Tag Archives: mystery movies

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 Conjuring

by Dan Fields

James Wan tackles a real life ghost story with the paranormal thriller The Conjuring
© 2013 Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema

Curb Appeal Comes To Amityville

James Wan, director of Insidious, Death Sentence, and the original Saw, has carved a checkered but significant niche in the most recent wave of high-polish horror thrillers. As a storyteller he has not generally chosen groundbreaking work, but he has an eye for detail that counts for a great deal, even when working elbow deep in schlock. He also has a demonstrable preoccupation with puppets and dolls, which mark him as a filmmaker dedicated to getting under his audience’s skin.

Despite what its austere title suggests, The Conjuring is not a sudden foray into slumber party black magic or card games about wizards. It is a reasonably old-school horror film about a house haunted, or rather oppressed, by unholy malevolence. There is nothing revelatory or innovative about The Conjuring, but there is a comfortable blending of the contemporary and the classic in the service of a quite a scary tale. Continue reading

Movie Review: The Purge

by Dan Fields

James DeMonaco satirizes American violence culture in his thriller The Purge
© 2013 Universal Pictures

Oh, Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

You will be pleased to know that by 2022, America has been fixed. Violent crime is nearly nonexistent, as is unemployment. The economy is back on a boom. A governing body called the New Founding Fathers – never fully described, but evidently a successful compromise between radical high church and totalitarian state – has issued a directive under which once a year, for a twelve-hour period, virtually no act is illegal. By allowing those so inclined to commit any theft, murder, torture or other atrocity upon fellow citizens during this period, “The Purge” dispenses with the stress, rage and violent tendencies of the entire nation in a single night.

As dystopian high concepts go, this is an especially promising one. It allows for a polarized society in which half the population spend the year preparing defenses, and the other half build deadly arsenals with the same eagerness as those who devote months to making the perfect Halloween costume. It operates on the chilling notion that you are never completely safe, even from those you think you know best. It sets the stage for a moral wrestling match between the common good and the indulgence of humanity’s darkest, sickest parts.

Variations on the key themes of The Purge have already worked for films as diverse as Soylent Green, They Live, Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, The Running Man, and Series 7: The Contenders. Failing to break new ground is not a sin to be counted against The Purge. However, its scope is so narrow, and its message so shrill and forced, that it cannot measure up to its potential as a landmark thriller. Continue reading

Halloween Home Video #10: Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact

by Dan Fields
First published October 31, 2012 by the California Literary Review

And so we bid a fond farewell to Halloween Home Video (2012 edition), and here’s hoping you found just the right set of screams for your best Halloween ever. Gather the treats, pour the punch, and settle down for one last ghost story.

Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact promotional poster

© 2012 IFC Midnight

For A Rousing Finale

If you have watched your way through the Halloween Home Video list, or been engaged in any recent horror binge, it is likely that you are suffering semi-permanent “found footage” vertigo. If approached with talent and imagination, it can be a surprisingly versatile style choice, but it does wear on the eyes and brain if not enjoyed in moderation. One reason The Pact won the top spot on my list is its rather traditional sense of storytelling.

Even so, this movie deftly combines numerous classic horror themes in surprising ways. It is a mystery, a family drama, and a ghost story all in one. In a typical thriller or horror movie, the final act reveals either a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural events, or vice versa. Seldom does the audience get to enjoy both, at least in any coherent film. In the case of The Pact, ghostly activity is only part of the puzzle, pointing crucially to very real physical dangers lurking in unexpected places. It all fits together very nicely.

Annie (Caity Lotz) is a young woman toughened by a difficult childhood and the subsequent trials of drug addiction and hard living. She and her sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) grew up with a cruel and unstable mother, after whose recent death they now face the task of sorting out the family estate. Clearly neither one of them relishes the prospect of rekindling bygone memories. Annie is reluctant even to show up for the funeral, but at the urging of Nicole and their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), she consents.

By the time Annie shows up at her childhood home, Nicole has arrived at the house and gone missing under mysterious and frightening circumstances. Annie and Liz are worried, especially with Nicole’s young daughter in tow, and before they can settle on a plan of action, Liz goes missing from the house as well. Unlike your average, easily victimized horror movie heroine, Annie grabs her niece and gets the hell out right away. Unfortunately, she has trouble getting her story believed. A single rough-shod local cop (Casper Van Dien!) takes a tentative interest in her case, but clearly Annie will have to do most of the detective work herself.

