Tag: Alicia Vikander

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Elementis flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.

Jason Bourne (2016)

Matt Damon swings back into action in after-thought Jason Bourne

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Tommy Lee Jones (Director Robert Dewey), Alicia Vikander (Heather Lee), Vincent Cassel (The Asset), Julia Stiles (Nicky Parsons), Riz Ahmed (Aaron Kalloor), Ato Essandoh (Craig Jeffers), Scott Shepherd (Edwin Russell), Bill Camp (Malcolm Smith), Vinzenz Kiefer (Christian Dassault), Gregg Henry (Richard Webb)

They say you should never go back. Producers had been begging Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon to get back together again and make another Bourne film. After all, there was hardly anyone asking for a sequel to that Jeremy Renner one was there? But Jason Bourne seems like a film that’s been made after Greengrass and Damon ran out of reasons for saying no. I can’t decide if we can blame them for that or not. But their making the film at all suggests they aren’t really losing any sleep about whether people feel this half-hearted effort has an impact on the legacy of the others.

Anyway it’s ten years later. The world is an increasingly technical place, with people living in an era of increasing social unrest and anti-government fury. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), recovered from his amnesia, now lives off-the-grid – until of course he’s unearthed by his old colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Parsons is now working with a hacker commune in Iceland, and has unearthed more evidence about the shady CIA programme, Treadstone, that Bourne used to be a part of, and about Bourne’s own recruitment into it. Meeting in Athens in the middle of an anti-government riot, Parsons is killed and Bourne is set on a collision course with the CIA as well as finding out more about the mysterious death of his father 20 years before. 

Jason Bourne is basically going through the motions. There is an attempt to add another layer of mystery around Bourne’s background, but it barely seems to add much to the hinterland of Bourne we’ve already learned about in the last couple of films. Furthermore, I’m uncomfortable with a Bourne here who goes increasingly on a rampage of revenge. Part of the charm – or rather what makes Bourne different – in the previous films was that he was a man who lived in a world of violence, but didn’t care for it himself. He used brutal force only when it was absolutely necessary, and several times chose not to take a personal revenge. Here however, he dispatches at least three people, which doesn’t seem to square with the character as we’ve previously seen him.

Furthermore, the film seems to be struggling to reclaim Bourne as one of the formal good guys, a patriot and American hero. Again part of what made him different in the original trilogy was that he stood outside the government and nations, that (as Greengrass once said) “he’s on our side”. Here he’s clearly less than sympathetic to anti-government forces, and strongly opposed to exposing CIA secrets. In fact he ends up feeling rather conservative here to be honest, and more like the faceless killer that he started as rather than a renegade. 

It’s not helped by the fact that the plot is pretty meh, a remix of different elements from previous films, carefully ticked off to make sure we get everything we could expect. So we get a reworking of various car chases, fights, tense meetings in public locations etc. etc. The film-making is very well done – Greengrass rewrote the book on how to make films like this, and he carries that on here, brilliantly mixing twitchy editing, handheld camera work, immersive film-making and gloomy silences to create a really wonderfully done viewing experience. It’s just more of the same from the originals. The film just ends up living in the shadow of the originals, rather than really forging something out on its own.

Greengrass tries to tap into contemporary ideas. We get the sense of anti-establishment clashes and Internet data scams – but it never really feels like it goes anywhere or coalesces into any real point at the end of it. What is the actual message of this film? There are hints that Tommy Lee Jones’ gravelly CIA Director and Riz Ahmed’s Mark Zuckerberg-lite tech expert are planning some sort of mass intrusion on people’s privacy – but the film never explains this or explores it. It never even makes Bourne aware of it – and since Bourne is our “window” into this world, that means we never understand it either.

I mean, the film is fine other than that, but that’s all it really is. Matt Damon still hasn’t lost it as Bourne – and blimey he should have some inverted award for how little he speaks in this film – and he has not only the physicality but also the worn-down, haunted look of a man who has seen way, way too much. There are professional performances from the rest, but nothing that stretches any of the actors here, with Alicia Vikander particularly under-used as an unreadable CIA agent. 

But that sums up the whole film. Despite all the attempts to build in a modern “torn from the headlines” angle to the story, it feels more like Greengrass and Damon are quite happily (and with some enthusiasm at least) going through the motions in order to pick up a cheque. And I guess that’s fine. It just means we are probably not going to rush to see this again.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander struggle with questions of identity in the overly sentimental The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe), Alicia Vikander (Gerda Wegener), Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil), Ben Whishaw (Henrik Sandahl), Amber Heard (Ulla Paulson), Sebastian Koch (Dr Kurt Warnekros), Pip Torrens (Dr Jens Hexler), Nicholas Woodeson (Dr Buson), Emerald Fennell (Elsa), Adrian Schiller (Rasmussen)

Working out who you are can be a lifetime’s struggle for some people. Finding out that who you are is someone outside the bounds of what society considers normal or acceptable often calls for a special kind of bravery. That’s the kind of bravery that Einar Wegener had when he realised that he felt he was a woman, not a man. Einar became one of the first ever recipients of sex reassignment surgery, becoming Lili Elbe. It’s an inspiring true-life story, fudged in Tom Hooper’s syrupy, sentimental film.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, slowly realising his fascination with women’s clothing is actually part of a far larger realisation, that she identifies as woman rather than a man. Her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), helps Lili explore her identity, herself journeying through pain at losing her husband to final acceptance and support as Lili begins surgery to complete her transition.

Tom Hooper’s film is shot and framed with the magnificence you expect from his previous films. Hooper’s mastery of framing not only presents people in striking contexts (he has a particular eye for positioning people artfully in a frame with fascinating walls behind them), but also uses the camera to drill into its protagonists (throwing backgrounds into soft focus) to help you begin to empathise with them. It’s a great way to build a connection with the lead characters. But the film never quite adds enough depth and real understanding to its beautiful visuals. I’m not sure it really gets inside the mind of Lili and gets a real understanding of her.

For starters, the structure of the film is confused. The main problem is that the dramatic thrust of the film is Lili realising she is a woman. The character’s emotional and psychological conflict is all bound up in struggling to accept this: the journey of the film is Lili’s internal journey to know and accept herself. Once this realisation is made the drama drains out of the film. Try as it might, it can’t make a series of operations to make complete Lili’s transition dramatically interesting. It also fails to really get inside the psychology of Lili at this point, making her feel more like an exotic, occasionally selfish, passenger through a series of treatments, rather than someone who feels like she has real dramatic thrust.

This is partly because the film splits the perspective more or less equally between Lili and Gerda. While the film follows the passage of Lili realising who she is, if anything more of its empathy and understanding (and interest) is invested in how Gerda reacts to this change. You can see the logic of some complaints that the story of this leading LGBT figure is filtered through the perceptions of their heterosexual wife. Gerda’s emotional journey – pain, anger, rejection, sorrow, despair, acceptance and support – is what really drives the film, far more really than Lili’s realisations. 

But this slightly skewed perception is all part of a film that never quite feels true. I appreciate that Lili moved in some bohemian circles, but surely more people would have been more outraged in the 1920s and 30s by this change. The only people in the film we see reacting in any way negatively are two doctors and a pair of thugs in Paris. Other than that, far from a struggle for acceptance, people seem to fall over themselves to tell Lili how wonderful her new identity is.

The most supportive figure of all is Lili’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil (played very well by Mattias Schoenaerts) – who’s the centrepiece of another major issue with the film. This wonderfully warm and kind man befriends and supports both Lili and Gerda. I left the film wanting to find out what happened in real life to this man who seemed too good to be true. Guess what: he was literally too good to be true. He didn’t exist. In fact no one in the film existed other than Lili and Gerda. Furthermore the timeline (and many of the events) of the film have been changed, as have some of the facts around their relationship. For a film pushing itself as an inspiring “true story” this feels more than a little bit like a cop out.

This is part of the film simply trying too hard. From lingering shots of Einar longingly fingering women’s clothing early in the film, to the syrupy music sore that hammers home as many of the emotional beats of the film as possible, it’s a film that wants to do things as obviously as possible for the audience. It wears its “importance” very heavily: you can tell all involved believed that the project they were working on was going to have an impact on viewers across the world.

Not that we should detract at all from two lead performances. Redmayne immerses himself utterly in the role and performs with sensitivity, giving Lili an early sense of fear that develops into an increasingly relaxed and confident determination. Vikander is equally good, running the full gamut of emotions: she probably is the movie’s heart (making her supporting actress Oscar feel even more like character fraud). Two fabulous performances – and plenty of striking visuals, well directed – but it’s a film that really never quite feels like it gets into the heart of its lead, and always feels like it’s pushing you into feeling an emotional reaction, straining for you to shed tears, rather than letting them come naturally.

The Man From UNCLE (2015)

Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill try, and fail, to get some zing out of The Man From UNCLE

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Henry Cavill (Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (Ilya Kuryakin), Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria Vinciguerra), Jared Harris (Adrian Sanders), Hugh Grant (Alexander Waverly), Luca Calvani (Alexander Vinciguerra), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Christian Berkel (Udo Teller), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.was a 1960s TV spy caper series, which I confess I’ve never seen an episode of but I’m reliably told (by my wife who has) that it’s all larks and fun. This Guy Ritchie remake, on the other hand, is a tonal mess that has no idea what the hell it is. Only Hugh Grant gets anywhere near to appearing in a caper movie – probably because he’s virtually the only member of the cast who might have grown up watching the original series.

Anyway, in the early 1960s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an international master-thief turned CIA agent (this suggests his character is a whole lot more fun than he actually is). Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB super-agent, dealing with issues of psychosis (yup more fun to be had there). This odd couple are ordered to team up and work with car mechanic (no seriously) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is working with renegade Italian fascists, led by femme fatale Victoria Viniciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), to build a new nuclear mastery over the world. Or something.

It should be a ridiculous, overblown, mix of Bond and high 60s camp. Instead it’s dreary, chemistry-free, largely uninvolving sub-Mission: Impossible high jinks that I’m not ashamed to say I dozed off during at one point. Would that I had slept through more of it. It’s quite damning when the most enjoyable thing about it is thinking about the accent Olympics going on (we have a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian, a Swede playing a German, an Australian playing an Italian, an Irishman playing an American…).

No matter which way the three leads are arranged, Cavill, Vikander and Hammer have no chemistry at all in any combination. There is precisely zero bromance between the two leads. Vikander and Hammer have a will-they-won’t-they romance that comes from absolutely nowhere and leads nowhere (set up for sequels that will never come). Cavill looks the part, but completely lacks the cheeky, self-confident, “I’m-enjoying-all-this” charm that the part requires – instead he’s flat and boring. Hammer has more of the winking-at-the-camera cool, but he’s saddled with a part that frequently requires him to burst out in hotel-room-trashing outbursts of anger. Vikander just looks a bit bored with the whole thing.

These rather joyless characters go through a series of action set pieces, none of which got my pulse racing, and all of which felt like off cuts from a lousy Mission: Impossible sequel. Car chases, fisticuffs, gun fights, explosions, boat chases – they all tick by with no wit or pleasure involved anywhere. In these sort of things, you need to feel the characters are such adrenaline junkies that they sorta enjoy the crazy antics they get thrown into – you don’t get any of that from these three.

Much as I like Elizabeth Debicki, she can do little with her underwritten part – I mean I get that the plot isn’t the main thing in a film like this, but they could have at least given our villain a character. Instead she is as cardboard cut-out as the rest of the storyline. The acting from the bulk of the cast is also really odd – some seem aware they are in a tongue-in-cheek spy film, others seem to think they are in an espionage thriller. It’s a mess. There are scenes of pratfall comedy followed by grim scenes of torture and violence. In one juddering moment of this spy romp, the flipping Holocaust is dragged in as a shorthand for identifying a character as an “ultimate villain” – which given he had our hero strapped to a chair and was about to torture him, I think we could all have worked out without exploiting genocide. Anyone else think pulling this appalling real world event (with photos!) into a stupid caper movie is really tasteless? Did no one watch this thing while it was being edited?

I will say the design is pretty good and it’s well shot. But compare this to the fun and games of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (which this is obviously trying to emulate) and the total lack of chemistry at its heart becomes immediately clear. Hugh Grant is a complete relief when he turns up as he’s the only actor who actually looks like he is enjoying his part and wants to be there. It was a big box office bomb and it’s no surprise. No one is having fun, the spirit of the original series seems to have been completely lost, and the lead actors totally fail to bring the leading-man pizzazz the film needs. Perfect if you want a nap.

