The Imitation Game is the second biopic this season that attempts to portray a well known genius but like The Theory of Everything, Game somehow loses its way and seems to have trouble conveying what was so remarkable about its subject. As the marketing cleverly suggests, Alan Turing was indeed an enigma but director Morten Tyldum does little to shed any new light on his personal or professional affairs. It’s a very straightforward, easily digestable film and while it has an worthwhile story to tell, I can’t help but feel disappointed that it didn’t probe deeper into Turing’s mind.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the legendary mathmetician with the same brand of affable arrogance that he’s perfected in the BBC series Sherlock. The film follows Turing during important stretches of his life but focuses primarily on his time as an MI6-recruited cryptanalyst during the Second World War. He leads a crack team of coding experts, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), to eventually break the daunting Nazi Enigma code and provide the Allied Forces with a tactical advantage that would eventually lead to their early victory in the War.
The wartime code breaking section of the movie is its most compelling, distilling the team’s years of struggle with the nigh indecipherable cryptograph into moments of crushing defeat and inspiring triumph. The film’s most poignant scene comes after the code is broken, in which the group’s knowledge of an impending Nazi attack must be kept confidential in order to keep the secrecy of their solution in tact. The scene delves further into the tragic irony of this realization, as one of the coders recognizes one of the Nazi’s targets as the boat on which his brother is serving. It’s a heartbreaking moment and a memorable emotional climax for the film.
Sadly, the portions of the story that involve Turing’s troubled times as a boarding school student and his personal post-War struggles that led to his eventual suicide are not nearly as affecting. The push-pull nature of the flashbacks and flash forwards is distracting and simply not worth it, given that there’s more than enough to dissect in the main mission storyline alone. Especially contrived is the repetition of a line about exceeding expectations that made me roll my eyes all three times that it was uttered. The movie is also awkwardly framed within an interrogation scene that never leads to anything that would justify its inclusion in the first place.
Despite these directorial flaws, The Imitation Game finds its most indespensible asset in Cumberbatch, who has a knack for unveiling layers of repressed emotion in his portrayals of brilliant men. Knightly also turns in a confident performance as a longtime partner of Turning’s, who wasn’t shy about going toe-to-toe with him on an intellectual and personal basis throughout his life. Unfortunately, the good work by the actors here is hindered by a lack of chronological cohesion and an overall shallow approach to a complicated historical figure.
The new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully frustrating film that sports a truly spellbinding lead performance by Eddie Redmayne but is lacking in just about every other category. Almost all of its scenes feel like they were designed to provide just enough conflict to advance the story but not enough to challenge the viewer in any way. Perhaps some will be taken with its pleasant and vapid retelling of Hawking’s first marriage but on the whole, I was somehow offended by the inoffensive tone of the entire movie.
We start at Cambridge University in 1963, where the young Hawking meets and subsequently courts a charming literature student named Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones. After an innocuous fall in the park, he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and informed by his campus physician that he has 2 years to live. Despite this revelation, Jane vows to remain by his side as he pursues a burgeoning career in theoretical physics. While their marriage is constantly tested by his worsening condtion, they find solace in a third-party father figure named Jonathan Jones, who is played by Charlie Cox.
Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is nothing short of astonishing and frankly, it may be one of the only compelling reasons to see the film in the first place. He’s able to capture Hawking’s gradual deterioration with an incredible range of facial and physical expressiveness but most importantly, he’s able to convey the spirit of a fiery genius without uttering a single word. Even when he’s wheelchair bound and nearly unintelligible, there’s a devilish wit working tirelessly beneath the surface that Redmayne is able to communicate to the audience on a seemingly telepathic level.
Despite this tremendous performance and Hawking’s remarkable life achievements, the film decides to focus instead on Jane’s struggle as a wife and mother of three children. This perspective could have proven interesting had the execution not been so toothless but more often than not, we’re left with melodramatic scenes that don’t resonate or build to anything meaningful. While the direction by James Marsh is frequently aimless, it deserves to be said that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is not as overly sentimental as it could have been and light touches of humor are applied gracefully throughout the movie.
Marsh previously crafted the gripping and inventive documentary Man On Wire and it’s a shame to see a talented director create something as stripped down and apprehensive as The Theory of Everything is. Only in its third act when Hawking’s ability to communicate is revitalized do we see glimmers of a more thoughtful movie. I wish to believe that Marsh had a much more clever vision in mind for this story that was suppressed by the film’s producers in order to streamline it for Oscar contention. Redmayne will no doubt get the attention he so rightly deserves but beyond that, the film is a black hole of biopic aspirations.
