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Evil Dead (2013)
A satisfying and brutally bloody mess of a remake
When I initially heard about a remake to Evil Dead, I was a little disappointed. I was never a huge fan of the original film, but the sequels remain two of the most wildly entertaining films I have ever seen. With my doubts in mind, everything changed the moment I saw the first red-band trailer. And now after catching a screening of the film last week, I wonder why I doubted Fede Alvarez's re-imagining in the first place.
Five friends venture to a cabin to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her drug habit. Things are not as they seem from the very start, but it only gets worse after Mia's claims she was attacked by a demon in the forest. Her friends just think she is adjusting badly to going cold turkey, but strange occurrences start to take place within the cabin, and it quickly becomes obvious that Mia is not quite herself.
I went in with low expectations, but Alvarez does a great job bringing the film to life. It hints at and replays certain key moments from the original series, but for the most part, Evil Dead is very much its own individual thing: a re-imagining that exists all on its own. The story is not all too important here, but it does more than enough to move the film along from beginning to end; something the horror remake genre has botched all too often. Better yet, Evil Dead never feels like it is struggling to live up to lofty comparisons, and seems very content at having fun mercilessly torturing these five young people. Fans will love seeing how Alvarez reinterprets some of the franchise's most popular scenes, but non-fans will still get a hint of glee seeing just how depraved the film quickly becomes. It may take a while to get there, but it never lets up afterwards.
The trailers and marketing elements suggest that the film is terrifying. Indeed the trailer was absolutely horrifying. But I found myself not so much scared as why I was mortified by some of the kills and ludicrous ideas inflicted on the cast. I say ideas mainly because some things that happen should result in a criminal diagnosis on everyone involved. The film is definitely not for the squeamish, and revels in the amount of blood and gore it spills at every turn. It uses the original franchise as a barometer, and then throws it out the window in favour of being more "inventive" and eclectic with its choices. The trailers may have prepared you for some of the brutality, but it only hints at the lingering after-effects. Expect to hear a lot about the vivid and fully realized makeup effects they are so much better than you could have ever imagined, and are light-years ahead of the minuscule CGI effects employed during the film.
For how enjoyable and loving a tribute this re-imagining is to Raimi's work, there is still plenty wrong with it. Roque Baños' score, although tense throughout, is way too serious and overbearing for the film. It helps create plenty of frightening moments sprinkled generously throughout the film, but I feel like it belonged in a much different film. It never gels quite properly with the tone of the film, and feels off even in the minute sections where it does work. Much the same goes for the prologue that opens the film a totally new invention of Alvarez and crew. It tries to set the tone for what is coming, and tries its very best to totally set itself apart from the original films (even going so far as to introduce an actual "identity" to the demons possessing the precocious young adults), but ends up feeling totally out of place. About halfway through the film, I forgot it even happened because of how little it affects what comes after. Why bother adding it in the first place?
While I take issue with a number of idiosyncrasies involving a bizarre third act twist I should have seen coming, my bigger concern is with the characterization of everyone except Mia. Their driving force is to help her get better and rid her of her drug dependency, but they seem to have no other motivations outside of that. Lou Taylor Pucci's character Eric unleashes the demons in the first place, but he never really gives any hint of why he commits this act of malice or even how he can read it so well. Elizabeth Blackmore's Natalie is a glorified stage prop, frequently disappearing for whole scenes at a time, only to reappear when the film suddenly needed her to be on hand for reaction shots. The only reason I had any idea of who this character is supposed to be was because she shows up with Fernandez at the beginning of the film. Should she have already been hanging out at the cabin, I do not think we would have been afforded that luxury.
But I digress. For what it is, and for what I can only assume most people expected, Evil Dead is a satisfying, albeit bloody mess of a movie. It does enough right, and does an admirable job being its own film as opposed to coasting along on the tail of the original film. With a little bit more work, this could have been a significantly greater film. But whether you look at it as pieces or in the sum of its parts, it is more than worthwhile to see.
Django Unchained (2012)
Brutally hilarious and quite messy, but a total blast from start to finish
I only had one thought on my mind for this Christmas: see Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's latest opus, a Western set two years before the Civil War, concerns a former slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). He is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help him with a bounty. Quite quickly, Shultz takes Django under his wing and trains him as his partner. But he made him a promise: that he would rescue his wife from a plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). And rescuing her is not going to be all that easy.
What pains me the most about Django Unchained, as a die-hard Tarantino fan, is just how sloppy it all seems. I enjoyed every minute of it, but I could never shake the feeling of how messy and thrown together it all feels. Portions of the film feel episodic (the search for the Brittle Brothers, mentioned heavily in the trailers, begins and ends practically within minutes), and some scenes just seem to play out just for the fun of it. Another scene from the trailers involving a lynch mob with bags covering their faces seems added for comedic purposes, and has no real point of actually existing. More than any of his films before it, Django feels like Tarantino simply making a movie for sheer pleasure and with no outside motivations or controllers.
