Friday, July 31, 2015

Mr. Holmes

The Curious Incident of the Detective in Twilight
"The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes" ("I Haven't a Clue...")

Inspector Gregory: 'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
Sherlock Holmes: 'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
Inspector Gregory: 'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
Sherlock Holmes: 'That was the curious incident.'
"Silver Blaze"

'I confess that I have been blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.' 
Sherlock Holmes
"The Man with the Twisted Lip"

In Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic series, there is a Library of Dreams that contains literary works that were never written and/or completed and basically, only exist in the authors' dreams. The "one-day-I'll write..." library. One of those books sitting on the shelf of the Never-Was is a collection of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle published under the title "The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes." Gaiman, interviewed, particularly liked "The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes" because "Holmes doesn't have a conscience." He has a sense of justice, of course, which sometimes—rarely—runs counter to the letter of the law (and when it does, it peeves him no end). But, for the most part, he does not let personal feelings interfere with his thought processes. As he explains in "The Sign of Four," "the emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning." Those "emotional qualities" are best left to others as sources of motivation, incitements and provocations to be discovered, but avoided by the discoverer, lest they cloud the facts.
And so, Mr. Holmes, based on Mitch Cullens' "A Slight Trick of the Mind."  It sees Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) in his waning days, weakened and enfeebled by age, the mind slightly dulled, for which the Great Detective travels the world for some inhibition; royal jelly no longer works, but a trip to post-WWII Japan promises a concoction called "prickly ash." He returns to his Sussex home, tended to by a housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).  As they tend to him, he tends to his bees, but he is troubled, haunted. When the mind of Sherlock Holmes is at rest, disaster is sure to follow.  But, his trip has disquieted him and he is not sure why.  
To exercise his mind, he begins to write about his last case (dissatisfied as he is by the account written by his dear friend, Dr. Watson) and in the writing, memories begin to churn, creating a disturbing feeling of disorientation and confusion.  This is aggravating to Mrs. Munro, who already finds Holmes insufferable and worries about the influence the old man has on her son, who is fascinated by Holmes and his storied past. 
But, what is the connection between that last case, his final bow, and the trip to Japan? To Holmes, nothing.  Not in detail, particulars, even country of origin are they similar. But one triggered the other, and Holmes must rely on the most unreliable of witnesses—his own failing memory. This is the Sherlock of old age, not the Sherlock of old. To hear this one tell it, it never was: the deerstalker hat ("an embellishment of the illustrator"); the meerschaum pipe ("I prefer cigars, actually"). He still does "the parlour trick" of dissecting a human being instantaneously from their appearance to their amazement or shame or anger.  And does he regret?  "So much!"
Holmes' last case: surveillance and a tell-tale clue about window-shopping.
Conscience.  His last case was for a client (Patrick Kennedy) who suspected his wife (Hattie Morahan) of...something. She had changed. Yes, she's suffered two miscarriages, but she's acting suspiciously, and Holmes, suspecting "something" nefarious goes on the hunt, observing her day's routine—checking on her husband's will, forging checks, and, last but certainly not least, buying poison. The client must certainly be in danger of a mad housewife's revenge.   
One would deduce. And Holmes finds his instincts right...and wrong.  The aftermath of the case leaves him bereft, back to drugs, and it is only the intervention of Watson, long since gone from the residence at Baker Street (there's a surprise about that, too) that Holmes recovers enough that he can make the decision to retire to Sussex—his own exile from the chaos of the world he could no longer understand, let alone explain.
Aftermath: Watson finds Holmes—"I chose exile."
Bees, however, are easy. They're orderly, unemotional, solid workers, and completely loyal to a Queen. The colony seems to be dwindling a bit after his Japan trip, but he will have to solve that problem later. In the meantime, there are these memories and the Japan trip to solve, and if the tale isn't as snappy as a Doyle yarn, it might be due to the fallibility of the detective who, ultimately, has himself as a client. 
Director Condon keeps things moving quickly and, fortunately, stays out of the way. He is at his best when his directorial hand is invisible, undetectable, trusting enough of the material (and himself) that he doesn't get too fancy with it. He's worked with McKellen before (Gods and Monsters) and Linney (Kinsey) and they are both up to the task—McKellen doesn't have the usual problem with Holmes that actors do (Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens were both of the opinion that Holmes was "an empty vessel" that would suck the life out of an actor), tasked as he is with playing the same character at two stages in his life 35 years apart, the challenge is to extrapolate the old man with the younger, and so Holmesian tics and theatrics go by the wayside. Nothing outwardly theatrical is betrayed, but gradually and internally, the truth is revealed and a motivation is not realized, but instead created. And the Great Detective who, at one point in the film, says "I haven't a clue," solves his own mystery.

