Holmes & Watson (2018)

2019 #38
Etan Cohen | 90 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Holmes & Watson

From the moment it was announced, I knew two things about Holmes & Watson: that it would not be up my street, and that I’d definitely see it. Basically, Will Ferrell is not to my taste — I thought Anchorman was OK at best; I didn’t like The Other Guys despite it having a premise I loved; I remember enjoying Wedding Crashers specifically apart from his one scene; and, cementing my opinion shortly before Holmes & Watson’s release, I finally saw Step Brothers, Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous major co-starring turn, and didn’t care for it. (I also haven’t got round to reviewing it, but when I do it won’t be positive.) Despite my personal antipathy, most of those films are highly regarded, at least in certain circles; so when Holmes & Watson finally debuted trailers that no one liked, then garnered reviews that damned it as one of the worst movies released for years, I abandoned all hope of enjoyment. But it’s still a Sherlock Holmes movie, and so I’ve still felt compelled to watch it.

As you could no doubt infer from the title and aforementioned leads, the film sees Will Ferrell take up the mantle of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, with John C. Reilly as his trusty sidekick and biographer, Dr John Watson. The plot, such as it is, sees the pair investigating a threat to assassinate Queen Victoria by Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). Really, it’s just an excuse for Ferrell and Reilly to lark about in a series of Holmesian sketches. Full of truly terrible accents, reheated gags, and comedy bits that go on far too long, it would be tedious if presented as individual skits in a sketch show, but strung together as a movie… ugh.

Incompetence on both sides of the camera

The incompetence isn’t just present in front of the camera either. It’s hard to believe this was a professionally-produced, studio-released movie given the lack of technical skills on display, including atrocious dubbing, sloppy editing, and even shots that are out of focus. It’s so poor that Netflix, who seem to purchase any scraps the major studios decide to throw their way, turned down the chance to buy it (so they do have some standards!)

Amazingly, it’s not completely terrible. In supporting roles, Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, and Kelly Macdonald improve it just by showing up. There’s one bit that riffs off the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, which might’ve felt original-ish if those weren’t already nine years old. There’s a bit of dialogue where it’s suggested America is forward-thinking about female equality, which isn’t the intended joke but is a laugh nonetheless. And as it’s the only laugh in the whole sorry 90 minutes, I guess we should take what we can get.

If they’d deliberately set out to make a film that was ostensibly a comedy but contained no actual humour, I’m not sure they could’ve achieved it any more thoroughly than this. It’s so terrible that it’s almost a remarkable achievement of just how badly it’s possible to fail.

1 out of 5

Holmes & Watson is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Christine (2016)

2018 #114
Antonio Campos | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Christine

The true, tragic story of newswoman Christine Chubbuck is told in this affecting drama. For those that don’t know, it’s the ending that is why her story is famous: Christine was the first person to commit suicide live on television. The film attempts to help us understand Christine’s life and mental state, and what led her to that moment.

The overwhelming impression I got was of Christine’s existence being quietly sad. She’s shown to have the kind of life that isn’t loudly and forcefully horrible, but just… disappointing. So terribly and thoroughly disappointing that “why bother?” becomes a legitimate question for the person having to live it. That made it a somewhat uncomfortable film to watch, but that could be a personal thing — I can relate to Christine’s social awkwardness, and could see some of the pitfalls she was headed towards. (That said, not everything goes exactly as one might expect, specifically her infatuation with Michael C. Hall’s handsome anchorman.) I’ve known people like Christine, too, who do all the right things and try to put good out in the world, but somehow the world spits it all back, like it doesn’t matter.

