The Imitation Game

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I type, The Imitation Game is #209 of IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. Nominated for eight Oscars, winning one. Don't get me wrong, it's OK. Even slightly better than OK. But…

It is based on the actual life of Alan Turing, ably played by Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch. It centers around his World War II work in Bletchley Park, heading the team that built the "Bombe", an electomechanical gizmo that broke the Nazi's "Enigma" encryption scheme. The movie also has scenes from Turing's early life as a bullied schoolboy, and from the early 1950's with the events leading up to his "outing" as a homosexual, conviction for indecency, and chemical castration. Ms. Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a Bletchley Park co-worker who was as close as Turing got to a female love interest.

The movie is eminently watchable, as Turing struggles with his co-workers, his superiors, and his own prickly personality to accomplish his decryption vision. Cumberbatch is no doubt a gifted actor, and I bet he could play something other than prickly gifted oddballs if given the chance.

Slate has a good article outlining how much the movie diverged from the true story of Turing and Bletchley Park. Unsurprisingly, a lot of things were changed or invented in the movie; that's just how it's done. It seemed to irritate me a bit more than usual, though.

There was a repeated line that took me right out of the movie, though:

"Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

This is one of those sappy "inspirational" quotes that might appear on a poster you can buy at Walmart for $5.98. Maybe with a kitten looking bravely at a big dog. I can't imagine a real person saying it in real life.

But it's repeated three times in this movie: once from young Turing's schoolboy crush to Alan, once from Alan to Joan, then from Joan back to Alan. I groaned a bit louder with each occurrence.


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Big Hero 6

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This year's Oscar winner for best animated movie. And it's from Pixar-infected Disney. So yeah, it's very good.

The setting is explained by IMDB trivia:

… the movie is set in an alternate future where after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was rebuilt by Japanese immigrants using techniques that allow movement and flexibility in a seismic event. After the city was finished being rebuilt, it was renamed San Fransokyo due to it being a city with Japanese and American architecture combined.

The result is (sorry for the cliché) a visual feast. The Japanese influence doesn't stop there: I noticed a number of scenes were clearly inspired by Studio Ghibli-style animations.

The movie's hero is Hiro, a kid with a gift for robotic technical innovation. He lives with his brother Tadashi, under the care of their ditsy Aunt Cass. At the start, Hiro's main occupation is hustling patsies at underground robot-fighting matches, but Tadashi successfully persuades him to turn his talents to more productive uses at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. At the peak of his success, however, disaster strikes. (It's kind of dark for a kids' movie.)

It rapidly turns into a superhero-team movie, where Hiro and his friends dedicate themselves to fight the deadly menace. They are aided by Baymax, a health-care robot designed by Tadashi, and heavily modified into a warrior by Hiro. Baymax is both comic relief and emotional peg, and he's a major reason the movie works as well as it does.

The DVD has a short cartoon, "Feast", about a hungry dog, and it is also wonderful.


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Nightcrawler

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Let's see what genre IMDB puts this in… hm, "Crime, Thriller". OK, I guess. But it's also a pretty wicked, bleak satire on local TV news and MBA-speak. Those are pretty fat, cheap targets for folks in the movie business to disdain, but, OK, worked for me.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a petty thief who yearns to better himself. And, as the movie demonstrates, he'll do just about anything to accomplish that. Problem: his existing "business associates" know that he's a thief, and who'd be stupid enough to hire a thief?

A chance encounter puts him on a possible career path: shooting freelance video for "if it bleeds, it leads" local TV news shows. (Yes, they actually say that at one point.) He finances his startup with a stolen high-end bicycle, gets a fast car, a video camera, and a police scanner. He deludes a stupid young kid into an "internship". And he develops a sordid, corrupt relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer who's devoted herself enthusiastically to broadcasting stories that appeal to the fear and ignorance of her viewers.

So eventually something happens: Louis gets to the scene of a mass homicide well before the cops do. Will he do his civic duty and help the cops promptly corral the bad guys? Hint: no, he does something entirely sociopathic and creepy.

The movie is not without amusement: in his spare time, Louis has used the Internet to immerse himself in the language of business ladder-climbing and hard-nosed negotiation. Combining this with his genuinely sleazy career and deranged personality… that can get darkly funny.


