Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009)


Lock, stock, and two sorry buttheads

Look folks! The Sherlock Holmes© action figure!

He leaps! He kicks! He cracks the bad guy's kneecap with a bartitsu move, dodges explosions with spine-cracking dexterity! And when handcuffed to an ornate hotel room bed, shoots off hilariously inappropriate quips!

Please. The former Mr. Madonna's latest isn't so much a Holmes updated for our times as he is dumbed-down video game for the ADD crowd (Tekken Holmes, anyone?). They've tacked on a nefarious plot to gas the British Parliament with a cyanidelike gas, opposed him with an invincible hulking sparring partner not unlike 'Jaws' in the James Bond movies, and promised the involvement of Professor Moriarity in the already advertised sequel (we're not just out to snatch money from your wallet, we don't want to waste time doing it).

Perhaps the movie's only interesting idea is that Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are a barely closeted couple (they share the apartment with their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson) about to end their relationship in favor of Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly)--basically borrowing the plot of the '20s theatrical classic The Front Page,” with Watson playing the wandering Hildy Johnson to Holmes' jealously possessive Walter Burns. Law and Downey do have a chemistry, a kind of frat-boy bonhomie that's diverting, even intriguing; when a bomb explodes and either Watson or Holmes is down and hurt and one hovers over the other, mortally worried, you keep expecting their lips to meet in that ever-promised kiss--

--which never happens. Either a bigger bomb explodes or the huge French thug shows up, prompting Richie to throw the picture into slow motion, fists swooshing like jet fighters. Ritchie might be called the Michael Bay of British cinema, with his fondness for larger-than-life action sequences barely held together by a supposedly witty script (in that he's probably Bay's superior--I've yet to see evidence of wit in a Bay movie, much less a script). There's too much loud business, too much smoke and sparks and Rube Goldberg devices whirring around for Downey, Law, and Rachel McAdams (playing Irene Adler, the only woman to ever flummox Holmes, in “A Scandal in Bohemia”) to develop their characters: they remain cartoon sketches that pose prettily and run briskly, occasionally dropping a funny remark along the way in what nowadays passes for dialogue.

Much prefer Holmes' cinematic incarnations of past years. I'm familiar with Basil Rathbone, generally considered the definitive Holmes, but tend to gravitate towards more revisionist versions. There's Terence Fisher's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), full of the lurid color palette and shock imagery of classic Hammer horrors, plus Peter Cushing as an icy yet authoritative Holmes, Christopher Lee in a small role as Sir Charles Baskerville, and Andre Morell as a humane, uncharacteristically intelligent Dr. Watson.

Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) is an unusual chapter in the lives of both Holmes and Wilder--first, because the film has a distinctly romantic spirit; second, because Wilder (The Apartment (1960), Some Like it Hot (1959)), legendary for his fierce satirical bite, appears in this film to have developed a mellowed, almost toothless, tone. Actually, it's Wilder at a late stage of his career, when he seemed more concerned with capturing the essence of his characters instead of savaging them--in this case Holmes (Robert Stephens), at a relatively early stage of his career, and the reasons for his shyness towards women. The parallels are irresistible: both are famed cynics, both highly intelligent (one might say Holmes is the genius behind the magnifying glass, Wilder the genius behind the camera lens). Wilder pursues Holmes with the same relentless determination that Holmes pursues his quarries; Holmes resists analysis with the same stubborn determination that Wilder resists depicting easy heartbreak, easy tragedy. When Wilder finally runs the prey to ground--when he finally arrives at the reason behind Holmes' misogyny--it's as if a tiny crack had formed on a solid crystal; just the slightest of flaws, and only noticeable if you look closely, but definitely there, and startling to behold. Come to think of it, the film's title may be a misnomer--it isn't just of Holmes' life we're attempting to to catch a privileged glimpse.

Wilder's is a great take on Holmes, but my hands-down favorite is the Hayao Miyazaki's episodes of the animated TV series Sherlock Hound (1984 - 85). Yes, Holmes here is animated and yes, he's a hound, and yes in Miyazaki's hands he's a good-natured charmer. Operating on a short format--around twenty-five minutes per episode--and on the low budgets of TV animation, Miyazaki performs miraculous feats of storytelling, scattering vivid imagery along the way like a trail of gold coins--in “The Little Client,” for example, Moriarity's drop forge--a ravenous behemoth of a machine--goes berserk and stamps out forged coins in bizarre shapes: necklaces ("this would be nice for mother," Moriarity notes) and jellyfish ("this would be nice in her parlor"). In “The Abduction of Mrs. Hudson” Moriarity's nefarious plot to kidnap Holmes' housekeeper turns into a Peter Pan comedy, with Moriarity and his men as Lost Boys and Mrs. Hudson the beautiful young nanny they've waited for all their lives. And as if to prove he can be as revisionist as any recent cinematic genius, Miyazaki in “The White Cliffs of Dover” proposes that Mrs. Hudson is the true protagonist of the adventure, and that Holmes harbors a secret crush on her.

