JT Film Review

70 – Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes REVIEW

3.5/5 stars

Director – Guy Ritchie

Cast – Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly

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– followed by Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

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Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is the first Holmes movie to hit the big screen in 21 years, the other latest being the comedy Without a Clue, starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. This version chucks out all previous ones, and goes for a flat out action/comedy tone. The comedy is subdued though, so it certainly does not overwhelm the movie, keeping the action/adventure/danger elements front and center. This is essentially the Victorian Lethal Weapon.

While Conan Doyle most certainly did not write his stories as such, I won’t dwell on the change in tone too much. The movie will offend most Holmes purists, but the Holmes “knowledgeable but indifferent” (in which group I place myself) will be amused by numerous references to the original stories. Most surprisingly though, is how true to the books the portrayal of Watson is. I think Jude Law would have fit in with Jeremy Brett as a great Watson of the traditional mold.

But, on to the movie itself. Its cinematography is dark and gloomy, giving us a London Dickens would have been proud of. Fog lurks on the muddy Thames and dirt coats the streets. However the pace of the movie and the storytelling is so hyper-active that we are never lulled into a feeling of gloom or despair. There is always another witty quip or fast, frantic action scene heading down the pipes. Sherlock is funny and (I think) knows he is, but in a dry, ironic way that would make Woody Allen jealous.

Where the movie may lose points is in the story-telling itself. The plot is a bit muddled, and asks us to believe in witchcraft and magic (which actually had a resurgence of interest in the Victorian Era) throughout the movie only to yank the rug out from under us  extremely later on. Don’t get me wrong, I actually prefer that magic in the end was not the answer, but to have built the whole movie up on it only to wipe it all out felt like cheating in a way. Ritchie and Co. milked all the grandiosity and fear out of black magic, only to discard it when the plot needed wrapping up.

OVERALL

Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes gets through on its quick pace, quick wit, and Boy’s Own Adventure bravado. This is not the Holmes of old, but then again, if you can’t beat Jeremy Brett why try. This movie is Holmes for the masses, but despite that fact it manages to carve out a nice personality for itself. The only real problem that I can see is that the action is a bit frantic and the story gets a bit muddled. However, the solid-to-great performances really make this an above average adventure.

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“Sherlock Holmes” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 28, 2009 Posted by | 3.5 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Thriller, Year - 2000-2009 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

69 – Never Cry Wolf (1983)

Never Cry Wolf REVIEW

4.5/5 stars

Director – Carroll Ballard

Cast – Charles Martin Smith, Brian Dennehy, Zachary Ittimangnaq

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Never Cry Wolf was released in 1983 to not much publicity, and certainly not to much of a box office return (though I understand it made a comfortable profit). Its star wasn’t a huge name, but had spent three years making the movie. It wasn’t an independent movie (produced by Disney, and was the first Disney film to show naked buttocks), but if released today would most certainly have been. I can’t see any major studio agreeing to fund this nowadays. It’s too simple an idea, and too un-commercial. It is also very, very good.

This movie is in a way very “high concept”, which means that it has a very basic idea at its core and then works from that. Speed is often used as an example of that. There’s a bomb on a bus and the bus can’t go under 50 mph, go! This is about a man sent to study wolves. That’s it. It promises very little up front except its concept, and delivers wonderfully. One can imagine a studio executive seeing the idea for this movie and deciding to spruce up the plot by adding large amounts of human conflict. That is not done here at all. We see the world the main character is uncovering as he uncovers it, and not before.

The main character (never named, but as the book is purportedly semi-autobiographical it is assumed he is Mowatt himself) is sent to the Canadian North to study wolves and determine if they are part of the cause for the declining numbers of the caribou . He is sent to an unknown area, with useless food (canned food, but no can opener), few tools and even less knowledge; his orders are to find a wolf, kill it, and examine its entrails, thus determining what the wolf feeds on. With more enthusiasm than common sense he sets out on his errand.

After a while he finds a pair of wolves and, finding himself unwilling to shoot one, sets to observing them. Gradually he gains enough of their trust that he can set up a camp a short distance away without the wolves interfering. We are shown this through a series of amusing, yet touching and enticing scenes that really immerse us in the feeling of the area. While this movie is certainly fairly heavy it doesn’t shy away from some wonderful comedic pieces, which both lighten up the tone and give a great sense of humanity to the whole thing.

Many people have taken issue with Farley Mowatt’s admitted tendency to (as he said) “…not let facts interfere with the truth.”  While Mowatt claims that the book (and thus the film) is autobiographical and is all true, many have pointed out several flaws. For example he was not alone on this exhibition, but was part of a party of three. He claims he was sent to provide justification for killing wolves, but in actuality was simply sent to examine the relationship between caribou and wolves.

Such criticisms may be true, and most people seem to hold them as such. However if the movie is good, then it is good, plain and simple, regardless of its technical accuracy. This argument is often used to support the study of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a movie which practically single-handedly invented the “language” of cinema yet is incredibly racist; and Triumph of the Will (1935), a Nazi-made documentary that is often called on of the most influential movies of its type. Never Cry Wolf makes assertions about the nature of wolves, and seems to seriously call into question man’s nature as a  carnivore. Even though the movie raises some derisive questions, the answers it gives to them should not detract from its value as an artistic statement.

OVERALL

Never Cry Wolf is emotional yet subtle, thoughtful yet strong, and is a genuinely human movie. It is slow-paced, but that adds to the emotional resonance of the movie. It’s ending does feel a tad like a “cop-out”, but it still raises interesting questions. The sequences involving wolves evoke surprisingly strong feelings of empathy, and must have been very difficult to shoot. Definitely recommended.

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Movie Clip (No Trailer Found)

“Never Cry Wolf” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 27, 2009 Posted by | 4.5 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Drama, Year - 1980-1989 | , , , , | Leave a comment

68 – Avatar (2009)

Avatar REVIEW

3/5 stars

Director – James Cameron

Cast – Sam Worthington, Zoe Seldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi

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Avatar has finally burst upon us. It is arguably the most hyped movie ever, with James Cameron declaring that it will revolutionize the way we make movies. Possibly. The CGI is wonderful, and some of the things we see are absolutely unprecedented.

The story is about a man who, while inhabiting an alien body via some sort of pseudo-scientific telekinesis, falls in love with an alien (a “Na’vi”) who is native to the planet he has come to destroy by essentially strip mining it. He changes his mind after seeing the beautiful planet and the native’s peaceful ways, and gradually finds himself becoming more and more like the Na’vi. His superiors naturally want him to keep his mind straight, and tell him not to “forget whose team you’re on.” Conflict (both internal and kaboom-style) obviously comes up.

It is such a pity that Cameron the director is so good, while Cameron the writer relies on cliché after cliché to tell a story. One gets the feeling that he thought of the feel of the movie, the environment, the cool sequences he could do etc., and then at the last moment thought “Oh crap, I need a story for this don’t I. Let’s see, Dances with Wolves was good, right? Let’s mix in that with a bit of Romeo and Juliet and we’re good to go.” The story in general had potential, but instead of focusing on the big themes (racial issues of forcing a population off their land because you want it; the whole idea of first contact with an alien race etc.) he focuses on the love story. Now this wouldn’t be so bad if the romance was treated with any degree of maturity and with a recognition of the problems involved. However the romance is played like all the run-down romances of the past. To put it simply, we’ve seen it SO MANY TIMES before. Line for line, plot point by plot point, this movie has hardly an original bone in its gloriously rendered CG body.

This is such a shame, as the world Cameron has created is for the most part wonderful. (I could have done with less “over-the-top beauty” though. For example when Cameron wants to show us the beauty of the place he doesn’t show us a natural looking world but fills it with incandescent purple-ness, as if bludgeoning us over the head “See, it’s PRETTY!” But that’s a fairly minor point.) The battle scenes toward the end of the movie are terrific, probably the best of its type. Some of the shots of all the military vehicles etc. will literally make your jaw drop.

Cameron has always been good at making stuff look good. He’s a very technical director, and unfortunately we see his story suffer from that. He looks at stories very technically. He looks at his blank piece of paper, and says “Forbidden romance, check. Evil corporation, check.” and ticks off all the ingredients he needs. He isn’t interested in telling a story. He needs a story as an excuse to put all his technical wizardry to work. Technical wizardry which is, granted, ground breaking.

One last thing; a major plot point involves a ceremony which the Na’vi believes is religious. The humans find that there is actually a scientific reason for what occurs during the ceremony. However, it is still played as religious to us, the viewer. The choral music sweeps up (James Horner composed the music by the way, up to his usual trick of ripping off everybody including himself as much as possible), the aliens start swaying, and the camera just worships it, while we keep rolling our eyes and wishing Cameron would just get on with it. If it had played as rational and scientific it might (MIGHT) have been less groan-worthy.

OVERALL

A ridiculously contrived and over-used romantic plot line combined with a total lack of subtlety almost ruin Avatar. The CG may be groundbreaking and the battle scenes worthy of fanboy-ish screams, but if we find ourselves groaning and rolling our eyes every other scene it can’t hold up. I recommend you see it if you want to see helicopters and trees blowing up. There’s a lot of that, and it is indeed awesome. But while the movie has a great “roof”, it has no “foundation”, and is as subtle as a brick to the head. To quote a friend “It’s an awesome movie, except for the story.” That pretty much says it all.