The film threatens to go totally off the rails at any given moment, and lacks any real sense of direction or focus. It may sound ridiculous, but the loss of editor Sally Menke confirms a sneaking suspicion I always had about Tarantino he needed a steady right hand to help encourage him as to what was needed and what was not. I do not want to criticize Django's editor Fred Raskin, but it is obvious he is no Menke and that works against the film heavily. It lacks the polish we have come to expect, and is practically stripped of the glossy/cool texture so prevalent in Tarantino's work up until now.
But then maybe that was his intention all along, and perhaps Tarantino is airing out his frustrations with life and film in general. Django is deliberately shot on film (or at least from the print I saw), and looks very gritty and messy at all times. It is significantly more brutally violent than anything he has worked on before (the borderline cartoonish Kill Bill included), and has a very go for broke attitude about itself. The film seems to revel in how brilliantly it can splatter all the blood and gore (done through the use of squibs and no digital!), and how uncomfortably numbing it can make the violence. I know he does not care what people think of his films, but this movie especially seems like an emphatically raised middle finger to the establishment. And for all of my complaints about how messy it all feels, I was never once bored or felt like the movie was dragging itself out. The staggering 165-minute running time shockingly flies by faster than you might ever imagine.
Acting wise, Tarantino stacks the deck with a number of recognizable character actors young and old for roles that vary in size. Most have very few lines, if any at all, and seem to just stand by, just as content as the audience is to watch the action unfold. It is a little off-putting, especially with how important some of these characters are initially made out to be. Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft (one of the most subtle references he's ever dropped) does well as the helpless victim and frequent dreamlike object but she never really gets to show off any of her acting prowess outside of her facial reactions. They are increasingly effective, especially during horrific flashback scenes. But her work here feels ridiculously stunted in comparison to the other leads. Samuel L. Jackson, much like Tarantino himself, seems to just be having fun in his role as Candie's adviser Stephen. He plays on every ridiculous stereotype he ever has been associated with and then amps it up to a near ludicrous state. He is frequently hilarious, but the role seems to border on parody more than anything else.
Surprisingly, Foxx takes a very long time settling into the leading role. It may just be the character, but it is quite clear from the on- set that he is not very comfortable in Django's shoes, and leads credence to why Will Smith, amongst so many others, dropped out of the picture so quickly. But once he finds his footing, he does a fantastic job walking the thin line between empathetic and sadistic. It is not an easy character to play, but Foxx makes it his own, bringing a sense of style and grace that are virtually absent from the rest of the film. And of course, he gets all the best lines.
Waltz and DiCaprio are the clear standouts however, nailing every nuance of their sadly underwritten characters. While Waltz plays the straight man, DiCaprio is delightfully unhinged and vicious. Both are playing directly against type, yet are strangely comfortable in the roles. Watching them act circles around the rest of the cast, Foxx included, is the true highlight of the film. I just wish they were both given additional emphasis and more to do.
For all of its numerous faults, I had a blast watching Django Unchained. It is hilarious, it is a lot of fun, and is wildly enjoyable. I genuinely think it could have been a lot better if there was more focus and direction, but this is very clearly a picture Tarantino wanted to make on his own terms. And for that, I applaud him for the effort. It is not his best work, but certainly not his worst.
A brutally violent, wildly uneven disappointment
Based on a true story, the Bondurants were bootleggers selling their Moonshine to whoever would buy within the South during the Great Depression. The three brothers: Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke); were legendary in their parts of Virginia, and also one of the few groups left not selling their wares through a higher authority. With the competition slowly bought out, dirty Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) begins looking for ways to buy out the Bondurant's small fortune, or take them out one-by-one. And rather obviously, the Bondurants are not ones to go down without a fight.
Simply put, Lawless is a mess from start to finish. At any given moment, it feels like a totally different film a gangster picture, a brutal revenge thriller, an unintentional buddy comedy, a romantic melodrama and even a little bit of a heartfelt coming-of-age film. It never seems to have any semblance of an idea of what it wants to be at any point. I have read since that the source material, Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, was a bit all over the place too in this regard. While that is fine for the book, it makes for an exhausting film experience. I had no idea what I should be feeling, and considering how restless the crowd seemed at the wildly shifting tonal structure, it seems like I was not the only one.
The storyline is a little bit too undercooked as well. It is quite the wildly entertaining story, made even wilder by being based on truth. But the time-line is never really set-up properly, leading to a lot of odd time lapses and at least one clumsy montage (looking like it was ripped straight out of Brian De Palma's Scarface). While an odd structure like this may just feel like nitpicking, it drastically effects the character motivations, or lack thereof. At one point, Forrest and Howard take revenge into their own hands and act in such a grisly manner, that the camera barely even lets you see what is happening. But in the next scene, they are just good old boys trying to hide their Moonshine- running business from pesky invaders. Much like the shifts in tone, it feels like the characters experience the very same shifts in character motivation and development. And it only gets sloppier as the film keeps progressing.
The acting does not fare much better.
