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Controversial Criticism

The Imitation Game (2014) 2.71/5 (1)


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Rating: The Bad – 54
Genre: Drama, War
Duration: 114 mins
Director: Morten Tyldum
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode

Morten Tyldum’s moody WWII drama is based on the true life endeavours of Alan Turing as he attempted to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code by building a top secret machine that would become the platform for the modern computer. Outside of the broader premise which is executed rather well using montages of actual WWII footage, a lot has gone wrong here. The “extraordinary guy in an extraordinary situation” has become a staple of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career so much so that one struggles to think of him as anything but the socially inept, arrogant, patronising, superior mind so far removed from the rest of us that he’s destined to be misunderstood forever. What’s worse is that, over the last decade, this personality has crept insidiously into the television and Hollywood mediums like few others. Everyone from Hugh Laurie’s House MD to Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson has had a crack at it and while a small few like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network have done it with a level of complexity that humanises the conceit, most have bored the socks off us. If Cumberbatch’s Sherlock placed him among Eisenberg’s precious minority, his version of Alan Turing is very much the other kind – though his screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’ biography) should shoulder some of the blame. Inaccessible but interesting isn’t easy to pull off but a lack of effort in achieving such balance is what is most concerning here. Everyone seems happy enough to portray the tortured mathematician as an oddball and nothing more. To celebrate it, in fact. As such we get a one-dimensional (not to mention cliched) central performance that scuppers the film from the outset.

Unfortunately, the screenwriting problems don’t end with its protagonist for The Imitation Game is the latest film to culminate every sequence of dialogue with an awfully clever sounding bit of folkish wisdom framing the entire scene around it as if to iterate that we’ve just heard something very special. You know, kind of like grabbing the audience by the back of the head and forcing them to appreciate the “genius” of the line up close. Sadly, more often than not, lines such as “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” are borne of anything but genius and so the less attention they attract the better for everyone. But of course increasing the pace of the dialogue helps substantially in disguising inanity as wisdom and The Imitation Game isn’t about to buck the trend here either. Nor is it likely to pass up an opportunity to intertwine three different timelines from Turing’s life so as to tease out the ostensible profundity of the movie’s title (and that of his most famous book). After all, the dual relevance of mimicry to his personal and professional life is so subtle that it needs to be the central thread of any modern movie that has designs on being “smart”. What better way to achieve this than employing a similar backstory device as that used by The Social Network. And didn’t they talk really fast there too? Wait a minute! Is this a WWII version of Fincher’s classic? Well not quite because Fincher, Sorkin, and their cast gave their characters depth to begin with. The devices simply allowed for an artful way to unfold those layers.

With such bland characterisation, The Imitation Game instead gives one the distinct impression of being conned. Conned into thinking Turing is being humanised without him actually being humanised. That he and his fellow code breakers are intelligent in the absence of any really intelligent dialogue. That the film is profound even though it’s not. In fact, one could argue that it stands as testament to how far mainstream movie-making has strayed from the basics of storytelling so as to indulge gimmicks and the formula of those few thematically similar films that have proved successful. That it toils in a genre that has been addressed over and over again by previous generations of filmmakers perhaps underlines this more but it’s about time producers reinvested some trust in the writing process.

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The Lookout (2007) 3.05/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 70.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Scott Frank
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a former high school hockey star Chris Pratt, whose life was critically altered when he caused a fatal car accident which left two dead, one deformed, and him with enough neurological damage to prevent him from concentrating, remembering, and planning his day-to-day behaviour. Working as a janitor in a small town bank, he’s befriended by an enigmatic young man (Matthew Goode) who manipulates him into a criminal complicity despite warnings from the only person in his life who has been looking out for him, his blind roommate Lewis (played by Jeff Daniels).

The Lookout is an interesting thriller in nearly every respect. Written and directed by Scott Frank (the writer behind two of the best scripts of the last 20 years, Out of Sight and Get Shorty), the plot is the only aspect to the film that comes close to being conventional and even it is fresh and imaginative relative to most thrillers. The central characters of Chris and Lewis are highly atypical given that they are both lacking in charm, sophistication, toughness or any of the other traits we typically associate with central protagonists. Furthermore, their disabilities limit the chances that they are going to dramatically morph into a classic hero type at any point during the film. Their dialogue is without verve or finesse and while Lewis is at least witty, Chris is unavoidably (due to his injury) literal and stilted in his speech. Despite that they both come off as quite compelling due to clever character construction, the relationship dynamics which Frank’s writing facilitates, and the acting.

Daniels is in his usual fine form as the wise geek and he is largely responsible for the little bit of warmth which emanates from the bleak set up. Levitt is to be commended for not attempting sneak glimpses of coolness in his character here or there (which many A-list actors would) in an effort to compensate for the character’s limitations. That said, the integrity of his performance, does leave his character almost too pitiable and the audience is left looking for someone to pin their confidence to. This is both a weakness and a strength to The Lookout because from one point of view, there’s no central drive to the film but from another, peripheral characters are given the room to develop in a way that they would not normally be given.

The decision to shoot in stark colours and in a bleak wintry setting accentuates the sense of coldness which the unique characters offer as does Frank’s restrained pacing. Again, while all this adds to the integrity of the story, it doesn’t necessarily make for good cinema because, there’s little for the audience to gravitate towards. However, Frank craftily exploits this by introducing an extremely compelling bad guy (brilliantly acted by Matthew Goode) at just the right moment. We know he’s bad news from the beginning but the bleak set up ensures we want to see more of him – even (especially) if it means he can help Chris tap his potential as a criminal. This is a brave and fascinating curve ball from Frank and it happens just in time. It all builds up to a well written bank robbery which is beautifully lit and staged through Frank’s direction. The action is perhaps less spectacular than in other films of its ilk but it’s unfolds in a satisfying manner as well as remaining respectful of the premise.

The Lookout makes a point of being unpredictable by refusing to give into the audience’s demands at most points during the film. This alone makes it worthy of a watch but through the various clever devices which Scott Frank writes into the story, the audience is strangely drawn into this bleak tale and given unexpected rewards in the process. There’s no guarantee that you’ll love it (though you might), but you won’t feel cheated either.

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