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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 8, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Imitation Game, Violent Year, Birdman

The problem with movies designed to be "serious" -- i.e., award contenders rather than big popular hits -- is that they are as likely to be victims of film formulas as the most exploitative big-money comic-book movies.

The writers, directors, producers, and backers of award-bait movies went to the same film schools and swallowed the same bogus theories as those who make blockbusters, and the results can be just as hollow and dishonest. But because the "serious" films are often about something that matters (and no, the struggle of X-Men for acceptance does not actually matter in the real world; neither do the voyages of the starship Enterprise), the hollowness can hurt a little more.

Case in point: The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing and the British struggle to crack the German code machine Enigma, was written by Graham Moore, basing his script on a book by Andrew Hodges. Breaking that code was one of the three factors that were most important in Britain's survival during the early years of World War II (the other two were radar and Winston Churchill), and it kept on being the most important source of intelligence.

A book can tell that whole story, but it is too broad a topic for a film. With only a couple of hours to work with, the film has to focus tightly on a tellable story, beginning with a promise that the ending fulfills.

In this case, the initial question could have been: Can misfit genius Alan Turing overcome government and military skepticism and crack the Enigma code by creating the first computer?

Instead, the initial question is: Why is Alan Turing, six years after the war, being investigated by the police, and will he be imprisoned for bogus charges of being a Soviet spy?

But this is not really the issue. Gradually, the film reveals that Turing was homosexual during an era when homosexual acts were criminal, and that this is what the prosecutors will use to put him away.

And since this is fact -- Turing was convicted, and then committed suicide a year later -- it is a perfectly legitimate way to frame the story of his life.

Except that the story only becomes Important because of who Turing is and what he accomplished during the war.

So along with a beautiful telling of the tale of Turing's childhood friendship with his first love, a kind boy named Christopher, the film spends the bulk of its time on bogus conflicts over Turing's struggle to get along with the other mathematicians working at Bletchley Park, constant down-to-the-wire attempts to shut down his code-breaking machine, and a search for a spy among the codebreakers.

I have no qualms about committing spoilers here, because all these issues are badly handled in the script. For instance, the search for a spy fizzles out in an utter absurdity. Instead of being a Nazi spy, one of the team turns out to be a Soviet spy, and the MI6 officer in charge tells Turing that because the Soviets are British allies, they're letting this spy pass some information to the Russians.

There are just a few problems with this. First, Russia was not Britain's ally during the time Turing was trying to crack Enigma. Russia was Germany's partner in the division of Poland, and provided Germany with huge quantities of vital war resources. Russia didn't become Britain's ally until Hitler invaded Russia, and by that time Enigma had already been cracked.

Churchill used information from "Ultra," the Enigma-breaking project, to try to warn Stalin that Hitler was going to invade. But Churchill could not allow Stalin to know how the Brits knew of this, because it was almost certain that the fact that the British were decoding all of Germany's coded transmissions would get back to Hitler, and then they would change coding systems.

In other words, there is zero chance that a Russian spy would have been allowed to continue inside the Ultra organization at any level, or that any information about Ultra would be allowed to leak to anybody. It was a mark of Britain's special relationship with the U.S. that Roosevelt was informed about Ultra, so that he knew that British intelligence on German plans was perfectly reliable. No other nation was allowed to know.

This is a huge stupidity in the middle of the movie, introduced for no other reason than to add another (needless) layer of suspense and fake drama -- as if the true story could not be trusted to provide enough entertainment.

In other words, despite its Oscar-bait pretensions, The Imitation Game panders to "entertainment" requirements as relentlessly as any comic-book movie, except that comic-book movies admit right up front that they're taking place in a fantasy universe, while The Imitation Game pretends to be telling us the truth.

It's like the deep dishonesty at the heart of Schindler's List, which got so much credit for being "honest" about the "complicated" character of Schindler. What, a Spielberg movie, honest? It is to laugh.

Remember that emotional scene where Liam Neeson weeps about how if he had only sold some jewelry and a fancy car he could have saved a few more Jews? The real Schindler escaped to Sweden with a box of diamonds.

But the filmmakers couldn't trust us to accept Schindler as he really was; they had to lie about him in order to get an Oscar-bait scene. And it worked: Liam Neeson won Best Actor and the movie won Best Picture. By lying.

And that's what The Imitation Game does -- it lies about history in order to fit the film-school formulas about how to make successful audience-pleasing movies.

They have so much contempt for history that they show a cop using Liquid Paper in 1951 to alter a document in order to get access to Turing's war records. Only one tiny problem: The first correction fluid was invented by a woman typist in her Texas kitchen in 1951 -- but it wasn't commercially available until 1956.