LaBeouf is clearly over his head trying to carry the film, and he almost collapses under its weight. He overdoes it in some instances, and does not put nearly enough effort into other places. This is really his first leading, non-gimmicky role, and it shows in how wildly inexperienced he comes off. He is never quite believable as anything other than a careless kid on the outside looking in. And while this works for parts of the film, during the really heavy moments, it flops near horrendously. I wanted to believe in LaBeouf's character's struggle, and wanted to really feel something for the brotherly dynamic between him, Hardy and Clarke. But outside of a few playful, near out-of-character moments, there is no real reason to feel anything but disappointment.
Hardy and Clarke are clearly game for the material (when you can decipher what either of them are saying), but are clearly being held back by the confines of their underwritten characters. They are supposed to be menacing, and are supposed to be indestructible forces of nature. But I never gathered that watching either of their interactions with anyone else. Sure, they were brutal powerhouses, but I did not believe they were as scary as some of the dialogue hints they could be. Pearce, gleefully at peace overacting and riffing on Christoph Waltz's character from Inglourious Basterds, seems to really be trying to make something out of his character. But for all the scenery chewing and devious one- liners, he is sadly reduced to a one-dimensional throwaway villain. Despite figuring heavily into the trailers, Gary Oldman is criminally underused as gangster Floyd Banner. He has less than 10-minutes of screen time, and is given practically no reason to be in the film other than to move the characters from Point A to Point B.
Similar fates are bestowed on Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Dane DeHaan all give well done performances, but simply exist either to brighten the film up from the often grim subject matter or to help establish a plot point the dialogue cannot.
If there is one thing I can point out as being done right, it is the look of the film. There is an aura of nostalgia that emanates around almost every scene, lovingly bringing us back to a time that has been practically forgotten. The costumes, the sets, the cinematography all come together as one for a really beautiful and inspiring showcase. And while it does maintain its beauty throughout, it does get incredibly gritty during the surprisingly scenes of brutal violence. It took me a back by just how far some of the scenes go, and may make some audience goers incredibly uneasy. After seeing so much go wrong, it was nice to see something done so right.
Lawless took years to get made (along with a few title changes). And after seeing the final product, a near catastrophic wreck, I can only begin to surmise why. It is a disappointment through and through, with some interesting but underwritten performances, a wildly uneven story and some of the most brutal violence I have seen all year. Some may read its quirky nature as being the film's true salvation and reason it is so much better than other films like it. But it is just as easy to see right through the façade and realize just how deeply disappointing Lawless is.
The Hunger Games (2012)
The odds are in favour of the first must-see film of the year
After months of endless hype and speculation, The Hunger Games are finally upon us. With fan anticipation running high, I managed to check out the Canadian premiere of the film a few days early. And I must say, I came out significantly more impressed than I ever imagined.
Set in an unspecified future, one boy and one girl are randomly selected as tributes from each of the "Districts" that make up the country known as Panem to take part in The Hunger Games a televised battle to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12 volunteers in place of her younger sister to take part in the games. But survival will not come easy, especially when she faces 23 other individuals.
I will confess, I initially thought The Hunger Games would be nothing more than a dolled up, Americanized version of the absolutely brilliant Battle Royale. Thankfully, it was everything but that. For Gary Ross has helped create a film that goes above and beyond a simple adaptation. This is a living, breathing, full blown phenomenon just waiting to break out. He hits the ground running after a brief explanation of the titular games, and makes the film more and more interesting as it trucks along. I hate that I will compare this film to Harry Potter and Twilight so often, but it does so much right that the first films in these franchises did wrong that you begin to wonder whether it is because of the source material, or because they just found the right filmmaker from the on-set to bring this epic story to life.
Lawrence, an Oscar-nominee for Winter's Bone, proves her worth and undeniable talent as Katniss. She carries the film on her shoulders from the moment she enters the frame, and never looks back. You feel every breath, every tear, every ounce of struggle she goes through. We already knew she was an exceptional talent before, now we know she is a star and this was the role she was born to play. She is very in tune with this character, and never wavers; staying strong from beginning to end. While the young cast of Harry Potter and Twilight took 2-3 films to really find themselves, Lawrence already knows who this character is and how to play it. Granted she stays focused through the next two films, this could go down as one of the best character portrayals in film history. Whether she is on her own or interacting with the rest of the cast, you simply cannot take your eyes off her.
Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the other half of District 12, does a fairly good job supporting Lawrence. There is a lot left unsaid about his character (although significantly more than Liam Hemsworth's Gale, who spends all too much of his screen time brooding and looking longingly into the distance), but he is more than up to the task of showing off the skills he has been praying would make him a star for the better part of the decade. He does a lot of the emotional lifting in the film, giving his best work to date. He even helps make the more love-centric aspects of the story not feel nearly as dragged out as they seem to be.
While the young leads are all great, I found myself most fascinated by the supporting cast of adult character actors like Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, and especially Stanley Tucci. All of them are sadly underused, but are all incredible additions when they do pop on screen. I just wish it was more often.
But what holds The Hunger Games back from perfection is its distinct lack of flavor or personality. The film moves at a wildly chaotic pace, barely slowing down for character or story development. It just moves from beat to beat, to the point where you can sense the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. And in this chaos, you never get a sense of what style Ross wants to infuse the film with. It has all the elements it needs to be a dystopian masterpiece or even a poignant and subtle social satire (ideas I already know will be developed in the future films), but it never quite gels together the way it should. It thrills you, but at the same time leaves you incredibly empty. I am not sure if this is how the book reads, or even if this was Ross' intention. Is he holding back on purpose, or is someone pulling strings to make sure the film does not truly become its own thing?
