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‘THE GRINCH’ Remake a Colorful, Cuddly Update With Less Bite

With Illumination Entertainment’s release of The Grinch, viewers can now opt to take in their favorite Christmas-cursing green grump in cartoon, live action, or computer animated form. At a meager 86 minutes, this 2018 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s iconic storybook “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” nonetheless adds a menagerie of new material, including a subplot about Cindy Lou Who scheming to ensnare Santa and a handful of new characters including a chubby reindeer named Fred, offering an admittedly adorable – if definitely not superior – update to the classic holiday mainstay.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’ 

Over the course of 18 films and 10 years, Kevin Feige and his army of Marvel men and women have laid a pretty nifty foundation upon which the Marvel Cinematic Universe rests. What started with humble beginnings with 2008’s Iron Man has  since blown up into a cultural and financial supernova with no less than 30 recognizable characters and all that comes to a head with the Russo Brother’s astonishingly ambitious though perfunctorily flawed Avengers: Infinity War.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’

With Doctor Strange, Marvel pries open a doorway to a new realm, one filled with magic and mysticism, dark dimensions and malevolent deities. Filled with heady three-dimensional visuals and eye-bulging psychedelic set pieces, Doctor Strange fulfills the promise of its inspired marketing push. That is, it is as close as Marvel has come to being Inception on crack. And let me assure you, that is a good thing. Led by a game Benedict Cumberbatch playing on type as a smarmy elite member of the intelligentsia, Doctor Strange nonetheless suffers the Marvel formula, the “portal problem” and yet another utterly disposable single serving villain. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BLACK MASS’

Black Mass is a stage upon which Johnny Depp has revived his career, and little more. As the film’s malevolent heavy and famed criminal overlord “Whitey” Bulger, Deep is borderline excellent, brooding and prowling around the screen like a silverback gorilla. On the streets, he’s equally guerrilla, taking down his enemies as well as former-confidantes-turned-rat in maelstroms of cold-shelled slugs. And though Deeps is admirable as the callous and cold Jimmy Bulger, the film itself overwhelmingly replicates its star’s unenviable personality traits in its cinematic aura, resulting in a film that’s even more callous and cold than the iconic gangster at its center. Read More

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Out in Theaters: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

“August: Osage County”
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard
Comedy, Drama
121 Mins
R 

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If you had told me going into August: Osage County that I was in store for two of the finest performances of the year I probably would have scoffed. But after having gone through the dirty laundry with the Weston family, I can assure you that it certainly does. The ever-dependable Meryl Streep is on top of her game here and, surprisingly enough, Julia Roberts does more than just hold her own against the queen of Hollywood. In fact, she’s nearly just as great.

As acidic matriarch Violet (ironically one letter away from violent) Weston, Streep puts in the kind of work that put her on the map. Although she’s as despicable as the worst of the year, there’s just as much going on behind Violet’s pill-faded facade that she doesn’t reveal. Too bad her automated knee-jerk reaction is to lash out at her family because, with a performance like Streep’s, you can see the suffering in this cantankerous crustacean. She just can’t help but fight.

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At times reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn‘s monumental performance in Requiem for a Dream, seeing Streep’s crumbling mental barricades is no fun task but it is still no less a marvel. Playing opposite her, Roberts is a wonder as well. It’s been a long time since Roberts has had anything legitimate to offer so it’s a welcome change that she taps us on the collective shoulder, reminding us that she can indeed act with the best of them.

Filling out the terrific supporting cast is a perpetually clueless and never amiss Juliette Lewis, a self-righteous and awkwardly tweened-out Abigail Breslin, a powerful beyond the pages performance via Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale doing Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor in a complicated but not completely fulfilling role, the always delightful Sam Shepard in a small but important role, and a bumbling, insecure and totally unexpected Benedict Cumberbatch as none other than the aptly named Little Charles. Calling it a stacked cast is an understatement, especially with so much prominence placed on the performances. These people aren’t here to sell you on name recognition. They’re here to act.

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The events that gets the whole gang together begin when Violet’s husband (Shepard), and father to the three girls (Roberts, Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) suddenly disappears. He’s a drinker, she’s a pill popper and their relationship is hovering somewhere in the red zone of the domestic-abuse-o-meter. So no one is surprised that he’s up and left without so much as a note. But as the events of his disappearance start to become clear, rather than coming together as a family as one might in the midst of loss, the emotional explosions just get more volatile.

Each time the family gets together, it’s like setting a ticking time bomb and waiting to watch it explode. Whenever they sit down at dinner, each comment is a turn in hot potato as we wait to see which of the family will explode in an emotional meltdown first. Their sanctimonious battles are at once hysterical and revolting, making you thankful that you’re not a part of the Weston clan but also reminding you of your own family battlegrounds.

Much like real life, throughout the film, the closer we are to the dinner table, the more tension seeps in. Accordingly, the more people at the table, the more riveting and on edge the film is. Without a place to run, you stew like a sack of potatoes, until blam! You never quite know who or what is going to pop out when they’re stacked around that unchivalrous table of food. Word for the wise: around the Weston household, tread lightly. But as we fade away from that central table – that catalyst of action – things do tend to get a little flabby.

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But aside from a few minor complaints revolving around a splattering of moments of unnecessary melodrama, August: Osage County is a surprisingly good film that I can find little to criticize. However, if you’re the sensitive type who like things wrapped up in a neat package or are uncomfortable with watching a family bicker for two hours and not really resolve anything, this probably isn’t the film for you. So I guess this really isn’t a film for most people.

Although the icky subject matter will be enough to turn general audiences away, those looking for a bonafide acting showcase need look no further than this Southern familial upset. Although director John Wells has done a great job of adapting the energy of Tracy Letts‘ source material, it still feels very much like a theater performance. Between the explosive and deeply personal acting, tightly confined spaces, and webs of dangling intermittent issues, in August, we feel like we’re in the midst of a really great play.

B+

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Out in Theaters: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Aidan Turner, Stephen Hunter
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
161 Mins
PG-13
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Only those fond of cliffhanger endings and tease as tale will truly appreciate the second lackluster installment in Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit trilogy. Certainly there are things to love; Bilbo’s character progression and his untimely addiction to one precious ring is welcome (although not nearly as prominent as it ought to be), the set design and telescopic vistas are almost as epic as ever, seeing the majesty of gold-diggin’ dragon Smaug realized in impressive CG tantalizes the little boy in me (the one who listened to The Hobbit audiobook until it wore out), and one particularly fun scene involving dwarves in a barrel is a blatant film highlight; but other elements that ought to stand out fall flat on their face and never recover.

For instance, one would expect the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to kick in some much needed nostalgia for the series but he, worse so than Ian McKellen‘s performance of Gandalf, seemingly lacks interest in the role and his apathy shines a bright hole where there ought to be life. Lacking the breezy comic relief he brought to LOTR, this new (old?) Legolas is instead a cantankerous daddy’s boy to dwarfophobe elf-king father, Thranduil (Lee Pace). That relationship and his kittenish flirtation with elf Ms. Forest Elf herself, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), reveals a bratty blonde-haired, weird-eyed elf whose presence is entirely unnecessarily. But such is the nature of these prequels. He does come loaded with all the dynamic bowman bells and whistles that make for great action beats but he’s not the Legolas we know and love. As has become my general response to these films: why bring him up at all then?

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But The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug‘s greatest crime lies in the continuation of the first installment’s trend of doing too little, too late. For a film that stretches over two and a half hours, there is probably only an hour worth of necessary story development. Everything else is superlative nonsense stuffed in purely to milk the material into three films. Worse yet, it plays like an episode of Lost where the most important cue you get from the film is: MAKE SURE YOU SEE THE NEXT ONE! And while it’s nowhere in the same league of disappointment as the Star Wars prequels, this Hobbit trilogy is so far a major bummer.

Let’s try and recount the events of Desolation of Smaug just to give you a better idea of what’s in store. First, Biblo (Martin Freeman, who seems to be the only one really trying), Gandalf, and the company of dwarves continue to flee the armless, severely face-raked white orc Azog (Manu Bennett) and his small legion of trackers. They seek refuge at the home of a surly skin-changer Boern (Mikael Persbrandt) who (unless he comes back into play in the third installment) adds absolutely nothing to the narrative. From there it’s through a inky, stinky dark forest whose dandelions have the power to make everyone trip out (a sequence which provides some satisfying laughs) and after battling a troop of lispy giant spiders, they, once again, find themselves the captives of a battalion of grumpy, wood elves.

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On and on it goes, all the while you’re sitting there wondering if the whole Smaug thing (as in the name of the movie) is going to emerge. Unfortunately for those of us who’ve been anticipating Smaug to prominently feature in the film (you know because IT’S NAMED AFTER HIM), expect disappointment as his first appearance is somewhere around the two-hour mark.

The problem is, once we finally get around to all this Smaug business, we’re so worn out from all the boorishness that came before that it’s hard to muster up the excitement that ought to come from seeing this epic, gold-hoarding, talking dragon come to life. Admittedly scenes with Smaug are visually stunning and Benedict Cumberbatch is nearly perfect as the megalomaniacal, near-diva dragon but, as mentioned, it’s too little, too late.

