Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. always gets offended when someone disses Iron Man

(2011) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr. Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, William Houston, Wolf Kahler, Affif Ben Badra. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

When the game is afoot, there is nobody you want on the case more than Sherlock Holmes. Still more than 100 years after his debut there has been no detective to equal his keen deductive mind and razor-sharp observation skills.

Holmes (Downey) is investigating a series of terrorist bombings in Europe, mostly involving France and Germany. He is also preparing to be best man at his old friend Dr. Watson’s (Law) wedding. As distracted as Holmes is he nearly forgets to put together Watson’s stag party which he does only at the last minute, inviting only his brother Mycroft (Fry) and none of Watson’s friends.

He also has an ulterior motive for where he has scheduled the stag party; one of the clues he has discovered has led him to gypsy fortune teller Madame Simza Heron (Rapace). He arrives in time to foil a murder attempt by acrobatic Russian Cossacks but this leads him no closer to the truth. He only has his powers of deduction to lead him to who is behind all of this – Professor James Moriarty (Harris). But what is he up to and why?

The need to find out the truth will lead Holmes to tear Watson away from his honeymoon for one last case which will take him to the basements of Paris to the castles of Switzerland. At stake is the peace of Europe, which if disturbed too much will lead to a catastrophic war, one which Moriarty seeks to profit from and one which Holmes seeks to prevent.

The plot is slightly more convoluted than what I’ve presented but in the interest in keeping some of the twists hidden I’ve kept it deliberately vague. There are some cross-references to the industrial military complex and a few to modern economic issues. This is pretty much a mishmash of about half a dozen Conan Doyle-penned Holmes stories, primarily “The Final Problem” but there are elements from “The Sign of Four,” “Valley of Fear” and “The Greek Interpreter” among others.

Once again this isn’t your granddaddy’s Holmes; Ritchie and Downey bring him a little closer in some ways to how Conan Doyle originally wrote him (while Holmes in the stories wasn’t primarily a fighter, he certainly lacked in social skills) but this isn’t the urbane deerstalker-wearing sleuth depicted by Basil Rathbone whose performance has essentially defined the role ever since.

The action sequences, as befitting a sequel, are much more elaborate than the first and sometimes that’s a good thing (as is a gun battle on a speeding train, or a frantic escape through a forest while under heavy artillery fire) and sometimes, not so much (as in a Holmes solo fight against a group of thugs early on in the movie). Ritchie’s trademark of using extreme slow motion and extreme fast motion to stylize his fights is here in spades; there were times I wish he just filmed the sequences straight but I have to admit the forest sequence was made more powerful because of it.

Downey and Law are at the core of the film; their relationship is what powers the movie and thankfully the chemistry between them that the first film established is still going strong here. Their by-play makes for some of the best moments in the film, and is at times delightful. Downey plays Holmes as even more disreputable in this film than he is in the first; although there is little contact with Inspector Lestrade (Marsan) who is only in a single scene this time out, nonetheless Ritchie enhances Holmes’ keen sense of observation with camera and digital tricks meant to give us an idea of how Holmes sees the world. Downey plays into this nicely which is one of the best things about the movie.

Harris makes a competent Moriarty, definitely giving us a glimpse into his own intelligence but keeping his character rather bland. You would expect that a master criminal, a “Napoleon of crime” would want to fly under the radar somewhat so the flamboyant villains of other films in that sense don’t really work in real life, if you can call the Holmes films that.

There is plenty to delight those who like action-packed spectacles including some amazing sets (the castle in Switzerland is nothing short of astonishing) and some fine acting. However, be warned that the plot is pretty much the same as other movies we’ve seen set in the same time period where the hero attempts to stop Europe from being plunged into a massive war that it would be plunged into anyway – twice. Too bad Holmes wasn’t around to stop Adolph Hitler. Now that would make for an interesting movie!

