The failure of the modern Star Treks

So I’d like a rant, of sorts, about Star Trek. Ever since J.J. rebooted this franchise, dragging it into the modern era, he set a new standard. Trouble is – and this is a problem many blockbusters have suffered in the last decade – his baddies have been under par. Yes, I get that he was rebooting and yes, I get that the focus is always going to be on the new Kirk and the new Spock and the rest of them, but I consider it dropping the ball a little to skimp on your bad guy. Especially in this day and age.

Maybe it’s excusable if corrected after the first film. Which, on paper, seemed to be the case with the casting of one of Britain’s finest for the sequel, Benedict Cumberbatch. Yet he hammed it up to the hammiest degree you ever did see (under J.J.’s direction) and his character didn’t really have enough depth to be a worthy villian (particularly as he was meant to be Khan) and his actions as a character made little sense, if you examined them in any close detail.

Then for the third film, Star Trek: Beyond we got a new director in Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious fame) and the geeky credentials of Simon Pegg on scripting duties.

So I had hope. Sadly, it was misplaced.

For the first film we had Eric Bana as the bad guy, then Cumberbatch, and for Beyond we got Idris Elba. So three guys, all with a specific vengeance they needed to settle. All utterly unknown to the new Kirk and his crew. So you sort of end up having to build the bad guy backstory each time.

And I get that films are standalone and aren’t TV, yet the lines are blurred these days.

Take James Bond as an example; where storylines and characters have continued under Sam Mendes’ watch. A juggernaut of a studio franchise, yet had kept some throughline in terms of evil organisations (although kind of squandered it all for SPECTRE, so maybe my point doesn’t hold up that well).

Anyway, I’m rambling, back to Star Trek.

Now I’m not saying that the ‘big bad’ has to Klingons or Romulans, but it’s getting pretty samey pretty quickly introducing a single bad guy with a weak motivation. There’s got to be other ways to do it?

And also, Pegg and Co… stop nicking stuff from Star Wars. I get that it’s kind of the benchmark when it comes to space adventures, but Star Trek is meant to be geekier, and it feels like it’s gone way too towards gung-ho action. And I say this not as a die-hard Trek fan, but a casual one. I can’t imagine how riled the hardline fans must be.

So my rant isn’t really a rant, it’s more an observation. I find these films fun popcorn movies, good for all the family on a Sunday afternoon and all that, but that’s it. I don’t know why I felt the need to voice this, but I feel Trek fans deserve more, and the characters deserve more.

Otherwise, not only will this franchise not live long, it won’t even prosper. Not even short term.

Hail Hydra. (Ah crap, wrong franchise.)

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

doctorstrange_new

So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers.

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

doctorstrangetildaswinton

And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange.

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

wolf_wall_street1

The Imitation Game: Cumberbatch’s most complex performance?

World War II was not won by superior numbers, military nous, or even dumb luck. It was won by mathematicians and spies, according to The Imitation Game, the latest film starring Britain’s secret weapon of the acting world, Benedict Cumberbatch. (A man many have described as our generation’s Sir Laurence Olivier.)

imitation-game-2014-001-group-around-benedict-cumberbatch-on-enigma-machine

We begin, like a lot of careers do, with a job interview. An Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) aged 27, already a Fellow at Cambridge at 22, gets off to a bad start being interviewed by Commandar Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Turing is aloof, arrogant, slightly wet and drippy, immensely intelligent, but with godawful interpersonal skills and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

Denniston takes an instant dislike to him and shows him the door, at which point Turing says ‘Enigma, that’s what you’re working on isn’t it?’ And just when Denniston thinks he has Turing figured out, the tide turns. Much of this is down to Cumberbatch. He’s 38 years old and getting better with every role he takes. This could well be his best, most nuanced, complex and satisfying performance (in film) so far.

_TFJ0076.NEF

To return to the plot a moment, with the Nazis winning the war and their Enigma-encrypted messages making the Allies’ job of stopping them particularly difficult, Denniston puts together a team of codebreakers and mathematicians, with the help of the Chief of MI6, Sir Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong).

The team is led by chess champion, the sauve and debonair Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who, like seemingly everyone else, takes an instant dislike to Turing, his inclusion in the team, and the fact he refuses to work with the rest of them, spending his time tinkering with his designs for his own machine to beat Enigma.

Realising he won’t get anywhere with these tactics, Turing goes above Denniston’s head to Winston Churchill, who promptly puts him in charge of the whole team and provides him ample funding to build his machine. Turing then fires half the team and recruits new talent, including brainiac Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom he begins to form a close bond as they work together.

_TIG2664.NEF

Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who directed the excellent Headhunters in 2011), this film jumps around in time, giving us glimpses of Turing’s childhood, and his life after the war, including issues around his sexuality. Whilst the time skips can come thick and fast on occasion, they are never jarring, and help build up a succinct picture of Turing and how his drive and focus to achieve great things ultimately led to him cracking Enigma.

We also get to see his human side, as the film devotes a significant amount of time to his relationship with Joan, and how she helps him bond with his colleagues. In this respect great credit should go to Knightley. She often plays strong, glamorous parts. Here she uses her inherent geekiness to good effect, making Joan seem likeable, accessible and caring, particularly when it comes to dealing with an erratic Turing.

I’ve read that DiCaprio was originally attached to play the lead role. I just cannot see how that would have worked. Granted he’s a fine actor (and he’s already played oddball Howard Hughes, so he’s got form), but he’s just a bit too handsome and, well… American. It had to be a British actor playing this role surely?

the-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-2

And Cumberbatch’s performance will be talked about for a long time to come. He thoroughly inhabits the character of Turing. Stammering, stuttering, hanging his head, lowering his eyes, letting his lower lip form a weak mouth, his physical performance was engrossing from start to finish.

