Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reel To Reel: Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows

Now the real mystery begins.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Victorian-flavored martial arts violence, gunplay and bawdiness

I will admit to you quite sheepishly that I've only read a couple of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories: "The Three Garridebs" and "The Red-Headed League." So I am relying on my Royal Father's considerable Holmes knowledge base when I tell you the sequel to the 2009 hit mashes up three Holmes stories, including one that Doyle hoped would be his last.

It also gets back to basics. Gone from this edition are the steampunk influences that made the first film trendy but abnormal. However, director Guy Ritchie doesn't mess with a winning formula. It still holds on to the characterization of Holmes as a skilled fighter and while adding his (Downey) greatest arch-nemesis, the sinister Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a criminal genius who really is a genius.

As the picture opens, France and Germany are at each other's throats in the late 1800's, and the rest of Europe could be pulled in if Moriarty's fiendish plot plays out. Holmes is the thorn in his side, but simply killing him is too easy... or too tough depending on your perspective. The two meet in a pre-game parlay like the commanders of two colonial armies taking the battlefield. "Do you want to play this game?" Moriarty asks of Holmes. Of course he does, especially after finding what the doctor did to his love interest.

The entire film is a gigantic, violent game of chess with moves and counter-moves, each man trying to outsmart the other. Caught in the middle is Holmes' beleaguered best friend Dr. Watson (Law), who's just gotten married but has to put his honeymoon on hold to follow Holmes on a case that has ended up endangering both their lives. Naturally, the climatic scene throws in an actual game of chess.

A Game Of Shadows forces you to pay attention to all the details, because all those details are going to come back in the next scene, or some scene down the reel. Nothing gets by Holmes, who admits to us, "I see everything," while confiding it is both curse and blessing.

I have to admit I was drawn in by the lush costuming of this picture, which will draw an easy Oscar nomination. And naturally, I'm a sucker for a handsomely costumed ball scene, which this picture delivers right down to the servants in the breeches. Even if the film isn't exactly true to Doyle's dialogue and storylines of the Victorian era, it certainly delivers the style.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Reel To Reel: Hugo

Time for some movie magic.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission in 3D
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law
Rated: PG (but could pass for a G)
Red Flags: Some very mild references to marital infidelity

Why on earth would the man who directed Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Casino, Gangs Of New York, and Mean Streets want to take on an imaginative 3D family film? Because, silly, Martin Scorsese is one of the greats. And great directors know great movies. This one is a homage to another great: Georges Méliès, a magician who saw film as a new medium for illusion and created the industry that powers so many of today's movies -- special effects.

To summarize the film's plot would rob you of its storybook qualities. Indeed, the entire film has a lovingly storybook vision, as it follows the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) through the inner workings of a train station in 1931 Paris as he keeps the various clocks wound and oiled while dodging the Station Inspector (Cohen). I can tell you that Hugo is hoping to complete a job his father started, and in doing so, he will have a brush with the aforementioned magician. Joining him in his adventure is Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who can't understand why she's not allowed to see movies.

The 3D effects are like seasoning on a fine meal. Steam from the railway station leaks onto the screen and bathes you in Hugo's world. The film is in absolute adoration for post-WWI France and the French people, and Scorsese goes to great lengths to make sure you enjoy every bite. Butterfield turns in a solid performance as Hugo, but what struck me the most was his piercing eyes, which are enhanced by the 3D effect. Cohen's comic station inspector has nuance and wit. He should be playing Inspector Clouseau, not Steve Martin if somebody decides to remake another Pink Panther movie. And what can I say about Ben Kingsley, except that I'm glad he's still making movies.

