Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

This is a bad time to be Sherlock Holmes. People go to blockbusters to shut off their mind for two hours. "I don't want to think when I go to the movies," is a common complaint I hear from some corners. How do you make a Sherlock Holmes story for this crowd? The Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes is the ultimate hero of the mind, a man who excels because he is always paying attention when everyone around him is not. Now we live in a time when unique minds aren't nearly as valued in our culture as unique six-pack abs. And so the new Sherlock Holmes by director Guy Ritchie gives us the Holmes we deserve: a man of unparalleled deductive powers with a torso so hard and grooved you could grate Parmesan cheese on it. As played by Robert Downey Jr., Holmes has a peerless body to match his peerless brain though we never once see him run or lift weights or exercise in any way that could give someone such a sculpted physique. In Holmesian lingo, we might call it The Mystery of The Rippling Musculature.

In truth, Downey's Holmes still does plenty of sleuthing, though I wish Ritchie and his screenwriters had used a bit more brains themselves while creating this overly elaborate film for him to star in. The old Basil Rathbone - Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films were economical entertainments: 70 lean minutes of mystery, atmosphere, and intrigue. Ritchie's version runs a bloated 128 minutes, with too many subplots involving female supporting characters who have clearly been added to make the film more women friendly (or, as one of my Twitter followers observed, to remove any potential accusations of homosexuality between Holmes and Watson). Downey's Holmes and Jude Law's Watson have a strong, chummy chemistry onscreen but the addition of Watson's new fiance Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) doesn't so much add friction between the characters at it does distraction to the film. And Rachel McAdams as a former flame of and potential adversary to Holmes has neither the chemistry with Downey nor the importance to the central narrative to justify her presence.

Too bad, because the movie does have its charms, as does any recent film with Downey as its lead. A few hours before I saw the new Holmes, I caught one of the old Rathbone films on TCM and was struck by how much of a dick Holmes is. Yes, a certain amount of arrogance is built into the character -- he's smarter than everyone around him and he knows it -- but in 1944's The Pearl of Death, he's such a pompous douche we almost want to start rooting for his enemies. In one scene, he proves a theory about a crime by barging into a store, ordering Watson around like a servant, and damaging the shopkeeper's inventory without explanation or apology. Downey's Holmes is just as egotistic but far more charismatic. His secret, I think, is to play the character as a man out of control. This Holmes would be polite if he could but he is completely at the mercy of his own talents. Between cases, he sits in his study inventing silencers for pistols or new paralyzing enzymes, because he feels compelled to do it. His genius does not come with an off-switch or a filter.

The mystery's a good one, involving an occult leader (Mark Strong) who manages to survive his own execution with apparent supernatural powers the ever-rational Holmes is eager to disprove. And so he does, with a mixture of careful observation and carefully choreographed fist fights, including one in an underground bare-knuckling boxing match that he starts because...wait, why does he do that again? Right, because it's not enough for Holmes to be smart. In The Pearl of Death, Rathbone's Holmes is holding the pearl thief at gunpoint when the villain manages to lunge at him, grab his gun, and turn the tables on him. Not only would Downey's Holmes never lose a fight with a man like that, he'd be able to dodge the bullets if he did (something Downey does do in the new film, in an admittedly clever sequence). But then a man as smart as Sherlock Holmes knows he must adapt to the times he lives in.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus (2009)

The ads around New York City have already declared Clint Eastwood's Invictus "genuinely inspiring" with "a soul-stirring story." I do not disagree, but don't rush out to the theater just yet. Sure, Invictus is inspirational. But that's not enough. Given the stakes, the improbable outcome, and the excessive use of swelling string music, who wouldn't be inspired by this story? Well, yeah, racists, of course. But other than that?

Obviously, this is a well-intentioned film. It teaches valuable lessons about important issues. But the way in which it goes it about teaching them is so tedious. It's more like a very dry history lesson from a professor who's not particularly invested in the material. Even as your soul will be stirred your brain will be bored by this tale of newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his brilliant use of the South Africa rugby team, a group previously associated with Afrikaner culture and the trauma of apartheid, to unite his divided nation. The major fault in the film lies with the characters. Mandela and the captain of the South Africa rugby team Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) are great men in real life but they're not great movie characters, at least not as conceived by screenwriter Anthony Peckham, who treats them as pure forces of good with little complexity or shading. Mandela is often viewed from the perspective of his bodyguards, who whisper about the enormous personal and professional challenges he's up against. "He's not a saint," one says. "He's just a man with a man's problems." Unfortunately, the Mandela of Invictus essentially is a saint; his family life is given almost no mention, and even the health problems it shows him encountering are completely glossed over (in one scene Mandela is ordered to undergo a period of bed rest after a serious collapse. In the next, he's back at work as if the incident never happened). Pienaar is equally frustrating. His rugby team is the engine that drives a change of perspective for an entire nation, but his own thoughts on the issues he's combating are left largely unsaid. What was his life like during apartheid? What were his feelings before he met Mandela? Who knows. All we really know about the man is what little we can glean from the many times he stands in front of windows and stares soulfully out into the distance.

The movie features a few of the themes Eastwood likes to explore, particularly the way in which men struggle to move beyond the sins of their dark pasts, but it's also an odd fit for the director in some ways. He's never been one for sports movies before, either behind or in front of the camera, and he doesn't have a good handle on the rugby scenes, which are both repetitive and unclear (if you don't know the rules of rugby before the film, don't expect to understand them afterwards either). He's obviously far more interested in the inner-workings of a different team, that of Mandela's personal security detail, a group comprised of blacks and Afrikaners. Eastwood framers their initial struggles and eventual cohesion into a single police force as a microcosm of the "rainbow nation" Mandela creates in South Africa. By repeatedly cutting back and forth between Mandela and his security and Pienaar and his rugby players, Invictus resembles a mash-up of two superior films, Remember the Titans and In the Line of Fire, which starred Eastwood as an American Secret Service agent.

I don't doubt that if you see the film you will feel a chill down your spine when Mandela takes the field before the World Cup of Rugby wearing the uniform that had for so long stood for everything he fought against. I felt it too. But I also felt like that moment was unearned, supported as it was, by the sweeping music and CGI crane shots of people cheering and chanting and waving the new South African flag. It didn't represent the way the rest of the film, in true biopic fashion, refuses to dig beneath the surface of its story or characters. The story is inspirational. The film is uninspired.