The Imitation Game

The Imitation GameDirector: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore (adapted from Andrew Hodge’s book)

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Charles Dance, and Matthew Goode

In 2001, a film called Enigma was released that told a somewhat true story regarding a group of British codebreakers during World War II who manage to break the Nazi Enigma code, aiding in the Allied victory in the war. This film was a good one, but not great and not that memorable. Enigma fell short mostly due to its decision to fictionalize the story slightly and avoid telling the story of the true mind behind the machine that cracks the Nazi code. The Imitation Game rectifies the 2001 film’s error by providing a virtual biopic on legendary cryptanalyst, Alan Turing. Between last month’s The Theory of Everything and now The Imitation Game, the final stamp on American cinema in 2014 seems to be examining brilliant minds in some brilliant ways.

The film explores three key periods of Turing’s life ranging over about 30 years. The majority of the film focuses on Turing’s work with the British government during WWII. Turing’s odd persona causes some hesitation in British military personnel, but his brilliance is evident enough to cause Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to reluctantly hire him for a secret operation. Turing and a group of other analysts are tasked with figuring out the ever-changing pattern of Nazi communication cyphers. Turing discovers that Denniston’s goals differ with his own approach and convinces Prime Minster Churchill to appoint Turing as leader of the operation allowing him to assemble his own team including a promising young codebreaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Turing redirects the team away from their tactics to help him build a £100 thousand machine that he hopes will be able to break the code.

The film also jumps back and forth between Turing’s childhood and his life after the war. These scenes help uncover the complexity of Turing and reveal levels of his inner conflicts that would be hard to explore in the WWII segment of the film. It is also with these scenes that the film adds a layer of subtext on some human rights issues regarding Turing’s need to conceal his homosexuality because of the social consequences unfortunately attached.

The Imitation Game is a very fascinating film and one that hinges very heavily on its performances, which are all excellent. Cumberbatch and Knightley are especially great, giving some nuanced touches to roles that could have felt very artificial. Furthermore, the film feels and looks very authentic, especially in its depiction of the many layers of World War II, most notably the pivotal role of intelligence in terms of how the war played out as well as the impossible decisions that must be made as a result. This film is less about the politics and elements of war and more about the capacity and power of human thought and intelligence. The film’s title is in fact a reference to one of Turing’s publications regarding the human brain and what is meant by the term “think.” In the opening scene of The Imitation Game, we are given access to Turing’s mind as he basically sets us up to play the “imitation game.” Through voiceover, Alan Turing tells us to pay attention, listen, and withhold judgment until he is finished talking.   Now these words are technically spoken to an investigating officer in a scene that bookends the film, but they are spoken to the audience as well. Upon the film’s conclusion, we are able to play this game, and furthermore, appreciate a complex, almost poetic line uttered by both Cumberbatch and Knightley that, “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” A-

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13 and has a running time of one hour and 54 minutes.

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Wild

wildDirector: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gabby Hoffman, Thomas Sadowski

As a high school English teacher, I have a soft spot for films that look to inspire the individual spirit in the name of Romanticism and transcendentalism. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Films like Cast Away, Dead Poets Society, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries, and 127 Hours are just a few films that successfully explored the dangerous beauty that is our natural world. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby bring just enough passion, beauty, and emotion to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to keep this film from being too ordinary.

Reese Witherspoon plays the real life Cheryl Strayed, a waitress and self proclaimed sophisticate who when life throws her a curveball, decides to ruin her life further with promiscuous sex and hard drugs. Marriage ruined, family and friends alienated, Cheryl finally hits rock bottom and when a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook catches her eye, Cheryl decides to drop everything and take on the 1100 mile hike in the hopes of reclaiming her life and finding some harmony.

Comparisons to Christopher McCandless’s story in the film/novel Into the Wild are hard to avoid. Similarly, like McCandless, Witherspoon’s character is trying to escape the corruption of modern life with a voluntary long-term immersion into nature. Much of what Strayed is running from directly relates to a catastrophic series of events involving her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). Bobbi was a woman of considerable spirit and clearly what Cheryl is truly looking for is where, deep within her, is that same spirit that her mother possessed?

Wild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty, and Witherspoon plays a character as far from Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods as possible. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. We don’t have to agree with Cheryl’s choices, and we don’t have to understand them, but we can certainly empathize with them. At each mile marker on the Pacific Crest Trail (referred to as the PCT), Strayed leaves short passages from self-proclaimed Romantic poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as those labeled Romantics like Robert Frost and James Michener. The distinction is subtle, but far more relevant to Strayed as she searches for her identity amongst what her instinct suggests and how reason advises.

Wild is a real showcase for Witherspoon. Where Walk the Line demonstrated the actress’s range and singing talent, Wild shows she is a real force. Laura Dern is superb as well, playing a mother but also a metaphor for idealism. The one area of disappointment with Wild is in its final scene, which strives for epiphany and comes up short. There is great strength in Wild and great heart. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than last year’s Oscar darling, Dallas Buyers Club, but originality does count for something, and this film does not have much in that arena. Still, Wild is an inspiring film and a great step forward for Witherspoon.  A-

Wild is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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The People’s Critic with his #1 fan!

