Archive for November, 2014

The Imitation Game

Posted: November 27, 2014 in Film reviews
Tags:

Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

In 1951 the home of Professor Alan Turing is burgled but nothing is taken. The case is investigated by Detective Nock (a wonderfully crumpled Rory Kinnear) who suspects something odd is going on, in particular when he discovers that Turing’s war record doesn’t exist…

During the early days of World War 2 we see Alan Turing interviewed for a mysterious job at Bletchley Park by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). Whilst Denniston finds Turing annoying, he is impressed when Turing correctly guesses that the job in question is to break the German’s Enigma code, and Turing is hired.

Whilst initially working under Hugh Alexander (Mathew Goode) Turing eventually becomes leader of the team. He hires new members, including Joan Clarke (Knightley), and focuses funding into the building of a code breaking computer he names Christopher, much to the chagrin of his fellow code breakers who think it is a waste of time and money.

With the war going badly, rumours of a soviet spy in the camp, and Denniston’s increasing desire to get rid of him, Turing frantically tries to get Christopher to work. Meanwhile in 1951 revelations of Turing’s secret life threaten his career, whilst in the 1920s we get a glimpse of his schooldays, and some of the events that shaped the man…

There is something very old fashioned about The Imitation Game, and yet at the same time something thoroughly modern. To begin with it seems like pretty standard fare, lots of stiff upper lips and plummy accents, an underdog who gains the respect of his peers and saves the day, but the film works on several levels and, as it progresses it gives us so much more than this, taking the story into darker and more devious places than you might have imagined, and even if you think you know the story of Alan Turing the chances are you don’t know everything.

It’s difficult to review the film without reference to some spoilers, I think they’re fairly common knowledge but if you don’t know much about Turing or World War 2, and you plan to see the film, you might want to stop reading now…

…Still there? Ok, hopefully most people will be aware that we won World War 2, in large part down to those at Bletchley Park, primarily Turing, who broke the Enigma code. It’s also common knowledge that Turing was a homosexual, and at that he likely committed suicide after being chemically castrated for his ‘supposed’ deviance.

Given these facts it’s to the filmmakers credit that they still manage to wring tension out of the decryption of Enigma, especially given that for large portions of the film this comes down to watching a big clunking computer made up of cogs whirring, yet there is a palpable thrill when the code breakers realise the key to untangling Enigma, a few words encoded within every message, and there’s more than a hint of amusing irony in those words as well.

It’s worth noting as well that despite Turing’s proclivities his cack-handed proposal and engagement to Joan still manages to be so sweet, and it’s nice to see a relationship that doesn’t follow the rigid lines normally associated with a filmic relationship between a man and a woman. Although I can see how some would perceive the focus on his relationship with Joan as somehow shying away from his homosexuality I found if anything that it reinforced his true nature.

Whether or not Cumberbatch will be rewarded for his efforts come awards season is something I can’t foresee, however I really hope he is, because he proves yet again what a powerful actor he is. In some respects his Turing has facets in common with Sherlock, whilst in others the two men couldn’t be more different. Both are incredibly intelligent, and both struggle connecting with their fellow human beings, but whilst Sherlock’s indifference comes down to clinical superiority, Turing is far more human, he simply struggles to read other’s emotions. It’s never explicitly said, but the inference is that he had Asperger’s to some degree. Odd, obsessed and not exactly user friendly, it’s to Cumberbatch’s credit that he imbues the man with so much humanity.

Knightley does the best she can with the character of Joan, and though for a lot of the film all that’s required of her is a jolly hockey sticks attitude, when called upon she delivers some powerful scenes, most notably when Turing breaks off their engagement.

There’s able support all round, Charles Dance rarely turns in a poor performance and Mark Strong is equally good as the Machiavellian head of MI6. Special mention must go to Alex Lawther as the young Turing. At times his performance rivals that of Cumberbatch.

A few scenes of German bombers and U-Boats aside there’s little in the way of action, and the facts of the story are well known enough that there aren’t too many major surprises. The soviet agent subplot feels forced and, oddly, the story does feel quite contrived at times, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this did really happen, but this is a fascinating story, well told, about a man who should be lauded and championed not only for his wartime achievements, but also his importance to the development of computers, and yet who, due to the age in which he lived, ended up a mere footnote of history for far too many years.

