Friday, March 29, 2013

In-Class Movie: "Silver Blaze" (1977)

“But there goes the bell, and as I stand to win a little on this next race, I shall defer a lengthy explanation until a more fitting time.”
--Sherlock Holmes, “Silver Blaze”

Austin: For many years I only saw Christopher Plummer as a smiley actor. In The Sound of Music and The Return of the Pink Panther he displayed authority, but even when the character wasn't supposed to I saw him as a very warm figure. Now late in his career, I find him to be a much more complex actor where he can play the lead in "The Tempest" or Tolstoy in The Last Station, a cold businessman in Inside Man and his Oscar winning tragic performance in Beginners.

I was very excited to see how he would play Sherlock Holmes because when this was filmed it was right in the middle of those two eras of his career. The result is, oddly, as if Plummer was standing with one foot on either side of the line. On one hand, he is dressed and told to act like the developed iconic look of Sherlock Holmes. He's wearing the coat, the hat and if he isn't speaking he is probably smoking out of a sophisticated looking pipe.

Then on the other hand, this is a darker take on Sherlock that really doesn't match his costume. When he reads the seemingly endless montage of newspaper articles about a missing horse and murdered trainer, Sherlock's only reaction is to crumble up the newspaper to suppress his rage. From that, there isn't a moment to introduce our hero or Watson they have to get into town immediately in order to stop such evil. 

Damn this Sudoku, DAMN DAMN.

Yet despite this is only a 30-minute TV movie, that rage doesn't hold. For near the end once Sherlock has figured it out, he is a bit giddy as he is keeping his discovery a secret. Then when he reveals everything, his eyes become darker once again. After he's completed his voice-over where the film shows what happened, he's back to laughing and having a glee towards mystery and dismissal towards the police.

Part of this will come down to the very strange filmmaking, but as Christopher Plummer's first time as the great did he do? And trust me, we'll get to the rest of the movie. 

Leigh: My only experience with Christopher Plummer is from The Sound of Music and I only saw that for the first time maybe 4 years ago. (Side note: We have a friend of the family who we call Grandma Arnold for reasons that my mother has told me numerous times but I can never remember, who has made it her life mission to not watch The Sound of Music. She's in her 60's and she said at this point it's just impressive that she hasn't seen it.) To me, he's stern, but as you said, warm. He has a great combination that all movie dads should have. 

This movie was...interesting. I felt as if Plummer was told to do one thing but really wanted to do another. There are moments in the short film that seem like he's playing two different characters almost or like Sherlock Holmes is legitimately crazy and suffering from sort of personality disorder. One moment he's brooding like we seen when he doesn't have a case and then the next minute he's giggling like an Anime schoolgirl. There are two fighting forces here either the director and the script, director/actor, director/director, director/studio, something that just isn't making a consistent role for Plummer to play.

Austin quickly Googled "Sherlock Holmes anime" and refused to search deeper for a crazier photo.

Plummer playing this role though, no matter how schizophrenic it might be, was amazing. When he was brooding, he was the broodiest brood that ever did brood and when he was playful he was childlike. He did these two extremes very well and sadly, made the whole movie watchable.

So what about the rest of the movie? How about the weird mood music? And can we agree that we need to see Nick Offerman as Watson now since the actor who played Watson in this adaptation looked EXACTLY like him!

Austin: I forgot to mention this, but yes I thought Christopher Plummer was good! He's an actor who naturally displays a high level of authority, which could just be because I saw Sound of Music a lot as a kid to the point where I still respond to whistles.

Okay, yes Nick Offerman looked a lot like this Watson, but you know that it would be more interesting to see his Sherlock Holmes. Never before has the great detective said so little words. The Watson didn't make too much of an impression on me because he just looked around a lot and occasionally commented on a knife. Yet I couldn't help but notice that he also looked like Nigel Bruce. Once again, they were playing upon a popular image of what Sherlock Holmes was in the 70s.

At every moment the film was trying to pretend to be what had happened before, but with an extra layer of edginess. Things are filmed in weird close-ups and the camera shakes a bit to add another level of danger. The grittiness is constrained by an obviously low budget, but it's also constrained by them never properly telling the story. Our exposition was that silly newspaper montage, but those headlines are repetitive. The only information we get is that a horse is missing and a man is dead. No other set-up. Then everything else is done so quickly as if everyone's running around saying "We only have 30 minutes! We only have 30 minutes!" Which could be more than enough time. Veronica Mars episodes are 42 minutes and they always have a subplot which fills that time.

Hey Plummer, ever just think about having the background move faster instead of the foreground? Xoxo
So there is not any character development for anyone but Sherlock. There is not the fun sense of location that I was hoping for when we reviewed the short story earlier in the week. Even the famous line "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" was shortened to "the curious incident of the dog." By the time we get to the staple of TV mysteries, the a-ha, I struggled to remember when a lot of those things were introduced in this version. The short film was going so much for unfulfilled style in order to hopefully be picked up for more films, it forgot to tell any sort of story.

Am I being too harsh? I don't really hate hate this movie, it's just so darn bizarre.

Leigh: In defense of the movie, "curious incident of the dog in the nighttime" might not have been as popular in the 1970s as it is now since there is a novel named after it. I could be wrong seeing as we are talking about a quote in a movie that was made 10+ years before I was born. 

Watson didn't do much in this short film but I put that on the fact that everything else seemed so rushed. They were trying to hurry everything along so much that there really wasn't time to breathe between lines. The fact that Watson sat in the background like an extra was annoying since he contributes quite a bit in this actual story. But here we just have a Nigel Bruce/Nick Offerman doppelgänger standing around looking stern all the time. 

I was disappointed in the location of the filming too. England is known for its landscape and what we got looked like someone's farm just on the edge of town, far enough away from the city but close enough that they could go to the cinema if they wanted. I wanted rolling heather moors like are in the story but at one point the are standing what looks like a mud patch. Nothing was pretty or even breathtaking. It was bland and boring. Maybe they couldn't afford on location filming but Monty Python did it for Holy Grail, I don't see why these guys couldn't do it either. (Anyone who is a Monty Python fan, I recommend watching the Making Of documentary that is on the Holy Grail DVD. Michael Palin and Terry Jones to back to the locations they filmed and whine about how awful it was to film.)

We're probably judging this too harshly because of what else we've seen that was made before this one that was done so much better. It probably isn't THAT bad. It is weird and kooky but not bad. 

Next time we see Sherlock Holmes do absolutely nothing and no one is murdered. It's actually more entertaining than it sounds!

And now Austin Lugar for the final word...

Austin: Neigh!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Report: "Silver Blaze" (Doyle, 1892)

“Tuesday evening!” I exclaimed. “And this is Thursday morning. Why didn’t you go down yesterday?”
“Because I made a blunder, my dear Watson—which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs.”
--Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

Leigh: When I first started reading this story again, I thought, "I wish I knew something about horse racing." When I was done reading the story I though, "I STILL wish I knew something about horse racing."

The good thing about this mystery though is that while horse racing is a good portion of it, the story can still be enjoyed by those who know nothing about horse racing. When it gets to the race, just go make a cup of tea and come back when it's all over.

They don't even know what's going on. It's all about their bloody hats with this lot...

I have to admit that I think that this is a pretty clever mystery. We have another dead body and a suspect and a missing horse and yet the murderer isn't who you would think it is. It's also possibly the best example of the audience and Sherlock Holmes getting the same set of clues to solve the mystery but not necessarily coming to the same conclusion. The first time I read this story, I definitely didn't think that, of all people (or lack there of) the horse did it. And I certainly couldn't figure out the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. So what? It's a dog. If it were a Disney film, the dog and the horse would've been best friends and the dog would've gone to save the horse. But aside from that possibly animated adventure, the dog doesn't seem to be THAT important until Holmes explains it all. Of course, it could just be me being thick and not getting it. That has been known to happen. I also think that this is one of the more lighthearted mysteries. I mean, sure a man dies in it, but he was having an affair and spending way too much money on a woman who wasn't his wife and he wanted to injure a prize-winning horse so he kinda deserved it. It's more lighthearted to me because Holmes seems more playful. I can just picture him and Watson walking across the moors and Holmes smirking during the race when he knows for a fact that the missing horse isn't missing. It could easily be made into a Disney movie if the dead guy just got injured and then repented for his affair. 

I love that we have character development. The characters of Watson and Holmes aren't always the most detailed characters but Watson shows that he is learning from being Holmes' companion when they are on the train. Watson doesn't just let Holmes go off on his tangents but he asks questions that are relavent to the mystery. 

