Monday, July 27, 2015

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Amid the recent Sherlock Holmes renaissance – two films and two television shows in six years – there seems to have been something of an effort to find the “more authentic” Holmes by doing something quite different from Basil Rathbone in a deerstalker cap. Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes takes a similar tack, albeit by locating Holmes in his later years, giving us a more sobered and more affective detective than the others, one that succeeds largely on the shoulders of its star performer, Ian McKellen.

Mr. Holmes finds the great detective (McKellen) in exile-by-retirement with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). While tending his bees and staving off senility, Holmes is haunted by his failing memory of his last case and the need to resolve it before his powers of deductive reasoning falter for good.

First of all, Ian McKellen is absolutely amazing in this film. Among the panoply of talented Sherlocks we’ve had in the past few years, McKellen is, I can safely say, in a league of his own. I confess I haven’t seen much of Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary performance, but Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have wildly different though engaging screen presences; both, however, do have a similar superhuman aesthetic about them, detaching them somewhat from the Doyle stories. McKellen’s Holmes, on the other hand, is the definition of grounded, all the more so because of the weight of his past and, he confides in one of the film’s most intriguing turns, the burden of his own fame in the wake of Watson’s publications.

McKellen is mesmerizing, unsurprisingly so given the fact that he apparently can do anything on screen. In another striking debut by a child actor, though, it’s Milo Parker’s scene-stealing turn as young Roger that makes the best impression. As a kind of new Watson to the aging Holmes, Parker plays precocious deftly, reminding one just a little bit of Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love Actually. (Or maybe I just think all British children are alike.) To make one’s mainstream debut (setting aside Robot Overlords, of which I hadn’t so much as heard) opposite two giants like McKellen and Linney is one thing, but to hold your own is something else entirely. Parker provides the biggest laughs in the film, as well as the most emotional moments when we see what constitutes growing up in a home with Holmes.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most was the pronounced lack of action in Mr. Holmes. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect rousing fight choreography from a septuagenarian playing a nonagenarian, but the big screen Sherlock has of late been something of a master martial artist, but Condon’s treatment is much more contemplative, much more sensitive than the casual (or careless) snark of RDJ and Cumberbatch. Consequently, the film has an air not of melancholy but of introspection, mirrored quite well by the film’s balance of three distinct timelines which unfold and interweave to address all the unfinished business of Holmes’s life.

Mr. Holmes is a quieter Sherlock Holmes film than that to which we are accustomed of late, but it’s in the vein of what we might call “traditionally British” – the same as what Eddie Izzard satirized as “room with a view with a pond and a staircase.” I don’t recall a pond, but there is still the same serenity in Mr. Holmes, something very calming amid the otherwise blockbuster summer season. And at the center of it all is a very wonderful performance by Ian McKellen, one which ought to be seen by any self-professed admirers of the great detective.

Mr. Holmes is rated PG for “thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.” There is mention of miscarried pregnancy, bee stings, and loneliness; Holmes discusses smoking pipes and cigars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

When a movie studio takes on “juggernaut” status in the way that Marvel Studios has, there’s a rubbernecking tendency among the media as they begin to speculate when it will fail, when that first flop will fall. We saw it with Guardians of the Galaxy, which succeeded more than anyone expected (especially for a film with talking trees and raccoons). Now, between the departure of initial director Edgar Wright and the problem of name recognition, Ant-Man had been floated as Marvel’s first failure. The truth is, however, that Ant-Man stumbles through its exposition before ending up as a surprisingly entertaining superhero film.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a reformed cat burglar who wants to support his daughter, but his criminal past and ex-wife won’t let him. Meanwhile, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) discovers that his shrinking technology is being appropriated by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Against the advice of his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tasks Scott with stealing the technology from Cross, offering him the Ant-Man suit to accomplish the heist.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way for those of us true believers who love these movies – Ant-Man is a little bit clunky, especially in the exposition department. There’s a very funny line in the trailers – slightly different in the finished film – where Hank Pym tells Scott, “I need you to break into a place and steal some stuff.” The thing about Ant-Man is that the first twenty minutes or so is exactly like that, with characters very directly expressing their motivations, desires, and plot arcs. Scott’s relationship with his daughter could have been somewhat poignant, but every scene he’s in involves him telling someone else how much he cares for his daughter before being reminded that he has a criminal record. It’s very on-the-nose screenwriting that distracts from the Marvel emphasis on character; compare, for example, to Iron Man and the way it introduced Tony Stark by showing him in his natural habitat rather than telling us, “Tony, you’re irresponsible.”

Having said that, with a first act that feels very perfunctory, once Ant-Man gets going it’s a much more successful film. It manages to walk that line between acknowledging how absurd the concept is and just running with it, without feeling parodic or naïve. It’s aware of the innate absurdity of a superhero whose power is talking to ants, but at the same time it demonstrates just how much can be done with that power. There are several moments in the film where I said to myself, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” moments that demonstrate the creativity of the writers and the way in which they’ve taken the concept seriously without being too serious about it.

