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Posts Tagged ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’

Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

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You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.

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Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

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‘…It’s as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character homosexual… There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War…’

some idiot on the internet in 2001

Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can’t keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.

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The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.

On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.

As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty’s team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing’s social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.

This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer – to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war…

Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing’s sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing’s life.

It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it’s rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I’m being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.

However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing’s machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it’s shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.

I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing’s great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.

Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing’s codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing’s sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.

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And so it sprawls amidst the stupendous pile of treasure which dictates its every action, like some great segmented worm, bloated, grotesque, and yet somehow rather majestic… on the other hand perhaps I should stop being quite so rude about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It is, as they say, all simply a question of perspective.

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This second whopping slice of prequel action is subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, after the region of Middle-Earth in which its final movements take place. Obviously, it takes ages and many helicopter shots of scale doubles yomping across hillsides before we actually get there, of course. The action opens more-or-less where the previous film left off, with timorous burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise old wizard Gandalf (‘he’s a bad role model, and he’s lazy’) the Grey (Ian McKellen), smouldering dwarven prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and their followers on the run from a pack of orcs.

What follows is, for the most part, a picaresque piece of epic fantasy: the company enjoy the hospitality of a werebear, brave the giant-spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, fall foul of the Elves of the region… I’m sorry, this is turning into the bridge section of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. Anyway, they eventually end up at Erebor, the ancient dwarf city currently being squatted in by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that an equally lengthy final chapter is on the way this time next year.

As I say, I was distinctly luke-warm about the first Hobbit movie twelve months ago, rather to the derision of some friends of mine who were delighted simply to see the Tolkien-Jackson axis back in operation again. And, admittedly, it is with some ruefulness that I recall my own glowing response to the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I praised mainly on the grounds that Jackson did not feel himself overly bound to be reverent towards the book. Can I then criticise Jackson for departing too far from the original text of The Hobbit and hope to retain any shred of integrity or credibility?

Well, I would argue there’s a difference between cutting and rewriting stuff to bring a huge story down to a filmable size and comprehensible shape, and just adding everything and the kitchen sink simply because it strikes you as being cool. Nevertheless, I have come to accept that these movies are not, in any real sense, a straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit, but rather a palimpsest of it: by which I mean they are a wholesale rewriting of the story, through which vestiges of the original can still occasionally be glimpsed.

To his credit Jackson and his writers manage the transition between the different kinds of material rather deftly, and I doubt anyone unfamiliar with the book will be able to tell apart the sections which feel impressively faithful to the novel (some sections of the spider fight, Bilbo’s initial conversation with Smaug), those which are derived from what was implicit in the book (such as what Gandalf is up to most of the time), and stuff which has been stuck in simply because Jackson thought it was really cool (a full-scale action sequence with Legolas (Landy Bloom) tackling a pack of orc commandos in Laketown).

I am sort of reminded of the old joke asking where an eight-hundred pound gorilla sleeps – the answer being wherever he damn well pleases. When it comes to these films, Peter Jackson is very much one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas of the film directing world, and I get a very strong sense of him doing things just because he wants to throughout this movie. Luckily, it seems that what he wants to do on this occasion is simply to make a really good fantasy epic. His penchant for idiosyncratic casting persists (no Andy Serkis this time around, nor Christopher Lee and the guy who doubles for him in wide shots, but in addition to the usual crowd there is Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Evangeline Lilly as a somewhat token-ish female elf, and perennial bellwether of dimbo action movies Luke Evans as Bard), but his facility with astoundingly ambitious and intricately-choreographed action sequences remains, as does his capacity to create a real sense of otherworldly scale and wonder. The best scenes of Desolation of Smaug do bear comparison to the highlights of his earlier sojourns in Middle-Earth, although some elements of the new film do feel rather contrived and implausible – an Elf-Dwarf romance being the most obvious. (And for a film called The Hobbit, there are quite long stretches where Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems a bit sidelined!)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this series are prequels to the Lord of the Rings movies as much as anything else, and this is a major influence on the film – virtually the first thing that happens in the film is an in-joke that only fairly dedicated fans of the first trilogy are going to get, while imagery and themes from those films become increasingly dominant as it goes on. Tolkien later tried to retrofit The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings – Jackson obviously has a much freer hand in doing so. He persuasively presents Middle-Earth as a patchwork of different principalities and domains consumed by petty rivalries and political feuds, with everyone oblivious to the apocalyptic threat which is slowly taking shape in a remote part of the wilderness.

The question, of course, is quite how far Jackson is going to go down this road in the final chapter. But that’s also a question for next year. Until then, I really am happy to report that The Desolation of Smaug indicates that both the director and this series are back on form. I turned up to this one with a mental attitude of ‘come on then, impress me if you can’ – along with a side order of ‘I hope the giant spider sequence doesn’t give me a heart attack’ (I am a bit of a megaarachnophobe) – and found myself, for the most part, engrossed and entertained throughout. Is it in the same league as any of The Lord of the Rings movies? No, but it’s still probably one of the half-dozen best epic fantasy films ever made, with the single best dragon ever seen in movie history (Vermithrax Pejorative has had a long run at the top, but…). In most respects, this is a vastly accomplished and very enjoyable film.

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Nearly fourteen years ago, an early episode of The West Wing predicted that one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century would be over the control of information and the right to privacy. It’s hard to argue with the idea that they were on the money, with so many news stories these days concerning clashes between individuals and powerful groups over just this issue. One sometimes gets the impression that the trend in recent decades has been of a rise in the level of personal access to information, matched with an equal decline in actual control over the wider world.

With the topic being so all-pervasive and important to society today, it’s not surprising that people are starting to make films about it. One of these is The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon. I must confess to vaguely recognising Condon’s name but not being able to place it; this is because he perpetrated Breaking Dawn Part 2 last year. Had I actually remembered that, I might have skipped the movie, but this would have been a bit unfair.

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The Fifth Estate is based on true events and is basically a critical biography of Julian Assange, the Australian mathematician-turned-computer hacker and founder of controversial website WikiLeaks. I say critical not because it’s a hatchet job on the man – although Assange himself has dismissed it as ‘a massive propaganda attack’ – but because it seems to me to do a reasonable job of presenting a balanced view.

Assange himself is played by Cumbersome Bandersnatch, in a white wig which makes him look rather like he’s auditioning to play Elric of Melnibone (now there’s a movie I’d pay to see). Having already impressed as a somewhat improbable Mexican Sikh in one of the summer’s blockbusters, doing a slightly peculiar Australian is no great stretch for the actor and his performance is highly impressive.

That said, Assange is such a divisive, complex figure that it’d be hard to make a movie in which he was the central figure. In The Fifth Estate that role is played by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, who’s having a good year), whose book the movie is in any case based on. We see Assange through Berg’s eyes, as they initially meet and Berg becomes a convert to Assange’s personal crusade to liberate information and destroy corruption and conspiracies.

Their initial success in taking down a major bank gets people’s attention and the film follows their rise to prominence and the increasing hostility they attract from the US government in particular. It culminates with the publication of vast numbers of sensitive US documents detailing the Afghan war, amongst other things, leaked to them by Bradley Manning (I expect there will be a Manning-centric movie along in a year or so).

The dramatic structure all this is stapled to is a fairly well-tested one – that of the main character coming of age and friendship turning to disillusionment. Berg grows increasingly wary of Assange’s manipulativeness, paranoia, fanaticism and refusal to compromise. The film raises the question of whether what started off as a campaign for truth eventually turned into a self-serving cult of personality.

As I say, I’m not an expert on this but the film seemed to me to be broadly sympathetic to Assange as a damaged human being, while still questioning the morality of many of his actions – the story concludes in 2010, so Assange’s later legal problems aren’t really touched upon, nor is his current residency in a remote corner of Ecuador (so remote it’s actually in London). There’s a nicely self-reflexive touch at the end where Bandersnatch-as-Assange appears in a faux interview and roundly condemns the film as being wildly inaccurate.

With a distinctly awkward central character and a plot about a noted website, there’s definitely a touch of The Social Network about The Fifth Estate, but this film is not quite up to that standard. It seems to be channelling the Bourne movies, too, with the action shifting across numerous international locations – not to mention an appearance as a character of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (played here by himself-to-be Peter Capaldi).

And on the whole it does a pretty good job of turning the story of a bunch of computer experts and journalists putting things up on the internet into a fairly gripping tale. As I’ve said, the beats of the Assange-Berg relationship are familiar, but both lead actors are very good. Bruhl, rather as in Rush, is playing the less flamboyantly expressive of the two, and is possibly all the more impressive as a result. There is a strong supporting cast, too: as well as Capaldi (who isn’t really in it that much), David Thewliss, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney all appear.

There is inevitably the problem of how you make people texting each other and typing on laptops into something visually interesting, and Condon opts for the use of funky graphics and metaphorical imagery. This works well enough but I couldn’t quite shake the sense of having seen this sort of thing done more interestingly in other films in the past.

However, in the end this film is about characters and ideas more than technology. It’s not an outstandingly great production, but the lead performances are impressive and it has no major flaws. And I think the questions at the heart of the film are important ones we all do well to consider from time to time. Very watchable, although just a tiny bit worthy.

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So, to recap: didn’t like the 2009 Star Trek movie very much. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it most the first time I saw it, which was dubbed into Russian and lacking in subtitles. Looked nice, rattled along, but it didn’t really work on any level other than as an SF action spectacular, and I had serious issues with the way it opted to honour and ground itself in the rich heritage of Star Trek history by casually obliterating most of that history in one fell not-especially-coherent swoop. But, as usual, I was in the minority, the box office kerchinged to the tune of $385 million, and four years on here we are with the next offering from director JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.

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There’s not a lot of darkness initially on display as we find ourselves on a primary-hued planet where our heroes are engaging in a spot of surreptitious geological intervention. This segment is colourful and frantic but mainly seems to be here to permit the inclusion of an effects sequence where the Enterprise rises from the depths of an ocean (why on earth is it down there in the first place? Even Scotty complains that this is a ridiculous idea), although I suppose it also launches some of the character plotlines which run through the rest of the film.

Kirk (Chris Pine) saves the life of Spock (Zachary Quinto), rather against his will, mainly because by doing so he breaches the Prime Directive. Ructions ensue at Starfleet Command, but are curtailed by a terrorist attack on London. It turns out that the culprit is an enigmatic rogue Starfleet officer, named (it says here) John Harrison – he is played, quite as well as you might expect, by Cumbersome Bandersnatch from Sherlock. Not content with blowing up London and Noel Clarke, Harrison has a go at blowing up the top brass of Starfleet as well, then – before you can say nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’ – transports himself off to the Klingon planet Qo’noS.

Thirsty for vengeance, even though some members of his own crew have deep reservations, Kirk accepts the mission of carrying out a retaliatory strike against Harrison. But can the young captain put his desire for revenge aside in the name of real justice? And is there more to their mysterious, almost-superhuman adversary than meets the eye?

If you liked the 2009 Star Trek movie, you’ll almost certainly like this one too, because it has all the same virtues: it looks sumptuous, the actors give it everything they’ve got, and the story barrels along energetically enough. There is even a bit of a topical moral quandary for the characters to wrestle with, which is a welcome improvement. I have to say, though, that I think the plot this time around is perhaps just a little too convoluted for its own good: much of it is powered by the interplay between two separate villains, and occasionally it’s not completely clear when they’re working in concert and when they’re actually in conflict with each other. I’m not going to flatly state that the plot doesn’t make sense: but I do think the film doesn’t quite work hard enough to show what the sense of it is.

On the whole the movie seems rather more interested in illustrating the main and fundamental difference between the new Star Trek universe and the one it replaced: specifically, that in nu-Trek people wear more hats. It’s true: we see Kirk and Spock turning up for various functions wearing peaked caps, while one of the new uniform designs unveiled here put me rather in mind of staff officers in the Imperial Navy of Emperor Palpatine. Even the Klingons wear hats in the new universe – well, helmets, anyway, though these do not completely obscure the fact that they have mysteriously got their cranial ridges back a few decades earlier than they did in the real universe.

For me it just added to the sense that this somehow isn’t real Star Trek – quite apart from the general aesthetic, there’s a subtle suggestion that the Federation still has a market-based economy, for one thing – and this is at its strongest when we consider the main characters of the film. Never mind that most of them don’t even look very much like their originals, they don’t behave or interact in a remotely similar fashion. Pine’s Kirk is an irresponsible wild man with none of the charm or charisma of William Shatner’s version, nu-Uhura’s importance has been boosted to the point where she’s arguably superceded McCoy as a lead character, and so on. Even the ones who are particularly well-played – and Simon Pegg makes the most of some good scenes as Scotty – aren’t recognisable as the same characters. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the other characters who get their first nu-Trek outing in this film: not only do they behave totally differently, but their accents have changed and one is a completely different ethnicity.

Despite all this, the film stays quite watchable as long as it sticks to its own terms of reference. However, as the climax approaches… well, one of the predictions I made after seeing the 2009 movie was that this new iteration of the franchise would be condemned to endlessly revisit and reinterpret old characters and stories in order to justify its existence. And so it proves here, as Abrams and his writers have the sheer brass neck to revisit and reinterpret some of the Trek movie series’ finest and most memorable moments. They stuff it up; they honestly stuff it up very badly. True, there’s a physical confrontation at the end of the movie which is brilliantly staged and will caress the pleasure centres of any genuine Trekkie – but this didn’t make up for the moments which had me literally snorting with derision: it was like watching a home-movie remake of an Oscar winner.

