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Posts Tagged ‘2014’

Most people, if you gave them ten or fifteen million dollars for a one-off job, might very well give serious thought to never working again. Movie stars, as a general rule, are a breed apart, and this seems to apply in this area as well – having been given a truck full of cash for a job, they generally go straight on to get another truck full of cash for another high-profile job. It must just be because they love their work so much.

There are always a few exceptions, of course, people who are massively prominent for a bit and then apparently stop working, at least at the top end of the industry. Generally these are people who become so closely associated with a particular character that it may just be they can’t get interesting parts in other films. I’m thinking of the likes of Elijah Wood, and, yes, Mark Hamill, who have both opted for lower-profile roles and TV work as the basis of their post-trilogy careers. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who’s likewise seemed like only an occasional screen presence since the end of the Matrix project, and then in some slightly questionable films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin).

Still, in front of the other day’s Vin Diesel crapfest, there were a bunch of trailers for other impending action movies, and one of them was headlined by Keanu, which was a pleasant surprise. The film in question is John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick didn’t get much of a release in the respectable cinemas of Oxford, which I suspect is the main reason I didn’t go and see it, but my landlady turned out to have the DVD on her bookcase (rather to both our surprise). The ‘decent action movie’ itch I’d been feeling had obviously not been scratched by the xXx sequel, so I thought I’d check it out.

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The film is directed by Chad Stahelski (and, secretly, David Leitch). Keanu plays the eponymous John Wick (seems to me like he should be Jon Wick, given his intimates call him Jonathan, but whatever), a New Jersey dude struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife from an unspecified medical condition. This seems to have been a bit of a shock, but also not entirely unexpected, as Mrs Wick has arranged for her husband to be delivered a cute little puppy as a sort of bereavement counselling aid.

Wick is out with the puppy one day when his beautiful muscle car attracts the attention of some Russian Mafia low-lives led by Iosef (Alfie Allen, whom I can’t look at without remembering the song his sister wrote about him). He refuses to sell it to them, so – being Russian Mafia low-lives – they break into his house, beat him up, steal his car keys, and – cover granny’s eyes – kill the puppy.

Naturally, they have made an extremely serious mistake: the chop shop boss they take the car to refuses to touch it, knowing the baleful reputation of its owner. Iosef’s crime boss dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) explains it very carefully, once informed of what’s gone down: five years previously, John Wick was the baddest-assed hitman in New York City, before retiring to live a less blood-splattered life with his lovely bride. With Mrs Wick off the scene, stealing his car and killing his pet dog is probably going to provoke a response…

And so it proves, with Wick leaving a trail of slaughter and property damage in his wake as he attempts to run Iosef to ground. More for the look of the thing than out of any real paternal affection, one suspects, Viggo puts a huge bounty on Wick’s head in an attempt to save his son’s life, and soon a number of other assassins (most prominently Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are taking an interest in proceedings…

You know, on one level you have to hand it to the writers of John Wick: amongst the unwritten rules of mainstream cinema, perhaps even part of the unspoken contract between film-makers and audience, is the understanding that small children are not going to be gratuitously tortured even by implication, that old people are not going to have graphic nude scenes, and that small cute animals are effectively immortal. The whole dead dog bit seems intended to provoke a ‘they didn’t just…?’ response from the casual viewer as much as provide motivation for Keanu’s protagonist.

It’s an interesting approach but one which inevitably tips the film slightly towards bathos, as Reeves embarks on a killing spree with a body-count heading towards three figures, all in memory of his puppy. On the other hand, it does make the storyline somewhat distinctive, because apart from the ex-canine this is an extremely back-to-basics action thriller, dealing primarily in types rather than actual characters. You could swap Reeves out and replace him with Jason Statham or even Arnie or Stallone and it would not materially change the story at all.

Stylistically, however – well, Keanu Reeves does bring something all his own to this kind of role, namely that unique, rather odd presence of his. He does have charisma, and there is a definite intensity to his performance, but at the same time he’s… absent. Not quite a cipher, but curiously inert, cryptic, most of the time. (Am I just trying to find a pretentious way to excuse someone regularly accused of being one of the worst actors in cinema history? Hmmm.)

This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the performances do the job required of them, and the numerous action sequences are neatly choreographed and shot. The look of the thing is distinctively stylish too. We are very much in the realm of the action movie as Theatre of the Absurd here, of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The film has some wit and invention, too, positing the existence of a secret hotel just for assassins in the middle of New York, with all necessary services available. (One exchange has a blood-drenched Wick returning to the hotel – ‘How good is your laundry?’ he enquires. ‘I’m sorry to say that nobody’s that good, sir,’ comes the reply.)

