Friday, 28 November 2014

The Drop


When James Gandolfini passed away suddenly in June 2013, he did so possessed of an acting legacy more or less characterised by a hoodlum. It was no mere hoodlum, of course, for Tony Soprano defined a generation, as much a part of post-millennial pop culture as the now humble iPod. 

A wonderful actor, kind of countenance and refined of speech, Gandolfini was born to portray the brashly complex Jersey mob boss, relying on his skill, bulk and obvious Italian roots to drag television, almost single handedly, into its second golden age.

There is a faintly cruel irony then in the fact that Gandolfini’s final role should come playing low-level wannabe gangster Marvin Stipler, the grizzled anchor of Michaël R. Roskam’s potent, desolate crime drama, The Drop. Stipler is a tragic figure and failed hustler, the kind of guy who feeds at the end of the trough before kicking up most of his meagre earnings to Tony Soprano. Devious, yet utterly without good fortune, the man known throughout as Cousin Marv represents a fitting final entry in the Gandolfini canon. 

Based on Dennis Lehane’s newest novel, The Drop reeks of that author’s weighty Boston anthology, from Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone. Lehane has made a successful career from mining thrills out of his native city’s blue-collar Celtic underbelly — Red Sox games, funny accents, Irish-Americans — and whether they are contemporary or period (Shutter Island, The Given Day) each tells a gripping tale rich in character, ripe with atmosphere. 

The Drop is no different from its creator’s established pedigree and owing to Bullhead director Roskam, this cool urban noir is well served by a subtle infusion of Belgian elegance. Lehane’s muscular source material is a spare effort, an extension of his own short story, Animal Rescue, which inspired him to write the screenplay here before fleshing out the concept in literary form. Roskam seems inspired by his collaborator’s style. Choosing to leave the tone undisturbed, he delivers a brilliantly acted, terribly impressive English-language debut that is infinitely smarter than it initially appears. 


Tom Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, the unassuming barman at Cousin Marv’s grotty establishment. Transposed by Lehane, for no apparent reason, from Boston to Brooklyn, the bar is a front, owned by the sinister Chechen mob and used, on an irregular basis, as a storage waypoint for the gang’s dirty cash. With his own survival in mind, the gentle Bob is uninterested in little beyond pulling pints and labouring diligently for Marv, his actual cousin. 

After his demented turn in the recent series of Peaky Blinders, Hardy’s brooding visage is a welcome change. He paints Bob in a variety of unthreatening shades: loyal, devout, unworldly. The undertones of crackling tension with Marv, however, are especially fascinating. As former members of an insignificant crew, the pair occupy similar places in the local pecking order but Bob’s calm contentment — symbolised by the adorable boxer puppy he rescues from a trash can and a tentative romance with the flinty Nadia (Noomi Rapace) — is an irritant that Marv, an unfulfilled never-really-was, simply cannot shake. 

Hardy and Gandolfini convey a time-wearied sense of solidarity built on familiarity, not affection. When it is shaken by an armed robbery at the bar, along with the unwelcome arrival of unhinged extortionist Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), their lightly squabbling dynamic takes on a darker edge. Tellingly, Roskam establishes the Bob-Marv relationship as his focal point; money must be reclaimed and ties severed. The film, stripped of those few ancillary elements included in Lehane’s book, feels all the better for it. 

As the ensemble suggests, Roskam’s greatest asset is a stellar cast. Hardy, Rapace, John Ortiz; these are some of the finest performers currently working. Gandolfini’s presence speaks for itself but, for those familiar with his résumé, it is no surprise to see Schoenarts stand out. His physicality, so magnetic in Rust and Bone and the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, has been reigned in, replaced by a dangerous air of violent childlike neediness. Resting, unpredictably, between unsettling stalker and outright crook, Schoenarts is the director’s scruffy wild card, an unpleasant sadist whose Flemish inflection has been lost beneath a seriously impressive Brooklyn drawl.

Pared down to its most visceral components, The Drop ultimately succeeds in moving from wintry thriller to effective mystery. Personified by Ortiz’s watchful detective, the latter strand may fail to truly titillate, yet it is, nevertheless, slickly accomplished. Lehane is famously partial to a twisting finale and the instant conceit is genuinely clever, both revelatory and easily grasped. 