Some films are good, and some films are important. The Imitation Game manages to be both, for a film about imitation this is the real deal.

Advertisements

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Katniss Everdeen has survived the 75th Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell. Having destroyed the force field surrounding the arena rebel forces were able to swoop in and rescue Katniss, Finick and Beetee, whisking them away to an underground base that is all that remains of District 13, which was ‘supposedly’ destroyed by the Capitol. Katniss is angry that the other surviving victors, Peeta, Johanna and Annie, were left behind, and angry that she wasn’t made aware of the plot to rescue them all. She’s so angry that when the leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the former Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) ask her to become the figurehead of the rebellion, the Mockingjay, she refuses.
After her sister, Prim suggests that they’re so desperate for Katniss to front their propaganda campaign that they’d accede to any demand she might want to make, Katniss says she’ll be the Mockingjay, but only if the rebels agree to rescue Peeta and the others at the earliest opportunity. Coin agrees and Katniss is asked to front a series of Propos (propaganda films). Katniss is stiff and comes across badly in the scripted, studio bound propos, and so it’s decided that the best way to use her is by sending her out into the combat areas where she can more easily be herself. She’s accompanied by a small unit including her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and former Capitol filmmaker Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and sent to District 8. It’s supposed to be a secure area, but when he discovers she’s there, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) orders in the bombers…
Can Katniss survive the attack on District 8 and will the rebellion succeed, and what will happen to the Capitol’s answer to the Mockinjay, their own propaganda voice…Peeta Mellark!

Of course if you’ve read the books you’ll know the answers to these questions, and if you haven’t read the books, well you won’t get all the answers until next year, thanks to the (probably predictable) decision to split the final book into two films. I can understand why they did it, both from a purely cynically financial perspective and also from a narrative one, but it does mean we’re left hanging. I have to say I agree with their choice of the stopping off point, a far more intimate moment than they could have chosen and I’m glad they didn’t end with a big battle.
What the split does mean is that the first part may be lacking in action for some people, although there are still a few set pieces so it isn’t all, as I’ve heard it described, ‘talking in corridors’.
Although I have to say I like the fact that this is less of an action film than a film about propaganda. Katniss might now be fighting for the good guys, but in many respects the rebels are using her as patently as the Capitol did. She’s still being dressed and promoted as a symbol, only now she’s a symbol of the rebellion rather than a symbol of the Capitol’s dominance over the districts. Throw in Peeta being used as the Capitol’s answer to the Mockingjay and the allegory goes further.
Whether you find this sophisticated or simplistic will depend on you, I happen to think it’s actually both, and given the world of Panem has always been painted with fairly broad brushstrokes this fits in with the general tone, and the film, like the books, manages to just about steer clear of hitting you over the head with a sledgehammer.
The films is lacking in the colour and spectacle of the first two, and even Effie Trinket, women of a thousand garish wigs, is required to wear drab overalls with the rest of District 13’s inhabitants. Again this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at times the sheer ostentatiousness of the Caption did make its inhabitants seem a smidgen too silly.
With a lack of action, and a drabber palate, the film has to fall back on its characters, and here, as before, it comes up trumps because it has a great cast. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress, and whilst at times she’s required to be a trifle melodramatic, for the most part she is superb, and it’s always possible to see the struggle going on behind her eyes. She might be way too old to be Katniss these days, but she’s still made the part her own, and without Lawrence these films wouldn’t be half as good.
She is ably supported by those around her. Donald Sutherland does evil so very well. President Snow might be fairly two dimensional (back to those broad brushstrokes again) but Sutherland still manages to imbue him with enough smiling menace that this hardly seems to matter. As his opposite number President Coin Julianne Moore acts as a neat counterbalance, managing to make Coin both sympathetic, and ever so slightly untrustworthy into the bargain.
It’s a shame that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is no longer with us, he imbues Heavensbee with so much personality. Here is a man who swings from smug superiority to simpering cowardice within the space of a few scenes.
The nature of the second films means that some characters are short-changed, specifically Woody Harrelson (Though Haymitch still gets to steal a few scenes) and Josh Hutcherson who only gets a few scenes as Peeta. Others fare better. For the first time Liam Hemsworth gets to do more with Gale than just stand around looking a little moody, and whilst it is a departure from the book, having Effie be Katniss’ prep ‘team’ gives Elizabeth Banks ample opportunity to chew the scenery to the extent that you almost feel sorry for her. Thousands are dead but she’s lost her wigs damn it!
In the grand scheme of things this won’t be remembered as the best Hunger Games film. It is possible to make a film with a genuinely shocking cliff-hanger ending leading into a finale; see The Empire Strikes Back, although that was conceived as a middle film, it’s unlikely Suzanne Collins envisaged having her book torn in two whilst she was writing it, and it shows.
An enjoyable and diverting film without ever being outstanding, this is still probably better than the first Hunger Games film, and it lays a lot of the groundwork for what should be a cracker of a finale. And yes we have to wait, but let’s be honest, it’s only a year, after The Empire Strikes Back we had to wait three years for Jedi. People don’t know they’re born these days!
Good but not great.

