The Imitation Game – A Review

Morten Tyldum directs Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in the Alan Turing Biopic The Imitation Game. Turing was a man of immense genius, one whom Winston Churchill credited with the “single greatest contribution to ending the second world war”. Turing along with other cryptologists at britain’s Bletchley Park broke the German Enigma machine’s code effectively ending the war by laying bare the german communication to the allied troops. Tyldum has based the movie on a script by Graham Moore who adapted the book by Adrew Hodges.

The movie opens in 1952 with Turing in prison for questioning on the suspicions of being a soviet spy.  Cumberbatch’s voice over asks us to pay attention and asks us the question “am I a national hero, a criminal or a spy”. As it turns out Turing wasn’t a spy and the events that led to his arrest had very little to do with espionage but more to do with his homosexuality which in the 50s was still a punishable offence in Britain. The movie keeps flitting between the periods of 1952 when Turing was arrested, the war time 1939-1942 and the formative years of Turning at a boys school where he was bullied and harassed for being different.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, Kiera Knightley plays Joan Clarke, Matthew Goode plays John Hughes and Mark Strong plays Menzies.  I am as big a fan of Sherlock star Benedict as the next Cumberbitch (fans of Cumberbatch are known as cumberbitches) but to me he is the worst and the most obvious choice to play the irascible genius as he has played the same character in Sherlock and as Kahn in Star Trek. The performance does nothing unexpected or exciting. There are moments where Cumberbatch shines but they are far too few to warrant a Oscar win or even a nom as most punters are betting. Kiera Knightley as the only woman cryptographer has a role that is underdeveloped. She is chosen to join the team at Hut8 but her parents refuse and then Turing manages to deceitfully get them to agree and she is off to Bletchley but up until the point where they are engaged never once is Joan seen in Hut8 and instead seems to be whiling her time away with the other women at Bletchley intercepting the encoded messages. It is a befuddling tangent of storytelling at best.  Goode plays the cool, suave yet genius John Hughes in a performance that is reminiscent of his Ozymandias from Watchmen. The problem with these castings is that they are lazy and almost a stereotype of the kind of roles these otherwise brilliant actors are known to play. I would much rather have Goode or even Ben Wishaw play Turing but they aren’t big enough names to attract top billing unfortunately.

Graham and Tyldum do well to go into the most significant aspects of the story of Turing’s life, the arrival at Bletchley, the approval for building Christopher by going over the commanding officer and directly to Churchill, the eventual breakthrough, the debriefing, the arrest of Turing for public indecency, the chemical castration. But these events become mere checkpoints that the director and the cast tick off while hurtling towards the conclusion. There is no finesse when it comes to any of the above mentioned plot points, for instance the approval for Christopher is not only Turing’s effort but that of the entire team at Hut8 and the arrest and the interrogation that follows, which forms the opening scene of the movie is ended abruptly and Nock who is handling the investigation is handed a newspaper confirm that Turing is sentenced for Indecency a charge that he, Nock was fighting against. Also as with most biopics the closing scenes which list out what happened with the characters after the events in the movie this one does so as well. But rather than the half-hearted attempt of bullet-pointing how Turing was given a royal pardon if they had only ended it with the statement Gordon Brown made which was best summed up as “ we are sorry, you deserved much better”.

Gordon Brown’s ending remarks on the apology are how I felt about the movie myself. This is no doubt a honest and fine attempt at telling the life of perhaps the most influential figure in modern history. His pioneering work set the pace for the advent of computing in the right sense, his work at Bletchley saved 14million lives, his entire contribution was shrouded in secrecy and he was mistreated by the society because of his“different-ness” , it was his “different-ness” that saved the very society. But because of the towering nature of his contributions and the fantastic life that he lived which could serve as an inspiration to so many his story deserved to be told in a better fashion than a run of the mill biopic which is nothing but a Oscar-bait being distributed by the Weinstein brothers. Don’t miss this movie because even if mis-cast Benedict Cumberbatch is a treat to the eyes and ears both and Alan Turing’s story is the one that must be told over and over again till someone gets it right. And after you have seen the movie go read up on the life of this genius who changed the world for the better and still got nothing in return from it.

