Three Films for the New Year

Three mediocre films this week. I’ll review them briefly so you can spend the new year not going to see them.


This is a documentary about Edward Snowden and the efforts he made in order to make the world aware of the clandestine intelligence and surveillance activities of the United States government.

His motives appear to be sincere and he comes off as a determined patriot. But although he identifies himself as “neither traitor nor hero; I’m an American”, many of his countrymen think of him as a traitor.

The film follows him from his initial contacts with journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the man from The Guardian newspaper, Ewen MacAskill.

He rendezvous with them in a hotel room in Hong Kong, but instead of discussing the “juicy tidbits” and shocking revelations contained in the documents, he describes in mind-numbing detail the technological machinations that enabled him to secure them. And the camera remains with him in the hotel room as he waits for his colleagues to fly back and forth across the world and get his message out.

The rest of his story, the 39 days of waiting in the Moscow airport for the Russian government to approve his request for asylum and the events that followed, is told mostly in voice-over. But at the end, through the kitchen window of his Moscow apartment you catch a glimpse of his long-time girlfriend, who joined him in exile. It’s the only personal shot that gives you a sense of Snowden as a real human being.

Citizenfour is an interesting story told blandly and with little drama. Which is probably the way a story as significant as this one should be told. But it makes for a helluva dreary movie.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent isn’t really a terrible movie. After all, how bad could a movie be that has Bill Murray in it?

This one, however, has all the “Bill Murray shticks” we’ve seen a thousand times, and the story is a predictable rehash of “lonely boy being mentored by an irascible, irresponsible, retired reprobate” who is hired to “babysit” him by his harassed, newly divorced mother, Melissa McCarthy.

There are the requisite scenes of drinking, sex, and visits to the race track before Murray abandons his shabby lifestyle and becomes a mensch that even a mother could love. And the boy, of course, thinks of him as a saint. Very very gooey.

Into the Woods

Nobody is indifferent to Stephen Sondheim. You either love him or you hate him. In his new sci-fi fantasy fairy tale, Into the Woods, everybody sings his songs except the audience. There’s not one that you can remember the tune to, let alone the words. For my part, his only memorable song is “Send in the Clowns”
from A Little Night Music.

In Into the Woods he and James Lapine make a mishmash of the tales of the brothers Grimm. The stories were grim when they were originally published in 1812 and made even grimmer by the Sondheim-¬Lapine musical on Broadway in 1986. Lapine wrote the screenplay for the film (directed flamboyantly by Rob Marshall) that opened this Christmas. Lapine transmogrified it in accordance with directives from Disney, the studio that produced it.

Disney objected to the implied sexual relationships between Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). The studio also didn’t like the excessive violence and the grisly deaths of so many of the principals. But many of them died anyway, even though they were played by actors who deserved better.

Among the cast were Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother, James Corden as the Baker, MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel, Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and Tracey Ullman as his mother. And whirring around stirring the plot was The Witch, an over-the-top Meryl Streep.

The various stories intertwined in the woods, which were creepy, and revolved around The Witch, who was prone to offering curses and making inexplicable demands.

Besides the fact that the film was more than two hours long, it disintegrated into a dark morality play in the second half, punishing everyone for their perceived wicked actions or intentions. Not a fairy tale at all. Children would find it grim, not Grimm.

All these films are currently playing in theaters around Los Angeles.

It Was No Game They Played

It’s nominated for five Golden Globes, but its star is a machine. A big, clumsy one—and it’s not even animated.

The film is The Imitation Game and the machine was named Christopher by its creator, Alan Turing. It was, in fact, the first computer, and for many years computers were called “Turing machines” in recognition of the genius who is considered “the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.”

In this spectacular film Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as an obsessive, humorless, distant individual, awkward and with almost no social graces. He expresses himself literally and doesn’t seem to understand that his conversation often appears rude and insensitive. His attention is focused internally and he doesn’t seem to blink. In fact, he exhibits many of the behaviors that are usually associated with Aspberger’s Syndrome, although that possibility is not suggested or implied in the film.

