Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

August 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (PG-13)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Man From UNCLE
Who better to play rival spies than Superman (Cavill) and the Lone Ranger (Hammer)?

“I just hope he doesn’t drive as fast as he moves,” Mr. Important Suit says.
In an ironic twist, Hammer proves to be faster than a speeding bullet.

“He’s trying to stop the car.” Ha!
A funny scene, especially when Cavill refuses to shoot Hammer because he’s amused by the audacity and tenacity of his foreign counterpart.

“Inside every Kraut is an American trying to come out.” #ColdWarHumor
Perhaps, but is every Kraut sour?

“America is teaming up with Russia.” And there’s our premise.
Writ large for those who can’t figure it out on their own.

“It doesn’t have to match.” These spies fight over everything, even women’s fashion.
Actually, it’s a bit frightening how much they know about women’s fashion. Does their job often require them to dress up in female disguises? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

“Good night little chop shop girl.” All danced out, apparently.
Or in a liquor coma.

“These...are...Russian...made.” Amusing scene.
It’s scenes like this that lighten the mood and help move the story along in the movie’s early goings.

The slap upside the head scene is hilarious.
And totally unrealistic. Even a Vulcan nerve pinch seems more feasible.

Who peels a grape?
Seems like a waste of time…and food. It also seems a tad masochistic, which leads us to…

Pain and’s two masters. If you’re a masochist.
I thought love conquered all? Guess I need to keep up with the times.

“For a special agent you aren’t having a special day, are you?” #HughGrant’s comedic timing is flawless.
Though he has a few more wrinkles these days, Grant is still an effective funny man.

The scene where the 4-wheeler glides over the water is amazing.
This action sequence is arguably the finest in the movie and is aided immensely by aerial shots that zoom in on moving objects, a la documentary filmmaking.

“How’s that for entertainment?” Fun nonlinear sequence.
However, even though it’s a well executed scene, it borrows heavily from Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies.

“You’re a terrible spy, cowboy.” Back at you, Ruskie.
Amazing that, all these years later, Cold War tropes and stereotypes still find their way into modern entertainment.

Final analysis: gorgeous locations, arresting action and solid acting overcome an opaque plot.
That last point is the movie’s main drawback. The first quarter of the film is a head-scratcher until enough of the plot pieces fall into place and the story starts to make sense…sort of.

3 out of 4. The humor, action and brilliant film style put it over the top for this spy yarn.

Based on the 60s espionage TV series of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. focuses on the exploits of one American and one Russian spy who are forced to work together for the global good during the Cold War…no easy task. Obviously, this premise had more relevance back in the 60s than it does today, although, Cold War tensions, under one guise or another, still persist in the modern world. A small screen answer to the Bond films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was heavy on intriguing spycraft and thrilling adventure, both of which, fortunately, have been carried over into the big screen adaptation. In the TV series, Robert Vaughn played Napoleon Solo and David McCallum played Illya Kuryakin; here it’s Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. The opening scene introduces the characters and sets up a rather amusing game of cat and mouse between the two superstar spies. The real fun begins when they’re forced to work together as partners—the clash of styles and cultures instigates many humorous and spirited exchanges between the two agents. The action scenes, though few and far between, are superbly storyboarded and realized. However, they don’t contain the typical jaw-dropping visuals that you’d expect to find in a big budget summer action film, with the exception of the aerial shots captured for the high-octane chase scene. Ritchie’s use of stylistic elements—i.e., quick freeze frame shots, prismatic lens flares, etc—is really what prevents the film from becoming yet another action movie clone. An editing/narrative technique employed here, which was also used to great effect in the director’s Sherlock Holmes films, involves using flashback sequences to explain the mysteries that were planted earlier in the story. Although it’s gimmicky and trite, this storytelling device works quite well here. If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s the slowly-paced, frequently confusing story. Even though Ritchie eventually answers all of the questions posed during the movie, trying to figure out where the story’s going is often an arduous, frustrating task. If you have the appropriate degree of patience and focus, there’s a good chance the film will actually make sense to you. Otherwise, you might find this film to be an exercise in consternation. Still, in this age of shallow storylines with gaping plot holes (Transformers, Pacific Rim, etc.), having too much story is a nice change of pace over having too little. As for the acting, Cavill and Hammer are perfectly cast and have amazing screen chemistry as feuding partners forced to find common ground while fighting a common enemy. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is also extremely effective as the duplicitous damsel in distress and provides a tantalizing wild card element to the proceedings. All things considered, this is a decent film that’s entertaining, if not earth-shattering. An U.N.C.L.E. franchise seems feasible as long as emerging stars Cavill and Hammer remain interested in the films and as long as patrons keep showing up to see them. Coming fast on the heels of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and carrying the torch for Spectre, the next James Bond film set to release this fall, U.N.C.L.E. is another 60s spy property that proves this action sub-genre is alive and well.

Southpaw (R)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

With much respect to ring announcer Michael Buffer for his signature line.

The ritual of padding the boxer’s fists is extremely involved. Takes up a couple minutes of screen time.
Besides serving as an intro over the opening credits, this sequence demonstrates just how painstaking the preparations are for a bout and how boxing is, indeed, big business.

“Is that all you got?” Don’t taunt the guy.
Especially when you have blood streaming down your face.

“You got hit a lot, dad.” Hope’s daughter counts the boo boos on his face.
This is a really cute scene and a practical way for Hope’s daughter to gage how rough her daddy’s night was in the ring.

“You wanna go two rounds with me, champ?” Sign me up!
For Rachel McAdams I’m sure I could somehow find the strength.

“It’s not that bad.” Famous last words.

Hope head butts the referee. Where was that fight earlier in the bout?
Misplaced anger seems to be an issue for many boxers.

“Let me just give my daughter a hug.” Heartbreaking.
And when the bailiffs try to subdue Hope, you just know that things aren’t going to end well.

No wife, no house, no kid. Things have really gone south for Southpaw.
Somebody needs to play this Country song backwards so that Hope can get back everything he’s lost.

“Can’t even hit a question.” Ha!

“Stopping punches with your face is not defense.” That’s okay, Hope, Rocky was never any good at defense either.
Though not nearly as legendary as the training scenes in the Rocky films, the techniques Forrest Whitaker’s Tick Wills uses are also memorable and highly effective. I love the “strings in the ring” scene.

“Make him miss, make him pay.” Good strategy.
Fighting smarter, not harder, is the order of the day…a radical departure from Hope’s earlier, “human punching bag” style of boxing.

“Don’t let this man control you.” This is intense.
You just don’t go insulting a man’s family like that. I don’t know what the punk was thinking, but whatever it was, it backfired…in a big way.

Grab a tissue box for the final father/daughter hug.
Finally a glimmer of hope in this Murphy’s Law on steroids story.

Final analysis: a hard hitting redemption drama with a tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal.
However, as good as this performance is, it doesn’t top what Gyllenhaal achieved as the mentally deranged news cameraman in last year’s Nightcrawler.

3 out of 4 stars. An often bleak look at a fallen star that thankfully offers some hope at the end.

For those not in the know regarding boxing jargon, southpaw refers to a left-handed fighter. Another aspect of the word comes to light during this film’s climactic fight when Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) switches from a right-handed to left-handed attack. It’s the reverse of Inigo Montoya’s surprise revelation in The Princess Bride (1987), “I am not left-handed.” When analyzing any boxing film, natural comparisons must be made to Rocky (1976) or even earlier films like The Set-Up (1949) or Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), both directed by Robert Wise. In these examples, and many others, something resembling a pattern has emerged and a few of those boxing film tropes include: enacted boxing sequences (of course), a middle to lower class meathead who has lots of pent up anger from a childhood trauma or other family drama, a miraculous comeback against all odds and crowd-pleasing training scenes that help the audience to identify with and cheer on the main character. Many of those ingredients are present in this pugilistic portrait as well, with one notable exception; Hope is already at the pinnacle of his profession when the movie begins. Whereas Rocky was a populist rags to riches tale, Southpaw is a reversal of fortunes faux biopic that’s just as brutal outside the ring as inside it. The movie presents a fascinating character study of a man who parlays his talents into a career that provides everything he’s ever wanted in life—the World Light Heavyweight title, a gigantic estate, a fancy sports car, a beautiful wife and a cherubic daughter. However, Hope’s performance-driven existence implodes like a house of cards when tragedy befalls his family and he’s forced to be a father for the first time and get a job outside of boxing, which is all he’s ever known. Gyllenhaal is terrific as the movie’s central, tragic figure and is thoroughly convincing as both cocky champ and down-on-his-luck chump. This part splits its screen time between the public and private lives of the boxer, and Gyllenhaal plays each of these character aspects to perfection. This physically punishing role surely took its toll on the actor, so kudos to Gyllenhaal who, literally, suffers for his art in this film. Aside from the lead performer, the supporting players are also exceptionally good here, especially Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife and Forest Whitaker as Hope’s no BS trainer. If the movie has a drawback, it’s the merciless and unrelenting Murphy’s Law plot, which turns the film into an exercise in bleakness and futility. By way of warning, the sustained heavy-hitting drama and frequently violent fight scenes may be too intense for some viewers. As such, Southpaw is about as enjoyable as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Fortunately it isn’t as painful and is more worthwhile in the end. Though the final scene offers an avenue of redemption for the downtrodden fighter, don’t expect a triumphant celebration like the ones found in the Rocky films. A solitary ray of hope is about all this film can muster.

