Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sherlock Holmes was unbelievable but there is a series of books called “MEG” which would make one hell of a movie. It could be a giant blockbuster if done correctly. Curious if anyone’s has checked out the new book “HELLS AQUARIUM” by STEVE ALTEN? I know he’s been a best selling author before, but wanted to see if anyone had read this book first? It’s about the ancient prehistoric shark Megalodon, which makes the current Great White Shark look like a gold fish. Check out the trailer below, pretty awesome: