Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Benedict Cumberbatch cracks the code in The Imitation Game.

««1/2 The Imitation Game. Written by Graham Moore, based on the book by Andrew Hodges. Directed by Morten Tyldum. At selected theaters.

The appearance of high-gloss bio-pics about scientists is the best evidence yet of the peaking cultural cachet of nerdiness. Along with the Stephen Hawking story in The Theory of Everything, we now have The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum's account of the brilliant, sad career of British mathematician Alan Turing.
          The "human interest" hook with Hawking is his lifelong struggle with the disease that has left him a prisoner in his own body. Turing led the team that broke Nazi Germany's Enigma code—a key step in assuring Allied victory in World War II; he also laid much of the theoretical groundwork for modern computer science. But he was a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. His punishment for "indecency" is widely supposed (but never proven) to be the reason he committed suicide in 1952. That outrageous contrast—the genius and war hero unjustly persecuted merely for whom he loves—has made Turing a secular saint in these times.
          From a certain point of view, whether Hawking is crippled or Turing a victim of homophobia shouldn't really figure in our interest in them. Turing's work for British intelligence is said to have shortened the war by two full years and saved 14 million lives. Hawking has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the universe. In a better kind of world, such towering intellectual achievements would alone be enough to make these men fascinating. But we don't live in that world, and the story of saving 14 million lives isn't necessarily worth telling without the subsequent, tawdry downfall. Nerdiness may be cool, but ideas still aren't.
          The irascible Hawking would no doubt tell us where to stick our "human interest" for his plight—he prefers to be remembered for his science, not for being a disabled scientist. No doubt Turing would also object to going down in history as "that mopey gay codebreaker."
          The Imitation Game is a well-crafted work of reverential biography that takes absolutely no chances with Turing's complex legacy. The script by Graham Moore presents him as the usual genius with precious few social skills, alienating everyone around him as he almost single-handedly drags Britain to victory. Benedict Cumberbatch—who seems to be everywhere these days—is poignant and convincing in the lead. While Keira Knightley seems to be here purely as evidence of Turing's orientation (as in "anybody not interested in her must truly be gay"), she's also fresh in a way none of the other actors (Matthew Goode, Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) manage.
          Unfortunately, everything about The Imitation Game seems tailored not to upset anyone. Turing's identity as a gay man is invested entirely in a chaste schoolboy crush he had on a fellow student—an experience he likely had in common with a good number of not-so-gay English males at the time. Tyldum never risks rattling the teacups by presenting the adult Turing in the act of being intimate with an adult man. In that sense, the movie seems every bit as uneasy with homosexuality as the benighted era it depicts.
          For American audiences, there should be an extra level of ambivalence attached to Turing's career. After his team cracked the Enigma code, the British government didn't trust their American allies to keep that fact secret. Turing was obliged to lie to his US counterparts, keeping them in the dark about technology that might have saved thousands of American lives. Of course, when there are American Oscars to win, Tyldum dares not touch any of that.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Blitzkrieg on Stupitude

Man on a roll in The Colbert Report.

««««« The Colbert Report. Monday thru Thursdays at 11:30pm on Comedy Central. Ends December 18.

