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SPECTREOK let’s cut to the chase. Spectre (or should that be SPECTRE?) isn’t quite up there with the very best of the James Bond films, and there’s nothing here as surprising as the intense, moody final half hour of its predecessor Skyfall, which was also directed by Sam Mendes, but it’s certainly one of the better efforts of the last thirty years and will undoubtedly keep fans entertained. It feels like it could be a suitable end to the Daniel Craig era though that would be a shame after just four films and the multi-authored screenplay nods repeatedly to deceased characters from the actor’s three previous films, giving the impression that a big story arc is drawing to a close (though, in truth, there are elements at play in the screenplay that suggest Spectre can be viewed as the beginning of a longer story). Time will tell if this is Craig’s last appearance in the role, but if it is he ought to be satisfied with his work; the same goes for Mendes, who seems to be indicating in recent press junkets that he has little interest in making a third Bond film.

An opening title card mysteriously suggests that ‘the dead are alive’, and although there isn’t anything as silly as a Bobby Ewing-style return for Judi Dench’s M in Spectre we do feel the presence of figurative ghosts, as the criminal organisation-referencing title suggests: requests are made from beyond the grave and certain faces come back to haunt our hero, while the villain is a throwback to an earlier era. It is quickly revealed that recent enemies of Bond, such as Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre, were part of a wider criminal society one that will need no introduction to fans of the series and naturally it’s 007’s job to infiltrate this shadowy cabal while simultaneously fending off accusations of SITE_LEAobsoletion (which emanate from a Whitehall that would rather use drones in the field than actual agents); soon enough there’s a nemesis in place (Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser), a henchman who refuses to die (Dave Bautista’s muscular Mr Hinx) and the requisite love interest (Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann), all vying for the secret agent’s time and attention. Throw in some rather smart clothing, a Martini or two and a swish car and there you have it: the series may have moved with the times over the years, and this latest installment pays lip service to modern technology, surveillance and the pursuit of information, but some things will never change.

Mendes begins his film with a bravura sequence that features a long, impressive tracking shot through the skeleton-faced crowds of Mexico City’s Día de Muertos celebrations and ends with a thrilling action set piece which, for my money, tops the celebrated prologue to this year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It is fantastically tense, but as with Rogue Nation you get a feeling while movies-spectre-daniel-craig-ben-whishawwatching the rest of the film that nothing is going to match those opening ten minutes. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that both movies feature slightly similar endings, shot at night about a mile or two apart from one another. As a former Londoner of 15 years I definitely prefer it when my globetrotting spy thrillers stay in locales that are exotic to my eyes and ears, such as Mexico City and Tangiers; when said blockbusters climax in London I’m usually disappointed with the scenes, though on balance I prefer Spectre‘s tense finale to Rogue Nation‘s, despite the fact that the city seems weirdly underpopulated.

The hard edge that was introduced a decade ago to the Bond franchise, as it sought to catch up with the Jason Bourne films, is present once again: Craig continues his portrayal of a tough, cold, statuesque version of the character and as per usual his fight scenes feature brutal, bloody beatings instead of cheesy one-liners. He does have a few cheeky rebuttals for his seniors and there are also the standard moments of dry, flirty wit, but most of the film’s humour arrives courtesy of Ben Whishaw’s Q, a character with a slightly more enhanced role than usual (ditto Ralph Fiennes’ M and Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny). Indeed for a split second, as the four team up on English soil, it almost seems as if Mendes is actively courting comparison with the Mission: Impossible series. Surely not?

There are several nods to older Bond films throughout, and anyone familiar with the Connery/Lazenby/Moore years will enjoy spotting the references, the obvious ones being Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, Thunderball, Dr. No and Live And Let Die (though there are probably even more). The main problem with this is that it’s hard not to think of the Austin Powers films that mercilessly lampooned the very same scenes, especially when we see SPECTRE meetings taking place at long oval tables or Bond being tortured for an unnecessarily long time instead of simply being shot in the head when first taken captive. You half expect Dr Evil to walk in front of the camera and explain that he’s going to leave him alone and not actually witness him dying…he’s just going to assume it all went to plan. But of course such silliness is entertaining enough in itself, and Mendes is a sound judge of tone; there are plenty of camp moments here, and one must suspend disbelief as always, but the director blends the more laughable aspects of the franchise with spectacular action and grit, resulting in a winning, multiplex-pleasing mix. Spectre isn’t the best of the recent James Bond films, it has a forgettable theme song and I wish there was a shorter cut to compare with the 150 minute released version, but overall: good.

Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth. Based on James Bond by Ian Fleming.
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear.
Cinematography: Hoyt van Hoytema.
Editing: Lee Smith.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
148 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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imitation-game-still-1Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game highlights a terrible wrongdoing, namely the treatment of British computer scientist, mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) after World War II, when he was prosecuted for homosexual activities under archaic gross indecency laws. After a guilty verdict Turing accepted ‘treatment’ of oestrogen injections – a form of chemical castration – as an alternative to prison, and subsequently purportedly committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954, days before his 42nd birthday (though there is evidence to suggest that this was accidental). As such this is a well-intentioned fact-based biopic, briefly drawing attention to the 49,000 other men who suffered the same conviction, although the primary focus of this film is on Turing’s important work during World War II at Bletchley Park.

As is widely known today, Turing was instrumental in decrypting the ciphers of the German Enigma machine, leading a team of codebreakers who – according to some historians – ensured that the war ended two years early (and thus saved anything up to 14,000,000 lives, though how such figures can be estimated with any kind of accuracy after factoring in the dawn of the atomic age is beyond my comprehension). In telling this story Tyldum and writer Graham Moore take a number of liberties with the known facts but it does make for occasionally gripping viewing: the eureka moment when a breakthrough is made is keenly felt, for example, while scenes depicting the awkward Turing’s clashes with establishment figures in the British government and the armed forces are certainly well acted, with Charles Dance popping up regularly as a formidable grimacing opponent. However ultimately the film fails to break free of its formulaic structure and design, the inability to make more of extremely one-dimensional supporting characters is frustrating and so much of it is wearyingly familiar: the predictable overpopulation with attractive actors, the omnipresent received pronunciation, the prevalence of tweed and the sullen brown colour palette (though I freely admit the presence of Scousers, denim jeans and pink overlays would be an eye-opener).

There aren’t many roles of note but the widely-praised Cumberbatch is excellent, though the actor certainly benefits from the decision to accentuate many of Turing’s character traits, and the invention of some new ones. Most obviously the codebreaker’s social difficulties are exaggerated in this film to the point that he seems to have Asperger’s syndrome, and is portrayed as an intellectual snob who is alienated because of his distinct lack of humour; however in reality Turing was sociable, had friends and enjoyed good working relationships with colleagues. He also led such a fascinating life that the focus here on three distinct periods – initial awareness of sexuality as a schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther), the Bletchley years and the period just prior to his arrest and prosecution – means that this feels somewhat incomplete as a study of the man: for example there is only a brief pre-credits mention for his pioneering work on early computers, and the establishment of the Turing Test is only alluded to by the film’s name, though the decision to skirt over these achievements is unsurprising: they’re not exactly the kind of subjects that regularly attract audiences to multiplexes in their droves, after all.

Keira Knightley is on form as Joan Clarke, a similarly important figure in the Bletchley deciphering, though when she appears as the only woman at an interview / codebreaker test and is mistaken for a secretary it’s hard to stop the eyes rolling toward the heavens when she subsequently beats all of the assembled male boffins and posts a record time to boot. Unfortunately the film’s mockery of the sexual politics of the era ends there, and Clarke is primarily defined by the way in which she relates to Turing, becoming his ‘right-hand woman’ and the only person he seems to be at ease with. It’s disappointing, though again hardly surprising, that the character’s role as an emotional crutch gradually becomes more important in this screenplay than her own work as a cryptoanalyst. Knightley’s part is, however, more substantial than most: Matthew Goode must act out numerous variations on the same scene as the caddish Hugh Alexander, while Mark Strong’s MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies fares little better, his special power being the ability to step out of the shadows at the crucial moment of every single high-level conversation. Dance’s Commander Denniston is nothing more than a perma-hindrance to Turing’s work – a portrayal that angered Denniston’s family in real life – while most of the other codebreakers are incidental or revealed to be imbeciles (presumably so that any modern day imbeciles watching can fully grasp the fact that the Alan Turing character is, by contrast, a genius).

When the action shifts briefly away from Bletchley Park we get little more than a sanitised version of wartime events. Tyldum occasionally drops in bloodless before-and-after montages that show the ominous sights of approaching U-boats or bombers as the Germans take advantage of supremacy above and below the sea, for example, and rather than witness the actual bombings of houses in London we instead see defiant people sitting on top of their piles of rubble; few of them actually look miserable and fewer still appear to be grieving. This reticent approach to showing the horror of war or the pain and suffering that took place means that little insight or hitherto unknown contextual information is gained, but at least the importance of cracking the Code is adequately established by several lines of dialogue, with Menzies asserting to Turing early on that four people have died while their conversation has been going round in circles.