Do not believe everything you see.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Imitation Game

For many, the field of mathematics is likely to set pulses racing at an uncomfortable rate, stirring up memories of cold sweats brought on by algebraic confusion and a swamp of geometrical bewilderment. This is, in truth, a discipline holding little cinematic allure; maths just isn’t very sexy. 

That being said, it is rather important and this fact shapes the core of The Imitation Game, a sleek, genuinely superb English language debut from Headhunters director Morten Tyldum. In spite of some recent criticisms that churlishly focus on historical inaccuracies while ignoring unavoidable artistic licence, this is as captivating as it is factually flawed. 

Based on Andrew Hodges’s biography of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing, the Norwegian’s stylish thriller offers up an exquisitely tuned portrait of a remarkable man, a man who stole Nazi secrets by breaking into Enigma, the coded communications system by which all military instructions were relayed. He essentially defeated Hitler in the process. 

It would not save him. Turing was gay and, in 1952, he received his reward for that service to king and country: a homosexuality conviction and court-mandated chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later. 

Part arrogant savant, part lost child burdened with an intellect incapable of simplistic thought, Turing would, in the oak-panelled environs of Bletchley Park’s Code and Cypher School — the austere progenitor of communication overlords GCHQ — head up a unit of incredibly clever boffins, all committed to the apparently impossible task of getting inside Enigma. 

Thus, with that in mind, any filmmaker looking to engage an actor capable of playing maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage need look no further than Benedict Cumberbatch. An extraordinarily brilliant performer, he has easily cornered the market in maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage and his willful, charismatic but profoundly haunted Cambridge codebreaker constitutes a fascinating creation. 

Cumberbatch and Tyldum make immediate headway thanks to screenwriting debutant Graham Moore’s punchy script, ripe with the kind of crisp and snarkily playful dialogue Aaron Sorkin might produce if he anchored his narrative in the emotional wilderness of the British class system. Indeed, there is a great deal to chew on in the middle stages, where the ongoing war is merely part of a larger puzzle that Turing and his colleagues must tackle over the course of years. 

Working to come up with a solution before the enemy changes settings at midnight, rendering each day meaningless, this urgent premise is framed by a more sedate post-war setting: Turing recounting an incredible tale, via flashback, after his arrest on indecency charges. There are glimpses of one seminal period as the bullied prodigy at a public school, illuminating multiple plot points.


His ally in this endeavour is Christopher, the gargantuan and expensively assembled bombe device. A clunking tribute to the pre-analogue age, this super computer (operating, admittedly, at a level of sophistication which makes the humble Nokia 3210 seem like Star Trek’s warp drive) is Turing’s creation, his masterpiece and, ultimately, the means by which the Allies may endure. Christopher is the closest one might come to conceiving the scale of Turing’s genius, subtly beautiful in its plodding design.

His supporting cast excel in portraying a group of people largely confounded by the central player’s obtuse methods. Amongst this motley band of intellectuals the elegantly unreadable Matthew Goode plays British chess champion Hugh Alexander and, alongside him, Downtown Abbey regular Allen Leech (working with superior material) provides a good deal of humanity as Scottish linguist John Cairncross. Mark Strong’s slyly obscure spymaster, Stewart Menzies, meanwhile, is awarded the best lines. 

In an otherwise masculine ensemble, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the genteel mathematician who establishes a touching platonic connection with Turing, serves to add a dash of perky refinement to all the high-functioning testosterone. There is no small sense of triumphant fraternity, however, when the team, pouncing on the inevitability of human error, finally unlocks the mystery. The subsequent comedown is just as dramatic, an icy realisation that to act hastily is to induce the Germans into switching away from their compromised system.

Cerebral as it is — the solving of the problem will confuse even hardcore crossword enthusiasts — Tyldum’s grandest trick is to maintain a sense of pioneering spirit, exciting and accessible. This is an era when computer science was an edgy category on the academic spectrum and artificial intelligence little more than a zany concept; neither was of use in the real world, let alone conducive to the traditions of mass conflict. 

Turing must battle, then, against the relative philistines holding authority over him, as well as the endless combinations that the Third Reich may employ to conceal its plans. His obsession is almost an art form and when it blossoms, shaking the foundations of all scientific understanding in an instant, the true meaning of the breakthrough becomes clear. 

