Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 21 December 2009 to 27 December 2009

How can you tell that I've been going to the cinema less than usual of late? I actually had this week's page in my calendar scanned in before I realized that I had this week's tickets taped to last week's page. I guess that much white space just looked unnatural to me, and having no overlap between the days of the week is odd, too.

The blank period was good, though. I finished up the Sherlock Holmes reviews (I think I've seen my fill for a while) and went up to Maine to see my family for Christmas. It is always nice to verify that my niece remains the most adorable little girl in the world, and so smart. Shame everybody had such a nasty cold, though; by the time Christmas was over, my brother Dan sounded like a gangster who'd been smoking two packs a day for twenty years. Or something. It wasn't a healthy sound, that's for sure.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Test Screening for the Boston Sci-fi Film Festival (Tuesday, 22 December 2009, Somerville Theater Video Room, 7:30pm)

The theme for test screenings for the BSFFF this week was "feature smackdown", and unlike previous weeks, I didn't take much in the way of notes. The idea was that we'd watch the first "reel" or so and then comment, maybe a little more if we weren't sure what sort of impression it made on us. We wound up watching the second, Lunopolis, straight through. That kind of faux documentary is tough to get a handle on as just a sample; sci-fi ones, especially, have a tendency to be pretty backloaded. This one was at least interesting enough to keep us engaged and curious for its runtime, so I think it's got a pretty good chance of making it onto the schedule.

Le combat dans l'île (Fire and Ice)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

Le combat dans l'île starts off with a heck of a hook, showing us the strained marriage of Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément Lesser (Jean-Louis Trintignant), which looks like relatively normal discontent until Anne finds the bazooka in the closet. From there, it's not long until an assassination attempt leads to and escape to the country, and whatever thrill was re-injected into their love life wanes as Clément goes on a mission (and on the run) to South America, but there is Paul (Henri Serre)...

Oddly, perhaps, the opening act turned out to be quite dull for me, though that may be a reaction to a travel-filled few days and needing a second wind. Being far from the politics of that time and place probably doesn't help; it's tough to connect with someone like Clément, who is all about a cause, when his ideology isn't particularly clear. He worked much better for me when he reappeared later in the movie; a fugitive staking his claim to his wife doesn't need a specific cause.

The romance between Paul and Anne works much better; it plays out believably, without too much of the sort of introspection that often sabotages this sort of film. There's a joy to it, both of them seeming to be appreciated for the first time in longer than they'd like to admit. I was surprised how quickly the second half of the movie flew by, as this is the sort of thing that I often find a bit of a mire.

It leads up to an action sequence with Paul and Clément dueling, and I don't know how well that works. It seems a bit strange for Anne to be relatively uninvolved in the climax, as she had been the film's center up until then. For all this film's rediscovered classic status, it struck me as a little scattered, though excellent when it hits its stride.
Sherlock Holmes '09Le combat dans l'île

"A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen", part four: The Twenty-first Century

The crazy project is finished!!!

I may have mentioned this at the start, but the month of Sherlock Holmes reviews was not intended to be a crazy, film-festival style marathon, but a collaborative project that would see many people giving their views on Sherlock on film. That didn't happen, but I don't regret it. There's value to having one voice to something like this, even if some of the various versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles do tend to blend together.

So, on to the twenty-first century. The key factor tying these projects together seems to be franchising. That's hardly new; there have been numerous Holmes series through the years (over a century, from IMDB's character page). The vast majority of the 2000s batch has been dreary, though: Matt Frewer, James D'Arcy, Richard Roxburgh (replaced by Rupert Everett, who was worse). None of them seemed to have the character down - it's a little damning that, until Robert Downey Jr. came around, I'd take Frewer, because he was at least making an effort to be entertaining.

Downey's movie is, I'm happy to report, a bunch of fun. It plays fast and loose with the canon, but it looks great and never stops being entertaining. I want to see these guys again, even though I'm perfectly satisfied with the story that's being told.

I can't help but be curious about the next couple on the list, though: A BBC series coming from Steven Moffat, who has done great work on Doctor Who and (I'm told) Jekyll, and an Asylum "mockbuster" whose cover promises dinosaurs, Spring-Heeled Jack, and a kraken. I can't be expected to keep away from that.

In the meantime, though, here's the finale of the December Sherlock series. Slim pickings except for the new movie, but I hope that those who enjoy Robert Downey Jr. in the role will go back and check out some of the many other fine actors who have played the part, just to see how so many can find something different in a character and yet have him essentially remain true to himself.

(Final random thought, as I do the Amazon links - how come the Frewer Sign of Four isn't available? The other three are as individual discs or in a collection, but that one is missing!)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000)

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

I have to admit, I've been alternately looking forward to and dreading this one since we came up with the month of Sherlock Holmes idea. You can't really ignore it, since CTV and Hallmark Entertainment made four Sherlock Holmes movies in the early 2000s, the most ambitious project between the Brett series and the Downey movie. But it doesn't take a very close look to suspect that they won't be great.

I've summarized two other version of The Hound of the Baskervilles in the past couple weeks, so lets stick to basics: Elder Baskerville dies. Family physician (Gordon Masten), worried about heir Sir Henry (Jason London), engages Sherlock Holmes (Matt Frewer). Holmes sends Dr. Watson (Kenneth Welsh) to Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry. Sir Henry meets neighbor (Robin Wilcock), falls for neighbor's sister (Emma Campbell). Something fishy about butler Barrymore (Arthur Holden) and his wife (Leni Parker). Escaped killer.

The cast is a fairly anonymous collection of Canadian character actors, with the notable exception of the man playing Sherlock, Matt Frewer. I go back and forth on Frewer; when I first saw him in Max Headroom and Doctor, Doctor, I thought he was brilliant. Then, after seeing him in a great many lesser productions, I figured that he wasn't very good at all, and those excellent performances were the result of fortuitous casting - an impression only strengthened by the occasional noteworthy performance more recently. Now, I tend to think that he plays up or down to the material: Put him in a quality program, and he rises to the occasion. Stick him in something uninspired, and he'll ham it up in the hopes of giving the audience at least a little bit of entertainment during an otherwise dull hour or two. Sometimes that works; sometimes it drags a borderline production down.

Full review at EFC.

Sherlock: A Case of Evil

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

The new Sherlock Holmes movie opening this weekend is being characterized as a return to prominence for the character, but the fact of the matter is, he never went away. Characters that combine worldwide name recognition with a public domain status that means royalties need not be paid are endlessly appealing as the potential start of a franchise, and there were no less than four attempts during the 2000s to develop Holmes for television. The most intriguing, sadly, never got off the ground (it would have featured Stephen Fry as Holmes and Hugh Laurie as Watson). Of the ones that did end up before a camera, this pilot from 2002 was probably the most radical reinvention, and one that did not go so well.

It starts off in 1886, with a youthful Sherlock (James D'Arcy) chasing Professor Moriarty (Vincent D'Onofrio) through the streets of London on behalf of a beautiful young woman that the professor has been blackmailing (Gabrielle Anwar). Holmes triumphs, thus making his reputation - a reputation that has one of the city's leading opium merchants (Struan Rodger) seeking to engage him to discover who is killing others in his line of trade. Holmes succeeds, with the help of a young coroner by the name of John Watson (Roger Morlidge), but it all seems rather too pat.

Making a good Sherlock Holmes film (or television series) does not necessarily mean making a close adaptation of the original stories, nor even attempting to follow their chronology. And while a part of the appeal of Holmes and Watson is that as archetypal characters, they can be modified and portrayed in different manners and still be recognizably themselves, you can push them too far. Such as, for example, making Sherlock a fame-seeking ladies' man whose addiction problems involve alcohol rather than cocaine. Or making Watson into Holmes's man inside Scotland Yard who also happens to build useful devices and occasionally makes predictions about the future that are logical but humorously inaccurate. That's getting fairly far off the beam.

