Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

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The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?

Star Trek Into Darkness

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Star Trek is now one of those pop culture inventions, like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who, that’s always going to be around and always going to be in line for a make-over or re-imagining no matter how spent or uninspired the previous incarnation may have been. This franchise hit its low point about ten years ago with the pretty dismal Next Generation outing Nemesis and the final TV offshoot Enterprise, a prequel which may actually have been OK but had such an appalling soft-rock theme tune that nobody I knew could bear to watch it. By then it seemed like the world might have reached Trek saturation point, what with four multi-season spin-offs from the original series and ten feature films of varying quality to digest and for the first time since the 70s the stream of new product dried up as the age of the cast members started to preclude demanding action sequences and the scope for new scenarios seemed limited. Eventually however Paramount studio bit the bullet and hired the hot producer and ideas-man J.J.Abrams (previously of Lost and Alias) to fully re-boot the concept, starting at the beginning with the origins of the Enterprise crew and as part of the process re-casting such iconic parts as Captain Kirk and Spock and McCoy for the first time. The result was a 2009 movie that boldly went and called itself simply Star Trek in a bid to establish itself as the definitive article and surprisingly it turned out to be pretty great, despite a few bits of slightly laboured retro-continuity designed to placate long-standing fans by providing an explanation for inconsistencies between events in the film and those in the established Trek universe. The original series became a cult hit not because it was about spaceships and aliens but because it was funny and charming and presented moral dilemmas and tests of character that felt authentic even while the external situations were blatantly not, and Abrams, despite not being a particular fan of the programme, was careful not to let the spectacular big budget explosions and chases in his film overshadow the human (or, in one case, Vulcan) elements. It took a bit of adjusting to, but the new cast pulled off an impressive coup by gelling just as well as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and co, and even Simon Pegg’s enthusiastic but not always convincing accent didn’t have one missing the original Mr Scott agonising about dilithium crystals. In particular, Chris Pine as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock fitted into their parts so well it was slightly uncanny.

The film was such a huge hit that a sequel was inevitable, so now we have Star Trek Into Darkness which is made absolutely to the same template but seems to run more smoothly as it doesn’t have to waste time with all that bothersome character set-up that took up the first half of the running time before. The movie kicks off by throwing us straight into a manic chase sequence on an alien world that involves an erupting volcano, a horde of possibly hostile natives and an underwater Star Ship Enterprise – it plays like the climax to a film rather than its opening scene and raises the worry that they’re going all out for thrills and spills this time, but things settle down in short order with an assured and well-paced storyline about a rogue Star Fleet officer emerging and some nice points of conflict between the impulsive Kirk and the unshakeably logical Spock being established. Our heroes set out on a hunt for the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who from some angles looks like an elongated George Osborne…rather appropriate, given the character’s disdain for the weaker members of society) which leads them into a hairy stand-off with the Klingons and eventually to some call-backs to the original series that will have the hardcore Trekkers in the audience whooping. The plot is clear and engaging, with some surprising twists that never irritate by seeming arbitrary, and it’s all further enlivened by some good jokes, touching character moments and some judiciously applied stock Star Trek memes (usually via Karl Urban’s lovely turn as Dr McCoy,  it’s not every actor who’d get away with the hoary old “dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer” line). Rather ironically it’s the stuff that the production have spent most money on and put most effort into that is the least interesting and most distracting aspect of the film, namely the extended CGI-enhanced climactic scenes of things crashing and exploding that go on for what feels like hours – it’s all terribly impressive, but you can get all that in a video game these days. Happily though STID has got more than enough going on elsewhere to make it worth sitting through. Once again Abrams has made a smart, funny and visually spectacular film that will appeal to Trek fanatics and the general public alike and that’s no mean feat.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: something’s rotten in the state of bakelite

It’s a risky enterprise, condensing as knotty a book as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy down into a two hour film, particularly given the existence of the universally admired BBC adaptation from thirty years ago, in which Alec Guinness made an indelible impression as the urbane intelligence agent George Smiley, but Tomas Alfredson’s new version would appear on first viewing to be a minor miracle: it’s uncompromisingly intelligent, confident in its use of the elisions and flashbacks necessary to compress the material into the required time-frame, startlingly convincing in its recreation of its drab 1970s setting and best of all quiet, measured and restrained for most of its running time. Don’t turn up to this spy film expecting Bond or Bourne style action sequences, chases and adrenaline-pumping fights – many of the scenes here involve shabby-looking men discussing arcane points of intelligence protocol in brown rooms while sipping on unappetising looking cups of tea. The technology on display is decidedly unflashy, and is mainly fashioned from bakelite, and James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the pootling little cars these agents use to get about in. Nevertheless, if you’re prepared to pay attention this is in places as gripping a thriller as I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m not sure I’m up to the job of precising Le Carré’s labyrinthine plot, but in very general terms Tinker Tailor is about the attempts by George Smiley to uncover a mole who has been compromising British security by feeding intelligence to the Russians. The spymaster Control (John Hurt, whose haggard features and booze-addled cunning fit the scenario a treat) has narrowed the identity of the double agent down to one of five men at the highest level of the security services, and Smiley is unofficially brought out of retirement to catch the mole. Gary Oldman gets what might be seen as the futile task of following Alec Guinness in the part of Smiley, but it must be said that he’s pretty successful, largely because he’s able to exploit the reined-in and ever calculating nature of the character. I swear Oldman doesn’t actually utter more than half a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole first half of the film, but you feel his presence throughout and when he starts making his moves his controlled and decisive acts of bravery ring true. Smiley’s far from an emotionless automaton however, and we see just enough of his backstory and personal failures to be able to generate considerable empathy with him.

This unusually subtle and considered characterisation also extends to the many supporting roles in the film. Nobody here comes off as a cartoon or a cliché, and while there are occasional verbal and physical outbursts they’re always earned and laid-in carefully. The cast of this film is actually pretty extraordinary – Colin Firth can presumably pick any part he wants these days, but here he settles for a smallish role as the caddish Bill Hayden, and you also get top turns from Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Kathy Burke. Other than Oldman, the two actors that really stand out for me are Benedict Cumberbatch as the nervy Peter Guillam (the scene where he’s sent to retrieve a confidential file is nail-bitingly tense) and Mark Strong as the loyal and fearless Jim Prideaux, who is put through a harrowing ordeal in the line of duty, and comes through it with dignity and humanity intact.

Tinker Tailor will probably be in line for a whole bunch of awards come the new year, and will probably deserve to snag a few. This is the kind of thoughtful, complex thriller they used to make in the 70s and it’s bound to repay repeat viewings with interest. Go and see it, but don’t be munching your popcorn too loudly.