Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

Directed by Guy Ritchie, written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, and Jared Harris - Rated PG-13

A little light on the mystery, but the action more than makes up for it.

Sherlock Holmes as an action star seemed to be a strange idea before director Guy Ritchie teamed up with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to make Sherlock Holmes a couple years ago.  Now, with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Ritchie solidifies Downey and Law as a bona fide buddy-action duo.  Granted, this sequel isn’t high art, but in a season filled with high profile releases and Oscar hopefuls, it makes for fun escapism. 

A Game of Shadows (which is an unfortunately bland subtitle) picks up where the original left off with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) aiding the evil Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) while Holmes tries to stop them.  In the last film, the devastation was aimed solely at England; this time, all of Europe is at stake as Moriarty attempts to start a world war.  Basically, the stakes are higher and much more violent. 
While this film is primarily an action adventure there is still a bit of mystery to it.  Much like the first film, most of the characters, and the audience, are left in the dark for most of the running time.  There are clues scattered within the film, but it’s not like there is a mystery that the audience can solve on its own.  That’s kind of the point, of course, as Holmes is the only one who should be able to piece everything together.  It’s still a bit fun to keep your eyes on every inch of the screen, hoping to figure things out. 
Sherlock Holmes isn’t really a mystery film, though.  Guy Ritchie keeps the franchise in stylized-action mode and the film is more memorable for it.  There’s something to be said for a director who is willing to show action in a continuous take rather than edit it to the point of incoherence.  Not only does Ritchie keep the action in single shots, but he also slows things down to a crawl and has Holmes narrate what is happening.  Those predictive fight scenes seemed a little gimmicky in the first film, but the gimmick is played with enough times to make it amusing throughout in the sequel.  Aside from the fight scenes, other action set pieces are bigger and better than the original as well.  A lengthy mortar attack/shootout in a wooded area is among one of the best action sequences of the year.  It is an audio/visual attack on the senses, and that is a compliment. 
Action cannot completely carry a movie like this, however.  The core of the film rests on the chemistry between Downey, Jr. and Law.  As Holmes and Watson, they seem entirely natural bickering at each other like an old married couple, a dynamic that is not lost on the filmmakers as they put Holmes and Watson in plenty of thinly veiled homoerotic situations.  The joke does get a bit tiring by the end, but the actors make it work and, more importantly, they make the film fun.  Although the film does venture a bit too far on the goofy side here and there.
 In fact, the tone of the movie is decidedly lighter than the first film, even though the stakes are so dire.  The first film dealt with black magic and took place entirely in gloomy London.  A Game of Shadows features a bit more globe-trotting and there’s no magic, just artillery.  Jared Harris’s performance as Moriarty keeps things sinister enough, though.  Moriarty won’t go down as an iconic villain or anything, but Harris does make for a creepy, cold, methodical bad guy. 
A Game of Shadows could have surpassed the original film if the scope hadn’t been enlarged to include so many new characters.  Noomi Rapace is almost completely unnecessary as a gypsy fortune teller searching for her missing anarchist brother.  And Stephen Fry makes a painfully unfunny appearance as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s boring, cartoonish brother.  If more characters were needed to join the journey, why not just go with McAdams and Eddie Marsan from the original?  Better yet, just make it a Holmes/Watson adventure.  The third wheel is not needed and it makes the film a bit too long. 
Faults aside, Sherlock Holmes is still a very entertaining film and more sequels would be a welcome experience around the holidays every couple of years.  The film doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a good time with some impressive action sequences.  Holmes and Watson don’t solve an amazing mystery for the ages, but they are a lot of fun for a couple hours.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The infusion of technology gives the film an interesting style, even though it sometimes seems like the film takes place in an alternate reality rather than the past.  Who cares, though? 
The gypsy stuff was kind of unnecessary.  Scratch that, it was completely unnecessary.  Ritchie mined all the laughs there were to get from gypsies in Snatch.  Really wish they would have just had McAdams go along on the journey.  That way the whole gypsy subplot could be removed and the film could be a bit shorter. 
Is it just me, or was Rapace's only noticeable because she seemed to be eating in nearly every scene?  I found it distracting and odd.
Kind of wished they would have left Holmes dead at the end, though that would go against the light tone of the film.  It would be nice for a series to have a definitive end before it wears out its welcome and/or is rebooted.  I suppose there's always hope that Nolan kills off Batman next summer... 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Directed by Tomas Alfredson, written by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré, starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Colin Firth - Rated R

A completely solid and amazingly atmospheric spy film.  One of the best films of the year overall.

