Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Benedict Cumberbatch”

Zoolander 2

Like an overpriced, generic-smelling fragrance developed by a mediocre popstar, Zoolander 2 promises more than it delivers but you still cut it some slack because you know what you’re getting into.

Fifteen incredibly long years after his wife was killed and his son was removed from his incompetent care, Derek Zoolander is living anonymously “as a hermit crab”, blaming himself for his ills. Summoned by the fashion police (headed by the un-look-away-from-able Penelope Cruz) to help solve a string of celebrity murders, Zoolander and his old friend/foe Hansel (Owen Wilson) are forced out of retirement and back to the fashion capital of Rome, where all sorts of silly nonsense ensues.

Written by no fewer than four contributors and directed once more by its star, Ben Stiller, Zoolander 2 has the feel of a round-table joke-a-thon where everyone’s idea will be accepted. And some of what they came up with is very clever (Benedict Cumberbatch has a short-lived blast playing an androgynous model named “All” and Kristen Wiig is superb as a Donatella Versace-ed abomination) while Hansel’s incessant orgies ring a little lamer.

There are more cameos than you can shake your booty at, from world-famous designers to tough-guy TV stars to former supermodels. In fact, it becomes more a game of “Guess Who?” than a proper plot-driven story, and although that’s plenty of fun, it renders the film utterly disposable and probably not worth many people’s $18.50.

 

 

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The Imitation Game

This WWII drama traverses similar territory to Robert Harris’ Enigma as one of those true story dramas which, despite our knowing the outcome, still manages to be engaging. Thankfully, 2001’s Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet are today’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, and The Imitation Game’s especial strength is in its performances, in particular Cumberbatch’s central role as Alan Turing, the brilliant cryptanalyst who was instrumental in cracking the German codes.

“Mother says I can be off-putting sometimes, on account of being one of the best mathematicians in the world,” Turing opines to a potential employer, oblivious to the fact that being “really quite excellent at crossword puzzles” won’t endear him to others. Yet the very fine Cumberbatch (who does understated like few other actors) delivers Turing from superciliousness by restraining the potential for camp (Turing’s closeted homosexuality becomes a key aspect of his tribulations) and enabling him to show heart.

Knightley does frightfully-frightfully rather well, holding her own in an immensely likeable cast which includes Matthew Goode (Stoker) and a terrific Mark Strong. Even Charles Dance proves he’s still got it.

This is an old-school spy movie (albeit without the on-the-frontline espionage thrills), chaste and proper and decades away from Bourne and Bond. Despite one rather limp Spartacus moment, the narrative moves at pace, energy kept high by the endearingly insensitive Turing who at least knows that he doesn’t know jokes.

The Imitation Game doesn’t quite do justice to its hero’s significant backstory, choosing instead to focus on his enormous contribution to the war. But it should be enormously appealing to crossword puzzlers and code-breakers, and certainly delivers a rather jolly little romp.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th December 2013

This time a year ago, my mind was blown by the technical wizardry of Sir Peter Jackson’s adventure into High Frame Rate territory in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which means that if you see The Hobbit movies at 48 frames per second, it looks altogether more “real” and in-your-face than anything you’ve seen before. This has its good and bad points, but you can’t say our local hero of cinema ain’t innovative).

Largely, the first film worked well for its narrative engagement and bright characterisation, and if one can get past one’s indignation that “they’re making three films out of a one hundred page book!”, viewers can still be guaranteed a rollicking good time in this second instalment.

The Desolation of Smaug thankfully eschews redundant flashbacks and kicks straight off from where we left the dwarves and Bilbo Baggins, winding their way towards Erebor on a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ kingdom from Smaug the dragon (voiced beautifully by that paragon of British Evil, Benedict Cumberbatch). It takes them over two and a half hours to do so, because along the way our merry band, now slightly less frivolous than in the opening film, encounter characters we’re familiar with from the LOTR series (gosh, those elves are handsome!) and fall into various scrapes, including an exciting bit of white-water rafting and a fantastic spiders’-lair scene which will infect the nightmares of arachnophobes forever.

This time the story belongs less to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and more to exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), although pleasingly some of the other dwarves get more in the way of character development this time, and there are some meaningful “human” moments as the flame of romance flickers. Evangeline Lilly is especially good as Tauriel, Head of the Elven guard (and one of several roles implanted into the movie by Jackson and co-writer Walsh – purists may baulk, but civilians are sure not to mind).

In fact, it’s the vibrant supporting cast (liberties included) which keeps things interesting in a pretty standard fantasy narrative: escape the baddies, climb the mountain, slay the dragon. The only slightly bum note is Stephen Fry rolling out his typical caricature as the immoral Master of Laketown. Surprisingly, he is saved by Fast & Furious 6’s Luke Evans (now forgiven) and the others who convince us to take the drama seriously.

The aforementioned high frame rate is less jarring 12 months on, and with sweeping camerawork the set-pieces look incredible – the evocation of the Elven city is particularly stunning. However, some may still have problems with their suspension of disbelief since The Hobbit is by definition supposed to be fantastical and cinematic, yet the scenes shot outdoors in New Zealand’s enticing landscape look too real at times, rendering Gandalf and the dwarves like actors running through forests in (albeit amazing) costumes. That said, Bilbo’s worn corduroy jacket is impressively blemished, fingernails are grimy, and Smaug the dragon writhes with glistening scales. This is one sequel that leaves me optimistic about next year’s finale.

Star Trek Into Darkness – the review

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 5 May 2013

When J.J. Abrams (then best-known as creator of Alias and Lost, and with one Mission Impossible film under his belt) helmed the 2009 Star Trek movie, his nerves were swiftly soothed by critical acclaim and box office success.

The origin story, soon a must-have for all comicbook/sci-fi franchises, delighted audiences as it brought together an eclectic bunch of misfits to form the crew many knew so well. Even non-Trekkies grew up knowing about Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, and most childhood games involved doing the Vulcan salute as we vied to wear the mustard-coloured tunic. Director Abrams hit the jackpot with his fresh and individual take on the franchise, and novices and fanboys alike went home from the cinema happy.

However, the original thrill of seeing the young Spock (a perfectly cast Zachary Quinto), New Zealander Karl Urban as Dr “Bones” McCoy, and meeting the swaggering ladies man that is James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) can’t be created twice. Now we need to be wowed by something completely new. Happily, four years on Abrams has got the band back together to put on another display of intelligent, innovative blockbusting.

Given Star Trek‘s history, its devoted following, and the intensity of speculation around this latest rendition of the Starship Enterprise‘s adventures into outer space, it’s best to keep this a spoiler-free zone. Let’s face it – a brief plot summary won’t help you decide whether to see this film – so let’s just say there is conflict, both interpersonal and martial, lives are thrown into jeopardy, grown men cry, laser guns zap, cities crumble, there is nerve-wracking teleportation and a lot of travelling at warp-speed, and the whole thing looks incredible.

As to be hoped from the chap who’s about to reprise the Star Wars behemoth, the alien worlds and life aboard the Enterprise are beautifully rendered, from the precision of the crew’s slightly square uniforms (who irons the crease into those trousers??) to the sensational heat-deflecting jumpsuits. Abrams’ trademark lens flares mark nearly every scene, immersing you in the fantasy.

It’s not, however, all about the aesthetic. Abrams and his regular screenwriters put heart into the first film, and care just as much about connecting with their human audience here. So it is exciting to drop down to planet Earth, where the depiction of a futuristic London (retaining much of the city’s historical beauty in a fascinating juxtaposition of then and now) brings the “reality” of deep space home to a world that is familiar to us.

Pine, Quinto and their gang reprise roles from the earlier film, some of them given little more than a metaphor to spout or a grumpy girlfriend to personify. However, the leads’ bromance has deepened since 2009, and much of the pathos comes from trying to get the half-human Vulcan to express emotion (though Spock’s unintended wit is undiminished: when Admiral Pike admonishes “Are you giving me attitude?” Spock replies: “I’m expressing multiple attitudes simultaneously. To which are you referring?”).

It’s the new faces who bring a thrill. RoboCop himself (Peter Weller) plays Admiral Marcus, while Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch brings his own special brand of purse-mouthed, British villainy to the role of interloper John Harrison, blindingly superb as something of a New-Romantic goth who requires only charisma and That Voice to invoke menace. Even the inexplicably dull casting of Alice Eve (nice hair, though) doesn’t detract from what’s great.

While possibly not as heartstring-tugging as Abrams purports, Star Trek Into Darkness is nonetheless a rollercoaster ride of laughs and gasps, spectacle and pathos. One can’t help but feel his next big project is in very safe hands – may the force be with him.

There’s something on the starboard bow (STAR TREK interview)

This interview first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 5 May 2013

It’s a hive of activity at the press junket for the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie, as publicists brandishing clipboards and stop-watches bustle about a plush hotel on Sydney’s waterfront. We print journos get the after-lunch slot, so by the time Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine enter the business suite, they’ve been performing for a full morning of filmed interviews. Zachary apologises for being sick (a cold caught on the plane from LA a few days prior) while Chris, more handsome in real life but less light-hearted than his character, perches on his seat with a slightly furrowed brow.

