Review: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

120 BPM (Beats per Minute) plays like an exercise in memory more than it does pedagogy, pulsating with the vividness and vigour of lived experience. Upon learning that writer-director Robin Campillo was a “rank and file member of ACT UP Paris” throughout the 90s, the activist group whose enterprises the film documents, you can understand why.

“There tends to be a collective amnesia” surrounding the attitudes, negligence and obstruction that the AIDS community faced, “homophobia was the standard”, Campillo remarks in the film’s production notes. His third outing as a director operates as a shot of stimulation to the synapses, a sharp jolt of remembrance that the fight for rights was laborious and contentious, marked by many more losses than wins.

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Based on the model initiated by ACT UP New York, which was formed in 1987 and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”, the audience are inducted to the Parisian division alongside 4 of its newest members. The last to be introduced, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is the closest we get to a protagonist in what is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger, anguish and urgency. One of the most vocal and rule-breaking members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who captures ours as well as Nathan’s attention, is who we’ll come to care about most.

What becomes immediately apparent in the lecture hall where ACT UP has its weekly meetings is the plurality of voices that have a stake in the movement. Moments after a demonstration has taken an unplanned direction, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), Sean and several others debate whether the violence of their actions will be condemned. The matter isn’t resolved, its merely aired and you sense for all their common ground, this is also a coalition of disparate individuals with their own agendas.  

Indeed, as we return to this venue many times throughout the film, a series of different issues are given visibility. It’s not just young, white, cis, gay men that are affected, but gay women, men of colour, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion, and as a result there are many different experiences and perspectives to incorporate. It’s a credit to Campillo that one voice is never favoured. Their conversations – though sometimes heated and always lively –  weave in the many concerns and conflicts that face the AIDS community and how difficult it is to organise effective and sustained militancy.

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There are several moments of punctuation that serve as reminder of the personal cost that fuels this political action. Whilst the scientific language around AIDS is left largely unexplained, mirroring the medical unfamiliarity the general public and indeed sufferers had during the epidemic, and were often left to their own device to obtain, something that is raised time and time again is the CD4 count of HIV-positive (poz) members. Below 200 and the diagnosis is full-blown AIDS. The lower the count, the worse the fate. As meetings and marches continue, there’s relative stagnation in terms of tangible treatment progress and the drug company’s willingness to be transparent about the results of their trials. Sean’s repeated statement of his declining CD4 count is a stark and quantitative expression of how imperative change is, and how slow it is to come.  

What this also does is reframe the epidemic as a medical crisis, where it had previously being stigmatised and politicised, or mounted as the predicament for the ostracised gay community as opposed to society as whole. Campillo is upfront about maligning the two treatment options available to poz’s at the time, and the injurious medical trials that only the “desperate” would subject themselves to. More than just a snapshot of the past, it’s a necessary reconfiguration of history. And perhaps because it’s still such a recent history – it feels strange to call its a period-piece when the characters all have clothes and hairstyles and vernaculars that would slot rights into a contemporary context – there’s something all the more powerful to its telling.

For all the intimacies explored, Campillo is aware that this story belong to its collective, to the nuances and intensity of his characters (to which he is astutely attuned). His brilliant ensemble cast more than deliver that sense of immediacy, and the spectrum of their experience.

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Equally important is the depiction of its sufferers as more than their suffering. After each major protest – at pharmaceutical labs, schools and gay pride marches, where issues such as treatment, prevention, awareness, morale and stigma are addressed – the group descends upon a nightclub to sweat away their stresses. It’s an emphatic reminder of the youth and vitality of ACT UP’s members, as well as those most affected, and infected by AIDS at large. Indeed, one particularly intimate moment recalls Sean’s loss of virginity and the encounter which transmitted the disease at the age of 16. Later, these dance club scenes, at which Sean is a coquettish, careening and central presence, become all the more poignant for his absence as his body, and the state, continues to fail him.