A good Cold War movie is hard to come by. Sure, plenty of great, cheesy action movies are products of the capitalist/communist conflict, but movies about the actual spying business of the conflict are few and far between, especially truly good films (although I consider the underrated The Good Shepherd, the justly lauded The Lives of Others, and the criminally under-watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind recent examples of how these films should be done). Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (just Tinker from here on out) not only covers the Cold War in a realistic, interesting way, but is also quite possibly the best spy film of all time.

Now, hyperbole like that is likely to raise doubt and cause one to begin nitpicking Tinker and decrying all of its “faults.” A classification of what makes a movie a “spy” movie must be made before anyone cries foul of my bold statement. First, there is a difference between spy movies and action movies featuring spies. The vast majority of “spy” films (including all of the James Bond movies) are really just action movies. And anyhow, these action movies don’t attempt to portray spying in a realistic manner. Other films, like the above-mentioned Shepherd, Lives, and Confessions, are about realistic spying. The action is limited to a few gunshots and there are almost no explosions. Oh, and the plot is extremely hard to follow.

Tinker is so complicated that it cannot be truly enjoyed with just one viewing. This is not a fault. This makes Tinker a great spy film as you watch it twice or a third time to get all the details of the intricate plot hammered down and you start to pick up on all the details that blurred past the first time through. You notice that the film requires you to spy on the characters since so little is directly stated. Flashbacks that seemed slightly superfluous the first time through now contain the meat of the story just through showing characters interact with each other at a party.

In essence, as you watch and, for lack of a better word, study Tinker, you become like the main character, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley has recently been forced out of the “Circus” (a nickname for the British intelligence agency) along with his boss, Control (John Hurt). Control and Smiley were forced out after a mission gone wrong in which Control hoped to find out the identity of a KGB mole planted at a high level within the Circus. Once in retirement, and after Control dies, it turns out that there really is a mole and Smiley is tasked to find out who it is. There’s much, much more to the plot of Tinker but the simple fact that Smiley is searching for a mole is enough info to give you a basic idea of the plot.

A plot involving spies, much less double spies, naturally leads to paranoia and tension. Tinker certainly contains both, but those are not the film’s strongest elements. Don’t be put off by that, though. There is a constant element of paranoia since both the viewer and the main characters have no idea who they can trust and there are quite a few tense scenes. In fact, this film contains two of the tensest scenes of the year (I’ll elaborate in the spoiler section). It’s just that Tinker is one of best films in recent memory not for paranoia and tension, but for acting and atmosphere.

From the first scene, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sets up Tinker as a deadly serious, quiet film. The piano-heavy score instantly and perfectly establishes a constant mysterious mood. The locations, the 70s-ness of it all, the slow, pervasive zooms, and the excellent performances come together to make this a film that you’ll wish never ends. If all of that isn’t enough, Tinker also features one of the most impressive casts in recent memory.

Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Dencik. It’s like a who’s who of the best working British actors of the moment; kind of a New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, but with integrity and actual entertainment value. Jokes aside, this cast is great and if there is a downside to it, it’s that some of these actors are too good to be relegated to such small roles. Hinds gets the short end of the stick, but everyone can’t be onscreen all at once. Everyone does a fine job, though. Hardy is the only one who gets to have a bit of fun as he seems to be one of the only characters with a slight sense of humor. Toby Jones plays smug to perfection. Cumberbatch gets a few emotionally charged moments. Strong gets a nice subplot as a schoolteacher. And John Hurt shines in his short scenes (I could listen to him yell the phone book and be entertained). But this is Oldman’s show.

Gary Oldman has made a name for himself over the years as an over-the-top villain and he is great at it, but Tinker allows him to simply act. Smiley is not a character that allows big, showy emotional scenes. Oldman only gets to show emotion a couple of times, but those instances are great. What is truly great about his performance is the presence behind it. Smiley doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t have to. Oldman’s performance is one of reaction as he spends most of the film learning new information. It is not a performance that can be expressed in a clip during an awards show (as you’ll surely see it in the next few months); it is a full bodied performance for a complex film. Like Tinker itself, Oldman is more impressive with each viewing.

All hyperbolic praise aside, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a film that many will dismiss. It cannot be understated just how difficult this film can be. Some may tune out after the first half hour simply because they can’t keep track of who everybody is and when everything is happening. But if you are a patient viewer with a hankering for a great spy (not action) film, then you need to watch this…twice. If you’re Cold War/spy junkie (like me), then watch it over and over and over.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

My review was already on the long side, but I still want to gush over this one a bit more.  First off, I absolutely loved this movie not only because of its quality as a film, but also because of the subject matter.  I just find the Cold War fascinating.

