Benedict Cumberbatch

August: Osage County (2014)

When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing and leaves his drug addled wife Violet (Meryl Streep) alone in their family home, the Weston daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) congregate to show their support. Also in tow are the Aikens, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her beleaguered husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their man-child son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Karen’s sleazy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) is spending a little too much time trying to impress Barbara’s 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), whilst Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is still brooding about the slow decay of their marriage. Emotions are fraught in the claustrophobic Weston house and the heat is sweltering, plus Violet’s dependence on prescription pills and her viciously loose lipped nature all amount to a brutal few days in August: Osage County.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. That cast list. It really is rather impressive. And there’s not a loose link in the whole bunch. You’ll no doubt have heard that Meryl Streep is brilliant and she truly is. Violet is a hideous, bitter creation who uses her past sufferings to denigrate her children’s and Streep perfectly slurs and spits her way through her every twisted monologue. But of course. In the words of Modern Family’s Cameron, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and it would be perfection.” Elsewhere, Juliette Lewis is gloriously spacey and Margo Martindale marvellously fierce. Julianne Nicholson is quietly resentful but determined as the only sister who never left Oklahoma, and Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderfully pathetic as her emotionally stunted puppy dog of a cousin. But the real revelation is Julia Roberts. Not since Closer has she allowed herself to be a character so flawed and oftentimes wholly unsympathetic.

Based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, August: Osage County is a little too long, somewhat bizarre given that it devotes relatively little time to its individual subplots. There’s also a few too many monologues. Whilst it is interesting having characters divulge their secrets in eloquent confidence, it’s hard not to ignore the theatrical origins of the story in such moments. Whilst the script is unmistakably intense, it’s also worthy of note that there are several points of darkly humourous character conflict. See how Cumberbatch’s Little Charles propels himself out of his dinner seat to confess to a secret only to retract lamely back into his shell again, or when Robert’s Barbara and Streep’s Violet go head to head over breakfast. There are some brilliant lines in August: Osage County ready to save the film from when it gets a little too po-faced, and the film benefits from it totally.

All in all, August: Osage County nails the claustrophobia of family and the bitterness of familial tensions perfectly, thanks mainly to John Wells’ relatively understated direction and powerhouse performances by Roberts and Streep. Just don’t be surprised if like the Westons themselves you wind up begging some small release from its unnecessary two hour duration.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Artist and film director Steve McQueen is a bit of a mixed bag in the eyes of this reviewer. Whilst Hunger was a taut and compelling vignette of Bobby Sands, Shame wasted what started as an interesting premise on flabby pacing, aimless meandering and an awkwardly outdated portrayal of homosexuality. However with 12 Years A Slave, McQueen seems to have finally found his perfect balance, that of a lingering character study presented against the larger political backdrop of an uncomfortable theme. 12 Years A Slave tells the real life story of free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is duped and drugged before being sold into slavery, based on his own 1853 autobiography. States away from his family and unable to produce his freedom papers, Solomon must endure cruelty upon cruelty whilst keeping his being literate a secret. Needless to say, 12 Years is brutal but necessary viewing.

Surely no one can claim to being ignorant of the viciousness of America’s history of enslavement, but McQueen finds innovative ways of truly and bleakly presenting the human experience at the hands of such a regime. When Solomon awakens to find himself in chains, his claims of being a free man are met with the unforgiving and repeated smack of a bat on his back, and the excellent sound editing coupled with McQueen’s absolutely unwaveringly stationary camera placement make for a visceral and terrifying few minutes.

McQueen is a director known for unrelenting shots on discomforting scenes, but whereas in Shame it amounted to an aura of self-indulgence, in 12 Years we as an audience become unwilling participants in the acts of cruelty, our complicit and silent observation as damning as the horrifying acts unfolding. This is a film that grabs you and forces you to acknowledge the sheer awfulness of a past not explored enough by cinema. For example, in the slave market scene where Solomon and others are forced to stand, degraded as animals in a zoo, some naked, and being presented as no more than pieces of meat, whilst wealthy white men like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) price them up. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera weaves in and out of rooms, past slave after slave as if we ourselves are being given the sales pitch. It’s a gut churning way of making us connect with the subject emotionally rather than through an objective history textbook lens, and it’s extraordinarily successful throughout the film.

Hans Zimmer’s score is equally haunting, punching through the film like Solomon’s petrified heartbeat. But this really is Ejiofor’s film. It’s impossible not to feel his despair, often when it is simply his eyes doing the talking. Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon as man who refuses to give up on his hope and dignity is beautifully judged, a state of mind completely counter balanced by fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who becomes a victim of plantation owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) lust and feels utterly defeated. Nyong’o and Fassbender are both utterly fantastic. Where other actors are concerned, there are strong performances going on, but after a while it can feel like there’s a factory line of Oscar baiting going on as a list of famous names perform their racist monologues and leave the story.

But the worst part of 12 Years A Slave, one which is truly my only complaint about the film, is the inclusion of Brad Pitt in the cast list. Whilst he is to be thanked and commended for his contribution as a producer with his Plan B company, his inclusion as an actor is woefully misjudged. Whilst there are a string of big names lending their services to the story (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti) they are much more chameleonic than a man like Pitt. This is not to discredit his acting, he does everything perfectly in his brief scenes, but Brad Pitt in a film nowadays is always some facet of Brad Pitt; two time winner of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive ‘accolade’, and having him smack in the middle of a film of such as this as one of the only sympathetic white characters just feels awkward and hokey, and the Jesus-like carpenter image he casts is just too much.