And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, the group are seen to dance, cheerlead, kiss, cavort and copulate in innumerable scenes. There is none of the skittishness or sterility surrounding homosexuality that has plagued previous depictions of the AIDS crisis (particularly mainstream American outputs), and Campillo’s film is well-served by a particularly French sensibility to prioritise sensuality. The central romantic relationship that develops alongside the group’s demonstrations and debates brims with vim and desire, defiant in the face of a debilitating disease. It’s also touchingly sensitive to the various strains through which HIV manifests, and as Sean reveals ailments such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that externalises itself in purplish skin lesions) and mouth thrush, Nathan’s want and need for him never declines.

What’s more, there are comedic moments flecked throughout.  An awkward revolving door that somewhat subdues the impact of a pharmaceutical building being stormed; an over-zealous throwing of a pouch containing fake blood (used to smear and splatter across the walls/faces of perpetrators) that subsequently douses one of its members; the ridicule of lacklustre slogans being suggested at meetings. A cornucopia of emotions are explored, from grief to gaiety and back again.

As with sexuality, Robin Campillo also doesn’t shy away from death and the final handful of scenes are at once notable and devastating for the visibility of a dead body. It’s not ushered away or shrouded in a blanket, rather it remains in the bedroom next door as the group gathers and discusses how best to proceed. Another life might be over, but the struggle is unequivocally not.  

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Ultimately Campillo’s film is a living, breathing, writhing embodiment of ACT UP’s slogan ‘Silence = Death (Mort)’. From the clicking of its members in concord and the rising indignation of those speaking up to the foghorn sound that indicates a demonstration and the house music that pulsates throughout, this is invigorating and confrontational cinema at its most enlivening and eye-opening.

Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.

Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.

We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.

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However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.

Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.

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As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.

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It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.

The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.

Hooper and co-wreddie-redmayne-alicia-vikander-the-danish-girl.jpgiter Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.

Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).

The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.

Review: While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach has floated on the periphery of the mainstream for roughly two decades, and has done so with elegance, restraint and wry wit. 

After his debut Kicking and Screaming, he arguably ‘broke’ onto the scene with ‘The Squid and The Whale’. Thereafter he has collaborated with Wes Anderson in a writerly capacity on two films, and has gone on to direct Nicole Kidman in Margot and the Wedding, Ben Stiller in Greenberg and his latest creative collaborator, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.

His latest offering While We’re Young is being described as his most accessible, genuinely funny and heartfelt film, and certainly seems to be the most critically well-received. It continues in the vein of Frances Ha, with a higher dose of conviviality than the bleak portraits Squid and Margot paint.

WWY centres around a generational collide between two couples; the 40-something Manhattanites Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), and the 20-something Brooklynites Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). It’s like a modernisation or inversion of the geographical conflict between East and West Egg and to quote Fitzgerald there is ” a bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them”.

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Jamie and Darby are the glittering, fashionable inhabitants of East Egg, a.k.a. Brooklyn and rather than being grotesquely wealthy, they’re enviably unhindered by material posessions. Josh and Cornelia, meanwhile, jaded by their middle-class trappings and the complacence that comes with it are looking out across a bay, towards a green light, aspiring to have what they have. Reinvigorated by the presence of their underlings; they begin to (gasp) hang out with these bright, young things who have an infectious verve and energy for life.

What ensues as the two couples become more entwined is a sharply observed meditation on the alienation the middle aged can feel in trying to stay relevant.

No longer young enough to pull off certain looks or phrases, yet not quite of the original generation that has been visiting ‘vintage’ cafes and hangouts since their opening, Josh and Cornelia merely don’t belong. Feeling increasingly distanced from their baby-booming friends, they seek solace in up-tempo hip-hop classes and New Age holistic retreats (culminating in a slightly misjudged vomiting orgy). They have fallen through the generational cracks.

9bf27ec1-e6f0-4b29-8e44-3ad45d2f857f-620x372In one particularly illuminating sequence we see Josh and Cornelia’s lives dominated by the digital; relying on remote controls and laptop screens to quench their thirst for knowledge and entertainment. Contrastingly, Jamie and Darby play boardgames, listen to vinyl, throw street parties and basically do everything that their elders have cast aside. “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” observes Cornelia.

Noah Baumbach has his finger on the pulse and effectively traverses the line between what’s considered ironically and genuinely cool. Everything the 40-somethings attempt feels antiquated and try-hard (note – never ever think a trilby hat is a good look), where the 20-something pull it off with quirky effortlessness. Youth’s obsession with nostalgia and erstwhile eras is infintely relatable, and it’s a topic Baumbach navigates with great dexterity.

