Monthly Archives: October 2015

Seuss on Screen Part 2: The Grinch

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas directed by Ron Howard, was one of the biggest hits of 2000. And while audiences loved it at the time, critical reaction was lukewarm. The general critical consensus seemed to be that Jim Carrey was entertaining in the title role, but it didn’t meet the standard of Chuck Jones’ famous cartoon from 1966. Or the book, for that matter.

I was only eight years old when the movie first came out, and I didn’t see it, because I’d heard my younger cousin was terrified of the film and therefore thought it would be scary. But a few months later, I was home from school, incredibly sick, and my Mum rented the VHS (remember those days?) thinking it would give me a laugh. And by Seuss, I fell in love with the movie. I laughed myself better. Thank you for that, movie.
After watching it over and over for a few years, I put the movie aside, and just before Christmas 2014, I watched it again. Without the nostalgia goggles on, I was able to see the flaws of the film. But I still found myself enjoying it quite a bit.

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But first, the source material. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is Ted Geisel’s 1957 book about an odd grouchy creature who despises Christmas, and the Whos in Whoville who adore the season. He decides enough is enough and vows to stop the holiday from coming. The Grinch dresses as Santa Claus and steals the presents, food and decorations from the town, only to find that the Whos are still happy to celebrate Christmas without the material objects. He realises where the true meaning of Christmas lies, and returns everything to the town’s welcoming arms and even joins in the festivities. It’s a very iconic story, and the Grinch has been cemented in pop culture as one of the great villains of Christmas.

Interestingly enough, the Grinch character was based on….well, Dr Seuss himself! Realising he was becoming a bit of a Grinch, he wrote the book to see if he could rediscover the magic of the holiday. The only clue to this connection in the book is the Grinch saying “Why, fifty three years I’ve put up with it now!” and Seuss was 53 when the book was published. He even drove a car with GRINCH number plates.

As a whole, The Grinch is one of the most story-driven of Seuss’ books, far more so than something like Cat in the Hat. The strength of the story comes from the moral, and the main character. Seuss’ bold choice to have the villain of the piece also be the protagonist makes for a very fun journey as he finds his redemption alongside the readers. The message is very anti-consumerism, and reminds all who read it that the true spirit of Christmas comes from love and togetherness.

Therefore, The Grinch is one of the easiest to adapt to screen. The 1966 special was the first animated adaptation of Seuss’ works. Seuss himself was very involved in the making of the piece, not only producing but also writing the lyrics for the songs. The cartoon was decently received upon premiere, but has since gone on to be recognised as a classic of the genre.

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Definitely not for his charming good looks

Again, it probably wasn’t necessary to remake this, but to Ron Howard’s credit, he said he wouldn’t even try to retell the animated short, since it was already perfect. And for what the movie is, it’s actually ok. At least for my taste. Sure, there’s a lot of choices that are questionable, but I still like the film. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.

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First, I’ll take the elephant out of the room by saying I really like Jim Carrey as the Grinch. It’s not a perfect performance (what is) but he gives it his all, as usual. Carrey has said in interviews that the makeup was “horrifying” and he was taught torture resistant techniques by the CIA to endure filming. To his everlasting credit, you’d never be able to tell. Jim Carrey’s famously expressive face was able to work through all that makeup (by the way, the makeup in the film is incredible!) and physically, he owns that costume and works with it. Seriously, go watch the movie again and see how effortlessly he acts as the Grinch. It never appears uncomfortable or awkward, though it must have been a nightmare. Kudos to Carrey for being so professional. 6-year-old Taylor Momsen, carries the role of Cindy Lou with a lot of charm and the rest of the cast are fun and quirky in their own way. So, I have nothing against the acting.

Now, the writing. Most criticism aimed at The Grinch comes from the expansion of the story. Before I go in too deep, there’s two things I should note. Number one, it’s a feature length film. It’s a different medium and someone with a different vision at the helm. Changes to books aren’t just inevitable, they are necessary. Number two, changes are fine as long as they serve the story or at least respect the basic source material. And while some choices here may be misguided, they’re still understandable.

In the film, the Whos are more developed. As well as being obsessed by the holiday, they are materialistic and competitive. Some might disagree with this choice, as the Whos seem a bit unsavoury and mean, but this change gives them a story arc alongside the Grinch.

The Grinch is given a backstory which explains why he hates Christmas. He was mocked at school during a Christmas gift exchange, and that was that. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, but it’s still a reason. Of course, his heart is two sizes too small, but having another explanation makes him more three dimensional in the world of the movie.

I will say this, though. Despite being a clever idea for a character arc, the Whos can be quite mean-spirited, especially at the Whobiliation Christmas party, and therefore are hard to sympathise with. So for the movie, perhaps an alternative could have been the Grinch needing to realise people can change as they grow up, and the Whos needing to realise the pain they had caused him. But I’m just speculating.

As for Cindy Lou, her role is hugely expanded. In the book, she only appears once while the Grinch steals the Christmas tree. In the film, Cindy Lou is the only one who senses that Christmas is more than just gifts and lights. She is also the only one willing to see The Grinch as…..for lack of a better term, a person, the only one brave enough to talk to him, and the only one willing to give him a chance and include him. Her spirit encourages the town to a new way of thinking and essentially brings the Grinch around. In this way, she’s given a lot of respect by the writers. It just goes to show Seuss’ belief that children are just as smart as adults.

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The first two acts of The Grinch focus on Cindy Lou trying to convince the Grinch to come down from Mount Crumpit and urging Whoville to accept him. None of that is in the book, but it allows for character development and the audience can become immersed in this world. The third act is practically identical to the book, and narration by the legendary Anthony Hopkins throughout the whole thing ties it all together nicely. I might add, the narration is almost verbatim.

All that being said, how does the film hold up after 15 years? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The film’s main shortcomings are in the design department and the characterisation of the Whos, to a degree. Whoville isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as it could be. Visually, the colours are too muted and there’s a lot going on so it all becomes a bit crowded. I’m not personally put off by the Whos’ heavy makeup but I can certainly see why others would be. And like I said, some of the Whos, like the Mayor, are too nasty to be likeable.

Even after all these years, I find The Grinch to be a very funny movie, no small thanks to Jim Carrey. I like the characters, I like the atmosphere and I like the comedy. This isn’t a corporate cash-grab at all. Some of the story choices are a little misguided but I believe they are done with the purest of intentions. The movie seems to be its own creation, and still has a moral. Every change made to the story still matches the vision and tone of the film, and at least goes all the way.

Is the film perfect? No.
Are there elements that don’t work? Absolutely.
As a Seuss purist, I probably shouldn’t like The Grinch, since it isn’t 100% faithful to the book. But this doesn’t make it a bad movie. Sure, it’s got it’s major problems, but I think you can call it my guilty pleasure, and it will always make me laugh. Take my thoughts for what it’s worth and draw your own conclusion.

Next week: The Cat in the Hat

Seuss on Screen Part 1: Horton Hears a Who

Is everyone happy now? I caved. I watched Horton Hears a Who. The one Dr Seuss movie I was yet to see. I bought it from Kmart for $9, I sat down with an open mind and pressed play.

Is it good? No. Is it bad? Well…..it’s certainly not horrible. It’s probably the least awful of the Seuss adaptations. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.

Dr Seuss’ work has not been treated kindly by the film industry, with a total of 4 feature length movies based incredibly loosely on his works. The movies began with The Grinch in 2000, The Cat in the Hat infamously portrayed by Mike Myers in 2003, 2008’s Horton Hears a Who and most recently, The Lorax in 2012. Why do these movies, for the most part, fail so spectacularly in bringing the world of Seuss to life?

As a die-hard Seussian, I’m determined to find out. This is my Seuss on Screen series, starting with Horton Hears a Who.

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First, let’s look at the source material. Published in 1954, Horton Hears a Who was actually the second appearance of the titular character, having already starred in 1940’s Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton Hears a Who follows Horton the elephant as he hears the tiny planet of Whoville on a speck of dust. Horton is the only animal in the Jungle of Nool able to hear the Whos. Wishing to protect this tiny population, Horton places the dust speck on a clover, despite the Sour Kangaroo and the Jungle of Nool believing Horton to be out of his mind. Horton stands by his mantra “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” and eventually the Whos are able to prove their existence before being destroyed.

