The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

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Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

Park Row (1952)

Park_Row_FilmPoster.jpegIt’s no secret that Sam Fuller cut his teeth in the journalism trade at the ripe young age of 18 (give or take a year) and so Park Row is not just another delicious B picture from one of the best, it’s a passion project memorializing the trade that he revered so dearly.

It’s also his typical style of economical filmmaking, shot in only two weeks and clocking in at just over 80 minutes and also funded on his own dime. To show just how much this movie meant to him he wrote, directed, and produced it. It was, of course, a monumental flop at the box office (despite an opening at Grauman’s Chinese). Still, that type of result could never quell a maverick like Fuller always prone to be a bit of a loose cannon who nevertheless perennially released a string of enduringly interesting projects. Consider a lineup of pictures including Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, and Pickup on South Street from 1951 to 1953 and you get the idea.

In some ways, Park Row seems like an invariably different film than its compatriots, very unlike Fuller, and yet it still gives off glimpses of Fuller’s style and sentiments.

The year is 1886. An industry has been developed and honed out of the invention and tradition of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. The names of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer are as good as gold and the hub of that honorable profession, known to the masses as journalism, is based in Park Row.

Phineas Mitchell portrayed by Gene Evans–Fuller’s favorite brawny everyman–is a reporter at The Star, the publication that has a bit of a monopoly run by the icy empress Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). As he badmouths the very same newspaper at the local watering hole, he subsequently finds himself relieved of his position along with a couple of his colleagues.

But together, with the help of an eager benefactor they set out to craft their own newspaper. As envisioned by Mitchell, The Globe will be a paper for the people, devoted to honest to goodness journalism beholden to the facts. And in the subsequent days they take an abandoned office space, build a ragtag team, fix up a printing press, and scrounge around for any type of paper they can get their hands on. What they lack in resources they make up for with grit and determination. Because they have something Charity never had–verve and ingenuity. It sets their little paper apart and the public takes note.

Thus, the film’s entire narrative captures the ensuing journalistic feud between the established paper The Star and their rising rival The Globe. The main conflict coming from the very fact that their business models and mission statements are diametrically opposed.

Led by Mitchell, The Globe finds compelling cover stories to reel in the public. First, it’s a rallying cry for a man sent to prison for illegally jumping 120 stories off the Brooklyn Bridge and living to tell about it. They become his voice, interceding on his behalf and people listen. Next, it’s a public fund to help pay for the base of The Statue of Liberty–that symbol of goodwill, friendship, and ultimately, American liberty and idealism. Every member of the community, no matter the contribution, gets their name printed in the paper out of gratitude.

Still, Ms. Hackett is not about to be outplayed and while she admires her competitor’s tenacity, she is ready to resort to any means necessary to sink them for good. She tries all number of tactics, some more destructive than she ever anticipated. And while she might not be the most virtuous individual she’s hardly a killer. Mitchell hates her guts, rightfully so but that’s not how she wants to be known. There’s some nuance in their relationship, in fact, there’s a great deal of appeal to many of these relationships because they’re brimming with life.

Some noticeable hallmarks of Park Row include Sam Fuller’s typically dynamic camera that moves rapidly into close-ups and tracking shots gliding down the long avenues of Park Row with its horse-drawn carriages, train tracks, and the general hubbub of humanity. There are the accustomary fistfights and explosions, but the film stands out among Fuller’s other narratives for its championing of virtue, honor, and integrity especially in relation to a profession like journalism. It would have been so easy for this to be another expose of lurid sleaze and corruption and yet it’s surprisingly laudatory to the very end.

3.5/5 Stars

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)It might sound like meager praise but Wonder Woman is the most engrossing DC offering thus far. It also seems almost unfair to compare across the aisle against main rival Marvel with its terribly lucrative cottage industry or for the very fact that any comparison might suggest how derivative this feature must be.

Yes, Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman cannot hold a candle to most of their competition and Suicide Squad was an atrocious misfire. But this is a film that stands on its own two feet — on the feet of its director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and its heroine Gal Gadot.

Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is ripe for praise and adulation on multiple fronts.  Its closest equivalent would be Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with its period setting as a stunning backdrop for a superhero narrative. In this one, Diana Prince (Gadot in her first true starring role) is joined by a ragtag band of renegades including Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his eclectic compatriots including a drunken sharpshooter, a failed actor with a penchant for linguistics, and a resourceful Native American of formidable stock. They look to sneak into the heart of enemy territory to bring a decisive end to the war (in this case WWI).

But the film also plays a bit like a fish out of water comedy. Diana is the girl born of the Amazons in antiquity and isolation living out the legacy of Greek mythology  — which consequently also seems fused with the Judeo-Christian God and the Fall depicted in Genesis.

Like Thor, she too is god-like, a being outside the realm of humans, trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) and shielded from the outside world by her mother (Connie Nielsen). Thus, when she actually enters into their world it’s ripe with humorous cultural incongruities. Casual conversation about ancient treatises on sex, sporting the latest fashions which are a bit more modest than her typical attire, learning how to dance, and getting her first taste of an ice cream cone. Each brings a smile to our faces as an audience.

Still, despite her immense skills and innumerable abilities, Diana like Agent Peggy Carter from Marvel is faced with a culture that is not ready for someone who is simultaneously beautiful, strong, independent and wholly unencumbered by normal male patriarchy.  Someone who will not be repressed, blasting through the glass ceilings and cathedral steeples for that matter.

Diana can hardly comprehend how these discrepancies exist. In her eyes secretaries are only glorified slaves and powerful men who sit together in rooms making decisions have no honor whatsoever as their men are brutally slaughtered. It’s ludicrous and it many ways she’s not wrong. We begin to empathize with her character and the problems she sees in the world — the innate desire she holds to make everything right.

Because that gets to what is really truly phenomenal about Wonder Woman. For even the mild superhero enthusiasts she is emblematic of the entire genre with everyone from Batman to Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, Hulk, and all the others. But the one thing that puts her in a class entirely her own is that she is a woman. And this is not meant to single her out but to suggest how important this film is. Lynda Carter gave a landmark performance on the television airwaves in the 1970s but this is the first time this monumental icon has made it to the big stage and it is long overdue.

As such this film becomes a fitting parable reflecting the struggles of women in a callous industry and an oft callous world. Diana becomes a champion of all those women thoroughly capable of living life with individuality, confidence, and above all love for their fellow human beings. Diana comes at life from what some narrow-minded folks might call a woman’s perspective caring deeply about the helpless and their suffering but for the rest of us, it’s a very human point of view.

However, it’s equally important to note that in an attempt to make Diana of great import does in no way relegate the other characters and Steve (Chris Pine) becomes one of the most enjoyable supporting blokes in recent memory.

Gadot and Pine play complementary roles that perfectly mesh together. They’re both brave, they’re both extraordinary, they both care deeply but it can be in different ways. Steve finds himself rescued by Diana and protected by her immense powers as he continues his espionage activities behind German lines. Still, he’s able to explain the intricacies of the world to her and lead her to realize that humanity is not as black and white as she assumed it to be. That is big. In Diana’s eyes, the whole arc of the film is like so. If she can kill Ares, war will be over and mankind will fall back into unity as Zeus had originally ascribed.

Wonder Woman supplies a final twist that while somewhat understandable from a cinematic point of view still manages to take a little of the meaning out of Diana’s realization. Since this is also a love story, that in some ways slightly salvages an ending that succumbs to the usual superhero tropes and pyrotechnics. It’s this further discovery that while Diana may not be to blame for all this chaos, humanity despite their faults is still worth fighting for. What Steve calls “truth” I would probably call “grace” and it’s semantics really but it simply suggests this idea that we do for others what they do not deserve, out of love, the highest noblest form of sacrificial love — always seeing others before yourself even those you disagree with — even when it comes at great cost. For Steve and Diana, those mean two entirely different things again as he tries to thwart the Germans nefarious intentions and she battles it out with someone with powers, not unlike her own.

