(On Cable TV, June 2019) When it comes to Christmas movies, I’ve grown accustomed to as much repetition as Christmas songs—replay them, remake them—I must have seen five different version of A Christmas Carol during December 2018 alone. So, I’m not overly bothered by seeing a third version of The Grinch—I (surprisingly!) didn’t care all that much about the 1968 Boris Karloff one, and was only cautiously positive about the 2000 Jim Carrey one. The reason why this version of The Grinch isn’t as useless as most remakes is that Dr. Seuss’s colourful imagination is far better suited to computer animation than live-action (as shown by at least two other CGI-Seuss features), and so there’s a lot of material for the 2018 version to explore. The result is surprisingly … pleasant. The characters aren’t as grotesque as the live-action version, and directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney clearly have a lot of fun finding madcap details to stuff in the thin original story. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the Grinch is fine, but it’s a more daring choice to use Pharrell Williams as the narrator. The musical cues are also interesting, going for a slightly newer sampling (“Christmas in Hollis,” Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Jingle Bells,” Pentatonix, etc.) than the classics. Some of the slapstick gags are genuinely amusing, and the film does manage to shift the Grinch’s opinion of Christmas in a not-too-sappy way (although the ending does drag on a bit). I suspect that seeing the film in June, away from the glut of Xmas madness, may have helped more than hindered. It’s always risky to predict what Christmas film will endure or not, but there’s a good chance that The Grinch will get a lot of play over the next few years. Considering how enjoyable the film is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
(On TV, June 2019) There is a built-in perversion of expectations in August: Osage County that is as provocative as it is frustrating. If you picture a theatrical play (or a movie) about a dysfunctional family, you already have a rough outline of how it’s going to be structured already pre-assembled in your head. The family will get together. They will exhibit the aberrant traits that make them dysfunctional. There will be shouting. Some people are likely to be punished. But as the story advances, the family will reunite, and those most sympathetic characters will get back together toward the end, having resolved some of their difficulties and being ready to make even further progress going forward. Well, take those comfortable preconceptions and throw them away, because August: Osage County ultimately goes in a very different direction, shattering family bonds until we’re left with individuals. I had been curious about this film ever since watching the uncompromising Killer Joe—both are well-regarded movies adapted by Tracy Letts from his own plays, and this one featured an ensemble cast of capable actors. Julia Roberts goes toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep, and some unusual choices such as Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch are to be found elsewhere in the cast. This is definitely an actor’s film, guided along with the pen of a professional playwright. As such, be ready for meaty dialogue, explosive revelations, off-kilter plot development and a merciless conclusion as a family crisis featuring a disappeared patriarch brings people home and detonates repressed fault lines in their relationships. It’s often very darkly funny, with extreme actions and language (Roberts hasn’t sworn as much on-screen since Mystic Pizza). While I enjoyed much of the film on a word-for-word basis, the ending did not sit right with me for a while—until I played around with it and realize how much it upended traditional expectations about how that kind of movie is supposed to go. But as I re-read my review a few weeks after watching the film, I’m somewhat more sympathetic toward what it manages to achieve, and honestly think that being forewarned is being better prepared to appreciate it when it comes. Do not expect a final weepy get-together—August: Osage County isn’t that kind of film.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) The Brexit mess has clearly shown the limits of British collective intelligence for almost three years now. You may say that it’s too early to have a look back at the referendum, but considering that the mess shows no signs of abating [January 2020: It actually got wilder in 2019!], now is no worse than last or next year for an incisive take on the events of 2015–2016. Made-for-TV film (originally for Channel 4, brought to North America by HBO) Brexit: The Uncivil War proves to be significantly better than expected not only at presenting the referendum, but explaining how sophisticated modern persuasion techniques have become. This remarkably entertaining look at the Brexit campaign is based on real facts and features real people, but doesn’t settle for a naturalistic style. In the best tradition of British political satire, Brexit: The Uncivil War takes flights of fancy, breaks down complex issues in an accessible way and throws its hands up in the air while wondering how so many people can be so stupid. It certainly helps that Benedict Cumberbatch headlines the cast by playing balding political strategist Dominic Cummings as a Sherlock-level genius with an ideological bent toward anarchism. The secret sauce in the film, reflecting real-life events, is the use of targeted advertisements delivered very precisely through web sites—there’s a brilliant five-minute segment in the heart of Brexit that connects the dots on how people can be analyzed and manipulated through algorithms that rival Black Mirror in sheer technological horror. It’s executed with a great deal of cinematic flair, and clever writing certainly helps the film’s narrative move forward. It may focus on a disgusted (possibly remorseful) Leave strategist, but the film seems aimed as Remainers—I certainly found it clever and witty, and I couldn’t be more closely aligned with the Remain side despite being, obviously, just a colonial. Brexit: The Uncivil War is funny yet bitter (the sequences featuring American influences, Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, are portents of much darker forces) and it has things to say that apply well beyond the border of the increasingly not-so-Great Britain.