It’s almost impossible for a film to live up to the amount of hype that The Interview had prior to its troubled release. Threats from the North Korean government and the “Guardians of Peace” Sony Pictures hack thrust the comedy into a political spotlight for weeks as the film’s release status hung in limbo amid national conversations about artistic censorship. Despite all this, the movie has been released in limited theaters and On Demand and while it certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty political ambitions that have been placed on it, The Interview has enough goofy exchanges and memorable one-liners to merit it a modest success.
Rogen plays Aaron Rappaport, long time collaborator and close friend of entertainment talk show host Dave Skylark, played with idiotic glee by James Franco. After their 1000th episode together, they get word that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, played by Randall Park, is a big fan of their show and he invites them to his headquarters in Pyongyang to get the world’s most exclusive interview. Upon hearing the news, Aaron and Dave are intercepted by the CIA with the hopes that the two can carry out an assassination attempt on one of the world’s most ruthless leaders.
This setup should give the sense that The Interview has its heart set on being more of a silly spy farce rather than some piece of sharp political satire. There are some shots taken at the propaganda that Kim Jong Un directs at his people but the majority of the comedy is more broad, focusing largely on bodily function punchlines and the type of ridiculous, over-the-top violence that also took hold of the climax of the Rogen-Franco led Pineapple Express. Also present from that film is the comedic chemistry between the two leads, which is more palpable here than ever before.
Of the two performances, Franco is the clear standout. His Dave Skylark is a character who steadily wears you down with his dopey affability until just about everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious. The best scenes in the movie showcase Dave and Kim Jong Un’s blossoming bromance ,which includes shooting hoops with margaritas in hand and listening shamelessly to Katy Perry. There’s a manic charisma in Franco’s performance that reminded me of other comedic actors like Mike Myers or Jim Carrey, who also work hard to get the audience on their side. He has a comedic magnetism here that is so effective, it’s almost a let down when he isn’t present on screen.
Indeed, the scenes that feature Rogen without Franco often flounder without their chemistry, including a romantic subplot with Kim Jong Un’s assistant that simply goes nowhere. Rogen’s comedic talent as an actor is squandered here but he proves himself again as a competent director alongside Evan Goldberg, with whom he also co-directed last year’s This Is The End. The Interview may not have the satirical bite that curious audiences may come to expect but has enough lowbrow laughs to make it worth their while anyway.
How is greatness made? Hard work and dedication, sure, but can truly great figures of history get there through normal circumstances or is there a deeper pain that must be confronted and overcome? Is it worth pushing these figures away from the possibility of a normal life in order to serve a higher calling? The new music-based film Whiplash, one of this year’s very best, deals with these concepts with brutal honesty and feverish intensity. It sometimes feels like a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which also dealt with the darker side of ambition and the potential perils of perfectionism.
Miles Teller, one of the best young actors working today, plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman jazz drummer who is just starting out at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. After drumming in a practice room late one evening, he is discovered by the conductor of the school’s lead jazz band Terence Fletcher, played with merciless tenacity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees potential in Andrew and invites him to play in his group but after a verbally abusive confrontation with Andrew on his first sit-in, it’s clear that Fletcher’s teaching tactics will push him further than he’s gone before.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Teller and Simmons are here. Both do so much to defy the typical teacher-student role conventions seen in lesser films and instead create believable characters that are morally complex and psychologically compelling throughout. Fletcher is generally monstrous and Andrew is often sympathetic, if by necessity, but each character is given a fair trial and first-time director Damien Chazelle doesn’t give us an easy sense on which character is right or wrong in what they’re doing. He gives us the opportunity of perspective and allows us to make up our own minds; a refreshing concept.
Another refreshing aspect of this movie is the way it doesn’t bind itself to traditional Hollywood storytelling methods. There are subplots involving Andrew’s caring father and also his temporary girlfriend that serve the story purposefully but the majority of the run time is tightly focused on the relationship between these two complicated characters. It also doesn’t shy away from mental and physical anguish associated with being the best in a highly competitive field. There are no convenient montages of steady progression; we see all of the tears, sweat and yes, blood, along the way.
Chazelle uses these tortuous settings to create a relentlessly tense and downright dangerous atmosphere that had me pinned down from beginning to end. There’s an anxious, propulsive energy to Whiplash that gives it a bracingly unpredictable quality, especially leading up to and including the film’s spellbinding climax which further showcases Teller’s amazing abilities behind the drum set. Frankly, I’ve never seen a movie that was this singularly focused on music performance and as a musician, I was thrilled and delighted to find a film that dealt with the subject passionately and intelligently.
