Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Mystery Solved

This past December, Todd and I saw one of the more underrated literary adaptations of 2011, the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Thrones. There was a lot to like about Ritchie's sequel, from the amazing portrayals of the iconic Detective Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. John Watson by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, to the clever story and ingenious technical effects, to the perfect sobriety that accompanied Jared Harris, playing Sherlock's arch-nemesis Professor James Moriarty with such distinction that it put far more "renowned" performances of the year to shame. Yes, I loved SH2, whose wit and charm won me over even as many passed it off as more of the same. I'd never seen a better pairing of actors in Downey Jr and Law on the big screen, and certainly not a better Holmes and Watson, not even when they were played by Data and Geordi LaForge. I of course did not believe that I'd see better anytime soon. Little did I know, not only would I find a Sherlock/Watson coupling so perfect that it would eclipse the Hollywood duo easily, but where I would find it... on the small screen.

"The Game is a hand! No, that's not right..."
Todd actually put the seed in me for this series... well, to be fair she was the loudest of a few people who had at least mentioned the BBC show Sherlock in my presence. I'm not much for television in general, despite some of the best-ever shows running as you read this. I've yet to see an episode of Game of Thrones, despite loving the books. I've only seen the first season of Mad Men. The same with The Walking Dead. The Sopranos. Deadwood. Rome. I've seen none of them. I love Battlestar Galactica and Sex and the City, but in all honesty I saw most of their episodes for the first time on DVD, well after they originally ran. I've seen How I Met Your Mother and Leverage on DVD only. It's not that I don't enjoy just sitting down to watch TV; I simply don't make time for it, a casualty of my focus on film. If I sit down to watch TV, it's purely from chance; the best example of which is when I accidentally saw the pilot episode of Burn Notice and proceeded to watch everything Netflix had, even the mediocre-at-best Fall of Sam Axe mini-movie. Another Netflix catch, Supernatural (another one we can attribute to Todd), has held a couple of seasons worth of my attention so far.. Recently I noticed that Sherlock was available and, as I had nothing else to do, I sat down and watched the entire first series of the modern-day take of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's penultimate detective.

As always, there's a good story behind this.
Wow. All I can say... Wow.

Similar in tack to Guy Ritchie's take on Holmes but set in today's London and Europe, the series, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, explores what the master detective would look like in this day and age. The series first aired in 2010, with a three episode arc that introduced us to eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes and his straight-laced partner, veteran military doctor John Watson, who find themselves sharing a flat at 221B Baker Street by chance, and eventually teaming up to solve mysteries the police cannot handle on their own. Don't get too worried when I say that there are only three episodes in the series' first season; each episode is an hour and a half long, making each story less of a TV episode and more of a miniature movie. Based on the tales and characters of Doyle's fiction, the first season of Sherlock turned out to be a wonderful mixture of mystery, humor and amazing character development, a show so good that even when the second season became available to own this past week, I was sure it couldn't possibly live up to the spectacle of the first... well, I've been proven wrong before.

Miss Irene Adler always knows how to make an entrance.
After the dramatic introduction of psychotic mega-criminal James Moriarty (BAFTA-winning Andrew Scott) at the conclusion of season one's finale "The Great Game", season two kicks off with the introduction of another legendary Holmes character, the mysterious and beautiful Irene "The Woman" Adler (Lara Pulver). In "A Scandal in Belgravia", Adler uses her work as a popular London dominatrix to gather into her possession a government secret of such power it threatens to topple the balance of power in Europe. It's up to Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) to steal that secret back, but The Woman proves a greater challenge than anybody expected. The biggest mystery might not be how Sherlock wins the day, but whether the emotionless detective and the calculating Adler might actually be falling for one another. In "The Hounds of Baskerville", Sherlock and Watson investigate reports of giant wild dogs in Dartmoor, and whether they have anything to do with the top-secret genetic experiments of the nearby Baskerville government research complex. Finally,. "The Reichenberg Fall" sees the return of mastermind Moriarty, on a mission to debunk and discredit Sherlock's success thus far in the series. In settling what he calls "The Final Problem", Moriarty wants to humiliate and eliminate his nemesis, leaving the criminal mastermind to operate his activities with total impunity.

