‘Wild’s’ one big leap for womankind

When “Wild” begins, we’re greeted by Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) scream from the top of a mountain. She has a prominent bruise on one of her legs and is missing one of her toenails, but those aren’t the only things that mars her. Her journey up that mountain was a sort of personal atonement — the reconciliation she needed in order to absolve herself.

That’s the story Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (of the “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) creates with his 115-minute film, “Wild.” Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film (whose script is penned by author Nick Hornby) is a sort of docu-drama. Witherspoon plays Strayed, a likable girl setting on a personal quest for redemption.

Along the way, Mother Nature beats her up. She loses toenails, boots and a string of condoms as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by her lonesome. Meanwhile, she’s forced to confront some of harshest truths about her past. Among them: grieving for her mother’s (Laura Dern) death.

“Wild” is a long film. For almost two hours, we’re largely left alone with Reese Witherspoon as a companion. She’s personable and unassuming, but like her, we feel the repetitiveness of the hike. Each minute is a chore. The backpack is heavy on our backs. The hot desert sun is burning our skin. The taste of cold mush is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, we’re running out of water.

It’s as if Vallée has a running tally on the screen: Strayed vs. Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is winning by a longshot. Day one: Strayed carries a backpack more than half her size. Day two: she discovers that she bought the wrong fuel for the stove she packed. Day 30: she encounters snow.

Of course, those aren’t the only roadblocks on the road less traveled. There are multiple times when we think Strayed will either be raped or injured. She looks honest and vulnerable. A man tells her to wait in his van.

Meanwhile, Witherspoon mutters a litany of swear words with each step. “Remember, you can quit at any time,” she reminds herself.

She doesn’t. Strayed’s a survivor, persevering beyond stereotypes. Her walk is symbolic and empowering — as if one small step is one big leap for womankind.

“Wild” was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed memoir. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress in the 87th Academy Awards and the 72nd annual Golden Globe Awards for her performance in the film. 

Manipulating ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’

Director Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” begins much like Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s 2004 picture, “The Butterfly Effect.” Its heroine/hero is running from the past.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a lot to be running from. Memories of her time in both the 74th annual Hunger Games and the third Quarter Quell. Death threats from Panem’s oppresive tyrant, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Stings from tracker jackers and screams from jabberjays. Her post-traumatic stress keeps her up at night.

Still, she claws desperately at a future like a cat chasing after a laser light. She can see the ray of hope in her grasp, but it’s as empty as a hologram.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” — based on the bestselling young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins — picks up where “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” left off. Katniss and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) are rescued by a group of rebels led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her second-in-command, Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As the film opens, it appears as if Katniss and Finnick have traded one prison for another. They are the rebels’ weapons — lured into a propaganda scheme to stir rebellion throughout the districts. Their loved ones, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutchinson) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), are separated from them — residing in the clutches of the Capitol.

“I wish they were dead,” Finnick soberly tells Katniss. “I wish they were all dead and we were too.”

This sets the tone for director Lawrence’s grim picture. Katniss’ home resembles the aftermath of an earthquake — a mountain of skeletons and debris. Meanwhile, we’re privy to messages from the Capitol: public beheadings throughout the land. Bombings of sick and injured at hospitals. It’s as unsettling as watching a child execute two adult soldiers in broad daylight.

But war forgives extreme actions. While the rebels may be fighting a cruel and unjust dictator, they are like ISIS — hijacking the public channels of communication. Instead of Twitter and YouTube, these rebels breed discontent via outdated TV airwaves. Katniss is seen shooting flaming arrows at Capitol planes. “If we burn, you burn with us,” she says. This precedes a scene where a group of rebels lure a group of Capitol police into the woods in order to bomb them.

Like any war, though, history’s written by its victors.

The Hunger Games’ victors move us. Lawrence with her “performance” as Katniss, the “girl on fire” in the rebels’ propaganda films and Claflin as the sexy Finnick Odair, keeper of Capitol secrets. They’re talented actors, but you have a feeling that they’re being pulled on a leash.

