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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Where The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything Falls on The King's Speech Spectrum

Grantland’s Academy Award writer Mark Harris (who is superb; I may not always agree with what he’s saying, but his pieces are always interesting) wrote a piece for the site a few months ago to discuss the upcoming narratives that surround potential Oscar nominees (and winners). The basic thesis of his post, although I highly recommend you read everything for yourself, is that, generally speaking, there are “X movies” and “Y movies”, Basically, “X movies” are bold, daring films, and for the most part, are films that we view as Oscar snubs. Recent examples of X movies are Pulp Fiction, The Social Network, and Goodfellas. These are films that the Academy "didn’t have the balls" to give the Best Picture Oscar to. On the flip side, we have “Y movies”. In laments terms, Y movies are films that are Oscar bait and films that seemingly are enjoyed by an older skewing audience. The film Harris sites to most of as a Y movie is The King’s Speech, especially considering it beat out an X movie- The Social Network (and I would argue Inception as well).

Throughout Harris’ piece, when talking about upcoming narratives for potential Oscar contenders, he compares The King’s Speech to The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Harris is not the first person I’ve seen make this comparison. It’s a really easy comparison to make. All three are British films and all three go down nice and smooth upon viewing. But really, that’s where the comparisons end. I think it’s wholly unfair to compare The Imitation Game (and to a lesser extent The Theory of Everything) to The King’s Speech, mainly because The King’s Speech is boring as balls and I would never recommend anyone under 55 to watch it.

I first saw The King’s Speech late in 2010 in the theaters after it had received a lot of Golden Globe buzz and it was the early frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. My Dad had seen it and loved it and everyone seemed to have loved it as well. I was extremely high on Inception and The Social Network, so I was dubious that The King’s Speech was a film that deserved to win Best Picture. I was right. I was not very big on the film and was very upset when it won all of the Academy Awards that it did. I went back to watch The King’s Speech on Netflix a few months ago as I decided to give it a second chance. I was self-aware enough to realize that my love for The Social Network and Inception may have clouded my judgment, so I wanted to re-watch The King’s Speech and give it a fair chance. It turns out, my initial opinion was right.

I have no problem saying I enjoy Y movies (I’ll defend Crash and Forrest Gump until the day I die) but holy hell was The King’s Speech not a good movie. Let me clarify that statement, The King’s Speech is so dull and boring that it makes it excruciating to sit through. There are obviously some good things about the film (most notably Colin Firth’s performance), but it is not a movie that will stand the test of time, and it’s only a film that your grandmother will love. So to compare a film as good as The Imitation Game to The King’s Speech is downright insulting.

I love The Imitation Game. I enjoyed my experience watching the film and I still think about it today, which marks the sign of a very good film. I’m surprised that the film doesn’t have a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, not because it’s * that * good, but because it’s hard to fathom anyone seeing this picture and not enjoying it. (The Imitation Game currently has a 90% on RT).

I can see why The Imitation Game can been seen as “Oscar bait” and thus ripe for comparison, but its story is so compelling and the characters are so rich, that it actually deserves any and all nominations it gets. I went into the film really wanting to bash Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. Not only does Jake Gyllenhaal give the best performance of the year in Nightcrawler so I’m naturally upset at anyone taking his thunder, but I really thought there would be no difference between the acting styles of Cumberbatch’s versus The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne. I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch even played Steven Hawkins a few years ago! I thought you can put Eddie Redmayne in the Imitation Game and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Theory of Everything and you’d get the same movie, so why are both men getting huge Oscar buzz when any young British actor can do what they do?

As it turns out, Benedict Cumberbatch is just a phenomenal actor and he deserves all the praise in the world for his performance as Alan Turing. In The Imitation Game, Turing is an autistic math genius who forces his way into British military intelligence to lead the charge to crack an impossible German code machine called The Enigma. We’ve all seen the trailers and we all know how this movie ends (even if you know nothing about the life of Alan Turing), Turing solves “the unsolvable code” and helps Great Britain win the war. However, what makes The Imitation Game so good is that is focuses on the relationships that Alan Turing has and who he is as a person versus the plots points of the difficulties of code breaking. We see flashbacks of Turing as a kid, a slight flash forward of Turing after the War, but it’s Cumberbatch’s performance during the years in which he’s trying to crack Enigma and how he deals with others while doing so that makes the movie as good as it is.

The real kicker is the brilliant script from first time screenwriter, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Graham Moore. Moore submitted this script to The Blacklist and it ended up winning the whole shebang in 2011- beating out scripts like Django Unchained, Saving Mr. Banks, St. Vincent, Bad Words, and Sex Tape. The Blacklist is a website where screenwriters submit their non-produced script to the website, and the website reads them all and ranks the best of the best. In 2011, The Blacklist determined that Moore's script was the best script submitted to them that year. And it’s not difficult to see why. Since everyone knows how this story ends, Moore had to find a different angle on this subject. The story can’t end with Turing and his team solving the code (and it doesn’t) because that’s too cliché. Around the end of the second act of the film, The Imitation Game takes a hard right and takes you down a path you never expected it take. This path is so entertaining and Benedict Cumberbatch is that good of an actor that you love The Red Herring that is the cracking of The Enigma.

I fully embrace the Y-ness that is The Imitation Game. It’s directed by unknown Mortem Tyldum and like a Marvel movie, it really could have been directed by anyone. There is really nothing bold or daring about this film, and I won’t disagree with about any vanilla aspects of the film (in which there are many). But you know what, I’ve never rejected a bowl of vanilla ice cream in my life, and just as I will enjoy eating that ice cream, I enjoyed watching The Imitation Game.

While The Imitation Game may be vanilla ice cream, The Theory of Everything is vanilla extract. It has all the appearances of being good and it trick you into thinking it's good, but then you actually taste it on its own and you regret your decision immediately. The Stephen Hawking biopic is definitely more like The King's Speech and this is a much more apt comparison. Both The Theory of Everything and The King's Speech have a disabled and important figure as its central figure and both films are very slow. Like The King's Speech, I wouldn't recommend The Theory of Everything to anyone. 

While the film is marketed as the Stephen King biopic, it's really more about the life of Stephen's ex-wife Jane- after all, the film is based upon her book. Like with The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything needed to take a different approach to the life of Stephen Hawking, and by focusing on the marriage between Jane and Stephen with a good chunk of the story being told through Jane's eyes, The Theory of Everything takes on a romantic twist. However, while having the film focus on this relationship and marriage, it becomes a film that resembles almost every other film. I would have preferred a film that actually focused on the achievements and work and research of Stephen Hawking versus this film. However, I knew what I was getting into, so I wasn't surprised by the result.

The film's stars Eddie Redmayne (Stephen) and Felicity Jones (Jane) and they are by far and away the best parts of the film. They do a fantastic job with the words that are on the script; however, my main issue is that I never really connected with any of these characters. I appreciated what they did but I never really cared one way or another. Neither Redmayne or Jones ever did anything to draw me into the film.

I'm conflicted on Eddie Redmayne's performance. On one hand, he delivers an incredible rendition of a genius and a man who loves his wife yet is physically unable to show it. On the other hand, this performance and this role is the best definition of Oscar bait. released an article a few years back entitled 6 Cheap Acting Tricks That Fool The Critics Every Time. The first entry in the article is called "The Biopic". The article says:

This simple formula rarely fails. Pick a deceased (or soon to be deceased) musician, artist or mathematician, make sure they're the sort of person the New York media could conceivably refer to as brilliant, insert a big name actor (or Gary Busey) to play the role; watch movie critics and audiences far and wide go apeshit.

That's the kind of the vibe I'm getting from Redmayne. For all the talk about his physical transformation and about how he spent hours studying Stephen Hawking's actual appearances and demeanor and about how he spent a third of the movie only using minor facial cues, I get the feeling that almost anyone in Hollywood could have actually done this performance. Like I said earlier, Benedict Cumberbatch did this same performance a few years ago.

Then again, Redmayne is just really good in this, and if I had an Oscar ballot, I'd probably vote for him to get a nomination as well. 

After browsing Rotten Tomatoes regarding The Theory of Everything, a phrase keeps coming up over and over again, "an unexceptional film about an exceptional man". I couldn't have said it better  myself. Unlike The King's Speech, there was actual humor and laugh out load moments in The Theory of Everything but like The King's Speech, the story was dull, uninspiring, and Oscar bait in the worst possible way. While it was interesting to learn about a subject and a person that I never really knew anything about (hell, I didn't even know Hawking was British thanks to his talking computer), I'd rather see a truthful documentary than an exaggerated feature film. 

Both The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game has elements of being a Y-movie and both seemingly are being compared to The King's Speech- a film that just so happened to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. However, all three are completely different films and all need to be judged in their own right. All have their strengths and weaknesses, but if you're going to see just one, see The Imitation Game. Not close.



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