After the success of Horton Hatches the Egg, the sequel came about when Seuss visited Japan post WWII. Having drawn multitudes of political cartoons during the war, Seuss was quite anti-Japanese, but visiting Hiroshima changed his mind dramatically, and he wrote the book as an allegory to how the Japanese were treated in the post-war years. It was even dedicated to a Japanese friend.

It’s a common misconception that the story is a comment on abortion, and several pro-life groups have used the famous line “a person’s a person no matter how small” much to Seuss’ anger. If there’s one thing he hated, it was people twisting his words and stories for their own ends. I shudder to think what he’d do if he saw some of these films…..

The themes of Horton Hears a Who are pretty straightforward. It’s a simple message of looking out for the little guy and opening your mind to believing in something you can’t always see. Easy enough. There’s a fair bit of drama, with the Wickersham brothers and Vlad Vlad-i-koff forcing Horton to search for the clover in a giant field of identical flowers, then the Sour Kangaroo trying to boil the speck in a vat of beezlenut oil. The villains get their redemption, and they’re still not evil. You can definitely see their point of view. The Whos are a creative concept, they’re relateable as the underdogs, and Horton teaches kids to stand by their convictions even if no-one else supports you.

Making a movie out of this doesn’t seem necessary, but there’s still potential in it to be a fun little family film. Sadly, what we got doesn’t meet the mark in all areas.

A major issue I have with the film is the message is totally glanced over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there, and that’s great, but it’s constantly shoved aside to make the kids laugh. And nowhere is this more obvious than the characterisation of Horton himself.

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Look at that grin. Kill me now.

In the books, Horton is, at the core, a simple elephant of principle. He’s gentle, kind, loyal and a good role model. He’s engaging and admirable, and both his stories form the basis for the musical Seussical. He is the only one who can hear the Whos, and even at first he’s not sure he did. But on the off chance that there is someone, he does a noble thing and protects the dust speck. Everyone says he’s insane, but he keeps with the clover. In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton agrees to sit on Mayzie’s egg for a day, but she doesn’t come back. He sticks with the egg for 51 lonely weeks, is laughed at, and gets sold to a circus. But he doesn’t give up, constantly saying “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent,” What wonderful messages to teach kids, and adults too!

In the film, Horton is voiced by Jim Carrey. And heavens alive, is he miscast. I’ve loved Jim Carrey in other projects, but he’s just not right for Horton, or at least, the correct character of Horton. In the film, Horton is made into something of a hyperactive eccentric, and it’s incredibly distracting. I have no problem with the writers giving Horton a bit of a quirky edge to make him more interesting, or give the jungle creatures a reason to mistrust him, but this is downright silly. I imagine they’re trying to do what Carrey did with the Grinch, which worked ok. The Grinch is a grouchy social recluse, so it makes sense that he would be strange. Whereas Horton isn’t meant to be crazy and weird, he’s just a normal elephant. If that makes sense. I mean, I don’t know many elephants personally so I can’t……but I’m sure most elephants are…..

THE POINT IS that making Horton a nutjob is going against what he is. And they’ve done exactly the same thing with the Mayor of Whoville. Steve Carrell, who actually does a pretty good job, is also an knucklehead mcspazatron. Sure, he has a few moments of substance when he isn’t spouting tell-don’t-show dialogue, but he’s clumsy, odd and constantly battling with the evil government who just doesn’t want to believe him about Horton.

Quite honestly, the idea that the Who’s also are skeptical about being a dust speck is a pretty clever idea. It’s what Dr Seuss added to the animated Chuck Jones special back in 1970. But did we really need the big bad establishment? Isn’t a skeptical population enough? Apparently not.

I think of all the voice acting and characters, the best choice by far was Carol Burnett as the Sour Kangaroo. She’s easily the most faithful to the book. The other characters are far too wacky to be relateable, and because they’re constantly played for cheap laughs, the seriousness of the story is severely watered down.

