Tag: Eddie Marsan

Hancock (2008)

Hancock (2008)

Will Smith goes against type as an arrogant superhero in this deeply flawed would-be satire

Director: Peter Berg

Cast: Will Smith (John Hancock), Charlize Theron (Mary Embrey), Jason Bateman (Ray Embrey), Eddie Marsan (Kenneth “Red” Parker Jnr), Jae Heard (Aaron Embrey)

Back in 2008, everyone was entertained by the idea that the most charming man in the world was pretending to be an arrogant, entitled arsehole. Sadly, in 2022, when Will Smith is synonymous with entitled public slapping, the joke feels a little different.

In Hancock, Smith plays the eponymous superhero, a drunken dickhead, who saves people without giving a damn about them or the millions of dollars of damage he causes while doing so. When he saves the life of PR man Ray (Jason Bateman) – wrecking a train in the progress – Ray decides to help Hancock change his image. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is less than happy about it – but is there a deeper mystery to her discomfort?

Needless to say there is: and the reveal of what it is marks a tonal shift in a messy film that never quite knows what it is. But that’s because the entire film is basically a sketch thinly stretched out over 85 minutes. What if Superman was real and also a complete arsehole? What would an irresponsible, drunken, unpleasant hero be like? And hell, wouldn’t we stop thanking him and instead start getting really pissed off when he trashes a freeway and several buildings, while chasing some trigger-happy bank robbers?

That’s basically the core of the film: setting up the unlikeable hero, watching him tell people to go to hell and use his powers against people who annoy him. See him get humiliated by going to prison (Ray’s genius PR idea to get people on Hancock’s side) and then eventually resolving a bank robbery with excessive, awkward politeness. It’s one joke. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good joke. It would make a great recurring gag on Saturday Night Live or something. But it never manages to be anything more than that.

Peter Berg’s film radically shifts gear for the final thirty minutes or so. A second superhero is introduced, a poorly explained and illogical backstory is shoe-horned in and info dumps of character background start to get dropped in (the entire backstory, plot and motivation of Eddie Marsan’s nominal villain is explained in an overheard TV broadcast). What had been a farce suddenly turns into a clumsily intense relationship drama between two people with no chemistry. It ends in a final fight in a hospital which features blood, shooting, tears and a joke about a hand being sliced off. It’s all over the place.

Will Smith just about holds it together: and the fact that he managed to make this not-particularly-funny or rewarding film into the fourth biggest hit of its year is a tribute to what Box Office Gold he was at the time. It’s a decent role for him, and Smith does the humour well. But, after his frank autobiography on his dark side (not to mention that infamous slap), it feels less like Smith playing against type, and more him exposing parts of his own personality. But he carries the entire film with gusto, even if he can’t make the final tonal mess work.

Berg’s direction pitches between way-too-intense and flatly-comedy-free. He drills into emotion in the final act, as if he’s forgotten that this was supposed to be a super-hero satire – but totally fails to bring enough character or reality to the story for its seriousness to work. For the first half, he struggles to bring much personality to the film (I suppose that is Smith’s job). It becomes a film that raises the odd smile but, despite its very short length, outstays its welcome.

Bateman is good value as the do-good PR man (strangely, he’s introduced as a real hotshot, even though it seems he’s completely useless based on nearly everything we see him do). He has a strange chemistry with Charlize Theron, wasted in an incoherent part. No one else gets a look in.

Tonally, Hancock is a mess with a few good gags (Hancock casually tossing a beached whale back into the sea, hitting a yacht, is funny). Its novelty appeal in 2008 – “Look! Will Smith can be mean!” – has disappeared today. Nothing in it is remotely memorable, making a decent joke never anything more than functional. It falls apart in the final stretch as it reaches for a depth it isn’t strong enough to deliver. Can you believe this was one of the biggest hits of 2008? Has anyone really watched, or thought about it, since?

Vera Drake (2004)

Phil Davis and Imelda Staunton are superb in Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Vera Drake

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Phil Davis (Stan Drake), Peter Wight (Inspector Webster), Daniel Mays (Sid Drake), Alex Kelly (Ethel Drake), Eddie Marsan (Reg), Adrian Scarborough (Frank Drake), Heather Craney (Joyce Drake), Sally Hawkins (Susan Wells), Ruth Sheen (Lily), Lesley Sharp (Jessie Barnes), Liz White (Pamela Barnes), Martin Savage (Sergeant Vickers), Helen Coker (WPC Best), Vincent Franklin (Mr Lloyd), Lesley Manville (Mrs Wells), Jim Broadbent (Judge)

If you passed her on the street, you’d be sure to say hello and she’d be sure to ask after your family – and really mean it. She has a kind word for everyone and never thinks about herself. And, as far as the law is concerned, she’s a multiple murderer. Vera Drake mixes warmth and goodness with anger at social injustice and is stuffed with perfectly observed detail and marvellous acting. It might just be Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. Certainly, few other of his films carry such an emotional wallop.

In London in 1950, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) spends her life helping those around her and is a devoted wife and mother. But what her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) don’t know is that for decades she has been “helping young girls out” who find themselves unwillingly in the family way. All Vera wants to do is help – but with abortion illegal, her actions are a ticking timebomb, which explodes when Vera is arrested.

Vera Drake is a film about “the family way” – in every sense. Leigh’s unique film-making technique is familiar now: long weeks of research and intensive, improvisational rehearsals help the actors to create fully-fleshed characters who they know so well, they can predict their reactions in any circumstances. During rehearsals, none of the actors in the family knew Staunton was playing an abortionist until the actors playing the police knocked on the door mid-rehearsal – and even Staunton was completely unaware she was to be arrested. The genuine shock the actors felt feeds this intensely powerful scene – and every moment that follows.

In perhaps no other film has Leigh’s technique been more successful: every single character feels completely and utterly real. You could look in any direction and find a character with such a rich hinterland you want to know their stories. Just as intriguing films could be formed around the lives of the young women Vera helps out – Sinead Matthews ‘very young woman’ (and the boyfriend who waits outside), Tilly Vosburgh as a mother of seven with a sick husband, Rosie Cavaliero as a nervous married woman or Vinette Robinson’s scared Jamaican girl – as has been about Vera.

These women have fallen through the cracks – unable to support a family, but deprived any chance of making choices about themselves and bodies. There is a clear social gap – Sally Hawkins gives a sensitive, gentle performance as an upper-class woman, raped by her boyfriend, who obtains an abortion through psychiatric loopholes available only to the rich. No fault of hers – you can imagine she’d be horrified at how others suffer – but for the poor, their only option is Vera. It’s a huge flaw in the system – and removing Vera won’t solve the ‘problem’. It only means women will turn with more desperation to the sort of uncaring sleazy abortionists Denholm Elliott played in Alfie.

The film works because of its tenderness and the raw emotion of the performances. Leigh’s camera is a largely stationary and observatory, but that immerses us in the domestic charm of the first half as much as it does the horrifying coldness of the legal system in the second half. The Drake family home is small and cramped, reflecting their poverty, but also because it feels stuffed with love. Their children – the extremely shy Ethel and her outgoing son Sid – both reflect their intensely loving home, and her husband Stan is full of kindness, generosity and decency.

Leigh carefully demonstrates the warmth of this family. There’s a tear-inducingly sweet romance between Eddie Marsan’s Reg (a beacon of human decency) and the shy Ethel. Stan’s brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough, marvellous) and middle-class wife Joyce (Heather Craney, wonderfully torn in her feelings) struggle to conceive a child. The family laugh and joke together, every day ending in smiles and expressions of love. It’s beautifully immersing and deeply moving – and makes the wait for this world to shatter even more dreadful.

As Vera, Imelda Staunton gives an astonishing performance. A quiet, polite, open-hearted lady whose greatest pleasure is other people’s happiness. Leigh’s film follows her acts of caring around the community – cleaning neighbours houses, looking after her ill mother, inviting lonely newcomer Reg to dinner – showing she applies the same heart-felt but unshowy care to those, as she does to her abortions. It’s twenty minutes before we see one of these, and what’s striking is the well-practised calmness Vera goes about this work, carefully repeating the same reassuring instructions. She never asks for anything (the posh doctor treating Sally Hawkins’ character takes £100). Lily, who puts her in touch with those in need, has no qualms charging £2 without Vera’s knowledge.

Then the arrest comes. This sequence – and the rest that follows – is frankly extraordinary. Staunton’s face when she sees police is a heart-breaking thing of wonder – a horrified realisation that what she has dreaded for decades has finally happened and the realisation that the world as she knew it is over. Throughout she is astoundingly fragile. Barely able to speak, mute with shock – and horrified to hear one of her girls nearly died (it’s never revealed what went wrong). Her first thought is the girls health and how this will ruin her family’s celebration of Ethel’s engagement. So warm and joyful has the first half of the film been, we feel the shocking coldness as the law goes about – albeit with a regret, beautifully underplayed by Peter Wight’s sympathetic detective and Helen Coker’s gentle WPC – the black-and-white business of cataloguing wrongs.

Staunton is extraordinary: she shrinks and diminish, terrified and mortified. The reactions of her family – confused then stunned and in some cases appalled – feel immensely true: some jump forward in support, others in anger. Phil Davis’ deeply moving performance sees Stan suppress his anger under love. Mays’ Sid rages, Heather Craney’s Joyce is resentful, Scarborough’s Frank is a pillar of support, Alex Kelly’s Ethel quietly holds her mother and will not her go. The emotion of this is so affecting as it feels so real: when Reg quietly shows his support and later gently says the disastrous post-arrest Christmas is the finest he has ever had, you’ll feel tears spring to your eyes.

The relentless march of the law is chronicled perfectly by Leigh. This is a director at the top of his game, creating a low-key film that switches on a sixpence from warmth and familial love to shattering emotional impact. Staunton’s performance is breathtakingly brilliant, avoiding all histrionics and will break your heart. The entire cast is astounding. The research and filming is exquisite. The film will quietly devastate you, but also remind you that nothing is more reassuring than the fundamental goodness of people. A beautiful, moving, masterpiece of a film.

The Illusionist (2006)

Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel are wrapped up in the tricks of The Illusionist

Director: Neil Burger

Cast: Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Paul Giamatti (Inspector Uhl), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Josef Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Young Eisenheim), Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie), Karl Johnson (Doctor)

In 2006, The Illusionist was the other film about nineteenth-century magicians that wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. As such it got rather overlooked, which is unfair as this is a handsomely made, intriguing little puzzle which doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does what it does with a fair amount of invention and beauty.

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a revelation – a mystery character whose past is investigated by Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) under the orders of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Crown Prince feels Eisenheim’s illusions – which suggest at times dark truths in the Prince’s own personal life – are a serious risk to his position. On top of which, there is a secret past romance between Eisenheim and the Prince’s intended wife Countess Sophie (Jessica Biel), and the Prince is not a man to be crossed. So begins a cat-and-mouse game of trick and illusions between Uhl and Eisenheim.

The greatest thing about Neil Burger’s period piece is the grace and beauty with which it has been filmed. Dick Pope’s mixture of sepia tones and candlelit blacks makes for a series of gorgeous images, contrasted perfectly with Philip Glass’ beautiful score. Both contribute hugely to creating an atmosphere of mystical unknowingness around the Vienna locations, and give the film something in every scene to delight the senses.

What works less well is the slightly routine scripting and filmmaking that pulls the film together. For all the beauty with which it is presented, there isn’t quite enough of the original or – for want of a better word – the magical about what we see on the screen. The story is just ever so slightly too familiar, the points it intends to made – be it about the nature of power, or magic, or love, or hope – never quite coalesce into a coherent and clear message that really feels like you are being told something or shown something you haven’t seen in several movies before. 

Instead we see that behind the eyes of even the most obscure and unreadable conjurer there is deep and abiding love – love that will push them to do wild, even morally questionable, things. For others like the Crown Prince, that love is tied in altogether with possession and power and that there is no place for truth. Illusion is in all things: from Eisenheim’s entire life to the Prince’s front as a man of the modern world and his desire to become a dictator. Maybe that might be as close as the film gets to a deeper meaning – that illusion hides and protects our truths. 

As Eisenheim’s tricks get closer and closer to mesmerism and séance, the film suggests that it is a human need to want to see the truth behind tricks. The crowds who see Eisenheim raise the dead in flickering images want to believe it, that they could talk to their own deceased loved ones. Even in his early magic tricks, the less poetic characters of the film see value in the tricks only when they feel they have worked out the illusion behind it. Both are looking for a form of truth in the illusion, but the truth behind the trick is often deeper and more complex than the mechanical process by which it is done.

It’s a shame the film doesn’t tackle these ideas more, and settles for a more traditional “love across the divide” romance, but perhaps it doesn’t quite engage because Eisenheim and Sophie aren’t really interesting enough characters. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim with grace and intelligence, and draws a lot of depth and emotion from scenes that often require him to wordlessly stare. But juggling a character who deliberately conceals the truth and his intentions at every single turn seems slightly to have straitjacketed Norton, an elliptical actor at the best of times. There is something unknowable about him in this film which, while perfect for the character, makes him one you can’t really invest in. Similarly, Jessica Biel (a last minute replacement for Liv Tyler after filming had started) certainly looks the part, and gives Sophie a warmth, but she never really makes an impression as a character. Rooting for these two star-crossed lovers is difficult because we never get a sense of who they are.

Instead the film is dominated by hard-nosed rationalist Inspector Uhl, a man with a curiosity for conjuring, an appetite for power, a determination to get things done, but finally more than a bit of humanity. Paul Giamatti is excellent in the part, playing a role that emerges as the audience surrogate, trying as hard as we are to work out what is real and what is illusion. He doesn’t put a foot wrong with Uhl’s affable professionalism nor his ability to switch to business-like harshness. He’s also adept at playing a man who is the third smartest character in the film, but believes himself to be the smartest. You could also the same for Rufus Sewell’s (also great and clearly having a ball) Crown Prince, a bully who thinks he is an enlightened man.

It’s Uhl whom the film finally bonds with the most, and it’s his attempts to piece together what’s going on that becomes the most engaging thing in the second half of the film. For all the beauty of its making, and the skill that has gone into creating the optical illusions (some of Norton’s sleight of hand tricks in this movie are extraordinary), it’s a film that doesn’t quite satisfy. When the final reveal occurs in the film’s closing moments, you won’t quite be as satisfied as you would expect, perhaps because you won’t really care about Eisenheim or Sophie. Burger has made a handsomely mounted but strangely cold film.

Vice (2018)

Christian Bale slaps on the make-up as Dick Cheney in Vice

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfield), Sam Rockwell (George W Bush), Alison Pill (Mary Cheney), Lily Rabe (Liz Cheney), Jesse Plemons (Kurt), Tyler Perry (Colin Powell), Justin Kirk (Scooter Libby), LisaGay Hamilton (Condoleezza Rice), Eddie Marsan (Paul Wolfowitz), Bill Camp (Gerald Ford), Don McManus (David Addington)

There is a film to be made about the turmoil of the Bush presidency. It’s not this film. Adam McKay’s flashy, clumsy, cartoonish, smug, tedious, overlong, arrogant and polemical film quickly outstays its welcome, drowning any legitimate ideas and theories it has under a wave of high-minded, angry shouting at the viewer, frequently mistaking flash and bombast for actual political insight and producing the sort of heavy-handed, angry political commentary that wouldn’t look out of place in a cheap student review. And flipping heck I’m on the liberal left!

Anyway, the film follows the career of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale under an impressive pile of make-up) from his early wash-out days. Told by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to buck his ideas up or lose her, Cheney becomes an intern for Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), rising through the ranks due to his ruthless efficiency and loyalty, becoming Chief of Staff under Ford and Secretary of Defence under Bush. So he’s a natural choice for the inexperienced George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to balance the presidential ticket. In return, though, Cheney wants control over a few areas – energy, foreign policy, defence etc. etc. – that the lazy Bush has no interest in overseeing. So a quiet, backroom politician changes the office of the Vice President to become the most powerful man in the world. Boo hiss.

McKay’s intention with this film is to reveal the hollowness, greed and utter lack of integrity in its subject. Well he never lets us forget this aim – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so openly hated its lead character, which so completely refused to see any redeeming qualities in him whatsoever. Christ, even Downfall took a few minutes to show Hitler was generally kind to those who worked for him. The film is so unrelenting in its loathing for Cheney that it starts to feel like a being shouted out for over two hours by an “it’s the end of the world” fanatic on a street corner. This does not make for good entertainment.

The film has no subtlety whatsoever. Not for a single second does it even consider the remote possibility that anyone in the Republican party might, perhaps, just maybe, even if it was only some of the time, believe that they were doing something for a principled reason, even if it was a principle those on the left don’t agree with. Instead, all the characters are shown as selfish, greedy and corrupt, using ideology solely to gain power and then using power only to enrich themselves. It’s the sort of lazy political views that turn people off liberals – the idea that anyone who doesn’t share a liberal viewpoint is by definition evil. Some of us grew out of this kneejerk assumption that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is self-serving and cruel. Not McKay. 

On top of which, McKay’s film is made with the overt flash and brio that is the hallmark of the hack director using the tools of cinema with no understanding of their proper use. Wonky camerawork, cutting between timelines, throwing in newsreel footage, breaking the fourth wall, using strange camera angles, chucking in cameo actors to amusingly comment on events (Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts principally) and editing it with flash don’t make you a great director. They make you someone who has seen a lot of films and lot of techniques, but has no understanding of how to use them to craft an overall effect, instead thinking that if you throw all of them at the wall at once, you’ll be a master craftsman.

The film is full of studenty bits of invention that must have seemed oh-so-clever on paper in McKay’s script. Forty minutes in, with Cheney’s career looking over with the end of the Bush presidency, McKay starts running the credits – only to snap back into the film with the fateful phone call from Dubya. It’s clever and raises a quick chuckle, but doesn’t add anything to a sense of turning point in Cheney’s life. It’s followed by a clumsy metaphor of moments being like tea cups balanced on top of each other (inevitably these are later shown tumbling down) to represent how key moments of history build on each other. The real nadir is a moment when Dick and Lynne fall back into cod-Shakespearean dialogue in the bedroom as they discuss a possible vice presidency. ‘We don’t have Shakespeare’s psychologically insightful dialogue’ (I paraphrase) says the voiceover, before this skin-crawling hand-in-mouth sequence that shows McKay knows as much about Shakespeare as he does subtle political commentary.

Ah yes the voiceover. Perhaps not knowing how to marshall his childish political points in actual scenes and dialogue, McKay uses a voiceover from Jesse Plemons’ ground-forces marine to spell out as bluntly and crudely as possible the basic and trivial points it wants to make. The damn film already feels like being hectored by a crank, so why not make it feel even more like a polemic by having a character bitterly explain why everything is wicked and evil at you? The narration bores – and joins the general feeling of the rest of the film, that it goes on forever and ever and ever and never, ever, ever says something really interesting or revealing.

The performances are a mixed bag. Bale gives a decent turn as Cheney, capturing his mannerisms and conveying a sense of dark ambition, but it’s a role he could play standing on his head. Amy Adams turns Lynne into a Lady Macbeth, in a reheat of her performance from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Every other performance is a crude cartoon – Carell’s Rumsfeld a putty-faced joke, Sam Rockwell’s Bush (an impossibly generous Oscar nomination) a cartoonish buffoon. Everyone else coasts through it, patting themselves on the back.

There is an argument to be made that Cheney’s legacy is far from good, and it’s certain that we are paying a heavy price for interventions in Iraq. Many of the policies were less than savoury and left a less than positive benefit. But this film hammers these points home with all the charm of a ranting, drunk politics student who has read one book and watched a lot of YouTube videos. With McKay’s soulless, clumsy, look-at-me direction layered on top, this is a flat out terrible film. Save yourself what feels like much more than its two hour run time. In fact I’ll summarise it for you: CHENEY IS EVIL AND HORRIBLE AND HE (LITERALLY) HAS NO HEART. There you go. You don’t need to see it now.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Our heroes are on the run in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr John Watson), Jared Harris (Professor James Moriarty), Noomi Rapace (Madame Simza Heron), Stephen Fry (Mycroft Holmes), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Paul Anderson (Sebastian Moran), Geraldine James (Mrs Hudson), Thierry Neuvic (Claude Ravache)

Sequels are tricky beasts. You need to work out what people liked about the first film and double down on it, while also expanding the story in new and exciting ways. When I first saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in the cinema, I was very sceptical about whether this film managed that. But actually, viewing it a second time around (and almost seven years later), I enjoyed it a lot more than I remembered.

