Tag Archives: adaptation

Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Bill Condon directs Sir Ian McKellen as the great aging sleuth in Mr. Holmes
© 2015 Roadside Attractions

The Game Is Adrift

Those reasonably familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes tales will know that the master sleuth dreamed of retiring to Sussex once his cases were all solved, specifically to raise bees in solitude. Bill Condon’s film Mr. Holmes, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, imagines just such a scenario, in which Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has outlived nearly all his old comrades and, just after the close of the Second World War, dodders about his coastal cottage nearly a century old.

Many authors after Doyle have added their ideas to the Sherlock Holmes canon, with varying degrees of success and wildly divergent levels of regard for the source material. Some stories, including a few by Doyle himself, toy with the classic Holmes format by flashing significantly forward or backward in the life of the great sleuth. More than one fiendish problem has imposed itself on his placid country retirement, but in almost all such cases Holmes retains his razor-keen intellect no matter how physically diminished by age. Hatcher’s screenplay, by way of Cullin’s novel, presents another more poignant possibility. What if the mind of the world’s greatest detective (sorry, Batman) began to fail him with one crucial mystery left to solve?

This premise, though rendered with due respect for the character’s history, seems to cast a glum shadow over the happy retirement which Doyle must have meant as a parting gift for his greatest character. The two other inhabitants of the cottage are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes, notoriously brusque with fellow humans throughout his life, is no easy charge. Though softened by old age into a genuine fondness for the precocious boy, he functions in a near-constant state of abstraction that wears on the mother. Obliged to take up the duties of a home nurse, at “cook’s wages” as she puts it, she frowns upon her son’s worship of the august Mr. Holmes. A modest woman tried by grief and sacrifice, she feels her relationship with Roger slipping as Holmes fosters the boy’s ravenous curiosity. She adores her son and admires his cleverness, but fears he may grow to look down on his own humble roots. Having lost much in life herself, she may also hope to spare him the ravages of grief when his decrepit hero inevitably dies. She tries to impose distance between the two when she can, without much success. Linney does typically excellent work in this role, wielding a convincing Southern English accent that never intrudes on a strong and moving performance.

McKellen, a vibrant and energetic actor now in his middle seventies, plays the precarious physical state of a hard-worn chap in his early nineties with conviction. His rich intonation is known to most moviegoers by now, but he acts just as eloquently with mournful eyes, trembling hands, and a stubbornly jaunty flourish of his walking cane. It is surprising that this should be his first turn as Sherlock Holmes.

Roger, meanwhile, trails Holmes wherever he goes, begging him to continue a half-written manuscript correcting the late Dr. Watson’s account of the very last Baker Street case. At several points the film gets playful with the slippery nature of Holmes the person. Sherlock Holmes, as we know him, is a fictional character so familiar that he often seems like a real figure from history, while in the world of Mr. Holmes he is a real person conflated to legendary status on page, stage and screen thanks to all manner of literary license. Throughout his career Holmes has tolerated discrepancies between life and legend, such as the briar pipe and deerstalker hat he claims he never used, but evidently Watson’s account of his final case has the facts so wrong that Holmes feels compelled to set them right.

Young Milo Parker, who plays Roger, is a rare find. He looks every bit the simple country lad, but his presence and delivery are laudable. There are many fine young actors (which is, after all, how we get fine old actors), but few as young as Parker have the chops to act alongside dramatic veterans like Linney and McKellen. He steals as much of the camera’s attention as they do, and this early performance ought to start his career on a good path.

The details of the lost case itself are better shown than explained. They involve a curious course of music lessons, a grief-stricken lady (Hattie Morahan) wandering London to the dismay of her husband (Patrick Kennedy), a somber visit to postwar Japan, a mysterious foreign host (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the peculiar life cycle of bees. All the ingredients are ready-measured for a classic Holmes adventure, but the race against his ailing faculties is a new enemy for the old sleuth to conquer. Supporting turns from such seasoned players as John Sessions and Frances de la Tour will delight cameo spotters.