I feel like I may be getting to the point of nitpicking (I will leave out my reservations about how shoddy some of the shots involving fire looked), but days later, I still feel like the film is missing that one crucial element that separates it from being a simply book-to-film adaptation and the truly wonderful epic it should rightfully be.
While it may not be perfect, I cannot help but applaud The Hunger Games. This is the best first book-to-film adaptation since The Fellowship of the Ring, and did exactly what I secretly hoped it would made me want to read the books as fast as humanly possible to find out what happens next. While it hints at oh so much of more, the film gives you just enough to stay riveting throughout. Lawrence cements her status as someone to watch out for, while Hutcherson and Hemsworth should brace for stardom. With Harry Potter an all but distant memory, and Twilight hopefully fading into obscurity, it's nice to know we have a series we can actually look forward to continuing. Bring on Catching Fire!
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Fascinating and exquisite, but ultimately disappointing
Despite being made by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method was only just released in the Great White North. It was one of my most anticipated films of the fall, and yet another film I missed out on at TIFF (here's an early wish that Cosmopolis will have more than two screenings when it gets announced later this year). So as you can guess, I did not wait very long to see it this past weekend. Unfortunately, I may not have truly considered why it was put off for so long.
Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is an upcoming and coming psychologist who has begun to use a newly developed method of analysis on hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). As he starts to understand her troubles and their overt sexual nature, he begins conversations with another celebrated psychologist, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As his relationship with Spielrein begins to take a sexual turn, his conversations with Freud start to breathe life into what we now know as psychoanalysis.
Cronenberg has always evaded definition as a filmmaker, and his work here in A Dangerous Method is no different. You can see the intense close-ups as well as the lure and gaze of a master, but he seems to have been dialed back here. Instead of brutal violence or grotesque body horror, we get a very intimate story that seems very well out of his realm of typical filmmaking. He allows the performances and the dialogue to tell the story, and never lets the sexual elements become too overreaching. I was surprised by just how quiet the film was, and how it felt so un-Cronenbergian (I am certain that is a word by now). It shows his maturity as a filmmaker, and also shows how he continues to challenge himself never making the same movie, and always flip-flopping on his genres.
But as much as I appreciate the effort Cronenberg put forth, I feel the material is the biggest hurdle holding the film back from the awards glory it should have deserved. Much like War Horse and Carnage, the film is based on a play. And because of this, A Dangerous Method feels very constricted and forced to stay within the confines already set out during the writing. It zips along conversationally through a period of around ten years, never stopping to really examine what is going on with the characters. We get small tidbits along the way, and nothing more. It is bad enough that the film feels like it starts and ends in the middle of the story (not unlike other small films from last year like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Fassbender's breakout film Shame), but it is deeply unsatisfying for scenes to begin leading to one thing, ending, and then starting again in a whole different year or time period. It feels very jumpy in this respect, and incredibly difficult to gauge. It is easy to follow along, but frustrating to try and decipher the "why this" and "why not this".
Neither Fassbender nor Mortensen deliver their best work here, but manage to be downright fascinating when they are facing off against each other on-screen. Their chemistry is intense, and watching them spar through psychoanalysis is the clear highlight of the film. Without raising their voices or their fists, you can tell these two are locked in a vicious battle, and it only lets up when they are away from each other. While Mortensen has the benefit of being low-key and an almost background figure within the film, Fassbender is front and centre for its majority. He carries the film well, but you can see he is struggling. We know from Shame and X-Men: First Class that he is a powerful talent, and is destined for the Hollywood elite. So why does he seem to flounder here? Is he having just as much trouble gauging and defining the material as Cronenberg seems to be? I found myself consistently baffled by someone whose performances just seemed to get better and better. But here, he sadly underwhelms.
It surprisingly is Knightley who picks up the slack and delivers the film's best performance. From her initial introduction right until her final scene, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her vivid shifts between being hysterical and being in control are spectacular. I originally thought she was overdoing it with her bizarre facial gestures, but as the film went on, they felt tame in comparison to how deep she goes with her performance. She may be the object of the most sexual ambivalence (one of the few Cronenberg-isms within the film), but she is also the most well developed and constructed character. Where Fassbender fumbles, she recovers and carries the film between the portions without Freud/Jung sparring. This is quite likely her best work to date, and an early example of some of the brilliant material she may have in store for the future.
Supporting turns from Sarah Gadon as Jung's wife Emma and an all too small appearance by Vincent Cassell are well done, but both feel entirely underused. Both are important in the grand scheme of things, but evidently not important enough to not feel like mere plot devices.
In the end, I managed to be fascinated by A Dangerous Method, but disappointed at the same time. I can continue blaming the material, but it feels like of the three leads, only Knightley really brought her A-game. After the glorious double-header of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, I think I had come to expect too much of Cronenberg. He is a man who became famous for his disgusting other- worldly work in the realm of horror and fantasy. But then, a disappointing Cronenberg film still manages to be a worthwhile endeavor anyway when compared to the rest of the dreck Hollywood pumped out last year.
