Saturday, 22 November 2014

To pull off this genius routine, one actually has to be a genius.

The Imitation Game
(2014)

The cracking of the Enigma code has received a fair share of cinematic attention over the past 15 years. The results, however, have been mixed at best. First came Jon Bon Jovi starrer U-571 (okay, McConaughey was the actual lead), which gained infamy for depicting the crucial, hitherto unknown role of the US Navy in retrieving a German cipher machine (rather than Tommy Atkins). Then came Enigma, more specifically focussed on the Bletchley Park code breakers, but heavily fictionalised (it was adapted liberally from Robert Harris’ already highly fictional account). The Imitation Game arrives with the promise of telling the real story right this time, and in so doing honouring Alan Turing’s genius and remembering his tragic demise. Unfortunately, it fails to hit a home run in any capacity. As an explanation of the code breaking process, and method involved, it is perfunctory at best. As a biopic it is crude and lacking in insight, running through the list of eccentric genius tropes as if the makers had never seen, and been warned off by, A Beautiful Mind while manufacturing makeshift dramatic moments in a glaring and contrived manner. The Imitation Game is a deeply average film artificially hoisted by the (understandable) respect reserved for its subject.


I mention A Beautiful Mind not because The Imitation Game ever plumbs the depths of little Ronny Howard’s Oscar winner but because both films engage in a calculated and borderline patronising treatment of their protagonists. They tread lightly on both the intellectual and theoretical accomplishments of these prodigies, and so end up borderline vapid when it comes to delivering snippets of their ideas and accomplishments. They also tip wholesale into the de rigueur arsenal of aspergic/autistic tics and quirks demanded of the Oscar-bait performance (there, I’ve brought up the statuette, but such talk is the inevitable facile consequence of Cumberbatch, a fine actor, playing a now universally acknowledged very wronged historical figure in a climate of too-late recompense and attempts to rebalance the scales). I found A Beautiful Mind’s obtuseness actually offensive in places, however, whereas The Imitation Game’s problem is simply that it is not very well crafted. It’s evident that the intentions are good, but the results are deeply pedestrian.


Another point of comparison with A Beautiful Mind (and there I will leave it) is the treatment, or lack thereof, of its lead characters’ sexuality. Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman brushed John Nash’s homo-(or bi-)sexuality under the carpet and had a huge hit on their hands. Alan Turing’s historical status is intrinsically tied to the event that befell him in the last two years of his life; his criminal conviction for gross indecency, during a period when homosexual acts were illegal, the punishment for which was imprisonment or chemical castration. Turing opted for the latter. 


Indeed, while the royal pardon granted in the past year maybe symbolically significant, as has been pointed out by a number of observers the counterpoint is that all those who were similarly unjustly sentenced deserve exactly the same, rather than singling out Turing because of a sterling contribution to the war effort. The Imitation Game is resolutely coy about Turing’s sexuality, only mustering conviction in the depiction of his schoolboy crush (because it is young and innocent rather than adult and sordid?) We don’t see him in a relationship with a man (only the arrest and interrogation), yet an inordinate amount of time is spent on his platonic relationship with Knightley’s Joan Clarke. It’s easy to see where the criticisms are coming from in this regard.


That’s not the half of it, though. The manner in which we jump from Turing’s wartime efforts to his last days/years (through the most unwieldy and clumsy of framing devices) at least has more thematic consequence than the way Spielberg jumped to Lincoln’s assassination for no reason other than to provide an ending, but it does so in a manner that undermines everything else he did after the war. As it plays, you’d be forgiven for thinking Turing pitched straight into a steep post-war decline, isolated in his home building a mad machine, relieved only by bouts of cottaging. The scene in which Joan visits Alan, who is suffering the effects of the hormonal treatment, is affecting and disturbing, as it should be, but it smacks of cutting to the chase. And, while it may have been commendably restrained not to depict the (generally assumed, and the coroner’s verdict) suicide via cyanide-laced apple out of respect for alternate view (held by his mother and family, that it was an accidental overdose resulting from his electroplating process), this is not the sort of diligence that has been depicted elsewhere.


