Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a wonderful little film, blessed with a first-rate script, gorgeous monochrome photography and a fine understated cast. But its secret weapon, even more powerful than all those blessings, is the lingering effect of Bruce Dern’s haunted gaze.

Dern, 78, has one of the most rewarding roles of his long career as Woody Grant, a reality-challenged former mechanic who’s quietly drinking his life away in Billings, Montana. Cranky and remote, Woody is a lost soul who barely speaks to his wife and two grown sons, a man who seems to have lost all reason to live…until he receives a piece of junk mail that changes his life.

The letter is a thinly disguised Publishers Clearing House flier soliciting magazine subscriptions, but the part that registers with Woody is the classic come-on telling him that he may have won a million dollars. Convinced that he’s hit the jackpot, Woody sets out on foot to make the 800-mile trip to the company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his fortune.

It’s the first of several attempts by Woody to hoof it across state lines, and eventually his son David (Will Forte) – a mild-mannered electronics salesman who’s starting to feel as useless as his old man – decides to gamble a road trip to Lincoln in the hope of finally bonding with the father he’s never really known. Along the way, a drunken Woody manages to injure himself, and they decide to take a side trip to give him time to pull himself together before continuing on to Lincoln.

That detour is to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the small town where Woody grew up. It’s a run-down little burg a million miles from anybody’s idea of an economic recovery, filled with some good-hearted souls and more than a few hopeless bitter jerks. At first, Woody is received as a feeble-minded old face from the past…but when he begins rambling about the million dollars he’s on his way to collect, people start miraculously remembering old debts and things start to turn ugly.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have crafted a quiet, sad and frequently funny story about a family that discovers it was never quite as broken as its members thought it was, brought to life by a talented group of actors who effortlessly occupy their roles. Forte is quite fine as a decent soft-spoken schlub who slowly evolves from grudging and embarrassed babysitter for his wrecked father to a respectful and protective son. Character actress June Squibb is a revelation as Woody’s deceptively sharp-tongued wife, walking away with half the scenes she appears in, and Bob Odenkirk as David’s not-as-shallow-as-he-seems brother turns in first-rate comic support. Stacy Keach also scores with a vaguely sinister performance as one of Woody’s old Hawthorne cronies with a plan to benefit from his former friend’s good fortune.

But as good as everyone is, it remains Bruce Dern’s picture all the way. The consistency of his hazy and wounded character is utterly admirable, never deigning to play for our sympathy yet managing to capture it nonetheless. It’s a quiet and magnificent performance, the spine and soul of a lovely example of American moviemaking.

December 31, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

 

There’s a reason for all the glowing reviews and Oscar talk that have greeted All is Lost since its recent premiere: It’s really that good, really that inspiring, really that impressive.

The same goes for star Robert Redford, who at age 77 is experiencing the kind of third-act triumph of which most actors can only dream. His performance as the film’s unnamed hero is rock solid, as exemplary a display of underplaying as you’ll find anywhere in American cinema. Always an admirably authentic actor, these days – just as his golden matinee-idol looks have been slowly blasted by wind and sun into a rugged expressionistic version of his former beauty – his minimalist strength seems to have been boiled down to the essence of absolute truth.

Redford plays a man who’s sailing his yacht in the Indian Ocean when a collision with a drifting shipping container transforms his solo voyage into a series of disasters. There’s an ugly gouge in the hull, his electronics have been flooded, a devastating storm is sweeping toward him, and there’s nothing standing between survival and destruction except his own persistence and ingenuity.

He has plenty of each, and it’s fascinating to watch as he methodically tackles one problem after another, doing his best to remain on-task and unflappable; like a man quietly determined to maintain order, he continues to cook and clean in between making repairs and even finds the time to shave. His illusion of order slowly comes apart as the situation continues to deteriorate…but no matter how bad things become, he accepts the constantly-changing status quo and looks for solutions for each new problem.

This is clearly a man of means – he owns a yacht, after all, loaded with expensive survival gear – but it becomes clear that his best chance of staying alive lies not with the pricey toys he’s bought, but from within himself. It can be argued that director J.C. Chandor is making a quiet statement about the moral superiority of humanism over commercialism – note the contents of the shipping container that precipitates the film’s crisis, and the obliviousness of commercial cargo ships to the desperate plight of a man struggling to stay alive.

For all his quiet resourcefulness and grace under pressure, the film’s hero is never painted as perfect. The opening voice-over (virtually the only spoken words in the entire picture) suggests that he’s a family man who’s taken this voyage to sort out some serious problems of his own making, and it’s entirely possible that the initial collision could have been avoided if he’d paid more attention to the business of sailing instead of spending time inside his own head.

An old-fashioned story of survival that evokes Jack London and Hemingway – and, for that matter, this year’s equally stunning GravityAll is Lost is a stripped-down and gripping drama about a man whose determined fight for his life becomes an object lesson in acceptance. It’s a fine and memorable piece of work, just possibly the one film that will be remembered and cherished above everything else to hit the big screen this year.

December 15, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

On their goofy five-minute Christmas flexi-disk recorded for fan club members in 1963, the Beatles pause in the midst of reflecting on the really gear year just ending to offer a shout-out to their fan club secretary Freda Kelly. “Good ol’ Freda!” they chorus.

A half-century later, the former Miss Kelly is a 68-year-old grandmother who works as a secretary at a respectable law firm. But as we see in Ryan White’s engaging new documentary, she’s still every bit the Good Ol’ Freda of old.

Kelly was a 16-year-old typist in Liverpool when she first encountered the pre-moptop (and pre-Ringo) Beatles at the legendary Cavern Club, and quickly became one of the scruffy quartet’s biggest fans. She also became their friend, hanging with the boys at the club and ringing them up at home to suggest special songs be included in their next set to commemorate some other fan’s upcoming birthday. By the time Brian Epstein became their manager and their career began its steady skyrocket, Freda was the natural choice to run the group’s official fan club – a more than full-time gig that ballooned to nightmarish proportions during the 11 years she worked for the Fab Four.

The scenes in which Kelly describes hauling stacks of photos, autograph books and even the odd pillowcase to the Beatles’ homes for them to sign – not to mention tracking down hair clippings from the guys’ barber and cutting their old shirts into souvenirs – demonstrate how above-and-beyond was her devotion to making the fans happy. (Of course, she explains, “I was a fan, too.”) Her reminiscences and those of other players on the old Liverpool scene make clear her ferocious loyalty to the Beatles as both music stars and personal friends.

In fact, one of the documentary’s chief contributions to Beatles history lies in its first-hand depiction of the Four as hometown boys. The pride of the Liverpudlians for their famous sons’ success is well documented, but it’s Kelly’s fond anecdotes of relative trivia such as her frequent visits with Ringo’s mom, Paul’s dad taking her under his wing for horizon-broadening visits to pubs and restaurants, and being given regular rides home from the office by George that show how very small and homey their early ‘60s world was.

It’s a charming portrait, made even more so by Kelly’s own prodigious charm. She was clearly a genuine sweetheart during her decade with the Beatles, and half a century later, she still is. It’s touching to watch her continue to respect her boys’ privacy after all these years, pleasantly but firmly drawing a line between happy memories and tawdry gossip. Beneath her self-deprecating good humor one can occasionally detect a flash of the steely pride that earned fan club workers their pink slips when they were caught cutting corners (such as trying to pass off their own hair for genuine Beatles souvenir clippings)…and which once forced John Lennon to drop to his knee and beg her forgiveness after firing her in a fit of pique.

The documentary originated as a private recording, a way for Kelly to pass along her memories to her young grandson. Director Ryan White, filmmaker and son of a family friend, had agreed to interview her on camera as a favor, but soon realized that he’d stumbled onto something far bigger than a simple family history. Eventually convincing Kelly to take an unexpected step into the spotlight, he began to weave old photos, rare film footage and additional interviews into the mix. The result is a sweet and winning slice of pop culture history as seen through the eyes of a woman who grew up and worked alongside four of the most famous men in the world.

Other Beatles histories have more to offer in terms of concert footage or backstage scandal, but this simple documentary is one of the few that brings its famous subjects to life in such quiet, intimate terms…thanks to the affectionate memories and delightful presence of good ol’ Freda.

December 9, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

If Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity doesn’t make you catch your breath or feel your heart drop into your stomach at least once, Major Tom, you may as well cut your tether and float off into the void. You simply don’t have a pulse.

Cuarón and a bulging flight crew of movie magicians have crafted a suspense tale at once simple and spectacular, a straightforward story of survival that’s both visually stunning and viscerally gripping – and it clocks in at a satisfying 90 minutes, in itself something of a miracle in the current age of overstuffed blockbusters.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as members of a NASA team making adjustments on the Hubble Space Telescope when a disaster in low orbit leaves them fighting for their lives. Following an awe-inspiring opening sequence in which the space-suited crew goes about its duties against the heady vertiginous backdrop of the earth spread out below, the moment in which hell soundlessly breaks loose is positively hair-raising.

With their shuttle destroyed and the rest of the crew dead, the two stranded astronauts find themselves free floating in a Newtonian nightmare in which coping with the laws of physics is almost overwhelmingly complex…and every effort only serves to further diminish an inexorably dwindling air supply.

It’s virtually impossible to separate this movie’s conventional camerawork from its CGI – Cuarón’s planning and the execution by his technical team are seamless and absolutely brilliant. Opening with a breathtaking 13-minute take that plants us convincingly in the middle of the action, the screen is filled with images that would have been impossible to achieve so credibly only a few years ago. In either the 3-D or standard versions, it’s a magnificent achievement.

The script, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, is a beautifully understated piece of work. An impressive amount of it dares to do away with dialogue completely, choosing to let the silence of space carry the moment. Otherwise, it’s mostly devoted to utilitarian chatter and a few understandably desperate exchanges, all aimed at keeping the issue of survival front and center. Only one scene, in which we learn something about the background of Bullock’s character, seems extraneous…but Bullock plays it with such conviction that it’s a minor distraction at most.

Clooney brings his trademark regular-guy star power to the role of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, a part originally intended for Robert Downey Jr. It’s still possible to hear vestiges of Downey’s quick-riffing bravado lingering in some of the lines, but Clooney makes the role his own, infusing it with warmth and low-key naturalistic heroism. It’s a fine performance and a generous one, Clooney choosing to quietly play his role to the hilt while allowing Bullock to remain at center stage throughout.

As first-time space traveler Ryan Stone, Bullock dominates the film. An engineer who’s uncomfortable in space to begin with, Stone spends much of the movie in a state of near-panic or worse. But far from being a typical movie heroine in distress, Ryan Stone is our POV character. Her panic is ours, starting from the moment the disaster sends her spinning off into space without warning, hands clutching reflexively and eyes searching frantically for anything to focus on. We struggle alongside her, hoping our own air will hold out, as she falls back on her training to find a way home. Bullock’s work here is wonderfully satisfying, an utterly relatable dramatic turn whose impressive physicality and sheer humanity prove to be as essential to Gravity’s success as Cuarón’s groundbreaking visuals. Hers is a magnificent achievement, too.

October 5, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Playing the most celebrated trouser role since Cate Blanchett channeled Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Glenn Close turns in a magnificently underplayed yet magnificently detailed performance in Albert Nobbs.

Albert Nobbs is a waiter in a hotel for the upper middle class in Victorian Dublin. Albert Nobbs is efficient, almost painfully reticent, and such a repressed and private individual that his co-workers refer to him behind his back as “a funny little man.” Albert Nobbs also has a secret, which is that Albert Nobbs is a woman.