John Wick is never less than competent in any department, and does have many fun moments in it, but it doesn’t really excel or innovate enough to really qualify as a great movie. It’s entertaining but in the end a little disposable – still, it’s Keanu’s best vehicle for a while, and perhaps we can hope that the sequel will have the confidence to dream a little bigger and bolder.

 

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I turned up to see Ridley Scott’s new-style biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in keen expectation of an energetically bad movie. As chance would have it, I happened to see it at the Blackpool branch of Odeon. This will be my final visit to this particular cinema, and I must confess the occasion was not without a degree of emotion – I have been watching films there for over fifteen years, on and off, and the place did play a small but significant role in keeping me sane during what I suppose I should call my wilderness years. Not having been there for a while, I was somewhat dismayed to find the cinema showing every sign of struggling – no sign of a ticket desk at all, with punters obliged to use the concessions counter, tickets themselves going for insanely low prices, and no allocated seating either. I was saddened, to be honest.

The first film I saw there was Payback, starring Mel Gibson back when he was acceptable, and Exodus is if nothing else rather better than that. Although, to be honest, my enjoyment of the film was given a unexpected spin by the fact I’d unwittingly turned up to a subtitled showing. The subtitling was rather zealously done, with every vocalisation from every performer painstakingly committed to the screen – a lot of (sigh), (exhale), (incoherent scream), and so on. As a result of this I can be very certain when I tell you that the defining sound of Exodus is ‘indistinct shouting’.

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Based on the book of the same name by some guys in Babylon, this is the stirring tale of stuff going on in ancient Egypt and the surrounding area. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in a brave choice of hat) is in charge, though he does a lot of delegating to his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton, sadly looking not unlike Ricky Gervais in drag) and adopted son Moses (Christian Bale, looking not unlike Christian Bale with a beard). Seti secretly thinks Moses is a safer bet as a future leader, partly because the self-regarding Ramses spends much of his spare time stroking his python, but this is not to be. Especially not when Moses discovers his secret heritage as a member of the Hebrew slave underclass.

A life-long atheist, Moses isn’t interested, but when Ramses ascends the throne it forms a good enough pretext for the new boss to have Moses exiled. Moses does not seem to take this very personally and trades in being a top Egyptian court official and general for shepherding and being a loving family man. However, one day he receives a bang on the head and finds himself confronted with the vision of a burning bush and a surly ten-year-old boy (Issac Andrews), who is actually God. God tells Moses to go and get the Hebrews out of Egypt toot-sweet, and – not without a degree of justified grumbling – Moses heads off to get on with the job…

Well, I will be astounded if Exodus wins any major awards, but I did not find it to be quite the artistic failure or absurd fiasco some of the reviews I’ve seen suggested. Then again, I am the kind of person for whom the word ‘absurd’ does not necessarily carry wholly negative connotations, and parts of this movie are definitely absurd. We are spared the climactic sword-fight between Moses and Pharaoh on the bed of the Red Sea, though it’s a close thing, but one of the final scenes of the film is set in a cave up Mount Sinai, with Moses hard at work with hammer and chisel on some stone tablets, God fixing the pair of them some drinks, and the duo idly bickering about the Ten Commandments. If that’s not the most ridiculous scene to appear in a serious film this year, I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly an odd choice for a film which must, on some level, have hoped to tap into a religiously-motivated audience for some of its ticket sales. Then again, there are plenty of others – the film is specifically dated to 1300 BCE, not BC, and there’s a half-hearted attempt at providing a rational explanation for all the apparently miraculous events that occur. As I mentioned, Moses gets a crack on the head before his first meeting with God, and even he admits he sounds like a delusional person. Ewen Bremner comes on as a Scottish-Egyptian clever-clogs who explains the Plagues as a quasi-scientifically based series of events.

To be honest the whole Plagues sequence is the closest the film comes to toppling over into Monty Python silliness, although it also includes some fun CGI crocodiles and frogs: the various Egyptian characters initially react with annoyance and exasperation rather than anything more serious, at least until God sends in the Angel of Death to slay all the first-born. This is a rather effective and well-mounted sequence.

On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly present God in the most flattering light: the Almighty comes across as rather petulant and unpredictably bad-tempered. Having packed Moses off to lead the Hebrews in their struggle for freedom, He then turns up to give our hero a rollocking for taking too long about it. ‘They’ve been slaves here for 400 years! Why are you in such a hurry now?’ cries Moses paraphrastically. ‘Just am,’ sniffs God, and brings on the CGI carnage.