Final Note: This film features James Horner’s final, posthumous score. Horner was one of the great film composers of our time. May he RIP.

Fantastic Four (PG-13)

Directed by: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fantastic Four
Flame out. Perhaps forever.

“I’ve already built it.” Sure kid.
We saw this exact same scenario—kid with an invention that actually works rejected by a narrow-minded adult—earlier this summer in Tomorrowland (and also in last year’s Big Hero 6 and 2006’s Meet the Robinsons). Hackneyed movie opener.

Reed needs a power converter. I think Luke picked up a spare at #ToscheStation.
You might have to put up with his whiney voice, but he’s a fair trader.

“You’re paying for the backboard.” No appreciation for science.
Is this Hoosiers (1986) or a superhero movie?

“There’s patterns in everything.” Like #KateMara’s shirt, for instance.
Why can’t Sue see the pattern of destruction that’s in the offing?

“Fix what my generation broke.” Tall order.
And extremely unfair. It’s like saying, “We blew it and now it’s up to you to save the world. No pressure.”

“Us us?” Great dialog.
“Yes, yes.” Because a team of scientists would make prime candidates for exploring a new world, right?

Cool #Lego mug.
Does it come apart? Might create a minor inconvenience if it contained hot coffee.

Where are the space suits for the chimps? #AnimalCruelty
I guess because the chimps didn’t actually step out onto the alien planet they didn’t necessarily need space suits. However, as a precaution against any kind of hull breach that would allow a foreign, virulent agent into the capsule, the simians technically should’ve been inside some sort of environment suit…with a sippy straw leading to a bladder full of puréed bananas. Also, if the chimps had gotten out they might have established a true Planet of the Apes.

Reed Richards can create a teleportation device, but doesn’t know how to do a #FistBump? #Lame
Just proof positive of how little thought was put into this script by writers Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank.

“I don’t think we went anywhere.” Kinda like the plot.
Indeed, the entire movie is like a roller coaster that never leaves the platform…all hype and no thrills.

Victor falls into the green lava pit. He’s doomed.
Will we ever get away from these tacky villain names taken directly from the comic books? Today’s audience is savvy enough to know who the antagonist is without naming him Von Doom.

#PlanetZero Where all plots go to die.
Planet Zero…where zeros are turned into heroes. Planet Zero…where you get zero entertainment value for your two hour and twelve buck investment. This is too easy.

Sue’s adoptive dad calls her Susan, which she dislikes. #Nitpick
Earlier, we learn that Sue dislikes being called “Susan” by Victor. So why would her adoptive father call her a name she doesn’t want to be called?

Johnny accidentally throws a fireball at Sue. #FriendlyFire
And the military is thinking about using him as an asset?

The naming of the group scene is utterly insane.
Correction: Although the scene is quite insane, I meant to type “inane.”

Final analysis: a poorly produced and paced reboot that squanders its talent on mediocre fare.
By talent, of course, I mean the central four cast members, each of whom is primed to become a major Hollywood star.

1 1/2 out of 4. The only thing fantastic about this film is the wealth of commentary it’s generated.