The Devil Inside (2012)
A disappointing, cruel joke of a film
I still do not quite have the words to express my disappointment after watching The Devil Inside a few days ago. I caught it by chance at a free screening before the reviews, the tweets and the unbelievable box office score came in, and did not expect much from it. But sadly, even with very little expectations, the film just may be one of the worst and most inexcusable films I have seen in years.
Chances are by now you have seen or heard some form of a creepy ad for The Devil Inside, which follows Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) to Italy to investigate whether or not her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley) is possessed by a demon, and is in need of an exorcism.
What the ads do not suggest is how agonizing this trip to Italy really is.
For nearly half of its running time, the film is basically a faux documentary about a group of characters that are neither compelling nor interesting. Considering the film follows the set-up of Paranormal Activity right down to the title cards announcing what day it is, you would have figured they would have at least given the audience one character to care about. Instead we have four who are given one- dimensional descriptions and mere hints of past indiscretions. These hints come fast and furious, to the point where they bash the audience into submission except they do absolutely nothing for their characters. They mention them in passing, the "demons" bring them up, but no one seems to care or want to investigate further. These hints quite simply linger, and never come to any form of fruition.
The scenes involving exorcisms or what happens as a result of these "exorcisms" prove to be where the only worthwhile part of The Devil Inside lies. They are not all that scary, and the filmmakers seem to be cribbing from both old (The Exorcist) and the new (The Last Exorcism), but the hand-held look of the film makes these scenes somewhat riveting. It gets crazy, and the down and gritty look of the film gives it an aura of realism that keeps your eyes glued to the screen to find out what happens next. While some scenes seem to have been added simply for shock value, including a baptism scene that is nowhere near as intense and ludicrous as trailers and word of mouth have suggested, it does feel like the filmmakers really wanted to try and attempt to elicit some form of reaction or talking point for the film.
But this all comes to a screeching halt with the film's ending. After building the audience up to some sort of climax, the film quite simply ends and inexplicably cuts to black. But not before telling the audience to go to a website to learn more about the characters in this supposed "true story". No resolution, no obnoxious set-up for a sequel or franchise, not even an indication of what happens next. Instead, just a website followed by the slowest credits ever put to celluloid. I do not think you could even begin to imagine the groaning, the sighs, and the profanity-laced reactions this ending received and for good reason. I cannot even begin to imagine what any of the filmmakers were thinking by ending it here. Had they run out of ideas and were simply hoping some sort of viral marketing would keep the project a float? Do they really expect audiences to rush out to learn more on a website, after being cheated out of the cash to wash this insipid filth posing as a real film?
So my immediate question, and one I have been trying to answer for days, is what was the whole point of this film? Did Paramount want a new, cheap horror franchise to replacing the waning Paranormal brand? Did marketers want to prove marketing works, even for the worst most dreadful pictures? Did some exec just want a quick and easy paycheque?
So many questions, but so very little answers; surprisingly, much like the events, ideas and characterizations in the film itself. In an odd way, it is almost like the film was a meta experiment, designed to see if the audience would eat it up so quickly and easily without question.
What I am left with is this: The Devil Inside is a film that exhibited a limited amount of promise with its atypically creepy and borderline sadistic trailer. The final cohesive product however, was a mess of ideas stolen from better films, original ideas that go absolutely nowhere with a handful of riveting hand-held scenes. Nothing more, and nothing less. I cannot in good conscience recommend the film to anyone, even those who like bad movies. No amount of build-up or hype can prepare you for the disappointment you would have in store putting yourself through this atrocious film. I have described the ending to groups of people, and no one can quite believe just how absolutely awful it really is. I cannot remember the last time I absolutely loathed a film mere seconds after watching it, but The Devil Inside may take that record.
I just really hope this cruel joke of a film is not a true indication of what we have in store for 2012. Because between that and remembering this movie even exists, we may be in for one bad year at the movies.
Entertaining and a lot more fun than the original outing
As much as I loved the character interactions and insane chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, I was very much let down by Sherlock Holmes when I first saw it a few years ago. It was a really stylish and well-made film, but the storyline bored me to tears. I came in incredibly excited to see it, and left wishing it had ended sooner. With the obvious sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows upon us, I figured I would go in with much lower expectations and brace for something along the same lines.
Europe is at the brink of war, with many little seemingly unconnected events occurring across the nations. Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) believes it to be the work of the brilliant Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). He enlists the help of his sidekick, Watson (Law), to help him uncover the truth, before it is too late.
With less of a focus on the occult, a stronger plot and a significantly more interesting villain, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows outdoes its predecessor in many respects. It ups the thrills and the action, continues the fun, and delivers one of the better sequel going experiences this year.
Even though the story is a bit wonky in certain respects (more on that in a moment), I feel A Game of Shadows manages to feel a lot more grounded than the original. There is a clear storyline, and an even clearer path of where the film wants to go. It stalls here and there, as I imagined it would, but it never lingers like the original did. The art direction is just as incredible as it was, and the special effects seem to have been improved greatly. Where the first film flopped around, this film picks up the slack.