Compared with the rather low-key actors, director J.J. Abrams is a bundle of energy, gracious to a fault. “Thankyou, thank you so much, I really appreciate it” he says when I tell him that on the strength of what I’d seen in Into Darkness, his next project seems to be in safe hands. (Abrams is set to direct the latest Star Wars, amongst similarly high expectations from a zealous fanbase.)

We’re at the beginning of the Star Trek Into Darkness world tour, and in a few hours the talent will be attending the Australasian premiere before heading off to Russia, Germany, LA and ultimately London for the biggest shindig. More of the stars will jump aboard as the tour circumnavigates the globe, but Abrams, Quinto and Pine (along with New Zealander Karl Urban) are in it for the long haul.

Star Trek Into Darkness takes us to a time when Star Fleet is under terrorist threat, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise must set off on a voyage to right some wrongs. Pine reprises the role of ladies man Captain Jim Kirk, with Quinto returning as his right-hand man/Vulcan, Mr Spock. (At this point it is probably worth mentioning that while Pine looks just like his onscreen persona, Quinto is mercifully unrecognisable without the pointy ears and thick glossy fringe. I decide not to tell him though.)

Portraying characters who have been around for decades and are protected and revered by particularly fervent devotees takes some guts. How fine a line had to be walked between doing impersonations and creating one’s own take on the genre?

Abrams’ commitment to maintaining the essence of a legendary franchise is evident. “The approach to everything – look, design, casting, props – was to take the spirit of what was done nearly 50 years ago and do our version, but be true not to the letter but to the spirit,” he explains. In casting younger versions of such seminal characters, he gave his actors free reign. “I tried to cast people who were in the realm, but then say to them ‘This is yours – do not try to copy what he or she did, do your thing’.” Abrams compliments Pine’s ability to combine his “natural, wonderful swagger” with an appreciation of “the [William] Shatner vibe”. “It was a very careful tightrope walk but they all did it beautifully”, he says proudly.

Pine agrees that the freedom to interpret their roles provided a great sense of fun. “Because it [is] this alternate, other-dimensional universe, prequel situation, there were fantastic opportunities to nod and wink, to give especially the long term fans of the franchise these moments of connection and resonance and ‘Oh my God, I can see Shatner there, DeForest Kelley there’ – and I think that’s the fun of it.”

In the 2009 film Quinto’s role was all the more challenging for his having to act alongside his predecessor, Leonard Nimoy. Far from being intimidating, however, he says it actually helped. “We spent a lot of time together, and subsequently became incredibly close. He is such a magnanimous person that I only ever felt supported”. Acknowledging that Nimoy had consultation rights on the casting of the younger Spock, Quinto adds “It was comforting and reassuring to know I could use him as a resource that none of the other actors necessarily [had].” Then, sounding like his onscreen persona: “But there are certain qualities of the character that cannot be ignored or denied”. He says it was a challenge bringing his own experience and perspective to the role, helped by J.J’s clear mandate that this should be a fresh interpretation.

Both leading men are full of praise for their great leader, but you can’t help believing that someone with Abrams’ guileless enthusiasm really would be great to work with. Quinto describes him as “one of the foremost directors of our time. I think people will look back at him as a filmmaker who helped shape the direction of storytelling in this particular era, which is a unique convergence of technology and expectation of audiences, so to balance those two things requires a very talented and uniquely possessed individual”.

Indeed, Abrams comes across as the typical movie-struck lad who came to work in Hollywood and is making the most of every opportunity. However, Star Trek may seem an unusual offering to someone who didn’t grow up a fan. “With all respect to Trek” he admits, “I never really connected with it as a kid, and part of that might have been that I wasn’t sophisticated enough – I had friends who were very smart who loved it… There was something very talky and boring, frankly, for me”. However, in being given the project he was adamant he still wanted “scenes of real conflict and debate, so we have that in the movie but I didn’t want to do a drawing-room film in space”. He doesn’t see his renditions as a sci-fi project, but as a “movie about people who made me laugh, who I connected with, who happened to be on this crazy journey, this massive adventure”. He is therefore creating an experience as much for the ordinary filmgoer as the fanboys.

Despite his embrace of the technological and aesthetic opportunities of modern-day filmmaking, at the heart of all Abrams’ work is a yearning for connection – between his characters and with his audiences. Into Darkness sees people thrown into emotional turmoil, and the archetypally unemotional, such as Spock, forced to confront real human feeling. I note that at one point in the film Spock seems to give all men an “out” for not expressing themselves when he says “You are assuming that because I choose not to feel, I do not care”. Quinto says playing such a character, for whom emotion has to be pared down, presented both a challenge and a gifts. “Spock’s choice [not to feel] is reinforced by his genetic history and his culture and civilisation, and unfortunately human men don’t have the same shield to hide behind.” But there are various “triggers” in the story that bring about a need for Spock to confront aspects of himself he would have previous avoided. Certainly, these make for some of the more amusing, honest and touching moments in the film.

