Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Written By: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney (screenplay), from the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Warner Bros., 2011
PG-13; 129 minutes
3 stars (out of 5)


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a fun movie. Entertaining. Which is what it's supposed to be. But it's not a great movie. I found my mind wandering at moments. And when you're talking Sherlock Holmes--a man whose mind moves so quickly that one should have to pay attention to keep up--well, it's kind of a shame that it didn't engage me more or require more effort.

The movie brings us back to Jude Law playing Watson to Downey's Holmes. (View my review of the first film for a refresher.) Watson has removed himself from Baker Street in advance of his coming marriage. Meanwhile, Holmes has become obsessed with the nefarious dealings of Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). When Moriarty threatens Watson and his new bride, Holmes has no choice but to hijack their honeymoon. Mrs. Watson is shipped off to Holmes' brother Mycroft (Fry) for safe keeping while Holmes and Watson trek from Paris to Germany to Switzerland, putting together the pieces of their adversary's great puzzle. There is no question how it will end--anyone who knows anything about Sherlock Holmes knows Switzerland means only one thing, and Mycroft mentions Reichenbach early in the movie--but the getting there is half the fun, right?

Well, yes and no. A lot of the film is a game of dress up more than shadows; Downey sports innumerable disguises throughout. Meanwhile, what passes for intrigue is thin indeed, hence my ability to check out a couple times without really having missed much. Rapace as a Gypsy in search of her missing brother is an excuse for the plot, leaving her to act as so much wallpaper during much of the movie. Still, there is humor, and while some of the visual effects are gimmicky (the fight between Holmes and the Cossack can barely be followed due to cuts, dark lighting, and sped up film), the scene in which they run through the forest is optically interesting, making a scene that would otherwise be too long seem just right.

SH:AGOS attempts a nod at the bromance aspect of Holmes' and Watson's relationship (sharing tight quarters! and they dance together!) but it falls short of homoerotic, probably due to not wanting to risk the male audience's discomfort. Here Holmes and Watson are more like frat brothers than anything romantic.

To summarize: the dialogue is clunky in places and the plot is thin, but SH:AGOS still manages to please on a few levels. The chemistry between Downey and Law is distinct and almost tangible, entertaining enough in its own right. Paul Anderson did an especially fine job as sharpshooter Colonel Sebastian Moran. And watching Holmes and Moriarty play chess--both literally and mentally--is compelling at times as well, making one wish they'd interacted a bit more. Also, if they'd played Holmes as a bit more manic, more obsessed with Moriarty, almost to the point that one would have to wonder if he wasn't just losing it . . . That would have added some dimension and made the whole of the story that much more involving. Alas, the down side of having a well-known character with an equally well-known nemesis is that you can't really pull something like that off very easily; everyone knows Moriarty is evil. Right? (Maybe with the next one they can have Holmes insisting Moriarty is alive, but nobody believes him?)

The first film had a stronger plot and was better written. That one also had a sort of "play along" feel that allowed the audience to gather the clues along with Holmes, something SH:AGOS sort of cheats on. But this one is still fun, a solid enough entry in what is looking to become another big franchise for Downey & co.


Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard
Directed By: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen
Gravier Productions, 2011
PG-13; 94 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


IMDB has this movie listed as a comedy, which surprised me because I didn't see a whole lot of funny in it. But then again, comedy has a lot of different flavors, and Woody Allen isn't known for belly laughs. His comedy tends toward the more thought-inducing and neurotic.

I'll start out by admitting I'm no huge fan of Woody Allen; I haven't seen more than a handful of his movies. We had to watch Annie Hall in film school, of course, and while I thought that was an okay film, I had a difficult time understanding all the hype around it. Maybe I was born in the wrong era, or maybe I just don't think that way.

But I really liked Midnight in Paris. This is probably because I'm a writer in love with a foreign city myself and so I could completely identify with Wilson's character. He plays Gil, an established screenwriter who is taking a sabbatical of sorts in Paris so he can write what he hopes will be a great literary novel. Tagging along are his fiancée Inez and her parents, as well as some other friends of hers . . . Gil evidently has inherited all friends and family and has none of his own.

