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Reviewing the movies of 2014, Part IX: The Imitation Game and Nightcrawler
Two strange men, two strange tales, one great day of movie-watching
It is funny how things sometimes pair up, isn't it? Today I managed to catch two more of the films in this year's Oscar race, and they both happened to be films that were talked about in conjunction with the Best Actor race. Were talked about, that is, until the nominees were announced, and jaws dropped all across the nation at Jake Gyllenhaal's exclusion from the Oscar race for his portrayal of "vampire-shift" videojournalist Leo Bloom in Nightcrawler; of course, Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of World War II mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing is still in the mix, and indeed is considered a fairly viable contender in a race that is primarily between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. Much like Birdman's Keaton, these two both gave stellar performances of men with serious emotional issues. What's really intriguing is that both Cumberbatch and Gyllenhaal play men with very poor social skills, who come across to others as intense, rude, and naïve. Of the two, however, Turing's issues stem primarily from his insecurities over being both the smartest man in any room and a closet homosexual during a time when such a thing was literally a crime, while Bloom's issues stem primarily from his being a sociopath; Turing often acts as if he is far more confident than he is, while Bloom exudes an excess of confidence in almost every situation. One of the sad and interesting things about these two films is that Turing is someone you empathize with, even come to root for, who meets a decidedly unpleasant fate, while Bloom will make your skin crawl and your stomach turn, and yet has the sheer chutzpah to pull it off. Anyway, I hope I haven't given too much away, but rest assured that these are both films where the fun is in getting there, as it were. And without further ado, here are tonight's reviews.
The Imitation Game
"Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."
One of the more talked-about films of the year 2014 has been an espionage thriller based on actual events during World War II, The Imitation Game. Directed by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian making his English-language debut, and written by Graham Moore, a screenwriter without any prior feature film credits, the movie does not exactly seem to have the kind of pedigree that screams Oscar. Indeed, Tyldum's nomination for Best Director would be notable enough if he were not making history as the first Norwegian to get the nod, as the Directors Branch of the Academy famously tends to be rather insular, only occasionally giving a nod to someone relatively untested. That said, the film has garnered a great deal of praise, and a good deal of awards notice as well. Much of this is due to Benedict Cumberbatch's deeply affecting portrayal of his distant relative Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician now considered by many to be "the man who broke the Nazi code," as well as "the father of modern computers." Not bad for a man utterly destroyed in his time because of his sexual preferences. Cumberbatch, who has spent the past few years quietly building a reputation as a gifted and generally underrated actor, finally gets a chance in this film to truly shine; he is ably supported by a cast that includes Keira Knightley (also an Oscar nominee), Mark Strong and Charles Dance. Everything else about the film is held to a high standard as well: attention to period detail, good pacing and use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, and a pretty awesome score from perennially underrated composer Alexandre Desplat. The man's been nominated eight times for Oscar but has yet to win; maybe this will be his year?
The film centers on the efforts of a team of cryptographers at Britain's Bletchley Park to find a way to crack the Nazi code and help the Allies win the war. Sadly, the Germans are using a highly-advanced cryptography device called Enigma, and changing the machine's settings each day, making all attempts to break the code utterly infeasible. Turing is brought in by an extremely reluctant Commander Denniston (Dance), after what may rate as one of the most intriguing job interviews ever put to film. Denniston and MI6 chief Stewart Menzies (Strong) lay out the task at hand for Turing and a team of five others, including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Downton Abbey's Allen Leech--I KNEW he looked familiar), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). From the very get-go there is friction; while the rest of the team works together to try to break the code the old-fashioned way, Turing holes himself up in a corner and starts designing a machine. His thought is that perhaps no person has cracked the Enigma code because it might take a machine to beat a machine. Eventually, it all comes to a head when Denniston explains to Turing that he needs to follow the chain of command, just like everybody else there, and Turing gets the novel idea to take his orders directly from Winston Churchill; he writes Churchill, and is allowed to take over the team. He immediately fires two of the cryptographers, antagonizing the others even further; eventually, he recruits two new faces, one of them Joan Clarke (Knightley). Through Joan's influence Turing finally learns to be a team player, and eventually his machine is completed. It takes some time yet before the code is broken, though, and this is a film that does not stop with the happy ending. All throughout, flashbacks to Turing's days in prep school and flash-forwards to his arrest for "Gross Indecency" give both further weight to his character and hints as to what was to come. Since this is based on a true story, and much of it is a matter of public record, I'm not sure how much of a spoiler my comments would be, but I'll nonetheless leave it at that. This is a remarkably entertaining and intriguing film, fairly uplifting at times--the quote with which I began this review is repeated three times, each one by a different character, and I think it an excellent quote--and though the ending is decidedly bittersweet it is well worth watching. Alan Turing's contributions to the Allied War Effort can scarcely be overstated, and his papers and code-breaking device set much of the groundwork for the development of computers, yet his fate at the hands of the British justice system was fairly criminal; this film does an excellent job of giving Turing his due.