Although by now she is terrified even to set foot in the house, she does her best to get to the bottom of the disappearances. Even as the ordeal taxes her stamina and self-possession, clues begin coming her way from seemingly otherworldly sources. It should come as no surprise that the house is haunted, but by what or whom? Furthermore, is the haunting the root of the problem, or merely a means by which to seek the underlying evil of Annie’s creepy little house?

The Pact is exceedingly dour and moody, but keeps things moving at an engaging pace. It prickles with long moments of dread and does not overindulge in cheap scares, although director Nicholas McCarthy could not resist a few here and there. The performances are good and the threads of the mystery elegantly twisted. It will be harder than average to guess the ending of The Pact, and even if you do it will be a delightful shock to watch the last loose ends unfold.

It has been a pleasure to offer you the fruits of the Halloween season, and I look forward to more spooky delights next year. It is my sincere wish that you and yours have a fun, safe, and relentlessly terrifying Halloween.

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

by Dan Fields
First published January 07, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Cloaks Within Daggers Within Cloaks

The next time you sit down at an office meeting, a card game, or a family dinner, look around the table and try to guess which of the familiar faces you see actually wants to betray and destroy you. It’s a fun game, and a good preparatory exercise for Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on John le Carré’s popular novel of the same name. The movie may test your patience, but expect to have that patience rewarded with an engrossing brainteaser of a film.
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Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

by Dan Fields
First published March 19, 2011 by the California Literary Review

Shall he not summon twelve legions of bikers?

Michael Connelly is a very popular author, but it is easy to dismiss a film adapted from an airport bestseller, sight unseen. In this case, it would be most unfair. The Lincoln Lawyer spins a tangled and entertaining yarn about a maverick lawyer who knows how to get tough when he needs to. The movie adaptation by Brad Furman is nicely paced and well put together. As a fairly straightforward mystery/thriller it may fail to achieve lasting acclaim, but it is well worth a couple of hours’ diversion.

Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a smooth-talking criminal defense attorney, whose “thing” is conducting business out of his slick black Lincoln, which is constantly on the move through the streets of Los Angeles. In addition, he is a very sly fellow willing to pull an unscrupulous string or two in order to keep his reputation notorious and high-profile. He deals with every questionable walk of life, most notably a gang of bikers who appear at intervals to trade pleasantries and occasional favors with him. Does anybody suspect that this stone-cold stud is headed for a massive reality check?
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Movie Review: Unknown

by Dan Fields
First published February 19, 2011 by the California Literary Review

That’s a mighty big biscuit, Ma. Must I swallow it all?

It seems like Liam Neeson has always been around. He has crossed the paths of such well-known characters as Batman, Dirty Harry, Yoda, The Nazis, and many more. He has probably been in more films than either you or I could count at short notice, and he does not seem afraid to try anything — who would have thought Darkman, for example? Recently he has gotten into the business of action thrillers, and received notable praise for Luc Besson’s recent revenge drama Taken. The marketing of Unknown seemed geared toward the same fans, promising an extra measure of psychological mischief and a twisted tale of lost identity.
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Movie Review Saw 3D

by Dan Fields
First published October 30, 2010 by the California Literary Review

I get it. It’s a clip show.

Saw 3D was one blow to my Halloween spirit I would sooner not have taken.

Let me say off the bat that they sent the wrong guy to this movie. Your enjoyment of it presumably hinges on your appreciation of prior Saw installments, and the series never made a fan of me. However, when the franchise took off I did watch the first two films a couple of times each, searching for hidden dimensions that I had initially missed. Instead, I found that the story actually loses depth with successive viewings. After that, the series got so convoluted and ridiculous that I only glanced at parts three through six with half an eye and ear – no grisly wordplay intended, I assure you.
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Movie Review: The Last Exorcism

by Dan Fields
First published August 28, 2010 by the California Literary Review

Possession Is Nine Tenths Of A Good Movie

There is a song by the Legendary Shack Shakers which opens thus:

“Well the devil’s in the details
And your reverend’s into retail”

This is as fitting an introduction as any to Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, a film with plenty of good scares, and far more dramatic meat than its advertising campaign suggests. The trailer seems to have been aimed directly at the same crowd who flocked to Paranormal Activity, only to have their brain cells murdered by two dumpy kids trembling in fear of some purportedly spooky camera tricks. Duped once again into expecting the scariest movie ever, audiences instead got a Blair Witch knockoff masquerading as a much more clever film. Which it isn’t.

Fortunately, The Last Exorcism rises above this admittedly low bar. The story is fairly interesting and explores themes of real weight. Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is preacher to a small, devout congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Right away, we learn that his actual faith, if any, is a minor component of his calling.
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