Archive for the Thriller Category

Ex Machina

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ex Machina photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story is simple. A young programmer wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private mountain retreat of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and internet search-engine mogul. When he gets there, he’s asked to sign a non disclosure agreement before they can even proceed. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has actually won the chance to evaluate the aptitude and consciousness of a beautiful and sophisticated robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But robot seems almost like an outmoded term in this case. For you see, the capabilities of Ava far exceed the intellect of any mere machine. Caleb will determine whether she has the competence to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.

Ex Machina concerns the philosophy of artificial intelligence. The chronicle is built around the monitored conversations that Caleb has with Ava. The first day, Caleb questions Ava, but on the second day, Ava questions him. The insightful script plays with the way humans talk and then how a computer would glean information from that interaction. “Does Ava feel?” is a key question. Ex Machina does a great job and presenting a lot of interesting topics for discussion. Caleb’s sessions with Nathan when he reports his findings are equally important. Of course Caleb’s interactions with Ava are being watched, but what Nathan observes is not as important and the way Caleb reports on it. Occasionally power failures affect the means with which Nathan can monitor these sessions. That’s when the exchanges between Ava and Caleb get really juicy.

Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is an arrogant tech tycoon with a bit of a God complex. With his shaved head and bushy beard, He wants to present himself as this approachable laid back guy, but we immediately realize he is anything but. He’s an über control freak that works out incessantly throughout the day and parties even harder at night. There’s an intensity to him that is unsettling. Take Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the Japanese servant girl he employs. He values her inability to speak or understand English. In this way he can freely talk trade secrets around her. His insulting disregard for her borders on misogyny. Even when he’s ostensibly just boogieing down to a disco ditty with her, there’s still something menacing about the act.

That brings us to his technological creation Ava: a very female entity. She has the face, hands and feet of a human woman but the body of a cyborg, although still shapely. As manifested by actress Alicia Vikander, she is a hypnotic creation. The Swedish dancer trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm for nine years. With her lithesome movements and graceful placement, she suggests a very carefully studied decision to move. The fact that she is female is a very deliberate component to her creation. After all, an artificially intelligent computer need not have a sex. The objectification of the female body courtesy of her creator. This idea is found elsewhere in the narrative, but to reveal more would be to spoil the discovery.

Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s feature debut as a director. But he’s no newbie to film. The English novelist has been writing for years. His first novel The Beach was turned into a movie by Danny Boyle. It would mark the beginning of several partnerships between the two. He most successfully penned the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Boyle’s Sunshine and then they executive produced 28 Weeks Later together. But perhaps the director Garland more closely references this time, is the work of Mark Romanek. With its austere environment and smooth shiny surfaces the film occasionally recalls his glossy music videos “Scream” (Michael & Janet Jackson) and “Bedtime Story” (Madonna). The two collaborated when Romanek directed Never Let Me Go which Garland adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel.

Artificial Intelligence is the topic at hand. Given the heady subject matter, I was surprised with the very basic way in which the idea is handled. Ex Machina is entertaining, though the narrative doesn’t tread any new ground. Some interesting concepts are brought up, but nothing particularly innovative is resolved. This is a glorified episode of The Twilight Zone. However the stripped down, simple design is visually attractive. Nathan’s subterranean compound is a modern architectural wonder in the middle of a forest. His lair is both richly appealing and menacingly claustrophobic. The style makes the story seem weightier than it really is. There’s precious little depth, but heck if the whole thing isn’t entertaining. Caleb, Ava and Nathan form an emotional triangle of sorts that seduce, attack, argue, persuade and sympathize. Ultimately, the tale is a triumph because I was captivated throughout.

04-16-15

Furious 7

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Furious 7 photo starrating-4stars.jpgOver the course of seven films, the raison d’être of the Fast & Furious movies has been car chases, explosions and epic fights. The movies have laid this groundwork. I didn’t make the rules but that is how they must be judged. Using this barometer, I have always found the Fast & Furious franchise to be mildly entertaining. The first one is almost quaint by today’s standards. A variation of Point Break but with cars instead of surfboards. Parts 2-4 were of irregular quality with mixed results. But then the saga got a shot in the arm with parts 5 & 6. They both exceeded expectations. However they still never quite hit that sweet spot where the rightfully lively crossed over into the magnificent. That is until now. With Furious 7, director James Wan has produced a sequel that is so insane, so giddy to just throw the rules out the window, that the merely exciting has now crossed over into the ridiculously sublime. Regardless of your evaluation, this entry is unlike any that has come before. It is completely bonkers and the established drama is all the better for it.

