Wednesday, 31 December 2014


Roadshow Films

Set during World War II, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game could just have easily have been made in 1940s Britain. With its humour in the face of adversity, good old chaps and stiff upper lip-ness, it's not so much a period drama as an anachronism.

Of course, the word homosexual would not have even been uttered in a 1940s film let alone repeated as often as it is here. For Alan Turing was a homosexual, but that's rather by-the-by in The Imitation Game which is more concerned with how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an odd duck mathematical genius, along with some fellow eggheads, cracked the German's Enigma code and helped end the war.

Most of the drama in The Imitation Game takes place at Bletchley Park, the top secret military base where Britain's brightest have been gathered to intercept and decode German intel, but it is framed by the story of Turing's life before and after the war: firstly at middle school where his peculiar ways already had him targeted by bullies but befriended by a sympathetic peer, Christopher; and after, in 1954, where a police investigation into a robbery at Turing's home -- the bobby suspects him as a Soviet spy -- uncovers his sexual leanings (homosexuality being a criminal offence in 1950s England).

But The Imitation Game has no time for sex, homo or otherwise: there's a war to be won; focussing its attentions on the team in Turing's so-called Hut 8 -- his fellow code-crackers played by Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard -- and his efforts to build a machine that will crack the German's code, one which is re-set each day at midnight.

It's in these moments the film builds some tension but overall, The Imitation Game is a perfectly average film. And that's somewhat of a surprise, not just because of the hype and awards love preceding its release (which, granted, is no testament to a film's quality) but also because director Tyldum's previous film, Headhunters (2011), was a bat shit crazy heist-gone-wrong thriller which was anything but average.

But whether playing it safe with an English language film, a bigger budget, or merely hemmed in by Graham Moore's screenplay (adapted from Andrew Hodges's book), Tyldum keeps everything moving along smoothly without any directorial distinction at all.

Not surprisingly performances are uniformly good, including those of Mark Strong and Charles Dance as impressed and infuriated Bletchley authority figures, respectively. Fine, too, is Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, who, for a brief time, was engaged to Turing but more importantly, was one of the women who played a key role in those events at Bletchley Park (though the film would have us believe Clarke was little more than a fag hag with a knack for crossword puzzles).

The film's coda reveals what happened to Turing after his arrest but does so over a celebratory scene of he and his fellow code-crackers rejoicing in their success. Sure a gay man who helped end the war two years earlier than anticipated, saving countless thousands of lives in the process, was harshly treated by his own government because of his sexuality and killed himself as a result, but hey, we won the war.

Besides, the Queen eventually pardoned the guy (in December 2013, thank you very much), and we now get to enjoy computers thanks to Turing's brilliance. Good one, Alan!

Thursday, 11 December 2014


Studio Canal

The last time big money was spent updating an iconic bear for the big screen and a younger generation we got Yogi Bear (2010). That loud and unfunny film's saving grace was its pro-environment message (and its Kevin Rudd-esque villain), but just what longtime fans of the mischievous bear with a penchant for pic-a-nic baskets made of it -- not to mention the Hanna-Barbera estate -- who's to say?

So it's completely understandable that fans of author Michael Bond's creation, Paddington Bear -- debuting in print in 1958, and appearing in a mixed animation TV series in 1975 -- would be wary of a big screen adaptation of the Peruvian-born Anglophile with an alarming marmalade habit. The good news is that Paddington is a fun, sweet family film which is at once modern yet faithful to its source materials.

With a swift and witty prologue explaining how Peruvian bears could come to speak the Queen's English and long to travel to London, it's not long before a young bear, spurred on by tragedy, finds himself stowed away on a freighter ship headed for the United Kingdom.

Under the illusion that the Brits are a welcoming people and finding a home will be a simple as being offered to come live with a local family, the bear (voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw) soon realises that the knowledge that he, his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and late uncle (Michael Gambon) had of ol' Blighty (passed on by an intrepid explorer) may be somewhat out-of-date (well, except for the weather: that's a constant).

