KINGSMAN** Kick Ass for teen boys


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“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE” IS EXPENSIVE, slickly produced and studded with a scatter of fine acting talent. It’s entertaining fluff; a momentary diversion of glittering nonsense in this pre-Oscar season of heavy, humourless drama.
The producers (Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” “Kick Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) have either cannily or cynically combined a mashup of spy movie archetypes to which the script of “Kingsman…” often and archly refers. You can just imagine the sales pitch:
“Guys, imagine a Spy Movie Greatest Hits (and by the way, you don’t need to imagine. This thick report I got here outlines all the scenes and hero characteristics our demo love best. You don’t need to read the whole report. There’s an executive summary at the front. We got Peter Brand (he’s the stats chap from “Moneyball”) to build us an algorithm, charting audience reactions. We call ’em “likes and spikes”. Like I was saying, Peter has projected exactly what’s going to get 19 year old boys roaring:
“First of all, lots of really cool action scenes like Denzel in “The Equalizer”. Matthew [Vaugn] our director and one of the producers just did “X Men: First Class”. So he knows how to shoot action. And, gentlemen, let me remind you that that grossed $335M worldwide.
“It needs a clear, easy to follow plot, with something techy involved, like “Live Free and Die Hard”. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to the movies to feel dumb. It’s the KISS formula: keep it simple and stupid.
“It needs a young hip, edgy rebel type hero who gets to escape his shitty neighbourhood and dress in very cool clothes. Every member of the audience is going to relate to this. Also, what our research has shown is that guys are feeling bypassed by all these chick heroines… Katniss Evergreen, Tris from “Dvergent” and that lot. So in a sense, this movie’ll be fulfilling a social, a moral function. There’s a young Welch guy who can do London cockney really well, especially now that there are no young real cockney actors ‘cause they can’t afford acting school. He’s Taron Egerton – just did “Testament of Youth”
“I digress.
“We need a cool, badass Black dude. The ethnic audience is a mother lode of moulah. And Sammy Jackson has already signed. He says he’s gonna do the whole thing with a lisp; a sort of effete, maybe gay bad guy. A Black version of Javier Badem from “Skyfall”
“The plot needs a Tommy Lee Jones tutor figure, you know from “Men in Black”? That kind of tutor figure goes down real well. Think Yoda or Gandalf or Haymitch from “Hunger Games”. And we’ve got… wait for it: A-lister Colin, the babe magnet, Firth. The accent just slays ’em every time. He says he’s going to channel John Steed from “The Avengers”, with the same shoes Rosa Klebb had in “From Russia with Love”. You remember them? The ones with knives in the tips. And he needs the work: been in a lot of stuff recently that nobody’s seen. Remember “Before I go to Sleep”? No? Well no one else does.
“And the babes are just going to sizzle. We’ve found this outrageous hottie from Algeria. Name’s Sofia Boutella. Starred in the underrated “Monsters: Dark Continent”. Here’s her Head shot. More important, here’s her Body shot. Imagine her in tight spandex; and imagine, instead of legs, she has killer blades. Below the knees she’s all Moulinex.

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“We’ve also got a proper, upper class, posh type. Emma Watson was coming in too steep, so we signed Sophie Cookson. Did a bit of TV stuff, but waiting to strike it big.

“And also waiting to strike it big is that great Brit actor Mark Strong. He was in “Imitation Game”, “Zero dark Thirty”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Great actor who no-one remembers. So we got him cheap too

“And of course Michael Caine. He’s not particularly good, but I refuse to allow Chris Nolan to monopolize him.

“And then, following the research, the movie needs lots of very cool gear. This is what research shows people most miss in the new Bond movies. Where’s all the cool gear Bond got from Q? Well, we have it here: exploding lighters, laser watches, X-ray vision glasses, bullet proof machine gun umbrellas.

“We throw all that together with explosions, car chases, airplanes that hide underground like X-Men, and I tell you, gentlemen, we’ve got us a winner.

“Well what do you think?”

“I really like it. I particularly like the fact that it feels like a sequel even though it’s the first one”

“Sign here on the dotted line”

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Dir: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: First Class”. “The Debt”. “Kick Ass”) and others. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Sunshine on Leith”); Composer: Henry Jackman (“The Interview”, “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Captain Phillips”)

EX MACHINA****Riveting


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EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.

Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.

Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human’; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.

Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.

Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).

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The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?

For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.

Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”

So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion

Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).