While Downey Jr. and Law are just as impeccable and well matched as they were the first time round, the film benefits greatly from the addition of Harris as Moriarty. The character's presence was felt throughout the first film, but the film noticeable lost its edge by simply referring to him in passing and hinting at what a sequel could have had in store. Bringing him into the fold, he immediately is tenfold better than Mark Strong ever could have hoped to be. Watching Harris match wits with Downey is simply astounding, and makes for the most wildly enjoyable parts of the film. There is never a dull moment when he is around, and instead of making the film drone on, he invigorates it with an immense amount of energy. Harris knows exactly how to look deceptive, even with a wide grin and dialogue that does not even hint at ulterior motives. His looks are downright terrifying in a lot of instances. This is his first major film role, and I can only hope filmmakers continue using his dastardly skills for antiheroes and villains alike.
I think the film's biggest hurtle, and the one that hurts it the most, is that there are simply too many characters and too many of them did not need to appear in the first place. Rapace's character is nothing more than a plot device, used to connect certain sections together and forgotten almost entirely all too often. The practically blink-and-you- will-miss them moments for Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan feel more like Richie peddling to the fans, as opposed to actually serving a real point to the film. It is fun seeing them show up again, but considering they have little to no effect on the plot, they could have easily just never showed up at all. But the far worst offender of not serving any purpose is Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes. He brings a ridiculous amount of humour to the film, and he is a welcome addition on the onset. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear he is merely there simply to make the film even more ludicrous and silly than Downey Jr. makes it. When the inevitable third film drops, I hope they actually use him effectively, instead of making his appearance feel like a mere tease.
What also hurts the film is Richie's incessant need to use slow motion in every action sequence. While it works insanely and surprisingly well for the film's centrepiece involving a foot chase through a forest, it feels like overkill in almost every other instance. We understand from the first film that Holmes likes to evaluate the moves of both his adversaries and himself before he makes them, but watching him plot it out helps drag the film out longer than it needs to be. It is fun and worthwhile when it is used sparingly, or used to draw attention to something specific. But when Richie is one-upping Zack Snyder in the worst possible way, it begs the question of whether he learned any mistakes from the first film or not. At just under 130 minutes, I feel like a good fifteen minutes of slow motion could have been sped up, and would have looked just as great. Hell, Richie potentially could have shown off a bit of his own style too, instead of just what he cribbed from everyone else.
While the film still has its problems, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an enjoyable ride from start to finish. It maintained my interest, where the first film had me counting the excruciating minutes before it would end. Richie still has a lot to learn about as a filmmaker (and even more as a man who creates his own style instead of Tarantino-ing from others), he does know how to make a crafty film. Now if he can stop hinting at future installments and just give us a film that sticks to being about the story at hand, then maybe we might just get the perfect rendition of this legendary detective.
The Artist (2011)
A wildly enjoyable dose of cinematic magic
Looking back at the ride that was this year's TIFF, I continue to find multiple errors in judgment in regards to what I could have seen versus what I did see. While I saw some extraordinary works, I find that I missed out on some truly incredible films. One such loss was The Artist, a decision I regretted immediately afterwards. I have heard nothing but praise since the film's debut at Cannes, and missing out when I had a remote chance was a terrible mistake. Luckily, I only had to wait a short while before getting another chance to see the film. And let me say right from the start, if you have the chance to see this film, do not think twice about missing out.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the pinnacle of his career as a silent film star in late 1920s Hollywood. He is a megastar, beloved by his fans and loathed by his studio. On chance, he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and helps get her film career started over night. But as talkies start to take over and Miller's star rises, Valentin's starts to fall.
It does not sound like a lot, but the simplicity of The Artist is where the film finds its charm and its wonder. Michel Hazanavicius, a relative unknown on this side of the Atlantic, has composed something truly extraordinary and ridiculously unique by 2011 standards. Who would have thought that creating a silent film would provide one of the most enjoyable experiences you will likely have at the movies all year?
Of course, the most widely discussed item regarding the film is its use of silent film tropes and language. This is a silent film about a silent film star. Hazanavicius takes his cues from the pioneers of cinema, and wisely and effortlessly fuses together a film that would not look entirely out of place should it have been shown in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Where filmmakers have been using a widescreen canvas since the 1950s, Hazanavicius stubbornly sticks to the method of the time and displays everything he needs to in the 1.37:1 ratio. I imagine the film would look great in colour, but again, he stays true to the time and gives the film a glorious black and white image that shines brighter than any colour image ever could have. It gives a certain aura of authenticity to the picture that borders on being a gimmick not unlike 3D, but instead allows the film to become all that more special and unique.
