Genius in decline: My review of Mr. Holmes

B+ Drama

  • Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Directed by Bill Condon

Anyone who loves fiction’s most famous detective knows that Sherlock Holmes eventually retired from detective work and moved to Sussex, where he took up beekeeping. And that’s where this story, set in 1947, mostly takes place. Set long after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his last story, the movie deals with a Holmes whose famous mental facilities are sliding into senility.

In other words, this film shows us a Sherlock Holmes we haven’t seen before—aged, walking with a cane, and more interested in bees than crime. For anyone who loves the original stories and the many adaptations, it’s movie not to be missed. For everyone else, it’s merely a very enjoyable movie that entertains not through action, comedy, or special effects, but by providing us with interesting characters slightly larger than life.

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Ian McKellen plays this Holmes as a very old man. In flashbacks, he plays a younger Holmes, but still older than we’re used to seeing him. In the film’s main story, he’s in a race against time. He always objected to the way Watson had romanticized their cases, turning them into adventure stories. The stories made him a celebrity, which he finds annoying and occasionally comical. Now Holmes wants to write the true story of his last case, correcting the record in at least this one situation. But he’s worried that his mind will fade before he’s finished.

He doesn’t live by himself. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and she has a young son (Milo Parker). Remember that this is 1947; World War II left a lot of widows and fatherless children. Of course the boy clings to the one man in the house, even if it’s the cold and remote Sherlock. But the boy wants to learn beekeeping, and Holmes can’t help but react positively to that. They bond, of course.

But there are other things going on in Holmes’ life. He travels to Japan hoping to find an herb that will preserve his mental powers for a little longer. The bees are strangely dying off. And the housekeeper wants to take her son and move on to a hotel job where she isn’t dependent on one eccentric client. And yes, Holmes gets a moment to do "that think you do" where he looks at a person and deduces what only he can fathom.

This is one of those well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed films that come out of England on a regular basis. Every actor is spot on. McKellen’s makeup is a wonder, and not only in the aging. Even in the flashbacks, his nose and cheekbones offer a vague suggestion of the original Sidney Paget drawings, while allowing McKellen’s own wonderful face to shine through. But the makeup had one strange effect on me. Every so often, he look like John Gielgud.

For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

Tangerine: A Christmas in July cinematic gift

A Drama

Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Directed by Sean Baker

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be, and delights and excites you with the ever-growing possibilities of cinema. New attitudes, new concepts, and new technologies combine with a visionary filmmaker, and the result is a rare form of magic.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine has just that sort of magic, making it easily the most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. It doesn’t look like any other movie. It doesn’t sound like any other movie. And yet it’s alive with an electric charge of urban humanity and desperate sexuality.

The world of Tangerine is the outskirts of Hollywood on Christmas Eve–a Christmas without carols, Dickens, ornaments, or snow. It could be any time of year, and aside from the strange, wide, ugly streets of LA, it could be any city.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day stretch in prison. We’re never told what for, but as she’s a streetwalker, we can guess. Her close friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), like Sin-Dee a transgender prostitute, tells her what’s up. Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester (who also pimps both of them) may have cheated on her while she was locked up. It’s only a rumor, but it turns Sin-Dee into a single-minded, wrathful avenger out to find the woman who stole her man.

All Alexandra can do is run after Sin-Dee, try to calm her down, and walk away to prepare herself for her singing debut later that night.

But there’s a subplot. Taxi-driver Ramzik (Karren Karagulian) drives people through Los Angeles, talks to his riders, and has to deal with the vomit in his backseat. He’s a husband and father, but he indulges in trans prostitutes like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. He’s the sort of john prostitutes like; he’s gentle, polite, and treats them as friends.

The Ramzik subplot provides us with one of the best sex scenes in cinema, and it’s in no way, shape, or form explicit. Shot from the cab’s back seat, it allows us to imagine what’s going on in the front seat as we watch the through-the-windshield spectacle of a drive-through carwash.

Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, largely I suspect because it was shot entirely on iPhone 5s, using an experimental anamorphic lens to give it a 2.35×1 scope aspect ratio. The colors are intense and super-saturated. And while it lacks the resolution of today’s best digital cameras (not to mention 35mm film), it captures the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood in a way that a more conventional (and expensive) approach couldn’t approach.

The film often feels speeded up, just a little too fast, with occasional, tiny jump cuts that suggest lost frames. Since these effects happened only in a few scenes (mostly near the beginning), I’m going to guess that this was intentional.

Maybe it was done to match the music. Music Supervisor Matthew Smith lays down some exciting rap beats to move Sin-Dee’s quest forward. He also lays down some equally exciting Beethoven.

Tangerine is not to be missed. It’s an exceptional and extraordinary work. It’s also an exciting and very entertaining.

