Toni Erdmann(2/4/2017)

One of the first major rifts that tend to form between parents and children tends to occur when the children become teenagers and stop wanting to be seen with the parents everywhere they go.  Parents often take this personally and don’t get it but the teenagers in question do usually have reasonable reasons to do this in their minds.  For one thing they’re trying to become independent and want to feel less like little children and secondly because parents have a nasty habit of not taking said teenager’s various social anxieties as seriously as the teenager does and they tend to be very bad wingmen because of it.  This usually causes a bit of family discord for something like four or five years but once the kids move out tensions usually smooth over; the parents learn to give the kids space and the kids start to find the parents to be perfectly fine to visit when appropriate.  But this eventual understanding probably doesn’t come to ever family and I’m sure there are plenty of people who come to dread being around their parents well into adulthood.  That’s the subject of the new German comedy Toni Erdmann, which peaks in on a daughter who is still sort of embarrassed to be seen with her father and a father who gives her a lot of good reasons to feel that way.

The film begins in contemporary Germany, where we’re introduced to a man named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who seems to have been living a somewhat aimless life after divorcing his wife and finding he misses his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) as she jet-sets around the world in her role as a consultant for oil companies.  Her most recent assignment has brought her to Bucharest where she’s on the verge of a very important presentation when suddenly Winfried decides to drop by and visit.  Needless to say, she’s in no mood to deal with her goofball father that weekend and as such she proves to be a less than complimentary host.  The two seemingly part ways but Winfreid decides to remain in Bucharest to find some way for the two of them to reconnect, seemingly whether his daughter wants to or not.

At first the film seems to be a sort of darkly comedic take on Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film in which two parents try to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to be treated like an annoyance by their ungrateful kids.  That’s a movie that has a rightful place in the cannon and I’m not going to argue with Ozu’s unique visual language, but I’ve always found the story to that movie to be a bit of a crotchety guilt trip.  It’s a movie made by a middle aged man that whines about those “damn ungrateful kids” for having the gall to not drop everything and kiss their parents asses.  There’s something similar going on in the first half of Toni Erdmann in that Ines does not have a lot of time to deal with Winfried to his disappointment, but the film does not make Winfreid into some kind of paragon of elderly wisdom either and the film does realize that he’s putting her into quite a bind by showing up unannounced and occasionally butting into her business dealings.  In the second half though the film changes directions and leans more towards a strange sort of reconciliation brought along in a way that I could almost see a Hollywood comedy going, albeit in a much different way stylistically.

Toni Erdmann was directed by Maren Ade and after the film earned raves at Cannes I checked out here previous (and also well regarded) film Everyone Else and was kind of disappointed by it.  That movie was certainly pretty well made but I never really connected to the film’s characters at all and was never really able to go along with their journey.  I connected with the characters here a little better to a point, or at least I connected to them initially, but as the film depicts them reconciling their differences later in the film it started to lose me.  So as a character study it doesn’t quite work for me.  The film also seems to be trying to say something about modern globalism given the nature of Ines’ job, but this also never quite gets pressed hard enough and doesn’t quite work for me.  Then of course it also wants to be something of a farce at certain points but again never really commits to this enough for it to fully work.  In general it just seems like a movie that tries to do a number of things and never really pulls the trigger on any of them.  I can see a pretty interesting movie somewhere in this thing, and there are certainly scenes in it that are great, but in its attempt to be all things I think it loses something.