Full review at EFC.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

In 2002, the BBC and WGBH-Boston co-produced a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles featuring Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson. It wasn't particularly memorable, but was apparently successful enough to merit a sequel but not so much so that the producers felt the need to work around Roxburgh's schedule or stick to adapting Doyle's stories (curious, as it was being done under the umbrella of WGBH's Masterpiece Theater). So, two years later, we get Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking.

The year is 1902. On one side of London, Sherlock Holmes (Rupert Everett) is in an opium den, lying in a stupor. On the other, Dr. John Watson (Ian Hart) assists Inspector Lestrade (Neil Dudgeon) in the autopsy of a very young girl washed up on the side of the Thames. Watson brings the case to Holmes, who quickly deduces that the girl was not a prostitute, as had been believed, but a young lady of high society. Her father engages Holmes to find the girl's killer, but it's not soon before another debutante has gone missing, and Holmes believes that the missing girl's sister, Roberta Massingham (Perdita Weeks), may be the killer's next target.

Writer Allan Cubitt has some really solid ideas, many of which are played out quite well. He sets the film on the eve of Watson's second wedding (to an American psychologist played by Helen McCrory), setting up a nifty little triangle - Holmes outwardly uncaring but obviously bitter about the reduced attention of his best and only friend; Watson very much in love but drawn to the bohemian, adventure-filled life that Holmes represents; McCrory's Mrs. Vandeleur sharing common ground with Holmes that makes the detective uncomfortable. There's the stark contrast between turn of the century London on the outside - a foggy, polluted city where it's difficult to see much more than a few feet in any direction - and the gilded, colorful houses where the upper-class debutantes live. There's the potentially interesting juxtaposition of the cynical, crime-obsessed Holmes and the innocent likes of Roberta.

Full review at EFC.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2009 in Somerville Theater #1 (first-run)

This Christmas goose doesn't have a blue carbuncle, but is still quite tasty.

Unlike a lot of fans, I'm not pessimistic by nature, and at no point from the announcement of this new Sherlock Holmes movie to plunking down seven bucks for it was I ever not looking forward to it. Sure, it would be different, but the best and most memorable Sherlock productions have been different from what came before, all the way back to William Gillette ending his stage adaptation with Holmes getting hitched. The new version follows this tradition, and if I have complaints, I suspect they're more a result of my not being quite so open-minded as I think myself to be as anything Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr., and company have done.

The film opens on a chase through Victorian London, as consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Downey), his friend and partner Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), and Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) hunt down a missing girl who has fallen under the spell of a supposed sorcerer. That villain is revealed to be Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who refuses to stay in his grave after being hanged, even though Watson pronounced the man dead himself. This supposed resurrection occurs at roughly the same time Holmes is visited by Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an American con artist with a commission from a mysterious figure to find a missing person, and as Watson plans his marriage to the lovely Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), despite Holmes's attempts at sabotage.

When pitching the return of Sherlock Holmes to the big screen, the producers famously used a comic book style mockup to demonstrate their vision of Holmes as a man of action, and it's not a bad way to frame the character. Though he predates them, Holmes has always been a superhero - or at least pulp hero - in the mold of Batman or Doc Savage, with remarkable powers of observation and the ability to pull disparate facts together. The original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories at various times referred to his skills at bareknuckle boxing and the (invented) Japanese martial art baritsu; he's also described as a master of disguise, can bend a steel rod back into shape, and has a small army of street urchins who scour London for clues. The four credited writers actually scale this back a little by just showing Holmes as having a quick-working mind and thus able to anticipate his opponents in a brawl. The stories themselves have always been combinations of mystery, horror, and pulp adventure, with the mystery actually the weakest parts; what the four credited writers create here is certainly in the spirit of the original stories, if a bit grander in scale.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen", part three: The Jeremy Brett era

Jeremy Brett's first appearance as Sherlock Holmes came roughly twenty-five years ago, in an adaptation of Doyle's first short story featuring the character, "A Scandal in Bohemia" (the novel that introduced Holmes and Watson to us and each other, A Study in Scarlet, is not the greatest place to start). I don't know if the people at Granada initially realized that they were creating the definitive version of the character, or at least, the one all others would be measured against for the next generation.

They did, though, and not just because they caught me right around junior high when it's relatively easy to find something definitive. I didn't notice it at the time, because I was young and although I was a fast and retentive reader, I wasn't as great at absorbing meaning as I was detail. Like a lot of fanboys (especially now), I was most pleased by the way they held close to the original stories, but I didn't quite recognize how and why that was a good thing.

Re-watching the feature-length episodes as an adult (as well as one or two of the short stories; "The Blue Carbuncle" makes a fine present-wrapping on Christmas Eve!), especially after watching a whole metric ton of other Holmes movies, I saw the true genius of what Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, and John Hawkesworth and his band of writers had done: They portrayed Holmes and Watson as complex, multifaceted characters without resorting to inventing things outside the canon. Brett said he would always argue to put more Doyle in (although, upon seeing how many young fans the program had, he begged the Doyle heirs' indulgence in allowing Holmes to beat his cocaine habit), and that served the series well: As mysteries, the stories were often unfair and based upon details that Doyle just made up, but Holmes became a world-wide sensation because of Doyle's words. Brett dug into those words to give us a man who only truly came alive when there was crime to solve, and even then had difficulty interacting with the world. That was what made Watson so indispensible; he was our measuring sick for Holmes's genius and a friend who was more like family; it probably goes without saying that Burke and later Hardwicke revitalized that character as well.

It also doesn't hurt that the productions were handsome, done up as well as a TV budget would allow. Doing it as a television show allowed them to spread things out a little, too - the dearstalker didn't have to show up unless it was appropriate, for instance; there was no need to cram the entirety of the Holmes mythos into a single story, which often makes other productions look goofy and cliche-ridden.

Also worth mentioning: The DVD set of the complete series from MPI is gorgeous. I picked it up when it came out a couple years ago, and it sat on my shelf as something that I was more interested being able to watch at any time than that I wanted to watch right then. This project led me to dig it out, and my eyes popped a little at The Sign of Four; I had seen the sticker that mentioned that these discs were remastered from the original negatives, but one just doesn't expect twenty-year-old television to look that nice. Seeing that the show was shot on film, I'm now kind of giddy at the (wholly unsubstantiated) thought of an HD transfer.

(The pretty image was especially nice considering that Without a Clue was actually a pan & scan transfer - and not from a movie released in the early days of DVD, but from a 2004 DVD release!)

I'm a little bummed that I didn't get a chance to revisit some of the other attempts to do Sherlock Holmes for American TV during this period. Somewhere in my basement, I have VHS copies of Charlton Heston in The Crucifer of Blood (fun fact: Jeremy Brett played Watson in the original stage play) and Edward Woodward in Hands of a Murderer. I never did see Kenneth Johnson's Sherlock Holmes Returns, which had him in the present, or the two Christopher Lee movies done around the same time.

The Great Mouse Detective

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

A new Sherlock Holmes movie just came out; a new animated film directed by John Musker & Ron Clements opened two weeks earlier. You'd think this would get The Great Mouse Detective a new home video release, as it's at the intersection of those two pop-culture phenomena, but it remains stubbornly out of print; Disney keeps their own schedule on these things. If you can find it at a local video store, though, it's well worth checking out.

It posits mice living in a miniature world beneath our own. In 1897, on the eve of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a mouse toymaker by the name of Flaversham (voice of Alan Young) is kidnapped by Fidget (voice of Candy Candido), a bat with a peg leg. He had daughter Olivia (voice of Susanne Pollatschek) hide; she goes searching for for private consulting detective Basil of Baker Street (voice of Barrie Ingham), but she instead finds Doctor David Q. Dawson (voice of Val Bettin), who brings her to Basil. Basil soon deduces that her father has been taken by Professor Rattigan (voice of Vincent Price), his arch-nemesis - but what sort of evil plan requires the assistance of a toymaker?