Those tense scenes mentioned above: Mark Strong's meet in Budapest at the beginning.  Great spy stuff in that scene as everyone looks suspect.  The other scene is when Benedict Cumberbatch has to steal a file from the Circus.  Do yourself a favor and watch that scene a few times to see every great element.

Oldman doesn't get to emote much in this, but I thought his discovery of his cheating wife and his outburst to Firth in the end, "Well, then what are you, Bill?!" was done quite well. 

Oldman's monologue about Karla was pretty great as well.  Somehow it was better as a monologue than a flashback.  Plus, the film had enough flashback as it was.

Loved the ending of Oldman sitting down to applause, what a great way to end the film.  Here's hoping they get a sequel made.

Enough's enough, so I'll finish with this: I haven't even scratched the surface of some of the elements of this film.  I could go on with the character of Karla, the lighter, the fact that we never really see Ann, the relationship between Firth and Strong, etc.  The point is, this movie doesn't give you all the answers.  It respects the intelligence of the viewer enough to figure it out and it leaves something to talk about once it's over.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Indiana Film Journalists Association 2011 Awards

Here are the results from the IFJA's 2011 Awards.  I figured I'd throw in my two cents for most of these.  For Best Picture, I was glad to see a diverse group of films make the final list.  I thought Drive was the best of the year thus far and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was amazing (a full review is coming soon).  I voted for Nicolas Winding Refn for Best Director, though I'm fine with the results as The Artist certainly took skill to make.  In the acting category, my main issue was the exclusion of Michael Fassbender, which I thought was the performance of the year.  It's hard to root against Paul Giamatti, though.  Anyway, that's all I've got.  I'll be releasing my personal Top Ten films early 2012.

Indiana Film Journalists Association announces 2011 Awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its annual film awards for 2011.
The Artist took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Musical Score (Ludovic Bource).
Win Win earned two prizes, Paul Giamatti for Best Actor and Thomas McCarthy for Best Original Screenplay.

The Descendants, which was named runner-up for Best Film, won Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Elizabeth Olsen took the Best Actress prize for Martha Marcy May Marlene, while Viola Davis was named Best Supporting Actress for The Help. Christopher Plummer took Best Supporting Actor for Beginners.

Winners were declared in 14 categories, with a runner-up in 13 categories. In addition, a total of 10 movies (including the winner and runner-up) were recognized as Finalists for the top prize, Best Film of the Year.
Rango was named Best Animated Film, Project Nim Best Documentary and The Skin I Live In Best Foreign Language Film. The Tree of Life was given the Original Vision Award.

Lindsay Goffman was honored with The Hoosier Award as the producer of Dumbstruck, a documentary about ventriloquists that was released nationally by Magnolia Pictures.

A word of explanation about the last two categories:

The Original Vision Award is meant to recognize a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

The Hoosier Award recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots. As a special award, no runner-up is declared.

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film of the Year

Winner: The Artist

Runner-up: The Descendants

Other Finalists: Coriolanus, Drive, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Muppets, The Skin I Live In, Super 8, The Tree of Life.

Best Animated Film

Winner: Rango

Runner-up: Winnie the Pooh

Best Foreign Language Film

Winner: The Skin I Live In

Runner-up: 13 Assassins

Best Documentary

Winner: Project Nim

Runner-up: Into the Abyss

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Thomas McCarthy, Win Win

Runner-up: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants

Runner-up: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Best Director

Winner: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Runner-up: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actress

Winner: Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Runner-up: Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Viola Davis, The Help

Runner-up: Amy Ryan, Win Win

Best Actor

Winner: Paul Giamatti, Win Win

Runner-up: Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Runner-up: Albert Brooks, Drive

Best Musical Score

Winner: Ludovic Bource, The Artist

Runner-up: Howard Shore, Hugo

Original Vision Award

Winner: The Tree of Life

Runner-up: The Artist

The Hoosier Award

Winner: Lindsay Goffman, producer of Dumbstruck

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009 with six founding members, and has since expanded its roster to 11. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.


Bob Bloom, Lafayette Journal & Courier
Caine Gardner, Greencastle Banner-Graphic, The Film Yap.com
Eric Harris, Canneltoncritic.com, The Perry County News
Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal, ibj.com
Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
Christopher Lloyd, The Film Yap.com, The Current
Richard Propes, The Independent Critic.com
Nick Rogers, The Film Yap.com, Suite101.com
Joe Shearer, The Film Yap.com
Matthew Socey, WFYI
Gina Wagner, IndyMojo.com / HauntedFlower.com 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Shame - Directed by Steve McQueen, written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale - Rated NC-17

Seriously digging Fassbender right now.  After Basterds, Hunger, First Class, and now Shame, the guy can do no wrong.  Bring on A Dangerous Method.

Addiction movies are never exactly fun, but they can be great vehicles for an actor and Shame certainly fits that description as Michael Fassbender gives a great performance, quite possibly the best of the year. Even with that performance, Shame does not exactly transcend the addiction genre, but it is still an interesting and beautiful film.

Shame is a character piece about sex addict Brandon (Fassbender), a man who doesn’t necessarily struggle with a sex addiction so much as he struggles to make real connections with people. He’s managed to keep things slightly under control until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and throws his life into disarray. It’s not so much that his sister is troubled (she is a bit sporadic, though); it’s more about complications being thrown into Brandon’s very solitary life.

Solitary is the key word of Shame. Brandon is utterly alone, no matter how many sexual encounters he has. You don’t see this from the narrative necessarily; you see it in Fassbender’s eyes. It’s almost cliché to call a great performance “understated,” but it’s hard to describe this quiet performance in other terms. Fassbender gives a performance of the eyes…it’s Clooney-esque (which is a good thing, in my opinion). There are plenty of scenes in which Fassbender gets to be bold, but for the most part he is most impressive while staring. Some of the most powerful scenes consist of Fassbender staring his way through New York. His scenes on the subway are non-verbal yet contain the emotional core of the film.

Fassbender is easily the highlight of the film, but it is not his film alone. Writer/director Steve McQueen (he also directed Fassbender in his breakout role in Hunger) impresses in this sophomore effort through color, lighting, music, and camerawork. The montage sequences have an art that makes them seem like their own short films. The diverse color scheme and dimly lit scenes shroud the film in beautiful darkness. McQueen also knows when to have the camera follow Fassbender (who is in nearly every frame of the film) and when to stay behind and let him go.

Shame is still quite a simple movie, however, in that it is an addiction movie and we see Brandon hit his low points and hurt people around him. So at times it gets almost melodramatic. There is also the possibility that some would argue that sex addiction isn’t a “real” addiction. Regardless of your opinion, this movie should at least make you think about it. For one thing, sex addiction doesn’t get a lot of respect since it is a relatively modern diagnosis. This isn’t because it’s made up or new or anything, but because of how society has changed. Because of the internet, access to sexually explicit material is exponentially easier than it was decades ago. Shame addresses this and that is what makes it a bit more interesting than being saddled as the “sex addiction movie.”

Brandon is constantly on his laptop on pornographic sites and there is a subplot involving his work computer. We see it being carted away in an early scene in which we hear Brandon’s boss (out of context) say, “I found you disgusting,” as Brandon looks nervously at the IT guy. On top of the technological era Brandon lives in, he is also in New York and is never far away from anonymous sex. A pivotal moment in the film finds Brandon staring up at an apartment building where he instantly notices a couple having sex, he then looks to the window of a restaurant where his date awaits. What to do?

Brandon’s choices aren’t nearly as telling as the reason behind his options. When faced with the prospect of anonymous sex or a potentially emotionally rewarding relationship, most would hopefully (or at least eventually) choose the actual relationship. Brandon tries to go with a typical relationship and those scenes show his true addiction. He may show desperation and, yes, shame during the sex scenes, but it’s the regular date scenes that are telling. Everything is so awkward and boring and there is no gratification. If this was a drug movie, Brandon would find a dealer and shoot up as soon as he left the date.

Shame may come across as an overly serious addiction movie, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see that it is actually a beautiful, depressing portrait of man who happens to be an addict. Addiction (sex or otherwise) should not be the focus here, though. All eyes should be on Michael Fassbender (insert comical reference to NC-17 rating here) because he makes a beautiful, if slightly plain, addiction film one of the year’s best.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The NC-17 rating is not that big of a deal, but Shame certainly earns it more than Blue Valentine did last year.  Don't focus on the rating, though.  It's about a sex addict, it kind of has to be NC-17.

The subway train as a metaphor for Brandon's addiction worked for me.  The ambiguous ending of whether or not he stays on the train is interesting and makes all the subway scenes before it more interesting.  Using a train might feel heavy-handed to some, though.  Referring to one's life as a trainwreck or going off the rails is pretty common so equating addiction with a train might diminish it for some.  But I dug it.
I didn't really mention the supporting cast, but James Badge Dale makes for a convincing douchebag.  And Carey Mulligan is fine against Fassbender in some tense, strange scenes.  I would have no problem with her getting a nomination for supporting actress for this.  But this is still Fassbender's movie.