As Watson (Jude Law) prepares for his wedding to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is consumed into an investigation targeting the “Napoleon of Crime” Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). A series of bombings across Europe is being blamed on anarchists – but is it in fact a scheme launched by Moriarty’s military-industrial complex to instigate a world war (from which he can make a profit)? Well what do you think?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doubles down most strongly on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Recognising that the things from the first film everyone loved was the brotherly banter between these two, the sequel places it front and centre. While the first film felt the need to introduce a traditional love interest for Holmes, this film kills off Irene Adler in the first few minutes (despite this, poor Rachel McAdams has better material here than most of the first film). Instead the true “romantic” relationship of the film is Holmes and Watson, as they banter, bicker and make huge sacrifices to protect each other. 

It’s helped again by Downey Jnr and Law’s excellent performances and their strong chemistry. Saying this, the first half hour of the film thinks it’s funnier than it is, with its intermixing of Watson’s stag night with a series of Downey fights. There is a little too much brashness to it early on, without sufficient grounding in the warmth between the two characters. But once we hit the real action 40 minutes into the film, the balance between comedy, affection and peril is pretty effectively met.

And Ritchie directs some very fine action sequences here. There is an extraordinary sequence of a chase through the forest, which uses an exquisite mixture of hand held cameras, Steadicam, slow motion and half a dozen other tricks to deliver a series of striking and immersive shots. Yes it’s overblown and in-your-face but it works perfectly. The film is crammed with brash, powerful action scenes like this that really strike you between the eyes. 

It also still keeps in touch with the original novels in a nice way. Some of the best dialogue scenes are those between Holmes and Jared Harris’ muscular but serpentine Moriarty (Harris is very good, a far stronger villain than the first film). These scenes use dialogue from the original stories extremely effectively. Meanwhile, its build towards its version of the Reichenbach fall is actually very clever, one that twists on the movie’s “calling card” of Holmes predicting every move of a fight before it begins by having Moriarty pull the same trick (which is in itself a neat scene).

Where the film does fall short amidst all this action and explosions and jokes (some good, some bad) is that we don’t get much in the way of investigation or deduction. There is a bit of sleight-of-hand and a touch of pocket picking, but most of the “deductions” are based on highlighting with the camera or dialogue objects that might as well be labelled “Important Plot Device”. Holmes doesn’t so much as investigate here as charge head first from one combat sequence or dangerous situation to another. There isn’t a lot of patience in his method here – and not a lot of patience in the film itself. But then this film is largely based on The Final Problem, probably one of the least “detective” of the stories in the cannon.

But Game of Shadows is very good fun, has some neat action sequences, is well shot and is more or less entertaining, even if some of the comedy suggests it’s a little too pleased with itself. Sure it loses some of the smaller-scale delights of both the books and original film in its rush to make sure you are wowed. But I enjoyed it a lot more the second time round, since I’d watched the original film more recently and was tuned up into what it was trying to do.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law made a great odd couple in Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Henry Blackwood), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Hans Matherson (Lord Coward), James Fox (Sir Thomas Rotheram), Geraldine James (Mrs Hudson), William Houston (Constable Clark), William Hope (Ambassador Standish)

I don’t think there has been a single character brought to the screen more often than Sherlock Holmes. Sure there are certain tent-pole performances (Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch) that people automatically think of when you say “Sherlock Holmes”, but there are hundreds of others. It’s a character that survives constant re-imagination. In fact, you could argue it’s pretty much vital to bring something of your own to the table when putting together a Sherlock Holmes dramatisation. It’s what made Sherlock so successful. And it’s something that works very well here.

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr) is part Bohemian artist, part mad scientist, part kickboxer. The sort of guy who can think so far ahead he can plan out an entire fight in his mind before it even begins. He’s partnered up with determined, smart, handy-with-a-sword Dr Watson (Jude Law). With Watson preparing to move out of 221B to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), they take on their last case: defeating creepy Dracula-lite Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who claims to have returned from the dead and wants to take over the British Empire. Along the way they are helped (or hindered) by the mysterious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) an old flame of Holmes’.

Guy Ritchie’s rollicking adventure is actually a huge amount of fun that, underneath the crashes and bangs, actually has a really strong respect for the original stories (the film is littered with references and quotes from the originals, none of which feel shoe-horned in except maybe Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler, perhaps because the producers felt Holmes needed a love interest to stop any worries that he might be a bit too much in love with Watson). Ritchie has crafted a Holmes-Watson relationship that repositions them as a sort of odd-couple surrogate brothers, a marriage of equals (and make no mistake, a marriage is basically what this Holmes and Watson have). It’s big and silly, but then so were the original stories (The Creeping Man anyone?). 

Ritchie is a film-maker it’s easy to find faintly annoying, with his faux-geezer attitudes, his bizarre philosophical views and his love of the poor-taste gag. But on this film he’s basically a director-for-hire rather than putting his own story together and, you know what, putting this director into a studio strait-jacket is actually pretty good. It smacks some disciple on him, makes him drop his indulgent and poor-taste jokes and instead brings his strengths as a director – his sense of pace, his eye for a witty image, his rollicking sense of fun – to the fore. That’s probably why this is his most enjoyable and best film. 

It’s a film that mainly works because Downey Jnr and Law make a terrific pairing as Holmes and Watson. They have great chemistry, they spark off each other extremely well as performers and they really give the sense of two life-long devoted friends. Both actors are very good here. The film hits these notes of male friendship extremely well – a mixture of mocking and abuse, mixed with devotion and loyalty. The film gets the balance of these things exactly right: from debates to fights, you really get a sense that these two are honorary brothers, almost a bickering old married couple. 