Why, a mad one, of course, but one of devilish ingenuity. It's the sort that even a reasonably smart kid could probably find the flaw in, but neither this child nor his or her parents will be too worried about it because Rattigan has the voice of Vincent Price, with the animators taking cues from his gestures as her recorded the part. Price is the only thing close to a big star in the cast, and he brings exactly what is needed here: A veneer of charm and respectability over viciousness; he's a rat pretending to be a mouse - indeed, deluding himself that that's the case - and while the ultimate revelation of that is given to the animators, Price's unique ability to meld creepiness and sophistication gives them a solid base to work from.

Full review at EFC

The Sign of Four (1987)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Early in the Granada Television version of The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) makes a familiar comment about how Watson (Edward Hardwicke) injects too much sensationalism and romance into his accounts of their cases. He may be pleased, then, with this rendering of one of his more famous adventures; it actually reduces the love-story sub-plot of Arthur Conan Doyle's original. The result indicates that Holmes and Watson both have a point about what makes for good literature.

The client who approaches 221B Baker Street in this case is one Miss Mary Morstan (Jenny Seagrove), who comes to Holmes and Watson with a peculiar tale. Ten years ago, her father disappeared just after his arrival in London to visit her while on a year's leave from service in India. Four years after that, she begins receiving exceptionally valuable pearls in the mail, once a year. Now, she has received a message, inviting her to a meeting where she will be repaid for a great wrong that was done her. The invitation allows her to bring two friends, and though she knows nobody in London, her employer has referred her to Holmes. The invitation leads her to Thaddeus Sholto (Ronald Lacey), a nervous little man who confirms her father's death, but no sooner is that mystery solved than another presents itself: Thaddeus's twin brother Bartholomew is found dead, the treasure for which their late father (Robin Hunter) killed Mary's (Terence Skelton) missing.

The Sign of Four is a difficult story to adapt, though it is justly one of the most popular stories in the Holmesian canon. It's a thrilling dime-novel adventure, with strange and grotesque murders, eccentric characters, and dashes of comedy that undercut neither our respect for the characters nor the gravity of the crimes. Still, the lengthy flashbacks that were relatively common in the novels of Doyle's day can seem unwieldy to a modern audience. When reviewing the 1932 version with Arthur Wontner (, I complained that telling the story in chronological order reduced the impact of Holmes untangling it; watching this one, which like most of the adaptations Granada Television did in the 1980s and 1990s is quite faithful to the original text, I can't help but feel that it climaxes too early, with the last act too much given over to flashback. Today's viewers may also flinch at the broad and unflattering way foreigners are portrayed; developer John Hawkesworth preserves some of the time's xenophobia.

Full review at EFC

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

When I first proposed this "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes On Screen" project, one of the components I figured on including was a feature titled "A Pack of Hounds", where we would directly compare as many of the various iterations of The Hound of the Baskervilles and see which stood out (indeed, the idea of multiple versions of the same story was the original inspiration). This wound up falling by the wayside - watching three versions of Hound in relatively short order is quite enough; no need to add at least two more and also write about them! Besides, given how well-regarded the Granada series of the late 1980s/early 1990s is, was there really any doubt that their version of the story would be the top dog?

Sir Charles Baskerville recently died of a hart attack brought on by sheer terror; his friend and physician Dr. Mortimer (Alastair Duncan), aware of the legend of a giant hound that has haunted the Baskervilles for over a century, worries that there is something more sinister afoot, and consults Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). It turns out that there is cause for concern; heir Sir Henry Baskerville (Kristoffer Tabori), newly arrived from America, has received a cryptic letter and had items stolen. Occupied in town, Holmes sends Watson (Edward Hardwicke) to guard the young Baskerville as he takes up residence in the family manor, and send daily reports. Henry soon takes a shine to Beryl Stapleton (Fiona Gillies), the sister of a local entomologist (James Faulkner). Not all is so benign, though - the Barrymores (Ronald Pickup and Rosemary McHale) seem terribly anxious to leave the family's employ, despite generations of service; an escaped murderer prowls the moor; and someone is intercepting Watson's letters to Baker Street.

Adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles means striking the right balance between horror and mystery, as well as working around the fact that Holmes is absent for a fair amount of time in the middle of the story. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen and director Brian Mills handle that adroitly, finding ways to cut away to Holmes during Watson's time at Baskerville Hall without undercutting the pleasure of his reappearance or giving away all of what he's been up to. And while it may initially seem that the filmmakers' hearts are not really into the horror elements of the story - there is no flashback to the origins of the myth, Watson's admonishment when a supernatural explanation is suggested ("We are men of science, Holmes") - they have some great scares up their sleeves, both with the Hound and escaped convict Selden (William Ilkley).

Full review at EFC

Without a Clue

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

The end credits of Without a Clue offer Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the filmmakers' apologies. It's a nice gesture, but unnecessary for three reasons: First, the man is long dead and past caring. Second, he was notoriously dismissive of Holmes and what others did with the character (when actor/playwright William Gillette worried that Doyle might have an issue with his having Holmes married, he responded that Gillette could kill him for all he cared). Most importantly, they've made a fairly entertaining comedy.

The common lore on Sherlock Holmes is that Doyle based him upon one of his teachers, a Dr. Joseph Bell, and then made Watson in his own image. Of course, in order to write Holmes, Doyle would have to have some skill with his methods (which he would, it is said, demonstrate from time to time). It's also well-documented that he resented his most famous creation, going so far as to kill him off in "The Finale Problem". Die-hard fans of Holmes play "The Grand Game" of treating Doyle's stories as if they had actually happened already, and the premise of Without a Clue is an extension of that, mapping Doyle's contentious relationship with his creation onto Watson.

So, as the film starts, Holmes and Watson are foiling a burglary, but Holmes is actually actor Reggie Kincaid (Michael Caine); Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the brains of the operation. Watson created Holmes when he was applying for a position at a conservative medical school who might not approve of his exploits as "the crime doctor", but after years he has grown weary of Holmes receiving all the credit - and that's before considering his impatience with Kincaid, a drunkard and buffoon. He resolves to dispose of Holmes, but finds that even Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) will not take Watson alone seriously. So he brings Kincaid back for one last case - a man has disappeared with the plates used to print the five-pound note. Soon "Holmes" and Watson are protecting his beautiful daughter Leslie (Lysette Anthony), unaware that the true villain is Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman).

Full review at EFC

The Master Blackmailer

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

It has occasionally been said that it is better to build a movie up from a short story rather than to cut down a novel (at least, I've originally said this). You will, at least, get the complete story rather than potentially missing someone's favorite part. Of course, the issue then becomes whether what is added feels like an organic outgrowth of the story, or whether it is interesting enough to bother with. The Master Blackmailer does well enough on the first count, but has times when it struggles on the latter.

Charles Augustus Milverton (Robert Hardy) is the king of the blackmailers, though he maintains appearances as an art dealer. He's been at it for at least a dozen years, as a prologue shows. Now, in 1894, a dowager has hired Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) to track him down, with only the letters "CAM - Devil" scrawled in a book of poetry as a clue. At the same time, this shadowy figure is trying to extort over a thousand pounds from Col. John Dorking (David Mallinson) on the eve of his wedding to Lady Charlotte Miles (Sarah McVicar). Holmes and Watson (Edward Hardwicke) are too late to do anything about that case, but perhaps they can be of assistance to his next prospective victim, Lady Eva Blackwell (Serena Gordon).

Before writing this, I took the time to re-read the story upon which it was based, Sir Arthur Conan Doyles "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton". It didn't take long; the story runs about a dozen pages in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (that I am the sort of person who owns a copy of that tome should surprise no-one reading this series of reviews as it is posted). The original story covers basically the last act of The Master Blackmailer, although it's not immediately obvious. One of the reasons Doyle's stories were so memorable was that he would have Watson throw out offhand references to things that could be stories in their own right, and that's what screenwriter Jeremy Paul does here. The Dorking/Miles storyline, for instance, was just mentioned in passing, although Paul does a good job of weaving it into the rest of the story, along with the scenes of Holmes wooing Milverton's housemaid, Agatha (Sophie Thompson), for information.

