Dec 15 2011

Review: Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 3:59 pm

Sequels are a tricky beast. People liked your first film and flocked to the cinema in droves to watch it. The studio want to equal the success (read: box-office) of the original while expanding the world of the film enough to sustain a franchise in the way that the James Bond films have. The pitfalls in their way usually entail trying to cram too much into a single film. Batman Forever is a good example of this where the movie featured no less than the origin story of three villains, multiple sub-villains as well as a romantic plot-line.  Another problem sequels commonly have is to rehash what worked in the original. Case and point would be the Austin Powers movies: endless re-workings of jokes from the first movie turned what were original gags into tired old tropes inducing more groans than chuckles. So it came as no small relief that Guy Ritchie’s follow-up to his 2009 Sherlock Holmes is an unconventionally solid sequel.

Game of Shadows finds Baker Street’s greatest mind working to uncover the nefarious plan of one Professor Moriarty (played by Mad Men’s Jared Harris). Established as a world class brain-box (as well as Oxford boxing champ, by the way), they prove to be a challenge for each other. The few scenes Harris and Robert Downey Jr. have together spark wonderfully as they engage and Holmes tries to get to the bottom or Moriarty’s scheme. When they plan does reveal itself, it’s completely ludicrous and needlessly complicated, although it’s good to see the villain driven by greed instead of by a desire be villainous.

Ritchie’s visual tricks are back in force, dispensing with Michael Bay’s style of quick-cutting action sequences in favour of slow-motion set pieces – a sweet relief from the blockbuster-induced seizures that I’m prone to. Holmes and Watson fight a Cossack assassin in a Victorian gin palace and escape a German munitions base: the set-pieces are bigger and louder than in the first Sherlock without losing sight of the humour that made it a success. Although their character arcs are pretty much the same this time –Holmes is dismayed at being abandoned by Watson, whose imminent nuptials are putting the brakes on their relationship—Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law seem more comfortable in their partnership and their rapport is easier than ever.

Rounding out the cast this time round is Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Holmes’ smarter older brother, in a role that seems tailor-made for him: haughty, sharp and slightly camp, he delights every minute he’s on screen. Noomi Rapace (formerly of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) is also along for the adventure as a feisty Gypsy whose brother is somehow entangled in Moriarty’s grand design. She isn’t cast as a romantic interest, which is another sweet relief: as mentioned before, superfluous love stories are a great way to bog down your story.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is by no means a masterpiece –as before, Downey’s take on Sherlock is fun but lightweight– but as a piece of light entertainment for December movie-goers it’s a slick romp that hits the spot.

Dec 09 2011

Review: Hugo

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 5:58 pm

The story of Martin Scorsese’s childhood has long been established in movie lore: from a young age, he had suffered from asthma and had spent his formative years stuck indoors in the cinemas of New York City. In those darkened movie theatres, he discovered his love for films, retreating into the fantasy worlds created by directors like his later-life mentor Michael Powell. Although it is a dramatic departure from the crime pictures for which he’s best known, Scorsese’s latest film Hugo may be his most personal work in ages.

Set in a Parisian railway station in the early 1930s, the film tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan boy who secretly maintains the clocks at the station. He spends his days stealing food, evading security and scavenging parts to repair a discarded clockwork automaton left to him by his father. He befriends Chloë Grace Moretz’s Isabelle, the adopted daughter of Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès, a reclusive silent film director now reduced to selling toys at the Station.  Despite Papa Georges’ bitter protests Hugo and Isabelle begin to unlock the secrets of the automaton.

The character of Georges Méliès is a real historical figure. An accomplished magician, he directed hundreds of silent films and in the process pioneered special effects through techniques such as multiple exposures and false perspective. His most famous surviving work is A Trip to the Moon, whose iconic image of a rocket shot into the eye of the moon has been parodied extensively (the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight video is a direct homage). By the time the Great War was over, Méliès was bankrupt and as depicted in the film, turned to selling toys at the Montparnasse station.

Scorsese’s film, based on a book by Brian Selznick, is as much about the romanticism of early cinema as it is about a young boy finding his purpose. The clockwork interiors of the station and the whirring machinery of the city mirror the workings of a motion picture camera and we see the power that films have to amaze and transfix its audience.  The historical detail will mean nothing to children, but Hugo is a heartfelt and thrilling adventure first and foremost. Scorsese’s camera is as kinetic as ever, swooping through crowds and tumbling around back passages of Paris.

From one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium comes this swooning love letter to the wonderful fantasies made by those shadows projected in the dark.

Dec 08 2011

Review: The Thing

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 4:01 pm

Horror remakes aren’t always a bad thing. David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly took a campy Vincent Price flick from the 50s and turned it into a shocking body-horror movie that fit in perfectly with the director’s own sensibilities. In 1982, Halloween director John Carpenter updated 1951′s The Thing from Another World into a very prescient character-driven thriller that capitalised on the cold war paranoia of the time. Therefore, there’s no real reason think that 2011’s The Thing would be bad. Or is there?

Horror movies have always been popular with the big film studios: they don’t normally rely on casting big-name actors so the cost of producing them is relatively low. The budget combined with the tendency for scary movies to perform well at the box office usually means there’s a greater chance of the studios turning a profit. In order to cut the risk even further, movie execs also prefer to remake stories that have a certain ‘brand-recognition’ and proven track record.

Just off the top of my head: in the last ten years we’ve seen remakes to The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, Halloween…

I really could go on…

In fact, I will!

There’s also been House of Wax, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Piranha, The Amityville Horror, The Omen, Straw Dogs, Wolfman, My Bloody Valentine and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This isn’t even counting the sequels to those remakes! So, faced with the prospect of this year’s The Thing, I wasn’t expecting anything new.

Dutch commercial director Matthijs van Heijningen and his writer Eric Heisserer have taken an interesting angle with this movie: in some way, it’s a sequel but in other ways, it’s very much a remake. In Carpenter’s cult classic, the opening scene shows two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a dog through the Antarctic wasteland, shooting at it with a rifle. This dog, we soon learn, is not quite what it seems: it ends up at an American research station where a creature starts replacing its inhabitants, slowly picking them off. 2011’s version is the story of where the Norwegians came from.

Set in the early 80s (to match the time period), we see an incredibly similar set-up to the film.  The cast of characters feature a number of smarmy scientific researchers and blue-collar workers as well as a rough-and-tumble helicopter pilot (Joel Edgerton)who’s so similar to Kurt Russell’s character in the ’82 Thing that you wonder whether they are in fact the same guy, working in two different stations, who miraculously forgot the traumatic incidents that occurred only days before and also (somehow) managed to come back from the dead between the two films. Sorry: spoiler alert.

The two stories unfold beat-for-beat in exactly the same way that you simply cannot think of it as a prequel at all but maybe something akin to a cover version of a much-loved classic. After a while, I stopped worrying about the stark similarities and really started to enjoy it. The 2011 Thing is a well constructed and effective horror — the makers have taken what worked in the ‘original’ and managed to re-use them to great effect. It reminded me of how much I loved the original without necessarily making me wish I was watching it at the time.

The social and cultural relevance no longer looms over the film –we’re no longer as obsessed with having spies in our midst as we were in the 80s– so the sequences where they start a witch hunt might not resonate in the way they once might have. The digital effects are handled very well with the exception of a totally unnecessary giant spaceship set (imagine a studio executive rolling a cigar between his fingers: “Make it bigger okay? More explosions!”) and the monster designs are often inventive riffs on the originals.

So, in summation:

Is this ‘remakequel’ of The Thing entirely necessary? Probably not.

Is it scary? Sure. 

Will people who haven’t seen Carpenter’s The Thing enjoy it? Absolutely.

Do I want to see studios remake more horror classics? I really don’t think we have a choice in this matter.