Monday, September 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: Of Two Minds

On one hand, you have Sherlock Holmes, a well-shot, well-acted movie. This picture is a thrilling crowd-pleaser that's smart and engrossing, yet delivers high-octane action.

On the other hand, there's Sherlock Holmes, a brilliantly-shot and performed summertime blockbuster that was released on Xmas Eve. It's nice but loud, and has some odd or sloppy choices, a carefully-calculated effort that misunderstands its titular character and is more hollow than it seems.

I was lucky to be able to watch both at the same time. I got to notice flaws in a fun, pretty picture while still enjoying it. In short: Sherlock Holmes is a great popcorn film that looks gorgeous and has good action, but it's entertaining without being exciting. The Matrix, Inception, and 28 Days Later were all both entertaining and exciting. 2009's Sherlock isn't in that league, and is inferior to the Sherlock BBC series I reviewed in June.

A classic "Holmes gets the case" scene!
The film is designed for "extreme" success With a core cast of Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams, this was guaranteed to draw a large audience. Before Holmes, Law and McAdams had been working a lot; they have 20 combined films in the 5 years before its '09 release. 2 Downey movies in 2008 made roughly $800Mil. These are very popular people, in addition to being attractive and talented actors. SH cleared $524Mil at the box office, so... good bet. The figure, Sherlock Holmes, is a great draw for younger and older audiences. For older groups, this fictitious detective is very familiar and popular world-wide. Teens would be drawn in because the guy who nailed Iron Man in May '08 was playing a London crime-fighter who kicks ass and outsmarts anyone effortlessly. Holmes also has the record for the literary character portrayed more than any other (238+ films). This movie, however, really wears its influences on its sleeves. There's a secret society/Illuminati subplot with nice aspects, but it reeks of From Hell and The Da Vinci Code. There's a science/magic issue at play that must have been "inspired by" The Prestige. And I'm still confused whether the references to America were meant to praise or deride my homeland; which boosts ticket sales more?
This guy sits under an eye-pyramid and says he'll rule the colonies!
Ritchie's movie is technically great  SH is Guy Ritchie's biggest hit to date, and it's no wonder. As a director, he rose to the challenge (and  budget) of the material, producing his best film since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Guy ditched a lot of things that were his stock and trade before - screwing with film speed, making another movie about English gangsters... He also changed up his visual style here. The film grain and camera work in other GR movies often appear rough intentionally, like a cd that sounds like an old record. Sherlock, however, is carefully designed to look letter-perfect, symmetrical.
So I chose what looks a lot like Ritchie's "Snatch" boxing scene.
This movie is filled with gorgeous shots. The best comparison, I think, is Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, where every virtually every shot looks like a beautiful painting and/or has excellent composition. Guy must have CGI'd the hell out of the scenery, but I like pretty skies and cityscapes, so I can't complain. The fx look really good, tho it's becoming so easy to take them for granted. The action and stunts can be insane and overdone at times, but they do look great and they are easy to follow. The script can be terribly clever. The players in Holmes don't always make the joke you expect them to, and unexpected little beats, asides, and moments are given to characters in defiance of all expectation; it's like the meaty dialogue in a film noir. Better still the relationships and back-stories are expressed more by how the conversation goes, not by people announcing their feelings. And there's a fine chemistry between the male leads. The strengths of Sherlock Holmes hide its flaws nicely The pace is very fast. SH moves from scene to scene quickly - this keeps audiences engaged, but also gives people less time to actually think about what's just been said or done. It's a good technique for pacing in general, and it's great at keeping the viewer from saying, "wait that made no sense." There's just not much time for the senseless elements in this picture to register, and I'm glad because it's an enjoyable movie and I don't want them to. Of course, there are some moments that are way too abrupt or the transition to the next scene is so fast that it's comical.
The easiest examples are the murders committed by Blackwood. One scene stops so quickly that I looked confused, then started laughing a little. "That's it?" Economy is one thing, but not if you sacrifice tone. Another Blackwood sequence just goes on for too long with silly, overblown dialogue; there's a zoom-out steadicam shot that was supposed to look imposing, but didn't - then after going on too long, the movie zips right into the next scene. Aw-kward! The quality of the actors (Downey can be very fine) also distracts from certain character problems. The cast does look too young, I think, especially for a Holmes & Watson near the end of the partnership. Still, no specific dates are given, any of them can be a little older than they look, and I guess being older wouldn't really change the story. But SH messes up the crucial part of "Sherlock" himself for the sake of (a) being cool and (b) narrative convenience. Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were written in the voice of Dr. John Watson; John describes the events, relaying the adventures of he and his friend, Sherlock. But to Ritchie, it probably seemed dumb to have Jude Law doing voice-overs here. And if Holmes is best known for his amazing mental process, why not display his intellect by hearing his internal calculation? How about thinking through a fistfight?! It'll be a crowd-pleaser!
And Guy Ritchie was correct - the intellectual boxer shtick is funny and gratifying for the audience. Still, the impact of all this monologue and focus away from Watson is not good. The simple result is it adds to a problem this movie already had: Sherlock Holmes talks way too much. Downey cracks jokes at the Scotland Yard detectives. He has lots of conversations with Watson, Ms. Adler, and various suspects, criminals, and witnesses. It's weird to add to this, his talking out his plans to win a fight; he even estimates their recovery time! Our unlikely motormouth also explains things too often. While this English detective is known for revealing how he solved a case or what he deduced from a clue, it's not very Holmes-y to do this to the people he's fighting in the middle of a fight, before he's subdued them. It's as if he can't wait to explain things, so he just does. Please, Holmes, talk less... Downey's charisma and acting ability may distract audiences from another unsatisfying aspect of Sherlock: he's written and performed just like Tony Stark from Iron Man, but in a different setting. Holmes is brash, insensitive, quirky (using his rented wall as a target range), and takes drugs when he's really bored. Robert plays it with a lot of extreme recklessness and neurotic fidgeting; I expected Gwyneth Paltrow to be the landlady. And I really, really dislike Downey's slap-fighting technique. It's just... ugh. Closing Thoughts All in all, Sherlock Holmes was a neat action film despite its faults. I'd love it if the movie had been smarter, if Holmes talked less, if some of the action wasn't so over the top, and if the film were quieter. Still, these points end up being rather minor because SH is still pretty satisfying and quite entertaining.

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