Whereas The Imitation Game is a somewhat rosy look back at a team of war heroes, and a defense for the one who got railroaded afterwards, Nightcrawler takes a stripped-down, no-nonsense approach to storytelling; basically, the film takes an almost documentary feel to its portrayal of an obsessively driven man who stumbles upon the freelance news scene and becomes determined to make it his own. Leo Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate to succeed, and indeed his drive could be called commendable if he tempered it even a little. While stealing what he can get his hands on and then selling it to local scrap yards and pawn shops, Bloom stumbles across a late-night accident on the freeway. While there, he observes a cameraman (Bill Paxton) rush in to capture footage of the crash to then sell to the highest bidder; Bloom immediately tries to get a job with the man, but is rebuffed. The next day, he steals a bike, then pawns it to get his own camera and police scanner. Within a day or so, he gets some pretty good footage that edges out the footage of a fellow nightcrawler to secure a spot on the Channel 6 morning newscast; he also meets that network's producer, Nina (Rene Russo) and begins a strange business relationship. Further, he places an ad for an assistant, and hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a practically homeless youth who's desperate enough for work that he puts up with Bloom's frequent verbal abuse and increasingly dangerous antics. Slowly, things build, and as Bloom's business takes off so does the legend of one of cinema's most profoundly disturbing, villainous antiheroes--this is no doubt a role people will remember. That Gyllenhaal was cut out of the Oscar race is most surprising; granted, I still have yet to see The Theory of Everything, American Sniper and Foxcatcher, but I am inclined to think that Gyllenhaal's exclusion was almost as egregious a snub as Ralph Fiennes' exclusion for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, though, is another interesting case of things happening in pairs. To explain, Nightcrawler hit the festival circuit shortly before the fall TV season, and hit theaters halfway through the season; about the same time, an excellent new show was gaining traction, the show Gotham. I bring it up because Bloom reminds me a LOT of Robin Lord Taylor's rendition of Oswald Cobblepott, aka The Penguin. Both are driven sociopaths who just steamroll on ahead with their plans, doing a little sidestep when necessary; both are also deeply amoral individuals who seriously seem to have no concept of or interest in the law. The primary difference is that Cobblepott is nervous and jittery, and plays himself off as a weakling most of the time, while Bloom sees no need for such pretense; I can easily see Bloom being the template for the Penguin's portrayal in later seasons, once he has a bit more confidence. Anyway, this is not entirely Gyllenhaal's show. The supporting cast is also solid, with Ahmed being particularly impressive; he essentially acts as a proxy for the audience, showing onscreen the horror we ourselves are feeling when Bloom goes too far. In fact, *minor spoilers* there was another production that I was forcefully reminded of, courtesy Gyllenhaal and Ahmed. I do not wish to go into detail, but I was reminded of the final scenes of Shadow of the Vampire, with Bloom standing in for F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich). At any rate, Nightcrawler is a pretty durned impressive film. It is a deeply cutting satire against the news industry, and one might even say against news viewers. And a prescient one: in a cruel and ironic twist, I learned while finishing this article that veteran newscaster Bob Simon had died overnight in a car crash, and the article gave a link to footage of the crash from a real-life nightcrawler. Eerie. Anyway, Nightcrawler is NOT light entertainment. If you are in the mood to be unnerved, however, give it a look; it just may change the way you watch your news.
The Imitation Game 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (Morten Tyldum), Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore), Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Film Editing, Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Supporting Actor (Matthew Beard), Supporting Actor (Mark Strong) and Cinematography. Nominated for Best Picture, Director (Morten Tyldum), Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore), Production Design, Film Editing and Original Score (Alexandre Desplat). A good argument for Best Use of Music in Film.
Will Purchase? Definitely, though likely not right away. This is a film to own, though, on multiple counts.
Nightcrawler 8/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Supporting Actor (Riz Ahmed), Original Screenplay (Dan Gilroy), Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score (James Newton Howard), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Best Picture, Director (Dan Gilroy), Supporting Actor (Kevin Rahm), Supporting Actress (Rene Russo), Production Design, Costume Design and Visual Effects. A good argument for Best Use of Music in Film.
Will purchase? Yes, though not right away. It's hard to say after one viewing if this film will become a favorite to watch or remain a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but this is an ESSENTIAL Jake Gyllenhaal credit.
Two more down, too many yet to go. I can finally start to say, though, that I've seen a good chunk of the quality films the year 2014 had to offer. It is beginning to look like a solid year in certain categories, Best Actor among them. Anyway, as ever, I hope you have enjoyed reading my take on a couple of great films, and I encourage you to let me know your thoughts. Happy viewing!