Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch is Strange, but not strange enough

2 Nov
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Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts

“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, I say thee nay!” I was looking forward to hearing Benedict Cumberbatch wrap his Shakespearean diction round that catchphrase, at once ridiculous and sublime, but the new film of Doctor Strange failed to deliver – just one of several disappointments.

Doctor Strange was always an oddity in the Marvel Universe. Even Thor and his fellow Gods of Asgard sat better with the costumed superheroes than the dimension-spanning, spell-uttering, Eye of Agamotto-wielding Master of the Mystic Arts. The film goes to unnecessary lengths to shoe-horn him into that world, focusing overlong on his progression from man to mystic. Doctor Strange just is, all right? And if it gets weird, well, deal with it.

Given that Doctor Strange was the trippiest of all comics, first published in 1963 and doing as much as the Beatles to define the lysergic beat of that generation, it’s a pity to see its vaulting imagination muted. Worse, it’s derivative.

Strange’s apprenticeship in Kathmandu is like Batman’s in Batman Begins [interestingly, in real life the roles were reversed. As I wrote in my interview with Cumberbatch both on my blog and for  Canadian Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, he was once a teacher to Tibetan monks]; the bending space performed in the sorcerers’ battles is merely a more elaborate version of the folding cities of Inception; and if it was dumb when Superman turned back time in 1978 as an overly convenient climactic plot device, it’s much dumberer now. Even the most powerful scene in a particularly trippy journey into the astral plane is familiar from a YouTube video in which fingers sprout hands, whose fingers sprout hands, and so on.

An hour after the film, I found myself struggling to recall a truly memorable scene, original idea, or killer line of dialogue. Overall it was… adequate. I enjoyed it. There were good bits. It was well acted. But c’mon, Marvel: next time, take your foot right off the brake. Guillermo del Toro was once down to direct: now that might have been worth seeing. For a sequel, please?

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Why Star Trek: Beyond can’t tell its art from its Elba

25 Jul
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For God’s sake, Jim, I’m a liberal not a fascist! Spock and Bones with newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) in Star Trek: Beyond 

Really, internet? Does no one apart from me find it peculiar that, in Star Trek: Beyond, the Enterprise crew keep talking about strength in unity? They are the ultimate liberals – Simon Pegg, who wrote the script this time round, even recently said the Enterprise crew would have been unanimous Remainers in the Brexit vote – and yet this slogan is the very definition of fascism. A “fasces” in Latin is a bound-together bundle of sticks – one stick is easily snapped, a bundle is not.

The saying and its application also feel like an inferior retread of “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”. Perhaps it’s one of Pegg’s many deliberate homages to the original series, but it comes across as lazy.

Indeed, the plot seems even more perfunctory in conception and risible in denouement than usual. The much-touted new character, who shares pride of place on the poster with Kirk and Spock, has no more depth than any other identikit bad-ass martial-arts babe (with, admittedly, a talent for engineering thrown in). The dialogue, though fitfully entertaining, is never as laugh-out-loud funny as you would expect from being off the Pegg, though in his defence he was simultaneously filming Mission Impossible at the time of writing and had to be talked out of resigning by producer JJ Abrams. And while the last Star Trek film had the more nuanced Benedict Cumberbatch, Kraal is a painfully stereotypical villain, with a face where you can’t tell its arse from its Elba.

Ah well. Star Trek: Beyond still has much to recommend it. Hugely superior production design, for a start. The “snowglobe in space” that houses millions of people in a suspiciously fragile-looking bubble one-ups the curved space base in Elysium with a dizzying convergence of gravity-defying walkways, shimmering lakes and bendy skylines. A crashing Enterprise similarly upends gravitational logic to have Kirk climbing floors and walking on walls. The action scenes, courtesy of Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin, are faultless.

Overall, as a life-long Trekker, did I enjoy it? Hell yes. I mean Jeez – I remember what it’s like to sit through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the cinema. Criticism be damned: may the current incarnation of bold goers live long and prosper.

Hamlet first night first review: how great is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dane?

25 Aug
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

I predicted in my previous blog that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet would be more of an action man than a thinker, and, having now seen the much talked-about Barbican production, so it proves – to a fault. Even when soliloquising about suicide (“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”) he leaps nimbly up on to a table – the first of two such leaps. I haven’t seen such an Action Hamlet since Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film.

Wait, I tell a lie, I have. It was the wonderful bit in The Last Action Hero where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – and Hamlet is taking out the trash!”). “To be or not to be”, says Big Arnie, lighting a huge cigar. “Not to be,” he decides, and the whole castle explodes in flames.

But I digress.

Benedict Cumberbatch is hugely entertaining to watch throughout, and never more so than when he elects to “put an antic disposition on”: he reveals such a wonderful gift for physical comedy when pretending to be a toy soldier while acting mad, you’d love someone to sign him up for an out-and-out screwball comedy. But aye, there’s the rub. In the hoary old question of how much Hamlet is really mad, and how much he is just pretending, this production plumps so squarely for the latter that it makes a nonsense of the play.