Interstellar

Posted: November 23, 2014 in Film reviews
Tags:

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Mathew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine.

In the near future Earth has been ravaged by a series of blights that have irrevocably killed off whole strains of crops, to the extent that mankind has had to revert to a more agrarian society. As one teacher says, the planet now needs farmers, not engineers.
Widowed former NASA test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) is working as a farmer and trying to raise his teenage son and young daughter, Murphy. When Murphy starts talking about there being a ghost in her bedroom, their investigations lead her and Cooper to a secret NASA base, run by Professor Brand (Caine) a man who knew Cooper back when he was a test pilot.
The Professor tells Cooper that mankind is doomed unless it can leave the Earth behind. With no other habitable worlds in the solar system the only hope comes from a recently discovered wormhole close to Saturn, a wormhole that leads to another galaxy where multiple, potentially habitable, worlds have been discovered.
Someone has to determine if any of these worlds would be viable to relocate humanity to, and Brand wants Cooper to fly the mission, because he’s the best pilot NASA have left.
The trouble is, it may be a one way trip, and even if he does return the nature of the time dilation effect means that many more years may have elapsed for those left behind. As Cooper explains to Murphy, when he returns they may be the same age.
Despite not wanting to leave his children, Cooper realises that his mission is their only hope, and so he sets out on the mission, accompanied by the professor’s daughter, Amelia (Hathaway) and two other scientists.
Once on the other side of the wormhole however, the explorers will face challenges they could never have imagined, whilst on Earth time passes more quickly, and humanity’s plight becomes ever more desperate. Will humanity be saved, and will father and daughter ever be able to reconnect?