Furious 7 evokes the best camaraderie from the gang. A huge cast is beautifully integrated into a story that has multiple events constantly going on at any given time. In a nod to the original film, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) gather with the neighborhood for race wars. Is that Iggy Azalea congratulating Letty for her win? Brian (Paul Walker) adjusts to a quiet family life with his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) and son. Meanwhile Federal Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds a new villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) hacking away into his computer. Shaw has vowed to take revenge on behalf of his brother Owen (Luke Evans) who now lays in a coma amongst the ruins of a hospital on fire. Shaw is a human killing machine and Hobbs ends up in the hospital with a broken arm after he is hurled out of a second story window. He contacts Dom who vows to take down Shaw for good. Dom assembles the old gang which includes Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris). They embark on a mission to try and locate Shaw using a surveillance system called God’s Eye which can spot anybody from anywhere in the world. The story also has parts for Kurt Russell, Djimon Hounsou, a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Bollywood actor Ali Fazal, martial artist Tony Jaa and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. Even Lucas Black from Tokyo Drift shows up briefly.

Naturally the plan involves five of our heroes dropping out of a jet plane sitting in their cars equipped with parachutes. In this entry a car behaves more like a spaceship than a vehicle meant for land. The action set piece ends with a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff with Paul Walker inside. Aw heck a cliff never stopped anybody in this. Vin Diesel willingly drives himself off another cliff and he miraculously survives. Oh wait till you see the skyscraper scene in Abu Dhabi. This comes after a lavish party which is possibly the film’s only lull. There’s lots of music video edits and color at least. Then there’s a combat scene where Vin Diesel goes mano a mano with rival Jason Statham. “Thought this was gonna be street fight?” Diesel shouts holding a gun at an unarmed Statham. “You’re damn right it is” he says tossing the gun aside. The quips usually aren’t much more cutting than that, but they’re always perfectly timed and delivered with such confidence that they invariably land like the most eloquently tossed off wit.

Furious 7 is the best chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise. This is a fact. It’s not even up for discussion. The production is all about raising the stakes to top the others. It succeeds. It’s bigger, faster, funnier and yes, more touching. Furious 7 has the craziest stunts, the campiest dialogue, and the warmest, most amiable fellowship of any entry yet. The sequels have grown progressively sillier. This has been to the benefit of the series. The way this gang cheats death in this world is closer to the rules that govern cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Side Note: Their first Looney Tunes appearance was actually a short called Fast and Furry-ous in 1949. I kid you not. Anyway, it‘s the no holds barred, gleefully outrageous stunts that make this installment so transcendent. Nobody ever said these films were emotionally deep. Yet Furious 7 ends ups being a surprisingly touching tale concerning family – not necessarily people united by blood, but by loyalty and friendship. The camaraderie here is stronger than it has ever been. Furious 7 is a fitting coda not just to the series, but to the life of the late Paul Walker as well. By the end, I challenge you to keep the tears at bay.

04-02-15

Faults

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Thriller on March 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Faults photo starrating-4stars.jpgAnsel Roth (Leland Orser) is “one of the world’s foremost authorities on mind control and cult organizations” or so he adamantly proclaims to a heckler at one of his poorly attended seminars. You see Ansel’s life has taken a downturn. He’s divorced, his TV show is canceled, and now he’s been reduced to shilling his new book in a conference room in a cheap hotel. “I can sign it for $5.”  It wasn’t always this way. His first book was a big hit. Unfortunately his former wife acquired the rights to it as part of their divorce settlement. Now he’s starting from ground zero with a new tome that hasn’t exactly burned up the bestseller list. His last intervention to help someone in a religious sect tragically resulted in their suicide. Because of this, when the parents (Chris Ellis & Beth Grant) of another member of a cult recruit him to deprogram their daughter, his first instinct is to disregard their request. But their persistence and the looming monetary debt he owes to his manager (Jon Gries) soon leads to a change of heart.

Faults carefully straddles the line between black comedy and cautionary tale. The chronicle begins rather playfully but as the story develops it becomes less and less so. By the conclusion, it becomes extremely serious without a hint of humor. The ending is actually rather chilling. “Faults” is the name of the cult. Ansel’s plan begins with kidnapping the parents’ daughter and bringing her to a sparsely decorated hotel room for deprogramming. This is where the majority of the action takes place. The narrative mostly consists of conversations designed to get to the root of her devotion to “Faults”.

The success of Faults is the result of a brilliant screenplay. The claustrophobic surroundings and extended cinematic takes add to the dialogue heavy drama. The interactions of the two principals uncover intriguing discoveries. To go into more details would be to spoil the movie, but writer/director Riley Stearns has written a fascinating script and extracted the best performances I have ever seen from these two talented performers. Character actor Leland Orser is probably best known as a recurring part on the television show ER. Here is given a rare starring role and he makes the most of this compelling cult expert. He has this hapless quality that grows more self assured when he is in his element. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is the wife of the director, is phenomenal as well. There is a blankness to her expressions where you’re never really sure where her head is at. She has this weird mix of vulnerability and calm throughout. This is very much a non-traditional horror film of sorts. It sets up a troubling premise and then follows through to a surprising twist ending with a point. Faults is a rewarding experience.

03-28-15

Rear Window

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Rear Window photo starrating-5stars.jpgThe story is simple. Photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. His broken leg injury is temporary thanks to an accident during an on the job assignment. He remains at home while he recuperating. His rear window overlooks a small courtyard where he can see into the rooms of other apartments. The view is a microcosm of humanity at various stages in their relationships. It’s voyeurism at its most enthusiastically unrestrained. As he peers into the private lives of his neighbors, we are disturbed and intrigued all at the same time. Though he doesn’t know them, he creates nicknames for some residents based on his observations. Among them, there’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso, Miss Hearing Aid. There’s also the songwriter, the newlyweds, the couple on the fire escape, the traveling salesman and his invalid wife. Then one day he firmly believes one has committed murder. He hasn’t actually seen the act, though, so how will he prove it?

First and foremost, Rear Window is a thriller, but additionally bubbling beneath the surface we’ve got this captivating love story between Jeff (James Stewart) and Manhattan model and socialite, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who wants to marry him. Despite her exhortations for them to tie the knot, he is reluctant to commit. Stella (Thelma Ritter), in a great supporting role as his wisecracking nurse, thinks Jeff’s fear is ridiculous.

“When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, “ she says, “they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Jeff’s profession and his love of travel literally mean the world to him. Lisa loves expensive clothes and attending parties. You aren’t made for that kind of a life,“ he contends. Yet Kelly plays the character in a way so that she never seems materialistic or vain. On the contrary, we agree with Jeff. She is perfect. At one point he sends her out to go investigate. As she climbs up the railing to go into a suspected murderer’s apartment, we realize something: She truly is too good for him.

When we talk about the golden age of Hollywood and I mean the period covering the late 1920s to the early 1960s, Grace Kelly must certainly be included in the greatest sirens of the silver screen. She is positively luminous in this picture. Jeff awakes to a full close-up of her coming towards him for a kiss. It’s a memorable shot. Kelly is introduced wearing an $1100 dress “fresh from the Paris plane” and it’s spectacular. It’s the first of many outfits she wears throughout the production and each one just as stunning as the next. Legendary Edith Head was the costume designer so we expect nothing less.