But as Josh quickly discovers, the underlings become usurpers, not content to learn from their predecessors they have designs to oust them, or such is the source of Josh’s anxiety. His position of status as a visionary documentarian is crumbling beneath him. He’s been working on a stale documentary on US power structures and political economy for a decade, and when Jamie’s success starts to ignite with comparable ease, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

27WHILE-articleLargeThe first half remains bubbly and laugh-out-loud hilarious, charged with quickfire dialogue and gratifying physical comedy. (Naomi Watts has indeed still got it). But as the drama of the plot kicks in, an anxiousness and overwroughtness seeps into the narrative. Baumbach has contrived the ending a tad too much, and there’s something incredibly uneasy and predictable about its resolution. Albeit funny. But in a kind of resigned, lopsided smile kind of way.

Another aspect of the film that began to grate was that of the female counterparts of the two couples paling into the background. They are companion pieces to the headlining male ego. Film producers and ice-cream makers they may be, but Watts and Seyfried are given little more to work with than an updated version of the disatisfied housewife, expressing discontent with their husband’s decisions.

The real couple of the film is Josh and Jamie; filmmaker and fan, artist and muse, creative collaborators and eventually sparring rivals. Ben Stiller does solid work as a paranoid, anxious cynic, something not at all dissimilar from Woody Allen in most of his films. Equally Adam Driver turns in an affable, and at times ominous performance, building upon the kookiness of his famed Girls character, with a sly vindication.

Baumbach’s film hangs on fairly obvious juxtapositions; young vs. old, dormant vs. nascent, hip vs. hip replacement, and it’s strength lies in its ability to reserve judgement –  it’s left ambiguous as to whether old and young can authentically integrate and happily coexist.

Yet there’s also an emotional vacuum at the centre of While We’re Young, because it’s hard to care about either generation. Jamie throbs with a cold-blooded ambition, Josh moans too much and everyone is a bit pretentious quite frankly. But perhaps that’s the point – they’re both as bad as each other.

OnlineQuad_WhileWereYoungThere’s enough keenly observed comedy and sublime witticisms to sustain one’s attention, so that some of the barbed, indelicate moments don’t entirely thwart Baumbach’s admirable efforts at lightheartedness. And if this becomes an anthem for making the most of youth, as opposed to One Direction’s similarly titled ‘Live While We’re Young’, then that’s something I’m all for.

Verdict: A refreshingly different Baumbach film. Some parts a tad didactic and over-done, other parts resonant, jaunty and incredibly funny. At the very least, it will have you ditching Instagram for the day and reaching for the vinyl. Also look out for a wonderful cameo from Charles Grodin. 

Review: And While We Were Here

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And While We Were Here (US, 2012). DIR. Kat Coiro. Starring: Kate Bosworth, Iddo Goldberg, Jamie Blackley

Experiencing a bout of middle-class ennui, caused by a loveless, childless marriage to her stony British, viola playing husband Leonard (Iddo Goldberg), Kate Bosworth’s Jane is begging to be jolted out of her misery. What better setting for her spiritual and sexual rebirth than the island of Ischia, a historic and exotic Italian town, where the scenery is as pretty as the boy who promises adventure.

That boy is Caleb (the effervescently charming Jamie Blackley), a 19-year-old American who lures Jane with his youthful impetuousness and memory of Italian poetry. Like a gender-swap manic-pixie-dream-girl, his gallivanting around the world with few possessions and even less agenda gives Jane just the thrill she needs to recognise – and perhaps do something about – the infuriating idle of her dreary marriage.

