Saturday, 31 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

****
Once again, Guy Ritchie offers us a version of Sherlock Holmes that is funnier and more exciting than any previous adaptations by other directors. This adaptation may be loose (vaguely based on Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem) but it does capture the essence of Holmes, possessing much of the wit of the books. It even shows us what it’s like to be the famous detective, giving us occasional looks inside his head to give a flavour of that absurd intellect.

Dr Watson (Jude Law) is getting married and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t very happy about it. Watson’s stag is an ‘eventful’ one and alas a happy honeymoon is not on the cards – nothing to do with Holmes, mind but Moriarty (Jared Harris). Criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty is gleefully wreaking havoc throughout Europe – with bombs and assassinations, provoking war - and the crime-busting pair are getting dragged into the midst of it.

Although the action takes Holmes and Watson out of London and into France and Switzerland the film does manage to keep the focus relatively tight. I’m aware the film-makers made a concerted effort not to fall into the sequel trap and throw everything but the kitchen sink into the script. For example, there is only one villain, only one plot and certainly no shark-jumping. But there are some new additions to the cast: Noomi Rapace makes for a mysterious gypsy and Stephen Fry relishes his role of just-as-eccentric brother of Holmes, Mycroft. The accomplished Jared Harris is a wonderful villain and Paul Anderson a chilling henchman. Of course, notable mention to both Downey Jr and Law who, as a fine double act, make the film distinctly more satisfying than perhaps it might have been without them.

Guy Ritchie’s directorial flair has not lessened in this 1890s setting. If anything he’s cranked-up his style up a notch. Slow-mo and bullet time abound during action sequences and, although the perceived wisdom may be to not use such devices in a period piece, it absolutely works. He has also created a very attractive nineteenth century Europe and one on an epic scale. The characters talk fast, the action moves fast and so you do have to keep up. The gags, banter, and exposition come thick and fast. It keeps you on your toes and in this way doesn’t condescend to the audience. And it’s rip-roaring family entertainment for the holidays.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

****
Director Brad Bird makes a smooth transition from animation to live action with an emphasis on action. Being behind one of my favourite (what can safely be described as) action flicks, The Incredibles I suspected he had what it takes. It’s still impressive considering the huge scale of this the latest instalment in the Mish franchise. It is not as some have described, “a return to form”, since JJ Abrams’ MI:III was a damn good watch. I will say however, where most franchises by this point might feel a bit tired, this feels anything but.

We follow Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) on a series of missions that go from bad to worse. Framed for an attack on The Kremlin they go underground and in pursuit of the terrorist that framed them. He is in possession of stolen arms codes giving him the means for nuclear oblivion. The action takes the elite group from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai with barely a moment to breathe between each dangerous situation. We witness a series of sequences from tense to the gobsmackingly breath-taking. Since it’s on one of the posters it’ll be no spoiler that Cruise hangs off the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (he really did it, by the way) in a spectacularly vertiginous scene.

It’s apparent that whoever directs a Mission: Impossible is given room to breathe and make the film their own. Messieurs De Palma, Woo, Abrams and now Bird have all made the films in their own way. They may well be mainstream directors but they do each have a unique style. The producers of James Bond could learn from this since they’re recently prone to hiring an interesting director but then stifling any hint of their individuality. Here, Brad Bird demonstrates a three-dimensional understanding of the action set-piece where everything within it happens for a reason. It’s a good-looking film but the style is backed up by substance.

Most of the comic relief is supplied by Blighty’s very own Simon Pegg. Although Benji sounds like a cuddly children’s character he is now a crack member of the team. Unlikely I know, but Pegg’s nerdy field tech is actually rather convincing. Cruise delivers a mature performance balancing just the right amount of intensity and humour. And regarding the physical stuff, there’s no one in the world who can match him. It’s good to see Tom Cruise back doing what he does best – saving the world.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

X-Men: First Class

***
Who’d a thunk the producer of Lock Stock… and Snatch would wind up being such a competent director. The producer-turned-director is a rare bird. The only ones that spring to mind are Joseph L Mankiewicz and Alan J Pakula. But Matthew Vaughn has done it again – he has made yet another exceedingly entertaining film. He’s also breathed new life into a flagging franchise and, although it didn’t entirely set the box office a light, it’s not done too shabbily.

This prequel sees Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with legs and hair, just starting out as leader of the disparate band of superheroes. With the action skilfully set against a Cold War/Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop, he forges an alliance with the CIA. This is to track down and then train other mutants, teaching them to harness their special powers. All the while, holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) seeks revenge for atrocities committed by all-round bad guy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

The film sees some delicious early sixties period detail making it so much more interesting than its predecessors. Henry Jackman embraces the age delivering a sixties-tinged score which, at times, can only be described as ‘groovy’. The film-makers must be commended on some inspired casting choices; the likeable McAvoy is straighter than an arrow as philanthropist Professor X, Fassbender gets sympathy for his devil-in-the-making (that’s Magneto), and Kevin Bacon makes a dastardly villain. The younger cast members are a bit lame but it doesn’t matter because the onus isn’t on them so much. This is reflective of the previous instalments in the series where everyone else – for me, personally - lived in Wolverine’s shadow. I suspected there might be a conspicuous Wolverine-shaped hole but luckily there isn’t because Magneto and Professor X are such strong characters. It helps that they’re in their prime and doing all their own ass-kicking instead of being relegated to (and this could be heresy) their more familiar ‘managerial’ roles.

Unlike fans of the comic, I never entirely grasped the gravity of the situation in the previous X-Men films. (I was always more of a Beano fan.) They assumed we’d already know X, Y and Z about erm… X. Whereas this one – involving the creation of the key characters - is a lot more involving, and indeed fun, for the layperson. Basically, Thicko here actually understood what was going on this time. 

X-Men: First Class Movie Poster

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Descendants

*****
A warm aloha to Alexander Payne as he returns after a seven year hiatus from writing and directing features. Payne goes from strength to strength with this Hawaiian-set story. George Clooney, also enjoying a purple patch, is proving himself to be a peculiar anomaly: an A-lister whose name on the credits ensures a stamp of quality.

Matt King (Clooney) and his family are descendants of white missionaries and Hawaiian royalty. King is the sole trustee of some prime real estate on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i left to his family by their ancestors. He and his relatives look to get enormously rich from the morally dubious sale of the land. However, the main focus of the tale is on King’s struggle to keep his family from falling apart. He has troubles with his two daughters. He also has marital problems but here’s the kicker: his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. As the tragedy unfolds the legacy of King’s forefathers (i.e. the land) gains more significance.

It doesn’t sound like the most fun but if you’re familiar with any of Payne’s previous work you won’t be surprised that it is. The action unfolds with a good deal of humour. If you haven’t seen his previous works, Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways, then I can’t recommend them enough. As with all of the above, Payne supplies large doses of both hilarity and seriousness. But it is with his latest film that he delivers a little more of the latter. Something truly profound is achieved amidst the comedy. It poses (and answers) some serious questions about family, loyalty, life, and love. Peculiarly in this his most poignant work Payne’s new co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash possess comic credentials of the decidedly lower brow variety. (An important lesson here: never judge a writer by their IMDb profile.)

Clooney lobbied for the Thomas Haden Church role in Sideways but Payne, wanting someone less well known, turned him down. Their cinematic union on this has proved much more effective (I’m sure) and was certainly worth the wait. And even the smallest of roles has real potency. Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer all impress in the film. The entire project drips with quality.


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