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Downey and Law. Harris makes a fine albeit bland Moriarty. Some action sequences are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: The slo-mo/fast-mo action juxtapositions get a bit old. The “bringing Europe to the brink of war” saw is also a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action violence and brief drug use references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the camera pans over typed excerpts of stories Watson has been working on; these are from the Sherlock Holmes stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “A Blue Carbuncle.”

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Adventures of Tintin

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Casino Royale (2006)


Casino Royale

"All right, damn it, I'll say it - I'm Bond, James Bond. Now someone get me my freakin' martini!"

(2006) Action Adventure (MGM) Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Akbarian, Caterina Murino, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Isaach de Bankole, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Sebastien Foucan.  Directed by Martin Campbell.

There is a kind of comfort in certain things that don’t change. French waiters will always be rude, politics as usual will always be depressing and James Bond will always ride in to save the day. Of course, the franchise itself has been full of change. Circa 2006, there have been six men who have played Bond in the “official” series (more on that later). The newest one is making his debut in this, the last original Ian Fleming novel to have its title on a film from Eon Productions, who have been making the Bond movies since 1962, first under producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and later under his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who went to college at Loyola Marymount University, where yours truly took several classes together as we both majored in Communication Arts (and no, I didn’t know who she was until much later). But how did Daniel Craig do in his first outing in the role? 

The filmmakers go a little radical here, choosing to create something of a Bond origin story. MI-6 agent James Bond (Craig) is promoted to Double O status after killing a double agent in the ranks of the British diplomatic corps and his contact. Afterwards, he is chasing a bomb maker (Foucan) to try and get closer to the terrorists that hired him (some amazing free running stunts here) when he is captured on camera apparently murdering unarmed diplomats in an embassy. This infuriates MI-6 chief M (Dench) no end and embarrasses the agency.

Bond being Bond, he doesn’t back off. He continues following the money and manages to determine that the next target is going to be a prototype airplane. He manages to avert the destruction of the prototype, unknowingly thwarting the plans to manipulate the stock of the airplane’s manufacturer by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), a kind of investment banker for terrorists. Now in the hock to a bunch of guys who like to kill innocent people (just imagine what they’ll do to someone who isn’t so innocent), he has to recoup his losses. Being an extraordinary poker player, he organizes a card tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI-6, sensing a major opportunity to break Le Chiffre’s bank (which would effectively put him at their mercy, and perhaps in exchange for protection they could find out detailed information on most of the world’s terrorist organizations), know they need to beat him at his own game. And who do you send in to do it? The best card player in MI-6 – namely, Bond, James Bond. M is reluctant to do it – “I promoted you much too early” she snarls at him when he breaks into her home to hack her encrypted computer. Still, it is their best chance for success.

To keep an eye on the double “o’ bad boy, they send Vesper Lynd (Green) from the Ministry of Finance to keep an eye on the ten million pounds they are floating Bond to enter the tournament. Bond, having an eye for figures (ahem) manages to charm the frosty Lynd even though they don’t hit it off right away. Le Chiffre is desperate to win the tournament by any means necessary. Bond will have to use more than his card-playing skills to survive this Texas Hold’em tournament.

The filmmakers are returning to the style of James Bond that Ian Fleming originally envisioned when he first wrote the books more than 50 years ago. This is a gritty, rough around the edges Bond who can be urbane and elegant when he has to be. You see the cold, efficient killer in Bond more than the charming one-liner machine we saw in later incarnations of the character. Bond gets beat up something awful during the course of the movie, but he dishes out far more than he takes.

Director Martin Campbell, who got the Pierce Brosnan era off with a bang with GoldenEye does much the same here, although he is completely kickstarting the series. This is more real world Bond, relying less on gadgets (although there are some here, they aren’t the supercool spy gadgets of yore; these are things that you’d probably be able to find at your local Sharper Image) than on the skills of the world’s best spy. 