Ex Machina (2015)

Alicia Vikander: is she human or not? The question that troubles the cast of Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb Smith), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Oscar Isaac (Nathan Bateman), Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko)

It’s the age-old story of creation: man yearns for the power of the gods. There is something intrinsically god-like about the desire to create life and to develop a new creation. Ex Machina is a film that precisely explores this idea (along with a host of others). In the struggle to create an artificial intelligence, are we motivated to further mankind – or is it a perverse desire to become God ourselves? 

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low-level coder working for a Google-like organisation founded by genius inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb wins a competition to spend a week at the reclusive home of Bateman, a solitary modernist house cumresearch station in the middle of a secluded forest. Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a series of interviews with his new invention – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), as part of a Turing Test to ascertain if she is truly intelligent or not. However, over the week, the mysteries of the house darken – and, as Caleb begins to develop strong feelings for Ava, the question arises of who is manipulating whom.

Ex Machina is a confident, fascinating piece of film-making from first-time director Alex Garland, who also writes a screenplay stuffed with ideas. It challenges and provokes discussion, carefully outlining a story of deception and counter-deception, demanding multiple viewings to unpick truth from lie. Garland is also a brilliant chamber-piece director, drawing fantastic performances from his cast, and shooting the secluded house in such a range of styles and angles that it feels both expressive and claustrophobic. Ex Machina is an extremely intelligent small-scale discussion piece, which would make as terrific a play as it does a film.

Among its themes is the question of man striving for god-like control. Nathan, a prickly, socially uneasy and unempathetic person, wants God’s mantle – and is willing to treat his creations with the same ruthless indifference, he demonstrates to Caleb, and the users of his search-engine. His knowledge of humanity is based on essentially stealing an understanding of our thoughts and desires from our search histories, so creating artificial intelligence is simply a progression from the control he already has.

It’s especially creepy that the androids Nathan creates are all attractive young women. Throughout, the film explores the attitudes men have to women. To Nathan, it’s increasingly clear they are objects. He proudly brags about how Ava is both sexually attractive and fully capable of experiencing sex. He treats his housemaid (and sexual partner) Kyoko with a contempt bordering on outright cruelty. Nathan is possessive – and you suspect it’s logical to him to make the first in the next generation of his perfect race as a woman, subservient to him.

Caleb has a healthy but romanticised view of women –he wishes to see himself as white knight, sweeping in to save the woman he loves. He has a lovestruck, teenage protectiveness and devotion towards Ava – qualities, the film suggests, make him ripe for manipulation (the question being from whom). Caleb’s entire attitude towards women is protective – he is increasingly disgusted by Nathan’s vileness – but still in its way paternal. Caleb is naïve and strangely innocent, prone to hero worship – and his initial devotion to Nathan slowly transfers to Ava.

A lot of this works because Alicia Vikander’s Ava is such a fascinatingly elliptical figure. Vikander and Garland skilfully leave you guessing: just how human is Ava? Under observation from Nathan, her discussions with Caleb seem cold and functional. During the many brief power cuts that blight the lab, when they are alone from CCTV, she appears to be far more emotional and tender. But what does she feel for Caleb? Is it genuine feeling – or an approximation designed to draw Caleb in? Her desire for freedom is a genuine human feeling – but how is she going about this? In scenes where we glimpse her alone, Vikander’s movement and expression are neutrally unreadable. It’s a fascinating superb performance from Vikander, both tender and gentle and also unsettling and creepy.

The script never loses its way, and never gets overwhelmed by cheap thrills. There are moments of violence and danger – and the ending of becomes increasingly dark – but it all seems a very natural progression. Because the ideas of seeking freedom from oppressive masters – and mankind looking to abuse the powers of the gods over their creations – feel very real and true. These are ideas that are endlessly fascinating – and the film explores them in brilliant detail, without ever flagging, becoming bogged down in tedious discussion, or letting its ideas overwhelm the plot.

Ex Machina is a fascinating film, brilliantly acted – Isaac and Gleeson are quite simply superb as two very different tech geeks, struggling with ideas about humanity they can scarcely begin to understand and express. The effects to create Ava are extraordinary (and Oscar-winning). Alex Garland makes himself as a director of true promise – and Ex Machina is a film that can take its place as one of the compelling, intelligent and intriguing science-fiction films of the 2010s.