Two more movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

Mad Max: Fury Road

Believe it or not, I’m new to the Mad Max franchise. Post-apocalyptic Earth movies are not exactly my favorite genre, although with rapid climate change they are looking more plausible. Mad Max movies are almost as old as Star Wars movies. The first one was released in 1979. All of them have director George Miller in common, although in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had George Ogilvie as a co-director. Thirty years between films is a long time, long enough that you have to be pretty old to have seen the earlier movies. In Mad Max: Fury Road we get something of a reboot. Mel Gibson, mostly an unknown before the first movie made him a star, showed up in the next two, but in this version Miller wisely decided that Gibson was just way too old, so he cast Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky instead. When you settle into your chair, you had best buckle your seatbelt tightly.

With so many action adventure movies made and on the market, it would be hard to pick the wildest of them all, but Mad Max: Fury Road would certainly compete well for the top of this heap. There is hardly a moment of calm in the whole frenetic movie. Shot in the Australian desert like I believe all of the previous films were, poor abused Max is one of many simply trying to survive. It’s unclear why he wants to survive, given the horror of this world, its lack of water, and the penchant of its citizens for war and bashing each other’s heads in. Max is so busy surviving that he doesn’t have time to tell anyone his name, particularly not Imperitor Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted confidant and commander of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls something of a dessert oasis where he sporadically releases deluges of water from his citadel for his dehydrated slaves. He also sends out war parties for his periodic battles. Sending out Imperitor Furiosa turns out to be a mistake as she is on a mission of escape to find the green land that she grew up in. Worse, she escapes with Joe’s prized and beautifully nubile five wives. Max comes along for the ride involuntarily because he is being tapped for his blood. Max manages to escape and joins Furiosa, while Immortan Joe follows in hot pursuit.

That’s pretty much the plot and while it’s not much of a plot it sure is entertaining as all get out. George Miller certainly knows how to direct action movies, and this one is definitely a tour de force of grit, gumption, violence, chaos and survival skills, all coherently packaged somehow in all its appalling horror. Most of us would prefer death to the lives that these people live, but not to worry, most will encounter death along the way. Part of the film noir of his franchise is this civilization’s ability to cannibalize auto parts from an older industrial age and create impressive and scary behemoths of belching automotive wonder, complete with a crazy guitar player on the lead vehicle channeling Black Sabbath as these battle groups move forward. It sure is weird and it sure is cool somehow.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling post-apocalyptic world, very well refined, but hard to turn away from. You won’t want to walk out of the theater during this movie, except possibly in horror or terror. Miller has lost none of his dubious gifts for this genre that he sort of invented. Having not seen the earlier movies, I can’t believe they are better. I think he has peaked and proven he is and probably always will be the master of this peculiar genre.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Mr. Holmes

Mad Max: Fury Road played pretty much everywhere, but this surprisingly engaging lightweight charmer was only available at the local arts theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mr. Holmes of course is Sherlock Holmes, previously of 221-B Baker Street, except this Holmes is 93 and nearing the end of a 35-year retirement in a modest country villa where he occupies his time caring for bees. There’s no one left alive that you will recognize: Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson are long in their graves, and Holmes is barely holding on and quickly losing his memory. Holmes, played by the master actor Ian McKellen, has been driven to visiting Japan in hopes of a potion that will help him recover his fading memory. For he very much wants to write down the details of his last case before he dies, the one that precipitated his retirement.

Unsurprisingly, McKellen does a great job playing an ancient looking Sherlock Holmes. The minimalist cast includes Laura Linney as the dowdy widowed Mrs. Munro, the housekeeper, and Milo Parker as Roger, her son, who takes an unusual interest in Mr. Holmes and his story. The plot frequently goes back to the past. We learn of the unusual events of his last case and his connection with the son of a British diplomat of Japanese ancestry. And there is something of an extra case to solve that you will discover toward the end involving the bees that Holmes and Roger take care of. In fact, the movie has something of a cliffhanger ending that ties things up rather nicely.

In short, Mr. Holmes is pretty good sleuthing, although it’s quite different than the sleuthing you are used to from Sherlock Holmes. Much of the movie focuses on his mental and physical decline. It brings some humanity to a man that is portrayed as too logical and smart to have passions and down to earth failings. It’s surprisingly engaging yet understated and deserves venues in more popular theaters. Marketers must have correctly judged there is not much of an appetite for a small film like this in the American public. It’s their loss.

3.3 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

Sherlock: The reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was part vampire. It seems that no matter what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did to get rid of him, the public demanded more Sherlock Holmes. So, following a tradition that would be repeated in movies and TV shows too numerous to mention, Sir Arthur was forced to reincarnate him, or at least explain why his certain death at Reichenbach Falls was not quite what it appeared. He had to keep inventing more stories of his famous detective to pay the bills and satisfy his fans, even though he was bored to tears with his character. Even turning him into an opium addict would not cool his readers’ ardor for Holmes.

Sir Arthur eventually met his maker but Holmes proved immortal. Sherlock Holmes books never go out of print. Most of his stories have been made into TV shows; many have been reprised in plays. There is probably no more frequently recurring character in the movies. Most fans would agree that no actor did a more memorable job of portraying Holmes than the late Jeremy Brett, who along with Edward Hardwicke (who sadly died last month) as his sidekick Dr. Watson acted in various BBC Sherlock Holmes series produced between 1984 and 1994. Real aficionados require a complete set of DVDs to enjoy over and over again.

No, you can’t kill Sherlock Holmes, just like you can’t seem to kill a vampire or Star Trek. You can’t kill their reincarnations either. Still, it’s getting harder and more expensive to do period Sherlock Holmes movies. Recreating a late 19th century London is expensive. So perhaps with the death of Edward Hardwicke the timing was right to reimagine Sherlock Holmes cast in modern times instead of the 19th century.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

That’s the premise behind Sherlock, a slim Sherlock Holmes series from the BBC now on its second season which is, in a word, terrific. Its limited availability here across the pond is probably inhibiting more widespread knowledge, as is its very limited “season” (three episodes each in 2010 and 2011). An actor with a name every bit as peculiar as Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, gets to create a modern day Sherlock Holmes at the same address of 221B Baker Street, with the same side kick Dr. Watson and the same landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). It’s just that it all takes place about a hundred or so years later. This reincarnation and modernization of Sherlock Holmes is strangely and unusually compelling and is in many ways better than the series featuring Jeremy Brett. Freed from its 19th century constraints, and a fifty-something version of Holmes (Cumberbatch is 34) we get a much more fun and in many ways more interesting interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

And strangely, it all works so very well. Lord of the Rings fans quickly forgave Peter Jackson for casting Frodo with an actor thirty years younger than the character in the books. You will quickly forgive creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for casting Cumberbatch as a younger version of Holmes, putting him in the modern day, and for removing his pipe (although he does wear three nicotine patches to get a similar high). Still, I do see similarities with the last BBC series. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Holmes is about thirty percent Jeremy Brett. There are times when watching him act that you see a younger Jeremy Brett. Like Brett’s interpretation of Holmes, this is not a detective who can stay for long in a stuffed chair. He is like a panther, constantly in motion, his mind always racing ahead of the rest of us. And he is completely comfortable with technology, with his smartphone ready at hand.

All the characters you have come to know and love are generally around, including his gifted brother Mycroft (who shows up in the first episode) and even the evil Moriarity (who shows up early, in episode three), but also Inspector LeStrade (Rupert Graves). Mrs. Hudson is a whole lot more fun than the dowdy lady who is usually portrayed as well. Perhaps the most welcome change in this recasting is with Dr. Watson, now a fully fleshed out human being played by Martin Freeman. This Dr. Watson is a war veteran too, but of the Afghan war, and navigates through London’s infamous fogs in a mental fog of his own. He’s not quite the starry-eyed intellectual lightweight that Sir Arthur portrays him, but a guy with issues whose life almost through happenstance gets wrapped around Sherlock Holmes. Holmes brings him some measure of the crazy excitement he found in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, this is principally a series about Sherlock Holmes and fans should not be the least bit disappointed by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the detective. It is every bit as good as Jeremy Brett’s but still distinctive and in many ways much more fun. Holmes’s sexual identity was always suspect. Cumberbatch portrays a Holmes more asexual than sexual; it’s just way down on his list of priorities. Besides, it seems there is no woman out there who can begin to keep up with him. When he is on a case minor matters like eating and sleeping simply recede.

If you have cable TV, there is a good chance you have BBC America as well. If so, check its schedule carefully so you can sample the series. Or throw caution to the wind and order its slim set of DVDs. Even if they can only produce less than a handful of new episodes per season, you will find them worth the wait. Sherlock transcends mere television. Whatever this reincarnation is, it is really, really good. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t drag yourself out of Edwardian England and enjoy this contemporary version.