The most important cultural event this month not involving Benedict Cumberbatch is the finale of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. Since its debut in 2005, the show has arguably outdone its parent, The Daily Show, as the benchmark in late night fake news. Colbert (who, unlike his TV incarnation, pronounces the "t" in his last name) will air his last show on December 18, before taking over Late Night on CBS next year.
          For those very late to this party, Colbert's show is an impeccable parody of Fox blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. His alter-ego "Stephen Cobert" is one of those gut-level patriots who is proud to think with his red, white and blue balls instead of—you know—that gray and white stuff between his ears. Where Jon Stewart's main mode is self-deprecation, Colbert's character revels in the perfection of his ignorance. His interviews with guests are couched as ambushes by the forces of righteousness, predicated on "nailing" people—which he loudly celebrates whether he has accomplished it or not. And it's all been done on a consistently high level for more than 1340 episodes.
          The comparison with Stewart is key to appreciating how great the Report has become in its nine years. Though The Daily Show gets credit for epitomizing a broader trend toward satirical news, it is not, strictly speaking, satirical. Stewart's sharp, funny, and quite often true commentary is always delivered from a distance. That distance might be moralizing, or exhortatory, or just plain mean, but it is always there. What Stewart does is best described as clever snark, not satire.
          The only truly satirical material in The Daily Show are the reports from its staff of fake "correspondents", who impersonate the self-importance and showmanship of network field reporters. Colbert (along with Steve Carell, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and many more over the years) came out this fine tradition, and has arguably raised it to true art.
          Make no mistake—I'm a fan of Stewart. Fact is, though, you can see the range of his comic repertoire in about a week. By contrast, it's taken almost a decade just to sample Colbert's full menu. Within a single episode, he'll veer from deep-fried pomposity to vacillating schoolboy to weepy narcissist. He'll pour scorn on bears, shake his fist at Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, put the British Empire "on notice". Where Stewart plays the comedic equivalent of a kazoo, Colbert works with a full symphony orchestra.
          The end of the Report will leave a big hole in our weeknights. So big, in fact, that it's hard to believe some version of "Stephen Colbert" won't make regular appearances on the new Late Night. We'll find out next year.
          The real legacy of late-night satire won't be told in 2015, but during the next Presidential election, and the one after that. On the plus side, Stewart and Colbert continue to be wildly popular among younger viewers (and a quite a few older ones too), and their shows have become major sources of news for whole segments of the voting population. Viewers who watched Colbert's comedic take on campaign finance laws were shown to be objectively better informed on that critical issue than viewers of Fox, CNN or any other major outlet.  A 2007 study found regular viewers of Stewart's and Colbert's show to be better informed on all issues than viewers of the PBS Newshour (surprising) and Bill O'Reilly (not surprising).
          Trouble is, none of this is necessarily translating into greater voter involvement. Both Comedy Central shows extensively covered the 2014 midterms, but turnout was dismal, the worst in 72 years. So the question becomes: is making the news funny an incentive to participate in the political process—or a substitute for it?
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Unbearable whiteness in Force Majeure.

«««« Force Majeure. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. In English and Swedish. At selected theaters.

'Tis the season for family vacations, which at their worst make business travel feel good. The obligation to have fun—the staring at kids at tables staring at screens—the hours of extra time with people you spend your life with anyway—these are the wages of the labor of making "quality time". Not for nothing do many adults feel they need a vacation after returning from a family getaway.
          All this is usually the stuff of comedy, but Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund takes it to a very different place in his superb Force Majeure (original title: Turist—a word that needs no translation from the Swedish). At a posh ski resort in the French Alps, father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and the kids (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) hit the slopes for some determined memory-making—but something is off. The dynamic in the family feels stitled, brittle, and not just because of its Nordic reserve.
          The problem is brought to a head when, from a restaurant balcony, they witness an avalanche crash down the mountain, almost reaching the hotel. Alas, "almost" is too close for Tomas, who grabs his iPhone and runs away, making no effort to save his wife or kids. When the snow stops swirling, he returns to finish his lunch. But Ebba and the kids definitely noticed his quick exit.
          All this happens very early in Östlund's film, leaving much time for the impact of this abandonment to sink in. Tomas denies it at first, attempting some pettifoggery about respecting "different points of view" on what happened. But Ebba is hard in her way, and doesn't let him wriggle off the hook.
          Östlund is a deliberate storyteller, and a sly one. He's at his best in those awkward moments before anything is said, but everything is already told. By any conventional standard his scenes go on too long, until they seem to cut deeper than they ever promised at the start. He wrings a searing performance from Kuhnke, as a man stripped not only of his values but his manhood. Kongsli gives a likewise brilliant, paradoxical turn as a compassionate wife and mother who is also forced into the role of relentless Fury.
          Östlund is an exponent of precise creation of visual environments in post-production. Here, his visual rigor extends to very décor of the resort, which affects that bland kind of euro-modernism that promises nothing and nourishes less. Like Kubrick's creepy Overlook Hotel in The Shining, its spirit is personified by the help—in this case an impassive custodian who smokes and stares and, it seems, passes judgment.
          Like the avalanche, the unraveling of this family is easy to see coming—until it goes to an almost overwhelming extreme, and you want to grab your phone and run away. But nobody left the theater the day I saw it.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro