Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the EXXXTREME Mysteryish Thing!

I miss mattes. There, I said it.

I remember seeing The Wizard of Oz and the matte of the Emerald City that Dorothy and her pals were dancing toward. I loved that matte. It was quite evident they were going to dance their way into a wall if they kept on, but the very principle was elegant storytelling, to me.

"This is the setting. We have painted it for you on plywood. We've done an excellent job, and we're going to throw it away after the shoot. Enjoy."

I loved the matte used in When Worlds Collide, too. The oncoming Alpha and Bronson Beta painted multiple times larger and larger and super-imposed over the foreground—sheer menace.

There's some great matte work in the 1979 Dracula by the master, Albert Whitlock, who did a lot with Hitch, the disaster movies of the '70s, and even the '80s-era Dune. The guy was genius with

Mattes used to be such a big deal, the Universal Studios tour—back when it was more tour and less amusement park—actually began with a display of a matte. I think it was of San Francisco. Gorgeous.

Mattes aren't used much any more. Instead, everything is 3D computer generated cityscapes. As a result, everything looks like freakin' Hogwarts. Mordor. Gotham. Fake. Comic-booky.

"But Blake," you say, "mattes were, like, the fake-est looking fake things evar!" Well, yeah, maybe the early ones, but I think they were simple and communicated clearly. The obsession over "fake" and "natural" is a dumb one. It's all fake.

But this CGI stuff isn't supposed to look fake. And CGI smoke, dust and fog particularly does to me. There's a scene in this movie where some mooring comes loose and smashes through the scenery. And whatever it smashes through leaves a kind of dusty haze. The same dusty haze you saw when the troll broke through the door in Mordor, or when the Quidditch ball breaks through some bleacher supports. Fake.

Why am I talking about mattes in a review of Sherlock Holmes? I guess because the computerized cityscape, with its computerized fog and smoke, looked fake to me. Also, mattes have about as much to do with this movie as this movie has to do with to Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.

Anyway, assuming you're not as big a dork as I—and, let's be honest, who is?—you're probably interested in other parts of the new Sherlock Holmes movie than set design and related special effects. And fortunately, the other parts are better.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the master detective this time. He looks not at all Holmesian, but that's okay, he's a good enough actor. Jude Law plays Watson, and I think that's one way the new version excels compared to most older ones. Nigel Bruce, who paired with Basil Rathbone in the classic '30s-'40s movies, tended to be a bit more bumbling, more comic relief, than the character in the stories, who was both tough and handsome.

The Boy really nails it, when he says if you're expecting an action-adventure movie, it's pretty good.

And it is. It's fun. It moves, mostly, with just a little bit of drag in the 2nd to 3rd act transition. And it's basically a buddy movie, with an aggressively modern sensibility applied to a stuffy old late Victorian tableau.

Director (and Madonna survivor) Guy Ritchie applies a mishmash of modern tropes to Holmes observational skills, making him somewhat reminiscient of TV characters like Adrian Monk or even Shawn Spencer of "Psych". Casual. A bit slovenly.

I found it didn't really fit with my idea of the character. Not that Holmes wasn't eccentric, but my memory of him is that of a gentleman without land. An aristocrat without money. A man who had used his skills to act as he felt a lordly person should, even though he didn't have the means.

But, okay. I wasn't expecting Basil Rathbone.

There is a sort of mystery here, though the whole thing is greatly informed by The Illusionist and The Prestige. There's the question of is it, or isn't it, supernatural, but you can't really have genuine supernatural elements in a Holmes story. The more the movie tries to convince you that it is supernatural, the more likely the final reveal is going to have a "Scooby Doo" feel to it.

But then, this isn't your momma's Holmes, or her momma's, or her momma's. So maybe they would ghost it up.

Not that you really care by the time Holmes explains everything at the end. It's an action movie. It's not like you're brooding over the meaning of the drop of blood on the transom nor the petals strewn mysteriously on the ledge.

Look, I did like it. But parts of it sort of irritated me, like the non-mattes, I guess because it didn't hang together for me in little ways. London didn't look quite right. Rachel MacAdams didn't seem quite English enough. Downy and MacAdams didn't seem to have any real chemistry. Hans Zimmer's score seemed a little clunky.

Also, it more than teases the sequel, which strikes me as a little presumptuous.

But these are minor irritations which may have drawn me out more than most viewers, due to my own prejudices rather than any real flaws in the movie. Like The Boy says, go in expecting a light action-adventure flick, and you'll have yourself a good time.


  1. I liked it better than I thought I was going to, from the trailer. Holmes as action hero? Too far from Doyle. But they managed to include the indoor target practice, and the cocaine.

    About "Rachel MacAdams didn't seem quite English enough." Her character, Irene Adler, is American, from New Jersey, according to Doyle.

    "Let me see!" said Holmes. "Hum! Born in New Jersey in the year 1858. Contralto—hum! La Scala, hum! Prima donna Imperial Opera of Warsaw—yes! Retired from operatic stage—ha! Living in London—quite so!" — from "A Scandal in Bohemia"

    so they got that bit right.

  2. I was disappointed that Holmes only strummed the violin. I had hoped he would pick up the bow. And baffled by "The Rocky Road to Dublin" over the credits. What's the relevance of Irish music to Sherlock Holmes? Though there was nice use of the Irish-style low-tuned tenor banjo in the score.

  3. Hector,

    But it seemed like she did have an accent sometimes. It just seemed fleeting, as did Downey's come to think of it.

    I think the absence of violin-bowing was, like much of the rest of the movie, a deliberate rejection of traditional film portrayals of Holmes.

    I was hot-and-cold on the score. Sometimes it seemed just right. Others it seemed clunky and ostentatious. Again, like the rest of the movie. Heh.


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