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Le Chef

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Possible alternate title: Who Knew Jean Reno Could Be Funny?.

M. Reno plays famous French chef Alexandre Lagarde, of the three-star restaurant Cargo Lagarde and a TV cooking show. He has problems: the restaurant has come under control of a young whippersnapper who wants to dump his old-fashioned cuisine for new-fangled molecular gastronomic offerings. And he's not exactly wrong: Lagarde has gotten into a rut, lazily holding onto the recipes that brought him to past glory, disdaining innovation.

Also, in an irrelevant subplot, he's neglecting his grad-student daughter.

Enter Jacky Bonnot (played by Michaël Youn), a youngster with a creative mind, a gifted palate, a seriously pregnant girlfriend, and an irritating manner of hectoring customers that prevents him from keeping any kind of cooking job longer than 90 minutes or so. Fate throws Jacky and Lagarde together, and they plot to save Lagarde's job, and Jacky's culinary career.

It's French, with English subtitles. It's also very sitcom-formulaic, but it worked for me. Probably its French pedigree fooled us into thinking it was more sophisticated than it actually was. Make it American, with (say) John Noble and Jim Parsons in the starring roles and it probably wouldn't work at all.

Or maybe it would, because those are two seriously talented guys.


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Fury

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Fury! Alas, not about the wartime exploits of Sergeant Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos. Here, it's a word painted on the cannon barrel of a WWII tank commanded by Brad Pitt.

It's set in the closing days of the war in Europe, April 1945. There's still a lot of fight left in the Nazis, though. And the titles at the movie's beginning note that the Sherman M4 tanks used by American forces were outmatched by the Germans' Panzer/Tiger tanks in both offense and defense. Eek. (They ain't kidding about that either: A popular non-fiction book about the armored Army in WW2 is titled Death Traps.)

Brad and his longtime tank crew have been fighting in North Africa, France, and Belgium. But one of their gunners literally had his face shot off in their last battle, so into their close-knit group comes replacement Norman, an Army clerk-typist who's been forced into a combat role. Initial relationships are rocky; for one thing, the tank crew seems to have run out of patience with obeying the Geneva Conventions. (OK, they didn't exist until later, but you know what I mean.)

To enjoy this movie, you can get overly disturbed by (as the MPAA says): "strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout". War is Hell, and the movie is not shy about demonstrating that.

There might be some symbolism/deeper meaning stuff going on here. Someone over at IMDB insists that it's Moby Dick in a tank, but that stuff goes over my head.


Last Modified 2015-03-18 1:32 PM EDT
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Boyhood

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I type IMDB ranks this as #181 of its Top 250 movies of all time. I didn't like it quite as much as the IMDB raters did. Although it was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, it only won one for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette. (I find that a somewhat surprising win, but I haven't seen the movies with the other nominees.)

Anyway, you probably know the gimmick: the movie was filmed over 11 years (May 2002 - August 2013) with the same actors. This worked pretty well for me. It focuses on Mason, starting when he's seven years old, living with his mom (Ms. Arquette) and bratty sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director/writer's daughter). Mom has split up with bio-dad Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke), but he's still an occasional presence.

So, what happens? Basically, time. Mom gains and sheds a couple husbands (apparently driving both of them to drink, one to physical abuse). The kids do kid stuff appropriate for their age, including sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Dad eventually becomes respectable, but not respectable enough to avoid giving Mason Jr. some poor advice about relationships.

It sounds as if it might be boring. Some people have found it very boring. Not me, though, because even though the problems of these four little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, I still found them interesting enough to want to know what happened next.

However: it's long (2.75 hours) and drags significantly in the final third. Maybe you'll want to hit the play-faster button on your remote?

I can't help but wonder if they're secretly working on Manhood, to be released in 2025 or so.


Last Modified 2015-04-14 8:37 AM EDT
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The One I Love

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I didn't know much about this movie going in; it was one of Mrs. Salad's picks. Just the Netflix description:

Confronted with the potential end of their marriage, Ethan and Sophie take off for a weekend together, hoping to negotiate their future. When they reach their idyllic destination, however, the couple strolls into a bizarre new brand of trouble.

