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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Condon’

They say that one of the hallmarks of a truly great fictional character is that they have a sort of chimerical quality, being almost infinitely open to new interpretations. If so, then Sherlock Holmes definitely qualifies – over the years, as well as relatively ‘straight’ adaptations, we have been treated to Young Sherlock, Coke-fiend Sherlock, Gay Sherlock, Superhero Sherlock, Borderline-Aspergers Sherlock, and – most improbably of all – Stupid Sherlock. It was only a matter of time before Old Sherlock turned up, which has now happened in Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes.

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Sir Ian McKellen brings all of his skill and star quality to bear as a frail and failing Great Detective, long retired to the Sussex Downs and the study of bee-keeping. The year being 1947, he has outlived all of his contemporaries, and is very reliant on his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, very nearly doing an ooh-arr accent) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes’ struggles to cope with the infirmities of old age take a number of forms – research into strange medicinal compounds, for one, in the hope this may revive his mental faculties, but also attempting to write a true account of his final case (Dr Watson having provided an inaccurately happy ending, as usual). The case concerns a worried husband, a troubled wife (Hattie Morahan), and hydrocrystalophone lessons, but Holmes’ own shortcomings as a judge of human nature also play a central role. Can Holmes remember what actually led to his retirement, and will it help him come to terms with himself?

My first thought, when hearing about the premise of Mr Holmes, was that it was a great idea for a movie, but when exactly would it be set? The poster, depicting McKellen in Edwardian or Victorian gear, did not bode well. However, Sherlockian purists – I wouldn’t call myself one, but I’m certainly some kind of fellow traveller – can relax. Well, up to a point. Doyle’s only precise reference to Holmes’ age has him a sixty-year-old in 1914, which Mr Holmes faithfully adheres to by making him 93 in 1947. On the other hand, Doyle also had Holmes retire to Sussex in 1903, whereas the film shows him still practising in Baker Street after the First World War. (Let’s not get into the whole issue of when and how many times Dr Watson got married, which the film also gets itself tangled up in.)

Looking on the bright side, this gives McKellen, who (if you were wondering) is 76, the chance to play Holmes at the age of 64 as well as 93. I would say this was certainly a case of a great actor having a crack at one of the great roles, rather than an era-defining Holmes: McKellen being McKellen, he brings his customary drollness, playfulness, and sardonic wit to Holmes – he’s always quite clearly the smartest man in the room, and knows it, but perhaps he’s just a bit too pleased about it. Certainly you can’t imagine him spending two days in a depressive funk. Regardless, it is a great performance, and the central column around which the rest of the film is constructed.

In any case, the film carves itself out some room for maneuver by adhering to the customary trope that Watson’s stories featured a slightly fictionalised Holmes, and that this is the slightly-different genuine article. So the deerstalker and pipe were just inventions of the illustrator, Holmes and Watson lived somewhere other than 221B, and so on. Holmes being aware of his own legend makes for some nice moments, especially when he goes to see a film based on his adventures (the big-screen Holmes is not played by Basil Rathbone, as you might expect, but a game Nicholas Rowe – the deeper joke being that Rowe himself played young Sherlock in the 1986 film of that name, in which he was cast apparently because of his resemblance to Rathbone!).

All of this is really peripheral stuff, only really of interest to die-hard Sherlockians: what is the film like as a piece of entertainment? Well, describing it as an account of Holmes’ last case, as some of the publicity very nearly does, is a bit misleading – I went to see the film with a friend who was expecting a conventional crime thriller, and what they got was something disconcertingly different. Mysteries are solved, but not really crimes – what the film is really about is Holmes’ relationships with those around him. The film is structured so that most of the iconic figures from the canon don’t really appear – no Watson (not really), no Mrs Hudson, no Lestrade, no Irene Adler or Moriarty, the only exception being Mycroft (Holmes’ older brother is played by the 62-year-old John Sessions, but let’s not go there) – and so it revolves around his dealings with the Munros, the figures in the case, and a Japanese family. (A very striking subplot concerns a visit by Holmes to American-occupied Japan, such an unexpected juxtaposition that it instantly becomes fascinating.)