AMERICAN SNIPER: American Psycho


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NAVY SEAL CHRIS Kyle was America’s most lethal soldier. Single-handedly, he killed over a hundred and sixty Iraqis (or “savages” as they’re referred to). He was regarded with awe and considered a living legend by fellow soldiers and those who knew of his achievements. In lieu of the real thing (Kyle was himself murdered by an emotionally unbalanced vet he was trying to help), “American Sniper”, Clint Eastwood’s latest, has become the go-to movie of Red state America (it earned over $100M last weekend). To them, it offers a wonderfully patriotic narrative of heroism and victory both in war and in self doubt, all in the face of insuperable odds.

Movies of war (perhaps without the pause for the honesty of evaluation or the mask of nostalgia) often tend to reflect a collective perspective about the particular war. Hollywood’s version of Word War II was, via Audy Murphy, or the more recent “Fury” for that matter, a celebration about how America won the war; for the Brits, that war was more about a celebration of British fortitude for having endured the Blitz and the rationing that followed. Both narratives reflected versions of identity.

The movie narrative of Vietnam, from “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Mash” (though this was ostensibly about Korea) was darker, more cynical, more condemnatory of those who lead the nation into the fog of war and the reality of failure.

The narratives of this new series of wars…against vague abstract goals in Iraq and Afghanistan initially focused on the lasting damage it was doing to returning soldiers (as a stand in for the damage it was doing to the psyche of America) in brilliant movies such as “In the Valley of Elah”; and in movies such as “The Green Zone”, the dubious morality of the wars was examined.

“American Sniper”, with that distinctive adjective (it’s not simply “Sniper”, it’s a particular type of sniper, the “American” one) is Clint Eastwood’s continuation of the counter-argument probably initiated by movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. This counter-argument suggests that these wars were/are defined by the heroism of (mainly) men who are putting their lives on the line to keep America safe. In a sense the righteousness of these wars – now rapidly crystallizing away from the adventurism of Bush and Blair into a defensive crusade against Islamic terrorism – offers a new and more triumphant perspective on American identity. This isn’t a case of great art being co-opted by political fervor (as say Wagner was by the Nazis). There’s nothing about the movie to suggest that the way the movie is being read by its supporters is in any way less than the movie intends to be read.

Kyle is never for a moment in any doubt that what he’s doing is right. He says to a therapist that “When I meet my maker I’m prepared to defend why every one of those I killed deserved to die”. There’s nothing in the story-line to suggest that we the audience should take this in any way but at face value. In Kyle, Eastwood offers us an old fashioned, stoic, taciturn John Wayne type of hero who has mastered to art of locking away any troublesome issues (like moving away from the field of battle when he’s back home) as though they don’t really exist. For him, the way to deal with the awful darkness of killing people is to reposition his actions to himself as simply a means of keeping soldiers alive. Kyle is a man, a trained hunter from his youth, whose life is built on the foundation of two complementary philosophies: God, country and family, and the more intimate philosophy taught to him by his dad. “There are three type of people in the world,” says dad, “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. You must never be a sheep, never be a wolf; always be a sheepdog”

The idea of America as the world’s sheepdog is a tremendously appealing version of national identity.

The movie’s structured along the lines of the traditional Western. There’s a bad guy who’s killing good guys and who needs to be killed by the hero, the sheepdog. This is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence set in Falluja. Here, the faceless enemy is given a face in the form in an Iraqi sniper, Kyle’s counterpart and opposite number. He is an Olympic gold medalist, Mustafa, who like Kyle is a ruthless killer. Eastwood shows him picking off the Americans (vulnerable, ever threatened by seemingly innocent fathers and mothers who harbor stockpiles of weapons buried in plain sight) with deadly precision. Like Kyle, he too is a father and husband and presumably, like Kyle, he too is doing his job for God, country and family.

Alas, “American Sniper” never deviates too far from its central argument to add unnecessary nuance. Mustafa is the deadly face of the enemy that needs an even deadlier force to take him out. Boohah!

Bradley Cooper (massively bulked up) is Eastwood’s perfect choice. He exudes trustworthy protectiveness and passionate patriotic fervor. Who wouldn’t trust this decent, good-looking, faithful, honorable man? Eastwood never allows us to question for a moment the building psychosis of the killings. After the shock of his first kill, he quickly settles into the complacent acceptance that it’s what has to be done in the cause of God, country and family.