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As for all of this talk of returning to form, Jackson is still miles from the magic that made the Lord of the Rings such a rousing and resounding adventure. Missing is the enthusiasm, edge of your seat action beats, and general sense of wonder. Don’t get me wrong, action sequences here are amazingly choreographed and I can’t imagine how intricate the process of getting some of the stuff they did on screen – all the way from storyboarding to post-production – but it’s clear that Jackson’s put too much time into these action beats and not nearly enough into the hobbit, dwarves, wizards, and elves in them. What he falls to understand is that it was never the CGI that made the LOTR world magical, it was the characters and their relationships.

Here, I don’t feel like I know anyone other than Bilbo, Gandalf (the Gray, I might add), and to a lesser extent, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). As far as potential dwarf king Oakenshield is concerned, I can’t quite tell where our allegiance is supposed to lie with him. Biblo has finally won over his approval after the events of An Unexpected Journey but Thorin’s still a tyrant of a leader. He’s willing to leave behind wounded soldiers. He shakes down Bilbo for his treasure. And he’s just obviously much more concerned with securing his precious Arkenstone than he is with the safety of anyone around him. I mean the guy blatantly disregards advice from Gandalf. I think we all know, that’s never a wise move.

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The rest of the dwarves all have their little bits but none are given quite enough to become a rounded character. I guess it doesn’t matter since all of them have silly names that rhyme with each other anyways and are sure to pass from one ear to the other for those who are not Tolkeinheads but it would be nice if we actually cared about some of them instead of just seeing them relegated to various stereotypical caricatures.

As this endless story rolls on, other characters pop up to pack the story as tightly as possible with characters we could care less about. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who looks exactly like an amalgamate of Bloom and Viggo Mortensen, gets significantly more play than he did in Tolkein’s story and his Da’ chirping kiddies are just more fodder for the nonsense character pile. In fact, all of the Laketown characters seem like derivations of characters we’ve seen before in Rohan. Stephen Fry‘s Master is little more than a greedier, more sentient version of pre-Gandalf-exorcism Théoden. He’s even equipped with his own Wormtongue in Alfrid (Ryan Gage). So many extraneous characters, so little to do. Loopy brown wizard Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) even returns to do absolutely nothing.

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As far as where this film lies in the pantheon of films, it’s a shame that they’re forever be linked with the greatness of LOTR. And while many seem to think the Lord of the Rings films are nerdy, they are wrong. Well, maybe that’s a little far but let me run with this. This series, on the other hand, is definitively nerdy. There’s so many Tolkien tidbits unnecessarily stuffed in that only the most hardcore of Tolkien fanatics will remember more than fifty percent of this tale from the book. Jackson stretches paragraphs into pages, minor characters into twenty minute asides, and focuses the chief propulsion on a villain who we all know won’t be realized until after this prequel trilogy has concluded (you know of who I speak). ‘The Hobbit’ was 300 pages long and is being turned into nearly nine hours of film. The entirety of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was 1500 in small print and was the same length. So essentially Jackson turns each page of The Hobbit into two minutes. No wonder the story lags so much.

Most egregious, he goes so far as to include material in this film negate the logic of The Fellowship of the Ring and Gandalf’s general story arc. Unless he gets clunked in the head in the next installment and forgets everything he learned in this film, his ignorance to the importance of the ring and Sauron’s presence is entirely unforgivable. What a travesty!

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Apparently, we all have to swallow the pill though and get in line for the next bit, the finale that promises to actually deliver on, you know, being good. Jackson is dangling the carrot and we have little choice but to wait and see if the third one manages to muster up a film that can stand on its own. As is, I’m waiting until all the films are done so someone can craft a three-hour supercut of the whole trilogy. When that hits the shelves (or the internet) then I might be interested in revisiting this ought-to-be epic. It’ll clearly be way more worthwhile than any extended editions. I guess at least this time, instead of walking, they’re mostly running.

C-

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Out in Theaters: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

“12 Years a Slave”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson
Biography, Drama, History
132 Mins
R

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12 Years a Slave opens somewhere around a decade into Solomon Northup’s enslavement. He’s mushing blackberries to a paste, attempting to write a letter home using a whittled mulberry stick. Scribbling like a fugitive to the crackle of candlelight, this is the first time he’s put pen to paper in years, and must do so under the cover of night. For all the horrors he’s suffered and witnessed, the most impossible task is keeping his true identity, and intelligence, under wraps. For a learned slave is a troubling slave and a troubling slave is a marked man – a truth he’s seen manifested many times before.