Full review at EFC

The Last Vampyre

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Creating a long series of well-regarded, faithful adaptations must be a very mixed blessing. All artists enjoy good reviews, but writers, directors, and actors are all creative people, and it must be a somewhat strange thing to be praised on the basis of apparently not bringing anything new to a work, but merely transcribing it. That certainly seems to have been the case for the producers of Granada's series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, as by the end they were experimenting with more freely adapting the stories - not always to good effect.

A country vicar (Maurice Denham) is referred to Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) by his solicitors, who are not sure how to handle his inquiries about vampirism in his parish. The parish is up in arms about one John St. Claire Stockton (Roy Marsden), believed to be a relation of noblemen burned out of their house under suspicion of being a vampire, and now that same suspicion has fallen on him. After all, he seems never to sleep, and two people have died shortly after coming into contact with him: A blacksmith, and the infant son of trader Rob Ferguson (Keith Barron) and his Peruvian wife Carlotta (Yolanda Vazquez). There's more going on in the Ferguson house, though, and a general state of unease is spreading through the town.

Doyle's "Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" is a straightforward case where Holmes quickly confirms that there is nothing supernatural going on, but rather an unfortunate case of familial jealousy. That story is all but lost here, as screenwriter Jeremy Paul plucks a few characters and lines of dialogue from the source material and mixes them with situations of his own invention, including a character in Stockton that did not exist in the original but is central to the goings-on here. The strictly rational outlook of the original is diminished, as well, with Holmes at one point seeing ghosts and at another seemingly mesmerized by Stockton across half of England, before they ever meet.

Full review at EFC

The Eligible Bachelor

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

'I made a science of instability, and I succeeded.'

That line comes near the end of The Eligible Bachelor, but it could sum up Jeremy Brett's run nicely: A portrayal of the detective as a man whose genius pushes him to the brink of insanity, though one which doesn't extend to caricature, even when the writers go a bit overboard.

The eligible bachelor of the title is Lord Robert St. Simon (Simon Williams), who is romancing a beautiful American heiress, Henrietta Doran (Paris Jefferson). Of course, a man such as Lord Robert is likely to have a few skeletons in his closet, one of them being actress Flora Miller (Joanna McCallum). Things are going well right up until the wedding, where "Hetty" starts acting agitated, and after which she disappears. Robert takes the case to Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett), who is going to need even more assistance than usual from his friend Doctor Watson (Edward Hardwicke) on this one - a combination of between-case doldrums and disturbing dreams has him even more high-strung than even his normal standards.

The plot device of Holmes's strange dreams is an odd and controversial choice to make; as in The Last Vampyre, it pulls Holmes away from one of the things that makes him appealing: That although Holmes's abilities may appear supernatural, everything he does is comprehensible (even, dare we say, elementary) after they have been explained. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen does not completely break that rule here - Holmes never treats his dreams like visions, nor does he apply them to the case at hand; in fact, during Watson's summation at the end of the film, the implication is that the lack of an explanation annoys Holmes just as much as it may bother the audience. On a certain level, it seems as though these nightmares were created for the sole purpose of keeping Holmes visible in the first act, where the events that lead to Holmes being brought in play out, and to give Brett a bit of a meatier role.

Full review at EFC

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen", part two: Rathbone, Bruce, and their shadow.

As I say down in the review for Voice of Terror, I'd never seen Rathbone as Holmes before, despite being a long-time fan of Holmes and film. I managed to miss this Summer's series at the HFA, as it overlapped quite a bit with Fantasia. But, I found a good deal on a collection of all the Rathbone/Bruce films, and the scheduling of the series on eFilmCritic encouraged me to slip a few more reviews in.

I am, as might be imagined, a bit conflicted over them - especially now, writing this introduction after I've finished the series. As I watched them, I found myself quite liking Basil Rathbone as Sherlock, as much as I despised Bruce as Watson. The change of settings to World War II didn't really bother me, although I suspect that you can't bring them much further forward; within decades, Holmes's fondness for undercover work and forensics would become the standard for criminal investigation, and he thus wouldn't be such a contrast to the police. But The Voice of Terror is a fine movie, although the series deteriorated a bit after that (and I didn't get to the later films, where Rathbone's lack of interest apparently becomes acute). Still, when I look back at the way Holmes is portrayed after watching later films, like Private Life and the Brett series, where Holmes becomes more than a set of mannerisms, the Rathbone portrayal suddenly seems rather thin.

Still, many of the Rathbone/Bruce movies are entertaining enough short features, and it's undeniable what sort of effect they had on the franchise: There wouldn't be another English-language Holmes feature for over a decade (the Hammer Hound), the television programs in the interval took their cues from the Rathbone/Bruce series, as would most versions of Holmes seen until Jeremy Brett made the role his own. But we'll take that up later...

(For one more review of films made between Rathbone and Brett, here's Alex Paquin's review of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

It kind of surprises me that this one was made by Fox, rather than Universal. We'll get into it in more detail down at the Hammer version, but just as Hound of the Baskervilles is a potentially great Hammer film, it seems like it would make a fine Universal Monsters film. Indeed, Fox seemed to be heading in that direction at times - Rathbone is billed second, after Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville, and his romantic interest is billed before Watson.

I must admit, knowing I wasn't going to review this one, I only half-watched it, just working my way through the first DVD of MPI's set. It's a passable enough version of Hound, not a great one. The controversial moment associated with it - Holmes's call for "the needle" at the end - is actually pretty strange, as it's a more or less complete non sequiter from what has come before. There's nothing in the movie to indicate what it refers to, and I imagine it must have puzzled moviegoers in the thirties who didn't know about Holmes's cocaine habit.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Here's another one I sort of half-watched three weeks ago. In short, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, either. It's not terribly hard to see why the series lay fallow for three years before Universal revived it to set in then-contemporary times: It's got a mess of a plot, and even when it starts to get exciting toward the end, the actual events get confused and messy. It's not the sort of movie that compels the viewer to look for more.

It's also where Nigel Bruce's comic-relief Watson really started to drive me absolutely nuts. While Hound tends to really suffer if you make Watson a moron, this movie was designed around that performance, and really makes one wonder what the basis of Holmes's friendship with this guy is. In the good adaptations/pastiches, you can see Watson as a trusted companion and sounding board; here, it's as if Holmes keeps him around for the sole purpose of feeling superior. Seriously, can you imagine the Holmes from Doyle's stories or the post-Brett versions saying "Whatever Watson has found out, you'll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion."? It's absurd.

(And why, after the following three, I proceeded directly to 1959 and Hammer rather than working my way through the entire set, even though the UCLA restorations and transfers look quite nice.)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Despite having been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since childhood and having never been afraid of movies made before I was born, I had never seen Basil Rathbone in the role until just a few days ago. The idea of Holmes fighting Nazi saboteurs during World War II seemed absurd; besides, much as others had a hard time imagining anyone other than Rathbone playing the part, I could imagine nobody but Jeremy Brett. Now that I'm a little more willing to accept them for what they are, I can acknowledge that Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is an entertaining adventure.

It's 1942, and England is under siege. "The Voice of Terror" regularly appears on the radio, giving orders to Nazi agents for devastating attacks that are carried out immediately. The Intelligence Inner Council - Sir Evan Barham (Reginald Denny), Alfred Lloyd (Henry Daniell), General Jerome Lawford (Montagu Love), Admiral John Prentiss (Olaf Hytten), and Captain Roland Shore (Leyland Hodgson) - find themselves stymied, and opt to call in Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone). Soon, a man with a knife in his back arrives at the door of Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce), gasping only the word "Christopher" before expiring. Holmes tracks him back to his wife Kitty (Evelyn Ankers), and they soon find one of the leaders of the Voice's London operations, a Mr. Meade (Thomas Gomez) - but Holmes is sure that he's not the ringleader.

