Mark Strong

Grimsby (2016)


If you’re like me and have an aversion to embarrassing discomfort, then you probably also like your Sacha Baron Cohen in small doses. He’s sharp when playing supporting roles (see Sweeney Todd or Talladega Nights) – his manic energy gives a film just the right amount of kick and kink, but let him loose and it’s almost too much of a good thing. Grimsby is one case of Baron Cohen gone amok, and rather than highly concentrated funny, he tries out every profane gag he can think of. Shock and awe is the strategy, which works with a satire like Borat, but this film veers into Brüno territory. A lazy and base faux comedy spy thriller, it mildly seeks to say something about the jobbing working class, as if true heroism was sticking a virus-infected firework up your bum and keeping the Fast and Furious franchise afloat.

Nobby, a Liam Gallagher lookalike from Grimsby, is played with unrestrained glee by Baron Cohen, who also co-wrote and produced, ensuring that he gets to indulge in every crass stereotype for the sake of comedy. A neighborhood favorite who can be counted on for a good time at the pub and who is also loving family man to his devoted wife (Rebel Wilson) and football team of children, Nobby has it all. Except for his little brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong being very Mark Strong-like), from whom he was separated twenty-eight years ago by adoption. When word gets back of Sebastian’s whereabouts, Nobby rushes off to see him.

A few decades and an upper-class childhood in London can do a lot for a hometown kid, and Sebastian is now a world apart from the big brother he once idolized. An elite member of MI6 whose main responsibilities include shooting and punching people, his current mission is to prevent the assassination of a philanthropist (Penélope Cruz) and world health leader. Nobby’s over-exuberance at the reunion causes Sebastian to kill the wrong person, and to infect Daniel Radcliffe with HIV. He’s forced to go rogue, all whilst trying to prove his innocence, uncover a conspiracy, and shake off his brother.

Grimsby rushes along at a brisk 83 minutes, popping off crude jokes like a desperate high school show off. There’s a teabagging scene, a timely jab at Cosby, and a bit about poop. But most people will remember this movie for the elephant sex. It’s not a one and done gag either but an extended sequence that probably comes with a director’s cut. If the film was not so eager to gross out and push boundaries, it might have been a decent action comedy. Isla Fisher, who plays Sebastian’s capable contact at headquarters, could use a meatier role, but the misfits appeal of the two brothers does make for good entertainment. Strong is delightfully game when parodying his hard man persona and keeps an iron face throughout. Shame it’s wasted on raunch.

Alt Title: The Brothers Grimsby
Released: 2016
Prod: Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Ant Hines, Nira Park, Todd Schulman
Dir: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Penélope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis, Ian McShane, Scott Adkins, Yusuf Hofri, Barkhad Abdi
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

sherlock holmes 2009

If we can transport ourselves back about six years when Sherlock Holmes was still a stuffy, cocaine-abusing gentleman detective, you’ll remember that this was the film that put him back into the pop culture conversation. Brash, bruising, and indeed brilliant, here was a sleuth for our era, if ours is one where men prove themselves best with brain and brawn. But that was before the Sherlock renaissance, which this film helped birth, and since then, the popular self-titled BBC series as well as CBS’s Elementary have opted for a less pugilistic approach. Still, the common thread is a modern understanding of the character and a desire to divorce him from the long-held image of a tweedy, pipe-smoking intellectual.

And on that count, director Guy Ritchie succeeds. I can’t say I’ve seen anything in the Ritchie oeuvre, unless we’re counting a music video he directed for his then-wife, Madonna, but from what I gather, Sherlock Holmes seems to have all the hallmarks of one of his films. Men, and it’s a man’s world, prove themselves by throwing punches – the more bare-knuckled, the better, and intelligence is best appreciated in a state of action. Everything here moves at high velocity; even in this horse and carriage world, leisure is so last century. And not a deerstalker in sight.

I wouldn’t say the frenetic pace works but it does match the plot, which includes a bit of ghost hunting. Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) involve themselves in the case of Lord Blackburn (Mark Strong), who is convicted and hanged for the ritualistic murders of several women. His reappearance in human form, however, has everyone spooked, and it’s not just the police who are after him but some high-ranking political leaders with an interest in the occult as well.

A restless Sherlock bullies Watson into helping him solve the mystery. The good doctor is trying to win over fair Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) by showing off his gentler, more domestic side, but he reverts to the natural male state when he’s chasing and clubbing goons. And just so we’re clear on the varying shades of masculinity, Lestrade (a bulldog-like Eddie Marsan) represents a less refined option, often reverting to brute force to make up for his lack of actual policing skills. Sherlock’s nemesis/love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) does double duty as the hot chick and clever girl with an agenda, but McAdams plays it with a lighter touch, and her character doesn’t have the sexual and intellectual potency of the more recent television incarnations.