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Finding Vivian Maier – A Review

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about an undiscovered artist which unfolds how a forensic case would. We start off with a young man John Maloof buying a box of film negatives at an auction to help with the history book he is writing and hopes that the negatives will have some images of Chicago from the earlier years that he can use. Once he looks at the negatives he realizes it is not what he needs and puts the box away. That should have been it, but the strength of the images keeps haunting Maloof and he starts thinking about who this person was. The name Vivian Maier – a google search reveals nothing (and now there are 4.7 million results) he starts to scan the images and posts them on Flickr – the social network for photography enthusiasts. The response he gets is astounding and he starts piecing the life of this artist together.

A few days after posting the images on Flickr Maloof does another google search and an obituary note for Vivian Maier turns up. She died a few days ago. Getting in touch with poster of the obituary note leads Maloof to a self-storage that holds the personal belongings of Miss Maier. Maloof then starts unearthing other fragments of  the life of this undiscovered artist who for the most part of her life worked as a nanny. There are thousands upon thousands of film negatives with images of such startling quality that it is immediately clear that this was more than just a passing hobby of a nanny.

With interviews from families she was a nanny, a governess, a housekeeper Maloof puts the pieces of the puzzle together. There are audio tapes and even video recordings that Vivian took to essentially document the world she saw through her eyes and the shutter of the rolleiflex. This tells a story of a woman who had a humor about her and the way she captured the world around her with each frame cleverly juxtaposing the extremities of the human existence in the most humorous setting and also not shying away from political commentary.  A number of her striking images are used in this movie but you get a sense of the documentary only scratching the surface of her genius. The picture of the black kid polishing the boots of a white kid is such a strong image that could be looked at in so many contexts that it begs the question of how much more treasure does her entire collection hold.

The humorous woman we are introduced to via the pictures suddenly becomes something entirely different with her previous wards describing her behavior as odd and eccentric, guarded and paranoid, with an odd fixation on the crime stories in the newspapers. It just starts becoming clearer that despite the fact that she obviously knew how talented she was she didn’t feel connected to the world around her to want to share her point of view.  There are tales of how she traveled the world and documented images she took overseas but also of the odd behavior where despite being born in New York she put on a fake French accent and wore manly and ill-fitted clothes. She took self-portraits so there was a definite vanity in her but the face was always in a quizzical and detached expression.  There are two interviews in particular that make you feel for Vivian, one where while she was still a nanny and the family wanted to be foster parents to another child Vivian asks them to take care of her instead and another towards the later part of her life when she runs into an old employer and Vivian begs her to sit with her and spend some time but she can’t as she has to get to the beach. But then there are some interviews which make you question if she was in fact ever a right choice to be a nanny to kids. One generic observation I have looking at all the people who were interviewed in the film is that at least the kids who Vivian looked after seem to all have a certain quality about them that makes them slightly odd, almost a little bitter with a tendency to laugh at the oddest things. I could be reading too much into it but I felt a little uncomfortable listening to these people who would appear to have some discomfort in a social situation.  Also Maloof seems a little suspect to me – about how he rails on against the art establishment for not hosting a Vivian Maier show (MOMA and Tate modern for instance). I really see no point in bringing it up in this documentary which is essentially to bring the brilliance of this nanny cum street photographer who might just be one of the most influential photographers.

But the movie is not about these people – it is about the people Vivian captures through her lens and the story she is trying to tell of the people and the situations she sees around herself. And what a fascinating conversation that is. I wish the movie ended with a collage/montage of more of her images and that a few of her self-portraits.  This is among the best documentaries I have seen because it introduces a subject matter that would otherwise remain unexplored and Vivian Maier is one of the most intriguing characters I have come across – it has been a few days since I saw the movie and her persona and the images he captured still are playing over and over in my head and that laugh she had when she was speaking about the weird phone calls she received after posting an ad in the newspaper for work. Vivian Maier was an enigma and I cannot wait to see more of her pictures.