Though Sherlock Holmes naturally seems most at home in the Victorian era where he was born, there is nothing about the character that must place him there specifically, and he proves to be a strong enough concept. Indeed, to a certain extent, placing the movie in then-modern times seems somewhat liberating for all involved. Rathbone gets to play Holmes as simply a brilliant detective, rather than worry about portraying a man of another time. The costumers put him in snappy suits and hats rather than the cloak-and-deerstalker getup that looks like a Halloween costume, no matter the time or actor; Rathbone's wild hair looks more fitting for an eccentric genius than the slicked-back look others would have him favor. And cinematographer Elwood "Woody" Bredell uses the excuse of a blacked-out London to shoot the movie with beautiful, noir-like shadows.

Full review at EFC.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Sherlock Holmes stories, and mysteries in general, sometimes treat the audience unfairly, holding the really key bits of information back until the last minute, to be sprung on the audience without warning. Sherlock Holmes in Washington, on the other hand, arguably goes too far in the other direction: It more or less presents the solution to the case not much more then twenty minutes in, before Holmes and Watson have even left London, and then spends the next forty-five minutes or so stalling for time.

An English diplomat has been dispatched to Washington, but he is only a decoy for the real agent, Alfred Pettibone (Gerald Hamer), who has been charged with delivering a two-page document of great importance. The ruse is deduced, though, and Pettibone is kidnapped from the train between Washington and New York. The Home Office dispatches Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) to find him and the papers, which Holmes deduces must have been passed to one of the other passengers. Is it Senator Henry Babcock (Thurston Hall)? Pretty young Nancy Partridge (Marjorie Lord)? Or elderly Miss Pringle (Margaret Seddon)?

The scene on the train where Pettibone knows that he is being tracked down is clever and suspenseful; it invites the audience to watch the agent's every motion carefully. It's a tense little scene, and it kicks off a series of nifty little scenes that will recur throughout the movie, as the audience is tasked with tracking the hidden MacGuffin as it is passed around by people oblivious to its importance. There's something about those scenes that is, if not inventive, then at least a clever combination of tension and mischief, that certainly grabs the audience's attention.

Full review at EFC.

The Spider Woman

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

The Spider Woman is the sort of movie that seems as if it would be quite useful in filling out a double feature. Clocking in at just over an hour, it won't extend the total running time too late into the evening or too far in the other direction for matinees. It's got a brand name, so it will attract a bit of interest on its own. And there is very little chance that it will outshine the main feature.

It starts with a series of suspicious deaths in London being dubbed "the pyjama suicides" by the press - a half-dozen well-to-do young men have suddenly committed suicide in the middle of the night, which seems too clear a pattern to be mere coincidence. The people wonder where Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is when such a mystery is going on. It turns out that he's in Scotland, fishing with his friend Doctor Watson (Nigel Buce), ready to give up the detective business, as it seems to be bringing on a cerebral hemorrhage. That malady soon takes him, but he's no more actually dead than he was at Reichenbach; he's just setting up the opportunity to capture the murderess - a "female Moriarty" by the name of Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard) - without being expected.

The opening credits describe The Spider Woman as being based upon a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but don't specify which one. The main ingredient seems to be "The Devil's Foot", but there's also bits of "The Empty House", The Sign of Four, and perhaps even "The Speckled Band" in there. It's not a smooth mixture, though; the story feels like it jumps from one story to another: It's as if writer Bertram Millhauser wasn't really getting anywhere with Holmes faking his death, so then it was on to this other thing, but that didn't really make for an exciting last act, so shift the action over here.

Full review at EFC.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

It is, in retrospect, a little bit surprising that Sherlock Holmes was one and done with Hammer Films; though Holmes's foes were never supernatural (at least, in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories), he was no stranger to the macabre, and on a practical level, they could reuse many of the period costumes and sets constructed for their popular Dracula series. Audiences didn't go for this first Hammer Holmes, though, so no more were made. That's a shame, for although this was neither the greatest Sherlock Holmes adaptation or the best Hammer Horror movie, it was a fine combination of the two.

Legend has it that there is a curse on Baskerville Hall, stemming from 1740, when Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) ran down a woman who would not give herself to him with his hunting hounds, only to fall down dead himself. A hundred fifty years later, his descendant Sir Charles Baskerville has died on the very same moors, and family friend Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) has asked Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) to prevail up on young heir Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) not to return to Baskerville Hall or step out onto the moors at night. There seem to be more concrete concerns, though - one of Henry's boots has been stolen, and a tarantula found in the other. Holmes prevails upon his friend Watson (Andre Morell) to accompany Sir Henry back to his ancestral home while he sees to some obligations in London, and upon arriving, Watson finds that not only is nearly everyone in the area a bit odd - there's the tippling bishop (Miles Malleson), the family's butler (John Le Mesurier), the local farmer with a deformed hand (Ewen Solon), and his beautiful Spanish daughter Cecile (Marla Landi). On top of that, an escaped prisoner is said to be hiding in the moor.

Hound of the Baskervilles is the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and it's not hard to see why. Though its initial popularity was due in large part to the time when it was published (after "The Final Problem" but before "The Empty House", when it was no certain thing that Doyle would ever write another story featuring the great detective), Hound is one of the few that works equally well as a mystery and as a horror story. It's got subplots and red herrings enough to fill out a feature-length movie, but does not leave any loose ends or stray too far from the main story. And even though Sherlock Holmes is absent for a notable period in the middle of the story, it gives us both a chance to appreciate him all the more upon his return and to gain some respect for Dr. Watson, who all too often can be taken for granted.

Full review at EFC.

The Private LIfe of Sherlock Holmes

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Paperback mysteries are not generally thought to be the most nourishing literature, but devouring them in junior high and high school taught me a few things. Aside from the vocabulary expansion 19th century books like the Holmes series offer, they were my first exposure to the device of the unreliable narrator. The most obvious example was in a certain Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, but also in Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Within the stories, Holmes would occasionally mention that Watson's accounts were not necessarily wholly accurate, usually accusing him of sensationalism. It was seldom a factor in the story, but it did leave open the idea that we didn't fully know these characters - an idea which Billy Wilder uses to intriguing effect in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

It comes up almost immediately, as Holmes (Robert Stephens) complains to Watson (Colin Blakely) upon their return to Baker Street that he is not as tall or misogynistic as Watson has portrayed him, and then there's the ridiculous costume ("blame the illustrator!" says Watson). A pair of women will soon throw Holmes's life for a loop - prima ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who wishes his services not as a detective but as a man, and an initially-unknown woman (Genevieve Page) fished out the Thames with temporary amnesia and a card with their address. Sherlock soon deduces that she is Gabrielle Valladon, wife of an engineer who has disappeared. However, Sherlock is soon warned off the case by his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and Mycroft's words should carry some weight; after all, he not only represents the British government, occasionally he is the British government.

Billy Wilder (who produced, directed, and co-wrote with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) originally envisioned Private Life as something of an anthology film, with a number of shorter stories and an intermission in the middle of its three hour run time. The studio wound up cutting it down to a bit over two hours by removing episodes, and perhaps could have cut further by removing the story of Mme. Petrova, but it remains because it is an amusing bit and does a nice job of showing how Holmes is extremely tentative around women. I can't say whether this cutting improves the film from the hypothetical roadshow edition - it simply doesn't exist in its complete form - but even though Wilder was reportedly upset by the cuts, they do hit a good balance between the film being focused and simply being another Doyle pastiche ("The Adventure of the Loch Ness Monster", perhaps).

Full review at EFC.

This Week In Tickets: 14 December 2009 to 20 December 2009

Okay, this is thin:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Test Screening for the Boston Sci-fi Film Festival (Tuesday, 15 December 2009, Somerville Theater Video Room, 7pm)

Yes, I actually took off work to see Avatar opening day. Hey, I had vacation time I had to either use by the end of the year or lose, and what makes for a better use of it on short order? As for the rest of the white space there, there was Sherlock Holmes to watch, Christmas shopping to do, and snow to react to like a complete bunkered-down wuss.

