Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Did you miss him? Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed brawler/detective Sherlock Holmes blasts his way back into theaters and the people are flocking to his latest case. While I found myself smitten with Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance during the first case, I found the events swirling around him too tortuous. I understand what British director Guy Ritchie is trying to achieve, which is to put us in Holmes’ rutty boots and work along side him in racing the clock and solving the diabolical plot. Yet Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets tangled up in its own reveals, twists, turns, and fake-outs. I found myself backtracking to pinpoint which character Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson were chattering on about. Do not interpret this as me saying the film was over my head, but I just wish these movies would slow down for a minute and let me catch up before it dashes off again. The film leaves you mentally exhausted. I suppose that the modish action sequences are there to let us rest our brains, but Ritchie goes above and beyond the normal slam-bang intensity that is rampaging through action films of late. He stages some of the most rousing action sequences of the year, with precise slow-motion halts to give us a clear glimpse of the bone snapping action. It’s exhilarating and you can’t peel your eyes from it. So much for a second to catch my breath.
After a string of seemingly unrelated crimes throughout Europe, the peculiar detective Holmes (Played by Downey Jr.) suspects that there is more to these strange events than meets the eye. He begins applying his usual unorthodox detective work and enlists the help of the less-than-patient Dr. John Watson (Played by Law) to aid him in discovering the truth. The trail leads them to Professor James Moriarty (Played by Jared Harris), a genius that can match Holmes every step of the way. As Holmes tries to piece together what all these crimes are leading up to, he crosses paths with a dagger-throwing gypsy named Sim (Played by Noomi Rapace), who is the next target of Moriarty. Sim proves to be useful in aiding Holmes and Dr. Watson in figuring out what Moriarty’s plot is, which turns out to be more destructive than Holmes could have ever imagined.
I don’t really want to dive into many more details about the plot of the second entry to the Sherlock Holmes franchise; the slow reveals of this one prove to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the first installment. A Game of Shadows benefits from a much better villain, one who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes both in a fight and in brains too. The film does have some incredibly exhaustive art direction, featuring some lavish costumes, realistic CGI, and some sets that are to die for. It maintains the steam-punk industrial aesthetic that Ritchie established with the first film. Yet my qualm about Holmes stems from its overly busy inner workings, mostly in the plot department. Everyone speaks in a thick British accent and rambles on about characters that are hard to remember. Trust me, there are a TON of characters so I would advise you bring a notebook to scribble them all down in. The film also moves at a breakneck speed that left me wishing I could just have a brief intermission and review everything that had just happened before piling on more plot points. This one will leave you exhausted but I commend its unremitting energy.
The one aspect that I love about Sherlock Holmes is the driven, fanatical performance from Downey Jr. I think he may be a bit sharper with Holmes than he is with Tony Stark, a role many love a bit more than Holmes. Credit should be given to his spot-on and rich British accent that pours effortlessly through his mumbling mouth. He sometimes comes off as a ranting lunatic that would seem more at home in a straightjacket rather than an overcoat and bowler cap. He’s unpredictable (He shows up on a train dressed as a woman), brash, and poised in every move he makes. When at one point he admits he made a mistake and lives are lost, we feel his distress in himself. It’s only one of two times we see a crack in his self-assured manner. Law’s Dr. Watson acts as the voice of reason when Holmes goes on a brain-frying rampage. Law also has perfect comedic timing to Downey Jr.’s deadpan delivery. Truth is, their relationship is given room to grow and evolve here. We get to see their affection for one another. They are an odd couple but, hey, opposites attract right?
Moriarty is a memorable villain, one who spits his words out with vitriol to spare. He truly does have a diabolical plot and I love his final moments with Holmes. Harris look like he had a good time playing evil. Rachel McAdams returns for a brief cameo as Adler, one that seems a little bit pointless, as she wasn’t in the original all that much. Rapace, for all the celebration around her performance in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to just be a pretty face stuck between Law and Downey Jr.’s stubbly faces. I would have liked to see more range from her, as all Ritchie has her doing is running from bullets, hitmen, and cannonballs. Stephen Fry turns up as Mycroft, Sherlock’s posh brother who is just as deadpan and batty as the good detective.
As someone who is always rallying for more intellectual blockbusters, I have to hand it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It refuses to dumb itself down too much, even if it is just escapist fluff. If there is another Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure there will be, I would love to see the screenwriter shave things down a little bit and I’d love for Ritchie to ease up on the pace. Don’t be in such a rush to push Holmes through the case, as I enjoy watching him tick. I’ll definitely have thirds on the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, as that acts as the heart and soul for this franchise. The action should also be noted, as it turns out to be much more epic the second time around. Just wait until you see the gunfight between Holmes, Sim, and Watson against a gang of German soldiers. All I will say is that it involves stellar slow-motion effects and a gun named Little Hansel. Funnier than the original, a bit more straight forward (Just slightly!), with style and energy to burn, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the ideal thrill ride to distract you from all those Christmas presents you still have to buy.