A good Holmes film, not a classic, but a good one.
At one point, the elderly Holmes watches a movie made of one of his exploits.
Who plays Holmes?  Nicholas Rowe, who played Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985.
Deucedly clever, that.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Let's Get Small
"We Haven't Worked Out All the Bugs Yet"

Superhero movies are, in and of themselves, absurd. They're two-dimensional entertainment thrust into 3-D with real human beings squeezed into the form-fitting costumes that seem to defy logic and gravity.

The norm of the superhero movie has become explosions and crumbling masonry. It's become the superhero cliché: it doesn't matter the power, it doesn't matter the skills. Pretty soon, the walls come tumbling down, no matter how much power you have. What DOESN'T happen is for these movies to differentiate between these heroes; it doesn't matter who or what these super-beings or meta-humans are, the results are the same and it's become a movie cliché. You can't tell a Bat-man from an X-man anymore, because the results are all on the outside, you never get the experience of what it would be to be able to DO these incredible things.

Except for Ant-Man. It's the first movie in a long, long time (since we first believed we could accompany Superman in flight back in 1978), where you get the visceral sensation of what it must be like to wield that power, to be a part of the world that we are thrust into in the adventure.  It's a matter of perspective, and Ant-Man doesn't shrink from the task.
Let's face it: Ant-Man, as a character, is pretty silly. Like Aquaman-but-thirstier, he can talk to and command a veritable picnic of ants (you in the back, stop laughing), and like Doll Man and The Atom, he can shrink to a tiny size while maintaining his weight and strength. His playing-field is the horrifically out-sized one of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which has traditionally been one of the ordinary made predatory, the insignificant made insurmountable—spools of string are tank-busters, sewing needles become spears, and the normal becomes terrifyingly demeaning, bone-crushing in its impact, both physically and psychologically. It's a sci-fi concept rife with metaphor. Ever feel small in this world? Problems feel insurmountable? Well, imagine being mouse-size in a world of cats. There's something about these shrinking violets that appeals to the disenfranchised, feeling apart from the norm and even belittled by it.
If you've got a disenfranchised audience, you might as well make a franchise. Despite his role as a "minor" Marvel character, despite his being a long-standing member of the comics version of The Avengers (it was actually the original Ant-man, Hank Pym, who created "Ultron" as opposed to the story in the film), but the character is relatively minor in the Marvel pantheon. But, in an upside-down world where "Iron Man" is king of the Marvel Film Universe and The Guardians of the Galaxy does better business than Thor...or Captain America...or Hulk, a character like "Ant-Man" just might catch on.
Speaking of "catching on..."
Except his name is "Ant-Man" (the current shrinker even asks at one point "Is it too late to change the name?") and has mental control over ANTS, fer cryin' out loud. Handy at a family reunion, maybe, but fighting crime? Unless you send carpenter ants to destroy the foundation of a villain's HQ, ants make a pretty ineffective army (no matter what Stan Lee says)—easily distracted by sugar, for instance. And frankly, you can slow them down by the interference of Ant-Man's arch-nemesis, Orkin Man
Ant-Man (the movie) does not care. It knows deep down in its thorax that it is a silly concept, and still thinks it's the coolest thing on Earth. It communicates the absurd glory of it (and this is evidently due to the early conceptual work of Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and directed Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Wright left over "creative differences" with Marvel Studios (and that can be anything from casting, script changes to changes in the costume so the action figures sell). It's always dangerous to speculate, but the director-change occurred about the time Marvel put its "franchise" mitts into it, linking "Ant-Man" to the larger Film Universe. That might be well and good for the suits at Disney—really, can rights to the Marvel/Disney unifying "Mighty Mouse" be that hard to acquire?—but it doesn't play too well in the film. This "Ant-man" isn't much of a "joiner."
New meaning to the term "gun-runner"

