Monday, March 26, 2012

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

Reportedly, the leading role in the movie Salt had Tom Cruise in mind, but he turned it down because he felt it was too close to his Mission: Impossible persona, Ethan Hunt. So rather than playing a different character so close to the international spy, it seems that Tom Cruise decided to just bring him back. Good move.

Traditionally, fourth installments are not the high point of a franchise (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jaws the Revenge, etc.). While Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol would not qualify as the high point (that honor still belongs to the first film), it thankfully escapes being the low point of the movie series. Other than a few story points from previous movies, Ghost Protocol feels less like a sequel, and more of a continuation of Ethan Hunt’s exploits, similar to the Jack Ryan character of The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, and Patriot Games. Like those films, Ghost Protocol stands alone with just a few details carrying over from previous installments, but not so many that seeing the other movies would be strictly necessary.

Ghost Protocol is not a character movie, but we do learn enough about the characters in general that we actually care what happens to them. Only in the last few minutes of the film is the full extent of Ethan’s character truly revealed, in a twist that bumps his hero-hood up several notches. The other main character played by Jeremy Renner is interesting enough, and seems to be the runner-up to be Ethan’s replacement should the studio decide to keep making Mission: Impossible movies. If another movie were to follow Ghost Protocol, they would do well to keep both Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg in the mix, as they both bring a fresh element to what could have very easily been an overdone action flick. Every team must have a curvy female agent (as proved by each preceding movie), because someone has to distract the enemy males, so Paula Patton features. Needlessly. On a minor sidenote, anyone wondering where Ving Rhames fits in after his faithfulness to the previous three movies, fear not; you will see him, albeit briefly.

For the most part, Ghost Protocol is a straightforward light-intrigue movie with plenty of unrealistic action sequences and intense life-or-death situations. Although director Brad Bird’s previous credits boast Pixar darlings The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird is good for Mission: Impossible. Forgetting the fact that this is the fourth installment to the series, it manages to feel fresh and exciting in its own right, while still shamelessly being what it is clearly meant to be: a popcorn flick complete with explosions, a little bit of intrigue but nothing too difficult to follow, Russians, global ramifications, etc. Not all that much unlike Salt come to think of it…

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Doubt

   At first glance, a morose drama called Doubt centered on a few nuns and a priest at a catholic school seems more like a Lifetime Original Movie than an Academy Award Best Picture contender. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Doubt is about more than a scandal and a bitter old nun, but delves deeply into the danger of legalism, the trouble with school and church politics, and the irreparable destructive power of gossip. Although Doubt may seem straightforward enough, the simplicity of the story and its outstanding cast are its greatest strengths, inviting the viewer to assess the situation presented with minimal information, try to draw conclusions, and then doubt everything.

    Doubt is carried by three strong performances and sold by one brief supporting role. Meryl Streep's sterling turn as Sister Aloysius is immaculately merciless as she steers the plot vehicle through the levels of suspicion, accusation, and doubt. From the first moment that Aloysius turns her face towards the camera to reprimand a boy for sleeping in church, the hardness in her voice and eyes pierce straight through the screen, setting the tone of her unshakably hostile piety. She stands in stark contrast to the na├»ve warm and fuzzy young Sister James (excellently played by Amy Adams), who bubbles over with love for students and history. While Aloysius refuses to believe anything but her own suppositions, Sister James seems ready to believe anything, completely scandalized by the idea that even a thirteen year old boy might lie to get out of class. As the conflict unfolds, Aloysius loses none of her edge, but Sister James gradually finds herself less cheery as she begins to feel the full weight of the trouble she has been part of. 

