The Past Month on TV #58

The flipside of watching a tonne of films during lockdown is that I haven’t watched much TV — I’ve still not even finished Picard, ffs. But I did make time for Quiz (which, as a three-parter, was basically just a movie anyway), another animated Doctor Who, a season of Archer (“a season” sounds like a lot, but it’s only 13 easily-digestible 20-minute chunks), more of the worst of the original Twilight Zone, and a few other bits and bobs — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein, which the National Theatre made available on YouTube last week (sorry if you didn’t know; it’s gone now).

Quiz
QuizAdapted by James Graham from his own West End play and directed by Stephen Frears almost as if it were a movie (note how only the first episode has a proper title sequence), Quiz is the story of Major Charles Ingram, who in 2001 went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and — allegedly — cheated his way to winning the million-pound jackpot with the help of his wife and someone in the audience coughing to indicate correct answers. But Quiz takes its remit wider than this, showing how Millionaire was born and spawned a nationwide community of quiz enthusiasts determined to game the system and make it onto the programme — and once on there, cheat in their own ways.

Obviously I knew the basic story of ‘the coughing major’ from all the news coverage, but I had no idea about all the stuff with the networks of dedicated fans. Quiz only touches on it as a side element in the Ingrams’ story, but it’s a fascinating aspect. The Ingrams were only passingly involved with it, but it makes you wonder: did that organisation cheat more successfully? Were the Ingrams caught and prosecuted because the programme had been driven to be hyper-vigilant but, in fact, were not cheating? They protest their innocence to this day. And while Quiz doesn’t come down on one side or the other, it throws enough doubt on the accepted narrative that you wonder how they were ever convicted.

The enthusiasts’ network; the lengths people went to get on the show; the media storm around the Ingrams… it’s all a reminder of what a phenomenon Millionaire was at the time (at its height, it was watched by a third of the UK population). The best thing about the first episode is how it digs into that, with the backstory of the show itself, the pitches and its early success. This stuff could be seen as an aside to the main story — as padding to make Quiz a three-parter — but it really isn’t: it was that very uniqueness, the specialness of the programme, that led to the ‘cheating’. It also makes for a fun drama, pillorying the behind-the-scenes world of television. Respect to ITV for commissioning a programme that takes so many potshots at ITV itself.

Chris Sheen played by Michael Tarrant… wait…Indeed, even as there are serious events (watch out for the undeserved fate of the Ingrams’ pet dog), Quiz is consistently very funny. There’s a gag in the closing seconds of episode two (punctuated by a smash cut to black) that is golden. Michael Sheen’s uncannily spot-on impersonation of Chris Tarrant will also tickle anyone familiar with the man — i.e. UK viewers, but I guess it won’t translate internationally. Matthew Macfadyen is more understated but also excellent as Charles Ingram, while Helen McCrory burns up the screen as their barrister later on. Those are the obvious standout performances, but the whole cast are on form, in particular Mark Bonnar as one of Millionaire’s exec producers. He’s consistently superb in everything I’ve seen him in (if you haven’t, you should definitely watch Unforgotten series 2), and here adds a lot of nuance to what could’ve been an inessential bit part.

Ultimately, this is a pretty excoriating examination of what went on. Very few people come out if it well — certainly not ITV, the show’s producers, the media, the police, the general public, the jury, the British legal system… Maybe only the Ingrams. Did they do it? Possibly. But the evidence of their guilt is rather thin and, in some cases, ludicrously biased. Quiz itself doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it certainly seems to have convinced a lot of viewers of their innocence.

In the UK, Quiz is available on ITV Hub for another few days. In the US, it airs on AMC from Sunday May 31st.

Frankenstein
National Theatre Live: FrankensteinAs theatre goes, this is a blockbuster: directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the actors alternating who played Victor Frankenstein and his Creature for each performance. One of each was filmed for the National Theatre Live cinema screenings, and for the lockdown National Theatre at Home release they also made both available.
Cumberbatch-as-the-Creature came out first and consequently attracted the most YouTube views, but the consensus seems to be that Miller-as-the-Creature is the better version, so that was the one I watched (I’m curious to see both, but watching it twice in a week isn’t really my way).