With all this touchy-feely stuff going on, viewers may be relieved to know there are still a few baddies to keep things dark. Notably, Benedict Cumberbatch, star of TV, stage and silver screen, appears as the (inevitably?) British-voiced villain, John Harrison. Cumberbatch would be a revelation if we didn’t already know he is incredible in everything he does, but it seems Abrams came late to the BC fan club, having a tape of Sherlock sent to him by his producer. Once he had watched it, however, the director knew he’d seen a star. “He’s off the charts”, Abrams enthuses. “He is so talented, and his work ethic I respect so much…His being around, everyone just had a slightly straighter back – it was amazing, you feel it, he’s like an alpha thespian, he comes in and you’re like “whoa”. He elevated every moment”.

Far from Hollywood-speak hyperbole, Abrams is right – Cumberbatch is utterly captivating, delivering a punch to what is already a terrific blockbuster adventure of the highest order. J. J. Abrams clearly takes his work seriously, and we can be glad he knows how to follow-up a hit with a wallop.

EPILOGUE:
At the end of our interview, Quinto apologised yet again for being snuffly so to put him at ease I told them both about Brandon Cronenberg’s new movie Antiviral, where in a not-too-distant future celebrity culture has gone so mad that fans purchase and are willingly infected with a celebrity’s illness. Both livened up on hearing this, and found it a fascinating conceit. I felt pretty chuffed to be able to tell people in the film industry about a movie they should see.

Nearly two weeks later, I’m still battling a cold.

Frankenstein (National Theatre Live)

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 10th April 2011

We get some pretty good international theatre down here from time to time, but seldom can we see the likes of Danny Boyle directing actors of the calibre of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in a play based on a classic novel.  The beauty (in every sense) of the National Theatre Live productions is that we don’t have to fly to London to experience world-class theatre from the best seats in the house, even if screenings of this film are limited.

Both actors having learnt and alternated the lead roles of Dr Frankenstein and the monster, Cumberbatch and Miller deliver admirable performances, in particular whichever actor plays the creature maintaining an intense physicality for virtually the first hour of the play.  A sharp script keeps up the pace.  “You’ve read Paradise Lost?!” asks the incredulous doctor on meeting his creation for the first time, to which the creature replies simply “I liked it.”

Watching a play like this is an intriguing experience.  Boyle, an Oscar-winning film director (whose early career encompassed theatre) brings many cinematic aspects to bear on the production, including dazzling lighting, a well-used revolving stage and a powerful soundtrack.  The cameras enable close-ups and birds-eye views that the theatre audience can’t have, and the result is stunning.

Dancing in the moonlight

Four Lions

Oh, Chris Morris.  You are a brilliant man, a daring comedian, a cutting (and cutting-edge) writer.  I have long admired you from afar (and, when I lived in the UK, from not so far).  If anyone could pull off the inaugural suicide-bomber comedy, it would be you.  You don’t care what people think, and neither you should!  Of course one ought to laugh at the outrage that is terrorism!  These idiots deserve the mockery, and we, victims in the West, deserve the light relief!

Well, I saw his point.  And to be fair, Four Lions is a lot of fun.  But to be honest, it’s neither the sum of its parts (excuse the dismemberment pun) nor the reaching of its potential.  It could have, and should have, been much better than this.

Morris has made a lot of bloody good telly, and this is his first feature film.  He picked a topical, novel subject, and it was fair to expect an excoriating social/cultural commentary with lots of laughs.  In mocking four hapless wannabe Jihadists in northern England, the film does occasionally walk excruciatingly close to the line between disrespecting Islam and legitimately sending up its extremist elements.  Our protagonists are engaging and amusing, and mostly we don’t actually see them as evil or misguided so much as just plain daft.  The set pieces are pretty silly, too – from justifying the purchase of hundreds of litres of bleach from one corner shop (“I used different voices each time”), to the slapstick mishaps at the training camp in Pakistan, to the grand plan of blowing up the London Marathon while dressed in stifling, furry costumes (“You’ll die in those,” quips an unsuspecting policeman).

Much of the dialogue is indeed funny, and delivered in such a throwaway fashion that it’s easy to miss some of the best lines.  There are neat cameos from British comedienne Julia Davis (Nighty Night and Gavin and Stacey) and the hilariously versatile burgeoning film star Benedict Cumberbatch.  But I’d have to say that while I found the film amusing throughout (and was thus beaming with a constant smile, punctuated by the occasional LOL), overall it felt lacking and as if someone else with greater comic chops could have done much better.  The irony being I’d have picked Chris Morris…

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