I see no reason to waste my time (or yours) on a full review for this film. Actually the word “film” is too fine an appellation for this superfluous series of bland, expositional scenes which are performed on drab sets and locations and adorned with substandard production elements. It’s no overstatement that a sixth grader could’ve written a better story than what we find in this pedestrian plot, which lays out something like this: they went, they came back, they went again to fix everything they messed up the first time and then they came back home. See Dick run. The first half of the picture focuses on the “they went” part, which drags on and on with uninteresting character beats and infuriatingly prosaic dialog. The four heroes finally get their superpowers about midway through the movie, at which point we’ve become so terminally bored that we really could care less what happens to them. The action sequences are poorly conceived and executed and are accompanied by lackluster visual effects, save for the impressive scene where the trees and cars are sucked up into the singularity a la Mega Maid’s cosmic vacuum in Spaceballs (1987). As for the “major” fight scene at the end of the flick…kids staging an imaginary battle in their backyard could’ve choreographed a more creative and energetic melee than the one featured here. This is especially true of the scene where Dr. Doom quickly and easily neutralizes the powers of each member of the Fantastic Four. They aren’t so fantastic after all it would seem…much like the movie itself. Bottom line: This ill-advised release makes the original, mediocre Fantastic Four movies look like The Avengers films by comparison. This un-Fantastic flick may have singlehandedly killed the series despite the presence of some truly talented young performers in the title roles. Unless some future reboot miraculously reanimates the comatose series, this franchise is doomed.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (PG-13)

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation
This review will self-destruct in five, four, three…

“I didn’t need help, I needed assistance.”
Of semantics and silliness.

“Open the door!”
If you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming…

“The other door.”

A turntable. How quaint.
Normally these mission dossiers are ultra high tech, so it’s nice to see something this retro as the delivery system for the message. And I absolutely loved the jazz history lesson.

“Saving the Western Hemisphere.” Ha!

“Today’s the day when the IMFs luck runs out.” Time to go rogue.
And by luck, Alec Baldwin’s character means funding….and government sanctioning. Minor speed bumps.

OMG! The way Hunt works his way up the pole is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
And the fact that Cruise did this stunt himself is uber-impressive.

“Welcome to the CIA.” No thanks.
Robert Culp’s character on The Greatest American Hero once referred to the CIA as “Creeps in Action.” Aptly put, especially in this film.

“You want drama, go to the opera?” Must I?
Although, this is certainly the liveliest opera I’ve ever seen (on the big screen). An amazing backstage brawl, debris raining down onto the set and a thwarted assassination attempt all combine to make this an unforgettable sequence. To say nothing of the obvious rifle as phallus imagery.

The bow tie’s coming off. Here we go!

Two assassins. Who to shoot?
C’mon, you know Ethan isn’t going to shoot the smokin’ hot babe.

“Change of plans. Throw her out.” Ha!
One of the funniest moments/lines in the film.

The anti-IMF. #TheSyndicate.
Bond has SPECTRE, Marvel has Hydra, etc. Same dif.

A digital safety deposit box. A clever concept as long as you don’t get hacked.
Or as long as there isn’t any data corruption, or a solar flare that knocks out the electricity, etc. In short, nothing is truly “safe.”

“That doesn’t sound impossible.” #ConserveOxygen
A throwaway line that riffs on the title. Good for a titter and a line for Twitter, but not much else.

Ethan jumps into a water singularity that looks like a giant woofer on a speaker.
Either that or a monochromatic version of the Looney Tunes opener.

The moment would’ve played far better if this was Pegg’s first film in the series. As things are, his standard shtick inspires courtesy chortles rather than uproarious guffaws.

One of the most pulse pounding motorcycle pursuits ever committed to film.
And I love that shirt Cruise is wearing. Where can I purchase one?

“There are no allies in statecraft.” No honor among thieves either.
This is one of my favorite lines in the film. It feels like it was lifted right out of a Le Carre novel.

“You sure can ride.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
I debated over whether or not to Tweet this, due to its appropriateness, but it’s the only favorite I got for this movie so #GoodGamble.

“Come away with me.” I really like #Option3.
A woman like that wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

“That Syndicate.” There’s more than one?
I guess it is like Hydra. Cut off one head…

“Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.”
A nice twist on the phrase and a fitting one for this actioner.

