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Column Fri Dec 12 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Imitation Game, Top Five, The Two Faces of January & Point and Shoot

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Let's at least all agree that if there is one director working today who, in theory, could handle the scope and significance of the story of Moses leading 400,000 Jewish slaves out of Egypt, it's Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down). But Scott is still something of a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and we know that nothing is a sure thing in his usually capable hands. Which brings us to that Moses story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which casts Moses (played rather dispassionately by Christian Bale) in the dual role as both the favored (albeit adopted) son of the Pharoah Seti (John Turturro) and the outcast brother of the Pharoah's rightful heir, Rhamses (Joel Edgerton).

Unlike last year's biblical epic from Darren Aronofsky, Noah, which embraced some of the mysticism and Godly wonders of its story, Scott has chosen to set his story in the realm of the explainable. For example, we get a detailed account of how nearly all of the deadly plagues might have been freaks of nature; the screenplay brings up some interesting possibilities, but can't quite explain away all of the nasty doings (the death of all Egyptian first borns is the most sinister). Scott also leaves open the possibility that Moses was delusional in his conversations with God (personified in Exodus by an angry young boy). We see the boy, but when Aaron Paul's Joshua observes Moses chatting up God, he doesn't see the boy.

These are Exodus' most interesting scenes, and poised alongside some jaw-dropping visual effects — especially the Red Sea sequence — and you have a film that works at times, but only when it's the furthest from its religious roots. The rest of the film is little more than connect-the-dots storytelling, going through the story of Moses with little to no enthusiasm for the material. Edgerton especially is just laughably awful as Rhamses, a predictably jealous brother who was told years earlier that Moses would save his life and then go on to become a leader — something Rhamses didn't take a liking to. Egged on by his spiteful mother (an utterly ill-used Sigourney Weaver), Rhamses banishes Moses after his true heritage is discovered, and he ends up wandering the desert alone and into the hands of a distant Jewish tribe that includes his wife-to-be Séfora (María Valverde). Not surprisingly, Ben Kingsley is on hand as an elder Jewish leader who fills in many of the missing details in Moses' past and sets him on a path to becoming the savior to hundreds of thousands.

Scott chooses to paint his Moses story with a broad brush using wide strokes. The only times he seems to care about the details are when special effects are involved, and as I said, they are across-the-board impressive. There's a chariot chase across a narrow, dangerous stretch of mountain-side road; the plague of locusts is particularly nasty, as are the piles of raining and swarming frogs. In the end, Exodus amounts to little more than the movie spectacles of old, but at least Charlton Heston displayed an immense amount of personality and character. Bale isn't bad as Moses, but at the same time, his heart doesn't seem in it. In his defense, I suppose a case could be made that he is going for a more contemplative Moses, who is fully aware of the massive cost if he fails to free his people, but does he have to be so boring taking on the weight of his corner of the world?

My first thought after watching Exodus was, I can't remember the last time I watched so many people try so hard to entertain me with such mediocre results. Scott seems intent on doing the very most to beef up a dreadfully dull screenplay, and it just ends up resulting in a whole lot of hot air and posturing. Not a single actor really stands out as doing great work here, which might be the greatest reason not to bother seeing this film that somehow manages to be both bloated and flaccid. I'm sure you can find better ways of honoring your gods and/or kings than going to see Exodus.

The Imitation Game

Over the last couple of years, the name Alan Turing has finally begun the process of taking its place among the world's great thinkers and problem solvers. The work he did in breaking the German Enigma code was key to ending the World War II years before it would have otherwise (and likely with very different results), but the project and his role in it was kept top secret for 50 years after the war for national security purposes. But not long after WWII, Turing was arrested for being a homosexual and was punished by agreeing to be chemically castrated to kill his sex drive. His conviction made headlines, while his role as a national hero was kept quiet for decades.

But lately, thanks to books like that by Andrew Hodges, and a made-for-British-TV film starring Derek Jacobi several years ago, and now the new film The Imitation Game (adapted partly from Hodges' book by Graham Moore, and directed by Morten Tyldum, who helmed Headhunters), Turing's name can be more properly shouted from the collective rooftops, both for his role in Enigma and his building of what would eventually turn into the modern computer.

Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock," The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness) plays Turing not just as a collection of twitches, stutters and quirky behaviors. In fact, he plays him as a man whose entire life is a collection of secrets, both personal and professional. Imagine trying to become friends with someone new if so much of your life was off limits for discussion, even among your co-workers who are also working on this top secret project. Turing did find a close confidante in Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the team's sole female member, who was so drawn to Turing and grateful for him bringing her onto the project that she agreed to become engaged to him, knowing he was gay. Knightley has never been better as a fairly progressive woman fighting both against the Nazis on one front and military sexism on the other.