Alan Turing really deserved to be called a genius, and the film does deal head-on with the single biggest moral problem the Ultra project faced: They had to be very careful about how to use the information they got, because they could not allow the Germans to detect the fact that their Enigma machine had been cracked.

Therefore, Ultra had to allow the Germans to carry out successful attacks that cost the lives of soldiers and civilians, because preventing them would have given away the Allies' perfect penetration of German codes.

But the film's explanation of the issues involved was slapdash at best -- as was their treatment of Turing's machine. It was all treated with the same mumbo-jumbo that Hollywood always uses with science and technology. The machine looked cool, and Turing's emotional relationship with it was effective, but there was little attempt to tell the audience what the machine actually did. The film wasn't wrong about how it worked, it simply wasn't clear.

After all these complaints, I'm still recommending this movie. Why? Because even though it is not as honest, brave, and high-minded as the filmmakers pretend, it is still quite entertaining (the formulas do work, sometimes), and Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley give wonderful performances.

The actors are not responsible for the dishonesty of the script, and so it does not diminish their superb work. Cumberbatch is so good, in fact, that his performance is not overshadowed by that of Alex Lawther, the extraordinarily beautiful and talented boy who plays Young Alan Turing.

In some movies, the adult actor's Oscar seems to rely as much on a child-actor's performance in the same role. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, in which he played the extremely unlikeable adult Christy Brown, while Hugh O'Conor was heroic and brilliant as the child Christy Brown. Or Tom Hanks, who did a lovely job of playing the adult Forrest Gump -- but rested his performance on the foundation laid by Michael Conner Humphreys as Young Forrest.

Even if we had not seen the flashbacks of Alan Turing's childhood struggles at school, however, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance would have made us care about and believe in the adult Alan Turing. Though there is perhaps too much of Sherlock Holmes in the way Alan Turing was written, Cumberbatch is not carrying on that TV character into this film.

The script, and therefore Cumberbatch's performance, carries an implication that Turing had a disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum -- and psychologists do not believe that is an accurate diagnosis. But this angle is not overplayed, and if the film increases our rapport with Asperger's sufferers as well as lonely young homosexuals, I can't think of that as harmful.

Without overplaying it, Cumberbatch brings us Turing's pain and yearning, as well as his arrogance and drive. And in his onscreen relationship with Keira Knightley, both of them elevate their characters. Both of them give performances worthy of award nominations, Cumberbatch as Best Actor, Knightley as Best Supporting Actress.

And the movie is worth seeing, because the Ultra project at Bletchley Park is one of the towering intellectual and moral achievements in history -- and it may well have saved the world. Alan Turing was a real man who is worth remembering today -- we still speak of the Turing Test as the best way to evaluate artificial intelligence, and our entire computer culture is based at least partly on his work. This film, despite its flaws and dishonesties and formulas, is About Something, and the Something it's about does matter.

*

The title of A Most Violent Year is so misleading that it is likely to drive away the very people that would like it best. Because of the title, I spent the whole movie dreading the moment when it would erupt in a paroxysm of murder and revenge, like the climax of The Godfather.

It never happens. In fact, the whole point of the movie is that the main character, Abel Morales, is determined to run a relatively clean heating-oil business in the New York area and succeed by offering better service than his competitors. His wife is mob-connected, but he refuses to resort to mafia methods.

At many times in the movie, I found myself thinking: Now he'll change. Now he'll give in and go for the guns. Instead, he only wavers once in his rejection of violence, a Dirty Harry moment when he has a brutal thug at gunpoint; but as the character himself explains at another point, "I always try to do the most right thing."

This is the essence of the movie: Living in a world of greys, where you have to trust the untrustworthy, where loyalty and integrity are hard to find, and where your rivals resort to or benefit from violence and crime, there's no hope of "doing the right thing" because there usually isn't a "right" thing. There's only the most right thing. And that's what decency and goodness consist of.

Abel Morales is played by one of the most powerful actors I've seen, Oscar Isaac. I first saw him as Joseph in the 2006 film The Nativity Story; he has achieved most prominence in the title role of Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I haven't seen.

A Most Violent Year depends absolutely on his performance, and he comes through. If we don't believe in and care about this character, there is no story. It's the kind of part that requires the subdued intensity of Al Pacino's restrained performance in the first Godfather; I'm not exaggerating when I say that Oscar Isaac is better than the young Pacino. (Sadly, practically everybody is better than Pacino today.)

He is well-supported by a rich, believable performance from Jessica Chastain as Abel's mob-connected wife, Anna. I loved her in The Tree of Life, and while this film gives her less screen time, she is no less iconic and enigmatic in the way she both fights against and supports Abel in his quest to be a decent -- yet successful -- man.