“Meet the IMF.” Yeah!
A rousing scene that’s more than a little reminiscent of the superhero team shot in The Avengers.

Final analysis: a decent addition to the series that has solid action, but little heart.
I never once felt connected to anything in the story. The tame romance isn’t the least bit compelling, nor is the standard issue IMF under siege by a secret organization with nefarious motives subplot. There’s nothing new here and even the action sequences seem predictable and passé.

2 1/2 out of 4. A mild disappointment, but only because 1, 3 & 4 were so superb.

The trailer for this fifth Mission Impossible movie showcases a few choice clips of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) holding on to the side of an ascending jet in a death-defying stunt. Hunt yells for his tech assistant, Benji (Simon Pegg), to open the door so that he can enter the plane before being blown clear by rapidly increasing wind shears. Benji opens the wrong door, which generates laughter from the audience, and we’re on to the next high-octane scene in the two minute promo for the film. In the actual movie, this sequence serves as the opener and is a standalone action segment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The nail biting, physics fudging plane-hang is there simply to grab the audience’s attention from the start and to set the pace and tone for the rest of this action packed summer blockbuster. The episodic opener is reminiscent of the M:I TV series, which would occasionally use cliffhangers as intros to episodes (Alias did this extensively as well). The problem here is that the “hanging from a jet” set piece is the finest action sequence in the film—with the underwater and motorcycle scenes coming in a close second. I contend that the opening passage should’ve been employed as the climactic action piece and integrated into the narrative. As things stand, this opener is an exciting, yet utterly meaningless, midair spectacle that’s ultimately a missed opportunity, an egregious misappropriation of energies and a self-indulgent exercise by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. As for the rest of the action scenes, they’re well choreographed and executed, but they aren’t nearly as spectacular as the ones exhibited in the last two M:I films. Though the underwater sequence gets props for being the most ambitious and creative action beat in the film, the motorcycle chase, though pulse-pounding, isn’t all that much better than what we’ve seen in the Bourne or modern Bond movies. The story is serviceable but has some noticeable deficits: there’s very little genuine jeopardy (since we know that none of the main characters are going to die), the villain is mediocre and the so-called romance between Hunt and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is painfully tepid. Cruise, fittingly, coasts through the plot as if on cruise control, but doesn’t bring anything new to his character beyond what’s already been established in the earlier movies. As for the rest of the cast, Pegg is predictably comedic, Jeremy Renner hits his marks but is disappointingly perfunctory and Ving Rhames is nothing more than an ambulatory cardboard standup of his character. Of the new additions to the cast, Ferguson is far better in her action scenes than in her acting scenes and Alec Baldwin, though a bit stiff as the suit with shifting loyalties, delivers the only true standout performance in the film. Bottom line: Rogue boasts some frenetic action scenes, decent acting and a mildly diverting story. However, beyond those few elements, there’s little else to recommend the film. While Rogue is still a giant fulcrum swing better than M:I II, it doesn’t even come close to the quality of the other films in the series. Though it’s hard to put a finger on what inhibits the film the most, there’s definitely something lacking here. Let’s hope Paramount Pictures discovers that missing ingredient before approving the next mission.

Mr. Holmes (PG)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mr. Holmes

“It isn’t a bee, it’s a wasp. Different thing entirely.” The essence of distinctions.
And, as we learn in the film, wasps kill bees. Oh, and that bees leave their stingers in their victims while wasps leave painful welts.

“It’s usually about his wife.” Holmes teaches Roger the #ArtOfDeduction.
Actually, this is more life experience than deduction. If a man is hung up over something, 9 times out of 10 it’s a woman.

“And if I forget to make the mark?” Practical as ever.
The scene later in the movie, where we see the journal filled with black dots, is absolutely horrifying. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially when it’s one as brilliant as Holmes’.

Never heard of a #GlassHarmonica. I usually just rub my finger over the mouth of a drinking glass.
And, truthfully, I’m not even very talented at that.

“We do not like wasps.” Something the young and old can both agree on.
The relationship between Holmes and Roger is one of the movie’s many highlights.

“I prefer facts.”
As Dragnet’s Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Holmes finds #PricklyAsh amid the horrific remains of Hiroshima.
Fascinating, and bitterly ironic, that a substance that improves memory should grow in an area of the world that many would choose to forget.