Close has created a remarkable characterization in Nobbs, a woman who’s forced to conceal her own sex in order to hold a job that pays better than any of those available to women. Hers is a sad existence, with daylight hours devoted to her bizarre masquerade and the night time utterly solitary, locked within a spartan bedroom and painstakingly counting the money she’s hoarded over the years.

If there’s a drawback to Close’s commitment to the role, it’s that her Nobbs is almost too successful at fading into the background; the few moments in which her character is allowed to briefly drop the deception and let herself feel hope or simple pleasure are bright and lovely flashes of sunshine amid the drizzly Dublin locations. But Nobbs is too sheltered and, as a result, too clueless a human being for many such moments, and while Albert Nobbs is a movie about hope, it doesn’t dispense any of that commodity unrealistically.

The rest of the cast is quite good, with vivid moments contributed by Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins and Brendan Gleeson. Most notable is a colorful supporting performance by Janet McTeer that rivals Close’s star turn. Their scenes together constitute most of the film’s dramatic highlights, which is saying something in this movie filled with excellent character work and distinguished by fine and sensitive writing.

One could summarize the whole enterprise as a quirky and classed-up version of a Masterpiece Theatre story, but that’s hardly a bad thing. And any film, whatever it may be reminiscent of, could only be improved by focusing itself around the bravery, commitment and utter humanity that Glenn Close brings to the sweet, sad and memorable Albert Nobbs.


January 27, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

There’s a reason that critics and awards committees are falling all over themselves for The Artist – it’s really that good, really that accessible, really that much fun.

What makes this 21st century silent movie work is what makes all the great silent films of yesteryear work, what makes them universal, in fact: the ability of silent cinema to bypass the routine left-brain approach with which post-Jazz Singer audiences have grown accustomed to processing their movies, and to penetrate to that part of us that accommodates our dreams. In some hands, this silent movie that is about silent movies could have emerged as a tiresomely ironic bit of meta postmodernism; but fortunately for us, director Michel Hazanavicius understands what makes silent film work and draws on those strengths. In his hands, The Artist is a dream about a dream, which makes its pleasures doubly delicious.

Highfalutin critic-speak aside, the movie’s considerable charm is due largely to the talent and charisma of its star, Jean Dujardin. The camera loves this guy, and in playing a man for whom the love is mutual, he embraces the entire film and makes us love it along with him.

Armed with Fairbanksian brio and a megawatt smile, Dujardin – who bears a passing resemblance to Gene Kelly both physically and in terms of sheer irrepressibility – plays silent movie star George Valentin. When we meet him, he’s at the peak of his profession – rich, powerful and wildly popular – but when sound becomes the next big thing, he refuses to get on the bandwagon and finds both his career and his life swirling down the drain.

As that scenario plays out, there are moments of outright melodrama, but they’re extremely well acted by Dujardin, and by the time those scenes are played out we’ve been so thoroughly seduced by classic silent technique that we’re willing to follow him into areas that would have been dismissed as over the top 70 years ago. For the most part, however, this is a film unashamed to be funny and romantic, filled with characters we care about and told in terms that are unabashedly and unfailingly entertaining.

Dujardin is matched in charisma by the incandescent Berenice Bejo, who embodies Jazz Age perkiness in her performance as Peppy Miller, an ambitious movie extra who Valentin befriends at a crucial moment in her nascent career. With the advent of sound, she begins a rise to stardom as rapid as his own descent, their paths diverging until circumstances reunite them years later.

The stars are supported by some first-class talent, notably John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell. Shot on authentic old Hollywood locations in vibrant black and white, Hazanavicius’ film recaptures the past in a manner more authentic than nostalgia, making full use of period techniques from optical transitions and montage to a dramatic race against time featuring a plucky Jack Russell terrier. Though nearly a century old, those techniques still work beautifully.

This silent is golden.

January 21, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

With The Iron Lady, the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts. In fact, there’s one part that’s greater than all the rest of it put together, and that’s the part played by Meryl Streep.

Streep plays the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a bravura performance which puts the film that houses it to shame. She’s supported by some accomplished actors in a movie that’s lovingly produced, but the whole enterprise is so devoid of a point of view that the sole impression it leaves is not one of watching a movie, but rather that of having sat through a 105-minute-long monologue by an immensely talented actress. Her work is meticulously constructed, but the filmmakers have given it no context. It’s a priceless jewel in a lackluster setting.

The real-life Thatcher was a polarizing figure, and an argument can be made that the damage she did to her country lingers to this day. Whatever one’s political leanings, the film’s failure to present either dissenting opinions of her actions or even a convincing argument for them renders the whole thing pointless. It isn’t so much an interpretation of history as a mere collection of stand-alone episodes drawn from the past.

Related through flashbacks from Thatcher’s final, failing, days as an isolated widow who’s losing her faculties, the story of her life is told in beautifully mounted vignettes. The scenes in which Streep interacts with Jim Broadbent – whose turn as her cheerfully self-effacing husband Denis is by far the most effective supporting performance in the film – are alternately sad and charming, and the moments in which we observe Thatcher’s stiff and chilly manner with her own children are intriguing…but those brief hints at a deeper picture are only frustrating reminders of what a vacuum Streep’s beautiful work exists in. It’s a terrible waste of a magnificent acting job, an exercise in missed potential.

January 17, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Gary Oldman pulls off something resembling a miracle in the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, matching a classic performance by Alec Guinness while managing to outshine an ensemble cast of some of the most brilliant British actors working on the screen today.

Oldman plays George Smiley, the wily old spy who has figured prominently in some of novelist John le Carre’s most celebrated work. Early in Tinker Tailor, Smiley and MI6 chief “Control” (the wonderful John Hurt) are booted from active service after an operation aimed at ferreting out the identity of a double agent goes disastrously awry. Some time later, Smiley is recruited by a government official to conduct a secret investigation into the identity of the mole, who the now-dead Control had suspected of being one of the men who have ascended to power in the spy organization.

In his first English-speaking film, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have crafted a sharp and moody adaptation that conjures the drab and tacky existences of ‘70s British civil servants, as well as the casual brutality and systemic paranoia of those engaged in all levels of international espionage. It’s a complicated story with many players to keep track of, and enjoyment requires audiences to pay careful attention for the entire 127-minute running time. It’s more work than most movies require these days, but it pays off handsomely.

Oldman makes a less crumpled and considerably less sardonic Smiley than Guinness’ turn in the 1979 miniseries version, but he’s an equally fascinating character study, a man whose emotions and razor-sharp intellect are buried so deeply beneath his cryptic exterior that it’s almost impossible to tell how very dangerous he is.

He’s given outstanding support by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and last year’s Oscar winner Colin Firth as the main suspects, each as accomplished and nearly as charismatic as Oldman himself. Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy are equally good as lower-echelon spies caught up in the net of this sad and hazardous conspiracy.

Some critics have complained that this adaptation of the novel is too dense and complicated to follow, but this isn’t Tinker Tailor for Dummies. The 1979 miniseries was equally dense, and that was more than twice as long as the current film. Le Carre’s work is distinguished by its complexity and refusal to pander, and this absorbing new version does a commendable job of bringing that author’s work to the screen. It’s a first-rate piece of work by everyone involved, and first-rate audiences should thoroughly appreciate its uncompromising vision.

January 16, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of TinTin is a first-rate adaptation of one of the most famous characters most Americans have never heard of.

Since it debuted in the 1930s, the comic strip by Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi) has been a hugely popular success just about everywhere but the U.S. Its blend of humor and pulpy adventure was an early forerunner of Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones, its art style so influential that it created an entire school of cartooning (ligne claire), and its characters so beloved by generations that their images have become positively iconic the world over.

