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Sherlock S4E3: “The Final Problem”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Sherlock is over so quickly isn’t it? One week you’re celebrating its return and less than a month later, you’re waving it bon voyage. And after the last two weeks of plotting, it’s no surprise the fervour people had for this – the final episode of Season 4 and, potentially, the last episode of Sherlock for a very long time.

It’s little wonder that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writing together as they did for The Abominable Bride, wanted to give their supporters something to wave their flags to. Think of The Final Problem as the Greatest Hits of Sherlock, with choice cuts of your favourite moments repackaged into a handy 90-minute feast. Sadly, as pleasant as it is to see the two writers clearly having fun in their sandbox, the real problem for the viewer was trying to work out how the two previous episodes could justify such a lukewarm finale.

Having revealed a third Holmes sibling and putting the life of John Watson (Martin Freeman) in danger last week, we were given a rather rushed resolution as to the Doctor’s fate.

Apparently, Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock’s evil sister, had merely stunned Watson and run away. An impossibility according to brother Mycroft (Gatiss) who insisted that she was trapped within a super-prison by the name of Sherrinford which was stuck on an island out to sea. All of which was a massive surprise to Sherlock, who had completely forgotten he’d ever had a sister. If that part sounds like a tough pill to swallow, The Final Problem produced a number of other headscratchers that unfortunately lowered the plausibility of its narrative.

Things started off strong with a small girl waking up on a plane in which all its passengers and crew had passed out. Answering a ringing phone in the hopes of calling for help, she’s greeted by the voice of the late consulting criminal, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Elsewhere, having escaped the detonation of 221b Baker Street – another one of Eurus’ games – the Brothers Holmes and Watson break into Sherrinford to understand how the meddling sister is able to break out.

Before continuing, it should be noted that Sherlock has dipped its toe in the surreal before. Season 2’s The Hounds of Baskerville, for instance, attributed its hell hound to psychotropic gas. Indeed, the very idea of Sherlock himself is a flight of fancy in the real world. However, The Final Problem was something else.

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As well as being superior to her brothers intellectually, Eurus was shown to be able to ‘reprogramme’ those around her and, as such, had unbelievably managed to take over her own asylum, giving her free passage to leave her island prison as and when she felt like it. Spurred on by a meeting with Moriarty several years prior – in a hilarious cameo by Scott –  she had decided to take her vengeance out on Sherlock for reasons that never feel satisfactory. Over the last few seasons, a lot has been made of the name Redbeard and its influence on Sherlock’s persona. Previously thought of to be a beloved pet, the final twist turned out to be something much sinister and had led to Eurus’ incarceration. Gatiss and Moffat try to turn what would be a childhood trauma for Sherlock into a reason for his thirst for solving mysteries. But as an attempt to give Sherlock back his humanity, it just didn’t convince.

Neither did the system of Saw-like problems Eurus put her siblings through, with a different room in Sherrinford leading to a new and deadly conundrum. As Eurus pulled her brothers’ strings, the continuing train of thought was ‘How can she afford to do all this? Literally, who is funding this person?’ and ‘Does anybody remember John had a baby daughter?’ When the girl on the plane was revealed to be Eurus in a mind palace of her own waiting for Sherlock’s approval, The Final Problem revealed itself to be trying too hard.

Thank heavens then for the positives that didn’t make this a complete washout. Take for example Molly, played by Louise Brealey. Criminally underused this season, Brealey brought much needed emotion in a scene that saw her bare her soul to Sherlock, whilst being an unwitting pawn in Eurus’s schemes. As we cheer on Sherlock’s sociopathic qualities, we often forget how they can deeply cut others. It was a wonderful moment, only somewhat surpassed by Mrs Hudson thrashing around to Iron Maiden in her slippers.

As the dust settled, Sherlock ended, as perhaps it was always going to, with a massive press of the reset button that allowed Gatiss and Moffat to bring a close to their 6-year story in a deserved self-congratulatory tone, whilst tentatively leaving the tiniest of margins for a possible return. And whilst this wasn’t the ending some of us will have been expecting, the journey to get this far has at least consisted of more highs than lows, with a heavy vein of experimentation throughout. For that reason alone, Sherlock is still, as a whole, a quality British drama.

