Friday, 1 June 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows



   Director Guy Ritchie

If you thought Guy Ritchie’s first foray into the macabre world of Victorian sleuthing was a little light on the detective side and a tad heavy on the flesh-rippling, teeth-crunching violence, then his second effort, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, may not quite be your cup of tea*. If, however, the notion that absolutely anything andimages (1) everything to do with Mr. Holmes must conform to a slow, investigative formula is quite alien to you, and the prospect of 129 minutes of explosions, gunfights, knife duels, menacing villains, and overt homoeroticism is actually rather appealing, then Huzzah!

A series of assassinations throughout Europe leads the famous and eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 2, 2010) and the faithful Dr. Watson (Jude Law, Contagion, 2011) into a direct and deadly confrontation with their greatest enemy yet: the mysterious and formidable Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris, Mad Men).

A Game of Shadows breaks away from the traditional representations of Sherlock Holmes even more than its predecessor. One would be excused for thinking that if any of the current reimaginings were going to walk a path closer to the balletic insanity of John Woo than the studious pondering of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), then surely it would be Steven Moffat’s television offering because of its contemporary setting. Alas, no. Ritchie has transplanted his adoration of all things slo-mo, painful and ear-shattering into an almost steampunk Fin de siècle environment. A Game of Shadows is what Stephen Norrington’s dreary The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) should have been: a period action adventure with stonking good set-pieces - such as the train fire fight where Holmes rather rudely interrupts Watson’s honeymoon - and witty, engaging representations of beloved, classic literary characters in whose presence you don’t mind spending an evening.

Arguably Ritchie’s Ace is his actors. Downey, Jr. and Law threw themselves into their characters with cartoonish aplomb in 2009, and they only raise the Bugs Bunny antics in their second outing. Their interaction and repartee continues to outperform even the most skin-searing of action sequences. Both actors are known for walking a very fine line between entertaining (Zodiac, Road to Perdition) and downright annoying (Iron Man, The Holiday) in many of their cinematic efforts, but are able to cast of these minor irritations, discovering here, as they have, their perfect character vehicles.

Moriarty knew Holmes was checking out his arse ... and he liked it.
The praise does not belong to Downey, Jr. and Law entirely. Jared Harris (Mad Men) casts a malevolent glow across the screen as the nefarious Moriarty; not quite as internationally well-known a crook as The Joker, for example, but still a legendary figure within Britain’s villainous lore. Harris refuses to sink his teeth into the often flaming scenery, opting instead for a restrained and yet beautifully menacing approach. The scene in which we finally see the psychopathic side of his personality emerge in the form of a little torture encapsulates this dark internalization expertly. A wonderful contrast to Downey, Jr.’s jabbering antics as Holmes. Indeed, one of the more inspired moves by Ritchie is to take us inside Moriarty’s head during the foes’ final showdown in order to show that Holmes is not the only genius thinking many, many moves ahead.

Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009) is wasted as the gypsy Simza, and there is nowhere near enough Eddie Marsan (Tyrannosaur, 2011) to truly satisfy one’s thirst, but these are minor trifles.

A Game of Shadows might be closer to Bond than to Holmes, with its rather straight-laced plot of villainous domination, exotic dames and bullet play, but that does not prevent it from being one of the most mind-numbingly, silly, deafening, but boyishly fun two hours of the year.
*** ¾ / *****
* Or coffee, whatever. Other caffeine-laced beverages are available.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol




  Director Brad Bird

The Mission: Impossible franchise has long since cast off any pretence it may once have had about being anything more than mindless entertainment. Brian De Palma’s inaugural 1996 romp was a genuine spy thriller filled with twists, turns and nail-chomping suspense that complimented the occasional outbreak of bitch-slappingmission impossible ghost protocol burj snyder paramount 615 violence like a glass of fine wine*. Next, in 2000 John Woo brought his balletic and melodramatic gunplay to what was essentially a cheesy romantic thriller played out amidst a world of espionage, nice hair and Dougray Scott shouting a lot. But J. J. Abrams’ third instalment in 2007 and now Brad Bird (Ratatouille, 2007) in 2011 with Ghost Protocol have given up the, uh, well, ghost, so to speak. Intelligent espionage? Gone. Romance? Forgotten. But excitement? With a man like Tom Cruise hurtling across the screen every few minutes, how could you ever lose it?!

