REVIEW: Passengers

20 12 2016

Franchise action flicks catch a lot of flak – rightfully – for existing as little more than an excuse for merchandising. But maybe the problem doesn’t stop there. Is it possible that our star vehicles have similarly been co-opted to serve as personal branding for actors?

There is a very plausible scenario in which a year from today, I will remember little of what happened between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s characters in “Passengers.” I’ll probably never forget how angry I felt watching them play into the flaws of the script – more on that in a bit. What I am most likely to remember, however, is their late-night talk show appearances and lab-created viral video moments. The film itself feels like an afterthought amidst the millions upon millions of media impressions the duo generated on a month-long press tour.

The ancillary content for “Passengers” further cements the personas of both actors: Lawrence the raucous and relatable girl next door, Pratt the goofy but lovable working man. But the film itself cuts against the grain for each of them, making everything feel entirely disingenuous. This does not constitute much of a problem for Chris Pratt, who gets to play the tortured center of a deep space morality play. The prematurely awakened space passenger Jim Preston represents Pratt’s first chance to really display his dramatic chops, and director Morten Tyldum spotlights them by … focusing heavily on his puppy dog eyes whenever he’s grappling with a deep emotion or question. Whomp!

Lawrence, on the other hand, plays totally against type for both her on- and off-screen feminism. As Aurora Lane, the object of Jim’s gaze and manipulation, she gives herself over to being little more than a sex object ready to please on cue as well as a backstage figure to male heroism in the face of danger. This is Katniss Everdeen and Joy Mangano! This is the actress who dared to call out Hollywood’s sexist payment practices! What’s going on with this retrograde role choice?

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TELLURIDE TALKS: Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game”

27 11 2014

Morten TyldumEarlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival.  As a part of this program, I had the privilege to partake in small group discussions with filmmakers at the festival.  The “Telluride Talks” series is a way for me to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights with everyone.  First up, Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game.”

There was a Friday evening screening of “The Imitation Game” on our schedule.  This meant that, so long as we arrived in a timely manner, there should have been tickets blocked off for us.  Yet as I hopped off the gondola – required to get to the theater on the other side of the mountain – all I saw were my fellow students walking the other way.  We somehow got boxed out.

It is standard operating procedure that when talent is to talk to anyone about their film, those people need to have actually seen that film.  So, needless to say, it was suitably awkward when Morten Tyldum walked in the next day for a rousing discussion of his movie … and no one in the group had seen it.

All things considered, however, the conversation was still quite lively and informative.  Tyldum remained in good spirits and obliged our requests not to say too much about the content of “The Imitation Game.”  Most of the conversation centered around his filmmaking philosophy and career – an interesting topic given that he is now making the jump to American cinema.

Tyldum, 47, began making films in his native Norway about a decade ago.  He came to most people’s attention with the 2011 action-thriller “Headhunters,” which is available to stream through Netflix and definitely worth a watch.  The film garnered a BAFTA nomination for Tyldum, but it more importantly opened the door for him to make movies on a grander scale.

_TIG2664.NEFThere are many people who romanticize the European model of making films, and Tyldum is not one of them.  He admitted to favoring the honesty of Hollywood filmmaking over the pretentiousness of the Scandinavian system.  Tyldum also lamented the way it was suspicious to make a commercially successful film in his home country, so no wonder he wanted to get out – “Headhunters” is the highest grossing Norwegian film to date.

He was initially set to hop across the pond for his English language debut with “Bastille Day.”  At the time, Ben Affleck was attached, but the film fell through when “Argo” became such a smashing success.  (“Bastille Day” is now filming with Idris Elba as the lead and British director James Watkins at the helm.)  Tyldum quickly landed on his feet, though, by scoring the gig to direct “The Imitation Game.”

The project was a hotly coveted property from the Black List, a registry of the best unproduced screenplays, ranking #1 in their 2011.  “The Imitation Game” initially attracted attention from Warner Bros. to set up as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who wanted to play the leading role of brilliant yet troubled mathematician Alan Turing.  Ultimately, it fell to Tyldum and Internet sensation Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Which is quite an ironic role for him to play, considering that Turing essentially invented the computer.)

Turing’s tale is one of incredible highs, such as when he cracked the German cipher in World War II, as well as extreme lows, namely a chemical castration as a result of his homosexuality.  He definitely lived an eventful life, that much is for certain.  But like Bennett Miller and Jon Stewart, two other with films at Telluride about real-life subjects, Tyldum said it was more important to honor the spirit of the story than to get every factual detail correct.

Cumberbatch Turing Imitation GameAnd critics of “The Imitation Game” have been quick to take the filmmakers to task for whitewashing or downplaying Turing’s sexuality.  Seemingly in response to these criticisms, Tyldum highlighted the richness of the story and just how many distinct angles and interpretations that different filmmakers could extrapolate from it.  While some might see it as an opportunity for a LGBTQ message or a lesson on science and math, Tyldum stated that he saw the movie as “about how important it is to listen to people who are different.”

“I like shaded, flawed characters more,” as he put it, and Tyldum certainly dwells in the ambiguities of Turing’s character.  I can say so because, on the final day of the festival, I darted across Telluride on my bike to catch the final screening after a required event.  I was panting to catch my breath for the first thirty minutes, but at least I had the chance to see that “The Imitation Game” lived up to Tyldum’s expressed vision.

“The Imitation Game” opens in limited release on November 28 and will gradually expand throughout the month of December.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 7, 2014)

7 11 2014

Headhunters

Professional rivalries often run cold, but rarely (save perhaps “Passion“/”Love Crime“) do they ever turn as dangerous as they do in “Headhunters.”  This compelling Norwegian action flick from Morten Tyldum, who has since turned in Oscar-worthy work on “The Imitation Game,” packs some true thrills into its 100 minute runtime.  The manner in which Tyldum provides this entertainment, however, is hardly derivative.

“Headhunters” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (as a reminder, that’s First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie) because it’s the rare genre film where action sequences bolster the plot rather than replacing it altogether.  Tyldum directs the violence to advance the film’s core conflicts; it’s not just there to inspire agape reactions at an impressive effects reel.

Even though things escalate quickly, “Headhunters” never loses its grip on reality (a la every recent Liam Neeson movie).  The film begins with its figurative corporate headhunter, Aksel Hennie’s Roger Brown, compensating for his small frame with an expensive house, a dime of a girlfriend … and a side habit of stealing art to sustain it all.  One job swindling his client Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gets Roger in a little too deep.  All of a sudden, he finds himself entangled in a disastrous web with people who take on his job title in a much more literal sense.

What ensues is an action movie as it should be done.  “Headhunters” has actual stakes that feel real to all the participants, especially during its violent segments.  Tyldum requires attention in these interludes, too, because they are more than just a momentary obstacle to the inevitable triumph of the hero.  They are human clashes that could go any number of ways.  Now that is excitement.





REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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