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More than a decade gone for something as simple as not being allowed to produce his “free papers,” Solomon’s journey draws empathy from the audience like water from a well. More than just a story of the horrors of slavery, this is the story of a man who knew a better life – he abided the law, owned a house, had a family, and was a respected part of his Saratoga, New York community – and yet, down in the bowels of the hellish South, was stripped of his humanity like tattered clothes from his back.

Director Steve McQueen is a particular type of dark visionary. Employing patience and human degradation as a litmus test of how much we can emotionally bear, McQueen peels back all the curtains of our collective American history, revealing the inky black turmoil stirring in the human soul. But torture is no new game for McQueen.

In his first film, Hunger, McQueen explored a prison-bound hunger strike but his craft was not yet refined, too raw, cold, and indulgent to raise the welt he was hoping for. In Shame, he arm wrestled sex addiction out of romanticized glamor and into a pit of emptiness and human despair. Although fantastic acting and gruesome body horror prevailed, it continued the same dour tendencies that make his films so hard to sit through. In his third go around, he’s perfected his art, making a film that’s both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.

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However difficult 12 Years a Slave may be to watch, it’s absolutely necessary watching. It’s long been positioned that it’s our American duty to process, or at least understand, slavery. As a means to sift the political hand of slavery from those participating in it, McQueen demands you to think long and hard about what you would do in a similar situation. Even the good men in this film, such as Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Ford are stained by the cultural pollution manifest in slavery. It may just be impossible to be a moral man in a land drained of morality, McQueen’s film says.

As Solomon adopts his new name and role as Platt, he holds onto hope – however tucked away in a dark corner it must remain; hope that someday he’ll be reunited with his family, hope that one day he’ll meet a white man who wants more for his than a closed mouth and fast working hands, hope for freedom. In a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, Solomon becomes Platt, his days transformed from living to surviving.

Despite the barbarity of Solomon’s unlawful enslavement, the mentality intact in the age is a scourge most difficult to stomach. Packaged in caravans like sardines, sold stripped nude, and man handled at every turn, there is little to distinguish slaves from live stock.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor
leads a sensational cast that brings Solomon’s true story to the screen with deadly seriousness. As our guardian through this hellish descent, Ejiofor is stunning from start to finish. His decision to play Solomon as a stone gradually pared by the tide of slavery rather than a thistle bending at the first breeze will cement an Oscar nomination. His final heart-rending scene will secure the win. Michael Fassbender is similarly committed to his role as devilish plantation fiend Edwin Epps. Despite his character’s despicable traits, he’s an equally complex man, torn by his own sinful passion for Lupita Nyong’o‘s Patsey. Expect Oscar nominations, if not wins, all around.

Wowing cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) is haunting yet beautiful. Gorgeous waterfront properties impose their menacing statue – demonic in their association with America’s great shame. Captured under Bobbitt’s lens, the land itself takes on a stifling quality. No matter how scenic the willows peppering the plantation are, they always seem to weep – graves of the crushed souls haunting the confederate flag-totting South. 

12 Years a Slave will make you want to run the retributive justice of Django Unchained but the sad truth is, this is more fact than fiction. Even when freed, American blacks were paid the respect of subhumans. You want Solomon to strap dynamite to his prison, to rip it down to the studs and burn it but you know that it’s not that type of movie. No, it’s too gravely serious for that, for this is an epitaph to American slaves, penned centuries late.

A+

Playing locally at the Regal Meridian 16 and Guild 45th Landmark Theater

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Out in Theaters: THE FIFTH ESTATE

“The Fifth Estate”
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Jamie Blackley, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Biography, Drama
128 Mins
R


The best part about The Fifth Estate was the cheeseburger I ate before the movie. The bun was nicely toasted, hugging two juicy patties each pressed with a layer of cheese, topped with caramelized onions and the gentle spice of jalapeños. It was superb. The movie though was the antithesis of that burger. It was crap. Utter, unadulterated, “pee-a-little-in-your-pants because you’re laughing so hard in its face” crap.

The dead horse-beating script is the easiest clunker to point fingers at for its “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” tactile approach, but that quick analysis fails to recognize the full scope of how truly horrendous every element of this movie is. The consistently confused directing, entirely bumbling, borderline hack acting, and total lack of vision – all backed by one of the worst scores I’ve heard in ages – each land with a thud on the lowest tier of story-telling prowess.  The Fifth Estate‘s saving grace is that it has a good shot at winning the excuse, “It’s so bad, it’s good” from more forgiving moviegoers.

