From my heart and from my hand; why don’t people understand… ‘The Imitation Game’ review

The Imitation Game is a bad film.  Biopics are generally awful and this is a particularly bad example of it.  Will Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) succeed in making the computer that he’s famous for making?  Spoilers: yes.

There’s nothing particularly new in this paragraph.  Films shouldn’t justify smart people being jackholes.  We’re all sick of it.  Just because you’re brilliant doesn’t mean that you’re correct.  Just because you’re brilliant doesn’t excuse you from basic manners and common courtesies.  Yes, there’s a place in using that brilliance to critique (/play) with social conventions, but films shouldn’t present it as an expectation that clever people are exempt from good behaviour protocols.

Once again, we have a film where the State can’t understand the particular brilliance of the Individual who is, despite all the best evidence, wrong and absorbing cash for fantastically bad ideas.  Apparently, Benedict is such a brilliant and amazing genius that he can’t explain why he needs taxpayer-funded cashola.  Boohoohoo.  It’s so hard to be this clever.

In full Matrix-style pseudo-intellectualism, some astonishingly stupid ideas are presented in the most patronisingly terrible ways.  This gets us to Alan Turing’s most famously wrong idea:

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Don’t look at me. It’s way too soon to see… The films of 2013

I buried myself in films this year, mostly in the form of marathons but I also scraped along to the cinema a few times.  It seems to have been a year for sequels and reboots, but I don’t know to what extent that’s been true for a while now rather than something specific to 2013.

Here’s the list of films that I saw in the cinema and wrote up a review.  There were a bunch of film festivals I attended but didn’t get around to writing them up, mostly because the films I saw were bafflingly awful.

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Disregarding every myth we write… Reassessing the Iron Man trilogy #reviews

Iron Man (video game)
Iron Man (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between Batman and Iron Man, a lot of cultural commentary focused on the presentation of wealthy people (invariably straight, white men) as independent arbiters of justice.  They use their fabulous wealth to obtain technological advantages over people they perceive to be the ‘enemy’ and then confront this enemy outside the legal framework.  Following this analysis, it is argued that audiences never get an insight into how the same social, cultural, and economic processes which has privileged the heroes (to the point where they can afford crime-bashing gadgets) simultaneously disadvantaged the people now getting bashed, beaten, and bruised by the heroes.

Watching the Iron Man trilogy as a group, it’s not entirely clear that this is true.  Although the reading is still insightful and thought-provoking, the Iron Man trilogy defies the analysis somewhat.  In the first film, the playboy billionaire at the centre of the film, Tony Stark, comes to realise that his industry is the reason why America’s enemies are getting more powerful.  He wants his company to shift from weapons manufacturing to energy production in order to address global economic issues.

What we see instead is the internalisation and individualisation of military technology.  It’s this theme — the trials and tribulations of the transhuman world — that stitches the trilogy together.

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In our brave new world, you will be alright… Joss Whedon’s anachronistic ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ #review

Joss Whedon - Much Ado About Nothing - Europea...
Joss Whedon – Much Ado About Nothing – European Premiere (Photo credit: Caroline)

It’s been two years since Joss Whedon finished filming his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  It has thus been two years since I began looking forward to seeing it.

The play itself is a bit of a mess — more a play of subplots than a single actual story.   A prince, Don Pedro, has lead a successful battle and has returned to stay with Leonato, the Governor of Messina.  Don Pedro arrives with his entourage, which includes Claudio, Benedick, and his bastard half-brother, Don John.  Leonato has a daughter, Hero, and a niece, Beatrice.

The famous bit from the play is the prank everybody plays on Benedick and Beatrice.  Benedick is an arsehat philanderer who is very witty, very clever, but is scornful of marriage.  Beatrice, on the other hand, is clever, intelligent, witty, and insightful — thus her friends and family are determined to find her a suitable husband.  Thus — teehee! — these friends allow Benedick to overhear them (falsely) claim that Beatrice is madly in love with him but will never admit it.  Meanwhile — oh ho! — these friends also allow Beatrice to overhear them (falsely) claim that Benedick is madly in love with her but will never admit it.  Teehee and oh ho!

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As the embers of romance fade to mortgages and leccy bills… When you’re too old to be The #Wolverine #review

Wolverine (comic book)
Wolverine (comic book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wolverine — the latest installment in 20 Century Fox’s X-Men series — is a particularly unusual film. What happens when an essential attribute of a character is removed?

My favourite superhero comic is Superman: Red Son. It shows us what would happen if we took an iconic American hero and made him Soviet. By stripping Superman of his American aspect, we discover something new about the character. Meanwhile, stories that strip Superman of his powers are universally awful. Invariably, all they reveal is that if Superman didn’t have superpowers, we could count the number of funks we care about him on no hands.