 
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REVIEW: Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy XV is one of the weirdest AAA game releases in years. Like, wearing-a-traffic-cone-on-your-head and yelling-at-guide-dogs-about-the-impending-invasion-of-lizard-people nutso. It’s also endearingly charming and hard to dislike, at least in the first two thirds of the experience.

FFXV tells the tale of Prince Noctis and his mates Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto who are off on an epic road trip, the end of which will see Noct marry the beautiful and ethereal Lunafreya. Not to mince words but the lead foursome look like a boy band circa 1990. Their fashion choices are somewhere between camp, baffling and clown shoes, so it’s initially a little jarring when you realise you’re actually meant to take the escapades of these gaudily-clad adventurers seriously.

When we first control the gang they’re pushing their broken-down supercar to a 1950s style petrol station and diner, where a half-naked blonde lady who inexplicably talks in a yeee-hah southern American accent tells you she’ll fix your ride if you go and kill some monsters for her.

At this point you’ll either need to go along for the ride or eject the disc immediately. If you can get past the mishmash of tones and genres, you’ll soon find the game’s charms are many. For one thing it’s absolutely gorgeous: the four leads move, chat, hang out and cook in organic-looking, vivid ways in stunning, massive environments. The revamped combat system is also visually splendid and a lot deeper than it first appears, although players seeking classic turn based combat will be disappointed.

What really sells the game, if you let it, are the four lead characters. As the story kicks into high gear and takes the foursome to dark and dangerous places, the initially ludicrous-looking band become a more substantive and emotionally rich group. Yes, it’s bizarre to see a game that has you fighting giant water demons while texting on your mobile phone, but it’s so gloriously silly that you can’t help but grin.

Less smile-worthy, however, is the final third of the game where the open world structure is more or less abandoned and it all becomes a bit of a linear slog. You’ll probably want to push through to see the ending, which is surprisingly emotional, but it’s a pity the more open structure couldn’t go the distance.

Final Fantasy XV plays like the idle fever dream of a horny Japanese teenager passed out and listening to their iPod on shuffle. It’s weird, silly, occasionally baffling and quite a lot of fun – if you can leave your sense of logic and reason at the door and embrace the high camp lunacy.

 

 
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REVIEW: Toni Erdmann

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It is not every day that you get to say this and mean it as a reviewer, but this is a work of art. New German director Maren Ade made this monumental domestic drama last year and, although it missed out unfairly at Cannes, it has been chosen as Germany’s film for the Oscars. Let us hope this ‘uncommercial’ film gets a decent cinema release.

The work is unusual in taking its time to draw us into the lives of the strange characters. Actually they are not really much stranger than most people but, as the fridge magnet philosophy says, the only normal people are people you don’t know very well. No one could accuse the eponymous Toni (Peter Simonischek) of hiding his eccentricities. He has recently retired from teaching and he decides to go on a trip and to try and re-connect with his only daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She is working for an asset-stripping management consultancy firm, and she has been posted to Romania where they are trying to massage a local boss into accepting their standard advice and shed labour costs. Ines spends a lot of time with her uptight consultancy colleagues; these include various slick-suit male bosses and an adoring young female personal assistant. She is also having a desultory fling with a junior manager type. When dad arrives and unexpectedly starts haunting Ines’ corporate events wearing various ridiculous costumes, the tension levels become unbearable.

Critics wanted to pigeonhole the film as a black comedy (there are laugh-out-loud moments) but the director – who shot this three-hour epic over fifty-five days with thirty takes at a time – set out to do something much subtler and challenging. Moments are both funny and tragic. At a deeper level Ines knows that her job is bullshit and even a little destructive, but that’s the modern globalised world isn’t it? She also cares about her slightly lost father and knows that he cares deeply about her. In a way by ruining her life he is saving it, but salvation is painful. You will have to go a very long way to see a more moving portrait of the relationship between a father and his child. Of course no amount of praise will actually persuade people that this is worth submitting to. Only the film itself can do that. Here is another way to look at it. It is only half an hour longer than the average comic book spin-off and about a hundred times more sustaining. Go!

 
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Viva

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Director Paddy Breathnach and writer Mark O’Halloran’s feature Viva may be set in Havana, Cuba, but its emotional truths are universal. Viva is a discussion on gender, masculinity and transformation. It’s about feelings of the past clashing with the hope of the future.

The film’s protagonist is Jesus, played by the impressive Héctor Medina; a backstage hand at a local drag (or transformista to use the local term) club. Jesus leads a content but meagre existence hairdressing and styling the wigs for the numerous transformista acts. It’s during these moments we meet a vibrant collection of characters, including maternal Mama (Luis Alberto García) and the acidic Cindy (Luis Manuel Alvarez). When an opportunity arises to tread the boards himself as his alter ego, Viva, it appears to be a dream come true. Unfortunately, around the same time, Jesus’ father, Angel (Jorge Perugorria) re-enters his life after a decade behind bars.

Alcoholic and vitriolic, Angel is initially set up to be the clear antagonist, admonishing Jesus for his ‘unmasculine’ desires. Clearly afraid of his father, Jesus still tries to maintain a balance between his family life and his life as Viva. Whilst it’s an engaging drama by its own right, it would be remiss not to mention the transformista performances that punctuate the at times gritty atmosphere. As Jesus’ relationship with his estranged father begins to evolve, so too does Viva’s performances; starting from simply lip-synching her songs to truly understanding and living the lyrics.

Heartbreakingly, Jesus wants to do right in both worlds, even as one rejects him for who he is; the dichotomy between the entrapment of his father and his freedom on stage look set to break Jesus/Viva in two. A final act revelation might overtly signpost where Viva eventually leads to, but its emotions wash over you to transcend it.

 
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REVIEW: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

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A cross cultural 20-year exercise in musical fusion and communication, the Silk Road Ensemble is the brainchild of Chinese-American cellist (and Seinfeld nonsequitir) Yo-Yo Ma, who brings together a loose conglomerate of musicians from across Eurasia to create what you might term “real” world music – music not beholden to any one place or culture. The Music of Strangers, by 20 Feet From Stardom director, Morgan Neville, tells its story.

As the name of the group suggests, the project’s personnel tend to be drawn from countries along the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that stretches across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The sound they make is exotic to Western ears, a vibrant mix of Ma’s lifelong classical training (he was a child prodigy who performed for Kennedy at the age of seven) and the weird spice-mix of influences his players bring, combining the folk traditions of two continents. When the music is playing, the film is effortlessly captivating.

When the strings aren’t singing, though, The Music of Strangers is an oddly distant affair. We spend plenty of time with Ma and his musicians and we get a sense of the history and intent of the Ensemble, but there’s a weird lack of real insight into the process – and Ma himself. Indeed, perhaps the best clues we get to Ma’s process and personality come from his son, who says at one point that as a child he thought his dad worked at the airport, given how he was always coming and going from there. The exact mechanics of creating this music with these people, melding these influences with those instruments, remain obscure, which is a shame.

But not a deal-breaker. Spending time with individual members of the Ensemble is a joy – you’ve surely never seen anyone play Black Sabbath on a Japanese biwa before, right? Their personal stories lend credence to Ma’s stated aim of bringing people together through music, as we learn where they came from, what they sacrificed in pursuit of musical excellence, and how they came to be recruited for the project.

Ultimately, The Music of Strangers is a look at, rather than into, The Silk Road Ensemble – but it’s still a look worth taking.

 
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The Rehearsal

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A bit like a more realistic and determinedly un-romanticised Fame, this story unfolds over the course of an academic year at a drama school. The location is Auckland, and the place is referred to by everyone simply as ‘the Institute’. It’s a slow-moving and undemonstrative film, but it does get you in.

The central character is 18-year-old Stanley (James Rolleston), a handsome but rather shy guy who moonlights as a barman. Coaching him and his fellow students is Hannah (Kerry Fox), who is very hard to impress and pushes the aspiring actors incredibly hard – in the interests, of course, of getting them to give their absolute best. Hannah’s gruelling approach leads to a stand-out scene in which the young thespians are required to share their ‘most intimate moment’. Stanley’s friend William (Kieran Charnock) is the focus here, and it is Charnock who delivers the film’s strongest and most memorable performance; unfortunately, his is a relatively small role.

There’s an interesting subplot involving Stanley’s girlfriend Isolde (Ella Edward), Ella’s sister and a scandal at a local tennis academy. This adds a much-needed twist to the low-key proceedings, though things still get a bit dull thereafter – only to improve markedly again for an impressive finale.