And the second-to-last screening night for the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival. My nots are rather incomplete, so we might not actually have seen much beyond "Attack of the Robots of Nebula-5" and "Enigma", which both went over pretty well. Both were pretty decent, although I didn't love "Nebula-5" quite so much as some of the other folks. Both were well-made, atbeit in different ways.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2009 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (IMAX 3-D)

I'm kind of glad that I don't have to review this one for eFilmCritic or some other outlet, because writing the review would drive me nuts. I think it's a thoroughly successful movie, one of the most visually amazing to hit the screen in a long time. James Cameron does things in terms of world-building and large-scale action choreography that nobody other than George Lucas has even gotten close to, and unlike Lucas, he writes a perfectly fine script and works pretty well with his cast.

I worry, though, that when I say that, people will tend to overlook the comments about just how amazing this film looks or sounds, and see words like "perfectly fine" and "pretty well" (and "serviceable", which would almost certainly be used in a full write-up), andtake them as a negative. Sure, Avatar is not quite the killer app that some had hoped for, the movie that combines eye-popping visuals with crisp dialogue, award-caliber acting, and a sophisticated story to create the science fiction epic that would give the genre instant mainstream and highbrow credibility. It's a little familiar. It occasionally uses something that's a bit of a cliché. The performances are fine.

Understand - nothing in there should deter anybody from seeing this movie. It's just that, when it comes to a film routinely being described with superlatives, something less than that may sound negative. And it shouldn't. It's just that the hype, and the fact that this movie is legitimately excellent in other areas, makes it seem like less.

And make no mistake: Avatar makes sweet love to the audience's optic nerves. Darn near every frame of the film is beautiful, impeccably designed, and rendered so well that the whole "uncanny valley" issue, and that of integrating live-action with animation, is all but undetectable. Cameron can also stage a great big special-effects-filled action sequence better than just about anyone other than George Lucas, and the one that makes up the climax of the film is a doozy. It's also some of the very best use of 3-D in the current boom: There's a great sensation of depth, scale, and space, with only one or two attempts to make the audience flinch by having something fly directly at them. It's amazing, and from the first moment when I saw the exterior of a spaceship to the very end, there was very little time spent without my mouth agape.

For some that's not enough, which is fine in some ways, but you know... Just as it's okay to sacrifice spectacle for characterization. And... Hollywood is the only place in the world where making this kind of spectacle is practical. If they're the only ones who can make something that is awesome at this scale and in this way... Well, don't they practically have a responsibility to make awesome things?

Friday, December 18, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 7 December 2009 to 13 December 2009

Not a whole lot of chance to get out to the movies between cramming a new movie into the DVD player every night for the EFC Sherlock Holmes review series and waiting online for Red Sox tickets on Saturday. Then, Sunday morning, I headed out to the Red Sox Yard Sale, an incredible event where the people of New England pay the Red Sox money to rummage through piles of stuff they were just going to throw out. I saw a random woman's shoe in one of the bins. I walked away with a Fenway Park brick, a genuine cup holder ripped off the armrest of some seat (I have no idea what I will mount it on), and two framed newspaper pages.

Look at it this way, though:

This Week In Tickets!

... one fewer movie seen and I would have had a great theme going: Two extremely different takes on New Orleans.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2009 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

When I first heard that Nicolas Cage was doing a movie for director Werner Herzog, my reaction was giddiness - my two favorite crazy people working together! Would their respective forms of insanity work in harmony or at cross-purposes? And they're going to do it in post-Katrina New Orleans? On a sequel/remake to an infamous movie that makes its director absolutely livid? This would, obviously, be either awesome or a train wreck.

It is awesome.

Like many of Herzog's great films, it is about a man, none too stable to begin with, who loses his mind. Cage's Terence McDonah is a New Orleans detective who, in rescuing a drowning man during Katrina, developed chronic back pain and quickly escalated from vicodin to harder drugs to treat it. It's not long before he's hallucinating and throwing caution to the wind, and we get that from both ends: Cage's increasingly unhinged performance, and Herzog's deranged imagery.

And they go with it. I especially loved how, during the last act, there's a moment when you start thinking, okay, drug-addicted cop, already got a screw loose, we're in fantasy territory... And instead, they go with it. Terence is crazy, sure, but the world in general is apparently just as nuts.

The Princess and the Frog

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2009 in Regal Fenway #8 (first-run)

It's hard to believe it's only been five years or so since Disney's last traditionally animated feature. It seems like longer, I suspect, because I missed Brother Bear and Home on the Range, and the sci-fi adventures of Treasure Planet and Atlantis seem like different things. Still, it's great to see that specific look on-screen again, and with Musker and Clements in charge. They directed many of the best of the late-80s/90s boom period for Disney (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules), and they've returned in good form.

Maybe not quite perfect - I love Randy Newman and he contributes a nice soundtrack, but the first half has a lot of songs, sometimes one right on top of the other. But, then, it's New Orleans, a city where we can actually believe in the crowd bursting into a song & dance number, so it's OK.

The animation is a joy to watch, though - even if Disney is now farming it out rather than doing it in-house, it's smooth, hops styles on occasion without difficulty, and does things that digital might have issues with - stretchy characters, for instance. Of course, some things that seem like that - villain Facilier's shadowy minions, for instance - must have been created entirely during the coloring stage, which is digital.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's great to see Musker and Clements back, and here's hoping that Disney puts them right back to work!


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2009 in Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

Perhaps the most amazing thing to happen in the past twenty years is a non-event: After apartheid, South Africa has failed to collapse into an unending mire of civil war despite the stark economic, ethnic, and cultural divisions, not to mention the bitter history. On the face of it, it should be even more of a mess than it is - and while crime is bad and there's still some ugly sentiment, they are not the mess that the former Yugoslavia is.

Clint Eastwood's Invictus doesn't really do much to demonstrate that it's due in any great measure to the South African rugby team's long-shot chase of the World Cup in 1995, when they were host nation. You could cut Matt Damon's team captain, and most of the sport-related scenes, without losing much. All of that together fails to match the first sequence when the black head of Nelson Mandela's security detail finds his request for more manpower filled with Afrikaaners who, months earlier, were probably throwing ANC members like him in jail. Following that group might have made for one hell of a movie.

Of course, to a certain extent it doesn't matter which group we follow because Morgan Freeman's Mandela is the story. Freeman's imitation is good - just short of uncanny - and as a result, it does still leave the man something of an enigma. In fact, maybe a bit more of one - though it's been easy to look at Mandela as little short of a saint, Invictus invites us to wonder how much of his actions are altruistic and how much were shrewd political calculation, made by a man with a handle on his own personal charisma. Either way, the man is impressive, a reminder that forgiveness and reconciliation can be powerful forces, even if they don't initially seem as satisfying as revenge.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New OrleansThe Princess and the FrogInvictus

Monday, December 07, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 30 November 2009 to 6 December 2009

December is looking ridiculously busy - the watch-a-thon may be over, but I'm watching a ton of Sherlock Holmes for the eFilmCritic project: At some point about a week ago, when I got to the point where I needed to watch a movie and then write it up within 36 hours for the daily Holmes review to get posted at midnight, I thought, holy crap, that's a deadline. I hate deadlines. Why would I set myself up for a whole month of them? And that's before getting into what's going on at work, the Red Sox tickets going on sale on the 12th, the party for a cousin who has moved up to Maine, and Christmas shopping...

(Although I'm actually a bit ahead of where I usually am there; I found some neat stuff at Bazaar Bizarre. I'm not usually a craft faire sort of guy, but there were a couple guys there who did their thing with welding rather than knitting. So, if anybody asks, it was a Maker faire. The Boston one is over, but folks in Cleveland and San Francisco might want to check their local events out this weekend.)

I may have to take a day off work next week for opening day of Avatar. That counts as a floating holiday for me, right?

This Week In Tickets!

A reminder for those who might enjoy giving for the Holidays: Final tally for the 2009 Movie Watch-a-Thon is 5 at the Brattle, 25 elsewhere, and 2 screenings elsewhere which may or may not count. Donations go to this page.

Huh, weird sequence of (non-Sherlock) movies this week, unusually tied together even though I didn't really try to do so. It starts and ends with George Clooney doing good work for critical-darling directors, and in between has two stories about Middle East war widows/returnees. The old hand and rookie delivering bad news is central to both The Messenger and Up in the Air.

And then there's Armored, because sometimes it feels really good to knock some stuff around.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2009 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

It's no secret that I've become disillusioned with Wes Anderson over the past few years. After finding Rushmore an exciting breath of fresh air, and giving a number of folks some of their best roles in The Royal Tennenbaums, there was something missing from The Life Aquatic that even some nifty visuals and Harry Selick creatures couldn't compensate for, and he followed that up with the terrible The Darjeeling Limited. There are two basic issues at work, I figure: One, a combination of success and hanging out with the Coppolas and Noah Baumbach has skewed his view of the world a bit; he's asking for sympathy for the woes of the privileged when the maker of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore might have told his later subjects to get over themselves.

Second, well, if Wes Anderson's father is still with us, could you go to Hollywood or Paris and give your son a hug? Maybe play a game of catch. He's crying for it, man!

Anderson's daddy issues are still front and center, but he, co-writer Baumbach, and animation director Mark Gustafson (who almost certainly will not get the level of credit he deserves) put together a duly whimsical adaptation of Roald Dahl's book, anchored by the note-perfect voice work of George Clooney as the title character. I'm not sure how much kids will like it - the humor is often dry and self-referential, and the Clooney fox's story is about settling down, though they may see themselves in the younger foxes. It is, overall, a fun movie, and even if one of the knocks on Anderson is that he often seems a bit too pleased with himself, he has made something to be proud of here.

The Messenger

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2009 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

The Messenger has no problem with making the audience a little uncomfortable. What might, in another movie, have been a bittersweet romance between Ben Foster's Will Montgomery (a wounded soldier serving the end of his hitch informing next of kin of death overseas) and Samantha Morton's Olivia Pitterson (a widow and mother who takes the news with surprising calm), feels an awful lot like stalking at first, and even when it starts to feel a little "right", acknowledges that it's not really healthy. Foster is exceptional, a young military man trying his best to hold in pain and confusion, just on the line between someone you root for and someone you worry about.

And then you've got Woody Harrelson, really knocking his supporting role out of the park. His Captain Stone tries to approach a job that is corrosive to the soul with precisely controlled professionalism and it leads him to reach out in ways that are both abortive and desperate. It's pretty close to perfect, a great variation on Foster's performance without duplicating or stealing the show.

Like a lot of movies more built on character and performance than story, writer/director Oren Moverman has a little trouble figuring out how to end things, but it doesn't come close to tarnishing what Foster and Harrelson do.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Another day, another movie about a young man returning from war, with another a great pair of performances, that stumbles a bit in the end. This time, it's Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire as a pair of brothers, one a habitual screw-up just getting out of jail, the other a golden-boy soldier gone to war, presumed dead, and eventually returned.

For all the big drama and story comes in the latter half of the movie, what I loved most was the beginning: Maguire's Sam picks Gyllenhaal's Tom up from jail, and on the ride home, without any grand speeches or overtly dramatic performances, they sell us on getting brothers, how they can disagree with each other and even disapprove of their respective choices, but find that such considerations fall away almost instantly. Then there's a family dinner scene where their father (Sam Shepard) just keeps needling away at Tom, and the moment when Tom learns that Sam is dead, and...

Jake Gyllenhaal is just really amazing in this. Not to take anything away from Tobey Maguire, who gets a lot of the big melodrama, but when the story shifts in the second half, and becomes about him coming home damaged, it becomes a little more familiar. And while it is making a more concerted effort to stamp scenes into one's memory, it winds up not being nearly so memorable as when it's about Tommy stepping up in his brother's absence. It will be interesting to see who gets pushed as lead and supporting actors here, because while it's probably easier to make an argument that Brothers is about Sam, Gyllenhaal just owns the first half or so.

Also: Jim Sheridan should make scripts that feature two little girls a priority. Just as the Bolger sisters were a huge part of what made In America so good, it's tough to imagine Brothers being as grounded and real without Bailee Madison's Isabelle and Taylor Geare's Maggie.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run)

I'm going to have to take another look at Kontroll. I saw Nimrod Antal's debut feature at the Boston Film Festival, and vaguely remember loving the style if not the story. Since then, he's returned to America and made a couple of genre movies that are far better than they had any right to be: Vacancy was a taut little slasher-thriller that was incredibly bloody effective at twisting the screws, and now Armored takes what starts out seeming like a B-movie that should go direct to video and makes it, well, a B-movie that deserves its time in theaters.

It is a rough start; it's the sort of movie where you feel kind of grateful for people wearing their names on uniforms and a multicultural cast, so you can keep a bunch of basically similar characters straight. Motivations are spelled out plainly, Milo Ventimiglia's cop gets a scene for the express purpose of establishing him early enough that he's not anonymous later on. And then, the heist goes down and things go wrong, and suddenly things get interesting.

Again, I need to re-view Kontroll to see it this is a real pattern or signature, but I think what makes Antal so interesting as a director of thrillers is that he doesn't feel compelled to top himself as the movie goes along. In fact, he seems to choose scripts where his characters wind up in boxes inside of figurative boxes (cars within the subway system in Kontroll, a motel room in Vacancy, an armored car in an abandoned industrial space in Armored). Maybe he just knows that he's good at cranking up the tension. Whatever it is, it works - Armored consistently got me to lean a little closer to the screen, eager to see just what he was going to do next.

Up in the Air

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2009 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run)

This is getting mentioned on a lot of year-end awards lists as the best movie of the year, to which I have to say - really? Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty darn good movie, and looking over what I saw this year, I guess there aren't a whole lot of conventional movies to upset it - I loved Up, The Brothers Bloom, Sugar, Moon, and a few others more, but they're hardly typical nominees. And I won't lie; there were several points during the movie when I thought to myself that I was watching something special. In total, though, it doesn't quite merit "special". Very good, yes, but I have to hope that the top tier is a little higher.

And, one other note: It's pretty depressing. Not just the bit about it being about people losing their jobs, but look at the progression of George Clooney's character: He's happy, content, and comfortable as the film starts. He loves something about his job that many others would find incredibly stressful, he does that job better than almost anybody else, and the fact that he's not on a track to marriage, a house, and 2.4 kids doesn't upset him. So, of course, everybody treats him like a freak whose happiness can't possibly be real. Then, after dangling something that makes a conventional life seem worthwhile, he's given a crotch-kick in the sort of twist that is such a huge cliché that you think the movie can't possibly be going there, but oh yes, it does. And now he's miserable with nothing to show for it.

Maybe the end isn't quite a total sour note, but it is kind of a bummer - not just for the character, or the testimony from the laid-off workers shown in the film that seems like pandering, but because it's the sort of "serious movie" play that bugs me: It's saying something utterly conventional, but needs to prove its supposed maturity and sophistication by undercutting its message. Sure, Hollywood endings in real life are few and far between, but don't avoid it just to avoid it; do so because you've got a better ending for the story you want to tell.
Fantastic Mr. FoxThe MessengerBrothersArmoredUp in the Air

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Week one of "A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen": The Early Years

A few weeks ago on the eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitch-slap Derby board (where the site's writers communicate with each other), I mentioned that I had reviewed three different versions of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and had anyone done four of the same movie. Someone else mentioned that they were working on a couple of Sherlock Holmes movies in anticipation of the new movie with Robert Downey Jr., I figured that expanding on this might be fun, and suggested that it might be a fun and hit-inducing project to review a different Sherlock Holmes movie every day in December, in chronological order. There was some initial enthusiasm, then people got busy...