It's not difficult to see Holmes' appeal to storytellers of all mediums, of all ages: he's a cold, lonely genius, capable of the sharpest observations--a filmmaker or writer or storyteller's highest aspiration. More, they project themselves into Holmes--in Fisher's hands Holmes is an intellectual titan but also a physical adventurer; in Wilder's case he's a cynic who has built a shell around him for protection; in Miyazaki's case he's a great detective able to relate to children because deep inside he's still a boy at heart, a gentle one at that (don't knock gentleness--it's the most difficult quality to portray, convincingly and entertainingly, on the big screen, and Miyazaki is a master). Given that in this latest incarnation Ritchie's Holmes is a frequent runner, a habitual boxer, an occasional nudist (albeit involuntary), a boor and a slob and an irresistible attractor of inordinately large explosions, what does this Holmes say of this filmmaker?

First published on Businessworld, 1.8.10

17 comments:

Adrian Mendizabal said...

Wow! Noel, natuwa naman ako sa new blog design mo! wee!

Noel Vera said...

Cool, di ba?

Etchie said...

aba, bago ah. :D

The Digerati Life said...

Hey this is awesome man! Nice and bright! Very cool! :)

Noel Vera said...

Thanks!

the lone gunman said...

2 comments, first on the new blog design: it sucks. Yes its brighter, yes its cooler; its also painfully generic and looks like every other website out there. Sure, the old one looked grimy and kinda sleazy but it had WAY more personality. It really looked like the blog of a critic after dark.

2nd comment, on Sherlock Holmes: you forgot to mention tedious. I actually liked Lock, Stock and I had high expectations for this one but I couldn't wait for it to end

Noel Vera said...

Lone: fair enough. This is some kind of marketing push I'm starting, I'm (sigh) selling out, I guess.

As for the other blog design--grimy?! I thought it was kinda elegant. Huh. But I agree, I thought it was more appropriate.

Someone mentioned The Seven Percent Solution, to which I replied: I remember liking it, remember it was stylish, but not much more. Closer to my heart was Meyer's Time After Time, where HG Wells squared off with Jack the Ripper.

Come to think of it, why not a film on Orson Welles vs. oh, Senator McCarthy? Or the Martians? I remember a comic book on just that, with Superman thrown in.

Ted said...

I recommend giving A Study in Terror, a 1965 movie a look-see. Stars John Neville as Holmes and Donald Houston as Watson. Both fit the roles nicely, and it is a fine piece of workmanship. The color is exquisite, with good atmospherics and seemingly true to the period. It's a Holmes versus Jack the Ripper movie. Neville and Houston play against each other well, and the movie makes Holmes and Watson more action heroes than you might think. Snip at TCM:

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index.jsp?cid=282924

With a choice cameo by Robert Morley as Mycroft that is just about worth the price of admission:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNrSsF6ENpQ&feature=related

Ted Fontenot

Adrian Mendizabal said...

yay, selling out? (As in ADVERTISEMENTS galore?) But a new look is quite refreshing!

Noel Vera said...

You can't please everyone. Never meant to, anyway.

watchmovies said...

just a great movie

Noel Vera said...

I suppose. Doesn't rock my world, but I can see where someone might enjoy it for what it is.

james said...

i agree that guy ritchie's directorial hand isn't strong. the movie's plot isn't very good either. but sherlock holmes works because of robert downey as the titular character. i didn't think the movie was that long; thanks to the action sequences. but i did get the feeling that the film is a long introduction for the second holmes movie with moriarty.

Movies said...

Thanks for information!
I love this movie so much.

Noel Vera said...

You're on your own, man. I think this stinks on ice.

trailer said...

Have seen the movie twice now and love it, worth seeing, very entertaining, Downey is suburb as always, as good as the first film, IMO.

Noel Vera said...

It's available for viewing, huh? Might take a look, possibly from the same source as you did...