The Imitation Game

I’m not sure where to lay the blame for The Imitation Game’s problem. On one hand, the film depicts the “based on true life” story of famed British mathematician Alan Turing, and takes enough artistic license to render the “true life” part misleading, but as a high profile prestige picture it will get millions of people to see it and perhaps learn something along the way. On the other hand, the material is far better suited for a more accurate documentary, but no one would watch it. As a result of the compounding problems the film ends up doing nothing well, with the exception of allowing Benedict Cumberbatch to deliver a tour-de-force performance. Unless, that is, you were expecting Cumberbatch to portray Turing in some way that represents the true-life part of the biopic.

I struggled deeply with this film. I’m also struggling trying to figure out how to review it. Is it worth it to try and describe the plot of a true story? Especially when there’s not a lot of true in the story? Alan Turing was a world famous mathematician and early pioneer of the computer, but the film focuses almost entirely on how he pretty much won World War 2 all by himself, which is of course not even remotely true. The film is framed in three time periods: his early years (which are largely fabricated), his work during the war (which is largely exaggerated), and the controversy near the end off his life (which is largely disputed if not entirely made up). I don’t understand who this movie is for. Those that go into the film with a knowledge of the true story will be baffled and upset over the inaccuracies of it. Those that go in without any knowledge of Turing will leave in much the same manner.

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I am going to take a break here to praise the performance of Cumberbatch. He is brilliant throughout the film and displays a range of emotions that could not have been easy to bring to the surface. If you can imagine taking Cumberbatch’s own version of Sherlock and melding it with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory you’d be pretty close to what you get on screen. It is a wonderful performance that is betrayed by the film and the circumstances around it. The blazing performance is also part of the problem with the film as a whole in that Cumberbatch’s performance feels like a performance. We know he’s acting his ass off and even though it’s fun to watch that doesn’t mean it fits into the film. Cumberbatch does a good job of showing off what he can do, but the film isn’t better for it.

The Imitation Game is so bloodless and inert for a subject matter so naturally interesting, but who’s at fault is difficult to pinpoint. The direction from Morten Tyldum is competent if a little clunky at times. The script is written so that everyone speaks in exposition and the only emotion allowed to creep into the dialogue must be delivered in overly dramatic monologues. Every actor besides Cumberbatch plays every scene on the edge of dull which may be a script/direction problem, or it may be to let Cumberbatch look even more manic. Either way it’s a disservice to the film as a whole. The only person to come out of this film untainted is composer Alexandre Desplat. The score is beautiful and carried more emotional weight than most of the actors.

I understand when a movie takes a real situation and uses artistic license to make the story a tad more entertaining. I don’t understand using artistic license and still leaving the film flat. If you’re going to change the story to make it more palatable or exciting it has to, in fact, BE more exciting. All of this run around brings me back to the question of why. Why was this film made and who is it for? When the obligatory information cards ran before the credits to tell us what happened to the people after the film ends, a woman behind me gave a slight gasp and asked her companion, “this is a real story?!” I suppose that’s the kind of person the film is for.
Grade: D+

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12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to speak about 12 Years a Slave. This is a deeply emotional film and is affecting in ways that simmer underneath our consciousness. 12 Years a Slave is unflinching, brutal, stylistic, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Steve McQueen has crafted a film that is powerful in its honesty and manages to make the audience feel sympathetic for the characters while simultaneously feeling implicitly involved in their situation. McQueen’s true artistry shines through as he juxtaposes all of the clashing elements of life during the slavery era.

12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name written by Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man living in New York State in 1841 when he was kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into slavery. He was forced to hide his upbringing in order to survive. The film follows Northup as he is bounced from plantation to plantation and tries to get word to his friends in the north who can rescue him. We are shown Northup wallowing in various stages of grief while alternately assimilating to his situation. He is utterly debased by being a slave, but in order to make it through he must be the slave his master wants.

