Review: Penguins Of Madagascar

Penguins Of Madagascar

Trailer

It's the spin-off we deserve...

It’s the spin-off we deserve…

I had relatively happy feelings towards the last of the Madagascar franchise, even if the general premise was being well worn and wringed out. One of the shining lights of the film, and with the others, were the Penguin characters, bit players whose antics could be called upon to fill a hole or provide a needed laugh. Much like the Minions of Despicable Me, the Penguins rapidly become one of the star attractions, and before their yellow skinned contemporaries do the same thing next year, the Penguins have gotten a shot on their own on the big screen (having already done the same on the small one). Worth doing, or just more grist for the mill from Dreamworks?

The Penguins – brash leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brainy Kowalski (Chris Miller), psychotic Rico (Conrad Vernon) and fresh faced Private (Christopher Knights) – hit out on their own, soon coming into contact with the vengeful Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus seeking redress for the manner in which penguins supplanted his position at a zoo. Alongside Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), the leader of the mysterious North Wind organisation, the Penguins are all that stand between their Antarctic brethren and Dave’s maniacal schemes.

Penguins Of Madagascar pulls little punches about itself, right from the off. One of the very first jokes is about an unfortunate seagull getting eaten alive by sea lions, in-between bouts of mocking both nature documentaries like March Of The Penguins and the parent franchise that birthed this one (I agree, I can’t keep listening to “Move It”). From these beginnings, we leap into a madcap adventure, which is more of a Bond parody than anything else. The tone is set right from the beginning then, as infantile humour meets the blackest of comedy.

There’s a good dynamic at play here. These characters have been around and interacting with each other for a long enough time that a feature film for them is a smooth and seamless comedy machine: Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private all have their roles to play in this ensemble, playing off the others brilliantly, and seeming remarkable comfortable in their characterisation and voice acting. You could imagine these characters as bumbling humans in a Laurel and Hardy-esque thing, so relatablity isn’t a problem.

And that’s all at the heart of this productions manic energy. It’s all so fast paced and frantic, with scenes zipping along so fast, to the point that a brief stopover when characters discuss a plan to stop Dave seems weirdly sluggish in comparison. The jokes are brief and frequently just one-liners, or random observations, or pop culture references and they all just seem to work. And when it comes to the “action”, the craziness of the way new elements are thrown in or thrown by the Penguins, such as in the Venice chase, are enough to make the experience immensely entertaining, sort of like a new age slapstick done through computer animation. As the Penguins take to the streets of Venice in a rowboat, or hop between mid-flight jumbo jets, you can almost hear the strains of “Make ‘Em Laugh!

And it also just works as a spy satire. Starting off with an unexpectedly intentioned raid on Fort Knox before criss-crossing the globe (all the way to Shanghai’s  famed “Little Dublin” district), Penguins Of Madagascar makes sure to pack in as many different locations and zany aside adventures as possible. Dave’s character and plots are insane and over the top, in all of the right ways (if maybe taking too much of a cue from Despicable Me 2), and his cackling laugher is ably matched by the M-like character of Classified, the straight man to Skipper’s hilariously annoying distraction. So fun and engaging are those sections, that some of the more cliché ridden moments, like coming of age stuff with Private, actually fail to land as well as they possibly could have. Films like this, for some reason, seem to require what you might call a “heart”, defined as a soppy friendship sub-plot, or something of that nature. Penguins Of Madagascar is doing a little better when it just focuses on the craziness.

As mentioned, the voice acting for the central four is great (or, at least, three. Rico doesn’t talk much). There’s something weirdly endearing about the voices, Skipper’s 40’s style leader, Kowalski’s smart man pastiche and Private’s achingly cute young blood, all of which are done with suitable enthusiasm and genuineness. On the guest front, Malkovich and Cumberbatch are plainly exulting in roles where they are able to have a bit more fun than usual, Malkovich especially great as the unhinged Dave.

Visually, as you would expect from a studio as accomplished and experienced as Dreamworks Animation (or, at least, they were, I can’t comment on the rounds of lay-offs recently), Penguins Of Madagascar is a explosively colourful production. The action scenes are immensely diverse, fast paced and entertaining, with the “camerawork” zipping and zooming through environments of rapid change and rapid-fire jokes. The buffoonery is never ending, that is largely seen in the visual side of things, where the break neck pace barely allows one the opportunity to catch a breath before the next set-piece sequence, the next chase scene, the next joke.

The script is great. As already mentioned, the jokes come thick and fast, but the recurring ones – Skipper’s constant forgetting of Dave’s name (“Deedee!” “Dave…” “Dave!), the celebrity namedrops by Dave (“Nicholas, Cage them!”), or North Wind’s incompetence (“Release the sheep…”) – are just as good, the sort of fire and forget style of comedy that is perfect for this kind of film. The referential stuff – like Werner Herzog’s amoral documentarian at the beginning – and the dark stuff – that poor seagull – are purely for the adults in the audience, and while it is practically par for the course that a film like this include that element, I have rarely seen the blend of child and adult humour enacted so effectively. In fact, Penguins Of Madagascar almost seems to have more humour aimed at the older viewer than the younger.

Penguins Of Madagascar, while never really threatening to get too deep, is a wonderful piece of distraction entertainment, I don’t know if I’ll remember any of it this time next year, and there does seem to be one of these films every 12 months or so (Despicable Me 2 last year). But, for 90 minutes of decent jokes and visual fireworks, I’m happy saying that this is worth the price of admission. The story is shallow as hell, but the VA, the visuals and the script are a step above Madagascar in most respects. I film I would recommend, especially as simple Christmas time fare.

Entertaining in all of the right ways.

Entertaining in all of the right ways.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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In Detail: Iron Man – “With A Box Of Scraps!” (01.35.00 – 01.45.17)

Obadiah Stane is pissed off.

He bursts into Sector 16 in a huff, presumably because he knows that all of his illegal and potentially treasonous activities are now known by the US government. A bad day to be sure. Sector 16 appears to simply be the Arc Reactor facility from earlier, now with several lab coat wearing scientists clustered on one of the gangways. Head scientist, having a stressful phone call, suddenly has to snap to attention as Stane marches up to him, and all of the other scientists scatter.

Head scientist (named “William”), a very nervous looking guy, starts babbling on to a very tetchy looking Stane.

WILLIAM:
Mr Stane? Sir, we’ve explored what you’ve asked us, and it seems as though there’s a little hiccup. Actually…

STANE:
A hiccup?

WILLIAM:
Yes, to power the suit, Sir, the technology actually doesn’t exist. So it’s…

This is not what Stane wants to hear right now, from his aggressive and fidgety body language, but he has some restraint for the moment. He puts his arm around William, faux-closeness, which belies the terrifying reality of Stane’s imposing presence.

STANE:
Wait, wait, wait. The technology? William, here is the technology. I’ve asked you to simply make it smaller.

So, Stane wants to same kind of Arc reactor that Tiny is able to lodge in his chest, presumably for the Mark I copy he’s making. We’ll recall that Stane has been trying to get his hands on one of Tony’s for a while now, openly asking him for it back in the mansion a while ago. But William doesn’t really seem to be the man for the job.

WILLIAM:
Okay, Sir, and that’s what we’re trying to do, but honestly, it’s impossible.

Stane turns away and then delivers one of Iron Man’s more famous moments.


STANE:
Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!

He’s screaming, utterly furious, a finger jabbing at William, who’s pressed back against a guardrail. Aside from pointing out an aforementioned plot hole, Stane is just releasing some of his own frustrations, at how Tony Stark has apparently been able to pull off an impossible task in impossible circumstances, and now Stane’s failure to do the same is stalling his own plans. Bridges delivery here is great, the first time the film’s primary antagonist has lost his temper, but it does indicate some stupider stuff to come. William, for his part, can only tell the truth:

WILLIAM:
Well, I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.

No, he is not, but this line of dialogue points the way for the next scene. If Stane wants a miniaturised Arc reactor, there is only one place he is going to be able to find one in a hurry.

But, then again, why is Stane looking for this thing? Shouldn’t he be more worried about the incoming treason charges?

Back in the Malibu mansion, its’ night-time, and Tony investigates a ringing phone somewhere in his, still amazingly spacious, living room.

Tony finds the hone underneath a cushion (for some reason) and sees that its Pepper calling. For whatever reason, he doesn’t seem happy or excited to be getting this call, just sort of bored. Hmm. He answers it.

Then there’s that high pitched noise, the blue lines on the face, and instant paralysis, all while Pepper talks down the phone.

PEPPER:
Tony? Tony, are you there? Hello?

Tony’s not here anymore Pepper.

Of course it’s Stane. And in this scene, we’re going to see Stane go off the deep end entirely, starting as he creepily lays Tony back against the couch and starts monologing.

STANE:

Breathe. Easy, easy. [he shows Tony the device] You remember this one, right? It’s a shame the government didn’t approve it. There’s so many applications for causing short-term paralysis.

Since Tony is unable to talk, Downy Jr has to make his face do the acting, and he sells it well here, the horror and the panic on those wide open eyes.

Stane, no longer in the jacket, moves around to the front of the couch. Wait, did he sneak into the house, hear the phone going off, hide it, and then hide behind the couch? That’s seems so…cartoonish to me for some reason. Hmm.

Stane grabs Tony’s head and moves it so they can look at each other face to face. Time for some villain exposition! Yes, this is one of Iron Man’s weaker scenes, but I guess Favreau really wanted this sort of pre-finale showdown between the two.