The Rehearsal is not a patch on Alison Maclean’s previous feature, Jesus’ Son, which came out back in 1999, but it definitely has its moments. In some ways it’s a rather generic rite-of-passage movie about ambition and teenage awkwardness, but within those constraints it manages to avoid cliches and be impressively naturalistic. It’s a modest success.

 
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The Neon Demon

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Nicolas Winding Refn was posed a question early on in a Q&A of The Neon Demon that piqued his introspection. It related to that of his filmmaking process and if he (intentionally or not) opts for style over substance. He responded with a question of his own – what really is style over substance? Are the two ever truly mutually exclusive?

This question, or slight variations of it, have dogged the Danish filmmaker for much of his turbulent, twenty-year spanning career. Although his brevity-conscious response imparted immense insight into how he views his films, it is his latest film, The Neon Demon that speaks volumes, reverberating throughout the cinema and drowning out the severe booing it received at Cannes (which many directors have come to consider a rite of passage for anyone producing anything of memorable note and significance). Harsh criticism has followed Refn throughout most of his work, fortunately though the man (and by extension TND) has remained impervious to this, delivering an amazing, exemplarily made film to those that deserve it most – his legions of loyal fans.

TND has proven not only to be the Danish filmmaker’s magnum opus (thus far at least), but also the definitive answer to this aforementioned question that has divided critics throughout his extensive, disparate filmography. It is most definitely driven by a story, a subversive and subject-to-interpretation story to be sure, but gilded with Refn’s instantly-identifiable flair for (and propensity toward the) surreal.

He creates an unprecedented, arresting presence, plunging us into this neon-soaked dreamscape, an otherworldly Los Angeles, that shocks as well as it stuns, often grotesquely beautiful, yet inexorably hypnotic.

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You might find yourself squirming in your seat through Jessie’s tumultuous journey through L.A.’s fashionistas, but you will never be able to look away; much like a dream, you are a pedestrian to its (Refn’s) conviction and whim. When a compelling story is paired with awe-inspiring imagery, you have a formidable work on your hands and a talented, highly-capable director at the helm, such is the case with The Neon Demon.

Only a handful of directors are known (and widely acclaimed for) their creative verve. Quintessential exploitation filmmaker and deity of the hipster, Quentin Tarantino, is known (and idolised) for his razor-sharp, indulgent dialogue showcased in lengthy scenes that tease suspense while only occasionally delivering (depending upon what Tarantino is feeling).

But who, if any, among Refn’s contemporaries are known for being so visually stunning? One who needs not resort to a nine-digit budget or hiding behind the glossy smokescreen/whitewash found within the miracles of green-screens these days? (See Zack Synder).

Precious few handle themselves so confidently, who embody this visually-stunning style and definitively earn virtuoso status. This bold approach, commonly misinterpreted as style over substance, is the schism wedged between seasoned critics and casual filmgoers alike. This was the singular dissension that filled the collective lungs of those swollen bags of hot air at Cannes and caused them to vent such vitriol. These self-same folk who mistake an emphasis on striking, ethereal imagery as coming at the cost of a coherent, memorable story and solid performances.

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Refn has been assiduous in realising his vision, right from his fledgling Pusher days. Thankfully he has never relented to appeasing these hostile few, and in that regard he is fearless, with the results he produces shining and withstanding both critique and the test of time. Much of this can be attributed to Refn’s unique eye. As French painter Claude Monet collected a fanatically virulent bunch of critics vocal with their harsh disapproval of his art, so too Refn has been on the receiving end of naysayers, bearing the brunt of swipes related to his deeply stylised films.

From the opening of The Neon Demon it is immediately apparent that the director has not tailored his work to assuage those that have spoken ill of his trademark approach. On paper, it almost beggars belief that he can be such a visually-prolific filmmaker. By his own admission he is almost totally colour blind, seeing only the most extreme hues, those at the polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Thus the neon, almost iridescent, colour palette Refn uses and reinvents in all his work (thought particularly from Valhalla Rising onwards) makes perfect sense – a pragmatist that seeks to stretch said colours to their extremities, fusing each into a perfect marriage, so that he may see it, while simultaneously treating the viewer to an optical feast.

