The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). One of the great frustrations of the Oscar season was watching Selma and, to a lesser degree, American Sniper battered by criticism over supposedly terrible transgressions in their depiction of historical record while The Imitation Game, the “true life” story receiving the phoniest treatment among the Oscar contenders, sailed along unperturbed. The story of Alan Turing’s secret, indispensable contributions to the Allied effort in World War II is fully deserving of big-screen veneration, just as his own government’s cruel retribution against him a decade later because his “lifestyle” was considered illegal is the stuff of sad high drama. Sadly, the film takes those complications and buffers them down to tidy act breaks and rote characterizations. Every storytelling beat of this film is as predictable as it is painfully contrived, ringing of falseness throughout. Benedict Cumberbatch does his level-best as Turing, but Graham Moore’s Academy Award-winning screenplay gives him unconnected mannerisms and emotional notes to play instead of a character. Tyldum’s direction is paradoxically both perfunctory and off-puttingly self-enamored.
Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014). Following a decade or more of what was can be charitably called artistic flailing, Burton reunites with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the team behind what remains the director’s finest film by a large margin, Ed Wood. The film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the painter behind the avalanche of saucer-goggled urchins that became a sensation in the nineteen-sixties. Her huckster husband initially took credit, a situation that grew more intolerable as the marriage soured. Eventually, she had to fight in court to claim her kitschy legacy. Burton never finds the right tone for the film, letting it veer from the stylized era admiration that helped distinguish Ed Wood to surprisingly bland domestic drama. Adams is similarly uncommonly stranded. She never seems to figure out who Margaret is, much less how to portray her. And Christoph Waltz, as Walter Keane, continues to suggest that he may not have much available to him outside of the Quentin Tarantino films where he prospers. He plays Walter with an ugly unctuousness that should suit the character but somehow doesn’t. Most of the time Waltz is onscreen, the already wobbly film teeters into near-disaster.
St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, 2014). Bill Murray plays a scraggly misanthrope named Vincent who accedes to looking after his new neighbor’s socially maladjusted son (Jaeden Lieberher) in exchange for dribbles of cash that he desperately needs as he’s mired in dangerous debt. There’s little mystery as to where the plot is going in this one, making presentation points especially key. Melfi, who also wrote the screenplay, does decently well but finally can’t outrace his story’s abundance of cliches. The movie would be unthinkably trite without the presence of Murray, who’s never been afraid of pushing the limits of his likability. While keeping Vincent a finely-calibrated comic creation, Murray also shows the real ugliness percolating up from his soul and simultaneously allows brief glimpses at the fragility inside necessary to make the last act work. It still may not be a great film, but it could have been so much worse without St. Bill.
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Limon, 2014). Until it collapses into nonsensical mayhem towards the end, Edge of Tomorrow is wildly clever, vividly engaging, and a totally unexpected winning argument for the continued validity of big, bold blockbusters. In a future that finds the Earth at war against alien invaders, a military public relations flack (Tom Cruise) finds himself pressed into battlefield service, very much against his will. In short order, he becomes infested from contact with one of the outer space baddies and finds that he’s immediately resurrected every time he dies, placed back at a set, earlier point on his timeline to enact the same progression over again, like a video game character spirited back to the beginning of his quest. It’s probably not accurate to say Cruise gives a strong performance, but he’s ideally cast, with the role smartly exploiting his slightly curdled movie star charm and his untethered manic energy. Especially across the first half of the film, when he’s continually trying to discern the parameters of this bizarre situation, Cruise prospers by almost sending up his well-worn persona. Emily Blunt offers a nice counter-balance of steely calm as the star soldier who partners up with Cruise’s replicating man, helping him figure out how to make it past each new deadly impasse. Limon struggles a little bit with the more chaotic action, but he gets the exuberant tone of the film just right.
Grudge Match (Peter Segal, 2013). A film that is the pure definition of insignificant, Grudge Match is most notable as just one more indignity in the later career years of Robert De Niro. The taste is a little more bitter this time around because he’s blithely exploiting his greatest screen performance in the process. It’s unclear why anyone thought audiences would be desperately excited about a nostalgic quasi-crossover between Rocky and Raging Bull, the boxing film that won Best Picture and the one that actually deserved to do so, but here it is, mixed up with a little grizzled feuding imported from Grumpy Old Men. Ultimately, it’s more pedestrian than offensive, like an abomination that can’t be bothered to muster up the energy to be truly stupid and artistically tragic. Segal directs the film with precisely the sort of point-and-shoot plainness and overreliance on unfunny ad libs (this might be a good place to note that Kevin Hart has a sizable supporting role) one would expect from a guy who cemented his place in the Hollywood pecking order by serving as one of Adam Sandler’s go-to filmmakers.