Surely the sort that should have Oscar written all over it?

All in all, for a film which largely involves writing equations on a blackboard and scribbling on little bits of paper – basically maths – it is tense, exciting, well paced and packed with fine performances, including a truly special one from Cumberbatch. It charts an important part of British (and modern) history and, even if you’re not an card-carrying member of the Cumberbitches, this should be on your ‘to watch’ list in the near future.

On my mind… Keira Knightley

A lot of ladies seem to hate her. I sort of see why. She can come across – in her performances at least – as a little smug. Yet in press interviews and chat shows she’s warm, personable, enthusiastic about her roles and really quite endearing.

Sticking to her acting abilities, she does have talent. And despite being lumbered with the posh tag, she’s played a variety of other types of roles with varying degrees of success.

never_let_me_go8

Born in southwest London in 1985, Kiera Christina Knightley broke onto the scene with a film called The Hole, then Pride & Prejudice and Atonement earnt her critical acclaim and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies gave her box office clout.

However, beyond the posh parts and the popcorn offerings, she’s chosen some interesting roles in her career to date. Here are some I’d like to highlight.

For me, these show the true Knightley.

Never Let Me Go (2010)
Opposite Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan in this rather sad and ponderous Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Knightley had her work cut out, but she put in a good performance.

A Dangerous Method (2011)
Opposite Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen she really had to up her game in this David Cronenberg directed tale of two heavyweight psychologists.

Anna Karenina (2012)
This epic tale marked the third collaboration between Knightley and director Joe Wright (the others being Atonement and Pride & Prejudice) and received high praise from critics.

Begin Again (2013)
Well received, critically and commercially, this sweet story had Knightley’s singer-songwriter character team up with Mark Ruffalo’s record label executive to record a new album.

Begin-Again-Keira-Knightley-and-Mark-Ruffalo-1

So what’s next?

Well, she’s got The Imitation Game out now (or soon), the tale of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man who cracked the enigma device in World War II, which looks good and has a cracking cast.

Then epic survival yarn Everest, based on a true story – with a cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes.

What’s your favourite Knightley performance?

Star Trekking Into Darkness – make it so!

Space, the rebooted frontier. These are the voyages of Pine, Cumberbatch and Quinto. To boldly follow J.J. ‘lens flare’ Abrams where he’s – fairly impressively – been before. To seek out…OK, enough of that. You get the idea.

movies_startrekintodarkness1Following the somewhat surprisingly successful reboot/relaunch/re-whatever of the Star Trek franchise in 2009, the young, sexy cast return with the next instalment. In case you’ve forgotten the main lot include: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, John Cho as Sulu and Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike. A big cast you may say, but they make it work. Ultimately it’s the Kirk ‘n’ Spock show, as it should be.

Picking up largely where we left the characters in the first outing, the story starts with Kirk legging it away from a local tribe, on a mission to preserve their planet and way of life. Ultimately, he messes it up in terms of following procedure. movies-star-trek-into-darkness-4Spock files a report explaining how inept they were (despite Kirk’s actions saving his life) and Starfleet give him a slap on the wrist, taking away his precious ship; saying he’s wild, reckless and needs to learn to be a proper leader.

With big ship comes big responsibility

We know where this is going. Kirk needs to rise to the occasion, become the Captain that Admiral Pike believes he can be and form a closer bond with Spock by uniting against a common enemy: enter Benedict Cumberbatch as the mysterious John Harrison.

In terms of existing cast, they’re all settling in to their roles nicely in what is effectively the ‘difficult second album’. Star Trek Anton YelchinAs mentioned earlier, it’s the Kirk ‘n’ Spock show. The film lives or dies by Pine and Quinto’s chemistry. Happily, they pick up where they left off in the first one and build on it – their characters becoming closer as the story progresses. That said, I’d like to single out Anton Yelchin as Chekov, going toe-to-toe with Simon Pegg’s Scotty for the ‘Best comic relief’ award. Does Chekov take this one? Hard to say, Scotty does have a nice run down a corridor. Let’s call it a draw.

New crew addition Alice Eve as Dr Carol Marcus seemed to unbalance things. Pains me to say as I’m a big fan, but I think she was surplus to requirements. Too pretty, even for this cast?

As far as baddies go, Cumberbatch will have pleased his Cumberbitches no end; looking all tall and buffed and dark and moody, with speed, strength and fierce intelligence. Ladies love an evil megalomaniac right?

benedict-cumberbatch-star-trek-into-darkness-3Force is strong in, er, these two

What failed to float my intergalactic boat was the little references to the other space franchise due a reboot, Star Wars. Intentional or not, there were things you could not ignore. For example, at one point we have Kirk and the gang fleeing Klingons in a disc-shaped ship, escaping by flying sideways through a gap – Millenium Falcon anyone?

Also, if we rewind 30 years or so, Chris Pine now as Kirk is essentially how Han Solo was back in the day. Honestly, what’s the difference? Loveable, roguish, an eye for the ladies, charming, a reluctant leader. Starts as a selfish character, becomes more selfless and heroic as the films progress. Kirk sacrificing his life to save his crew versus Solo risking his life being frozen in carbonite to protect Leia. The characters are more and more alike the more you hold them up to each other. Hint of things to come for Star Wars perhaps? Recipe for franchise success: follow the Abrams blueprint.

All in all, Star Trek Into Darkness was an enjoyable second instalment and felt like the second half of an Abrams two-parter. Unless he’s got a trilogy in mind with this cast? There were references – and a short scene – involving Klingons after all. Would be surprising if the next one doesn’t have them front and centre. Could be a belter!

To finish, I’ll leave you with an expert lesson in blending old and new. Live long and prosper.