Wednesday, December 31, 2014

End of the Year Reviews: Big Eyes and The Imitation Game.

Well, with the year of 2014 finally coming to a close (My! How time flies), I thought I’d take some time to write two new reviews for some films I had recently gotten a chance to watch, both of which were among my most anticipated movies of the year. One a notable change of pace for its signature director, and one a raved British drama expected to score major Oscar nominations. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Big Eyes:
Tim Burton is often best known for his gothic style films such as Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, but every once in a while, he’ll break out of his comfort zone with an against type film such as Ed Wood or Big Fish. This seemed to be the type of film he desperately needed to make again, as his last decade has produced lackluster results for many. It’s because of this that I was excited for Big Eyes, a biopic detailing the marriage, and eventual divorce of Margaret and Walter Keane, the former a painter of waif paintings that the latter would shamefully claim all credit for. It’s a potentially fantastic film for Burton, but one where that change of pace actually risks to work against him.

Big Eyes is something of a straightforward biopic, where Burton severely tones down his usual stylistics, and allows for a more naturalistic and less fantastical tone. Burton tends to stand by unnoticed, and let all the actors in front of the camera have the attention. Even his usual craftspeople tone themselves down, with composer Danny Elfman channeling his inner Thomas Newman, and costume designer Colleen Atwood just nailing the style and detail of the film’s setting. However, as inspired as Burton’s direction may be, it ultimately proves to be both a blessing and a curse. While it’s nice to see Burton make something less oddball than he usually does, it also threatens to rob him of everything that makes him a fascinating filmmaker. Oddly enough, it’s those segments where he embraces his inner quirk and fascination with the grotesque that mark the most unique personality, while the rest of the film feels like it could have been directed by anyone else.

Ultimately, it’s the acting that lifts this movie from the ground. An eclectic and fabulous supporting cast aside, the lead performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are superb. Waltz is as crazed and larger than life as he’s ever been, and while it threatens to feel hammy, it actually serves a purpose in showcasing Walter Keane’s unhealthy obsession with being the topic of discussion, making him into a spectacle with a desire to stay relevant. This works wonderful contrast against Amy Adams’ more subdued, lived in Margaret Keane, an introvert who’s more humble about her accomplishments, but still has enough self-respect and strength to not be manipulated when lines are crossed. It’s thanks to these two in particular that the film is as engaging as it is.

***1/2 / *****

The Imitation Game:
You may not know who Alan Turing is, but you have him to thank for everything in the modern computer age. A technological pioneer of the 20th century, were it not for his research, you wouldn’t be reading this review on your computer (or your phone) right now. The man’s experiences seem perfect for a feature film treatment, and with The Imitation Game, this year’s recipient of the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, we receive exactly that. Ever since seeing the film a few days ago, it’s a film that I’ve not been able to stop thinking about, and with good reason, for this is one of the best films of the year.

In the film, Alan Turing is a mathematician recruited as a cryptanalyst in the early days of World War 2, working in the base of Bletchley Park with a team of fellow logistics experts and linguists to break the code of the Enigma machine used by the Nazis, which resets its own code every 24 hours. Turing would eventually succeed in doing just that, but in the days following the war, his own country would disgracefully issue him the ultimate injustice.

The best thing about this film is its spectacular screenwriting by Graham Moore. For my money, it’s the best script of the year. The Imitation Game has such timelessness to its core issues of social isolation, the very nature of Turing not a generally popular one. Turing finds himself frustrated by the very nature of human beings, and whereas he feels much more at home in his daily crossword puzzles because they are grounded in specific guidelines and rules, human DNA is much more unpredictable and much harder to have a firm understanding of. This is something that’s refreshingly relatable about the character, including and especially down to his closeted homosexuality. This whole ordeal was at a time when to be gay was essentially a death sentence, persecuted by law, leading many men to suppress their true identities. Even with the massive strides in progress for such an issue today, there’s still such timeliness to this, because even if legal action isn’t as extreme, this desire to hide who we really are because of what people will think of us (especially our own families) is just as much an issue that demands attention as ever.

The film does well at balancing its various elements across the board, and while the group of characters may be far away from the actual war, the film never lets us forget that this is still a very life and death race against time. Also, while the war may not be physically there, there’s still numerous wars going on within each of the group of characters, with questionable morals at play, and the exploitation of secrets. Secrets are power here, and especially in Turing’s case, can be fatal to one’s livelihood. It also helps that dialogue is snappy and stellar, with witty exchanges occasionally being tossed around, and interplay and discussion that only gets more interesting with every minute that passes. This is the type of screenwriting I’m actually quite jealous of. This is the kind of script I could only dream I was talented enough to write, and deserves all the awards attention it will receive.

The acting is fantastic in all areas, with a wonderful batch of actors that includes the likes of Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong. Front and center of the entire ensemble is Benedict Cumberbatch in a career best turn, embodying every nuance and mannerism of Turing seamlessly, but also humanizing Turing by not putting him on too high a pedestal. Turing may be a brilliant man, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be as frustrating to others as he finds others to be, tapping into his prickly obsession and sense of superiority. As fantastic as Cumberbatch is, it’s Keira Knightley who turns out to be MVP of the film. Knightley has undoubtedly had a banner year, and The Imitation Game is the best of her most recent efforts. In many ways, it’s exactly what a proper supporting performance is. She leaves a huge impact whenever she’s onscreen, but doesn’t draw too much attention away from the lead. She just has an effortless connection with Cumberbatch, her own character a misfit in this world, and it’s this kindred spirit that creates the most engaging relationship in the film, but still showing an intensity and wisdom to put Turing in his place when need be.

Adding to this the spectacular direction of Morten Tyldum, seamless editing by William Goldenberg, and one of Alexandre Desplat’s best scores to date, The Imitation Game is a film that demands to be seen, and that’s something I will gladly do once again in due time.

***** / *****

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