(Video on-Demand, March 2017) Given Marvel Studio’s accumulating success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they now find themselves both freed to try new things, and doomed to refresh their formula before it become stale. Doctor Strange certainly shows how they tread the line, as it introduces yet another character, but in a realm far … stranger than the consensually rational universe of most of the non-Thor series so far. The paradox with Doctor Strange is that it’s narratively interesting at its basic character-driven level (which is to say: a gifted surgeon trying to regain his abilities after a terrible accident) and visually fascinating when it throws the rules of reality outside the window in time from some spectacular action sequences, but there’s a big mushy intermediate step in-between that’s almost unbearably dull. But such is the trouble with otherworldly fantasy: In between the characters and the cool sequences, there’s often a stultifying accumulation of bad-guy names, dull plots to enslave the Earth and other assorted generic material from the genre fantasy playbook. Doctor Strange succumbs to that issue, but can still fortunately rely on enough special effects to remain afloat. Benedict Cumberbatch may not be playing a role very much outside his established persona (it’s why he was cast, after all), but he’s compelling enough—and so is Tilda Swinton as an ethereal sorceress. Then there’s the work from Industrial Light and Magic, conjuring an Escheresque nightmare of an urban landscape folding upon itself during an action sequence. Doctor Strange is worth seeing for either (or both) of those reasons, but don’t be surprised to wish for the film to move faster during the rest of it—we know the origin stories by now, and the galactic-threat ones … it’s time for something else.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) As a Computer Science major, I’ve been waiting at least twenty years for this biography of Alan Turing. Consider: one of the father of computing, inventor of the Turing test, key figure in World War 2 war efforts, tragic victim of institutionalized homophobia… what’s not to like in Hollywood terms? Of course, The Imitation Game takes rather large liberties with the historical facts, making Turing an arrogant and socially inept wunderkind and torturing the historical events to make it look as if Turing was the sole key figure in WW2 cryptography, maybe even war-making strategy. As much as these deviation from fact rankle (and never more so than when a team of analysts gets to decide how to use their decrypted information in specific tactical engagements), they do try to streamline Turing’s often-complicated life into something that can be presented in a movie theater. Benedict Cumberbatch is (delightfully) practically playing Sherlock-as-Turing, which is a treat for those who like him in that mode and less of a treat for those who don’t find his persona interesting. Matthew Goode steals a bit of the spotlight as Turing’s almost-entirely-fictional opponent, while actors such as Charles Dance and Mark Strong plays what they’re best known for. The historical re-creation is fine (it’s a bit of a treat to see Bletchley Park on-screen), and the war sequences are used without dwelling on the combats. It doesn’t amount to anything but a prestige bio-fiction in the classical mold, but it does present at least the basics of Turing’s life, and makes a good case arguing for the tragic waste of his last few years. It’s also an interesting companion to other recent British-scientist biographies such as Creation and The Theory of Everything.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) It’s far too soon to even think about contextualizing the Wikileaks saga of 2010-2011 and Julian Assange’s place in history when so much still remains to be written and a self-exiled Assange looks spent as a significant political force. Still, director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer do their best with The Fifth Estate, an attempt to craft a dramatic story out of too-recent world events. The film starts and ends pretentiously by spouting once more the rhetoric that the kind of open-reporting exemplified by Wikileaks is an inevitable and destabilizing evolution in the history of the world. But once it settles down and focuses on substance, The Fifth Estate becomes an exemplary demonstration of how to do a biographical