Performance anxiety

In part because of this psychological realism, the film feels respectful, but without being either neutered or over-explanatory. By the former I mean that it doesn’t present Christine as some perfect soul — she can be bolshy and trying even for people who like her. By the latter, that it doesn’t hype up how bad her life was to make sure you ‘get’ why she’d do it. For example, everyone around her cares so much. You’d expect a terrible home life, bullying or teasing colleagues, some kind of gross betrayal, but no: they’re mostly nice; they like her; they try to be her friends. And you feel like she sees that, too, even as she… doesn’t. I suppose it must be mostly speculative in what it reveals about her psychologically, but you feel like it understands the responsibility of taking that approach — that it must try to be truthful, rather than histrionic; but that it’s important it attempts to find that truth, not just be enigmatic and vague.

Rebecca Hall gives a fantastic performance in the title role, completely immersed in what must be a difficult part to play: the viewer has to understand, identify, and empathise with Christine, even as she’s a bit standoffish, awkward, and maybe doesn’t even understand herself all that well. Between Hall’s masterly performance and Antonio Campos’ understated direction, they’ve created a film that dodges the pitfall of being melodramatic, and managed to make you sympathise with Christine and why she would do what she did, even as you empathise with her enough to wish she wouldn’t.

4 out of 5

Christine is available on Netflix UK from today.

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

Red Riding: 1974 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974

2009 #50
Julian Jarrold | 102 mins | TV (HD*) | 18

Red Riding: 1974The Red Riding Trilogy covers nine years of police corruption and child kidnap/murder in Yorkshire, amongst one or two other things, and begins here with a very film noir tale, courtesy of author David Peace and screenwriter Tony Grisoni, slathered in neo-noir stylings, courtesy of director Julian Jarrold.

Jarrold is most recently responsible for Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited, all of which stand in a sharp juxtaposition to the style and content of Red Riding. But turning from his lovely English-as-they-come costume dramas to something altogether nastier should come as no great surprise, for Jarrold is merely returning to his TV roots: in the mid ’90s he directed episodes of Cracker, Silent Witness and Touching Evil.

He certainly seems to know his territory, but perhaps he knows it too well — though this is also the fault of Grisoni and, perhaps, Peace — as the plot that he unfolds is not only familiar but told as if he’s all too aware we know what’s coming. The feeling one gets is of a British James Ellroy, albeit a low-rent, less complex version. (The same is true of 1980, though for me 1983 manages to escape such comparisons.) The story idles along, not exactly slow so much as in no hurry, full of near-clichéd plot points and an unrelentingly standard structure. These things aren’t necessarily a problem, but when you’ve got as big and bold a reality claim as the Red Riding Trilogy they feel out of place.

Another recent point of comparison would be David Fincher’s Zodiac — young newspaperman on the hunt for a serial killer in an inspired-by-fact ’70s setting — though this does 1974 no favours. It may be grittier than Fincher’s film, but it lacks the polish, the originality, and manages to feel slower, despite being a whole 50 minutes shorter. However much arty photography, disjointed storytelling, relatively dense accents and ‘gritty reality’ is plastered over the barebones of the tale, the familiarity of it — to both viewers and the makers, who don’t even seem to be trying — means there’s not an ounce of suspense or surprise to be had.

The cast is made up of established names, familiar faces and rising stars, many of them unfortunately stuck in familiar roles or otherwise left stranded by the unrewarding material. If they’re not quite stereotypes it’s because they’re too bland, lacking enough discernible character traits to reach such lofty heights. Occasionally this is because, with two films to come, some minor parts here have a major role later, but this can’t be said of them all. As the lead, Andrew Garfield’s journalist is as much of a stock character as the plot he finds himself in: a young reporter type, idealistic among journalists who no longer care (if they ever did), hunting to expose The Truth. Again, it could work, but is belied by the insistence — in both promotion and filmmaking style — that Red Riding is something more than Another Murder Mystery. Only Rebecca Hall, as a mother whose young daughter went missing years earlier, is granted the material to give an outstanding performance — which she does, easily justifying her recent BAFTA Rising Star nomination.