So what do you think about this mystery? Lighthearted or cold blooded murder? Disney potential or Season 3 of Sherlock material?

Austin: I'm excited for our review later in the week when we're going to watch a short film adaptation of this story starring Christopher Plummer. Due to the nature of the horse-racing world, that has a certain cinematic value beyond just another dead body somewhere in the UK.

Also because this story was all about the location. It was all about the particulars about what happened at the barn, whether doors were locked, whether dogs barked and where that damn horse went. Even the most amusing bit involved Sherlock knowing the speed of their ride by knowing the distance between telegraph poles. It was all about the detail and order of which things happened. I could easily see Benedict Cumberbatch retreating to his mind palace or walking through a frozen crime scene with Irene Adler by his side. That seemed more plausible than a Disney dog film. A dog and a horse being friends? Don't be ridiculous.

On the other hand, this is a cinematic masterpiece.

I really liked the structure of this story because it seemed to move faster than some of his other stories. There was a nice little psych out around the 2/3rd mark where it seemed like the story was over with a traditional outcome before Sherlock makes his famous comment about the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time"--the title of one of my favorite books. Then like a lot of the best Doyle stories, it never overstays its welcome. This one is such a wonderfully abrupt ending, Sherlock basically drops mic and walks away with the line "If you care to smoke a cigar in our rooms, Colonel, I shall be happy to give you any other details which might interest you."

By the way, should we be trying to notice any differences between the stories in Adventures and the stories in Memoirs? Or are they just packaging?

Leigh: I thing the obvious difference is that it does end differently than most. Adventures, you know what is going to happen when. There's going to be an opening scene, there's the presentation of the mystery, then Holmes says, "Hmm. Indeed." and goes off and figure out the mystery and then there's the reveal. So far (we only have one story but) there is a difference with the formatting at least. The opening scene is between Holmes and Watson and them sharing a moment about a mystery that's in the newspapers and then Holmes and Watson go on location. I think because we aren't stuck in the house as soon as we start reading, the story does seem to move faster. Having a huge middle bit that is the collecting of clues also tends to bog it down but this one Holmes walks into the story knowing most of the clues. I do really enjoy the structure of this one a lot. It shook things up a bit which, when dealing with crime and mysteries, especially television versions, seems to be neigh impossible (get it? I like my pun. I didn't even come up with it because I'm terrible at puns but I felt we needed to have at least one horsey joke in here). Now we just have to see if ACD keeps it up for the rest of the book.

I love it when Holmes is a smart ass. I feel like his mic drop exit was him being a smart ass. You can tell that he didn't like the Colonel and for good reason because he wasn't a likable character. He was pompous because of a horse's talent. It wasn't even something he did, he just happened to own the really successful horse. He wasn't the jockey either so he couldn't make that claim. All he could do is stand there and say, "But I OWN that horse." Holmes is someone who respects talent and owning horses is no more a talent than being super rich is a superpower. (Yeah, I said it. Wanna fight about it?) Holmes knows that if he is obvious about his criticism, then the Colonel will just get angry and storm off but being subtle about it not only gets his jab in but reaffirms that Holmes is the superior man in this situation even if he doesn't win a prize winning horse.

What do you think? Is Holmes showing his superiority to a pompous man or is he being a jerk? Or perhaps both? Can we fault him though?

Austin: First off, Batman is also a world trained ninja as well as super rich. I'd say that combo makes you more of a superhero than the ability to talk to fish.

Sherlock Holmes should always be a smart ass. The way his world sees him is isolating, but he isn't moody about it. He embraces and admires his own intelligence, thus his ridiculous mystery solving business which we're still not sure if he ever is properly paid for any of these crimes. So if I'm going to make a comparison to Doctor Who (which I haven't done for months, by the way), I'm happy that he's more of a Jon Pertwee than David Tennant. This arrogance allows for an expectation from the audience for him to be able to solve the incredible crimes in an efficient way while also allowing for shocking characterizations that don't distract from that mystery. His rational mind juxtaposed with a complex culture leads to great moments like him keeping a murderer's secret and his relationship with authority. 

How do you reverse the polarity of the neutron flow? My dear Jo Grant, this is elementary.