Holmes watches a movie based on one of his cases. His review: #PureRubbish.
Of course, since Holmes himself is fictional, the detective watching himself on the big screen is utterly ludicrous.

“I can’t remember.” Holmes like we’ve never seen him before.
We’ve seen Holmes in the throes of an addiction (Nicholas Meyer’s 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) before, but never in the grip of Alzheimers. It’s a totally compelling, and heartbreaking, portrayal of a once indomitable private detective.

“A good son always does what his mother asks.”
Good advice for sons of any age.

“Don’t say everything you think.” #LifeLesson
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. Remember that chestnut from your youth?

Burn, wasps. Burn!
Actually, other than Holmes’ poor memory, the wasps are the only antagonists in the film.

“My first foray into the world of fiction.” And it’s a good one.
And more factual (if fictitious) than Watson’s accounts, as we’re lead to believe by Holmes.

Final analysis: a deeply moving portrait of a once formidable detective in the throes of losing his faculties.
A totally unique take on the character and one that hits the mark, thanks in large part to its incomparable star.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. McKellen is mesmerizing in this first-rate, though slowly paced, #DraMystery.

One thing there’s always been an abundance of throughout film history is sequels, and one of the longest running series of all time spotlights London’s preeminent caper solver, Sherlock Holmes. The master detective has been portrayed in over 200 films by over 70 top tier actors, ranging from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. Although characterizations have contained minor variations in mannerisms and style, Holmes has been played fairly consistently over the years: confident, irreverent and snobbish, with an encyclopedic knowledge and preternatural insight into human beings and the natural world around them. By contrast, something we’ve never seen before, until this film, is a Holmes who isn’t in complete command of his mental faculties. A Holmes with Alzheimers is just as compelling (perhaps even more so), than a kryptonite crippled Superman. Since Holmes’ greatest asset is his brain, his aggressive memory loss reduces him to a pitiable, tragic figure—a mere shadow of his former self. However, what makes this vivid character portrait even more fascinating is that even though Holmes’ memory is failing him, his powers of deduction are still razor sharp. So who could possibly pull off such a complex role while also infusing it with the necessary vulnerability, sagacity and…magic? Why, a living, breathing wizard, of course. Ian McKellen’s performance is a study in brilliance; he fits the part of the aging investigator so well that it seems as if he were born to play Holmes. The main thrust of the movie revolves around Holmes’ final case—the one that inexplicably sent him into early retirement when he had plenty of good sleuthing years still ahead of him. Snippets of that case are woven into the tapestry of the narrative in a series of flashbacks. Holmes, channeling his inner John Watson, puts pen to paper and tries to piece together the events of his concluding conundrum in narrative form. There’s one crucial detail of his initial investigation that evades Holmes’ every effort to isolate it inside the prison of his mind. This elusive clue becomes a MacGuffin of sorts and its eventual unveiling reveals a heartrending tragedy. The bitter knowledge that successfully solving a case doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome for all parties involved drives Holmes from his flat on 221B Baker Street to a country cottage, where he hangs up his deerstalker hat for good. Whereas the intermittent vignettes of Holmes’ ultimate intrigue serve as the spine of the movie, it’s Holmes’ interactions with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) that grounds the movie and shows us a human side to the character that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. Though the pacing is slow at times, the insightful flashbacks and clever planting of clues should hold the attention of most audience members. Of course, the period accurate details, gorgeous locations and stellar performances should also keep viewers engaged and entertained throughout the movie. Bottom line: this film portrays Holmes in a way we’ve never seen before, thanks in large part to an added depth of character and reassuring measure of his humanity. I deduce that this film will be well regarded by critics and will even gain Oscar’s attention. We’ll see how accurate my inner Holmes proves to be.

Irrational Man (R)

Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Irrational Man

“A reputation proceeded me.”
An emphasis on the word “A.” Which infers a negative reputation. Ironically, it’s a negative reputation that Abe is fully aware of. Correction: Preceded. All proceeds from this review will go toward my grammar lessons.

The difference between philosophy and the real world. The #AnneFrank example is thought-provoking.
The point being that always telling the truth can have dire consequences in certain instances. Reference Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997).

Abe avers that much of philosophy is #VerbalMasturbation.
Which is having sex with someone you love. Reference Annie Hall (1977).

