Self/less is a frustrating movie for several reasons.
First of all, the title sucks. I’m not going to spell it out for you, but let’s just say it goes against the philosophy of this blog.
Secondly, it wastes a very intriguing sci-fi premise. Without giving away too much, the story revolves around a billionaire with a terminal illness (played by Ben Kingsley) who opts for a controversial procedure that essentially turns him into Ryan Reynolds. Nothing is that simple, of course, and when the first side effect hits it becomes pretty obvious where the film is heading.
Instead of dissecting this interesting premise with a thought-provoking filmic analysis of the complex moral and ethical issues at hand, Self/less ends up becoming a typical action flick. That choice of genre is not the problem per se; the problem is that the film’s action is really quite bland. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the most average of action flicks. The plot also grows more conventional and preposterous as it nears its predictable climax and conclusion.
It’s a shame, because I expected more from a talented cast that includes Reynolds, Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber and Derek Luke. The main and pretty much only female character, played by the lovely Natalie Martinez, also turned out to be quite a thankless archetypal role.
Director Tarsem Singh, who has some visually impressive titles on his CV such as The Cell, Immortals and Mirror Mirror, doesn’t have as many chances to showcase his flashy visual style in this one, though he also doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to focus on bringing us a more compelling narrative or innovative action sequences.
The result is a sci-fi action film that isn’t bad — I think it’s adequate and the cast alone elevates it above straight-to-DVD quality. It’s just annoyingly pedestrian.
You know what’s awesome? Watching a movie you expect to be very good, and then having those expectations shattered because it’s even better than you thought it would be. That’s essentially what happened when I watched The Imitation Game, the amazing true story about how British prodigy Alan Turing cracked the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code during the Second World War.
I had heard mostly rave reviews about the film, especially after it received eight nominations at next month’s Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. Usually when a film is overhyped, the ensuing viewing experience will inevitably turn into (at least) a mild disappointment. Case in point: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another British flick that received overwhelming praise but put me into one of the best sleeps I’ve had in years.
And so I was shocked that discover that The Imitation Game is the real deal. The film had it all — a riveting “true story” premise, a fascinating central character, stylish execution, wonderful performances and plenty of excitement and thrills. And to top it off it wasn’t “too British” at all.
The story is clearly and cleverly told through three time periods — in 1951, when police start probing into Turing’s life after an alleged break-in at his house; in the early 1940s, when Turing is hired by the British government to crack the Enigma code used by Nazis to encrypt their messages; and during Turing’s school years, when we learn how his genius is also his curse. I was really impressed by how each time period served a distinct purpose, both in terms of plot and characterisation, and how everything would come together for viewers in the end like solving a giant puzzle, much like how Turing cracks the code in the film.
I had fears that the movie would be flat despite its premise because, let’s face it, watching people sit around trying to crack a code on screen could be kinda boring. This was one of the fatal flaws of one of Cumberbatch’s other “true story” films, 2013’s The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch was great as Julian Assange, but none of the films’ digital wizardry could make typing on keyboards and online chats feel exciting.
The masterful script by Graham Moore and the crafty delivery by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum avoid such pitfalls by explaining just enough for audiences to understand the task at hand but without losing them through over-complicating things. They fill the movie with constant sources of tension, from Turing’s tenuous relationships with his colleagues and his superiors in the British government to the moral quandaries of war and hiding his deep dark secret. There’s even a Russian spy in there to keep things interesting, and it also helps that there is actually a big physical machine with gears and the whole shebang that churns through the code combinations as we wait with eager anticipation.
Cumberbatch deserves the acclaim for his portrayal of Turing, and I would not be at all upset if he takes home the Best Actor gong next month. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s performance, The Imitation Game is as much a biographical character study of Turing as it is a film about breaking a Nazi code. Not very many actors could have done what he did, and that’s to make audiences not just sympathise with the tragic character, but root for an arrogant, socially inept loner who challenged the Enigma code more for ego than to save lives. And yet Cumberbatch manages to win us over very early on with his charm and witty delivery.
Kiera Knightley, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nod as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke, is also very good, as is the rest of a quality ensemble cast featuring the likes of Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance.
I can’t think of anything negative to say about this movie. Award bait or not, The Imitation Game is an instant classic that tells an important story about a forgotten hero but doesn’t forget to educate us, excite us and captivate us along the way. Hands down one of the best movies of 2014.
I had been importing my short Flixter entries for all my movie reviews up to now, but I thought if any movie deserved a full review, it would be Watchmen, possibly the most anticipated movie of the year for many (unless Harry Potter 6 or Transformers 2 is more your thing).
Disclaimer: I will preface this review with two comments: (1) I am going to stick to my convention of not revealing much about the plot or what happens in the movie; (2) I have not read the Watchmen graphic novel yet (thought it might ruin the movie experience if I read it beforehand).