Most damagingly, this interpretation turns Hamlet into such an irredeemable shit that you lose all sympathy with him. In the original play, one of the most troubling scenes is “Get thee to a nunnery”, where Hamlet is unremittingly horrible to the poor innocent girl to whom he once so movingly professed, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt thou that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt that I love.”

In the context of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his father, who is utterly turned off sex by the thought of his mother lying with his uncle in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, honeying and making love over the nasty sty”, who has had his love letters rejected, and who has just been thinking about suicide before they meet, the scene can make sense.

In the Barbican production, however, they cut the scene where Ophelia talks about how Hamlet recently came to her and “raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being”; AND they moved the “To be or not to be” speech to the beginning of the play (apparently this has been rethought during previews, and that soliloquy, at least, has been returned to its usual place). The result is that Hamlet goes straight from telling Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad, to the Nunnery scene where he is horrible to Ophelia – from which we can only conclude that she is deliberate collateral damage.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,There are many other ways in which a Hamlet in full possession of his senses becomes odious: the killing of that “rash intruding fool” Polonius; the summary execution of his old friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern; Hamlet’s startlingly casual (in this production) semi-apology to Polonius’s son, in which he defends himself by copping an insanity plea – a plea we know to be a lie. It also makes it even more peculiar that this Action Hamlet fails to take action in avenging his father’s death.

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets. I started with Jonathan Pryce’s, in 1980, when studying the play for A-level. That plumped for a mostly mad Hamlet – the voice of the ghost came from deep within Hamlet himself. I next saw Steven Berkoff’s at the Edinburgh Fringe – transfixing, stylised, with elements of mime, performed in a simple circle with no props to give the audience’s imagination wing. I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’s Oedipal Hamlet in 1995, where the “nasty sty” scene with his mother was so overpoweringly sexual that it was little surprise to discover that he and Francesca Annis became lovers. Michael Sheen’s was the maddest, set in an actual lunatic asylum; Nick Hytner’s production at the National was the most well thought through and all-round brilliantly acted and staged production of the dozen I have seen.

What does Benedict Cumberbatch’s add?

Certainly, like David Tennant’s, it has reached out to a new audience. The set is so wonderful it is bound to win awards. Many of the cuts are good, and keep the production rollicking along at a fair pace. Some of the more confusing words have rightly been changed: “Pat” has been axed (in the original text Hamlet says, contemplating killing his uncle, “Now might I do it pat”, which led generations of sniggering schoolchildren to wonder who Pat was); “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” has been changed to “him that stops me”, since most people don’t realise the original meant the opposite of what is now understood; the “union” thrown into the poisoned drink is now called a “jewel”.

But – and as Sir Mixalot would say, it’s a big but and I cannot lie – it didn’t fire the imagination of the Hamlet neophyte that I took along, my son Sam; whereas I’m quite sure Nick Hytner’s more cerebral version would have.

Benedict’s is a very good Dane, then – but it could so easily have been a great one.

NB: Having bought my tickets a year ago and seen the play last week, in order to satisfy critical convention I have held off reviewing it until First Night — which is tonight. 

What a piece of work is (this) man: Benedict Cumberbatch opens in Hamlet

5 Aug
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Benedict Cumberbatch, who opens in Hamlet tonight. Pic from Wikimedia Commons, Sam Hughes from UK derivative work: RanZag.

So phenomenal is the appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch that he caused a 400-year-old play performed thousands of times to become the most in-demand show in West End history: on the day tickets were released, 35,000 callers were waiting in the phone queue. Hamlet finally gets its opening night at the Barbican tonight, but Benedict has been planning it for years. Asked at a Q&A in 2012 which play he would choose if he were only able to do one more, he said, in his typically British self-deprecating manner, ‘I think it would have to be Hamlet. I mean it’s a very vain project in a way, isn’t it, Hamlet, because every actor wants to have their go at it, but, um, I do want to have my go at it.’

From Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes to Jude Law and Michael Sheen, Hamlet is a rite of passage for every new generation’s brightest actors. But rather than being weighed down by the history, Benedict and director Lyndsey Turner have spent the last year stripping the play down and reassembling it. In the same way as he reinvented Sherlock Holmes, Benedict says he wants Hamlet to feel ‘like a new play that just landed as a pdf in someone’s computer inbox at the Royal Court. We want to escape the idea that it has been done before, and we’re looking at the whole play – not just the eponymous hero.’

Benedict promises to be extraordinary in the role. He’s no stranger to Shakespeare, having performed in several of his plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre way back at the turn of the millennium, and he specialises in oddballs and loners with a planet-sized brain, even playing Stephen Hawking a decade before his friend Eddie Redmayne did: ideal for the conflicted prince whose ‘native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.