Now, frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Frankenstein. I like the concept a lot — it endures for a reason — but I found the novel an interminable slog, and faithful adaptations fare similarly. Fortunately, this one jumps right to the birth of the creature, thereby improving things considerably by getting to the meat of the issue. It also serves to almost completely refocus the narrative away from Frankenstein and onto his creation. After a brief appearance at the start, it’s another 45 minutes before Frankenstein enters the story properly. This feels like a very modern choice — siding with the downtrodden and oppressed, making him the protagonist rather than the genius inventor. Of course, the Creature is not without his crimes, and the production plays up the mirroring of creator and creation — as if the fact they’re played by the same actors alternating roles didn’t clue you in to that theme.

It’s an impressively theatrical production (a reason why, like One Man, Two Guvnors last week, I’m not counting it as a film), with some clever and effective staging, in particular a rotating multi-level centrepiece. That said, being able to view it from different angles via camerawork does add to the production at times, in particular with one or two moments that seem to have been staged for a bird’s eye view; but then, at others we’re clearly missing something of the atmosphere created in the physical space (for example, sometimes we get to see the massive lighting rig made of hundreds of individual bulbs, but some of its uses and effect is lost by not being in the room). Also, this YouTube release has been censored at one particular moment for the sake of a wider audience, which is a shame. It’s clear enough what’s happened, and some will be pleased not to see that depicted, but unfortunately the edit is wholly unsubtle and therefore completely jarring.

Whatever its other qualities, this production will remain best known for its role-switching gimmick. Some people do think it was just a gimmick — a way to show off and stand out, but not worth much else. I’m not sure that’s fair. If you only watch it once then obviously you’ll only see the actors one way round, even the mere existence of the alternative is somewhere in your mind, informing how you view the play, the notion that these two characters can be played by the same actor in the same production. It’s a neat way to underscore the connection between the two character, which, as much as they would both like to sever it, is seemingly unbreakable.

Doctor Who  The Faceless Ones
The Faceless OnesThe most recent missing story to be animated (see last month for the history of all that) has the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arrive at Gatwick airport in 1967, where there are mysterious things going on around the offices of airline Chameleon Tours, including young people flying off on holiday but never coming back…

The Faceless Ones gets off to a strong start, with suspicious alien-connected murders, disbelieving authority figures, Polly seemingly mind-wiped, and the Doctor and Jamie playing at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson — a bit of mystery, companions in peril, the TARDIS team on the back foot as they have to investigate while dodging the authorities. Unfortunately, this is a six-parter. There are many great Doctor Who six-parters, but there are at least as many (especially in the early days) where they seem to have commissioned six episodes by default and the writers didn’t really have enough story to fill them. The Faceless Ones is among the latter: as it heads into the second half, you can feel the plot begin to stretch itself out. There are some great cliffhangers to perk things up, at least.

Nowadays Who fans have a tendency to watch whole stories in one sitting, almost like a movie — most of them are about that length, after all. But someone once observed that a lot of overlong, awkwardly-paced serials suddenly make more sense if you watch them one episode at a time; that each part works as a 25-minute chunk of TV, and when you watch them in one go you don’t see the trees for the wood. The Faceless One is almost a case in point, because each of the earlier episodes are enjoyable in isolation, and the later ones have their moments; but, with hindsight, there is a lot of back-and-forthing, and I can well imagine that, watched all in one go, it feel long, slow, and spread thin.

The last two instalments are the worst culprits. The writing’s quality dive-bombs in the penultimate episode as other characters basically explain the plot to the Doctor and Jamie, while episode six offers a rather sedate finale, with a bit of drama early on giving way to a lot of protracted business to resolve the situation. It also features the most bored-sounding delivery of the line “you fools, how can you trust him” imaginable. To cap it off, this is Ben and Polly’s last episode, and they’re written out poorly. It’s nice that they decide it’s time to return to their own lives, rather than being forced to go or stuck with a thin romance or something (as other companions would be), but it’s terribly handled: they’ve not been in it for weeks, then suddenly realise it happens to be the same date they first joined the Doctor so, hey, why not leave now? And the Doctor’s goodbye speech: “Ben can catch his ship and become an admiral, and you, Polly… you can look after Ben.” Eesh.

As for this animated reconstruction, it looks a lot stiffer and flatter than Macra Terror, which feels like a disappointing step back. Some of the animation models are quite poor, suffering from Thunderbirds syndrome (i.e. too-big heads) or with odd posture, and sets are basic in places. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details — maybe it was made on a reduced timescale or budget, or maybe it’s the strain of having to do 50% more episodes, or maybe they were trying to be more faithful to the live-action originals (two episodes of Faceless Ones survive, although they’ve been animated too, for consistency), or maybe it’s just that a ‘60s airport is visually duller than a far-future colony. Whatever, it does nothing to enliven the mediocre script. Still, I personally find these animated visuals better than nothing (others disagree), and I’ll happily buy every one they produce.