It is very much a character piece rather than a thriller or detective story, and a thoughtful and touching one, with the relationship between Holmes and Roger being especially poignant. The different subplots drift past each other, striking odd and unexpected connections, but the film is really driven by its performances, which are excellent.

Another way in which the film is a recognisably 21st-century take on Sherlock Holmes is its decision to interpret Holmes’ lack of interest in human emotion as being symptomatic of some kind of personal flaw, rather than simply a personal choice. Doyle certainly didn’t seem to be writing about someone sociopathic, but that seems to be the default interpretation of the character these days, and it’s certainly one which Mr Holmes adheres to. Then again, if you’re trying to do a personal drama about a character who’s essentially a thinking machine, I suppose you have to find some kind of chink in the armour.

The film is handsomely mounted, with polished direction and a fine score, and the actors are served well by the script. As a fan of the character, I enjoyed Mr Holmes a lot: it shows just the right amount of respect for the source, while still finding a way to tell its own story distinctively. A fine, thoughtful, mature drama.

 

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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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And so it came to pass:

‘Come to the cinema with me, you owe me a movie. I came to see Samsara with you, didn’t I?’ she said.

‘Yeah, but as I recall you really liked it -‘

‘And then you went and wrote about us going to see it on your blog and really misrepresented me. That conversation we supposedly had was completely fake. Please don’t do that again.’

‘As if,’ I said. ‘Anyway, it was sort of based on fact, you’ve got to funny it up so people keep reading… hang on, as I recall you didn’t have to pay to see Samsara.’

‘All right, so I’ll pay for you if you come to the pictures with me. It’s only fair you keep your side of the deal…’

‘I didn’t even know we had a deal.’

‘You keep saying you’ll go and watch anything, so prove it.’

‘Oh, all right. What is it you want to see so badly?’

This is how years of guilt-free avoidance of The Twilight Saga end, not with blissful ignorance but with a pester. Yes, I went along to see Breaking Dawn – Part 2, directed by Bill Condon – what can I say, it seemed like the honourable thing to do at the time. I was under orders to ‘keep an open mind’ as the film rolled, and for my own part had done my best to avoid doing any research into what had happened in the previous four movies. This promised to be an interesting experiment (the diaries of Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Oppenheimer probably contain similar sentiments). I would normally warn you that what follows may contain spoilers, but the word ‘spoil’ is sort of misleading in this context.

Anyway, the credits rolled, depicting rolling vistas of forests and mountains and the first thing to cross my open mind was ‘this is all a bit Lord of the Rings-y’. I was quickly introduced to Bella (Kristen Stewart, thin and pretty), a young woman who had apparently just been turned into a vampire by her husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, thinner and prettier) – funny, most men complain when their wives become life-draining parasites. I figured all this out eventually despite the fact that there is a long scene where the two of them are blatantly reflected in a mirror and they spend most of the film walking around in the sunshine. Hmmph.

Following a heftless CGI sequence which concludes with Bella chowing down on a defenceless cougar, I learned that her offspring was being looked after by a bunch of other so-called vampires, whose smug and bland wholesomeness put me in mind of a religious cult. They all live in very nice houses in the woods. Hanging around was a character called Jacob (Taylor Lautner, who comes across as a distinctively bad actor – no mean feat in this film) who turned out to be a werewolf. It seemed that Jacob had fallen in love with Bella and Edward’s baby, which was an eye-opening plot development to say the least.

Anyway, the creepy good-guy vampires gave Bella and Edward their own house, complete with bedroom, which was the cue for a brief bout of whoa-ho-ho for the new parents and quick game of Whose Leg Is That? for the audience. (Not bad for a series which I understand began as abstinence porn.) We were quite a way into the film by this point and the only properly scary thing in this vampire-and-werewolf movie had been Bella and Edward’s CGI baby, and even this was probably not intentional.

