I went back to Milwaukee on Sunday for Day 11 of the Milwaukee Film Festival. I spent the entire day seeing films in the big ornate theater at the historic Oriental Theatre. Here’s what I saw:
“The Imitation Game” — As Oscar bait, “The Imitation Game” is a big, fat, juicy worm of a movie. It’s British, it’s based on a true story, it’s a historical drama, it’s about a hot-button social issue, it’s got a showy lead performance — if there’s a checklist somewhere at the Academy, “The Imitation Game” has ticked every box.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who cracked the Nazi Enigma code for the Allies during World War II and, along the way, built a machine that became an antecedent for today’s computers. The heart of the movie takes place at Bletchley Manor during World War II, as Turing and his team (including Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode) race against time to break the code, which resets every day. Turing is in many ways right in Cumberbatch’s wheelhouse, an arrogant, socially abrasive genius — two or three notches turned up from “Sherlock.”
But he’s also a closeted homosexual, which was illegal in Britain (the charge was “gross indecency”) until 1967. The movie, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, brackets the World War II scenes with flashbacks to 1928, when Turing is an awkward schoolboy (an excellent Alex Lawther), and 1951, when Turing is hounded by a Manchester detective (Rory Kinnear) who knows something isn’t quite right about him.
What happened to Turing at the hands of the British government — a government that would have no longer existed without his war efforts — is disgusting. “Imitation” is at times overstuffed with plot, as when a Soviet spy is discovered among the team, but it’s moving in showing this essential injustice, and Cumberbatch is excellent at showing the different, not necessarily conflicting layers of Turing. The film comes out at Thanksgiving — Cumberbatch is a near-lock for a Best Actor nomination.
“Take Me To The River” — Despite the presence of ex-Talking Head (and Shorewood native) Jerry Harrison as producer and writer, the titular song never makes it into this Memphis music documentary. Instead, the film goes for slightly more obscure (but still thrilling) classic soul and R&B tunes in a film that basically documents the recording of an album celebrating Memphis sound. The album pairs veteran Memphis players with younger musicians, so you have the North Mississippi All-Stars grinding out the blues with blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite, or Snoop Dogg rapping a “tight 16” in the middle of William Bell’s “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.”
As an ad for the album, “River” is effective, and director Martin Shore (the album’s producer) captures a lot of fun recording-studio banter, as when the late and legendary Bobby “Blue” Bland gives some vocal tips to pint-sized kid rapper Lil P-Nut. But the movie is often a jumble of smiles and backslapping, and very spotty when it tries to give some historical context to the Memphis sound. (I still can’t figure out why Stax Records went under.)
Harrison was at the screening for a post-show Q&A with Bell and rapper Frasier Boy, and all three seemed sincere in their hope that the film would put Memphis back on the musical map. I certainly agree — I just think we’ve come to the point where the making of an album isn’t enough to hang an entire documentary on.
“Life Partners” — After starting the day with seeing a man hounded for his homosexuality in “Imitation Game,” things seemed to come full circle with Susanna Vogel’s sparkling comedy, in which one of the two main characters is a lesbian, which really doesn’t matter to either the characters or to the film. It just is who she is.
Leighton Meester plays Sasha, a gay woman on the cusp of 30 stuck in a dead-end job, still dating a string of younger women. Her best friend is Paige (Gillian Jacobs of “Community”), whose relationships have been just as unsuccessful. The two lean on each other, whether it’s on “America’s Next Top Model” night or pink wine-fueled sleepovers.
That dynamic changes when Paige starts dating Tim (Adam Brody, Meester’s husband in real life), and that relationship drives a wedge between their friendship. “Life Partners” is very funny and very wise about friendships, how tough it is to maintain a bond while one friend is moving forward and the other is stuck in place. Vogel lets the relatonships develop organically, aided immeasurably by the charm of Meester and Jacobs, who have real chemistry together.
Add in a few sharp supporting parts by Gabourey Sidibe, Kate McKinnon and especially Abby Elliott, and “Life Partners” has a wealth of funny, juicy parts for good actresses. (This may be the film that unlocks the top score on the Bechdel Test.) It’s refreshing in every way.
“Life Partners” was acquired by Magnolia Pictures, who will release the film on video-on-demand on November 5 and in theaters in December.