters of note), and women seem to fulfill an almost exclusively sexual role in the film’s world–while the shopkeeper is disturbingly open to allowing her assailants back into her life, as she does in her final scene. The film is really critiquing male sexuality, the unrestrained exercise of which is responsible for most of the tragedy on display, but that does not absolve it completely.

The film does have its high points. Lee is excellent in her double role, despite the problematic conception of the characters, and I didn’t even realize she played both roles until after the film was over. Her portrayal of the betrayed mother is especially effective. Kim’s direction is strong, outpacing his rather hollow and repetitive script; I get that there’s a cyclical element to the narrative, but it grows very repetitive by the end.

Ultimately, though, there’s not that much to be said about Moebius. Though not the outright objectionable work I initially took it for, and certainly not without its strengths, it’s ultimately not much more than a well-done curiosity piece. It’s the kind of film die-hard film buffs should see–once. (66/100 – ***½)

Says it all, doesn't it? (Source)

Says it all, doesn’t it? (Source)

Finally, R100 is a good example of a film that took a while to get going, but once it did–well, it was certainly one of a kind.

A meek businessman (Nao Omori) likes to be dominated, and signs up for a club which will send 100 separate dominatrices to subjugate him, without forewarning, over the course of a year. At first he’s delighted with the results, but as the ambushes begin to interfere with his personal and professional life, he tries to get out of the contract without success. Then, when the Saliva Queen (Naomi Watanabe) is humiliating him, she accidentally falls to her death, and the club’s CEO (Lindsay Kay Hayward) swears revenge, which leads to escalating absurdity, an insane showdown, and the businessman becoming pregnant–a happy ending, I suppose, even if several people have been consumed by the Queen of Gobbling (Katagiri Hairi).

There’s a meta-narrative framework where the businessman’s story is shown to be a film made by a centenarian, supposedly to be shown only to those 100 years of age or older (hence the title), which studio executives discuss in baffled terms.

It takes R100 a while to get cooking, as I said–the drab palette and slowish pace don’t help, and at first I found the film rather frustrating. The device of showing the businessman’s satisfaction by distorting his face and showing a kind of digital ripple also proved to be rather off-putting, and initially I figured Drafthouse Films had let me down once again (their theaters are great, but the films they distribute are a mixed bag at best).

As the film progresses and gets increasingly insane, however, it began to redeem itself, and the final act is such a frenzy of madness that it’s positively delightful. Some great makeup–especially for the Queen of Gobbling–helps quite a bit. I haven’t seen any of Hitoshi Matsumoto’s other films (I got a copy of Big Man Japan and it proved defective), but the absurd imagination on display compels me to track them down. The acting is fine and the technical aspects adequate, but it’s Matsumoto’s crazed vision which makes it worthwhile. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s certainly worth being startled by. (76/100 – ****)



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