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Column Fri Dec 16 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy & A Dangerous Method

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

Before my review begins, it should be noted that this film technically opens today only in certain IMAX theaters across the country. Certain portions of the film were actually shot in IMAX, so this isn't one of those fake IMAX situations. In those theaters before the film, audience members will be treated to the first few minutes of The Dark Knight Rises. The official, non-IMAX release of Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol is next Wednesday, Dec. 21. Got it? Good.

By maintaining a fairly streamlined story, some incredible stunts and effects sequences, and having the most colorful and interesting team of any of the previous Mission: Impossible films, Ghost Protocol (the franchise's fourth installment) is at least as strong as the much-revered first M:I film, and I think better. Continuing the tradition of having a different director for each chapter of this Tom Cruise-starring vehicle, Ghost Protocol has enlisted the exceedingly capable Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant) to direct his first live-action movie. Bird has this crazy reputation of caring about fleshing out the characters he's put in charge of, and it's nice to see an emphasis placed on developing the team members as people and not just action props.

The story involves a plot to discredit the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) by framing its members for bombing the Kremlin. The set up is devised by a master villain (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist) who believes that a nuclear war is the only way to set the world right, and sets about to make sure that the world's superpowers are firing warheads at each other as soon as possible. Naturally Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is unofficially charged by the State Department to clear the IMF's name, even though the government must officially disown it until that is done.

The rather makeshift team consists of returning cast member Simon Pegg as the technical wizard Benji, having been promoted to field agent from his position as glorified IT guy in the last film. Also on board is Paula Patton (best known for playing the teacher in Precious) as Jane, and Jeremy Renner's Brandt, who was working as an analyst with the government before being grabbed by Hunt & Co. in this story, although his formidable self-defense skills may indicate that he is a bit more than he leads on.

Director Bird does a spectacular job staging some of the most elaborate action sequences I've seen all year, and he does so in a way that they actually make sense, especially the extended centerpiece set in and outside the the tallest building in the world, which Ethan must partially scale to gain access to its security mainframe. Words cannot describe the stomach turning that will occur as your watch Cruise crawl up the side of this building in the IMAX format (no 3D, mind you; it's not necessary). The scene is almost a metaphor for the rest of the film, which is to say that it is concentrated suspense that dazzles both the eyes and the mind. Ghost Protocol feels clear-headed and sensical, even at its most outrageous.

But I also like the weight that is given each characters, especially to Renner's Brandt, who has a secret he's keeping that is sitting heavily upon his shoulders, and the more the team accepts him, the guiltier he feels. Renner is a great actor that people seem to keep wanting to stick in action films (he'll play Hawkeye in The Avengers and is taking over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon, although not as Jason Bourne apparently. But in roles like those in North Country, The Town, and most notably The Hurt Locker, Renner has shown he's that rare combination of action ready and willing to dig deeper to find a character's beating heart. It sounds easy, but if it were, more actors would be doing it.

Not to take anything away from Pegg or Patton, both of whom add just the right levels of comic relief and eye candy (and that's just Pegg) to make sure Ghost Protocol doesn't get weighed down by its own self-importance. Actually, Patton also has somewhat selfish reason for wanting to be a part of this particular, off-the-books mission, and she struggles to keep her personal interest in getting to the bad guys separate from the team's objectives. Plus, she looks good in a slinky evening gown. In his familiar but still likable brand of self-deprecating humor, Pegg's Benji wants to be accepted as something more than just a guy behind the computer.

Above and beyond anything, Ghost Protocol is a barrels of fun. And as high-profile as the Mumbai sequence is, there's a fantastic climactic showdown between Ethan and Nyqvist in a parking garage that I'm pretty sure hasn't been shown in a commercial or trailer yet. Saving a little something special for those who actually buy tickets is a great idea. I haven't said much about Cruise in the film, and that's because he has nothing to prove here. Even in the worst of the Mission: Impossible films (that would be the second one), he knows this Ethan Hunt and throws everything he has into playing him. I always bought Cruise in this role, and while it's not my favorite of his many and varied characters, it's the one that fits him most comfortably. Throw in a could of well-placed cameos (of both new and familiar faces), and you've got yourself one hell of a great action movie to cap the year off with. Again, seeing this in IMAX is kind of essential. If you can make that happen, do so. It's worth the up-charge, unlike most 3D movies.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

I honestly don't have much to say on this second film that, even more than the first, forgoes the idea of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) being a super sleuth, instead turning him into an action-heavy superhero. I miss the man of mystery, to be honest, but I also the like way the action is handled in these films, as a thinking-man's exercise rather than just pure punching and kicking.

In Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Downey continues to play Holmes as an emotional cripple, who is mourning the loss of his dear friend and partner Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) to the greatest enemy of all: marriage. The loss is felt even deeper when Holmes' own potential love interest from the previous film, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), turns traitor to work for his sworn enemy Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris, who is actually quite good as the legendary nemesis). In an interesting but not entirely successful turn, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, plays gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza Heron, who aids Holmes in his search for evidence of Moriarty's master plan.

Never to be left out of the game, Holmes manages to find imaginative ways to ruin Watson's honeymoon, while still keeping the band together to go after Moriarty. Even thought I just saw the film a few days ago, it's tough for me to remember any of the details of this story, probably because there aren't that many. This is a plot unveiled in broad strokes, which get more interesting the more detail is added. For example, the bonus inclusion of Stephen Fry as Holmes' contrarian brother Mycroft is nothing short of genius. Fry is clever, mischievous and just plain fun to have around, and it made me realize how much I've missed seeing him on any size screen.

