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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Strong’

It is perhaps a sign of the magnitude of the psychic scar left by the First World War that we can’t seem to stop making movies about it, even as the events themselves slide inevitably out of the realm of living memory. It seems to me that in recent years we’ve had more films about the First World War than the Second – the centenary of the conflict may have had something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t also to do with the way the two wars are popularly perceived: the Second World War was a ‘good’ or just war, a battle against an undeniably evil ideology. That kind of thinking feels odd in today’s deeply cynical and morally compromised world, so perhaps inevitably we are drawn to a war which is generally regarded as a futile, pointless slaughter: industrialised murder with human beings treated as raw materials, an appropriate curtain-raiser for the modern age. I could always be wrong. Regardless of all that, here to join the ranks of First World War movies is Sam Mendes’ 1917.

As you might be able to guess from the pleasingly numeric title (I say pleasing because it allowed me to walk up to the ticket desk and say ‘One fo(u)r nineteen-seventeen in two-D at two fifty in (screen) one’ with a reasonably straight face) the movie is set in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play two young British soldiers who are selected for a special mission and dragged in front of a general (Colin Firth). The assignment is not the cushy food-collecting detail they are hoping for. A failure of intelligence (whichever way you want to look at it) means that a battalion has been tricked into thinking an enemy strategic withdrawal is actual a retreat, and is about to launch an attack on what is actually a heavily-defended stretch of the German lines. A message has to be delivered halting the advance before nearly two thousand men are sacrificed. Blake (Chapman) is younger and keener and his brother is amongst the endangered troops; he is highly motivated to succeed in the mission. Schofield (MacKay) is older, more jaded by his experiences, less inclined to take risks. But orders are orders, even if it means a hazardous crossing of no-man’s-land and a trek across territory where the Germans may still be operating…

The element of 1917 stressed most by its initial publicity was the decision to make it as immersive as possible, by creating a film which gives the impression of being a single very long take. There’s a little bit of disingenuity and careful choosing of words going on there, not least because the story requires a very obvious break in the narrative at one point. You do find yourself looking out for the occasional moments when the two main characters pass through a pitch-black tunnel for a couple of seconds, or there’s another moment where they’re both out of sight and a sneaky digital edit could be done – in short, this isn’t even trying that hard to look like a genuinely single-take picture.

I suppose this is comparable to what’s happened to the special effects movie as a piece of cinema: advances in technology mean that doing a single-take movie (or apparently single-take movie) is much easier now than it was even a few years ago. When Hitchcock had a go, back in the 1940s, he was limited by the fact that film cameras could only shoot for ten minutes at a time, and Rope was structured accordingly (there’s an ‘invisible’ edit every ten minutes or so). Genuine ‘one take, no cuts’ feature films still tend to originate from outside the English-speaking world – the Spanish movie Victoria got a release over here a few years ago and was the longest example of the form at the time, while the Japanese spoof Don’t Stop the Camera! also fleetingly appeared in order to spoof the form in dazzling style – and even the ‘cheat’ version preferred by American film-makers is not especially common.

One wonders as to the extent to which the decision to film 1917 in this style was a creative one and how much the critical plaudits won by Birdman in 2015 (including, let’s remember, a slightly controversial Best Picture Oscar) were an influence. In the end I don’t think it really matters, because in the end it’s not about whether this genuinely is a single-take picture, but the impact it achieves by appearing to be one. And the fact is that a few minutes into 1917 I was able to sit back and relax, confident that I was watching a very fine movie indeed (something I don’t feel I get to do nearly often enough).

The performances by the two young stars are both very good – George MacKay has been doing quite big movies for a number of years now, and hopefully this will raise his profile even further – while the structure of the piece basically means a string of other actors turn up to deliver brief cameos, usually as British officers. Apart from Firth as a stern but benign general, Andrew Scott appears as a jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong as a worldly-wise captain, Richard Madden as a brother officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the man they’re trying to reach (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler). (It feels like I haven’t seen Mark Strong in a movie for ages, but then at one point he was turning up in five or six films a year.)

Most of these actors, fine though they are, are to some extent playing stock types, and the film has no very new ideas to offer about the First World War – but what the style of the film does is to plunge you into the hell of the trenches and the landscape around them. It is as a visceral sensory experience that 1917 really functions, and as you stumble with the characters through booby-trapped enemy positions, with rotting faces jutting from muddy ramparts and rats skittering everywhere, you get the faintest inkling of a sense of what it must have been like for the people who were really there. Did it have to be made this way? Well, probably not – there’s a school of thought that we don’t experience the world as a single take anyway; an eye blink is nature’s version of a cut – but the thing is that it does work as a movie, making you understand and care. Someone who begins as an everyman becomes truly heroic by journey’s end. Needless to say, it is often visually startling, as well as moving and technically accomplished. Not quite entertainment in the traditional sense, but still well worth watching, especially on the big screen.

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Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,  if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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I’m the last person to say that dollar value should be the sole measure of something’s worth, but at the same time it is always interesting to learn something new about this sort of thing. I’ve been knocking out this sort of cobblers on the internet for over fifteen years now, on and off, and yet it had never really occurred to me to find out if my opinion is really of any significance. Then along came along news of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, from a couple of years ago. Now, after the first one, I would probably have said, if asked, ‘That was okay, but no more, please.’ The hefty box office return of the movie clearly said something different. And so they made the sequel. So there you go: my considered opinion about a movie’s quality is obviously worth less than $414 million. Hey, you know, chin up; life goes on.

And so, clearly, does the Kingsman franchise, based on a comic book by Mark Millar (who once read my palm in a London nightclub and got it spectacularly wrong in every detail), directed by Vaughn, and co-written by the director and Jane Goldman. This time there is added swagger, a rather bigger budget, and a longer running time – two hours twenty minutes?! Well, you do kind of feel every minute while you’re watching it, to be perfectly honest.

The representatives of the actors involved have clearly had some fun with this one, for supposed leading man and protagonist Taron Egerton is actually third billed. Nevertheless, it’s all about his character Eggsy (I think I heard other characters calling him ‘Eggy’ in a couple of places), and as the film gets underway he is balancing the thrilling life of an agent of Kingsman (an ‘independent intelligence agency’, whatever one of those is), with hanging out with his mates from the housing estate and his girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom, two dots over the O), who is the daughter of the King of Sweden. As you do.

All this changes when the Kingsman organisation comes under attack from forces in the employ of deranged international criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, second-billed), and Eggsy and his tech-support chap Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to go on the run as the rest of the organisation is destroyed. Emergency procedures lead them to Kentucky in the USA, where they join forces with (sigh) another ‘independent intelligence agency’, Statesman, who seem to be a bunch of slightly boozed-up cowboys.

It is all to do with Poppy’s plan to get some serious respect for her international criminal activities, the details of which would probably constitute a spoiler. The safety of millions hangs in the balance, so it’s just as well that the Statesman people have got Eggsy’s old mentor Harry (Colin Firth, still top-billed) in their cellar, despite the fact he was shot through the face in the last film. As a result he has an eye-patch, Movie Amnesia, and a slight tendency to hallucinate, but is otherwise okay. Can Kingsman and Statesman come together to save the day?

I know a lot of people who really, really liked the first Kingsman film; liked it considerably more than me. I suspect the same will probably be true when it comes to Golden Circle. Maybe it’s just an age or an outlook thing. It’s not that I think these films are actively bad – Vaughn is an inventive and capable director, and the new one is stuffed with cameos from very capable and charismatic actors – Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Keith Allen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and many others. And the frequent action sequences are imaginative and lavish – the film plays the Bond-pastiche card extremely well. It’s almost a bit unfair to call it a Bond pastiche, to be honest, as – at its best – Golden Circle has a scale and a sense of light-hearted fun that the actual Bond films have been missing for many years now.

The thing is that the Bond-pastiche element is only a small part of the Kingsman concoction. What this film is really about is a combination of absurdly OTT spy-fi action with equally absurdly knowing comedy. No-one could take this film seriously as a thriller, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – you could say the same about, yes, any James Bond film. It’s okay to make a movie which is just a slightly cheesy bit of fluff.

Yet there’s more than this going on – a weird tonal inconsistency, coupled to a fixation with appearing to be cool and transgressive. Near the start, there is a comedic sequence in which Eggsy is taken for dinner with the King of Sweden, but also a scene in which Polly serves up a burger made from human flesh. Elton John (pretty much playing himself), wearing a costume seemingly entirely made of ostrich feathers, drop-kicks a goon in the head with his platform shoes while grinning at the camera, while a few minutes later there’s a moment where Eggsy makes a mawkish speech about honour and justice before cold-bloodedly executing a defenceless enemy. Egerton has said that some elements of the film are mainly intended to shock – he was specifically referring to a sex scene in which he plants a tracker on a woman in a manner surely unprecedented in the annals of cinema, but there are many others conceived with the same purpose, I’m sure. The whole thing just doesn’t gel.

For me, one of the most telling things about the film is its energetic amorality – all the speeches about ‘justice’ and so on strike a rather sentimental note, rather than having any force to them. The implication of the film is not just that millions of people are using illegal recreational drugs, but that this is no big deal and nothing to get particularly exercised about. The only character who takes any kind of explicit moral position about this is the US President (played by Bruce Greenwood), and he is depicted as a self-serving, callous hypocrite.

But, hey, maybe total amorality, bad-taste humour and F-bombs by the dozen are where the kids are at these days. I enjoyed the action sequences in Golden Circle a lot, and there are some admittedly very funny moments (many of them courtesy of a game, vanity-free turn from Elton John). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a film that wasn’t just aimed at teenagers with questionable judgement, but made by them too. Then again, I’m just an old git whose opinion doesn’t count for much anyway. No doubt this will be a big hit and another one will be along in a couple of years to discomfit me all over again.

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If I didn’t know better, I would say that the international custom of day-and-date releasing – the system whereby films appear on the same date worldwide – had been abolished, for not only is the UK enjoying Alex Garland’s Ex Machina several months before its US debut, but we have also been treated to Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service a couple of weeks before its American premiere. I’ve no idea why we have been granted such a signal honour, given that this is clearly intended to be a major movie: could it simply be the result of most of the principals involved being British themselves? I don’t know.

kingsman

Vaughn directs and co-writes with Jane Goldman, based on a graphic novel scripted by Mark Millar, and prominent among the cast is (hardest working man in showbusiness) Mark Strong. If you feel a faint bell dingling somewhere in your cortical region, it may well be because all these people were also connected with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a lairy and rambunctious take on the superhero genre. Kingsman has the same sort of style and attitude, even if its subject matter is different.

The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton – yes, that really is his name, apparently), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a lowlife, living on a London council estate and passing his time squabbling with his thuggish stepfather and doing a little petty crime. (His real father died while serving in the armed forces, when he was but a tot.) Finding himself up on charges, he calls in a favour and is rescued by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an old comrade of his father, and member of an ultra-sophisticated, ultra-discreet, independent intelligence agency, known as the Kingsmen.

As it happens, a Kingsman mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill, who was apparently at one point scheduled to be playing himself) has gone terminally bad, leaving a hole in the ranks of the organisation, and Hart puts Eggsy up for the selection process before heading off to investigate. The trail leads to internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who has an evil scheme on the go. Will Eggsy be able to satisfy training boffin Merlin (Strong) and his snobby superior Arthur (Sir Michael Caine, Gawd bless you sir), and join the Kingsmen as they take on Valentine and his henchmen?

With the Bond movies currently locked into ultra-serious mode, there is obviously a gap in the market for a big, daft, crowd-pleasing spy action movie, and I rather suspect Kingsman would like to be it. Certainly, it is stuffed with references, subtle and not so subtle, to classic spy and spy-fi offerings from years gone by: the front for the Kingsman organisation is a tailor’s shop, just like that of UNCLE, while a casual mention of a phone with a shoe in it appears to be a nod to Get Smart. Firth’s performance as a very British superspy, fighting the fight from a mews flat, umbrella in hand, seems to me to be very clearly informed by Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in The Avengers. But, above all, there are the classic Bond films from the 1960s.

There is an excruciatingly knowing sequence in which Firth and Jackson have a pleasant dinner together and discuss how serious and dull the modern spy movie has become, and how much they both enjoyed the old sort, with wacky gadgets and insane supervillains. This is clearly the territory Kingsman is looking to occupy, and there are trick umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, and frankly implausible schemes aplenty before the film is out. And yet the film seems reluctant to completely relax and be a simple pastiche of the genre. A repeated line is ‘This ain’t that kind of movie’, which is invariably delivered before one of those genre tropes is subverted.

This for me is the main thing stopping Kingsman from being the piece of jolly, breezy entertainment it clearly wants to be. Half the time it wants to be an old-school spy-fi romp, the rest of the time it insists on undermining and subverting that very genre, usually in way that seems calculatedly transgressive or openly absurd. By the end, proceedings have extended to include international carnage, sex-crazed Scandinavian royalty, a bevy of exploding heads (including, we are invited to assume, those of the entire British Royal Family), and the end of the world occurring to a disco soundtrack, and the sense that this is on some level intended as a bizarre spoof is hard to shake. Yet elsewhere the film is clearly aspiring to moments of genuine gravity and emotion. As a result, it all ultimately feels rather insincere, guided only the script’s instinct for the excessive and outlandish.

I could go on to talk about the film’s colossal inverted snobbery (Eggsy finds himself competing against worthless public schoolboys with names like Digby, Rufus and Hugo for his Kingsman place), cheerful amorality, bafflingly graphic violence, or indeed Taron Egerton’s fairly indifferent performance (I’m struggling to avoid using the word ‘smug’), but I think you get the idea. All in all it’s a bit of a shame, as there are individual moments where Kingsman shows the potential to be every bit as much fun as its premise suggested: needless to say, Michael Caine does exactly what the script requires of him with great aplomb, while Colin Firth shows a very new side to himself in a couple of action sequences (there’s one extraordinary shot where he single-handedly punches, kicks, stabs, detonates, and gun-fus to death about fifty people). Samuel L Jackson manages to find some genuine menace and humour in a character who could just have been silly, while Sofia Boutella is eye-catching as his henchperson (Boutella’s lower legs have been digitally removed and replaced with razor-sharp blades, which if nothing else is a new take on the traditional deformed-villain Bond archetype). Vaughn’s direction is undeniably inventive and energetic, too.

But, very much as in the case of Kick-Ass, Kingsman seems to be so preoccupied with being shocking and cool and cynically funny that it doesn’t really have time to be anything else – or at least anything else new. Once you strip away the violence and class warfare and black humour, what you’re left with bears an eerie resemblance to Stormbreaker, a much more family-friendly spy-fi pastiche from 2006. This is a lot more polished and in some ways cleverer, but I can’t shake the impression that it ultimately seems to have been made by and for teenaged boys, rather than mature human beings. Which is fine if you’re a teenaged boy, but this film could have been a lot more enjoyable for a much wider audience.

 

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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.

turing

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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Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth’s essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he’s in this year’s Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn’s new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is appearing in Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.

before

It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King’s Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn’t). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly solid English accent to match the movie’s greater London setting.

Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day’s recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.

Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.

However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who… well, you can’t have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.

Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?

Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are ‘Almost certainly not’ and ‘Very probably’, for this wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies on the internet (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been beefed up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.

Overall, though, we’re in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can’t help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you’re being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking ‘this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way’, but – very much to the film’s credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.

The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.

It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film’s rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I’m not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.

 

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It sometimes feels like the world is full of awkward truths, facts that you would really give anything not to have to acknowledge, but ones that decency and integrity eventually and inevitably require you to. If you are a Star Wars fan you have to reach some sort of accommodation with the first two prequels; if you love Richard Wagner’s operas you have to acknowledge the noxious racial prejudice underlying much of his greatest work. And if you are an admirer of Jason Statham you have to accept that he started his movie career working for Guy Ritchie and ended up starring in the director’s Revolver.

revolver

In the past I’ve made various jokes along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen a really bad Jason Statham movie – but then I haven’t watched Revolver yet, har har’. I really shouldn’t have, but then my thought processes ran (rather naively) along the lines of ‘everyone involved appears to be at least vaguely competent, and this is a fairly big movie – film studios aren’t stupid, there’s a limit to quite how bad it can be’. Oh, boy.

Revolver was released in the first half of 2005 and so dates back to that period when Jason Statham wasn’t quite perceived as a star who could carry a movie on his own (I think this started to happen after the success of Transporter 2 and Crank, not that it matters). Certainly the essential Jason Statham characterisation has yet to fully crystallise at this point, and he is magnificently coiffed and moustachioed in this film too.

Anyway, in Revolver Mr Statham plays Jake Green, a shady character not long out of prison and intent on revenge on the gangster he holds responsible for putting him there, Macha (Ray Liotta). During his time in prison Green has learnt something only referred to as the Formula, a system which makes him utterly invincible at any game or confidence trick. It appears that this even extends to playing heads-or-tails, and if you can’t get your head around how that could possibly work, walk away now (you will beat the rush if nothing else).

Having taken Macha for a sizeable chunk of cash, Green is dismayed to learn he is terminally ill and has only three days left to live (look, just don’t ask; just let it wash over you, all right?). He agrees to an offer from two mysterious loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) who will save his life in exchange for all his money and a sort of indentured servitude. Reluctantly he agrees.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot of Revolver; not because there are various twists and surprises which I am loth to spoil (I suppose there are), but because for most of the rest of the movie I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on. Some drugs get stolen and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a gang war, there are various cons within cons, Ray Liotta walks around a lot in his pants (even in the buff, for one dismaying scene), there is blood, mayhem, an awful lot of effing and jeffing, everyone worries a lot about a mysterious character called Mr Gold who doesn’t seem to actually appear in the film, and so on. But what you mainly get is Jason Statham doing a voice-over as Jake Green’s interior monologue.

Jake Green has a lot to say for himself through his interior monologue. Unfortunately – and you may be ahead of me here – what he has to say for himself is almost complete gibberish, mostly related to his mysterious Formula and the life lessons he has derived from it.

It’s not the case that Revolver has a complex plot which is just realised through poor storytelling. Revolver has an allegorical and symbolic plot, the deeper meaning of which remains almost entirely impenetrable simply through watching the film. Various numbers appear prominently at certain points, while colours are clearly also significant – not only do we have key players named Green and Gold, but some scenes are flooded with red or blue or white.

My understanding is that the key to attempting to make sense of Revolver is an appreciation of kabbalah, a Jewish-derived numerological system which Guy Ritchie was heavily into at the time he made the film. Quite how much of this interest derived from Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, who is apparently a dead-keen kabbalah nut herself, I don’t know, but it’s very difficult not to jump to conclusions. (As an aside, one can’t help but be rather impressed by the way that Madonna managed to spectacularly wreck Ritchie’s directorial career even when she wasn’t personally appearing in his films. She clearly has some sort of extraordinary death-touch when it comes to anything involving the silver screen.)

Well, anyway, I don’t know the first thing about kabbalah, and neither, I suspect, does Jason Statham, which may explain why he is obviously floundering around in this film, basically resorting to just snarling and sweating a lot while his interior monologue plays over the top. This film is light on action and the kind of snappy dialogue Statham can usually deliver so well – to be honest, it’s light on everything except a sort of studied pretension. Not only is it virtually impossible to tell what the director is trying to say, it’s also impossible to tell just where the film is even supposed to be taking place – British, American, and Chinese characters mingle together almost at random.

Suffice to say this film is extremely hard work, with virtually no entertainment value beyond the background hum derived from seeing Jason Statham on screen. Mark Strong appears as a slightly nerdy hitman and achieves the minor miracle of making his scenes rather gripping – this, I remind you, in a context where unsympathetic and obscure characters do abstract things for no apparent reason and various major plot questions are never even acknowledged, let alone answered. But apart from Statham and Strong this is just awful, pretentious, obscure, nasty tripe.

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