Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Craziest Movie Ever to Potentially Sweep the Oscars" Award winner

Those of us who recognized an assured cinematic talent in Darren Aronofsky but found his work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) to be a bit overblown were pleasantly surprised by the restraint he brought to 2008's The Wrestler, the director's much lauded, decidedly unflashy portrait of an aging former wrestling star. Aronofsky's fifth film, Black Swan, exists somewhere in the middle of that tonal spectrum; it's a hyper-real fairy tale superimposed onto a setting of grounded realism. In that sense — as well as others — Roman Polanski was a clear influence on Black Swan: intense and disturbing, the story centers on its female protagonist's growing, sexualized paranoia in a way that immediately calls to mind Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion.

Natalie Portman stars as tightly wound ballerina Nina Sayers, who lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), and is chosen to replace outgoing principal dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) in her company's "re-imagined" production of Swan Lake. Under the direction of the highly regarded Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina excels in the technically proficient "White Swan" aspect of the Swan Queen role, but struggles with the passionate "Black Swan" side, which new, carefree dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) performs naturally. As Nina delves deeper into the demanding part, so too does she increasingly fall into a psychosis that threatens to devour her.

Debut screenwriters Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin, and Mark Heyman (who worked on the original, second, and final iterations of the script, respectively) craft dialogue that's sometimes stilted and obvious, often delivered by conventional character types, but identifying those traits as flaws misses the point. The film explicitly suggests its folk tale inspiration by using Swan Lake as a backdrop, and does so implicitly through the sensual assault it steadily builds to. The immersive sound design, double-take editing, and close, handheld shots that Aronofsky employs cause the audience to believe that what we're seeing isn't quite real. Spending so much time with Nina (Portman is in every scene) allows us to experience the world as she does, and it's often through the lens of fantasy, for better or for worse.

Black Swan hinges on Portman's abilities as much as its dazzling visuals, and she gives a completely engrossing performance here, with a physicality and range only hinted at in prior work. (Similarly, Kunis shows that given the right material, she has a natural, easygoing charm.) The story's initial groundedness comes from its exploration of the disciplined, difficult world of ballet, and as Nina becomes consumed by it, so do we. Aronofsky uses Tchaikovsky's score (and Benjamin Millepied's choreography) to great effect, with it ultimately taking over the picture as Nina is overtaken.

As with one of my other favorites of the year, Shutter Island, this is ostensibly a horror movie whose twists and turns aren't exactly surprising — but the way in which they're presented is. A true filmic feast, Black Swan is striking in its depiction of a tortured artist becoming unhinged in the name of creative perfection.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

MySpace movie not coming soon

On the surface level, a "Facebook movie" has, of course, no good reason to be entertaining. And an account of the (very recent) history of a website's founding and subsequent litigious troubles should certainly have no right to be exciting. But if anyone could pull it off, many reasoned before seeing the film, it's Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher. Happily, and not unsurprisingly, they were right.

The Social Network, adapted by Sorkin from a treatment for 2009's The Accidental Billionaires, follows Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's unprecedented rise to power, and the personal connections he sacrificed along the way. It's a familiar premise, but its context feels fresh and engaging. The backroom drama and contemporary implications of Facebook's story are a perfect match for Sorkin, whose crackling dialogue is served exceptionally well by Fincher's brisk pace. The director brings his controlled, dark finesse to the material, and the combined results make for truly compelling drama.

As Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg carries the movie with an understated performance that both propels its swift storytelling and effectively holds the screen (with help from strong turns by Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, and Armie Hammer). In what could be a theme for the films of 2010, the Zuckerberg of The Social Network may not be entirely "true," but he's a nuanced character for whom Eisenberg manages to have the viewer rooting, while also keeping them at arm's length. Buoyed by its muted color palette and intense, foreboding score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), the picture can feel cold and calculating — but no more so than its subject.

Plenty of interesting questions — about ambition, status, friendship, and technology — are raised in The Social Network, but its strength lies in letting us draw our own conclusions. We may not know which version of events is factual, but we know that there's truth in Zuckerberg's story, and in what his creation offers people.

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 30, 2010

@Catfish is a #CompellingMovie. Thumbs up if you agree!

Warning: While spoilers have been avoided below, if you want to go into Catfish truly unspoiled (which may be in your best interest, as previously mentioned), the author would humbly recommend reading as little as possible about the movie beforehand.

It's difficult to discuss a movie like Catfish without first acknowledging the controversy surrounding its release and promotion...and while we won't delve too deeply into that here, it does seem contextually significant. Since its Sundance purchase, much has been made of the film's supposed "truth problem," and the is-it-or-isn't-it questions that have swirled around its status as a genuine documentary. This has been exacerbated by the filmmakers' insistence that the movie is "real," and by the studio's "Not based on a true story...just true" tagline.

What I'll say is that when I saw the trailer, I just assumed it was a "faux documentary" without thinking twice — and I can't help but think that the studio, with its clear Blair Witch influence, was intentionally vague in not making that distinction explicit. Of course, "real" and "true" are objective terms, and I took the tagline to mean, "There is truth to this film," rather than, "These events were not prefabricated."

I also knew that, after having seen the trailer, I didn't want to read or hear anything more about Catfish before watching it, so I saw the film oblivious to the growing fuss around its authenticity. I'm fairly certain that my mindset going in — that it was a given the movie wasn't a straight-ahead doc — made my viewing experience a more positive one than it would've otherwise been, had I known the filmmakers were defending it as "100 percent true."

I'll reveal my personal bias and say that it seems a little too coincidental that a film concerned entirely with what's real and what isn't just happened to get a lot of press about whether or not it was real; I don't believe that Catfish is a "real" documentary (whatever that actually means), but I also don't think that that at all takes away from it as a film. I can understand people being rankled by what appears to be a ruse, but frankly, those folks are taking the bait. Gimmicky or not, Catfish is an effective movie — namely, one about a group of friends...being rankled by what appears to be a ruse.