Despite an admittedly clunky framing device to set up its narrative, the film does learn something from the Suicide Squad as well by focusing on origin story over a mere objective or mindless action. Wonder Woman begins to falter when it simply gets caught up in the normal rhythms of superhero films with villains, explosions, and the like.

What’s interesting are these characters, the wounds that they carry with them, their environments and how that shapes the world that they find themselves in. In this case, Gal Gadot proves to be a winsome heroine with an impeccable blend of innocent beauty, boldness, and heart that’s completely disarming. Meanwhile, Pine’s as charming as ever but let’s not forget whose film this is because we’ve waited long enough. Wonder Woman has made a triumphal return and not a moment too soon for DC.

4/5 Stars

Happy Independence Day!

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge_of_Spies_poster.jpgSteven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.

Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.

The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel  (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.

This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.

Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.

The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping  a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American  student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.

Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.

Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.

Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.

It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.

4/5 Stars

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

markofzorro1Madrid–when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing…

The mythology of Zorro most certainly starts with the swashbuckling silents of Douglas Fairbanks, but the character’s legacy would be carried forward into the 1940s. So much so that it even gave some inspiration to a young Bruce Wayne, along with numerous boys picking up comic books in his generation.

In all fairness, I don’t know a whole lot about director Rouben Mamoulian. I assumed his forte was costume dramas and stage production as he did do a lot on Broadway. And if that is true, The Mark of Zorro, while not seemingly the work of some creative mastermind, is invariably enjoyable. That is also to the credit of 1940s matinee idol and dashing leading man Tyrone Power. Although over his career and even in this film, he proves to be more than a handsome face. He seemed to hold his own up against Basil Rathbone when it came to swordplay and he danced between the superficial and heroic personas with relative ease. It brings to mind other such roles as Christopher Reeves in Superman (1978) for instance. That of course, brings up the need for an origin story.

markofzorro2In many ways, it feels anachronistic that Don Diego Vega makes the long voyage from Spain to Los Angeles California, but then in the 1800s Spain still had some presence on the West Coast. It’s there were Vega gives up his sword, rendezvous with his father and mother, while slowly taking on a second life. Zorro certainly has a wonderful double life going. By day a stuffy, foppish playboy fascinated with magic tricks and given to fatigue. Then, by night he dons the black mask and saber as “the fox” wholly prepared to rob from the oppressors and bring hope to the common man. He’s the Robin Hood of the Spanish settlements marking his territory with his iconic “Z” and simultaneously getting a bounty stuck on his head.

markofzorro3The corrupt tub of lard Luis Quintero pushed Vega’s father out of office with the help of his menacing right-hand man Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). On the surface, Don Diego plays into the older man’s hand, while at night he fools everyone including the local priest (Eugene Palette) with his masquerade.

Perhaps most importantly of all Zorro is able to romance the young ingenue Lolita Quintero by eventually letting her in on his little secret and taking down her nefarious uncle. But of course, everything must come down to some epic swordplay and heroics. Zorro and Pasquale eventually face on in an office sword fight that made me absolutely giddy with excitement. As he leads the revolt against the powers that be there is an obvious energy pulsing through the storyline. This is a pure cinematic action-adventure that glories in the age of swashbucklers.

True, we have a pair of tragic stars in Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44 and she died only a few years later at 41 years of age after a house fire. But, for the time being, they are young, vibrant, and full of life. Perfect protagonists in a film where love and justice reign supreme and heroes always conquer evil.

4/5 Stars

The Lives of Others (2006)

This is a moral tale that could only be told in the context of the GDR. A loyal member of the Stasi is given the task of bugging the home of an influential playwright and he spends countless hours listening in on The Lives of Others. In what would have been a very uncommon occurrence this loyal comrade sees another side of the nation he lives in. It is a place full of corrupt officials, double crossing girlfriends, repression, little free speech, and above all suicides.

In an act that proves detrimental to his own career and even his way of life, Wiesler caves to his emotions to do what is ultimately good and right. After the wall crumbles he and others like him seemingly fade into oblivion. However, the one man who was unknowingly saved finally learns of his savior and resolves to write his next great work. The Sonata for a Good Man. 

