Three Recent Films about Dudes: Foxcatcher and Whiplash (both 2014) and Ex Machina (2015)

At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher

In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.

Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.

Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.

Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.


Foxcatcher film posterFoxcatcher (2014)
Director Bennett Miller; Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

 

Whiplash film posterWhiplash (2014)
Director/Writer Damien Chazelle; Cinematographer Sharone Meir; Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015.

 

 

 

Ex Machina film posterEx Machina (2015)
Director/Writer Alex Garland; Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015.

Testament of Youth (2014)

Every film production is a labour of love for those who work on it, and this looks to have been a fairly big, sumptuously mounted one. I have no doubt, too, that Vera Brittain’s memoirs make for powerful pacifist literature. It’s just that in translating her words to the big screen, I can’t help but feel some of that power has been lost. I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, about a film I didn’t really like, much though there was a lot to like about it and which others will no doubt embrace more than I. The director is fond of unmoored handheld camera shots framing wispy faces against nature in a sort of impressionistic way, which is of a piece with the nostalgic feeling to it, complemented nicely by the very fetching costume design. Alicia Vikander, an excellent actor who’s been getting a lot of good roles right now (she has three films out), was wonderful as the English-born monarch in En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair) a few years ago, and here extends her range of English heroines with the central role, putting a lot of growly feistiness into it, despite her slightness of frame. Kit Harington as her love interest Roland is suitably dashing. However, it doesn’t always feel as though the scenes of war are sufficiently nasty — though suitably grimy, the men themselves come across rather with a sort of romanticised vacancy — to set up the boldly pacifist turn her thinking takes towards the end. In short, a nice film and a fairly unobjectionable one, but maybe that’s my problem with it.

Testament of Youth film posterCREDITS
Director James Kent; Writer Juliette Towhidi (based on the memoir by Vera Brittain); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 21 January 2015.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.

One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.

One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.

There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.

The Invisible Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.