Director: Zack Snyder
Main cast: Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II), Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre I)
Rating: USA: R, UK: 18, Australia: MA
Running time: 163 minutes
4 out of 5 stars
Watchmen is likely to be one of the most unusual films you will ever see. It’s about superheroes, but it’s not your typical superhero movie. Most of the superheroes don’t display any obvious supernatural abilities (which really just makes them people who like to fight crime and have costume fetishes). It’s often difficult to discern who is good or evil, right or wrong. Probably all of the main characters exhibit some form of mental disorder at varying levels of seriousness. In a sense, they are the anti-superheroes.
As I said, I don’t like to reveal the plot for those that don’t want to know about it (but I assume most people who go to see it have a rough idea). All I will say is that the story takes place in an alternate historical version of 1985, during the peak of the US/USSR Cold War. This becomes clear in the opening sequences.
However, to some extent, it doesn’t really matter what the plot is about, because at its heart, Watchmen is a character movie. The story is told in non-linear form, jumping from character to character and revealing their back stories through flashbacks. There is a central line in the plot, a mystery waiting to be solved, but the focus is firmly on the characters – who they are, how they became the way they are, their personal struggles, their fears, desires, motivations and ambitions. At the same time, there is this constant undercurrent about the nature of human beings, and in particular, their capacity (or lack thereof) for understanding and compassion.
The Watchmen graphic novel (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) first came out between 1986 and 1987, which explains the setting. For many years, it was regarded as unadaptable, and after seeing this film, I got a sense of why that may have been the popular opinion. It’s a shame that the movie was not made closer in time to the graphic novel, because the story reflects many of the contemporary anxieties of the American public of that period. Many of those anxieties are still relevant today, but they have evolved (in the wake of 9/11) and the impact is not quite the same as it would have been.
Directing and Screenplay
Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter (who wrote the original script) and Alex Tse (who kept the best elements but amended much of it) should be commended on bringing Watchmen to life at last. As I haven’t read the graphic novel, I cannot comment on how good the adaptation was, but as a standalone film, it was very good, though not great. The difficulty may lie with the running length – at 163 minutes, it is very long for a superhero movie (though not as extraordinary as it would have been a few years ago) – but at the same time, you get a strange feeling that there was much more of this bizarre world yet to be explored. Perhaps the director’s cut, which is supposedly 191 minutes (and coming out with the DVD), will be a more complete picture for those that want to see more of it. For some, I imagine 163 minutes is already too much.
The importance of the acting in a film like this cannot be understated. For the most part, the actors in the lead roles delivered believable performances that traversed a plethora of emotions. The clear standout would undoubtedly be Jackie Earle Haley as the freakish yet intriguing Rorschach, the best character by far. You’re already impressed with him when he wears a mask that obscures his entire face. You then become even more amazed when he takes off the mask. Truly brilliant.
Not far behind is Patrick Wilson (Haley’s co-star in the magnificent Little Children), an extremely underrated and underappreciated actor who plays Nite Owl II, a slightly overweight and awkward social misfit.
If there is a weak link, it would have to be Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias. While he may fit the bill physically (tall, lean and traditionally handsome), he doesn’t quite exude the charm and presence needed from the character. Not to take anything away from Goode’s performance because it was adequate, but if you have to pick on someone it’s him.
Violence, Sex and Special Effects
Given the classification ratings for Watchmen, it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of incredibly bloody and gruesome violence (as well as ‘normal’ violence), a bit of sex and nudity (both real and assisted by special effects) and some coarse language (though not as much as I expected). I’m glad they made this film for adults rather than worry about the classification and go for a toned down version that simply wouldn’t have worked.
The fight scenes were superbly choreographed – smooth, crisp and whole, thankfully avoiding the rapid cut scenes that have plagued action films of late. And from the guy who directed 300, I would have expected nothing less. On the other hand, Snyder didn’t shy away from some of the more frightening scenes either, displaying the pain, gore and blood in all its glory.
As for the special effects – they were good, but certainly not groundbreaking. They did a fairly decent job with Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan, but there were times when you could easily spot things that were completely computer generated (not that you would expect them to build the real thing).
On the whole, Watchmen was very very good – but it fell considerably short of the masterpiece some it expected to be. It may seem unfair, but you cannot NOT compare the film to its source material (or at least its reputation if you haven’t read it), which is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time.
There were some absolutely brilliant sequences littered throughout this movie, but it was more scattered than consistent. Those expecting an all-out action flick might be disappointed because there are quite a few ‘dull’ character development moments in between. I assume there will probably be 4 broad classes of reactions to Watchmen: (1) loved the graphic novel and therefore loved the movie; (2) loved the graphic novel but felt the film did not do it justice; (3) haven’t read the graphic novel and now want to after seeing the film; (4) thought it was weird and stupid and didn’t get it.