Co-directed with occasionally motion-sickness-inducing handheld camerawork by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the pair choose to make Ariel's brother and roommate Nev the focus of a film project after Nev begins an interesting correspondence. A New York-based photographer, Nev receives a painting of one of his recently published photos in the mail from Abby, a young girl in Michigan, and subsequently exchanges emails with Abby's mother, Angela.

As their correspondence continues, Nev strikes up a long-distance friendship with Angela and Abby, as well as other family members, including Abby's older half-sister, Megan. Through phone conversations and various social media communication, Joost and Schulman document Nev and Megan's budding relationship. But as cracks start to form in the veneer of who Megan has presented herself to be, Nev plans a face-to-face confrontation with Megan and her family, culminating in a revealing trip to Michigan. What we eventually find there may not come as a shock, but where the story goes is certainly surprising.

The Schulmans and Joost are a likeable group of guys, and much of the footage feels like a genuine documentation of friends spending time and cracking jokes together. Catfish enages viewers by establishing this laid-back environment, then holds our interest by managing to build to a legitimately heart-pounding climax. By turns funny, creepy, suspenseful, awkward, exploitative, and sad, the film is certainly an emotional roller coaster.

It may be telling that many of the year's best movies were about the nature of reality as it's presented (Black Swan, Inception, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Shutter Island, among others), or how social media can effect that reality (The Social Network). Nev Schulman, probably like much of his audience, is rarely without his iPhone, Facebook, YouTube, or Google Maps, and while a "Does the internet really connect us?" message would be easy, Catfish goes for something more substantive. It's about inter-connectedness, sure, but it's ultimately a touching film that explores relationships and portrayed personas, self-delusion and real friendship. And it does so truthfully.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wicked mediocre! How'd ya like them apples?

Adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel, "Prince of Thieves," The Town explores the Boston crime world with the same gritty sensibility as Ben Affleck's debut, Gone Baby Gone. From its intense opening sequence on, the film again shows Affleck's deft directorial hand; this time around, though, the presentation is decidedly slicker. The action — perhaps buoyed by the director's increased confidence — is stepped up a notch, and while its car chases and heists are gripping, there's an undercurrent of significance and meaning sadly missing from the proceedings.

In addition to his directing and co-writing duties, Affleck stars as Charlestown crook-with-a-heart-of-gold Doug MacRay, who heads a crew of creepy-masked bank thieves, including hotheaded James Coughlin, (Jeremy Renner) Doug's childhood friend. While James remains fiercely loyal to their violent way of life, Doug angles for a way out — of robbery and of Charlestown — but not before One Last Big Job.

Affleck is likeable, but sometimes outshone by the strong cast he's assembled. (Renner, in particular, follows his Oscar nod with another commanding performance.) Each character is unmistakably a stock archetype, fleshed out as much as possible by engaging actors: Rebecca Hall as the love interest/bank manager (twist!); Jon Hamm as the smooth FBI agent on Doug's tail; Chris Cooper as Doug's wizened father, serving time for his own crimes.

Despite its by-the-books plot, the movie's still fun to watch unfold, and hits all the necessary notes with aplomb — even if that means heading toward a schmaltzy ending which wraps things up a little too neatly. Moment to moment, The Town is a well crafted and compelling thriller, but lacks the emotional resonance of the high standard Affleck previously set for himself. It'll be interesting to see what this clearly talented filmmaker chooses as a next step.

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Another one bites the dust

Sad news today, friends: Paste magazine announced last week that its print edition was folding, while its website would continue on, in some capacity.

As former Paste Associate Editor Rachael Maddux recounted in a post for Salon, the magazine's lofty, arguably ambiguous goals (covering the positive aspects of music and movies in a generally snark-free tone; being interested in how faith interacts with pop culture without being limited by that interest; existing as a print publication, at all) sometimes made it a target for criticism from skeptics and haters of all stripes.
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Just as many readers, however - even if they weren't paid subscribers, clearly - appreciated what they were going for, and it was comforting to know that Paste was out there, battling it out among the gaudier likes of the Rolling Stones and Spins of the racks.

R.I.P., Paste. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In other slowed-down news...

Many of you savvy film enthusiasts are perhaps already aware of this neat bit of movie trivia, but it's the first I'd heard about it, so I'll share, just in case...

Inception fans will recognize Edith Piaf's classic, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," as the song that Leo's dream thieves use as a warning that the "kick" (an upsetting of the dreamer's equilibrium, thus waking him up) is on its way. They'll also remember that, in the film, time slows down in a dream. As such, astute YouTube user camiam321 noticed something interesting about Inception composer Howard Zimmer's main theme:


From the jaunty brass and strings of "Regrette"'s refrain, we get Zimmer's tense, foreboding score, punctuated by horn blasts. How cool is that? (Not to mention that Inception co-star Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for portraying Piaf in La Vie en Rose. This movie has levels, man.) One of the many reasons why I thought it was the best of the summer.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know over in the poll.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wanna hear what Justin Bieber sounds like 800% slower?

About 800% better:



This slowed-down "remix" of The Bieb's hit "U Smile" by Shamantis has been making the rounds online, and Sigur Ros comparisons abound.

Maybe Shamantis is J-Biebz in disguise, and this is his exploratory foray into the ambient scene?
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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trailer Watch

In these lazy, hazy, crazy dog dog days of summer, there's nothing like a batch of strong trailers for some of the coming months' most buzzed-about releases to get us ready for fall...

