Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie) – In a massive comedown in quality and overall entertainment value from the original Guy Ritchie helmed Arthur Conan Doyle sleuthing opus, A Game of Shadows feels lazy, nonsensical and uninspired, resorting to flash instead of substance and never once caring about the actual mystery at the heart of a Sherlock Holmes yarn. Combined with Robert Downey Jr.’s smug, Jack Sparrow-lite styled performance this time around, and you have all the elements of an all around stinker. This isn’t a Holmes movie. This is a Transformers movie without the robots and set in late 1800s Europe. Even by those oddly appealing standards, this film is woefully elementary.
This time out an even more manic Holmes (Downey) and the soon to be married Watson (Law) are investigating a series of bombings that could lead to an impending war between France and Germany. (Why this falls under Holmes jurisdiction is anyone’s guess.) The bombings seem to have a connection to notorious professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), quite possibly the only man in Europe capable of outsmarting Holmes himself.
The film gets off to an extremely fast, but decent start that will confuse viewers not familiar with the first film. Despite getting off on the right foot, the movie very quickly descends into a non-stop series of explosions and slow motion fight sequences that are nothing short of headache inducing. There is very little detective work going on since the clues Holmes and Watson are following around are nothing more than bowling ball sized bread crumbs strung in a straight line. Attentive viewers will probably figure out that the plot isn’t going anywhere exciting about thirty minutes in. Ritchie’s style of direction, kinetic and frantic, has reached its absolute nadir here. The film is edited almost into incoherence, with sequences repeated and remounted sometimes as many as three times simple because he seems to think it looks cool. It’s the kind of direction that Michael Bay might even see as overkill.
The cast doesn’t seem that interested, either. Harris is fine, but Moriarty is far from being the bad ass the previous film set him up to be. Law is a good sport and fares the best out of everyone, but he isn’t doing anything he didn’t already do in the original. Swedish actress Naomi Rapace is also wasted as the leading female who is useless until the final twenty minutes.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds as awesome as the film did in theatres, but it doesn’t help the material any. Downey fans will get a huge kick out of the Maximum Movie Mode hosted by the lead, which tells very little about the movie, but still manages to be more entertaining. There’s also an iPad app to allow viewers to interact with the movie further, and about 40 minutes of featurettes.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012, Neveldine/Taylor) – While technically a step up in quality from the first film in terms of storytelling, the second entry in the somewhat unnecessary Ghost Rider franchise still manages to feel like a bit of a missed opportunity given the talent both in front of and behind the camera. A film starring Nicolas Cage and directed by the duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer) should be balls to the wall, action-packed insanity. Instead, what we get is a film that feels curiously neutered in terms of content and budget.
Shifting the action from the U.S. to Eastern Europe, Spirit of Vengeance finds anti-hero Johnny Blaze (Cage) trying to literally outrun the demon inside of him that forces him to turn into a flaming skulled spectre whenever he’s in the face of sin. The unstable Blaze finds himself recruited by an alcoholic French priest (Idris Elba) who wants him to protect a young boy (Fergus Riordan), who just so happens to be the son of the devil (even though in the first film, the devil had a son that needed to be stopped). If Satan’s human incarnatation (Ciarán Hinds, filling in for an absent Peter Fonda) gets his hands on him, he will pass along his essence to the boy allowing him another full life on Earth walking amongst the humans and committing atrocities. In exchange for protecting the boy, the priest agrees to absolve Johnny of his sins and rid him of the rider’s curse forever.
At its best moments, Neveldine and Taylor’s film feels like what a Ghost Rider film should be like. It’s assembled and shot in such a way that it resembles a full story arc from a run of the comics. The use of fade outs might seem amateurish, but they come at logical points to denote the beginning and end of a particular “issue.” The use of animation and creative visuals also hark back to their earlier work in trying to create on-screen video games. The duo’s knack to find a great shot and to establish a kinetic visual pace are also firmly on display here.
It also doesn’t hurt that their leading man clearly still has a deep love for the character that translates much better to the screen this time around. While the first film was filled with idiosyncratic touches that often seemed to make no sense, Cage instead tries for a more soulful performance here amid all the silliness. Sure, he still pisses fire, drinks entire pitchers of water, and has four pretty great “Cagey” moments, but the kookiness is dialed back considerably. For some people it might be a good thing, for others it could be seen as a demerit. Still, it’s kind of a shame that the rest of the cast is all over the map. Elba sports a spotty French accent that really does nothing for his character, but he’s not bad. Hinds might be a step down from the hammy Fonda played Satan in the first film since he just seems sleepy here. Riordan and Johnny Whitworth (playing an arms dealer tasked with kidnapping the boy, who later becomes an undead supervillain) hold their own quite well against Cage. Violante Placido stands out as the weakest link as the boy’s mother because she doesn’t have much to do except screaming and shooting, but she still fares better than a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Lambert who shows up for two scenes and doesn’t do anything memorable.
The biggest problem here though has to be the obvious setting and budgeting restrictions placed on the project. Kudos to the production team for acknowledging that the film was made in Eastern Europe and not trying to dress it up, but the film fails on one very big level. All of the set pieces of the film have no bystanders around to witness them and the characters are too ill-defined to generate any tension on their own. Every shootout, chase, and fight happens along abandoned roads, wide open spaces, or empty castles. It’s well shot and the staging occasionally rises above the blandness, but it lacks the sense of grandeur that a film like this needs to succeed. It looks and feels like a quick and dirty production that was made while no one was looking.
The audio quality of the 3D Blu-ray is fine, but the picture quality (which might be part of the actual film) is a rare miss for Sony, coming across as somewhat noisy and pixellated at times. There’s some deleted scenes that bring nothing to the table, but there is a picture-in-picture video commentary from Neveldine/Taylor and an extensive 89 minute making of documentary, both of which add the director’s trademark wit to a film that sorely needs it. The making-of documentary is flat out wonderful for showing just how screwed up the production got, especially with regard to shooting in Eastern Europe on a low budget and being forced into a post-conversion 3D process that no one wanted in the first place. Also, there’s some great Nic Cage moments in there, too. And yes, you can see nouveau shamanic at work, and hoo-boy is it something to see.
Machine Gun Preacher (2011, Mark Forrester) – It might be the abject and unfortunate failure of the Kony 2012 movement to catch on, but in this day and age of fast turnarounds it seems to have taken the okay tale of reformed biker thug turned controversial children’s rights advocate Sam Childers’ to make its way to the small screen. While certainly not the worst film of the often derided awards baiting filmmaker Mark Forrester’s career, this overstuffed and unfocused package holds some small emotional punch thanks to the cast, but little else.
Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is a reformed motorcycle obsessed drug dealer who struggles with his own salvation upon leaving an extended prison sentence. His former stripper wife (Michelle Monaghan) recently found Jesus and brings their daughter (Madeline Carroll) to church every week. At first, Sam falls into his old violent ways with his best friend (Michael Shannon) by his side. After an encounter with a drifter almost kills them both, Sam finds his way to the lord, straightens up, and goes into work for himself as a construction engineer.
While on a missionary assignment in Northern Africa, Sam asks to see the parts of the country rarely glimpsed by aid workers. He becomes emotionally affected when his guide (Souleymane Sy Savane) points out hordes of children who sleep in groups late at night to avoid being massacred by rebel troops. From that moment onward, Sam makes his mission in life to create an orphanage that would help to put a stop to the growing number of child soldiers who feel they have no other options left. Sam is constantly torn between his family both at home and in Africa, and he is often emotionally, physically, and financially unable to sustain them both at the same time.
Butler and Forrester have rarely done better, and its always great to see the scene stealing Shannon in anything, even if his role here is pretty small, but the script from Jason Keller stumbles. The film takes about 40 minutes to even get to its point. It is admirable that Keller feels the need to fully flesh out Childers’ backstory, but the first part of the film could have been condensed greatly. Conversely, some of the film’s most memorable moments come in those first 40 minutes, including watching Butler and Shannon shooting heroin in a speeding car and an admittedly great looking tornado sequence. While Keller is on more even footing once the action moves to Africa, it’s Forester who almost undermines his entire film. As a director, he simply can’t go five minutes without framing the action in most emotionally manipulative ways possible. Every time Sam is with the children, one expects the kids to randomly burst into song as if Childers was their Daddy Warbucks. The emotions on the page are very real, but Forester doesn’t seem to think they are enough. The score has to be pumping relentlessly into the ear of the audience. The villains both at home and abroad have to appear as faceless masses that our hero has to eventually vanquish. The children have to gaze lovingly at Sam for lengthy periods of time just to make sure that the audience fully gets it.
Aside from not one, but two special features on the Blu-ray devoted to Chris Cornell’s ballad “The Keeper” , there’s only a discussion with Forrester about the material, which is a shame because whether you agree with the politics, methods, or religious ideaology of Childers’, he’s a far more interesting real life figure than the film ultimately lets on.
The Prodigies (2011, Antoine Charreyron) – This French produced CGI animated import received some deathly buzz upon its release overseas and when it debuted at Cannes last year, and its pretty easy to see why. Based on an interesting concept from the late author Bernard Lenteric, this sloppy, sleazy, and unfocused mess doesn’t raise the bar for animation in the slightest and will probably make many viewers want to take a shower afterward.
After thinking he was alone as a child, teacher Jim Farrar, who has the ability to control people with his mind, learns that there are now 5 more children like him in the world. His efforts to bring them all together for good are thwarted by the greedy daughter of his former mentor/benefactor who wants to parade the kids around on a reality television show for geniuses. When their notoriety leads to one of the kids getting raped and they all end up feeling it because of their psychic connection, the kids go rogue and decide to take bloody revenge on all of those that have wronged him in a bid to destroy the world.
A film so scuzzy that it’s downright depressing, maybe the material would have more impact if the plot wasn’t simply American Dreamz by way of X-Men and Carrie. It wallows in misery, making child abuse, parental neglect, and rape seem like totally cool things for a teen if you can survive them. It’s a film so lazy in its unremitting bleakness that none of the kids are even remotely sympathetic, and for that matter neither are the adults. The bottom tier animation that looks more like a Pre-Viz version of a movie than a completed product sinks it even further. At least the plot makes narrative sense until the inane final third when the kids lay siege to the White House and one of those goofy “if you’re watching this I’m dead” messages. It’s a really uncomfortable film to watch, but in all the wrong ways made even worse by a distressing amount of product placement for Sony phones and Coke Zero. It’s cynically aimed at teens, but I doubt there’s anything here that would really appeal to the target demo. There’s a dark drama or a good action movie buried somewhere in this, but The Prodigies misses the mark entirely.
The DVD includes the option of watching the English dub or the original French, but this is pretty trashy stuff in any language.
The Collapsed (2011, Justin McConnell) – The post-apocalyptic psychological thriller The Collapsed is the rare exception of a film where I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the film, but the DVD package is darn near indispensable. While this story of one family’s attempts to survive at the end of the world doesn’t hold many surprises and it feels too subdued to really seem like the end of days, the special features are a great primer for anyone looking to learn the ins and outs of low budget filmmaking and are looking for a way into the industry,
A mother, father, and their adult son and daughter try to make their way out of a major city and to the wooded enclave of Dover’s Bend after an event causes people to slowly begin going mad. Along the way they are tracked by crazed survivalists and an unseen deadly force.
That’s all that can really be said since the film manages its first major spoilerish twist about 30 minutes in, but it ends up telegraphing the film’s big third act reveal far too early. Playing a lot like a lesser latter day Stephen King work, The Collapsed doesn’t boast too many surprises, the performances are passable at best (and in the case of leading actor John Fantasia as the father, extremely hammy), and at 82 minutes there really isn’t enough time to flesh out the story properly. Writer-director Justin McConnell does right the ship in the film’s second half with some much needed character development and the introduction of a few new characters, but it never fully overcomes the wonky start which really just feels like watching a bunch of people walking around instead of anything with a lot of tension. But also on the plus side is a pretty awesome musical score and some crisp and fluid cinematography.