What he attains through this unorthodox method is the superlative, artistic quality akin to Barry Lyndon, which has received universal accolades for both director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer, John Alcott. That’s a mighty big call, but one need only study even some of the stills from The Neon Demon with an impartial mind to appreciate the striking beauty imbued within each frame. Why should such a work be subjected to such undue criticism simply because it enchants with such beauty?

Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) this senseless jealousy and hatred for such beauty commonly found within the diatribes of those speaking negatively of the film parallels the mistreatment of Jessie within said film, further strengthening the point Refn is trying to make.

Throughout the film’s tight running time one is acutely aware that they are watching a Nicolas Winding Refn movie (just in case you missed the monogram “NWF” prominently positioned underneath the title in the deceptively subdued opening sequence). We are first introduced to Jessie, the film’s central (and arguably eponymous character). Splayed out, blood-soaked and rigour stiff, staring impassively at the camera as pictures (no doubt taken by a pervert not dissimilar to us, the voyeur) snap incessantly, while a synth-inspired soundtrack pumps primal bass (yet another sterling soundtrack by frequent Refn collaborator, the masterful Cliff Martinez).

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With no information to go on, we can only gauge that we are past the event horizon of this dreamscape/nightmare Refn is sharing with us, and that what he delineates is likely to become more ghastly and mesmerising as we continue.

Freshly turned sixteen-year-old Jessie is new to the sprawling city of Los Angeles and its myriad of unsavoury, wily inhabitants, be they the more obviously opulent (that of the talent agency owner, Christina Hendricks) or the more repulsively sleazy (that of the motel owner, Keanu Reeves in a brief but lasting performance). As this shy, modest dilettante tries to ingratiate herself in the cutthroat fashion industry, she soon encounters success unimaginable, while embroiling herself in a succession of perilous situations. The worst of which involves upsetting the fragile pecking order enforced by the unholy, witch-like trio of the openly hostile Sarah (Abbey Lee) and the more docile, yet unpredictable Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who are in contrast to the sweet, almost overbearing friend found in Ruby (Jena Malone).

That is the premise and in the execution, the film quickly (deliberately) falls into the fantastical, much like the audience tumbling headlong into the rabbit hole – and this is what Refn does do deftly in his unique (often underrated and misunderstood) way.

There is a story, though Refn may focus more on the visual aspect of its telling, as compared to the performance-based work of say, similarly accomplished fellow Danish filmmaker, Lars Von Trier. Bear in mind that one would never openly voice such an opinion in comparing the pair within either of the men’s respective hearing. They have a less-than-cordial relationship as a wealth of YouTube clips of their Cannes spats and clashes will attest (despite being supposedly distantly related). What drastically differs the two, though, is pacing. Refn has, thus far, never suffered from a meandering pace and bloated running time (which Von Trier exhibited in the Nymphomaniac double).

For someone who fills every frame with a visual feast to gorge on as starving pigs to the proverbial trough, Refn never sacrifices the pacing in order to accentuate to a layman viewer that they are gazing upon something stunningly beautiful. No overly-indulgent, ten-minute static ‘nothing’ shots commonly found in (and to the detriment of) of Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch’s work (see Elephant and Broken Flowers). Also to his credit, Refn has markedly improved on the story front since his previous film, Only God Forgives. That was another neon-saturated, ultra-violent, prolonged dream sequence with reality having little bearing (or evident bearing) on the dream world and vice versa. Sadly, OGF suffered from this endless, scarcely-linked shuffling of awesome single shots and vignettes haphazardly connected with one another. Thankfully, The Neon Demon does not suffer from this, it continues to gain momentum right up until its aghast-inducing ending.

The performances are engaging and believable, without ever straying into contrivance or melodrama, which might’ve seemed like a tall order from the plot outline. One couldn’t be begrudged for heading into the movie convinced bad performances would be inevitable. After all, since when does a bunch of ruthless, image-obsessed models ever conjure images of a group of individuals that would have anything profound or poignant to offer either in their interaction with each other or those outside their coterie?

Yet each of the lead actors draws a blistering apex predator performance, full of intrigue and a large dollop of menace. The standout was definitely Abbey Lee (Ruben Guthrie, Mad Max: Fury Road). Doubtless steadfastly hurtling toward superstardom she shines here as the spurned and murderously irate Sarah. With an intensity, so commanding, she often blotted out the performance of Elle Fanning, who herself deserves top kudos for handling the difficult (perhaps slightly underdeveloped given it being the central) role of Jessie.