Oh well. I suppose you shouldn’t expect very much more from a film which presents the revelation of Moses’ Hebrew roots as some sort of unexpected plot twist – it often seems to have little idea who its target audience is, or indeed what it’s fundamentally about. Is it about the relationship between the heroic Moses and the resentful, lesser Ramses, two men who grew up together but forced into conflict? (Shades of Ben-Hur – not to mention Gladiator, in places.) Is it about Moses coming to terms with being a Hebrew? Or is it about an atheist who finds himself forced into faith? The film plays with all of these things and more, but usually just settles for another show-stopping CGI sequence.

This being a Ridley Scott film, of course, he at least gives good epic – Scott throws in a pretty big battle just to get things warmed up, and never spares the spectacle. I know that in the past I’ve criticised him for being much more interested in arty, beautiful visuals than in actually telling a coherent story, but he keeps everything under control here, and events – while frequently a bit bonkers – are always easy to follow.

There is a lot to enjoy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, provided you don’t take any of it too seriously and are prepared to engage with the film on its own terms. It’s never dull and it always looks good, even bits of it are silly, it squanders some of its most capable cast members, and it doesn’t seem to really have much idea of what it’s actually supposed to be about. Whatever it is, it’s vague, and rather loud: indistinct shouting, indeed.

 

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It almost goes without saying that the trilogy of Hobbit movies has, outside of the confines of the hardcore Jackson-Tolkien axis fanbase at least, had less of a cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings films they are so clearly meant to emulate. Not, I suspect, that the bean-counters at Warners, New Line and MGM will be overly worried: it’s hard to be too upset about a ten-digit box office return, after all. Perhaps there has just been something a bit too openly mercenary about the way in which a slight and quirky children’s story has been pulled about and bloated to enable just that same return. Nevertheless, I suspect that the final episode, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will earn itself some goodwill, especially from those of us who have been along for the ride all the way since December 2001, when Jackson released his first film set in Middle-Earth (one which this film dovetails with perfectly, as you might expect).

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Viewers of the last film may be somewhat discombobulated to see that the menace of saurian psychopath Smaug is dealt with practically before the credits have finished rolling, leaving the uninitiated to wonder exactly what’s going to happen for the next two and a bit hours. Well, here is where the story of The Hobbit takes the darker and more cynical turn that sets it apart from most children’s literature.

With the dragon dead, claimants to his vast hoard of treasure start coming out of the woodwork with astounding speed. Already on the scene and in possession are Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves, but Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Laketown quite reasonably want some recompense for having their homes incinerated, while the King of the Elves (Lee Pace) also has a few outstanding debts he wants clearing up. Unfortunately, all the gold seems to be going to Thorin’s head, with the result that everything seems to be on the verge of turning nasty…

Even worse, also bearing down on Smaug’s former residence are not one but two armies of Orcs in the service of Sauron, who recognises the strategic location of the dragon’s former lair. With Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unable to make Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) still a prisoner in Dol Guldur, and inter-species relations rapidly turning hostile, the future for Middle-Earth looks bleak…

It is true that in the past I have occasionally been a bit lukewarm about earlier installments of the Hobbit series, mainly for the reasons touched upon earlier. Well, what’s done is done, and one may as well just enjoy the rich stew of elements Peter Jackson brings to the table for this final offering. The appetiser (I warn you now, this metaphor is going to be horribly overstretched) is Smaug’s devastating visit to Laketown, with which the director serves notice that he’s going to start with the sound-and-fury knob turned up to ten and only get louder and bolder (not just overstretched but somewhat mixed as well, it would seem). Another early treat is a sequence in which Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Sylvester McCoy show up like Middle-Earth’s answer to the Avengers: and it really is glorious to see Lee, at the age of 92, getting one more moment of scene-stealing awesomeness to add to one of the most distinguished careers imaginable.

There are few longeurs early on in the film, but these really just mark the director carefully getting his ducks in a row for the second half of the film, which really and honestly does live up to its title: the titular clash dominates the movie, and feels like it goes on for hours. Peter Jackson is at his most uninhibited here, and it really is his conception of The Hobbit that we see, rather than Tolkien’s. In fact, it’s tempting to view this film as really a summation and celebration of everything that has made Jackson’s realisation of the Professor’s work so very memorable and justifiably beloved.

