The Imitation Game: the story of Alan Turing, the individual who broke the Nazi Enigma code and arguably one of the primary individuals responsible for the invention of computers. Turing was a mathematician. During the 1930s, he wrote articles about what he called the “universal machine.” It was his writings that brought him to the attention of MI-6 who employed him to break the Nazi military communication code. Turing, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, uses his employment at Bletchley Park to build a computer. His computer, coupled with human insight, breaks the German code. In 2001, a film called Enigma told the basic code breaking story. The Imitation Game’s focus is on Turing. The film’s structure is somewhat awkward. The opening scene takes place after WWII at what appears to be a break-in at Turing’s residence. As the movie unfolds, there are flashbacks to Turing as a school boy then flash-forwards to the events which lead to Turing’s arrest and conviction in 1952 for being a homosexual. Unlike Engima, this script by Graham Moore, which is based on the biography by Andrew Hodges, is for the most part factually accurate. For me to disclose the “Hollywood” moment would not be appropriate. The primary reason Turing is not better known is because the British intelligence service kept Turing’s code breaking work a secret for approximately 50 years after the end of WWII. This 114 minute film is directed by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian making his English language film debut. The supporting cast, particularly Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, another brilliant mathematician, is excellent. The flashbacks offer explanations as to Turing’s behavior, and Alex Lawther as the young Turing is quite good. Turing had a form of autism which prevented him from understanding the figurative meaning of words and, as such, sarcasm and most jokes failed to register with him. Turing’s difficulties interacting with people as an adult were shown in his dealings with his direct superior, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). There are some light, humorous moments in the film, particularly when it creatively displays the effects of Turing’s literalism, such as the scene in which a co-worker tells Turing that his fellow workers are going to lunch. Sometimes you just know a film is going to be enjoyable from the preview. This is one of those films. The key is Cumberbatch’s performance. Turing is a complex person trying to solve what may have been unsolvable without the aid of the computer he invented. I doubt that Turing was likeable in real life but he is on screen. This film is on my 2014 Ten Best list.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
FORCE MAJEURE: a film about relationships. This film takes place at the Les Ares Ski Lodge in France. The opening scene of the lodge is gorgeous. The main characters are a Swedish family of four, and the film chronicles the family’s six days at the resort. In an early scene, the wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), tells another guest that this vacation is to give the husband an opportunity to reconnect with his family. The husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is some type of businessman; we are not given any information about his work. Based on events of the first day, you would think they are an ideal family; European picture perfect. However, on the second day, while they are having lunch on the lodge’s deck, it appears that a controlled avalanche has gone out of control. The rest of this 118-minute film deals with the fact that rather than acting to save his family, Tomas reacts out of fear. As it turns out, the avalanche does not harm anyone and all the lunch guests return to their tables and finish their meals. Ebba stays with the children throughout the incident. When she later tells the story, Tomas does not acknowledge his fear reaction. Over the next two days, the couple’s relationship deteriorates. By the third day, Ebba skies alone. On the fourth day, Tomas skies with a male friend, Mats. The previous evening there had been an awkward but funny interaction among Mats, his girlfriend, Ebba and Tomas. While addressing a serious issue – Tomas’ manhood and courage – the film intersperses humor. The movie, directed by Ruben Ostland, appears on some critics’ Top 10 list. While it won’t be on mine, this film is definitely worth seeing. If you’re into skiing, it might be a must see. I found the ending sequence of the film odd; I would have ended the story five minutes earlier. The fact that the director structured the story to coincide with each new day, without using any flashbacks, gives an element of suspense to the story.
Monday, December 8, 2014
The Homesman: not your typical western. The film opens with Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) plowing a field. It is Nebraska in the early 1850’s. The film initially focuses on Mary Bee and her uniqueness in the small farming community. She is single and self-supporting. She also wants a husband. As the storyline develops, we learn how lonely and devastating life is for most women living on the frontier. In fact, three women have become mentally ill and need to be returned to civilization which, in this story, is Iowa. Mary Bee is the person who will take the women to Iowa because no one else in the community appears willing or capable of handling the multi-week journey. Shortly before her journey begins, Mary Bee meets the Tommy Lee Jones character, George Briggs, who is sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck and the rope tied to a tree. She saves Briggs from the hanging and extracts his promise to help her take the women to Iowa. Once the journey begins, there are clips of traditional western footage with a bad man scene and a scene with Indians. The bleakness of the journey and the landscape is fully developed. Although the three women are in many of the scenes, this film is about Mary Bee and, later, about Briggs. Tommy Lee Jones directs this 120 minute movie and the script is based upon a book with the same title. There are surprises and I won’t comment further on the storyline. There are three actors with short but memorable roles: John Lithgow in the first part of the movie as the reverend who organizes the trip; Meryl Streep at the end of the film as the Iowa minister’s wife; and James Spader in a short but memorable scene - as only Spader is able to do: you will remember his character. The film plays out as a critique of virtually all female characters in every western movie you’ve ever seen. Swank’s performance could result in another Oscar nomination for her. Jones is also superb but, like Bill Murray in St. Vincent, Briggs is a character Jones has done many times before. Rodrigo Prieto may receive a nomination for cinematography. I recommend you see this movie.
Monday, December 1, 2014
The Theory of Everything: the Stephen Hawking movie. Sometimes an interesting story, when coupled with excellent acting, is enough. This film, which is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s autobiography, opens with Stephen Hawking as a 21-year old doctoral candidate at Cambridge and runs through the publication of his best seller “A Brief History of Time”. It is a story about the individuals, Stephen and Jane, and their marriage. Eddie Redmayne gives a magnificent performance as Hawking. (I’ve now seen three films in a row where the leading male actor offers an Oscar quality performance.) Prior to seeing Theory of Everything, I knew nothing about Hawking’s personal life. Hawking and Jane meet at Cambridge and become involved prior to learning that Hawking has been diagnosed with what the film calls “a motor neuron disorder” - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or, to most of us, Lou Gehrig’s disease. At the time of diagnosis, Hawking is told he has only two years to live; he is now 72. The film’s strength lies primarily in the scenes with Jane (Felicity Jones), particularly when she motivates and convinces Hawking not to let the disease own him. Jane, Stephen or both are on screen for most of the film’s 123 minutes. The first half of the movie is a true love story. There are also some comic lines, partly based on the fact that Hawking was able to father 3 children, the last one after the disease had taken considerable control over his body. James Marsh is the director and he allows the story to unfold. Unfortunately, the film drifts into focusing on Hawking’s awards without really explaining the change that had occurred in the couple’s relationship. Also, one is left to wonder whether the fact that Hawking has lived 50 years longer than originally predicted is due solely to excellent medical care. The films holds your interest because it doesn’t try to explain the math. It would, however, have been a more fulfilling story if we’d been given more of an explanation as to what happened in the relationship and why Hawking has so thoroughly surpassed the ALS survival odds. That said, fundamentally, Redmayne and Jones’ performances are sufficient reasons to see this film.