To properly answer your question, he is being a jerk and that makes him a greater, richer character. In a few days we'll see how Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Beginners) interprets that cocky behavior with the 30 minute film Silver Blaze, which you can watch on YouTube here.

And here is Leigh Montano with the last word/pun...

Leigh: I bet our readers are champing at the bit for our next post! THANK YOU! I'll be here all week! 

Friday, March 22, 2013

In-Class Movie: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes has achieved public renown through a series of stories which, though gaudy and sensational, are based at least partly on truth.”
--Anthony Horowitz, “The House of Silk”

Austin: All right. Time to review one of the big Sherlock Holmes adaptations. As we continue to tease our eventual reviews of BBC's Sherlock, let's look at how Hollywood handled the material. Guy Ritchie is a director known for his gritty British crime movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After a couple of flops, he teamed up with a major studio to make this $90 million tentpole action movie.

This movie doesn't have the raw style of his early films, but as a routine thriller it does have a few fun visual touches in during its large action stunts which involve our heroes running through elaborate sets and avoiding giant obstacles. But when there are a few people talking about the mystery in a room, then it seems like Guy Ritchie took a nap and said "Just point the camera at the face that's talking. Let me know when it's time to blow stuff up."

The reflection on the visual enthusiasm matches the audience's reaction to the rest of the movie. There isn't any cleverness in the mystery; none of the characters are that smart and nothing really is that consistent. If Sherlock Holmes could use his genius deductions to predict the next five moves of a fistfight, why can't he run a foot to the left when a barrel is thrown at him from several feet away?

And yet...dammit, the fight scenes are a lot of fun, especially the one at the docks in the middle of the movie.

"Watson, what have you done? And when I ask that, please, keep in mind I avoided the obvious fart joke."

So does this work as a summer action movie (that came out during the also profitable Christmas season) and does it work as a Sherlock Holmes movie? 

Leigh: First, Mark Strong makes a great bad guy. He has that low, gravely bad guy voice down. He should play every bad guy.

Second, we should try to make "boy-o" a thing... Along with "fetch." 

"Fetch it, boy-o."

Guy Ritchie likes his boxing scenes doesn't he? I'm a huge fan of Guy Ritchie. I really enjoy his grittiness that he is known for and that his take on Sherlock Holmes definitely doesn't lack that dirt. One problem with period movies is that they tend to romanticize things and if there is one thing that is always left out of movies about Victorian London is how absolutely filthy it was. A quickly industrializing city without any sort of environmental regulations tends to lead to smog, fog and dirt all over. Ritchie got that grim and showed it. 

As I've said before, this was my first real introduction to Sherlock Holmes. For anyone who wants a good introduction, I think this movie might be it. It is exciting enough to keep your attention but "brainy" enough to stay interesting when there isn't a fight going on. Sure, the mystery isn't that exciting or complex but it does have its twists and turns and isn't THAT predictable. 

After studying Sherlock Holmes as much as I have, the one opinion I have that hasn't changed and that's the actors’ portrayal of these characters. Robert Downey Jr. is really good at playing a half-cracked genius (almost like he's had some practice at it) and this is Jude Law's best role. These two together have a fine bromance and show the relationship between Holmes and Watson really well. Watson is more of Holmes' equal and Holmes is lost without his Watson, as it should be. I'm not a fan of Rachel McAdams but then again, I'm not a fan of Irene Adler's role in this movie at all. I'm a firm believer that Adler and Holmes are not romantically linked but this movie insists on it. The movie wouldn't work without her role unfortunately and it also wouldn't have been so popular without the sexy love interest. 

Overall, it's a thoroughly enjoyable action movie. I still enjoy watching it every once in a while.

So now that we've dissected the director, the actors and the looks of it, what about the actual mystery? What do you think of how the audience is given the clues? And where do I know that gypsy woman from?

Austin: Mark Strong is great. I forget what critic said it when the movie came out, but I agree in thinking I would like to see his Sherlock Holmes.

"This should have been my movie.....And if everything goes according to plan, it will be again."

Well this movie was a mixture of muddy London and Hollywood perfect London. Couldn't help but notice that our heroes always had sparkling white teeth--except for when they were in an elaborate disguise. Yet I did enjoy the production design of the places mixed with their use of mud.