I think there is certainly a universal quality to this film because although it is German language and focuses on a subject that is distinctly German, the quality of the characters translates into any language because they are human. The struggle of Wiesler is the same for many of us and we can empathize with his evolution and ultimate resolve. We can only hope that people are not put in these same positions in the future and we must also constantly question our own government so they are never reach this degree.

4.5/5 Stars

The Imitation Game (2014)

09cf1-the_imitation_game_posterWhen you think of decisive moments in WWII the conversation leads often to D-Day, The Battle of Midway, The Russian Front and The Battle for the Atlantic. If Britain had been cut off from U.S. supplies the case could be made that The Allies would have undoubtedly lost the war. That’s where the Enigma cipher comes into play and along with it Alan Turing.

Alan Turing is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and in many ways the father of modern computers. He’s a big deal and it’s hard to make that point enough. That’s what makes it exciting that he finally got the biopic treatment and with a portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch no less. It does not get much better than that!

As far as biopics go The Imitation Game is a polished period piece set in War-torn Britain spanning the years of WWII into the early 1950s. Visually beautiful, scored nicely, and generally uplifting, it feels as wonderfully English as a cup of tea and the English countryside. Although the film at times may trod the typical path of other troubled-genius type films,  it often rises above the usual based-on-a-true-story fray. A primary reason for this is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Turing not with dramatic outbursts, bravado, and bluster, but quite the opposite.
In the year 1939 Turing, a professor at the time, attempted to join the top secret project at Bletchley Park to crack the German’s Enigma code. He seems like an odd candidate for the job since he has only an affinity for puzzles and no knowledge of the German language, but that proves to be unimportant.
He has the right amount of vision paired with the obsession to come at the problem like no one before him. He does not just want to crack one of the tedious strings, he wishes to crack them all using a machine. It was absolutely unheard of and his colleagues discount him, understandably, because he is not much of a team player and far from a social butterfly. However, he discovers a worthy ally in Susan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who proves to be indispensable in his work as well as repairing his rapport with the team.
With the prospect of all his work with the machine being wasted and terminated, his colleagues back him up in front of his superiors. Turing has one last chance to succeed and someway, somehow he does. But success does not come without great responsibility. Once they have the weapon to counter the Germans they must use it cautiously only taking the most necessary steps. It becomes clear that there is a fine line between playing God with human lives and winning a war.
The war is won in the end, however, and the top secret endeavor is disbanded. Alan Turing is far from a war hero because few know what he did. His only label is indecency and he is given the option of imprisonment or hormones in response to his charges of same-sex attraction. A year later he committed suicide at the age of 41.
Cumberbatch is seemingly the perfect Turing with all the quirks you would expect. Except there are also traces of sensitivity and he so adeptly shows subtle emotions on his face. He was an oft-tortured man inside and out, spanning from his boarding school years to his post-war existence. Keira Knightley on her part is enjoyable as a counterpoint, remaining true to Turing no matter the circumstances.
Obviously you can always call into question the accuracy of these types of films and no doubt artistic liberties were taken, but all in all The Imitation Game did a commendable job of painting a picture of a man’s life in a very different age. Alan Turing finally got the credit he was due, and it was done with a great deal of sensitivity, heart, and even humor which mostly overshadowed any saccharine moments.
4/5 Stars

Amadeus (1984)

bcd5e-amadeus1

A common film would content itself with developing a biopic on one of the greatest composers of all time reaching the heights of the musical field in the musical capital of the world in Vienna. A typical film might paint on a canvas paying homage to a legend who revolutionized music with his genius.

This story opens as the long-forgotten composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) attempts to kill himself. He gets laid up in a Psych ward where a man of the cloth visits him wishing to hear his story and so the old man obliges. It’s a story that makes light and lacks reverence thanks to its title character.

Salieri was a court composer of prestige and great admiration, but even he knew Mozart was the true master and the first day they met was forever ingrained in his mind. For being such a genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a jerk, to put it bluntly. Spoiled, conceited, dirty-minded and armed with a cackling laugh, he is hardly the image of a musical mastermind. How could God bless this man with such talent? How could God taunt Salieri using such a man? He makes a mockery of art and yet he is the best there ever was. Salieri must have some kind of justice.