**1/2 out of Five

Things to Come(12/10/2016)

What are we talking about when we call a movie “bad.”  The new Mia Hansen-Løve film Things to Come is a film I intend to give a two and a half out of five star rating, which under the old Ebert rules would qualify as a “thumbs down,” and yet I certainly think it’s better than various movies I’ve given three stars to this year like Deadpool, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Conjuring 2.  Is this simply a matter of expectations?  Of holding non-genre films from respected auteurs to a higher standard?  To some extent, yes and yes.  Those three “three star” movies were all movies I watched on blu-ray instead of in theaters and on some level it’s a lot easier to casually give a “light pass” to something I’m throwing on at home versus something I actually drove to a theater and paid to see.  Also, yeah, to some extent I do have to take the fact that certain movies have more modest goals in mind when I look at them, and that does give something of an advantage to a movie that just wants to show a super hero making dick jokes over a movie about a woman’s existential crisis following a divorce.  If that sounds unfair, well the catch is that when they’re done right these movies I’m holding to a higher standard stand a much better chance of getting a very high rating, which is probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage.  But perhaps I’m getting way ahead of myself and setting the wrong tone for my review of Things to Come.

The film is set in more or less contemporary France (presumably a few years ago as it’s established that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president and there’s some sort of economic austerity measure that everyone’s abuzz about) and focuses on a woman named Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert).  Chazeaux is a middle aged philosophy professor living in upper-middle class domesticity with a husband and two teenage/young adult children.  This all takes quite a blow when it’s revealed that her husband has been cheating on her and intends to divorce.  Meanwhile, her mother’s mental and physical health has been in decline, which has taken up a lot of her energy and she’s also taking a few hits to her professional standings as of late.  That’s a lot to take all at once and the tension of the movie is all about how she’s going to react.

The only other Mia Hansen-Løve film I’ve seen is her last film, Eden, which looked at something like ten or twenty years in the life of an EDM DJ as he rises and falls in the world of Parisian house music.  I admired that film’s ambition and the scope of the story it was trying to tell, but its central character never quite intrigued me enough and I didn’t really care for Félix de Givry work in that role.  Things to Come seems to have the opposite problem in many ways: it has a fascinating central character played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert, but Hansen-Løve never quite seems to provide an interesting enough movie to put her in.  Nathalie is a character with some fairly complex depths, she’s clearly a dedicated to her philosophy studies but it’s never entirely clear that what philosophical school of thought she belongs to, if any, and she seems to react to all the personal turmoil she goes through in the year or so the film takes place in with aplomb.

The character’s general strength is however something of a double-edged sword.  The general format the film is seemingly supposed to follow is: “woman goes through hell, finds her way out, and is stronger for the experience.”  And yet, in many ways Nathalie is so strong that all this craziness only barely seems to faze her and you never really get the impression that she isn’t going to persevere through adversity.  Of course there is something to be said for the film not going down the entirely expected and it is interesting to watch the character handle all this like a pro, but there is a point where it kind of robs the film of drama and conflict.  What’s more I feel like the movie starts and ends in strange places; we see a lot of how her life falls apart but when it gets the “I will survive” portion it just cuts forward a year, plays a coda, and then ends.  I don’t know, I think I might be missing something here and I’d be willing to read up on people’s interpretations of it but for the most part the film just kind of seemed to go nowhere and if there’s any profundity in what we are given it’s kind of lost on me.  Still, that cerntral performance is quite good and the movie is an engaging enough watch even if it’s point was lost on me so you can do a whole lot worse than this but I want my arthouse movies to leave me with a little more to chew on than this.

Trainwreck(7/19/2015)

If you spend any time in some of the hipper left-leaning corners of the internet you know who Amy Schumer is.  To certain websites and constituencies she’s the world’s most important comedian and every episode of her sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” is eagerly dissected and reposted as stories with titles like “Amy Schumer brilliantly skewers [insert patriarchal tendency] in pitch-perfect sketch.”  In truth the show isn’t quite as omnipresently popular as it seems within certain internet bubbles.  Each episode is watched by a little more than half the audience of the average episode of the much derided “Tosh.0” and around a third of the audience of an average episode of “South Park,” but its ability to establish a devoted following within a dedicated niche is impressive.  Personally, I find the show and Schumer’s comedy stylings kind of hit and miss.  Is it over-rated?  Well, how could it not be over-rated given how much hype is behind it?  The show is funny and clever at times but there are certainly better sketch shows out there.  A lot of its appeal is rooted in the fact that most of its humor is related to feminist issues and the more important those issues are to you the more likely you are to worship the show and as someone who views these issues as important but not centrally important I was probably not destined to love the show.  Still, Schumer is clearly a pretty important comedic voice and the idea of her teaming up with comedy super-director/producer Judd Apatow is pretty damn promising.