True, there is some very questionable comic-relief, some disconcerting stunt casting – Billy Connolly’s voice is instantly recognisable even when he’s covered in prosthetics – and some of his amendments to Tolkien really don’t ring true – a dwarf shouting ‘You buggers!’ at the Orc hordes I can just about accept, but another telling a comrade ‘I’ve got this’? I think not. A seeming cameo appearance by the Sandworms of Dune is just peculiar. And, of course, parts of it are cringemakingly sentimental, verging on the schmaltzy.

But set against this we have all those sweeping helicopter shots of tiny figures in epic landscapes, the stirring crash-bang-wallop of the panoramic battle scenes, the endless invention of those intricately choreographed action sequences, the sheer thought and attention to detail that’s gone into making Middle-Earth feel like a real place. He even manages to take performers not perhaps noted for their dramatic range, and invest them with a certain presence and charisma: and if this means giving Landy Bloom another load of outrageous fight scenes like something out of a computer game, so be it.

You could probably argue that somewhere in all the chaos and frenzy, Tolkien gets lost completely, and also that for a book called The Hobbit, Bilbo himself actually gets sidelined for long stretches of the movie. But, looking back over the last thirteen years and the assorted wonders he has treated us to, Peter Jackson has earned the right to indulge himself just a little, especially at Christmas (and who’d have thought it – I seem to be getting a little sentimental myself in my old age). No-one has ever made this kind of fantasy film as well as Peter Jackson, and I think it will be many years before we see its like again. It may not be the greatest film he’s ever made, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his work in this milieu, and a terrifically entertaining ride.

 

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So, I found myself once again in the position of having seen virtually everything on at the sweetshop and coffeeshop, and with the Phoenix shut for refurbishment again, the situation demanded I look into reaches of the schedule I am not usually wont to visit. This left me with the options of Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?, Paddington Bear: The Movie, and Horrible Bosses 2. I’ll admit that the final decision was not entirely mine alone, but you don’t want to read about a lot of wrangling over what to see. You want to read a review of Horrible Bosses 2. At least, I hope you do. If not, you may as well be on your way, for that is the business of the day.

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Now, I must confess that I did consider going to see the original Horrible Bosses in 2011, but some sixth sense told me my time might be better spent elsewhere (which may explain the rash of golden-oldie Planet of the Apes reviews around the time the first film came out). However, I was assured that – if this one was anything like its predecessor – a knowledge of the plot would not be required for full appreciation of its nuances.

Anyway, as Sean Anders’ film opens, we are introduced to Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Dale), three guys who are trying to make it as entrepreneurs and appearing on TV to promote their latest idea for a shower fitting. (It eventually transpires that Kurt is a softly-spoken moron, Charlie is a very noisy moron, and Nick, though not a moron, inevitably seems to find himself dragged along in the wake of the other two.) The opening sequence of the film does a pretty good job of establishing the tone of proceedings, in that its comic credentials are based on some infelicitious camera angles appearing to show Dale giving manual relief to and fellating Kurt, and the fact that their company name, when spoken too quickly, sounds like a racial slur.

While I was coming to the conclusion that this was not exactly going to be Bringing Up Baby, the plot progressed, with the trio going into business with the wealthy and ruthless Hanson family, personified by Burt (Christoph Waltz) and his son Rex (Chris Pine). It comes as no surprise when the Hansons make the the most of the fact the main characters are, well, morons, viciously exploiting them and leaving them horribly in debt, with only a short time to raise $500,000 or lose their company.

So what are a trio of morons going to do in such dire straits? Are they going to seek legal advice? No, of course not. Are they going to try and find a new business partner or backer to help them with their financial woes? No. Are they going to engage in a frankly stupid scheme to kidnap Rex Hanson and ransom him back to his father for the money they need? Well, obviously. There are a few scenes where Jennifer Aniston turns up as a sex-addicted dentist, but, you know, they’re not exactly central.

Anyway, the other day I was reading an article where a bunch of professional writers chose the expressions they would like to see deleted from the lexicon – one chose ‘Mary Sue’, another went for ‘info dump’, and so on, on the grounds they had become debased or lost any essential meaning. (I couldn’t help smelling a rat – I suspect some of them might have wanted to get rid of the expression ‘this is a bad book’, to stop that from appearing in reviews as well.) One of the choices was the term ‘idiot plot’, which is shorthand for any story which only works if all the main characters behave like unreasonable idiots.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, whatever you think of Mary Sue or info dump, I am absolutely certain that idiot plot retains some critical value, and the proof of that is the existence of a film like Horrible Bosses 2. If any of the main characters acted remotely like an actual human being the story would never take place. But the story has to happen and so they blunder and bumble on in a wholly incredible way.