Unfortunately, with that moment at its zenith, the remainder of the story sags in places. The relationship between Alan and Joan feels worthy of deeper study, the meeting of kindred minds compensating for a lack of physical chemistry, but it is eventually beset by melodrama. When Turing vetoes the decision to warn an Atlantic convoy of an imminent U-boat attack, condemning a friend’s relative in the process, there is a gratuitous residual rancour which disappears as quickly as it arises. 

An underwritten subplot involving Soviet spies is technically relevant but adds little here beyond a measure of occasionally distracting intrigue and Turing’s sizzling rivalry with Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston (Tywin Lannister in a naval uniform) sits abandoned also, denying viewers the satisfaction of witnessing the latter fall foul of Christopher. 

Most disappointing is the strange manner in which Turing’s sexuality is handled throughout. Tyldum, Moore and the magnificent Cumberbatch have not shied away from the topic yet, for much of the picture’s duration, it lingers like an abstract equation, something Turing addresses in frank terms but barely bothers to explore. 

Maybe there is a reason for this evasiveness. His sexual proclivities, perhaps, were arguably less important than the machines and theories which comforted an unknowable figure in the miserable final years of his towering existence. Whatever made him tick, Alan Turing, responsible for profound greatness, was certainly deserving of more.

A version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Third Person


When Paul Haggis struck Oscar gold in 2006 with Crash, he did so thanks to a charged, multi-faceted LA fable, impressively constructed and wonderfully acted. It controversially nudged out Ang Lee’s beautiful Brokeback Mountain for best picture that year, yet with its themes of racism, poverty and the faded American dream, Haggis’s crackling passion piece was a predictable, if safe, bet to take home the big prize on the big night. 

Primarily a screenwriter, the Canadian’s directorial output, despite his latter success, has been sporadic in the eight years since he transitioned from being the guy behind Mountie comedy-drama Due South to an in-demand double Oscar winner (he also secured 2005’s screenplay award for Million Dollar Baby). Both In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days were perfectly accomplished for what they were — classy adult thrillers — but they were largely forgettable entries in the Haggis cinematic canon, probably just as safe in the hands of his more serviceable peers. 

A desire to regenerate those award-gaudy heights could represent one reason then for Haggis’s decision to make Third Person, an ostensibly high-functioning drama playing to his natural strengths. The regrettable reality, however, is much less fulfilling, for his is a film of imperfectly conceived pretensions, where multiple strands possess few fragments of a soul. Overlong, undercooked, wrapped up as a turbulent chronicle of love and loss, this rests upon its fleetingly interesting laurels to the detriment of a halfway sensible plot. Haggis’s glory days, sadly, seem a long time ago. 

At the centre of this muddle, grizzled author Michael (Liam Neeson) taps away at a laptop, reworking a weighty novel that his editor — with a possible sense of unintended irony — is secretly embarrassed to read. Around him swirls a disparate collection of competing and vaguely connected arcs, each one jostling for a measure of ultimately unobtainable relevance. 


In Rome, Adrien Brody’s Scott, a faintly obnoxious American wheeler dealer, flirts with the no doubt thrilling world of fashion industry espionage before beginning a very different flirtation with crisis-stricken gypsy Monika (Moran Atias). Across the Atlantic, New Yorkers Rick (James Franco) and Julia (Mila Kunis) duel in a toxic custody battle over the son that she may or may not have tried to kill. 

Meanwhile, Anna (Olivia Wilde) shows up at Michael’s Parisian hideaway seeking a mentor’s guidance, providing a lover’s solace. A scowling Kim Basinger appears intermittently as Elaine, his dreary wife, phone glued to her ear throughout.

That it is a mixed bag should be obvious from the beginning. The approach admittedly has its virtues but there exists no obvious common thread until the latter stages. Given Third Person’s ponderous length, the decision to wait so long before unspooling the central conceit is questionable in the extreme.

Haggis’s failure here is two-fold. None of the component storylines are especially engaging, peopled with barely likeable characters and cursed by a hazy delivery. Beyond that, in contrast to the shrewd, often elegant intersection of moments and faces in Crash — hardly the first film to employ the technique, of course — the mostly self-contained morality plays display only rare traces of shared DNA. Granted, elements occasionally brush lightly against each other, one bleeding into the next, but they serve as a distraction, faded signposts on the way to a mildly compelling destination. 