First up, Boston crime drama The Town, opening September 17:

Adapted from the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Town is the sophomore directorial/co-writing effort from Ben Affleck, who proved himself a formidable talent behind the camera with 2007's excellent Gone Baby Gone. Rather than give brother Casey the starring turn this time, though, Affleck (straight from the personal trainer, apparently) here steps into that role himself, the next phase in a valiant attempt to resurrect his acting career.

It certainly doesn't hurt that his co-stars are Jon "Don Draper" Hamm and a fresh-off-his-Hurt Locker-Oscar-nom Jeremy Renner -- or that this clip makes the thing look like The Departed meets Dark Knight. In other words, I'm eager to see it.

Next is the strangest, and most potentially interesting, of these three: Catfish, which also bows Septmeber 17. The breakout Sundance hit's trailer is already something of a controversy; the film's primary draw during the festival was its refusal to be bound to any one genre, and the surprises that its third act delivered. Some are crying foul that this clip gives away too much (consider yourself warned):

I, for one, am a perfect mark for this kind of campaign; without a marketing push like this, I likely wouldn't be much enthused about yet another indie faux-doc. While I understand the argument that going into the film knowing nothing is the ideal way to experience this kind of story, most of the moviegoing public doesn't get to experience new releases within the context of a film fest bubble. Bring on the "WTF" angle, I say.

Finally, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg biopic, The Social Network, opening October 1:

When I first heard that Ben Mezrich's 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires, was being adapted, I wondered if the story of Facebook would really make for much of a movie. Then, it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing the script, which David Fincher would direct (with a score by Trent Reznor, no less). I got interested.

The trailer, buoyed by an eerie choral rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" -- from Belgian women's choir Scala and Kolacny Brothers, reports Entertainment Weekly -- manages to be dark, funny, and poignant. Here's hoping the film lives up to it.

Is it autumn yet?
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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cool, but I want that reunion now

Good news for those still going through Sleater-Kinney withdrawl: Corin Tucker, former frontwoman of the defunct, lauded trio, is putting the finishing touches on her Corin Tucker Band (featuring Unwound drummer Sara Lund and the Golden Bears' Seth Lorinczi and Julianna Bright) debut LP, due out October 5. You can download first single "Doubt" over at Pitchfork.

The song leaves no "Doubt" (eh?) that Tucker's new album, 1,000 Years, will scratch the itch that fans of her old band have for similar material; the punky single features familiar dueling guitars and Tucker's signature vibrato over a classic rock sound that The Woods - S-K's last, fantastic record - saw the group moving toward.

Meanwhile, Tucker's former bandmate, Carrie Brownstein, provided the (similarly S-K reminiscent) score for upcoming documentary, !Women Art Revolution, which covers the history of the feminist art movement. Plus, it was just announced that Brownstein and SNL's Fred Armisen will co-write and co-star in Portlandia, a half hour, Lorne Michaels-produced series, for IFC. So, even if we don't get a Sleater-Kinney reunion within the next five years - as Brownstein mentioned last spring might happen - it shouldn't be difficult to check out its members' new work.

Tucker heads out for a mini-tour in October, while !Women Art Revolution opens at the Toronto Film Festival next month.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

In the Coens' version, Buscemi played Jon Arbuckle

Bill Murray seldom gives interviews, so this Q&A by Dan Fierman (ostensibly in support of his quirky new vehicle Get Low, which looks great and opens Friday) for next month's GQ reveals a few interesting things about the iconic actor. Among them:

-He considers the movie Kung Fu Hustle "the the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy";

-He apparently did Garfield because he mistakenly thought it was written by the Coen Brothers;

-He has only seen one episode of Seinfeld (which he refers to as "what's-his-name, Larry David's show," and which he thought was "terrible");

...all of which is a little confusing, and kind of awesome, much like the man himself. In related news, Caddyshack just turned 30 (!).

Via Rotten Tomatoes.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Girl Whose Titles Were Long

We've been talking a lot about sequels around here lately, leading me to make a comparison I wouldn't have expected, prior to seeing The Girl Who Played with Fire: the second chapter in the gritty Millennium trilogy - adapted from the late Stieg Larsson's novels – has, on a surface level, some key components in common with this summer's much bigger follow-up, Iron Man 2. Both are transitional entries in popular franchises; both tend to favor action setpieces and multiple plot lines over the more subtle storytelling of their originals, and as a result, aren't as engaging or taut as their predecessors (not an uncommon criticism of sequels). Still, Fire is a solid, enjoyable film - another characteristic it shares with IM2.

Slightly more conventionally helmed by director Daniel Alfredson than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Niels Arden Oplev, the movie wastes no time launching into muckraking protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's (Michael Nyqvist) next adventure; those who haven't seen Dragon will be lost. As with the last film, which had Blomkvist investigating a decades-old series of unsolved Swedish murders, he is assisted in his latest case by punky private investigator/hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the real star of the series. This time, the pair becomes embroiled in a human trafficking chase, leading Salander to confront some of her past's secrets.

While Fire is a much more expository narrative than Dragon, Salander remains a compelling, badass character (rooted in Rapace's commanding performance), and the story provides an opportunity for viewers to learn more about her background. The movie retains the series' clear Silence of the Lambs imprint, but manages to feel just as influenced by the derring-do of the Bourne franchise. This blending can be by turns effective and disjointed, intertwining twisty and complicated plot elements. (Perhaps the inevitable American adaptations - the first of which arrives next year from, promisingly, David Fincher - will provide a more realized offering?)

Jonas Frykberg's - who returns as co-writer for the threequel - script may close with an unsatisfying ending, but only because it's an obvious setup for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (arriving stateside in October); it's a testament to the absorbing universe created by Larsson, and strikingly adapted by Alfredson and Oplev, that we immediately want to know what happens next. The Millennium trilogy's core elements may be fairly standard crime procedural material, but its unique perspective is original enough to excitingly propel the series.