This becomes apparent when Katniss is rehearsing her first propaganda, repeating words the rebels have scripted for her. Katniss is behind a glass, much like she was when she was trying to impress Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) during the 74th Hunger Game. A committee consisting of Coin and Heavensbee watch and examine her words and costume. They discuss her, but they don’t really see the girl behind the glass. All they see is a symbol — a false figurehead that they can manipulate: Katniss Everdeen, the mockingjay.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part 1” is directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on Suzanne Collins’ book. 

Conducting ‘Whiplash’

When you think of the jazz greats, there’s Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker and Andrew Neiman. You probably haven’t heard of the latter, though, unless you’ve seen Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

In the 107-minute drama, Miles Teller stars at 19-year-old Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer attending the prestigious and cutthroat Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He could be one of the kids from “Fame.” His dream is to become a household jazz icon and to do so means earning the respect of Shaffer’s studio jazz band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher is not the encouraging chorus instructor in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee”; instead, Fletcher resembles the abrasive cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester or a male version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” He’s the type of virtuoso that you both love and despise; you secretly hate him while constantly seeking his approval. Meanwhile, Fletcher spews cruel, racial, homophobic and religious slurs at you. He sounds like a football coach rather than a conductor, punctuating his speeches with curse words. But he can also be deceptively sweet.

In one scene Fletcher is reassuring Neiman: “The key is to relax,” Fletcher says. “Don’t worry about the other guys. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” In the next scene, Fletcher humiliates Neiman in front of the band, hurling a chair at his head while enacting his favorite didactic story:

“Imagine if [Jo] Jones had just said: ‘Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job,'” Fletcher says. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.”

Simmons is absolutely captivating as Fletcher, abruptly changing his voice and moods like a finely tuned fiddle. One minute, he’s calm, melodic and inviting. The next, he’s loud, harsh and grating, instilling fear among his students. He dismissed his fourth chair trombone player, Metz (C.J. Vana), because the musician couldn’t answer if he was playing out of tune. He wasn’t, Fletcher later discloses, but that’s even worse.

Simmons and Teller jerk you back and forth from sympathy to disgust. Teller’s Neiman is driven, passionate and ambitious — literally drenching his drum sets with blood and sweat. But he can also be self-centered and high strung. At times, Neiman reminds you of Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network.”

When he prematurely breaks up with his love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), you expect her to slap him. His reasoning seems distorted and he drowns a guarantee for normalcy with a slim chance for greatness. Drumming becomes his obsession; Fletcher, his role model. But this relationship is an abusive one.

The antagonistic relationship between a mentor and his young protégé isn’t new. We’ve seen this in dozens of films from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Varsity Blues.” But director and screenwriter Chazelle (both literally and figuratively) drums up new momentum with the soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). Trumpets provide the sexy backdrop to young love while the breakneck double-time drumming provides the pulse in an adrenaline-driven frenzy. It’s uneven and all over the place —  just enough to give you whiplash.

Of course, the title of the film works on multiple levels. It’s the song that Neiman is learning to play when he joins Fletcher’s band. It’s also the visceral feeling you get when you watch some of the performances. (Chazelle’s even incorporates a car crash into his script, putting triple entendres to use.) It’s almost packaged too neatly, undermining the film’s playful and improvisational subject matter. That’s doesn’t mean this concert isn’t worth listening to.

Although “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s second feature-length film, he’s a master conductor — cuing exacting cuts and powerful performances. It’s predictable and the story ends much like it begins — with a coda to Fletcher and Neiman’s perfect duet.

“Whiplash” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. “Whiplash” was nominated in the 87th Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.  

From ‘Selma’ to Ferguson

Although the march from Selma to Washington that inspired the movie “Selma” occurred more than 50 years ago, Ava DuVernay’s Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film feels very modern. Early on in the film, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is petitioning President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office — asking him to expand voting rights for southern states.

King understood that voting was fundamental to change. There were murders and lynchings; the KKK blew up four girls in a Birmingham Baptist church. Everyone knew who the murderers were, but the terrorists were never punished. That’s because the scales of justice are weighted. “You can’t serve on a jury unless you can vote,” King tells Johnson. So white murderers were tried in white courts by white juries.

