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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Philomena

That Dame Judi Dench sure knows how to pick her roles. (Chronicles of Riddick being ignored of course.) Dench plays the eponymous Philomena in a star vehicle supported by a wonderfully understated performance from Steve Coogan. This film is a tad overbearing at times with tragedy around every single corner. If you can imagine the worst possible outcome in every situation that will be what happens. What mostly saves the film from being unbearable is Dench and Coogan who are both heart-wrenching and inspired.

Philomena has held a secret for 50 years. She bore a child as a teenager and was then banished to a convent to atone for this sin. The child was adopted against her will and she never spoke of the incident to anyone even after she left the convent. Now 50 years later she enlists the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith to see if he can help her find the son she lost long ago.

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Judi Dench is of course wonderful as the aging Irish woman who is one step back of the times. She is a devout Catholic and the contrast plays nicely off of Coogan’s intolerable cynicism as Sixsmith. The interplay between the two is the reason to watch the film. The plot is fairly heavy handed and contains all of the melodramatic elements one would expect from this type of material, but to the film’s credit it underplays most of the emotions rather than exaggerating them. Every scene between Dench and Coogan is wonderful while the rest fall flat or reek of manipulation. The tone is uneven and the emotional ride gets tiring by the end. Sadly, Dench and Coogan deserve a better script than the one they got, although Coogan’s credit as a screenwriter makes him fairly responsible for it as well as a victim.

Philomena is being marketed as a comedy which is baffling to me. There are a few laughs here and there but the story is far from a comedy. The story is depressing, but the manipulative tone belies some of the genuine emotions that come. All of this leads to a film that can’t be a comedy due to the nature of the story and is too contrived to be genuinely dramatic. The true heart of the film is the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith. Their interplay is wonderful and a whole film could be supported of them just talking about life. Take the burden of tragedy out of the plot and I envision a non-romantic version of Before Sunset with these characters would be amazing. As it is, Philomena is a tad underwhelming.
Grade: C+

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Nebraska

Alexander Payne has crafted Nebraska in a remarkably specific style and tone that is very reminiscent of the subject matter itself. It’s flat. Nebraska is filmed in black and white which serves to mute everything and give it that sameness that is so closely associated with middle America. There are no false steps in the film, nor are there any detracting performances. I say all of this at the forefront to explain that there is nothing wrong with this film, and yet, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because this film comes so close to everyday life around where I’m from that it ended up depressing me. That’s not the film’s fault and I wanted to make sure that level of transparency was intact before I begin.

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Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an elderly man that thinks he’s won a million dollars in a marketing sweepstakes. Woody enlists the help of his son David (Will Forte) to travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize stopping along the way to visit Woody’s hometown. The booze-addled Woody has little love for pretty much everybody and as the news of Woody’s winnings spread the vultures begin their hunt.

Bruce Dern is superb as Woody. He effortlessly portrays a man that has lost his tenuous grasp on anything resembling usefulness and somehow manages to make his eyes vacant and determined. Will Forte is primarily known for being a comedian and a fairly risqué one at that, but he has a common man vulnerability as David that he hasn’t shown much before. However, both leads are shown up by the wonderful June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering wife. She is charming in every scene she’s in and it’s a shame that she wasn’t in them all. Squibb is a treasure.

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Nebraska is a pitch perfect portrayal of small town life in the middle of nowhere. Everything is extremely well done from the top to bottom. I’m assuming even the craft services people were exceedingly competent. Even with all this it wasn’t a movie I enjoyed. I certainly connected with it, which may have been the problem. These are people that just exist with their greatest happiness coming from a new truck and a country song on the jukebox while they drink away the banality of it all. Sounds awful to me. Grade: B-

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