Any Yank wondering what all the fuss has been about has only to check out the new movie. Except for the more realistic style of its motion-capture animation, this is a startlingly faithful adaptation of Hergé’s work, reproducing not only the events but the heart and spirit of some of the strip’s most popular stories.

TinTin, a boy reporter, comes by a model of a 17th century ship called the Unicorn and soon he’s up to his neck in bad guys trying to steal the mysterious secret it contains. Equally nosy and intrepid, he dashes off to find out just what’s going on, following the clues to a cargo boat crewed by a pack of thugs who are keeping the ship’s captain, Haddock, raving drunk and out of the way. The reporter and the captain make their escape from the trigger-happy crew, kicking off a chase across the globe, eluding the gang at sea, in the African desert and the streets of a Moroccan city.

Along the way we learn that Haddock is the descendant of the original Unicorn’s captain, and he relates the story of how his ancestor battled pirates who sank the ship with a vast treasure aboard – a fortune in gold and jewels which the villains are determined to find…and they’re willing to eliminate anyone who gets in their way.

The motion capture animation is effective and eye-catching, far more realistic than Hergé’s art but still cartoony enough to suggest the story’s comic strip origins. While earlier examples of the animation process were marked by characters with off-putting, dead-behind-the-eyes faces, the physical characterizations here are nuanced and expressive. And with a huge army of digital artists at his disposal, Spielberg has created a wild chase scene to out-do all chase scenes, the kind of frenzied action he’s been aiming for throughout his career – a sight-gag-filled bumper-car ride around, over and through streets and buildings, all seemingly captured in the kind of single camera shot that would be impossible without the use of computer animation.

There’s a certain dramatic risk in making such a faithful adaptation of the source material, for Hergé wasn’t one for in-depth characterization. Short of being brave and resourceful, TinTin himself has always been something of a cipher, and the supporting characters have rarely been more than goofy comedy relief or unalloyed evil. They aren’t appreciably deeper in the movie version, but the animation and the vocal performances add just enough shading to keep disbelief suspended most of the time.

Jamie Bell’s vocal performance as TinTin seems right on the money, projecting just the right combination of intelligence and pluck to make us accept him as the world’s greatest barely-adolescent globetrotting journalist; he even manages to sell the young hero’s trademark exclamation “Great snakes!” Andy Serkis as Haddock is appropriately blustery and whining, adding just enough humanity to keep his incessantly comic character grounded in something like reality. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg can’t quite turn their bumbling identical cops into flesh-and-blood creations, but they do the best they can with what the screenplay gives them and earn a fair share of laughs. Daniel Craig’s voice work is virtually unrecognizable as the star of James Bond movies, but he’s effectively waspish and menacing as the villain of the piece.

Perhaps the best character of all is Snowy, TinTin’s bright and energetic little dog. Whether we’re watching him freaking out over a neighborhood cat, trying like hell to get humans to pay attention to what he’s trying to communicate, or simply standing against some of the beautifully detailed backgrounds as a breeze realistically ruffles his fur, he’s a knockout. And so is The Adventures of TinTin, an entertaining roller coaster ride that’s a worthy adaptation of a famous comic strip that just might allow Americans to finally catch up with the rest of the world.

December 22, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law are back as Holmes and Watson, each refining the Jack-the-lad twists brought to the characters in the first film. Director Guy Ritchie is back, too, again whipping the action along at lightning pace and occasionally stopping things dead to give us a point-by-point breakdown of Holmes’ hyper-analytical take on the world around him. Some will undoubtedly feel let down because this sequel doesn’t – and by definition can’t – deliver the excitement of viewing those elements for the first time, but in fact, this second outing of the Ritchie-Downey-Law team offers a good deal more than simply regurgitating a winning formula.

The title is inspired by that “great game” cited by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, the strategic manipulation of people and nations that was the stuff of foreign policy and espionage in the late 19th century. Here the game is being played not against one country by another, but against everyone by a single man, the brilliant Professor James Moriarty.