Graham Moore’s slipshod screenplay, based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, might suggest an air of rigour and complexity through a structure that finds the 1952 Turing interrogated, with the main thrust concerning his wartime efforts at Bletchley Park (which resulted in Churchill, among others, suggesting Turing was responsible for single biggest contribution to the Allied victory over Germany, one that shortened the war by an estimated two years) while further flashbacks depict his awakening feelings for (and loss of) fellow pupil Christopher. Sadly there is little that is rigorous or perceptive about the construction. Instead, one is compelled to cry fake in scene after scene irrespective of specific points of authenticity. Crucial moments are artlessly devised to depict conflict or emphasise high sprung genius, while the dialogue is at best on-the-nose (characters frequently speak in knowing sound bites)and at worst hopelessly rudimentary .


Cumberbatch’s Alan is abrupt/rude/ funny (although he doesn’t get a joke, except maybe about sandwiches) has Keira Knightley as a best friend/fiancé, clashes with his superiors and colleagues (most of whom invariably come to respect him) and generally runs the gamut of worn-out eccentric clichés. Turing’s absolutely not like Sherlock, because Cumberbatch makes him a touch more introverted and gives him trouble getting his words out.  He’s still rude to people, though, so he’s enough like Sherlock that there are some crowd-pleasing moments involved.  Cumberbatch performs with all the unbridled pleasure of a glutton tucking into a big juicy steak; Turing is a succession of ticks and vocal impediments; elongated “L”s, a subdued stammer and calculated cadences. The role is an thespian’s delight, but it’s so studied – and familiar form the sort of thing we’ve seen him do before – that Turing only rarely passes through the surface tapestry and becomes a fully formed character.


Moore definitely doesn’t support Cumberbatch, however. The actors are generally pretty good, certainly much better than the script deserves, but are stuck sparring with the lead through a succession of scenes where Turing’s wilful brilliance wins out; mostly he’s the tortured genius proven right in the end. Occasionally, to suggest he’s three-dimensional and not all greatness, he behaves insufferably. An additional problem is, while Turing is a passable caricature, those he interacts with barely even get to play cyphers (rather than cipher machines).


As soon as Turing arrives at Bletchley Park there is a sinking feeling, as he is subsumed by well-trodden ground. He’s eccentrically disposed, indifferent to the views of Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston and unabashed at announcing he is unmotivated by the war effort and that politics isn’t really his thing. The ghost of Sherlock seeps into the scene. And Denniston (Dance is solid, but he always is) is instantly cast as the malignant foe, because Turing in the film needs one; he suspects him of being a spy, threatens to turn off his machine and enacts various other unlikely and blunt inventions to create a tangible struggle. It isn’t that such devices shouldn’t be added in a dramatisation, simply that they require significantly more effort and care if they are going to pass without comment.


But this is the kind of biopic that commits such cardinal errors as having other characters announce to Turing what a legacy he will have. It makes dramatic sense to have Turing, who sees the world with a keener mind, voice the realisation that the knowledge of the broken code cannot get out (and thus alert the Germans). But then Moore has to overcook his turkey by having one of the fellow code breakers reveal his brother is in the convoy about to be bombed. Such sense of artifice is never far from any given scene.


Later, Turing’s fellows, whom he has treated so dismissively, get behind him one and all as Denniston announces he is fired (“I quit!” they proclaim in succession; while it’s self-evident by now that a high ranking on The Black List is no indication of quality, how anyone gave such toe-curling cheese a free pass is baffling). Sometimes this feels not so much like a major motion picture as a school play where the teenage author has called in favours to some well-known treaders of the boards in the extended family.


The spy fare too isn’t up to much either, a poor man-beggar man-thief’s version of Tinker Tailor trappings. Director Morton Tyldum scores by having Mark Strong as Major General Stewart Menzies, the face of MI6, but that’s about as far as it goes in favours. The framing device of the police investigation (with Rory Kinnear unable to save a thanklessly mechanical part) is a generally poor attempt to provide context to the conviction, the mood of the period and Turing’s own theories. Particularly awkward s is depositing the computer scientist’s explanation of the Turing Test amid the policy interrogation.