In Trainwreck Schumer plays a woman named Amy Townsend who works at a GQ-esque men’s magazine called S’nuff Magazine.  At an editorial meeting one of her colleagues (Jon Glaser) proposes a story about a pioneering sports doctor who’s planning to test a new surgery that could cut down players’ recovery time significantly.  Townsend initially dismisses the story because of her blanket bias against all things sports related but her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) begins to think that Townsend’s hatred of athletics could bring an interesting dimension to the story and gives her the assignment.  When she goes to interview the doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), she is initially unfazed by his medical expertise and his friendship with LeBron James (who plays a version of himself) but her interview escalates into a date which turns into a one-night stand.  Oddly smitten by Townsend, Conners makes it known that he wants this relationship to turn into something serious, but Townsend has been living a cavalier life of drunken debauchery up to this point and is not sure she really wants a real truly monogamous relationship.

The film’s title is supposed to refer to the life of its protagonist, but it perhaps seems a bit judgmental given the relatively tame lifestyle depicted in the film.  Sure, Amy Townsend seems to have an above-average number of sexual partners but her liaisons mostly don’t seem wildly reckless or dangerous, and she drinks a lot but decidedly isn’t depicted as a full-blown alcoholic.  She doesn’t seem to use drugs beyond a sporadic toke, she holds a fairly enviable job for most of the film, and starts the film with a doting boyfriend (played by John Cena, of all people).  She’s certainly not a role-model and I wouldn’t necessarily want to switch places with her, but to call her a “trainwreck” seems a bit much.  Shame this is not.  Given that this is meant to be a comedy that may well have been an understandable decision, but just the same I can’t help but feel like the movie is kind of posing as something edgier than it actually is.

The film does not place feminist gender issues front and center the way that Schumer’s TV series does but I do think there’s an implicit statement being attempted in the way the film swaps traditional romantic comedy roles.  Traditionally these modern romantic comedies are about slovenly but charming men overcoming their inhibitions and bettering themselves in order to win over the beautiful leading woman looking for stability.  Here it’s the woman with the dumpy bachelor lifestyle who must better herself and win over the straight laced man who seems to be looking for domestic stability.  Bill Hader is probably not a handsome lead who could be called the male equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Katherine Heigl but otherwise the romcom subversion does seem to be pretty consistent.  The gender swaps work fairly well when done on a macro level as described above but it begins to feel a little forced and cutesy when it comes to some of the individual scenes forcing the characters to behave in ways that are un-stereotypical in unbelievable extremes like one scene where Schumer receives a call from Hader the morning after their initial hook-up and along with her friend acts with masculine incredulousness at the gesture while Hader and LeBron James are on the other end of the call giggling like schoolgirls.

And make no mistake; this is a fairly formulaic romantic comedy at its core.  It doesn’t flaunt this to the point of being a parody, but there’s a misunderstanding separating the couple at exactly the point you expect there to be one which is resolved in typical romcom fashion with a grand gesture.  It hides its genre trappings fairly well early on but in its third act it does indulge in this formula and in ways that feel more like cliché than like subversion.  The film also feels like it could stand to be trimmed a little.  Judd Apatow movies have long been accused of being too long, which I generally haven’t felt was the problem that others did but I did feel it a little bit here, in part because it seems a bit more like it’s following a set formula than Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin did.  All told I would say that on every structural level this film is kind of flawed.