However, things perked up – briefly and mildly – as we had a bit featuring Michael Sheen and Maggie Grace, both of whom I normally like (for somewhat different reasons, admittedly). Sheen plays an evil Italian vampire – finally! Evil vampires! – whom Grace, apparently playing a conflicted vampire of some kind, tips off to the existence of Bella’s kid. The evil vampires think she is a vampire kid, which is apparently against the vampire rules. (She isn’t, being technically what’s known as a dhampir, but as the film seems to only have a nodding acquaintance even with the concept of a vampire, she’s never referred to as such.) And so Sheen musters his force of evil vampires (‘this is all a bit Harry Potter-esque’, I thought) with a view to creating all sorts of mischief for the two leads.

The good guy so-called vampires rally round Bella and Edward, along with some faintly duff CGI werewolves (Count von Count from Sesame Street doesn’t show up, but two people with the same accent do). All the vampires have different special super-powers (‘this is all a bit X-Men-ish,’ I thought), such as being a bit sparky, seeing the future, causing massive earthquakes or being able to emit deadly toxic vapours (I have a similar ability after five pints of cider).

Eventually (finally!) the two sides face off in the snowy wastes. There is a great deal of chit-chat at this point. Will there be a big fight? Will the bad guys listen to reason? Ooh, ooh, they’re going to fight – oh, no they’re not. Hang on, it looks like they’re – oh, they’ve calmed down again. This goes on for quite a long time and is especially tedious as you know there’s inevitably going to be a big ruck. And so it proves. Much heftless CGI japery ensues, with many (I presume) much-loved and iconic characters meeting with spectacular ends. Crikey. But then – it turns out the whole fight never actually happened, and everyone is alive again, even the villains! (Well, someone who I quite like stayed dead, which annoyed me a bit.) And they all decide to settle their differences amicably and go home, which was a gobsmacking way of concluding an epic fantasy series.

(Stephenie Meyer, I am going to start a charity called Toffee For People Who Can Write. Here’s how it will work: it will find people who are writers and make sure that they receive toffee. If you can write, you will get toffee. But, Stephenie Meyer, no toffee for you! No toffee for Stephenie Meyer! Ahem.)

The End.

I was a bit worried about how I was going to discuss this film with my companion (who has seen the rest of the series)  without offending her. But luck was on my side.

‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry! That was terrible. I was afraid you were going to walk out.’

Hmm, well, to be honest that was never really on the cards – how often do you get a major studio release quite as astoundingly bad as this one? Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is very obviously aimed at the existing fanbase, for there are no concessions made to newcomers like myself, but this doesn’t excuse…

Well, the utter banality of most of the script, to be honest. This film makes being an immortal superhuman killing machine actually seem really boring. I find it difficult to put into words just how vapid most of these characters are. Meyer’s vampires are missing their fangs, but the absence of another pair of bodily items is more keenly felt.

The sole exception to this is Michael Sheen as the main villain. Now, I like Michael Sheen very much and have enjoyed his performances in many other films. Here, Sheen is given very little to work with, script-wise, and as a result clearly just thinks ‘Ah, sod it, may as well just have some fun.’ As a result his performance is so staggeringly camp and over-the-top it is probably best viewed via the Hubble space telescope. He is absolutely the best thing in this movie, but then again this is saying very little.

The fierce innocuousness of this movie means that, despite featuring more beheadings than Highlander and scenes of small children being hurled onto bonfires, it is still only a 12 certificate. Anyone much under 12 shouldn’t watch it, while I doubt anyone much over the age of 12 would really want to.

It’s just soul-crushingly pointless, utterly bereft of any kind of mythic or metaphorical power or texture. If you look at the vampire and werewolf movies of the 60s, as I was doing just the other night, the vampire is something alien and hostile: the menace, the threat to the established order. Apparently pretty much bereft of their need to drink human blood, and able to wander about cheerfully in the sunlight, what exactly are the Twilight vampires supposed to represent? Before seeing the film I was musing on how the vampire has gone from being a monstrous threat to a representation of the outsider, hence the rise of Goth culture and associated things. But the Cullens in this movie aren’t even that: they have nice hair, look like a bunch of models, drive Volvos and live in lovely countryside houses. All they represent is a kind of bland, affluent conformity for the young people watching this film to aspire to. For a fan of proper vampire, horror, and fantasy films, that’s possibly the most offensive thing about this dreadful, dreary film. But it’s up against some pretty stiff opposition.

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