There are nice touches along the way. The moment of realisation of how to crack the code works well enough (although, one suspects it could have been handled even better).  Then there’s Turing’s letter to Churchill, a witty punchline to the previous scene in which Denniston mockingly instructs him that the Prime Minister is the only figure who holds seniority over the Bletchley Commander.  Then there’s Turing, now installed as head of team, immediately giving two of his colleagues their marching orders. The dealings with Soviet spy John Cairncross, here a fellow member of Turing’s group, creates an effective parallel with Turing; one keeps secrets professionally, the other personally (Moore extends this theme to the initial suspicions of the police investigation into Turing, while Cairncross’ non-judgemental stance also serves to pre-empt the political allegiances of Guy Burgess). There may be little finesse to any of these areas, but they work in and of themselves.


Most effective is Turing’s early life, with Alex Lawther providing a far more persuasive and affecting performance as young Turing than Cumberbatch’s mannered rendition. Jack Bannon is also very good as Christopher Morcom. Knowing that it was Morcom’s loss that instilled in Turing an ardent atheism (albeit with a belief in the endurance of the spirit) seems like too strong a piece of character information to pass up, yet it doesn’t get a mention. Moore’s screenplay is flavorlessly functional, and it’s left to the actors to fill in the gaps.


None of them are bad, but most can’t quite manage the task; Matthew Goode is merely okay as the suave ladies’ man who develops a grudging respect for his superior. Knightley is actually very good, a model of restraint opposite Cumberbatch’s whoops and hollers. This is the kind of part, playing to her natural poshness and chumminess that allows one to forget those unfortunate occasions when she looks as if she’s trying out for a Ronseal advert. It’s evident that the focus on Joan is as much evidence of faltering confidence in the tale of a gay mathematician who fell prey to the cruelty of the establishment as the heavy-handed injections of “excitement” into the plot, but that shouldn’t detract from the decent work she does.


This is Morten Tyldum’s English language debut, having turned heads with the effectively nasty (and funny) Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters. But there is little of that flair and energy here. Rather, he seems content to indulge every tin-eared cliché that Moore offers. Good God! Here’s a montage of Turing beavering away on the science intercut with him out running; that Turing tried out for the Olympic team does nothing to diminish the lack of imagination. Tyldum probably saw the kudos Tomas Alfredson received after seguing from Let the Right One In to his very good spy adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If so, he has been hoisted by his own petard, showing himself an inferior filmmaker in every respect.


The Imitation Game will very likely be showered with Oscar nominations, and Cumberbatch may very well walk away with a gong (he’s riding the quest of just such a wave). After all, Harvey Weinstein bought the picture for $7m in February, and he knows how to campaign the shit out of otherwise unlikely contenders. And then bring winners to the podium. But the truth is, the film just isn’t very good. It’s resolutely average. And biopics have a tendency to be very average. Turing’s tale is all the more so because the story has such potential, which is wasted. Instead we get another cartoon eccentric genius, complete with a dash of tragedy to provoke discussion about how important the film is. The Imitation Game is unworthy of the worthiness the subject matter bestows.


**1/2

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy
(2014)

My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.


I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping to be a contender. The first of Richelle Mead’s series, one whose title helpfully requires zero work on the reader’s part to divine just what it is all about, was published in 2007. The sixth instalment came in 2010, and the series has sold over 8 million copies, so I guess it deserves to be labelled popular.


The school setting obviously takes a leaf out of Buffy’s book (I know, vampires weren’t really attending school in then series) but, since it’s the also part of the Twilight vogue, I’m sure there were ready sources of inspiration for this vampire education all over. And, you know, the kids can relate. Mead’s take has half-breed (not actually vampires) offspring of humans and vampires (Dhampir) acting as guardians for the (good) vamps (Moroi). Which seems like it’s the wrong way round, but what do I know. The Dampir also have magic abilities (which is handy), able to control the four elements (only one each though, I believe). There are also bad vampires (the standard sort, before Anne Rice came on the scene), Strigoi, who are undead and drink blood.


