Friday, December 30, 2011

It Came From The Cineplex: Hugo, Immortals, The Sitter, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this was one of the worst holiday movie seasons in recent memory. Hollywood generally saves their big-budget tent pole pictures for May and December, but they definitely dropped the ball this winter season. There's seriously very, very little worth seeing in the theaters right now. If you like talking chipmunks and penguins you're in luck, but for the rest of us it's slim pickin's indeed.

CAUTION! SPOILERS AHEAD!

Hugo
One of the very few theatrical bright spots this Xmas was Hugo, the latest from director Martin Scorsese. Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Hugo tells the story of a young orphan (are there old orphans?) who lives in a bustling train station in 1930s Paris, where of course everyone speaks with a British accent. Hugo hides and lives among the walls of the station, watching the sea of people from his hidden vantage point, keeping the station's various clocks wound and trying to stay one step ahead of the Station Master (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems to be channeling Peter Sellers).

In addition to his clock winding duties, Hugo also constantly searches for parts to repair a strange automaton rescued from a junk heap by his late father (played by Jude Law).

Eventually Hugo meets an old man named Georges Melies, played by Ben Kingsley (who's no doubt ecstatic to be starring in something besides The Love Guru and Thunderbirds). Melies is a toymaker who owns a shop in the station, and befriends young Hugo. He also meets Melies' young niece Isabelle, played by Chloe Grace Moritz (Hit Girl, from the Kick-Ass movie), and the two youngsters go on a series of adventures in and out of the train station. They eventually manage to repair the automaton, which offers them proof that Isabelle's uncle is actually THE Georges Melies, one of the real-life pioneers of early cinema.

Hugo is a beautifully shot film that takes its own sweet time telling its story and expertly mixes fact with fiction. The performances are great, the plot is interesting and the film looks amazing. And there are no explosions! When's the last time you saw a movie where everything didn't blow up at the end?

That said, it's also quite an odd film. The first half concerns Hugo's life and his adventures in the station, while the second half is all about Melies. In fact once we discover Melies true identity, Hugo pretty much takes a back seat in his own movie.

It's also being marketed as a family film, which I suppose is a fair assessment. Kids will most likely love the first half of it, as what kid wouldn't want to have a secret lair in a train station, complete with a robot pal. As for the second half, I don't know. I have a hard time believing very many kids have ever heard of Georges Melies or give two hoots about him and his career. They're definitely not going to have any interest in silent film or the subject of film presentation.

Pros:
• Great cinematography.

• Great performances, especially from the character actors who populate the station.

• Cool robot (OK, automaton). There really were automatons built in the early 1900s that could write letters and draw pictures.

Cons:
• A bit too long, especially for what's being marketed as a kid's movie.

• Georges Melies may not appeal to the youth of today.

• Hugo's hair features a very obvious and noticeable dye job, making it look unnaturally black. Sort of like first season Bobby Brady. It's very distracting and I spent a good deal of time wondering why a multi-million dollar movie production couldn't afford to give their star a better dye job.

It's a good, if odd movie, and one of the very few films worth seeing this holiday season. I'm going to be generous and give it an A.

Immortals
Eons ago the Gods waged war against the Titans. The Gods were victorious and ruled from Mt. Olympus. The Titans lost and were imprisoned forever under Mt. Tartarus.

Years later, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), bitter because the Gods ignored his prayers, searches for the legendary Epirus Bow, a weapon of mass destruction that can free the Titans and destroy the Gods. Unable to intervene directly in human affairs, Zeus recruits Theseus (Henry Cavill) to defeat Hyperion and save the Earth.

Immortals is certainly a slick looking film, directed by Tarsem Singh (who also directed the equally visually-striking The Cell). Although it has a unique and original style, it's tough to not compare it to 300.

Mickey Rourke puts in his usual intense and bizarre performance as the ruthless but strangely sympathetic King Hyperion. John Hurt is suitably theatrical as the originally named Old Man. And if nothing else, this movie gives us a good look at Henry Cavill, the new Superman from next year's reboot of the franchise.

The story was interesting and easy to follow (unlike some sword & sandal epics), but I had a couple of problems with a few of the details. First of all, Zeus absolutely forbids any of the Gods from interfering in human affairs. So what's the point of the Gods then? Seems to me that a god can only ignore a person's prayers so long before they get fed up and find a new deity to worship. No wonder nobody prays to the Greek Gods anymore.

Along those same lines, Zeus feels so strongly about not interfering with humanity that he actually kills one of his children for defying him. But later we find out that the Old Man, who is Theseus' mentor and has been training him in warfare his whole life, is really Zeus in disguise. If that ain't considered interfering, I don't know what is.