My problem with the mystery isn't that it's predictable, it's that it's unsolvable and always feels like an afterthought. Barely a spoiler: Mark Strong doesn't die in the first act. Near the end they bother to explain how he escaped dying at the noose. It was a two step process: One involved information that the audience never had any privilege to and the other step involved a concoction from an exotic country that may as well have been called a magic potion. The whole movie we know it's Mark Strong. It's almost impossible to care about how he's doing anything. It seems like the real mystery element of the movie is: "Did Hollywood really add black magic to the plot or is that a hoax?" Seeing how they handle beloved properties, that question really could have gone either way.

Yet with my general problems with the script and its structure, the stars make this movie. Robert Downey Jr. is a wonderful Sherlock because he, once again, finds his own take on it. The movie's take is an action film, but Downey Jr.'s take is a charming child. He can't take care of himself, he's silly and curious. So in that regard, Watson is less of an equal and more of a friendly caretaker. I've never seen an adaptation where Watson had so little patience for Sherlock and that comes down to living so long with such an immature roommate. It's unsettling to see Watson so annoyed with Sherlock for the duration, but it's fun because Jude Law is as charming as Robert Downey Jr. Their humor together makes this an easily rewatchable film, despite its flaws.

And then Rachel McAdams has a flat performance because the character is written so poorly. I'm fine with them being romantic; I'm not fine with Sherlock in love with such a dull and boring character especially after so much dialog saying she is the opposite. We never get to see her be devious and cunning because she is under the control of Moriarty the entire time. It's hard to tell that this character ever outsmarted Sherlock in anything, which is too bad because I like Rachel McAdams and if she had a better script I bet she could have pulled it off. (Everybody watch Slings and Arrows on Netflix!)

And I know the gypsy woman best from the lovely Alan Parker movie The Commitments.

Am I being too harsh on the plot or are there things to save from it? Keep in mind this is a plot I watched closely yesterday and may have forgotten all over again. It has something to do with explosions...


Now that you mention it, it does seem like the movie is confused as to whether or not the magic is real. I think that most of the movie, it wants you to think that this black magic stuff is real but then in the last five minutes, it says that it isn't without really giving a good explanation as to why it isn't. I'm okay with magic in movies, hell, I love the Harry Potter movies (3, 5-7.2. 4 can go jump off of a cliff), but those movies have a set of rules and follows them (most of the time). This movie tries to make a universe where magic is a possibility and then shrugs it off and ignores it. And I don't think that a Sherlock Holmes and the Magical Wizard of Little Whinging would be out of place. ACD spent a good portion of his later years exploring the possibility of magic being real and chasing faeries. So I don't think that ACD would roll in his grave at the idea, but in this movie and this universe, it feels about as natural as a giraffe in a scuba suit.

I've only seen Rachel McAdams in three roles: this, The Notebook (I was forced to watch it) and Mean Girls. I only liked her in one of these roles and if you guessed Mean Girls then you are right. (I regularly say, "Boo, you whore!") There is a difference between a great actress and a great actress when she has a good script/part/director. This might be controversial, but I don't think that Natalie Portman is that great of an actress. My evidence being that in the Star Wars movies, she was god-awful. Sure, most of the actors in that movie were god awful but you know who wasn't? Ewan McGregor and that's because he is a damn good actor. When Portman has a great script and/or director, she is wonderful but the rest of the time she is meh. Good actors will take what they're given and work with it even if it's a few scribbles on a cocktail napkin. (I have gotten completely off subject here. Where was I?)

"I'm like totally a world-class criminal, like for realz."

The plot is perfect for the movie that it was in. It wasn't trying to be an art film or even an independent film, it was a blockbuster from the get go. The large budget with huge stars shows that. They have to appeal to the lowest common denominator and since that's pretty low in the US, they had to appeal to that, hence the over abundance of explosions and fires and seemingly unprovoked fights with giant Frenchmen. As a friend of mine says, this movie entertains the stupid-monkey part of my brain. When I want to think or be moved or be inspired, I am not going to watch this, but when I want something fun and with characters that I know and love already, I'm going to pop it in the Blu-Ray player. (My copy is on Blu-Ray and if I had more time I would've checked out all of the special features but I didn't even know they existed until last night. There are A LOT of them though if you're in to that sort of thing.)

Next time we go to see a man about a horse!