Jared Harris plays Moriarty with a measured, arid calm that’s a fine contrast to Downey’s manic Holmes, and there’s genuine pleasure to be had in watching the rigid and punctilious Victorian matching wits with the eccentric bohemian. In discoursing on mathematics and classical music or facing Holmes across the inevitable chessboard, this Moriarty is the epitome of the self-satisfied academic – but Harris’ admirable underplaying can turn on a dime and become quietly sinister when it’s time to show who’s in charge. In many ways Holmes’ equal, the Game’s villain is a far more dangerous brand of sociopath than the great detective could ever become, a man who sees the rest of humanity as collateral damage in his campaign for power.

Some advance reviews are lamenting that the movie offers no compelling mystery for the great Baker Street detective to solve – which just shows how little those reviewers know about the Holmes canon they think they’re sticking up for. A Game of Shadows is drawn from the famous Conan Doyle story “The Final Problem” – one of only two stories in which the Professor appeared – and there’s even less mystery in the original than in the new movie. In the short story, we learn that Holmes has been making himself tiresome to the “Napoleon of Crime,” who makes a single appearance to trade barbs with our hero before returning to the shadows and turning his assassins loose on Holmes. The rest of the story concerns Holmes fleeing for his life to Switzerland, where their rivalry is resolved in an “off-camera” bit of action-flick violence.

In the new screen version, Moriarty’s crimes have been expanded to take in terrorism aimed at sparking a war between France and Germany that will eventually encompass much of the globe – World War I kicked off 20 years early, and all so that the Professor can gain power and profit on a Krupp-like scale. In scrambling to keep up with a scheme that’s far larger than anything he’s encountered before, Holmes is swept by events into taking on a role paralleling those prototypical British literary spy heroes Hannay and Ashenden…a role similar to that which Conan Doyle would later assign him in the story “His Last Bow.”

Here, too, the flight to the Continent and ultimately Switzerland is propelled by a flight from assassins – in this case killers Moriarty has assigned to eliminate Watson and his new bride as sadistic punishment for Holmes’ meddling in his affairs. Once Holmes has removed Mrs. Watson from harm’s way in his inimitable fashion, the Baker Street buddies are free to shoot, pummel and occasionally deduce their way across Europe in pursuit of Moriarty and his thugs.

As in the first film, Downey is funny, charming and utterly believable as the loose-cannon genius Holmes. And as before, the movie’s secret weapon is Law as his two-fisted ex-soldier pal Dr. Watson, cutting a figure so handsome and charismatic that at times it seems that Holmes has partnered up with James Bond in the ultimate action buddy flick. The two of them are an irresistible combination.

Stephen Fry is a welcome addition as Holmes’ equally eccentric big brother Mycroft, who serves the government as a major player in the Great Game. He delivers a large, droll performance as esoteric and plummy as his fine star turn in the 1997 Wilde, simultaneously the canniest man in the room and the most oblivious to social mores. (What a household those two must have grown up in.)

Best among the other featured roles is Noomi Rapace as a Roma fortune teller with roots in the international conspiracy; though the script doesn’t give her a chance to make the kind of powerful impression that her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo role allowed, Rapace remains a fascinating figure on the screen and easily keeps up with the fast company she keeps here.

The film has a good deal of fun with some of the clichés of the Holmes canon, particularly the hero’s penchant for preposterous disguises; where in older movies we’re supposed to pretend that we can’t recognize Basil Rathbone or other actors under the cheesy makeup, here the phoniness of the beards and bald caps is front and center, apparently effective only because of their sheer audaciousness. And the question of the homoerotic nature of the Holmes-Watson friendship/bromance is brought into fuller and cheekier focus. It’s hardly a new take, having been the object of speculation long before Billy Wilder first raised the question in his 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes…but only the truly easily offended will allow these tongue-in-cheek moments to interfere with their enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, one of the most entertaining action movies of the year.

December 17, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

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