Tag Archives: B-

KILL YOUR DARLINGS

The embryonic stage of the Beat Generation is the subject of “Kill Your Darlings,” a debut film from writer-director John Krokidas that’s rich in atmosphere but a bit hazy in narrative clarity. Still, its dissection of the initial phases of a rebel movement and of a little–known tragedy that colored it is fascinating, especially since the film boasts some strong performances.

Daniel Radcliffe continues his largely successful efforts to go beyond his Harry Potter persona to play the young Allen Ginsberg, an aspiring intellectual who makes the painful decision to leave his New Jersey home to accept a scholarship to Columbia University in the early forties. His departure to New York City is difficult because his mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a troubled woman whose fragile mental state depends largely on his support. But his father Louis (David Cross), a teacher who was a published poet himself, encourages him to take up the offer, and he does.

Columbia proves a different world, of course. When he voices tentative objections to the rigid rules of versifying enunciated by a stuffy professor (John Cullum), the nervous lad catches the attention of classmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a flamboyant hedonist who introduces him to a circle of friends that includes the coolly intense young William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and the charismatically ebullient Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Together the quartet become committed to establishing a radical literary movement they grandiosely term The New Vision. But constantly hovering in the background is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a domineering older man who does menial work at the university but has been a mentor of sorts to Carr and still exerts a mysterious hold over him.

The plot of “Kill Your Darlings” hangs on the relationship that naïve newbie Ginsberg quickly develops with the mercurial Carr, who encourages Allen to indulge in his life of reckless excess in order to bring out his talent. The problem is that Lucien, while provoking literary expression in others, is unable to produce art himself, and his mixture of resentment and affection is further complicated by the insistent intrusions of Kammerer, to whom Carr is drawn although he’s also repulsed by him. It has to be remembered that while Kerouac had a live-in girlfriend (played here by Elizabeth Olsen, who literally hasn’t much to do), the predominant sexual element among these future Beats was gay at a time when that wasn’t deemed socially acceptable, which often led to a destructive self-loathing; and that’s what happens in the case of Carr and Kammerer.

“Kill Your Darlings” is, therefore, more than simply a portrait of the artist as a young man, though Radcliffe goes far to capture the tremulous intensity of a young man on the verge of realizing his literary destiny, and pushed into doing so by a comrade who can’t go over the precipice with him. It also aims to be a portrait of a group of young rebels at the point of staking out a role for themselves in the literary firmament, and of a group that was still largely forced to live in the shadows for fear of persecution. That’s a heady mixture to attempt, and Krokidas’ decision to present it all in the form of florid cinematic spurts that come across almost like riffs of improvisation from a jazz pianist makes it all the harder to get a handle on, despite fine technical contributions from cinematographer Reed Morano, production designer Stephen Carter, art director Alexios Chrysikos, set decorator Sarah E. McMillan and costume designer Warren Shaw in giving it an almost hallucinatory period ambience.

Nonetheless the film builds a pretty seductive atmosphere of discovery and danger, and the cast treat it as a real ensemble piece. Radcliffe seizes much of the attention, of course, but he’s certainly matched by DeHaan, who again shows himself as a young actor to watch. Foster makes a hilariously deadpan Burroughs and Huston a suitably virile Kerouac, but both play second fiddle to Radcliffe and DeHaan, and though Hall brings a menacing vibe to Kammerer, it’s largely a one-note turn. The rest of the cast serve their lesser functions well, with Leigh particularly moving as Ginsberg’s troubled mother and John Cullum offering a sharp cameo as a crusty but perceptive Columbia professor.

The result is a film that may not be the last word on the Beats, but offers an intoxicating glimpse of the movement’s origins.

THE FIFTH ESTATE

Crammed with information and moving at a breathless pace, Bill Condon’s docu-drama about the rise of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its driven founder Julian Assange is as fascinating as its protagonist, but just about as flawed. Neither pure hagiography nor simple hatchet-job, “The Fifth Estate” proves a fairly judicious account of a radical new movement in underground journalism that, despite all its technical bells and whistles, turns out to be curiously old-fashioned and conventional in narrative terms.