vm

Interstellar – A Spoiler free Review

A Christopher Nolan movie is an event movie – it deserves tonnes of press and an even greater amount of hype and excitement as Nolan rarely disappoints. The man who single handedly revived the super-hero genre, the one who dabbled in magic and memory loss and dared peer inside our dreams is revered among cinephiles and for good reason. And when this man sets off on an inter-galactic voyage you simply strap in and join him for the ride on the biggest screen possible. To say I am a Nolan devotee would be a gross understatement. I have devoured every tidbit of information that came out while Nolan worked away on his space sojourn and Interstellar was the number 1 most anticipated movie for me for this year. I was back in 2010 when I was waiting with bated breath for Inception to unfold and for it to silence all Nolan critics and it did in spectacular fashion. Would Interstellar be able to continue Nolan’s winning streak or will the law of averages finally catch up with this auteur. Read on to find out more – there are no spoilers in this review

The story starts in the near future where science is all but forgotten, the school teach students that the Moon landing was a hoax perpetrated to bankrupt the Soviet Union and trained astronauts are left to plough the field for crop. This is the caretaker generation, struggling through dust clouds and crop blights to survive while staring extinction in the face. Through curiously encoded messages Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey and Murph played by Mackenzie Foy end up at NORAD a clandestine NASA mission run by the Nolan-regular Michael Caine playing Professor Brand. He asks Cooper – the best pilot they ever had- to join the mission along with his daughter Amelia played by Anne Hathaway, Romily played by David Gyassi and Doyle played by Wes Bentley. The mission is to follow 3 of the 12 previous astronauts who left our galaxy to travel through a mysterious wormhole to look for other planets which could be used to sustain human life.  No more story-wise, lest I risk the spoiling of the surprises that are in-store.

Nolan is a master of visuals. His association with Wally Pfisher was what elevated his movies to the next level. With Hoyte Van Hoytema donning the cinematographer’s hat I had a feeling we won’t be let down because he filmed the wonderful Her last year and made the future very accessible and believable. The visuals Van Hoytema creates of the inter-galactic voyage are stunning in their grandeur but as one wired article evidences they are also based on a very real scientific equations which Kip Thorne the theoretical physicist from Caltech collaborated on with the team behind interstellar. The wormhole, the blackhole, and the Endurance spacecraft passing alongside Saturn are all stunning in their detail and scale. Where the visuals however are let down are with the background score. Hans Zimmer who has provided very complementary scores for previous Nolan movies plays it too heavy handedly this time around. The loud klaxon based soundtrack takes away from the scene and makes it almost unbearable. A Clint Mansel or Alexandre Desplat score would have served Nolan better giving it the Kubrickian feel of using the classical compositions. With the thunderous riffs and booming drums of Zimmer the crescendos come quick and fast but there is no payoff visually or story wise .

Nolan had me scratching my head when he announced that Matthew McConaughey would be the lead actor in Interstellar and my worst fears have come to fruition. Every time Cooper opens his mouth to speak out comes the stoner cowboy drawl that will dull anyone to sleep. Half the time his words are illegible and the other half just unbearable. He is unbelievable as someone who understands and can hold a conversation about quantum physics and he puts in no efforts to the contrary either.  Anne Hathaway is still stuck being Fantine from Les Miserables and cannot seem to turn the tears out. If we had a whiny bio-physicist and a stoned out southerner to rely on to save the fate of humanity our chances look grim. Thats where the grown up Murph, Jessica Chastain comes in – she is the only one that manages to come across as someone with a sane mind but her interaction with her brother played by Casey Affleck make little sense. But my biggest grief is with David Gyassi who plays fellow astronaut Romily who waits on board Endurance when Coop, Amelia and Doyle go to the planet of the Tsunami waves. He ages 22 years when they get back on the spacecraft and I for one instance thought he was just hamming it to tease Coop and Amelia on the passage of time but he wasn’t and he had really aged and he acts really weird too, walks with a slouch and sounds defeated. The whole effect is jarring and not entirely believable.

For a movie that is nearly 3 hours long there are key scenes which feel rushed and unresolved. The initiation of Cooper into the Save-the-humanity program, the travel to the different planets to find the data, the climax which holds the key to the human survival seem hurried and rough. If more time was spent on these, more technical aspects of what is essentially a sci-fi adventure it would have felt like the Nolan movie I have come to expect. Instead we spend an inordinately long time setting up the doomsday scenario in the first half with the dustbowl and the father daughter bond that will be Cooper’s driving force. Also once onboard the time spent whining about personal issues is almost juvenile and for Nolan standards unpardonable. Instead of Cooper and Amelia talking I would much prefer a lively chat between TRAS and CASE the two robots who are nods to HAL9000 from 2001 : A Space Odyssey.