Rear Window is regularly listed with the greatest movies ever made. Certainly one of Hitchcock’s finest. In addition to the exceptional chemistry between star James Stewart and a radiant Grace Kelly , there’s Raymond Burr as salesman Lars Thorwald with his hair dyed white to make him appear older. When his invalid wife disappears, Jeff suspects foul play might be involved. The setting is a fascinating tableau. Virtually the entire feature is shot from Jeff’s gaze looking out into the open courtyard into the many windows of his neighbors. Each residence is a set within itself, fully furnished. With few exceptions, the camera never leaves the confinement of Stewart’s apartment. The setting can get a bit claustrophobic. Nevertheless it’s a brilliantly assembled theatrical piece right down to the heart-pounding climax . Hitchcock’s brilliance as a director has never been questioned and with Rear Window, his abilities as a visual storyteller remain unparalleled.

03-22-15

’71

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on March 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

'71 photo starrating-4stars.jpgBelfast 1971. It’s the height of the Northern Ireland conflict. But first, a little background for those unaware. The political war ran from 1968–1998. There’s the Loyalists, mostly Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Then there’s the Nationalists, a Catholic minority, who want to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. ’71 involves a particularly volatile area on Divis Street where the two warring communities live side by side. British solider Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is dropped into the middle of the combat to keep the peace. I suppose if you’re from the UK this conflict needs no introduction, but for the majority of viewers, the lack of info will be a bit confusing. I suppose it’s fitting that we aren’t given any backstory as to what is going on here. Our hero is rerouted from Germany and sent with little knowledge as to what he’s truly getting himself into.

What ‘71 has going for it is tense excitement. The story concerns when Gary becomes separated from his unit during a riot and needs to find his way back. It is an intense journey that is interesting because we desperately hope our young soldier can stay alive. French-born director Yann Demange fashions a tale with stunning immediacy. Shot in part with hand-held cameras, ‘71 has an almost documentary like approach. The style has led some to make comparisons to director Paul Greengrass whose Bloody Sunday (2002) covered a similar topic. It’s not always clear who is on what side in ‘71. Even the Catholic Nationalists have their own internal quarrels with the IRA. It doesn’t help that there are two(?) double agents and they look alike right down to their facial hair. Their shifting loyalties fluctuate throughout the film. An offhand remark by one at the end still leaves one guy’s loyalty in doubt even after the movie ends. In fact both groups of fighting ethnic factions look remarkably similar.

The funny thing is, despite the lack of information, the details are not really important in ‘71. True, the absence of sense prevents those intimately familiar with the situation to totally comprehend what’s going on. The script doesn’t benefit from a coherent distillation of history. However the story succeeds as a tension filled, entertaining film. It’s the dramatic urgency that compels us to watch. With the hazy specifics, we make connections between this and other conflicts. I thought of the Iraq War. You might make other associations. The takeaway is that this is about a man on the run. He simply wants to navigate the streets and alleyways just to make it back to his barracks alive. Viewed from that perspective, this is an extremely exciting, well made thriller.

03-15-15

Wild Tales

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Thriller with tags on March 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Wild Tales photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“Don’t get mad, get even.” That’s the apparent mantra of Wild Tales – Argentina’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2015. An anthology comprising of six stories connected by a common theme: revenge. The presentation is constructed much in the same way as a collection Twilight Zone episodes strung together. The very best have an underlying sense of humor that offsets the negative view that humans are nothing more than savage beasts. Indeed, photos of wildlife are subtly inserted in the background during the opening credits.

The chronicle commences with “Pasternak”. It’s the shortest segment, but one of the most effective. The story immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with its anecdote of two passengers on a plane united by a startling coincidence. The last freeze frame shot brilliantly begins the production on the right note – wicked farce. “The Rats”, and “Road To Hell” maintain that sense. In the latter, an altercation between two drivers is like a modern day Western. Their duel escalates into a battling game of one-upmanship. There is giddy anticipation as to how far they’ll go. The next three are a bit longer. “Bombita”, number four, details the rising frustrations of a man brought to the brink by one misfortune after another. It’s triggered when his car is towed. A man at odds with government bureaucracy immediately recalls Michael Douglas in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. “The Deal“, about a wealthy father trying to keep his spoiled rich son out of jail has a heavy-handed ending that kind of kills the winking spirit of the piece. It’s at this fifth tale where the drama starts to drag a bit under the movie’s extended length. However it all ends on a suitably funny note with “Til Death Do Us Part“. A bride discovers her husband-to-be’s infidelity at their wedding reception and reacts accordingly. The party descends into chaos with amusing results.