And now Austin Lugar with the final word…

Austin: Depravity!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Extracurricular Reading: "The House of Silk" (Horowitz, 2011)

“Holmes, you insist upon seeing yourself as a machine,” I laughed. “Even a masterpiece of impressionism is to you nothing more than a piece of evidence to be used in the pursuit of a crime. Perhaps an appreciation of art is what you need to humanize you.”
--Dr. John Watson, The House of Silk

Leigh: I was skeptical when I started this book. My mom and I share a lot of habits and one of them is the tendency to overhype things. "This movie is the best movie ever when in actuality it's a B+ at best." So when she spent months telling me about this book and how great it was and how much I'd like it, I'll admit, I was skeptical. I got this book for Christmas after hearing about it for months from my mom. She heard an interview on NPR with Anthony Horowitz and couldn't stop talking about it. For. Months. So when I finally sat down and read it I was surprised. I couldn't put it down. I read it in one sitting. That isn't something I do very often. I'm sitting at about 60 pages in on three different books right now. But House of Silk? Single serving size.

It did so many things right. It got the right tone, it got the characters down completely, the writing style was spot on. I forgot numerous times that it wasn't written by Doyle. Was the mystery predictable? A little especially with the introduction that the aged Watson wrote. The final twist though got me. I didn't expect that. Was it still enjoyable to go exploring with Sherlock Holmes? Absolutely. Horowitz did a great job of giving the reader all of the same clues that Holmes had which I think is the most important thing about having a successful mystery (this is of course my opinion and I am by no means an expert on mysteries like you). One of the things we've critiqued about Elementary especially, is that the audience isn't given the same clues as Holmes so solving the puzzle seems to be pulled out of mid air. Horowitz did a very good job at not doing that. Another thing that Horowitz does that reminded me of Doyle SO much was the seemingly unimportant tangent. There is a whole chapter towards the beginning about this characters time in America and I admit that I was waiting for the point to this side story and when the character was done telling it, there didn't seem to be a point. We don't find out the purpose for the story until the end of the novel! If that isn't something Doyle would do, I don't know what is.
I loved this book but am I giving it too much praise? Was the Doyle Foundation wrong in giving this a stamp of approval? And did you keep picturing Mark Gatiss as Mycroft throughout the book, because I totally did.

Austin: First of all, this is my fault for the week delay. I tried to get all of my work done before my week off, but I failed. I apologize. You may all write me angry responses in the comment section that I will appropriately bury deep into my psyche.

Anywho, this book rocked. I'm not the most familiar with Anthony Horowitz's work. I read the first couple of Alex Ryder books when I was younger but don't remember that much about them besides thinking "Maybe this should be funnier?" But that's my criticism for almost everything.

You're absolutely right. This really felt like it was written by Doyle, even right down to that long flashback chapter (that still was still too long). One of the things that felt really authentic was that during the exciting action portions, especially near the end, it managed to have the same delicate pacing that "Watson" usually provides without ever undercutting the adventure. While I didn't feel this was a one-sitter; I was completely hooked for the second half. Also I did imagine Mark Gatiss as Mycroft, especially during their AMAZING rapid-fire observation duel.

"The House of Silk is like nothing you've seen before. It's like a.....League of Gentlemen."

By allowing this longer story, which was just under 300 pages in hardcover, we get a better sense of Watson who really feels like the book's main character. Especially with Sherlock....out of the room for a good portion of the second half. One of the things that was really stressed was Watson's role as the biographer more than anything else. It's always been something that Watson has valued in himself, but this story brought others using that to determine how they see Sherlock Holmes through the novel's twists. One mysterious character is even very envious of Sherlock's opportunity to have a biographer.

Leigh, there are so many ways we can show how this book is similar to Doyle's canon. What were some of the ways that Horowitz changed--or DARE I SAY--improved upon the stories we have been reading? Also should this book have been funnier?

Leigh: Every book should always be funnier. Every book. Yep, even that one.

I think the overall seriousness of this mystery was much more than any of the Doyle stories. I know this is mainly because of time but one thing I feel with Doyle's stories is that they aren't that serious. We have the playful ones that are just that but when there is a matter of life and death or someone has been murdered, it just feels like, "Oh. Well. He is dead. That's too bad. Cuppa?" There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency a lot of the time when Doyle is recounting a tale of murder and mayhem. Horowitz made me sit on edge as I read through the mystery and made it seem more than just a mystery but also a thriller in some parts. When Holmes' life is on the line, you get the sense of urgency that Holmes should be feeling. Maybe I'm not reading through the layers of Victorian Era innuendo but I just feel like Doyle can miss out on this excitement sometimes.