Archer  Season 6
Archer season 6When I watched Archer’s fifth season (aka Archer Vice), I was picking it back up after years away and was set to continue it. That was in 2018. Although I was quite positive in that initial review, I was less positive by the end, and that was my enduring memory of it. Well, I’m happy to report I found season six to be a return to form.

I observed of Archer Vice that the change of setting from spy agency to drug dealers was immaterial because it was the characters not the situation that mattered. That’s true to an extent, but I suspect not entirely, because here they’re back to being spies and it all seems to have sparked back to life. That’s kind of ironic because, as anyone who follows the show will know, they eventually moved on from spies to rotate through a different setting/genre every season, which was because they’d run out of spy stories to tell; and yet comedic spy stories are clearly what these guys do best. So, I’m wary of where it’s going to go in seasons I’ve not yet got to, but, for the time being, I’m enjoying it again. This time I don’t think it’ll be years before I watch the next season.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
The Mighty CaseyIn last month’s initial selection of The Twilight Zone’s worst episodes I found one or two that weren’t wholly terrible. I’m not sure this selection fares even that well…

Going from worst to ‘best’, the episode placed 155th (of 156) on my consensus ranking is The Mighty Casey. It’s a very silly story about a robot baseball player, which substitutes loopy sound effects and the incredulous expressions of onlookers for its lack of special effects, and I guess also to cover for its lack of adherence to the laws of physics. The only interesting aspect of the story is the reactions — or lack thereof — from characters when they learn Casey is a robot. It appears to be set in the then-present of 1960, but no one’s like, “holy shit, you built a lifelike robot who can pass for human and play baseball!” No, they’re only concerned with whether his roboticness needs to be reported or kept secret. That dilemma ultimately leads toCasey needing to be given a heart, but once he gets one he’s too compassionate to keep playing. So the ultimate message is… you need to be heartless to be a sportsman? I mean, I don’t care for sports much myself, but even I think that’s stretching it. Maybe baseball fans would get a kick out of this episode, but for the rest of us it’s just rubbish.

Equally as daft is Black Leather Jackets, in 154th. A trio of young bikers move in next door to a nice all-American family, but there’s more to the lads than meets the eye. The kindest thing I can say about this episode is that some of it is nicely lit. Unfortunately, the script is pretty crap, with the dialogue being particularly awful. “Do you know the word… love?” Seriously. It’s like a spoof of bad ’50s sci-fi, but it’s real and it was made in 1964. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer says it’s “arguably the most dated of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes” and I think he might be right. And after 20 minutes of uncomfortable ludicrousness, it comes to an entirely unearned bleak ending. Twilight Zone may be most famous for its last-minute surprise reveals, but when they were bad, they were really bad.

The Whole TruthIn 153rd is The Whole Truth, which is about a car that’s been haunted since it came off the production line — although this one’s considerably less threatening than Christine. Instead of a murderous machine, this ‘haunted’ car merely compels its owner to be completely honest at all times. Unfortunately for used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut, he only learns this fact after he’s bought it. It’s an obvious idea — forcing a used car salesman, that most dishonest of individuals, to tell the truth — but it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it, other than a totally far-fetched and implausible finale. Yes, far-fetched and implausible even by Twilight Zone standards! Singer calls it “the dumbest twist in the history of The Twilight Zone” and, again, I’m inclined to agree.

In the episode titled The Chaser, the eponymous character is a young man in love with a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but through a coincidental contact he meets a fellow who sells him a guaranteed love potion. The scene where he purchases the potion is really quite good, but on the whole it’s painfully obvious that this is going down a “be careful what you wish for” pathway, and all we can do is wait for it to play out. They’re not even nice characters to spend time with — he’s a pathetic obsessive and she’s a bitch. And after he gets what he wished for and doesn’t like it, he considers a spot of murder. It’s a bit… much. And the morals of it all are a little foggy, to say the least — as many commenters observe, it’s dated into being uncomfortably sexist. There’s an angle that could make this storyline worked (critical of the guy trying to drug a woman into loving him), but that’s not what’s played here.