Well, I've filled my Amazon shopping cart with a bunch of different Sherlock films, and I'm having a grand time watching them. We'll soon see whether I can keep up the pace with just one other fellow definitely signed up to contribute; I've scaled the size of the project down a bit, with reviews going up on weekdays and features planned for the weekend.

In addition to the reviews below, I've written two features for the site so far. The first, "Why Sherlock Holmes?, provides a rambling overview of why this character is still having movies produced a century after the first (and a hundred twenty years after he first appeared); the second is a review of "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection", the nifty collection of rarities that included The Sleeping Cardinal, reviewed below.

One thing I've rediscovered while doing this: I am a big ol' nerd where Holmes is concerned. This is not a huge surprise, as I'm a big ol' nerd in many areas, but I doubt many other reviewers looking at these films would spend so much time on how they corresponded to the original stories. Being a lover of old movies, the stuff I've looked up to fill in these things may make these some of the dorkiest things I've ever written.

Anyway, click through to HBS for the full Holmes nerdiness, as this series was conceived for them.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted Kino DVD)

This silent film from 1922 is not the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen; it is not even the first adaptation of William Gillette's famed stage play (Gillette himself had performed the role on screen six years earlier). It's one of the earliest feature-length Sherlock Holmes movies that we can piece together, though, and it mostly holds up. And as a bonus, it does feature a pair of impressive debuts in the cast.

We start not with Holmes, but with Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the untouchable master of the London Underworld literally controlling his operations from an underground lair. His influence extends far from the city; at Cambridge, for instance, young Prince Alexis of Harlstein (Reginald Denny) is framed for a theft and threatened with deportation. He laments the twenty-four hour deadline to return the money to his friend Watson (Roland Young), who suggests that there is a man in his year with unusual skill in solving this kind of puzzle, one Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore). He quickly deduces that the actual thief was one Foreman Wells (William Powell), but the point soon becomes moot - a tragedy recalls Alexis to Harlstein. Years later, on the eve of Alexis's marriage to a princess, he returns to London to hire Holmes - one Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster) is in possession of letters that Alexis wrote to her sister which could cause a scandal. Moriarty also desires these letters, thus giving Holmes the opportunity to finally capture his nemesis, as well as save the girl who captured his heart back in school...

Wait, what? Fans of the great detective know that there was only one woman for him, and Alice Faulkner isn't quite Irene Adler, although a fair amount of the plot is taken from the story in which Adler appeared, "A Scandal in Bohemia". Of course, fans will also recall that Holmes and Watson were not schoolmates, either. Moriarty also only appeared in one story, despite being implied as an influence on others. Gillette's play is, suffice it to say, a rather liberal adaptation of the Holmes canon, and screenwriters Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax take further liberties. Despite being somewhat removed from the stories as Doyle wrote them, it does give the film a certain amount of shape and scope for a movie designed as a one-off encompassing Holmes's career, casting it as a struggle against Moriarty, rather than as the start of a franchise. It's still got its flaws - too much Moriarty, not enough Watson, and they appear to have a hard time adapting a talky play into a silent production - but the story itself is good, incorporating familiar bits from several Holmes stories, and finding a good balance between deduction and action.

Full review at HBS.

The Sign of Four (1932)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Before Basil Rathbone made the role of Sherlock Holmes his own in the late thirties and forties, a number of different actors had the role - in at least one case, with two different series existing in competition with each other (at least in the United States, things went into the public domain much more quickly back then)! During the 1930s, the most prolific Holmes was Arthur Wontner; he did five films. Of those, The Missing Rembrandt is lost, and The Sleeping Cardinal is extremely rare. The other three vary wildly in quality, sometimes within the same film, as is the case with this version of The Sign of Four.

Many years ago, convict Johnathan Small (Graham Soutten) lets his jailors in on a secret - the location of a hoard of treasure. Though the group agrees to split it, double-crosses abound - one kills another, and Small is left in prison. Years later, Small and his cellmate (Roy Emerton) escape, an event that frightens the elderly Maj. Sholto (Herbert Lomas) to death - but not before confesses to his sons (Miles Malleson and Kynaston Reeves), and encourages them to make amends to Mary (Isla Bevan), the daughter of Maj. Marston. They do so anonymously, but when another note bearing the "sign of four" accompanies the ransacking of her West End flower shop, she turns to Sherlock Holmes (Wontner) and his friend Watson (Ian Hunter).

The film actually adheres fairly closely to the events of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, but rearranges the presentation into chronological order, which means that we don't see Holmes and Watson until nearly twenty minutes into a movie that doesn't quite make an hour and a quarter all told. There's good and bad to that approach; the bad is that Holmes's deductions are a little less amazing when he's arriving at conclusions we already know, although it does counter the feeling that the author and/or filmmakers are cheating by having the detective base those deductions on facts that we are not privy to. There is still rather too much of that, and there are bits in the screenplay that feel flat out like holes - for example, based upon just what we see in the film, it seems that "The Sign of Three" would be a more logical title.

Full review at HBS.

The Sleeping Cardinal (aka Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

When one hears about lost films, one tends to romanticize them. We think of movies from the start of the twentieth century as wonderful, since the bad ones seldom play TCM, repertory theaters, or show up in very prominent locations at the video store. In truth, most of them are far more likely to resemble The Sleeping Cardinal. Not so much because it's the bad ones that got lost, but because previous years had no more masterpieces per hundred films made than today.

In the dark of night, a bank guard is killed. But before we learn that nothing appears to have been taken, we cut to a game of high-stakes bridge, where diplomatic service employee Ronald Adair (Leslie Perrins) is once again winning. His sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh) is starting to worry - after all, no-one wins every time - and asks old friend Doctor John Watson (Ian Fleming) if he might have his friend Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Wontner). Holmes agrees, though he is more interested in convincing Inspector Lestrade (Philip Hewland) that the bank robbery was more than it appears, and that Professor Moriarty was responsible.

The Sleeping Cardinal is also known as "Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour" (dodgy punctuation and all), and that's the title printed on the version available on DVD. It comes by that by being an adaptation of the stories "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House", although the writers have rearranged parts of the two stories and invented other bits to fill it out. In some ways, that is to the film's benefit: One of the weaknesses of "The Final Problem" as a story is that we seem to come in toward the end, with Holmes ready to smash Moriarty's organization; here we get to see Holmes tracking the Professor down, while the villain pulls his strings.

Full review at HBS.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

One would imagine A Study in Scarlet to be one of the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes stories. It's novel-length, the first one written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the one where Holmes first made the acquaintance of Dr. John H. Watson. Adaptations are rare, though; even the very faithful television series starring Jeremy Brett skipped over it. And, of course, there's an argument to be made that even this 1933 film doesn't actually have much to do with it.

We start in London's Victoria Station; the sleeping compartment of a train is locked up tight, and when the conductor breaks in, he finds the body of a man who apparently hanged himself. Later, across town, Miss Eileen Forrester (June Clyde) arrives with her fiancé for a meeting of the secret society to which the dead man and her own late father belonged. The group's leader, Merrydew (Alan Dinehart) declares that the dead man's share of the group's wealth will be divided among the seven remaining members. This doesn't sit so well with the widow, who takes the matter to Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) and Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble). It may soon have to be divided in even fewer shares, and the widow of the next man to fall, Mrs. Pyke (Anna May Wong), seems rather cool to the interest of Holmes and the police.

It has been some time since I've read the original novel, but I remember it well enough to note that all of its more famous elements are missing: We do not see Holmes and Watson meet and take up residence at 221B Baker Street (the movie gives their address as 221A, for that matter), the German word for "revenge" is not scrawled upon the wall in blood, and the solution of the crime is not interrupted for a long flashback. KBS Productions apparently only secured the rights to the title "A Study in Scarlet", as opposed to the actual story.

Full review at HBS.