Oyelowo speaks like a Baptist preacher preaching the gospel of injustice. Scripted by Paul Webb and directed by DuVernay, Oyelowo’s speeches are very eloquent — full of metaphors and repetition. His words aren’t the ones King actually used — those words are copyrighted to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg’s pending MLK biopic — but they wash over us like poetry. In one scene, Oyelowo compares the black suffrage movement to trying to get a seat at any lunch table. Unfortunately, blacks and whites are given different opportunities and blacks can’t even read from the menu.

DuVernay slams us with imagery, appealing to our pathos. Edited by Spencer Averick, each bomb and gun shot is slowed down and personified. The four black girls from Birmingham look like broken porcelain dolls as debris flies everywhere. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is taken down by Selma police officers like a big black gorilla. Time freezes when Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot. These scenes are as violent and as controversial as when Hammond police smashed a car door window to tase the African-American passenger in the car. When we eventually watch the violent and historic showdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge, it feels as if a dam broke, and we can’t stop the waterworks as we cringe with each beating.

We know how this story ends. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.

But even as “Selma” presents us with a form of closure, we know that years later, the white police officers responsible for Oscar Grant, Travyon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths were also tried by courts. BART officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison; he got out in less than a year. George Zimmerman was acquitted for charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. Ferguson’s former police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted.

And we still march crying, “No justice, no peace.”

“Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. The film’s song “Glory” won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Selma” was also nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards. 

The je ne sais quoi of ‘Still Alice’

Early on in the film “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore is running. She’s not chasing after someone like she was in sci-fi thriller “The Forgotten.” She’s truly lost. And the monsters she’s running from are invisible — like the Silence from “Doctor Who.”

Moore plays Alice Howland, the type of woman you’d aspire to be. She’s poised and articulate. Intelligent and accomplished. And very, very loved. This is evident in the first scene of directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film, “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as the loving and successful Columbia University linguistics professor.

When we first meet her, Alice is surrounded by her impressive family. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a doctor at Columbia University. Her eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) graduated from law school and is an expecting mother-to-be. Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is going through medical school. Her youngest girl, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is pursuing a career in acting in Los Angeles.

Yet, if you’ve read Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel which the film’s based off of, you know how this story goes. Here’s a woman who has everything. Watch as she tragically loses it all.

Alice is running from something more far frightening than the aliens who kidnapped her kid. She’s running from Mother Nature, who gifted her with the inherited disease which also crippled her late father. At age 50, she’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer and she’s slowly losing her mind.

We watch Moore transform from the charismatic and self-assured professor and mother to someone who loses her bearings. She pulls out a bottle of Dove body wash from the fridge. She repeats questions and sentences over and over and over. She soils herself while looking for the bathroom in her own house. She doesn’t recognize her house-keeper or daughter. “I wish I had cancer,” she tells her husband. “I wouldn’t be so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.”

As Alice loses more and more of herself to the disease, the camera blurs. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir focuses his lens on Moore’s forlorn expressions and vivid red hair. In one scene, Alice is the only one in focus. Her husband and children are blurry in the background, discussing her treatment as if she’s not there.

Glatzer, who’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, might know what it’s like to feel invisible. ALS has taken his words, but not his mind. The film treats disease with sensitivity, but also forces us to confront the frightening effects of aging. We might also lose our minds someday — our ability to see, hear and think. Whether it’s at 50 or 100, our years are all numbered.

If it was Glatzer and Westmoreland’s intention to make us empathize with the sick and elderly, they’ve succeeded. The camera focuses on a series of text — Words with Friends, plays, lecture notes — all the building blocks of human communication. When we lose our words, we lose our ability to think as well as our ability to express our desires. We become invisible. A husk of our former selves. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have thoughts or feelings. We just might not know how to express them.

Through Glatzer and Westmoreland lens, Alice is never invisible. Moore shines. Instead, words, people, faces and settings blur around her. She’s still Alice — even as she loses her sense of time and place, her words and memories. She says so in a tear-jerking speech given at an Alzheimer fundraiser: “I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once…. It means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”

“Still Alice” was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on Lisa Genova’s novel. The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Actress. Moore won the 2015 Golden Globe award for Best Actress for her performance as Alice Howland. 