STANE:
When I ordered the hit on you, I worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived. You had one last golden egg to give.

More echoing tones for this section (OST: “Golden Egg“), as Tony stares, stunned at this confirmation of Stane’s hostility, even as Stane suddenly pulls out a horrific little tool, a short cylinder with weird sticky out bits.

STANE:

But, you see, it was just fate that you survived. (Takes Arc reactor out of Tony’s chest) You had one last golden egg to give.

The look on Stane’s face as he shows Tony the reactor is intensely creepy, the look of a man who has lost his mind and doesn’t care who knows it. This is Stane finally telling Stark what he really thinks of him. No more pretending, no more living in the shadows. And he’s enjoying it, illustrating a sudden pure kind of villainy.

STANE:
Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?

Stane now seems to have the need to justify himself and his actions, to make Tony out to be the bad guy somehow. The namedropping of Tony’s father is a low blow, with Obadiah digging at an open wound, and seemingly indicating that Howard Stark was closer to Stane’s line of thinking than Tony’s.

Stane yanks the reactor out of Tony’s chest completely, an act powerful enough to cause Stark to give out a gasp of pain, his breath becoming increasingly laboured. Obadiah stares in wonder at his new toy, and then gets in nice and close with Tony:

STANE:
Oh, it’s beautiful. Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony. What a masterpiece. Look at that. This is your legacy. A new generation of weapons with this at its heart. Weapons that will help steer the world back on course, put the balance of power in our hands. The right hands.

Stane isn’t even talking to Tony by the end of this ramble, just staring intently at the reactor in his hands. His mantra is insidious and everything Tony is fighting against: Yes, the Iron Man suit is a weapon, but a weapon built for the singular purpose of fighting back against the kind of weapon selling system Tony was previously happy to create. Obadiah, with his talk of the “right hands” and “a new generation of weapons”, has moved so far away from Tony’s current line of thinking that it is hard to believe they were ever on the same page really. Stane starts packing up, the fireplace in the background giving him a demonic aura as we continue through the scene.

STANE:

I wish you could see my prototype. It’s not as…well, not as conservative as yours.

Ouch. Whatever Stane is building, it’s a device that is designed to be a proper military machine, and that idea gives the still paralyzed Tony’s seem additional palpitations.

Offscreen, Obadiah adds just a little bit more, that isn’t really necessary:

STANE:
Too bad you had to involve Pepper in this. I would have preferred that she lived.

I always found this line, which I suspect was added in post, a little stupid. Stane’s already the bad guy, so this additional bit of evil is superfluous. And it just doesn’t seem like something he would say at that moment. Its villain monologing from the dark ages, and it would only really work if it had been properly established that Stane had, Norman Osbourne-like, gone totally crazy. Anyway, with Tony looking at an imminent death, Stane calmly stalks away, leaving his former protégé/boss to his fate.

A quick establishing shot of the city at night from above, and we’re in a car with Rhodes, now in “civvies” and on the phone to Pepper.

RHODES:
What do you mean, he paid to have Tony killed? Pepper, slow down. Why would Obadiah…

Ugh, I do hate these kind of quasi-exposition lines. On the other side of the call, Pepper walks through a parking lot with Coulson and a few other suits, apparently in the S.H.I.E.L.D HQ or something.

PEPPER:
I don’t know. He’s not answering his phone. Please go over there and make sure everything’s okay. Thank you, Rhodey.

Well, someone has to go and save Tony. Pepper hops in a car with Coulson, though it isn’t immediately clear where they are going. Rhodes spins his jeep around in the middle of traffic – man, he really hasn’t gotten much action in this film – and away he goes.

The real drama is happening back in the mansion, where a sickly and sweaty looking Tony Stark has regained some use of his body, crashing into an elevator and heading downward, looking for all the world like a man living on borrowed time. To the background noise of a declining heartbeat, Tony stumbles out into the garage, looking across at salvation: the original reactor, encased in a glass gift box.

Tony has to literally crawl across the floor to get to the thing. Pushing bric-a-brack out of his way and losing energy all the time. This is a low, low moment, as low as Tony was back in the cave, only there is wasn’t minutes away from death (at least not all the time). Stark looks a far cry from the Iron Man he was just a short while ago.

He struggles up to try and reach the table, but collapses, laying prostrate on the floor, utterly helpless, and sapped of all drive. Is this the end for Tony Stark? Not quite.

Hey “Dummy”. Yeah, it had one last joke to make, dangling the reactor in front of Tony like a dog bringing its master a news paper. Favreau even gives the machine a shot that makes it look like an animal.

STARK:

Good boy.

He smashes the glass open. Salvation is at hand.

In Sector 16, a jumpsuit wearing Obadiah Stane is framed facing his monstrosity, a gigantic suit of army that already looks like the Mark I on steroids. The environment, like the music, is dark and full of foreboding. We hear dripping from somewhere off camera, and flickering lights and reflected water illuminate the walls. It’s like a dungeon. But wait…

What is Obadiah Stane doing? Why isn’t he already heading out of the country with the reactor? What is he possibly hoping to achieve by staying where he is? This gigantic plot hole in Iron Man’s third act, explainable only if Stane has suddenly gone insane, is a serious black mark against the film.

Anyway, Stane hooks in the reactor with deliberate patience, and the machine hums to life. Stane looks up into its head, which sort of looks like his own, like he is staring into something he himself created. But of course he didn’t: he’s simply taken two of Stark’s inventions and turned them into his own tools. The music swells. We have our villain, inside and out.

Back in the mansion, Rhodes comes sprinting into the living room, shouting Tony’s name. He heads downstairs, and discovers Stark’s prone and seemingly lifeless body. But of course, he’s not dead: with the old reactor plugged in, Tony is still breathing albeit looking much the worse for wear. He claws at Rhodes’ jacket, and only has one thing on his mind:

TONY:
Where’s Pepper?

There’s a certain sweetness in that, but then again, Stane did just directly threaten her.

RHODES:
She’s fine. She’s with five agents. They’re about to arrest Obadiah
.

Tony, looking suddenly determined and angry, must be having a short-term flash back:

STANE:

I wish you could have seen my prototype. It’s not as, well, conservative as yours…

Tony, somehow realising that Stane isn’t just going to quit the country (how does he know this) realises the truth.

TONY:
That’s not going to be enough.

Cut to the Arc Reactor facility in Stark Industries, where Pepper and Coulson, conspicuously different in one of Tony’s Audi’s pull up, followed by a few non-descript Fords with the rest. It’s all business as the group head inside, a feeling magnified by the workaday violin chords. The camera lingers on the reactor, which will be important later.

Pepper tries to get access to Section 16, but in an awkward little scene, she fails to get the door to open.

PEPPER:
My key’s not working. It’s not opening the door.

There is something a bit off about this scene and Paltrow’s delivery, like it was all shot on the fly. Maybe just to set-up the little joke here, as Coulson attaches a small object to the door.

PEPPER:
Oh, wow! What’s that? It’s, like, a little device? It’s, like, a thing that’s going to pick the lock?

COULSON:
You might want to take a few steps back.

They do. Pepper cowers, plugging her ears, but the agents all just stand, stoically, with their arms crossed. The little explosive goes off, and they don’t even flinch. It’s our first proper indication that they are more than just some bland group of government agents.

In Section 16, Stane hears the door getting blown open, and realises what’s coming. He hits a button on a computer, and heads towards his prototype, which we see in the background from the front, for the first time. It’s big, metal coloured, and slightly hulking, like the Mark III but just bigger in all respects.

Back in the mansion, Tony suits up, without the montage and bombastic music of the last time. This time, he has an admirer to voice the audiences opinion.

RHODES:
That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

TONY:
Not bad, huh?

Rhodes is in awe, but Tony doesn’t really have much time to pander to him. Taking a repulsor blast to one of the previously damaged sports cars (boy does that seem like a long time ago), he clears a path to the hole in the ceiling he made before.

RHODES:
You need me to do anything else?

It doesn’t really seem like Rhodes has done anything actually, other than just be here. The last act is really bad for this character actually, as he plays second fiddle to just about everybody.


TONY :
Keep the skies clear.

And with that action hero line, off Iron Man goes, soaring out of the mansion and into the night sky.

Rhodes is left behind, cursing his luck. He then has a glance to his right, spying the hooked up Mark II. Some electric notes thrum in the background.


RHODES:
Next time, baby.

For Rhodes, Iron Man is nothing but set-up. He has to be around, but can’t get the time to be fleshed out properly. But it will sort of pay-off in Iron Man 2, when he finally does get to don his own suit of armour and become “War Machine” (and then, the Iron Patriot). For now, this nod to the fanboys is as far as he will really get. Well, he does get to take another of Tony’s Audi, for some reason, squealing out of the garage.

In Section 16, Pepper and the agents move forward, into the dark and straggly lit basement level where we previously saw Stane, the mood of the film suddenly edging back towards horror. Pale lights, rattling chains…wait, rattling chains? Wow, Favreau was really piling it on here. And what’s making them rattle?

The group come across the battered reconstruction of the Mark I, its inclusion here designed to offer a final contrast with what we will see very soon.

COULSON:
Looks like you were right. He was building a suit.

PEPPER:
I thought it’d be bigger.

Pepper hears something behind her, and in a move that really is straight out of Horror 101, starts walking very slowly towards it, while everyone else remains blissfully unaware. The wires that we previously saw connected to Stane’s prototype now dangle free.