Grade: B

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tim Allen pleads for Toy Story 4

After eleven consecutive commercial and critical smashes, I'm tempted to ask, "What's in the water over at Pixar?" I suspect, though, that the answer would simply be that the studio provides creative filmmakers with an atmosphere that rewards and encourages honest, unique, and imaginative storytelling, able to resonate with people of all ages and walks of life. Still, it's sometimes difficult to believe that the company doesn't rely on some kind of foolproof equation they've developed which allows them to effectively manipulate a wide range of audience emotions with the slightest of ease.

Case in point, Toy Story 3. When news of the film's release first broke, there was some disappointment among Pixar fans that the studio was "settling" for a second sequel to an already established property, rather than announcing a new, original story. It's a (fairly unsurprising) relief, then, that from its opening scene, the movie is immediately funny, touching, and exciting, and that those feelings don't let up, even through the end credits. Four years passed between Toy Story 2 and the original; TS3 arrives eleven years after the second entry. While that gap could be seen as further fodder for the argument that the picture was greenlighted purely for its financial potential, director Lee Unkrich (co-director of TS2, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc.) uses that lapse in time to provide a solid reason for revisiting Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the gang.

In the kind of "emotional time passage" montage at which Pixar has become so adept, TS3 opens with home video clips of toy owner Andy growing up, from the days of the first two movies, to the present, which finds him preparing to leave for college. Naturally, this change inspires panic and melancholy among the toy ranks, lead by Woody and Buzz, who've had to go to increasing lengths to get the teenaged Andy to acknowledge, much less play with, them. The inherent sadness in the idea that our playthings are secretly alive has been felt throughout the series, but screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) brings it to new depths here by having the toys face such a crisis of identity and purpose. Pretty brave stuff for summer family fare, but it's consistent with the studio's track record of rewarding risk taking.

What ensues is the expected Toy Story setup of elaborate near escapes and rescue plots, fraught with peril and humor - propelled of course, by fantastic animation, the best of the three on display here - but this time around, a weighty sense of existential (and tangible) angst pervades the setpieces. Each of the trilogy's films deal with questions of friendship and loss, but Toy Story 3 is the most emotionally engaging, and ultimately, the most powerful, of them. Improbably, Pixar has crafted a movie series in which each entry is more effective than the last.

Grade: A-

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

DVD Watch

Irish hit The Secret of Kells, which chronicles the creation of the Book of Kells by Cetic monks - and which just ended a run at Chicago's Siskel Film Center - will be released on DVD and Blu-ray October 5.

The movie's breathtaking hand-drawn animation rightly garnered it a nomination for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars (Up ultimately took the win). Animation enthusiasts, and those who prefer their family films without pop culture sass-talk, should definitely check this one out.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Trailer Watch: Harry Potter & the Search for Purpose Once the Series Ends

Well, kids, the trailer for franchise finale - broken into two parts, natch - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the intertubes today, and it's certainly not lacking for overblown epicness...but then, that's what we're looking for in a conclusion, right?

David Yates, who brought a (mostly) deft hand to the last two series entries, takes the reigns again for the final chapter(s), officially making him the director of half of the Potter films. But before we all start prematurely crying into our butterbeers, let's check out that Voldemort-heavy trailer:


Thoughts?

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

This weekend in Chicago concerts

Minneapolis folk-rocker Mason Jennings played the first of two consecutive shows last night at Lincoln Hall, and while the backing band he brought along for his tour last fall was missed, he offered up a satisfyingly varied solo set of old and new songs.

Among them were some deep cuts like "The Fisherman" - a bonus track from 2008's In the Ever - and "Stormy Weather," originally titled "The Field," (not to be confused with the similarly titled track off of Blood of Man) which Jennings recently unearthed from a box of forgotten recordings. The singer-songwriter shared with the enthusiastic crowd that he may release the old songs in an album format later this year.

Meanwhile, the second annual Green Music Fest wrapped up tonight in West Town, with headliners David Bazan and Cloud Cult. Bazan - armed with a 3-piece band behind him - clearly aimed for a festival-ready set of loud, rock-driven tunes, eschewing his usual question-and-answer segments, as well as, oddly, most of his newest record. Curse Your Branches may be speculative (at one point, Bazan mentioned the strangeness of playing "navel-gazing songs" at an outdoor festival), but it's also his most accessible material.

The orchestral-indie stylings of Cloud Cult provided a similarly boisterous closing set, highlighting a few solid songs from their new record, Light Chasers, which won't hit shelves until September 17, but is now available online. Up next for Chicagoans: Pitchfork, Lolla, etc, etc.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who doesn't love some Buscemi?

Ok, so it's not technically a movie, but since the last time I broke my "music and movies only" rule was for the Sopranos finale, it's fitting that the second time is about Sopranos writer Terence Winter's new series, Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk, which premiers on HBO this fall, stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson (based on real life Atlantic County Treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Johnson), the "boss" of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, and generally looks awesome. It doesn't hurt that other Sopranos mainstays like director Timothy Van Patten are on board...or that Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and is producing the show.

Evidence of Scorsese's involvement is all over the newly released trailer, which doesn't quite make me want to pay for HBO, but ensures the series a home at the top of my Netflix queue:


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Monday, May 17, 2010

2x better than most action sequels

When it hit screens two summers ago, Iron Man surpassed audience expectations by delivering that rare treat: a superhero flick stressing character over explosions. While the strength of the original film lay in its emphasis on thoughtfulness over stock archetypes and CGI sequences (while still delivering the action goods), fans can rest assured that, for the most part, the series' integrity remains unscathed by Iron Man 2.