‘Boyhood’: Linklater’s ethereal portrait of childhood

“Can’t believe they’re so big,” says Mason Sr., the fictitious father in Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated coming-of-age film, “Boyhood.”

But with some movie magic, we watch as a real boy and girl age. Twelve years go by in 165 minutes. And we’re left with a time capsule circa 2002 to 2014.

The stars are Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater). We watch as they trade Oregon Trail for Nintendos and Harry Potter for Wiis. Music serves as cultural bookmarks, allowing us to place the year. Samantha antagonizes her younger brother in their bedroom with her a cappella version of Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did It Again.” Years later, the siblings share a game of pool with their romantic partners over Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know.”

Even as “Boyhood” invokes our feelings of nostalgia, the film deals with some pretty tough stuff — especially for kids.

Mason and Sam are forced to pack up and move after their mother and father split. Mason worries that his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), won’t be able find him after they move. His mother, Olivia (Patrica Arquette), reassures him.

These poignant moments make up much of the film. Mason asks his father if elves exist. Mason Sr. responds that elves don’t really exist, but magic does.

That’s what “Boyhood” is. Magical.

The passage of time is seamless, but the portraits keep changing. Facial hair spurts and voices crack. Wrinkles emerge and laughter lines become more prominent.

Linklater takes you on a journey, using Coltrane as his vehicle. One minute he’s catching butterflies with his dad. The next, he’s graduating high school and driving alone to college. Figures move in and out of focus and you realize that your childhood heroes are just as confused as you are. As Sam and Mason age, their parents grow up along with them.

“Boyhood” isn’t everyone’s story, but it’s universal enough. There’s bullying, peer pressure, alcohol and breakup as well as divorce, domestic violence, aging and and self-realization. Linklater delves into our psyche, echoing our fears as we ponder the meaning of life.

Meanwhile, nothing and everything happens at once.

“Boyhood” was written and directed by Richard Linklater and filmed over the course of 12 consecutive years. “Boyhood” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. “Boyhood” won the 2015 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Motion Picture. 

Solving ‘Gone Girl’

Look closely. You’ve seen enough of “Criminal Minds,” “CSI,” “Bones,” “Law & Order,” “NCIS” and “Without a Trace” to know how the story goes. The killer’s usually the husband, or ex-boyfriend (in Hae Min Lee’s case), or someone close to the victim.

And the husband of missing person Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike) certainly looks and sounds suspicious.

Examine his opening monologue: “When I think of my wife, I think of her lovely head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain trying to get answers…. The primal questions of any marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done with each other?”

Based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel and directed by David Fincher (whose known for psychological thrillers like “Se7en,” “The Game” and “Fight Club”), “Gone Girl” resembles one of those TV crime shows.

This case takes place in a small fictional town in Missouri. Hubby Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home on his fifth anniversary to find his furniture overturned and his wife missing. He calls homicide detectives Rhona Boney (Kim Dickens) and James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), who bring him to the police station for questioning.

“Yeah, it’s just all of a sudden, I feel like I’m in a ‘Law & Order’ episode,” says Nick.

Interspersed through the modern narrative of Amy’s disappearance are Amy’s diary entries of Amy and Nick’s fairy tale romance. They’re writers, you see, with a flare for storytelling. Amy’s the highly educated daughter of the wealthy authors (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) of the “Amazing Amy” children’s book series. Nick’s a journalist for a NYC-based magazine. They meet in a New York City party. They get married two years later. But when the recession hit in 2010, Nick and Amy were laid off from work, returning to Nick’s Missouri hometown. “Nick is happy to be home, but I don’t know if he’s happy that I’m with him,” Amy writes. “I feel like something loaded by mistake. Something to be jettisoned if necessary. Something disposable. I feel like I could disappear.”

Fincher’s a masterful manipulator, armed with an arsenal of highly impressive chess pieces: a pair of pretty and likable actors (Affleck and Pike) and Flynn’s dynamite screenplay, just to name a few.

That, plus the 24-hour cable news networks and our preconceived notions of crime, helps Fincher establish the plot twists, slowly altering our perception of the case. We feel for Nick. We certainly do. (Just like we feel for Adnan Syed.) But like producer Sarah Koenig does with her podcast “Serial” — ping-ponging back and forth between guilty or innocent, we can’t help but wonder if Nick killed his wife.