A large part of the film’s attitude comes from Rudd’s naturalism in the role; for me, he’s always been the member of the Judd Apatow “Frat Pack” who can step back from the material and wink at it without compromising the integrity of his performance, and he brings that grounded irony to Scott Lang. At the other end of the spectrum, it is an absolute delight to see Michael Douglas in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve said before that he’s one of those actors who is watchable no matter what he’s doing. In the role of the mentor – Marvel’s first “legacy” character – Douglas shines as someone crippled by loss and haunted by his past. Lilly, for those who haven’t seen her since Lost, is also quite compelling as Hope, the kind of character of which we just can’t wait to see more, and thank heavens we’ll almost certainly see her in a film down the road, because Hope has the potential to be a breakout star of the MCU – spirited, heroic, and unique (there isn’t really a comparison character, fortunately).

The thing that makes Ant-Man a real success, aside from the inevitable tie-in aspects (including cameos from Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and one other name I won’t spoil - though for God's sake, people, stay through the credits!), is its adherence to the formula of the heist film. Marvel’s been pretty good with this lately, giving us a 70s spy film with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy, so the genre play here keeps the superhero genre from growing stale (really, how many times can one replicate the structure of Superman before wearing it thin?). Think of it like Ocean’s Eleven if Danny Ocean could shrink. And the rousing score by Christophe Beck helps that atmosphere work for the audience.

I went into Ant-Man expecting it to be a passable superhero venture, one of a dozen generic entries, but the film won over the cynic in me fairly rapidly and convinced me it had something to offer – a return to form of sorts, something akin to Iron Man with its emphasis on corporate espionage rather than saving the world. It’s not as strong a film as Iron Man, but it’s no less entertaining than at least half of what Marvel has put out in the last decade.

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence.” There is a fair amount of running, jumping, and punching, done at an atomic level so we only see full-size people recoiling from being hit by Ant-Man. There’s also the usual amount of peril and menace from the principal antagonist.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

When I saw the trailer for Jurassic World, I asked the same question twice, once of the characters in the film and once of the filmmakers themselves: “Why did you think this was a good idea? We saw what happened last time.” Honestly, why anyone would build an actual Jurassic Park seemed unfathomable, given the fate of the original, but I also wanted to know why the filmmakers were ostensibly remaking the original with a higher body count. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I can say that the answer to both versions of the question is, “But this one’s bigger,” and I’m actually not as disappointed with that answer as one might expect.

Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) manages the successful theme park Jurassic World, with little on her mind but business. On the eve of the park’s newest debut, the genetically modified Indominus Rex, Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins, late of Iron Man 3, and Nick Robinson) visit the park, but it’s also the day before disaster in the park – disaster to which Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his trained velociraptors respond.

I’ll try not to get too philosophical about the difference between spectacle and storytelling here, though the difference is key on the subject of Jurassic World. It is, in short, the difference between The Maltese Falcon and Transformers. In The Maltese Falcon (the 1941 John Huston version, of course), we have a brilliant story and very substantial character work, leaving the audience feeling satisfied and accomplished by film’s end, even though (spoilers) very little is actually resolved. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Michael Bay movies, which are spectacles turned up to eleven, with next to nothing by way of plotting or characterization. Both can be entertaining in their own right – though, of course, Transformers is patently offensive in some of its disregard for storytelling (and offensive in other insensitivities as well).

Now, Jurassic World clearly values spectacle more than storytelling. There was some controversy about whether or not the film chastises the character of Claire for being professional at the cost of her personal life, for not wanting to follow the cliché of marriage-then-motherhood. I don’t agree with that assessment of the film (I actually think her sister comes off quite poorly for nagging Claire to “settle down”), but I think it exposes a problem with the film – the characters are so thinly written that it’s quite easy to impose an interpretation like that onto the film. That is, the characters consist of one personality trait (Claire=business, Owen=badass, kids=imperiled), and the screenplay doesn’t quite bother with value judgments on those traits.

On the other hand, while the characters are fairly flat, director Colin Trevorrow is much more interested in the theme park atmosphere of Jurassic World, about the fleshed-out attractions such a park might include, and naturally about the ways all that could go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s almost as though Trevorrow has anticipated the detractors’ cries of “Been there, done that” and responds with, “Well, of course it goes wrong. That’s what this franchise is all about.” Jurassic World doesn’t have the same kind of cautionary allegory as the Michael Crichton source material.

Jurassic World is not better than Jurassic Park, nor, I would say, is it even as good. But it is good enough. Less than three-dimensional characters aside, the horror movie-inflected direction works surprisingly well, overcoming the cynical me that came to the theaters that day and giving me that “Oh, this isn’t good” feeling in the pit of my stomach. Trevorrow does something quite intriguing, by way of comparison to Jurassic Park, which began with a tour of the grounds and devolved into chaos. Jurassic World, however, intermingles the two; as the park’s security measures fail sector by sector, the film carries on in tandem with the ignorance of the park attendees. It’s a nice change-up that keeps Jurassic World from feeling too much like a retread of the original while substituting the escalating sense of menace borrowed from, I think, home invasion and slasher films.