Sadly despite its two very good Oscar-nominated performances The Imitation Game suffers from a blanket acceptance of popular dramatic convention, reducing years of work to a series of clichéd fiery clashes and needlessly linking Turing to the Soviet spy Cairncross (Allen Leech) for added intrigue. Turing’s life and work is interesting enough without such exaggeration, and you could argue that the inclusion of such a subplot betrays a lack of faith in either cinemagoers or the subject matter itself, even if it’s a common biopic trick. It’s also a shame that the screenplay really does little more than pay lip service to the work of others while a number of lines, such as Clarke’s ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine’, seem to be written with trailer and poster tagline in mind — and even the delivery by an actor of repute can’t disguise it. Worst of all is the tip-toeing around the subject of Turing’s sexuality; we don’t see anything of his relationships as an adult, which would be far more apt than the fabricated interactions taking place with a Russian mole or Bletchley’s top brass. Still, it’s not a poor film by any means, and makes for an interesting comparison with Michael Apted’s Enigma, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ fictional (and arguably heterocentric) novel of the same name.

Directed by: Morten Tyldum.
Written by: Graham Moore.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.
Cinematography: Óscar Faura
Editing: William Goldenberg.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2014.

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Jack (Simon Pegg) and Nancy (Lake Bell) in Ben Palmer’s Man UpIf you are a fan of the kind of films written (and more recently directed by) Richard Curtis, then chances are you’ll enjoy Man Up, an inoffensive but formulaic British rom-com penned by Tess Morris and directed by Ben Palmer (who previously made The Inbetweeners Movie). The screenplay has that mildly-risqué style that has been popular ever since Hugh Grant said a few f-words in Four Weddings And A Funeral, while Man Up‘s London setting and supposedly endearing middle class characters hint that there’s no greater ambition than for the film to attract the same audience that sat through Sliding Doors, Wimbledon, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Love Actually.

American Lake Bell plays English protagonist Nancy, a writer in her mid-30s who is initially put forward as a kind of permanently-single dating disaster zone (though we later learn that she is actually smart, funny and was in a relationship for most of her 20s). Encouraged by her sister Elaine (Sharon Horgan, whose comedic talents are unfortunately wasted in a straight role) and a well-meaning but prissy stranger on a train (Ophelia Lovibond), Nancy resolves to ‘put herself out there’ and carpe one or two diems lest she remain alone until the end of time. And so she does just that, bumping into Simon Pegg’s divorcee Jack at Waterloo Station soon thereafter and playing along mischievously when he mistakenly assumes that she is supposed to be his blind date. Cue nervy chatter as they travel across London (the South Bank, the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, a bar) and lots of fibbing as Nancy attempts to keep up appearances.

Given its strict adherence to genre staples it’ll come as no surprise that the couple hit it off, go through a few ups and downs during the course of the film (which covers the duration of their first evening together) and reconcile at the end in time for a bright-looking future. There are a few laughs to be had along the way, particularly when Jack’s uptight ex (Olivia Coleman) shows up with her new partner (Stephen Campbell Moore), and also with regards to Nancy’s identity theft and the whole dating merry-go-round, but perhaps not enough for Man Up to be cherished in the long run by the masses. However, like the more successful British films of recent years, the mix of gentle ribbing (albeit with the occasional blowjob joke thrown in) and stuttery self-deprecation appears to be tailored with the grey pound in mind, and indeed most of the older folk in the screening I attended were regularly chuckling away.

Typically the cast is fleshed out with one or two more eccentric characters, and here both Ken Stott and Rory Kinnear try to make the most of their time on screen as Nancy’s boozy father and a former-classmate-turned-stalker respectively. In terms of the two leads Bell is likeable enough as the sarcastic Nancy, and her English accent is perfect, while Pegg delivers another nervy geek (albeit with a slightly-damaged, middle-aged spin). The question is whether we really need to see yet another rom-com in which the woman breaks the fourth wall while supposedly sitting in front of a mirror, the declaration of love at the end takes place in front of a big crowd of people and all of the roguish older characters appear to have wandered over from the set of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Personally I don’t think we do, but obviously this kind of film is usually profitable, is generally liked by audiences, and no doubt we can expect more long after this effort has found a more natural home on DVD and TV. Man Up has a few witty moments, which are executed professionally, but it never tries to do anything other than replicate the lighthearted fun of successful, recent British comedies, and as such I don’t feel too enthusiastic about it.

Directed by: Ben Palmer.
Written by: Tess Morris.
Starring: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Rory Kinnear, Ophelia Lovibond, Ken Stott, Sharon Horgan, Harriet Walter.
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn.
Editing: Paul Machliss.
Music: Dickon Hinchlciffe, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 4.4.

2 Comments