Tag Archives: Robert Downey Jr.

Side Comments for the Month V

Side Comments for the Month V

There are spoilers for Iron Man 3 and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in this post. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

Any excuse to use this photo is good enough for me. From Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

1. So I watched Iron Man 3 like the rest of the world. I liked it a lot and I found it superior to Iron Man 2. Then again, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite movies, so anything that teamed up Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. again was bound to hit my sweet spot.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 actually have many things in common: the seemingly pointless voiceover narration at the beginning, the red herrings, the lead character being a fish out of water, the holiday decorations, the bait-and-switch bad guys.

I read a few reviews online, and I can see how the film probably upsets some of the hardcore comic book fans. (I grew up reading more Uncanny X-men myself, and you cannot imagine my nerd rage with X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. So I can sympathize.)

I digress, though. As someone who likes Robert Downey Jr. and the film that revived his career, I am willing to cut Iron Man 3 some slack. It’s not The Godfather of superhero movies but it’s an above average popcorn film.

Incidentally, this may be the second time RDJ’s been handcuffed to a bed frame. He’s beginning to make a habit out of it.

 

"Did you ever try to do embroidery with a gun in your hand?" Mrs. Hudson is a woman to emulate.

2. For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I picked up the soundtrack, purely out of curiosity, from the classical music section of the Berkeley Public Library. I was actually looking for more Hans Zimmer when I found it. (Zimmer’s work on Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films—especially the main theme in “Discombobulate”—has been great music for writing.)

Since I liked the idea of song titles like “221B Baker Street”, “The Diogenes Club”, and “Watson’s Rage,” I gave The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a good listen and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot claim to be any sort of expert in musical matters, but this particular musical score pleases me. I’m terrible at identifying musical motifs and themes, but I have no problem picking out the Sherlock moments as it recurred throughout the entire CD.

 

3. Due to my enjoyment of the soundtrack, I did not hesitate to borrow the film when I found a copy at the Mechanics Institute.

I’m not sure if I liked Robert Stephens’s conventional interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. (I confess that the idea that he was Maggie Smith’s ex-husband fascinated me more.) Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson was uninspired but I attribute this to the writing. When he started ranting at Holmes—for having started a rumor that they were gay lovers just to be rid of a client—was hilarious. Too bad Watson wasn’t given more scenes like that.

The Holmes brothers having a "friendly" conversation.

The idea of a young-ish Christopher Lee as Mycroft Holmes just floored me. My mental image of Mycroft Holmes remains that of a rotund man with rosy cheeks, like Richard Griffiths or even G.K. Chesterton. Christopher Lee seems better suited to play Sherlock himself, which he has done so several times.

A lovely French actress named Geneviève Page played the main female client. She’s definitely a throwback to all the dainty damsels in distress who seek Holmes’s advice throughout the canon. It especially pleases me, for obvious reasons, that Billy Wilder did not name her character Irene Adler.

It’s just too bad that the central mystery was child’s play—some of the clues were just too obvious—and better editing would have fixed the pacing. Despite these complaints, I still finished watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes because the dialogue was incredibly witty. Bon mots were distributed equally among characters—even Mrs. Hudson got a couple of quips.

As it’s usually the case with non-canonical adaptations, I enjoyed this for its fannish interpretation. Billy Wilder’s take on Holmes’s sexuality and his gentlemanly reticence is totally in line with more contemporary revisions of Holmes. Laurie R. King’s version of Holmes, for instance, is that of a consummate Victorian gentleman—a man who would never take advantage of a woman, even a naked amnesiac spy.

Maybe in the future, I will tackle the Basil Rathbone DVDs and content myself with Holmes vs. Nazis. When I think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s penchant for secret societies and the footprints of gigantic hounds, I can’t really fault Billy Wilder for writing Holmes vs. the Loch Ness Monster. It actually makes sense… at least, more sense than Nazis.

My overall verdict: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is flawed but interesting. The music makes all the difference. Check it out if you can find it.

My, my. This has been a very Sherlockian entry, hasn’t it?

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

Movie poster from Icon Productions.

Some say that Robert Downey Jr.’s 2003 film The Singing Detective is better left forgotten. I have to disagree with that assessment. It is an interesting failure, as only a film with gratuitous sex, cheesy musical numbers, and a sprinkling of seething anger can be put together to make a whole. Several times while watching I tried to shut it off but I couldn’t. It made me think so much my head hurt.

Based on the beloved British series starring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, a badass detective?), the movie is one hot mess, but that’s pretty much the point of the exercise.

Downey plays two men in the film: one is a swaggering ‘50s gumshoe and the other is the bedridden, bitter writer who created him. The film starts with the vicious killing of a prostitute who is drowned in a bathtub.

Who is the woman? What does she know? As the film unfolds, at first it seems there is one central mystery. Then the clues begin to pile up and an overwhelming feeling of bafflement sets in. Is the writer so sick that he can’t tell reality from pulp fiction? Is he remembering the novel he wrote or is he living it? Is the murdered woman merely a memory of his mother or is it wish-fulfillment regarding the fate of his estranged wife?

I wish I knew. The film certainly doesn’t. I wonder if digging out the original series would help answer some of these questions, but my gut tells me the unsettled feeling will only get worse.

A promotional still from Almega Projects and Native Voice Films.

The 2011 film The Bengali Detective, oddly enough, continues with the merry disarray that The Singing Detective started in my head. As a documentary, one might expect it to be dark and gritty, and nothing more. Reality, however, likes to surprise the genre-savvy.

The Bengali Detective follows the life of Rajesh Ji, the head of the Always Detective Agency. He’s a simple, kind man, who loves his wife and child and treats his employees with paternal affection. He likes to sing duets with his wife, and for relaxation he and his employees try to shimmy to the latest Bollywood dances. So yes, just like The Singing Detective, there are dance numbers in this one, too. Sometimes it seems like a detective’s life is all fun and games.

The three cases we are allowed to see, however, are not of the heartwarming sort. A young man needs to know who murdered his cousin and his cousin’s two best friends. A middle-aged woman, physically and emotionally abused, needs proof of her husband’s infidelities in order to move on with her life. A local manufacturer of hair products demands to find the sellers and source of counterfeits.

The Always Detective Agency relies on its men to get to the facts, which they manage to do for most part. The murder case, however, is beset by tremendous hurdles, including a missing witness and suspects who are on the run. They become preoccupied with proving motive, since most of the physical evidence are in the hands of the police. The official police are portrayed as bureaucratic and unhelpful: they don’t want to give any of their information away, even if they don’t seem to be solving the case themselves.

That the bodies of the three men were found by the railway tracks might stink of red herring to a mystery fan (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, anyone?). Of course it is highly possible that they did die there, but not even this angle can be fully explored. It’s a bit frustrating for the viewer.

So, does the agency catch the unfaithful husband, the hair product fakers, and the murderer? Sort of. Only one case is fully resolved. The Bengali Detective ends on several notes for everyone involved—for the people who hired the agency to the detectives themselves. Distrust, resignation, and hope all abound.

Personally, I’m curious to see what the feature film adaptation of The Bengali Detective will be like. Will it leave many things open-ended, or will it go for absolute closures? I guess I’ll have to wait for 2014.

 

Some friends might be wondering why I’m bothering to review these two films together. Thematically, they stand together in my mind as deconstructions of my favorite genre. There are other detective films that may be more brilliant and satisfying, but I would probably have less to say about them. Enamored as I am with Golden Age mysteries, these films serve as a reminder that the genre has shifted, in so many crazy ways, since Dupin and Holmes were first written.

I cannot recommend these films, good and flawed as they are, to whodunit fans who demand justice and a neat tying up of loose ends. These films will only infuriate and frustrate anyone seeking quick catharsis. To anyone who wants to experience films that mirror, as closely as possible, the mystery of living, then these films might just fit well.

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

A slightly different version of this entry originally appeared on my old blog on January 6, 2010.

This review has some mild spoilers. To read them, highlight the invisible text with your mouse. 

 

I’ve been waiting since summer, with equal parts of excitement and trepidation, for the new Sherlock Holmes film. I saw the trailer months ago and I was aghast. I was quivering with fear and excitement.

Yes, I love Guy Ritchie’s first two films, and I worried about this complete stranger when he got married to Madonna. Yes, I like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law a lot, but they are not the first actors to come to my mind when I think of Holmes and Watson. So there was a lot of fangirl hand-wringing on my part.

Months ago, I made a pact with two other Sherlockian friends to watch the film so we could bash it apart together. I was even prepared to do this: I had re-read through two-thirds of Leslie S. Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and stopped with the less-than-stellar stories in “The Casebook.”

Alas, that pact remained unfulfilled. Right now, TJ is in Manila, I’m visiting the US, and Rain is marooned somewhere in the Middle East. I had to watch this film by myself.

What can I say? After trying to zero out all expectations, I was actually pleasantly surprised. After hemming and hawing about it, I have now accepted that I like it. And yeah, I’d probably watch it again.

A tiny screen capture of Sherlock Holmes. A Warner Bros. image.

There, I said it. Let all the purists wring my neck. There’s something about this adaptation that reviewers either violently love it or hate it. I think I’m one of the few who like it with some reservations, but even saying so will definitely result in some violent reactions. Whatever.

Why do I like it? I appreciate all the little details that show that the filmmakers did their research, down to the obvious bits like Holmes never wearing a deerstalker and not saying “Elementary, dear Watson.” I appreciated the more subtle bits, like Holmes shooting V.R. (Victoria Regina) into his apartment wall, the existence of Watson’s long-suffering bull pup, Mrs. Hudson and the Baker Street Irregulars making an appearance, and the detailed explanations behind each deduction. Yes, Holmes was a pugilist and a master of martial arts. These details are all true to the short stories and the novellas. Hell, even bits of dialogue are lifted directly from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like Holmes yelling “data, data, I can’t make bricks without clay!”

I even like their theory on why Holmes would let Watson pack the gun. This is one of the few mysteries in the Doyle stories I feel is never satisfactorily resolved.

What I didn’t appreciate, though was the obvious toying with fans. There are old fans who have argued this question to death, and there will be new fans who will argue it out all over again: Holmes/Watson or Holmes/Irene Adler?

Crazy people on the internet argue about stupid things like this, and I feel that this film was trying to please both the straight and the yaoi fanbases, and failed miserably. I read somewhere that the filmmakers wanted to highlight Victorian homo-eroticism and the gay reading of the Holmes/Watson relationship. If that was so, why is so much time dedicated to Adler in final cut? Did they chicken out at the last minute?

I’m only going to shout this once, but here goes: GUY RITCHIE, YOU TROLL. I’M GLAD YOU RECOVERED FROM YOUR MARRIAGE TO MADONNA, BUT REALLY, YOUR FILM WILL FEED THE SHIPPER SHARKS FOR YEARS.

I guess the guy doesn’t realize that people have been arguing about Holmes’s sexuality since Reichenbach. Hmm.

The film does have some warts, though. I got the feeling that Robert Downey Jr. didn’t have the time to learn the violin, and that aspect of Holmes’s was served up to the comedy gods. I felt that Watson’s limp wasn’t convincing (then again, Watson in the stories couldn’t remember if he was shot in the leg or shoulder…) I wish they used some other plot other than Evil Secret Society Wants to Rule the World, but evil secret societies are a favorite with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Perhaps my only real complaint about the movie is that it rips off Fullmetal Alchemist. The moment Holmes drew a pentagram on the floor with chalk, I was thinking, “Edward Elric, here we come!” The murders, the map, the alchemy symbolism, the need for five sacrifices… ah, I believe I’ve seen that all before. I’m definitely giving Fullmetal Alchemist too much credit here—they obviously drew on the same sources for inspiration—but still. A few plot twists would have been refreshing.

But that’s the problem with adaptations, right? That there’s little breathing space for originality while dealing with such a well-loved character?

Holmes himself would think it’s a three-pipe problem.