Thursday, February 11, 2010

That other Sherlock Holmes movie

Memo to The Asylum: If you are event thinking of doing a sequel to your Sherlock Holmes movie to come out around the same time that Warner Brothers releases their next one with Robert Downey Junior, give me a call. I'm pretty sure I can write a better screenplay than Paul Bales did here, if only because it will not involve me stating that Sherlock's full name is "Robert Sherlock Holmes", and having a character address him as "Robert" throughout the entire second half of the film.

And I'm cheap. This blog post? I'm writing it for nothing! I probably won't even try to to get you to reimburse me for the various Arthur Conan Doyle books I'd buy for research, which was clearly a hold-up for Mr. Bales and company. You'd get not just a steampunkish Sherlock Holmes story with dinosaurs and robots, but one which fans would praise for how it connects Holmes to Professor Challenger and other Doyle works.

That said, despite joking about expecting this movie to drive me mad, I rather enjoyed it. Between it and the previews for other films by The Asylum that preceded it, I get the impression that the folks at Asylum are the modern equivalent to Roger Corman: Making genre entertainment on a budget, taking their work seriously but still having a sense of fun. I laughed a lot at those previews, but felt oddly affectionate, too. "It can't be stopped... Unless she can stop it!" (MegaFault).... A John Carter of Mars movie with Anthony Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords... Using the same footage of L.A. getting destroyed in at least two of the previews.

These things are B-movie silliness, but they're honest, hard-working B-movie silliness, rather than weak parody. Well, okay, "honest" may not be the best way to describe a marketing campaign based around giving movies a similar title to something in theaters so that confused people pick them up, but you know what I mean.

Sherlock Holmes (2010)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

I don't entirely blame The Asylum for how disappointing their "mockbuster" Sherlock Holmes movie was. My slightly elevated expectations are the responsibility of the guy who entered the information that Dominic Keating was playing Spring-Heeled Jack on IMDB. A person sees that and thinks, okay, this is going to be a cheap B-movie, but if they're using a nineteenth-century English urban legend as the villain, then there's a chance that the result may at least be clever. Sadly, that information isn't accurate, and while what's left is kind of fun, it is decidedly not clever.

As an aged Dr. Watson relates to his nurse in 1940, the greatest and most painful adventure in Sherlock Holmes's career happened in 1882, and started with the sinking of a treasury ship filled with tax money from the West Indies - apparently by a kraken. Inspector Lestrade (William Huw) engages Holmes (Ben Syder) and Watson (Gareth David-Lloyd) to assist with solving the mystery. He also asks about Sherlock's brother, whom he hadn't heard from in years. While Watson and Lestrade dismiss the idea of a monster out of hand, Holmes thinks there's some connection to mysterious dinosaur attacks in Whitechapel. Meanwhile, a paralyzed veteran (Dominic Keating) comes to Watson to refill his pain medication, though Watson's attention is drawn to his lovely niece Anesidora (Elizabeth Arends).

Many will read that description, see "dinosaur attacks", and figure that fans of Sherlock Holmes will immediately hate the very concept. That doesn't necessarily have to be so, though - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous non-Holmes work is The Lost World, and there have been numerous pastiches which posited that Holmes and Professor Challenger were friends or even relations. Drop the right line, and everybody is eating your steampunk Sherlock Holmes adventure up. Unfortunately, writer Paul Bales often gives the impression that he's not terribly familiar with the character's history. When Lestrade mentions Holmes's brother, for instance, he's not referring to Mycroft, and the film doesn't see the need to clear it up. There are a few other choices made that suggest a lack of familiarity of with the character's world.

That's a shame, because the film has its good points as a steampunk adventure. The Asylum makes B movies, the sort of thing that Roger Corman used to do, but one seldom gets the sense (at least in Sherlock Holmes) that they are holding anything back. Some of the CGI is dodgy; intercoms visible on the doorways of Baker Street; and scenes that would logically take place in the middle of smoky, Dickensian London seem to take place in the country. But there's a sense of fun with the various crazy bits - the kraken and dinosaur lead to clockwork robots and hot air balloons outfitted for combat, and the filmmakers never use a low budget as an excuse; they try their best and don't wink at the audience. They even resist a joke about how the film's climax boils down to Sherlock Holmes fighting Iron Man.

Director Rachel Goldenberg is a big part of that. She could have gone for something self-parodying but doesn't, and she turns out to be pretty good with the action and pacing. There's not a lot of quick-cutting to cover for the effects work, for instance, although it could occasionally use covering. The movie is fast-paced without seeming frantic, or grinding to a halt for excessive exposition. She even manages the occasional moment when the audience might feel a little bit of awe.

The cast she's working with isn't bad, either. First billing, unusually, goes to Gareth David-Lloyd as Watson. He's a good fit for that part, catching Watson's eagerness for adventure and frequent impatience with Holmes, along with his weakness for the ladies. Dominic Keating is a fine, bombastic villain, chewing the requisite scenery and convincing us of both his genius and insanity. Unfortunately, that means they both overshadow apparent newcomer Ben Syder as Holmes. It's not just that he's physically too short for the role, especially when standing next to David-Lloyd, but he seems far too nice. There's none of the eccentricity, irritability, or arrogance that often makes Sherlock Holmes so memorable. Even when condescending to Lestrade, he sounds polite and apologetic, rather than prickly.

Maybe a better Holmes would have allowed this movie to more squarely hit the mark, as it otherwise does surprisingly well by playing its outlandish premise fairly straight. Just change the script a little and you'd actually have an Asylum Sherlock Holmes movie that could rise above the guilty pleasure that this one is.

Also at HBS

1 comment:

CariBerry said...

Does anyone know where I can find the headpiece on the girl in the last scene where they were dancing around the room looking for her brother? I can't even find a picture of it to try and find it.