Despite Turing’s quirky mannerisms, however, Cumberbatch makes him a sympathetic, and even lovable, character.

And so, this unique man, who was acknowledged as a superior mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist, and mathematical biologist found himself plucked up by the British government and deposited at Bletchley Park, the secret site where the British were attempting to decipher enemy code messages during the Second World War.

Charged with staffing a special team, Turing prepared a mind-boggling crossword puzzle that applicants were ordered to finish in five minutes or less. The first one to complete the puzzle was a young woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley in the film. She became part of the motley group that worked with Turing to break the “impossible” Enigma code by which the Nazis communicated with each other during that critical time.

The Enigma was a fearsome machine whose settings were completely changed every 24 hours, and the different combinations into which they could be diverted numbered in the hundreds of millions.

Several years later, after Turing and his group had finally broken the code, they learned that a group of German ships was on its way to destroy a British convoy. Turing insisted, however, that his team not warn the convoy of its pending destruction because that would reveal to the enemy that the British had broken the Enigma code and were able to intercept their messages. This deadly scenario was repeated a number of times, but many other lives were saved because in the end it was estimated that the work done by Turing and his group at Bletchley Park was responsible for shortening the war by two to four years.

Because the work at Bletchley Park was so highly classified, Turing was never acknowledged or celebrated during his lifetime. But now there are academic buildings, streets and highways, and statues bearing his name and likeness in cities not only in Britain but all over the world. There are also countless seminars and lectures bearing his name, and the Turing Award, given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery, is the computer community’s most coveted award, considered comparable to the Nobel Prize.

And the recognition for Turing continues: books, plays, and television have told his story, and now this lush, intelligent, and beautifully presented film, directed by Morten Tyldum from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, will, hopefully, win filmdom’s highest accolades. The Imitation Game has been nominated for Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score.

But perhaps the most touching assessment of Turing and his work was penned by his Bletchley colleague, Hugh Alexander, who wrote:

“In the early days he was the only cryptographer who thought the problem worth tackling and he was primarily responsible for the main theoretical work… It is always difficult to say that anyone is absolutely indispensable but if anyone was indispensable it was Turing.

“The pioneer’s work always tends to be forgotten when experience and routine later make everything seem easy, and many of us felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realized by the outside world.”

The Imitation Game began a limited engagement in selected theaters in Los Angeles on November 28th, but is scheduled to open wide on Christmas Day.

Photo: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turin in The Imitation Game

Andy and Fletcher and All That Jazz

Whiplash is a misleading name for this film. It conjures up deadly car chases and crashes and someone paralyzed for the rest of his life. But the actual film is a far cry from that kind of theme. Whiplash is a popular jazz piece written by Hank Levy, a composer/saxophonist who wrote for Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the 1950s and for Don Ellis in the ‘60s.

The film deals with Andy Neiman, an ambitious young drummer who sees himself as this generation’s Buddy Rich. So he is not terrifically surprised when he is accepted into what is considered the best music school in the country.

Ironically, Miles Teller, who plays Andy, is, in real life, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which is also considered one of the finest schools of its kind in this country.

No matter how rigorous the Tisch School is, however, it would certainly not tolerate a music professor like J.K. Simmons, who plays Terence Fletcher, an angry, violent, and abusive martinet. Fletcher leads the school band by pushing everyone to their limits and beyond, and he motivates them by hollering in their faces, cursing them, and even physically assaulting them.

Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed this film, claims that the story is factual—that everything that happens in the movie happened to him or one of his buddies when they played in their high school band.

Chazelle’s “villain”, Fletcher, expresses his belief that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “good job!” It leads a player to believe he has done his best, he says, and to relax his efforts when he ought to be striving to do better.

Andy, who is young and impressionable, takes up the challenge and sets out to wow his teacher. He becomes more obsessed than ever with his drums and practices with them incessantly, until his hands are raw and bleeding.