Framed for a bombing of the Kremlin, Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) IMF team goes rogue in order to track down the real perpetrators of the crime and clear their name.

There is no getting away from it. Ghost Protocol features a standout sequence that blows the rest of the 135 minutes clear out of the water. For some confusing an irrelevant reason, Hunt is forced to discover his inner Spiderman, as he scales the outside of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world, equipped nothing but a pair of extremely fancy looking and occasionally magnetic oven gloves. It’s an astonishingly visceral sequence. Even if vertigo is not an ailment you often suffer, the sight of Mr Cruise slipping and sliding up and down the column (wait, what?), as Bird’s camera whirls around to find the angle to best bring last night’s dinner bubbling back up to the surface, will have you similarly convulsing in your seat like a cold turkey Pete Doherty.

Outside of this spectacle, however, there is very little to separate Ghost Protocol from its youngest predecessor. It is fluffy, low on plot, but still rather enjoyable. In Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Abrams’ instalment did at least provide an engaging villain; Bird’s addition to the series does not. Michael Nyqvist’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009) Mission-Impossible-Ghost-Protocolterrorist is simply not a threat. He is a tedious screen presence. But he is only one of a group of poorly characterized players. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, 2009) is once again stuck in what initially seems to be a rather intriguing role as IMF agent Brandt, but nothing ever transpires and he is left to rot in wasteful monotony. Simon Pegg’s (Paul, 2011) inclusion back in 2007 was an indication of the cartoonish route the filmmakers were going with Mission: Impossible, and his return here as comic relief agent Benji is the icing on the family friendly cake. Cruise’s Hunt is the only character with any history and, therefore, the only person in the film with whom an audience can become emotionally involved.

Ghost Protocol is the weakest entry of the series so far … just. It is a far different experience from its two oldest brothers, and shares much of the same light, breezy DNA as its closest sibling. But it is fun. Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films obviously set a high standard that Mr Bond has been scrambling hard to reach; so it is actually rather nice to see spy film that ignores the allure of parkour and punching people in the face really, really hard, preferring instead the classic approach of gadgets, tense infiltration, silly masks, crappy McGuffins and Tom Cruise running.

*** / *****

* I don’t even like wine.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Moonrise Kingdom



Director Wes Anderson

There is something indefinably camp about the films of Wes Anderson. Featuring the familiarly bright pastel shades of a depressing colouring book, the eccentric adolescents of much less annoying version of Skins, middle-class ennui right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pampered playbook, and enough irritating human misery to make even The Catcher in the Rye’s chief prick Holden Caulfield roll his eyes, Moonrise Kingdom is another chapter in the director’s ever-growing catalogue of effeminate and fantastical realism.

New England, 1965. Khaki Scout and orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) and his equally confused girlfriend Suzy (Kara Hayward) run away together, hotly pursued by the eclectic pairing of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and local Sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).

Moonrise Kingdom is not vintage Anderson. It is new Anderson. The high watermark for the distinctive director remains the honour of 2001’s family saga The Royal Tenenbaums. Moonrise Kingdom is a different kind of mumbling, quirky, bespectacled Anderson(ian?) animal to this, or even to similar Tenenbaum(ian?) projects like Rushmore (1998) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Yes, it retains the eccentric tone of his earlier work, but the fairy tale aspect has been cranked all the way up to infinity and beyond. That isn’t to say that Rushmore, Tenenbaums etc. were without the whimsical qualities of Grimm - no Anderson yarn is truly free of it - but Moonrise Kingdom is as close to a contemporary human fable as one is likely to find. The small island setting, the little house on the hill, the runaway children in the forest, a wicked witch (well, a great Tilda Swinton anyway), and the big, bad scary storm; it would not have been a total surprise for Mr. Fox to amble into the frame at any point to discuss his existential musings. Bob Balaban’s local Narrator functions as an unofficial storyteller in this world of cinematic, cartoonish colour. Note the clothing of the characters: bright and uniformed. The action (the climatic church rooftop sequence for example) appears more suited to the similarly animated stylings of one Tim Burton. Moonrise Kingdom is a perfect example of what Anderson does best, telling an intelligent, serious story through the wide, ridiculous and imaginative eyes of a child.