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It was in this interaction with Jessie and the trio of models (two models and a makeup artist for the purists out there) that the conflict ensues and proliferates, played out almost as an ancient Greek tragedy. Unsurprisingly, the Danish filmmaker cited Greek and other mythologies and fables as his main influences whenever penning a story and that is particularly prevalent within The Neon Demon. It wouldn’t be a Winding Refn film without a bit of the old ultraviolence, though in comparison to some of the utterly sadistic scenes of Only God Forgives, TND never feels dangerously close to crossing the line. It is important to note that, within this context, an absence of sickening violence should not be mistaken for the director being censored or stifled, nor baulking at the tough subject matter, either by his or that of the studio/financier overlords. This particular Danish filmmaker isn’t curtailing the story he chooses or how he depicts it, the opposite in fact, he is one of the daring few that chase the extremities of their imagination and constantly challenge the conventions of self and the impositions of filmmaking.

Fortunately, in the case of Nicolas Winding Refn, what he produces is always a joy to watch and admire. If Helen of Troy’s beauty was enough to launch a thousand ships, Refn’s unique, aesthetically-gorgeous films are sufficient to launch a million heated discourses on the Interweb. For those that are lucky enough to possess a pair of eyeballs, Refn’s movies are invariably similar to wandering through an art gallery, one threaded with the occasional installation of horrific, visceral imagery. When the stroll is concluded and you exit the magnificent edifice, you are always exultant to have been so privileged as to have been granted access in the first place. The Neon Demon is Refn’s boldest, most accomplished project to date, loudly proving to the cinematic world and those that obliquely orbit it (we the hoi polloi filmgoers), that he is still very much one to watch, and perhaps yet to reach his prime. Please, may we have some more?

 

Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based reviewer and writer. For more of his upcoming work, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, like the page.

 
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Sherlock S4E2: “The Lying Detective”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

After a dramatic and somewhat overstuffed opening, “The Lying Detective”, written by Steven Moffatt, sees Sherlock return to a more streamlined approach with a storyline that would, were this Law and Order: SVU, be promoted as being “ripped straight from the headlines.” However, lets step back a bit.

After the events of “The Six Thatchers”, Team Sherlock is well and truly fractured. Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) has holed himself up in 221b and presently sleeps at the bottom of a syringe. John (Martin Freeman), meanwhile, is seeing a therapist to cope with the death of his wife Mary, who he tried to cheat on in the last episode. Whilst John is “happy” to beat himself for his present behaviour – including not sleeping, heavy drinking and ignoring his daughter Rosie – he struggles to admit that he regularly converses with his deceased wife, Mary (Amanda Abbington). Yes, Mary is back. Sort of. And her “haunting” of John is an engaging way of letting us watch him unravel his thoughts. When Mary chastises him for being aggressive to others, he’s effectively berating himself; encouraging himself to make amends and move on. It also elicits great performances from Freeman and Abbington. Elsewhere, Cumberbatch gets to flex his acting muscles as a Sherlock that’s spiraling the drain.

Director Nick Hurran has a field day as he sews together Sherlock’s drug-addled memories – including hallucinations and walking across the ceiling like Lionel Ritchie – into a coherent interview with potential client, Faith, with whom he spends the night walking through London. Faith has a very famous father- entrepreneur and philanthropist, Culverton Smith, played with relish by Toby Jones (Capote) – whom she believes wants to kill someone.

Where the narrative eventually takes us is so much darker.

There’s no real way to break this character down without acknowledging the debt it pays to the extremely problematic Jimmy Saville, the late British television presenter whose façade as an eccentric fundraiser hid a much darker lifestyle. Like Saville, Culverton is carried on the shoulders of a prominent broadcaster and routinely boasts of famous friendships. Aside from Jones’ performances, part of the reason Culverton is so monstrous is because he reflects someone in the public eye.

