Posts Tagged ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’

image

Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

The_Imitation_Game_poster

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore

Country: UK/USA

Runtime: 114 minutes

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Alan Leech, Rory Kinnear

Man or machine? Alan Turing’s story finally gets a big-screen telling in this gripping thriller

Now recognised as one of the key figures in the Allied victory in World War Two because of his role in breaking German codes, as well as being the father of modern computing, Alan Turing was a relatively obscure figure for many years. His profile gradually increased from the mid-1980’s onwards, when a West End play Breaking the Code was staged about his life, culminating in 2013 with a Queen’s pardon for the charge of gross indecency that ultimately led to his suicide. Now Turing’s story has finally hit the big screen in this scintillating thriller directed by Morton Tyldum.

Graham Moore’s beautifully-paced and gripping screenplay for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. Rather than take us in a a linear fashion from Turing’s wartime work to his tragic demise, Moore cleverly interweaves three periods in his subject’s life in such a way that we are left not just with a sense of tragedy, but also of Turing’s great triumph. The bulk of the story concerns the war years at Bletchley Park, but we also see Turing during his school years and in the 1950s during the period when he was investigated by the police, arrested, and subsequently found dead at home.

The concept of the ‘imitation game’ is explained to a police officer by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), whilst being interviewed after his arrest. Taken from a 1950 scientific article by Turing (not actually called ‘The Imitation Game’, contrary to what the film states), the game imagines an interrogator trying to distinguish between a thinking machine and a person, both unseen, on the basis of typed responses to questions. In order for the machine to bamboozle the interrogator its best strategy is to try and imitate a person. The central conceit of the film is to portray Turing as a machine. Remarkably intelligent, even as a schoolboy, Turing doesn’t really know how to interact with others. He takes other people’s spoken utterances entirely at face value, failing to appreciate the intended meanings and not comprehending jokes at all.

Although initially a subordinate in MI6’s secret team of codebreakers, Turing is frustrated that he cannot get the others to appreciate his ideas. After appealing directly to Churchill, Turing is put in charge but then is faced with the challenge of leading and motivating others whilst lacking any noticeable social skills. Gradually, Turing learns some of the aspects of normal interaction, especially in his chaste romance with the team’s only female, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). But does Turing really understand and feel any of this, or is he just imitating normal human behaviour? Surprisingly, several scenes are extremely funny. Turing’s portrayal here will surely spark a flash of recognition in readers of the British adult comic Viz, as Turing’s behaviour bears a striking resemblance to that of Mr Logic (it has, in fact, been suggested that Turing may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, though retrospective diagnoses are notoriously difficult and we can’t say for sure that this was the case).

After working for months without success, and with the whole project under threat, a chance remark in a bar leads Turing to realise how the German codes can be broken (this scene is reminiscent of the one in A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe’s John Nash explains – wrongly, unfortunately – the concept of the Nash Equilibrium). However, once the team discover they are able to decode German messages Turing reveals a terrible truth: the British military and intelligence services cannot use this knowledge to prevent all the German attacks they know are being planned.

An activity as complex and mathematical as codebreaking is not one that lends itself naturally to drama, but Graham Moore’s first-class script and Morten Tyldum’s direction do a terrific job of ramping up the tension and making the story exciting. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Turing, but the real revelation for me was Keira Knightley. She gives a passionate and stirring performance as Joan Clarke, a proto-feminist figure of blazing intelligence, who herself had to engage in an imitation game – pretending to be something she wasn’t – in order to satisfy her parents’ more traditional expectations for their daughter. Finally, a word must go to Oscar Faura’s cinematography, which I thought was outstanding.

Although principally a biographical drama, I would say that The Imitation Game also deserves to be considered alongside more action-oriented movies as one of the great war films.

Rating: 10/10

Previewed at the British Film Institute, 9th November

ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10