Ethan is played by Mark Duplass and Sophie by Elizabeth Moss. Their whiny mutual insecurity is played for some very subtle humor at the start. They go to a marriage counselor, and before you can say "Hey, that's Ted Danson", they are off to a very nice estate where they are to spend some time alone together.

Except: are they really alone? Pretty soon the movie takes an unexpected turn into what Sophie calls "Twilight Zone" territory. I can't really say any more here without spoilers, but it's a very clever script that sneaks up on the viewer.

I was impressed by the acting talent of both Mr. Duplass and Ms. Moss. But (again) I can't go into much detail about that without spoilers.


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How to Train Your Dragon 2

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A sequel to (guess what) How to Train Your Dragon. The IMDB raters (as I type) have given this a slightly lower rating (8.0) than its predecessor (8.2, and number 152 of the best 250 movies of all time). But I liked it a bit better.

The Viking land of Berk has settled into a cooperative harmony with its dragon population. Hiccup, the previous movie's hero, is getting along with his dad, Stoick. Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, are devoted to each other, and like nothing better than to explore the neighboring lands.

But Hiccup and his pals happen upon a ragtag crew of dragon-trappers, who are accumulating the beasts for the brutish, evil, wannabe-world-conquering Drago. And another strange character appears, a masked dragon-rider whose skills are comparable to Hiccup's. Who is it? No spoilers, sorry.

This movie has a fine plot and sympathetic characters, but wait, there's more: The animation folks at Dreamworks continue to display their almost-Pixar levels of imagination and expertise to make it jaw-droppingly gorgeous at points, hilarious in others, and butt-clenching at others. So good on them.

And, yes, How to Train Your Dragon 3 is apparently in the works. I'll be there.


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The Equalizer

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

So this is pretty much a by-the-numbers action flick. But it's got Denzel Washington as the hero, and that's enough to raise it up to four point zero stars right there.

Mr. Washington plays Robert McCall, living a quiet existence in a downscale Boston community (Chelsea/East Boston or somewhere in that area). He takes the Red Line to work at a big-box home improvement store. (Actually, according to IMDB, a defunct Lowe's in Haverhill.) He's affable enough, but essentially a loner.

He's got insomnia, which makes him a regular customer at a seedy all-night diner, where he drinks tea (made from a teabag he brings from home) and reads his dead wife's novels. This leads him to meet "Teri" (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who has ambitions to leave her sordid life. (The guy playing Teri's pimp, David Meunier, previously played Johnny Crowder on Justified; pretty much the same sleazy character, except with a Russian accent instead of a Kentucky accent.)

Teri's ambitions are hindered by a brutal beating from Russian mobster/pimp. Which leads McCall to help out, first peaceably, then not so much. It turns out that McCall has (as Liam Neeson would put it) "a very particular set of skills", and he finds himself at war with the entire Russian mob. The Russian mob should have known better.


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The Wind Rises

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A recent offering from the genius Japanese animation folks Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It's a (highly fictionalized) biographical drama about Jirô Horikoshi, the primary aeronautical engineer behind the WW2 "Zero" Japanese fighter plane. (Which was used to kill a lot of Americans, but Jirô gets a "Werner von Braun" pass for this.)

Growing up in early-20th century Japan, young Jirô is obsessed with airplanes, but his lousy eyesight precludes him from being a pilot. Fortunately (since this is a Miyazaki flick) his future path comes to him in a dream, where he meets his hero, aircraft designer Italian Count Caproni, who doesn't actually pilot his planes either. Jirô sets doggedly on his path.

The story follows Jirô through his education and employment with Mitsubishi. Along the way, Jirô meets Nahoko, the love of his life, during a train trip to Tokyo. Which is disrupted by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, probably the deadliest in Japan's history; Jirô behaves heroically, saving Nahoko and her caregiver. Various other things happen, including some bad/sad things. It's a little unfocused, much like real life is.

All this is charmingly and gorgeously rendered on the screen, because it's Studio Ghibli. It's a bit of a departure from their usual pure-fantasy genre, but it worked for me.


Last Modified 2015-02-02 5:45 AM EST
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