Sherlock Holmes

December 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Guy Ritchie (“RocknRolla”)
Written by: Anthony Peckham (“Invictus”), Simon Kinberg (“Jumper”), Michael Robert Johnson (debut)

It’s really not necessary to walk into the hip new version of “Sherlock Holmes” knowing anything about the legendary 19th century detective stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Actually, it might benefit moviegoers to forget anything about the English gumshoe they might have learned in prep school.

While there are some glimpses of Doyle’s source material, director Guy Ritchie (“RocknRolla,” “Snatch”) attempts to amp up this Holmes tale for the next generation, but fashions it around a mass-appealing storyline that becomes more soupy that scholarly.

That shouldn’t take anything away from two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr.’s stylish portrayal of the title character. As Holmes, Downey Jr. commands the screen as the world’s most famous, fist-fighting detective. Here, he is matched up nicely with actor Jude Law, who is a solid casting choice for Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson. Despite the impressive paring and chemistry, screenwriters Anthony Peckham (“Invictus”), Simon Kinberg (“Jumper”), and newcomer Michael Robert Johnson can’t match the magnetism of Downey Jr. or the menacing art direction that turns London into a tarnished locale.

In the film, Holmes and Watson are on the heels of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a serial killer involved in black magic who apparently rises from the dead after the duo watch him hang for the murders he committed. From there, the film falls into a tale of world domination that is hardly unique on any level. Blackwood wants to bring down Parliament with a chemical weapon. Holmes must find him before he does. Where’s Guy Fawkes when you need him?

An under-used Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook”) plays Irene Adler, a secondary character only mentioned in one of Doyle’s numerous writings but is undoubtedly high on the Holmes hierarchy. The always-reliable Eddie Marsan plays Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade with his usual bitter approach to his characters.

Set pieces aside, “Sherlock Holmes” goes as far as the supernatural-themed narrative allows it. There are some highlights in the film including the rousing action sequences Ritchie is known for, which work well for a while before we’re reminded that all the loose ends and twists still have to be revealed before the bloated story pops. Then, there’s the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer that is far removed from his usual extravagant musical offerings. The funky piano playing throughout reminds us that not every period blockbuster needs a swelling orchestra to be effective.

But when a film feels like all it’s doing in the final act is setting up for a sequel, something is wrong with its cinematic logic. There’s far more story to tell in the mystery series, but it’s insane for “Holmes” to stop short without a concrete promise of a follow-up or without earning the right to dole out cliffhangers. It really acts more self-important than it should. Just be thankful Holmes never utters the word “elementary” or things could have gotten really ugly on Baker Street.

Invictus

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”)
Written by: Anthony Peckham (“Don’t Say a Word”)

Rather than give us a straightforward biopic about Nelson Mandela, two-time Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) takes the spirit of the former President of South Africa and captures the essence of his political achievement and activism in the affecting film “Invictus.” More than an inspiring story, it enhances the definition of “inspirational sports drama.”

Starring Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) as Mandela, “Invictus,” which is based on the John Carlin book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” tells the story of how the former President used the sport of rugby to help unite a nation split by anger and resentment.

The film begins with the release of Mandela from prison in 1990. Mandela, who had been incarcerated for 28 years for crimes committed as an anti-apartheid activist, returned to the political spotlight soon after his release and was elected the country’s first black President four years later. After 46 years of apartheid, South Africa was at a turning point and Mandela was at the forefront of managing civil unrest.

To impede the racial power struggle in his homeland, Mandela, who recognized the passion his fellow countrymen had for rugby, recruits rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead the national team to victory. Mandela’s theory was that their success on the field would bring a sense of pride to South Africa everyone could share together as a unified country.

Mandela, however, didn’t want the team, which was known at the Springbok, to simply improve. He wanted them to win the 1995 World Cup. Doing this would not only pose a challenge for the fairly average rugby team. Mandela would have to sell his idea to black South Africans, who preferred soccer and viewed the almos all-white Springbok as a sad reminder of their segregated past.

In a classic and low-key performance, Freeman encapsulates Mandela with conviction although screenwriter Anthony Peckham doesn’t explore multiple layers that make up the iconic leader. Instead, “Invictus” plays more symbolically especially when Freeman’s Mandela uses respect and kindheartedness in attempt to realize to his political aspirations.

There might be a bit of an emotional disconnection since Eastwood and Peckham don’t explain much of anything when it comes to apartheid (study up before you come to the theater to understand the historical significance), but overall “Invictus” is all about precision and heart both on and off the rugby field.