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Solomon Northup is played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His expressive eyes let the audience feel his journey and every moment of grief, anguish, and hope are reflected. This is a masterful performance by Ejiofor and is deserving of every accolade that will be heaped upon it. There are two plantation owners that are given significant supporting turns. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the marginally benevolent Master Ford and Michael Fassbender plays the excessively cruel Master Epps. Cumberbatch is excellent in his limited screen time, but Fassbender is truly wonderful. He lets the character be evil, while still being human. He is a deeply flawed man and Fassbender does not go over the top in his performance instead letting the confliction resonate in his actions without resorting to evil villain diatribes. There will be less praise for Fassbender’s performance due to the obvious debauched nature of the character, but it is a stunning portrayal nonetheless.

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Steve McQueen has a wonderful eye for beauty in the abhorrent and stages much of the drama to the edges of the screen. There is beauty everywhere in the world and if you look just past it you will see the violence and depravity hiding around the edges. This is but one of the many shrewd choices McQueen makes that elevate this film. There are two instances where McQueen has the actors break the fourth wall and look directly at the camera. This tactic makes the audience feel as if they are a part of this story. It makes it uncomfortable to watch, as if our watching is somehow allowing the events to happen. It is also a theme that is brought up numerous times throughout the film. Events of staggering violence and cruelty are witnessed by bystanders who treat them as normal. There is no outcry. There is hardly any reaction at all.

12 Years a Slave is the story of a human travesty wrapped in exquisite filmmaking. It is remarkably powerful and heart breaking. It evokes emotion at every turn leaving the audience almost physically tired by its completion. This is a film that forces us to look at the realities of life during that dark period of American history as few, if any, films ever have or probably ever will. It is amazing filmmaking and a triumph in every way. Brilliant craftsmanship with a stellar presentation.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams has created a Star Trek movie that is a lightsaber away from being a Star Wars movie. It has me conflicted in that I like it very much, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to. I enjoyed watching it while simultaneously being disappointed. The cast is brilliant all around and the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch will always be welcome. The frenetic action is well paced and the set pieces move along smoothly. The plot holds up if you don’t think about it for longer than it’s onscreen. Into Darkness has many things going for it, but the biggest drawback is its insistence on playing it safe.

Into Darkness begins with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) leading the crew of the USS Enterprise on a mission in typical buddy cop fashion. As a result of Kirk’s impetuousness and willingness to break the rules mixed with Spock’s logic and adherence of said rules Kirk has lost the command of his ship. An attack is made against the Federation by John Harrison (Cumberbatch) and in a stunning display of good luck Kirk regains command of his ship with an order to follow Harrison to the Klingon homeworld and eliminate him. Stunning displays of good luck follow Kirk around as if they were his superpower. Thus ends the actual plot of Into Darkness. The movie is essentially a very long chase/revenge film with sci-fi elements.

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It is here that I must confess that Star Trek has never been my series. I was always a Star Wars fan. My Trek viewing was hit and miss throughout. I’ve seen various episodes of the original series and The Next Generation. I’ve never seen any of the later series. I saw some of the movies. I weirdly recall liking the one about whales when I was a child. I have not, however, seen The Wrath of Khan to which Into Darkness is unabashedly homaging (remaking?). I understand there to be many elements of that film that are mirrored in this one, but I am not the target audience for those references. I can only take this film at face value, but I fully understand that there may be a deeper level of satisfaction for someone that gets the references throughout.

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J.J. Abrams continues to inspire wonders with his visual flair. His vision is impeccable. This Star Trek universe feels lived in and every action set piece feels both grandiose and realistic. Visually the film is stunning. The plot is where things start to go wrong. Character’s decisions make very little sense and bad decisions not only go unpunished but sometimes rewarded. The actual plot arc is paper thin as it truly is a straightforward chase film. The disappointment for me came from the lack of anything truly original. While I may not have been a huge Trek fan throughout the years I have always appreciated the originality of the series. It broke new ground and explored strange ideas. Abrams’ version is a paint-by-numbers summer blockbuster affair. The moment the story is introduced you know how it will end. It was a fun ride to take, but ultimately forgettable.

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