The Incredible World of Horace Ford is one of The Twilight Zone’s most interesting failures thanks to its production history: the script was previously performed as an episode of a different show in 1955, and by the sounds of things it was just restaged wholesale for TZ. That’s probably why it doesn’t feel like it quite fits in properly — it’s something broadly Twilight Zone-ish that’s been recycled rather than a bespoke episode. It’s about a 37-year-old manchild toy designer who constantly reminisces about stuff he did when he was 10… and yet somehow he’s managed to find himself a caring wife, friends, and hold down a job for 15 years. Maybe we’re supposed to think he wasn’t always so stuck in the past, but the way other characters indulge him makes it seem like he was, even if he’s getting worse as the episode begins.

The Incredible World of Horace FordThe lead actor is Pat Hingle, of Commissioner Gordon in Batman ’89 fame. He gives a convincing performance… if this was about a Big-style situation of a stroppy 10-year-old boy trapped in a 37-year-old’s body, but that isn’t what’s actually happening. There’s an equally misaligned performance from Nan Martin as his wife: it constantly feels like she knows more than she’s letting on about what’s really happening, like the twist might be she’s responsible for, or at least knows, what’s going on… but she isn’t and she doesn’t. Honestly, I don’t blame the actors for struggling with how to play their roles, because it’s not like the story makes it clear for them what’s meant to be going on. At first it seems like another of the series’ “you can’t go home again” episodes about a man in love with nostalgic memories of his childhood, but then it turns out it’s some kind of time-loop thing… or… not. The resolution is maddeningly, deliberately inexplicable. And, yeah, turns out it is just another version of “you can’t rely on your memory of good times”. To compound the problem, it’s a season four episode, so of course it takes its sweet time playing out a storyline over 50 minutes when it only needs the 25 minutes of other seasons; and the time loop factor makes it literally repetitive.

Finally for now, Four O’Clock, which is about a mentally deranged man who wears a far-too-tight waistcoat — and, more importantly, arbitrarily decides he’s going to eradicate all evil in the world at 4pm that afternoon… he just hasn’t worked out how yet. You see, he’s spent his days investigating bad people (i.e. those whose lifestyle choices he personally disagrees with) and trying to rat them out to their employers and the like, but he’s not really getting anywhere. Naturally, it comes to an appropriately ironic ending. Paste’s Oktay Ege Kozak reckons it’s “like lazy Twilight Zone fan fiction: it exploits every pattern the series had developed so far and executes it without much originality or flair”, which is a bit harsh, but also kinda fair. Aside from the predictability of the ending, the episode’s only real problem is that it’s like spending 25 minutes in the company of an internet troll. It might be an accurate portrait of a self-righteous busybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be around him.

Also watched…
  • The Big Night In — The UK’s two big charity telethons, Children in Need and Comic Relief, teamed up for the first time ever in aid of charities who help the most vulnerable at this difficult time. The three-hour event attracted a lot of unnecessary bile on social media. Okay, it wasn’t the greatest TV programme ever made, but it was alright (not significantly worse than these things normally are, I didn’t think), and had a few genuine highlights. The best bits were probably a new Blackadder-adjacent sketch guest starring Prince William, and Catherine Tate’s Lauren being homeschooled by her teacher, played by David Tennant (reprising the role from an old Comic Relief sketch) — “Are you or have you ever been a doctor? Are you a member of the WHO?”
  • Farewell, Sarah Jane — The tie-ins to Doctor Who Lockdown events have only become more elaborate since I wrote about them last month. This is probably the highlight, though: a new, final story for spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, written by creator Russell T Davies and performed by a host of cameos, all to pay tribute to the late, great Elisabeth Sladen via her iconic character, Sarah Jane Smith. You can watch it on YouTube here.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 7 — I only watched one more episode all month?! Oh dear. Three to go…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing Eve season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, the third season of which is currently airing between iPlayer and BBC One. For the first two seasons we had to wait until after it had finished in the US so they could put the whole lot up on iPlayer at once, which no one noticed during season one but drew a lot of criticism during season two (you can work out why, I’m sure). Consequently, I binged those first two seasons (indeed, I came to it late, so went straight through them both), so I wasn’t sure about watching it weekly now. Also, Devs, the latest work from Alex Garland, which frankly I wasn’t even aware existed until it popped up over here (when it had already almost finished in the US). I’ve seen very mixed reviews of it, but I still intend to watch it. But, as noted above, I still haven’t finished Picard, and I’m determined to get that done before I start anything else. Hopefully next month.