As the agents start to fan out and look for Stane, Pepper keeps investigating the spooky noises, as Iron Man starts to overplay its hand a little bit with the suspense.

And then it breaks. Two glaring lights appear in the darkness, a whirring of something powering up, and then the familiar FPS view from inside a helmet. Only this time the target is over Pepper’s face, and everything is in red. Pepper screams and runs.

Pepper dashes around a corner, and behind her comes the Ironmonger suit, which we can now see, in full glory and operational, a heaving hulk of metal destruction. The first agent in its path tries to stop Stane in his tracks with a few pistol shots, but is gruesomely swatted out of the way. The shot stays with the fleeing Pepper, even as the eye is drawn on the Ironmonger’s wrecking of destruction as more agents get flattened.

Then Stane looks up and see’s Potts, and dashes towards her with unnatural speed, smashing through metal and stone, and only just missing her when a doorway gets in his path. The initial glimpse of the Ironmonger in action has set it up nicely as a terrible threat, dealing with any human attacks with ease and smashing through everything around it.

In the skies, Tony streaks towards Stark Industries in the Mark III, but there is a problem:

TONY:
How do you think the Mark I chest piece is going to hold up?

JARVIS:
The suit’s at 48% power and falling, sir. That chest piece was never designed for sustained flight.

TONY:
Keep me posted.

Hmm. This was the very first reactor, with half of its power drained in Tony’s escape from the cave. I guess the Mark I wasn’t very energy efficient. Tony’s upcoming fight with Obadiah is going to have a time limit.

Outside the reactor facility, a panicked Pepper emerges, getting a phone call from Tony.

PEPPER:
Tony! Tony, are you okay?

TONY:
I’m fine. How are…

PEPPER:
Obadiah, he’s gone insane!

He better have, it’s the only logical option.

TONY:
I know. Listen, you’d better get out of there.

PEPPER:
He built a suit.

TONY:
Get out of there right now!

I’m afraid it’s too late for that though. In a great emergence shot, the Ironmonger breaks through the road outside the arc facility, rising like a demon out of hell, casting tarmacadem and stone all around him.

The suit is immense, with its supports, overly-large helmet section and piles of guns attached to its arms.

STANE:
Where do you think you’re going?

Stane’s voice, a little gruffer, emerges from the suit. He has a bone to pick with Pepper, and has since the last sequence. A fist gets flexed and balled, an attached minIgun on the Ironmonger’s right arm starts spinning, the barrels aimed squarely at Pepper, who can only stutter backwards and gasp.


STANE:
Your services are no longer required.

Yeah, he’s lost it. And from afar, a streak of light blazes towards the reactor facility.


TONY:

Stane!

Here we go. Finale time.

For The Film

This sequence is really a bit all over the place, the moments where Iron Man starts to show some cracks. Favreau seemingly needed to cram a lot into these few minutes: Obadiah finishing his suit, the final sundering between him and Tony, Pepper and the agents getting together, some bits for Rhodes, etc. And the end product seems a little hodge podge and rushed, as if the production team realised they were running out of time and needed to hurry things along. We see Stane transform into a very different villain in the course of a scene or two, and Tony survive another potentially fatal low point, while Pepper maintains her firm involvement, a female character who retains some agency. The scene has been set for the finale, though it all could have been a bit better.

Characterisation

Obadiah Stane

He’s lost it. Before, Stane seemed smart, confident and sure of what he was doing. But now, the only thing that makes any sense in explaining his behaviour is that he has actually gone crazy. He finishes his suit and gleefully takes down Tony, releasing some pent up frustrations in the process, but then decides to stick and around and fight his way out of the upcoming charges. There’s no redemption possible for Stane, and we know the next fight is likely to be to the death.

Tony Stark

He knew that Stane was working against him, but Tony finally learns to what extent here, and that revelation is still a shocking thing for him. His thoughts immediately settle on the thing that is more important to him though: Pepper. With that in mind, he manages to survive the latest assassination attempt, and heads into a final battle with Stane, knowing that there is a lot more on the line than just his life.

Pepper Potts

Leaving it too late to inform Tony for whatever reason, Pepper takes command of the anti-Stane effort herself, hooking up with Coulson’s agents and going after Obadiah herself. It’s a dangerous move, and by the end of this sequence she’s caught in the middle of a deadly battle about to commence.

James Rhodes

Rhodes dashes to the mansion to check on Tony, but gets there too late to be really helpful. He’s defined as a minor support at this point, and Iron Man is doing well to give just a brief tease that he might become something more in the future.

Coulson

Teaming up with Potts, Coulson starts showing himself as more than just a suited government man, using gadgets and guns in his pursuit of Stane. Whether that will be enough to take Stane down remains to be seen.

JARVIS

Still there, and still helping Tony out, his role in the coming fight to be the nagging voice reminding Tony of what little power he has left.

Next time, the final fight begins.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Trailer

"Will you follow me...one last time?"

“Will you follow me…one last time?”

So, here we are again. One last time. Readers of this site will remember (I hope) my mammoth reviews of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. This one will be a bit shorter, though I might go back at some point and give the entire trilogy a retrospective look.

When I came out of seeing The Desolation Of Smaug, I was rounded upon by an irked young woman, who proclaimed “I weep for canon” at me, after hearing my praise for the way the film had treated the Bard character. The incident got me thinking of fan expectation of films like this, and the tricky art of adaptation of much loved source material. My experience of fan interaction at the end of The Battle Of The Five Armies was a bit different, and I’ll get back to it at the end. For now, suffice to say that The Battle Of The Five Armies was one of my most anticipated films of the year, what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth swan song, and the capping feature in his second epic trilogy. Divisive among some fans and critics, The Hobbit trilogy has consistently pleased me, but how would this final chapter, this last goodbye, fare?

The dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a fire filled assault on Lake-town, faced only by the bow wielding skill of Bard (Luke Evans). The consequences of this fight reach far and wide, as hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) confronts the growing madness of company leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) who is increasingly obsessed with Erebor’s treasure horde and the missing Arkenstone. Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the White Council face Sauron, Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) plots paypack on the Lonely Mountain, his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) prepares for war and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) considers her feelings for Kili (Aidan Turner). All these journeys eventually collide, in a terrible battle where the fate of Middle-Earth itself is at stake.

I find The Battle Of The Five Armies to be a somewhat difficult film to judge. It seems unfair, to an extent, to judge it purely on its own merits and what it presents in its 144 minutes of running time, because the story is so intrinsically connected to the amount of set-up done in previous films. It is the final part of a trilogy after all, and lacks any kind of self contained story in the same manner as the films of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy or, say, Star Wars arguably had. No, this film, The Battle Of The Five Armies, is just an extended pay-off for everything that has come before, and I believe that it is better to judge it on that basis.

I say that because, taken on its own, and its own alone, The Battle Of The Five Armies would have some significant problems. Principal among them would be pacing: almost one full half of The Battle Of The Five Armies is action sequences, with a long, drawn out one taking up most of the final half in some form or another. It’s almost like The Avengers in that respect, although The Avengers did it a bit better. There is plenty of actual plot and character development in The Battle Of The Five Armies, don’t get me wrong, but it is fair to say that the film is top heavy with action-orientated set-pieces. Its title is well earned, the battle taking up a gigantic proportion of proceedings.

It is The Battle Of The Five Armies, far more than An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation Of Smaug, that makes me realise how good a two film version of this story would have been. I have no major qualms with the three film route, even if I totally recognise the financial motivations of it. But I think it would be fair to say that two three hour films, or even three and a half, would have produced a tighter, more accomplished and emotionally engaging story. As it is, having three films means that Jackson has had the opportunity to create more of his own material than he otherwise would not have, and while some of it works, some of it does not. I think that’s most evident here, as several of the sub-plots fall flat in some respects, not enough to ruin the experience (or even come close to that) but enough to be noticeable. “Padding” has always been the wrong term to use (see my The Desolation Of Smaug review for more elaboration on that), but it is only with The Battle Of The Five Armies that I truly see how things evolved, for the lesser, with the move to three films instead of two. Things could have been cut here, and weren’t, with sub-plots begun a film or two ago having to be continued and brought to a fruition.

But I’m going all over the place. Let’s talk non-action stuff. At the heart of The Battle Of The Five Armies’ actual plot, lies the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo. We saw that evolve a lot in An Unexpected Journey, as Thorin went from regretting he ever brought Bilbo along, to acknowledging the error in that thinking. In The Desolation Of Smaug this trend continued, until we started to see glimpses of Thorin’s frailty.

In The Battle Of The Five Armies, the pay-off is here. Jackson chooses to go full tilt with the “dragon sickness” angle, having set-it up so subtly in the trilogy’s opening prologue with Thorin’s dark look at his grandfather falling to pieces. Here, it is Thorin beginning to obsess over the gold, and to define himself totally by it, and by the still absent Arkenstone. As the rest of the company watch Smaug eviscerate Lake-town from a distance, Thorin remains with his eyes locked firmly on Erebor, a chilling moment. All of the company are unnerved by it, but it falls to Bilbo to actually confront Thorin the most on it. The Battle Of The Five Armies puts their relationship, and their friendship, front and centre of the sections where fighting is not occurring, and it’s an endearing plot line, as Bilbo recognises the fact that someone dear to him is slipping away. He faces a really testing moment then, where the right course carries significant consequences. The Desolation Of Smaug rightfully faced some criticism that Bilbo was just sort of “there”. For most of its opening half, The Battle Of The Five Armies rectifies this, with Bilbo playing a crucial part in the developments with Thorin. For the rest, Jackson follows the book, and Bilbo’s relative lack of involvement, to the letter. Blame Tolkien. The Bilbo/Thorin relationships is executed really well here, and has some satisfying conclusions.

