37th Mill Valley Film Festival Capsule Reviews: The Imitation Game, Whiplash, Force Majeure, Foxcatcher
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
Alan Turing won World War II. The creator of the decoder of Germany’s legendary Enigma machine, Turing’s genius and persistence was thanked by a charge of “gross indecency” for homosexual acts and he was chemically castrated as a result. It was only last year that Queen Elizabeth pardoned Turing of this charge.
At times, The Imitation Game feels like a companion piece to 2001’s Oscar winning Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind. That’s not a compliment. That too was a sexually neutered, sanitized version of a biopic of a math genius whose film version of their life was crafted for awards bait and Oscar glory.
In spite of this, there are very good performances from Keira Knightley as Joan Clark, Turing’s main assistant and confidant and by Cumberbatch himself. His Turing is full of ticks and tweaks that feel like an Asperger’s poster boy but he’s still able to craft a strong portrait of a troubled virtuoso.
Whiplash (Damian Chazelle)
Electrifying. Dangerous. Masterful. Writer/director Damian Chazelle has crafted a sharply drawn portrait of two artists, a teacher and a student, and their struggle for greatness. Set in the world of college big-band jazz ensembles, it’s far more exciting than it sounds. But this is no Mr. Holland’s Opus. As the student, Andrew Neyman, Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now) is a voracious worshipper of jazz drummer Buddy Rich. While practicing late one night he’s watched and chosen by his school’s notoriously rigid teacher, Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Dressed in all black, his bald head and sinewy, veiny arms, Fletcher plays mind games with Neyman, using personal information against him to push him to greatness.
Often you see a character actor you love and think, ‘I really wish this person could find the project that really lets them soar.’ J.K. Simmons is that actor and this is that project. This is a career-defining turn and an Oscar-winning performance.
Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
An upper-middle class Swedish family in the French Alps on a skiing vacation sees their life turned upside down when an avalanche hits their resort in Ruben Östlund’s brilliantly detailed drama about who we are and who we think we are.
Östlund telegraphs the film’s turning point early on, showing us the process by which the resort creates controlled avalanches to give their clientele the best skiing conditions possible. Using huge horn-like structures (like something out of a Ricolah commercial), the sonic booms set off minor trembles of fresh, new powder. Using Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ he expertly ramps up the tension in a way that is both dramatic and comic. His balancing act of tone is perfect.
Father Tomas can’t seem to leave work at the office during their vacation and his wife Ebba chides him about it. He gives in and the family, including two young children, continues their holiday without incident. That is, until one afternoon when the family is having a serene lunch on the balcony of the resort, offering stunning views of the mountain behind them. While witnessing one of these controlled avalanches, the crowd oohs and ahhs at the spectacle, taking pictures and video. But something seems wrong; the snow is moving to fast and getting too close. Like a tsunami, it envelops the crowd and they panic. Ebba remains, grabbing her children and hiding under the table for cover. Tomas however, runs. The snow proves to be a non-starter as it’s only the dusty smoke that hits the vacationers and everyone escapes unharmed. What seems like it’s going to be a disaster movie about physical survival though becomes a story of emotional survival. Can Ebba forgive Tomas for his instinct to run? Can Tomas admit he abandoned his family for his own self-preservation? What follows is a superb examination of both.
I only wish it had ended without the final sequence. It feels like an effort to level the playing field between Tomas and Ebba when the sequence just before it did it much better. Still, a great film and as Sweden’s selection for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, a worthy candidate.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
In only his third feature, director Bennett Miller is becoming one of the major voices in film detailing portraits of very American stories of icons both revered and reviled.
With Foxcatcher, a gorgeously terrifying examination of Americana, elitism and co-dependence, he unveils the events leading up to the 1996 murder of Dave Schultz, an Olympic wrestling champion, at the hands of John E. du Pont, one of the wealthiest men in the country at the time.
Brothers Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum in a stunning, career-best turn) spar on a run-down wrestling mat, with older Dave schooling younger Mark in a way that only an older brother can; with thoughtful tutelage coupled by knowing dominance. Mark might be the up and comer but his impatience and age undercut his ability. Cue a phone call from John du Pont (well, his assistant, played by Anthony Michael Hall) who wants to fly Mark out to his Pennsylvania estate for a meeting. There is something deliciously sinister about this moment. We haven’t seen du Pont at this point, nor do we know that he has an interest in Mark. But we know he’s been watching, lurking. Or at least his scouts have. Naïve and eager to get out of his brother’s shadow Mark agrees to meet du Pont (he doesn’t know who he is).
Like Capote, Miller gives us du Pont as a man who is intrigued, and quite possibly obsessed, with the danger and closeness of men. As played by Steve Carell, in one of those ‘I can’t believe this comic actor had these dramatic chops in him’ kind of way, du Pont is hunched over and seemingly frail and his motives unclear. While the script doesn’t overtly color du Pont’s interest as sexual there are moments that hint at something other than pushing a group of wrestlers to Olympic glory. This is a bleak, harrowing slow burn of a film. You know the outcome so the lurch to it becomes almost excruciating to endure. But, in the best way possible.