    Next month… hopefully I’ll finish Picard and get on to some of the stuff I’ve been missing. Also, I’ve got my eye on more classic Doctor Who, plus a third (and, I think, final) selection of the worst of The Twilight Zone.

  • Doctor Strange (2016)

    2016 #169
    Scott Derrickson | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Doctor StrangeThe latest from Marvel (or Marvel Studios, as they’re now branded, presumably in a bid to differentiate themselves from the properties owned by other studios that have been only too keen to use the Marvel logo and blur the line for the casual moviegoer) opens the door on a new facet of their shared cinematic universe, though does so in a movie whose plot follows the familiar “superhero origin story” rulebook. On the bright side, Doctor Strange has several other qualities to recommend it.

    It’s the story of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but cocky New York neurosurgeon, whose hands are ruined in an accident, taking his career — the sole focus of his life — with them. In search of groundbreaking healing, he travels to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — not a doctor, but a mystic, who introduces him to the world of magic. Which in this case is real and not just, like, some Derren Brown stuff, because that wouldn’t make a very good superhero movie. Then there’s some stuff about evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

    So yes, the story is familiar — but you can say that about most superhero movies, especially origin films. It’s only a problem if you think movies are entirely about their plot. What Strange offers to accompany this through-the-motions narrative is its visuals, and oh, what visuals they are. You’ve likely seen some of it in the trailers — the folding cities, which look like Inception run through a kaleidoscope. Certainly, their complicated detail and intricacy leaves Nolan’s movie in the shade. The old idea of “an effects movie” — Wowzerswhere the incredible effects are half the point — seemed dead in an era where every movie has CGI and every blockbuster has its share of once-impossible visuals. Strange demonstrates the form can be alive and well. The way the effects are created — with green screen and pixels — is the same as any other movie, but the designs and the visual imagination are exciting.

    The action scenes that are choreographed around and through these effects are suitably imaginative also, making use of the concepts and ideas of the magic, rather than just having people punch each other in front of swirly backgrounds. To say too much would be to spoil the movie, but the Inception-y stuff is not the film’s climax — it has several other tricks up its sleeve. There’s one bit where time flows backwards, which I specifically mention because at that point the music does a bit too, which is primarily notable because the rest of the score is your typical bland, generic, forgettable Marvel music. On the other hand, I’ve read others praise the music for being more memorable than Marvel’s usual temp-tracked output, so maybe I’m wrong.

    When the film isn’t tickling your adrenal glands, it at least has the courtesy to sweeten the pill of its Superhero 101 storyline. For one thing it’s very funny, though in a way that doesn’t steal from the drama. This lightness of touch has become Marvel’s forte, and Strange handles it as well as any, without going all-out like Guardians of the Galaxy or half of anything starring Tony Stark.

    Practical magicThen there’s the cast. Obviously keen to avoid being typecast after playing an arrogant British genius in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch here plays an arrogant American genius. Strange doesn’t have the charm of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, nor of some of his Marvel stablemates, like Tony Stark or Peter Quill, but his character arc takes that arrogance and transforms it into a kind of caring aloofness that, with flashes of dry wit, makes him an appealing character — even if it may take further films for that appeal to be fully realised.

    Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat wasted as Marvel’s typically lightweight villain, though his inherent skill as an actor allows him to flesh out the few speeches he is given. You could expand that assessment out to most of the cast: they’re all above this — four of them are Oscar nominees or winners (clearly Mikkelsen has been overlooked by the Academy) — but the fact that quality flows through their veins helps elevate some of the material. You could argue their talent is wasted with this stuff, but what do you expect? It’s an action-adventure blockbuster from a company known for their consistently light tone — that’s never going to dig into proper emotive character drama. Suffice to say that such top-tier actors effortlessly add resonance to their roles, however little they had to work with on the page.

    More controversial was Tilda Swinton’s casting. You could see it as whitewashing, or you could see it as dodging a racial stereotype — there’s a visual gag to that effect, in fact. “Oscar winners get bigger parts than Oscar nominees, okay?”Besides, one of the film’s best characters is of Asian ethnicity, so it kinda balances out. That’s Benedict Wong as the sorcerers’ librarian, who’s likely to emerge as the film’s most popular character. It helps that viewers aren’t likely to expect much of him. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are seriously underserved, perhaps hoping for more meat in the no-doubt-intended sequel(s).