But things aren’t so good elsewhere. The love plot between Tauriel and Kili rears up again. I had theorised (and hoped) that Jackson would go for the “love” of the relationship being entirely from Kili’s perspective, with Tauriel more interested in Kili because of his uniqueness, and how he represents a world outside of the borders of her isolationist Kingdom: sort of a affectionate curiosity rather than love. But no, it’s a full on love plot, and that’s a shame. Not because of the visual disparity between the two – you could get over that – but just because it seems so throwaway in most respects, as if Tauriel needs a romantic plotline to justify her existence (she really didn’t) or a heartthrob dwarf needed somebody to swoon over (he really didn’t.). They try to tie it all in with an arc for Thranduil and his own coldness to the outside world, with some stuff about Legolas’ mother, and it all feels very hodge podge, as if there are important bits of cut material that we’re missing to make it all a bit more worthwhile.

It's time for war, as Jackson pulls out all the stops in an action filled finale.

It’s time for war, as Jackson pulls out all the stops in an action filled finale.

In non-action plot terms, there are other problems too. The Alfrid character, a sort of one note villain that only really worked as a brief foil to Bard and as a toady to Stephen Fry’s Master, gets a truly crazy amount of screentime here, popping up over and over again to provide some unnecessary comic relief and a repetition of his one character trait. Most of the dwarves remain hollow characters, with no time to imbue with anything other than one note characteristics, exceptions being Ken Stott’s Balin, Fili, Kili and, this time, Graham McTavish’s Dwalin. Legolas seems to be in here just for action set-pieces (though they have fixed his eyes) and Beorn is here because…Beorn needs to be here?

Most of the better plots and sub-plots are wrapped around action sequences, so let’s move on to them. Bard is probably the best. He was the great success story of The Desolation Of Smaug’s source material alterations, and that continues here, where we get to see him being a leader, as opposed to Tolkien just declaring him one. Bard remains, throughout this trilogy (or, at least, his two films of it), the committed family man, whose every action comes back to that, with the larger community of Lake-town coming into his circle without his own conscious design. He gets sucked up into the titular battle and proves himself a hero, without ever falling into the hole of being an Aragorn rip-off.

The White Council plot line gets its resolution, with extended cameos for Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel. I’ve seen a lot of bile thrown this plot-lines way, even though it forms an important part of the background developments in The Hobbit (the book that is). But it never really commanded that much of the trilogy’s running time when it comes right down to it, and used that time to provide an effective link between this series and The Lord Of The Rings. That continues here, with a trippy but surprisingly enjoyable magical fight sequence, where angry Galadriel gets to come out and play, in a way she never got to in The Fellowship Of The Ring.

Smaug has his part to play too of course. The attack on Lake-town was, in my eyes, unexpectedly short, taking up maybe 15 minutes of the opening. I had always imagined it much longer, and expected that doubly so after seeing the films running time. But instead, Jackson is direct and to the point (ha!) when it comes to the showdown between Bard and Smaug, and that works to an extent. I did hope we’d get to see a little bit more of Cumberbatch’s magnetic performance though, but you can’t have everything.

And then there is the actual battle itself, a running fight that takes in the majority of Tolkien’s bestiary and various different kinds of framing. It starts as a normal battle scene, moves into an urban combat setting, and then takes the form of a series of extended duels between key characters. It’s trying to be everything that it can be, and it does it well enough, leaving aside the superfluous stuff that Legolas represents. Azog, the decision to make him a recurring villain still as smart as it was two years ago, has his key role to play in everything, and that extended set-up allows the final battle between him and Thorin to have that extra bit of kick to it. There is salvation at points, and significant character death at others, and The Battle Of The Five Armies rides the waves of emotions to craft a satisfying action finale. I will acknowledge and point out that a certain amount of desensitisation to the violence and sword swinging will undoubtedly occur for some, and that parts of the titular battles pacing are a bit off – particularly a longish sequence looking at a conflicted Thorin inside the Lonely Mountain. But the actual battle of The Battle Of The Five Armies is a sprawling set-piece worthy of ending this trilogy, and brings to life the dramatic final pages of The Hobbit in a way that serves well both as an adaptation of the source material, and as a means for capping off some of Jackson’s own plot inventions.

And then there is the ending. I will still refrain from spoilers – there are those who have not read The Hobbit I suppose – but I felt that it was handled well. Bilbo and Thorin’s relationship gets a conclusion that fits very nicely for the story that was told in this last instalment, and Gandalf also gets a sweet moment to hog the spotlight one last time. If The Hobbit and this film trilogy is a story of Bilbo’s friendship with the company at large, well that also gets a scene or two of final looks, and Bilbo is put front and centre, as he should be. It wasn’t quite as good as the gut churning emotional impact of The Return Of The King’s “I will not say, do not weep…”, but it had something else. Jackson and company have been at pains to paint this as the final look at Middle-Earth – I suppose I must acknowledge that this might not prove the case, but let’s put that to the side – and as that, the final moments of The Battle Of The Five Armies might well prove affecting for those who have been so entranced by the journey that Peter Jackson has been taking us on for over a decade.

So, the story of The Battle Of The Five Armies has its good parts and its bad parts. Taken on its own merits, it might well seem clumsy and oddly paced, but seen as the concluding part of a continually running story, it has the right kind of pay-off and emotional resonance, the culmination of a journey begun with Smaug’s attack on Erebor in An Unexpected Journey, and finished in rousing style here.

Martin Freeman has been a great Bilbo Baggins, and his performance is at the same level as it was in the previous films. The theft of the Arkenstone is his key moment from the book, but in being allowed to have a bit more time with Thorin, Freeman is able to add some additional weight to that moment, a genuine moral quandary that leaves Bilbo with no good options. He is mostly an observer to what follows, but retains that innate hobbit cheerfulness, that innate Bilbo goodness, that has made this fantasy character one of the most iconic around. There are simple moments here, of quiet and thoughtfulness, which illustrate perfectly why Freeman was cast.

Martin Freeman has been the heart and soul of this trilogy, and that continues.

Martin Freeman has been the heart and soul of this trilogy, and that continues.

In many ways though, this is Thorin Oakenshield show, and Richard Armitage delivers the goods once more. We’ve been seeing the build-up to mad King Thorin for a two movies now, and here it is, a dwarf out of his mind on gold, and turning against everybody around him. Thorin’s descent into lunacy is well portrayed, first as a dark, insidious thing (how good was the decision to have Thorin start parroting Smaug?), then as outright displays of mental instability. We’ve seen Thorin the hero, now we have Thorin the villain, prepared to kill the ones closest to him just to get the Arkenstone. The road back from that point is a dangerous one, but Armitage is able to walk it with skill, bringing the audience along on his journey through dragon sickness.

Beyond those two, we’re into the supporting roles. Ian McKellan’s last ride as Gandalf begins in a Dol Guldur cage, but he doesn’t stay there long. He’s as full of authority and grumpiness as he ever was, and some of the saddest moments in The Battle Of The Five Armies are those where we realise we’re never going to see this again, this masterful performance by one of the acting worlds very best.

Evangeline Lilly is stuck with a very insipid plot that dominates her character, but she does try to make the most of it. She’s better than Bloom anyway, whose stoic faced and unemotional Legolas is rather par for the course at this stage. Luke Evans doesn’t have quite the same focus on him as he did in the last film, but still remains effective as Bard. Lee Pace is stuck with a half-done sub-plot with Thranduil, though he manages to give a more commanding performance than the guy playing his son. Aidan Turner remains the stand-out of the “other” dwarves, getting the (sigh) romantic angle here, as well as a brief verbal showdown with Thorin. Manu Bennet’s Azog is still mostly CGI, but at least the guy has the voice to make him as imposing as possible. Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is way too involved in the film, and his snivelling coward act is well worn before even the half way point.

From there you’re on to the cameos really. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Sylvester McCoy and Christopher Lee form an unlikely ensemble for the White Council, and play their parts with gusto despite their limited time. Graham McTavish and Ken Stott get the most to do of the remaining dwarves, and do it fine. John Tui is alright as Bolg. Billy Connolly memorably pops up as Dain Ironfoot, with all of the expected sass. Stephen Fry briefly appears in the opening as the Master of Lake-town, and one wonders why he wasn’t more involved. And there is Benedict Cumberbacth, still as awesome as he was last year in the role of Samaug, and doing OK as the voice of Sauron too.

Visually, it’s typical Jacksonian fare, that we are all familiar with at this point. Soaring views of fantasy vistas abound, as Jackson makes sure that the countryside and mountains form just as crucial a part of the story as any of the wonderfully made sets, be they the ruins of Esgaroth, the gloomy halls of Erebor or the frozen plateau on Ravenhill. The costuming, make-up and general production departments are all back with their world class level work too, from rags to armour, the lowliest hobbit to the biggest orc.