That having been said, there’s a lot of funny stuff here.  A lot.  Like, more than enough to make up for most of the movie’s shortcomings.  We’ve seen women try to do Apatow-esque humor before with varying degrees of success before but it seems to work a lot better here.  This might simply be because Apatow himself is behind the director’s chair rather than Paul Feig, but it probably has more to do with the fact that Amy Schumer is closer to being a female Seth Rogen than Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy do.  She does a good job bringing the improvised funny lines and so do most of her co-stars.  The movie makes great use of B-tier comedic actors like Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, and Randall Park and also manages to get some surprisingly credible comedy out of non-actors like LeBron James and John Cena.  I would say that Bill Hader is perhaps a bit wasted in his largely straight role, on Saturday Night Live he always thrived when he was doing impressions taking on strange comedic characters and his doctor character here doesn’t really play to those strengths.

So, what to make of Trainwreck… this is kind of a tough one to call.  I certainly like it, but how much do I like it?  Let’s just say that the film’s shortcomings were more apparent to me after it was over than they were while I was actually watching it.  The movie works a lot better moment to moment than it does as a complete work, but I don’t want to exaggerate its structural flaws either.  There are a lot of comedies that are a lot more ramshackle than this and while the Judd Apatow comedy structure might seem a little less special now than it did ten years ago, you can still tell why his movies feel a bit easier to respect than some of the less grounded varieties of comedy.  For whatever flaws the film may have had, I can’t help but say “yeah, but I was laughing at a lot of stuff.”

***1/2 out of Four

Tomorrowland(6/7/2015)

I could have sworn J.J. Abrams had something to do with this.  Looking at IMDB after the fact I realize he does not have so much as a credit on it, but I still find it hard to believe.  It’s not just because he previously worked with both director Brad Bird (on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (on the show “Lost”), rather it’s because of the movie’s advertising campaign.  In its run-up Tomorrowland had a very Abrams-esque advertising campaign in that, rather than announcing a press conference for every last element of the movie in an attempt to get the movie in front of people for days on end, the campaign tried to keep every last detail save for a few tantalizing images a secret in order to give it an intriguing aura of mystery.  As a movie viewer I’m inclined to love this approach, I hate coming out of a movie feeling like I’d already seen it because of an overly pushy ad campaign that gave away everything before the movie came out.  However, I’ve found that more often than not this “mystery box” approach to film publicly seems to backfire.  Part of the problem may simply be that the masses want to know what they’re getting themselves into with any given movie, but the bigger problem is that these campaigns invite audiences to imagine a movie in their heads which almost always ends up being a lot grander than the movies that actually get made.  Still, even without the mysterybox campaign Tomorrowland looked like a hell of a project with its hotshot director and cool premise, and now that it’s here it can finally be a mere movie rather than an abstract bundle of promise.

The film is set mostly in the present and mainly focuses on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a sixteen year old with a penchant for technology and a strong set of optimistic beliefs.  As her story starts she’s rather angry that NASA is planning to dismantle the Cape Canaveral launch site, which offends her both as an admirer of space travel and as the daughter of a NASA engineer.  This vandalism eventually lands her in jail and shortly after she’s bailed out she stumbles upon a seemingly magical pin that give her visions of a strange futuristic city.  Eventually this pin seems to run out of power, leading her to go on something of a quest to find answers about this strange place where it seems the world’s brightest minds have come together to work unimpeded by red tape and naysayers.  Along the way she meets a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that wants to help lead her there as well as an aging former inhabitant named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has become embittered by his experiences in this city of tomorrow and seems to know about some sort of massive threat that has emanated from it.

Tomorrowland, the place not the movie, is a pretty intriguing idea.  The glimpses that we do get of this titular location (which is sort of like Columbia from “Bioshock Infinite” but more futuristic and less racist) are visually rich and generally intriguing.  The thing is, the movie does not really spend a lot of time in Tomorrowland, nor does it go into detail about what it’s like as a society.  The basic concept, that human society would be far more advanced if scientists didn’t have to contend with red tape is kind of a fucked up idea if you think about it too long.  At best it’s a kind of Randian argument in favor of deregulation, at worst it almost seems like the kind of philosophy that Josef Mengele could get behind.  Also it’s kind of a mystery why these scientists are inventing all this fun shit only to stow it away from the rest of us.  But I don’t think the movie is really all that concerned about scientists being stifled by regulation so much as a general lack of vision on the part of society.  The film barters in the same “gee wiz” enthusiasm for science and progress that fueled Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year and like that film it kind of suffers from a case of maybe trying a little too hard to be a sort of infomercial for the STEM fields.