And the pacing. Oh, the pacing.

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To the film’s credit, visually, the book comes to life. Animation is a much more suitable medium for Dr Seuss’ work than live action, and they take full advantage of it. The film looks great, especially the world created for Whoville.  However, I fear that this made the filmmakers panic, and worried about how to best engage the children for eighty minutes. So do they really explore the idea of opening your eyes to what isn’t obvious? No. Ok, do they go into depth on the world of Whoville and make us really connect with these tiny people so we care about them? No. Do we see Horton struggle with being shunned? Nope. We get a bunch of zany antics and cheesy slapstick from beginning to end. I’m serious. I couldn’t count one quiet moment in the film. Animation may give you more freedom to make bold choices, but it isn’t a license to give us all seizures. Horton is crazy. The Mayor is crazy. The Whos are all crazy. The Jungle of Nool is crazy. It’s constant movement, noise, and action for the sake of having things flying by on screen. And the anime references? Why? I just straight up don’t get the purpose of that sequence. It made no sense and the film grounded to a halt! And you know why the movie is loud and borderline obnoxious?

Because the movie is afraid that if they pause for a microsecond the kids will fall asleep.

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Where were the Wickershams?

There’s a widespread belief that children’s entertainment needs to be constantly loud and energetic because kids have short attention spans. And they do, but this approach is completely counterproductive. This is such a dumb concept I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with it. It’s not only okay to have quiet moments in children’s entertainment, it’s actually important. Children need it to teach them patience and how to appreciate atmosphere. Look at the scene in Mary Poppins where Mr Banks walks down the streets of London. No dialogue, no singing, just some incredible shots of the city and a beautiful instrumental underscore of Feed the Birds. It’s one of the most heavy and adult scenes in a family picture, and it’s one of the most beloved movies of all time.

There was a glimmer of hope at the very end when the Sour Kangaroo realises what she’s done and Horton very graciously forgives her. Finally, it appears we can have a moment! No words necessary, all done through visuals and music and…..nope, Vlad Vlad-i-koff has to loudly point out that this is a touching moment and starts crying in the most obnoxious fashion imaginable. That’s the entire summation of where Horton Hears a Who falls flat as a picture. It is afraid of it’s own message. It shoves it to the side so the kids can keep giggling at the slapstick. The comedy is spoon fed to the audience. There’s a few clever moments, but for the most part I could predict the punchline to almost every joke. The characters are all in the same vein so there’s no variety. The tone is constantly loud and bizarre which sucks out the weight of the message. They’re afraid to see the target audience as thinking human beings who deserve to be treated as such.

It’s definitely not a terrible movie and I don’t think I’d encourage people to boycott the film. It’s relatively harmless. I disagree with the overall tone, but it probably is the closest to Seuss’ world being realised on film as we’re likely to get. But it’s worth remembering what Dr Seuss’ mindset was about children:

I write for myself. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words. If your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults,”

Horton may have been a critical and financial success, but as for me, I will always revere the book on my shelf.

Next week: The Grinch!

The Imitation Game vs Theory of Everything

I didn’t cry in Toy Story 3. I didn’t cry in Up or in Les Miserables. I absolutely despise The Notebook.
Yes, I know, I have no heart and I’m a robot and whatever else you want to say. But seriously, I am not a person who cries in movies. I can count on my hands how many movies have moved me to tears. However, I sobbed uncontrollably for over two hours during and after The Theory of Everything. Never has a film caused such a reaction from me. And it’s not for the reasons the filmmakers wanted. It’s also not the reasons you’re likely thinking as well.

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I’m dead inside

The filmmakers wanted viewers to cry over how heartbreakingly wonderful their portrayal of science genius Stephen Hawking’s life is. They wanted me to marvel at the man who overcame adversity to achieve so much. They wanted me to weep as he succumbed slowly to such terrible disability. None of these were even remotely why I was crying in the film. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I cried because this movie hurt me in ways I can’t even begin to describe accurately. I can only describe it as a deeply personal pain, and maybe that doesn’t give me the right to compare this film with a far better one, The Imitation Game.