In truth, the consistent failure is one of interest. None of the meandering scenarios does enough to hold an audience’s sympathy; there is simply little to care about. The shifty Brody’s Roman holiday helps, initially, to distract from the drudgery around it, yet this soon becomes weighed down by its own uncertainties and a somewhat preposterous scam-cum-redemption tale. 

Haggis keeps his intentions shrouded on all fronts until the very end and, while the Manhattan-based familial strife between Kunis and Franco offers up nothing of note, Michael’s central, overarching narrative undergoes the most searching elucidation. In one respect his relationship with the other characters just about holds its shape, a pretty design on the wider canvas. On the other hand, however, the source of Wilde’s cruel volatility flies in, uncomfortably, from left field. The already straining melodrama is suddenly replaced by a grimier edge; it feels cheap and gratuitously shocking

Haggis might have overstretched himself in mounting an ambitious though flawed contemporary soap opera, but his latest feature is not devoid of redeeming traits.Third Person is a sumptuously captured effort, bursting with a rich style that paints each segment in its own distinct colours. The Italian vistas are postcard depictions of warm Mediterranean shades and sepia hues; Paris is a more luscious affair replete with five-star luxury, its cool Euro exteriors forming the backdrop to Neeson’s glowering process. Framed by wintery tones to match the overall mood, New York bristles with apt misery. 

Visual flourishes, too, courtesy of cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, add some degree of class to the proceedings. From a hotel suite filled with a garden’s worth of delicate white roses to the azure swimming pool that almost bursts out of the screen early on, a lone figure later fading beneath its surface, there are mournful hints of the film that Haggis perhaps intended to make, fine cast and clever concept in hand.

An unedited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 7 November 2014

Interstellar


If there is a common thread in Christopher Nolan's varied filmic résumé — aside from the overarching quality — then realism is its name. Nolan has turned his hand to any number of genres and on every occasion has infused the final product with a scrubbed, earthy tone. His artistic leanings are evident, of course, and as his budgets have increased so, too, has the elegance of his framing, but, regardless of the content, this most unassuming of large-budget, high-functioning blockbuster architects is no stranger to dragging fiction back to ground level. 

Tellingly, DNA traces of Nolan’s newest project, Interstellar, are discernible throughout his back catalogue. It is rife with the restrained, yet thunderous, sense of scale that rendered his Batman trilogy so acutely brilliant; Bruce Wayne’s rebooted arc developed in a prism of relatively pared-down naturalism. Inception, a sci-fi tale of mind-bending proportions, appeared to possess some kernel of truth hidden, perhaps, between the strands of Dom Cobb’s tortured subconscious. Even The Prestige, a sumptuous period drama, ultimately plumped for (somewhat questionable) science over magic. With Memento Nolan tested intellects, in reverse narrative, to convey a fruitless battle against the crippling blight of encroaching amnesia. 

Now, by splicing together these disparate elements, the director comes close to eschewing his realistic bent. Nolan has reached out to touch the stars and, in so doing, delivers a film of quite startling magnificence, a benchmark that, for all his gifts, he may struggle to overcome. A story of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis, dressed in the garb of soaring space opera, Interstellar bristles with a sense of pioneering wonder. There are hiccups, obviously, but, by the time of its conclusion, they seem little more than faint stars in the dark grandeur of space. No, what is created here plays out as a latter-day existential fable on the continuation of a species, our species, and the lengths to which we will go to endure in the face of a self-induced destruction. 

It is not without significance that Matthew McConaughey sits proudly at the heart of this Odyssean epic. A man now on the crest of his own rebirth — a ‘McConaissance’ if you will — the Texan is fresh off his Oscar-winning star turn in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and a critically acclaimed role in HBO’s terrific True Detective series. 

Keeping his famously louche persona firmly in check, he portrays Cooper a former test pilot now scraping through life as a farmer somewhere in the American west. The time period is never specified, nor dated by props and styles (John Lithgow’s grizzled grandfather makes reference to an era during his youth that sounds remarkably like our present) but this is a near future few will ever wish to see. It is a time of dystopian dust bowls, failing crops, stalled technological advancement and the eerily realistic steady decline of Mother Earth.  