If I have one bone to pick with Midnight in Paris, it's that I cannot for the life of me figure out why Gil and Inez are together. They have nothing in common, and she has a terrible habit of making fun of him by relating sensitive and embarrassing anecdotes to others. Gil is a nice-guy liberal; Inez and her family are stuck-up right-wingers. If I had to guess, I'd say Inez was originally drawn by Gil's prospects, his connections as a screenwriter, which is likely why she fights him so hard when Gil mentions (repeatedly) that he might prefer to settle in the City of Lights indefinitely.

This is all prologue, of course; the real story here is how every night at midnight, Gil gets magically swept into the 1920s Parisian scene. While there he meets Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, and Gertrude Stein (portrayed quite well by Kathy Bates) among others. Meeting these icons gives Gil a shot of literary mojo. In fact, it seems almost addictive for him; Gil begins retreating from the modern world more and more as he begins to dwell on and within this fantastical space.

Of course, the underlying theme in Midnight in Paris is about the grass being greener. When Gil and a 1920s artists' model named Adriana (Cotillard) get swept back into the 1890s, she proclaims that she never wants to return to the present--her present, the 1920s. After all, the "now" is boring; things were so much better in the good ol' days. As Gil tries to convince her otherwise, he comes to the realization that escapism is no answer to life's problems.

It's a delicate balance; as a writer I know the value of living within one's imagination, sometimes for long periods of time. Breaking the dreamy concentration can be costly to a story or script. Interruption is generally unwelcome. But one also has to surface now and again, participate in real life, and be present in the present, else life can come crashing down while you're living and breathing an otherwhere.

Midnight in Paris is a gentle film, and beautiful in a cinematographic way, even if it carries no heavy insights into life. The motion in the film, both outward and introspectively, is slow, like a dawning. This is not a movie designed to jolt, or even to prompt great discussion; instead it is a love letter to the creative mind, and to all the influences that crowd it.


Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, A Bunch of Other British Dudes
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Written By: John Le Carré (novel), Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay)
Focus Features/Studio Canal, 2011
R; 127 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


I recently read and reviewed the book this movie was based on, and I have to say it did help that I was already familiar with the source material because the movie has the potential to be confusing to those who don't already know the story. And yet the writers made enough alterations from the novel that, having just read it, I was very aware of what was different and missing, too. It was a little like one of those picture games where you have two images and are told to find all the changes.

As a film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a Cold War-era tale of British espionage in which Oldman plays "retired" (read: booted) MI6 agent George Smiley, who is pulled back into the world of "The Circus" in order to help smoke out a mole working for the Russians. That sounds like a simple enough story, but these are spies, remember, so everything becomes very convoluted very quickly. And while the film is good—better than good, actually—it suffers a little in comparison to the book, not because of the changes that have been made (the changes work very well), but because the characters don't get enough of an introduction for the viewers to necessarily follow them easily or get any real sense of them at all. If I hadn't only just read the novel, I would almost certainly have been asking myself, Which one is that guy again? and Wait, what was his story? Maybe even, Why should I care about him, exactly?

TTSS requires undivided attention. There are a lot of people and a lot of cuts between past and present. Still, the story is good enough to hold an audience's interest, which makes it somewhat better than the book in that respect, since parts of the novel were prone to drag. As Smiley, Oldman is able to pull all focus to him; his smallest motions convey as much as any length of dialogue might. Flashbacks to what must have been the worst Christmas party in history add a strange weight, a sorrow, to the whole of the film.

Along with Oldman, Mark Strong, whom I usually think of as a villain, has a small, non-evil role, and the quiet strength of his performance is lovely. Tom Hardy, too, shines a bit as a rogue agent whose emotions get the better of him, even as he tries to do the right thing.

It's a nice-looking film, too, the bad 70s haircuts notwithstanding. A sort of sodium filter gives everything the tint of an old photograph, which lends itself to the story quite well.

Still and all, it isn't edge-of-your-seat spy thriller entertainment. Nothing is exploding. There are one or two tense scenes in which someone is in jeopardy—and maybe I would have felt it more if I hadn't already known the outcomes—but the overall feel is one of quiet reflection and semi-nostalgia. Which sounds boring, but somehow TTSS (and Oldman) pulls it off.

And at the end of the day, as the credits roll, one could easily imagine another George Smiley movie to follow. Even hope for one. Just give me enough warning so I can read the novel first, please.


Two Questions

If I could ask Benedict Cumberbatch two questions:

1. Would you name your son Timothy?
2. What did you do for Speech Day?