I must confess that I have watched very few silent films, a hurdle I envision many audience members may face when they see The Artist. But right from the opening frame, Hazanavicius makes it incredibly easy to put those fears to rest. Through the lovingly created and often nostalgia-inducing visuals, I found myself swept up and deeply engrossed in what was happening. While I could read the lips of some actors, I found that you never really needed to in order to get a full grasp of what was being conveyed. It may sound a bit pedantic of me to even consider discussing the semantics of my literal viewing experience, but it is something that demands to be noted. This film is not an easy sell, and its silent nature was initially a little startling of an idea for me. I do not know if Hazanavicius envisioned this problem from the offset, but I cannot imagine the film would be anywhere near as enjoyable had it had sound.
While Hazanavicius does deserve a lot of praise for the sheer fact that he made this film, I find an equal if not greater amount of praise should be bestowed on Dujardin. Without letting us hear him say a word, he is simply marvelous from beginning to end. He is a true artist, brilliantly using his emotions at every turn. He hams it up when he needs to, and then goes deeply serious even quicker. He works twice as hard as any actor working today to really make his plight from silent film icon to a distraught and lost has-been truly believable. His actions, whether wholesome fun or downright depressing, are one-of-a- kind, and make us truly appreciate what icons like Charlie Chaplin, Lou Chaney and Harold Lloyd had to go through when they made their films. The expressions on Dujardin's face are simply astounding, and are more than enough reason to see the film, if there were not already more than enough.
While Bejo's chemistry with Dujardin is the stuff of magic, I found that she was nowhere near as strong without him. She does some great work, but she never really comes out as a character that I truly believed in. I found that I was watching an actor act her way through a silent film, as opposed to Dujardin whose work simply transcends the medium. It makes for a slight disappointment, but thankfully she shares the screen with him enough times that it makes up for her fumbles on her own. Supporting turns from James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and especially John Goodman are all above and beyond great, but again, simply pale in comparison to the artistry on display by Dujardin.
It may be overly clear already, but rather simply put, The Artist is every bit as good as you have heard and probably even better. There are a few minor elements that simply do not add up, and a bit too much of a lull in the middle act, but this is a really wonderful film unlike any other this year. It is wildly enjoyable from beginning to end, and packs one of the best performances of the year that will leave you astounded. This is the kind of movie magic we see all too rarely. Do not let it pass you by.
Simply stunning to watch, but a bit of a chore to love
Martin Scorsese directing a kid's movie? You cannot be serious.
That was the thought that ran through my head when I first read about Hugo, based on the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. While it seemed like an intriguing idea, I was a bit skeptical that a man who has spent almost fifty years in the business directing violent gangster pictures and sweepingly violent period pieces would really be well equipped to direct something that was directed at youngsters. Add the fact that it is in 3D, and you have the first real time I had a doubt in Scorsese.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives as an orphan rotating and setting the clocks properly at a train station near Paris post 1930s economic depression. He is caught by the local toy store shopkeeper (played by Ben Kingsley), who confiscates the sketch pad filled with inventions and ideas originally owned by Hugo's father. Hugo obviously wants to retrieve it, but there is something deeply troubling the shopkeeper. And with the help of his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the pair set out to find out just what is troubling him.
For all the critical praise it has and will continue to receive, it does not negate the fact that Hugo is two-thirds of a horrifically boring movie. It starts off interesting enough, but then it slows right down and barely picks itself back up. Until the subplots kicked in about the pioneering of the filmmaking medium, I had absolutely no idea where the film was going and neither did the film. It just plays itself out without much concern, introducing characters, ideas and elements which may have proved valuable at the time, but are next to useless in the final end game. I found myself frequently questioning just what Scorsese was trying to accomplish, and found that the film was more often than not, at odds with itself. It is not a children's film by a long shot, but it is not necessarily an adult film either. There are moments of adventure and whimsy, but then there are some really dark and disturbing moments as well. It just does not know what it wants to be, and suffers as a result of it. When I am fighting the urge to pass out during one of the most highly anticipated films of the year because I am bored to tears, then there is clearly an issue.
While we can blame the lack of any semblance of plot development on the source material (I have not read Selznick's novel, but it sounds like a mish-mash of ideas that barely come together), I feel that Scorsese is a talented enough director that he should have been able to see through the problems, and fix them with relative ease. He is out of his element here making his first real "children's movie", but his craft is just as impeccable as always. Surely he could tell that he needed to make his thinly veiled plea for cinematic restoration and preservation a lot sooner and clearer than he does, right? He clearly has a passion for the material, but the film lacks that electric feel that most Scorsese films have. It lacks that jolt, that spark that really transcends the medium, and sets his work apart from everyone else's. If you had very little knowledge of the project and left Hugo before the cinema subplot kicks in, you may not even know the film was part of Scorsese's oeuvre. It may simply look like a very gorgeous film, with some intriguing characters and a total lack of a cohesive story.
But for all the story related issues, I must say that the film is very impressive to look at. The sets, the costumes, and the editing style all of it is just as incredible as we have come to expect. Scorsese knows how to make a really authentic and meticulously designed period piece, and his work here is no different. But what really makes it dazzle and come to life, rather surprisingly, is the 3D. It is generously employed throughout the film very carefully, very rarely coming off as the gimmick it inherently is. Instead, it adds depth and a stunning realism to the film. It feels like you are in the movie, experiencing what Hugo sees and feels. It may look extremely fake when it hits Blu-ray, but there is no questioning how astonishing it looks here. Seeing the clocks in action is particularly wonderful, as is the subtle use of snow outside and dust inside. And even though it is used quite frequently, you never grow tired of it. You just sit in your seat, and wait for the next effect Scorsese throws at you.