Lucky for us, this case has a pretty clear-cut ending, which audiences will devour.

“Gone Girl” was directed by David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn. Actress Rosamund Pike was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. “Gone Girl” was also nominated for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Original Screenplay during the 2015 Golden Globes.  

The man and woman behind ‘The Theory of Everything’

One moment of James Marsh’s new biopic, “The Theory of Everything,” displays Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones of “Like Crazy”) spinning, round and round, giddy with excitement. Stephen, a doctoral student at the prestigious University of Cambridge, just had an epiphany which redefines how the world works. His theory hinges on the singularity of the space time continuum — that if he reversed time, he could calculate when and how time began.

Time traveling’s a privilege few yield, including “The Theory of Everything’s” filmmakers. Marsh, Redmayne and Jones (with the help of editor Jinx Godfrey and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme) rewind the clock and play back Hawking’s life in two hours on the silver screen.

Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” the story begins in 1963. Stephen and Jane meet at a Cambridge party and do an adorably awkward dance around each other. Because it’s a film, there’s room for embellishments — there’s lights and music and stars and literal fireworks that fill the night sky. A jazz quartet serenades the couple as Jane quotes Genesis to Stephen; and then its just the two of them — like Adam and Eve, swaying together on a bridge, sharing a long, passionate kiss.

But if there’s a beginning, there’s also an end. Stephen and Jane’s story is one of star-crossed lovers who defy all odds. Stephen’s demise starts when his hand shakes as he scribbles math equations on a chalkboard. His gait’s wobbly and he falls in the Cambridge courtyard with his ears ringing.

Suddenly, there’s no music — only the pulsating sounds of a hospital room. The doctors diagnose him with motor neuron’s disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. He has two years to live.

If this summer’s ALS ice bucket challenge didn’t bring this terrible and crippling disease to light, Redmayne certain does as we watch him deteriorate. In one scene, he valiantly braves a grin as he struggles to eat peas — a task Stephen’s friends and colleagues accomplish effortlessly. In another scene, his twisted hands barely have enough power to pull himself up the stairs.

Redmayne’s feet are contorted and his body’s lopsided as he walks like a marionette with God pulling the strings. But Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in God. He believes in cosmology — that one singular equation will explain the universe. That reason, his everything — who explains how he continues to defy his doctor’s predictions, at least — is Jane.

There’s a quiet fierceness to Jones’ Jane. We watch her lips quiver as Stephen leans heavily on a croquet mallet. In another scene, she has trouble reading because she’s looking after Stephen and their kids. Jane possesses a blind and unwavering faith which helps her endure. It doesn’t hurt that she has the help of her church’s choir director, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (played by the handsome Charlie Cox).

The real star of “The Theory of Everything,” however, isn’t someone who appears on screen. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson chronicles the magic, romance and tragedies of Anthony McCarten’s screenplay with his beautiful and original instrumental score. The curious ripples of a piano convey Stephen’s sense of discovery. A faint buzzing narrates his fall. Jóhannsson’s music is incredibly moving, rich and textured with the sad and soothing sounds of a violin and piano.

McCarten’s screenplay covers Stephen’s life over a 26-year time span: from 1963 until 1989 when Queen Elizabeth II named him a Companion of Honor. This avoids the public controversies during the later years: glossing over Jane and Stephen’s eventual divorce (1995) and his marriage to his nurse Elaine Mason (played by Maxine Peake in the film). It also makes the viewer feel gypped.

“The Theory of Everything” contains neither the comfort of everlasting love nor the knowledge of an omnipresent higher being looking out for us. (Stephen Hawking himself is an atheist.) Instead, the crescendos fade like the black hole’s of Hawking’s radiation theory — eventually fizzling out and dying. 

“The Theory of Everything” was directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten.

Cracking the code to ‘The Imitation Game’

He comes across as a prickly sort of fellow — arrogant and self-assured. “You need me more than I need you,” he says at a job interview with British Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).

The “he” I’m referring to is Alan Turing, the man accredited for cracking the secret Nazi decoder machine, Enigma. Or rather, Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of him in Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s BAFTA-nominated biopic, “The Imitation Game.”

