This week, we’ve got a little bit of everything–some sci-fi what-the-whatery, a thriller about one of the men who both won World War II and invented the computer, and another western from Europe that starred the amazing Lee Van Cleef, a favorite of mine. Plus, there’s HBO comedies and other such meshugas for good measure. Enjoy, won’t you?
Man’s ability to dream and desire to explore has long been one of our defining features and what’s helped make our species, for better or worse, the dominant one on Earth, allowing for travel far beyond what was possible only 100 years ago. However, there is an argument to be made (a valid one) that we’ve stopped looking outward to the stars and the possibility of what lies beyond, and are now entirely too focused on the pettiness of looking down. Though it hasn’t much in recent memory, science fiction can show us a better future or at least a desire to create one. Christopher Nolan addresses this and a whole lot of other things in his film Interstellar, a throwback to the space exploration films of the 1960s, now using state-of-the-art special effects and IMAX camera technology. It’s refreshing to see an old-style sci-fi film. However, on a story level, Nolan’s reach may have exceeded his grasp, and probably the audience’s too.
Clearly influenced (almost ridiculously so) by Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is a lofty idea for a film, focusing on mankind’s final efforts to reach a new habitable planet whilst rapid deforestation, debilitating dust storms, and a dwindling supply of food make continued life on Earth a finite prospect. It’s also the only film I can think of that focuses so extensively on the Theory of Relativity as it pertains to time near black holes. It shows us a completely fictionalized and ultimately schmaltzy account of what could happen to a person inside a black hole. The science toward the end doesn’t make any sense, or at least not by what we currently know about science, although it tries to explain it all with the Nolan Brothers’ trademark technobabble and potted philosophical nonsense.
While the visuals, sound design, and score are certainly a treat, I think the movie truly suffers from a needlessly complex and new-agey plot when a simple story space exploration and time dilation would have worked just fine. And evidently, Christopher Nolan changed a lot of his brother’s original ending to give it this whackadoo thing.
The Imitation Game
Easily one of the most important figures of the 20th Century is British mathematician, scientist, engineer, code-breaker, spy, war hero, pariah, and footnote Alan Turing. For years, his accomplishments had been tempered or downplayed because of the secrets he was forced to keep, both because of his work in the war effort and his private life for which he was ultimately, barbarically punished. Luckily, his story has been coming out little by little and his “crimes,” which weren’t really crimes to begin with, were posthumously pardoned by the Queen herself. The film about this period of Turing’s life came out last year and was one of the year’s best reviewed. The Imitation Game is part biopic, part thriller, part tragedy and Benedict Cumberbatch got himself an Oscar nomination for it.
What I truly liked most about this movie, which definitely had its forays into dramatic plot conveniences for the sake of moving the plot along quicker, was how it was able to make a guy trying to build a giant machine intensely exciting, especially each time the clock struck and the codes they’d worked so hard to break were again useless. They do an excellent job of driving home the sheer outsidery-ness of Turing, from the fact that he can’t pick up on social cues, is openly, obliviously derisory of his colleagues, and refuses (or is unable) to explain what it is he’s doing most of the time so that people can accept what’s happening. He’s not a likable hero, but he is a very effective one, if people will just let him do that. He eventually does make friends, but even then there are secrets being kept between them, not least of which being his homosexuality, which was considered a crime in the ’40s, and his platonic mental sparring matches with his girlfriend, played wonderfully by Keira Knightley.
The direction by Morten Tyldum is really subtly brilliant and the supporting cast, including Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and Matthew Goode, are all pretty perfect in their respective duties. This is a really good movie and easily made my top 10 of 2014.
Day of Anger
It’s certainly no secret if you read this website and see my name that I’m a fan of both Lee Van Cleef and the Spaghetti Westerns starring him (my favorite movie of all time is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) so when UK-based Arrow Films, which just began putting out their stellar Blu-rays here in this country, announced they’d be releasing a Van Cleef western I hadn’t seen –only heard of — I was mondo excited. Day of Anger, also known as Gunlaw and Days of Wrath for some stupid reason, was made in 1967 and was one of the dozen or so Van Cleef made following the success he found with Sergio Leone. In a lot of these westerns, he was still a bad guy, having previously played “The Bad,” after all, but in others he was the no-nonsense hero. In others still, as in this case, he was somewhere in between, which is always much more interesting.
Directed by Tonino Valerii, Day of Anger follows a young man named Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma) who is basically the town whipping boy. His mother was a prostitute and he never knew his father, and so everyone treats him horribly except his kindly older caretaker. He does grunt work for the bigshots in town and can’t drink in the saloon because he’s of such lower class. One day, a mysterious and clearly deadly man named Frank Talby comes into town looking for someone. He sees how the townsfolk treat Scott and decides he’s gonna treat the kid properly and have a drink with him in public, just to piss people off mostly. After Frank leaves, Scott is run out of town for his sudden uppity attitude and he chases after Frank to learn the ways of the gunfighter, which Frank obliges in a series of lessons that prove what a ruthless SOB Frank truly is. With Frank as his mentor, Scott soon has much more self-confidence and skill with a pistol than he ever thought he would, but when the two return to the town and Frank basically takes over, Scott sees what kind of man his mentor truly is.
Really fun and enjoyable flick, with a fantastic score by Riz Ortolani, a bit of which you probably heard in Django Unchained.
Silicon Valley Season One – The first and impressively great season of Mike Judge’s tech startup comedy.
Veep Season 3 – Armando Iannucci’s genius knows no bounds in a season that has the Vice President running for the top office.
Wild – Reese Witherspoon got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman going on a very long hike.
Outcast – Someone decided it was a good idea to make an action movie set in feudal Japan starring Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen.
Harlock: Space Pirate – A surprisingly awesome CG animated action flick based on the very popular space opera anime from the ’70s and ’80s.