Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Antarctica: A Year on Ice, The Imitation Game, Viva La Liberta, Flamenco Flamenco, Once Upon a Time Veronica

Antarctica: A Year on Ice
The Imitation Game

Viva La Liberta

Flamenco Flamenco
Once Upon a Time Veronica

Quick capsules on the week's new releases:

Frozen Planet photographer Andrew Powell, for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice," focusses not on the scientists as profiled in Werner Herzog's 2007 "Encounters at the End of the World" but on the everyday workers - a firefighter and dispatcher, a cook, a retail store operator - who keep the population of 5,000 (1,000 during the winter) fed, clothed and protected. This focus has the effect of making the experience more relatable to us. I'll remember most the luminous shots of comically starry winter skies traversed by shape-shifting strands of green light; the fogginess of mind that sets in over the four months of uninterrupted darkness (a man says he once spent ten minutes trying to remember whether "S" precedes or follows "T"); and the saying among the women of Antarctica about their predominantly male compatriots: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

The more you reflect on Morten Tyldum's "The Imitation Game," the worse you realize it is. (Two stars is on the generous side.) Whereas a great movie knows its subject matter inside and out (walking out of Billy Friedkin's classic "To Live and Die in L.A.," you knew enough to get along as a counterfeiter), this biography of the crucial cryptographer and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing teaches us absolutely nothing about either field. Instead, we get laughable scenes such as one in which Turing, out for drinks at a pub, hears a secretary mention that the Nazi whose messages she's transcribing ends every note with "Heil Hitler"; his eyes light up and he suddenly proclaims, "We just won the war!" Tyldum has taken extreme license with the actual events of Turing's life, but even so…Really?

The assorted genii working under Turing include a national chess champion (humpy Matthew Goode) and Joan Clarke, a lightning-fast crossword puzzle solver (yay!) who becomes Alan's only friend and, eventually, his platonic wife. Keira Knightley strains to find depth in the role that's simply not there, much as Benedict Cumberbatch does in the lead. Turing's underlings are fleshed out even less, so that when one is revealed as a spy for the allied Russians, it's a big who cares. Worse, when the team does crack the Enigma code, they learn that the Germans are planning an imminent attack on a boat on which one member's brother just happens to be serving. He beseeches the others to warn the imperiled ship. They decline, making the grim cost-benefit analysis that sitting on their success will save more lives in the end - but as he's pleading for his brother's life, we're thinking, "And who are you again?" The performances are uniformly acceptable, but fail to bring us into privity with a movie constructed at such an emotional remove.

Turing's homosexuality - and the sad fate that befell him as a result of it - are why the movie's being released in December. (If it had opened earlier in the year, nobody would think of it as Oscar material.) Yet after an affectionate friendship with a classmate as a child (one that any gay person will relate to even though it includes no sexual element), we never see Alan look at another man with fondness, let alone lasciviousness. So when characters later tell him they'd "always had suspicions," you wonder how. If anything, his singleness of focus and brittle unsociability suggest little interest in human contact of any kind. The tawdry details of the encounter that led to his arrest, sentence of chemical castration and ultimate suicide are hinted at obliquely. Everything's hinted at obliquely, or rushed through, or muddled. You don't get the sense Tyldum or screenwriter Graham Moore know their subject well at all.

Another generous two stars for Roberto Andò's strange Italian import "Viva La Libertà," starring Toni Servillo in two roles as sinking opposition-left politician Enrico Oliveri and his twin brother Giovanni, a philosopher and author freshly hatched from the funny farm. When Enrico abruptly absconds to France weeks before a major election, his aides track down Giovanni and beg him to stand in for Enrico, praying nobody will notice. The "new and improved" Enrico captures the country's fancy with his renewed vigor, wry above-the-fray humor and speeches in the form of haikus. The movie offers a few laughs born of its harebrained premise, but the substance of Giovanni's political theory remains abstruse and the immediate turnaround in the polls strains credulity.

Carlos Saura's "Flamenco Flamenco" is billed as a documentary but consists entirely of 21 dances, each approximately five minutes in length, performed on a soundstage with exquisitely painted backdrops (by Adriano Di Ricco and Fabrizio Storaro) and shot incandescently by legendary lensman Vittorio Storaro. Even if the plaintive wail of flamenco isn't your favorite flavor of tea - and it isn't mine - this is one of the most visually beautiful movies of the year.

Marcelo Gomes' Brazilian import "Once Upon a Time Veronica," sold as a reflective character study, is instead a boring-beyond-belief washout that never takes us inside the mind of its leading lady. Veronica (Hermila Guedes) has recently graduated from medical school and begun practicing psychiatry at an overcrowded public hospital (in Gomes' native Recife). Her father, with whom she has a warm relationship, has received an unwelcome medical diagnosis. And while her boyfriend, Gustavo (João Miguel) professes his love, Veronica feels only a sexual connection to him. The movie unfolds as a series of events, and Guedes' flat, nothing performance never brings us into the interior life of a woman in whom a better filmmaker would have no trouble interesting us.

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