The sequel retains the brisk energy and improvisational feeling established by director Jon Favreau (who returns here) in the first movie, as well as the expected exciting setpieces. The solid cast, anchored by the relentlessly charming Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony "Iron Man" Stark, also continues to be in fine form, with notable new additions in Mickey Rourke as creepy Russian physicist Ivan Vanko; scenery-chewing Sam Rockwell as sleezy weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer; and the reliable Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard as Col. Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes.

Vanko and Hammer — each variations on aspects of Stark's character, and both with a vendetta against him — provide the bulk of the story's conflict, but Stark is also facing problems with the federal government, which pressures Stark to turn his technology over to the military; his company, which Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts takes over as CEO; and another government agency, the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D., which we learn more about this time around. If that sounds like a lot of plot elements, it is, but the screenplay (by Tropic Thunder scribe/actor Justin Theroux) largely succeeds where other sequels haven't, by juggling multiple storylines while keeping the characters empathetic and three-dimensional.

Often, second superhero movie entries allow a series to become less restrained by its origin story, the elaborate mythology of which can typically hamper a first movie's compactness. Iron Man's origin unfolded so effectively, however, that the franchise is actually threatened with that problem in its sequel. But while IM2's structure isn't as tight and streamlined as the original, the film still chugs along fluidly — even if the proceedings aren't exactly inspired.

It's a true "part two," in that the picture tells a transitional story — not a bad thing, if done well. Marvel Studios uses IM2 as its most overt platform yet to set up a likely Avengers series, which initially seemed like a terrible idea (some things are best left on the comic page), but the movie convinces that the plan, while a bit messy, is at least thought out, and has potential to be done justice.

Ultimately, for what it is, the film succeeds simply by being a sequel that doesn't feel unncessary; it's a solid second chapter that takes Tony Stark to the next logical place in the series. (Here's hoping the inenvitable threequel finds further inspriation in the comics' landmark Demon in a Bottle arc, which focused on Stark's growing alcoholism.) It's exciting to see Marvel — whose first release was Iron Man — defy conventional wisdom by aiming to not just let each picture stand on its own, but cross-pollinating them with each other's characters, and attempting to set up a real comic book world on film. Iron Man 2 is loud and busy, to be sure, but far from brainless. It manages to retain enough of the heart, message, and fun that made the original special.

Grade: B

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Friday, April 30, 2010

2Pac collaboration slated for 2011

The newly released video for Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" - the first single, and easily the strongest track, off of Cash's posthumous record of the same name - may have been directed by Chris Milk, but Milk shares a co-directing credit with 5,500 other people.

The clip employed an open source ("crowdsourced") development method, one which bands like Radiohead have also used, to interesting effect. Fans were invited to submit online drawings - via The Johnny Cash Project website - based on provided stills from the Man in Black's 1973 film, The Gospel Road (the story of Jesus, told Cash-style...which I, a diehard fan myself, can really only recommend to those who would classify themselves as such). The drawings were then compiled, creating a compelling piece for an artist who knew a thing or two about powerful videos.
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The video is completed, but you can still make some fun drawings. Do so, and watch the final product, here.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All this and an organic farm, too

Cloud Cult, who played a characteristically joyful, sold-out show last week at Lincoln Hall, released new EP Running with the Wolves Tuesday. The title track will appear on their forthcoming album, Light Chasers, due to drop August 17, and indicates that the new LP (their ninth) should be a rockin' good time. Wolves's other tracks include B-sides and alternate versions of songs.

Incidentally, the previously mentioned documentary about the band, No One Said It Would Be Easy, was released last spring.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Concert: Atoms for Peace (Aragon Ballroom, Chicago)

The future of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's newly named (and fairly recently formed) side project, Atoms for Peace, remains uncertain, but if the supergroup's consecutive sold-out shows at the Aragon on Saturday and Sunday are any indication, he's taking their work together seriously - and clearly having a lot of fun.

As the band (featuring Flea on bass, Joey Waronker on drums, Maruo Refosco on percussion, and programming/keys by Nigel Godrich) worked its way through the first set -- the entirety of Yorke's 2006 LP, The Eraser, in succession -- it quickly became evident that Yorke sees the band and tour as an opportunity to give new life to the electronic dirge of his solo work. Some of Flea's funkiness must've rubbed off on Yorke, because while the former's eccentric strutting is to be expected, Thom also wasted no time busting slinky moves that he's rarely exhibited while fronting that other band.

Indeed, Yorke felt looser than normal, as did his songs, by being provided a different venue (much of the appeal of a side project) in the group's musical reworkings. By the third number, "The Clock," Eraser's tunes took on an energy not present on the record, offering a more organic counterpart to the album's starkness. While Flea performed the menacing keyboard loop of "Skip Divided" on a melodica, Yorke rocked a cowbell, and both swayed under giant, Radioheadesque neon lights. With its decrescendo into piano and haunting vocals before building back into a frantic finish, "Harrowdown Hill" proved an evening standout, and a testament to the transformative power of live percussion.

Although the band left the stage after album closer "Cymbal Rush," Yorke reemerged not long after, performing a brief solo set each night, finally getting above average sound out of the notoriously sonically-unfriendly venue. On Sunday, he began with the new "Lotus Flower" -- which would fit comfortably on a Radiohead record, as is rumored -- on electric guitar. Yorke moved to piano for the unlikely next song, Radiohead's disorienting "Like Spinning Plates," rendered here as a pretty ballad.
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He closed with Radiohead anthem "Airbag," another initially surprising choice, given its wealth of instrumentation on record. But as with the rest of the evening's material, it was given new life - in this case, on acoustic guitar. Needless to say, the crowd went wild. (Saturday's encore set featured new Yorke solo song "A Walk Down the Staircase;" unreleased Radiohead track "I Froze Up;" and another Radiohead classic in "Everything in its Right Place," which I'm sad I missed.)