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“Avatar” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 23, 2009 Posted by | 3 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Sci-fi, Year - 2000-2009 | , , , , | 2 Comments

67 – A Christmas Carol (1951)

A Christmas Carol (or Scrooge (US)) REVIEW

4/5 stars

Director – Brian Desmond Hurst

Cast – Alastair Sim, Mervin Johns, Michael Hordorn, Michael Dorn, Francis De Wolff, C. Knoarski, Glyn Dearman

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Watching A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve is one of those traditions that all families seem to have. The version they tend to watch is this one, starring Alastair Sim. He is often called “the definitive Scrooge”, and while I have not seen too many other Scrooge’s, I can see why people may think this. Personally I am still waiting to find “my” Scrooge so to speak, but until then Sims is a perfect substitute.

Alastair Sims portrays Scrooge as not particularly cruel, but as a man who is tired of life and who is concerned with keeping himself alive and well in a hostile world. His attitude (as directly expressed in one scene) is that the world is a hostile place, and to survive in it you must also be harsh and hostile. This is certainly not as we tend to view the Scrooge character in our popular culture today. We instead see him as a mean, grumpy creature who loves others misfortune. He is more three dimensional here.

However I do think that Scrooge is presented as a bit too nice. He changes almost right after he is shown his first vision. Also, the first ghost , The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes up almost half of the movie, while the others have progressively smaller roles.

The atmosphere of the movie is well done, but not extraordinary. It is presented in Black & White, so the grimness of London and Scrooge’s life attitude are represented well. The special effects are good for their time, mainly consisting of two of the ghosts being fairly transparent.

The DVD on which I watched this was not of the highest quality though, and I believe that is the only copy available. It is certainly the only one I’ve seen. It claims to be digitally remastered, and they even have a demonstration in the Special Features of before and after the remastering. However this is almost laughable, as the difference between the two is nearly non-existent.

OVERALL

A Christmas Carol is a fairly faithful, albeit traditional and badly aged, presentation of the original story. Sims makes a great Scrooge, and the supporting cast is suitable. At times it may go a bit over the top, but its all in earnest. If you get in the spirit it is quite a good movie.

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“A Christmas Carol” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 6, 2009 Posted by | 4 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Drama, Year - 1950-1959 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

66 – Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins REVIEW

4/5 stars

Director – Christopher Nolan

Cast – Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neesom, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer

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– followed by The Dark Knight

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Batman Begins came along in 2005  to reboot the Batman franchise, and there is no denying it certainly did so. It went from the Gothic fun of Burton(Batman and Batman Returns) and campy  adventure with Schumacher (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) to more gritty fun. The series would later skip styles with Nolan’s own The Dark Knight, which essentially ripped off Heat.

Despite all this I think Batman Begins has recieved too much credit for reinventing the superhero genre as a whole. There were certainly dark superhero movies before this. Take Daredevil for example (the Director’s Cut preferably).

Batman Begins is still a fun adventure movie, for all its grittiness. It has fast paced action, and a couple good one liners. However its succes is in its balance of the fun and serious sides of the movie. There is one sort-of-running-gag involving a coat that is quite funny. Chrsitian Bale as Batman himself is quite decent. He embodies well both the angst-pretending-to-be-playboy Bruce Wayne and the pure kick ass fury of Batman. His fellow cast members also hold up well. I just wish Nolan was a bit better at directing action scenes. He cuts so fast that there are many fight scenes where we just can not really see what is happening. This is a recent (and, in my opinion, worrying) trend, best encapsulated by Quantum of Solace, where an excellent movie was ruined by bad action scenes.

In some ways this Batman is not as clean cut as the “Batmen” of the past. He is actually concerned about what it means to be a killer, and is concerned with making sure he not only does the right thing , but that he does it in the right way. He is no longer about being the ultimate righter of evil, the ass-kicker of bad guys. He is smarter than that. He is emotionally mature. He is “post-9/11” (whatever the heck that means anymore), and he is self aware.

Just like Batman was a classic product of the 1980’s, Batman Begins is a perfect representation of the 2000’s. This is our Batman. I wonder what the version of the next 20 years will be like…

OVERALL

Batman Begins is a good action movie, and even though it’s dramatic center may seem to head off into pop psychology once in a while, it still maintains interest with its fast pacing, introspective mood and sense of fun. It is certainly up around the top when it comes to superhero movies. It is also one of those rare movies (especially rare among action movies) that is quite re-watchable. Recommended.

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“Batman Begins” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 2, 2009 Posted by | 4 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Superhero, Year - 2000-2009 | , , , , | Leave a comment