Benedict Cumberbatch

Avengers: Infinity War

02/05/18

The furore has settled. That inevitable record-breaking opening has come and gone. The embargoes have finally been lifted and, hopefully, the Marvel die-hards have accepted that reviewers are actually allowed to talk about what has been widely touted as the ‘holy grail’ of comic book movie adaptations. It’s time to take stock of Avengers: Infinity War. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the genre but, that said, I have seen most of the eighteen films that lead up to this one – and, you know what? I actually enjoyed a few of them. But I can’t help feeling dismayed that this has been accorded such awe-struck reverence. Let’s face it, it’s not some major cinematic milestone. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s a big dumb movie about people in spandex who hit each other. 

Of course, such movies always require a big, bad villain and here that post is filled by Thanos (Josh Brolin, somehow still recognisable under the layers of pixels), who admittedly has a little more nuance than most Marvel villains – but only because, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t advocate the destruction of all humanity – just half of it. And even that’s because he believes said destruction is the only sure way to ensure any kind of future. Which sort of makes him a pragmatist, I suppose. He’s currently on the search for the Infinity Stones that will make him the ultimate force in the universe. One of them is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other is, rather inconveniently, embedded in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany).  There’s a final ultra-mysterious stone somewhere but nobody seems to be sure where that one might be hiding.

Thanos dutifully sets off on a mission of destruction and The Avengers get the old group back together in order to oppose him. So that’s Iron Man and Spider-Man and Black Widow and… many others. Just in case that wasn’t enough, they are augmented by The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and just about anybody else available… apart from Hawkeye, who presumably isn’t considered super enough, having only a humble bow and arrow to work with. Actually, I can’t help feeling the makers have missed a bit of a trick here by not including an Uncle Tom Cobley-Man, but hey, maybe I’m just not reverential enough.

It’s probably pointless to say anything else about the story – it will only incur shouts of ‘plot spoilers!’ from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of such things – but the film’s main problem is evident from very early on. Too many superheroes. There are virtually herds of them, racing across the screen and doing super heroic things to try and slow down the seemingly invincible Thanos. (If he’s this powerful without the Infinity Stones, you can’t help wondering why he’s going to such lengths to get his mitts on them.)

To be fair to directors, the Russo Brothers, they do a decent job of keeping this potential sludgefest moving merrily along, mainly by cross cutting from one major plot strand to another – there are five to choose from. The film is at its best when it keeps things light and snarky – usually whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is onscreen – but when it tries for solemnity, well… I just can’t stop reminding myself that this is actually a film about people in spandex punching each other – and look, I really wouldn’t mind that so much, if it didn’t go on for quite so long. An action set piece in Wakanda, starts well, but seems to last for what feels suspiciously like a week.

Of course, the big thing here is that, unusually for this genre, there are several high-profile casualties… but who amongst us is naive enough to believe that, with a second instalment already being made, those ‘shocking’ deaths will be allowed to stand? What, kill off several billion-dollar franchises in one fell swoop? I seriously doubt it. Call me cynical; I don’t care.

In the end, Infinity Wars is a decent enough attempt at tying up a bunch of narrative loose threads but it’s not the masterpiece that many have claimed and, trust me, if you haven’t seen at least a few of the earlier movies referenced here, you’ll struggle to figure out what the hell is going on. Kids (and those who generally think that bigger and louder automatically equals better) will no doubt have a field day with it, but as far as I’m concerned, Infinity War Part Two can take as long as it likes to get here. I’m not holding my breath.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

01/01/16

The recent small-screen success of the BBC television series, Sherlock has prompted its creators to try something a little different this time around; after successfully updating the concept, they’ve decided to present a standalone episode as a period piece and moreover, to simultaneously release The Abominable Bride in cinemas across the UK in a series of exclusive one-off screenings; all things, no doubt designed to generate excitement in the hearts and minds of its huge army of ardent followers.

The problem is, of course, we’re not quite sure how this switch in time has been achieved – (is it the result of one of Sherlock’s cocaine-adulterated dreams? Or are we simply inhabiting one of the scenarios dreamed up by Doctor Watson in his role as an author of detective fiction?) The fact that we’re never really sure is one of the blades that fatally stabs this enterprise, even as it sprints merrily out of the starting gate, but infinitely more worrying is the ensuing surfeit of intolerable smugness that seems to drip from every sly in-joke and ‘clever’ character interplay we’re presented with. Authors Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to be hovering in the background, proudly announcing how very arch they’ve been with Conan Doyle’s legacy, but I have to confess that after careful viewing and much consideration, I’m still really not sure what was supposed to be happening in the story and can’t help feeling that the writers have been rather less clever than they suppose.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the case of Emilia Ricoletti (Emily O’ Keefe) dressed in a bridal gown, who appears in a public place, indiscriminately firing pistols at passers-by before committing an apparent suicide; only to reappear shortly afterwards, complete with a large hole in her head, to murder her husband. She then promptly disappears. Baffling? Well, yes. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman), go gamely into detection mode, but the eventual solution for the murder is so risible, it’s hard to believe that the authors thought it would pass muster as anything more than a joke. Blaming it on the Suffragettes? Oh, please… A late appearance by Professor Moriaty (Andrew Scott) at the Reichenbach Falls, has been crowbarred into the story with a total absence of subtlety, which just about puts the deerstalker hat on it.

Of course, Sherlock fans are usually a notoriously loyal regiment, so it must be extremely worrying for Moffat and Gatiss, that amidst the onslaught of social media pronouncements, posted shortly after transmission, only a very few scribes have arisen to defend this debacle and the ones that have, seem to be channelling a definite whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes (take a bow Lucy Mangan of the Guardian). I’ll admit, I haven’t been a massive fan of the series before now, but this ‘event’ has pretty much put me off investigating further instalments. I’d have loved to have finished this review with the word ‘elementary,’ but sadly, that’s a quality that was missing here.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

Black Mass

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25/11/15

Time was, when Johnny Depp’s name attached to a movie could be interpreted as a guarantee of quality, but to be fair, it’s been a while since that maxim held true. A once keen ability to pick the right project has lately foundered amidst a welter of vanity puff-pieces. So it’s heartening to report that Black Mass is a major step in the right direction, with Depp submitting his best performance in a very long time.

Here, he’s depicting real life  villain James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a career criminal who operated successfully around his home town of Boston over a period of thirty years, largely because his brother, Bobby, was a senator and his best friend, John Connolly,  an FBI agent. Bulger cannily formed an ‘alliance’ with Connolly, trading inside information on his rivals to ensure that he could operate his web of vice and murder with complete impunity.

Depp has worked hard to make himself look unattractive – complete with thinning hair, bad teeth and pale blue eyes, he’s hardly recognisable as his former self. Initial fears that this is simply going to be a ‘makeup led’ performance are soon quashed, as he submits a convincing turn as a repellent psychopath, a man who can skip from helping an old lady with her shopping, to shooting a man point blank in the face, without raising so much as an eyebrow.

There’s a lot of unflinching violence on show here, but its matched by a sharp script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and there’s the added bonus of a supporting cast to die for – Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sargaard… Seriously, there’s enough talent on show here to fill several movies; but there’s no denying that this is Depp’s film and he has a field day with it.

Like many real life stories, if presented as a piece of fiction, this would seem unlikely. Stay in your seat for the closing credits which offer glimpses of the real protagonists and we’re finally able to fully appreciate the lengths to which director Scott Cooper has gone to ensure that his actors resemble the major players.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

The Imitation Game

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15/11/14

So many bottoms on seats at a Saturday afternoon showing for what is, ostensibly, an ‘art house’ movie can mainly be put down to  one thing – the Cumberbatch Effect. Seriously, this man could go on film and read his shopping lists and an eager audience would surely turn up to watch him do it. So what a good thing that The Imitation Game is a unqualified delight, a truly absorbing and compelling tale, expertly told, that, despite a running time of 114 minutes, doesn’t flag for a moment. And in the lead role of mathematician and all-round genius, Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is (it has to be said) quite extraordinary.

Of course it’s not the first time that this story has been attempted in the cinema. Some may remember Enigma (2001), where Dougray Scott was charged with playing a fictional version of Turing called Tom Jericho and where all the awkward stuff was summarily skipped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a box office failure. This version of the story, however, stays closer to the facts and is all the better for it.

The film opens in 1951, where Manchester-based detective, Inspector Nock (Rory Kinnear) investigates a mysterious break in at Turing’s apartment and guesses that the man is hiding secrets, but he can have little idea of the web of intrigue that is going to be revealed as a result of his investigation. History of course has (eventually) recorded that Turing is the man who turned the tide of World War Two, by deciphering the German’s Enigma Code. In so doing, he shortened the course of the war by two years, saved millions of lives and (almost as a side-effect) pioneered the use of computers. But it’s also a tragic story. He was treated abominably for being a homosexual at a time when such a thing was illegal and suffered the almost unimaginable consequences.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum ( Headhunters) handles the proceedings with great skill and he’s aided and abetted by a superb screenplay by Graham Moore, one that skips effortlessly back and forth in time without ever confusing the audience and manages to make the most complex material easily understandable. An ensemble cast delivers a host of note-perfect performances. Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, Turing’s doomed would-be fiancé, is a particular delight and both Charles Dance and Mark Strong excel in their roles as, respectively, a crusty Commander and a secret service operative. Special mention should also be made for Alex Lawther, who plays Turing as a boy, a matching of two actors that, for once, absolutely convinces. But, even amidst such riches, this is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s movie and he manages to nail Turing’s (clearly autistic) character absolutely, by turns funny, awkward and inspirational. The film’s conclusion is just heartbreaking and only the stoniest character will manage to resist tears.

The Imitation Game is filmmaking of the highest order and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney