March Variety Pack

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, especially since being joined at Eagles on Pogo Sticks by my assiduous co-blogger, but due to an attack of what the Germans call ‘spring tiredness’ (in the German-speaking world spring makes us tired, not horny) I don’t have entire full-length posts on each of these in me right now. So, without much further ado, here are some thoughts on Japanese child-swapping, Cumberbatch cryptography and teens with superpowers.

Like Father Like Son

I’ve written about Koreeda before; Like Father Like Son is another worthy addition to his filmography. The film’s premise – two families find out that their six-year-old sons were swapped at birth – has been criticised for being too movie-of-the-week, but then, other than his inventive version of what happens after death in After Life, Koreeda’s films are rarely driven by premises as much as by characters. His strengths lie in his talent for quiet observation and his empathy for his protagonists. Ryota, one of the two fathers in Like Father Like Son, a young, ambitious salaryman who finds it easier to push his son to excel than to relate to him emotionally, could easily have been the villain of the piece, and Ryota is often arrogant and disapproving, but in Koreeda’s subtle direction and writing he never loses his humanity or becomes a stereotype. Similarly, while the film admittedly is more interested in fatherhood, the scenes that concentrate on the two mothers give them the necessary space to stand out as complex, interesting individuals. As is often the case in Koreeda’s films, though, it’s especially the child actors that amaze: they are thoroughly believable and real, with none of the preciousness or precocious quality that even good child actors display all too often.

Like Father Like Son

The Imitation Game  

I haven’t seen all the recent Academy Award favourites, but of the ones I’ve seen this is the one that brought to mind a word that I find nearly as dismissive and annoying as “pretentious”: Oscar bait. (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything, which by all accounts is a worse offender in this respect.) There’s a lot to like about The Imitation Game, but it tries so damn hard to be worthy and meaningful. In spite of capable and even strong performances, the film is failed especially by its direction and writing. The former is pedestrian and predictable, exactly what one would expect of a respectable British historical drama; the latter is painfully hamfisted. Its central idea could be straight from a motivational poster and is repeated until it becomes a mantra, becoming more cringe-inducing with each repetition: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” There’s interesting material there, both in terms of the historical background and the character of Alan Turing, but the film never rises above the quality of its writing, which feels like the work of a B- student in Scriptwriting 101. Also, it is difficult to like a film that has a low esteem of its audience’s intelligence, as this one seems to have: The Imitation Game tends to make the same points repeatedly, as if to make sure that everyone watching it gets it.

The Imitation Game

One additional note on The Imitation Game: the film has been criticised both for overplaying Turing’s homosexuality and for giving it short shrift. I honestly don’t think that either applies; Turing’s orientation is one aspect of his personality, and it is an important one, yet it is not singled out as his most defining feature. The film doesn’t contain any sex scenes, gay or otherwise, but this fits in with its general polite bloodlessness, rather than speaking to anything more problematic, to my mind. The Imitation Game‘s crime isn’t homophobia so much as its banality and an almost complete lack of subtlety.

Chronicle

On paper, Josh Trank’s film about three teenagers who, after a close encounter with a McGuffinesque glowing rock, find themselves able to move things with their minds reads like a high concept too far: superpowers, teenage pranks, found footage. The movie could easily have ended up straight-to-DVD (or VOD? Not sure what the most fitting term is these days) garbage, but it works due to believable characters, a plot that is simple but effective and strong leads. Michael B. Jordan is no longer the meek Wallace from the first season of The Wire; while he gets less screen time than the other leads, it is clear he is a performer of immense charisma. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan find the right balance between sympathetic underdog and simmering rage, making him a gender-swapped Carrie for this millennium. Unfortunately, the found-footage-but-not-quite cinematography is both a boon and a bane; it gives Chronicle an immediacy that is very effective, especially when coupled with the characters’ initial uses of their powers that are far from the special effects excesses of most superhero movies, but some of the time it simply doesn’t make much sense that we’d be seeing this footage, so what’s the reasoning behind the format? Nevertheless, Trank’s movie is a smart, interesting genre piece that, together with some of the casting, makes me more interested in his Fantastic Four reboot than that premise – a Fantastic Four reboot, of all things! – ought to be.

Chronicle

No shit? Sherlock!

Yeah, I know… That subject header is both corny and a bad joke. Sorry. Anyway, Sherlock. While I loved how the BBC series started its second season, I found the following episode – “The Hounds of Baskerville” – a bit of a disappointment. Entertaining, yes, but also not nearly as clever or charming as “A Scandal in Belgravia” had been. (Preferring naked yet tastefully presented Irene Adler over a hoary CGI hound? Perish the thought!) In that respect, season 2 shaped up to reflect the pattern set by the first three episodes: one good, one weak… one brilliant?

In hindsight, season 2 did mirror the first season – inverting the episodic quality as a mirror would. “The Reichenbach Fall” was definitely a good episode, but it was no “Scandal”… and it showed that a little Moriarty goes a long way. Sherlock‘s flamboyant take on the Napoleon of Crime was perhaps its most controversial take on Arthur Conan Doyle. Was he effective or annoying? While I haven’t read many reviews praising Andrew Scott’s camp Irish master villain, I was a big fan of his in “The Great Game”. His Moriarty’s over-the-top flamboyance struck me as an overt performance covering a ruthless, utterly amoral and frighteningly insane nemesis for everyone’s favourite be-cheekboned sociopath. (Check out his “If you don’t stop prying, I’ll burn you. I’ll burn the heart out of you. ” at 5:45 in the following clip.)

Thing is, there are so many scenes featuring Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall”, it frankly becomes a bit boring… and yes, his shtick does begin to grate. He still has many effective moments and a highly surprising exit from the episode, but there was a scene about halfway into the episode that I was hoping to end sooner rather than later.

The second issue I have with “The Reichenbach Fall” is this: set up an ending that signals this clearly that there’s some sort of trick involved and it’s very difficult to become involved in the character’s emotional journey. I’m sure it comes as no major spoiler that at the end of the episode, as in the Sherlock Holmes story it’s based on, our consulting detective seems to fall to his death… but the great sleuth manages to trick death somehow. Thing is, Martin Freeman’s wonderful take on Everyman John Watson makes him an obvious identification figure for the audience, but in the final moments of “Fall” we’re not empathising with him: we’re wondering how Holmes pulled it off. Freeman’s emotionally truthful scene at his friend’s grave is wasted because the previous five minutes were so clearly signalled to be some sort of sleight-of-hand trick. Which, incidentally, also means that the series’ writers will have a hell of a job with the payoff: they won’t get away without an explanation, but chances are that the explanation will be too elaborate to feel satisfying to the audience – the most amazing magic trick is rendered clumsy and inelegant by an “Oh, so that is how they did it… Hmm. Blimey. Cor… And we’ve waited a year for that?”

Having said all of that, the episode was entertaining and, at least to my mind, better than “Hounds” – and it did one thing exactly right: when the whole world turns against Holmes, they don’t go for the tired old “Even his best friend doesn’t trust him…” Watson, the sort of friend Holmes may not deserve and quite possibly isn’t smart enough to wish for, never gives up, never buys Moriarty’s fabrication. And that’s what I’ll be tuning in for when Sherlock returns: not the reveal, not the cases. Holmes and Watson.

Damn… I’m turning into the modern-day equivalent of a Mulder/Scully ‘shipper, aren’t I?

Consult this

Oh, Auntie. After a year of bigger and smaller disappointments and only one moderate success, you’ve shown me you can pull it off. And how… 2010’s Sherlock was a great treat: funny, exciting, smart. But it was also only three episodes, one of which was decidedly weaker than the others. Would a 1 1/2 year hiatus help? Judging from the New Year’s Day episode and season starter “A Scandal in Belgravia”, the answer to that is a definite, loud, positively orgasmic “Yes!” Honestly, has there been witty dialogue, chemistry between the characters and stylish execution like this in any UK production in the last couple of years?

No, “Scandal” wasn’t perfect; it did have a couple of very cheesy moments, two of which weakened the female guest star in ways that are perhaps a bit iffy (mind you, I wouldn’t agree with the extent to which Jane Clare Jones criticises the episode), and it was perhaps too self-consciously cute with its references, punning and otherwise, to Doyle’s original stories (I groaned at the “Speckled Blonde”, though I loved the hat bit). Regardless, the episode was pretty much perfect in terms of being wonderfully entertaining – and just when you thought the humour might become self-congratulatory, Sherlock throws a scene at you that works as drama, showing that for all his brilliance, the main character is deeply flawed. The series is a fan of Sherlock-as-genius, but it doesn’t make the mistake of becoming fanboyish – or -girlish, although I gather that Benedict Cumberbatch does make for rather yummy eye candy. Then again, the testosterone brigade can hardly complain after a guest starring spot by Lara Pulver that would have made Mary Whitehouse’s head explode.

Oh, and the dialogues! If you were wondering where the sparkling repartee of a The Thin Man had gone, look no further: the Beeb’s been stockpiling it, refining it and quite possibly enriching it with steroids. This exclusive trailer from The Guardian website may be a bit weird, but it has a fantastic exchange between Holmes and Watson:

So, BBC, bring it on. Give me what you’ve got. And I’ll be willing to forgive you for the wasted potential of Exile.