Getting back to disenfranchisement, Ant-Man's characters are full of it. Both past and present Ant-men are free-thinkers who don't fancy themselves "team-players." They are not little men. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, giving his strongest performance in years, surprisingly) is your prototypical genius who has perfected the "shrinking-people-down" thing without subsequently blowing them up and had operated for years as the original covert "Ant-Man," but has strenuously avoided giving the patents to his partners at Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D. (an early scene has John Slattery as Howard Stark, Hayley Atwell as the time-ubiquitous Peggy Carter, and an impressively de-aged Douglas, doing a version of "Take This Job and Shove it"), seeing them as a threat to peace and security. Current Ant-man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con, who was incarcerated for performing a "brilliant" hack on his former employer, and finds his chances of employment somewhere between miniscule and microscopic.  
Outcast by society and by his own family—divorced by wife Maggie (Judy Greer), distrusted by her new husband, officer Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), but adored by daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson)—he's fired from his job and decides to become part of a burglary ring consisting of Dave (T.I.), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and his old cell-mate Luis (Michael Peña, displaying a suspected, but under-utilized flair for comedy), who are a sort of bargain-basement "Mission: Impossible" team. Luis hears of a great job—in one of a trio of nicely pulled-off exposition scenes—that turns out to be the secluded mansion of Hank Pym, where there are no vast quantities of valuables—only a goofy suit that ends up throwing Lang back in the slammer, and an eventual surprise visitation by Pym.
What Pym proposes to Lang is no small feat: breaking into Pym Labs and stealing the prototype of an element essential to the company's years-long attempts to match Pym's experiments in shrinking, which are being designed for weaponization to be sold to the highest bidder, with a corporation's indifference to anything but the viability of the coinage. So, a plan is hatched between Lang and his cohorts and Pym and his daughter (Evangeline Lilly, who manages to make a great performance out of a part that is usually played mawkishly—one doesn't know if it's the part that is written well or just her playing of it that makes it exceptional)—who has managed to win the loyalty of the arrogantly sociopathic new head of Pym Labs (Corey Stall) to infiltrate the facility and keep the monopoly (so to speak).
It wouldn't be a good heist movie (as director Reed calls it) if everything went smoothly. It doesn't, but on a decidedly concentrated scale, albeit one that incorporates most of the cast. Where most superhero movies go global with city-wide destruction, crumbling sky-scarpers and flowering orange explosions, Ant-Man takes it small, which, at the least, is refreshing. It also pays off in wonderful perspective-based moments of comedy, of the like not seen since the "Men in Black" series. There's a giddy joy in Ant-Man, no matter how schizy the villains, no matter how "angsty" the drama, the filmmakers know that they're working with a superhero that is not all-powerful, and from the looks of it may be under a severe handicap. They then proceed to milk all the coolness from it, showing us the bizarre perspective of being the tiniest thing in the room, and having a great deal of fun with the yin-yang of POV.
One could quibble about that: how much of a threat could Thomas the Tank Engine be if the "Yellowjacket" can control his weight and density? And as soon as you ask that you realize that you're not having nearly as much fun as you should and probably should shut up and take the movie (and life) a little less seriously. It's enjoyable, and surprisingly enjoyable—which Marvel tends to do when the chips are down and they HAVE to make a hit against the odds—The Avengers (but not its sequel), Captain America: The First Avenger, and Guardians of the Galaxy). It is when they don't play it safe and go against the grain and the current trends for success that the studio has the best success. Artistically, anyway. And Ant-man is as entertaining as any of the movies that Marvel has produced.

That is no small feat.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: The Shawshank Redemption

The Set-Up: It's funny how humans can forget pain. If we didn't, every family would have but one child. The same can be applied to movies. Some movies are too painful to watch; they build such a nightmare scenario piling on indignity upon humiliation upon mental anguish and physical abuse, that when they achieve their epiphanic closure--when their inspiration works its magic--it makes the gauntlet the audience has run through disappear. We are left with the rosy glow of the satisfying ending, and not the trials it took to get there. There are a lot of movies like that: It's a Wonderful Life, The Nights of Cabiria, Schindler's List.

The Shawshank Redemption.

Steven King's original story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is a grinding test of a man's will, intelligence and tenacity after being railroaded into prison. It was nestled in King's novella collection "Different Seasons," under the sub-category "Hope Springs Eternal," and Darabont's expansion of the story piles on the heart-ache, but also magnifies the hope and makes its ending (unlike King's original) unambiguous. And for that, this relentlessly down-beat prison movie that tanked at the box office, achieved impressive numbers in the rental market, and is now considered "a Classic."

As it should be. But make no mistake that it's any sort of "feel-good" movie. The location that stands in for King's prison looks like a combination concentration camp and evil castle. Protagonist Andy Dufresne's time there is hellish, more so as he's always maintained his innocence ("There aren't any guilty men in prison" is the mocking reply) as he alternates between prison life and solitary confinement for his McMurphy-in-a-lower-key-defiances.