I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) was one of the writers on this movie. It didn’t seem to be his style, at least so I thought, but he, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have put together one of the more complex screenplays of the series. There are many twists and turns to the story, some of which you don’t see coming (some of which you do) and it’s nice to be kept guessing while watching a Bond movie. Bond movies have always tended to stick to a formula – a very successful formula, but a formula nonetheless – and the producers have served notice here that they intend to shake things up and they have, in a good way. 

The Bond girls, led by Green, are less Barbie Doll goddess gorgeous than past Bond girls; in fact, it could be said they are more conventionally pretty, the sort of girls you’d find in a shopping mall or at the beach rather than in an ultra-expensive spa or casino. Unfortunately, most of them are written pretty colorlessly, although that’s fairly standard practice for Bond girls of the last 20 years, Die Another Day excepted. This installment could have used another Jinx-like girl to liven things up.

Craig makes a pretty decent Bond, although nobody can replace Sean Connery. Even if someone was the perfect Bond(and I don’t think Connery was), he couldn’t compete with the memory of Connery who established the category and was as close to perfect as you could get in playing him. Craig may well have moved to number two on the list. He is ruthless, tough and brilliant. He doesn’t toss out facts like the know-it-all Bond would occasionally become; instead, he just knows the things he needs to. Craig may not fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype of Bond but he captures the essence of the character. That goes a long way in my book. 

There were a few bugs in the movie – the poker sequences go on far too long, and the movie’s momentum is screwed up as a result. There is no Q Division or Moneypenny in the movie and both are missed, even though I do understand their absence. The early free running stunt sequence is SO spectacular that the climactic sequence in Venice pales next to it. These are not minor things exactly, but they are truly fixable. What’s important is that the producers have a Bond who they can count on for at least the next couple of films. Keep this kind of momentum up and who knows, they may be doing Bond movies when Barbara Broccoli’s grandchildren are producing. I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred.

WHY RENT THIS: Craig makes a terrific Bond, perhaps the best since Sean Connery. Tremendous action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bond girls are colorless; no Moneypenny or Q. Poker sequences shut down the movie’s momentum dead.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence, a little torture, some sexuality and even a little nudity. A little more extreme than the average Bond but still Bond.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  “You Know My Name” is the first Bond theme song since 1983’s Octopussy to have a different name than the film itself.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are featurettes on the Bond Girls, as well as the selection process for the new James Bond. There’s a music video for the theme song as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $594.2M on  $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paul

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In ancient Persia, tandem wet t-shirt contests were done with slightly different rules.

(Disney)  Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Toby Kebbell, Steve Toussaint, Richard Coyle, Ronald Pickup, Reece Ritchie, Gisli Orn Garvarsson, Claudio Pacifico, Thomas DuPont, Dave Pope, Domokos Pardanyi. Directed by Mike Newell

One thing you can say about summer movies, they don’t require a great deal of brain power to enjoy. The more action and fantasy you can cram into 90 minutes, the better and if it takes you away from your cares and troubles, even more so.

Of course, the characters onscreen have plenty of cares and troubles. Take Dastan (Gyllenhaal), for example. He’s a Prince of the mighty Persian Empire, but not by birth. Wise King Sharaman (Pickup) adopted young Dastan from the streets of Baghdad after observing the boy’s bravery in standing up for another boy. Dastan has grown into a headstrong young man, a gifted fighter and a bit of a wiseass. More than a bit, perhaps.

He and his brothers Garsiv (Kebbell) and Tus (Coyle) – the latter of which is heir to the throne – are on some kind of military exercise with their Uncle Nizam (Kingsley). The plan is to attack the holy city of Alumet – which King Sharaman has expressly forbidden them to do, mind you – but whom their intelligence has led them to believe is supplying their enemies with weapons. The leader of Alumet, Princess Tamina (Arterton) is understandably peeved, considering her people have done no wrong.

Still, the city seems impregnable enough until Prince Dastan discovers a weakness in the defenses and leads the troops into the city, even though he’s been expressly forbidden to….hmmm, seems there was a lot of that going around in the Persian royal court. In order to mitigate the issue, the decent Tus offers to marry Tamina in order to…well, politics was never my strong suit.