The action is good (Eastwood takes us there into the heart-stopping terror of being in a war zone) and the acting is superb (Cooper is on central stage for the entire movie which he charismatically holds). Even Sienna Miller as Taya, his wife, does the usual (in films of this sort) duty of crying, imploring and looking pained, convincingly.

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But “American Sniper” is a disingenuous revisionist presentation of the (failed) war in Iraq.

We’re presented with three core images of the war: Kyle’s heroic, skillful ‘kills’. One hundred and sixty plus kills. And all of them, like the kid at the beginning of the movie, were bad guys out to get the good guys. The world of massive collateral deaths that scar the reality of these wars, and of Abu Ghraib just never exist in the world of Eastwood’s morally righteous war.

It’s one thing for a character to be blissfully untroubled about killing people in defense of country. But where’s the director’s artistic thoughtfulness in all this? He too seems untroubled by the morality of war and of lionizing Kyle as a modern day hero; a modern day take on the American identity.

The American soldiers, as seen through the lens of Mustafa, are vulnerable easy targets. There’s a moment as a troop of soldiers, increasingly defenceless and stranded on a roof-top are surrounded by hoards of infitada swarming toward them. Poor, defenceless marines; all decent people planning weddings, back home BBQ’s now under threat by swarming faceless brown savages.

It’s “Zulu” all over again.

It makes for compelling, exciting story telling.

It’s almost as though the might and firepower of the US Armed forces and the rag-tag group of Iraqi insurgents were evenly balanced…and the more morally righteous force won. Hmm.

In the movie, Eastwood consistently reiterates what America is fighting for in Iraq: defense of those back home. He never for a moment pauses to wonder what they – the savages – are fighting for (in their own country) or how and whether Kyle’s one hundred and sixty deaths really did or does keep our loved ones safe back in Oklahoma and Idaho and everywhere that’s not Falluja.

At issue is not Eastwood’s politics or his attitude to war. It’s just that when polemic tries to pass itself off as art, with the power that art has (the same criticism could be leveled against Matt Damon’s sloppy liberal polemic about fracking, “Promised Land”), it becomes duplicitous propaganda.

And to this blogger, that ain’t worth the price of admission.

American Sniper: Dir: Client Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall from the book by Chris Kyle. With Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller. Cinematographer: Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games”)

 

WILD**** The Journey worth the hike


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AT THE BEGINNING of “Wild”, Jean-Marc Vallée’s (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”) delightful new movie, the central character Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), is sitting alone on a rocky perch half-way through her thousand mile walk of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She peels the socks off her battered and bruised feet to reveal bleeding toes and a mangled toe-nail which she rips off (it’s disgusting), screaming bloody mercy all the while. In doing so, she clumsily knocks one of her boots off the ledge and watches it plunge into the valley below. You’d expect her to gingerly climb down to retrieve the boot. But no; instead she loosens the other boot and flings it triumphantly past the other one. It’s a moment of liberating madness.

The boot, like her life, her past, her failures, her sorrows has been eating into her and hampering her progress. It’s at this moment that her crazy idea of escape – walking a thousand miles alone – finds fulfillment. From this moment on, she is no longer walking away from her past but taking control of and walking toward her future. The outward journey to find the path across the rugged terrain of the PCT is matched by her inward journey across her even more rugged past toward finding peace with herself.

“Wild” converges three stunning talents: Jean-Marc Villée, the director, seems as comfortable with big format epics (“The Young Victoria”) as with this low budget, unfussy, honest tale; it’s a Nick Hornby script ( he of the brilliant “An Education” and “About a Boy”), based upon the book by the hiker herself, Cheryl Strayed; and the principal actor who dominates the screen with almost the same compelling confidence as did Tom Hanks in “The Castaway” is Reese Witherspoon. She manages to combine vulnerability, sluttishness and fierce determination that leaves you in no doubt about her character’s will to survive not only the wilderness and its (male) predators, but the demons that drover her there.

(Reese Witherspoon is turning into quite the powerhouse these days, having produced not only her biggest hit, “Legally Blonde” but also “Wild” and “Gone Girl”)

The journey of “Wild” progresses through a series of flash backs – her failing marriage (to  Paul, Thomas Sadoski), her promiscuity and drug addiction, her needy younger brother and mainly the close and heart-rending relationship with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), whose death is the catalyst for her breakdown and the journey.