    Actually, that’s an understatement, isn’t it? This is a Marvel movie, and one that’s garnered positive reviews thus far to boot — it’s going to be a box office success, and sequels will inevitably follow. Nonetheless, some reviews have been bizarrely keen to frame Strange as “Marvel’s greatest risk yet” and “a radical departure for the studio”. That’s all empty hyperbole at this point and I don’t know why they do it. Guardians of the Galaxy already proved that no change of genre is a risk for the studio — and Guardians was a much bigger change of form for Marvel than Strange is. Plus, the way Strange handles magic is no more out-there than the way it handled gods ‘n’ that in two Thor films. Indeed, if anything Strange should look like a moderately safe bet: it’s following in Thor’s footsteps with the whole magic/other worlds/dimensions thing, but married to a fairly standard superhero origin arc. It’s no riskier a proposition for Marvel than any other new property. Nonetheless, it does open up some tantalising possibilities, especially when it comes to teaming Strange with the Avengers… though they’ll have to find a way to remove some of his abilities, otherwise he’ll be far too powerful.

    To further those connections, there are two end credits scenes. I shan’t spoil their contents, of course, but in my opinion they’re the wrong way round. One is basically Magic toucha teaser for another Marvel film, the other relates to the plot of the movie we’ve just seen. The former is first (and about 10% of my screening walked out before it came on) and the latter is, obviously, second (by which time about 90% had left). Those percentages ‘matter’ because, a) how do people not know Marvel’s rep for these scenes by this point?, and b) I think the scene related to the film you’ve just watched is the one that should be more attached to it, with the ‘teaser trailer’ being a fun bonus for those dedicated to stick around to the bitter end. But maybe that’s just me.

    Much earlier in the movie, shortly after encountering the Ancient One, Strange is offered tea. He drinks it, then something amazing happens, and he asks what was in the tea. The Ancient One answers, “Just tea. With honey.” That line struck me because it rather sums up Doctor Strange as a movie. In its well-rehearsed superhero-origin-story-ness, it’s just tea; but the quality cast, the genuine laughs, the imaginatively choreographed action, and, most of all, the mind-bending visuals add a very pleasurable sweetness.

    4 out of 5

    Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US next month.

    The Imitation Game (2014)

    2016 #125
    Morten Tyldum | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Oscar statue
    2015 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design.



    The Imitation GameAlan Turing was a war hero: he led a team of cryptologists who managed to break the Germans’ Enigma encryption, thereby giving the Allies access to tonnes of vital information that (historians estimate) helped shorten the war by up to four years. This information was beyond top secret — so much so that they created a new designation for it, “ultra secret” — so when the war was over, Turing & co’s contribution went unrecognised for decades. Alan Turing was also a homosexual in an era when that was illegal. When he was caught, he was sentenced to chemical castration, which caused (or at least contributed) to him taking his own life. Fine way to treat a war hero, but that’s what you get with discriminatory attitudes.

    Discrimination is surely one of the major themes of The Imitation Game, a film that it’s apparently easy to mistake for a drama about the deciphering of Enigma, but which is really a Turing biopic. It takes place across three eras: the 1920s, when Turing (played by Alex Lawther) was a bullied schoolboy; the war years, when Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) faced discrimination across the board, including a commanding officer who thought he was a Soviet spy and teammates who flat out didn’t like him; and the 1950s, when Turing (played by Cumberbatch in gentle older-age make-up) is uncovered as gay and gets the persecution already discussed. As if that wasn’t enough, the best person he recruits for his team during the war is female (played by Keira Knightley), who of course is also pre-judged by some as capable of nothing more than being a dimwitted secretary.

    The screenplay by newcomer Graham Moore topped the Black List in 2011, so it’s probably of little surprise that it went on to win an Oscar, but I think it’s fair to say its quality, while good, isn’t that good. The use of three concurrently-told timelines seems to be too much for Moore and/or director Morten Tyldum to handle at times, occasionally flitting to a different era with little purpose beyond “it’s about time we told more of that storyline”. That’s not to say a wholly chronological telling would’ve been more effective — though perhaps it would’ve placated critical viewers who expected (and retrospectively demand) a cryptography-based wartime thriller — but the period juggling clouds the point as often as it illuminates it.

