Review: Marshland (La isla mínima)

In a now hopefully less-rare cinematic outing, we decided to go see Marshland [Spanish: La isla mínima] based on the three reviews posted on Rotten Tomatoes. Encouraged by its comparison to (presumably season one) of True Detective, I expected a hollow, aching murder-mystery involving female victms and two conflicted male detectives.

Marshland - aerial opening

I was not disappointed. Continue reading “Review: Marshland (La isla mínima)”

Fact & Fiction: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Penthouse cinema

There’s a wonderful cinema & cafe called The Penthouse in the Brooklyn suburb of Wellington. It’s small, charming, sells delicious treats, has a good selection of films, and sells movie tickets for $10 every Tuesday — a price that seems, well, normal to us! We’ve partaken of their Tuesday special not once, not twice, but three times, seeing Interstellar (meh), Love is Strange (lovely), and The Imitation Game, respectively.

The Imitation Game - computer

As you might have heard, The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and, to a lesser extent, Keira Knightly and a couple of guys from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. It really is Cumberbatch’s show, but not in the obnoxious way that Oscar- and Golden Globe-attracting lead roles tend to be (see: Erin Brockovich, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Milk, Blue Jasmine, Lincoln, The Queen, etc., etc.). It could have easily become overwrought, but the film, and Cumberbatch, is thankfully restrained enough to prevent that from happening.

Alan Turing, whom Cumberbatch portrays, is widely considered the father of computer science. A mathematics prodigy, with a genius for cryptology, Turing had an illustrious academic career at Cambridge, Princeton, and The National Physical Laboratory before he began working for the British government at the Government Code & Cypher School during WWII. There, he and a team of cryptanalysts were tasked with breaking the Enigma Code, which the German army used to encipher all of its communications. Old-fashioned decoding methods proved insufficient to the challenge, and Turing, recognizing that it was impossible for humans to physically solve Enigma themselves, began to construct a machine that could break the Enigma code. Eventually, of course, the brilliant mathematician found success.

The Imitation Game - struggle

The movie depicts these developments, but many embellishments are added for the purpose of dramatization. Having little knowledge of Turing’s personal life, it’s difficult for me to say which elements were exaggerated, and which were consistent with Alan Turing: The Enigma, the biography on which the film was based (though, of course, the biography could have been embellished as well). For example, while it is true that Turing had a friendly/romantic(?) relationship with fellow pupil Christopher Morcom while attending the Sherborne School, at the time of Christopher’s death from bovine tuberculosis, Turing was 18, not ten or twelve as depicted in the film. This changes the nature, and significance, of the relationship substantially. After discovering this discrepancy from a quick glance at Wikipedia, I began to question many of the film’s plot developments. Was Turing bullied mercilessly at school? Were his social skills so underdeveloped that he presented as autistic? Did he really discover a Soviet spy working alongside the other cryptanalysts at the Government Code & Cypher School? Was he widely hated by his coworkers, and by his immediate superior, and constantly threatened with dismissal if his codebreaking machine didn’t work?

The Imitation Game - post hormonal injections

The most common criticism I’ve seen of the film, though, is not its myriad questionable historical assumptions, but the depiction of Turing’s homosexuality. Many have complained that too little attention was given to the challenges Turing faced, and that the British government wasn’t condemned strongly enough for charging Turing with indecency (i.e., homosexuality) in 1952, mandating that he undergo hormonal “treatment,” and revoking his security clearance — culminating in Turing’s alleged suicide the following year.  The film ends, though, immediately after the indecency charge and subsequent estrogen injections, with a reeling and miserable Alan Turing desperate to hold onto the shreds of his former life. The epilogue describes Turing’s suicide, explicitly indicts the British government, and further magnifies the egregiousness of the offense by reminding the audience, yet again, of the millions of lives Turing saved during WWII by cracking the Enigma Code. It’s not as though Turing’s sexuality is disguised until the last moment, either. Throughout the film, Turing’s homosexuality figures prominently, affecting his relationship with his fiancee, his coworkers at the Government Code & Cypher School, and his ill-fated school friend. Overall, I felt that the film did a fairly good job balancing Turing’s mathematical genius with his forcibly repressed sexuality, the two things for which he is remembered most. To focus too heavily on either aspect would have been a discredit to Turing himself, as it is certainly possible for someone to simultaneously be a mathematical pioneer and an unwitting sexual martyr.

The Imitation Game - as close as the war gets

Though the film relies, at times, on predictability to get its messages across; although Keira Knightly’s acting is much better in the first half of the film than the second; and despite the borderline nauseating refrain “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine,” The Imitation Game is still, on the whole, a quality film. It’s refreshing to see a movie about WWII in which WWII is barely featured — in fact, apart from a few clips of obligate historical footage and a handful of generic battle sequences, the realities of the battlefield, as it were, are surprisingly absent from the film.  In a way, I wish they had been entirely absent, as the inclusion of the typical WWII footage seemed somewhat forced. But although those exclusions might have created a more cohesive film, I can imagine that it would call the motivations of its protagonist into question — which would be uncomfortable, to say the least.

The Imitation Game - Cumberbatch

The movie’s primary strength, however, is indubitably the fine performance that Benedict Cumberbatch delivers. He inhabits a different and unusual style of acting; that is to say, it seems as though he isn’t acting at all. While most screen actors tend to exaggerate their voices, movements, and facial expressions so as to better convey emotion to the camera, Cumberbatch seems to talk naturally, move naturally. Perhaps he is one of the first examples of a new style of acting, a style that takes into account the increased resolution, improved lighting, and ever-increasing camera sophistication that produces the hyperreal cinematic experience we as audiences have come to expect. Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch in more movies in the future.

Overall, though The Imitation Game is not a fraction as groundbreaking as the man who inspired it, it’s a decent film, with a clear and strong message, and I enjoyed it very much. Compared to other biopics, it veers toward the safer side; its peers are The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything, not Capote or Lawrence of Arabia. If anything, it’s served as another catalyst for Benedict Cumberbatch’s meteoric career, and there are far worse actors, and worse movies, to receive the kind of attention that The Imitation Game has.

Overall grade: B

Photo credits: Brooklyn Penthouse Cinema copyright P J Armitage. Film stills copyright Jack English/Blackbear Pictures. 

My 2015 Blind Spot Films

Every time I go to the theater, or select a movie from my ever-growing “to watch” list, I am aware that there are 10 other equally, if not more, important films that I could be watching instead. Eventually, I suppose, I’ll get around to most of them. But there are some movies — usually highly-regarded seminal classics — that I’ve never taken the time to watch, even though I really, really ought to as someone who professes an even slightly serious interest in film.

And thus my rare participation in a blog meme/thread/challenge. Initiated by James McNally of Toronto Screen Shots & Ryan McNeil of The Matinee, (and brought to my attention by the lovely Anna of Film Grimoire), the Blind Spot challenge is an attempt by nascent cinephiles to correct glaring absences in their viewing histories. Or at least, that’s my interpretation of it.

The concept is basic: Compile a list of 12 films, one for each month of the year. I tried to pick from a range of decades, directors, and settings, though I did include a wild card or two. Before the end of each month, I’ll watch one film from the list and review it here on Literary Vittles. I’ve fallen into a bad habit of watching films without reviewing them (see: Erin Brockovich, Love is Strange, Interstellar, The Babadook, etc.), which I end up regretting. Hopefully this challenge will make me more accountable as a viewer and re-viewer!

the battle of algiers 2

The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)

The Piano

The Piano (1993, dir. Jane Campion)

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, dir. Lynne Ramsay)

North by Northwest

North by Northwest (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

M 1931

M (1931, dir. Fritz Lang)


Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars von Trier)

Run Lola Run

Run Lola Run (1998, dir. Tom Tykwer)

Come and see

Come and See (1985, dir. Elem Klimov)

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005, dir. Michael Gondry)

The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)


At Berkeley (2013, dir. Frederick Wiseman)

Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera (1929, dir. Dziga Vertov)

Which classic films have you been meaning to watch for a long, long time?

‘Boy’: A Beloved New Zealand movie

Practically everyone we’ve talked to in New Zealand has insisted that we watch the movie Boy as soon as possible. It seems to be universally beloved, and after we finally got the chance to see it a couple of nights ago, it’s not hard to understand why.

Boy movie poster

Boy is narrated by an 11-year old Maori kid named Alamein who goes by the nickname “Boy.” The year is 1984; the location, the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island. Boy idolizes Michael Jackson and has a crush on a girl named Chardonnay at school. What he wishes for most, though, is for his absentee father, also named Alamein, to come back into his life. Boy gets his wish, but things turn out to be more complicated than he imagined.

Taika Waititi, 'Boy'

Alamein, Boy’s father, is a bit of a wildcard. He’s delusional about his own importance and grandeur, and casts himself as the fearless leader of his own gang, The Crazy Horses. Unfortunately, his sometimes sweet demeanor is overshadowed by a quick temper and fondness for marijuana. He gets along well with Boy at first — so desperate is Boy to have a father figure in his life — but is somewhat cruel to his younger son, Rocky.

Boy - kids

Boy is essentially a portrait of life in a small Maori town in New Zealand. Countless issues are dealt with in the film, from poverty to pop culture and death to daydreaming. A strong sense of humor runs through the movie, even in some of its most dramatic scenes — Boy often imagines that his father defeats his foes with sweet Michael Jackson dance moves. The kids in the town are always vying for ice lollies at the local superette, and parental figures are, for the most part, absent. It is, to say the least, a self-aware illustration of many of the issues that plague the socioeconomically disadvantaged Pacific Islander population in New Zealand.

Directed by Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker and actor (who also plays Boy’s father to magnificent comedic effect), Boy is most notable for its incredible genuineness. It lacks the unwelcome pretension of Richard Linklater’s similarly named Boyhood, which is also intended to be an archetypal portrait of life growing up in the United States. Where Boyhood falls flat, Boy excels; the former is accurate, yes, but also overdone and overblown, a deliberately-constructed epic. Boy, meanwhile, doesn’t attempt to exaggerate its own importance; it’s much shorter, but ultimately sweeter and more meaningful, and doesn’t leave you with a hollow feeling.

Boy - Shogun

Boy is only the second film from Taika Waititi, though you can also catch him as an effeminate vampire in the near-perfect satire What We Do in the Shadows. New Zealand may not produce a large volume of films, as least not compared to powerhouses like the United States, but when they do, they are often of top quality (Whale Rider, Heavenly Creatures, LOTR trilogy, etc.). Boy is that rare mixture of charm, humor, sweetness, and gravity wrapped together with impeccable timing and intersecting issues. I’ve now joined in the clarion call: You have to see it.

Overall grade: A