Incidentally, The People’s Critic would like to announce he has been published! Volume 1 of his reviews are hard bound and beautifully rendered in a 2-book set containing over 150 individual pages of film reviews, commentary, lists, and articles. He would like to thank his wife for her undying support and help in this venture as well as his biggest fan of all, seen here!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Hobbit - Five ArmiesDirector: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Orlando Bloom

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies marks a real milestone. Sure, it marks the end of Peter Jackson’s epic, 6-film Middle Earth saga, but it also marks the first entire trilogy that I’ve reviewed in real time as The People’s Critic. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the 20th film I reviewed and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be my 130th!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens with an action-packed preamble that satisfies the cliffhanger left by The Desolation of Smaug. With the treasure now back in the possession of the dwarves and Thorin (Richard Armitage) back on the throne of Erebor, it would seem all is well in Middle Earth. However, when the news of Smaug’s defeat spreads, the treasure of the Lonely Mountain suddenly seems up for grabs. Bard and the men of the now decimated Lake Town, Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the Elves of Mirkwood, Sauron and the rising army of Orcs, as well as the Great Eagles of the Misty Mountain all emerge to battle the dwarves over their claim to the treasure – hence that whole “Five Armies” thing.

This film is ultimately a showcase for a final cinematic showdown in the land of Middle Earth. Where the past two films have been criticized for their lack of action, Five Armies may catch criticism for the exact opposite. Jackson’s skill with this subject is on full display and Five Armies boasts some of the finest battle scenes in either trilogy, but overall, there’s not much to this film; it is too simplistic and underdeveloped. Some complexity is infused with Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) realization of Thorin’s corruption upon reclaiming his crown as well as the budding relationship between elven guardian Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). Still this is the most scaled down film of the six, and that’s not really a good thing.      

Jackson’s Hobbit films have struggled with the what it should be/what it needs to be/what it could have been dilemma far more than his Lord of the Rings films. In the case of this film, what it should be and needs to be is a fitting conclusion to this series of films. It more or less accomplishes that, but what it could have been is a great dovetail into Fellowship of the Ring. There are a few throwaway lines that refer to events yet to come, but they are a bit hokey. The decision to pursue a simplistic cap to the Hobbit films rather than an ambitious lead in to the Lord of the Rings films is evident in its title. The final Hobbit film was originally to be subtitled, There and Back Again but was changed to The Battle of Five Armies. There and Back Again feels like the film Jackson was hoping to make and the one I wanted to see, but The Battle of the Five Armies is the movie that was made. If The Battle of the Five Armies had to battle the other five films, it would lose that battle five times. B-

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 24 minutes.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

BirdmanDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis

The “critic” is somewhat eviscerated in the new film Birdman. At the risk of seeming gauche, I will review it anyway!

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, but the man has had some tremendous success with films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel which was nominated for 6 Oscars in 2007. All of those films feature separate events and storylines that entwine to bring multiple unlikely characters together. In his new film, Birdman, Iñárritu takes a sort of departure from that format to follow one central character in his personal search for glory.

Michael Keaton pays Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star, famous for playing Birdman in a successful trilogy of superhero films from the 1990s. Tompson’s career has dried up since then, but he hopes that by producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play of his own adaptation, he will once again feel relevant.

The film follows Tompson seemingly through one uninterrupted shot as he handles the pressures, complications, and stresses of live theater as the production courses its way from rehearsals, to previews, and ultimately to opening night. Whether it’s the battle of egos between himself and co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) or the battle of emotions between Tompson and his assistant/recovering addict/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Tompson clearly has his hands full. He also has everything riding on this production and Iñárritu communicates this with a frantic energy that results in a film as unpredictable and erratic as the jazzy score that accompanies it.

Fittingly, this film about actors acting happens to have some great acting. Keaton easily surpasses the initial, shallow Batman comparisons and makes Tompson’s struggle relatable. Emma Stone is biting and angsty as Tompson’s daughter, and Zach Galifinakis makes the most of his screentime by downplaying is normal persona. Also great are Edward Norton and Naomi Watts who act as foils to one another in terms of their perspectives on being career actors.

Birdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into Tompson’s world. Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” We are delighted to be reminded of the pitfalls and trappings of performance art, especially since audiences are often only privy to the final, polished product.

But Birdman is not just a film about ignorance, nor is it just a film about reclaiming glory. Birdman is mostly about perception. In one scene, an ego-maniacal Edward Norton says to Keaton, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” This resonates with Keaton as his dilemma seems to be between those two very things – the popularity he experienced in his past and the prestige that comes with being viewed as relevant in the eyes of those he cares for. This quest for relevance is truly where the movie excels, and it is the key to unlocking the truth of the film’s final scene. Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.  A

Birdman is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.