But you didn’t come here to read me telling you Peter Jackson is a good director. The CGI work of this trilogy has come in for some debate (I gave An Unexpected Journey my 2012 best and worst CGI moment awards), but I do think that things have improved here. The evolution of the “Massive” engine is better suited to the large scale battles being shown, and the extra time has allowed the WETA guys to do a slightly better job with the computer generated orcs in more individual moments. Smaug’s attack on Lake-town is a fire blasted treat (remember, WETA revolutionised CGI flames for the Balrog, and that shows here) and the full extent of Tolkien bestiary is brought to life in a stunning way: various shades of troll, goblins, giant bats, giant eagles, transforming bears, hogs dwarves ride around and one creature, from a throwaway Tolkien reference, whose appearance I won’t spoil, all crafted wonderfully. There are still some problems though: the more zoomed out shots of individuals, like moments where certain characters are scrambling up a mountain, have trouble with looking as real as they could, and certain parts of the titular battle before the gates of Erebor don’t quite hold-up.

On that battle, the chorography, for real or CGI moments, is decent stuff, all of the sword slinging, shield blocking, dagger whipping and arrow flinging you could ask for, with plenty of variety to affairs. But even with that, the extreme length of the sequence means repetition is inevitable, and with that repetition comes a certain detachment in the viewer. People are right when they say that seeing the cast cut down “real” orcs in The Lord Of The Rings was more affecting than if they were cutting down purely CGI creations. That is not to admonish the work of WETA – God knows the effort in making this stuff is gargantuan, and frequently underappreciated in those terms – but that sort of “video game” feel to some parts of proceedings is there. At least the frame rate issue that was evident in parts of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation Of Smaug, is not as obvious as it once was, save for a tiny few moments.

The script, from that Tolkien wonder team of Jackson, Boyens and Walsh, keeps up the good work, retaining certain elements of the source material where appropriate, and inventing others as they see fit. So, Smaug gets a brief conversation with Bard in Lake-town, Thorin and Bilbo have a few heart to hearts in Erebor and final encounters get a bit more of a verbal zing to them. Balanced with that of course is the stuff like the love plot (the “I love you” in dwarvish moment was somewhat clever, but couldn’t help overall) or the lines for Alfrid, which are played out very quickly.

But still, the distinctive voices are there: Bilbo’s heartfelt desire to one day go home, sit back and remember, Thorin’s insane rantings on how to save his gold and nothing else, Bard’s genuine pleading for the plight of his people before Erebor or Gandalf’s words of wisdom to Bilbo, as the journey nears an end. Scriptwork has never been these films’ problem.

Howard Shore is also back one more time. In keeping with the overall theme, the motifs for The Battle Of The Five Armies are more militaristic in make-up, already classic themes like the Lake-men’s simple horns, Thranduil’s ethereal strings or the more booming dwarven theme getting overlaid with marching drums and battle tunes, and that all helps to make the atmosphere right for the titular battle. The tighter violins have been overlaying scenes of madness since The Two Towers, and they’re back with an effective bang for most of Thorin’s arc. “Beyond The Forest” makes a welcome return to at least give the love-plot some decent music, while Billy Boyd’s “The Last Goodbye”, which channels “Into The West” a bit too much really, provides a nice outro to the series, an emotional farewell both to the saga and the audience. I think, regardless of any debate over all of these films and their quality, independently or relative to each other, one of the only things that is largely beyond reproach is the work of Howard Shore.

Ian McKellan takes a suitable final bow as Gandalf.

Ian McKellan takes a suitable final bow as Gandalf.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-The character deaths remain true to the book and are carried out well. Jackson has his own imagination to work with entirely here (seriously, how weird is it that Tolkien decided to skip most of the battle?) and the result is a satisfying show-down between Thorin and Azog, where both kill the other, with some nifty work done on the ice-capped battlefield. Fili and Kili buy it too, and enough work has gone into them to make it mean something. To make it real, as Thranduil says.

-Those final duels do go on for a long time though, between Thorin, Kili, Tauriel, Legolas, Azog and Bolg. Legolas and Bolg in particular, was a showdown that I wasn’t that engaged with at all, maybe because of the certainty that Legolas was going to survive. That’s part of the pacing problem with the battle, in so far as the gigantic clash of armies is interrupted by these one on one duels a bit too much.

-The Lake-town attack is great, Smaug is great, Bard is great. Bard and his son having an unlikely team-up to finally bring down the dragon was wonderful, as was the crashing image of the dead dragon hurling himself into the destroyed town.

-So yeah, were-worms. For anyone who doesn’t remember, Bilbo mentions them very briefly in the first chapter of The Hobbit: “Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.” Throwing them in here was just for spectacle, the worms having no larger purpose to the plot, but at least they looked cool.

-What was with some of those trolls though? Jackson went all out with the sizes and variations, and that one with the maces for limbs was straight out of 300. Gotta love the battering ram version though. Pure fantasy, in the best way.

-The love plot could only end one way of course, it was just a question of whether Tauriel would follow Kili into the afterlife. She doesn’t, and the attempts to make the whole affair more meaningful fell flat to me. Not even Thranduil’s pontifications on the nature of love could do it I’m afraid.

-Thranduil himself ends his part in this story in a weird way. He was the isolationist monarch who doesn’t want to help anyone else, so the expected thing would be for that to change. And it sort of does, and sort of doesn’t. Looking at the dead elves, he is ready to up and abandon the battle (and the gems, which were apparently not that important in the end) but apparently gets guilted into staying by Tauriel? Maybe? And then a brief heart to heart with Legolas which was somewhat stilted, a recognition of the Tauriel/Kili bond and that’s it. It was all kinds of off, and I heavily suspect there is a wealth of cut material for Thranduil.

-Connected to that are the mentions of Legolas’ mother, which also feel like they were part of a larger plot line that got cut down to size. She died in Angmar Legolas tells Tauriel, and Thranduil’s last words to his son, as he sends him off to find “Strider” are “Your mother loved you Legolas”. OK? There’s something missing here, maybe some resentment between father and son over this woman, that didn’t make it into the final film.

-Gotta love that moment that Bilbo and Gandalf share, where Gandalf just cleans his pipe. It was like a scene expressly designed for Ian McKellan to just relax and be Gandalf in a happier time, before we say goodbye to him forever. That, and it tied into a similar scene in The Fellowship Of The Ring. “Gandalf my old friend, this is going to be a night to remember”.

-I had wondered about the ending point, after the critique of The Return Of The King and how Jackson had trouble letting go and saying goodbye. No such problems here, for good and bad. The battle ends and Bilbo swiftly departs, with only the shortest goodbye to the dwarven friends, before one last darkly tinted conversation with Gandalf, concerning magic rings (which Bilbo, creepily, insists that he lost during the battle for no reason). The transition to Ian Holm’s Bilbo, still attached to that Ring, was the final tie in to the first trilogy, but then The Hobbit wisely ended on a happier moment.

-That last shot of The Hobbit’s famous map was a good choice. Samwise Gamgee closed a door on the adventure in The Return Of The King, here we are reminded that this tale was just one part of a much larger universe.

Spoilers end.

So, to conclusions, very much in the vein of how Jackson would like me to view this film. As I was leaving the theatre, thoughtful on what I had seen, and reflecting on the overall power of this Middle-Earth saga, I saw a young boy alongside, presumably, his father. He was jumping and swinging an imaginary sword, proclaiming happily “I’m Bilbo!”. I think, far more than any hyper-criticism or snark aimed at this film and those that came before it by the “I guess I’ll see it anyway” crowd and their unpleasant ilk, or the bile-filled haranguing by the purists and their precious canon (Oh, I bet she’s still weeping), such images are what will stay with me. The ability of these films to touch the imagination of an audience, in the same way that Tolkien’s story was able to touch the imagination of the reader, in a way other fantasy and other media are unable to. Young and old, we are still able to be carried into this amazing world, be it on the page or on the screen, if we will just let it carry us. And, in the words of Gandalf, “that is an encouraging thought”.

There and back again, and so we have come. The Battle Of The Five Armies has its problems, some the fault of the source material, others the fault of this production team. But the story is still strong, the cast is still immense, the universe is still enthralling, the visuals have improved, the script is strong and the music is wonderful. This is fantasy at its visual height, the final chapter in a trilogy that I fervently hope will receive a kinder reception, from the hardcore and others, in years to come. Because I think it deserves it. This is one of the year’s best films, and I say that without reservation, even if it goes against the grain. I still find myself loving these movies and everything that they have to offer. Rose tinted, maybe, but that’s just how I see it. Now, we have a Middle-Earth saga, six great films, to treasure and look back on. For that, Peter Jackson and his team deserve a great deal of credit and applause. Fully recommended.

An enjoyable and moving conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy.

An enjoyable and moving conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

Trailer

Alan Turing, finally getting the film and the actor he deserved.

Alan Turing, finally getting the film and the actor he deserved.

A proper biopic of AlanTuring, with all of the deserved Hollywood bells and whistles, has been due for a long time now, with the famous codebreaker and computer scientist previously having to settle for TV movies. Aside from the somewhat flat Enigma of 2001, the Bletchley Park operation has also never really impacted on the history of film. Well, now it has, with Benedict Cumberbatch, the latest top dog of cinema, stepping into a role that could have been great, or just more chum for Oscar bait season.

Through three crucial periods of his life – lonely school days, being tasked with breaking Nazi Germany’s “Enigma” machine during World War Two and dealing with police investigation of his private life in 1951 – The Imitation Game follows computer science and cryptanalysis genius Alan Turing (Cumberbatch, Alex Lawther), as he deals with his own crippling social awkwardness, his relationship with fellow codebreaker Joan (Keira Knightley) and the crushing pressure of his hidden homosexuality.