Immediately following, the band took the stage again with the creepy, dancy Radiohead B-side "Paperbag Writer," then launched into "Judge, Jury, and Executioner," which Yorke called the group's first original song when they debuted it last fall. AfP closed with two new band songs, the bouncy "Hollow Earth," and jam session "Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses," each of which sounded like funkier, fuller versions of Eraser material, similar to "Judge, Jury." (The band's encore setlist was the same both nights.)
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As far as I'm concerned, Yorke is three-for-three, considering Radiohead, an impressive solo debut, and now, an exciting handful of new Atoms for Peace songs all under his belt. Exploring an opportunity to further stretch his creative muscles can only be a good thing for his full-time gig . . . y'know, fronting the World's Best Band.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Can't beat that price, amirite?

Chicago indie rockers Sleeping at Last are offering their new album as a free download today and tomorrow at NoiseTrade.

Storyboards, the duo's fourth LP, continues in the orchestral leanings of their last record, Keep No Score, by featuring string arrangements from Van Dyke Parks, but is more compositionally experimental - due, in part, to contributions from Joanna Newsom band member Ryan Francesconi.

The band kicked off their spring tour last week.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

A post-apocalyptic parable

After the remarkable commercial success of The Passion of the Christ, a consensus formed in Hollywood that the floodgates would be opened for movies with religious subjects to dominate the box office. While that hasn’t exactly been the case, it is perhaps true that The Passion helped to make a project like The Book of Eli, with its both explicitly violent and explicitly Christian elements—as opposed to the implicit themes of, say, the Matrix trilogy—more viable.

The Passion may have proven inimitable, but the fact that an original screenplay almost entirely about (mild spoiler alert!) the Bible can get developed by a major studio at all, let alone star Denzel Washington as a sermonizing, samurai sword-wielding drifter, would likely have been impossible ten years ago. Getting audiences to shell out for the titillating mixture of the sacred and profane is certainly nothing new (just ask Dan Brown), but rarely have blockbusters been this overtly evangelical.

As is typical for the talented, uneven directors, the Hughes Brothers (who started in music videos before helming features Menace II Society and From Hell, among others), the film offers immediately striking visuals of a muted, post-apocalyptic wasteland, backed by a compelling score and sound effects. The visceral beauty of Eli’s (Washington, in an expectedly commanding performance) world—hunting, scavenging, traveling alone—as presented by the Hughes Brothers, is undeniable, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the audience has already seen the same end-of-the-world scenario plenty of times.

We learn that the world is suffering the effects of a nuclear world war, which caused the sun to explode…or something along those lines. Society has collapsed; rogue gangs roam vast stretches of unused highway; resources are scarce. It’s a good thing, then, that Eli, perpetually walking west (in search of what, we’re not initially sure), is capable of Kill Bill levels of stylized ultra-violence, which he uses to dispatch the thugs who inevitably seek him out. In a classic Western movie trope, he repeatedly offers, “I don’t want any trouble,” before carrying out a self-defense massacre.

Eventually, Eli reaches a small town, which a creepy intellectual named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, charismatic as always) organizes and lords over, demanding that henchmen pillage the surrounding areas, in search of books. The printed word has largely disappeared, and Carnegie believes that if he can obtain the information found in one particular book—guess which one—he will be granted unparalleled power.

Here, the story takes a turn for what could be considered a fundamentalist warning/fantasy. It is revealed that religion was the cause of the war, and consequently, survivors were forced to burn all copies of the Bible. Eli, however, has a copy in his possession, and stops at nothing to protect it, hiding it from everyone—further raising some dubious “Christian” virtues—with the exception of Solara (the wooden Mila Kunis), a town resident whom Eli reluctantly agrees to bring on his journey.

When Carnegie learns of Eli’s copy, he demands that it be handed over. “That book is meant to be shared,” Carnegie reasons. Eli refuses, and naturally, takes out a small army of attackers, wounding Carnegie, on his way out of town. “I haven’t found the right place for it yet,” Eli says of his Bible. Is the moral, then, that Christ is a selective messiah, or that some are unworthy of hearing his message?

Eli and Solara make their way west, and when she questions his methods, he claims that he feels called to travel in that direction. The idea here is to extol faith, over physical evidence, as a virtue, but the sentiment of hearing a voice that tells one to do things (including killing those who get in your way) is too close to “fundamentalist terrorist” for comfort.

The very aspects that I find baffling about The Book of Eli, though, are the same that endear me to it: who exactly is the intended audience? Its over-the-top violence will likely deter it from megachurch screenings; its preachiness may prevent it from taking a hold in the action flick pantheon; the slow pace of its Western film influence could keep the multiplex crowds antsy. It’s a strange picture (e.g., Tom Waits has an extended cameo), and for a popcorn movie, that’s admirable.

Still, this is screenwriter/former video game writer Gary Whitta’s first script, and it shows. It may be a unique take on a familiar story, but it’s still populated with stock characters (the villain; the damsel; the seemingly invincible hero), and its plot device is a little contrived. Like a proselytizing comic book, or church drama aiming for edginess, the parable can wear thin.

Questionable theology notwithstanding, The Book of Eli has enough interesting ideas and exciting set pieces to make it a worthwhile experience. Its ultimate message even manages to resonate when Eli gets it right by the third act: “I got so caught up in keeping it safe,” he says of his book, “that I forgot to live out what I learned from it. ‘Do for others what you do for yourself.’”

Grade: B-

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Summer Festival Fest 2010

Well, my dawgs, it's that time of year again: birds are chirping, spring training is well underway, and music festival lineups are about to be unleashed on the clamoring masses. Here's the rundown for what Chicago can expect...