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Why do I want to compare these two films, which seem so different? Actually, they aren’t so different when you take a look. They both came out around the same time, about two real men of incredible intelligence who faced overwhelming odds of some description. They overcame the obstacles in front of them, and in doing so, changed the world in some way. But The Imitation Game, in my opinion, is far more successful as a movie and from a character/story point of view.

Maybe I’m being silly and overreacting. Or maybe there’s really something in here that is worth exploring. Keep in mind that this is all opinion based and naturally, there will be spoilers.

Stephen Hawking vs. Alan Turing

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I’m not talking about the actors here. They don’t really have much to do with this. But to be clear, both Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch gave exceptional performances. However, the way their characters were written is uneven to say the least.
What I got out of Theory is that Stephen Hawking is a god among men and can do no wrong. I don’t claim to speak for Stephen Hawking but I do wonder how he feels about his portrayal in the film as a flawless individual. Yes, I’m dead serious. I didn’t see any character flaws in the film, and I’m sorry, but no human, however intellectually brilliant, is perfect. He’s so perfect, there’s really nothing to say about him as a character. At all.

Alan Turing on the other hand, is not perfect, and the film does not pretend he is. They do not gloss over his character flaws. Benedict Cumberbatch even said “There’s no vanity about him….incredibly direct, quite rude and disrespectful of authority, very smart and very funny,” By all accounts, Turing was very difficult to work with. He was socially awkward, and not in the adorable Zac Braff kind of way. He didn’t know how to interact with people. He didn’t have many friends. He wasn’t charismatic, or the life of the party. This is all in Imitation and it doesn’t make him unlikeable or a bad person. It makes him interesting, human, and relatable to the audience, far more so than Stephen Hawking’s portrayal in Theory.

In terms of Hawking’s disease, we only ever see how it affects him physically, and in incredibly large doses. How many montages does it take to see his decline, movie? The only time we ever see his personal decline is when he is first diagnosed, and it’s only for a few minutes. Then, nothing but the physical effect for the rest of the film. His achievements are almost glanced over in favour of lengthy montages and scenes between Jane (Hawking’s first wife) and Jonathan (the man she eventually marries). Every scene, from beginning to end, is about his disease. When not directly about it, every moment either foreshadows or references the fact that he is sick. And that’s fine for a little while, but I wanted to see how he got past it, or at least, about his family. But no. Theory claims to be about Hawking’s personal life, but there’s a large portion of the movie where his children simply disappear. And most of the dialogue between Jane and Hawking?

Jane: I need help

Hawking: No you don’t, we’re fine.

Jane: Yes I do.

– End scene, Lather, rinse, repeat for the second act –

Interestingly enough, Stephen Hawking himself doesn’t like to talk about his disease because he wants to be known for what he’s accomplished. He doesn’t want to become his illness, and you know what? Good for you Hawking. Yes, you have a terrible condition, but it does not have to define you.

Turing in Imitation is not defined by his social awkwardness or more importantly, his sexuality. It’s certainly addressed, and addressed VERY well, but it’s not the focus. The focus is what he and his companions did. And because the film isn’t interested in bashing the viewer over the head with what Turing suffered for being gay at at time when homosexuality was illegal, it’s more compelling to see how tragically his story ended because we grew to like him and admire him for refusing to give up against impossible odds. And the movie doesn’t shy away from giving credit where it is due to the other people on the team. The team Turing worked with are well portrayed and feel like real people.

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What I also loved is that when Enigma was cracked, it wasn’t bunnies and rainbows from then on. The credits didn’t start rolling. The reality was that cracking the code wasn’t the end of the war, and many lives were still lost. Imitation wasn’t afraid to show the truth, the reality and full consequences of war.

Jane Hawking vs Joan Clarke

Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) spends the first third of the movie claiming she can handle Hawking’s illness, despite everyone telling her she’s insane. The second act, she begins to crack. By the third act, she’s gained feelings for another man and leaves. Now, I did the research after the film and it turns out Hawking actually left Jane, but apparently she really did struggle with the nature of Hawking’s condition and loved another man for years. Hawking, in all his perfection, is never anything but a victim, and that doesn’t seem right to me. Jane is shown as selfish and, in the end, weak. This seems like an unfair portrayal to me. From the outside, it would appear both Jane and Hawking were difficult people in a lot of ways, but to place all the blame on her? No, movie, you don’t get to do that.

