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. 

‘American Horror Story Coven’: addictively bewitching

The third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s sensational television drama “American Horror Story” returns with a new haunted house, but familiar faces and friends.

There’s the evil narcissistic queen from Snow White (Jessica Lange), searching for eternal youth and beauty. There’s Romeo (Evan Peters) and Juliet (Taissa Farmiga) — only these star-crossed lovers meet at a frat party where they get only a few hours rather than three days.

Like season one and two of “American Horror Story,” Murphy and Falchuk take familiar stories and weave them into a coherent narrative. This one follows Zoe Benson (Farmiga), who finds out she’s a witch when she accidentally kills her boyfriend, Charlie (Kurt Krause). Zoe’s sent to Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans, a Hogwarts for young witches. At its helm is Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulsen), the daughter of coven leader Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Her young charges includes D-List movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) and human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe).

New Orleans is the perfect tapestry, full of creole culture and history. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is part of that history, a wealthy bigoted slaveowner who allegedly tortured 150 slaves. Cursed by Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), Madame LaLaurie’s immortal and buried alive in an unmarked grave. That is, until Fiona digs up LaLaurie, reviving a feudal war between her coven and Marie’s witches.

Once again, Murphy and Falchuk brew a powerfully addictive potion. They fill their dialogue with witch references (and there are a lot of them) from “Sabrina: the Teenaged Witch” to “Charmed.” They draw from a vast amount of sources from historical ones like the Salem witch hunts and Hurricane Katrina to fictional ones like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Natalie Babbitt’s “Tuck Everlasting” and Josh Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

This makes “American Horror Story Coven” read like a YA novel — punctuated with the tried-and-true formula of love triangles, betrayal and cliffhangers — while dosed in mature themes and images (a lot of sex and blood). When you wake up from Murphy and Falchuk’s spell, you’ll wonder how you binged-watched all 13 episodes in one sitting. If anything “AHS: Coven” will make you lose track of time.

Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ reborn in 3D

Tim Burton has directed countless movies, many of them featuring characters with big eyes and dark, gothic eye shadow. However, his latest film, “Frankenweenie,” a 3D black-and-white, stop-motion animation remake of his 1984 short, has its own special, childlike charm.

“Frankenweenie,” loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” follows the relationship between Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his dog and best friend, Sparky (Frank Welker). When a driver accidentally runs over Sparky, Victor is devastated until he gets the crazy idea to try to bring his dog back to life.

Unlike Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, Burton’s is younger and more innocent. The film carries threads of past Burton films; for example, “Corpse Bride” also featured the dead coming back to life, while “Edward Scissorhands” featured a budding inventor and his creations. Despite how “Frankenweenie” mirrors themes of older Burton films, the modern retelling of the classic “Frankenstein” never gets old.

Compared to Burton’s 1984 short, which starred Barret Oliver as Victor, the 2012 animated remake of “Frankenweenie” shares similar and nearly identical scenes. However, compared to the half-hour short, Burton adds an hour worth of exposition as well as crams more memorable, creepy and disturbing characters into the remake. Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), a kid in Victor’s class who wasn’t in the original version of the film, trails Victor and blackmails him to show him how he revived his dog. A weird girl (Catherine O’Hara) always carrying a white cat named Whiskers resembles J.K. Rowling’s character Luna Lovegood in “Harry Potter,” giving spacey and elusive omens to the protagonist.

The newer version of “Frankenweenie” illustrates the lengths to which some middle school kids will go to to place first at a school science fair: One boy jumps off a building and breaks his arm to test his experiment. These plot points seems to gear the film from kids to an older and more mature audience, which would understand troubling issues such as death and competition.

The film’s introduction, featuring Victor screening a short movie of his dog, Sparky, to his parents, is a clever way to showcase the overuse of 3-D technology. “Do we really need these 3-D glasses?” Victor’s mom (Catherine O’Hara) says. Though the film’s own 3-D feature offers the occasional scare when animals or baseballs pop out of the screen, it was neither dazzling nor necessary. The real star of the film was the stop-motion animation. Sparky pants, sniffs, barks and wags his tail just like a real dog would; unlike Dug, the dog from Pixar’s “Up,” or the cast of animated dogs in Disney’s “Oliver & Company,” Sparky doesn’t sing or speak English. Meanwhile, Welker’s voice, known as the voice of Scooby Doo, lends itself to bringing the character of Sparky to life.

Though “Frankenweenie” may not live up to previous Halloween-themed Burton classics like “The Nightmare before Christmas,” “Frankenweenie” illustrates that despite all these years, the tale of Shelley’s “Frankenstein” still stands the test of time.

“Frankenweenie” was written and directed by Tim Burton. The screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps and John August.

To read this review in The Ithacan, click here.

Sandler and Samberg reunite in ‘Hotel Transylvania’

Just four months after Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg co-starred as father and son in the movie “That’s My Boy,” the duo is working together again in director Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated film, “Hotel Transylvania.”

The film follows Count Dracula (Sandler), an overprotective vampire who attempts to throw the best 118th birthday party ever for his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). While Mavis wants to travel and see the world, Dracula wants to keep her safe from sunlight and even worse, humans. However, when Jonathan (Samberg), a human traveler, stumbles upon Dracula’s mansion, Hotel Transylvania, and falls in love with Mavis, the monsters living there learn that maybe humans aren’t that frightening after all.

The premise of “Hotel Transylvania” is delightfully funny, featuring Sandler and his goofy, over-the-top, ‘Count Dracula’ accent. Not only does the film feature Sandler’s silliness, but the film also pokes fun at monsters and the “Twilight” franchise. In one scene, when Jonathan is watching a scene with Edward and Bella from “Twilight,” Dracula comments, “I can’t believe this is how we’re represented.”

“Hotel Transylvania” also makes use of the cast’s many talents. Samberg, known for his digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live” and for being of the three members of the musical group The Lonely Island, showcases his rapping talent in the movie, while Gomez and Sandler sing. Although Samberg’s lines aren’t as memorable as The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” lyrics, Samberg does get to rap about “Nala and Simba in the Lion King.”

The touching scenes between Sandler and Samberg’s characters also add heart to the film. Dracula saves Jonathan’s life on more than one occasion, though he repeatedly says he doesn’t want Jonathan to have anything to do with his daughter. In another scene, Dracula risks flying in the sun in order to fetch Jonathan.

The film also features Frankenstein (Kevin James), who is afraid of fire. Griffin (David Spade), also known as the invisible man, has red hair. Werewolves Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon) have more than a dozen kids who love to play pranks. These quirks humanize the monsters and make them fun to watch. Though this is a movie about monsters, these comical elements make the movie less scary, more ridiculous and a real treat.

“Hotel Transylvania” was written by Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.