Albert Brooks, remarkably enough, does not overact or play cute (his two usual vices as an actor) in the role of Abel's lawyer, and David Oyelowo is a strong presence as the prosecutor who has singled out the most honest and ambitious man in the business as the focus of his cleanup efforts.

The movie is almost stolen by Christopher Abbott in the role of Louis Servidio, a driver who is beaten up and fears to go back out on the street without better protection. This is an actor ready for parts meatier than those usually given to people as pretty as he is.

If you want to see a movie that's full of violence, this is not it. Stay away. You will be disappointed. This is a smart film for people who care about intense moral dilemmas, not a film for people who want to see somebody whup bad-guys' butts.

But if you want to see a movie about people trying to create something, to do good things in a dangerous world where goodness normally doesn't pay, a movie about believable people in believable relationships -- in other words, a smarter, better, and therefore less-exciting version of Godfather II -- then ignore the misleading title, because this is the movie for you.

In fact, pretend the title is The Most Right Thing. That title promises the movie you actually get -- and it's a very, very good one.

*

It would be harder to think of an artier premise than that of Birdman -- but it turns out to be an incisive, truthful take on the pretensions of art and artists.

The idea is that Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, is the actor who became world-famous playing Birdman, a comic-book film character analogous to Batman. And since Michael Keaton is the actor who originated the first series of Batman movies in 1989, it is delicious to see him take on this role.

Riggan refused to make the third Birdman movie (as Keaton declined Batman 3), and since then has struggled to create an identity as an actor. As the movie begins, he is in the final days of preview performances before the official Broadway opening of a play that he wrote himself, based on Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

Usually, when movies are about putting on a play, the play itself is awful. Think of the absurd production of Richard III depicted in The Goodbye Girl; and even in Me and Orson Welles, in which Welles's version of Julius Caesar is the maguffin of the film, all we see are the eccentricities of the production and the arrogance of the auteur.

Birdman, however, did not take the relatively easy route of using Shakespeare as the author of the play-within-the-film. Then you can be sure that the script is a work of greatness (even when shredded by an ego like Orson Welles's). Instead, though the play is based on a good work by a good writer, the audience generally doesn't know the original story. And since it is supposed to have been written and directed by Riggan, the very point at issue is whether it's any good.

We want it to be good, because we like Riggan -- though at first we like him because he's Michael Keaton. The movie opens with Riggan trying to deal with a second-rate actor in a leading role; when a light fixture falls from the flyspace and hits him in the head, taking him out of the play, they have only a day to get someone else into the part.

The solution is to bring in Mike Shiner, an experienced Broadway actor whose self-confidence knows no bounds -- not even the bounds of human decency. Edward Norton is outstanding in this role, because Mike Shiner has to be a very good actor who is nevertheless a selfish, pretentious idiot every bit as filled with self-doubt as Riggan.

It's a complicated role requiring a delicate touch, and I can't imagine any other actor doing it as well as Edward Norton. How anybody else could win Best Supporting Actor in the same year as this performance by Norton is beyond me.

So Mike Shiner comes in, fully memorized and with lots of ideas to make the play better. Riggan is smart and humble enough to use his ideas -- but then is devastated when Shiner breaks the fourth wall and destroys a preview performance. There's no way to replace him, and yet Riggan can't trust him.

Shiner does all that he does in the name of "honesty" -- he has to drink real gin onstage because that's part of the reality of his performance. Never mind that in the next scene he isn't supposed to be drunk. Also never mind that Shiner's entire life is artifice and pose, including his pretensions of honesty.

Mike Shiner needs to have a Laurence Olivier take him aside and say, "Why don't you try acting, my boy?" as he purportedly did with Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.

A subplot involving Shiner and Riggan's daughter (and assistant), Sam (Emma Stone), threatens for a brief time to take over the movie. But no, Riggan's struggle to get this play on the boards remains at the center of things. He is risking everything he owns, his entire future as an actor -- everything -- on this production, so the real climax of the play comes when he meets Broadway's most powerful critic (Lindsay Duncan) in a bar and learns that she plans to destroy the play by writing the cruelest review in the history of theatre.

Riggan's furious reply is brilliant in its evisceration of those who think they own an art and have the right to shut people out. But she is unmoved.

So his play is going to fail -- because if she writes a bad review, tickets won't sell and the play is dead.

This used to be the way Broadway worked, until movie companies like Disney and many movie actors proved that they could create reviewer-proof plays. The power of reviewers came from the fact that Broadway's income is from out-of-towners, and tourists only buy tickets for plays that have good reviews.