In fact, the whole film revolves quietly around this relationship coming under threat (as Holmes sees it) of Watson leaving Holmes to get married – although, nicely, the film makes clear his fears of Mary are completely unfounded. Part of the dual engine of the film is Holmes continuing to tempt Watson into getting more and more involved with his cases, because he doesn’t want to lose his friend. It’s actually quite sweet. As are the protective feelings both have for the other: Watson knows Holmes puts himself at ridiculous risks, in turn Holmes shows a gentle worry for Watson’s gambling addiction (a popular Sherlockian society interpolation from references in the story).

All this warm, brotherly stuff from two excellent performers is built into a dramatic, thrillingly shot, series of action and detection scenes. The film’s big gimmick is Holmes’ ability to use his analytical abilities to accurately predict the outcome of fights (which the film communicates with slow motion and forensic narration by Downey Jnr, before staging the entire fight again at real time). It’s actually a fairly neat way of turning his deductive abilities into a visual language. Alongside this, plenty of this great fun – exciting or, as in Holmes’ battle with a 7ft giant, funny. All hugely entertaining.

Placing the focus on this relationship and the action does mean that the mystery elements of the plot get a bit short-changed. The story is a rather silly series of near-Dracula style high-Gothic mysteries that may or may not be real (all these occult references more than echo The Young Sherlock Holmes!). There isn’t much in the way of the small intricate puzzles of the early stories here – but then plenty of the later ones became increasingly hyper-real Gothic stories, so I guess that is fine. Mark Strong does a decent job as the villainous Blackwood, using his sinister looks and imperious voice extremely well. 

It also looks wonderful – the photography and set design is marvellous – and the score by Hans Zimmer must be one of his best ever, a sprightly mix of Irish music, Westerns and Music Hall. Ritchie directs it with a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek, entertaining sprightliness, like Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones. Holmes more than survives his re-imagination as an action superhero – and in fact he brings across a lot of the tone and character of the original book along with him. A terrific entertainment and a more than worthy entry to the Holmes movie cannon.

Concussion (2015)

Will Smith takes on the NFL in solid but uninspired true-life story Concussion

Director: Peter Landesman

Cast: Will Smith (Dr Bennet Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr Julian Bailes), Albert Brooks (Dr Cyril Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema Mutiso), David Morse (Mike Webster), Arliss Howard (Dr Joseph Maroon), Mike O’Malley (Daniel Sullivan), Eddie Marsan (Dr Steven T DeKosky), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Dave Duerson), Stephen Moyer (Dr Ron Hamilton), Richard T Jones (Andre Waters), Paul Reiser (Elliot Pellman), Luke Wilson (Roger Goodell)

In 2002, Pittsburgh pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) carried out an autopsy on deceased former Pittsburgh Steelers centre (and American Football legend) Mike Webster (David Morse). What he discovered – that the high speed impacts of American football massively increased the chances of players suffering serious brain damage and debilitating mental conditions – was to change his life, and lead to a six-year battle to get his research acknowledged by the NFL. This film dramatizes this story – with the obligatory inventions and dramatic changes (Landesman describes the film as “emotionally true” if not “factually true”).

Concussion is a fairly straight-forward, rather uninspired “one man’s struggle” kind of film. There isn’t much in it, to be honest, that is particularly unique or different from films of this type we’ve seen before. We’ve pretty much all seen the trope of a man pushing to get himself heard against the scorn, disbelief and anger of those who need to hear him the most. Does Concussionadd anything new to that? No not really.

Peter Landesman shoots the film with a methodical, workmanship that hits all the expected beats. The whole film plays like Michael Mann’s The Insider-lite: with the difference that the NFL never really convinces as an actual threat in the way Big Tobacco does in that film. The film falls over itself to repeatedly tell us how powerful the NFL is but never really shows us in the film how that power might work. When the FBI drum up charges against Omalu’s mentor, you never get the sense that this is being directed by the NFL themselves. They are simply never that dangerous an opponent.

Maybe because this is a film that doesn’t want to run the risk of saying America’s beloved sport is dangerous. It wants to blame bad eggs rather than an institutional failure – hence the repurposing of former player Dave Duerson as a sort of braggart bully. The characters playing the NFL heads are relegated to TV screens in the corner. It never wants to really look at the risks of this institution wilfully burying evidence their sport is dangerous, or question whether this sport is even a good idea. Throughout the world of sport, there are ungoing debates about the health risks of sport, from the danger of heart conditions to early onset dementia in football players from heading the ball. This film fails to really tap into any of this.

As such, there isn’t really any dramatic force behind the film: it doesn’t manage to suggest Omalu is in danger and it doesn’t want to turn the NFL into actual antagonists. It treads a weary middle ground. If the NFL was really positioned as a threat, then the pervasive presence of its stadium in Pittsburgh would be sinister. It isn’t for all Landesman tries to shoot it in that way.

Despite this though, Will Smith is very good as Omalu. The film’s version of the doctor seems a little different from the quirky, socially awkward real-life Omalu. But Smith nails the home-run scenes of Omalu raging at his research being disregarded. (In real life it was easy for the NFL to dismiss Omalu by using his Nigerian heritage (his ‘otherness’) quietly against him. The film doesn’t touch upon this by the way.) Smith has all the charisma the role needs and brings it a certain James-Stewartish moral decency.