No comments, or at least none you would understand...
Sherlock is easily among the best-written and best-acted television shows I've seen in years, and that's not a short list to join. In this second season, Moffat and Gatiss made a serious attempt to update some of Doyle's classic stories, after creating relatively original tales in the show's first season. The results are some of the best television I've seen in years, especially "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Reichenberg Fall". Of course, their brilliant wring would be worthless without excellent actors to deliver the goods, and Cumberbatch and Freeman are simply amazing. The stellar Cumberbatch uses many of the same intricacies that made Robert Downey Jr's depiction of Holmes so wonderful, but manages to outdo the Iron Man with an arrogance that turns off just about everyone around him, while making him utterly irresistible to the audience. Freeman plays Watson as a true everyman, honest and loyal and friendly, the yin to Cumberbatch's yang. Sherlock has catapulted both actors to new heights, and all you have to do is watch a single episode of this show to see why. The show's regular guest-stars are all at least solid actors, but the real standouts are the villains played by Scott and Pulver. Though she only appears in the season opener, Pulver is absolutely intoxicating as the only woman Sherlock ever loves, a character written so smartly and originally she is more of a unique person than Doyle ever imagined. Scott, on the other hand, is power incarnate. Assuredly deserving his BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor on this show, Scott builds Moriarty as a something far different than the posh genius Doyle first created as Sherlock's foil. Equal parts psychotic, brilliant and manic, Scott seems to play what would be if Sherlock actually had chosen to become evil, a terrifying prospect that really makes the character ring true.

The Devil in a Gray Suit.
Possibly the only real flaw with Sherlock is its incredibly short run time; even with episodes three times longer than most sitcoms, three per season is simply not enough, as the dedicated viewer can watch both full seasons by simply devoting a weekend to it. And filming on the third season won't even begin until January, with Cumberbatch's work on the new Star Trek film and Freeman's leading spot in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit already chewing into their rapidly-filling calendars. It's no wonder Hollywood is already breaking out their own modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation, with Elementary set in New York and even featuring a female Watson. However, there's just no way to duplicate what Moffat and company have done with the Sherlock Holmes legend. While there's plenty to keep you occupied until 2013, I still say that you should give this series a shot if you haven't done so already. It's arguably one of the best things coming out of Great Britain right now, and if you want to say that you saw stars Cumberbatch and Freeman BEFORE they made it in Hollywood, this is your big chance.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Black Man Cometh

Right now we seem to be living in an era of Hollywood nostalgia. Everywhere you turn is a remake of a classic film, an adaptation of a popular book or television show, or a new sequel to an old franchise. The latter has had the least success in theaters recently with relaunches such as Scream 4 and American Reunion failing to live up to the box office standards of their predecessors. After a year in which the domestic box office sank 3.8 percent and ticket sales dropped 4.7 percent to their lowest levels since 1995, it’s obvious that those in power are afraid to deviate from the “tried and true” methods that had allowed them to achieve market dominance in the first place. The rise of the sequel/prequel is the most obvious example of this fear of change, and we entered 2012 with 27 franchise titles awaiting release, including The Dark Knight Rises, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt 2, and The Hobbit. Most of those are sequels from recent films, with Prometheus (a sorta-prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien) being one of the obvious exceptions. This week marked the release of Men in Black 3, a sequel ten years in the making. MIB3’s release is not only interesting in that it is another long-awaited entry to a popular franchise, but for being the first major film appearance of star Will Smith in more than three years.

"Woah, where was I for the last three years?"
From 1995 through 2008, the actor formerly known as “The Fresh Prince” was arguably the most popular man in Hollywood. A fan favorite, everything Will Smith touched turned to gold, with fourteen films that he headlined accumulating worldwide grosses of over $100 million, four of which (Independence Day, I Am Legend, Hancock and the original Men in Black) grossing over $500 million. He was also a critically-acclaimed performer, using his easy charm and relentless dedication to earn Oscar nominations for his portrayals of real-life figures Muhammad Ali and Chris Gardner. Strangely, Smith decided to step away from the bright lights after his late 2008 film Seven Pounds, presumably to focus on raising his family. His return is a boon to a flagging industry, and it’s good simply to have a proven star back on the big screen.