But when the play was called Lion King it didn't matter what the reviewers said: It sold tickets because people from outside New York trusted the Disney brand. TV and movie stars also drew tourist ticket-buyers because of the appeal of being in the same (admittedly large) room with the living actor. Reviewers still have influence, but they don't have the make-or-break power they used to have.

Still, within the world of Birdman, Riggan knows that he will fail. He will lose everything. And so we watch him teeter on the brink of suicide.

I really have contempt for stories that lead up to suicides. Suicide is what a writer resorts to instead of an ending. But this script kept on surprising me: Everything works. Just when you think you know where the story is going, it goes somewhere better -- and gets there through a back door.

There's also a fantasy element -- oh, excuse me, this is Art, so it's "magic realism" -- in which Riggan seems to have telekinetic powers, like Birdman. The movie ends with an assertion that these powers are real after all, but that's not what the story is about so don't expect his superpowers to amount to anything.

Birdman is a movie about how people give up their real lives in order to have careers -- which are not a good replacement for life. The best scenes in the movie involve the women around Riggan: Amy Ryan as Riggan's ex-wife, Emma Stone as their daughter Sam, and Naomi Watts as Mike Shiner's girlfriend who is making her Broadway debut in this play.

Even the people in smaller roles are wonderful, and while Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's lawyer inserts a few bits of his usual shtick (pointlessly mispronouncing Martin Scorsese's name, for instance), he still helps us see that Riggan is not alone in his struggle.

Birdman does some artistically pretentious things beyond the telekinesis gags. For instance, the director tries to create the illusion that the film is done all in one take. You can see the places where cuts happen, of course, because the actor passes through a door that is in darkness, giving a moment in which one take can be spliced in with another.

Still, the takes are still very long, as we follow actors down corridors and up and down stairs, flowing from one scene into the next. Often during these long walks, there is a time shift -- instead of a rehearsal, we walk onto a stage with a live preview audience, for instance -- and the logistics of some of these transitions are great fun to imagine.

The most astonishing thing is that this technique requires that actors learn their parts in a playlike rather than movielike way. With movies, you only have to know the lines for the scene you're shooting right now. And each scene is likely to be only a few lines long.

But with these long takes, the actor has to deliver a scene's worth of lines all in a row, with no chance to cut and redo, then walk a long way, followed by a shoulder-cam, and do yet another scene with other actors in another room. They have to know the script, scene after scene, and that brings a wonderful vividness to the performances.

Robert Altman's classic The Player (1992), based on scriptwriter Michael Tolkin's original novel, was the ultimate insider story about the movie industry, and despite its continuous-take first scene, it was and remained a movie, with movielike line deliveries. That was exactly right for The Player -- and Birdman's playlike scenes and lines are exactly right for Birdman.

In fact, Birdman is almost as self-satirical and self-congratulatory for actors as The Player is for movie people in general, and for that reason it will probably get a whole raft of nominations -- and then lose the awards to other films.

But the ace up Birdman's sleeve is that this film feels quite autobiographical about Michael Keaton's career, even though it has nothing to do with his life. Remember that Keaton came out of nowhere with his hilarious supporting role in Night Shift, which he totally stole from Henry Winkler, and then became a comic star with Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, and Beetlejuice.

He showed he could be serious with Clean and Sober, but because of his comedy roots he was viciously attacked for being cast as the lead in Batman. Then he was triumphantly good in the role -- and remains the best of the Batman players, despite Christian Bale's excellent work in the recent reboot trilogy.

Yet after he walked away from Batman (and embarrassed himself as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh's self-indulgent, clumsyMuch Ado About Nothing), Keaton seemed to sink into a deeper and deeper abyss. Jack Frost was like his tombstone.

When his high point in 2005 was acting in Lindsay Lohan's Herbie Fully Loaded, it seemed he was ready for guest appearances on fading sitcoms for the rest of his life.

Yet he remained the extraordinarily talented actor he has always been. He just didn't have a script.

Who knew that this excellent script -- perfect for him and every other actor in the movie -- would come from such non-household names as Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, and the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu?

Iñárritu is novice enough to think that the movie is about him -- that's what those all-in-one takes are really about, the director making sure he gets noticed -- yet he and the other writers created a true ensemble movie, and Iñárritu directed a film that ends up being incredibly generous to the actors.

Don't see Birdman because it's Oscar-bait, or because it's arty or intellectual -- though it is all those things. See it because it's a terrific, well-written story, acted out by some of the finest performers working in film today. See it because it isn't just about acting -- it's about how we allow our ambitions and our fears to keep us away from the only things in life that really matter.


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