And-While-We-Were-Here-iddo-goldberg-kate-bosworthThe two relationships are contrasted by fairly run-of-the-mill means. Jane and Leonard’s interactions are punctuated by stilted conversations and awkward silences, where vast spaces and turned backs depict just how incompatible they are. Their surroundings in each other’s company are lit with a cold sterility, compared to the sunshine and openness Jane encounters on her strolls around the island. Jane and Caleb, meanwhile, frolic in the sea and amongst Italian ruins, a series of flirtatious and sensuous wanderings that are captured predominantly in montage format.

and-while-we-were-here-8At times, the narrative can be a little bit flimsy. From the moment Jane and Leonard partake in routine and unsatisfactory sex and she touches her stomach with a sense of loss and yearning, we can forecast where this might be heading. However, the delicacy and clarity with which Kat Coiro (writer and director) treats the female perspective is something to be admired. Our empathy and indeed most of the screen time is devoted to Jane, who is caught between her past and her future. This conflict has been treated with more depth and less whimsy in the past, but Bosworth’s performance and the refreshing sea breeze suffused throughout the film make for a charismatic watch. What’s more, there is real pathos and honesty in the unravelling of both relationships – neither is realistic, but both serve their purpose.

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Photographed with a veneer of timeworn nostalgia (accentuated by Coiro’s homage to Rossellini), and comprising of a great many Kodak moments, there are times when this delicate portrayal of a disintegrating marriage borders on the generic. True, there’s not much substance to this stylish depiction of the liberating effect of the Amalfi coast, but even so, the romantic, evocative cinematography and glistening locations are enough to induce sympathy for Jane’s being swept up by it all.

Verdict: Beyond a simple premise and predictable denouement, lies a tender and aesthetically-stunning tale of self-discovery. Sepia-drenched and a little bit drippy, this is also wistful, enchanting and frivolous cinema. 

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice, US, 2014. DIR. Jonathan Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.

Based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, this Toronto Film Festival release places Julianne Moore at the centre of an emotional tour de force that illuminates the experience of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished linguistics professor at Columbia University, who is particularly fascinated by the relationship between memory and communication. Signposting her demise from the get-go, the film carefully drops hints that Alice’s sharpness might be going blunt. A conversational mistake here and there, a name forgotten or a momentary fumbling for words. The stakes are immediately clear – this is a woman whose everyday existence depends and thrives on her grasping of language, just as she appears to be losing it.

KSF-SA2014Intellect is Alice’s currency, her way of understanding the world – she supports her daughter’s law career and her son’s medical career, but her youngest daughter’s aspirations to become an actor are deemed frivolous and unrealistic. Everything she has defined herself by centres around academia, and use of the mind. The devastation of Alice’s diagnosis of early onset Alzeheimer’s is compounded by the possibility of it being hereditary and the risk that if her children were carrier’s they would be 100% likely to also suffer from the disease. Eventually, when Alice’s lectures become increasingly erratic and muddled and she’s forced to let her employees know of her medical condition, so unravels a fear of being redundant and useless.

There is a quote from The Great Gatsby that seems to illustrate Alice’s experience well: “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world… He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass”. Everything that seemed stable and simple now appears to her as strange or complex; her familiar sky has become incoherent. The film does a brilliant job of communicating this gradual deterioration of the mind.

When Alice goes for a run for example; she loses her bearings. Moore’s frightened and disoriented expression becomes all the powerful considering this is her normal, repeated route. Camera movement and cinematography firmly locate our perspective with Alice’s, employing blurred visuals and 360 degree rotations, as Alice becomes increasingly panicky, to simulate her sense of being untethered and utterly lost. This is also effectively contrasted throughout the film with crisp and focused close-ups; of ice on a branch, seashells in a bowl, etc., so when specifics become increasingly difficult for Alice to grasp and her mind become vague and unfocused, the cinematography becomes all the more potent.

It’s tempting to call Julianne Moore a revelation, because her performance is so convincing, nuanced and heart breaking. But of course, Moore has been giving us stalwart, versatile and brilliant performances for two decades. Her Alice is at once brave, terrified, defiant and practical about her inhibited future. As she painstakingly loses grip of her reality, Moore’s eyes become more vacant, her skin more colourless, her body cowers in frailty and vulnerability and finally, she loses her beloved words. It’s a transformative performance – physically and intellectually – that won’t fail to tug on your heart-strings.

Moore immaculately, and accurately, captures an experience of Alzheimer’s and the sheer degeneration of the mind that no-one can really prepare you for.

75-2Alec Baldwin meanwhile plays a subdued and supportive husband, whilst their three children: Anna, Tom and Lydia are depicted by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart respectively. As an ensemble they illuminate the variety of responses to dealing with Alzheimer’s, from obliviousness to compassion to pandering to the disease. In part down to the precision of the script, the cast provide impeccable, subtle support without ever stepping on Moore’s toes.