The screenplay — written by Graham Moore based on Andrew Hodges’ biography — plays out like a fragmented puzzle, cutting back and forth between a 23-year time span (1928 – 1951). It’s reminiscent to other spy films like “J. Edgar” (2011), “The Good Shepherd” (2006) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).

When we first meet Professor Turing, he’s sitting in a Manchester police station. The year is 1951. But while it might seem like Cumberbatch’s Turing is a reprise of his role in the popular BBC television series “Sherlock,” Scotland Yard is nowhere in sight.

The man questioning Turing is Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear from “Broken” and “Skyfall”), our vehicle into this story. He’s questioning Turing because he had reported a break-in where nothing was stolen.

What begins like an episode of “Sherlock” evolves into a spy mystery. Cumberbatch’s hypnotic voice is like a magician’s, begging you to pay attention as he asks the most puzzling question of all: the reason for humanity.

Along for the ride include Britain’s finest cryptographers: Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley). They’re tasked with nearly impossible odds — to decrypt Nazi radio messages and win World War II.

Despite his prickly personality, Cumberbatch is oddly endearing as Turing. He’s appears autistic with a mild stutter, funny walk and OCD. He’s oblivious to social cues, better at insults than jokes, loves solving puzzles — and in a couple of occasions, he’s been compared to the machine in which he builds and loves. Yet his robotic movements and character flaws are what make him human. He bleeds, he cries, he feels — whether he’s genius inventor Victor Frankenstein or the isolated monster who just wants a friend.

At its core, “The Imitation Game” deals with morality and philosophy — like Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” Cumberbatch and Tyldum flesh out an imitation of this man’s life, letting us define whether he’s a hero or criminal; man or machine; or perhaps, something entirely out of the box.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore based on Andrew Hodges’ book, “The Imitation Game: Alan Turing, the Enigma.” The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

‘Big Hero 6’: Disney’s AwesomeLand

Remember how “Modern Family’s” Phil Dunphy invented AwesomeLand in this season’s Halloween episode? No? Well, basically, he put everything he thinks is Awesome on the front lawn of the Dunphy’s home.

That’s what Disney’s latest animated picture, “Big Hero 6,” feels like. Taking place in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (Yes, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. Why? Because it’s awesome.), “Big Hero 6” is about 14-year-old boy-genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his band of “Avengers” — Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller).

Loosely based on a 2008 Marvel comic, “Big Hero 6” is another superhero origin story.

Raised by his enthusiastic Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother, Tadashi (because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the parents weren’t either absent or dead), Hiro wastes his potential winning loads of dough in illegal robot fights. That is, until Tadashi (Daniel Henney), introduces him to his acclaimed robotics university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and his life’s project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) — a portable and personable inflatable medical robot.

To apply for admission to SFIT, Hiro pitches his microbots: tiny electromagnetic legos that can do anything the mind tells it to.

“If you can think it, microbots can do it,” says Hiro, echoing the words of Walt Disney. “The only limit is your imagination.”

disney

That seems to be the limit of Disney’s latest 3D animation as well. Like the fusion city, “Big Hero 6” is held together by imagination (and hundreds of animators and visual effect artists).

The film — by nerds for nerds — pays homage to others in its genre. Baymax wears an Iron Man-esque armor. His Hulk-like strength protects Hiro from danger. Hiro keeps a dalek on his bookshelf. Stan Lee’s portrait hangs on the walls.

“Big Hero 6” feels like a Pixar film (like how “Brave” felt like a Disney film). The animators have inserted dozens of hidden Easter eggs, including a basement filled with comics and action figures. Hans’ (from “Frozen”) mug shot hangs on a “wanted” poster at the police station; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” featured on a billboard over the city.

Directed by Don Hall (whose credits include “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tarzan” and “Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Mulan”), “Big Hero 6” is a safe feel-good movie — filled with Disney’s perfected formula of both funny and poignant moments. Watching Baymax and gang in “Big Hero 6” is the perfect medicine for a bad day.

“Big Hero 6” was written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Duncan Rouleau, Steven Seagle, Paul Briggs and Joseph Mateo. The film was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams.