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The Oscars: Why Birdman’s More Deserving Than Imitation Game but Cumberbatch Might Just Edge Out Keaton

Grade: A

The Imitation Game
Grade: B

The Imitation Game, like many good films, follows the filmic formula created by the slew of its predecessors. Take your ingredients—a clean script, well-written dialogue and ripe actors—toss them in the bowl with a handful of significant history, some heart, and a dash of humor and let your concoction stew. If you’re lucky, if this combination is cooked just perfectly, the blend of star-power and story-importance just right, your film will end up an Oscar contender.

Only, there’s a big difference between an Oscar-contender and an Oscar-winner, and The Imitation Game will not win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It will not. Iñárritu’s Birdman or Linklater’s Boyhood can and will claim the golden statue on February 22nd.

Or at least they should.

the-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-2What it comes down to is longevity. Award shows, especially ones as well-regarded as the Academy Awards, owe it to film history to choose the films that will stand the test of time. Will we remember the film in five years? Will we recall the grin on our face and the thoughts racing through our head as we watched it? Will we still be talking about it, comparing it to other films, deeming it the model to which others can aspire to? We’d better. That’s what I want in my Best Picture winner and that’s precisely why The Imitation Game won’t win, but Birdman very well might.

The Imitation Game tells the untold story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)—master code breaker, mathematical genius and closeted homosexual during World War II tasked with the challenge of cracking Germany’s unbreakable code and helping the Allies win the war. Turing’s biggest obstacle is not Hitler, but other people’s ignorance, not only due to their inferior mental capacities, but also their inability to appreciate his contributions to the war effort while being blinded by the perceived-indecency of his illegal homosexuality.

Is The Imitation Game an important story? Yes. Does it deserve its telling? Of course. Sometimes, that is good enough. As a person who values stories, ones on the screen or otherwise, I appreciate moments that prove the necessity of storytelling and The Imitation Game is, arguably, a more necessary story than Birdman. The Imitation Game has the power to change people’s perspectives, make them approach history, diversity and humanity in a new way and that accomplishment is powerful. But Best Picture winners can’t simply be important. We’re not awarding the best “subject” or the best “topic” the golden statue. The award must also be about craft. The winner must push the boundaries. It must be a game-changer.

The Imitation Game did not twist the filmic-formula enough. It followed the rules. Birdman, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of style, morphed the conventions of storytelling, and blurred the lines between truth and fiction in ways that engage its viewers beyond simply causing basic feelings of joy and anguish. Birdman follows Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) Hollywood comeback as he puts everything he has into a failing Broadway play to prove to himself, and the world, that he’s still relevant and not just the man in the bird costume from the blockbuster superhero flicks of his past. Shot in a way to look like one continuous take, peeking in on its cast of characters, sneaking up on them in their natural habitat, the camera doesn’t so much as highlight the action as it does chase it down. The result is interactive, involving the film’s viewers, begging them to analyze, urging them to change their mind, all the while playing with form in ways that support the film’s complexities. No two viewings will yield the same analysis. No two screenings will cause the viewer to reach the same conclusion at its completion. Birdman is art in the truest form, providing just enough to point you in a direction, but trusting you to fill in the blanks however you see fit.

Birdman doesn’t say too much. It doesn’t scream its meaning at you. It asks you to decipher for yourself. Its themes are vast and complex—truth versus reality, art versus commercialism, ego versus craft and at its center, the universal quest for validation. And what we come to see again and again and again, is that any attempts at validation don’t matter. Fame is not based on skill, or credence, or hard work, but entirely on chance. Riggan’s success and failure is not his own—it’s a result of critics, viral videos, and the shenanigans of his co-stars—it has nothing to do with talent. In an endless attempt to find truth, real truth, the curtain is simply raised on more and more illusion. What is real in show business? What is real in life? We’re all playing a role. The actors are simply playing a role of playing a role. We pretend to be chasing reality, but really we’re all just basking in illusion. “Truth is always interesting,” Mike (Edward Norton) tells Sam (Emma Stone) in one of their many games of Truth or Dare, but the film would say otherwise. Truth is only interesting because it’s unobtainable. We’re all meandering and chasing it down in endless loops and knots, just like Iñárritu’s camera, just like the maddening film industry, just like Riggan’s life. And for what? The struggle for validation never goes away. “You don’t matter,” Sam tells her father. No one does. The struggle is the only thing that does, it’s the only place where our story is truly authentic. Fame and recognition is a monster we can’t predict, a puzzle even Turing couldn’t solve.

