Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (B-)
U.K.-U.S.: Guy Ritchie, 2011, Warner Home Video
There's a level of sheer frantic busy-ness and glib chaos in director Guy Ritchie's and star Robert Downey Jr.'s second Sherlock Holmes movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, that makes it, by turns, easy to enjoy and hard to stomach. This rock-'em-shock-'em-and-Sherlock-'em Victorian slam-banger from the irrepressible Ritchie (the director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is one of those movies that keep blowing up in your face every 10 minutes or so.
The first Downey-Ritchie-Holmes bash, the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, replaced the mystery, romance and brilliant deduction of Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories with martial arts, camp, crazy visuals and a nusto grab-bag of a story, and the sequel follows that formula, slavishly. As the screen keeps erupting into one gorgeously designed, beautifully shot, madly expensive-looking, totally daffy action orgy after another, Downey's slovenly Kung Fu Holmes and his stalwart if sometimes disapproving stiff-upper-sidekick Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) battle the "Napoleon of Crime," Dr. James Moriarity (Jared Harris) -- a genius and professorial fiend who is apparently trying to foment a war between Germany and Great Britain in 1891 (a quarter-century before World War I). Meanwhile, Holmes demonstrates his flair for detection and his mastery of disguise and tries to cope with his libidinous feelings toward Watson and his mixed sentiments about his old roommate's approaching marriage to bride-to-be Mary (Kelly Reilly). A gypsy spy-seductress named Madame Simza Heron (played by Noomi Rapace, the star of Prometheus and the killer-hacker gal of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) is also along for many of the wild rides.
The old Holmes stories by Doyle exercised your intellect, as well as stimulating your sense of romance and adventure. These new videogame adventures of Holmes and Watson, jam-packed with antic mayhem, wild anachronism and madhouse storytelling, give a battering to your nervous system. The movie is a prodigy of production design (Sarah Greenwood) and of cinematography (Philippe Rousselot). But it also surpasses the first 2009 Ritchie-Downey-Law-Holmes movie for goofiness and craziness, fulfilling all your wildest nightmares of Hollywood excess.
The acting has Ritchie and his cast doing it mostly '70s-style tongue-in-cheek (Downey's specialty) -- as if Monty Python had taken over Masterpiece Theater for an hour or two. One wonders how these movies bumped into the idea of Downey turning Holmes into a seedy-looking, unshaven, uncouth sleuth, with Law's Watson as his straight-saber friend, but Downey makes it work, just as Harris gets the most of an essentially dramatic turn as the evil genius Moriarity
Downey saves a lot of it -- acting and reacting flawlessly, backed by a fine cast that also includes Eddie Marsan (too briefly) as bumbling Inspector Lestrade, and Rachel McAdams (too, too briefly) as wicked Irene Adler. It's just a sorry, sorry script.
In Darkness (A)
Poland: Agnieszka Holland, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness is a drama of the Holocaust, and a remarkable one. The movie -- which was Poland's official submission for this year's foreign language Oscar -- is almost horrifically realistic, and deeply, deeply moving. Holland's film, like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Roman Polanski's The Pianist, is based on a true story, a fact-based saga of gruesome anguish and fear and, finally, of profound humanity. But it's done with an excruciating physical realism those other two movies didn't really try for. Based on the true story of a small-time burglar named Leopold (Poldek) Socha -- who used his day job as a sewer inspector in Lvov, Poland (during the Nazi occupation), to hide over a dozen Jews for 14 months in the sewers below -- it's a movie that plunges us into an abyss of fear and suffering, lit by faint glimmers of hope. It is a great, stark, sometimes awesomely emotional film, with a tremendous lead performance by the Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha, and superb, uncompromising direction by Holland.
