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The Imitation Game (2014)
Flawed genius, flawed movie
This is not the first movie to investigate the Bletchley Park team that cracked the Nazi Enigma code and hastened Germany's defeat. This version puts a lot more meat on the bones of the code-breakers' story and, more importantly, gives mathematician Alan Turing the full credit for his role as creator of the Ultra machine that finally broke the code. We now know that Turing is part parent, part midwife, to today's PCs and iPads and Smartphones.
We also know that Turing was a homosexual in an era when gays were prosecuted and cruelly punished, although the writer and director of THE IMITATION GAME seem to be unsure about how far to go in exploring this side of Turing's fatally (as it would prove) flawed genius. Flashbacks to his boarding school days show geeky Alan clumsily and inarticulately in love with a fellow pupil, but his great love in the Bletchley Park period is Joan (Keira Knightley), the only female on the team. Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly catches the adult Alan's equally clumsy courtship of Joan, whom he loves but does not desire.
The moral dilemma the Bletchley Park team - and the government - faced once they had broken the German code is chillingly presented but the movie's fatal flaw, for me, was in declaring Turing's homosexuality (and its terrible consequences) but not exploring it in any depth. We see the postwar police doggedly building a case against him, but we get few clues as to the kind of gay man he was. Perhaps Benedict was OK about playing gay but didn't want to fully "do" gay?
What the Turing movie needed, I think, were a couple of the scenes like Gary Oldman had in PRICK UP YOUR EARS, candidly but not not too explicitly showing Joe Orton's naughty weakness for cottaging and rent boys. THE IMITATION GAME is a visual feast with well-judged performances from the entire cast, but it settles for being a Merchant Ivory-style period piece with (as the poster proclaims) more than one enigma at its centre. This is not the definitive biography of Alan Turing.
Dracula Untold (2014)
Camp it up a bit, Luke!
Dracula UNTOLD expands the five-minute prologue from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 BRAM STOKER'S Dracula into a 90-minute 'Origins' story without adding anything much to the mythology. A lot of sword-fighting; a few spooky scenes in the bat-cave where an ancient and barely recognisable Charles Dance shreds his victims or, in Vlad's case, offers transmogrification. Plus some scenes which show Vlad Tepes as a charming happy family man in his palace (obviously not when he's impaling hundreds of his enemies!).
Luke Evans is a more beefcake Vlad than Gary Oldman in the Coppola version, but he's mostly meat and not much substance, like Gerard Butler in Dracula 2001. Charles Dance seems not to mind slumming in a schlock movie but Dominic Cooper looks very uncomfortable as the evil Turkish Sultan, as well he might. This addition to the Dracula spin-offs is no worse than the 2012 ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER but not as much fun as Stephen Sommers' 2004 VAN HELSING. Luke Evans is cute but he hasn't got Hugh Jackman's charisma. Oddly, since Evans outed himself as a bi- guy on TV not long ago, there's a key ingredient that he doesn't bring to the movie which the best Draculas have had, from Bela Lugosi through to Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman: Dracula has to be played with a touch of camp!
Gone Girl (2014)
The lady vanishes
The main plot twist, which could only be a surprise to those who haven't read the book, is very predictable, but some of the later twists are neatly executed, although often credulity-stretching. The ending is nicely unpredictable and brings a pleasing sense of Just Desserts.
Ben Affleck makes a good fist of Mr Nice-Guy who may not be such a nice guy, but the movie belongs to Ms Pike. Her threatened wife is definitely not from the school of Doris Day in MIDNIGHT LACE; the echoes are rather more of Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION or JAGGED EDGE, two movies to which this film owes a hefty debt.
The sex-and-violence quotient is fairly high, but I'm surprised the film didn't sneak below its 18 rating. Leavened with some humour, particularly targeting the media vultures who descend on the family house in outlandish numbers, this is at heart just a spiced-up version of the earlier screen melodramas (THE LADY VANISHES!!) which must have inspired the author. Hokum, quality hokum even, well scripted and stylishly directed, but not quite as "classy" as WHAT LIES BENEATH, another of the movies that I found myself remembering while I sat through this.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Cronenberg now an 'auteur' of weirdness
We used to expect gross-out horror from David Cronenberg. Now he gives us weird and weirder. MAPS TO THE STARS is set in a Tinseltown of designer homes, designer shops and exclusive restaurants. The background 'sheen' is reminiscent of an Almodovar movie, plus there's a Gothic element borrowed from Shyamalan (Agatha and Benjie see dead people). Julianne Moore's performance is in the kind of hyper-drive she brought to BOOGIE NIGHTS, which helps to power the movie's gearshift from Hollywood satire into violent melodrama. One of the themes is incest, which surely needed a deeper and subtler exploration.
Robert Pattinson takes another step away from the Twilight Zone in the role of a limo driver with screen writing aspirations (like every other chauffeur in Los Angeles). Cronenberg is clearly reaching out towards a more discerning class of viewer. MAPS TO THE STARS is very much an 'auteur' movie, highly intelligent and stylized, but perhaps perched uncomfortably between satire and psychodrama.
Four gays and a lesbian
It's 1984 and the Prime Minister whom Bill Nighy is pleased to call "Margaret ****ing Thatcher" has pitched phalanxes of policemen against the miners in their long-drawn-out strike against the latest wave of pit closures (the movie manages to avoid mentioning that many mines had already closed under previous Labour governments). A small band of London gays - and one lesbian - start fund-raising to support the miners and then descend on a small village in Wales, which accords them a mixed welcome: all but one woman are quick to accept them; all but two of the men are hostile.
Prominent among the gays are earnest Joe (George MacKay), a 20-year-old from Bromley not yet out to his family (the age of consent was still 21 in 1984) and flamboyant Jonathan (Dominic West in a role very similar to Simon Callow's in FOUR WEDDINGS) who breaks the ice by introducing the village people (excuse pun) to disco dancing. In what I suspect is a highly fictionalised episode, a group of the villagers come up to London and are treated to an eyebrow-raising tour of gay hot spots.
This 'culture-clash' comedy is scripted in the vein of TV's MIRANDA or ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. The ensemble cast perform with relish, especially. Paddy Considine and Imelda Staunton as two of the more gay-friendly villagers. Homophobia and Aids cast darker shadows to remind us that the 1980s was not only the decade of Thatcher versus the unions.
Very much in the spirit of KINKY BOOTS and MADE IN DAGENHAM, PRIDE takes a fragment of modern UK history and builds it into a sparky, spiky comedy. Another crowd-pleasing demonstration of British cinema at its very best. I hope the same team will look back at the Sottish referendum in a few years time!
The Guest (2014)
From Downton to Haddonfield
You kind of know from the beginning that this guest is not all that he seems to be, like Richard Gere in SOMMERSBY. The casting against type of DOWNTON ABBEY's Dan Stevens was a good move. Seriously buffed up, he produces a convincing if stateless American accent and is very persuasive as the handsome stranger who is clearly too good to be true.
There's a sci-fi element in the storyline which needed a bit more detail. The fact that the high school is making elaborate preparations for Halloween brings in some strident echoes of John Carpenter's 'masterwork'. THE GUEST is a hokum movie with too much of the kind of violence younger audiences now expect and crave, but a sturdy performance from Stevens makes lifts his transition from Downton to Haddonfield out of the B-movie slot where the derivative script would otherwise have left it.
Deliver Us from Evil (2014)
Deliver us from remakes!
Eric Bana and Edgar Ramirez are two strong-presence actors whose performances help to dilute the implausibility of a story which borrows too many elements from that old show-stopper THE EXORCIST - even down to the evil emanating from an excavation in Iraq. Almost every scene is shot in darkened rooms - the demon keeps blowing fuses and light-bulbs - saving thousands of dollars on sets and lighting.
There are a few good jumpy moments in Sarchie's house where his small daughter is also submitted to borrowings from William Peter Blatty. The climactic exorcism scene almost makes Linda Blair look like Mary Poppins (Linda's pea-soup moments are thankfully not, excuse the pun, regurgitated here), but there is not enough originality in the script or the direction to make this more than a run-of-the-mill horror which, with a less A-list cast, would have gone straight to DVD.
Into the Storm (2014)
Let's Twist again
If, like me, you have fond memories of EARTHQUAKE in the cinema, with low- tech Sensurround shaking you in your seat during the tectonic sequences, you will get a similar blast from INTO THE STORM which has some seriously audience-engulfing CGI as a barrage of tornadoes rip a town in Oklahoma to shreds. It's only 90 minutes long, with a B-list cast, and inevitably has to recycle much of its plot from TWISTER: imperilled townsfolk, a group of storm-chasers with state-of-the-art equipment. A couple of local loonies on motor-bikes add some comedy to the mix.
There's not a lot that's new here, but the storm sequences are visceral, with buses and aeroplanes as well as cars and roofs (and people) sucked up into the air. Yes, it's hokum, it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but as disaster movies go this one delivers the goods.
God's Pocket (2014)
Grim and grungy swansong from Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman's stepson's dead body is used, not in the best possible taste, as a comic prop, and Eddy Marsan does a funny turn as the undertaker who won't extend Mickey any credit. Turturro's wife runs a flower-shop and proves to be handy with a hand-gun. The comedy is mixed with rough sex scenes and more than one savage beating. As in Nicolas Cage's JOE, GOD'S POCKET delivers visceral violence in a beautifully shot movie with fine performances from its ensemble cast.
Despite the moments of comedy and the pleasingly upbeat coda, the overwhelming mood is grimness and grunge. But this is how people live in today's city slums (1980s Phildelphia looks pretty much the same in 2014), scratching a living, fighting off creditors, killing each other.
Another History of Violence
When Nicolas Cage takes a break from action movies - the good (CON AIR) or the bad (GHOST RIDER) - he's apt to appear in something ugly. LEAVING LAS VEGAS was riveting but it was not a pretty picture. JOE is a study in violent relationships - several of them.
Everyone in this movie is 'damaged' and either violent or a victim of violence. Joe and Gary are severely damaged but usually able to contain their violence. Wade is beyond control: the scene when he beats another drifter to death is as bad as anything we see in gross-out horror, worse because it is 'real'. This is not a Redemption movie; the ending is almost Shakespearean.
Aside from some fine if decidedly visceral acting, this relentlessly grim movie has the most exquisite cinematography: the woods and shanties (we're somewhere in Southern Fried territory) are filmed in luminous sunlight and heavy downpours. (There's one inappropriate scene when sunlit trees can be seen a few yards behind sprinkler-system rain.) Tye Sheridan looks to have all the promise of DiCaprio in his first performances. As he did in VEGAS, Nic Cage plays with great subtlety a man who is close to running on empty. Gary Poulter (a non-professional, we are told, and now dead) offers a vivid and disturbing portrait of the deepest depths of alcoholism.
This is a movie to admire. It is not one to enjoy.