After Sherlock publicly calls Culverton out on Twitter – whilst roping in a reluctant Watson in the process – “The Lying Detective” revealed its greatest strength: Sherlock, convinced of his deductions, locking verbal horns with a man who is so confident he can get away with murder he doesn’t even try that hard to hide his guilt. With a bold northern accent and spectacularly yellow teeth, Jones was the second best performance of the episode. The first? Well, that belongs to Una Stubbs as the put-upon landlord, Mrs Hudson. From tying up Sherlock and speeding him off to Watson in her Aston Martin, to standing up to the ominous Mycroft all in the name of her surrogate sons, Stubbs easily gifts “The Lying Detective” with its finer moments.

Yet, as strong as “The Lying Detective” is, particularly when stacked up against the previous episode, when all the various story threads finally dovetailed it only just about sticks its landing. Whilst touring the hospital Culverton financed, for which he grimly boasts he has the keys, Sherlock’s sanity appears to finally crack under so much drug use. Summoning Faith to the hospital in order that she can confront her father, Sherlock is startled to meet someone who is not the woman he spent the evening with. Producing a scalpel, he has to be subdued by John, who uses the opportunity to take out his anger on the consulting detective’s face. Admitting that he’s not well, Sherlock agrees to be taken care of in the hospital where, left alone, he is visited by a murderous Culverton – an act which is stopped by John who, having found the DVD left by Mary the week before, realises that this is all part of a plan to drag him out of his funk. Whilst Culverton is a true monster, Sherlock has been in control the whole time. It’s all a bit convenient, but it does later lead to a rather touching moment between the two men when John confesses his “affair” to both his friend and the imaginary Mary.

But Moffatt hasn’t finished there, and during a therapy session, John finds out his therapist is also the fake Faith from earlier, as well as the woman he pursued in “The Six Thatchers”. All three are the disguises of Eurus, the forgotten and apparently evil sister of Mycroft and Sherlock, played by Sian Brooke! Having revealed her true identity, she promptly shoots John, leaving his fate unknown.

Until the finale, “The Final Problem,” surfaces it’s hard to tell how this Scooby-Doo moment will settle; either becoming in hindsight a masterstroke of a twist or undoing all the good work that came before it. Only time will tell!

 
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Sherlock S4E1: “The Six Thatchers”

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Let it never be said that Sherlock fans aren’t patient. 2016’s New Year’s special, “The Abominable Bride”, arrived two years after Season Three’s revelation that uber-villain Moriarty might be alive and Sherlock being sent into exile after killing a blackmailing media mogul. Ostensibly set around the gag of “What would it be like if modern Sherlock was more like old fashioned Sherlock?”, the special turned out to be a way to advance the plot from Season Three. And by advance the plot, we mean Sherlock got off the plane that had carted him away and decided Moriarty was definitely dead.

Cut to 2017 and finally proper Sherlock is back. But has it been worth the wait?

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) certainly seems to think so as he’s reintroduced back in the saddle and, by his own admission, “high on life.” The murder that saw him packed off has been dealt with by his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) with the judicious application of edited CCTV footage. But what of the deceased Moriarty whose visage cropped up on every TV screen in London? Well, “The Six Thatchers”, written by Gatiss and brilliantly directed by Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl and Doctor Who), won’t do much to scratch that itch. Instead, after a brief but entertaining montage of Sherlock solving low-level crimes in the hopes that it will lead to a larger discovery, the plot becomes concerned with the connection between John Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) and the destruction of six busts of Margaret Thatcher at different venues.

Introduced in Season Three as the fiancée of Watson (Martin Freeman), Mary was quickly revealed to have been an intelligence agent with a murky past; which was more agency than Arthur Conan Doyle ever gave her literary counterpart. Now married with child, her life is upturned by the revelation that a former colleague is out for revenge, after being left for dead during a failed hostage rescue six years previously. Back and very much alive, Ajay (Sacha Dhawan) was destroying busts of Thatcher in the hopes of finding a USB he had hidden in one all that time ago, which contained information that would lead him to Mary. This in turn led to Mary going Lara Croft and travelling the globe to entice Ajay out.

If it sounds complicated, then that’s because it kind of is.

Whilst even an average episode of Sherlock is something to look forward to, there’s a feeling “The Six Thatchers” was trying to pack too much in. Perhaps the blame can be lain at the feet of Sherlock’s criminally short seasons of three feature length episodes. Story arcs flow a lot better when there’s more episodes for them to do so. As such, Season Four got off to a shaky start as it attempted to address the loose threads of Season Three, whilst setting the path for future episodes.