Abe has lost “the will to breathe.” He needs to be #Unblocked.
Parker Posey helps Abe out with his whole “blocked” issue. Abe doesn’t need to resort to self love in this instance. I know, TMI.

Abe’s lesson in “existentialism” is shocking. #RussianRoulette
Abe definitely lives on the edge. The extents that he’ll go to in order to prove his point, however, are unhealthy…and dangerous.

Abe finds a new purpose as hit man. #StrangersInADiner
In a way, Jill creates a monster by drawing Abe’s attention to the conversation taking place in the booth behind her in the diner. Reference Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).

“Go with your gut.” Abe should know. #BeerBelly
Phoenix really let himself go for this role. Suffering for his art…while eating a Big Mac.

How to lace a fresh squeezed orange juice with cyanide.
It looks a lot easier than it is. Don’t try this at home.

Abe has learned to celebrate life instead of romanticizing death.
Ironically, this new clarity in life comes from murdering someone he’s never met—celebrating death.

The deconstruction of the judge’s murder over dinner is a fabulous scene.
Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager) stands out here, but it’s his screen daughter, Stone, who steals the scene with her leaps of logic that prove to be dead on.

“A dark cloud had covered the moon.” #SeedOfDoubt
Note to men everywhere: when a woman says there’s nothing wrong, there always is…and there’s a good chance it’s something you said or did.

Abe’s “meaningful act” comes to light.
Abe’s rationalization for his action is disturbing, yet wholly justified from a purely pragmatic standpoint.

Saved by a flashlight.
It was a whistle in Titanic (1997). It’s the little things in life…

Final analysis: The story morphs from a character study to a murder mystery, but is compelling throughout.
I applaud Allen for taking a chance on this ambitious, off format story. This is certainly a unique entry into his oeuvre.

3 out of 4. Top notch acting by Phoenix and Stone and sure-handed direction from Allen, as usual.

Woody Allen’s 51st film is a good one, but not a great one. The stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, are fabulous as mentally troubled teacher and starry-eyed student, respectively. The movie is a fascinating character study of Abe (Phoenix), a freethinking, womanizing, liquor guzzling philosophy professor whose melancholia and mania (self Russian Roulette) have established a reputation that’s followed him from his former college to his new one. The shrouded details of Abe’s checkered past create a mystique that proves irresistible to impressionable ingénues and carousing cougars alike. Abe’s projection of redeemable misanthrope acts like a potent aphrodisiac on the colleagues (Parker Posey) and students (Stone) who are helplessly and haplessly trapped in orbit around him. Abe is an intriguing personality for many reasons, not the least of which is that his own personal philosophy of life, and more importantly death, is so disparate from what he teaches in the classroom. Abe’s blind spot is his misguided notion of justice. Jill’s (Stone) blind spot is Abe. Jill follows Abe around like a lost puppy dog and is high on his crafty speech and encyclopedic knowledge, both of which make him sound like he’s figured out all of life’s intricate mysteries. Jill is oblivious to Abe’s dark side for the first half of the movie but her denial gradually wears off when she hears some disturbing rumors which open her eyes to Abe’s true nature…a deeply disturbed, ice-in-the-veins killer. As such, Abe’s psychotic tendencies run antithetical to the archetypal Allen lead character (even with as messed up as Cate Blanchett’s bi-polar busybody was in Blue Jasmine, her character was sympathetic in spite of her mental condition). Abe is sympathetic at the beginning of the film but is wholly irredeemable by the end. This lack of a true-blue hero is one of the story’s biggest drawbacks. The real Achilles’ heel here, though, is the story. By switching thematic gears—from a straightforward character drama to a murder mystery/thriller—midway through the film, Allen runs the risk of confusing or exasperating his audience. However, despite its noticeable narrative modulation, the mid-movie plot shift is a unique story method and Allen’s sure-handed direction makes the transition a relatively seamless one. Irrational is one of Allen’s headier scripts; it’s heavy on philosophy and ethics but light on the signature brand of humor that marks most of his films. All things considered, this is a nice change-of-pace film for the auteur. Sadly, though it contains rich performances and a thought-provoking moral, this film fails to register as top tier Allen. If you disagree with my assessment of the movie, know that I’m doing my best to not resemble the title.