Lollapalooza's headliners are widely rumored to be in place, featuring, as usual, plenty of acts to scratch the nostalgia itch, including Green Day, a reunited Soundgarden, and even The Strokes...all of which sounds fine, if considerably less exhilarating than it would've, say, five to ten years ago. The real standouts will be Lady Gaga — a somewhat unusual choice, given Lolla's reputation as a tribute to "alternative rock" — and Arcade Fire, who would likely provide my (and, I suspect, many others') only reason to fork over the considerable entry fee, even if I'd prefer the intimacy of a theater as a venue. Flaming Lips, MGMT, Phoenix, Yeasayer, and Dirty Projectors are other names being bandied about as potential performers. The official lineup will be announced in early April.

Meanwhile, Pitchfork, generally considered Lolla's cheaper, hipper alternative, boasts an impressive '90s-era reunion of its own in headliner Pavement, likely the reason that three-day passes to the fest are already sold out (tickets went on sale last month). Co-headliners Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem round out the impressive bill, but, as with the Lollapalooza lineup, they just don't stir my excitement the way they might've a few summers ago. Even with solid backers Broken Social Scene, El-P, Panda Bear, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and St. Vincent, I just don't think I'm sold. This could, of course, have less to do with the lineups themselves than with me progressively inching out of my 20s; as much as I love music outdoors, "summer festival" is becoming increasingly synonymous with "hot, tiring, and painful," for me.

Which is why, lame as it might sound, I may actually be most excited about the Ravinia Festival this summer. With Steve Martin (performing from last year's stellar bluegrass record, The Crow), The Swell Season, and Buena Vista Social Club among this year's acts, you can't beat lying on a picnic blanket — and enjoying the food and drinks you can bring in from home — while rocking out. And the Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays series in Millennium Park (featuring She & Him, Kid Sister, and The Thermals, among others) has the added bonus of being free. Woo, grownup summer!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Supergroup...assemble!

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke will hit the states next month for a mini-tour with his newly named side project, Atoms for Peace.

The band, featuring Flea, much lauded producer Nigel Godrich, and Beck drummer Joey Waronker, was assembled for Yorke's Eraser tour, and the shows will likely heavily feature songs from that excellent solo album, along with a few new jams (and a couple Radiohead tunes, for good measure).

Atoms for Peace play Chicago's Aragon with opener Flying Lotus on April 10 and 11. I, for one, would actually be grateful for the opportunity to see Mr. Yorke indoors...
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Speaking of Radiohead, everybody see this great re-edit of Jay Leno's new promo? Its soundtrack change is much more appropriate:



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Monday, February 22, 2010

Call me crazy...

That Martin Scorsese is among the handful of the world's best - if not the best - working filmmakers is a fact rarely disputed. But, much to my bewilderment, critics seem to only want him to make movies about gangsters. Obviously, Scorsese has done more to define that genre than any recent director this side of Coppola, so the enthusiasm is understandable, but I'm of the unpopular opinion that the work he's done in the last decade has been among his strongest (much like Spielberg - but that's another story). I enjoyed The Departed, but found it insluting when that film was hailed as a "return to form," after pictures like Gangs of New York and The Aviator had allowed the legend to stretch his wings and expand his filmic capacity.

Unsurprisingly for Scorsese, he decided to follow the critical, box office, and awards (including his first Best Director Oscar) acclaim of The Departed with something seemingly out of left field: a horror movie about an insane asylum. And again, unsurprisingly, the critical response has largely been a collective shrug. "Shutter Island is 'minor Scorsese,'" many have patronizingly said. The film may not be what people expect of the director, but that's half the fun; it's two hours of an auetur reveling in his love of cinema to tell a story that envelops the senses.

From its opening moments, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are ferried across foggy Boston Harbor, the movie strikes a tone of creepiness and dread. The Marshals are headed to Shutter Island, which houses Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. The soundtrack - a key component to any Scorsese entry - includes no score, but instead, a collection of discordant, modern classical pieces, just as defiant as the rock & roll that typically lines the director's films. When Krzysztof Penderecki's tense symphonies, also featured in The Shining and The Exorcist, immediately fill the theater, you know you're in for a scary good time. (If you're going to make a horror movie, look to
the best.)

Alternately expansive and claustrophobic, the film's Shining inspiration is felt throughout, its framing and camera movement a reminder of Kubrick's hefty influence on Scorsese. It's also beautifully shot by frequent collaborator (and Oliver Stone/Tarantino mainstay), director of photography Robert Richardson, especially in vividly rendered dream and flashback sequences. As he did with Scorsese in Aviator, Richardson makes great use of color to propel the story's emotional beats, be they elegant or grotesque.

Its 1950s setting and Hitchcockian mystery structure naturally serve as an homage to noir films and B movies, but indeed, Shutter Island is able to overcome genre conventions by ultimately revealing itself as an emotionally driven tragedy. The fine cast, anchored by a strong, moving performance from DiCaprio (in his fourth outing with Scorsese), effectively pulls the audience into their characters' lives, enabling the story's sucker punch of an ending to truly sting. Ruffalo is perfectly cast as DiCaprio's affable, empathetic partner, and Ben Kingsley, genteel as always, has fun as Ashecliffe's chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley, whose intentions seem compassionate one scene, and sinister the next.

Closely adapted from Dennis Lehane's (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) pulpy novel by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridiso - whose previous credits are mostly in TV - the film explores intense themes of violence and its relationship to American society, while maintaining a level of ambiguity that allows viewers to experience the characters' sometimes tenuous hold on reality. Shutter Island thrills because we're watching a master filmmaker at work; if this is "minor Scorsese," I'll gladly take it.

Grade: A-


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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thumbs up

Chris Jones has a terrific piece on Roger Ebert in next month's Esquire, which serves as an effective reminder of just what a gift Ebert's work has been—and continues to be—to the critical community.

