The worst summer movie season in memory gets a kick in the ass this week with the opening of a pair of small-scale, Sundance-approved art-house gems: the Duplass brothers' Cyrus, an unexpectedly touching, hilariously awkward comedy featuring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill in an odd love triangle of sorts, and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, a tension-laced thriller that is likely to stand as young actress Jennifer Lawrence's breakout role.
This week’s new releases are a curious hodgepodge ranging from a big-budget studio retread (Fast & Furious) to an experimental feature by a 79-year-old enfant terrible (Pere Portabella's The Silence Before Bach, which opened in New York City more than a year ago). Lodged in-between is a pair of movies that debuted to mixed responses at the Sundance Film Festival (Sunshine Cleaning in 2008, Adventureland earlier this year), both of which feature strong casts and capable directors.
There’s no denying it: The British TV drama Sherlock is popular — ridiculously popular. So popular that one could say that it’s what launched Benedict Cumberbatch’s status from actor to superstar. Thankfully, his talent is still intact.
But I’m not here to talk about Cumberbatch. I’m here to talk about Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is, of course, a legendary character. Even if you’ve never read a book in your life, you’ve at least heard of this famous British detective.
A lot like the famous miser Ebenezer Scrooge, Holmes has had several versions of himself on the big screen. There’s The Hound of the Baskerville (1939) starring Basil Rathbone. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) starred in Hammer Film’s 1959 remake the same story. Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986) had a Holmes-like mouse character named Basil of Baker Street (nice little reference to Rathbone’s version). Then, of course, there’s the newer films with Robert Downey, Jr. which are surprisingly enjoyable, plus countless others with many legendary actors portraying Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. John Watson. There’s far too many to list off.
But the one I want to highlight was made in 1976 by Herbert Ross — The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The film tells of Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) luring Sherlock (Nicol Williamson) to Vienna to meet the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) in an attempt to kick Holmes’ cocaine addiction. But a kidnapping caper soon presents itself, and the trio joins forces to solve the mystery.
The mystery aspect of the film, while interesting, isn’t the main focus. This story concentrates on an aspect of Holmes stories that really hadn’t been explored often — Sherlock’s cocaine addiction. Through the books it is noted that Holmes did recreational drugs but, to the best of my knowledge, this film is the one version that takes a look at what made him do it.
At the beginning of the film we see Holmes become totally obsessed with trying to find a way to outsmart his arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), and catch him in the act. But here’s a twist: It turns out Moriarty isn’t the criminal mastermind the stories portray him as. He’s this aging and timid mathematics teacher. It’s this that gives Watson and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) the idea that Sherlock may need help.
That’s not to say that Moriarty doesn’t have a role in the film. He does, but that would lead to a big spoiler and I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
The detoxing of Holmes, while it does last a bit longer than it should, is a very impactful scene that shows this usually confident character in a different light. It’s nice change of pace from the typical Holmes story.
The film is also full of spectacular performances. One of the main reasons I wanted to check this film out was because I saw Robert Duvall played Dr. Watson, which, despite Duvall being one of my favorite actors, seems like bizarre casting. But he was surprisingly good in the role. Alan Arkin was more than perfect for the role of Dr. Freud, combining a stern professional persona and a man who cares about his patient.
But, as one would suspect, the guy who stole the motion picture was Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes. He gives a performance that is so great it’s almost indescribable. Just check him out and be amazed by his spectacular portrayal.
Here’s interesting little connection between this film and Sherlock: In 2013 J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek Into Darkness, which featured Benedict Cumberbatch as the main villain Khan, who was also the villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). That film was co-written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the screenplay for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution which was based on his book of the same name.
The fall movie season has gotten off to a pretty mediocre start, and this week’s slate of new multiplex offerings does little to reverse the trend: a pair of ho-hum-looking sci-fi thrillers, Pandorum and Surrogates, and what looks to be a glossy remake of Fame, the 1980 movie musical that would serve as the senior play for yours truly many years later (I played Ralph Garcy.) Not coincidently, all three screened after our print deadline, typically a sign that they’re not ripe for much critical love.
Surprisingly, early word on No Strings Attached — Ivan Reitman's sexually liberated romantic comedy featuring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher — is strong.
The dire situation has more acute at the multiplex.
There’s no denying that Terry Gilliam has a vast imagination. But is that a good thing for his films and those who have to watch them?
Can we just have Pixar make every movie? The animation studio is at it again with Toy Story 3, yet another creative triumph that offers everything the rest of the summer's big-budget extravaganzas do not: multifaceted characters, adventurous filmmaking and an emotionally involving story that is surprisingly dark and intense.
A “re-imagining” of A Nightmare on Elm Street opens this week. Really? The original Freddy movie, which is now best known as Johnny Depp’s first big-screen role, not to mention its endless (and endlessly lame) sequels?