We're told that there are twelve (I think– it might have been sixteen) Titans imprisoned under Mt. Tartarus. When they eventually escape, it appears that the Gods kill at least forty or fifty of them. Were the Titans regenerating off camera and heading back into the fray? Or are they like a hydra; cut one in half and two take its place?

Pros:
• Visually striking.

• Surprisingly bloody!

• Cool weapon in the Epirus Bow.

Cons:
• Stephen Dorff as the comedy relief.

• Hard to ignore the similarities to 300 (especially the old "Slo-Mo/Super Speed" visual trick).

I give it a B.

The Sitter
Apparently this movie exists and I saw it, as I found a ticket stub for it in my pocket. I'll have to take my pants' word for it though as I have little or no memory of anything concerning this movie.

The Sitter stars affable oaf Jonah Hill before he slimmed down and became an action hero. He pretty much plays himself here as a twenty-something slacker who's roped into babysitting a trio of problem children. Hijinks then ensue.

That's pretty much all there is to say about this movie. It wasn't the worst thing I've ever seen, but I'd pretty much forgotten everything about it by the time I pulled into my driveway, and I don't think it was due to early onset Alzheimer's. It's a familiar tale that's been told many times before and brings little or nothing new to the table.

There was one joke about Morrissey that made me laugh out loud, but other than that it elicited little more than mild chuckles. Actually I wouldn't even categorize them as chuckles; I just sort of breathed a little harder than normal out my nose at a few of the jokes.

I don't even remember enough about it to make a Pro and Con list.

If you're dead set on seeing it, it's probably already available at the video store. Again, since it's Xmas I'll be generous and give it an C-.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
Before I get to the movie, a word or three about the title. In years past Hollywood would churn out sequel after sequel and imaginatively name them by adding a number to the title. Cineplexes were littered with films like Extreme Prejudice 5 and Beyond Vengeance Part 7. I thought it was a stupid and lazy practice and it annoyed me no end.

I was wrong.

These days Hollywood has seemingly eschewed the "Numbered Sequel" practice and the new fad is to add a colon and subtitle to movie titles. I find this system very confusing. Although I hated numbers in the titles, at least I knew in what order to watch a movie series. Now I have no idea. I couldn't tell you the proper order of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies if you held a gun to my head (which you'd have to do to get me to watch those sequels again). I think the second was called Dead Man's Chest? Or was that the first one? Then wasn't there one called Here Comes the Tide? Then I think the next one was Shiver Me Timbers, followed by Polly Wants A Cracker and Arrrrh!

Maybe it's just me, but my brain doesn't seem capable of remembering all these subtitles and their order. I think I'd like to go back to the Numbered Sequels.

OK, on with the review.

Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and director Guy Ritchie return for another Holmesian outing. This time the boys face Professor Moriarty, Holmes' arch enemy. Moriarty is hatching a complicated plot to buy up various businesses around the world. He then plans to start a war which will require goods and services from the companies he owns, making him a millionaire.

In addition to thwarting this plan and saving the world, Holmes also has to save Watson, who's been targeted by Moriarty.

Eventually Holmes and Moriarty have a final confrontation in Switzerland and the two plunge seemingly to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls (which as all Holmssian scholars know, happened in the books).

If you liked the first movie, there's no reason you won't like this one, as it's more of the same. Not that that's a bad thing. The banter between Holmes and Watson is fun as always. Stephen Fry makes a memorable appearance as Holmes' brother Mycroft, and Jared Harris is suitably icy and villainous as Moriarty.

Pros:
• Good performances by the cast.

• The semi-steampunk look of the movie is a good way to sell it to modern audiences.

• Fun banter between Holmes and Watson

• Noomi Rapace, who plays the gypsy woman Sim, looks about a thousand times hotter here than she did in the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Cons:
• Holmes seems very unaffected by the death of his former lover Irene Adler. She's killed off in the first ten minutes and never mentioned by anyone ever again.

• I don't think it was a good idea to kill off off Moriarty so soon. He's pretty much the Joker to Holmes' Batman, so now what? How do you top Moriarty? I suppose if they make a third movie they can always bring him back, but still... Save the plunge over the falls for the third leg of the trilogy.

• Guy Ritchie got a little carried away with the "Slow Motion/Speed Up" shots in the movie. If you took a drink every time one occurs you'd pass out 3/4 of the way through the film.

If you liked the first one, you'll love the second. I give it a B+.

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