Stewart in particular reveals an attentiveness and vulnerability to her performance, as Lydia grows from being a distant, struggling actor to an emotional pillar of the family, and someone on whom Alice can rely. Her scenes with Moore are a testament to the virtue of stripped back storytelling, and together they articulate a stunning depiction of a mother-daughter relationship, tested by tensions, disparities and misunderstandings, but united by a profound love for one another.

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Still Alice also goes a long way to changing the perception of people living with Alzheimer’s. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching speech that Alice delivers at an ‘Alzheimer’s Association’ conference, which reveals her keen awareness of being patronised, ridiculed or victimised and how removed she becomes from the decision-making process which affects her life. But it’s in the quiet moments of despair and misrecognition that Still Alice is at its most compelling and devastating, when Alice suddenly mistakes Lydia for someone else or when her sense of time lapses. You can’t help but feel empathy and sadness for her struggle (it goes without saying that tissues should be close to hand).

The delicacy and sensitivity with which Alzheimer’s disease is realised could in part be down to the fact that writing/directing couplet Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have had to deal with Glatzer’s diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whilst Alzheimer’s attacks the mind, and ALS ravages motor-neurone functioning, their understanding of incremental setbacks and adjustments and of living with something that alters your perception of your self is very clear to see.

still-aliceThe soundtrack predominantly consists of piano or string compositions, which layer a melancholy into the narrative at times unnecessary. But there’s also a discordant buzzing or tense crescendo in moments of memory lapse or crisis, that reiterate Alice’s confusion, to terrifying and poignant effect. Integrated into the narrative are also snippet flashbacks of Alice’s childhood, distinguished by a sepia-toned and grainy effect, until they eventually blur to non-existentence. This compositional synaesthesia weaves colour, sound and editing into its exploration of the disease, and work to dramatic effect to create for the audience a tangible and visible emulation of Alice’s struggle. An especially striking compositional touch, was this shot to the right, where the several mirrors resonate with the idea that Alice perception of herself is fracturing.

Still Alice could be accused of putting a prettier face on the disease, choosing the elegant, athletic and 50 year old Moore, as opposed to a more senile protagonist. And in doing so suggesting that is somehow more painful and more of a loss to get Alzheimer’s when you’re well educated, middle-class and have everything to live for. Whoever you are and whatever ever age you are, the gradual disintegration of your memories and of all you’ve accumulated in life, is a harrowing experience to endure.

But ultimately, this is Alice’s story and by extension, Moore’s film. A story of one individual whose self-assurance and control is eroded, whose ability to remember and recall is lost, but whose intelligence and vitality will be remembered by her family, and whose memories are never entirely forgotten.

Verdict: One of the most understated, powerful and shattering films of the year. Julianne Moore gives herself over to portraying Alice and perhaps much like the disease’ effect on her, this adaptation will leave you speechless.

 

Review: The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game, UK, 2014. DIR. Morten Tyldum. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong,

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Alan Turing. Until 2013, when the Queen granted this wartime cryptanalyst and mathematician a royal pardon, he had all but been omitted from the history books.

imitation-game-2014-001-group-around-benedict-cumberbatch-on-enigma-machineThis biopic seeks to correct that. Partitioned into three segments: his time at Sherbourne School in Dorset, during which he was builled; his ground-breaking and astounding contributions to deciphering the German Enigma code during WW2 and his tragic conviction of ‘ gross indecency’ that led to chemical castration and ultimately, suicide, in 1954. Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a belated and beloved recognition of the man that history forgot.

Demanding our attention from the get-go, Tyldum combines enthralling thriller with tasteful period drama in equal measure. Naval bombings collide with cucumber sandwiches, Nazi superiority with walks in the stunning British countryside and Soviet spies with pints in the pub. It makes for a biopic that is surprisingly amusing, and frequently heart-pounding.

imageIt’s testament to screenwriter Graham Moore and Tyldum’s slick, pacy direction that that a set-up where we ultimately know the outcome, can feel so tense and emotionally heightened. As Turing battles authorities and naysayers to build his painstakingly crafted enigma-deciphering machine Christopher, I could feel my fists clenching in the hope the cogs would eventually stop to signify a cracked code.