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2010 Flashback:: Stone’s a Star – A Review of "Easy A"

Grade: B+

Sixteen Candles, Clueless, and Mean Girls came before Easy A with witty dialogue, smart characters, and cynical sarcasm faithful to the high school experience. And where Molly Ringwald, Alicia Silverstone, and Lindsay Lohan punctuated each film with the face of a star in the making, Emma Stone (when the film premiered in 2010) did the same for Easy A. Without her, the film would fall flat. Her impeccable comic timing, unusual good-looks, and the acting chops that would intimidate any wannabe Hollywood starlet set her apart. Plus, she has the un-teachable ability to contort her bambi-eyes and animated lips into an endless number of telling facial expressions which only add to her comic prowess. But what makes her a perfect fit for this film is the way that she makes her character’s intelligence believable. She plays Olive, a teenager in the 21st century who is well read in classic literature, an avid John Hughes fan, and far more self Easy-A-All-Eyes-on-Me-16-9-10-kcaware than few high schoolers ever are, but the way she makes lines that no sixteen-year-old would actually utter come off as if she came from the womb sputtering one-liners and describing things as “incorrigible” makes the audience laugh with her rather than shake their heads at the absurdity of what they’re watching. Emma Stone is a star, and if the audience didn’t already know that from her past work in Zombieland and Superbad, and her recent-work in The Help, they’ll know soon.

Olive is a wise beyond her years, high school girl who isn’t quite a social outcast but would appreciate a little more recognition from her peers. She spends weekends in her room bonding with her dog while belting out the lyrics to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” which she both calls the “worst song ever” and makes her ringtone. To get out of a camping trip with her best friend Rhiannon’s (Aly Michalka) hippy parents, she lies that she has a date with a college freshman and when Rhiannon insinuates that Olive came away from the date deflowered, Olive goes along with the lie. Faster than mono spreads in a game of spin the bottle, the entire school is quickly aware of Olive’s promiscuity. At first she appreciates the newfound attention and finds the farce a bit comical, but things get complicated when she helps her bullied gay friend strengthen his manly reputation by agreeing to let him tell the school that she had sex with him. What results is a complicated social web of rumors and lies that are meant to reference Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter—which Olive is reading in her English class—from the ultra-religious “Jesus Freak” attackers, to the scarlet “A” she sews onto her clothes.

Director Will Gluck’s Easy A is a good film. Or, at least the first half is. At a time when teen comedies are often full of stereotypes, excessive parties, sex, and rampant clichés, Easy A is refreshing. The screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, has a strong concept, one that allows for insightful comments onemma-stone-easy-a-pic high school girls’ struggle with their sexuality and the double-standards they face, and one that isn’t strictly about high school cliques or climbing from the shadows up the social ladder. It talks about sex without flaunting it or preaching against it, and the movie walks a blurry line between being strictly teen-entertainment and being controversy. Interestingly, the film straddles this line without ever falling into either category. Still, the movie is flawed, its major problem being that it aims for too much. Like crushing a pill and hiding it in ice cream, the script relies on Olive’s webcast narration to force the audience to swallow the coincidences it depends on. By having Olive acknowledge the absurdity of reading a book in class that of course mirrors her life, the audience can accept it. In the same way, Olive expresses her love for John Hughes movies and other cheesy romantic comedies of the past so that when a boy holds speakers outside her bedroom window blasting 80s pop music à la “Say Anything,” it’s justified. Olive’s narration is a crutch and a way to masquerade as a movie that’s defying romantic-comedy conventions when it’s really just clearing the path for them. There is nothing wrong with the conventions, the same conventions made John Hughes’ career, but the fact that the film parades around as if it’s either defying them or playing homage to the classics if off-putting because it does neither.

About halfway through the film, the plot gets too complicated. Without giving away the twist, I’ll just say they lost me at Chlamydia and those who’ve seen it will understand what I mean. The twists are too extreme, are layered too heavily to be taken as plausible and seem to be conflict for conflict’s sake. But, just before the ending, Gluck and Royal—with the help of the goofily sweet and charming Todd (Penn Badgley) who wears the laid-back, boy-next-door shoes perfectly—reel you back in. Mostly this is due to the lack of romance, or at least it is a somewhat realistic romance. Attraction isn’t enveloped in corny lines, longing stares, and grand declarations of love. The romance in the movie is sweet, simple, and it takes the back burner to the rest of the story which makes it plausible. The plot is a roller coaster, not necessarily in a good way, but not entirely bad either. It falls apart in sections, reels you back in, and leaves you crimped from the twisting.

One of the film’s strong points, though, is its casting of Olive’s unconventional but completely endearing parents. Played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, their characters provide unique humor and warmth to the movie, making you feel like if given the opportunity you would gladly wish to be adopted into the family. In one hilarious scene they chant “tee, teee, tee” over and over as they try to guess what “t”-word Olive received detention for saying before finally giving up and demanding, “Spell it with your peas!”

Emma Stone is the real star, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson provide an excellent backdrop for her impeccable comic delivery. The laughs throughout are consistent (although many of them involve repeating a phrase or a word over and over to the point of irritation like “Olive has a boy in her room” and something about Rhiannon’s boobs) and despite the ambitious plot that gets tangled in conflict, the knots untie with little damage. The movie is smart, the acting is solid, and the film has a message which, for a teen comedy, is pretty good. Easy A isn’t perfect, but it’s an entertaining and nostalgic jaunt back to high school, with an outstanding cast and many quotable one-liners that will take fans a few views to master but they will master nonetheless.