Even better than the film itself, though is a 72 minute making of documentary chronicling the production where McConnell is allowed to be somewhat candid about his own material. He stands by what he’s made, but admits early on that the film is a necessary stepping stone to bring about projects that he wants to make even more. The documentary and commentary track both offer genuinely awesome insights about low budget filmmaking on the business, creative, and technical sides that never once talks down to the audience. It’s one of the most refreshing and well done docs of its kind in quite some time. It doesn’t fully atone for the problems of the actual film, but it does really speak to film appreciation, DIY work ethic, and what it takes to make it in the industry. It’s worth checking out just for the doc alone.
Madison County (2011, Eric England) – If there’s something ambitious about how The Collapsed presents itself as an earnest low budget film, there’s something flat out insipid about the laziness of director Eric England’s derivative slasher Madison County. Ostensibly nothing more than a dreadfully failed homage to 70s horror and a flat out unabashed rip off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, England crafts a thoroughly boring movie devoid of any suspense, characters, plot, or reason to even care.
A pair of romantically involved couples who also happen to be journalism students and one girl’s overprotective brother head to the titular community to talk to a writer who claims the area has been harbouring a pig headed serial killer that no one else wants to talk about. The kids start getting too close to the truth and “mayhem” ensues.
The intent to create a “slow burn” seems to be evident, but absolutely nothing at all happens for the first hour of this 82 minute debacle. The biggest scare the first 60 minutes can muster is when one of the boys knocks into a rocking horse accidentally in broad daylight. The actors are okay, but the script isn’t exactly demanding anything at all from them. There’s one somewhat decent kill involving a broken baseball bat, but not even gore hounds will find much to appreciate in this “unrated” version of a film that never really made it to theatres in the first place. Even the gratuitous nudity that’s peppers one scene of the film can’t even bring a knowing smile to the viewer’s face.
The DVD includes a commentary track that’s as dull as the movie is, but England and company seem to take pride in what they did. Overall, though, this poorly shot, terribly edited, awfully paced, rotten excuse to recapture the VHS horror days doesn’t have much to offer.
Demoted (2012, J.B. Rogers) – A decent enough rental or Netflix fodder for a Sunday afternoon, the reverse 9 to 5 styled comedy Demoted offers a few chuckles without really making too much of an impression. Taking every cliché from the working class comedy playbook, director J.B. Rogers (American Pie 2, and the usual first AD for the Farrelly Brothers) makes a serviceable comedy that’s equal parts sweet and offensive, and thankfully never dull enough to be boring.
A pair of schluby, prank loving, sexist tire salesman – the engaged Rodney (Michael Vartan) and the foul mouthed slacker Mike (Sean Astin) – have their comfortable lifestyle thrown into a tailspin after their old boss (a great cameoing Robert Klein) has a titty bar induced coronary and dies. Taking over the company is the dorky jerk they spent most of their days tormenting (David Cross), who demotes the guys to becoming secretaries, not to show them how the other half lives, but to torture them even further. When the new honcho starts to go mad with power, however, the boys decide to band together with their new friends and colleagues to prove just how indispensable they really are.
The cast helps to make the material work even if the jokes about getting hammered at Bennigan’s or replenishing the office donut stock don’t really sell themselves. They also have to overcome the fact that for a workplace battle of the sexes comedy, the gags here tend a bit too uncomfortably towards homophobia at times instead of taking the obvious anti-feminist bent. It’s strange that the filme (which has no special features on the Blu-ray) would take so much effort in emasculating males but refuses to talk down to the women.
That refusal does offer the film what little sweetness it has, though. Astin looks to be having fun as the office douche slowly reforming his ways and Vartan makes a great straight man for the kooks around him, but the show here gets stolen by the always great Cross (even if his character feels somewhat bland by comedy villain standards) and the always underrated character actress Celia Weston as the head secretary. It’s too slight to be offensive or even all that memorable, but it does pass the time nicely in spite of its ickier elements.