Discerning a series of ghostly communications in her bedroom, Cooper’s preternaturally intelligent daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, putting Twilight behind her), convinces him that the spectral movements signify important geographical coordinates. His sense of adventure awakened, Cooper soon stumbles upon the secret location of what was once NASA and a small scientific unit led by his former mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

He is swiftly recruited — a narrative expedience just about escaping ridicule — to pilot an inter-dimensional expedition tasked with searching for a sustainable homeworld beyond this one. A decade earlier, twelve astronauts secretly did the same, traversing a spherical wormhole in the shadow of Saturn to explore the galaxy beyond. Essentially lost in their mission, that original team’s probing has signalled three possible destinations and it is the task of Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their twin robots, TARS and CASE — a pair of beautifully conceived, silver-plated sentinels who walk and spin like Ikea-designed disciples of minimalism — to investigate the leads. In the meantime, Brand will stay behind to solve the quandary of effecting a large-scale escape from this planet’s gravitational pull.

It is dense material which Nolan and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan, manage to distill for ease of understanding. In truth, however, his triumph stems more from the emotion driving the picture, something which represents a remarkably heartfelt departure from an auteur best known for his cool delivery. 

Mankind must strike out lest it be swallowed up by the dying Earth, a reality which will ultimately strain the ties of love, and loyalty, that define us. Cooper embarks on his quest for the sake of his children, though it is not a decision taken lightly. The stress of his departure, the horrible unpicking of a profound father-daughter bond, carries as much weight as any visual treat conjured by Nolan’s imagination. 


The dissipating currency of days, months and years, so natural a pillar of our existence, quickly becomes the expedition’s enemy. It nips at their heels, constricting the window available to complete the mission, threatening a reunification with all they hold dear. In a single quiet but devastating scene, the value of time is reinforced with cold certainty, true and tangible; it is no longer a mere mathematical abstract.

Indeed, this unending march towards oblivion also eats away at those left behind. Adult Murph — played with steely sensitivity by Jessica Chastain — and her brother, Tom, deal with the effects of childhood abandonment. Casey Affleck's taciturn sibling finds solace in guarding his father’s memory: farming and family. Meanwhile, Chastain’s heartbroken boffin directs her anger into the task of assisting Brand with his unending equation. 

At this stage, Interstellar is not so much a voyage of discovery as it is a desperate scramble to escape a burning skyscraper and the sudden emergence of a bleaker, less hopeful tone constitutes a sobering reminder that every part of humankind, including its frailties, its myriad deceptions, will continue if Cooper and the rest succeed in their search. 

The path travelled in the latter stages will surprise and bemuse in equal measures. Drifting into those incomprehensible complexities of the astral plane, Nolan’s plot charts previously unimagined territory. This embrace of something approaching high fantasy will irk those invested in grittier themes but should thrill anyone seeking a departure from the rote conventions of the genre. 

There is a point to this almost crazed exploration of, well, everything and Nolan has not opted to delve outside the edge of our understanding merely for the sake of it. It returns him, before the end, to that which started all of this: bloody-minded, indefatigable survival.


As one might expect, Interstellar is a colossal film awash with the richly striking imagery that its creator seems to prefer, whatever the context. Instead of the luscious, HD-ready palette usually employed by long-time Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures, in tandem, the overpowering vastness of the cosmos and the fading cornfields of the world’s breadbasket. The former setting, however, provides the truest showcase for the breadth of Nolan’s vision. 

A tiny shuttle skirting the edge of Saturn; hundred-foot waves crashing across the surface of a water-bound planet; frozen clouds overhanging ice sheets that stretch to the horizon and beyond; only the most cynical will be unmoved by the appearance of these awe-inspiring starscapes and distant, unknowable worlds. They populate an otherwise spartan void on the far side of Gargantua, the increasingly crucial black hole, a roiling and terrible leviathan into which Cooper leads his crew, seeking answers as well as simple refuge. 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says Caine in voiceover, tying Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words to the hardiness of the human spirit. “Old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

To resist fate, to defy the certainty of our own demise, Nolan suggests, humanity must push onwards, furiously, as far as it may carry itself. Powerful, insistent, difficult to ignore, Interstellar reminds us that we might just do it when the time comes.