There’s always the potential problem with biopics, and especially biopics of figures as venerated as Turing – who, we must admit, is seen very much as a martyr-like figure in this day and age – that they will ere too much towards sympathy and glorification. The Imitation Game, in my view, manages to avoid this pitfall, for the most part, and crafts an unflinchingly honest and deeply disturbing portrait of this utterly tragic figure, a man whose life personified some of the best and worst aspects of the period that he lived. Its history might be a tad on the iffy side certainly, but as a biopic, as an in-depth look at Alan Turing and what drove him, The Imitation Game passes the most important test with flying colours.

Framed as an extended flashback, as Turing outlines his life to an inquisitive detective in 1951, The Imitation Game focuses for the most part on those World War Two days, showcasing the growth of Turing from being a total outcast in terms of socialising and interpersonal relationships, to the leader of a group of men and women that radically altered the balance of power in the conflict. That evolution of leadership is one of the film’s most intriguing aspects, watching Turing as he casually fires a few of his compatriots upon being put in charge, only to be pushed into being a better man.

At times the whole thing seems like a cliché-ridden railroad of a plot, but this belies some of the subtleties in showing how Turing really becomes the head man of Bletchley Park. The process is a painful one – one of the film’s most memorable yet awkward scenes is of a trying-too-hard Turing attempting to tell a joke to get his fellow codebreakers to like him – but binds Turing closer to the Joan character, and manages to make the character, portrayed as likely suffering either from or something very akin to Aspergers – someone who the audience can actually relate to and sympathise with, beyond the facts of the historical record. It, in fact, the “Imitation Game” of the title, nominally a reference to Turing’s ideas on potential advances in computing and artificial intelligence, but really about his own efforts to greater “fit in” to society, by trying to act like others while never really being like them at all. Camaraderie, leadership, heterosexual love, all of it is a form of imitation for Turing.

The “romantic” plot, largely an invention it would seem, stutters a bit at times, but I found it very worthwhile for most of The Imitation Game, allowing a spotlight to placed on the women of Bletchley Park, allowing Turing to exhibit a growing ability to form an interpersonal bond, and allowing the spectre of Turing’s homosexuality to cast a shadow over everything that he does. I say “spectre” there because this is how The Imitation Game chooses to portray that aspect of Turing’s life, and I think it fits: his sexual orientation made his life harder, his relationships more difficult and resulted in his ostracism from a society that all too willingly forgot the debt it owed to him. You don’t need sex scenes to get the point across: Turing’s homosexuality, in the story of his life, is more to do with secrecy, repression and public perception of “indecency”. In that way, The Imitation Game approaches this dicey topic properly.

I think that when it comes right down to it, biopics are supposed to leave you with the sense that you’ve learned something profound about the subject matter. For me, I would say that The Imitation Game made me realise how sad, and sometimes pathetic, the life of Alan Turing was, even in the moments of his greatest success. I don’t just mean at the end of his life, as he was hounded into an untimely suicide, but in all aspects of his life. Like so many like him, Turing was a deeply anti-social and lonely man, whose private demons prevented him from forging the kind of healthy friendships necessary for sound mental well being.

The Imitation Game captures this problem intimately, and lays bare the reality of how difficult Turing’s life was, weighed down by the size of his own genius, his responsibilities and the gnawing fear of his sexual orientation becoming public knowledge. The Imitation Game then, is a desperately sad film, one that struggles to provide any crumb of comfort for those hoping to see a positive element, imbued with a solid pessimism, which is bound to turn some off.

The film has its more obvious flaws. The sections focusing on a young Turing at school seemed superfluous to me, telling us nothing about Turing that we didn’t learn elsewhere or that we couldn’t reasonably infer. The relationship with Christoper Morcom is important to Turing’s formative years of course, but maybe not to a larger biopic of his life. At times too, I felt that the historical changes – the ignoring of American and Polish contributions to the Enigma cracking, some elements of Soviet espionage and the mucking about of timelines for starters – were a detriment to the story being told, even if the “spirit” of the history remained intact. There’s also a lately introduced moral quandary aspect to Bletchley Park’s work, which I felt was a little clumsy. Worse maybe is the aggrandisement of Bletchley Park, a common thing really, into an operation that potentially ended the war years early: something I disagree with for many reasons, but which, regardless, makes the common mistake of treating Bletchley Park like it operated in a vacuum.

The Imitation Game would still be forgettable enough, despite its positives, if it wasn’t for the performance of Cumberbatch in the lead role. The term “born to play” is probably thrown around a bit too much, but I think it fits here. It would have been easy for Cumberbatch to turn Turing into a 1940’s version of his Sherlock Holmes, with similarities in intellect and inter-personal relationships. But instead Turing goes into, as noted, much more sad and pathetic territory, crafting an expert performance of a man who struggles to understand the emotions of those he faces, even as he struggles to communicate his own properly. Here is a portrayal of autism to be studied and praised, one that tugs at the heartstrings as it provokes the most wrenching kind of awkwardness. I think only somebody as imminently talented as Cumberbatch could have pulled this off, a character who’s every waking moment is dominated by the dichotomy between his mental strengths and mental weaknesses, by a constant battle of worry and stress, where every conversation is another war to be fought with himself and his worse nature.

Knightley shines in the central supporting role. Creating a viable romance sub-plot for Turing was hard work, but the increasingly friendly and then overtly loving interaction between the two is another of The Imitation Game’s great strengths, with Cumberbatch and Knightley playing off each other wonderfully, with a resolution that is both fitting and satisfying for the audience, reinforcing the encroaching loneliness of Turing’s life even as Knightley’s Joan illustrates the unstoppable tide of women’s liberation.

The rest of the cast isn’t quite as good, relegated to rather empty supporting roles in the face of the amount of screentime given to Cumberbatch and Knightley. Matthew Goode and Allen Leech are decent as the more notable codebreakers working beside Turing, but lack proper agency of their own as characters: Goode’s Alexander is really just a ladies’ man archetype and Leech’s Cairncross suffers from a clumsily executed sub-plot that pops up too long into the film. Mark Strong has little more than a throwaway spymaster part, and Charles Dance is around to look stern and provide an obstacle, little more. Rory Kinnear was actually a bit more impressive than all of them, as the nosy Manchester detective trying to find out what Alan Turing “really did during the war”.

The relationship with Knightley's Joan is at the heart of the story The Imitation Game wants to tell.

The relationship with Knightley’s Joan is at the heart of the story The Imitation Game wants to tell.

Morten Tyldum’s direction is solid, if not especially beautiful or groundbreaking. A simple change of filters helps to mark out each time period, and the in-depth recreation of the various environments where Turing operated helps to seal the films feeling of authenticity. But the cinematography is really nothing to write home about, with the basic cuts back and forth sometimes making The Imitation Game seem more like an adapted stage play. The emphasis is indeed on character over spectacle, which I suppose is as it should be for biopic. It is only in small moments, like a conversation between Turing and Cairncross in the pub or in the films very last shot, that the direction really looks in any way noteworthy.

Graham Moore’ script is a lot better. It was top of the “Black List” back in 2011, and thankfully hasn’t fallen foul of that industry survey’s sometimes jinx-like effect (one of the other high rated scripts from that year, adapted this year, was the critically panned Grace Of Monaco). Instead, we get wordplay that sounds just perfect for Turing, really instilling the sense of a man who struggles to emote to those around him, and whose inability to do anything other than take things at face value is a crippling defect. But where it gets really good is how Turing changes, into a man who can exist socially better, thanks to Joan, before regressing into solitude and mental instability, all of it with the right voice, the fight frame of mind. Whether it’s denying his closeness to Christopher Morcom as a child, awkwardly expressing romantic interest in Joan or failing to casually dismiss the effects of his chemical castration, Turing is written perfectly. Some of the other cast members could be a bit better, but as with the general levels of performance and the visual focus, they are treated as supplementary players by this script. With the quality of the words mixed with Cumberbatch’s delivery, The Imitation Game is able to get away with this.

Alexandre Desplat’s score, in line with most of those he has done this year, isn’t anything to get too worked up about. Much like his work on The Monuments Men, it’s a decent accompaniment at its best and somewhat forgettable at its worst. The Imitation Game isn’t a film that needs a thrilling or Oscar-level score anyway, and the low key aspect of the music suits the story being told, where symphonic accompaniment might actually detract from the frequently solitary and pessimistic air.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-Yeah, I don’t buy this “Bletchley Park shortened the war by two to four years” thing. My comment on not operating in a vacuum – as so many like to portray Bletchley Park – is meant to point at the people who seized the Enigma machine in the first place, the U-Boat hunting techniques developed independently by Allied navies and the gigantic disadvantage, in terms of numbers and industrial capacity, the Axis powers faced as early as the end of 1941. Bletchley Park helped, and shortened the war, but they had a lot of help in doing so too.

-The attempt to enforce a moral quandary in the codebreakers, who find themselves playing God with the information they get from a broken Enigma, didn’t work for me at all. Higher people in the food chain would have been making that call.

-Yes, Cairncross was, indeed, giving information to the Soviets under the table. But it’s unlikely Turing knew about it, and even when he did, it didn’t seem to really mean much to the overall plot, other than some vague and ill-formed point about people in secret agencies having secrets.

-Oh, the end of Turing’s life. How unjust, how sickening, how terribly unfair. Leaving aside my own negative feelings towards the practise of historical apologising, The Imitation Game outlines, in vivid detail, the terrible process at the heart of Britain laws against “indecency”, and how it wrecked so many lives. That Turing willingly embraces chemical castration, to stay close to “Christopher”, is the terrible final full stop to a tortured life.