Not being a drum aficionado, I can’t tell how good a drummer Miles Teller, who plays his own drums in this film, actually is. But I can vouch for the fact that he is a really fine actor.

As is J.K. Simmons, who is both intimidating and convincing, and curiously compelling. The two men play off each other exquisitely and both have been nominated for Golden Globes for their work.

Another fine, subdued performance is rendered by Paul Reiser, who has aged beautifully since his days as a befuddled husband in the wonderful TV sitcom Mad About You. In Whiplash he plays Andy’s father who, in a telling scene at the dinner table, disparages his son’s hero, Buddy Rich, for his dissolute life and death at 34. To which Andy replies indignantly that he would rather die at 34 and have people talking about him at the dinner table years afterwards than live to an old age and have nobody remember him.

When Whiplash premiered at the 2014 Sundance Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. If it isn’t overshadowed by some of the “bigger” entries, it might do well at this year’s Academy Awards as well, although that seems quite a stretch, given the caliber of this year’s competition. For what it’s worth, though, my money is on J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

You can find Whiplash in limited release at select theaters in Los Angeles.

Photo: Miles Teller and his drums

The Piper Plays A Merry Tune

When May Lee Davis was looking for a pizzazzy name to reflect her ascending career as a standup comedian, she was suddenly inspired by a large neon sign that identified the Santa Monica Pier. She added a well-placed P, and just like that, May Lee Davis became Monica Piper.

Piper is still going strong. Her latest performance was commissioned by the Jewish Women’s Theater and tells the story of her life in hilarious detail. The one-woman show is called Not That Jewish and can be seen at the JWT in its new venue at The Braid in Santa Monica.

She talks about her father, a vaudevillian who encouraged her by passing on his particularly Jewish shticks, and her mother, who specialized in making chopped liver. “So when a Jewish person asks ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’” Piper says.

She tells of her marriage to a blond, blue-eyed Gentile god and her mother-in-law’s wedding invitation which announced her handsome Harvard-educated lawyer son’s marriage to “a short Jewish girl who smokes.”

At that point, Piper says, she didn’t know which was worse, “being Jewish or being short.”

So, after she and the god divorced, she became an English teacher, but, she says, she “couldn’t handle the money or the prestige.”

Moving on, she studied improv with Second City in Chicago and then, going solo, she became one of Showtime Network’s Comedy All-Stars and landed her own Ace Award-winning Showtime Special, No Monica…Just You.

After being nominated for an American Comedy Award as one of the top five female comedians in the country, she went on to write for Roseanne Barr on the hit sit-com Roseanne.

She also wrote for Mad About You, Veronica’s Closet, and Duckman, won an Emmy for the #1 children’s animated series, Rugrats, and developed and wrote series for Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network.

Then, with her usual “Jew ne sais quoi”, she married again, to another blond, blue-eyed Gentile. “It could have worked out,” she explains, “if he’d been an entirely different person.”

She talks about her neighbor, whose dog was named Get off the fucking couch. “And isn’t that a coincidence,” she says. “Her husband was named that, too.”

She talks about having a yard sale and finding that “a blouse I had spent $100 on no one would buy for a quarter.”

And then, with her biological clock ticking, she decided, at 41, to adopt. Her son Jake, now a young man, provides additional spice to her story, as she tells of the challenges of being his mother and bringing him up alone.

She also tells, with great poignancy, of the death of her father, her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and her own battle with cancer. “So what do Jews do in times of crisis?” she asks. “They complain!”

But there is little complaint from Monica Piper. Turning adversity into comedy and idiocy into irony, she presents her life with no holds barred, and, despite the vexations, she appears to have enjoyed every minute of it.

And so will you.

Monica Piper in Not That Jewish will continue at The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave., #102. In Santa Monica on Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 pm through December 21st. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit www.jewishtheatreorg, for tickets.