Wild Tales contends that human beings are merely separated by a thin line between societal norms and raging beasts. These six sagas of revenge highlight this fact. The most successful of which suffuse their bleak takes on life with comedy. Damián Szifrón writes and directs this glossy picture co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar. Stunning cinematography by Javier Juliá gives these dark comedies a picturesque quality that lightens the mood. A memorable score by Gustavo Santaolalla beautifully complements the production. Occasionally the tone gets nasty. There is a delicate balance between comedy and ugliness. It’s the twisted humor that redeems these misanthropic sagas. More often than not, the strength of the composition outweighs the occasional lapse. I didn’t expect the “Love Theme From Flashdance” to pop up in one segment but its playful moments like that which uplift a gloomy narrative. Those lighthearted touches keep these 6 unexpected tales of retribution consistently entertaining.

03-06-15

Blue Ruin

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller on February 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Blue Ruin photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlue Ruin had been on my “movies to see” list for the better part of a year. The American independent debuted at the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film festival in 2013. It later toured the festival circuit where it racked up accolades in the form of positive word-of-mouth.  It got an extremely limited theatrical release coupled with a simultaneous video on demand (VOD) release in April 2014. DVD release followed in July 2014.

Dwight Evans is a sad sack of a man. He starts off looking like a homeless vagrant. Perhaps a “beach bum” is a more poetic way of describing his situation. He sleeps in a “blue ruin” of a car – a broken down old Pontiac Bonneville. Actor Macon Blair is Dwight, an unknown lead chosen because of his longtime friendship with the director since childhood. That’s not to say the unassuming fellow isn’t well cast because those unpolished qualities perfectly define this character. As the chronicle develops we realize there is much more to this man than meets the eye. For long stretches of this efficient 90 minute thriller, it’s virtually dialogue free. Blair is given some horrific news and he decides to act on this information. He’s a shell of a man, and so we can’t help but care.

A straightforward account of getting even is all this is but it’s imbued with such humanity. We are emotionally wrapped up in the stakes. How will Dwight accomplish what he wants? Can he get away with it? Will he survive? Much has been written about this classic tale of revenge from movie pundits. Some going so far as to mention director Jeremy Saulnier in the same breath as the Coen Brothers. There’s certainly a similarity with the Coens’ debut Blood Simple – that is, extracting dark comedy from a criminal plot. His plan goes horribly wrong in every way that a plan can go wrong. For example, he slashes the tires of his enemy’s car then realizes he must steal that car after leaving his keys at the scene of the crime. That’s tragic, but it’s also funny. when Dwight can’t hit a target that is only 2 feet away, it can relieve some of the tension, even in the most intense situations. The production strikes a nice balance between the two.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier understands the viewer should sympathize with the “hero” in order for us to be invested in his plight. You can appreciate Dwight’s emotionally damaged vagabond. I’m not so sure we should be rooting for him, but we do. He has suffered deeply. Now he is tormented by deep sorrow and so he has our sympathy. Yet his quest is made more captivating in the way it’s told, giving the audience pieces to make us root for the protagonist without really knowing everything. Even by the end, we never really know the complete story, just enough to understand what’s happening in the moment. Bursts of violence are used. Blue Ruin occasionally falls victim to excess. More restraint in the bloodshed department would’ve been appreciated. An extended scene where Macon digs an arrow out of his leg is gratuitous in its desire to shock. Storytelling is a craft. Blue Ruin does indeed have an artistic way of telling an uncomplicated tale. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre. It’s a simple saga, artfully told.

02-04-15

A Most Violent Year

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

A Most Violent Year photo starrating-4stars.jpgA Most Violent Year is similarly titled in the same deceptive way that There Will Be Blood was named. Yes it concerns violent acts but it’s nowhere near as bloody as the crime dramas of Martin Scorsese for example. The setting is New York City 1981.  Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seeks to expand a struggling oil delivery company. There has been a rash of attacks on his drivers. Thieves are hijacking trucks and stealing the oil. Meanwhile he is trying to secure a loan that will help him grow the business.