The dual track of Cheryl’s outer/physical and inner/mental journeys are nicely balanced. Her preparations for the thousand-mile hike – a monster of a backpack which she can hardly lift – begin as farce and her first few miles are an agony (which we suffer with her). After about five days (we read her journey which starts at “Day One” and by the fifth day it’s “Day fucking five”) she meets the first of several men who punctuate her journey. He’s ‘doing’ twenty-two miles a day. She’s doing five.

This is her first ‘milestone’ as she begins to up her game, understand better the techniques of walking and camping and shift from survival mode (her past) to goal setting (she now sets her sights on a specific spot: the symbolically named “Bridge of the Gods”).

And by the time she arrives there, freshly showered and cleansed, she no longer stinks of her former –wild- self. The journey has been her empowering achievement. She has earned the right to begin life again with an inner strength that you know can take on anything.

It’s only a pity that a movie of this caliber (actually the only one with a female lead and apart from “The Theory of Everything” the only one that features a woman in anything other than ‘male back-up’) has been overlooked by the Oscar committee (for simpler fare such as “Whiplash”). Perhaps (guilt maybe?) that’s why Laura Dern’s one-note ‘batty, happy go lucky mum’ received the nod instead. So “Wild” joins “Foxcatcher”, “Mr.Turner” and “Nightcrawler” as Oscar-worthy contenders ousted by the likes of “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

Where’s Harvey Weinstein when you need him?

 

Wild. Dir: Jean-Marc Valée. Writers: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Shepherd.  Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger (“Dalls Buyers Club”). Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

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WHIPLASH*** Not all it’s drummed up to be


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OSCAR NOMINATED WHIPLASH is a fierce, pulsating, super-charged story about the kind of obsessiveness and relentlessness that differentiates between the merely excellent and the truly outstanding. The story centers on the electrifying (and warped) relationship between a teacher Terence Fletcher (an intense J.K. Simmons who you might remember from “Juno” and “True Grit”) and his pupil, Andrew Neeman (Miles Teller from “Divergent”), a nineteen year old drummer at the Shaffer Music Academy.
Fletcher is more than a demanding teacher/conductor, he’s a vicious, hectoring, insulting bully. This is not just some -brilliantly written- foul mouthed coach pushing his students to do better, aim higher, this is a terrifying, threatening ogre who won’t stop pushing until he’s reduced his students to sniveling tears.
Or greatness.
Fletcher recounts with pride the story of a young Charlie Parker being almost decapitated by a cymbal-throwing conductor for playing a wrong note. According to Fletcher, this was the incident that drove Parker into insane levels of practicing from which emerged ‘Bird’, the genius.
What he does not recount with pride is that one his students cracked under the pressure and hanged himself.
The road to greatness is paved with the dead.
“Whiplash” offers us a grudging admiration for the man. He’s an intimidating tyrant, but somewhere under the lean, muscled mean-ness there’s some buried humanity. And, importantly, he gets results. There’s not a lot of sleep lost about the matter of “at what price results”
The question the story poses is whether Andrew (an earnest Miles Teller who, if he isn’t really a drummer, sure fakes it well) has the drive and resilience to put up with the abuse and deliver on his promise of greatness.
Pardon me; the question is rhetorical. We’ve been here before, usually in sports movies where the plucky, battered underdogs surpass themselves to rise to the occasion and, triumphant music in the background, win against the odds.
Here the music is that of some fabulous jazz drumming. But – spoiler alert- the sentiment’s the same; you’re meant to leave the cinema cheering.
The philosophical issue the movie pretends to deal with: do the ends always justify the means when the potential of greatness is at stake, is a bogus one. In “Whiplash” there really isn’t a whole lot of nuance in the discussion. This is an engaging, highly watchable but simple-minded story about how “practice maketh perfect”, and the pursuit of greatness is without reservation an end that justifies any means.

(And this is an Oscar contender?)

The focus is almost single-mindedly on Andrew: his determination, his gutsiness, his need to excel and be the best. There’s a fleeting glance at his relationship with his –single- father (Paul Riser, who also produced) and a passing blink of a relationship with a woman (Melissa Benoist…mainly from TV appearances). But, like “Foxcatcher”, this is one of those testosterone fuelled male movies where women just aren’t allowed a sniff in (the orchestra Fletcher coaches are all men). To Andrew, and it seems the movie, women are a mere distraction, directionless frills that get in the way of greatness.
For a nuanced discussion about the obsessive pursuit of greatness, seek out “Turner”, a movie I can only assume none of the six thousand Oscar voters bothered to look at
But let’s not end on a downer. The movie’s really nicely directed. It’s tight, controlled, mature direction. The writing is gleefully venomous. And the writer/Director Damien Chazelle is 29! 29! This is an extraordinary achievement. I look forward to a lot more from this guy. One day he’ll produce a great movie….