Besides Hall, the best thing about 1974 is its dull, desaturated photographing of grimy, desolate locations, where any colour that isn’t beige desperately wants to be. It suits the story and era perfectly, and the choice of 16mm seems to add a level of haziness that is equally appropriate. It’s perhaps indicative of everything this is aiming for that the most beautiful imagery is of an incinerated gypsy camp. Rendered almost black and white by the soot and desaturisation, ash floats through the air like snowflakes as Garfield stumbles through it, the whole picture a vision of Hell. It’s a kind of perverse beauty, true, but that’s also entirely in keeping with Red Riding.

1974 is a stock noir tale, dressed up with fancy filmmaking techniques and claims of realism to look like something more truthful, more real, more Important. And it makes me a little bit angry because of it. Maybe the violence is more realistically depicted than your average genre entry, maybe the police corruption is a little more plausible — then again, maybe it isn’t — but the real story here is so familiar they haven’t even bothered to hide the plot beats and twists properly, no doubt assuming a “gritty” veneer plastered over the top would do the job for them. It doesn’t. Maybe 1974’s grimy setting, brutal violence and unbeatable police corruption are all true to life, but the familiar and predictable plot leaves the realism feeling like no more than a pretence.

I was enjoying 1974 a lot more by the time the unexpectedly satisfying conclusion came around, but the sense that it had tried to pull the wool over my eyes throughout — and not in the good way a thriller should — just leaves a bitter taste.

3 out of 5

* Though I watched Red Riding: 1974 on 4HD, it’s my understanding that it was upscaled. ^

The Red Riding Trilogy

Red Riding Trilogy UKYou’d think Red Riding was a TV miniseries, wouldn’t you? After all, it was on Channel 4 on the same day for three consecutive weeks (recently repeated over three consecutive nights).

But the promotion — on iTunes, for example, or of Silva Screen’s soundtrack releases — is very keen to make reference not to “Red Riding” — as in, the title of a TV series — but “The Red Riding Trilogy” — as in, a series of films. Indeed, they are frequently referred to as “the films” (and similar variations thereof) in promotion and press, have received screenings at various film festivals and cinema releases in much of the rest of the world, including the US, and several other production and style points could also be rallied to confirm them as a film trilogy rather than miniseries.

As that’s how the makers would most like them to be regarded, then, it seems only fair to treat them as such. And so:


“The feeling one gets is of a British James Ellroy, albeit a low-rent, less complex version. The story idles along, not exactly slow so much as in no hurry, full of near-clichéd plot points and an unrelentingly standard structure. These things aren’t necessarily a problem, but when you’ve got as big and bold a reality claim as the Red Riding Trilogy they feel out of place.” More…

3 out of 5


“Where the first idled this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting, and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. Most time is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth.” More…

3 out of 5


“Tucker’s film bests its predecessors in almost every assessable value. The story and characters have more genuine surprises and suspense than ever, while the performances are at the very least the equal of what’s gone before. Unlike the other two films, where the corrupt cops were little more than cartoon villains despite claims to the contrary, 1983 makes their brutality really felt.” More…

4 out of 5



Red Riding Trilogy USMy final thoughts about Red Riding — other than “that was disappointing” — are stuck on the reality (or not) of the police corruption it portrays. It’s difficult to know whether anyone who believes our police were never so nasty as this is naive, or whether anyone who believes they were quite this bad is paranoid. The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between.

Despite my disappointment with the majority of the Red Riding Trilogy, I intend to return to it some day: considering my enjoyment of the third instalment and the adjusted expectations that come from being disappointed first time round, the potential inherent in the trilogy means it certainly merits revisiting.

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.

The Prestige (2006)

2007 #14
Christopher Nolan | 130 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

The PrestigeThe latest effort from the director of Memento and Batman Begins is an intriguing one.

A well-handled complex narrative (it again jumps about in time, but never to the audience’s confusion), even if the twists are relatively easy to guess. A credit, then, that the film doesn’t totally rely on them.

I’m a big fan of Nolan’s work and definitely continue to be; this may gain that missing point on re-viewing. See it.

4 out of 5

The Prestige placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.