Those who like their movie franchises unnecessarily drawn out and bloated, fear not: the final chapter of The Hobbit series is upon us at last and I fear that not even the most staunch Tolkien devotees will find much to like in the joyless obligation that is The Battle of the Five Armies. The whimsy and wonder of the previous entries has been replaced with stilted dialogue and endless barrages of computer generated chaos. In fact, this film was previously subtitled There and Back Again but unfortunately, The Battle of the Five Armies turns out to be a more fitting title after all, as the majority of the run time is dedicated to the titular conflict.
We pick back up right where the previous movie left off, with Smaug on his way to terrorize the small town of Esgaroth as Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the Dwarves look on from the Lonely Mountain. After the great dragon is vanquished by Bard, played by Luke Evans, the fate of the vast treasure at Erebor becomes uncertain. Led by the fearless Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, the Dwarves defend their treasure against the Middle Earth armies of men, Elves and Orcs (frankly, I couldn’t tell you after seeing the movie who the Fifth Army is).
From the Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers to the battle at Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, large scale showdowns were an integral part of the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise and they used to be one of director Peter Jackson’s fortes. Some of the sequences in this film feel like a parody of Peter Jackson’s directing style, whether its characters taking long pauses to speak amongst hundreds of characters fighting around them or the hilarious over abundance of Orc beheadings that used to be treated as a novelty in the LotR series but is literally done to death in Five Armies.
When the screen isn’t filled wall to wall with incoherent and increasingly implausible action, we’re treated to meaningless subplots that crop up sporadically throughout. The most noxious are those involving an Elf-Dwarf romance that inspires some amazingly mawkish lines of dialogue like “he is my king but he does not command my heart.” This could possibly be forgiven if the acting was worthwhile but it consistently appears as though the majority of the actors are bored to reprise these roles. Least compelling among these actors is Lee Pace, who has proven again to be a colossal bore in his antagonistic film roles after his charming lead part on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
While plodding through its comparatively gracious runtime of 144 minutes, there’s an unshakable sense of looming déjà vu as one watches this entry in the Hobbit series. It’s the feeling that everything we’re seeing has been done better before and even by the same production team, which is unfortunately the case here more often than not. I personally can’t wait for the day when all the Hobbit films are available on Blu-Ray and someone clever on the internet condenses the three into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Until then, I can’t suggest that even diehard fans go out to see this thud of a conclusion.
After a couple near misses in the director’s chair, Chris Rock returns with his third feature Top Five, which isn’t without its drawbacks but ultimately comes across as Rock’s most honest film to date. The feel and premise recall the recently released Birdman, which both feature actors reflecting on their careers and striving to do more ambitious work in order for their fans and critics to take them more seriously. While the comedy here is decidedly more broad, both films know how to use comedy as a means of catharsis for their lead characters.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a washed-up comedian turned actor who threw away a successful stand-up career for a hit buddy cop franchise called “Hammy the Bear”, which has him running around in a bear suit and shouting catch phrases like “It’s Hammy Time!” As a backlash against the character, he chooses to star in an award-baiting, Haitian revolution movie called “Uprize” in hopes of winning back the critical admiration that he squandered with the “Hammy” series. While back home in New York to tirelessly promote the film, he is followed and questioned by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played with winning charm by Rosario Dawson.
Brown starts with softball questions about Allen’s career and his upcoming celebrity wedding but the questions grow more personal as the day goes on. It turns out that they both have more in common than they think and soon, an easy and likable chemistry forms between the two. Their scenes together make up the best stretches in the movie, whose New York street walk-and-talk style feel like Rock’s version of a Woody Allen movie. The dialogue, also written by Rock, covers Rock’s usual favorite topics of race and relationships but it aims to penetrate deeper into how these characters think and feel.
While I don’t doubt Rock’s merits as an actor or a writer, he still has room to develop as a director. This film has a start-stop, jerky rhythm to it, which is caused by sporadic flashback sequences that are very hit-or-miss on the whole. Some of those scenes just go on for too long, like a flashback to Houston in 2003 when Allen is recounting a “rock bottom” affair that is neither as comedically appealing or dramatically revealing as Rock thinks it is. Others work quite well, including an unexpected rapper’s hilarious rendition of “Smile” while he and Allen are staying the night in jail.
In many ways, Top Five also reminded me of the movie Funny People with Adam Sandler, who is among one of the film’s numerous cameos. Both star comedians who started in stand-up comedy, strayed away to advance their careers but yearn to return to the stage once again. There’s an excitement to performing stand-up that Rock captures well here in the scene after Allen returns to the Comedy Cellar for the first time in years. Likewise, both films also give way to melodramatic turns and meandering subplots but Top Five has enough to recommend to fans of show biz comedies and especially to fans of Chris Rock.