It’s not entirely clear how old the character of Casey Newton is supposed to be.  She’s of driving age, so I guess she must be sixteen or seventeen, but she’s played by a twenty five year old actress and all too often seems to be written like she was originally supposed to be thirteen or fourteen.  The character actually comes off pretty well on screen, which I largely attribute to the efforts of Britt Robertson, but on the page it’s kind of an odd character.  She’s almost immediately established as an optimist, a dreamer, and a science wiz with an emphasis on the former two roles much more than the last one.  I’m pretty sure that the character is supposed to be some kind of science and engineering savant but the film very rarely actually has her doing anything scientific.  This actually isn’t too far out of line with the movie’s general approach to science, which is the opposite of Thomas Edison’s approach in that it seems to think that genius is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration.

It’s established at the end of the film (Spoilers, I guess) that what ails the world is pessimism.  In fact it’s established, via an incredibly on the nose monolog, that the problem ailing the world is that people are far too pessimistic and that we’ve lost the optimistic spirit of the sixties.  Popular culture itself is itself indicted for telling stories that are a little too Mad Max and not enough Star Trek.  Frankly I think this logic is flawed both because it endows fiction with way more power than it actually has (the cheerleaders seldom have any real influence over which team wins) and secondly just for being generally inaccurate about the history of science fiction.  Apocalyptic sci-fi visions were not, contrary to popular belief, invented the day Blade Runner came out.  There was a strong strain of nuclear paranoia and scientific pessimism that ran through the science fiction all through the age of the space race.  The fact that cinema viewers in 1968 witnessed Charlton Heston stumbling upon a rusted and destroyed Statue of Liberty in the middle of a desolate wasteland that used to be New York didn’t seem to do anything to hinder the moon landing one year later.   Of course these movies kind of had a good reason to be skeptical of unrestrained scientific advancement what with all the nuclear bombs and polluting automobiles and to dismiss these cautionary tales as counterproductive is maybe to miss the point.

Long story short, the science fiction in this movie is dumb, instead you’re probably better off ignoring that as much as possible in order to simply enjoy the movie as a sort of Spielbergian adventure movie and on that level the movie succeeds more often than it fails.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Brad Bird’s first live action effort, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (a movie which was basically three pretty decent set-pieces loosely tied together by a whole lot of nothing) in part because it didn’t really establish Bird as the kind of unique visual stylist that that series needed, but this movie feels a lot more like a natural extension of his animated work.  The guy seems to have a very good grasp of the whimsical tone the film needs and also creates some really fun action scenes out of the film’s creative science fiction equipment.  Also, the dude’s shot compositions are fucking luscious.

Despite the fact that it has some rather gaping problems Tomorrowland isn’t a particularly easy movie to dislike.  On paper it has everything we all keep asking Hollywood to give us what with it being an original IP with a distinctive visual style and a message beyond “hey isn’t this action awesome.”  There’s definitely some good stuff in the movie and as clumsy as its message is I guess I did sort of appreciate that it was trying to say something when all too often this kind of movie actively says nothing.  In fact I was pretty much ready to give the movie a light pass when I left the theater, but the more I think about the movie the less I can really justify supporting it.  This is not a good movie, it does too much wrong and ultimately it’s a swing and a miss.  However, this is not the kind of bad movie that people should be mad at, it’s a noble effort one that might work better for children than for adults and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turns out to be something of a cult film amongst a certain generation of viewers.