There’s a familiarity woven into the production. Abel Morales is a character Al Pacino would have portrayed in the 70s. As his wife Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain is channeling early 80s Michelle Pfeiffer style if not the personality. Alright, I’ll admit I’m alluding to Scarface here, but The Godfather is a reference as well. The production kind of suggests the mob mentality of those films but they’re not a good comparison. A Most Violent Year is actually rather elegant. Oscar Isaac resists the impulse to be a hoodlum, despite the temptation. He understands the mobster lifestyle is the road to hell and opts for legally working within the system to rise above the mire of that behavior. He’s steely calm in the face of crisis. His Brooklyn born wife is another story. Jessica Chastain is more gangster than he is. She’s fantastic in this role. I mean we already know the actress can inhabit a part like few of her generation but she steals the spotlight here. Her delivery of lines like “This was very disrespectful” to David Oyelowo’s district attorney conveys so much with just a wave of her finger. In another sequence, the couple accidentally hit a deer in their car on the way home one evening. Chastain owns that scene too.

That’s not to say that Isaac isn’t her equal. As Abel Morales, he’s a charismatic guy that embodies the idea that “success and prosperity are attainable through hard work, determination, and initiative.” There’s an occasion early in A Most Violent Year when businessman Abel is conferring with one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel). The Spanish speaking man starts to talk in his native tongue and Abel corrects him. “In English” he insists. Later he’s trying to get information from Julian’s wife and the exchange is completely in Spanish. It’s a telling moment. Abel has the ability to speak Spanish but he chooses not to unless it’s absolutely necessary. He has fully bought into the American way of life and assimilated into its culture.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting take on the American Dream. Columbian born Abel Morales is not the stereotypical all American boy next door. With his wavy black hair and dark eyes he rocks a camel-hair topcoat with a suave personality to match. Plus he’s got the work ethic that says he’s going places.  The wardrobe is key – so well dressed. The only thing that rivals Abel’s succession of double breasted suits, is Chastain’s seemingly endless wardrobe of outfits. Just try and watch the couple engage a potential investor at dinner and NOT stare at Anna’s plunging neckline. It complements her personality. What I’m really saying is I love the mood of A Most Violent Year. Along with a haunting score by Alex Ebert, Director J.C. Chandor weaves a deep tale of the American Dream that authentically portrays the time period as if it was genuinely filmed in 1981. Chandor has directed 3 critically acclaimed movies to date, and for my money, this is his most entertaining. If he’s reading, “Keep up the great work!  I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

01-22-15

The Imitation Game

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on December 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Imitation Game photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDear reader, please forgive my opening tangent. On November 9, 2014, Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay ran the field for a 78-yard touchdown pass, then celebrated his win. Only to find he had prematurely dropped the ball on the 1 yard line. Realizing this, Oregon’s Joe Walker of the opposing team, recovered the ball and ran it back in the other direction for a 99-yard touchdown for Oregon. Joy turned to heartbreak is kind of how I felt watching The Imitation Game. The drama is largely a captivating tale that culminates in such an odd way. The denouement rendered a seemingly easy victory into a crushing disappointment.

Recounting Alan Turing’s life is a daunting task. It has been attempted before: a 1996 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi entitled Breaking the Code and 2011’s Codebreaker, a made for TV movie in the UK. Logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist – Alan Turing was a pioneer. His Turing machine was highly influential in the development of the algorithm and modern day computers. The time period is World War II when the allies are desperately trying to intercept and decode German communications. They utilize something called an Enigma machine that scrambles their communications making them undecipherable. Alan is essentially hired to crack to the code so they can better understand what the Axis powers are going to do next. Watching Alan and his team of scholars study messages in a room isn’t exactly the stuff of compelling viewing but director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) makes the code cracking exciting.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is the portrait of a fascinating individual. However Turing is a bit of an enigma himself. In flashback we get brief glimpses of his schoolboy days where his socially awkward personality doesn’t quite meld with his peers. Yet he is befriended by fellow student Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) and the relationship sheds some light on Turing’s identity. His antisocial nature carries over into adulthood when dealing with his fellow mathematicians. They’re tasked with breaking the Enigma code. Turing contacts Winston Churchill who places him in charge of the group and then Turning promptly fires two members.  His stumbling association with his remaining peers (Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech) provide a lot of interesting interactions that help us understand Alan Turing, the man. It’s this time at Bletchley Park, the British World War II code breaking station, that the production really takes off. Many of their advances were accomplished under such secrecy that it would be years before the world was made aware of their contributions to the war effort. Alan Turing is a conflicted man and Cumberbatch portrays the nuances of a complicated individual. Keira Knightly is a delight as the only girl on the team. Her considerable warmth is a nice counterpoint to Turing’s troubled disposition. His relationship to his superior, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), is decidedly more tense but the back and forth between him and the prickly Commander provides some of the most delightfully satisfying moments.