Documentaries can serve many roles: they can inform, they can influence and yes, they can bore. But some, like genre greats Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans, take a seed of an idea and pursue it with the dramatic precision of a fictional feature film. The result is an exquisite experience: watching a true story that feels like it’s being created before our eyes. That’s how I felt while watching The Overnighters, which I found to be one of the most compelling and transfixing documentaries that I’ve seen all year
The movie’s title refers to a program started by Pastor Jay Reinke at his church in Williston, North Dakota, which allows men who are effectively homeless to find shelter as they hope to take advantage of the rampant growth in the area’s fracking jobs. While this is clearly an overwhelming act of charity, Reinke’s plan soon comes under fire from a community whose recent population spike has also seen an increase in the number of felons and criminals residing in the small North Dakota town. When details of an Overnighter’s criminal past come to light, Reinke finds himself in a very public act of moral tug-of-war that threatens to erode his career and his family’s trust.
Even if you take the weighty and worthwhile topics of economic inequality and the nature of charity away from The Overnighters, you would still be left with a fascinating and deeply personal character study. Reinke is compelling for the same reason the main character in a fictional drama would be: we root for him and yet we can’t be entirely sure of his motivations. He consistently refers to himself as a deeply flawed man when confiding in the men that he shelters, although he generally comes off as a thoughtful, charismatic and generally kind person. “It’s easy to become a facade,” he states at the film’s opening, and we don’t fully learn the weight of what he means until the concluding moments of the story.
The entire structure of The Overnighters is similarly purposeful, which can be attributed to the keen eyes and ears of director Jesse Moss. In interviews, Moss has revealed that he originally went to Williston to capture the fracking story and how it affected the community but he shifted his story’s focus when learning of Pastor Reinke and his mission. This spontaneous shift in storytelling makes Moss’ film even more admirable, especially considering that Reinke’s culminating moment in the movie was almost entirely unplanned by the filmmaker.
I also admired Moss’ level headed approach to this material. This is a documentary potentially ripe for loads of political posturing but he gives each character room to express their thoughts and feelings freely instead of editing together a series of talking head interviews to hammer home a point. The Overnighters often plays like a parable for the cynical notion that “no good deed goes unpunished” but in Reinke’s case, the unravelling of that good deed reveals universal truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.
Most modern horror films don’t have as much patience or trust in their audience’s intelligence as The Babadook does. While most work on a surface level that mainly involve knee-jerk reactions and amped up music cues, there is a select class of films like this one that work on an intimate psychological level of dread and discomfort. For those reasons, among others, it stands out as one of the best horror movies of the past few years and certainly the most unique that I’ve seen this year.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a struggling widow and mother of a troubled seven-year-old named Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Through an early flashback, we find that Amelia’s husband Oskar, played by Benjamin Winspear, passed away the night of Samuel’s birth as he was rushing to drive Amelia to the emergency room. It’s made clear that the seven years of single parenthood haven’t been easy on either Amelia or Samuel and when a macabre pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” begins appearing around the house, it unleashes the titular supernatural force that cruelly threatens to rob them of their sanity and their lives.
While the creature is only seen briefly during its moments in the film, its ominous silhouette alone creates a lasting impression and when seen in full, the Babadook reminded me most of a twisted combination of Nosferatu and Jack the Ripper. This archaic aesthetic is fitting, as the lighting and staging in the most climatic scenes feels like a throwback to silent era films. Even the majority of the effects are practical as opposed to computer generated, which lends a more realistic and grounded approach to scenes that may have otherwise come off as cheap or lazy.
Grounded is also a good word to use when describing the storytelling as well, which does involve supernatural elements like ghosts and monsters but is rich with subtext on human issues like the persistence of grief and the hardships of single parenthood. Amelia’s feelings of resentment and exhaustion towards Samuel exist long before the Babadook arrives in their home and director Jennifer Kent does a great job at materializing these impulses in a way that feels psychologically convincing and dramatically satisfying. While some scenes may be a bit too on-the-nose when tying the allegorical elements together, it’s hard to fault a debut film that’s striving to push an entire genre into more narratively complex territory.
It’s difficult, too, to understate the importance of Essie Davis’ performance to the film’s success. She’s a marvel to watch, conveying depths of anguish and rage underneath the guise of a mother trying to put on her best face for her child. When moments of brutal honesty do arrive, Davis delivers them with a frightening amount of conviction. She, along with director Jennifer Kent, have created a very special scare-fest that I hope will haunt audiences for years to come.