**1/2 out of Four

Unbroken(1/4/2014)

All through the history of film directors have had all sorts of backgrounds, but in recent years directors have usually followed two (sometimes overlapping) paths: that of the film school brat and that of the self-taught indie auteur.  Both of those scenarios basically entail directing right from the beginning, but this hasn’t always been the norm.  If you look into the biographies of the early studio filmmakers like Howard Hawks or John Ford you find that most of them started in Hollywood at a young age doing menial entry level jobs at studios and more or less got promoted into the directorial role.  You don’t see a lot of that today, but directors from other fields of filmmaking do emerge, usually when someone becomes so famous as a writer or cinematographer or producer that they decide to try their hand at the most prestigious role on the set.  Then of course there are the actors-turned-directors; the movie stars who get sick of being pigeonholed as the pretty face in front of the camera and decide to either direct themselves once in a while or step entirely behind the camera.  Often these directorial careers are disasters that are quickly abandoned after one misbegotten vanity project, but every once in a while you get a Clint Eastwood or a Mel Gibson who seems to actually be an important talent behind the camera.  The latest star to try their hand at directing is Angelina Jolie.  Jolie’s 2011 film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was largely ignored but that didn’t seem to daunt her and she’s come back with a high profile adaptation of a bestselling war-time biography called Unbroken.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the second most famous member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team.  Zamperini was an Italian-American track star who seemed poised to make a big splash at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, but of course those plans were dashed when the world went to war and those Olympics were canceled.  Zamperini himself ended up fighting in that war as the gunner in the air force and it was in that capacity that he found himself fighting for his life after a crash left him and two other airmen stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by sharks and hostile Japanese fighter planes.  Adding insult to injury, when he finally gets out of that situation he’s taken prisoner by the Japanese and while in captivity needed to contend with a vicious Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe (played here by a pop singer named Miyavi) who is determined to break Zamperini’s spirit.

This highlight of Zamperini’s story is almost certainly the part where he survives at sea for forty seven long days eating nothing but raw fish and albatross meat and somehow even survives a strafing by enemy aircraft.  That’s kind of an awkward highlight, partly because we’ve very recently seen a pair of better “survival at sea” stories in Life of Pi and All is Lost.  The bigger problem though is that this section of the movie ends at the halfway point and the movie shifts into a fairly standard P.O.W. story and that lowering of the stakes would seem to go against the conventional wisdom of how a movie is supposed to progress.  The film certainly tries to sell Zamperini’s war of wills with Watanabe as somehow equal to the trials he experienced while surviving on the life raft, but I wasn’t really buying it.  When your climactic moment of victory involves a dude holding a board above his head I think you’ve probably gone astray.

The film does certainly have its moments.  Movies about World War II era flyboys always come off a little corny to me, and this one isn’t really an exception, but some of the early air battles are handled pretty well and feature a nicely dynamic surround sound mix.  The raft scenes are also well done and the sequence where Zamperini escapes an Ariel strafing is particularly exciting while it lasts.  I’ve already mentioned that the P.O.W. camp scenes are a little anti-climactic, but I wouldn’t say they’re “bad” per se.  Miyavi and O’Connell have a certain chemistry and the give and take between the two characters isn’t uninteresting.  However, we do live in a world where The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke, and The Shawshank Redemption all exists, so I can’t really get too excited by this section of the movie.  The scenes that fare less well are the flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood and Olympic career that are intercut early in the film.  These scenes are just kind of stock and they lean too heavily on “inspirational” slogans.  That said, outside of those early scenes and some of the post-film title cards the movie isn’t too bad about telegraphing its message.

I guess the $10,000 question with this movie is “can Angelina Jolie direct.”  Well, the answer is “sort of.”  At the very least she’s proven herself to be perfectly competent behind the camera.  Did the film suggest to me that she’s a distinct auteur?  Not so much.  At best it suggested to me that she could be the next Ron Howard: a somewhat talented journeyman who can make middlingly crafted studio films that are good enough to satisfy audiences but don’t challenge them or do much of anything to advance the craft of cinema in any particularly notable way.  Still, I don’t know that this has been her last or best test.  At the end of the day Unbroken was maybe not the best story to try to adapt.  Zamperini’s story was certainly a testament to human endurance but it doesn’t fit the conventional Hollywood structure too well in spite of the film’s stringent attempts to do just that.  So, I can’t say I have a lot of respect for this movie, but I can’t really say I actively dislike it either.  It’s certainly “Oscar bait” but I didn’t get the same cynical vibe out of it that I expected to.  All told it’s a perfectly watchable and moderately entertaining drama, not something I will remember for long, but not something I really regret having seen either.

