(Video on Demand, December 2015) At a time when we’ve been served with no less than three recent muscular re-invention of Sherlock Holmes (from Sherlock to Elementary to the two Sherlock Holmes Guy Richie movies), it’s a noteworthy change of pace to see Iam McKellen play an elderly Holmes wrestling with early dementia and past regrets in Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Condon, this is a film about a very human Holmes (far less fanatical than his three recent counterparts) and it plays in minor keys: the caper to be resolved doesn’t depend on outlandish deductions, and the real mystery here is Holmes struggling to recall events from his own life. McKellen is a terrific Holmes, bringing both gravitas and vulnerability to the role. A thoroughly de-glammed Laura Linney is there to provide another point of view, further challenging our view of Holmes. It’s a fairly slow film, and one that may not hold your attention easily if you’re distracted by other things, but it does build to a finely-controlled finale in which Holmes accepts his place in life and the necessity of being close to other people. Given that at least two of the three other recent Sherlocks are struggling with the same thing, Mr Holmes does have something more to bring to the character and should be admired as such. Just don’t expect fist-fights, gun battles and ticking-clock deductions: it’s not that kind of film, and it’s probably better for it.
(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.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) So there it is: the final conclusion of the Twilight “Saga”, after five seemingly-interminable films that were often more laughable than effective. If you sense some weary resignation in the preceding statement, then you probably understand how the series divides fans from onlookers. Fans will love it, while onlookers will wonder aloud at the series’ substantial plot holes, backward social attitudes and pacing issues. Fans will go nuts for the overblown ending (complete with written passages of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, and a lavish slideshow of every single actors to have played in the series) while onlookers will wonder when the thing will actually end. Plot-wise, the split of the series’ final book has taken its toll: After the events of the previous film, this one seems unsure of what to do: The villains announce their intention to come make trouble, then take weeks to come around –leaving the protagonist to mount a defense of sorts. Various vampires with superpowers are brought in (and it’s hard not to laugh when emotionless protagonist Bella’s superpower is explained as being a really effective superpower wet blanket), various stereotypes are presented on-screen (Irish vampires with a drinking problem? No, no, no…) and the film puts all the pieces in place for a big fake-out of a conclusion that wimps out just as it becomes interesting (and also has it both ways, almost). Bill Condon does fine as a director with the material he’s given (he even gets to helm a large-scale special-effects sequence.), while the usual trio of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are up to their now-usual standards as the protagonists. It goes without saying that this final installment, more than any others, is for the fans: If you’re still hating and watching after five movies, then there’s no helping you.