The rest of the cast don’t get much else to play with. Alec Baldwin is pretty good as a former NFL doctor trying to ease his conscience (although his accent got some criticism). Gugu Mbatha-Raw has a fairly thankless role as the supportive wife, but does it well. Albert Brooks might be a bit too much at times as Cyril Wecht, but David Morse plays Mike Webster with sensitivity.

The film is not always that subtle. Shots of Webster haunting Omalu are a bit much. Omalu’s unhappiness and frustration are telegraphed using familiar clichés, from raging impotently at stony faced law officers, to trashing a room in his still-under-construction dream home in Pittsburgh (having read the source book it’s hard to believe the real Omalu ever did something like this). The timeline of the film isn’t always clear. There is a little too much lingering on funerals and tear-stained relatives for easy emotional hits.

The main issue is that Concussiondoes nothing special and doesn’t manage to make its familiar structure feel particularly fresh. It’s just a very, very familiar type of story told with no real unique imagination. Although Smith is very good, it’s not quite enough.

Their Finest (2016)

Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy do their bit for the war effort by making movies in Their Finest

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Gemma Arterton (Catrin Cole), Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley), Bill Nighy (Ambrose Hilliard), Jack Huston (Ellis Cole), Helen McCrory (Sophie Smith), Eddie Marsan (Sammy Smith), Jack Lacy (Carl Lundbeck), Rachael Stirling (Phyl Moore), Richard E Grant (Roger Swain), Paul Ritter (Raymond Parfitt), Henry Goodman (Gabriel Baker), Jeremy Irons (Secretary of War)

During World War Two, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to write dialogue for propaganda films – to be specific “the slop” (the women’s dialogue). She pitches the semi-true story of two young women who take a boat to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers, and is hired to work with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) to write a screenplay. Among the cast of this film is Ambrose Hillaird (Bill Nighy), an ageing matinee idol having trouble accepting his days of playing young heroes are behind him. Together they overcome initial difficulties to create a film that moves the nation.

Their Finest is a gently amiable piece of film-making, totally predictable but still rather entertaining for all that. You won’t exactly be gripped or compelled by it, but you certainly won’t feel cheated out of your time watching it. It doesn’t have much in the way of originality about it – and you can see most of its jokes and events coming a mile off – but it’s still got a certain charm and warmth about it. And it’s crammed full of some very fun “film-within-a-film” scenes, both seeing the film the team create and the work (and backstage politics) that go into making it. There are also some neat gags (and wry comments) about the casual sexism of the day – and the film (without dwelling on the issue) makes a number of heartwarming moments out of its lead character succeeding against the odds on her own merits.

It also has a couple of fine performances, not least from an engaging and bright Gemma Arterton, who brings a great deal of quiet depth and dignity to Catrin. Catrin has a sweet lack of self-confidence about her – a gentle doubt, that she must learn to overcome over the film. She makes an affecting and empathetic lead. It also helps that she has a great screwball comedy chemistry with Sam Claflin. Claflin’s part is far more conventional – the gruff man with the heart of gold – but he nails the part’s humanity and its comic grumpiness.

The film’s main weapon of entertainment is Bill Nighy, in a part almost certainly written for him so well does it match his strengths. Hilliard is just the sort of vain, pompous, arrogant preener that Nighy can play in his sleep – a man who needs to be flattered and praised into doing anything, who assumes when he first reads the script he’s being offered the role of the young hero not the drunk uncle. What Nighy does so well with parts like this, though, is bring them depth and pathos. Hilliard may be an egotist, but he’s gently comforting in tragedy and has a profound sadness and insecurity behind him about where his career and life is going. So, while he brings a lot of the film’s comedy, he’s also a large part of its heart, elements that emerge increasingly as the film progresses.

The sequences that follow the making of the film are very funny. Jack Lacy is wonderfully sweet and genuine as an actual war-hero, an American serving in the RAF, parachuted in by the Ministry of War to send a propaganda message to the USA. Lacy’s Carl is well-meaning and loves films (not least his hero worship of Hilliard) but a hopeless actor, who can’t help smiling at the camera after every line. It’s a neat indication of the film’s well-judged tone that he is never a butt: the crew work hard to improve him, he’s eager to learn, he’s completely lovely – and when a character does complain about the extra work he is causing, Henry Goodman’s Alexander Korda-ish producer simply states “he has done things none of us would be brave enough to do”.

Because there is a harder realism about this film. It doesn’t shy away from the dangers and brutality of war – there are bombings and people die. Some deaths are characters we know, others are on the edges of the story. “I’m a bit emotional today. My landlady was killed last night” one character states. Each of our lead characters encounters a dead body, or knows someone who has been killed. There is a genuine danger of obliteration or invasion just on the edges of the comedy. It’s a neat balance that the film keeps, between pathos and light comedy.

The film-within-a-film, The Nancy Starling, is a brilliant pastiche of 1940s British war films, instantly recognisable and affectionately amusing. But it’s also, when we finally see parts of the film, rather moving. It has a real emotional force to it – the film-makers achieve the difficult balance of giving us a pastiche we can chuckle at it, but also a pastiche that feels like it would genuinely move the people watching it in the film. 