And no, I have no idea why it’s called Tangerine. The film opens Friday.

In Stereo looks at modern romance–but not too deeply

C+ Relationship drama

Written and Directed by Mel Rodriguez III

My press materials from Circus Road Films describes In Stereo as an “un-romantic comedy.” That’s not only a lie–it’s two lies. The movie succeeds best when it allows itself to be romantic. And it is in no way, shape, or form a comedy. Only one scene, where an actress auditions for a herpes public service announcement, brought me even close to a glimmer of anything that might be called laughter.

That’s not a criticism of In Stereo. A lot of great films are devoid of laughs. It’s just a case of false advertising.

But this story of former lovers who may or may not get back together has its own rewards, but also some very serious flaws. It glides along on the charisma of the two leads, but never really brings us into their characters’ souls.

The problems start in the very first scene, when we meet David (Micah Hauptman) and Brenda (Beau Garrett), very much a couple in love. But this one short scene doesn’t give us a good reason to care about their relationship, and it’s the last of that relationship we’re going to see for a long time.

The narrative then skips ahead 18 months and concentrates on David. He’s got a successful career as a photographer, but his love life is in shambles. His current girlfriend (Maggie Geha) is spending quality time with David’s best friend. He doesn’t confront them, but keeps it inside.

Then the focus switches to Brenda, now a reasonably successful actress whose career is already on the way down. Her complete lack of social skills, and her habit of bluntly telling off powerful people, has made her unemployable. She’s also about to lose her apartment.

Halfway through the film, David and Brenda run into each other, and the rest of the film has them dancing around the possibility of getting back together. This is when In Stereo comes most alive. Hauptman and Garrett have a nice chemistry together, and it’s easy to root for them refalling in love.

Ultimately, that chemistry makes In Stereo work–to the degree that it works at all. For the most part, it’s just too shallow for the relationship drama that Rodriguez presumably wanted to make.

For what it’s worth, there’s a lot of sex in the movie (if it was rated, it would probably get an R), but nothing truly erotic. It’s set in that version of New York City where everyone is hip and reasonably well-off.

Geriatric Starlet: my review of Iris

A- documentary

  • Directed by Albert Maysles

You know you’ve seen a really good documentary if it’s about something you couldn’t care less about, but you still enjoyed it. Few things in life bore me like fashion, but there’s nothing boring about Albert Maysles’ last complete film, Iris.

Iris Apfel, a fixture and a maverick in the New York fashion scene, is in her 90s. She dresses herself in loud, bright, and often absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great.

Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in Harlem specialty stores, shows off the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday. She’s almost always smiling.

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I hate to use the expression "free spirit;" it’s such a cliché. But it’s an appropriate cliché here. Apfel talks as she dresses—blunt and funny. She points out that it’s “better to be happy than to be well-dressed.” She dismisses the expensive but conformist clothes found among lower Manhattan executives with “That’s not fashion. It’s a uniform.”

But for all its joy, this is a film about mortality. Apfel now walks with a cane, and sometimes is pushed in a wheelchair. She complains about pains, and a loss of energy. When asked what keeps her up at night, she answers that she worries about her health.

I strongly suspect that Maysles identified with Apfel as a kindred spirit. He was approaching 90 himself as he followed his subject around New York, carrying his own camera as he recorded what Apfel was up to. He too must have been feeling the aches and pains of growing old, ignoring them as much as possible so he could keep on working and having fun.

Iris Apfel is still working, but Albert Maysles never made it to 90. I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for capping a long career.

Bill Plympton’s absurd love story: Cheatin’ (my review)

A Adult animation

  • Written and directed by Bill Plympton

If Bill Plympton isn’t the strangest, most iconoclastic, bizarre, and brilliant animator of all time, we live in a very weird world. His instantly recognizable style takes caricature—the heart of all animation—to an extreme beyond anyone else working in features.

Consider Jake—the irresistible hunk in Cheatin’. He appears to have a 60-inch chest and a six-inch waist. He looks as if the upper and lower parts of his body are connected by a thick rope. The love of his life, Ella, has lips so swollen you can’t imagine how she can talk.

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Not that we ever hear either of them talk. As with Plympton’s last feature, the brilliant Idiots and Angels, this is basically a silent film, told entirely in visuals, music, and occasional sound effects and grunts.

The story is simple. Jake and Ella meet when he saves her life in a carnival bumper car ride. They fall in love, get married, and are so deeply in love that they can barely keep their clothes on. Other women throw themselves at Jake, but he’s not interested. Then one of these would-be seductresses tricks him into believing that Ella is cheating on him. He starts sleeping around, so Ella…at this point I should stop.

But with Plympton, story is secondary. The real joy is in the surreal wit of his hand-drawn animation—drawn, I might add, with Plympton’s own hands. In the Plympton universe, everyone is ugly and misshapen–even characters whom the story paints as attractive. And Plympton shows his work, with visible pencil lines everywhere.

The visuals reflect emotional states, not real ones. When Ella wonders why Jake seems angry and remote–they’re as far apart as they can be in the same bed–she reaches her hand out to him. And it keeps extending, many feet, as she tries to bridge the widening gap in the widening bed. Before the scene is over, the bed splits apart and his half floats away. It’s absurd, but it’s sad and touching.

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Often Plympton uses absurdity simply to get laughs, and he gets them. A hired assassin loads himself up with so many weapons that he can’t get through the door. A cop with both hands and both feet cuffed together, so that he can’t move any of them, still manages to chase his prey by hopping.

The music, much of it familiar classical pieces, adds to the frivolity. When the soundtrack breaks into Verdi’s Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici aria (from La Traviata), Jake and Ella dance and move their lips to the Italian lyrics.

An all-around wonderful film.

Who are they? My review of Lambert & Stamp

B+ Music documentary

  • Directed by James D. Cooper

I don’t know if I enjoyed this movie so much because it was very well made, or simply because it’s about The Who–a band that I have been a fan of for more than 40 years. I doubt if Lambert & Stamp would be of much interest to people who are not Who fans, but for someone like me, it’s catnip.

If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band called The High Numbers, none of us would have ever heard of The Who. Close friends and aspiring filmmakers, Lambert and Stamp set out to make a documentary about themselves managing a rock group. They never made the movie, but they sure proved their worth as managers. They turned The High Numbers into The Who, and shepherded the group to fame and (to a lesser extent) fortune. Their influence with The Who receded after the phenomenal success of Tommy.

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Lambert’s musical background (his father was composer/conductor Constant Lambert) gave him an edge in helping develop the group’s sound. He worked closest with Pete Townsend, mentoring the young guitar player’s song-writing skills. There’s considerable controversy over to what extent he co-wrote Tommy; filmmaker Cooper shows us both sides of the argument and wisely takes no side.

Stamp and Townsend spend a lot of time talking to the camera here. Other interview subjects include Roger Daltrey and Stamp’s brother Terence (yes, that Terence Stamp). Lambert couldn’t tell his side of the story; he died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981.

I had to look up that fact on Wikipedia. Cooper seems shy about such things. Early on, Stamp mentions that Lambert isn’t around to tell his own story. But the film never discusses Lambert’s death in a meaningful way. Keith Moon’s death, three years earlier, is mentioned only in the context of legal proceedings. The only sign that John Entwistle is no longer amongst the living is his absence from the interviews. Chris Stamp, arguably the movie’s star, died as the film was being made, but there’s no mention of his passing.

Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end.

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But this isn’t the sort of picture you go to see for the music. If you want a more musical Who documentary, see that other movie made by an American novice director, The Kids are Alright from 1979.

Comic noir down under: Kill Me Three Times (my review)

A Comic thriller

  • Written by James McFarland
  • Directed by Kriv Stenders

As Alfred Hitchcock well understood, a good thriller can carry a heavy load of dark humor. And since this particular thriller stars Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), you come in expecting more laughs than thrills.

But make no mistake, Kill Me Three Times is first and foremost a thriller, although an unusually funny one–more Coen than Hitch. This is the sort of movie where a gruesome, bloody murder is interrupted by a ringtone, and the murderer delays pulling the trigger to answer the call.

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I can’t tell you a lot about the plot without giving too much of it away. The film tells its story three times, and each time, you learn a little more about what’s going on and why. It all makes delightfully dark sense in the end, and much of the fun comes in watching the various pieces fall into place.

I can tell you that Pegg plays the only professional killer in the story. But almost everyone here is perfectly willing to rub out one of their neighbors–in most cases for money.

For the most part, they want to kill Alice (Alice Braga). Their reasons vary.

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Kill Me has one long, extended, absolutely brilliant comic sequence. A dentist and his wife (Sullivan Stapleton and Teresa Palmer) attempt a very difficult and complex murder–one that’s supposed to look like an accident. But the dentist is helplessly inept, and Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Remember this lesson: If you have an unconscious, intended murder victim in your trunk, try to avoid getting a flat tire.

All this is set, I might add, in a small coastal town in Australia, providing some beautiful scenery. That town appears to have about eight people in it. Almost all of them are evil.

The story, the graphic violence, the gruesome humor, and the downbeat view of human nature makes Kill Me feel a lot like the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. And like Blood Simple, by the time it’s over, no one outside of the audience knows the whole story. Even the dead people died without getting the full picture.

It’s a  totally enjoyable entertainment.

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