Thursday, 29 January 2015

Films: aren't they for enjoyment?

What I don’t like about most film reviewers is that they seem to emphasise originality above all other qualities. This means that they tend to value only those shows that have broken with tradition by doing something utterly different, like abandon plot, character or coherence. Sadly, in my view that means they end up doing something tediously the same: bore me to tears.

I cling to the outdated and banal notion that the cinema ought to be fun.

At the moment there seems to be a bit of fixation in Hollywood with to biopics about unusual and outstanding scientists.

That’s produced two highly entertaining films marked by some fine performances. I find Alan Turing exceptionally interesting. My admiration isn’t limited to his role in breaking the Germans’ Enigma code in World War 2, but is based at least as much on the thinking that prepared him for that work, and which he took further through it, on what has come to be known as the “Turing Machine.” That theoretical model of a fully automated, mechanical process underlies all modern computing.

And then there’s the bitter tragedy of his life. Hounded to his death by the police in a Britain that still had laws against homosexuality, to which it sacrificed one of its most original thinkers.
Turing with the boys of Hut 8.
One of whom happened to be a woman
A film has to limit its scope, and the biopic of Turing, The Imitation Game, focuses on the battle against Enigma and on the persecution of the homosexual, and does both things well. That produces a fine and highly watchable film, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, well supported by Keira Knightley. Its narrow focus does mean, on the other hand, that a great deal about this unusual man is left. Curiously, though, that very fact did spur me to tackle the biography, by Andrew Hodges, on which the film is based. Alan Turing: the Enigma gives a far more complete picture (well, yes, it’s a long book). It also explains where the phrase “the imitation game” comes from: Hodges uses it to describe Turing’s striving in the 1930s to appear to be someone he wasn’t.

The Theory of Everything does something slightly odd in the genre, by telling the story of a living scientist, in this instance Stephen Hawking. The performance of Eddie Redmayne in the lead role is outstanding; he contorts his face to try to look like someone suffering from Motor Neurone Disease to the point where at times I wondered how he could keep acting. And at other times whether I was really looking at Hawking.

Stephen and Jane.
In the short time before the MND struck
The film is based on the autobiography of Jane Hawking (brought to life by Felicity Jones), and tells the story of their life together from falling in love while Hawking was a postgraduate, to their divorce but continuing affection. It’s entertaining and well told. A good way to spend a couple of hours.

The French playwright Jean Giraudoux called one of his plays Amphytrion 38, on the grounds that he could count 37 previous treatments of the Greek myth of Amphytrion. On that basis, Ex Machina could probably be referred to as Pygmalion 99, though 99 may be a low estimate.

You know the story: a man (yes, it’s always a man), somehow fashions a woman (and, yes, she’s never particularly hard on the eyes). Then he falls in love with her and finds that she doesn’t entirely reciprocate his feelings, if she reciprocates them at all.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
making it clear you play at being a god at  your own peril
Ex Machina introduces some good twists and turns into that basic structure, and moves it into contemporary times – we’re talking Artificial Intelligence, curiously a notion dear to Alan Turning – rather than a statue into which a god breathes life. It also has an ingenious ending, which it approaches by sustained creepiness throughout, and all in a glorious setting.

And then finally there’s the film which even I have to admit is probably pretty rubbish, but which I enjoyed all the same. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I like sports films (as I like thrillers and court room dramas – all I have to see is police milling around with forensics experts in white suits, or lawyers going at each other hammer and tongs, to want to see more). 

Now most sports films follow one tried and tested formula: team doing appalling badly after suicide of star player/gaoling of manager/ghastly accident killing half the players (delete as applicable); new dynamic manager/fading star breaking from alcoholism/young player ignored by agents due to poor physique (delete as applicable) joins and the victories start to pile up; after a suspense-laden semi-final won in the last gasp of match time, the team qualifies for the final of the prestigious knock-out championship; in that final, against the favoured team of the year, it either wins in a nail-bitingly close encounter despite attempts to cheat by the opposing side, or is beaten in a nail-bitingly close encounter from which it emerges head held high and with honour resplendent.

Kevin Costner being thoughtful in Draft Day,
a film that requires little thought
Draft Day is nothing like that. First of all, it takes place within the space of less than a single day, thus preserving the classical unity of time (which, as I’ve said before, I rather like). If, like me, you know nothing about the process by which American football teams draft players from the College game, the film will teach you some quite intriguing lessons: it’s redolent of a slave market, which considering most of the players are black, is particularly poignant. I might add that I had a small and politically entirely incorrect smile when one black player announced “I’m going to be a Brown” (he was joining the Cleveland Browns), but I suspect that wasn’t an intentional joke.

What gives the film its entertainment value is the negotiating process in which the leading character, played by Kevin Costner, trades with other team managers the right to make different picks among the players on offer, in order to maximise what he sees as the benefit for his own club.

It’s a decidedly second – well, probably tenth – rate film, but I enjoyed it.

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