I have to say, however, that I’m not entirely averse to a bit of absurd slapstick, provided it’s genuinely funny, and my problems with Horrible Bosses 2 don’t really arise from the fact that the story is so silly. ‘Silly’ isn’t entirely fair, to be honest: the plot itself is actually fairly inventive in some ways, and not quite as simplistic as you might expect. My main problem is that the tone of the thing is so – and how do I put this without coming over all Mary Whitehouse? – adolescent.

The kind of jokes featuring in the opening scene continue throughout the film, which also features wall-to-wall profanity, various glib jokes about rape, a little mild racial abuse, the objectification of women, and so on. None of this is really my thing, I will admit, and it may just be that I’m a failing old man who’s lost his sense of humour. However, from various reviews I’ve read of other modern American comedy films, I get the impression that this has become de rigeur for the form: there seems to be the belief that audiences just aren’t interested in going to see a funny film unless half the jokes are explicitly sexual and it has a three-figure F-bomb count.

Is this really the case? I’m not sure. Certainly, in the case of Horrible Bosses 2, I thought I could discern a fast, slick, and very silly comedy-thriller choking to death under the onslaught of ‘adult’ humour. I did eventually laugh at this film, despite attempting not to on principle: it was at a joke about someone using an indelible marker on a whiteboard, something I can empathise with myself (hey, that’s my kind of humour). Also, Jason Bateman does give a genuinely funny deadpan performance as someone who knows that he should know better.

I did still find this a rather baffling experience, however, partly because – despite everything – I cannot find it in my heart to come out and say that Horrible Bosses 2 is an outright bad movie. The makers clearly had a specific objective in mind – a very crude, very silly comedy, with its profile raised by the presence of some big name actors – and this is indeed what they’ve ended up with. (Kevin Spacey amiably chews the scenery in his tiny cameo, but it rather seems to me that Jamie Foxx’s gangster is essentially a one-joke character.) I’m just not sure why they would choose to make this particular film, when there is plenty of evidence on display that they are capable of making something cleverer and much more accessible to a less juvenile audience.

In the end, however, I have to stick to talking about the film they made, not the ones they could have made. And the film that they made is more dismaying than anything approaching hilarious, not least because everyone involved is clearly capable of so much better.

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So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn’t thought it to be my cup of tea. ‘What, you think I don’t like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?’ I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.

‘You think it’s SF?’

‘Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?’

‘Young Adult.’

‘Yes, but Young Adult SF.’

Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games’ place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there’s no call to be snotty about them.

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This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for ‘Adaptation’, while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn’t the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it’s reasonably short.

One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I’ve no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there’s no recap or reprise from the previous film, we’re just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven’t seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow’s clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.

As you may have surmised, there aren’t actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film’s benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.

Once upon a time this sort of ‘heroic rebels versus evil empire’ kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels ‘rebels’, and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss’ allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.

She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.

This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow’s doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can’t quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don’t completely cop out on all this good work.

This is all so engaging that you really don’t notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn’t actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence’s ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it’s a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.

The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I’m watching it, but doesn’t exactly linger in the mind once I’ve finished. Maybe it’s just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn’t let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.

 

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‘…It’s as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character homosexual… There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War…’

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Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can’t keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.

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The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.

On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.

As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty’s team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing’s social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.

This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer – to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war…

Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing’s sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing’s life.

It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it’s rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I’m being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.

However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing’s machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it’s shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.

I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing’s great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.

Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing’s codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing’s sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.

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For the past few weeks now, I have been observing that we seem to have been in receipt of a selection of movies that one might reasonably expect to have been held back for the traditional awards season – serious, quality stuff, with big names both in front of and behind the camera. I think we may as well declare Awards Season to have opened this year, because the parade of high-class worthies shows no sign of stopping, and I would be very surprised if none of them scored any gongs at all.

Already having picked up a couple of prixes francais, latest on the scene is Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Mike Leigh is, and I’m aware I’m probably about to generalise reprehensibly, best known as a sort of social historian of middle- and working-class Britain (if he ever remakes Interstellar, it will probably consist entirely of people arguing about crop rotation), but he is not averse to doing the odd period picture either: Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, was a notable success about fifteen years ago, and he has dipped into similar territory for Mr Turner.