Holland and her crew, especially cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska, make this experience so gritty it almost hurts to watch it. The sewers of Lvov are inky black. They're steeped in an airless-looking gloom, cramped and comfortless, wet with sewage and slime. These sewers look like real sewers. (Actually, they're a mix of genuine locations and sets by Erwin Prib and the art directors.) They are true hell-holes, and the people hiding there are a mismatched crowd of businessmen, operators, snobs, adulterers, ordinary people, families and even children, all escaping from the Lvov ghetto, crowded together on the walkways and pressed to the breaking point.
The leader of the group is Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann) -- and Mundek knows the money must inevitably run out. The Chiger family -- father Ignacy (Herbert Knaup), mother Paulina (Maria Schrader), daughter Krystyna (Milla Bankowicz) and son Pawel (Oliwier Stanczak) -- are a tight-night group, being pulled apart by the awful conditions of life below.
The Jewish group, or "Socha's Jews," as he eventually calls them, have entered this hell out of desperation. All around them, before their voluntary imprisonment begins, other Lvov ghetto Jews are being arrested and taken to the death camps, or simply shot on the streets or killed in the outside forests without trial. This is undoubtedly what will happen to all of them, unless they can hide from their murderers.
The Jews' "savior," Socha, isn't acting out of the goodness of his heart, at first. He does it for the money. When the story begins, "Poldek" even shows signs of anti-Semitism. But, as the months go on, as Socha has to feed and watch over the fugitives, to reassure them , and to provide their only link to the outside world of daylight and fresh air -- as he has to resort to ever more dangerous ruses to keep them all hidden and alive -- we see him change. Socha is a crook, but he's also a fearsomely competent worker and man, someone who can accomplish what most of the others can't. That very competence and self-assurance eventually helps humanize him, while, by contrast, the Nazi "efficiency" turns them into monsters. Eventually they run out of money, and Socha must make a decision: to abandon them or to go on hiding and helping them. What he chooses to do, and why he chooses to do it, and what eventually happens, make for an astonishing climax to an extraordinary story. In Polish, Russian and Yiddish, with subtitles.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (C)
U.S.: Brad Peyton, 2012, Warner Home Video
Fans of the elaborately senseless should have a field day at Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. This movie -- which is a sort of sequel to the 2008 3D hit Journey to the Center of the Earth, and is sort of based on Jules Verne's 19th century science-fiction classic Mysterious Island -- is one of the dopiest shows I've seen in quite a while: an expensive-looking, visually plush but often witless concoction that bears only the most tangential connections to the previous movie, to Jules Verne, to narrative logic, to good storytelling, or to the vacation glories of Hawaii, where part of the movie was shot. Why? It's a mystery.
This new show starts with a whopper: teen adventurer Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson), the only refugee here from the first Journey, is arrested for breaking into a U.S. satellite-tracking station so that he could decipher the mysterious message sent to him (for some reason in code) by his explorer/grandfather Alexander, who has found the Mysterious Island that author Verne only pretended was a fiction, but is actually fact.
One would think that the obnoxious Sean -- who apparently learned no lasting life-lessons from previous series star/uncle Brendan Fraser at the Center of the Earth -- was on his way to the slammer. But he's rescued by his mom's (Kristin Davis) amiably hunky new guy, Hank, played by The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. Soon, lippy Sean and the tolerant Hank, clutching Alexander's mysterious instructions, are on their way to the Pacific to rescue the old boy from some dire fate on his uncharted and mysterious island, after hiring the most rickety-looking helicopter around, with the most unreliable-looking pilot (Luis Guzman as Gabato).
And, by amazing happenstance, Gabato just happens to have a fetching and feisty teenage, tank top-clad daughter named Kailani, just Sean's type and a perfect part for Vanessa Hudgens.
Together, the strangely confident foursome fly off in Gabato's copter and are immediately sucked into a hurricane that tears the unfortunate vehicle apart and tosses the quartet right onto the Mysterious Island's mysterious beach, where they rise up amazingly perky and ready for more mystery and adventure. Soon they bump into Alexander, played by Michael Caine, who has decided to celebrate the 51st anniversary of his appearance in The Day the Earth Caught Fire by making an utter fool of himself, while earning an ungodly amount of money.