That being said, 12 Years A Slave is ultimately a brilliant film, one which had my fellow cinema goers silenced, a respect unfortunately not awarded to most films at the best of times. Visually innovative, brutally presented and excellently acted, 12 Years A Slave is an important piece of a cinema that I hope lingers on in discussion long past the standard award season hype.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Three years ago JJ Abrams took on possibly the bravest undertaking of his meteoric rise to prominence by agreeing to direct the Star Trek reboot / reimagining / re….whatever you want to call it. Fan boys and geeks everywhere went into meltdown and feared the worst. However, what followed was ludicrously good fun.

Few would deny that 2009’s Star Trek was exactly what a summer blockbuster should be. It was exciting, loud, brash and unashamedly geeky. It wasn’t without its faults of course, most notably a gaping plot hole that we still can’t quite understand how it escaped everyone’s notice. (If Nero had traveled back in time why didn’t he just go and warn Romulus before it was destroyed instead of waiting 30 years for Spock?) That aside, though it was a joy.

For the most part Abrams steered clear of shoehorning in references to the original series or the films, which we think was hugely to his credit. It allowed viewers who may not have previously been fans to access this Star Trek universe without needing any knowledge of Shatner, Nimoy et al.

And it’s here that Into Darkness really falls down. There are just too many references and overt nods to both the series and the films. So much so that my companion was left feeling completely alienated by the in jokes and references to what has gone before. We assumed that after cleverly creating an alternate universe in the first film that we would avoid this, sadly not. A lot of the time we caught ourselves thinking  “Really? Did they need to do that? Is this just a reboot of another of the films? That makes no sense.” And finally “WHAT!!!!! YOU CAN’T SAY THAT……THAT’S NOT EVEN YOUR LINE”.

Abrams also seems to struggle to know what to do with any of his female characters. For the most part they are just used as exposition or are just shown in their underwear.

The film itself delivers plenty of bang for your buck in the effects and wow factor stakes. There are a couple of scenes that are draw droppingly good, especially the opening. We are reintroduced to the crew of the Enterprise as they are chased by a primitive tribe on a faraway planet as they try to avoid breaking the prime directive, (you can’t interfere with the development of another species – I’m not sure that Kirk’s libido got that memo in the original series though) with limited success almost resulting in one crew members death.

Meanwhile back on earth we meet the film’s big bad – JOHN HARRISON. Hardly a name that strikes fear into your heart. As it turns out he is formerly of Star Fleet and has turned terrorist against his former employers. Benedict Cumberbatch is clearly having a whale of a time, he chews his way through scenery while still sounding like he has plums in his mouth. (Steady) He commits an act of horror against the Star Fleet big wigs and then promptly scarpers to Kronos, (the Klingon home world) where he cannot be followed. We get to see some of the old Cornish Pasty faced warriors as they get their arses handed to them by Sherlock himself.

We won’t go into too much detail after that as it would be difficult to do so without giving away vital plot points. Needless to say the brown stuff hits the fan and Kirk and Co are thrust into a variety of perilous situations. These just seemed to be a procession of fights and chases which seemed to go on, and on, and on ad nauseam.

We were left feeling a little short changed by Into Darkness. Yes the villain was an improvement from the first film and yes it looks great, particularly if you like lens flare, but like many Vulcans it lacked emotion.

One real positive however is Zachary Quinto as Spock. He is the beating heart of this franchise. Although others perform admirably, (even with the dodgy accent, Simon Pegg is again on good form) it is he who performs the films heavy lifting. Kirk feels strangely redundant in this film and Cumberbatch although good is woefully underused.

The 12 year old in me enjoyed the explosions but the adult in me just couldn’t help but feel like they could have done much, much better. It’s a shame that they couldn’t capitalise on the start they made three years ago, this feels like a step in the wrong direction.

This was less Wrath of Kahn and more Trouble with Tribbles. Let’s hope he does a better job with Star Wars.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

After a forced retirement, British Intelligence agent, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is called back by his former employers to flush out a mole supplying secrets to the Russians. Taking a young protege under his wing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley begins to put the pieces together knowing that when people have something to hide it probably means they’re just doing their job right.

For those unaccustomed to John le Carré’s work, they may be somewhat taken aback by this spy movie. If James Bond is martinis, fast cars and hot nights in Vegas, George Smiley is weak tea, crumbly digestives and wet weekends in Margate. This is no singular narrative where the audience is only left to guess how the spy is going to use all his gadgets before Madonna warbles over the end credits. This is a multi-layered affair consisting of monologues and flashbacks, as Smiley moves ‘tween the main suspects.

Starring pretty much every British actor from the 30 years, it goes without saying that there are some solid performances to be found within its 2 hour running time. Oldman is almost unrecognisable as Smiley. Sporting a face that never cracks anything stronger than a frown, his silences are as powerful as his speeches. Watch as he describes the mysterious Soviet spymaster, Karla; starting off slowly, he gains momentum as his former piss and vinegar bubbles back to the surface. It’s a masterful scene. A special mention must also go to Cumberbatch who delivers an excellent performance, capped off with one of my favourite scenes. Forced to break up with his partner, for fear their life is in danger, it’s almost wordless and it’s brilliant. Which is all a lot more than can be said for Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, who feel like stunt casting more than anything else.

It can be argued that the final reveal is a bit of a damp squib, but within the context of the pringle jumper, why shout when you can whisper world we’re in, it works. The ending was never going to entail Oldman leaping breathlessly through plate glass and shagging the secretary, whilst setting fire to a ruskie.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that requires you to pay attention and not wonder when Q is going to enter the arena. If you give it your time, you’ll be rewarded with a taut drama that will linger long after.