*** out of Four

The Theory of Everything(11/7/2014)/The Imitation Game(12/28/2014)

I’m usually not a big fan of labeling prestige movies you don’t like as “Oscar bait” but every once in a while a film is guilty as charged.  It used to be that the movies which were obvious Oscar bait were the big expensive epics like Out of Africa or The English Patient but it’s been a really long time since a particularly large budget movie has actually won Best Picture, so the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have readjusted their targets.  Today the movies that have the best Oscar chances are the ones that are small enough to be considered underdogs, but still large enough to be recognizably a studio film.  These movies are supposed to be dramas, preferably ones based on true stories, which have very simple messages and are told in very traditional and mainstream ways that are in no ways “arty” even if they initially open up in so-called “arthouses.”  Bonus points if they’re British, double points if they have simplistic messages to deliver about some social issue or other, and triple bonus points if they’re set during World War II.  In general, movies for old people who don’t want unchallenging entertainment but also don’t necessarily want to go to the effects spectacles that Hollywood generally sells to the masses.  There’s usually only one movie each year that hits all these points but this year we got two of them, each one more desperate in their “Oscar bait” qualities than the last: the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.  In fact these movies are so uncannily complimentary that I thought I’d do something a little different with them and review both at the same time.

So, obviously these are both biopics of famous British scientists afflicted with debilitating problems.  In the case of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that problem is of course the ALS which left him all but paralyzed and forced to speak by typing into a voice synthesis and in the case of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was (in the movie at least) an almost autistic level of social awkwardness and the fact that he was a homosexual in a less than tolerant era.  The Theory of Everything is largely about Hawkings’s marriage to his college girlfriend Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones) while The Imitation Game focuses in on Turing’s attempts to crack the German Enigma code and his relationship with a smart code breaker named Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who is herself something of a fish out of water as a woman working in a man’s field.

Both of these films come from filmmakers who are relative newcomers.  The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker who’s made three fictional features which received minimal exposure and a pair of very popular though slightly over-rated documentaries called Man on Wire and Project NimThe Imitation Game was directed by a Norwegian filmmaker named Morten Tyldum, who’s most famous for making a genre film called Headhunters, a film I never got around to watching and which seems to have very little in common with his latest film.  Neither film does anything overly special with their visuals exactly.  The Imitation Game is basically just trying to imitate the visual stylings of The King’s Speech minus the off-center camera angles (AKA, the only interesting thing about that movie’s visual style).  The Theory of Everything isn’t exactly trying to do anything too different, but you could tell that Marsh has something of a visual eye for filmmaking.  He picks interesting angles here and there and he also knows how not to play into certain obvious script beats as heavily.  Another advantage for Team Hawkings is that it generally has a more memorable original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which generally trumps Alexandre Desplat’s (another King’s Speech alum) often intrusive score for The Imitation Game.

The advantage on the side of Team Turing is that it’s generally a more focused movie with more of a clear central conflict to work through.  Where The Theory of Everything is basically just a chronological run-through of the highlights and lowlights of Hawkings’ life and marriage, The Imitation Game very specifically focuses on Turing’s work on the Enigma code and his race to help end the war with a couple of flashbacks and flash-forwards to help flesh out his life story.  Also, given the hardships that Turing went through later in his life the film isn’t really able to entirely rest on a “triumph of the human spirit over adversity” story, but it sure as hell tries.  The message of the film is that sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, I know this because characters in the film actually say that sentence out loud not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times just to make this corny  sentiment absolutely condescendingly clear to everyone in the audience.  When the film finally brings up the downer ending of Turings life it almost feels like a coda to the film’s true climax.