But the bear is taken in by the Brown family -- a whimsical children's author mother (Sally Hawkins), po-faced insurance analyst dad (Hugh Bonneville), pre-teen son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), adolescent daughter, Lucy (Madeleine Harris), and housekeeper, Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) -- and christened Paddington (his name as spoken in native bear being not-so easy to pronounce). Cue calamity after calamity -- for Paddington is an accident-prone bear -- and danger.

That danger comes in the form of Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist with the British Museum who sets her sights on the Peruvian immigrant with the aim of adding him to her no-longer-living collection. Nowhere near as camp as Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil (from 1996's 101 Dalmations), Kidman makes for a rather chilling villain; her blonde bob and ice-water veins lightened somewhat by her interaction with Peter Capaldi's Mr. Curry; a curmudgeonly neighbour to the Browns who becomes smitten with the psychopathic stuffer.

It is the film's sense of humour, British but no less universal, which is one of the delights of Paddington. Amusing sight gags and enthralling action set pieces also help. And with the producers of Harry Potter behind it, and directed by Paul King (responsible for TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, and Bunny and the Bull (2009)), Bond's creation arrives on the big screen in safe yet irreverent hands; Paddington emerging in 2014, alive and free of mothballs.

And although rendered in CGI (the mix of live-action and animation a nod to the 1975 TV series, perhaps?), Paddington is a completely believable character. That's thanks in no small part to the voice work of Whishaw who makes the bear both a wide-eyed innocent yet someone who learns rather quickly just how the (Western) world works, and suggesting in his own quiet way how it should: Paddington's ethos of 'be adventurous but be polite' should endear him to a whole new audience.

Kids of all ages will eat this film up like so many marmalade sandwiches.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


20th Century Fox Films

You don't have to be a devout Christian to know the story of Moses, it's as old as, well, the Bible. Anyone who attended Sunday school or has had a passing glance at 'the good book' knows the basics of how it all went down in ancient Egypt, 1300 BCE or thereabouts.

Born a Hebrew but abandoned in a weave basket to the River Nile following a pharaoh's decree that all first born Hebrew boys be slaughtered, Moses was adopted by the pharaoh's court and raised as the future ruler's cousin. But when his ancestry was revealed, he was cast out and so began his odyssey which, with a little help from a higher power, saw him return to the city of Memphis to free the Israelites after 400 years of slavery.

Of course, there's the more visceral elements of the Old Testament story -- the Nile awash with blood, plagues of toads and locusts, and the parting of the Red Sea -- which enthrall young Sunday schoolers and no doubt piqued director Ridley Scott's interest (along with his team of CGI artists), and justified his decision to present the film in 3D.

The recreation of ancient Egypt, like those of Rome in Gladiator (2000), were perhaps also enticing; familiar historical ground for Scott to find his footing after the less-than-stellar modern and future-set outings, The Counselor (2013) and Prometheus (2012).

And there's no denying that the broad strokes and majesty of Exodus: Gods and Kings is impressive (kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski). But where the film falters is in its smaller, human moments; whether that be the racially insensitive casting (yes, it matters), or the subsequent under-utilization of said cast (Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul have thankless roles; and the less said about Ben Mendelsohn's 'Carry On' viceroy the better).

There's also the failure to muster much empathy for either main protagonist. Both Christian Bale, as Moses, and Joel Edgerton, as Rhamses, give solid performances but we don't much care about the man who may or may not be speaking to God (who appears to the non-believer in the guise of petulant 10-year-old boy), nor the somewhat conflicted pharaoh who builds his empire on a foundation of brutal slavery.

That said, Bale's hero is far more agreeable than was Russell Crowe's maniacal titular Noah in the other Biblical epic of 2014, directed by Darren Aronofsky. And Scott's film, for all its modern wizardry is far more traditional and classic; hewing more closely to the Biblical epic template of old Hollywood and to its source material (there are no rock Transformers to be found in ancient Egypt).

But at 150-minutes, Scott and his (four-man) writing team take far too long to tell this familiar tale; intermittently impressing but perhaps ultimately converting very few.