It’s fair to say that in many respects I am more a fan of Nolan’s earlier work as a director; Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins…too often after this he’s succumbed to the trap a lot of great directors fall into, the inability or unwillingness to edit their work, to compress their stories. You see it with Spielberg and Peter Jackson amongst others. With greater creative control comes longer, oft times more bloated films. And so much as I enjoyed the second and third Batman films I felt they were too long, and much as I find Inception intriguing I find it not only too long, but also a little too convoluted, with Nolan inserting too many sublevels within the dream world that diluted, to me, what was a great concept.
And so it’s curious to say that, despite its three hour run time and convoluted time twisting narrative, I did not find the same concerns bothering me with Interstellar. Despite it’s near three hour runtime I’d be hard pressed to suggest what you could remove without the film losing something good and necessary, in fact if anything there are times it feels like you’re still missing some parts of the plot, in particular with relation to Jessica Chastain’s Earthbound portion of the story. And whilst the narrative could be perceived as convoluted, I personally found that the plot made complete narrative sense, and when the final reveals were made I received them joyously rather than with irritation.
It is a majestic film that contrasts the very best of humanity with its baser nature. When faced with the Blight in one respect humanity comes together in a common cause, and yet at the same time bigotry raises its head, only in this instance it is not other races or cultures that suffer, rather it is science and technology, with school textbooks now claiming that the moon landings were faked. It is easy to see why this happens, as Michael Caine’s character suggests, spending billions on space travel when people are starving doesn’t play well with the public.
It is an argument that is regularly trotted out in our own time, and despite its future setting Interstellar feels very pertinent to the world today. For the Blight read global warming, and for the backlash against science read creationism.
Similarly two narrative strands within the film hang on lies told by individuals. In one instance a man lies for what he perceives is the greater good of humanity, whilst the other lie is told purely for self-interest, yet both lies impact upon the course of the story and both reflect the nobility and selfishness in humanity’s heart.
The film is gorgeous to look at, from the dust storms that cut swathes across the unnamed American state where Cooper and his family live, to the grandeur of space; from our first glimpse of Saturn to a mind bending portrayal of a wormhole that isn’t actually a hole, and the black hole of Gargantua that resides on the other side of the wormhole.
And then there are the worlds Nolan creates in orbit of that black hole. Iceland has been used a lot in films of late, Prometheus and Oblivion were both shot there, yet Nolan still manages to give us something different. Each world we encounter is unique, and each replete with its own dangers, be they physical or more temporal in nature.
And this is a film that is concerned as much with time as with space, with the gravitational forces at work meaning time passes far more slowly for some characters than others. It is a dizzying concept but for the most part Nolan keeps things grounded. This does mean a lot of exposition at times, but this doesn’t derail the story, and it is certainly good to have a film that makes you think.
Whether the science behind the story always holds up to scrutiny is debatable, and certainly the final portions of the film may stretch the viewers’ credulity, although in fairness it’s probably only the final five minutes where I feel the story goes a little too far.
For all its epic scale and visual glory at its heart this is a film about humanity, and it’s the characters that make it. McConaughey continues his incredible renaissance as an actor (the McConissance!) and provides the solid heart of the film. With his laconic Texan drawl and laidback intensity he utterly convinces as a test pilot come astronaut, you could almost imagine him being strapped into a Gemini or Apollo capsule back in the 1960s, but he’s just as convincing as a loving father as he is as the all American hero.
Hathaway gives him compelling support as Amelia Brand, showing a character as fragile as she is strong, capable of scientific rationality but also very human emotions.
Back on Earth Mackenzie Foy does a great job playing Murphy, an intelligent child with a huge sense of wonder, who’s heartbroken when her father leaves. Michael Caine doesn’t exactly stretch himself, but frankly Michael Caine not stretching himself makes for a better performance than you’ll get from most actors at full pelt. Jessica Chastain forms the core of the Earthbound sections though, a woman damaged by loss, caught in the middle of what may be the death of humanity, yet a woman who hasn’t lost hope, who still believes they can be saved.
The rest of the cast are uniformly good, I could say more but I’m trying not to spoil things. And I haven’t even got to the robots yet; clunky, utterly functional things unlike any cute robot you’ve seen before, yet in one case actively hilarious, and much of the film’s humour comes from the interactions between Cooper and T.A.R.S.
Epic in scale yet intimate in places, with homages that are obvious (2001 is a clear inspiration) with some that are less so (The Black Hole, Event Horizon) this is a film that is as much about the bond between father and daughter as it is about the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the grandeur of space exploration.
Yes it’s long, and perhaps the science doesn’t always hold up (though if that’s all you go to the movies for maybe you should just stay at home and watch documentaries) it’s convoluted and you might wonder just what the hell is going on near the end, and it still does leave a few questions hanging, but it’s visually stunning, exciting, funny, touching, and it’ll make you think more than the entire back catalogue of Michael Bay films.
It’s probably not my favourite film of the year (lacking the sheer exuberance of Guardians of the Galaxy) but it’s pretty darn close.
Out of this world!

The Martian

Posted: November 17, 2014 in Book reviews

By Andy Weir
It is the near future and man has made it to Mars. Ares 3 is NASA’s 3rd mission to the Red Planet, but after two previously successful missions things don’t go to plan, and just 6 days into their 30 day mission a freak dust storm forces the 6 person crew of Ares 3 to make an emergency evacuation.
In the chaos they lose contact with one of their group, Botanist Mark Watney. With the storm threatening to destroy their spacecraft before they can escape, and with Watney’s suit reporting no life signs, Commander Melissa Lewis makes the tough call for them to make for orbit, assuming that Watney is dead.
Except by sheer good luck Watney has actually survived. Only now he’s exiled on Mars, alone, with limited resources and no contact with NASA and only a vague hope of rescue that will rely on Ares 4, due to arrive in several years’ time and 3200km away. The only trouble is his food will run out long before then…

 