    Regardless, it blusters through with a relatively brisk pace (for what is essentially a heritage drama), supported by several excellent performances. Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch is the obvious headline — he’s Alan Turing in the Alan Turing biopic so of course he is, but it’s a very strong performance. His Turing is surely somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which at best has speculative historical basis, but Cumberbatch embodies well that social awkwardness with hidden inner genius. It would’ve been easy for him to slip into familiar traits from that other antisocial clever-clogs he plays, Sherlock Holmes, but at worst there are only vague and infrequent nudges to our memory of that performance. Rather, I’d argue he fully subsumes himself into this role. Surely that Oscar would’ve been his were it not for Eddie Redmayne’s even more remarkable turn as Stephen Hawking. (Well, Oscar voters might’ve plumped for Michael Keaton instead, but they’d’ve been wrong.)

    Also up for the golden man was Knightley, who does give one of her better turns as Turing’s sort-of-sidekick. The pair have a fairly complex relationship — both halves are key to conveying that, and they both do. At least as remarkable as either is young Alex Lawther, who arguably gets the film’s stand-out acting moment in his final scene, where a tumult of emotion is contained beneath a stiff-upper-lip surface in a tight close-up. On the strength of this, an actor to watch out for. The rest of the cast don’t get the same depth of material, but Charles Dance and Mark Strong provide exceptional value, as always, and Rory Kinnear does his best to bring some nuance and interest to a part he’s overqualified for.

    To return to the issue of the film’s reception, some people seem to be angry with or offended by the notion that the war was won as much — maybe even more — by men in rooms breaking codes than by soldiers on the ground doing the actual fighting. However, I can’t help but think that’s actually one of the points the film is making — that soldiers are the obvious ‘heroes’, because they’re there doing the shooting, but the people behind the scenes telling them where to go do that shooting are just as important to the overall victory. I mean, if you watched this film and still think the boots on the ground are the only thing that won the war, and by extension that intelligence isn’t all that important, then maybe you missed something.

    Perhaps that just stems from a frustration at some of the film’s other issues. It clearly has a flexible relationship with historical accuracy — well, what biopic doesn’t? Without wanting to spoil plot developments, some viewers feel the film suggesting Turing knew of the spy at Bletchley Park is insulting to his memory, because in real-life he didn’t even know the individual. Alternatively, is it not a way to integrate that part of the Enigma story into a film that otherwise wouldn’t have a satisfactory way to touch on it? Everyone’s mileage will vary on whether that should’ve been done or not.

    And let’s not even get into opinions on how the film dealt with Turing’s homosexuality, which swing wildly between “it was just a footnote, why didn’t it get more attention?!” and “why did they allow that to dominate a film about codebreaking?!”

    There’s no denying that The Imitation Game contains an interesting story about an important aspect of the war, starring a fascinating and complex central character. How well it handles those aspects if more a matter for debate, as it doesn’t develop some elements as well as it perhaps should have, and the heritage stylings always turn some off. If you ignore or gloss over some of those faults and take the film at face value, it’s a 5-star effort with a well-told primary narrative and strong performances. If you do listen to the niggling faults and the “what could have been”s, it sinks back down a little.

    Without meaning to sound too judgemental (though when has that ever stopped me?), those factors making me think this is the kind of film “normal people” will probably love a lot more than “film fans” — which probably explains why it’s in the IMDb Top 250 but all the most-liked reviews on Letterboxd have exceptionally low scores. Personally, I’m going to side with the populous: not everything has to be a groundbreaking feat of Cinema to be a story worth telling and told well, and if it is indeed some kind of “historical revisionism” to say that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and the way Turing was treated post-war was horrendous, well, I’m OK with that revisionism.

    4 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of The Imitation Game is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow.

    Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)

    2016 #1
    Douglas Mackinnon | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

    Screened in UK cinemas simultaneously with its TV premiere (and coming to the big screen in various other countries over the next week or so, too), the latest episode of the BBC’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes series is actually a standalone adventure set in the character’s original Victorian time period.

    The rest of this review will be spoiler-filled, but before I get into that I’ll say this: if you’re someone who’s a Sherlock Holmes fan but not keen on Sherlock and are wondering if the changed temporal setting means this special might be of interest to you, then I think it’s fair to say it won’t.

    1895: detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sidekick / companion / chronicler Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) learn of the case of Emelia Ricoletti, who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head in public… and then later that evening murdered her husband. Despite the intriguing impossibility of the crime, Holmes’ thoughts are for some reason preoccupied with his deceased nemesis, Prof. Moriarty…

    It would’ve been a bit weird if Sherlock completely abandoned everything that has marked the series out for an aside of an adventure in Victorian London, and so it is from the start. While there is certainly a different feel — not just the obvious trappings of horse-drawn carriages, candlelight, costuming, and so forth, but in the way the characters speak and behave — it’s still spun from the same cloth as the regular series. These are recognisably the Holmes and Watson we commonly know as Sherlock and John, surrounded by versions of Mrs Hudson, Mary Watson and Inspector Lestrade that aren’t so very different from their present-day incarnations.