-At points the Turing/Joan relationship crosses into firm cliché territory, like when he fake insults her in order to end their engagement. But their final scene together, where she desperately tries to raise his flagging spirits, would make any sentimentality worthwhile.

-The Imitation Game doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with its closing stages though. The last scene has a weirdly positive vibe to it, before noting Turing’s suicide around a year later. Maybe they wanted our last look at Turing to be a vaguely happy one, a brief respite from the depression that would end up pushing him to suicide. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting. I don’t think so though.

Spoilers end.

The Imitation Game is a haunting, thought provoking film. In terms of other World War Two era pictures I’ve seen this year, it’s a far way above the tawdry and dull The Monuments Men, while maybe not having the same impact as Fury (hard to compare those two, but I’d just about give Fury the nod, for a lot of reasons). The Imitation Game is, beyond anything else, a well made look at the life of Alan Turing, a man whose accomplishments are more than deserving of this kind of treatment. An evaluation of his life and condemnation of the manner in which he died should be appropriate responses. And The Imitation Game is able to reach that height because of the stirring central performance of Cumberbatch, which is sure to get at least an Oscar nomination, the quality of the scriptwork which supplemented it and the well presented story that they both drive forward. The rest of the cast is mixed, elements of the overall plot are a little unnecessary or not fully exploited and the visual direction only gets as high as g# being steady. But The Imitation Game rises above its problems and eclipses them with the quality on display elsewhere, a suitable tribute to Alan Turing, the codebreaker, the cryptanalyst, the friend, the homosexual, the victim and the human being. Fully recommended.

One of the best biopics of the year.

One of the best biopics of the year.

(All images are copyright of StudioCanal and The Weinstein Company).

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Review: The Retrieval

The Retrieval

Trailer

A journey about influences and growing up, in the harsh world of 1860's America.

A journey about influences and growing up, in the harsh world of 1860’s America.

Race relations and the history of African Americans in the United States around the Civil War is a topic that has already been covered this year, in spectacular fashion, with 12 Years A Slave. But there is plenty more to be said on the subject, and into that space comes The Retrieval, a different film, not just in terms of budget or notice, but in its general focus. 12 Years A Slave was about the intensely personal journey of one man through the hellish slavery system. The Retrieval is more about growing up in such an environment and the masculine relationships of black men in 1860’s America, but it still has more than a little to compare with Steve McQueen’s great work.

Black teenager Will (Ashton Saunders) and his harsh uncle Marcus (Keston John) work for the slave catcher Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr) during the American Civil War, helping to find runaway slaves for their master. When the two are sent on a special mission to find a particular target, Will finds himself caught between the influence of his uncle and the path offered by the man they seek to trick, a Union gravedigger named Nate (Tishuan Scott).

The Retrieval has a lot of different elements in it, a confluence of genres and ideas that fit together nicely enough. It’s partly a war movie, with the Civil War setting and a well executed (but somewhat pointless) battle scene around the half way mark. It’s a story about slavery, with the journey of the main trio going by the reality of the institution in the southern United States, and the various consequences that it is a part of. And it’s also a simple film about growing up and choosing your father figures.

It’s on the last score that The Retrieval works best, but it can’t really save the film all that much. Unfortunately, The Retrieval suffers from an overall dullness in so much of what it wants to do and portray, a lack of engagement very much evident when I watched it. Maybe the characters weren’t fleshed out enough, maybe the antagonist was too boring, maybe the constant scenes of travelling interrupted the flow of the film too much, maybe there were too many asides from the main point. It was probably all of them, but whatever the reason, The Retrieval moves from its best part – the Will/Nate relationship and the dialogue they share – to its worst at a constant rate, back and forth, stuttering under the weight of the journey director Chris Eska wants to show.

At least that central relationship is good. Both Will and Nate are damaged individuals, who have had their lives changed forever by the evil that was slavery. Will still has a chance to make something positive of himself, if his Uncle will let him and if Nate will help him. Yes, he’s a bit of a cliché character, but he fits very well in this story and setting, as much as Nate does. Throughout The Retrieval, the tale of the two getting closer and learning to trust the other is well crafted, taking in themes of the morality of killing, the power that regrets can have on someone and the necessity of making hard choices that will define the rest of your life. However, the overarching beats of their journey are nothing unique in most respects, in fact you could say that it is a road well travelled in film. That also does not help with the feel of The Retrieval being duller than it has to be, as the running time starts to stretch out to longer than is really necessary.

The Retrieval winds its way down to a double conclusion, wrapping up a notable loose end in Nate’s past and then dealing with the issue of the slave catchers and Nate’s future. Neither ending is likely to be what the audience expects exactly, but they are both suitable for the plots that backed them up, albeit maybe a little bit too low key in the case of the latter. I suspect a lot of the budget was wasted on a somewhat unnecessary battle scene half way through, funding which should have been earmarked for the finale, or at least I think so.

The Retrieval could do with a slightly better villain to keep things a bit more tension filled.

The Retrieval could do with a slightly better villain to keep things a bit more tension filled.

In terms of acting, it’s a mixed bag. Saunders is his best as Will whenever he is talking to Nate, changing his own fate and becoming a stronger individual through the course of the film. On his own or with other actors, he isn’t quite as good, struggling to make the same impact. Scott is strong as Nate, maintaining a stern but affectionate characterisation throughout, which helps give The Retrieval a necessary backbone in its cast. John is underused in the half-antagonist role of Marcus, while Burrell is a cartoonish throwaway role for Oberst Jr.

Visually, The Retrieval has to keep things simple I suppose, lacking the budget for anything else. The lighting choices and the filters suit the film, with the thin woods and barren fields working well with the plot being offered. But, long before the credits roll, you will have gotten sick of the same travelling shots, the same vistas, and the same overused environments, the same “establishing shot/back and forth dialogue shots” formula, which help to give The Retrieval the sense of dullness which drags down the story it is trying to tell, a far cry from the impressive opening vista of Will approaching a house at night-time, while cannon fire flares in the background.

The script is alright, with the right kind of language to mark the characters and the period out, very much like the script for 12 Years A Slave, just without the same moments of drama. It’s simple but effective wordsmithing for Will and Nate, which helps make their relationship the films high point. “Authentic” is the word that I would use I suppose, words very true to the setting without getting too over the top or unintelligible. The score is basic but decent, with much of The Retrieval done without any kind of melodolic accompaniment, but not suffering from a  sub-par effort when the music does play.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-I did find it a bit weird that someone of Nate’s age and experience never copped to the deception being played out all around him. That bothered me a bit, seemingly a reduction in logic to ensure the smooth sailing of the intended narrative.

-The segment surrounding Nate’s “woman” was strangely endearing. It would have been so easy to make a happy ending for Nate, or at least a somewhat happy one, but it was more fitting that Rachel didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. Real life doesn’t allow for healed relationships in such circumstances.

-The ending, where Nate essentially commits suicide to save Will’s life, also was suitable, showing plainly the strength of the bond that had been created between the two. But, I felt like the entire thing could have been made a bit more exciting without detracting from the narrative.

Spoilers end.

The Retrieval is OK. For its budget, it’s an impressive enough accomplishment, but suffers from a certain dullness, with its 90 minute run time being a bit longer than it really had to be. The general pace of the plot and the nature of the direction calls to mind a work that would be better suited to TV than the big screen, and maybe that’s where The Retrieval would have been better off, sad to say. The central relationship and performances are strong, helped by a decent script, but The Retrieval struggles to maintain the interest of the audience at times, and that can be a real killer for a film.

Solid, but unlikely to stay long in the memory.

Solid, but unlikely to stay long in the memory.

(All images are copyright of Variance Films).

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Due Dignity

We break from our recapping of random BMH entries (more to come at some point) to talk about a recent bit of news.

Fine Gael councillor Kieran Binchy, a member of Dublin City Council, recently attempted to get the following motion passed:

“That this council agrees to commemorate with due dignity, as an integral part of the proposed Moore Street Museum, all lives lost in the 1916 uprising, including the 256 Irish civilians and 153 soldiers in British uniform, 52 of whom were Irish, who died during the uprising, in the interests of respect, tolerance and understanding.”

The motion was defeated by 25 votes to 23, a rejection led primarily by Sinn Fein and other leftist parties (as well as a few Fianna Fail).

What to make of all this? I recently noted some of the attitudes surrounding Moore Street and the proposed redevelopment there, if the professional naysayers will ever be satisfied enough to let the project go ahead (they won’t, ever, they’ll just have to be ignored). There was a sense of trying to downplay the Easter Rising as a military event where, you know, people were actually killed, and I suppose that included people who didn’t wear a uniform and were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

These organisations and parties, the ones who encapsulate Ian Paisley style “No, No No!” politics, feel a special attachment to the Easter Rising, merited or no. But when I say that, I mean the Volunteers, and no one else.

In the case of the civilian casualties of the Easter Rising, the reasons for the ignoring and the deflection are obvious. Both the British Army and the Irish Volunteers killed civilians during the Easter Rising, and allowing that fact to be illustrated or talked about at greater length would inevitable cast a downer on the attempt to glorify and make heroes out of the Irish Volunteers (to an even greater extent than they currently are). Ignore the fact that these things just happen in war, and that casting judgement down upon the Volunteers for it 100 years after the fact would be as pointless as turning them into pure hearted angels.

As, for the British, well, Sinn Fein and their ilk will never be satisfied with anything other than a faceless enemy for the centenary decade. The English are to be despised and hated as much as possible, because a story as simple as the one that they want to tell needs an unadulterated bad guy. Irish soldiers in British uniform? Nope, can’t talk about that. Besides the point. It distracts. It complicates.