Their Finest’s main problem might be that partly because it’s so quietly unassuming and gentle, it is almost completely bogged down in predictability. Most of the character arcs can be seen coming a pile off – my wife and I were able to practically write the scenes ourselves as they happened. There is very little original here. Even the stories of actors’ pretensions and film-making disasters have a breezy air of familiarity about them – the sort of stuff we’ve seen in films about film-making hundreds of times before. In fact, what’s striking is that a film so predictable and familiar remains entertaining and endearing – which is surely some sort of testament to the acting and direction.

Their Finest is perfect for what it is: an entertaining, weekend-afternoon film that will pop a gentle smile on your face. There is nothing particularly deep or memorable about it beyond that. It has some fine performances, some good jokes and it will make you laugh. But will you remember much about it within a few hours? Probably not. Is it a film that you can imagine revisiting to discover new gems in it? Again probably not. Is it a film that will entertain you on a Sunday afternoon? Absolutely.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tom Cruise and Kerri Russell take on a truly challenging assignment in Mission: Impossible III

Director: JJ Abrams

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Billy Crudup (John Musgrave), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Meade), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Declan Gormley), Maggie Q (Zhen Lei), Keri Russell (Lindsay Farris), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Eddie Marsan (Brownaway), Laurence Fishbourne (Theodore Brassel)

If there is one thing Tom Cruise does better than anyone in the movies, its run. Man, can that guy run well on camera. It’s not as easy as you’d think – watch people run in real life, and they probably look galumphing and awkward. But Tom looks as sleek as a gazelle. Every stride stresses his authority and unflappable coolness. I mention it because Tom does a lot of running in this film. The dénouement is basically him running over a mile and half, nearly in real time, a lot of it one long shot. 

JJ Abrams came to Mission: Impossible off the back of his successful TV series, Alias, in which Jennifer Garner’s undercover agent takes on a variety of disguises, working in a team, on a series of missions to get impossible-to-obtain artefacts against terrific odds. JJ Abrams carries the formula that worked so well in that series straight into this one.

The whole film plays out like an Alias movie. It even uses that series regular gambit of an opening scene throwing us dramatically into the story before flashing back “72 hours earlier”. Just like Alias, we have our lead trying to make a relationship work without saying what they do for a living, a family feeling in the team’s relationship, a geeky tech guy with a heart of gold, double and triple agents, glamourous locations – it’s everything an Alias fan could want, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt essentially Sydney Bristow in all but name. This also brings out the best in Cruise, who looks like a man born again in the role.

Mission: Impossible: III is truly delightful, big-screen fun, rebirthing the series and placing team interplay firmly back at the centre, setting the tone and template the next two films have followed. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is in semi-retirement, training agents and planning to marry Julia (Michelle Monaghan). However when his young protégée Lindsay Faris (Keri Russell) is captured while investigating sinister arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Hunt sets out to rescue her – and finds himself up to his neck in shady and dangerous goings-on.

Every action scene in the film is brilliantly entertaining (the mid-film drone assault is wind-it-back-and-watch-again exciting.). Of course, Cruise takes more than his fair share of the juicy moments – including a crazy jump off the roof of a Hong Kong building that has to be seen to be believed – but Abrams makes this a team movie in the way neither of the two previous films had been. Each member brings crucial skills to the table, and has moments to shine. Pegg takes the stand-out role of a witty, nerdy tech back at the base (sure enough his role was expanded later), but each feels an essential part of the story.

It also helps that the film has a terrific baddie to bounce off – the series has not had a better villain than Hoffman’s ice cold arms dealer. Sure Davian is pretty much a part Hoffman could play standing on his head – but he’s got just the right balance of rage and ruthless intellect.

If you want to see a single example of why this film works, take a look at that opening scene. Who could resist a film that opens with a scene as masterfully directed as this, sizzling with tension and ending with a smash cut to black over a gun shot and into the opening score? Hoffman and Cruise are excellent (Hoffman’s ice-cold control providing a great contrast to Cruise, who runs the gamut of defiant, furious, faux-reasonable, desperate and pleading), but it sets out the huge stakes for the film, it keeps us nervily waiting for the film to catch-up with what we’ve seen, and it tells us how vitally important what Davian wants is to him – and how desperate Hunt is to protect Julia.

Abrams has a perfect understanding of dramatic construction.  Everything in the film is carefully established and set-up, so we always understand the dangers and the threats. MI3 also uses its macguffin extremely well. What do we learn about “the Rabbit’s Foot”, the possession of which is of such vital importance? It’s small enough to fit in a suitcase, it’s stored in a round glass tube, it’s got a biohazard label and it’s worth millions. That’s it, but it doesn’t matter: Abrams establishes the most important thing – it’s dangerous and Davian wants it more than anything. Everything spins out from that with smooth efficiency.

The pace never lets up, but the characters and their relationships are never left behind. In particular Monaghan and Cruise’s relationship is skilfully established in surprisingly few scenes, and something we end up really rooting for. Abrams never goes overboard – the film is stuffed with action and excitement but never feels bloated or indulgent: the final confrontation is particularly effective because it is fairly small scale and is focused on the Hunts’ relationship.

Mission: Impossible 3 is one of the most joyful entries in a film franchise that deserves a lot of kudos for (by and large) focusing on plot, story and character alongside action sequences that have a feeling of tangible reality about them. It’s not completely perfect – a shock reveal about a turncoat in the IMF is hardly a surprise, considering the small number of candidates and the actors playing them – but it’s about as close as you can get to an endless enjoyable fairground ride.