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Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) on the other hand is a far more compelling woman. She was in a man’s world and faced prejudice and lower pay than the men, but again, THE FILM DOESN’T FOCUS ON IT. She’s interesting because she keeps fighting for what they’re doing: decoding Enigma. She’s interesting because doesn’t dig in her heels and complain about the lesser conditions she endures. She’s smart. She’s strong. She’s keen for more knowledge and she has a good heart. Even after everything she and Turing go through, and even though he lies to her, she looks past that and goes to him years later when he’s facing chemical castration, and gives him the encouragement he once gave her.

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There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the film where Joan affirms to Alan of the lives he saved because of what he did. “If you wish you could have been normal, I can promise you, I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t,”

This is such a rare message in films, and one that needs to be heard more. And coming from such an interesting and strong woman, it’s heartening to see.

I’d like to thank the Academy…..”

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My main problem with Theory of Everything is that it’s one of the most award-hungry films I have ever seen. It is shaking the Academy by the shoulders, screaming for Oscars. While watching the movie, I played a fun game of Spot the Oscar Bait. There were so many attempts to gain nominations in almost every category. Best Actor/Actress is of course a no-brainer. It’s a biopic for crying out loud, and that automatically makes it a candidate for Best Picture. But take a look and you’ll see a bid for Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Costume Design, Best Screenplay, Best Director; the list goes on. I didn’t feel like there was passion to show a man’s life here. I saw a movie that was so desperate for recognition it missed the entire point of what it was claiming to fight so hard for: a fascinating human being who has changed science in spite of this disease which should have been a death sentence.

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We didn’t win Most Shameless Attempt to Gain Oscars since The Iron Lady, but WE GOT BEST ACTOR!!!!

The Imitation Game on the other hand, seemed far more interested in telling the story than salivating for trophies. All the elements were there to gain nominations, and the writing was beyond deserving of the Academy Award, but it didn’t have the sheen of awards being the goal. The point of the movie was to tell a fascinating historical story. There was so much respect for the people they were portraying and the truth of the story. It wasn’t about political messages, being anti-war, or about LGBTQ issues, important as they are. It was about a man who, against the whole world telling him he was hopeless, useless, and of little worth, who defied the odds and broke the unbreakable code, bringing WWII to an end much quicker and essentially, inventing the computer that I now type about him on.

You may be thinking I really hate The Theory of Everything. And the truth is, I don’t. I don’t even necessarily see it as a bad movie. It’s not. There’s a lot to admire in the film, and Eddie Redmayne was certainly worthy of his Oscar win (though I’m still holding out for DiCaprio and Cumberbatch to someday get the glory they deserve!). But when placing these films side by side, The Imitation Game pole vaults over Theory of Everything in my mind. The characters were more interesting and human. The story was clear and with a humble purpose. The message was superior and the themes relatable.

But if that’s the case, what was it about Theory of Everything that made me cry so hard when other famously emotional movies have failed?

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My life

Well, without wanting to get too personal, my beloved grandmother suffered from polio (contracted before the vaccine was invented) and Multiple Sclerosis, and tragically died from the disease five years ago when I was seventeen. Much like Motor-Neurone Disease, MS is a mystery illness with no cure, treatment, known cause and with very similar symptoms. Watching a movie which so heavily focused on such a similarly debilitating disease was like watching her decline all over again, and I just couldn’t cope. But much like Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, Grandma did not let her illness define her. She got on with life in the best way she could and I never heard one word of complaint out of her mouth.

I believe that had I not had such a personal background to the story, then maybe I would feel differently. But who knows?

All I can really say is, go see both movies and draw your own conclusions. You may agree with me, you may not. But remember, as The Imitation Game says, “Sometimes it is the people who no-one imagines anything of, who do the things that no-one can imagine,”