Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes / *** (PG-13)

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey, Jr.
Dr. John Watson: Jude Law
Irene Adler: Rachel McAdams
Lord Blackmore: Mark Strong
Inspector Lestrade: Eddie Marsan
Mary Morstan: Kelly Reilly
Professor Moriarty: ???

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Running time: 128 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material).

In life there are some professions that require one to know a little about a great many things, or there are jobs that require expertise in a very confined field of knowledge with little awareness of anything else. In movies, the experts are generally experts on a great many things. Sherlock Holmes is known as the world’s greatest detective, but in the new movie “Sherlock Holmes” he is oh so much more than just a mere detective.

In Guy Ritchie’s new film, Sherlock Holmes is a detective, a chemist, a martial artist, a doctor, a master of disguise, a weapons specialist, an expert character profiler, despite his social shortcomings, and a romantic. To say this is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes would not only make me guilty of utilizing an overused aphorism, but it would also be a gross understatement. This is the superhero version of Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Downey, Jr. uses the same unbalanced charm that made his Tony Stark in “Iron Man” such a hit to make this new take on Holmes just as enjoyable. Downey is witty, humorous, and makes you want to hang out with him and learn something, even though it does appear he might have a slight odor to him. The only thing saving Holmes from a boorish downfall is his relationship with Dr. John Watson, the ballast to Holmes’s wavering ship of human scrutiny and unchecked etiquette. As Watson, Jude Law (“Sleuth”) brings stability to the entire film with his good looks and a grounding reason.

As the film opens, Holmes and Watson are on their “final case” together. Watson is engaged to be married to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly, “Me and Orson Welles”), who is glad to remove her man from the negative influence of Holmes. Holmes and Watson have tracked down Lord Blackmore after a string of ritual occult murders, only to see him reappear after he is put to death for the killings. While Blackmore uses fear to keep the local constabulary off its game, Holmes and Watson try to overlook the notion of the paranormal in cracking the Blackmore case. All the while Irene Adler, a former foe or lover of Holmes who is working for a mysterious benefactor, dogs them.

Mark Strong (“Body of Lies”), while certainly a passable heavy, makes little of the role of Blackmore. Of course, it is not Blackmore himself, but his scheme and his methods that are of interest. Rachel McAdams makes a stronger—no pun intended—impression as the one person who seems capable of outsmarting Holmes. With her two roles this year—here and in the overlooked political thriller “State of Play”—McAdams continues to prove herself as an A-list actress, able to pick smart roles in strong movies.

The screenwriters do a good job of updating the Holmes mythology for a modern audience. Some might complain that the language and action of the film are a little too modern for its period setting, but the script keeps Holmes’s analytical mind at the forefront of all its action with a plot that holds onto Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original ideals of facing paranormal developments from a scientific point of view. Even the fistfights are laid out in Holmes’s mind before they happen. Despite the fact that Holmes continually is placed against adversaries that are physically superior to him, the technique used to show the audience how he will defeat his opponents before the action actually occurs helps to make it more plausible that he could defeat them.

Ritchie’s kinetic direction works well with the modern retrofit. Ritchie has mostly tinkered in modern low level crime thrillers like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “RocknRolla”. He hasn’t fared well with critics, but has a flare for presenting the grimy underworld of the British crime scene. That gift serves him well with this period crime material. Holmes’s London is not the clean, sharp skyscape of today with the likes of the Gherkin building, but a London when the streets were overcrowded, dirty with the grind of newborn industrialism, and filled with the stench of Thames’s waterfront slaughterhouses. It isn’t far removed from the cockney antiestablishment of Ritchie’s modern crime studies.

“Sherlock Holmes” is not as groundbreaking as some of this year’s more successful blockbuster fare, but it’s more engaging than others. The cast does a wonderful job making the movie a lot of fun, while the filmmakers have put a great deal into its atmosphere. You’ll have fun watching Holmes’s latest adventure, and that’s really what’s important with a movie like this one. I’m already anxious to see another Holmes case, provided it’s done with the wit and style of this one.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar/ **** (PG-13)

Jake Sully: Sam Worthington
Neytiri: Zoë Saldana
Dr. Grace Augustine: Sigourney Weaver
Colonel Miles Quartich: Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon: Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge: Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman: Joel David Moore
Moat: CCH Pounder
Eytukan: Wes Studi
Tsu’tey: Laz Alonso

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by James Cameron. Running time: 162 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking).

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”
-Pulp Fiction (1994)

In the film “Pulp Fiction”, the character of Jules Winnfield sites Ezekiel 25:17 as the source of his speech that begins with the line above. While much of his speech can be found in Ezekiel 25, there is nothing resembling these words there. I’m not sure where writer Quentin Tarantino pulled the opening line of this speech, but James Cameron’s latest film “Avatar” seems to be cut from the same cloth as that hitman’s attempt at rectitude.

In this case the selfish and evil are the human race and the righteous are the Na’vi, an indigenous alien race of a planet called Pandora. An Earth corporation has targeted Pandora for mining, at all costs, of a precious metal. In a lame attempt to make things look better the corporation has hired a group of scientists to “educate” the Na’vi so they can negotiate a relocation process for the native sentient beings of the planet.

At the start of the film we learn one of the scientists has died in an accident, so the corporation has recruited his crippled twin brother, Jake, to replace him in their specialized Avatar program. The scientific team, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine, is not happy to have a “grunt” on their team as their program involves a great knowledge of the Na’vi culture. The Avatars are organic bodies of the ten foot blue Na’vi race, which the scientists can operate through individual remote consciousness access ports. This allows the scientists to better relate to the Na’vi, who are naturally fearful of the humans, in a one on one direct contact basis.

The scientists are soon surprised by Jake’s more instinctive nature, however, when a leader in the Na’vi community, Neytiri, decides there is something about Jake’s nature that allows him to fit in well with the Na’vi’s warrior culture. Meanwhile, it seems the scientists fears aren’t totally unfounded as the corporation’s face on Pandora, Parker Selfridge, and the military leader on Pandora, Colonel Miles Quartich, recruit the wheel chair-bound Marine as a spy with the promise to return the use of his legs. Which side will Jake fall on once he is ensconced in the Navi culture, the benevolence of science and understanding, or the aggressive corporate and military mindset he has been trained for?

So that’s the plot of “Avatar”, most likely the least of what any of you have heard about this highly anticipated film. While the plot it is the least impressive aspect of the movie, it is well handled here by the filmmakers. In fact, it’s one of the strongest stories James Cameron has produced throughout a career that has often seen the humane elements of his science fiction plots handled in cardboard fashion. The film dives deep into the dichotomy of our human nature—our desire to both understand the worlds we inhabit and our insatiable need to destroy in the name of progress.

Despite the scientists’ impression of Jake as stupid and uneducated, the Na’vi correctly see him as “an empty vessel” with room for filling and with a childlike ability to see their world with unbiased eyes. This also works for Jake’s military mindset of following orders without question. Sam Worthington—who also did a good job in “Terminator Salvation” of not signaling his character’s true nature—does a good job balancing his two missions, scientific and military, in a way that the audience can understand his motivations for wanting to complete both of them.

The supporting cast also does a commendable job of reaching beyond their character archetypes. Sigourney Weaver’s work here as the hardened yet empathetic Dr. Grace is reminiscent of her Academy Award nominated work as Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist”. Giovanni Ribisi (“Public Enemies”) allows the audience to believe that his company man, Selfridge, might actually consider the wrongs he is committing, if only in the back of his mind. Although Col. Quartich is a typical military representation, devoid of humanity, Stephen Lang proves with his performance here and this year’s other movies, “Public Enemies” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, that he is the character actor of the year. And, Zoë Saldana (“Star Trek”) emotes beauty and compassion even though she never appears on screen in any form other than the CGI created ten foot tall blue Na’vi.

None of this is what makes this film so amazing. It is a good sci-fi story and might make pretty good popcorn entertainment with typical studio attention, but this one has the attention of the ultra-technically oriented Cameron at the helm. His last film, “Titanic”, was the most expensive movie ever made more than ten years ago and became the biggest grossing movie ever, a title that has not been taken from it in the intervening decade. Cameron was responsible for developing the CGI technology that has become a staple of Hollywood blockbusters for his far less financially successful undersea sci-fi flick “The Abyss”. He continues to stretch the bounds of the film going experience with this movie.

The CGI work in “Avatar” is more stunning as anything you’ll see in “Transformers” or “The Twilight Saga”,. The bright alien world of Pandora is filled with the colors and translucence of plants and creatures great and small and often frightening. The human technology of this story’s future is impressive in its magnitude. Cameron never hides his lines in darkness or editing. The trickeries used by most directors to conceal the illusion of their special effects work are a coward’s game for this director. Most of the film is effects work and most of it takes place in full sunlight without benefit of shadowy atmosphere or quick cut editing.

I’ve seen clips on television, and although those scenes do look good, it might make one wonder just why the special effects are being praised as so revolutionary. While it is important that this film works outside of the 3D format that has been pushed so heavily in its anticipation, the 3D format is really the only way to truly experience the power of this picture. Cameron has proven with this picture that not only is 3D a viable format for serious live action filmmakers, but it will be a format which many, many more filmmakers will be choosing to exhibit their work in the future.

For all the beauty that can be found on Pandora in two dimensions, its beauty is multiplied tenfold when seen in three dimensions. Cameron, through years of working with the 3D format in undersea documentaries, is already a master of utilizing 3D for ultimate effect. The film opens in a zero gravity environment, and the somewhat disorienting 3D effect adds to the viability of this environment for the audience. But, the audience can adjust to this 3D experience at the very same rate the film’s hero must adjust to his new environment. We see the power of the format as Jake witnesses the massive industrial equipment of the human base and the radical beauty of Pandora. By the time we reach the end of the movie, the 3D format has become second nature as much to the audience as Jake’s avatar Na’vi body has become to him.

When Tarantino released “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, it was an obvious sea change shift in filmmaking style. With the release of “Avatar”, we are witnessing yet another monumental shift in the type of entertainment we seek out to enjoy. In many ways, Cameron’s work here is even more important than Tarantino’s. “Avatar” is not merely a stylistic shift, but a visual one—one that not only affects the way we interpret movies, but one that physically changes the way we watch them. I can see a day when almost all movies are presented in three dimensions, a closer step to that virtual reality we all seem to seek from our entertainment. With the message that Cameron infuses into his story here, his work could be interpreted as righteous indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Invictus / **** (PG-13)

Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman
Francois Pienaar: Matt Damon
Jason Tshabalala: Tony Kgoroge
Linga Moonsamy: Patrick Mofokeng
Hendrick Booyens: Matt Stern
Etienne Feyder: Julian Lewis Jones
Brenda Mazibuko: Adjoa Andoh

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Anthony Peckham. Based on the Book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation”. Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hollywood’s golden boy directors were Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. They were the directors to watch, the future of Hollywood. And while they were living up to their reputations by diving into the madness of Vietnam, breaking down the barriers of an American sports icon, and invading the planet with benevolent aliens; Clint Eastwood was still taming the west as an unnamed outlaw and hanging out with a monkey who liked to make right turns. Who would’ve thought that Eastwood would one day be making the most important films of all four of them?

“Invitcus” is just about a perfectly timed film. When Eastwood was in the planning stages of this movie, the United States was approaching its greatest economic downfall since the great depression and had yet to see its first black man elected President. A milestone has been passed in our country, and we’ve entered into a journey that promises to be both harrowing and rewarding. “Invictus” acts as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go by looking at racial prejudice in another country and time that had much farther to go and made an even more monumental leap.

His movie begins with the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from his 27 years of incarceration under the oppressive policy of apartheid in South Africa. Like many an Eastwood endeavor, the director doesn’t waste time with incidentals. His movie is not about apartheid, so he shows us some racially biased reactions to Mandela’s release and then quickly moves the movie forward to the first fully democratic election of South Africa in 1994, in which the overwhelming first-time participation of black voters lead to Mandela’s five-year term as president of the nation that had once imprisoned him as a terrorist.

The movie is not interested in Mandela’s policies so much as his desire to unite his country and show the world what racial harmony can look like. Very little time is spent on state business or with Mandela’s practices of governing. Instead Eastwood focuses on Mandela’s obsession with its national rugby team, the Springboks, and the people both black and white surrounding the team and his immediate cabinet.

The team is a point of pride for white Africans, despite the fact that they have not performed well in the big matches. It’s also a focal point of derision for the black people of South Africa. Mandela observes during a game against long time rivals England that all the black fans are rooting for the opposing team. Going against the popular beliefs of his people, Mandela pleads with the black contingent now in power to keep the Springboks in order to prevent alienating his white countrymen. Then he boldly invites the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, to tea and challenges him to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which is to be hosted by South Africa.

Some critics have misinterpreted Eastwood’s film as “a typical sports flick”. In structure it’s very much a sports film. The Springboks are the underdogs who must reach into the reserves of their souls to pull out a string of unlikely victories and raise themselves to the highest pinnacle of their sport. It might sound like “The Bad News Bears”, but Eastwood acts much like Mandela in his methodology of using a popular medium to get his message across. While “Invictus” looks and sounds like a sports movie, it’s actually a movie about tolerance and how unity can be achieved with the right visionaries in place to see success where others can’t.

A key to Eastwood’s insight can be found in the supporting players and subplots. While the movie is firmly focused on Mandela’s seemingly misguided interest in how the Springboks perform on the world stage when his country’s internal affairs are a muddy mess of racism and economic failings, it’s in the subplots where Eastwood’s message can be found. Besides Pienaar’s leadership role, most of the movie’s subplots focus on Mandela’s multi-racial cabinet and security force and their struggles to understand his policy of equality over black rule. Their story is the heart of the movie. Their hurdles are the highest.

Morgan Freeman (“The Dark Knight”) and Matt Damon (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) are impeccable in their roles as Mandela and Pienaar respectively. Although their efforts are award worthy, due respect must also be paid to the supporting cast. With past films Eastwood has been criticized for not filling the supporting roles with seasoned actors. Such is not the case this time around. The supporting cast is just as strong as the leading players, especially the work of Tony Kgoroge (“Hotel Rwanda”) as Mandela’s chief of security who reluctantly must employ the experienced white officers of the state secret service.

I find it interesting that change seems forced into developing during times of great duress on a national scale. South Africa, despite the anti-apartheid changes embraced by its government, couldn’t have been in a more volatile state in the early ‘90s. A great many people were faced with life changes unthinkable just a few years earlier, and many on both sides didn’t know how to function under these new social parameters. Our own country, while not surfacing from as severe racial oppression as apartheid, is also in the middle of the most divisive time period of my lifetime. The political climate of our country is deplorable, with each side slinging their mud through political pundits that only profit from the divisive nature of their comments and actions. Intolerance seems to be on the rise, and yet we still finally breached our political race barrier by electing the first black president in our nation’s history. No matter which side you fall on, it’s important to recognize the monumental change that has resulted from our tumultuous times. Eastwood reflects on another country’s great leap in this film. Hopefully, our country will look back as fondly on what we have done in this decade for our country’s future.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Mr. Fox: George Clooney
Mrs. Fox: Meryl Streep
Ash: Jason Schwartzman
Badger: Bill Murray
Kylie: Wally Wolodarsky
Kristopherson: Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean: Michael Gambon
Rat: Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip: Owen Wilson
Petey: Jarvis Cocker

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG (for action, smoking, and slang humor).

Almost every year in the Best Animated Short category of the Academy Awards there is a stop-motion entry, and I always want to see it. There is something about stop-motion animation that is mysterious. It must have something to do with the fact that some of the filmmaking process is left up there on the screen, unhidden from the audience’s scrutiny. Sometimes there are fingerprints of the puppeteers visible in the clay. With hairy characters, the fur is never quite the same from shot to shot. Whatever it is, there is a fascination created by the format.

Director Wes Anderson’s fascination with the format was first observed in his live action film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” in some stop-motion animation used for some undersea shots and one live action shot that showed Zissou’s boat’s interior in cross-section. Cross-section shots are used extensively in his new stop-motion animated film. Even more prevalent than his stop-motion fascination in this new adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, however, is Anderson’s continuing fascination with the eccentric behaviors of families.

Mr. Fox (voiced by the ubiquitous George Clooney, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) is a reformed chicken thief, who now raises his two-year-old son—twelve in fox years—Ash (the nearly as ubiquitous Jason Schwartzman, “Funny People”) with his former partner in crime, now wife, Mrs. Fox (the possibly more ubiquitous Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”). Mr. Fox is restless as a newspaper columnist convinced that no one in the woods reads his articles. He decides to move his family out of their foxhole and into a tree across from three mega farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

His lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray, “Broken Flowers”), is very much against this move, as would his wife be if she knew it was all part of Fox’s plan to return to his nefarious ways. Ash very much wants to go into the “family business”, but it is his cousin Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) who has all the “natural athletic abilities”, a grave point of contention for young Ash.

There will be much complaining about the film as a children’s movie, because it focuses so much on conversation and character, not so much on action. Yet the stop-motion animation keeps the action constant with how the characters look at each other, smile, groom themselves and have ever shifting details that only stop-motion animation provides. Anderson is in full swing here with his oddball characterizations and quirky behavior. The screenplay, co-written by Anderson with “Life Aquatic” collaborator Noah Baumbaugh, plunges the audience into the dysfunction of family while simultaneously showing the wonderful support structure a family can provide.

There is very little resemblance in feeling between this and the work of Roald Dahl, and yet the plot points provided by Dahl’s book fit in well with the zaniness of Anderson’s characters. Eventually Fox comes under the scrutiny of the farmers. Led by the alcohol driven madness of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon, the “Harry Potter” series), the farmers make it their mission in life to hunt down Fox and his family at all cost.

To say “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a strange movie would be an understatement, but it’s also a fascinating movie. Both the animation format and the unique characters make this movie a joy to watch. Clooney once again finds himself a role that allows him deplorable character flaws yet a charming nature with which to win the favor of both his fellow players and the audience. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” may not be what you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation, but it will leave a smile on your face—a grin in fact, much like you’d find on the fox who finds himself in the hen house.