A Christmas Story (1983)
by Steve Habrat
It is damn near impossible to find someone who loathes the idea of watching Bob Clark’s now classic A Christmas Story around Christmas. Unless you’re my mother, everyone else can’t get enough of young cherub-faced Ralphie’s epic quest to make sure there is a Red Ryder BB gun nestled underneath his family’s Christmas tree come the big day. For some odd reason my mother hates this film and I have never been able to figure out why. For me, I love watching it on Christmas Eve, but then again I am someone who falls head over heels for schmaltz. I remember watching this film as a kid and relating to it because who didn’t have that one gift that they were dying to find Christmas morning? The one where you anxiously tear off the paper, hands a bit shaky with anticipation, and then your eyes growing as big as saucers as you see the glorious treasure that was hidden behind Santa Clause stamped wrapping paper! It’s about the gift that makes you forget about every other gift that has your name written on it. But A Christmas Story ends up being about a little more than just getting that special gift. It’s about the trials and tribulations as a kid–swearing in front of your parents (Fudge!), getting beat up by older bullies, not paying attention in class, receiving average grades in school, dealing with siblings, etc. It touches on your father’s passive attitude about Christmas, your mother’s efforts to make sure it’s a cozy holiday with hearty food, the journey to meet Santa, and more! Even if you don’t watch it as a Christmas film, there is still something that can be cherished and reminiscent about your own childhood.
Set in 1940, in Hohman, Indiana (It was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio. My stomping grounds!), A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie Parker (Played by Peter Billingsley) and his adventures during the Christmas season. The film picks up with Ralphie seeing the Red Ryder BB gun in a storefront window and falling in love with rifle. He then launches a massive campaign to convince his parents, his stern mother (Played by Melinda Dillion) and his grumpy Old Man (Played by Darren McGavin) to get the gun for him for Christmas. Each attempt is met with “You’ll shoot your eye out” and disappointment for little old Ralph. But every door closed is another door opened and Ralphie takes advantage of every opportunity. Along with his little brother Randy (Played by Ian Petrella), the two Parker boys also face a terrifying visit with Santa, neighborhood bullies, a tongue getting frozen to a light post, embarrassing winter gear, flat tires, and their father’s prized lamp, all with hysterical results.
Director Clark approaches A Christmas Story with a dreamy haze that lingers through the entire movie, appearing as the flashback it is. The film is enthusiastically narrated and guided along by a much older Ralphie (Voiced by Jean Shepherd) and boy if that voice isn’t iconic now. This film is loaded with unforgettable moments, from the soap shoved into Raphie’s mouth after he drops the F-bomb to the tongue stuck to the light post that is both uproarious and pitiable. Who can forget that notorious lamp being delivered and the jubilant Old Man outside the house basking in the sensual glory? But there is also some beautiful shots in this film, from Ralphie peering out his bedroom window on to a snow covered lawn on Christmas morning, to one of the final shots of the Old Man and the mother sitting together on the couch, tree lit and watching the snow fall on to the front yard. These images look like they are ripped from 40’s Christmas cards. They are both vintage and modern, all in the same breath.
A Christmas Story wouldn’t be as popular if it wasn’t for those performances from all involved. Billingsley’s Ralphie is all starry-eyed innocence. A true product of the time he is growing up in. You can’t help but adore him. His brother Randy is a whiny little runt, one who is always pleading for the sympathy of Ralphie. Their mother is an incandescent woman, bursting with love and affection but stern when the chips are down. The Old Man is a gruff chap, one who comes down hard if the boys step out of line, but he has a heart of gold buried beneath all of his toughness. They all add up to be the face of a true old-fashioned family. There is also the rabid Scut Farcus (Played by Zack Ward) and Grover Dill (Played by Yano Anaya), the two nasties of the neighborhood. There is also the hilarious and creepy Santa Claus who bears down on children with intimidating and booming “HOOO! HOOO! HOOO!”s. He has the red nose and rosy cheeks, appearing almost too real at times.
There is a whimsical side to all the chaos in A Christmas Story, with knee-slapping fantasies that only a kid could come up with. Ralphie fantasizes that he returns to his parent’s home and has been stricken blind. Another fantasy finds him as a gun-toting cowboy picking off stereotypical black and white stripe clad burglars. As they “die” they wear black Xs over their eyes. The Wizard of Oz characters consistently pop up too, adding a much desired and achieved eeriness. Yet A Christmas Story finds the quirks in real life too. Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious pink rabbit suit. A trio of Chinese waiters sing Christmas carols and mispronounce the “fa-la-la-la-la” parts. A bowling ball is dropped on the Old Man’s groin, sending his voice through the roof. According to Clark, the world itself and everything that happens around us is outlandish with a touch of cartoonish.
If you find yourself as one of the only people on the face of the earth who has never seen A Christmas Story, do yourself a favor and see it immediately. It has become a Holiday tradition for it to play continuously on television networks on Christmas day. My ritual, if I am able to, is to watch it on Christmas Eve, as it always really helps you get into the spirit of Christmas. In my eyes, it stands next to classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life (One of my all-time favorite films), The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Christmas Vacation. Perhaps my adoration of this film stems from the fact that it was filmed in the area which I hail from. Either way, the film remains a tradition every year, allowing those who see it to take a break from relentless shopping, wrapping, cooking, and decorating to reminisce about what Christmas looked like as a kid. Reminisce about a time when life was so much simpler. I think that many new viewers are not as hip to the film as many older viewers are, but the film still lives on. It lives on and replays just like our fondest Christmas memories.
A Christmas Story is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
A Very Anti-Film School Christmas
We are happy to announce that throughout the month of December, we will be posting a whole slew of Holiday themed reviews of popular movies that everyone watches while wrapping gifts, sipping eggnog, guzzling Christmas ale, and trimming the tree. You can expect everything from Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, all the way to Black Christmas (Hey–this is Anti-Film School so it should surprise no one!). Given that this time of the year is also heavy with major film releases, this will not be quite like our Halloween special, in which there was a new Holiday themed review daily. There are plenty of big blockbusters all the way to the smaller award hopefuls heading to theaters, so we will have our hands full with those. You can also look forward to a Best of the Year list, which should be available in January. However, do show up for some Christmas madness, and we shall deliver. We hope you show up wearing your ugliest Christmas sweaters. Happy Holidays!