Cypher

Sadly, this is the last time Midnight Madness will take place in its perennial home The Uptown Theatre. The Uptown is the last of Toronto’s great old movie house and it will close before the year’s end. I may let you in on the details of that story down the line. But for now, on with the review!

First of this year’s Midnight Madness series, home of the weird wild and wonderful for the night owls of TIFF, “Cypher” is the second film from director Vincentzio Natali. In fact, Natali’s second film, Nothing, is also screening at the festival. Natali’s debut film, “Cube”, won him considerable acclaim in Europe and Asia. I’ll confess, I don’t understand why. I despised “Cube” so intensely I almost skipped this film. But, looking back, I realized the problems I had with “Cube” stemmed from the script far more than the direction. In the end, I decided to give “Cypher” a chance.

I made the right choice. “Cypher” is a smart, and highly stylish film which does a great deal with a limited budget ($7.5 million U.S. according to the director in the Q&A). Make no mistake, “Cypher” is an American produced film, despite Natali being a local director. But it’s local touches in cast shoot location and production that really resonated with the Toronto crowd.

“Cypher” is a near future science fiction film. But much of the appearance and tone of the picture is influence by the 50s. One of the many things “Cypher” was inspired by are cold war espionage films. The director (and screenwriter Brian King) modernize the story by replacing feuding nations with competing corporations and seedy alleys with sterile corporate lecture halls.

“Cypher” opens with dull nebbish Morgan Sullivan (played perfectly by Jeremy Northam) interviewing for a job as a corporate spy. Soon, Morgan is assigned the identity of Jack Thursby and finds himself easily beginning to change into a new person. No one would ever suspect this man of being the perfect spy and his early assignments are boring missions to record reports on processed cheese and new conditioners. But something is not as it appears and when “Jack” continuously meets a mysterious woman (Lucy Liu, expertly playing a far better thriller role than the Charlie’s Angels franchise will ever allow her) who offers him a glimpse into the much larger game he has been made a pawn in.

At its heart “Cypher” deals with the question of identity (which threatens to become a recurring theme among TIFF films I’ve seen this year). When one can so easily discard their identity what is left to hold onto when strength of identity is needed to overcome an obstacler Can one truly become a master spy simply by deciding to ber And if so, how does that change the personr Is change truly possibler Or do forces beyond our control trap us into role we don’t even want to be playing anymorer And is paranoia (recurring theme #2 thusfar) a valid defense against a world that seeks to strip you away at every turn. A tight script and some good twists make for a good story, if a tad heavy-handed in expressing its theme at times).

The limited budget shows up on screen very well. Other than one helicopter sequence I found all the effects to be both well executed and important to the story. Considering the film had over 150 effects shots in it (more than AI, for example) they were all pulled off seamlessly. Also, for the technical buffs, this film was shot using a very unusual process involving D6 uncompressed digital tape. Though I don’t claim to understand it apparently the process allows for far more intricate colour and effects manipulation than bleach processing and, as an added benefit, the original cuts of the film are never cut or manipulated in any way.

Aside from Northam and Lui the film benefits from strong performances by two Canadian favorites Nigel Bennet (La Croix from “Forever Knight”, and the “It’s no oatmeal” guy) and David Hewlett (Traders). Hewlett was in attendance but got no questions during the Q&A. Too bad, but apparently Hewlett also stars in Natali’s other film “Nothing” so he should gather some much deserved attention this year.

My prediction: I foresee “Cypher” getting a theatrical release during a slow season and being a modest success (perhaps on the lines of “Pitch Black”) which should launch Natali well on the way to being a name in Hollywood.

IN BRIEF:

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

A documentary from Vikram Jayanti the film looks back on the celebrated battle between chess supergenius Garry Kasparov (unquestionably the greatest chess player who has ever lived) and IBM’s Deep Blue. What is constantly billed as the ultimate battle of man vs machine turns out to be anything but. What Kasparov thought was a friendly experiment turns into a bitter battle between Kasparov and his team and the IBM programmers who, in turn, are being manipulated by IBM top brass. To this day Kasparov maintains that the IBM team cheated in the second game of the match by allowing human intervention in the game. Kasparov is certainly shown to have been agitated and increasingly paranoid and after game two his play suffered to the point where he ultimately lost the contest with one win, two losses and three draws. Some of the IBM team’s behavior did seem a tad suspicious but we have no proof anything untoward happened. After all, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. What is known is that within the month of the heavily publicized match IBM’s stock rose by 15% allowing the then struggling company to add billions in company value and survive to return to the top of the market. What is also known is that Deep Blue was dismantled after the match. No rematch was ever allowed despite this series being a rematch from an earlier contest and IBM discontinued the program.

The doc itself uses a fascinating framing device of the first great automated chess player, the Turk who once beat Napolean. It’s a tight and interesting telling of the tale and it dwells in ambiguity rather than certainty. Picking a central theme is difficult: corporations versus geniuses, the fragility of great human minds, the mysteries or the myths all vie for attention. In the end that makes the film worth considering far more than just a chess movie or a computer science movie.

PREDICTION: I wouldn’t expect much of a theatrical release. Find this film when you can and watch it on the medium it finds you on.

Rating: B
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