There are flaws. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are not the most likable of leads. That isn’t necessarily their fault. When have any of Anderson’s characters ever been likeable? MoonriseKingdom_PIC2They are miserable, unsmiling, and spoilt (in Suzy’s case) youths who, because of their age and inexperience, are simply less fun to be in the company of than, say, Norton’s regimental Scout Leader or Bill Murray’s shoe-throwing father.

It’s enjoyable watching where Anderson is going. His films began as weird yet wonderful, biting, and just a little bit nasty, but have gradually tumbled down the slopes of childhood. Moonrise Kingdom encapsulates this tonal shift perfectly. It’s nowhere near as funny as his earlier works - it’s not funny at all really - but it has a much fleshier, far sweeter heart. Like Pixar with swearing, Moonrise Kingdom knows that human tales deserve to be told, but understands that often children are the best storytellers of all.

*** ¾ / *****

Friday, 25 May 2012

Avengers Assemble



Director Joss Whedon

A Shakespearean-toned Demigod, a corn-lovin’ and rage-fuelled green behemoth, a lantern-jawed and steroid-filled super soldier, a sci-fi Robin Hood, a girl who fell out of Alias, a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Downey, Jr. in his Buzz Lightyear050412-the-avengers Halloween costumed: who wins in a fight? Surely that’s what is running through your head whilst experiencing the comic book smorgasbord that is writer and director Joss Whedon’s ridiculously titled (for us stupid Brits anyway) Avengers Assemble.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) Machiavellian stepbrother finds his way to earth along with the mysterious and destructive Tesseract. Now aligned with the sinister alien race the Chitauri, Loki’s designs on our planet force S. H. I. E. L. D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to recruit many of the planet’s most formidable heroes - Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor - to put a stop to the evil Asgardian’s schemes.

The Avengers (let’s forget that other title, shall we?) is extremely loud. The Avengers is full of eyeball popping, teenage boy delighting special effects, including enough gear-whirring explosions to make even Michael Bay spoil his underpants. But guess what? Remove the sight of Nick Fury’s colossal flying aircraft carrier plummeting to earth or Thor and Hulk soaring across the New York skyline to double-team an oncoming extra-terrestrial beast, The Avengers would arguably be even more fun.

Any time the ‘Big Four’ (Hulk, Cap, Thor and Downey, Jr. Man) are on screen together, the film soars, only this time in the metaphorical sense. The chemistry of, for example, images (1)the reserved yet obviously troubled Bruce Banner and the enormous swaggering cock that is Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, easily incites a greater thrill than watching these costumed colossi effortlessly battering the endless horde of boring alien invaders that create less peril than an army of blind hamsters. And Whedon knows this. The master of ensemble fantasy, the genius scribe behind television triumphs such as Firefly, Dollhouse, Angel and the peerless Buffy the Vampire Slayer provides enough sizzling dialogue and interplay to satisfy the curious itch that we have been harbouring at just how these superpowered bucks would coexist.

The film’s highlights include a three-way SmackDown between Thor, Cap and Downey, Jr. Man in a darkened forest somewhere over who exactly has jurisdiction over Loki. As one would hope after their previous outings, Downey, Jr. (verbal diarrhoea), Evans (a square) and Hemsworth (uh, buff) are all tip-top as their respective titans, but are all outshone by Ruffalo in his very first outing as the Hulk. Admittedly Banner is the most interesting character of the group, but Ruffalo manages to inject almost as much personality into the role in a reduced screen time as Eric Bana achieved in 2003’s unfairly maligned Hulk, and a great deal more than Edward Norton from the forgettable smash ‘em up The Incredible Hulk (2008). His first monstrous transformation, as Loki reeks havoc aboard the airship, and subsequent thrilling collision with Thor is the other sequence that really stands out from the herd of brightly coloured and costumed shenanigans.

Unfortunately, Johansson and Renner are wasted in their rather underwhelming roles. Whedon’s feminist leanings naturally leads to an increased and unnecessary focus on Black Widow, which makes the prospect of a stand-alone vehicle for the character all the more worrying. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t even stop to pick his teeth as he munches his way through the scenery. His Loki is less malicious but much more of a showman than in last year’s Thor. His interaction with not only his brother, but all of The Avengers was another narrative highlight that Whedon resurrected from his Buffy and Angel days, when his villains were often some of the most fascinating and talkative characters on the show.

The Avengers is by no means the superhero perfection it has been lauded as. It is, after all, low on plot and high on big explosions and very, very loud noises. Where it excels, though, sticking its well-muscled neck above the parapet lined by its ancestral loins of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor etc., is the characters. How often is a comic book film more entertaining when the characters are simply talking? Christopher Nolan pulled in off in a VERY different way with his recent Batman offerings, but now Whedon has instilled the same engaging, witty and loveable discourse into Marvel’s more colourful universe, and it works a treat.
*** ¾ / *****

The Cabin in the Woods



Director Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods is about as scary as a hug from Cheryl Cole. However, as a witty, knowledgeable and intelligent investigation of the oversaturated Horror genre, it is one of the more interesting blood ‘n’ guts offerings in recent years.

It focuses on five cosmetically pleasing adolescents spending a weekend in the titular dwelling. As per usual, bloody shenanigans ensue, but is there more to the sadistic teenage torment than meets the eye?

The Horror genre is arguably the most predictable of all of Hollywood’s sturdy pillars, and yet it seems to be the one churned out with increased frequency. The deaths may be gorier and the suffering nastier, but the formula remains the same: attractive young people being picked off and hacked up one by one. There is certainly plenty of literature surrounding this morbid human cinematic fascination, but writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are the first pair to really challenge this psychopathic phenomenon within a mainstream context since Wes Craven’s superlative Scream (1996) well over a decade ago.

Cabin is inferior to Craven’s piece, which was able to maintain the chills, whilst also adding in laughs, nods, winks, raised eyebrows and brain-teasers. Cabin walks a similar scarlet-stained path to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2008). The knowledge and love of the genre bleeds from every reel. Whedon has proven himself to be a master of adding life (and death) to dying genres; he has done it for Science-Fiction on both the Big and Small Screen with Serenity and Firefly, and, most notably, with Horror itself in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Similarly Goddard is no stranger to this genre focus either, having worked with Whedon on Buffy and Angel, and also on J. J. Abrams’ spy series Alias.

The walking talking clichés that comprise Cabin’s characters are made bearable via this fascinating debunking. There is a reason for Chris Hemsworth’s (Thor, 2011) buff jock, the-cabin-in-the-woods-300312-1just as there is for Ann Hutchinson’s slutty blonde and Fran Kranz’s stoned nerd. The narrative accelerates into a violent overdrive in the film’s final third when the mystery begins to unravel in earnest. It isn’t entirely successful. The creature effects in this portion begin to look rushed and the crimson cacophony borders on ridiculous.

But The Cabin in the Woods is aware of the kind of monster it is and revels in both its sublime and silly nature. Divisive and polarizing amongst Horror fans certainly, it is nothing if not an absolute feast of blood, guts, gore, and, most importantly and praiseworthy of all, originality.
*** ¾ / *****

21 Jump Street



Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Of this year’s surprises that rank as the most pleasurable, 21 Jump Street ranks right up there with Joey Barton’s Twitter account, hearing someone sneeze on the train, and thecollider.com_21-jump-street announcement of an Anchorman sequel. There’s no reason why any of those things should be funny or exciting, and yet they are, they really, really are.

21 Jump Street follows the exploits of rookie cops Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum), whose immaturity and baby faced complexions leads to an undercover assignment at a local high school. The calamitous due must infiltrate the students in order to discover the origins of a deadly drug dealing operation.

Just like the Johnny Depp-starring 1987 television show, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s contemporary remake is as ridiculous as it sounds. Fortunately, if you are fully aware of your ridiculous status without any of the nasty, snideness, then fun times can be had by all. Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall’s script is both a loving tribute to and a witty send-up of the action flick. One particular standout car chase sequence makes a glorious mockery of the genre’s orgasmic love of nonsensical infernos.

