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.

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REVIEW: Wild

26 11 2014

WildTelluride Film Festival

On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy.  While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance.  The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.

On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast.  In fact, it is better.  The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale.  The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.

Hornby is among the rare breed of writers who can balance the role of humorist and humanist.  Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization.  Here, almost all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.

The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who ensures the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly.  There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet these glimpses from the past do not drive the narrative.  In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place.  The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.

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REVIEW: Rosewater

10 11 2014

RosewaterTelluride Film Festival

It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them?  Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).

At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari.  Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse.  Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country.  They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.

This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.  Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state.  “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.

Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari.  They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason.  In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly.  Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess.  It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.

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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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REVIEW: The Look of Silence

7 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I was in eighth grade, I had the remarkable opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor recount his experiences surviving the cruelty of the Nazis.  After his speech was over and the whole room was crying, he stood at the front of the room and received hugs and other warm gestures from anyone who wished to embrace him.  No gesture of kindness could erase all the pain he endured, but it somehow felt like the only possible way to end the session.  The hug became a sort of promise to bear witness moving forward.

I had never seen anything like it again until I left my screening of “The Look of Silence” at the Telluride Film Festival, which the documentary’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, attended.  After a brief Q&A following the film, the crowd somberly filed out (appropriately, in silence).  And when the bright sunlight entered my eyes, I noticed a sight both moving and surprising: a queue had formed to embrace Adi.  One man seemed to clutch him firmly for well over a minute.

“The Look of Silence” is the kind of film that can inspire such a deep outpouring of emotion with its brutally pared-back power.

The Look of Silence

In the film, documentarian and humanitarian Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the subject of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that made him an Oscar nominee last year with “The Act of Killing.”  That film, as profound an impact as it had upon release, rubbed me the wrong way as it allowed (at least in my audience) repeated instances of laughter at the excesses of men who took joy in murdering large quantities of people.  “The Look of Silence,” its companion piece, thankfully operates under the appropriate sense of solemnity and reverence that is rightfully due to the victims of the extermination and their families.

The narrative journey Oppenheimer fashions in his second take on the subject is assuredly less flashy and entertaining.  It moves slowly and episodically towards its conclusion, never quite signaling where it will eventually deposit us.  “The Look of Silence” occasionally frustrates with its gentle, slow pacing, yet the periodically interspersed revelations more than redeem any plot sluggishness.

To elaborate on Adi’s travails in any great detail would only rob you of experiencing the intellectual and emotional impact of the film.  With Oppenheimer’s help, he embarks on a dangerous and painful quest for answers about the killing of his brother, Ramli, at the guns of a death squad.  What the two uncover is far more than just textbook examples of the social construction of morality or the banality of evil.

That the killers boast of their exploits is hardly news to anyone who saw “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” still finds new ways to explore how that past continues to loom large over the present in Indonesia.  The perpetrators continue to perpetuate their revisionist narrative of history, not only by making ludicrous claims as “some of the communists wanted to be killed,” but also through more insidious means of controlling thought and expression.

Ultimately, the film is not about the killers, though; it is about Adi – and subsequently every other Indonesian citizen in his position.  Oppenheimer frequently circles back to a scene of Adi watching a video of two military men detailing how they committed Ramli’s murder.  The camera often lingers on his calm gaze, which contains so much more than merely the look of silence.  The same subterranean power gives haunting resonance to every moment in “The Look of Silence” on the whole.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Mr. Turner

5 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I spent last fall in London, I often found myself wandering the halls of art museums (largely since they boasted free admission).  Quite often, I would walk past a painting on the wall without giving it much thought, admiring its remarkable craft but feeling rather unmoved emotionally.  One painter whose work struck me on a deep and profound level, though, was J.M.W. Turner, whose work with light and shadow predated the renowned Impressionist movement.

I was hoping that Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” a film who places J.M.W. Turner in the subject position, would stir me similarly.  Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I felt the same pull to Leigh’s film as I do to Turner’s paintings.  But simply because I did not respond deeply to it does not mean the work is entirely void of merit.  I simply appreciate it more than I like or enjoy it.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

With the exception of 2011’s “Another Year,” I seem to be rather immune to being swept away of Mike Leigh’s uniquely derived products.  (For those who don’t know, Leigh formulates his screenplay in tandem with the efforts of his actors in a lengthy, laborious rehearsal process.)  The characters all seem well-formed, and the dialogue always feels quite natural.  It just never feels exciting to watch.

In a sense, though, that’s kind of the point.  “Mr. Turner” is a biopic in the sense that it covers the life of J.M.W. Turner, but Leigh resists all the clichés and conventions we are normally conditioned to expect from a movie about a true-life creative mind.  Turner has no flashes of mad inspiration, nor does every word he utters ring with capital-I “importance.”  In fact, we rarely get to see his creative process at all.

Leigh uses “Mr. Turner” not to show how his subject is extraordinary, but rather the many ways in which he is ordinary.  It’s a biopic hiding inside an ensemble drama where Turner happens to have the most screen time.  Timothy Spall, a consummate character actor perhaps best known for his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, certainly makes the most of the attention given his grimacing genius Turner.  It’s a physically committed, emotionally potent performance that gives him a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 4

1 09 2014

9:30 A.M.: Nothing says “Happy Monday morning!” quite like a film on genocide in Indonesia!  Time for Josh Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing.”

11:40 A.M.: Well. That was heavy. Need something to cheer me up ASAP. Found “The Look of Silence” a more appropriate, solemn look at the massacre than “The Act of Killing.”

11:55 P.M.: Werner Herzog might have just cut me in line for lunch.

Sophie Barthes and Ramin Bahrani

Sophie Barthes and Ramin Bahrani

3:30 P.M.: After a nice Q&A with Oppenheimer, I dashed across Telluride on my bike to make the 3:30 showing of “The Imitation Game.” I’m going to be panting for the next 30 minutes, but it’s going to be totally worth it!

6:05 P.M.: Just got back in line at the same theater, now to see “Rosewater” (Jon Stewart’s directorial debut).

8:35 P.M.: And now it’s time for my final film at the festival, “Wild” (starring Reese Witherspoon!). I only got halfway through the book before coming here, so that’s going to be interesting watching the movie.

Also, “The Imitation Game” was solidly good, and “Rosewater” was a nice film if not particularly great.

12:59 A.M.:  Well, folks, that’s my first Telluride Film Festival in the books!  Closed out on a good note with “Wild,” which was a very pleasant surprise.  Depending on how you want to count, I saw roughly 15 films in 4 days.  So a lot of reviewing will be coming up in the next few days!

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