The final entry in the Hunger Games series has arrived and in the tradition of the hugely successful Harry Potter and Twilight films, it has been split into two parts with the final film being released a year from now. While I haven’t read the books and can’t tell you if Part 1 creates a viable stopping point for the final film, I can say that this standalone portion of Mockingjay feels quite stretched at feature length and I have a hard time believing that this material couldn’t be skillfully condensed into one movie. Clearly this was a financial decision on the part of Lionsgate to milk their $1.5 billion (and counting) franchise as long as they can.
Mockingjay picks up right where we left off from Catching Fire, with our heroine Katniss Everdeen, played by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, living in the bombed-out District 13 and still reeling from the outcome of the Quarter Quell. Her actions in those Games have sparked uprisings and civil unrest throughout the Districts and the President of 13 Alma Coin, played with conviction by Julianne Moore, hopes to mold Katniss into a symbol of united revolution against the Capitol. She agrees under the condition that her lost love Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, be retrieved from the clutches of the Capitol and its corrupt President Snow, reprised with grinning menace by Donald Sutherland.
The film has taken away what I always thought was one of the least interesting things about the previous entries, the Games themselves, but it hasn’t replaced them with much exciting material either. Fans of the series will likely be put off by the Katniss-less action in Part 1, in which the main character fires exactly one arrow in combat, although it does produce one of the movie’s most satisfying, trailer-ready shots. The majority of the material here is comprised of characters brooding or explaining or plotting, which may prove worthwhile for Part 2 but doesn’t leave us with much for now.
All of the characters, Katniss included, feel sidelined and underutilized, often waiting for things to happen as opposed to moving the story along themselves. If that was a conscious decision on the part of director Francis Lawrence, it comes off more as spinning its wheels rather than organically building tension. The acting here is similarly dubious; I never imagined that Josh Hutcherson would give a more convincing performance than Jennifer Lawrence in this film (or any film, really) but it’s sadly the case here.
Despite this, Mockingjay is not without its share of inspired moments. There are thankfully some beats of levity in a scene that finds Katniss botching her lines for an overproduced propaganda film that has cheeky notes of political satire embedded. I was most taken with a quietly poetic scene in which soldiers infiltrate the Capitol to retrieve previous Tributes, which frequently reminded me of the Abbottabad raid sequence in Zero Dark Thirty. Here’s hoping that the finale has more gripping scenes like this one but for now, it feels like we’re stuck with the world’s most expensive bookmark.
Taken from the name of its main character’s inflammatory radio show, Dear White People is a campus comedy that finds both black and white students coming to terms not only with how others view them but how they view themselves. While the movie and its marketing do have a prickly, sardonic exterior, the core of the film is an intelligent, even-handed look at young people choosing to conform or not conform to others’ expectations of them. First time director Justin Simien explores these layers of identity through a myriad of well-thought-out characters that don’t just serve as mouthpieces for the film’s message.
The lead character Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, is the resident rabble-rouser of the prestigious Winchester University, whose radio show lobs loaded racial one-liners such as “Dear white people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” The show proves offensive to both white and black characters, drawing the ire of the school president’s son Kurt, played by Kyle Gallner, and the dean of Winchester, played by Dennis Haysbert. With the backing of the campus’ Black Student Union, Sam is able to claim control over the all black Armstrong/Parker house from the dean’s son Troy, played by Brandon P. Bell.
As an act of rebellion against Sam’s reign, Kurt and his humor magazine group Patische choose to celebrate their annual Halloween party by throwing an intentionally offensive “black” themed party, complete with blackface makeup and “thugged-out” apparel (the invitation states that XXL is the smallest permissible t-shirt size.) While this may feel like an overreach on Simien’s part, the film’s end credits document real life headlines of fraternities caught hosting eerily similar events. The party serves as the film’s climax, which has noticeable parallels to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
We’re obviously dealing with heavy material here but the level of honesty and humor that Dear White People brings to the conversation of race is refreshing. The acting, by a generally unknown cast, is generally stellar across the board. The screenplay is often witty and relevant, only faltering when going after easy targets like Kanye West and the Big Momma’s House series. Even without the race content, the film would work as a Robert Altman (who is name checked by one of the movie’s characters) influenced look at modern college life.
Certainly this is an ambitious film, especially for a debut, and Simien does spread himself too thin over multiple story lines that come together through one contrivance or another. I would have enjoyed the scope being narrower overall, focusing more intensely on 3-4 characters as opposed to broadly on 7-8 characters. Although tonally consistent, the film’s visual style tries to cover too much ground without ever truly establishing itself in the first place. However, the contemplative musical score does help to fill in those gaps and bring Dear White People together as a worthwhile piece of sharp social satire.