film about a controversial figure: by focusing on acolyte Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with Assange, The Fifth Estate avoids getting into Assange’s mind and lays the ground for a solid man-learns-better dramatic structure on which to hang the various historical events and ideas. It works, but in a familiar well-worn fashion: The film feels familiar even when it discusses the revolutionary, and the structure can’t quite sustain the amount of detail that the script feels forced to include (although the look at the European hacking scene has its moments). If this fairly ordinary film has a standout element, it’s got to be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange, charismatic and repellent in turn, hitting a sweet spot between hero-making and warts-and-all reporting. The real story is considerably messier than the dramatic arc of the film (Domscheit-Berg’s actions after leaving Wikileaks will strike most as deplorable), but the Assange’s portrait seems reasonably consistent with other published accounts of the man [February 2014: including a recent damning profile by his once-ghostwriter] which is already something. The Fifth Estate famously flopped at the box-office, turning in results that were more in line with small art-house releases than A-list Hollywood productions, but the film itself is more bland than bad, and should still please anyone with an interest in the modern maelstrom of information-sharing. It’s not because the final chapter has yet to be written that we can’t look at the first few drafts of history.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a confirmed but not dogmatic Star Trek fan, I find this new movie-reboot-series interesting: It’s not quite the same Star Trek that established the reputation of the series, but it holds its own as an ongoing series of action-based SF adventures. This second entry builds on the first one in that it doesn’t really have to re-establish all of the characters, giving more time and freedom to tell a new story. That it’s pieced together from bits and pieces of other Trek miscellanea (I recognized at least three minor references to the original series, and I wasn’t paying that much attention) is a bit unfortunate, as it constantly invites comparisons that may not work to its favour. There certainly are a few problems with Into Darkness: As in the first film, the screenwriters clearly don’t understand anything about science or basic plausibility (A spaceship plunging into the sea? A major engagement in lunar orbit and no automated defense mechanism says boo?) and can’t be bothered to think twice about their universe-changing plot contrivances (Trans-warp? Resurrection serums?). This laziness keeps Into Darkness from being taken seriously as some of the finest recent examples of filmed SF: this isn’t 1983, and there’s a lot of good original SF on-screens to pick from. In order to compete, even a Star Trek reboot has to bring something to the table, and what Into Darkness has in spade is action: Director J.J. Abrams’ film is filled with high-end sequences mixing top-notch visuals with fast-paced tension and quite a bit fewer lens flares than the first film. The characters don’t hurt either, as it’s almost ridiculously entertaining to watch Chris Pine as the impulsive Kirk play off Zachary Quinto’s cool Spock. The rest of the crew also does well, proving the virtue of that particular cast selection back in 2009. This time, though, the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous super-man Khan makes for far better drama than the first film: Cumberbatch is delicious as an antagonist, and there’s enough tension for an entire film in seeing him work alongside the Enterprise crew for vastly different reasons. Despite the departure from Trek’s all-optimism canon, I’m not unhappy to see tensions within Starfleet used as primary plot devices: This reboot is setting a nice bar in terms of dramatic interest, and fractious inner politics are a good measure of this pseudo-realism. So it is that while it’s possible (and maybe even necessary) to nit-pick this film to shred, I’m not dissatisfied at all with the result. My biggest wish for the inevitable third entry, though, would be to move farther away from Trek canon: a contemporary action-driven film series isn’t the same as a low-budget sixties serial, and any attempts to keep the two tightly linked can only frustrate everyone.