The Imitation Game is actually three interwoven stories, which combine to form a fairly comprehensive portrait of Turing at the best and worst moments of his life. We see him as an outcast school boy who meets and then loses his first love. We also see him during a police interview shortly after being arrested for "lewd acts" and telling his story to a detective played by the great British actor Rory Kinnear. The more we learn about Turing, the more complex and complicated he becomes to us, but Cumberbatch injects the precise amount of humanity into this man of technology to make us feel the utmost compassion for his situation as both a misunderstood thinker and a gay man in a time when such a thing was not just looked down upon, but illegal.

The impressive and lively supporting cast includes Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard, all of whom are magnificent as various members of the group responsible for both breaking Enigma and making sure it gets used in a way that doesn't alert the Germans that it has been broken. Director Tyldum keeps the pace moving but allows us time to absorb the complexities of the work being done and Turing's theories on artificial intelligence — many of which are still in play today. The Imitation Game is an eye-opening history lesson, a wonderfully constructed spy story, and a beautifully realized dramatic experience, making it one of the year's best offerings. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Top Five

Chris Rock's film career has been frustrating to say the least, especially since he's among the single greatest stand-up comedians of his or any generation. His only previous feature directing outing, I Think I Love My Wife, was only moderately interesting, with a handful of astute observations amid a fog of silliness. His Good Hair documentary was one of the more intriguing and captivating films about a specific aspect of the modern black female experience I've seen. But it isn't until his new work as writier-director-star, Top Five, that Rock reveals himself as a cinematic commentator on pop culture and misguided celebrity worship.

One thing you may not notice right away in Rock's story of the mildly fictionalized life of comedian-turned-actor Andre Allen is what's going on the background of his life at all times. Rock's Allen was one of the funniest stand-ups in existence, and naturally he turned that success into a series of wildly popular films about a character called "Hammy," a bear who fights crime with the police. Now Rock doesn't have a character like Hammy in his repertoire, nor does he have a successful franchise to speak of (unless you count the Madagascar films), but as a result of Allen's immense popularity, everywhere he goes, we hear the familiar cry of "Hey, Hammy!" I don't think we ever see a person say it directly to his face, but it's a constant chirping chorus anytime he's out in public, and it speaks to a desire we have as people to be seen and acknowledged by those more famous than us.

Top Five follows a day in the life of Allen on both the eve of his wedding to a reality-show star (Gabrielle Union), who is making every decision about their big day based on what looks best on camera, and the release date of his first big dramatic film about a Haitian slave rebellion, in which thousands of white people are killed. He has reluctantly agreed to allow a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) to shadow him through a day of promotional events (including a keenly observed press junket with idiot junketeers) and wedding-related stops, including a celebrity-enhanced bachelor party at a strip club — arranged by his bride-to-be, of course.

Some of the most interesting and revealing moments come when Andre visits his family and old friends, who offer up some of the film's funniest insights into Allen's early years. There are a few candid moments when he reveals to the reporter about his darkest years involving booze, drugs and too many women, but those scenes aren't nearly as interesting or amusing as the scenes with family (I want to give the characters played by Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones their own movie), other comedians, his driver/close advisor (J.B. Smoove), or doing the often-degrading celebrity promotional circuit. The moments that ring true are consistently the finest in Top Five, and also seem the easiest to act for Rock.

The film is not often a full-on romp; it's a measured, carefully worded and expertly executed work, with a few missteps in the pacing and interest level of some of the characters. But Rock keeps things rolling, insightful and funny with enough consistency that it makes me genuinely curious what he's got next as a filmmaker as well as a performer. Top Five gets its title from a game that Rock and his loved ones engage in, in which they list their favorite hip-hop artists. The lists are a diverse and revealing about the personalities of the characters as any other identifying feature given to us in the dialogue, and it's a testament to the strength of Rock's writing (which still has room to grow, for sure) that he includes these lists, knowing what it will tell us about these great characters. Top Five is a genuine, grown-up treat — with a few flaws, sure, but the laughs are big and come from a knowing, wise place.

The Two Faces of January

I'm genuinely confused as to why this strange, hypnotic little love triangle/mystery tale is barely getting released in this country, but it would be a real shame if you weren't given a shot at checking it out before the year is over, if only as a reminder of how strong and versatile and actor Viggo Mortensen can be. The Two Faces of January concerns Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American hustler/tour guide who is giving tours of the Acropolis, where he runs into a middle-aged businessman, Chester (Mortensen), and his younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Both parties seem to have more than a few secrets, but during the course of their tour, they strike up a friendship, share a few meals, and eventually get pulled into a homicide that requires all of them to work together to get out of by traveling together and risking shifting the balance of power among them.