because as he’s shown us, practice maketh perfect

 

FOXCATCHER.***** You’ll be floored


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THE BRILLIANT FOXCATCHER is, among other things, a disturbing and compelling portrait of a sad, lonely and delusional man, whose limitless wealth is a surrogate for talent and personal success. In what must be seen as Steve Carell’s defining performance, his John E DuPont is a man for whom everyone and everything are just trophies to be possessed (and never earned). He is the pathetic dead end of a dynasty, one that stretches back to Valley Forge. Director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball” and “Capote”) makes a point of repeatedly showing us the DuPont ancestral portraits. These are the industrial pioneers whose vision, talent and ambition built an empire (the DuPont Chemical Company was founded in 1802) out of the manufacture of gunpowder. In John, all that is left is a wealthy empty shell, mumbling platitudes about patriotism and armed with a gun.

This is a long way from Valley Forge.

The movie is based on the true story of John DuPont’s patronage of the 1984/8 US Olympic Wrestling Team, which, it is suggested, was no more than a failed attempt to pretend at leadership and win the praises of a cold and contemptuous mother (an imperious Vanessa Redgrave). His outreach into the world of wrestling begins with his courtship of gold medalist Mark Schultz, a man as lost and empty as him, but who has at least achieved something. Channing Tatum’s Mark is brilliant in an equally career defining role. He is the super masculine menial (muscled, taciturn and Neanderthal) to Carell’s omnipotent administrator (to steal Eldridge Cleaver’s archetypes). To DuPont’s wealth-corrupted brain, ownership (of the person, the team) is a proxy for personal achievement. This is the end point of power and influence where anything can be bought.

And so, these two – the rich man and the poor, twinned in their inabilities to interact with others- engage in a mutually corrupting symbiotic relationship. Both need to escape suffocating relationships in order to define their identities: John from his mother, Mark from his brother David (the always watchable Mark Ruffalo as the sensible leader John can never become); Mark needs a mentor/ farther figure as much as John needs the unquestioning adulation and cachet of a son. John also needs to surpass his mother’s success with thoroughbreds (“Foxcatcher” is the name of their stud farm), and so, ever resentful, he grooms his own thoroughbred- Mark.

Upon this rocky ground they build a fragile master/servant relationship, one that can only exist once the super masculine menial (like all DuPont’s staff) knows his place and can continue to deliver on his primary role – of burnishing the reputation of his owner. Once these thoroughbreds- Mark and, ultimately, Dave- have the temerity to assert any sort of individuality or identity beyond that of DuPont trophies, the threat to (John’s) authority becomes too great.

And in this way, the action unfolds slowly, inexorably as it builds toward its denouement of sudden remorseless violence.

Carrell is mesmerizing. He speaks with the kind of slow deliberation as if every conversation were a scripted PR text: words that sound right but that lack substance or meaning. With his eagle like nose held high, as if breathing the same air as his subordinates is below him, he walks with clumsy, awkward strides. This is a man who has lost any trace of joy or pleasure, but for the brief flickers of homoerotic longing he seems to harbor for Mark. But really, Miller seems to be suggesting, there’s nothing about him that merits either respect or praise. His social standing is not the result of achievement or moral stature, but simply the result of money, to which everyone – the police, the army – genuflects. And John is acutely aware of this; he uses it to his advantage even as it drags him down further and further.

There is a bigger story beyond the sickening and unbalanced relationship between DuPont and the Schultz brothers, for DuPont represents the kind of patrician contempt for others that no amount of patriotic jingoism can breach. The images with which the movie begins – “Washington crossing the Delaware”, and John lecturing Mark on patriotism as they look out onto the foggy fields of Valley Forge – harkens back to an idea of America when all Americans strove shoulder to shoulder to achieve greatness; when patriotism had meaning for all. This is in stark contrast to the America of “Foxcatcher” where money and power are equated with ownership and where all we are left with is a rich/poor divide that is unbridgeable and potentially explosive. The fierce nation-defining battles at Valley Forge have come down to this: two men wrestling on a mat with a bloodless, borderline deranged captain of industry trying to inject patriotic significance into their grapples.

And armed with a gun.