The Imitation Game is 3/4 of an extremely entertaining biography. The last half hour gives us a hurried peek into the concluding events of his life. The movie I saw was 1 hour 54 minutes but the final quarter was so rushed it had me thinking the projectionist forgot to load a reel of film. One minute Turing is being lionized for having made “the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.” The next minute he’s being arrested on charges of “gross indecency” due to his homosexuality. From hero to outcast in ostensibly minutes. A title card during the epilogue hastily informs us of the circumstances surrounding his death. Talk about abrupt endings. We’re left wondering why the complete 180 from the government with regards to all his tireless work. Unfortunately the script doesn’t delve into these latter day developments. For most of the run time, The Imitation Game remains a highly polished, beautifully acted picture. That mystifying resolution though. It’s such a supremely frustrating experience. Unfortunately we walk away with more questions than answers.

12-16-14

The Babadook

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on December 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Babadook photo starrating-5stars.jpg“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That odd sentence launches the scariest children’s picture book I have ever seen. The edition appears rather mysteriously on a shelf in little Sam’s bedroom. He brings the dark red volume to his mom to read one night after she encourages him to pick a bedtime story. It’s about a mysterious man in a top hat that will terrorize you the more you deny his presence. As she turns the pages the images literarily leap from the text. No paranormal trickery here. It’s merely a pop-up, but the black, white and gray illustrations are tactile and thick. Given their rudimentary shapes, the pictures are as if rendered by a youngster. This only heightens their ability to convey dread. They haunted me in a way I’ve never experienced. A book lying on your doorstep isn’t scary in and of itself, but in this film it’s alarming.

The chronicle appropriates standard horror tropes (i.e. the boogeyman, child in peril, dark spaces, flickering lights) but utilizes them to suit a tale that feels fresh. Amelia’s husband died tragically in car accident many years ago. However his death continues to linger on. Amelia is a single mother raising their now 6 year old son Samuel. He seems to have an overactive imagination. He’s constantly plagued by visions of an imaginary monster. His teachers are exasperated by his conduct. He has been a disruptive presence at school but this has also been a problem at home – particularly at night when he has difficulty sleeping. He has even gone so far as to build homemade weapons to protect himself and his mother.

The Babadook doesn’t rely on lazy scares by ratcheting up the soundtrack with loud sounds. Nor does it capitalize on disgusting sights. It intelligently exploits our anxieties and the unknown. I felt physically uneasy by the time we reached the climax. In that style, one influence on the movie might be Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. A lot of themes are addressed. There’s the obvious ghostly terror of the Babadook – this shadowy figure that is terrifying in the manner he‘s depicted. But there’s this mother child relationship as well. They form a strong bond throughout the picture. She is raising a son (Noah Wiseman) that exhibits some behavioral problems. Meanwhile the boy is trying to guard his mother from supernatural forces that threaten her. Their relationship forms an underlying subtext that elevates this drama to something deep and poignant. Both of the principals are exceptional but Australian stage actress Essie Davis is a revelation. Her emotionally powerful portrayal as Amelia, his mother, compares favorably with great horror performances from Mia Farrow and Ellen Burstyn. I didn’t expect to actually be moved by the events of the plot, but that’s exactly what happened. The Babadook is a film that ranks high with the very best of the genre.

12-01-14

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