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Tom Cruise’s favourite actor from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Timothy Spall, plays John Mallard William Turner, the noted landscape artist of the early 19th century. Exactly when the film begins is a little unclear, but Turner has already become a noted artist.

I should point out that, of course, Mr Turner appears to have been made in accordance with the dictates of Mike Leigh’s Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, in which Leigh and his actors basically just sit around and… well, I don’t know, actually, he must swear them all to secrecy or something. Anyway the point about the RNMSIM is that it inevitably results in an overwhelming focus on character and the minutiae of performance, and films which are not exactly powerhouses of gripping plot.

And so the film opens with a very long shot – in every sense of the word – of a windmill at sunrise (or possibly sunset, who can tell), in front of which two slightly Pythonesque Dutch ladies walk past fairly slowly. The camera pans with them to reveal, in slightly less long shot, Turner making a sketch of the windmill. Cut to pre-Victorian London (economically but convincingly realised) and Turner’s homecoming. There are protracted greetings between Turner and his father (Paul Jesson), and the household maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who has a skin condition, though clearly not to the point that it discourages Turner from taking the employer-domestic relationship into some fairly surprising areas.

Someone goes out and buys some paint. Turner wanders about and sketches things. His former mistress and unacknowledged children and grandchildren turn up and are given fairly short shrift. There are high-flown debates about art at the Royal Academy. Turner goes on holiday in Margate. So it goes, so it goes: the storyline of the film gradually develops, to be sure, but in a very low-key and inconspicuous way.

This is certainly a film which either drags its feet a bit or provides excellent value for money, depending on your point of view. It weighs in at a lengthy 129 minutes and is it absolutely true that every single moment of it is essential to the film’s thesis? I can’t help but think not.

Then again, it did occur to me as I was watching it that treating this as a conventional plot-driven film might be doing it a disservice: perhaps it is more a discursive piece, to be enjoyed and savoured in a more reflective way, making the most of the subtleties of performance, composition, costuming and so on. Well, maybe: there is certainly a lot to enjoy here, once you get your head around the somewhat languid pace and odd style.

On the other hand, for a film about a great artist, Mr Turner is only tangentially concerned with Mr Turner actually doing any painting. Perhaps this is the point and the aim of the film is to explore the flawed character of this astonishingly gifted human being. Well, that’s as may be, but the fact remains that quite a large proportion of this film consists of Timothy Spall grunting.

No, that’s not fair: in addition to grunting, he snorts, snuffles, croaks, groans, growls, rumbles, sniffs, and chokes a lot too. There are quite long scenes in which other characters exchange long pieces of dialogue, punctuated by the camera cutting to Turner watching them and going ‘Hrrrnnnnkk,’ or something similar, in the back of his throat. Spall finds a great deal of variation in these different vocalisations, of course: the ones he makes when hearing some ill-advised art criticism are quite different from the sounds he emits when disporting himself with the maid. (Perhaps Leigh’s next project should be a radical biography of Monica Seles, also starring Spall.)

Turner describes himself as a ‘gargoyle’ in the film and Spall himself seems to be taking ‘pugnacious’ as the starting-point for his performance. There is a lot of pop-eyed cantankerousness as things go on, especially as Turner’s style of art goes somewhat out of fashion and he begins to find the role of the artist somewhat supplanted by that of the photographer, but there are also moments of tenderness and the occasional insight into what drove Turner as an artist. It is undoubtedly Spall’s film as an actor: technically his performance is brilliant, even if Turner comes across as a bit of a Dickensian grotesque.

On the other hand, Dick Pope’s cinematography is also very striking, as you might expect in a film largely about visual spectacle and art. The film has a richness and texture that is really impressive, and at times a grandeur somewhat at odds with the nondescript nature of many of the scenes.

Does it manage to say anything particularly profound about either Turner himself or the life of an artist in general? No, not really, I think: the closest Leigh manages is to suggest that Turner’s brilliance as an artist was offset by his being fairly callous to most of those who loved him, especially Hannah the maid, whom he effectively dumps in favour of his common-law wife. Is this sort of thing justified if you’re so talented? Personally I would have thought not, but the film remains remarkably non-judgemental.

Mr Turner has racked up five-star reviews by the dozen, but even if I indulged in such things I couldn’t do the same. But I am aware that this may largely be because I have a different sensibility to Mike Leigh and his RNMSIM. Mr Turner is superbly acted and photographed throughout, and has clearly been directed and edited with a great deal of skill. It’s an extremely accomplished film. It’s just a bit too slow and mannered for my tastes.

 

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