Friday, January 30, 2015

The Case for Imitation

Benedict Cumberbatch.

That name evokes a lot of imagery.  Intensity, aloofness, clipped vowels.

Alan Turing.

That name has come to mean a lot more in the years since WW2, knowing as we do now his pivotal role in creating a calculating engine, a computer, to crack the Nazi Enigma code and assist the Allies in wining the war.

The Imitation Game throws the two together, Cumberbatch bringing all of his evocations to the mathematical genius that was Turing, and together they make a gripping and ultimately tragic figure.

The cast list for this film is as impressive as you would imagine, with Keira Knightly and her almighty jaw playing Alan’s love interest, Mark Strong the cool head of British Intelligence and the always magnificent Charles Dance channelling his inner Tyrion Lannister and reducing most men to quivering wrecks under his icy blue gaze.

For me, the film lost quite a bit when Dance’s Commander disappears from the film, as the story goes past the initial attempts to create the machine that would crack the Nazi code to the results of that incredible feat and its impact on the course of the war.  The film too is more interested in telling the tale leading up to the remarkable invention, though Turing’s formative and final years are also revealed in between all the stiff upper lip World War Two action.

The performances aside, the story itself is told in a fairly predictable and unimaginative way.  Its all done very well of course, its just that the usual conflicts arrive at the usual time with the usual coincidences which might or might not have been true (mainly with the minor characters; I imagine the major ones were kept pretty faithful to the reality).  Its all kept above the mediocre by those performances and the truly interesting story of the Turing and what happened to him before, after and during the War.

The real shame comes at the end credits when all the “and what happened next” comes up and so much is left unsaid: what happened to some of the other characters on Turing’s team?  What happened to the policemen who were investigating him?  Why was Turing honoured only just before the film was made?  A film that sheds such light on such an incredible man leaves so many other questions unanswered, though the packed Readings Cinema crowd with whom I shared the experience didn’t really seem to care.

Verdict: The Imitation Game has its ups and downs and the goes down even lower as Turing “wins” the war and then loses the battle.  It’s another great Cumberbatch performance, and the rest of the cast are amazing too, bringing a lot more grip to an otherwise middling film about a fascinating person.  7 Christophers out of 10.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Case for the Hobbit - 3 in 1

So, the end is in sight.  In High Frame Resolution and in 3D as well. 

On the HFR – I am not convinced as while the image is sharper, it also seems to make everything look more fake.  As to the 3D, its rare I notice 3D after the first few minutes (except Hercules – well done the Rock!) and while there are some definite “3D moments”, I forgot about it for most of the film.

Technically, the film is amazing and beautiful after a fashion.  It looks almost more computer game than live action, which is both an achievement and a disappointment. 

As a film, on a level other than as a visual (and audio) spectacular, the third Hobbit film feels pretty flat.  Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins does what he can with a character cast adrift from anything that might make him likeable..  The many dwarves (now basically interchangeable apart from the tall one and the handsome one) likewise tend to talk at rather than with others, sometimes in slow motion and with extra bass for added tedium.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan), away for a bit but back for the final battle, doesn’t really have a lot to say or do either, though this probably has more to with the source material than a determination to sideline him  The Bowman, trying to save the town from the Desolation of Smaug, becomes the main hero of the first part of the film and then basically vanishes once the Elves arrive and the five armies start battling each other – presumably he ends up happily with his family rather than slain by the evil hordes.

Besides the characters cast adrift, there are the missteps too: the snivelling lackey in the second film becomes the wildly unfunny comic relief in this film and it’s a complete mystery why he seems to have more screen time than… well, anyone.  Billy Connelly shows up as a shouty dwarf, and what should be an amusingly unhinged turn as a belligerent general is obscured by some glaringly disturbing CGI that does obscene and unforgivable things to the man’s face.  And some cameos from the Lord of the Rings series hint at a better story elsewhere, and leave taking that with them.  

But then, the film really is about fighting and there is a lot of that.  Its all amazingly done, with swirling shots and incredible backdrops and death defying acrobatics and it all feels incredibly fake and almost completely unengaging, unlike the battles in Return of the King.  Legolas, looking older than ever, gets to do more ridiculously naff jumpy leapy things and is never in any real danger even though his presence dominates a lot of the fighting scenes.  I have to admit that I liked the big showdown between the big bad and the big (well, ish) good, though I had hoped it would have ended before it did and in a less… conventional fashion – probably again a book issue rather than a fault of the writers.

Overall, the film is incredible, amazing, and utterly underwhelming.  I thought there may have been a smattering of applause once the film concluded, as there sometimes is for these “event” films, but people just packed up and wandered off, no one seeming too blown away by what they had seen.  As one person said to me afterwards, “It has ended and I felt I had to see them all”.  And it did kind of feel that way too, more as a chore than a real pleasure.  Which is a total shame.  No need to buy these on DVD – I would rather go back to the Lord of the Rings methinks and remember the glory days.

Verdict: The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies was the ending and thank heaven for that.  Remarkable in so many ways and yet not really a particularly enjoyable film, there are flashes of brilliance and excitement that are quickly buried beneath layers of CGI and the underlying feeling that the writers just wanted to get it finished and have finally got there.  3 Armies out of 5.