The film marks the directing debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove, 47 Ronin) who adapted the novel by Patricia Highsmith (who wrote the series of books about Tom Ripley, including The Talented Mr. Ripley), and his job is made slightly easier by having such stunning locations (Athens, Crete, Istanbul). But he finds interesting visual ways to show us the world behind and beneath the tourist traps, where criminal elements lurk for those seeking to remain unseen and anonymous.

As with the Ripley stories, The Two Faces of January is about uneasy relationships and how the nature of friendship and attraction is fluid to the point of being unsteady and dangerous. There's an almost uncontrollable attraction between Rydal and Colette, and while Chester suspects, he doesn't seem to mind much when he's sober. But he goes on a couple of drunken benders while they are fleeing a possible murder charge, and his words reveal an insecurity about the strength of his marriage that is both pathetic and scary. These are some of Mortensen's finest moments in the film, and the way he transitions from collected to dangerous is impressive.

A lot of attention is going to be paid to Oscar Isaac (and rightfully so) for his performance in the upcoming A Most Violent Year from writer-director J.C. Chandor, but I think if you examine the two roles side by side, you get a good sense of Isaac's impressive range as an actor, following his career-altering turn in last year's Inside Llewyn Davis. I find myself truly eager to see what he's got next on his slate (which includes a turn in the new Star Wars. film and an HBO mini-series from the creator of "The Wire"). In Two Faces, he is also required to move effortlessly from confident huckster to seductive leading man to nervous wreck. It's a complicated character requiring an actor of some skill to pull it off, and Isaac does so beautifully. The entire movie is a bizarre but captivating piece that I hope you get a chance to see, and is well worth seeking out to make that happen. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Point and Shoot

This is one of those rare documentaries that had a central character that is either going to completely captivate or irritate the hell out of you. Usually such divisive characters are reserved for the fiction film arena, but director Marshall Curry (Street Fight, If A Tree Falls) was lucky enough to discover the OCD-suffering wannabe adventurer Matt VanDyke, who decided in 2006, when he was 26 years old, to embark on what he deemed a crash course in manhood by buying a motorcycle he could barely ride, strapping a video camera to it and touring Northern Africa and the Middle East for three years.

The resulting film assemblage, Point and Shoot, is a fascinating portrait of OCD, a condition that apparently counts among its symptoms fixating on the hurtful assessment of self by outside people. For example, When Matt's girlfriend comments on his manhood when it comes to some of his irrational fears, he reacts by feeling the overwhelming need to head out on this 35,000-mile journey that eventually lands him in Libya illegally. Once there, he strikes up friendships with a group of locals, including a "hippie" who becomes one of Matt's closest friends (I believe it is sometimes around this point in his story — when he's traveling through Iraq and Afghanistan — that Matt adopts the more heroic alter-ego Max Hunter; in case you needed another reason to find him obnoxious.)

Eventually Matt returns home, but when he starts to hear reports of his many Libyan friends taking up arms against dictator Gaddafi during the Arab Spring, he decides without much thought or discussion with his girlfriend that he needs to go back and fight by their side (and with his constant companion, his camera). It wasn't long before Matt was captured by Gaddafi's troops and thrown in solitary confinement for about six months, during which time he actually had audio hallucinations about his rescue.

As reckless and thoughtless as VanDyke's actions might have been, the resulting footage and his recollections of that period in his life are undeniably gripping and result in a great film. He doesn't make excuses for his actions, but he doesn't apologize for them either. He simply saw that his friends were in trouble and decided to run back to the Middle East to help them. He readily admits that time he spent in the company of U.S. servicemen made him feel the most like the kind of adventurer he'd always wanted to be. But in the end, he became a celebrated freedom fighter who was among those who marched into Gaddafi's hometown and took it over with bullets flying over his head with alarming regularity.

If you've ever been taken over by thoughts of wishing your life was something more interesting than what it is, then perhaps Point and Shoot will speak to you. I think in the case of Matt VanDyke, it's more important to understand him than to necessarily like or agree with his motivations. He's a simple man who wants to appear complicated, a guy who dreamed of himself being heroic and then approximated being a hero. You admire him for reaching for his goals, and shake you head in disbelief at his insensitivity toward those he left behind. Matt's is a layered, complex story, and director Curry has done it a great deal of justice in the telling. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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