But, alas, more trouble is aboil. At Alexander's, after examining maps and using his mysterious home-made radio or maybe just cogitating, our happy wanderers learn that the volcanic island is due to blow up and sink into the ocean the next day -- no, make that today, in a few hours. And their only means of escape, is to somehow locate Captain Nemo's more than century-old submarine The Nautilus, somehow get it running, and set sail for Oahu or thereabouts, with Guzman still mugging away. How did this happen? It's a mystery.
By now, some of you may believe that this review is only an elaborate joke and that no such fiasco was ever committed to celluloid. You're wrong. It was. Screenwriter-cousins Mark and Brian Gunn (Bring It On Again) really wrote this script. The actors, a talented and tolerant bunch, really said these lines.
Is this the kind of thing we can expect from the big Hollywood studio movies of tomorrow? It's, um, mysterious.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (D+)
U.S.: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, 2012, Sony
With Nicolas Cage as the star, again, this sequel to his 2007 action hit Ghost Rider, should at least boast a few amusing tantrums and memorable creep-outs. And the source material seemed vaguely promising: a Marvel comic, with Marvelmeister Stan Lee himself one of a large gang of producers and executive producers, all producing away. I hadn't seen the first Ghost Rider, with Nic, in 2007, so I watched it without much predisposition.
It begins presto agitato, with a very, very fast and rapidly cut action scene at an abbey somewhere in Eastern Europe. A rebel biker monk named Moreau (played by Idris Elba, who deserves better) tries to keep Satan's illegitimate son, young Danny (played by young Feargus O'Brien, who also deserves better) and his pretty, black jacketed mom Nadya (played by Violante Placido, of The American, who deserves better too) out of the smoking hands of the devil himself, a Mephistophelean chap called Roark (played by estimable Irishman Ciarán Hinds, who, of course, deserves much better). Hinds has replaced the devil of the first movie, who was played by Peter Fonda, and Lucifer's main minion in this movie is Ray Carrigan, played by Johnny Whitworth, who turns supernatural midway through. Whitworth also deserves better. Hell, they all deserve better, including the Devil.
Anyway, monks are bashed and hell is raised and a car-chopper chase ensues, with Moreau on his monk-cycle. For want of anything better to do, I began counting the length of the cuts in the first scene. They were mostly a second or less. Pretty damn fast. Rule of Thumb: Most movies cannot survive too many action scenes composed of nothing but one second cuts, however ballsy or Wildbunchian it may make the editors feel.
Soon Cage shows up. Big entrance. In the last movie, this poor sucker Johnny Blaze that Nic is playing sold his soul to the devil to save his father's life, and he got cheated and turned into Ghost Rider, condemned to wander forever between the winds and the sequels. But Moreau, who rather mysteriously has green eyes, tells Johnny that he can have his soul back if he rescues Danny from Roark. (Does this flaming sap believe anything you tell him?)
Maybe that's why Cage wanted to do this character again. He's really doing two parts here: ex-stunt-motorcyclist Johnny Blaze, who's our familiar, sneering, sad-eyed, tantrum-tossing Nic, and Ghost Rider, who is largely a special effect and has a head that turns into a skull that bursts into flames (but rarely ever singes his collar). This Ghost Rider visual effect also blows up bad guys, sucks out their spirits or essences and shoots and pisses streams of fire. (Hey, who needs a soul?) Then he turns back into Johnny Blaze and gets to throw bizarre Nic Cage fits.
Anyway, after a while, it becomes obvious that this movie is a real stinkeroo -- despite Cage, despite Elba, despite Hinds, despite the effects guys who did Johnny's flaming skull, despite Stan Lee, despite Violante Placido, despite everything.
I am happy to say, though, that this obnoxiously cliched, pointless, nonsensical and headache-inducing movie does teach a valuable life lesson. Namely: Never sell your soul to the devil, especially in Romania.