You can sum up the film quite nicely with a key moment from its climax, in which the human characters step out of the way and let about a dozen dinosaurs fight it out amongst themselves. Indeed, the last word of the film (if we can call it that) belongs to a dinosaur. Trevorrow has said he’s not terribly interested in a sequel, but if one existed, a) would we call it Jurassic World 2 or Jurassic Park 5?, and b) would it consist almost entirely of dinosaurs? The lesson of Jurassic World seems to be that a skeletal narrative can support a spectacle, providing that the spectacle is diverting enough. Either Jurassic World 2 will dispense with the pretext of a human supporting cast, or it’ll find a way to use them more effectively; either way, I’m decidedly less cynical about more Jurassic films than I was before seeing the film.

Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.” I’m not really sure what more to add by way of description: there are dinosaurs, some of them are scary, and a lot of them eat people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Let’s get one thing clear about Terminator Genisys right off the bat:  I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. There’s some stuff – and that’s kind of the best word for it, as I’ll discuss momentarily – in this film that is entertaining to watch, but there’s a lot about the film that is largely hollow, and the word I keep coming back to is ponderous, even overly so.

After an apparent victory over Skynet, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to the past to save his mother from an inbound Terminator. But when Kyle arrives in 1984, he finds that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already prepared for his arrival, with a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on her side. Together they realize that they’re in a divergent timeline, with Skynet set to rise in a new form.

I’ve actually never seen the original Terminator film – shocking, I know – but I have seen all the other films in the series (we’re up to five now). Even in spite of not having seen The Terminator, I have the same critique of Terminator Genisys that I had for Star Trek Into Darkness – that is, the allusions to the original source material are so obvious that even someone who hasn’t seen the original is aware of them, the effect being something akin to a clubbing over the head (I imagine) for those who are truly in the know. In both cases, the filmmakers have mistaken reference for reverence.

As for the exceptionally ponderous quality of the film, it’s as though the script writers looked at the original films and wanted to succeed by multiplying out the component parts. If you liked the liquid Terminator, this film has one of those and a shapeshifting nanobot Terminator. If you liked the time travel plot, this film has three. And if you liked Sarah Connor evolving into a badass, this film gives you a Sarah Connor who has always already been a badass. Of course, the difference is originality – we liked those beats in the films because they were different from what we had seen before. Okay, to be fair, the nanobot Terminator is pretty cool, a good adaptation of where our current understanding of robotics has taken us (even if I’m left thinking, “Didn’t I just see that in Big Hero 6?”).

Then again – and I’m not blaming director Alan Taylor for this, because he’s apparently miffed about it too – the big reveal of the nanobot Terminator was spoiled quite audaciously in the trailers. If you’ve managed to avoid the twist of which character is actually a Terminator, well done, and I won’t spoil it here because I think I would have liked the film more if I hadn’t known it ahead of time. (Although again, to be fair, it’s telegraphed a bit clearly quite early on.) And then, to top it all off, the plot is once more a race against the clock to blow up a computer before something really bad comes out of it.

I like alternate timeline stories; I think one of the best of them is Mark Millar’s Red Son, in which Superman’s rocket lands in the Soviet Union rather than Smallville, Kansas. But the difference is clear by way of one more comparison to the Star Trek reboot – where JJ Abrams’s Star Trek used an alternate timeline as a way to clear away the detritus of decades of continuity in order to do its own thing, Terminator Genisys does a soft reboot but then buckles under the weight of an inevitable future and a few obligatory callbacks (such as the inevitable “I’ll be back”).

There is “stuff” in this film – exploding things, car chases, action sequences – that is diverting enough, but they’re very much in a switch-off kind of mode that doesn’t advance the plot so much as puts it on hold. Even then, though, I’m left with questions the film shouldn’t force me to ask, like whether or not a Terminator ought to be too heavy to fit in a helicopter with two humans and their arsenal.

Unfortunately, the film ducks out on a lot of its big questions – like who sent “Old Arnold” into the past in the first place and what that mid-credits sequence actually means – because, surprise, there’s a new trilogy in the offing. That’s right, Terminator Genisys goes full Prometheus in the ending. And if the message of the film is that the future really isn’t set, let’s hope that the inevitable next Terminator film takes advantage of the alternate timeline’s freedom and does something new and surprising with the franchise. Just don’t be surprised if the next film climaxes with a few explosives around yet another computer.

Terminator Genisys is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language.” Robots and humans fight, occasionally shooting or stabbing each other. We see one or two naked bottoms with implied nudity during the time jumps, and one F-bomb is dropped.