Tuesday, May 09, 2006

This Week's Movies

For fun I rented Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, a recent Masterpiece Theatre production. Impressive production values (MT's come a long way!) and a high-quality cast, but unfortunately Allan Cubitt's script could have been better. The story was very much in the vein of CSI / Silence of the Lambs, to the point of cliche. Think serial killer. Think a signature object left inside the victims' throats. Imagine Holmes and Watson discovering they have the wrong man and having to race to find the culprit before the latest victim (who they used as bait) expires. Not exactly a nail biter. More importantly, I have to get this off my chest: it takes more to satisfy Holmes fans than just ticking items off a checklist of Holmesiana: a reference to his drug use (ok), got him reading a book about bees (yup), reference to his sexuality/problem with women (got it), playing violin (mm hmm). Thing is, you've got to do something meaningful with these ideas.

Still, Cubitt and director Simon Cellan Jones wisely follows in the mold of Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The two characters are portrayed at a point after Watson has moved out of the bachelor's quarters of 221B Baker Street. Watson is concerned as friend and doctor by Holmes' drug use. Watson is pursuing romance, Holmes isn't. (In fact, in this story, Watson's on the cusp of marriage.) There's also the enjoyable feeling of excitement that they get to work together again--a feeling that taps into our longing to resurrect the duo for further adventures. Best yet, Rupert Everett is a natural choice to play Holmes--he's physically perfect for the part, with his height and his prominent nose and chin, not to mention the aristocratic demeanor that can give him a chilly and effortlessly superior air (a quality he got to do even more with in Separate Lies). If you can overlook the opening pose he's directed to give, the performance is quite good. Ian Watson is also a grand Watson, the best I've seen yet of the few I've sampled so far. Helps that he's an unusally good and criminally underrated actor. His Watson is a friend of perhaps greater common sense than Holmes and, here's the key: less intelligence than Holmes but not less intelligence than the average man.

It breaks the illusion of time-travel you get from reading Conan Doyle, but in a way I enjoyed seeing Watson's fiancee, a bold and modern American woman psychiatrist, expose Holmes to Kraft-Ebbing, though of course with the modern serial killer angle thrown in it degenerates into an excuse for a kinky killer. I get it. Out with the Victorian world, in with our modern world. It's the lesson of way too many Holmes pastiches--but is our world so much less interesting than Conan Doyle's? I don't expect the thrill of exploring the Victorian mentality I get from Conan Doyle, but can't I be thrilled by exploring the Edwardian era? It's still pretty long ago--a century. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Also watched David Lean's masterful Brief Encounter. Trevor Howard is excellent and Celia Johnson is outstanding as two married people who cross paths, fall in love, and struggle with what to do about it. At the end I asked Red if he thought she made the right decision, and it turned out we'd just watched two completely different movies. He saw Alec as predatory and I saw him as hesitantly seductive (for once the Adam and Eve roles are reversed). Only fully-dimensional characters can lead to such a satisfying disagreement and discussion. I was impressed with the cinematography (and what a sparkling clean-up job Criterion did) and the way Laura's narration comes across so dreamily and fluidly. (Spoilers ahead.) It's one of those movies that captures a lifetime in 86 minutes--birth, prime and death...of a love affair, of a potential life. After seeing it can you ever forget the full-circle impact of that chatterbox's interruption? The spaces and rhythms of the story works so well: those Thursday rituals, the movie matinees (with Donald Duck and B-Movie Tarzans), the lady cellist, the tea room rendezvous, the trains in opposite directions. I enjoyed and admired the comical counterpoint involving the guard and the tea room matron. And I'll confess a weakness for the Rachmaninoff. It's poured on shamelessly thick, but that's the way I like old b&w romantic stories. I've seen a few I've liked slightly better--this story was just a bit thin for my taste, needing perhaps just another episode for thickness, but it was time well spent. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

Continuing my interest in Preminger and in Dana Andrews, we also watched the new-to-DVD Fallen Angel, a noir that I'd rank far behind Where the Sidewalk Ends and Laura. Andrews seems a bit tired playing a fairly despicable con man. Linda Darnell is strong as a femme fatale and Alice Faye actually refreshing as the goody-goody who stands by her man when he's suspected of foul play, deserving of punishment if not quite guilty. Percy Kilbride (who I've enjoyed quite a bit recently in State Fair and Keeper of the Flame) and Charles Bickford (as a troubled cop from the East) have supporting parts that are somewhat less than satisfying. It's yet another noir story that sees California as part-Wild West and part end-of-the-line, a place you end up when you've been on the run (with a very similar set-up as the much worse The Postman Always Rings Twice--man gets to California looking for a new life and walks into a little diner). The film is competent, but overlong (actually made me sleepy at times). Not recommended. Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars.


You know how they do those sing-along showings of movies like The Sound of Music? In some places they've done them for "Once More with Feeling," the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Chicago Reader movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the writers and creative types I keep an eye on as I follow the news online. He's been a bit off his game lately, but he's still one of the world's finest, in my opinion, and not only do I follow his work, but I also follow what others are saying abou him. Here are some tidbits collected since the beginning of the year.

Early in the year I noticed a swipe from critic Scott Renshaw, holding up Mr. Rosenbaum as a humorless symbol of anti-commercial views (and, worse, lumping him together with nutcake provocateur Armond White). It's a common complaint about JR, but it just goes to show Renshaw must not read the unfashionable one's reviews, because Rosenbaum regularly sees and recommends contemporary Hollywood fare (sometimes really bad stuff, like Prime). Truth is, JR has his weaknesses and guilty pleasures just like the rest of us.

More recently, Rosenbaum has gotten a lot of mentions (like here, here and here) for his contributions as a Welles expert to the Criterion edition of Mr. Arkadin. I look forward to seeing this movie and listening to his commentary.

In an article on Art School Confidential, Paste Magazine recently mentioned that he once compared Rear Window to comic strips, which is a nifty little insight.

Mr. Rosenbaum is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and serves on many international film juries, including, recently, the Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea.

Critic Andrew Sarris, who I also try to keep up with, apparently is a big fan of The Ballad of Cable Hogue, which was recently issued on DVD.

Song: "God knows(you gotta give to get)" by El Perro del Mar

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