Because complication is bad for these people. They need a commemoration that will tie into plans for political theatre, that casts the Easter rebels as the grandsires of the nation, sternly looking down and castigating the government for its faults (unless Sinn Fein happen to be in government in 2016. Watch the narrative change then). They don’t need the moral grey areas peeking in, the uncomfortable facts about civilian dead and Irishman fighting Irishman. Keep it simple. Rebels good, Empire bad. Maybe we call sell it to JJ Abrams as Episode VIII.

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Review: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

Trailer

Jake Gyllenhaal goes sociopathic in Nightcrawler.

Jake Gyllenhaal goes sociopathic in Nightcrawler.

The dark and sordid world of American news coverage, on a frontline level, seems like fertile ground to find stories to tell of a dark psychological bent, and into the breach to make the attempt steps Jake Gyllenhall, a talented actor no doubt, and I was hoping that Nightcrawler would justify the mountain of critical praise that I had witnessed, for both the film and the leading performance. Sociopath’s are hard to pull off in film though, and I was wondering whether it would be the Gyllenhall of Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain and End Of Watch who would show up, and not the actor who strolled through The Prince Of Persia, The Day After Tomorrow or Donnie Darko (overrated!).

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhall) is an intensely determined figure, frequently turning to criminal activities as he struggles to find success in the murkier parts of Los Angeles. After witnessing a freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) shooting footage of a car crash for a news channel, Lou launches into a career in “nightcrawling”: finding the grizzliest crime scenes in the LA night time and getting the best footage to sell. With the encouragement of an amoral news director (Rene Russo) and the assistance of a desperate for cash “intern” (Riz Ahmed), Bloom’s sociopathic nature drives him to greater and greater extremes in the search for the perfect shot, film and crime.

Nightcrawler might not be quite what you expect – the promotional material made it look like anything from horror to black comedy – but what it is, is immensely enjoyable and accomplished filmmaking. With a singular focus on the character of Lou Bloom, director Dan Gilroy takes us on this warped and uncomfortable journey, that encapsulates the darker parts of the “American Dream” and the sorry state of the modern news media. It has its laughs – good ones too – and its moments of horror, but Nightcrawler is, at its core, an intense psychological study of its main character and the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of the American media.

And it is uncomfortable viewing insofar as our “hero” is an unabashed antagonist right from the start, as we see him stealling copper wire and mugging the security guard who catches him in the act. At times, we might find ourselves rooting for Bloom, who is surrounded by other amoral types and seems to have a simple but firm understanding of what he wants out of life, which is weirdly admirable. I was struck by the similarity, in some ways, with Richard III actually: how both Bloom and Gloucester start out as clear “bad guys” but whom you just still sort of like in a dark way. They both use clever language, they both put on a facade to mask their intent, they both use women for their own ends and own ends only, they both strike down their unsuspecting and naive rivals. But that all works only up to a point.

And when Nightcrawler reaches that point, things change. Then, hero and villain are conflated, and it becomes a story of wondering if Gyllenhaal’s “nightcrawler” will get his comeuppance like Richard did, or if he’ll find a way out. Bloom eventually becomes an abhorrent creature, manipulative, untrustworthy, dangerous, who does not even see the lines he crosses. But he is still seeking that American dream, that vision of hard work paying off. Matched with the sociopathic nature of Bloom, expertly portrayed on screen and in script, and you have a very dangerous concoction, a man who sees himself almost like a God, and who understands other people only insofar as what he can get out of them.

Brilliantly paced and startlingly vivid in the story it wants to tell, Nightcrawler gradually raises the stakes and ends on a great high of narrative. The ending might not satisfy everyone (see below) but I found it entertaining and imminently suitable for the tale that had just been told. The gradual escalation of things, Bloom’s nightcrawling, his relationships with the other characters, they all come to a brilliant and well thought out head, in a film that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to provide and the message it wants to the audience to take home when the credits roll, things that so many films, even good ones, fail to achieve.

Gyllenhaal is immense in this, easily my favourite performance of his. When he talks, he manages to make Bloom’s constant business management course speak sound weirdly endearing even as it also creepy. When he is silent, his facial expression abilities are some of the best I’ve seen this year, Ejiofor-esque. Sociopath’s are hard to do, but Gyllenhaal pulls it off, putting the right amount of subtle emotion into a character that could easily have wound up being a dull blank canvas of stone-facedness, and making the brief moments of explosive rage all the more shocking. Gyllenhall makes Bloom his own, a character the audience can easily both support and despise for a time, and he’s bound to get some award nominations as recognition.

The rest of the cast is in his shadow, but are still really good. Paxton’s gruff and belligerent rival provides a good obstacle for Bloom, Rene Russo’s news director offers a decent contrast with Bloom, both amoral characters who find themselves in a race to the bottom. And Riz Ahmed is enjoyable as Bloom’s put upon assistant, a desperate young man sucked into the vortex of moral decay with his “boss”.

Gilroy’s direction is top notch too. Nightcrawler isn’t a big budget affair, but the camerawork brings out the dichotomy of night time LA, the glamour of neon and street lights mixing with the grime of rundown neighbourhoods, the sophistication of affluent neighbourhoods mixing with blood spatters and police sirens. In a film about shooting film, Gilroy manages to make Bloom’s journey through increasingly fancy camerawork clear and accessible, in both the machines that he uses and the quality of the footage that it creates. And in personnel terms, he sticks with that up close look at his cast, giving them all of the chances that they need to emote and perform, especially Gyllenhaal.

The relationship between Bloom and Nina lies at the heart of Nightcrawler's turn from sympathetic villain to outright villainy.

The relationship between Bloom and Nina lies at the heart of Nightcrawler’s turn from sympathetic villain to outright villainy.

The script is great too. Everyone has the right voice, and Bloom’s constant string of internet learned leadership and management buzzwords comes off as interesting and quirky when it could so easily have been annoying. But the right contrast is made too. Russo’s stern professionalism mixes dangerously with Bloom’s straightforward selfishness and greed, and Ahmed’s under-privileged intern easily speaks as one of the people whom Bloom is out to dominate and exploit. Aside from that, the film is full of great lines and memorable wordsmithing, not least when Bloom himself sums up the film and his character succinctly:  “I’d like to think if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life.”

James Newton Howard’s score is a bit of a weird one actually, with some strange tones and motifs used in parts, something that has been noted elsewhere. I did not find it too bad really, with some of the more, shall I say, “heroic” themes surrounding Bloom’s activities working more as a sort of internal soundtrack in Bloom’s head, whose actions, in his eyes, are heroic, the encapsulation of what any warm-blooded American should be doing so they can get ahead in this world. But aside from that bit of musical characterisation, his score is low-key and forgettable, unimportant in the grander scheme of things.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-The way that Bloom’s God complex develops through the course of the film is wonderfully portrayed, as he moves from normal “nightcrawling” to manipulating minor crime scenes, to moving bodies, to finally orchestrating his own criminal stories, to the point of murder.

-A different film could have seemed overblown with a finale like the one presented in Nightcrawler, but it all just seems to fit, the way that Bloom orchestrates the police shootout and the subsequent developments. One of the films best scenes is probably Bloom easily lying to the police about his involvement, making himself one of the victims.

-The American dream mentions are apt. Bloom is all about that, about how hard work and commitment will eventually produce financial success. But his is a warped version, a take no prisoners approach more suited to the modern age. Nightcrawling provides Bloom a way to enact his internet learned management lessons, but with a twisted focus on all levels.

-It’s probably the moment that Bloom starts to sexual exploit the Nina character that Nightcrawler’s lead starts to become unreasonably reprehensible, and no longer somebody you can support as a protagonist. It’s probably important that we never see that exploitation directly, or else Nightcrawler would probably have a plot that had too much negativity weighing it down. Nina’s relationship with Bloom is a weird one alright, but Gilroy makes it work within the context the film provides.

-I’m struck by another comparison there, between Nightcrawler and The Wolf Of Wall Street, two films that had antagonists as the lead character. That can be a problem for the audience, who feel no sympathy for the central character and thus suffer from a lack of engagement in his activities, wanting only to see him get his comeuppance. I feel Nightcrawler did a better job of dealing with this problem, presenting Bloom as a warped version of the American everyman just trying to keep his head above water, and succeeding. The Wolf Of Wall Street dangled comeuppance in front of our eyes and the snatched it away, a botched redemption arc that matched the frequently underdeveloped characterisation of its main character. Nightcrawler does not have that problem. Yes, there is no comeuppance for Bloom, but that sort of fits.

Spoilers end.

Nightcrawler is one of the year’s great movies. Gyllenhaal’s performance is worth the price of admission alone, and he’s matched by the rest of the cast. But this really is the Lou Bloom show, a dark and intense look at the psychological profile of a sociopath, willing to do whatever it takes to become a success. The visuals are great, the script is strong and even the mostly forgettable music adds something important in sections. A vision of how the real America operates is presented here, where underhandedness and deceit are as important as working hard and being dedicated, in a story where the difference between good and bad is abandoned very early. Maybe Lou Bloom is a modern American hero, one taking advantage of how broken parts of our world are to turn himself into the kind of figure we might idolize, without knowing the real truth. Nightcrawler is his story, and it is one that is well told and comes fully recommended.

One of the years best films and best lead performances.

One of the years best films and best lead performances.

(All images are copyright of Open Road Films).

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