Whilst Sherlock was relishing the opportunity to pick apart Mary’s secrets, it turned out her hubby had some of his own. Fatherhood apparently had set in place an uncharacteristic ennui in the doctor that led him to contemplating an affair with a feisty redhead he’d met on the bus. Although he eventually gives up the chase, we will never know if he would have ever confessed to Mary his dalliances as, alas, “The Six Thatchers” saw Mary slain before the credits could roll.

And not by the vengeful Ajay, but by aged government receptionist Vivian (Marcia Warren) in a move that managed to prick Sherlock’s bravado. Having worked out that she was the one who had compromised the hostage rescue for her own shady gains, he cornered the receptionist with Mary and the police by his side. After confessing to her crimes, Vivian decides that if she’s going down she’s taking Holmes with her. Step forward – literally – Mary, who takes the bullet for Sherlock, thus ending her own life.

As Mary lies bleeding on the floor, imparting her last words to her husband and Sherlock, Abbington, Freeman and Cumberbatch should be applauded for ensuring the whole scene stayed on the right side of melodrama. Sherlock, as a show, struggles with the long game, narratively speaking, but it says a lot for all involved that Mary’s death actually felt like it meant something. Even if sacrificing herself for Sherlock felt a bit off. Yes, this is a show about Sherlock Holmes, but a character’s fate shouldn’t have to solely depend on him. She even left him a DVD with instructions on what to do after her death. Perhaps a better way for Mary to depart would have been at the hands of Ajay. Either way, she chose to go out on her own terms which is befitting her overall character.

With Mary dead, Sherlock stunned and John deflecting his own guilt onto his friend, Sherlock Season Four looks set to follow a dark path indeed. Let’s just hope the rush to pack in everything into this episode, including the kitchen sink, was worth it.

 
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REVIEW: Jackie

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

The biopic is a very dicey genre. One false move and you not only make a crappy film, but destroy part of an important cultural legacy. It’s a lot of a responsibility. And the main problem directors face here is that because they’re based on real people and events, there is no flexibility in telling that story. It’s strict, unforgiving, and honestly, almost impossible. Despite being set up to fail, a rare few manage to rise beyond these traditionally superficial representations to tell an authentic tale about more than just surface details like the fashion, cars, and hairstyles.

Jackie is the very personal journey of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), who as of November 22nd, 1963, was among the most admired and envied figures in the world. As the elegant wife of President John F. Kennedy, she was also the first First Lady of the televised age, bringing with it all that that entails. And after the very public assassination of her husband, what no one saw is what went on behind closed doors in Jackie’s private, tightly-contained world. Suddenly alone, she faced a remarkable series of challenges as a wife, a mother, and a reluctant part of the political machine.

Larrain’s direction flies in the face of your everyday biopic – and it’s glorious. Mixing actual historical footage with stylised re-creations, Larrain beautifully excavates one critical moment in Jackie’s life, in all its tightly-woven layers. What’s key here is his intrusive, if not completely invasive, directorial composition, which is so unrelenting and uncomfortable that you end up having to confront your own painful empathy for the film’s subject. It’s heavy, personal and done with skill, especially when paired with what is a groundbreaking original score by Mica Levi.

Now, let’s talk about Natalie Portman. Natalie. Goddamn. Portman. Expectations were high for this one, and producing a kind of “lived-in” Jackie would have been an impossible task for anyone else. Sure, Portman nails Jackie’s soft, breathy, almost brittle voice. And yeah, she moves about with the perfect posture and grace that Kennedy was known for, but any actor worth her salt could produce those qualities with enough time and training. Portman’s Jackie, however, is about far more than the banal trivia of this famous figure. In what is arguably the performance of her career, Portman is meteoric as Jackie – poised and steely in the public sphere, soaked in misery and heartbreak in private, and a total powerhouse throughout.

Jackie succeeds spectacularly where it too easily could have failed. The cultural fanfare surrounding Jacqueline Kennedy is powerful, and as a result, the entire film rests on the edge of a knife. But Larrain and, of course, Portman, never falter in their mission, and galvanise the myth of an American icon with intelligence and grace. But more importantly – and even more amazingly – Jackie sets the new standard for the biopic genre against which all future attempts will likely be measured.