No Concessions: “Sherlock Holmes” and “Avatar,” Two Big Christmas Packages

Written by Film, No Concessions

In a recessionary year most of the holiday releases have slimmed-down grab bag budgets, but two come in outsized, wrapped-and-ribboned boxes. Sherlock Holmes would seem to be destined for Dad, or even Grandma, as the fusty super-sleuth has pretty much been walking the PBS beat since the 1980s. Director Guy Ritchie and producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix, etc.) collaborated on last year’s RocknRolla, and the prospect of a gangsta Holmes for the great unwashed surely had the base quaking in its Depends. But the dreaded lad magazine reboot hasn’t happened.

What we have here is an accommodation. Taking its cue from Arthur Conan Doyle, who mentioned Holmes’ pugilistic abilities, the 2009 version knocks about 19th century fight clubs with sweaty abs and ripped torso. His drug use is minimized—but he is played by a recovered user, Robert Downey, Jr. The actor’s transformation from highly regarded cult actor to jailbird to mid-life action star is as improbable as the twists and turns in a Holmes story, but stomach muscles and all he gives a rewardingly eccentric, motor-brained performance, with his Chaplin accent up to snuff. Ritchie hangs back and doesn’t jazz it up too much with flashy, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels editing. Having Holmes calculate in voiceover how to lick his opponents, which we see in his mind’s eye, then in reality, is clever once, and enough to get the point across about his superior intellect and intuition. But franchise-seeking filmmaking thrives on repetition, so there it is again. Like I said, an accommodation.

Also accommodating is the storyline, tailored for those in the audience who aren’t the sharpest pencils in the box. There’s detection, far-fetched in spots, yet no real mystery. In 1890 London, Tower Bridge is going up, and the nefarious Lord Blackwood (the formidable Mark Strong, cast in every other London-set movie including RocknRolla) is going down, for heinous Jack the Ripper-type crimes. That we’ve encountered before, in Nicholas Meyer’s excellent Holmes continuation The West End Horror and two good films, 1965’s A Study in Terror (an early film credit for Judi Dench, airing during Turner Classic Movies’ Holmes fest this Saturday at 4:15 am) and 1979’s Murder by Decree—but Blackwood slips the noose and, apparently undead, ringleads magick misdeeds with an eye toward world domination. Watson, staunchly played by a hoping-for-a-hit Jude Law, assists, and worries/fumes about his friend, who can’t help experimenting on the dog and interfering in his relationships.

1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes had a similar, supernatural plot, and early, Oscar-nominated CGI effects. This Young-ish Sherlock Holmes has a lot more of them, and those that brought production designer Sarah Greenwood’s vision of the work-in-progress Tower Bridge to cinematic life are a lot of fun. (As is Hans Zimmer’s score, kind of Victorian Morricone, and one of his most entertaining.) The movie abandons the gentlemanly London of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films for squalor, shot in burnished brown tones by Philippe Rousselot, that out-mucks and out-mires Gangs of New York, though that’s its only nod toward any sort of realism.

After the Madonna bust-up, I would have expected Ritchie to fill the production with babes, but, as a sign of reasonable restraint and sobriety, there are only four women in the whole movie, one of them suspiciously…wet in the first scene, one of them Watson’s put-upon fiancée (Kelly Reilly), one of them the criminally underused Geraldine James as landlady Mrs. Hudson, and the most conspicuous of them Rachel McAdams, as Holmes’ larcenous lady, Irene Adler. She is, unfortunately, the film’s weakest link. While Ritchie and the three screenwriters refrain from putting a winking “gay” angle on the Holmes and Watson partnership, McAdams is too girlish and not seductive enough in the role that gets to the heart of the great detective. But in a movie that I thought be studded with them, one misstep is forgivable. If you can bear the idea of a farting bulldog and slo-mo fireballs that shoot past Holmes and Watson in one scene, clue into Sherlock Holmes.

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“Good movie, good movie,” said the ticket taker as I checked in for Avatar. With a bailout-sized pricetag, 3D, and the King of the World looking to reclaim his crown, it had to at least be a good movie. Hell, if James Cameron can wait 12 years to make a new feature, it should take me at least as long to recover from it.