Yet you should also expect his to be a vigorous, physical, passionate interpretation. When an interviewer for Elle suggested to him that Hamlet is as sexless as Sherlock, Benedict became quite indignant: ‘My God,’ he exclaimed. ‘He’s got a depth of soul that, if he turned it on you, you’d be the happiest woman in the world!’

Overnight success

When people talk about ‘overnight success’, it’s usually a metaphor for a rapid rise to fame. In Benedict Cumberbatch’s case, it is literally true. I interviewed the actor a week before the very first Sherlock was broadcast. He seemed pleased enough with the way they had updated Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective series to the modern world; but he also talked entertainingly about his time spent with Tibetan monks, and how being car-jacked and nearly killed in South Africa had made him want to live life to the full.

There was no sense of what was about to hit. ‘It did feel like an overnight change,’ he reflected in Empire magazine four years later. ‘I’d never been that tuned into the internet, in the sense of TV shows and their fandom. I didn’t know there could be an immediate live response to television programmes. The immediate response on Twitter… this thing of my name trending worldwide… it was amazing. The noise coming off the country was deafening and I just thought, “F***. That’s changed. That’s crazy.”’

And there is no sign of Cumberfever dying down. Last year he photobombed U2 at the Oscars where he was presenting an award, appeared on Sesame Street, and had his likeness immortalised in wax by Madame Tussauds; this year he was an Academy Award nominee himself, appeared on the coveted cover of Vanity Fair’s 21st annual Hollywood Issue, and had a life-sized statue of him made out of chocolate. (Passers-by, apparently, couldn’t resist a nibble.)

How did a faintly odd-looking theatre and TV actor, well known for his resemblance to an otter, become one of the screen’s biggest stars and sex symbols, with roles in blockbusters such as Star Trek, The Hobbit and upcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange to add to prestige parts such as Julian Assange, Alan Turing and his conflicted slave owner in the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave? The Curious Case of Benedict Cumberbatch may sound like a tale worthy of Conan Doyle, but it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to solve it.

The son of actor parents, he was gifted even as a child. His drama teacher at Harrow, where he made his stage debut aged 12 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called him the best schoolboy actor he had ever worked with. His voice is a remarkably versatile instrument: just watch the extraordinary YouTube clips of him performing the dragon Smaug, without all the computer enhancements, or the MTV interview in which he is asked to imitate as many celebrities as he can in a minute – switching with amazing speed from Jack Nicholson to Christopher Walken to Matthew McConaughey, he nails 11.

So, to quote Fortinbras at Hamlet‘s close: ‘Bear Hamlet/Benedict like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally.’

Hamlet runs until 31 Oct at the Barbican CentreThirty tickets will be available to queue for each day, and Hamlet will be broadcast on 15 Oct in 550 cinemas worldwide. This blog is an amended version of my feature published in Where London magazine. I have tickets, bought a year ago, for later in the run. I’ll review it in London Hollywood then.

The Theory of Everything to do with Oscar odds

9 Dec
Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

The Theory Of Everything is only recently out in the States, at first opening in just five theatres, and isn’t even released in the UK until Jan 1, but already it’s generating Oscar buzz: William Hill has just slashed the odds on it winning to the same level as Interstellar. About the relationship between a young Stephen Hawking and his wife, it has everything Oscar loves: disability, a veneer of intellectuality, and a romance. “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his,” runs the tagline.

It’s certain to make young Eddie Redmayne, whose dashingly freckled good looks attracted attention in Les Misérables, the next major British Hollywood star. And it’s tough luck for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game has been left in the backwash; especially since Benedict played Stephen Hawking first, ten whole years ago. (For the time when I went on set with Hawking himself, click here.)

The odds released today by William Hill make for interesting reading. Boyhood is the clear favourite, while Gone Girl trails in tenth place, despite the heat it generated on release. A bet on Rosamund Pike at 11-1 seems like a good flutter.

Here’s the list in full:

Best Picture: 4-7 Boyhood, 10-3 Unbroken, 5-1 The Imitation Game, 7-1 Birdman, Selma, 10-1 Interstellar, The Theory Of Everything, 16-1Foxcatcher, Whiplash, 20-1 Gone Girl, 25-1 Inherent Vice, Mr Turner, 33-1 A Most Violent Year, American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 40-1 Trash, 50-1 Big Eyes, Fury, Into The Woods, Rosewater, Suite Francaise, Wild, 66-1 Kill The Messenger

Best Actor: 4-6 Michael Keaton – Birdman, 13-8 Eddie Redmayne – The Theory Of Everything, 9-2 Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, 9-1 David Oyelowo – Selma, 10-1 Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, 12-1 Jack O’Connell – Unbroken, 14-1 Timothy Spall – Mr Turner, 25-1Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler

Best Actress: 1-5 Julianne Moore – Still Alice, 10-3 Reese Witherspoon – Wild, 6-1 Amy Adams – Big Eyes, 10-1 Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, 11-1 Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, 12-1 Felicity Jones – The Theory Of Everything, 14-1 Jennifer Aniston – Cake, 16-1Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 20-1 Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them, 25-1 Hilary Swank – The Homesman

Best Supporting Actress: 1-5 Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, 6-1 Laura Dern – Wild, 9-1 Emma Stone – Birdman, 12-1 Carmen Ejogo – Selma, 12-1 Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game, 14-1 Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 14-1 Meryl Streep – Into The Woods, 25-1Carrie Coon – Gone Girl, 25-1 Jessica Chastain – Interstellar, 25-1 Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice, 25-1 Kristen Stewart – Still Alice,33-1 Dorothy Atkinson – Mr Turner, 33-1 Julianne Moore – Maps To The Stars, 33-1 Sienna Miller – American Sniper

Why 12 Years A Slave is already the film of the year

10 Jan
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup with his demented ‘owner’ (Michael Fassbender)

12 Years A Slave opens today in the UK, so you can finally see what all the fuss is about. I saw it at a preview a couple of months back, and was blown away. It is flat-out impossible that Chiwetel Ejiofor will not win the Academy Award for Best Actor, and doubtless the Golden Globe this Sunday too. Director Steve McQueen has said he never considered another actor for the role, and his performance is, like the film itself, one of enormous power, courage, dignity and, above all, restraint.

Where The Butler took such liberties with its source material that it can hardly be said to be ‘based on a true story’ at all, shoehorning all sorts of historical events Forrest Gumpishly into the narrative under a mess of mawkish music to demonstrate that Racism Is Bad, 12 Years A Slave is such an extraordinary true story it needs no embellishment. It is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free negro born in New York state, who was drugged and sold into 12 years of brutal slavery in the Deep South.

Benedict Cumberbatch and regular Steve McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender play, respectively, considerate and demented slave owners, and producer Brad Pitt gives himself a cameo as just about the only decent anti-slavery white character; but it’s Ejiofor’s film. His expressive eyes fill every scene, haunting you long after the film has finished.

Steve McQueen’s direction is extraordinary, too. He’s not afraid of long takes – consider the monologue in Hunger – and of letting the pictures do the talking: foreshadowing Northup’s captivity by a close-up of his violin pegs being tightened, for instance. The extraordinary natural beauty of Northup’s surroundings, shot on 35mm film and in widescreen by cinematographer Sean Bobbit,  only make his bondage the more poignant.

None of this sounds like a fun film for a Friday night, I know. But see it soon, and absolutely see it on the big screen where it belongs. Though we’re only two weeks into January, I would confidently predict it will be the best film you’ll see all year.

Hooray for London Hollywood: 5 highlights from 1 year and 100 blog posts

19 Nov

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This is my 100th post. It’s also a year since I started LondonHollywood.net.

A big thank you to all readers, with an extra peck on the cheek to anyone who Shares or Retweets or even Comments when they like a post.

I’m passionate about film; that’s why I do this. It’s good to spread the love. [Though if any commissioning editors read this, I am still more than happy to write for money, as well as love!]

In celebration of a year of blogging, these were the highlights. Click the links to read the posts.

Most popular: My four-part interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, ranging from Sherlock to Madonna to his time with Tibetan monks. The Cumberbabes went nuts for this — at one stage racking up 3,000 views a day

Most unpopular: To the horror of many, I greeted Django Unchained with something less than rapture. Now that I have seen 12 Years A Slave (coming soon to this blog), I stand by my opinion even more firmly. 

Most epic: Colonel Badd, the short film I co-wrote, was accepted into the Court Métrage section of the Cannes Film Festival. I went out there, writing 11 blogs: half were from this trip, half from my 1997 diary from when I went out there with Jon Ronson as Editor of Time Out. Divine madness, with a cast that includes Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, Jonathan King, Alan Parker, Paul Kaye and the Spice Girls. 

Only slightly less epic: I wrote ten blogs on the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, for those who couldn’t be there, ranging from one-on-one interviews to panels on better writing. Four posts were on the irrepressible Joe “Basic Instinct” Eszterhas, the highest-paid screenwriter of all time. Trust me, they’re a hoot. 

Most controversial: I wrote two blogs about heart-breaking YouTube videos by bullied teens, two of whom went on to commit suicide. One man, ‘Philip Rose’, wrote to me many times, at some length, saying the story of Amanda Todd is not all it seems; he then started his own blog, here. Intriguing. Murky. Very hard to unravel. 

So there it is. Hope to see you back here soon (bring your friends!), and here’s to the next year. A short version of this URL, btw, is www.londonhollywood.net.