Tall, rangy Benedict Cumberbatch cuts an appropriately strange figure as the mercurial Assange, conveying his peculiar combination of principle and egomania. Josh Singer’s script tosses in a few allusions to the character’s upbringing in Australia—flashbacks to his childhood in a commune and his early forays in hacking—but the focus is on his efforts to raise the profile of an operation still in its infancy by releasing information sure to provoke reaction at the highest levels of power. That means not just material revealing corruption in African governments, malfeasance at European investment banks or financial misconduct among the political powers in Iceland, but a storehouse of documents proving lies and cover-ups within the American government concerning the conduct of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and duplicity in diplomatic relations with other countries.

Ever suspicious of sharing the sources he guards so closely, Assange nonetheless takes young German computer expert Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruehl) into what turns out to be his very small circle, and together they expand the site’s capabilities (enlisting Berg’s friend Marcus, a hacking genius played by Moritz Bleibtrau, and Icelandic activist Birgitta Jonsdottir, played by Carice van Houten, in the operation) while arranging the simultaneous publication of the evidence Assange has amassed on U.S. malfeasance in old-line media outlets—The Guardian in Britain, the New York Times in America, and Der Spiegel in Germany. It’s the conflict between Assange’s headlong rush to release the material without careful redaction and the insistence of his more traditional partners—people like Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger, the investigative reporter and managing editor of the Guardian, played respectively by David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi—that great care be taken to minimize danger to innocent parties that leads the WikiLeaks founder to become increasingly erratic and paranoid. He even comes to view the faithful Berg as a turncoat, although the German has been so doggedly devoted to Assange that it strained his relationship with his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander). This plot strand of “The Fifth Estate” can be described as a sort of nerd bromance gone bad.

Singer and Condon also take time to dramatize the impact of the revelations Assange is stage-managing back in Washington through the desperate efforts of State Department officials James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) and Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and White House spokesman Sam Coulson (Anthony Mackie) to minimize the damage. Their scenes are amusing mixtures of serious issue discussion and cynical observation, but they’re all invented, of course. (Given that, it might have been a good jest to rename Linney’s character Sam Johnson to accompany Tucci’s Boswell.) Washington’s furious reaction fuels Assange’s certainty that he’s being targeted by dark forces—a feeling that was not entirely unwarranted, but which fed his increasingly unhinged behavior.

Singer’s treatment lays all of this out with a reasonable degree of clarity, though it would be beneficial for a viewer to have watched Alex Gibney’s far more straightforward documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” beforehand to make it more intelligible. (Another nice complement would be Ken Auletta’s first-rate profile of Rusbridger in a recent issue of The New Yorker, which depicts a man devoted to a more measured, circumspect but still courageous form of investigative journalism.) But Condon, in concert with cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editor Virginia Katz, rather muddies the clarity with a take-no-prisoners visual style, which begins with a frenetic news-delivery-systems-through-history montage under the opening credits and runs through cascades of images filled with encrypted text, split screens and wild camera swings as the narrative proceeds, almost always accompanied by Carter Burwell’s badgering core. The general melee helps to explain why the quieter, more subdued moments—like the genial scenes between Linney and Tucci, or an oddly moving sequence in which Berg takes Assange to dinner at his parents’ house, only to have the Australian proves a distinctly contemptuous guest—come as such a relief. (You have to wonder whether the experience of directing the two “Breaking Dawn” films hasn’t had an unfortunate effect on Condon, who once embraced a chastely classical approach in films like “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey.”)

Still there’s much to admire here, most notably Cumberbatch’s oversized portrayal as Assange. It’s true that the actor isn’t able to penetrate very deeply into the character, but he does at least suggest the uberleaker’s charismatic power as well as his unsavory side. Bruehl, another fine actor, isn’t nearly as fortunate; Berg is frankly a rather dull, straitlaced figure, and he script does little to elevate him beyond the role of the faithful sidekick who eventually realizes he’s been badly used. Like Bruehl, the rest of the cast basically provide little more than slightly aghast reactions to the maelstrom that Assange—and Cumberbatch—suck them into.

“The Fifth Estate” deserves respect, even admiration, for tackling a controversial contemporary subject head-on and suggesting the promise, and perils, of the sort of Internet activism WikiLeaks represents. If Condon’s achievement doesn’t equal his ambition, at least it tries to do something serious, which is more than can be said of most Hollywood movies today. And the fact that those on both sides—Assange’s most vocal supporters and his most vitriolic detractors—are likely to be displeased by it is certainly a point in its favor.