I love how Watson was written in this novel. That is probably the thing that sold me on this book. Watson was written like "Watson" was writing the whole story. He isn't portrayed as dumb or bumbling but portrayed as he should be, loyal and steadfast. He always believes Holmes and is willing to do what ever it takes to help his friend when he's in need. A lot of "fangirls" (and I use this term as I cringe and vomit in my mouth) are obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and his coldness and intelligence but if I had to pick, I'd pick Watson any day.

I want to talk about the meat of the book and the main part of the mystery. The audience is given little hints at a seedy underground at work and that things aren't as pristine as they might seem. When the larger con is eventually revealed we find that the poor, homeless youth are very much taken advantage of. Do you think that this has any basis in history or do you think that it was a more "modern" idea just placed into a different time? 

Austin: Oh boy, don't ask me about what is accurate with history. Most of my knowledge of history comes from various movies and books I read so I may sound like I know what I'm talking about until I start talking about the TARDIS materializing outside Queen Victoria's carriage.

We have had secret societies in the past with the Doyle canon and for awhile that is what was going on here. I had lost track of the particulars of the mystery and just focused on the main objective: Find The House of Silk. (Much like how I've been watching Justified this season. Find Drew Thompson.) With the length of the novel and Horowitz's skill, there is more nuance going on with the House of Silk besides the ominous force.

One of the things that was done brilliantly in this book was how the Doyle universe felt more active than in the stories. Aside from our reoccurring characters (Lestrade, Mycroft, Mrs. Watson etc) each story is very stand-alone while this book feels like a lived-in world. There are callback to previous mysteries and hints at ones that will occur later in the timeline. That Mystery Man is a well used tip of the hat. (My favorite part of that scene was how the man made Watson promise to never write about this scene, which since I was reading about it I knew exactly who this was.)

This understanding of Holmes's London added a better feeling of continuity. Nobody is pressing reset at the end of each adventure. While Sherlock remains as clinical as he can, Watson shows undeniable evolution through this adventure and in his retrospect. There is a point where Watson has to swear to something he holds dear. The man needing certainty won't take Watson's vow on his marriage, but instead on his friendship with Sherlock. Charting Lestrade's faith in Sherlock Holmes is a very important plot point as things start to get hairy near the end.

Ultimately this was a very well done book. I haven't read a lot of Sherlockian books not written by Doyle, but this easily ranks very high. I really hope that Anthony Horowitz returns to this world soon.

Meanwhile we are (finally) returning to our regular schedule. To keep in with the theme of "Modern works writing about Victorian Sherlock stories" we're going to review the first Robert Downey Jr. movie cleverly titled Sherlock Holmes. Then next Tuesday we'll start The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes with "Silver Blaze."

Get excited.

And here is Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: BathSaltsWillMessYouUp

Sunday, March 3, 2013

In-Class Movie: "The Spider Woman" (1944)

“What a woman—oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we all three read this epistle.
--Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Austin: Now I respected our last Basil Rathbone movie. It was fine, bit rushed but a bit unremarkable. I really liked Rathbone and could see why he would be such a popular incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Now this one, this one really turned me around on his tenure. Much like when we reviewed Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles, this was just filled with awesome.

At part, I wasn't sure if this was intentionally awesome. There are a series of pajama suicides that the police and the public are very suspicious of. Especially this couple who keeps yelling that Sherlock Holmes should have solved these suicides which is such a bizarre demand. (Less so, if you've seen the first episode of BBC's Sherlock but still.) Then we cut to one of the best Holmes/Watson pre-mystery conversations we ever had as they are out fishing and discussing how Sherlock is tired from crime. THEN SHERLOCK DIES.

BAM! (Oh it's probably worth noting that Sherlock was wearing that hat.)

Then what results is a really fun mystery that suits Sherlock tales the best where we aren't trying to discover who did it but exactly how it all works. There are some nice twists, fun sense of adventure and surprisingly successful costumes that I'm not sure are that racist!

Am I building this one up too much or does this deliver on the awesome? If so, what does this have that our last movie lacked?

Leigh: First, I'd like to apologize. It's my fault that this post is so late. Life got in the way like it likes to sometimes. 


I love how pervasive pop culture is. 

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you can watch this movie and see how much it has influenced so many other Sherlock Holmes movies/episodes/stories this has influenced. I'm a very big fan of the show QI. In one episode, Alan Davies references this movie. You mentioned that Sherlock is very similar to the beginning of this movie. And the final scene is eerily similar to a scene from House of Silk that we will get to in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

 I enjoyed this movie a lot and I wasn't even on cold meds when I watched it! It had a lot of influences from lots of different Sherlock Holmes stories, some not as obvious as others. I also am in love with Nigel Bruce as Watson. Yeah, he's not the brightest but he does help move the mystery a long when it matters. Holmes probably would've figured out it was a pygmy skeleton eventually on his own but Watson was able to quickly tell him so that they wouldn't lose precious time. 

I do enjoy that Holmes decided the only way the solve the mystery was to kill himself. There was no possible way at all that it could've been solved with Holmes being alive especially since the Spider Woman saw through his disguise really easily. That scene seemed a bit clumsy to me. I would like to think that Sherlock Holmes would be able to act a bit better than that. Poor acting and a somewhat crappy plan? Maybe this isn't the best Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, he's charismatic and quick but some times things just kinda fall apart. Am I being too critical?

Austin: Well that makes me more excited for The House of Silk, which I shall start reading very soon...

Sherlock Holmes faking his death may not have made the most sense, but it worked well enough to let the Spider Woman think she is working without witness at least for a little bit. It bothered me less than when James Bond did the same thing in You Only Live Twice. He faked his death and then pretty much immediately walked around telling everyone that he was James Bond.

I suppose I was just distracted by the disguise scene with the woman because it was done rather well. Basil Rathbone was technically in brownface, but he wasn't doing a very racist character. He just played upon Sherlock's cunning tendencies and his arrogance to think he could get that close. All of the disguises were fun, especially when he fooled Watson. That was when I most liked Nigel Bruce because this was a great movie where he earnestly defended Sherlock as a close friend, not as a genius. 

One of these is Sherlock Holmes. Either way, I'm impressed.
Luckily the disguises were of good quality too. I was very impressed by the getups so the comedy scene with Watson falsely accusing someone of being Sherlock in disguise worked really well.

If we have to be critical--and I guess we have to--the plot may not work as well if you look at it too closely. The mystery element is simple, but the filmmaking was on such a higher level than our last Rathbone/Bruce movie that this makes it one of the stronger movies we've watched so far.

Due to the nature of movies playing up the adventure elements of Sherlock Holmes for the sake of making a more exciting story, is it possible to ever have a mystery as strong? Will that be a fundamental problem with these movies?

Leigh: I will admit that the disguises were done incredibly well! I really appreciated that aspect and of course the hilarity that followed when Watson mistook the entomologist. I also enjoyed the propaganda that wasn't always obvious. India, at the time, was an ally to Britain so the last thing that filmmakers want to do is make fun of a large country who was helping them out. 

BBC's Sherlock has shown us that you can have a proper mystery and have a great visual appeal but the problem is that it is A LOT of work, both to make and to watch. I think that these movies, the Rathbone/Bruce and Hammer and any others from about this time, were more for entertainment value for wide audiences, not necessarily making a great mystery. The mystery for this one might not be the most complex and the movie revealed whodunnit really early on, but it was still very entertaining. The complexity of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries isn't quite there but the adventure is and it's done well. I think that part of the reason that the books were so popular is not just because they created a new genre but also because of the adventure. We travel all over England, we go to the untamed United States, we even hear stories from jungles on other continents. Since adventure is so important to these stories, I think that since the movies get that part at least, they aren't failures. I do miss the mystery sometimes but they're entertaining. If they stumble upon a great mystery in the process of production, good for them. I'm still going to enjoy the adventures that the various Holmes and Watson go on. 

Next time, we are going to take a look at The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a relatively new novel about Victorian London and the seedy underbelly that just wasn't talked about at the time. So get your fainting couches ready and prepare to fan yourselves when we discuss it next!
And here’s Austin Lugar with the last word.

Austin: Spider-women?
Write in the comments if you know what this image is from!