Ebert, who lost most of his lower jaw to complications from salivary cancer surgery in 2006, is no longer able to speak, but is perhaps a more prolific writer than ever before, maintaining his Sun-Times column and a widely-read personal blog. Jones's article sheds light on the ways in which the iconic film critic's life has changed, negatively and positively, in the last few years.

I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert, and devouring the latter's collected essays, unusually thoughtful for "mainstream" film reviews (there's a reason that he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer). I've always loved writing, reading, and cinema—as well as writing and reading about cinema—and it's nearly impossible to not be inspired by Ebert's passion for the same.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Day the Music (Television) Died

...Actually, everyone knows MTV was laid to rest a long time ago, its death rattles audible well before The Hills was a twinkle in its glassy eye. Still, the network has gone ahead and confirmed what we already knew by officially removing "Music Television" from its name and logo, thereby allowing the channel to air round-the-clock reality show spinoffs to its heart's content, free of guilt from, y'know, not playing music.

I could opine on the loss of a pop culture monument, but why rehash what Current TV's hilarious SuperNews! has already summed up perfectly (in all its Watership Down-referencing glory)?


Did Jersey Shore Kill the Video Star?

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happy Super Bowl XLIV

In celebration, Slate has a pretty hilarious video on what it would like if famous filmmakers directed the big game:


Since any of my hopes for today went out with Brett Favre's ankle a couple weeks back, I'll probably be more invested in the Puppy Bowl...

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Take the Eff! Train

Speaking of Spider-Man...while the climactic battle atop an elevated subway train in Spider-Man 2 was an exciting one, as a Chicagoan, it's always bothered me a bit that the scene was clearly shot in downtown Chicago, but meant to be New York. (And any New Yorker could tell the same thing, since there aren't any elevated trains in midtown Manhattan.)

With that employment of artistic license in mind, check out Red Eye's list of CTA movie goofs. The city may have already fallen from the dizzying highs of serving as backdrop for The Dark Knight to the mediocre lows of reportedly doing the same for Transformers 3, but it's seen its share of iconic movie set pieces over the years, with the El often playing a starring role. So, what other glaring, public transportation-based filmic mistakes have gotten your goat, friends?
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UPDATE: Batman on Film reports that the new Dark Knight installment is rumored to already be scouting locations in Chicago...

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I trust T. William Walsh

David Bazan's doing something pretty cool tonight: TW Walsh (who mixed and mastered Bazan's exceptional Curse Your Branches and formerly served as a Pedro the Lion member) will be mixing a new Bazan recording live online at www.ustream.tv/channel/tw-walsh. Stream begins at 7:00 (CT).

Meanwhile, Bazan is currently on solo tour in Europe and will be stateside with his impressive backing band, along with openers Headlights, this spring.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Less Grammy, More Spidey

I could post something about the Grammys tonight, but let's be honest: there were no surprises, and no one cares. (Cheers to Beyonce's six awards, though, including a well deserved Song of the Year for "Single Ladies.")

Nope, I'd rather talk about Spider-Man. Days after Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi officially parted ways with the franchise, Sony and Columbia recently announced that (500) Days of Summer/music video director Marc Webb (pictured above) has signed on as helmer of the next Spider-Man entry, which would put the characters back in high school. James Vanderbilt, who penned David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac, is reportedly serving as screenwriter.

My reaction's a bit mixed on this one: Raimi's first two Spidey pics are among the handful of best comic book films ever made, while Spider-Man 3 was roundly criticized as a bloated, schmaltzy, train wreck of a movie. Reports that the Spider-Man 4 script was stalled due to Raimi's desire to avoid another SM3 left me heartened; if he could pull it off so well earlier, surely he could do it again?

On the other hand, you've got to commend Sony for deciding to go with a new approach. Peter Parker was always a teenage character, his conflicts stemming from the difficulties of adolescence; with the Spider-Man cast pushing their mid-thirties, perhaps it was time to let that particular narrative come to an end. I'm also impressed with the studio taking a risk, much like they did by originally hiring Raimi, in bringing on relative newcomers with invigorating, edgy styles.

The great thing about comic book movies is that series reboots are perfectly normal in the world of comics - it's always fun to see a different artist's perspective on a character. Who knows how the thing'll turn out (the latest rumors - and I emphasize rumors - have Zac Efron attached as Spidey), but for now, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Oh, and speaking of James Cameron, the Toronto Star has an interesting look at what might have been, had the King of the World ended up making a Spider-Man movie, as he was planning to do in the early '90s. Weird.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Tape is on Team Conan

Even if he weren't getting screwed by NBC, we'd still be standing tall behind Conan, general friend to comedy and music. Jay Leno, you're dead to us.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Case of the Revamped Franchise

While Guy Ritchie's (Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) rollicking, stylized direction may not be the obvious choice for bringing the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes to the big screen, Ritchie does a solid job of endearing the iconic sleuth to multiplex audiences of today. His Sherlock Holmes is a lively, entertaining outing, led by a never-more-likable Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law - though its central mystery turns out to be pretty trite.

It may owe a bit to Burton's Sweeney Todd, but Ritchie quickly establishes a fun and creepy world in his imagining of Holmes's Victorian underbelly. There are plenty of fisticuffs in this Holmes, and while its action set pieces are impressive, Downey's Holmes is best when he's quipping and deducing. Watson and Holmes's snappy back-and-forths propel the story so that you barely notice the hackneyed plot until the game is already well afoot, and the script (by committee, of fairly newbie action writers Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg) loses some steam in the third act. Still, Downey and Ritchie have so much fun along the way that it's hard to care too much.

The film is far and away Ritchie's biggest hit, and he and the cast have already signed on for a sequel. Bring it on, I say. Sherlock Holmes is a movie universe to which I would happily return. Here's hoping that the next entry is a bit less, well...elementary. (Eh? Eh?)

Grade: B

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