    The case they find themselves embroiled in is a little more period than usual, however, with lashings of Gothic and some of the trappings of a Christmas ghost story. The episode is co-written by series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and anyone familiar with Gatiss’ wider work can clearly see his influence here. Moffat brings his trademark fast-paced intricately-tricksy plotting, for which individual viewers’ mileage varies greatly: some find it genius, some find it tedious. Is it clever, or does it just think it’s clever? Is it impossible to follow, or were you just not paying enough attention? As to the first question, I think it’s a bit of both; as to the second, I think the episode ultimately answers everything, but you might need to realise a few things for yourself.

    Much of The Abominable Bride is a lot of fun. The mystery is fairly engrossing, though we’re frequently sidetracked into character interplay — such is Sherlock’s way. There are many entertaining scenes of this, however, not least Holmes and Watson’s arrival at the Diogenes Club and the state of the version of Mycroft they find therein. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is atmospheric, retaining the series’ usual flashy, whizzing editing and camerawork at times, and incorporating suitably horror-esque elements at others. Anyone after a fully traditional take on a Victorian Holmes and Watson can always revisit Jeremy Brett — here we have Victorian Holmes through the filter of Sherlock, and it works.

    Until the last half-hour or so, anyway, when the modern version suddenly comes crashing in. At first it seems like a clever interlude; a little reminder of the true time period for this version of the characters, and a tease for season four. But it quickly transpires that, no, this episode isn’t actually a wholly standalone aside from the main series — Gatiss and Moffat have found a way to integrate it into continuity. For me, this is where the special begins to come apart at the seams; not because I inherently object to this integration, but because from that point on the episode begins to jump back and forth between the present, the imagined past, and various other dream-state asides. It’s almost entirely justified by the beautifully-shot Reichenbach Falls sequence, but a spot of cinematographic prettiness doesn’t really excuse the way the story goes a little haywire. The least successful part of all, for me, is that it calls into question the solution for the case we’ve just been presented with… but then doesn’t get round to offering another, meaning you kind of feel like the case hasn’t been solved, even though it presumably has been, with the first solution. I think.

    All of which kerfuffling makes The Abominable Bride a tricky beast. From the promotional trailers and blurbs, it may’ve looked like a standalone Victorian Sherlock Holmes adventure that happens to star the cast of the present-set Sherlock — hence why I felt it worth offering that clarification back in paragraph two, because, despite not being connected to a full series (the next one of which will probably appear in exactly one year’s time), in reality this is Episode 10 of Sherlock — and, tonally, feels like it.

    As someone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes in his proper era but is also a fan of this modern day version (I would say “a big fan”, but I’m not one of those people), I’d rather they’d played this a little more straightforward. Not a lot — it’s still under the umbrella of Sherlock after all, and the era-transposed stylistic flourishes in the first hour-ish worked very nicely in my opinion — but the mixed-up mishmash of the final act dilutes the effectiveness of the entire experience. There’s fun and thrills to be had along the way, but in another form it could perhaps have been a Sherlockian classic in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is available on the BBC iPlayer for most of January. It’s in cinemas worldwide over the next few days, including in the US on the 5th and 6th. An extras-filled two-disc special edition is out on the 11th.

    The Fifth Estate (2013)

    2015 #144
    Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

    It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

    The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

    Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

    Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

    The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

    Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

    In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

    Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

    In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Starter for Ten (2006)

    2007 #99
    Tom Vaughan | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

    Starter for TenA predictable British rom-com, enlivened only by a few good moments and performances, as well as the excellent ’80s soundtrack.

    You’d assume the plot would focus on the characters’ aim to win University Challenge, coupled with a woefully predictable romantic subplot; sadly, it turns out the woefully predictable romance is the main plot and the quiz only turns up now and then to lend some structure. The final contest is almost entirely devoid of tension thanks to this and the other conclusions hold no surprises.

    McAvoy is likeable, though held back by Brian’s near-unbearable ignorance about life. The best performances come from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, both actors worth watching.

    2 out of 5

    Starter for Ten is on BBC Two tonight, Sunday 31st August 2014, at 10:30pm.