     Audiences expect flawless portrayals from Meryl Streep, but it takes a very strong male lead to hold his own against the iconic actress, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does this masterfully. His part is the most difficult of the characters because his purposes and motivations remain undefined throughout the entire movie. Even as the credits roll it is uncertain if Father Flynn is truly guilty or not. The movie does not seek to answer this question, so Hoffman must portray Father Flynn in such a way that either option could be true; Hoffman does this with absolutely stunning skill. He shows himself a likable priest with a sense of humor and a progressive proclivity, with just enough mystery to his character to be suspicious. He is the absolute opposite of Sister Aloysius, and their scenes together are easily the most intense as their stark differences battle ferociously. One particular scene involving the two characters talking privately, soars as the old nun screams her determination to do what is necessary to condemn the priest, even if it breaks her vows. 

     The genius of Doubt is in the writing. Very few movies could take a seemingly drab plot and using only dialogue, keep the viewers on the edges of their seats. While the movie deals with the possibility of an inappropriate relationship between a priest and a young male student, the subject matter is handled with such decorum and discretion that the implications would be entirely lost on younger innocent viewers. Throughout the movie, even as Aloysius hurls ugly accusations at Father Flynn, the expository language is never more explicit than merely "inappropriate relationship." The audience will never hear the words pedophile, molester, sexual abuse, or homosexual, even though these things are all dealt with as part of the central conflict of the movie. 

    Exquisite performances and impeccable writing are key players in creating the doubt as to whether or not Father Flynn is guilty. What is shown and discreetly not shown give enough evidence to support either view, while still not fully answering the question. Viewers that suspect he may be a lecherous pedophile will see the logic in the accusations of Sister Aloysius, while viewers who are convinced of his innocence will empathize with Sister James. All three of these characters are crucial in selling the story and forcing the viewer to not just watch attentively, but participate in the frustration, anger, suspicion, grief, and regret. While any one of the actors might have out-shined the other, they all work together to form a strong and stirring ensemble. The brief appearance of Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller functions as a cherry on top as it were, being a shining moment of emotion amidst the many complex levels that are explored throughout the course of the film. 

     By the time the final scene finds Aloysius breaking down and showing a faint glimmer of humanity, there is nothing left but what the title suggests, doubt. There is doubt as to whether Father Flynn got off easy for hideous actions, or was the victim of a series of traps laid by an unyielding and determined nun. There is doubt about Sister Aloysius and her methods of handling the entire situation, manipulating the facts to reach a definite end. There is doubt about Sister James and what she really saw that day that began the scandal. The final lines gasped by Aloysius deliver one last punch, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions, but also leaving that feeling that whatever side the viewer has decided on, they ought to doubt their perceptions. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows

When an old and often redone story hits mega-success the way that Sherlock Holmes did in 2009, a sequel is inevitable. And just as every sequel must top the success of its predecessor, so must it also engage viewers in a plot that will without a doubt involve some sort of world-affecting conflict. Such is the case with the explosive A Game of Shadows where Holmes and Watson reunite (albeit reluctantly for Watson) for another adventure of narrow escapes and near-death experiences. 
     A Game of Shadows picks up very closely where the first film left off, with Watson on the brink of marriage and Holmes on the trail of yet another foul fiend. The first film's closing lines led into the introduction of the infamous professor Moriarty, who finally appears here in the second film. A Game of Shadows is predominantly a stand-alone movie rather than a sequel, fleshing out its own plot with very few tie-ins to the first movie. Most audiences familiar with Holmes are equally aware of his arch-nemesis Moriarty, therefore the fact that the professor makes his debut in A Game of Shadows is satisfying and strategic. In some strange way it had a certain Dark Knight quality to it, in that the filmmakers deliberately did not introduce the most famous enemy to the protagonist until the second movie. 
     The stronger points of the first Sherlock Holmes movie are repeated in A Game of Shadows. Part of what made the first movie so enjoyable was the witty chemistry between Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr., who faithfully reprise their roles here. Watson remains the reluctant best friend to Holmes, but he is neither useless nor perfect. He is unfailingly faithful to his less than considerate friend, but is human enough to vocalize his justified complaints about Holmes' tactics-- most notably the complete ruin of his bachelor party and honeymoon. Holmes remains characteristically ignorant of everyone else's needs and is relentlessly focused on the case at hand. Though considering the stakes of the case at hand one could hardly blame him. 
     Suffice to say that Robert Downey Jr.'s quirky interpretation of the classic sleuth remains solid, and Jude Law as Watson continues to deliver. It is the newcomers that garner the most attention-worthy performances here. The most interesting newcomer is also fairly fresh to the Hollywood scene in general. Coming from her success in the European film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace brings to A Game of Shadows an intriguing female supporting role. Not only is her role as a gypsy Madame Sim creative, her motives are believable and sympathetic, and her lifestyle and background are consistent with her self-defense skills. Another newcomer is none other than celebrated British comedian Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother Mycroft. Fry's function in the movie is not necessarily needless, but his nude scene is. 
     The catalyst to any good movie is a solid villain. As Professor James Moriarty, Jared Harris takes the reins of one of literature's most iconic antagonists, and steers the character to new levels. In examining Harris as Moriarty it is extremely difficult to allow his interpretation of the character to stand apart from the many predecessors that have also been the professor. All these things aside however, it cannot be denied that Harris unquestionably possesses the grace and charm to be Moriarty. True to the spirit of the character, however evil his actions are, he cannot be convinced of his wrongdoings or asked to question the ethical dilemma of sacrificing a few for the good of many. He accurately communicates almost mad genius, while still maintaining a certain degree of charisma and control, even as he swings a skewered Holmes from a meat hook. Harris' Moriarty is edgy, but faithful to the books. He is brilliant, motivated, driven, arrogant, and retains his aristocratic manners at all times. 
     Moving to the film itself, A Game of Shadows has to be accepted at a specific level in order to be enjoyed or appreciated. It should not be looked at as a period drama, an action movie, or a comedy, but an even combination of all three. The quality of the story falls short of greatness, but as pure entertainment it succeeds well. While the characters are enjoyable to watch, the movie is not a character movie, as it focuses more on circumstances and action sequences than character development, and plays out more like a comic book movie than anything else. People (like me) that enjoy digging beneath the surface will not find much in A Game of Shadows, which leads me to conclude that it therefore must be taken at surface value or left alone altogether. As a story, A Game of Shadows has enough twists and turns to be interesting, but it would be generous to call any of these devices unpredictable or surprising. 
    When the original Sherlock Holmes movie was released, speculation abounded as to the real nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson-- namely, gay or nay? Such speculation is unfounded by any obvious content in either film, but it would seem that A Game of Shadows attempts to either derail or fuel the speculation by completely overdoing the implications. Holmes, for example, refers to Watson as his partner on more than one occasion, causing Watson to cringe. Holmes and Watson are only partners as concerns their cooperative efforts on solving cases, but the film-makers are clearly cognizant of how modern audiences will attempt to perceive the relationship, so rather than eliminating the suggestion altogether, they overplay it. This is especially evident when Holmes is forced to botch Watson’s honeymoon in order to save the couple’s lives. Once Mrs. Watson is removed from the honeymoon car, the next scenes find Watson furiously tearing at Holmes’ clothing as they scuffle on the floor of the train car, with Holmes is dressed as a woman. It is by no means a scene that suggests any sort of homoerotic connection, but it is no accident on the part of the director to depict Holmes as an unwanted substitute for Mrs. Watson.
     As previously mentioned, A Game of Shadows must be taken at face value in order to be enjoyed. While the continual sequences of slow-motion are undoubtedly creative, they do get a bit old after a while. Sometimes this device works extremely well and other times seems like unnecessary pomp. Under of all the glitzy camerawork and grand explosions is an interesting enough story with some good laughs along the way and a few good twists. The characters have believable motives, and even Moriarty’s grand scheme to topple the delicate balance of the world is not implausible, but A Game of Shadows is not a realistic movie and it is not meant to be. Sherlock Holmes’ newest adventure is altogether enjoyable, succeeding as a fairly decent combination of action and comedy.