Monday, December 8, 2014

The Imitation Game Review

Whenever a biopic is made about an important figure, it should be understood from the outset that liberties will be taken with the source material. Of course. This is pretty standard. That doesn't stop all the countless internet articles from pointing out all the factual inaccuracies from such a film, but I guess it's all part of the process. Any story based on fact warrants fact-checking, we can't avoid that. What ultimately matters is how much you let those inaccuracies affect your overall viewpoint of the movie you just saw. Does the movie work on its own? Even if it's not completely accurate regarding its subject, is it at least emotionally truthful?

"The Imitation Game" attempts to be emotionally truthful towards its subject, mathematician Alan Turing. Turing developed a machine that cracked Germany's Enigma code during World War II, which helped the Allies win the war. He, in fact, played a very detrimental part in the victory, an essential part, but he received no official credit for his achievement until long after his death.

Turing's story is ultimately a tragic one. He was gay during a time when it was illegal. He subsequently was prosecuted because of his homosexuality and was given a choice between spending time in jail or chemically castrating himself. He choose the latter because he wanted to keep working, but the effects of the drugs he was given ultimately lead him to a brutal suicide.

That brutal suicide was something I had to read up on after I saw the movie. "The Imitation Game" wants to delve into Alan Turing, the mathematician, but it doesn't really want to dive in. It wants to shed light on Turing's homosexuality, but the light they shine is rather dim. This is to say, the filmmakers tried their very best to make both the math and his sexuality easy to swallow and this was ultimately very problematic for me. We never see Turing commit suicide nor do we even watch how he descended into such a fate. We are only given glimpses of the last years of his life, as the movie's primarily told in flashback. Of course the film's primarily interested in how Turing cracked the enigma code, but even then, the filmmakers take so long to get to the heart of that story.

Instead, so much time is wasted on portraying Turing as this socially-awkward, arrogant jerk who doesn't want to be friends with anybody. He doesn't want anyone's help with the machine. But, thanks to a bright young woman (Keira Knightley), he realizes he actually does need to work with these other brilliant people in order to successfully build this machine.

So much unnecessary drama is added in the first half of the movie. Clearly, screenwriter Graham Moore wanted to focus on all these different aspects of Turing's life, breaking the movie down to three time periods. Moore insists on giving Turing an arc that's riddled with so many cliches on how the movies portray scientists and mathematicians. While Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly game to play such a cold, calculating character, I can't help but wish that the writer gave Alan Turing (and Cumberbatch) more layers to work with. As it is, Cumberbatch's performance largely comes off as one-note. When the film finally gets going and Turing cracks the code, it's pretty exhilarating stuff. There's an oft-talked about scene where Turing and his team have to deal with the moral consequences of the work they're doing and it's the most gripping part of the movie.

Unfortunately, for a movie that intends to be a World War II thriller, "Imitation Game" largely comes up short. Too often, the movie goes the cliched, inspirational drama route, playing all the familiar notes one would get from a typical biopic and it's hard not to feel as if so much of this stuff was tacked on to appeal to a certain Academy. The most audience-insulting example is this line of dialogue, which is repeated three times: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

It's repeated so often that it's as if Graham Moore started the script with that line in mind then worked his way backwards. "The Imitation Game" just lays it on way too thick too often to be really effective. For a movie that intends to celebrate this unique hero, this biopic simply feels standard. Instead of portraying Turing as a tragic hero whose fate in life would surely anger even the most cold-hearted, the movie puts all its emphasis on Turing being a hero while making his tragic downfall feel like such an afterthought.

I give all the credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for keeping this movie watchable and somewhat enjoyable, but simply put, "The Imitation Game" is merely average. It's an insultingly average film.

Grade: C

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

"The Hunger Games" franchise has been a weird one, I must say. I was not a fan of the first film at all, as evidenced by my C- review over two years ago. My criticisms largely stemmed from the directing. The movie just didn't feel like a blockbuster, the actual hunger games came across as rather bland, and it was unsettling for me to see the filmmakers gloss over the gruesome nature of kids killing each other.