Whether the intent of the movie is to herald the importance of Julian Assange and his brainchild Wikilieaks or condemn him is unclear throughout. Even by the film’s conclusion, it’s hard to decipher if those in charge support Julian’s cause or just can’t stand him – an amazing feat for a movie that stretches well over two-hours. The intention may have been to land in some kind of moral gray zone but somewhere along the line moral complication got mixed up with poor storytelling, and the result is The Fifth Estate.

Wikileak’s contributions to revolutionizing how information is shared was groundbreaking – the way in which that story here is told is anything but. For a film that celebrates innovation, it’s amazing how stale its telling is. Montages set to thumping electronic beats detail Julian typing on a computer, driving in a car, walking down the street, typing even more on his laptop, and opening doors as if it were breathless entertainment. At times, it seems as if Bill Condon bumped his head and woke up thinking he was making a Bourne-style thriller.

Condon also hasn’t quite shaken out of his vampire gloves coming out of the ring of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part One and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part Two as the Assange onscreen is a lot like Bella. Brooding and touchy, he’s a one-note nincompoop with the depth of skinny jean’s pockets…girl’s skinny jean’s pockets. Having a conversation with Assange results in hearing about one of his many accomplishments or an oddly timed confession about the challenges peppering his life.

As if the character written on the page doesn’t already show it in bright stripes, Assange feels that its necessary to inform co-conspirator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) that he’s on the autism spectrum. It’s painful for all the wrong reasons. However little humanity the script affords these characters, the performance is still horrid to watch unfold.

As my friend pointed out, Benedict Cumberbatch does a great SNL impression of Julian Assange, and he really does. But don’t expect to see more than a lazy, played for laughs impression of Assange, as Benedict puts in one of the worst performances of the entire year. His dopey take on Assange is a far cry from a definitive look at a complex character (even if it does wind up being the only one). This is a man you never once feel sympathy for. He’s strange, jealous, and abusive to all those around him. The icing on the cake comes in a completely unnecessary scene in which he dances by himself in a strobe-lit club like a lanky gibbon jumped up on Adderall. Both Josh Singer’s script and Cumberbatch settle with saying, “Look at how weird he is!”

Shame on Cumberbatch for breaking the golden rule of acting. As an actor, you are not to judge your character. You seek understanding. You find what makes the audience connect to your character, not disengage from them. You’re like a lawyer preparing a case for trial. We, the audience, are the judge and the jury, not you. Otherwise, we wind up watching a paper-thin characterization, produced by someone who can’t stand the person they’re embodying. Cumberbatch’s take as Assange seeps this kind of cheap impersonation.

Like a student rushing to finish a research project, recklessly jamming every last bit of information they can on the page, hoping it will make them look more informed than they are, the choice of what to include in the film is simply dumbfounding. Important character information is blasted into the audience without context, relationships start and end hollow, and the actual accomplishments of Wikileaks become buried under a mile of silt. Instead of allowing the story beats room to breath, they fly out in our face, spring-loaded and irrelevant.

With all these scattered bits flying in from nowhere, this is filmmaking as drag-and-drop. Case and point: a romantic angle is shoehorned in. There’s no basis for it, it’s just there, because other movies do it. When the shirts pop off in the obligatory sex scene, you’ll bat your eyes, watching the congress of two stick figures with the sex appeal of listening to your parents talk dirty to each other.

Even from a technical perspective, the film is awful. The score by Carter Burwell works with the surgical precision of a sledgehammer, informing you, “This part’s exciting! This bit’s sad! Drama! Oh, it’s exciting again!” The set design is similarly off-putting as the locations these guys hang out at look inspired by the stark neon sets of Batman and Robin.

Since the 80s, filmmakers have felt that it is their duty to turn “hacking” into an exciting thing. It’s common knowledge that watching someone fire away at their keyboard doesn’t make for the best viewing experience, so they tend towards using visual metaphors to represent the pallid electrical repetition. The Fifth Estate‘s visual metaphor takes us to a giant warehouse, filled with rows upon rows of desktop computers, a metaphysical flair the producers must have thought very cool. However imaginative the sequence may have seemed at one point, the final execution is inexcusably lame, providing for some of the heartiest laughs of this straight-faced film.

With Cumberbatch and The Fifth Estates‘ once promising Oscar odds now shot to pieces, a flicker of hope remains for meat-headed political junkies, pseudo-intellectuals, and those who relish movies that are “so bad, they’re good”. Don’t get me wrong, I actually had a good time watching this, but it was all for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, The Fifth Estate is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies of 2013.

F

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