Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Oscar Game Theory

Oscar nominations will announced Thursday, January 15. Here’s a quick look at two of the films sure to be in the running:

The Imitation Game (2014) ✭✭✭✭ tells the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who cracked the complex message coding system used by Germany in WWII, and was later prosecuted for homosexuality. Directed by Norway's Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the film is very well done, with high levels of craft in every aspect of its production. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing, and his performance is sure to get an Oscar nom.

The Imitation Game is quite the visual feast, with Maria Djurkovic’s impeccable production design illuminated by DP Oscar Faura’s soft, yet moody, sources. While Cumberbatch rightly dominates the proceedings, the film also features yet another fine performance by the great Charles Dance, as a stiff-upper-lip Army officer at a loss as to how to deal with Turing’s unconventional methods and brooding genius.

Despite its stately, textbook perfection - or perhaps because of it - The Imitation Game is a film that keeps viewers at arm’s length. It’s difficult to feel a true emotional connection to the characters and it seemed somewhat like an episode of Downton Abbey minus the lords and ladies and the estate overrun by commoners of dodgy provenance. And did it really take two years for the brightest minds in Britain to realize every German message ended with "Heil Hitler"? At any rate, The Imitation Game is certainly worth seeing, but I wouldn't drop everything and rush out to the theater. It will play just fine on the home screen.

On a similar track is The Theory of Everything (2014) ✭✭✭✭, a feel bad then feel good film that should please your entire entourage. Here we have the extraordinary story of world renown physicist and best selling author Stephen Hawking, who rose to prominence despite being diagnosed with ALS while a graduate student at Oxford in the 1960s.

Based on the memoirs of Hawking’s first wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), the story more closely resembles a grand romance than a biopic, as Jane devotes herself to the care of her beloved - and increasingly incapacitated - genius and their three children. The Theory of Everything is intelligently written and well paced, with the excellent design and period details one expects from top notch British productions. James Marsh’s direction is dialed in perfectly, giving even the grim moments a life-affirming bounce.

Most amazing of all is the work of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, who never fails to capture the warmth and sly, impish wit that resides deep within Hawking’s tragically contorted frame. Redmayne has received Golden Globe and SAG noms for this performance, and I suspect the Oscars will follow suit. As an interpretation of a disabled character, it ranks right along side Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989).

As a way to spend two hours, I would give a slight advantage to Theory over Imitation but the films are both of such superb quality you really can’t go wrong with either choice. In fact, these movies are so similar that in a way they seem to cancel each other out. That’s not an accident, for as 2010’s The King’s Speech proved conclusively, high gloss, high execution - and highly inoffensive - British biopics can be a gilded road to Oscar glory.

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