Ritchie’s high-octane vision gives the story a thrilling kick. Downey, Jr.’s animalism and Law’s restraint complement each other well even if their accents don’t, and it’s not just a reimagining of Sherlock but of the English detective mystery genre. The director lays out an inspired Victorian England, one where science and empire building converge and where human endeavor and fear coexist in the most extreme forms. But too often the action masks rather than aids character and plot, leaving little room to digest the story. A lot of time is spent avoiding moving projectiles, and that’s fine if that’s the film you’re looking for.

But Ritchie seems to want to harness something more. The idea that Victorians viewed their era as modern in the same way that we see our own is an exciting one and a perspective that BBC’s Ripper Street explores with much more nuance and daring. That show directly borrows from the aesthetic of Sherlock but digs far deeper, until it is elbows deep in sludge, both moral and literal. And whereas Ripper Street manages to put the past into the present, this film doesn’t quite make it beyond mere imitation. There are jokes about science and new technology – someone mistakes an electrical cattle prod for magic, for example – and the climactic fight is waged on an imposing and unfinished Tower Bridge, but it never goes beyond the limits of a highly charged costume drama, even if it’s a fun one.

Released: 2009
Prod: Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, Dan Lin
Dir: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan, Hans Matheson, Geraldine James, James Fox, Robert Maillet, William Hope, William Houston
Time: 128 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Justin and the Knights of Valour

justin and the knights of valour

There are many things to like about Justin and the Knights of Valour. The animation, while not groundbreaking, paints an imaginative world filled with vivid detail. Justin (Freddie Highmore), its star, is also a genial, idealistic youth. He’s kind and principled, which may explain why his father (Alfred Molina) thinks he should follow in his footsteps and study law. And though it’s not always a respected profession, it’s a secure one in the land of Gabylonia, where legalism rules the day. The kingdom is a place where statutes have worked their way into every detail of daily life. Anyone can be ticketed for shouting too loudly in the streets and strongmen will snatch cats from little girls who haven’t updated their kitty’s vaccination cards.

It’s easy to see why Justin would want to trade a bureaucratic future for a life of adventure, and he dreams of being a knight like his grandfather, the brave and of course valorous Sir Roland. But two things stand in his way – his father and the law. And his scrawny physique. Since the king’s death years ago, the grieving queen (Olivia Williams) has banished knights, whom she blames for her husband’s death. Justin remains undaunted, however, and sets off on a quest, with some nudging from his grandmother (Julie Walters), to reclaim his grandfather’s missing sword and to find courage within himself.

I should stop here before trying to further untangle the various plot and character threads because, despite a strong opening, the movie overreaches and Justin’s coming of age gets lost in a confusion of sub-plots and minor characters, all seemingly to make room for the film’s expansive, all-star voice cast. There are a few key figures who aid in Justin’s self-discovery. He meets Blucher (James Cosmo), a monk and former knight who was also Sir Roland’s best friend. A colorful and scrappy old guy, Blucher puts Justin through the ringer and dispenses sage advice. Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a fiery barmaid, eventually turns sidekick while Lara (Tamsin Egerton), a selfish rich girl, is the lady to whom Justin dedicates his quest. Looming in the background is Heraclio (Mark Strong), a fallen knight who wants to reclaim his place in Gabylonia.

This film is hardly this straightforward though. A full slate of sideshow distractions leaves you wondering about the movie’s focus, which seems to be concentrated more on star power than on story. Antonio Banderas voices Sir Clorex, a vain handyman who passes himself off as a knight, David Walliams portrays a soothsayer/wizard/nut who hangs out at Talia’s bar and dispenses fortunes and gobbledygook in equal measure, Rupert Everett plays a fashionable jester and/or knight in Heraclio’s service, and Charles Dance is the head monk whose purpose I don’t remember.

The characters certainly add some laughs, and kids might enjoy their distinctiveness, but none are particularly important to the story. Justin’s journey is not just about following his heart but also about his relationship with his father, who in turn remains very affected by the actions of his father. There is potential for some Pixar-level pulling of the heartstrings, but the film never capitalizes on these moments, making Justin and the Knights of Valour a not altogether successful quest.

“Heroes” by Rebecca Ferguson:

Released: 2013
Prod: Antonio Banderas, Marcelino Almansa, Kerry Fulton, Ralph Kamp
Dir: Manuel Sicilia
Writer: Matthew Jacobs, Manuel Sicilia
Cast: Freddie Highmore, James Cosmo, Mark Strong, Alfred Molina, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan, Tamsin Egerton, Antonio Banderas, David Walliams, Barry Humphries, Charles Dance, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: Spain
Reviewed: 2015