 

Foxcatcher. Dir: Bennett Miller. Writers: E. Max Frye (“Band of Brothers”) and Dan Futterman (“Capote”). Starring: Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

 

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: A brief history of love****


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I HAD THOUGHT that Michael Keaton would be a shoo in for the Oscar in March until I saw Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (London is five hours ahead of New York and a month behind in terms of the movies…so January here, unlike there, isn’t that dog time when you only have access to movies such as “Taken 3”).

Redmayne, remarkable in “My Week with Marilyn” and soon to be seen as the evil one in the Wachowski brothers’ new sci fi epic, “Jupiter Ascending”, has been able to channel Hawking’s physical debilitation – the familiar slumped physique with his slack jawed, expressionless face – in a way that’s quite eerie. Deprived of an actor’s familiar tool-kit (at its basic: voice and gesture), he still manages, through the slightest of facial twitches and expressions deep behind his eyes, to communicate Hawking’s emotional life: his rich sense of humor, his frustrations, his immense charm and of course, his often arrogant brilliance.

If Keaton’s “Birdman” was energized by its sense of movement, of physicality – from the character’s frenzied lash out at all around him to the camera’s ever-moving flow – Redmayne’s Hawking is all about stillness. It’s as if director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) wants to drive us beyond his subject’s physical debilitation and deep into his brain (we’re told in the movie that Hawking’s motor-neuron disease affects all muscles but for two: the brain and that other one from where men lodge their deepest thoughts)

More than anything else, and surprisingly, the movie’s title is a misnomer. Sure, Hawking’s life work has been that of finding a simple, elegant theory that links everything together (basically the unpredictable weirdness of the quantum world with the vastness of Einstein’s cosmic one…a difficult task, relatively speaking), and the story is punctuated by brief references to Hawking’s discoveries about black holes and the nature of the universe.

But “The Theory of Everything” is essentially a love story (not surprising when you consider that Tim Bevan – of “Love Actually” fame – is the main producer)

It’s a story based upon the book, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking” by Jane Hawking, his first wife. So it’s very much her story. Indeed, the full story of the movie is “the Theory of Everything. The incredible story of Jane and Stephen Hawking”. He’s the big name attraction, but his story is only the half of it. “…Theory…” tracks the progress of Jane and Stephen’s love, and, more importantly, the kind of commitment and strength demanded from her as she is forced to morph from lover to carer. Her commitment to Hawking is absolute. It’s also one that threatens any sense of an individual identity. She is initially forced away from her own academic studies into becoming a mere extension of her famous spouse – interpreting his garbled words for others, pushing him around everywhere, caring for him physically and still managing to raise an ever expanding boisterous family. Early in their relationship, when Hawking is diagnosed with having the incurable and fatal disease (he’s given two years), she makes the choice that love matters more, no matter what the future may bring; and tells Hawking’s father (Simon McBurney, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) “I may look weak. But I’m not. I am very strong”.

As Jane, Felicity Jones (“The Invisible Woman”) delivers a finely calibrated performance. We see the strength grow in her as she shoulders the enormous weight and responsibility of curing for her fragile, wasted spouse. It is only with Jonathan, a music teacher and family friend (Charlie Cox from “Boardwalk Empire”) that her individuality can finally reassert itself.

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As a love story, “The Theory of Everything” is refreshingly good and such a change from the corny, childish love stories Hollywood foists upon its public. The story tracks through the Jane/Stephen love affair and then shows it slowly unspool – honestly and without histrionics. Stephen may only be able to communicate through blinks of an eye-lid, but, the old rogue, it doesn’t stop him from developing a liaison with his personal carer and assistant, Elaine (Maxine Peake). The man simply refuses to accept that the failure of his body must mean the failure of his life. Indeed, the story suggests, the need to love and be loved is so fundamental a part of the human spirit, that, perhaps this is the root both of her and his inner strengths. It is love that sustained their relationship and it is love that has sustained his will to live way beyond anything science can offer. Indeed it was her love for him that literally kept him alive when she refused the option of pulling the plug as he lay dying of pneumonia in an Italian hospital.

In other words, the single greatest aid that has kept Hawking alive (he’s now 72) isn’t his mechanical devices, isn’t even his insatiable curiosity to find the theory of everything.

It’s just love.

The Theory of Everything

Dir: James Marsh; Writers: Anthony McCarten and Jane Hawkin; Cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme (“A Most Wanted Man”); Production Designer: John Paul Kelly (“About Time”)