But all that lies under the surface. Mozart is brought on by his Majesty to develop a German libretto. Salieri’s tolerance for God is lost and he turns his back, beginning his passive attack. He shames Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Beridge) and sends her off as he is looking to undermine his rival as discreetly as possible.

Mozart himself has little desire to take on pupils he deems a waste of time and instead busies himself with his most ambitious piece yet. His father comes to town and is not amused with his son’s conduct or his antics at a masquerade ball. He has none of the sensibilities of a man like Salieri, but what he does have are the talent and brilliance.

Always one to push the boundaries, Mozart’s latest piece is based on the Marriage of Figaro which was expressly forbidden by His Majesty. But due to his skill, Mozart is able to get by with bending the rules. Salieri acknowledges his genius. He knows brilliance when he sees it, but he becomes even more resolved to bring about the death of his nemesis.

After the death of his father, Mozart slowly spirals down into drunkenness and poverty. Salieri manipulates the situation even further to play on the man’s emotions and the desperate Mozart becomes mad composing a funeral requiem requested by a specter of a man. The mysterious figure is, of course, a moonlighting Salieri who no longer sees his actions as justice against Mozart but against God himself and he wants to win.

In a horrible condition, the bedridden Mozart constructs his last great piece with the help of an incredulous Salieri. But Constanze will have none of it and the manuscript remains unfinished because she distrusts Salieri. Just like that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suddenly passes away. He’s dead and Salieri can have no satisfaction, no piece of Mozart’s brilliance. God would not give him the satisfaction, resigning him to be the so-called patron saint of mediocrity. God supposedly got the last laugh.

This is a film that makes me want to revise the noted statement to “only the great die young” as the mediocre slowly fade into oblivion. Salieri faced a cruel demise of his own as Mozart instantly became solidified as a legend. That is the irony of life that is made clear no matter how accurate the facts are. Because in Amadeus, the facts are not the most important. Milos Forman gives us a spectacle that is as grand as Mozart’s greatest masterpieces. But this is perhaps, more importantly, a film about human nature. Salieri is a man so ingrained with internal desires.

He wants to play God. He wants all things to play out as he sees fit. His malevolence is focused on others. It is even focused on God. But, in reality, it reflects the pain of his own heart. Humanity has a desire for excellence to be fully actualized. That is a lofty goal and an impossible target. Because ultimately there will always be a hole left within us. It was so with Salieri

Mozart was one of the greatest and most well-known composers of a generation if not ever. He was not a good man (few are), and he met with death early. Salieri seemed moral and yet he himself was undermined by deep-seated avarice and covetousness. Despite still having life, the world was essentially dead to him. He thought God was laughing at him. Neither man won.

4.5/5 Stars

Love and Death (1975)

3e061-loveanddeath2Most every Tom, Dick and Harry has heard of the great Russian epic War and Peace. Love and Death is Woody Allen’s companion piece. It has nods to Tolstoy, Dostoevysky and channels a bit of the Marx Brothers. As one would expect, Boris aka Woody Allen comes from your typical Russian family where he is atypical in his stereotypical, bookish and misanthropic way. He was not made for 19th century Russia trading in valor and facial hair for his glasses and nihilistic philosophy. But he winds up going to war anyway watching his beloved second cousin (Diane Keaton) marry herself off to a run of the mill fishmonger.

Eventually, Boris is able to get his true love back and they are wed. It’s a union full of philosophical debates as only Woody Allen could have. But the invasion of Napoleon puts all this on hold as Sonja resolves to go and assassinate the Little Corporal. Boris hesitantly agrees to accompany her. In an ending fit for a Woody Allen film  parodying Bergman, Sonja goes through a life altering conversation while the recently executed Boris skips off with The Grim Reaper. It’s hard to beat Annie Hall but this still fairly early Allen piece has its quintessentially Woody Allen moments that are quirky and fun poke at Russian culture.

3.5/5 Stars