MOVIE MAKING and STORY TELLING
by Leigh Lundin
At lunch last week, my friend Steve mentioned a sequel is under way for Sherlock Holmes, the British-American movie from four months ago.
I thought the movie (still found in some theaters) was adequate, "serviceable" as my father might say, but not anything to write about unless to catalogue a number of problems.
"Yes," added Sharon, "it was critically well-received."
She was right. It won a Golden Globes Award for Best Actor.
Golden Globes Award for musical or comedy? It was funny? Or a musical?
Where’s the real Holmes and what have you done with him?
Sometimes I amaze myself what I don’t know about celebrities and the entertainment industry, but you could have fooled me Sherlock Holmes was a comedy or musical or even award worthy. I didn’t laugh at the North American accents of two of the main characters, a New York actor faking a British accent and a Canadian actress faking a New Jersey accent. I wasn’t amused to find Holmes no longer a master of ratiocination, but a kung fu action figure.
On the plus side, while I didn’t buy Holmes or Adler, he didn’t marry a pesky American. The underlying story was acceptable, the music interesting though overbearing at times, and the visuals rich, even if some were shot in Brooklyn. The bad guy, Lord Blackwood, was nicely sociopathic, Watson was believable, and Inspector Lestrade grew upon me thanks to a plot twist. As a Victorian/Edwardian tale, it worked, but as a Holmes canonical pastiche, no way. Fantasies about pushing this fake Holmes over Reichenbach Falls flooded my mind.
Sherlock v Batman
I reflected upon a recent Hollywood trend report that warned movie goers not to expect thoughtful American films anytime soon. When it comes to the target demographic of male audiences, guys not only don’t like to read, they stay away from movies that aren’t action films. As you’re starting to suspect, this isn’t about Holmes, but about recreating characters and stories in an era that devalues intelligence in favor of action.
If Robert Downey, Jr. reminded you more of Batman than Sherlock, it’s no accident. Director Guy Ritchie deliberately modeled Holmes after the protagonist in Batman Begins and Warner Brothers bought into the production for the same reason. Instead of a spec script, producers created a 25 page Batman-like comic book. During editing, Ritchie employed the Batman soundtrack, The Dark Knight before he hired its maker, Hans Zimmer, to create the music for his Sherlock Holmes.
As for Downey, it doesn’t take Detective Comics to wonder if he bothered to read Sherlock Holmes before the project:
"I think me and Guy are well-suited to working together. The more I look into the books, the more fantastic it becomes. Holmes is such a weirdo. … When you read the description of the guy— quirky and kind of nuts— it could be a description of me."
Reviewers split 50-50, but what do viewers say? In their own words, fans contend "old versions" of "your Grandpa’s Sherlock Holmes" were dry, stuffy, dull, and created by and for people "who apparently have no knowledge of Holmes".
The "new vision" is down and dirty, edgy, electric, exciting, scruffy, smart, swashbuckling, satisfying, thrilling. "They finally got it exactly right!" "The best Holmes-and-Watson-duo so far." "A Watson-Holmes bro-mance." (You have to wonder how many glowing ‘amateur reviews’ were written by paid grips, gaffers, and gofers.)
The Law of Film
I’ve seen few movies this past year and it’s coincidental the only other in recent months also featured Jude Law. I can’t complain about his acting: The British lead of Repo Men so altered his personality, the icily detached character was unrecognizable as the same star who played a decent Watson.
Many mystery readers happen to enjoy science fiction. Like a good mystery, good science fiction– *real* science fiction– requires brains and often encapsulates morality plays. Here I distinguish between science fiction, science fantasy, and space operas. (Hardcore fans further differentiate between ‘sci-fi’ and the hard fiction, SF.) Good science fiction isn’t about monsters and light sabers; it’s about people, politics, and society.
Repo Men takes aim at the current mortgage and financial crisis, and it asks a question posed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice:
"What if high-pressure corporate investors finance vital organs at exorbitant interest rates? What happens when desperate customers can’t meet the payments?"
Repossessing failure-to-pay organs is the dystopian answer. Jude Law and his partner, Forest Whitaker, cooly reclaim livers, hearts, and kidneys while deriding and sneering at sniveling, whiny customers, about-to-die deadbeats.
The film is standard SF fare with an extra point or two for concept. I mention the story here to point out writing examples, good and bad.
The interaction between the ebullient Whitaker and the self-contained Law is chilling and effective, but the best scene is short and understated, featuring rap artist RZA as a soulful… well, soul musician, who’s fallen on hard times. The forlorn RZA asks if he might finish laying down the present track and Law, a fan, readily agrees, even helping him. At the end of the session, RZA lies back so Law can stop his heart… whereupon the movie takes its pivotal turn.
The fatalistic RZA is likeable and our empathy aches at his predicament, especially as we realize the world will lose not just an artistic talent, but a good person. We also detect the first traces of humanity and regret in Law whose world is about to change. In an uneven film, it’s the highlight of storytelling. But a ‘lowlight’ follows, a lesson of what not to do.
The film gushes blood and violence. Some of it makes sense. Other scenes would make Sam Peckinpah lose his lunch. In the final quarter comes a segment that gives up all pretense of anything other than a slasher/splatter/giblet flick. When Law and his girlfriend fight their way into headquarters looking for the ‘pink door’– the entrance to the organ financing computer center– the movie disintegrates into a blood-fest that defies logic.
For reasons that aren’t clear (or for no reason at all), Law steps over usable automatic weapons littering the floor and reveals a pair of custom sheaths strapped to his back containing combat knives. Also defying reason, a group of company men standing in front of the pink door decide to sacrifice their lives for the sake of protecting corporate accounts. Law spends detailed slow-motion minutes mowing them down like a scythe through a field of flesh. What is the point?
It’s not surprising professional reviewers rated the film poorly while the current crop of movie goers rated it highly. As mentioned above, industry pundits claim Hollywood won’t anytime soon welcome thoughtful films, but reviewers aren’t wholly inured, not yet. Still, when it comes to ticket sales, a widening chasm separates quality from quantity, the entertainment wheat from the chaff.
In case you feel like surreal crime, take a peek at the Bruce Willis versus Gorillaz Stylo video.