Rose (Zoey Deutch, daughter of Lea Thompson – Marty McFly’s mum – and Howard Deutch – director of, er, Some Kind of Wonderful) is a guardian-in-training, Lissa (Lucy Fry) is the Moroi princess (vampires have royalty, of course) she protects. They have a strong bond, but only a lesbian one unless you’re keen on Vampire Academy fan fiction, and Rose is able to experience the latter’s thoughts. Which sounds like a recipe for Whedon-esque whip-smartness but mostly flounders. Lissa meanwhile can bring the dead back to life; rules are up for grabs and any shit goes.


The movie almost surprises in the first instance by starting mid-story (and avoids extended flashbacks), with the two girls on the run, but can’t take credit as this was part of the novel. That might encourage the picture to feel very “busy” but it’s also because neither Waters is able to focus on the main story until quite a late stage; there are threats to Lissa’s life, school bullying, an Angel-esque smouldering older love interest (Josh Hartnett-alike Danila Kozlovsky as Dimitri) for Rose and an age-appropriate one for Lissa (Dominic Sherwood as Christian).


The pervading sense of familiarity may be part of the reason this one didn’t catch on, although there are more particular problems in execution. The leads are desperately poor shows, particularly Deutch. She fails to bring a lightness of touch, stumbles through her witticisms and fails to sell herself as best buds wirh Rose and romancing Dimitri. I don’t particularly want to be hard on her; her mum’s a great actress and her dad, well he directed Some Kind of Wonderful. Fry seems to be concentrating so hard on her perfectly aristocratic RP accent she forgets to put in a performance. As a result, it’s hard to tell how much of this is down to Daniel Waters’ script; no one is able to carry the dialogue.


Well, no one central. There are some decent thesps on the periphery; Olga Krylenko has fun as a disciplinarian headmistress, Gabriel Bryne cashes the cheque but that’s still more value than most can muster, Joely Richardson gives it some amusing regal and Claire Foy does dotty. The best of the youngsters is Sami Gayle as chief (school) antagonist Mia, but she’s the only one you could imagine holding her own in Heathers (Sarah Hyland is also good as the geek girl concealing a really pretty girl as if you didn’t notice, but she’s more Clueless).


Generally, one would expect better from the combined forces that brought us Heathers and Mean Girls. The school setting doesn’t have enough bite; a wicked streak is required but it feels passé, more Harry Potter with spot of blood licked off walls than “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw”. As noted, Academy threatens to become interesting (only threatens) when the plot kicks in during the last 20 minutes. But that’s nothing to do with the teen angst bullshit with a body count plot, which is the opposite of what you might reasonably expect (before which there are a series of twists, none of which take much to guess). Little of the dialogue sticks in the mind, aside from “She writes Twilight fan fiction”. Which only serves to highlight that Vampire Academy has a cheek trying to come over all superior.


Daniel Waters’ work on Heathers and Hudson Hawk made him the skewed humourists to watch in the early part of the ‘90s, and he at least made Batman Returns the most peculiar movie in that franchise while Demolition Man became a likeably random Stalloner. His work here feels indistinct, though (the reverse of Sex and Death 101), strictly a bill-paying job. As for brother Mark, I never pegged him as a great, but he was at least a competent hand; Mean Girls is well observed, and he also showed a surprising flair with kids’ fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles. On paper he doesn’t seem like a bad choice, but everything about the execution is off. The action is leaden, while the staging and cinematography shouts TV movie on a number of occasions.


That the Weinsteins produced this may explain everything. For every picture of theirs (and this was also true of their former Miramax) that gains plaudits and garlands there are many more where Harvey Scissorhands couldn’t resist butchering it in the blinkered (since he never has in all his many meddlings) belief that he could improve it. It’s alleged that Harvey had Vampire Academy cut down to the essentials, which would explain a lot; I’m more inclined to give Mark Waters the benefit of the doubt than say David Ayer for the messed up Sabotage, but Academy comes unstuck with the leads and deteriorates from there.


As always happens when Harvey gets his chubby mitts on a movie, he eviscerates it, loses interest, and then dumps it to die a slow disinterested death. The legions of the devoted have been trumping up a crowdsourced sequel but I’d be as dubious of that as the announced City of Bones one. Which led to the much more likely avenue. Bones has been announced as a TV series and, if Vampire Academy has a chance of adapted life beyond the limits of this misfire, that seems more likely. Lacking in wit, miscast and mangled, this pretty much what you expect from Weinstein pictures that aren’t aiming for Oscar glory, and also from a good few of them that are. The teaser poster warned “Prepare to be tested”. It was right.


*1/2

Holy shit! I heard about a weird car driving around.

Extraterrestre 
(Extraterrestrial)
(2011)

Anyone who has suffered the debacle that is Skyline (so bad, a sequel is guaranteed) would understandably be give pause by the premise of Extraterrestre. An alien invasion told from the vantage of an apartment building. Except that this is only very loosely a science fiction movie, and certainly not an alien invasion one. An offbeat romantic comedy, Nacho Vigalondo’s film plays with the tropes of the genre but through the expectancy of those who have seen such fare rather than anything the aliens do. The result is an unremarkable but agreeable comedy of misunderstandings.


Vigalondo’s previous (and debut) picture Time Crimes is also a science fiction piece, and a frustrating one. Vigalondo worked up some striking ideas and presented them in an often unsettling and visceral manner, but the picture lacks internal logic (that is, the internal logic of the protagonist rather than the internal logic of the time travel device).  Extraterrestre is much gentler in form and eschews hard SF concepts. Tensions also tend to be punctuated by humorous developments, yet both films share protagonists labouring under mistaken assumptions who create bigger messes as they attempt to resolve their situations.


Julio (Julian Villagran) awakes in the apartment of the girl with whom he spent previous night. Julia (the mighty purdy Michelle Jenner) clearly doesn’t really want him there, but outside events soon overtake such awkwardness. The streets are deserted, the phones are down, the TV and Internet aren’t working, and there’s an enormous spaceship hanging over the city. Added to this, Julia’s stalker neighbour Angel (Carlos Areces) has remained behind to give her his full attention (he is less than happy at Julio’s presence) and then Julia’s boyfriend Carlos (Raul Cimas) returns.


Face with a very awkward situation, the only option is to lie. First that Julia found Julio passed out on the street. Then, taking cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Julio and Julia cast aspersions on Angel, suggesting there is something strange about him. Events spiral out of control from there; there are attempts to send Angel packing, and Carlos reveals a survivalist instinct (separated from them, he departs to make bombs in another part of the city).


The most effective aspect of Extraterrestre is the manner in which the “invasion” is undercut by the domestic intrigues and subterfuge of the quartet. Julio and Julia continue their carry on, perhaps because Carlos’ presence makes it exciting. Angel, meanwhile, devotes himself to exposing their behaviour to Carlos. This involves taking up residence in an apartment across the street, and attempting to announce Julia’s cuckoldry through banners and firing endless quantities on tennis balls through Julia’s apartment windows.


The escalating tensions between the dogged Angel and Julio make for the funniest scenes; they, and Julia, are out for what they can get, and more than willing to behave manipulatively (if Julio had behaved honourably in the first place the situation wouldn’t have gotten out of control). It’s appropriate then that Julio should be called upon to right the wrongs he has instituted, brewing up one more dose of confusion.


At points the low budget emptiness recalls the Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth, and it’s fitting that the aliens should never make their physical presence felt (except as the paranoia of others). It might be the anti-Pegg and Wright picture, taking a genre staple and backing away from it. There’s an especially deft running gag about a weird alien car (which Julio has designed for a carnival but everyone re-interprets as evidence of invasion), deployed for the Julio’s redemptive act.


***