There is little doubt that this movie is not all that it could have been. A majority of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Matthew McConaughey who I hope Nolan never collaborates with ever again. But this is still a Nolan movie it is big on Ideas and huge on visual impact. For a director who dares to take such huge risks and break away from the formulaic big-budget franchise movies it deserves a watch. It won’t redefine the sci-fi genre in the way that 2001 did. But like Inception it is an idea that needs to be explored and discussed and it makes the most complicated science easily accessible and it makes you think. And I want Nolan to break the bank on this one so he can get back to the long-gestating Howard Hughes biopic.

Nightcrawler- A Review

Dan Gilroy directs Jake Gyllenhaal in the creepy crime drama Nightcrawler based on the life of a desperate and unemployed man who uses his resourcefulness to bring breaking news stories to crime obsessed news networks.

The story begins with Lou Bloom played by the brilliantly creepy Jake Gyllenhaal is stopped mid-heist while he is trying to make away with the wire-fence, using his strangely engaging way of talking (think Aaron Sorkin style dialogue but delivered by someone on valium in slow dulcet tones) he comes near and then overpowers the security guard and makes away with his watch.  When trying to make a sale to a building construction manager he tries to sweet talk him into a job but when he is called a thief he just smiles and walks away. This is Lou Bloom a perfectly nice guy but you get the sense that something isn’t quite right with him.

A chance encounter with a freelance videographer sets Lou on a path which drives the rest of the movie. When trying to make the sale of his first video of a gruesome gun shooting he meets Nina played ably by Rene Russo. Nina is the ratings hungry morally corrupt news producer of what Lou calls as the Vampire shift of the lowest ranking LA news channel.  But Nina soon realizes that Lou could be the ratings golden goose she has been looking for.jake gyllenhaal rene russo nightcrawler

At under 2 hours the movie is crisply written and directed. It takes us on a journey as we learn more about Lou and his ambitions and get increasingly creeped out by the silly grin permanently plastered on his face. During the course of the movie we see Lou talking like an audiobook on management, a self-help book, A Hallmark Card (Friends are the gift we give ourselves) and a performance management cheat sheet that every manager will be familiar with.

Lou is assisted in his twisted venture by Rick played by Riz Ahmed, a homeless guy who answers an Ad by Lou and ends up being his police-code-decrypter and GPS-navigator as Lou races through downtown LA to get to the scene of the crime. Rick plays a moral compass of sorts to Lou but is easily distracted by the prospect of making more money.

As Lou gets better at his job, you start seeing that this strange push-over of a man is no pushover infact. The scene at the Mexican restaurant while laugh-inducing is also particularly creepy as you start seeing what a dangerous man he really is.

Robert Elswit does a most fantastic job of cinematography as the director of photography. He shoots the breakneck pace at which Lou drives with a steady and unwavering precision. The masterful use of the Sodium filled yellow street lights to give the entire landscape a ghoulish glow and flashing red and blue of the police cars to reflect the dancing madness in the eyes of Lou is masterful indeed. In the hands of a lesser director, cinematographer combo  this could have ended up being a hand-held camera shot, nausea inducing chase-fest. But by taking us along for the ride Elswit puts us squarely in the middle of the action and the results are exceptional. At one point I was holding both hands on my head as Lou drives along a police car chase.  The music by James Newton Howard is subtle and understated and does the job perfectly of capturing the still of the night punctured by the crime scenes, those who perpetrated the crimes and those who work tirelessly to enforce the law.

Nightcrawler is an easy entertaining thriller with excellent acting and stunning visuals. But it is also a character study into what drives the people who blur the lines of journalistic ethics to feed the public greed for sensationalized news or perhaps even the paparazzi fueled celeb-obsessed culture of ours. This is a sensational movie for all the above mentioned reasons, which makes no compromises in its characters, its story or its execution.  Do not miss this one because with a relatively weak best actor field this one could be Jake Gyllenhaal’s ticket to the big ball.