So, here's this scene, and I'm not letting any cats out of bags saying this is the last conversation between Andy and "Red" (the essential Morgan Freeman, who turns the line from the story into a laugh-line--"Why do they call you "Red?" "Maybe 'cuz I'm Irish."), and the conversation starts with a broken Dufresne admitting complicity in his wife's death—finally coming to accept some part in it all—and talking about his dream of life after prison in a place that "has no memory." "Red" tries to dissuade such wishful thinking. "Shitty pipe dreams," he calls it—which is more accurate than "Red," or anybody, can possibly know.

"A place with no memory." People forget the pain of this movie, and how tough it is to watch because of its exquisite ending. But I can't. I don't own The Shawshank Redemption (and for the same reason it took me a long time to watch The Green Mile—also a Darabont adaptation of a Steven King prison movie—and discovered that, yes, it had exactly the same pattern hoping maybe that lightning...might strike twice). As wonderful as the story is, I have a hard time watching it for its permeating despair.

But I like the sentiment of the end of the scene. Every day, we've all got a choice. To be or not to be. Time to choose.

The Story: Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a bank accountant, has spent the last twenty years in Shawshank Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover--murders he did not commit. Every indignity known to man has come down like a shit-storm around his head, but he's always managed to rise above and find the dignity again, and even instill it in his fellow prisoners. He has always held out the hope that one day he would be found innocent and released. Now, his last best hope, a prisoner who heard a jailhouse confession from the man who committed the crimes, has been killed by the warden and guards who are using Andy for a corruption scheme, and want his accountant skills at their disposal. He has just come out of a stint in solitary a broken man. He has lost his last best hope. But not his only hope. And as he says, he's a hard man to get to know. He keeps things hidden.


Andy: My wife used to say I'm a hard man to know.
Andy: Like a closed book. She used to complain about it all the time.
Andy: She was beautiful. God, I loved her. I just didn't know how to show it, that's all.
Andy: I killed her, Red.
Andy: I didn't pull the trigger. But I drove her away and that's why she died, because of me...
Andy: ...the way I am.
Red: That don't make you a murderer. Bad husband, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want to, but you didn't pull the trigger.
Andy: No, I didn't.
Andy: Somebody else did. And I wound up in here. (scoffs) Bad luck, I guess.
Red: Yeah.
Andy: Floats around. Gotta land on somebody.
Andy: Was my turn, was all.
Andy: I was in the path of the tornado.
Andy: Just didn't expect the storm to last as long as it has.
Andy: You think you'll ever get out of here?
Red: Me? Yeah, one day when I got a long white beard and two or three marbles rollin' around upstairs, they'll let me out.
Andy: Tell you where I'd go--
Andy: Zihuatenejo.
Red: Zihua...
Andy: Zihuatenejo.
Andy: It's in Mexico. A little place on the Pacific Ocean.
Andy: You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?
Red: No.
Andy: They say it has no memory. That's where I want to live the rest of my life.
Andy: A warm place with no memory.
Andy: Open up a little hotel, right on the beach. Buy some worthless old boat and fix it up new.
Andy: Take my guests out charter fishing.
Red: Zihuatenejo.
Andy: A place like that, I could use a man that knows how to get things.
Red: I don't think I can make it on the outside, Andy. I mean, I been in here most of my life. I'm an institutional man now...
Red: ...just like Brooks was.
Andy: Well, then, you underestimate yourself.
Red: I don't think so. I mean, in here I'm the guy who can get things for you, sure, but outside all you need is the Yellow Pages. Hell, I wouldn't even know where to begin. The Pacific Ocean?
Red: Shit, about scare me to death, something that big.
Andy: Not me. I didn't shoot my wife and I didn't shoot her lover. Whatever mistakes I've made, I've paid for them and then some. That hotel, that boat...
Andy: ...I don't think that's too much to ask.
Red: I don't think you ought to be doin' this to yourself, Andy. It's just shitty pipe dreams. I mean, Mexico is way the hell down there, and you're in here, and that's the way it is.
Andy: Yeah, right, that's the way it is. It's down there and I'm in here.
Andy: I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.
(Andy gets up, and starts to move away from Red, but Red, concerned by his words and attitude, calls to him)
Red: Andy...

The Shawshank Redemption

Words by Stephen King and Frank Darabont

Pictures by Roger Deakins and Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption is available on DVD from Sony Home Video.