Friday, December 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Die-hard Doyle fans will be miffed, but the acting, synergy and action make it great.

Were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alive today, I’m sure he would hate the film adaptations of his mystery classics. Unlike Doyle’s subdued and contemplative Holmes, this Holmes, while equally brilliant, is brash, violent and more action star than investigator. Fans of the novels will find this film frustrating, a caricaturization of a beloved hero, streamlined and beefed up for a modern generation. But for those who don’t care, or who can simply pretend it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s a supremely fun and surprisingly deep film.

In A Game of Shadows, Sherlock Holmes investigates a random series of bombings around Europe. Anarchist groups are blamed, but Sherlock suspects a deeper conspiracy, revolving around Professor Moriarty. Holmes dons multiple disguises, interrupts Watson’s honeymoon, teams up with a gypsy woman and travels around the world to stop Moriarty. If Sherlock fails, Moriarty will unleash terror upon the entire world.

The filmmakers took some really good risks with the plot, killing off key characters early on. I was kept guessing the whole time, unsure how the mystery would play out. While more a globe-trotting adventure than a typical Sherlock mystery, there are still some signature elements that are reminiscent of its source material. As always, Sherlock’s wit is sharp and his powers of observation keen. Through the wonder of cinema and creative camera tactics, I was let in on Holmes’s deductive processes allowing me to share in his “AHA!” moments.

The plot is bolstered by great performances and witty dialogue. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson exude personality and their perfect on-screen synergy results in many hilarious exchanges. But the real show-stealers are the interactions between Holmes and Moriarty (excellently portrayed by Mad Men’s Jared Harris). The final showdown between the two is riveting, as much a battle of wits as a battle of strength, their minds so alike, yet one completely evil and one unabashedly good. The constant repartee between the characters elevates this movie above a typical action film.

But the action scenes are also very good. There are loads of chases, gunfights and explosions. Some of these scenes are a bit jumpy and hard to follow, but they are still exciting and fun to watch. Holmes demonstrates his prowess at hand-to-hand combat in an early scene, taking on four huge thugs. While typically this would seem absurdly unrealistic, Holmes’s narration demonstrates that with a little observation, dispatching these men is effortless.

The look and feel of the Holmes films is quite unique. The color palette is dark, hued in blues and greys. It’s a perfect fit for the European setting, giving everything a brooding, Gothic feel. Director Guy Ritchie did a fine job giving the film its own style, unlike any other action film I’ve seen.

Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes theme is perhaps his most bizarre and original composition. Game of Shadows adds in additional cues, mostly quick-paced gypsy numbers. It’s a fun and catchy soundtrack guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

There are a few cautions preventing a blanket recommendation. In an intensely awkward scene, a character walks around naked, his delicate areas only mostly covered by well-placed props. Apart from that, there is violence, a few mild profanities, some double entendres and cross-dressing (played for laughs).

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an exceedingly entertaining film that surpasses the first. It’s the complete package of great plot, character, dialogue and action. It’s not your typical Sherlock Holmes story, but it works well. Should you see this one? The answer is...elementary.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Debt (2011)

A stressful spy thriller with more than enough plot, character and action.

If a movie can stress me out, it’s done a good job. Stress denotes my undivided attention and apprehension at the film’s unexpectedness and unpredictability. I can honestly say that The Debt raised my stress levels to dangerous proportions, providing one of the most exciting and suspenseful rides I’ve had at the movies in quite some time.

The Debt tells the story of three Mossad agents, Stephan, David and Rachel, sent to kidnap and extradite Doktor Bernhardt, brutal killer of Jews in World War II. But the kidnapping is irreparably botched, the mission is compromised and, while waiting for new orders, the agents are forced to keep the doctor hostage in their apartment. While in captivity, the monstrous doctor spews anti-semitic hate, subversively getting into the agents’ heads and under their skin. The mental and emotional strain of the situation pushes them over the brink of sanity. Disastrous decisions are made, ones that will haunt them for the next thirty years. Now, in the present, Stephan, David and Rachel are forced to confront their past and right their wrongs.

The story is riveting, shifting seamlessly between flashbacks and present day action. The intricate plot forced me to pay close attention in order to catch the nuances and subtexts. Several times I thought that I had the film figured out and, without fail, each time something completely shocking would happen. I was immersed in the film’s world from the opening titles and could only breathe a sigh of relief when the credits rolled. It was an unrelenting ride filled with constant stress.

The dialogue was gritty and real, deepening the characters and given great weight by the strong performers delivering it. A subplot involving a love triangle is perfectly balanced with the rest of the plot, never overshadowing the characters or the story. My favorite scene of the film, set against the soothing sounds of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ portrays the agony (and ecstasy) of the agents as they sort through their emotions for each other.

Jessica Chastain stands out amongst this stellar cast, delivering a powerhouse performance as Rachel. Helen Mirren perfectly captures the Rachel of the present, and the usual continuity pitfalls of different actors portraying the same character are completely avoided. The same can be said, although to a slightly lesser degree, for the other leads. The teams of Worthington/Hinds and Csokas/Wilkinson are great as David and Stephan, young and old.

As usual, Thomas Newman’s signature cadence and choice of instruments borders on unoriginal. Regardless, the lack of creativity doesn’t detract and the score works well in the film, ratcheting up the stress levels with loud and repetitive drum beats.

The film easily earns its R rating with language, violence and sexuality. The language is strong, exclamatory and harsh and the violence is brutal, even though never graphically shown. There are two scenes of implied sex and an extended and disturbing scene involving a gynecological exam. While there is no nudity, the scene feels intrusive and invasive.

This film stressed me out. It’s completely unpredictable, unbearably suspenseful and unquestionably brilliant. It’s well plotted, well scripted, incredibly acted and beautifully shot. It’s cautions are few, but significant in areas of strong language, brutal violence, disturbing scenes and sexual content. It’s a nail-biting, white-knuckle thriller and one I can’t wait to see again and again. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.