Alongside all the calculations, computers and cryptography, this is a film dealing very much with relationships and humanity. Alex Lawther plays young Alan Turing with incredible pathos, as a boy struggling to connect with his classmates. Whilst Turing’s later interactions with his Bletchley Park colleagues provide some much needed humour amid WW2 woes.

Despite all these ingredients spelling out masterpiece, I can’t help but feel we’re two letters short of the truth. The Imitation Game skates around the periphery of the sensitive subject matter and dives headfirst into safe, saccharine territory. There are clichés in abundance and each moment of dramatic intensity is orchestrated to the point of contrivance. The moment during which a relative of one of the code-breakers is on a naval ship about to be bombed, you find Tyldum and co. hammering home this conflict just a tad too indelicately.

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game is as calculating and tightly-woven as the Turing machine itself – almost to the point of robotic predictability. Economical in it’s dispatch of narrative strands and executed with the extraordinary precision seen in Tyldum’s first film, the slick Norwegian thriller ‘Headhunters’, my only wish is that the film had coloured outside of the lines just once.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t deliver when it comes to emotional climaxes or generating sympathy for this hitherto historically neglected figure, but rather it never trusts the audience to glean its emotional complexity without first spelling it out. Almost like a teacher consistently reminding you to ‘show us how you got there’ when doing Maths problems.

Screenwriter Graham Moore, believes firmly in the rule of three and forgoes nuance for a rather cumbersome repetition of the film’s central tenet: “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Indeed, it goes through various stages of transformation and takes on different meanings, but the underlying feeling is that Moore prefers clarity as cut-glass as the British accents that feature than any possibility of ambiguity or interpretation.

Some films that err on the side of caution, as arguably this biopic does, are elevated by central performances of overwhelming conviction and magnetism. Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln is one such example. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing is another.

To say Cumberbatch completely immerses himself in this role seems flippant. Turing’s clipped vowels, curt mannerisms and anti-social behaviours are mastered with beguiling ease. And as the stakes are raised, his intellectual capabilities, vulnerabilities and the tragic, climactic result of gross mistreatment are conveyed with the assured and poignant dexterity of a man at the height of his game. The point at which Turing tries to push poor Joan Clarke away reveals the many layers to Cumberbatch’s performance, one for which he fully deserves that much hyped Oscar nomination.

183367Keira Knightley too, elevates the film and seems at her most comfortable when playing distressed individuals in period dramas. And the character of Joan Clarke provides ample opportunity for her to demonstrate the compassion, subtlety and wit of which she is capable. Knightley’s Clarke exudes warmth, vivacity and the frustration of a woman frequently underestimated.

There is steadfast support from the likes of Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Allen Leech, as various cogs in the code-breaking machine. Though their characters are all relatively one-note caricatures, they are no-less charming for it.

The look and sound of the film are exquisitely composed. The soundtrack is delivered courtesy of the genius that is Alexandre Desplat, of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame. He underscores the intensity and urgency of certain situations with great style, and the rhythmic, pulsating feel of the score seems to resemble the high-wired, methodical nature of Turing’s mind. It’s far more constant and elegant than his quirky work on Wes Anderson’s latest, but in that regard it suits the film perfectly.

Meanwhile, the cinematography effervescently captures crisp, autumnal British weather and the soft-focus lighting makes it ideal for Sunday afternoon viewing. Oscar Faura has given us something utterly sumptuous and pristine to look at, and Bletchley Park has perhaps never looked so alive.

imitation-game-2Grumblings about brushing Turing’s homosexuality under the carpet have been voiced. Indeed, whilst open to his colleagues and to Joan about his sexuality, we never see him act upon or necessarily confront these desires. Instead they are given credence – and innocence – during a flashback to Turing’s childhood when a close friendship develops into something potentially more. And then sidelined somewhat to focus on the blossoming intellectual companionship between Turing and Clarke. Once again, heterosexuality is championed as being the safer, and more lucrative option.