Oh I enjoyed this, I enjoyed this a lot. In fact I’d say it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Originally this was self-published by Weir, before thousands of sales and a position high on the Amazon charts persuaded a publisher to offer him a 6 figure sum for the rights (yes I am envious!).
It’s easy to see why this did so well on Amazon, because once you start reading it doesn’t take long to get hooked and to find yourself addicted to Watney’s struggle.
This has been compared to the film Gravity, and in some respects the comparison is accurate, but whilst 90 minutes with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney doesn’t give you much time to bond with the characters, several hundred pages following Watney, the crew of Ares 3, and select NASA officials on Earth, gives you more than enough time to form attachments, especially with Watney.
In other hands this could have been a book as dry as a Martian riverbed, an overly technical guide to survival on another planet, but whilst there is a lot of science and engineering at work here, Weir never lets it overwhelm the human element, and never lets the book get boring.
Told mainly through his journal entries, Watney is a funny, irreverent narrator, inventive and resourceful, and boy does he need to be resourceful. Alone with only equipment and food meant for a limited mission he has to fight to stay alive, fight to contact NASA, and fight to try and get home, and if you’re anything like me once you start following his journey you will find it very hard to pull away, and I have to say I had a lump in my throat come the end.
Weir’s prose is lean yet natural, technical yet human, and at times very, very funny. Oft times hard science fiction is overly clinical, but that is no problem here, because Weir balances his obvious knowledge with jokes about disco music and 70’s TV, and the crew of Ares 3, highly trained professionals that they are, are also a group of human beings whose witty bantering feels incredibly natural.
There are some contrivances, Watney does seem very lucky at times, and the book would probably have benefited from one of two fewer crises, although it manages to just shy away from becoming repetitive, and Watney’s characterisation ensures this is more than just a roller coaster ride of disaster and salvation.
Highly recommended!

Horns

Posted: November 6, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Alexandre Aja. Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple.

 
Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) is not having a great time. His girlfriend Merrin (Temple) has been raped and murdered and the whole town thinks he’s responsible. To make matters worse he now has horns growing out of his head, but given these horns seem to compel people to confess their deepest secrets to Ig, he might be able to use this newfound devilish power to determine who really killed Merrin.

 
I had some trepidations about seeing this film given I had read the book and had been somewhat conflicted about how I felt about it (read my review here) but I decided to give it a go and, on the whole, I’ll give it a tentative thumbs up.

 
In some respects it’s a faithful adaptation, but some important aspects, themes and scenes are jettisoned, and the timeline is altered as well. The events of the book took place many months after Merrin’s death, whereas in the film things are far more recent and far rawer. I’m not sure the change was essentially necessary, but I don’t think it damages the story in any way. Some of the flashbacks are truncated or omitted, and these do impact somewhat upon the story, in particular towards the character of the villain of the piece. As you might imagine things seem to move a lot speedier in the film, at times this is a good thing, because the book was quite languid in places, but the flipside of this is that sometimes it feels a little rushed.

 
I’m not sure whether I’d say I prefer the book or the film. I think it’s fairer to say that I like them both in different ways, however when it comes to the issues I have with the tale these are shared by both.

 
Horns’ main problem is one of tone. It doesn’t quite know what kind of story it wants to be. There are horrific elements but it never really feels like a horror story, and though there’s a murder mystery at the heart of the story there isn’t enough meat to hang a decent detective story on, not to mention a distinct lack of suspects. In places it’s a very dark comedy but at the same time it wants to be an almost sappy romance about soul mates and true love conquering all. There are childhood flashbacks that (perhaps understandably) make it feel like a Stephen King adaptation, and there are also ruminations on the nature of good and evil, and redemption. And at the heart of all of these elements there’s a terrible crime which makes certain of the humorous elements seem in somewhat poor taste, especially several sex scenes that are played for laughs.
At times the story feels almost too thin, whilst at others you wish they would delve deeper into the various elements of the narrative, and as a result the film does feel like it’s all over the place on occasion.

 
But it’s well directed and, aside from one horrible misstep in the denouement, the subject matter is taken seriously. The cast are good, especially Radcliffe who really has left Potter behind in my opinion, with the only exception possibly being Heather Graham. Maybe it’s down to the nature of her character but she seems to ham it up more than is necessary when everyone else is dialling it back. It might have been intentional but I found her, fairly minor, role a little jarring.

 
It’s too long. It’s tonally all over the place, and it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s still quite enjoyable and well-acted, it’s funny in places and it’s certainly more original than a lot a films you might see this year and it’s to be commended for that.