See Hugo in a theater, while you still can. Its magic will loose potency when it comes to Blu-Ray, even if you have a gigantic 3D capable big screen. Some movies are meant to be movies, and Méliès might very well agree.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reel To Reel: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Impossible mission? Not in the movies, no.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, some mild sexuality and mild language

The fourth installment of the Mission Impossible film series may be the best so far. It's still over the top, but it's executed in a way that doesn't feel over the top. Along the way it finds a sense of dark humor, an okay-are-we-really-going-to-have-to-do-this vibe.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is back and still taking more bodily punishment than Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. His support team of the beauty, Jane (Patton) and the brains, Benji (Pegg), are with him busting him out of a Russian Gulag and then infiltrating the Kremlin to recover stolen nuclear secrets -- all in less than 24 hours. Now complain to me once more about all the Christmas shopping you have left to do.

The Impossible Missions Force doesn't always get away clean. This time, they end up fingered for a terrorist bombing at the Kremlin, but it's actually the work of a nuclear madman named Cobalt, who wants to detonate a nuke as part of a scheme to build some sort of new world order. After the Kremlin incident, the President disavows the IMF, which is just a diplomatic way of saying, "You're on your own, kids, until this stuff blows over."

Really, though, like Ethan and company need official permission to do anything. In fact, they pick up Brandt (Renner), a government analyst who fights pretty darn well for a desk jockey. With his skills, Jane's deadly charm and Benji's computer hacking skills, you've got just enough team to save the world.

Ethan still does most of the grunt work, including climbing up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. If CGI is used in this scene, it's the best digital compositing I've ever seen -- or it's real. If that isn't enough, he also has to outmaneuvering an automated parking garage in India and run down a baddie in a familiar-looking sand storm. I kept waiting for the audience to yell out, "Haboob!"

Ghost Protocol is a summer blockbuster on winter vacation. It doesn't expect us to suspend a lot of disbelief, leading to many moments when you think, "Wow, this is really dangerous." Simon Pegg's character is nice touch to the film, adding some needed lighter moments. I heard one young lady telling her friends on the way out of the auditorium, "This is the best of the four." I think she's right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Francis At 40 -- You've Come A Long Way, Baby!

Lessons, ponderings and observations from the first four decades:

Experience doesn't necessarily equal wisdom. I'm still learning on the job.

Substitutions come with pitfalls. Don't try using dishwashing liquid when you run out of Cascade.

When you move up in your job, or in life, everything should move up. I passed on job offers from Wichita, Lexington and Ft. Meyers because they couldn't cut it.

Some people would rather live in their own world than face the truth -- too many examples to list.

I have to accept the limitations of my body. It took only one Scottish dance to trash my arm, and Ukrainian folk dancers can do things that would break my neck.

GOD answers prayers in ways people don't expect. And often that answer is "no."

Contentment prevents many problems.

I can wear a tricorn hat in my full Revolutionary War uniform and people will still call me a pirate.

I can serve GOD by serving others.

Passion is wonderful, as long as you're passionate about the right things. I still can't believe the fanaticism surrounding my appearance on The Price Is Right.

Shoveling snow like you're fighting a war is a sure way to end up in the Emergency Room.

I don't need to drink alcohol. I don't want to drink alcohol. GOD did not create me as a drinking person.

If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives, I hate to think about where baby oil comes from.

I can only remember 20 percent of what I learned in college. Glad I had a scholarship.

If I had my current interest in history back when I was 16, I would have gone to the prom dressed in a 1740's coat, powdered wig, white stockings and knee breeches. I kid you not. What would they do -- throw me out for being too elegant?

GOD gives us a compass, not a road map. All of us are free to follow our joys as long as we trust HIS guidance.

If I'm not supposed to eat the paste in Kindergarten, why did they make it so tasty?

If I can walk, I can dance.

Show me an old Radio Shack TRS-80 system, and I'll show you one slobbering nerd.

The evil genius who can manipulate the world's testosterone will be the one to rule them all.

A dog knows more than I would like to admit.

First you find your MASTER. Then you find your mission. Then you find your mate.

Across the infinite universe, much more is unknown than known, more undiscovered than visioned... but when the aliens invade this planet, they'll eat the fat ones first.