Thankfully, the producers righted the ship for "Catching Fire" by replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence. There wasn't as much emphasis on shaky camera movement, the hunger games actually had an interesting look, the characters weren't one-dimensional. Suddenly, it felt as if the world of Panem was finally coming to life. My only issue with the second film was the abrupt ending.

I ended my review of "Catching Fire" by saying the series was "on thin ice" and I really meant it. "Mockingjay - Part 1" was a tough sell for me from the beginning. I hate splitting up one movie into two. I reviewed the first "Hobbit" movie and have never bothered to watch the second one, probably won't see the third. I never reviewed the second "Deathly Hallows" film. I don't like movies that are just one large act 1, that are just a giant setup for the sequel. Movies should work by themselves. Period. This is simply something I won't budge on.

BUT, I will say, "Mockingjay - Part 1" actually satisfied me when it came to its ending. There were just as many instances where the film was confirming my fears concerning the pitfalls of "Part I" movies, but when the credits rolled - I felt relief. This movie has an ending. I want to see Part 2. As it turns out, I am actually quite enjoying this franchise as a whole. It's just a shame the first film was not very good, the second one has no ending, and the third one doesn't really know what it's trying to be until the final 15 minutes.

Katniss was rescued in the previous movie by rebels and in "MJ - Part 1," she's taken to an underground rebel facility - lead by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) with Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as her right hand man. It's pretty clear what President Coin wants from Katniss. She's to be the "Mockingjay," the leader of the rebellion. Katniss is hesitant to accept this role and a good part of the movie goes into her initial hesitance, but once she sees what they're doing to Peeta in the Capitol, she ultimately decides to take on the challenge.

Katniss's initial hesitance is palpable, but the movie takes a little too long to get the obvious next step. Of course she'll be the mockingjay otherwise, we have no movie. Since this is part 1 and the book itself is actually a page shorter than Catching Fire (which wasn't broken into two parts) that means much more lingering, much less plot propulsion. It's interesting to see Katniss visit other districts, as the Mockingjay, but it's difficult to get a visual sense of just how effective she is as the symbol other than what we're told.

The Capitol has Peeta. The majority of the rebels think Peeta is a traitor. Katniss wants to save Peeta. It's weird to see just how focused Katniss is on the safe return of Peeta. I have never really bought that Katniss has any emotional connection to Peeta at all, I don't think we were supposed to in the first two films, so her overwhelming emotion and loyalty towards Peeta kinda falls flat for me.

As it is, and I hate to say this, but Jennifer Lawrence is asked to go big on the emotions in this film and the results are a bit mixed. The first two films, she's tough, stoic, angry---these are things that suit Lawrence well. And maybe it's because the overall tone of the film makes the emotional moments feel hollow, but something felt off about Jennifer Lawrence's performance here.

Part of that could also be because of how her character takes a backseat to much of the action. Towards the end, the movie starts to kick into gear when they make it their mission to capture Peeta, but... Katniss is not among those who help capture him. She stays at the facility while the men take care of business and we only see snippets of their plot to take Peeta to District 13. We only know how they captured Peeta because of how they explain it to us. There's just a little too much telling and not showing in this film.

This is basically a movie with no climax. There is one, but we don't see it. You could get away with not showing the capturing of Peeta if this was the first half of the movie, but if his escape from the Capitol is to be the centerpiece of the film, then you better show it!

I kept starting and stopping when it came to writing this review. I don't get excited about writing reviews to "Part 1" films, I just don't. Because, despite the film ultimately satisfying me on a basic level, this is still just half of a movie and I don't like writing about half a movie. I'll give the filmmakers credit for making this feel big and having "Part 1" come to a conclusion we can all be happy with, but they better deliver with "Part 2" or this whole franchise just might turn out to have been one gigantic waste of time.

Grade: B-