Questionable as all that is, it’s still feels gritty and tough when compared to the aggressive pleasantness that defines The Theory of Everything.  I guess it would be wrong to say that the life of someone with a debilitating illness like Stephen Hawkings is without struggle, but the film sure makes it seem that way.  We do certainly see the struggles with Hawkins’ health problems but his interactions with other people seem almost idyllic.  He’s got a doting wife with seemingly saint-like patience, friends and colleagues who are completely understanding of his problems and willing to accommodate them, and a career that is marked by almost nothing but success the whole way through.  Even when Hawkings’ marriage finally dissolves late in the film it is perhaps the single most amicable breakup scene in film history.  His wife doesn’t even show the slightest bit of resentment when she is more or less dumped after having shown Job-like patience up to this point.  Also, the movie’s final moment in which Hawkings puts forward his children as his greatest accomplishment rings completely hollow given the film’s complete lack of interest in said children up to this point.

Getting back to these movie’s status as Oscar bait, let’s talk about the two actors who are clearly vying for awards in the two movies.  Eddie Redmayne, who is probably best known as the twerp who shows up in the second half of Les Miserable, is not a very well-known actor but he does a pretty admirable job of potraying a young Stephen Hawking.  This is a pretty damn baity role that allows Redmayne to go all “My Left Foot” all over the screen.  In fact the role may end up being a little too baity for Oscar voters. This could almost be the physical disability version “going full retard” as Robert Downy Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder might have put it.  Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a much more famous actor and while I’ve liked a lot of his work I can’t say I fully understand why the internet seems to be so singularly obsessed with him.  This Turing role is not too far removed from what we’ve seen him do before, after all his signature role of Sherlock Holmes is similarly eccentric and anti-social.  Harvey Weinstein seemed to know this, because the movie actually makes this character more eccentric than the real Alan Turing apparently was.  In the film Turing is not merely eccentric but more than likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, which was not true of the real Turing and the film also exaggerates the degree to which the chemical castration he received late in life physically manifested itself.

Those are not the only liberties that The Imitation Game took with the life of the real Alan Turing, in fact my cursory research seems to suggest that the movie uses “creative license” with something of a reckless abandon.  Turing’s actual computer was not named after his deceased childhood friend, his relationship with his real commanding officer and colleagues was significantly less adversarial, the Keira Knightly character has generally been expanded and emphasized more than is probably proportional, a scene in which the cryptographers are forced to decide whether or not to warn a ship of an impending Nazi attack is entirely invented, and Turing’s interactions with an MI6 agent towards the end were also invented for the film.  I don’t expect movies like this to be entirely factual and am well aware of the fact that liberties like this do sometimes need to be taken, but I don’t think any of these changes were for the better.  They almost all feel false on the screen and generally come off as hokey when they happen.  Even if they had all been true I would have suggested that some of them should have been changed to make the film seem less clichéd, but they are as phony as they initially seemed, and this is particularly jarring given that Turing’s story actually was interesting enough on its face and shouldn’t have needed these fabrications in order to work.

This is not to say that I think The Theory of Everything is an entirely factual endeavor itself, but when I watched it I didn’t feel an overwhelming phoniness to it.  In fact I almost feel like it could have used a little manufactured drama here and there in order to give it a little more conflict.  What’s more, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving The Theory of Everything a pass in general.  It is in no way a noteworthy film, it shouldn’t be in the awards season conversation in general (outside of maybe the Best Actor category), and I don’t recommend it.  That said, I went into that movie with pretty low expectations and it did manage to rise slightly (and I do mean slightly) above them and in general I think its only real crime is being kind of dull.  The Imitation Game on the other hand is a movie that I thought was kind of lame as I walked out of the theater and have come to be sort of infuriated by it the more I read about its historical distortions.  What’s sad is that it’s probably going to get a lot of support from people who will say that it’s an “important” story.  That’s true, the Turing story is important, but that doesn’t mean that this is a good movie.

The Theory of Everything: **1/2 out of Four

The Imitation Game: ** out of Four