Acting is strong across the board, from main players like Butterfield, Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen and Kingsley, to bit players who serve very little purpose like Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee and Emily Mortimer, to blink-and-you-will-miss-them extended cameos like Jude Law and Ray Winstone. Everyone is on their A-game, and shines well above the dialogue and actions they are given. Particular attention needs to be played to Butterfield, who shoulders the majority of the film almost exclusively. His plight is the stuff of wonder and imagination, and would have been simply riveting had the film's content been a bit better focused.
While Hugo is a positively stunning experience to view, the majority of the story leaves a lot to be imagined. Even with the great acting and wonderful 3D, the film suffers from a horrendous element of boredom constantly. When the third act kicks in, it finally figures out what it wants to be and suddenly the film becomes the masterpiece it should have been all along. I did enjoy Hugo, but this is quite simply a good movie that could have been brilliant.
The Descendants (2011)
The rare fuse of amazing direction and brilliant performances
It has been quite some time since the Toronto International Film Festival, but I still have trouble coming up with something negative to say about The Descendants. It was a film I was immensely excited to see, and one that I think I just managed to squeak into on the second last day of the festival. I tried to not overhype myself, but with George Clooney teaming up with Alexander Payne, a filmmaker whose last film was made almost a decade ago, I could barely contain myself.
Matt King (Clooney) just found out that his wife is in a coma in the hospital. Matt has always been one to put things off, and has never really found time for his kids. But in this time of need, he finds that he is struggling to identify with older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). When he learns of a stunning secret about his wife, it thrusts him into an adventure alongside his daughters to find out the truth, while also finding himself.
From beginning to end, Payne has crafted an endearing film that is hilarious and devastating, often in the same sequence. This is a more calculated family-related effort than I originally thought it would be (with a bit too much emphasis placed on the extended family and land owning subplot), but it is the driving force of everything that happens on-screen. He never overindulges, and never gets too far ahead of himself. He lets the drama play out just as much as he does the comedy, and always keeps the film moving at a borderline ridiculous pace. This may be an indie, but it speaks more to the mainstream than Sideways ever even tried to. It is a truly spectacular work, and one that proves the worth of a talent that has been gone for far too long.
While he already solidified his leading man status years ago, Clooney quite simply knocks this one out of the park. It is not the typical role we are accustomed to seeing him in, and I think that is what sells it the most. This is a very mature role for Clooney, away from the playboys, the lotharios and the screwballs. He is out of his element, much like the character he is playing, thrust into a situation he never expected in a very adult way. He plays Matt in a very nuanced way, always hovering along the fine line of being a struggling parent and having a full blown emotional breakdown. Clooney has continually proved that he is willing to reinvent himself, and his work here is no different. From the moment he steps on-screen, you are simply enamoured by his presence. We can see the brief twinkle in his eye that suggests he is still the Clooney we all know and adore, but his hardened exterior suggests he is trying to camouflage that fact. I said years ago that Up in the Air was his strongest work. But his work here makes it look positively amateur in comparison.
For all of Clooney's brilliance, it is surprising to note that Woodley almost steals the movie entirely away from him. While she has had quite a lot of experience on television, this is her first real film role and is an immeasurable breakout. The trailer suggests she is a bit of a wild child, but seeing the heartbreak and pain in her face after she finds out what has happened to her mother is enough to make you want to weep uncontrollably. Lucky for her, she gets more than one scene to prove her emotional chops, and she nails each and every one. She holds her own against Clooney, and has just the right amount of charisma and angst to make her character above and beyond believable. Her struggle to find her place and to help her father on this adventure is the emotional crux of the film, and the real driving spirit. She may be extremely younger than Clooney is, but she is an old soul. Their relationship and chemistry is amazing, and should she have been acting against a less capable actor, I doubt she would be anywhere near as powerful as she is.
The supporting cast, made up of Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Nick Krause, Robert Forster and an almost unrecognizable Matthew Lilliard, are all excellent in their small roles. All of them get some really memorable moments to shine, and help to make Clooney and Woodley's performances even greater. Special mention needs to go to both Patricia Hastie, who is confined to a hospital bed for all but about thirty seconds of her screen-time as Matt's wife Elizabeth, and newcomer Miller as Scottie. She is naive and innocent throughout, never once coming off as that annoying kid you try to forget exists. She has a lot of fun in the role, and strikes a real emotional chord at just the right moments. I can only hope directors continue to use her in the future for roles that are just as good, if not better.
It may have taken me practically two months to write about it, but I still find myself at a loss for words about The Descendants. It is finally rolling out into theatres now, and I cannot wait to see the film again. The cast is amazing, with Clooney coming out swinging. Payne may have taken his time finding a follow-up for Sideways, but what he has returned with is nothing short of amazing. Run, drive, fly whatever you have to do, just make sure you do not miss it.