However, the real stars of the show are undoubtedly Hill and Tatum. It’s been known for a while now that Hill is a rather amusing chap. His record is blotted with some glowering duds (The Sitter, 2011), but when he’s on form, you’re not likely to mistake him for an action star. Tatum, on the other hand, is not known for his chuckle-inducing performances. Most of his roles tend to involve mumbling gruffly (G. I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, 2009), beating people up (Fighting, 2009), and taking his shirt off (Step Up, 2006). And he brings all of that range to 21 Jump Street. It’s just that this time it is portrayed as the hilarious, inhuman, downright dumb behaviour it actually is. Tatum shines. His confusion at the decline of the jock leads to some winning scenes, such as his unprovoked attack on someone for studying.

21 Jump Street is clearly not a masterpiece. It still feels the need to shoehorn in a romantic subplot - although it is actually for Hill and not Tatum. A minor complaint.

The trailer made it look like the last thing a sentient being would want to sit through, but if that isn’t a reason to ignore those stupid clip shows forever than I don’t know what is. 21 Jump Street is quite comfortably one of the funniest and most downright entertaining pieces of mainstream popcorn-fodder of the year.
*** ¾ / *****

The Hunger Games



Director Gary Ross

Amidst the overbearing spoonfuls of Sci-Fi clichés fed to us via flamboyant costumes andMCDHUGA EC011 preposterously crayon coloured hair, The Hunger Games manages to wriggle away from the puberty-ridden bowl of other sprog-centric dystopian dramas (Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies) by doing all the little things that blockbusters so often forget: keeping things small, keeping things personal and making the characters, not the action, the focus of the story.

In the futuristic nation of Panem, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer ‘PHWOAR!’ Lawrence, X-Men: First Class, 2011), in order to protect her young sister, volunteers to take part in 74th annual Hunger Games, an event in which 24 adolescents from the Districts 1 to 12 are selected to compete in a survivalist fight to the death.

Despite the narrative and visual scope of Suzanne Collins’ original series of books, the temptation to cluster this bravado into the novel’s first cinematic outing is intelligently avoided by director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, 2003). There are scenes of breathtaking spectacle - most notably when the tributes are literally wheeled out before the Capitol’s baying and extremely camp mob - but these are outweighed by a far greater sense of dread created through a well-developed relationship with the film’s protagonists.

Lawrence, though clearly too old and voluptuous for the role, instils in Katniss the same fearsome yet loveable grit she did for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a searching daughter in Winter’s Bone (2010). Even ignoring Lawrence’s status as a certified babe, it isn’t a chore to have to spend the majority of the lengthy running time in her full-lipped, full-figured company. This characterization is not achieved via the awkward and pointless scenes between her and possible beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but rather in, for example, the “Reaping”. This is an unbearably tense and wonderfully directed (the omission of any music a particularly effective decision) scene in which the citizens of District 12 are herded like silent cattle for the selection of their two tributes.

2012-THE-HUNGER-GAMES-001Things do start to unravel a tad following the second standout sequence at the Cornucopia. The tributes await the start of the games, in an oddly bloodless and yet incredibly violent, visceral and shocking scene, thanks largely to the involvement of very young children. From here, as Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) do their best to outlast the remaining competitors amidst the forest, The Hunger Games does on occasion grind to a narrative halt and the old temptation to glance at one’s watch begins to threaten. Simply put, it is too long. But not by much. 142 minutes would be excessive even for a Peter Jackson effort, so to say that Gary Ross is able to maintain a coherent flow for the majority is a huge testament to just how well crafted The Hunger Games is.

Do not be put off by the hordes of screaming young girls waiting behind you in the queue and sniffy bespectacled folks labelling it as a “children’s film” as they stroll into the latest Franco-Germanic offering across the street, The Hunger Games is one of the tastiest surprises of the year: an entertaining thriller with weighty characterization and serious undertones that make even the most pretentious of awards fodder look thin on plot.
*** ¾ / *****