King Sharaman, upon hearing that his sons have disobeyed direct orders, comes to Alumet to celebrate. He is promptly poisoned and Dastan blamed. He escapes with the aid of Tamina. It turns out that an elaborate dagger, which appears to be purely ceremonial in nature, is the weapon of mass destruction that Dick Chaney was looking for after all.

This dagger can cause time to rewind a few minutes, with only the wielder of the dagger aware of the change. It can only go back a few minutes because that’s all the sands of time that the dagger can hold. There is an unlimited supply of the stuff underneath the city of Alumet, but in order to obtain enough to send the dagger-wielder back in time for any length of time, Armageddon would have to be unleashed but that little drawback doesn’t stop the villain of the piece from wanting to do just that.

The villain – oh, you know who it is, don’t you? – has also hired a secret society of assassins (try saying that five times fast) – to retrieve the dagger and eliminate the pesky prince and princess. They escape into the desert, on their way to the funeral of King Sharaman to warn…well, the bad guy because….oh my head hurts.

In any case, on the way they run into a wacky sheikh (Molina) who makes his fortune on rigged ostrich races and bad mouths any sort or form of taxation (he’s the original Tea Bagger) while keeping a taciturn knife-throwing expert (Toussaint) from Namibia (or some such place). This makes complete sense. The sheikh means to collect the hefty reward that is out on Dastan’s head but they escape by…ummm…causing a riot at an ostrich race by opening a crate of scimitars and…ummm…okay I’m done with the plot.

Okay, you’re not going to go to see a movie based on a videogame because of its intricate plot. You’re probably not going to go to see it because of its acting performances either. No, you’re going to go see it because of the eye candy and the action. On both scores, Prince of Persia gets high marks, particularly the former. The cities of ancient Persia, rendered digitally, look marvelous with the practical sets resembling the hinterlands depicted in Gladiator and Hidalgo pretty much.

Gyllenhaal probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Dastan, but he acquits himself nicely. Dastan is an athletic sort who combines parkour-like moves with some nifty sword work. It all works out to a pretty good approximation of The Thief of Baghdad, the granddaddy of this kind of film. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he carries enough offbeat charm to make the character memorable. Arterton delivers a performance from the feisty princess school of acting. It’s not groundbreaking, nor is her chemistry with Gyllenhaal particularly sizzling; she’s insanely easy to look at however and at least comes by her British accent honestly. Gyllenhaal effects one and it isn’t too bad, but it gets distracting now and again when it comes out strained.

Molina is one of the most reliable actors in the business and brings a light touch to the picture. Whenever he’s onscreen, he makes a mark and improves the movie. Kingsley lends gravitas – it’s not often you get an actor of his calibre in a videogame adaptation – and adds subtleties to his performance that you wouldn’t expect to find at a movie like this. That may go completely ignored by the average moviegoer, but I found it refreshing and surprising.

Given the political situation there now, it’s hard sometimes to remember that the Middle East was considered a romantic place, full of adventure going back to the days of Rudolph Valentino. Prince of Persia resurrects that romance, adding some surprising political jabs on both sides of the aisle (finally, a movie that both Bill Maher and Glenn Beck can both love). It’s mindless, its fun and everything you could want from a summer movie.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent production design, from the ancient cities to the intricate weapons. Action sequences are exciting and frenetic.

REASONS TO STAY: Gyllenhaal’s faux English accent is distracting at times.  

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a videogame adaptation, there is a great deal of action and violence, but nothing the average teen hasn’t seen in videogames and television. If you’re okay with them playing the videogame, there should be no problem with them seeing the movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Other than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, this is the only PG-13 rated movie Disney has ever released under its Disney banner.

HOME OR THEATER: Big screen, without a doubt. The fantastic vistas have to be seen on as big a medium as possible.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Winter’s Bone