Avatar, where the military industrial complex clashes with The Lord of the Rings, is an entertaining super-spectacle. But the second coming of film art will have to wait as Cameron takes the third dimension to its limit. Since the world-beating success of Titanic (a movie I love) and his long absence, Peter Jackson has stolen some his thunder, while George Lucas has gone a bit senile and Steven Spielberg has gotten into bed with Michael Bay, the Gollum of fantastic filmmakers. Cameron, meanwhile, has been making immersive undersea documentaries in IMAX 3D, and here he takes that weird, intriguing phosphorescent world, moves it to the surface, and shifts it to outer space. The Na’vi, the resident aliens, have a culture as dense as Tolkien, and a belief in the interconnectedness of all living things; the planet, Pandora, is a literal worldwide web. Having wasted our own resources, we humans are itching to get our grubby hands all over its precious elements, whatever the cost.

The uneasy coexistence of science, the military, and the natural order is Cameron’s recurrent science fiction theme. Avatar most reminded of The Abyss (1989), with one crucial difference. Twenty years later Cameron, a peacenik fascinated by warriors and warfare, seems to have given up on the human race. The Cold War-set The Abyss and the apocalyptic Terminator movies (his two worthwhile ones) offer some hope for us, and provide a means to reverse course—hey, the Berlin Wall came down just months after The Abyss premiered, so maybe we were really redeemable after all. No such luck this time, as Cameron recasts insurgency Westerns like Dances With Wolves or the Man Called Horse pictures as a firepower fairytale; not to spoil your Christmas moviegoing, yet unless there’s a sequel, we’re pretty much stuck with our inconvenient truths.

What does Cameron believe in? For moviegoers, the things that matter: A solid three-act structure, and technology in the service of storytelling, not the other way around. 3D is built into the DNA of the film (there’s no other way it should be seen) and, knowing that we’ll have enough things tossed at us during the previews (one, amusingly, for Piranha 3D; Cameron debuted on the ill-fated sequel to the 1978 original), he concentrates on more subtle atmospheric effects that welcome us to this strange new world, like the tendrilled “jellyfish” that live in the forest. He opens Pandora’s box carefully, and allows us to believe in it.

Cameron’s not the greatest writer, and can be crude. (I can only watch True Lies with the sound turned low.) He has a knack, though, for hiring actors who can push through the worst of it and stand and deliver when it counts. Encased in sensors and God knows what else, Zoe Saldana gives a passionate, even sensual, and altogether full-bodied (under the circumstances) performance as the Na’vi princess, and it’s a treat to see Aliens star Sigourney Weaver back in the saddle again. Cameron admires his bad guys, and Stephen Lang, who swiped Public Enemies from his co-stars in its final scene, plays Marine machismo with tremendous tyrannosaur intensity. That he was able to get any acting at all from the one-note and sullen Michelle Rodriguez, as a friendlier grunt, is a notable achievement.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Sam Worthington, who, with this, Terminator Salvation (no hard feelings between him and Cameron I assume), and the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake has cornered the market on half-humans. He is our avatar, the one who most fully, and dangerously, takes on alien form. It may be that I couldn’t quite believe that this foreign-bred actor, whose inconsistent accent apparently couldn’t be tamed, was a U.S. soldier; or perhaps Cameron failed to make his transition from our tribe to another as dramatic as it might have been. In a movie full of 3D wonders the lead lacks dimensionality.

There are other failures, such as Cameron’s belief in the redemptive power of closing credits theme songs—British pop singer Leona Lewis is no avatar for Celine Dion this time out. Of all the rotten things to come out of 9/11, and the war on terror, and all the highfalutin punditry spit out on cable news, the worst is having it recycled as movie clichés. Real-life shock and awe doesn’t translate too well as bigscreen metaphor, and Avatar goes through a bad patch of interconnectedness to The Huffington Post—then rouses itself for a non-stop return to pulpy Edgar Rice Burroughs territory, where it’s most easily assimilated and enjoyed. There’s a kind of greatness to Avatar, and a flatness, too. It’s a good movie, even a good movie in places, from the creator of some of the best genre entertainment ever made—and that’s all.

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