New York gets a much-needed renovation.
When I first heard that Men in Black 3 was coming to theaters, I admit that my first thoughts were skeptical ones. While I loved the first Men in Black, both a critical and commercial success back in 1997, its sequel five years later was a mess. This practically put a kibosh on any future franchise hopes, despite the good will built up by the first film and the popular animated series that had followed. After the recent failures at reinvigorating long-dormant series, I had no reason to believe that MIB3 could be anything more than a nostalgic cash-grab, but as I learned more about the story I was quickly brought over to the other side. When veteran Men in Black (a top-secret agency who keeps aliens a secret, for those not in the know) Agent K (the eternally dour Tommy Lee Jones) becomes the victim of a time-travel paradox, the only man who doesn’t remember that K died over forty years ago is his partner, Agent J (Smith). J resolves to use an illegal machine to go back in time and fix the problem, and restore his friend to the land of the living. To do so, he must team up with the K of the past (Josh Brolin), and track down and stop the vicious Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement). Boris is out to not only kill K, but prevent a global defense net that K was going to deploy from coming to be, opening the door for an alien invasion that Earth has absolutely no chance of repelling.

The Mad Men audition nobody saw...
It was the inclusion of Brolin that really drew me to MIB3, as the trailers seemed to show the actor perfectly mimicking the mannerisms and personality of a young Jones. Brolin, who’s had a long career but seemed to finally break out in 2007 with No Country for Old Men, has enjoyed a string of praise for his roles in W, Milk and True Grit. These films helped cement his place in cinema as a strong supporting actor, and that talent is on full display here. Brolin separates himself from the rest of the cast – including a strong return by Smith – in his performance as Young K, taking over the reins from Jones with apparent ease. It’s a shame that the entire concept of his appearance means that Brolin will be unlikely to appear in any more sequels, as it will be difficult to enjoy when we know that we were missing. Smith proves he still has the cocky charm to carry a film on his back, and doesn’t appear to feel any poor effects from his acting hiatus. It’s a good thing Jones’ role was reduced, as he looks even more tired than usual (and you know he’s getting too old for this shit), which is a giant flag that the series would be running out of time even without a great opening weekend. Other great additions to the cast include Flight of the Conchords’ Clement, who appears to have graduated from the Hugo Weaving/Tim Curry school of movie villainy; Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as MIB’s new head Agent O and her younger incarnation, respectively; and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays an alien with the ability to see all potential timelines as one.  Stuhlbarg especially stands out, and alongside Brolin brings the whole experience to a level beyond what the film SHOULD have been able to do.

"I'm just going to ask you once: Are you a Communist spy??"
It’s not just the return of Smith that makes MIB3 so special, but those behind the scenes as well. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, Executive Producer Steven Spielberg and producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald all return, and their contributions do a great job of replicating the combined environments of real life and cheesy science fiction that made the first film such a crowd-pleasing hit in the first place. Screenwriter Etan Cohen helps keep the story fresh, introducing the time travel concept that is the film’s central plot device while simultaneously exploring K’s back-story in a way that doesn’t involve numerous, angst-riddled voiceovers. Some of the series’ minor staples, including the knowledge that the more “eccentric” celebrities out there are actually aliens in disguise, are downplayed somewhat in this go-around, though seeing Lady Gaga on MIB’s watch list does garner a few chuckles. But while the film does have some inspired moments (including having SNL vet Bill Hader play renowned artist Andy Warhol as an undercover Agent W), MIB3 does its best when not trying to do too much, and allowing the natural charisma of Smith and crew to do more with traditional humor.

The much-anticipated Bieber cameo.
After so long an absence, it’s almost guaranteed that this will be the final entry in the proud Men in Black franchise. That’s a shame, as there is a lot here to suggest that the series could build up steam under the right circumstances. Jones would almost certainly have to go, but finding someone who matches Smith’s irreverent on-screen attitude would be nearly impossible, even if they hadn’t already statistically eliminated Brolin from the running. Still, if this is the end for J, K and the rest of the alphabet, at least the MIB name can go out on a high note. It may not be as entertaining or as unique as the original, but Men in Black 3 still manages to combine the right amounts of action and humor that can make for the perfect summer film, making it the #5 film of 2012. As for Will Smith’s big screen comeback, I can’t imagine a more appropriate return for the actor, and hope that all his future big-screen work can be this entertaining for however long he decides to keep the fires going.