The Wolverine takes Marvel Comics’ Wolverine and strips him of his superpower: his immortality. When Hugh Jackman first played the role 13 years ago, he was 32. Now, at the grand old age of 45, it’s more difficult to suspend the disbelief he is portraying a guy who isn’t ageing. Thus, when Wolverine is stripped of his regenerative ability and he is left hobbling around the action scenes, we begin to wonder why anybody would want to see a film about Old Man Wolverine and his voyage to the nursing home.

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If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower… ‘This Is The End’ is correct in bad ways #review

English: Seth Rogen at the Toronto Internation...
English: Seth Rogen at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Is the End is a film.  Yeah.

When the main cast of Star Trek went down to the dangerous alien planet, they always took along some unnamed extras with them (affectionately known as the ‘red shirts’).  Why?  Because you didn’t care if they died.

This Is the End gives us a main cast of red shirts and puts them into a hostile world, then hopes the audience will care.

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel play hyper-realistic versions of themselves in a world where the Rapture has happened and Satan has begun his dominion of the Earth.  Who will survive?  Who cares?  These are horrible characters with no redeeming features.  If they weren’t famous (and some of them are only barely famous), we wouldn’t care about them at all.

The joke appears to be that these actors are all so very self aware of how they are perceived.  The tragedy is that none of them is sufficiently self aware to know how self indulgent, morally repugnant, and adolescent this shitty pile of crap is.

Because the film is barely a comedy, the film leaves itself open to two different kinds of analysis.  First, what does the film say about the affectations of masculinity pervasive in modern American comedies.  Second, how do we understand religious concepts in popular film.

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She’s moving up, going right through my heart… Pacific Rim is half good #reviews

Pacific Rim Locandina
Pacific Rim Locandina (Photo credit: Debris2008)

Next Tuesday week, a portal will open deep in the ocean through which will come enormous beasties, ‘kaiju’.  As the kaiju destroy coastlines and cities, humanity will pool its resources together to build enormous robots to battle them.  Hooray!

Pacific Rim is a story about responding to existential threats.  The opening fifteen minutes of the film is an amazingly subtle, nuanced, and insightful exploration of how we as a culture would respond to such crises.  When the kaiju struck, we panicked and mourned the dead.  It became increasingly difficult to understand our experience of terror when the threat failed to subordinate itself to reason.  This tension results in escapism: the kaiju threat becomes a joke in popular culture.  People get tattoos of the ‘favourite’ monster.  Stuffed toys and television shows soothe our tension.  More importantly, the people tasked with confronting the threat become increasingly cavalier.  The robots built to destroy the kaiju are decorated with pin-up girls and anti-kaiju sentiments.  When the pilots are called up to take these robots into battle, they cheer at the chance to have ‘fun’.

In many respects, it’s a shame that this opening exploration doesn’t pervade more of the film.  Guillermo del Toro nails our culture’s aversion to grappling with big issues, preferring instead to trivialise threats to our status quo.  Best of all, he doesn’t do it through clunky or ham-fisted exposition.  In a world full of giant robots fighting giant monsters, del Toro makes the reaction of our society feel entirely plausible, natural, and organic.

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I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might… Man of Steel is terrible #reviews

Superman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the very best Superman comics, Superman: Red Son, explores what might have happened if Superman had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of the American Bible Belt. Man of Steel follows a similar line of thought: what would happen if Superman had landed on a planet where all the inhabitants had bones growing through their brains?

The film begins on Superman’s home planet of Caucasia just as he is being born.  His mother is lying on a table while Javert circles her like a semi-concussed vulture.  Caucasian medicine is so extremely advanced that floating robots can create 3D representations of the unborn child in the womb, but not so advanced that they’ve made childbirth a painless experience.  But Javert doesn’t have time for all this birthing crap, he has to go to the High Council of Caucasians to deliver some exposition.  It turns out that the Caucasians were running out of natural resources to power their lifestyles.  Instead of turning off some lights — or any of the thirty billion gizmos that they seem to have inexplicably left on — they decided to mine the core of Caucasia.

Fools!  The Grand High Wizards on the Caucasian Chalk Circle didn’t listen to Javert when he explained that this would cause the planet to explode, and now the planet is exploding.  Javert has decided that it is impossible to evacuate even a single person from the planet before the planet explodes, but has come to ask for the Codex — a McGuffin over which everybody will fight for the rest of the film.  The Codex — claims Javert, Caucasia’s Chief Expositor — is needed in order to let the Caucasian race rise again.  Or something.

No time for explanations, General Zod has started attacking the High Council of Caucasians… though nobody is sure why.  Something about Zod wanting to enact some kind of eugenics programme?  Javert and Zod do not like each other, but they clearly have some kind of shared history together (because they say as much).

After a bunch of bright lights, Javert escapes on the back of one of those flying dragon things from Avatar (h/t James for that reference).  Stupid Caucasian flying spaceships (probably powered by the same resources mined from the core of the planet…?) are unable to catch up with Javert, who has sufficient time to steal the Codex from some sort of Matrix-inspired birthing room and make it back to his brightly lit, energy-inefficient citadel of a home.  Javert knew all along that Caucasia was dying, so he began making a spaceship that would be large enough to transport his newborn son to a faraway planet but would not be large enough to carry anybody else.  The film spends a lot of time trying to convince us that this was somehow for a noble cause.

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As someday it should happen that a victim must be found… Zero Dark Thirty: Batman Biopic #review

There has been a lot of controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, the film which depicts the events leading up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Does it celebrate torture?  Does it normalise torture?  Torture, torture, and torture?

On the one hand, it’s great that a film can prompt that sort of conversation in society.  The problem of torture should be discussed openly and often to ensure that we maintain a common language.  America’s use of interrogation methods co-opted bureaucratic language to create a gap between the activity being undertaken and the public’s revulsion.  The activities being undertaken, we were told, were in our interests: they kept us safe, they were pragmatic, they were done on our behalf.  Seeing the events portrayed makes it more difficult to provide room for that gap between language and revulsion.  It is harrowing to watch, even with actors portraying the activity.

On the other hand, how should a film present morally difficult questions to the community?  Many have accused the film of presenting the film in a morally neutral context.  The torture just happens and nobody is judged for engaging in it.    The director of the film, Kathryn Bigelow, says that she tried to present torture as an event, rather than as a moral problem for endorsement:

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.  [Source]

It’s the sort of brutalist attitude that she took in The Hurt Locker: depict events in sequence and let the audience do the moral critique and emotional engagement.  Frankly, I find it lazy and cowardly.

It’s this cowardice that lets the film down.  The opening scene is nothing but audio from September 11.  We are supposed to frame everything that happens as a response to this one pivotal event, and the dialogue throughout the film keeps drawing us to that point in time.  Characters who stand in the way of the lead character are consistently described as having ‘pre-nine-eleven’ thinking.  The opening audio is the moment which has changed the entire world and things that were true beforehand are now false.

But we get no connexion from this shocking piece of world-changing audio to the events which follow: spooks in the desert torturing a man who, by all accounts, is depicted as an empathisable character.  He is in a position of helplessness while people in balaclavas degrade and torture him.  The audience is given no reason to believe that this guy deserves this treatment.  Perhaps they’ve got the wrong guy?  Perhaps he really doesn’t know anything?  Has this guy inflicted cruelty upon the world commensurate with the cruelty he himself is enduring?

The shock of reliving the terrorist attacks of September 11 has given way to a new shock: that our response to being attacked was to destroy individuals.  It is a strange film which makes us sympathise with the terrorists.  For thirty minutes, the world turns on us as ‘our guys’ in the theatre of war are no longer on ‘our side’.

As the film progresses, tropes are deployed to make us feel that Maya, the protagonist who took part in the early torture, is supposed to be our hero.  Consistent with America’s fantasy that the radical, strong-headed, individual is always smarter than the cautious and conservative institution, Maya has a hunch which she desperately believes is true, but bureaucrats, simpletons, and bureaucratic simpletons get in her way.   People want evidence but Maya’s intuition is more than just evidence — it is 100% solid fact.

Consistent with Maya’s identity as a science-fiction superheroine, all of her assumptions miraculously transform into reality.  What if they guy we’re after isn’t dead and we’ve been using the wrong photograph?  What if the guy we’re after isn’t part of a chain but reports directly to OBL?  What if the guy we can’t see, hear, or detect clearly is OBL?

It’s these tropes which make engagement with the film difficult.  They fit awkwardly in a historical drama.  It’s like Stargate but with history.  Or Batman.  Remember in the 1960s Batman film where they stand in a room discussing puns in order to work out who the villains would be?  Yeah, that.

The film is also let down by the Problem of History: films which depict actual events try to create suspense over whether or not history will happen as everybody remembers it.  The same problem was encountered in The Iron Lady: will Thatcher become Prime Minister and will the Falklands War happen?   For the final thirty minutes of the film, the audience is treated to a torturous debate about whether or not the bunker which, in real life, was housing OBL or whether history is somehow different in this film’s universe.  Are they going to retcon history?  No, they aren’t.

There’s nothing gained from the actual killing of OBL that couldn’t have been achieved in a montage.  It’s not suspenseful; it’s just dull.  The climax was getting the political machine to agree to invade Pakistan, not the death of Osama.  Law of Armed Combat nerds might find it interesting to analyse whether or not the film depicts a lawful killing

In short, it is a messily boring film which bites but obstinately refuses to chew.  It is neither a celebration nor a condemnation.  It is neither an informative documentary nor an enjoyable drama.  And it’s insufferably long.

Its only redeeming feature was the renewed interest in discussing the ethical problems of torture, but there were probably more effective and cost efficient ways of achieving that outcome.

You have no rights. Come with me 24601… Les Mis is just so awful #review

Talk about hype.

For nearly two months, I have been unable to escape promotional interviews for Les Miserables.  There were interviews comparing the real-life Hugh Jackman to Jean Valjean. Jackman, it seems, has adopted a child and that’s totally like Valjean!  There were whispers of awards for how great the acting was in a film which nobody had yet seen!  There were snippets of song snuck on to YouTube in which the die-hard fans would bask and opine that this was going to be a turning point in the musical-to-film genre.

It’s complete garbage.

Like ‘There were times when I lost the will to live’ complete garbage.

There are two major problems with the film.  The first is Russell Crowe.  Russell Crowe cannot sing.  Russell Crowe sound like a foghorn when he sings and looks like Foghorn Leghorn when he tries to move his face.  And it’s difficult to tell precisely how self aware Crowe is about his severe lack of talent.  Warbling like he has the mumps, Crowe confronts Jean Valjean confrontationally in a confrontational song called ‘Confrontation’.

Here’s Jason Segal and Neil Patrick Harris having a crack at it:

Even though they’re doing it for laughs, there’s still some tension.  NPH makes a menacing Javert.  But even when it’s done for realsies, you can get some major passion in the scene:

Oooooh.  Javert with so much passion that he even spits a bit.  That’s a little bit gross.

Crowe simply does not have the vocal chops to bring the game to Jean Valjean.  Most of the way through the film, I had to wonder if the police deliberately sent the Arnold Rimmer of the French Police to hunt down the guy who stole some bread and then skipped on his parole.

It is difficult to excuse how terrible he is.  Here he is releasing Valjean:

When I saw some of these clips, I wondered if it was just the sound quality through YouTube.  No.  He really is that shocking.  He seems to think he’s in some sort of rock opera.

The second problem is the conversion of a musical to film.  Perhaps the most successful transitions between stage to film were The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease.  Neither of these films are particularly strong on plot, nor are they particularly weighty subjects.  When aspects of theatre creep into the action — such as people joining in for songs, non sequitur dance sequences, and the inconsistent ability to hear the person singing three feet away from you — the audience dismisses it as part of the theatricality of the films they are watching.

Les Miserables tries to be a genuine film which uses the music as the foundation.  The style of the film is closer to the modern blockbuster than it is to RHPS or Grease.  But this means that those creeping aspects of theatre become almost comical.

For example, Valjean is on the run from Javert.  He has narrowly escaped with Corsette and now, in silence, flees down alleyways.  Fortunately — serendipitously — he bumps into an ally.

Valjean is so happy to meet an ally that he forgets that he’s trying to elude Javert and sings a song at the top of his voice.  The result is less Les Miserables and more Pirates of Penzance:

There’s something absurd about musical theatre.  It’s melodramatic.  Why are people singing about their feelings like this?  If somebody acted this way in real life, you’d think that they had gone a bit funny in the head.  The only way to make sense of it is through appeal to the context of watching musical theatre.

But modern audiences don’t have that sort of attitude towards film.  We watch films and expect that what’s on the screen is a factual account of the narrative.  I think even the concept of an ‘unreliable narrator’ would confuse modern film-goers.

So when people are singing about each other within earshot, the characters should be able to hear each other.  That’s how films work.  And if they can’t hear each other, something’s gone weird.

At the very least, modern audiences expect consistency.  Sometimes, the characters can hear each other…  Other times, characters can overhear each other…  Sometimes, random characters in the background can join in for a line or two in a song…  But the soliloquies don’t work.  They are visibly confusing.

The result is an absurdity in both senses.  The actions are lost without context, and the only response available to the audience is laughter.

It’s almost a shame, then, that they chose to go with Les Miserables and not Gilbert and Sullivan.  The incompatibility of theatrical elements with expectations of film audiences would, if anything, make the experience funnier.  I’m not even a fan of G&S and I’d still go watch.

In conclusion, don’t go see Les Miserables.  Crowe is terrible and the film is broken.

(As a bit of a post script, Hathaway and Baron-Cohen were excellent.  Such a shame Bonham-Carter is in this.)