Imitation_Game

And yet for all this potential criticism, Tyldum has delivered a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly British and thoroughly engrossing depiction of the events at Bletchley Park that altered history. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave the cinema wiping away stray tears. But for a man as unique, eccentric and brilliant as Alan Turing, it all feels rather, well, tame

Verdict: A paint-by-numbers biopic, comparable to ‘a beginners guide’ to Alan Turing. Nevertheless, this is a memorable and poignant cinematic experience, featuring a career best turn from Benedict.

Review: The Motel Life

DIR: Alan and Gabe Polsky, Starring: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson          US, 2012. 95mins hero_MotelLife-2013-1 Based on Willy Vlautin’s (a singer-songwriter turned author) 2006 novel of the same name, this indie road-movie concerns downbeat Americana as its most melancholic. But don’t assume it’s depressing viewing; as brothers Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) drift through odd-jobs, motels, casinos and whiskey, in the search for safety, they are a lesson in loyalty, hope and finding the beautiful in the mundane.

Their backstory is boiled down to an unfortunate accident involving Jerry Lee’s leg and a promise to their dying mother never to separate. Bad luck is never far around the corner, with their fates seemingly forever circumscribed by circumstance. When Jerry Lee is involved in a fatal hit-and-run, their only choice is to escape Reno and head towards Elko, the home of Frank’s former lover, Annie (Dakota Fanning). Smith_Seq04_MotelLife_01As the brothers traverse the economic fringes of society, through a landscape as rugged and bruised as they are, Joan Didion’s opening to her seminal essay collection ‘The White Album’ seems particularly pertinent. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, she wrote. In The Motel Life Frank and Jerry Lee do just that; inventing wild, wacky and downright improbable adventures to find relief from a disenfranchised existence. Frank spins stories just as fast as Jerry Lee can sketch them, providing a much-needed outlet and expression for their pent-up frustrations and on-going disappointments.

The Polsky brother’s intersperse colourful animations to depict these tales, punctuating the desolate landscapes with a poeticism and phantasmagoria.

They also remind me immensely of Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories ‘Close Range’, where gritty realism marries with surrealist imagery, exploring an America at once austere and magical. Slant Magazine contends, “in Vlautin’s book, these stories are simply weaved into the prose, beautiful in their straightforwardness and vital in depicting the characters as wayward romantics. But the Polskys struggle to integrate this animation into their film”. I would proffer that despite presenting a disturbance from narrative flow or engagement, these cartoonish interludes allow for humour (albeit dark) and whimsicality to seep into an otherwise bleak cinematic texture. They give us a sense that beyond the wintry setting and harsh reality, a version of the American Dream just might beckon in the distance.

motellife0404aImbuing the film with a much-needed dose of humanity, are two winning performances from Hirsch and Dorff. They are the heartbeat of the film, and the reason you endure this perilous journey alongside them. Hirsch’ Frank is a self-destructive alcoholic, getting over his heartbreak caused by Annie’s dabbling in a seedy underworld. Whilst Dorff’s Jerry Lee, immobilised physically and economically, simmers with sincerity, emotion and anguish. Their bromance is utterly believable, relying on each other to survive and delivering the emotional peaks and troughs with raw intensity and naturalism.

As they encounter death, gambling, amputation, prostitution, drinking, gay-bashing, attempted suicide, theft and romantic possibility, Hirsch and Dorff are consistently understated, but thoroughly captivating.

the-motel-life03Dakota Fanning’s character needs fleshing out to be more than a flash in the pan cameo, though what we do see of her is promising and gestures towards the continuation of a mature career. Kris Kristofferson meanwhile features as a ‘cruel-but-kind’ car salesman, offering Frank some sage fatherly advice and further adds to the rugged US iconography of the film.

The Motel Life doesn’t reinvent or particularly revitalise the genre, but neither does it claim to do so. Much like its two protagonists, the film appears content to just get by, doing it’s own thing. Vacillating between flashbacks, animated segways and current drama, the production design, editing and cinematography all depict a weary wasteland to potent effect – like Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ on a drug-induced comedown.

I’m anxious not to wax lyrical about its quiet potency for fear that you’ll expect a masterpiece. But go in with muted expectations and you’ll discover an assured, artistic and affecting directorial debut.

Verdict: An indelible, endearing and atmospheric portrait of impoverished America, with performances that resonate and pathos to boot.