And while in terms of marketing and demographics, having Rapace in the film is a neat, trendy idea, she doesn't actually add much to the proceedings, and is largely reducing to playing Exposition Girl, which is such a colossal waste of her talents as to border on insulting. But the most welcome introduction in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is Jared Harris, who plays Prof. Moriarty as if he's an upstanding member of the scientific establishment, and anyone thinking of him in villainous terms must be insane. I've long admired Harris' dexterity as an actor, and he certainly has just the right amount of the devil in him for this role.

Still, much like the original Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows left me cold and empty. Holmes' many disguises were just silly, his powers of deduction rarely tapped into, and his stoned rants irritating. It's a bit sad when you walk out of a Sherlock Holmes story thinking Dr. Watson is the far more interesting character, if only because he seems far more well-adjusted. Game of Shadows has quite a few truly entertaining moments, but nothing about them really sticks with you, with one exception — there a fight sequence between Holmes and Moriarty that is old-school pre-visualized. I'll say nothing more, but it's an extremely interesting take on Holmes' ability to know exactly how a fight is going to play out (something that was established in the first film). If the rest of the film had been that intriguing, I might be able to recommend this latest chapter in the modern Holmes franchise to you.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

As I said my interview with Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) earlier this week, the character of George Smiley has always reminded me of a description I once read of the butler character Anthony Hopkins played in Remains of the Day — I may be paraphrasing — "When he enters a room, the room becomes more empty." Smiley (Oldman) has spent most of his career in British Intelligence as a professional observer, barely speaking, doesn't stand out, easy to forget.

In other words, he's the perfect spy. But he has spent many of his years playing the Number 2 man to Control (John Hurt), who opens the film sending one his operatives, Jim Prideasux (Mark Strong), into Hungary on a secret mission to retrieve the name of a mole high up in MI6. The mission goes horribly wrong, and the agent is shot down in cold blood, thus effectively ending the careers of both Control and Smiley, who is expected to go down with his captain. After this preliminary introduction into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the classic novel by John le Carre, the film asks the intriguing question, what if a professional background player like Smiley is suddenly put in charge and brought to the foreground. For better or worse, the answer appears to be that we would learn what this man is truly made of, and thanks to a career-best performance by Oldman, that's exactly what happens.

When it is discovered that the story of a mole at MI6 may have some credibility to it and that Control had narrowed it down to four high-ranking officials (played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik) as well as Smiley, Smiley is brought back to MI6 to lead the investigation, along with the help of his new Number 2 man Peter Guillam (a fantastic turn by Benedict Cumberbatch), a younger agent who is the perfect melding of soothingly loyal and strikingly menacing, depending on what is required.

The details of the investigation isn't as important to the film as is the way Alfredson captures each character's essence with just a few choice traits, looks and moments. This is especially thrilling when watching Smiley emerge in Oldman's nuanced performance. And there are mysteries about every character that go well beyond which one is the mole. For example, we know that Smiley's wife has recently left him, and as the film unfolds and Alfredson jumps back and forth in time (thanks to some creative editing), we slowly uncover what happened between them.

But the film is also about about a dying bureaucracy during the height of the Cold War, the way the MI6 was so desperate for information about the Soviets that it was willing to throw caution to the wind, it's about how dated technology was slowly being replaced by newer models (not unlike what was happening with Old Guard of the agents themselves). There's a reason this story has stood the test of time, even in this condensed version, but this version is immaculately directed, shot, paced and acted, and to miss it would be a betrayal your whatever country you live in.

That being said, I wouldn't trust any critic's opinion on this film who hasn't seen the film at least twice, especially of they're down on the film. The first time you watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you'll focus mainly on following the dense story; but it's the second time when the film's perfections really open themselves up to you, and you're able to sit back and soak in the totality of the work, especially the glorious performances. Once you've seen it that second time, well, then you'll want to watch it a third and fourth time just because you can. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy star Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson.

A Dangerous Method

I don't have a clue how much of what is presented about the professional friendship between up-and-coming psychiatrist Carl Jung (played by Shame's Michael Fassbeder) and the more established mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is true in the new David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method, and I don't care. I was too transfixed simply listening to their theories spelled out, take shape, and discounted or embraced to care. Fassbender and Mortensen play these men of medicine and letters talking about sex so perfectly that even the film's flaws (there are several) are fairly easy to overlook.

The deepest problem with the film is not the performance of Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, a deeply troubled patient who comes to Jung with hopes of being cured and eventually taking up his line of work, perhaps as an assistant. It's the way the character is written that doesn't work as well as it needs to. Knightley is actually somewhat terrifying as Sabina, whose affectations cause her to distort her face and body grotesquely. After discouragement from Freud and encouragement from a somewhat bohemian patient Otto Gross (the truly mental Vincent Cassel from Black Swan), the married Jung begins an affair with Sabina, which include some of her sexual proclivities such as S&M fantasies.

A Dangerous Method winds through the relationship between the two psychiatrists and Sabina, a coming together and eventual parting of the ways that fractured this branch of medicine from this point forward. I love the way Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement) weave in the changing times and locations (Vienna and Zurich, soon to be plunged into World War I). The fact that the more renowned Freud is sometimes treated like a lesser citizen because he is Jewish also factors into their relationship peripherally.

Fans of Cronenberg's more overtly horrific or disturbing works may not see much of his touch in this movie, but if you look hard enough, the birthplace of some of his best psycho-sexual obsessions are right there ready to jump out at you. The film is occasionally too dry even for its subject, and it sometimes struggles when Fassbender and Mortensen aren't front and center, but overall A Dangerous Method has enough going for it to give it a moderate recommendation. Go for the sex talk; stay for the rest of the discussion. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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