The film is beautiful. Carter Burwell’s score drifts through shades of wonder and sorrow. Long shots of breezy coastline and the saturated colors of Holmes’s hyper-idyllic seaside garden are constant reminders that this, too, is yet another story for the collector’s bookshelf. Even London, as recalled by Holmes in his nightly writings, resembles the set of a well-staged murder play or an illustration from Doyle’s own books.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, Condon’s film has another sort of beauty as well. Holmes’s eccentric manners and comic arrogance have always offset his intellect. Doyle found many deft ways to hint that his combination of talents formed a blind spot regarding certain points of basic humanity. Despite observational prowess and a preternatural grasp of forensic links most people never see, Holmes could, on occasion, find his frosty reason bested by chaotic whims of the human heart. Though he seldom tipped the cards of his own capacity for affection, it did happen more than once as Doyle brought the chronicles to a close. Mr. Holmes takes those glimpses of tenderness as a starting point to show a brilliant man at the end of his life, quite overcome by a depth of feeling he never knew himself to possess. Once, in a sly reversal of Doyle, McKellen’s Holmes misses a vital clue because, possibly for the first time in his life, personal investment trumps his unquenchable thirst for cold hard evidence.

There are many forms of latter-day Sherlock Holmes tale. Reinventions, critical revisions, satires and outright spoofs of the great consulting detective abound. Possibly next to Count Dracula, no literary figure of the period has been more widely appropriated. Mr. Holmes story takes all this into account, yet hearkens to tradition with great respect. Its unfamiliar pathways ultimately complement the legacy more than they challenge it. Presuming that the original conception of Holmes in retirement was meant as a reward from his author, this further elegy suggests a Holmes who, despite the cost in grief and physical pain, may go to his grave having found the final, elusive piece of the human puzzle. The journey promises to be tragic and even terrifying when the heart takes up slack for the brain, but the hope of balance and peace may well justify the risk. Perhaps the “real” Holmes would have been content to die without such an epiphany, but the emotional payoff is fine indeed for his generations of fans.

Movie Review: Horns

by Dan Fields

Daniel Radcliffe pursues the truth with diabolical powers in Alexandre Aja's Horns
© 2013 Dimension Films / RADiUS-TWC

Synergy With The Devil, or
Faust Highway

Alexandre Aja, a French filmmaker gone Hollywood down the most gore-splattered highway possible, engages a story more firmly rooted in the human soul than ever before. His prior moviemaking turns (most recently as producer for a harrowing remake of William Lustig’s Maniac) betray a penchant for jittering, shrieking horror that attacks the senses, the brain and heart second. Horns, based on the much-lauded novel by Joe Hill, plunges his raw director’s hands into a moral fable whose questions and troubling answers require some serious thought.

Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is a tortured soul in a bruised body. His dual burden is to come to terms with the brutal murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), while staving off an angry mob of former friends and neighbors convinced that, despite his acquittal, Ig himself killed off the hometown darling. His only true allies seem to be his brother Terry (Joe Anderson) his defense attorney Lee (Max Minghella), and his torch-carrying bartender Glenna (Kelli Garner), all of whom have known Ig since childhood. Between the three of them, there just might be some answers lurking, but Ig’s impotent rage at the cosmic unfairness of it all seems to have him deadlocked in limbo.

Ig finally lets his rage out in a drunken spree that apparently shakes something loose in either heaven or hell. Waking the next morning, he finds a wicked pair of horns sprouting from his head. Not only that, but everyone he meets treats him differently. His horns grant him a devilish power over people, compelling them to pour out their secret sins and desires. At first an unwilling confessor, he gradually realizes that lurking among the nauseating secrets of his neighbors is the identity of Merrin’s killer. With this in mind, he hones his fiendish influence to maximum effect, stalking the truth around town as the changes in him take deeper root. Continue reading

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

by Dan Fields

Sippin’ on Gin and Jazz

Spectacular. Stunning. Tantalizing. Everything in the wide world but compelling

(old sport.)

Had Baz Luhrmann been alive and working in the Roaring 20s, he certainly could and should have been employed as Jay Gatsby’s party planner. The Australian director’s penchant for lavish, baroque, balls-out spectacle is a matter of record thanks to his most popular film, Moulin Rouge. However, he cannot be trusted when it comes to reining in the subtleties and fine details of plain dramatic storytelling. Continue reading

Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures

by Dan Fields
First published February 15, 2013 by the California Literary Review

My Supernatural Sweet Sixteen

The advertising campaign for Beautiful Creatures was abysmal. The film’s producers and their editors made it look like a secondhand bid for the dollars of weepy tweens still grieving for the end of Breaking Dawn. This is not meant to pillory the Twilight franchise, but to say that this movie looked like something thrown together in haste, which fans of that departed series might like, but which had zero chance of attracting the rest of the viewing public.

Skeptics, be comforted! Remember those enticing teasers for the inept gun drama Killing Them Softly? Fortunately, the principle of false advertising can run both ways. The big secret is that Beautiful Creatures is no melodramatic suicide pact slouching in the shadow of Twilight. It is more akin to HBO’s madcap ghoul opera True Blood, in a version scaled back so that a family could enjoy it together. Scripted and paced with impressive skill and thoughtfulness, this movie manages to be witty, racy, and thoroughly weird without getting crass. Innuendo is such a wonderful spice in the hands of capable writers and actors. Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (P.S., I Love You) from a successful young adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, this movie has “sleeper” written all over it. Continue reading

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

by Dan Fields
First published September 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Everything is Rotten in the Parish of Orleans

Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik built himself a respectable filmmaking foundation with Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His dour outlook and unflinching presentation are pleasantly comparable to the rise of contemporary Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, of Bronson and Pusher fame. However, Dominik’s latest foray into the semi-mainstream, Killing Them Softly, is no counterpart to Drive. In fact, the only award-worthy member of the Killing Them Softly crew is the one who cut the trailer.

There is an intriguing story hidden in away somewhere inside Killing Them Softly, and perhaps the source novel – Cogan’s Trade by George Higgins – made its point better. It is a meditation on the impact of a tanked economy on the criminal class. At best, it could be a thinking man’s bloodbath on the level of the original 1972 version of The Mechanic. However, despite a high-profile cast and several well-staged scenes of violence, this movie is largely toxic and indigestible. Continue reading

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

by Dan Fields
First published November 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Double Icing On Half A Cake

Joe Wright established himself practically overnight as a strong force in period drama based on popular books. He wowed with the relentlessly dour Atonement and then soared with a superb riff on Pride and Prejudice. Couple these efforts with the spunky, bizarro thriller Hanna and you should have no trouble seeing that Wright is a filmmaker both exuberant and offbeat.

His Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s monumentally acclaimed novel, is a parade of elegant design and intricate staging. It is not difficult to guess which Academy Award nominations its makers have in mind. By enclosing the cultural volatility of 19th-century cosmopolitan Russia in an ever-shifting magic lantern, those responsible get to show off and share some cutting insights on the artifice and deception required to sustain imperial high society.

Wright sets the epic tragedy of Anna, a fallen woman if ever there was one, almost entirely within a spacious theatre hall, with the main action unfolding on an impossibly marvelous series of collapsing and interlocking sets. The wings and backstage area become private places of intrigue and the catwalks above serve as sordid back alleys. There are trains and horse races and all the bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg contained behind a single curtain. The complexity and perpetual motion of this living stage is nothing short of stunning.

The hard truth, impossible to dodge, is that this is not Tolstoy’s world. It is more like Hugo Cabret’s world, and from time to time it even flirts perilously with becoming Baz Luhrmann’s world. Tom Stoppard’s script, though consistently bright and entertaining, abridges the story painfully to fit the stylish construct. Anna Karenina may be the title character, but she need not be the sole focus of the plot. The supporting figures in her life lend important dramatic context to her abasement. Continue reading

Movie Review: Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax

by Dan Fields
First published March 03, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Seuss Strictly by Association

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.
– Ogden Nash –

This weekend, a whole new generation of doe-eyed tykes will meet The Lorax a furry blob of a woodland nymph conceived in 1971 by children’s author Dr. Seuss to “speak for the trees,” specifically to the faceless, soulless ogre of industrial development.

The works of Dr. Seuss have had a checkered but mostly respectable history of adaptation to the screen. Beginning in the 1960s, legendary animator Chuck Jones, along with Looney Tunes producer Friz Freleng and his Pink Panther cohort David H. DePatie, began a series of beloved television specials bringing the good doctor’s creations to life. How The Grinch Stole Christmas reigns over all of them in terms of perennial popularity, but there were many others including Horton Hears A Who and The Cat In The Hat. Seuss (also known as Theodor Geisel) put in a lot of personal effort to keep these projects true to the spirit of his children’s books. At very least, he generally wrote or co-wrote the television specials.

Near the end of his life, he gave a particularly strong nod of approval to maverick animator Ralph Bakshi for his adaptation of the doomsday fable “The Butter Battle Book.” Then came the death of Dr. Seuss and a rather dark aftermath once people began drastically reimagining his work for themselves. Continue reading