Still, I expect this movie will do at least as well as the last one, and further instalments will doubtless follow. But I suspect these will do no more than attempt to recycle past glories in same manner as Star Trek Into Darkness. The starship Enterprise is travelling in circles: attractive circles, energetic circles, well-crafted circles, yes, but still circles. At the moment this is a franchise which is boldly going nowhere new.

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So – second series of Sherlock, eh? The obvious thing to say is that Steven Moffat didn’t do himself any favours with a first series that was so unutterably hit-the-ground-running brilliant, and – foolish boy! – has continued to make life difficult for himself by overseeing a just-as-good second run. One could grumble about the fact that, on pretty much any level you care to mention, his second pass at Sherlock totally eclipsed his second full series of Doctor Who (and come to think of it I did) but this would be a bit churlish, and I’m not the kind of person to endlessly draw fatuous parallels between either the series or the characters.

Anyway, as the ongoing adventures of a fiercely intelligent, asexual hero temporarily pause with the central character forced to fake his own death as a consequence of an unexpected rise in his profile, let’s look back at the three episodes.

Thinking about this piece, my initial response to A Scandal in Belgravia was that this was one of those practically perfect pieces of art that are actually quite difficult to review without just gushing. Then I remembered beyond all the usual Moffat verbal and narrative pyrotechnics, to the remarkable plunge into pathos and genuine emotion of the second half of the episode. The bit that sticks with me is of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss together outside the morgue, a brilliant written and underplayed scene, with – for me – Gatiss never better: ‘There’s a limit to how much damage you can do.’

I’m not such a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian as to venerate Irene Adler as much as some do (much grumbling in some circles, I understand, concerning the handling of the character in Game of Shadows), but I thought the Sherlock version was very engagingly written and played. Some elements of the plot rattled by just a bit too fast to completely keep track of but for me this remains, probably, the best episode of the six so far.

I suspect it was inevitable that Mark Gatiss would demand the rights to the Sherlock version of the most famous Conan Doyle story of them all, and The Hounds of Baskerville turned out to be very characteristic. For the first time, the series had the problem of dealing with a plot which is well known – there are people who haven’t a clue about the plots of any of the short stories in the canon, but who are familiar with the story of Hound from one of the other umpteen versions that have already been made. In some ways this was a more faithful episode than some others, in terms of character names, but more energetically free in many respects, as well as being fun and intelligent. I must confess to guessing a) the nature of the hound’s dreadful influence and b) the identity of the villain, if not his motivation, but these are fairly small quibbles.

And so to The Reichenbach Fall, waltzing delicately through the same narrative territory as Game of Shadows. Certainly Sherlock‘s enthusiastically deranged Moriarty is some considerable distance from Doyle’s character, an interesting choice given that Jared Harris’s very faithful interpretation is, if anything, just as effective. That said, Andrew Scott was terrific in the role, just as good in his own way as Harris.

This is the best thing I’ve seen from the pen of Steve Thompson, but having said that this is the kind of story I can imagine myself returning to in future and going ‘Haaaaang on a minute…’ about. Viewing it the first time, the rush and surprise of it do a very good job of papering over the holes in the narrative, but I don’t think that’ll hold up for subsequent viewings. On the other hand, the handling of Sherlock’s celebrity was intelligent and depressingly believeable.

Looking back, I enjoyed the nod to Moriarty’s stealing-the-crown-jewels caper from the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie. And, on a similar note, I wonder how many non-obsessives spotted the presence of the 92-year-old Douglas Wilmer in a cameo role, Wilmer having played Holmes for the BBC nearly 50 years ago? In itself a sobering reminder of how few notable Sherlocks of years gone by are still with us.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes remains a going concern, of course, but the writers really were in a corner when it came to the climax of the series. The real final problem, of course, is that everyone knows that Holmes dies at the end of the original story – but also that he rises from the dead some time later! How to achieve the proper emotional impact without killing the character off for real?

Well, they managed to come up with a suitably shocking climax, but the jury is surely still out on the manner of Holmes’s resurrection. The danger was that his death wouldn’t convince – the problem turned out to be that it was just too believable! Without even the hint of an explanation (not even the tiniest trace of a miniaturised aqualung or its equivalent), his inexplicable survival looked ominously contrived.

Still, better that than the end of what’s surely a contender for drama series of the year (and January only just half over). Given the rocketing profiles of Cumberbatch and Freeman, it’d take a brave person to predict when the series will be back, but surely no-one would not expect it to be worth the wait.

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